The Mysterious Singing Computer Woman of the Soviet Union

Peter forwards this one from Silicon Valley:

When I was 14 or so, in 1989, I worked at the Advanced Communications Lab of Kiev’s Communications College, a 2-year “technical professional” training school, at the time known by its Russian-language acronym KPTS. “Worked” in the sense that I talked the guy who ran the lab into giving me after-hours access to the various Soviet Bloc-made computing equipment (built mostly on East German and Russian clones of Intel and Zilog chips) in exchange for on-demand utility coding.

Despite having some fairly advanced hardware (especially for late-‘80s Soviet Ukraine), the lab had no actual software developers on staff, and having an extremely enthusiastic, if underaged, hacker around, ready to whip out an inventory tracker or unit converter, was apparently quite handy. Of course, to me there was little difference between “work” and “after-hours” — I got to write code, and that was all that mattered. I also got to play with fiber optic splicing, but that’s a different story.

That spring, a coder friend of mine stopped by our little “PC room” to show me a “demo.” The room consisted of 6 shiny new ES-1842s — Soviet clones of 80286 XT (with stunning EGA color!). “Demos” used to be small pieces of carefully optimized code built specifically to showcase some unusual or unexpected functionality of the hardware at hand, and, by extension, the programming skill of its creator. I had no idea where my friend got it, but it sure wasn’t his work.

As he hit Enter to launch the executable from the command line, I was stunned to hear a crackling but definitely digitally sampled human voice, wheezing out of the tiny PC speaker for the first time in my life. Though I was a fairly versatile coder, I wasn’t at all aware of pulse-width modulation, and didn’t think a desktop PC could make more interesting sounds than simple square wave tones.

The clip crackling out of the speaker was just a couple seconds, looping words “forever… and ever… you stay in my heart…” while two colorful ASCII-art spirals swirled on the screen, the cursor flickering wildly in the top left corner, and rainbow strings of text fading in and out, sending “greets” from the author, to some faraway coders.

The thought “computers are magical” rippled through my mind like a glorious 6-bit digital-to-analog shockwave, and my life was changed forever. I knew I wanted to make computers do magical things for the rest of my life. More importantly, I wanted to know who was the woman singing this magical song, of which I now knew but one line.

A couple years later, as my family departed Soviet Union for the first and last time, I was politely “asked” to leave my wooden box with the treasure trove of 3” floppy disks in the hands of the customs agent in Moscow. The demo executable, which I kept around as a sentimental memento of my irrevocable commitment to all things nerdy, on its own special disk, was confiscated.

I still had no information as to the identity of the magical singing woman, and who was it that she was keeping in her heart, forever and ever. With time, the acute curiosity faded, but the single-line sample looped in my memory often, a reminder of how it all became so clear to me. Even after the public web became the repository of all knowledge, I simply hadn’t thought to Google her, or perhaps the worry of blowing up the magical memory bubble somehow kept me from looking her up.

How does this end? Read on. And only when you’re done should you click here.

Alan Cross

is an internationally known broadcaster, interviewer, writer, consultant, blogger and speaker. In his 30+ years in the music business, Alan has interviewed the biggest names in rock, from David Bowie and U2 to Pearl Jam and the Foo Fighters. He’s also known as a musicologist and documentarian through programs like The Ongoing History of New Music.

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