Each new version of Windows is supposed to be the one that finally drives a stake into the heart of DOS; the looming Windows Me (surely that old solipsist William H. Gates III came up with that dubious abbreviation for "Millennium Edition") forces you to boot from a floppy if you ever want to start up in DOS mode, though Me will still run your DOS programs in a window as well (or as poorly, in some cases) as ever. Most people probably won't care; as a friend of mine is wont to say, these days "most people don't know DOS from a dunghill." As a result, some of the Really Neat Stuff that arose during the dear, dead days of DOS has been pretty much forgotten. And, having had to reinstall one of my DOS applications the other day, no thanks to some Windows 95 bungling, I got a fresh look at one piece of RNS that has never come close to being supplanted by a Windows version.

Babble! (version 2.0 is the latest) emerged in 1991 from Korenthal Associates, a software firm in New York that did mostly heavy database applications; according to Tracey Siesser, part of the programming team, who also wrote the manual, the idea was "to regain some sanity after a stint on a VERY SERIOUS project." Babble! was as nonserious as they come Siesser described it as a "toy for people who love words" and an "anti-productivity tool" but it would prove to have some serious usefulness.

Contemporary music relies heavily on sampling, the extraction and reassembly of tiny segments of music into something entirely new yet utterly derivative exactly what your average ratings-fearful Top 40 program consultant most desires. What record producers do for music, Babble! does for text; it even comes with a mixing console (only four tracks, but then this was the early Nineties) and a bunch of pre-processed samples, plus the ability to analyze any text you feed it, either in a batch or interactively. The results tend to defy grammatical syntax, English being heavily dependent upon word order, but no matter. Computer geeks loved Babble! because it fulfilled the first item of their agenda, which was the ability to screw around with stuff; writers delighted in Babble! because by shuffling the words around, the program might actually deliver a new insight or two. (If this somehow seems implausible to you, try coming up with a good Scrabble play without moving the tiles around on your rack.)

Of course, what would a recording console be without special effects? Babble! has twenty-eight of them, ranging from regional dialects to Elmer Fudd to subliminal (rats!) to the sort of random use of boldface that John C. Dvorak used to scatter throughout his columns for no discernible reason. (Siesser suggests that Dvorak didn't think this was so damned funny, either.) You can use any of them or all of them at once, or in a special Demo mode, Babble! will select them at random. And, since sooner or later the program will spit out something that makes you roll on the floor laughing, there is a mode to write all the output to a disk file while it's appearing on screen.

What sort of heavy-duty equipment does it take to run a spiffy program like this? From the manual:

You need a PC-compatible with at least 400k of memory (it can run with less memory, but you may not be able to load and mix the larger text samples), some sort of disk drive and any text display.

Four hundred k! With Windows stuff demanding 16 or 32 or even 64 megabytes of RAM these days, and the concomitant cost of constant upgrades, this is a startling reminder of how much we've lost so that others may point and click.

The Vent

24 September 2000

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 Copyright © 2000 by Charles G. Hill