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Interview with Paddy Ashdown, Member of Parliament

Interview with Paddy Ashdown, Member of Parliament

The leader of the Liberal Democratic Party in the United Kingdom is interviewed about his use of his HP 200LX Palmtop.

By Toby Lawrence

It was a cold October s evening when I surfaced from the noisy Lon-don Under-ground and walked into the beautiful serenity of the Palace of Westminster, the Mother of all Parliaments. I was there to meet and interview The Right Honorable Mr. Paddy Ashdown, M.P. Leader of the Liberal Democratic Party about his love and usage of the HP 200LX Palmtop.

The Liberal Democrats are the third largest political party in the U.K. They hold the center area in political terms. As the leader of this party, Paddy Ashdown appears in the press and TV on a daily basis and can be seen doing battle worldwide most Tuesdays and Thursdays in Prime Minister s Question Time with John Major.

Mr. Ashdown is now at the height of his political career and apart from being a very active politician he is also a former Royal Marine Officer. He lives in his constituency town of Yeoville in the Southwest of England with his wife.

To go through the mass of security, I needed to review my pre-arranged contact information in APPT on my Palmtop. I announced myself to the clerk, who wore his uniform of white bow tie and tuxedo. I rested for a while in the Central Lobby before being summoned. The ceiling of this great area, in many ways, is as intricate and impressive as that of the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican in Rome. On the seat next to me, a famous Lord was quietly talking with his visitor. I had seen this gentleman on a news and current affairs program the week before. To my left I saw a member of the opposition party saying goodbye to a colleague. Behind him was the grand entrance to the chambers where the daily cut and thrust of political action takes place. This is where, only two days before, the Queen and all her political servants had made their procession in the State Opening of Parliament. The thought of seeing Blackrod banging on the door fired my imagination. (Blackrod is an officer with a long wooden rod who summons the Members of the House of Commons.) At this point, my thoughts were halted as I was greeted and escorted to the offices of Mr. Ashdown.

On our way to the quieter and more secluded parts of Westminster s offices, we walked past the Defense Secretary and the Education Secretary. They were busy making their own ways from the day s session in the House of Commons to their next meetings.

After a quick coffee (in a cup emblazoned with the golden Parliamentary seal) Paddy Ashdown and I sat down for our interview. Although I had prepared the questions that I wanted to ask him on my Palmtop, I had decided to print them out so that my colleague could take shorthand notes in case the Dictaphone stopped working half way through.

I quickly noticed that his 200LX sat faithfully by his side. The Palmtop is his only computer and he uses it faithfully for his whole personal and political life.

Mr. Ashdown is a great believer in the on-line future, and has battled for the information superhighway in Britain to be taken forward by leaps and bounds. His office computers consist of a faithful bank of ICL 486 desktops which have been crafted to work in the most efficient way for the needs of his office. His staff all use the same e-mail system which allows quick transfer of messages as well as protecting data integrity for when a more secure environment is required.

Q: How long have you had your Palmtop? A: I had a 100LX first so it must be two and half years now. I had been interested in getting myself a Palmtop for a long time and what I was ideally wanting was an MS-DOS-based palmtop. I started out with a Psion, but since it couldn't run DOS programs as well, it wasn't what I wanted. When HP brought out the 200LX I bought one straight away, so I must have had one of the first few in this country.

Q: Tell me about your own use of the built-in software.

A: Although they can give a big advantage, I don t, on the whole, use the built-in software apart from occasional use of FILER and MEMO. The software that I do run are all DOS-based versions of the programs we use here in the office which gives me a portable mirror of the office and allows quick and easy compatibility. I keep all of these applications on my A: drive.

(A test fire alarm starts to sound and after a few moments Paddy dispatches his Personal Assistant to see if the "Wailing Cow" noise is not an IRA attack warning instead.)

Q: What third-party software do you use?

A: I have written my own batch-operated menu system to front-end my A: drive programs. My data application (BUSYPOST) is an address-based database with a crude word processor. I mainly use it for looking up addresses and contact information. I rarely use the word processor part. This program is also in use on the office machines here. I also use SUPERCALC as my spreadsheet.

Q: Do you use any political software?

A: I have got EARS. This is my party's political election fighting program. This contains every single address in my constituency which as you can imagine runs to several thousand. In fact there are about 85,000 records in that database!

Q: You must be using a large flash card.

A: It is 20MB doubled to 40MB (he proudly flicks out the card to reveal an ACE Doubleflash card).

Q: Do you use Stacker to double your card?

A: Yes. I can use a 40MB card and double that to 80MB. I have also got another election program (UK ELECT) which allows me to look up election results in every constituency of the country and apply this to a new model. There is also a French translator and dictionary that I use, as well as the map reading program with all the maps for England and France. (He has a natural love for France, and holidays there frequently at his small cottage.)

Q: Is that the AutoRoute program from Nextbase, now Microsoft?

A: Yes it is. I also use a pop-up TSR programme called SK (SIDEKICK). In addition to that I have PKZIP <ON DISK ICON> and PKUNZIP <ON DISK ICON> which I use with a UUENCODE and UUDECODE utility. This allows me to send and receive data and files via e-mail. For mobile use this is invaluable when LapLink is out of the question. Additionally, I use an offline reader (DOS) for CIX which is called MATRIX. (CIX, pronounced "kicks", is a UK-based conferencing system, a smaller version of CompuServe.) I have two fax programs. One of these is called ACEFAX and the other is TSFAX. So, I have got something like 15 or so programs or utilities on the Palmtop and quite literally it is never out of my possession.

Q: Your Palmtop has had a lot of use. Have you broken it or needed to replace it ever? (I noticed that Paddy does not use a case.)

A: No. It is the only one I have ever had. I replaced the 100LX with the 200LX. Some people have trouble with their hinges, but I never have. I think the Palmtops are beautifully engineered and I think HP has done a wonderful job. These Palmtops are very good. I have never had any trouble. It is sturdily built, and I throw it around with no problem. It uses rechargeable batteries, although I always carry a spare set or ordinary batteries if I am away from my charger. Being online runs the batteries down quite fast, but otherwise it lasts 3 or 4 days on a charge. Q: What about your foreign use?

A: When I go to Sarajevo, and I have been 10 times through the siege, I step back from the centre of the city and find whatever phone contact I can find. For these trips I will take a set of Duracell batteries.

Q: Do you use GSM for faxing and e-mail? (GSM is a digital cellular service.)

A: No, just straight connection with a card and plug, although I am getting GSM. My Personal Assistant is dealing with HP at the moment about the 700LX communicator and she is hopeful to have a trial version by the end of the week. I think it is the same size. Have you seen one?

Q: Yes, it is almost the same size but a little deeper and a little longer plus the phone of course. It saves you needing to swap cards, though, which is a big advantage. It has its own built-in card for telecommunications.

A: Really. I didn't know that. (He smiles and gives an excited and expectant look about the possibilities this new machine can offer.) But you can still use it with a land line as well, can you?

Q: Yes, I can't see why not.

A: The real advantage to the Palmtop is that I can hold it in my hand. I can draft speeches and then correct them on plane trips. That is a huge advantage. I have a small vision problem in my right eye and because the display can be a bit small, I use the ZOOM feature quite a lot. The one thing I could really do with, although I know it is not possible, is to have a backlit screen.

Q: The Japanese have done it.

A: Really. (He smiles an even bigger smile.) So I can send them my Palmtop for modification?

Q: They have managed it, but with very low success rates. I don't think they want to offer a general solution yet. There are Palmtop lights as the alternative.

A: I WANT ONE! I WANT ONE! (He shouts this excitedly, then laughs.)

Q: I shall e-mail some information to you.

A: Good. These Palmtops are just so useful. The amazing thing to me is that I haven t seen more of them around. You may have seen it, when I waved the Palmtop around during my annual conference speech (on national live TV) when I pronounced that I could connect to the whole world with it . People wrote to me and asked, "Why use that particular Palmtop?" Well, the answer is simple. The HP Palmtop does what I want it to do. I can run the same programs that are on the office desktops. The big thing I like about the Palmtop is that it s MS-DOS-compatible. That way I can take all my stuff with me from the office. I would like to have a Windows version, though.

Q: Watch this space. A new Windows-based system for Palmtops is being developed. Do you use your 200LX as your primary or secondary computer?

A: I don t use a desktop. (He leaves desktop usage to his staff.) When I go to France, I take the LX and use it continually for four weeks to draft my conference speech. (He has a small cottage in France and speaks French very well.) As a result I have become quite proficient in using it. I am only a single-finger-per-hand typist. If I tried to use five it would be impossible. But I simply don t need any other computer other than the Palmtop. Often I will type something up and then e-mail it to the office. They will format it into a document and then spell check it and so on. So I do the raw stuff on the Palmtop and then the office finishes it off. This is MY computer, my only one.

Q: Who else in the House of Commons uses a Palmtop?

A: I am, as far as I know, the only one in the House of Commons who uses one. (He double checks with his Personal Assistant neither can think of anyone else). Mike German, who is not an M.P. but forms part of the Welsh Liberal Democrats Executive, has got one. The only other person who I know who has one is General Sir Peter De La Billiere. He used his when I went to review his book. I found him working on it. (Paddy laughs.)

Q: Is that the General who was posted as NATO Commander in Chief in the Gulf War?

A: Yes. I went to give a lecture and a review of his book at the Hay on Wye book festival. He was there and we both sat beside each other on the stage and I interviewed him. We both found ourselves working on our HP s .

Q: What for you is lacking from the built-in applications?

A: Everything in this office is done using our own office programs and as such I use those pretty much exclusively. Indeed, if I could use one of the built-in programs I would do so. Take cc: MAIL, for example. I don t know if that is possible here. Can you use cc: Mail in this country? I go in and out of System Manager just for fun. I literally never use the built-in programs. I use Setup to change battery types, and Filer I use a lot. System Macros I also use a lot; I use my own System Macros Setup, and I use those quite a lot. I sometimes use Memo and occasionally use Notetaker. ApptBook I only use if I want access to a diary. HP Calc I almost never use. When I need a calculator I use the one in my pop-up (TSR) program (SK). Pocket Quicken I never use. PHONE I don t use because I have got my own. DataComm and Database I never use. There are also games in here a Hearts and Bones and a Squid thing which I don t use.

Q: What about connectivity?

A: I do everything on LapLink. I have got the connectivity software program on one of the machines in the office here. That way I can have my programs and data downloaded it s dead easy. (Paddy s Personal Assistant reminds him that for just a small file he prefers to transfer using e-mail, PKUNZIP and UUDECODE) Yes, for that I will stick in the e-mail and pick up the file that way.

Q: So you find e-mail more useful for some file transfers?

A: Yes, sure. If I want to make backup then I will use the connectivity software, but I hardly ever use that.

Q: When connecting online you use a fax modem card. Would GSM/wireless use be a step forward for you?

A: Yes, oh yes. The two things that I would really like, that would make my life so much easier, would be (1) to get a GSM phone that would work with the Palmtop, and (2) to get infrared connectivity so that I can communicate more effectively with the office computers here. They don t have that capability, unfortunately, at the moment.

Q: So you will be shopping for some of the infrared "JetEyes" soon.

A: Do they allow desktops to do infrared?

Q: Yes.

A: (He smiles deeply and looks to his Personal Assistant with a happy look.) We will need to look if our budgets have the ability to buy some of those. It would be extremely useful to have one of those. (He looks contented at the thought.) It will save me the trouble of cables and everything.

Q: Do you use the Palmtop as little as possible, or do you look for added use?

A: I use shareware from time to time. MATRIX I originally got as shareware. The UK Elect program is shareware. By and large, though, I am quite settled and satisfied with the programs that I have got. If I was a huge enthusiast I would be able to find more but I simply do not have the time for that. Q: Is UK Elect the election-modeling program?

A: Yes, yes it is. I have got that.

Q: Do you ever use the Palmtop inside the House of Commons?

A: I think I am the only person who has used a computer inside the House of Commons. The Speaker (of the House of Commons) can t decide whether it is illegal or not. (He laughs) You are allowed to read (parliamentary) papers, but not newspapers. Sometimes, though, when a Member of Parliament is speaking and I think, "Gosh, I can t remember who that is, " and I want to know his name or his constituency, I look it up in UK Elect. It will tell me, for example, about his voting majority in the last election, and then I can tease him about losing his seat next time round.

Q: Do you have to switch off the noise or alarms when you are in the House?

A: No. It only beeps quietly, but there is so much noise in The House that you wouldn t hear it anyway.

Q: What are the best and worst features, for you, of the 200LX?

A: Best, definitely its size. It makes it so portable and useful. Worst, the size again. The size of the screen and sometimes bad light. Otherwise, I have got no complaints.

Out of his sandstone windows I could see the towering majesty of Big Ben illuminated against the dark winter s sky showing me that time was almost up. The bell started to chime. Paddy automatically rose and put on his jacket. The work of a politician is never over, and his presence elsewhere was already required. We said our goodbyes and shook hands. He left the room after picking up his Palmtop, which he eased into his pocket. It is his faithful companion which goes with him everywhere to help meet the challenges of today and tomorrow.

I returned home to transcribe the interview you guessed it on my Palmtop using MEMO. I quickly found the textual information on lights for the Palmtop that Paddy wanted from me and e-mailed it to him. A couple of days later I learnt that he had a long shopping list of Palmtop accessories. If you see him on TV browsing his Palmtop it may be information from the new PTP home page that he is reading, or the PTP on disk.

(The Liberal Democrats may be visited at any time on the Internet. Their web site can be found at http://www.libdems.org.uk/ )

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