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10 things I have learnt about Computers

Society is dealing with many and varied pressures. Generation "Y" [whatever that actually is] want [I have been told they _need_] it all, and that is not unreasonable [only the bill is]. Digital natives patronize digital immigrants but we all, on some level, suffer techno-lust. I am a digital immigrant - I was not born with all the gadgetry I now take for granted, my first experiences with computers were in science fiction movies [they always go bad and take over the world ... standard plot device]. Uni was the first time I encountered these wee beasties - mark-sense cards on a PDP-10 Mainframe and an ancient programming language called FORTRAN told me that you can get these machines to do things, different things, lots of different things, and they can do these things fast.

I have owned apples, pcs, pdas, digital watches, smart-drive washing machines, switches, hubs, routers, and more recently a mobile phone [yes, even I have succumbed to the need to carry one], been encased in vehicles run by computers, trapped in lifts controlled by them and have a box full of decommissioned computers, peripherals and failed components gathering dust and providing homes for roaches under my house [no, I think I will hang on to these, you never know when they might become useful again]. The computers in my household now outnumbers the people, and I am not sure I understand how that happened, except it did and I think I caused it, well, I got a little help from people who got fed up sharing [quite rightly too].

I thought it might be informative to take a step back and look at these modern space-invaders, so I present a few observations - good, bad, who knows. I do know I am lost without my pooter, or access to the internet so i am not sure what biases that undeniable fact will add to the exploration - you be the judge. If still awake, read on....

  1. Shiny.

    A new computer is shiny. Straight out of the box(s) it is a joy to behold, we construct shrines to them, they take pride and place on our desks and it is difficult not to look at them, treat them gently and with veneration, keep them spotlessly clean [well, at least initially] and start off being the model of organization - everything has it's place, everything in it's place. If it is a portable, we make sure it travels with us and we use it on the run.

    Our 'pooter is an extension of us, we customize it's desktop, theme it's icons, arrange it's tools and technopormorphize
    a phantom personality for it [it is feeling sluggish, happy, sick, needs a rest, restarting it will make it feel better] forgiving its little foibles for we are in love and every thing is right in the world. Having a pooter makes us a better person, having the associated peripherals [gadgets and widgets] makes us productive and our lives easier, no question.

  2. Productivity and other myths.

    Let's be honest here for a moment - who has not wasted _hours_ of valuable time doing little more than messing about on a pooter. I admit to it, I compulsively find things to do to avoid doing other things and wow - there is a pooter there ... connected to the net - yes, instant procrastinator v1.0.

    Now I am not saying I get nothing done on my pooter - far from it, sometimes I do a few people's jobs whilst also doing mine but the temptation to wander off task is so seductive given the plethora of things to see, do and find out. So many important things get in the way of what I should be doing - I have to pimp my MySpace profile, add music to my Facebook virtual CD rack, send smilies to a mate in a chat window, make stuff in SecondLife, break stuff in MUD, lose stuff in MOO, moderate stuff in forums, reply to emails, follow links in spam emails, download youtube vids and check out the latest lolcat, research fixes of problems, discover new problems I did not know I had, upload art, download porn accidentally, voip via skype and realise that I still do not have anything interesting to say - there are only so many hours in the day.

    I love multi-tasking, do it routinely. When supporting students, my messenger some nights lights up like a christmas tree and keeping track of what I say to who about what is fascinating. I do, sometimes, wonder if I actually am working effectively, and notice with growing alarm that the more I do, the more I need to do to support that which I am trying to do - a vicious circle - the beatings will continue until the morale improves.

  3. Cracking the Case.

    There was a time when kit pooters arrived [sinclair ZX80 - anyone remember those] and you soldered the components into the circuit board, clipped stuff together like some form of geeky lego and then, if you were lucky, when you plugged it in it actually did something. The modern pooter is [to me at least] a terrifying and bewildering box of tricks. I can remember the days when I saved up for an "80 column card" for my Apple II, so that my glorious text would be wider and smaller. I can remember when the single most complicated task in the known universe was installing a sound card and getting a CDROM to work off it, by manually assigning interrupts and jumpers on card and motherboard. I can remember opening a case and being too afraid to touch anything anymore - what happened was everything got faster, smaller, higher capacity and less tolerant of stupid people who do not know what they are doing.

    True story: I owned an AppleIIc - fantastic and robust little critter it is - have had it for ages, accidentally tipped a can of coke on it - in panic, I hosed it clean, let it dry out for 2 weeks and, low and behold it still works to this day, in glorious green screen monochrome.

    Modern pooters have little staying power - sneeze in their general direction and something breaks. Their innards are so integrated that most cases are 99% air - big case = pooter with grunt, right? Laptops are different, with the chassis taking up so little room, every available cubic mm is utilized and because the processors have gotten bigger the devices can only really be called laptops nowadays if you do not mind third degree burns to your nether regions after resting it on your lap for any period of time.

  4. Total Cost of Ownership.

    TCO is a concept foreign to most because it require forethought and strategic planning. Often your first "fix" of pooter habit is well considered, you sound out the options, OS's, software, price around and then find a "dealer" who you, the "user" have confidence in and begin throwing money at the project. TCO encompasses more than just the purchase cost - it is software, support, cost of repair/warrantee and most expensive TIME and DATA. How many of us use rigorous backup regimes? [prolly only the sensible amongst us who have suffered catastrophic loss - sadly it takes a catastrophic loss to realise that the DATA is actually the ONLY thing that matters on the pooter - when it is gone, it is gone].

    Few take into consideration TCO when plunging head-long into the world of information appliance ownership. The gear seems to have built in obsolescence, and fail _just_ after the warranty expires [anyone else but me think that is not mere coincidence?]. Few take into consideration the amount of time it will take to become productive, discover what is incompatible and the cost of replacing said incompatible bits so you are up and running. Few even think about things like warranty when constructing frankenstein game machines with more processing punch than Deep Blue but such is the adventure I guess. We invest emotionally in our pooters and when they hurt, so do we.

  5. Notwerks.

    The moment your pooter gets up close and data-exchangey with another pooter things get complicated, or not. There are adapters and protocols and security and other stuff to worry about and then there is this thing called the interweb and that adds a whole layer of complexity as well. Then when pooters start sharing, they can [unless they are Macs] swap nasties and that leads to tears before bedtime as your once pristine vessel is violated by something malicious that seemed like a good idea at the time.

    Notwerks are the _real_ power of pooters, IWHO. Standalone is dead [was it ever really alive?] and everything is connected. Physical networking gives way to wireless and bluetooth and pretty soon your kitchen appliances conspire against you and your fridge receives spam from your toaster because the microwave is withholding data from it. Social notwerking is one of the most powerful forces known to humanity but are we equipped to deal with it? Certainly, most adults are not but it is curious because pooters have the power to reduce a magnificently functioning parent [who routinely holds 4 conversations, makes meals, changes the kid, makes the bed, puts on a load of washing and whips up a batch of scones without a recipe] into a blubbing mess when faced with a "start" button.

  6. User Centered Design.

    In this day and age, you would imagine that designers of hardware would think about the way a human body is constructed and organize the bits of hardware so they are comfortable to use. ERGONOMICS used to be an important word, but in the age of style over substance, get ready for some good old repetitive strain injury when you use pooters for extended periods of time. We still willingly shackle ourselves to QWERTY, and even hotly argue that the arrangement of keys makes so much sense that it is worth embedding on microscopic devices as well.

    Our screens are getting bigger, and it is becoming more important to have lots of them because everyone knows that watching a movie, writing that essay that is due tomorrow and running instant messaging and voip on one screen while taking out a sniper and planting a limpet mine to disable that pesky tank in full screen on the other is important. Computers facilitate multi-tasking, if only our wetware could catch up with the software potential everything would be rosy ... but ... we miss important bits of the movie [that's fine, we can watch it again], our writing is disjointed [the software did not correct the crap writing, just made sure it was spolled correct], our conversations are staccato [not that the 13 people we are currently conversing with actually notice responses that make no sense, rather they think you are cool because you are so "random"], the phone call breaks up [but we accept that phones do that these days] and you still manage to get pwnd by a n00b - it's all good, right?

    You would also imagine that software designers have thought through accessibility, work flow and applied some common sense when deciding what features to put where. Cute animated icons are all very well but when the interface gets in the way of the task, something has gone horribly wrong, or at least a little awry. I would love to be able to point to the main culprit but there are too many. I have yet to find software tools that just work the way you would imagine they should. That is not to say that I have read the manuals of very many tools at all - indeed, I have gotten used to the visual metaphors most software titles employ and so am fairly good at finding functionality in the quagmire of menus and toolbars but fully understand the frustration of a new user when they just want to get on and do something but cannot work out where to start.

    I would like to go on record as being outraged by a machine that tells me to wait, and flummoxed as to why it is so. I have voluntarily [altho not willingly, I had no choice] given over a _huge_ slab of my life while my pooters have told me to wait

  7. Adopt, Adapt, Adept.

    It constantly astonishes me what we are capable of getting used to. When we invite a pooter into our life, we spend moments [or ... longer amounts of time] learning it's quirks, where stuff is, how that stuff works, what you can do with that stuff and what other stuff you can get to do stuff on it. You learn that while running this, that goes slower, that these two things cannot be plugged in at the same time, there is an established method of removing that so the other thing does not hang. You learn basic panic strategies also [the screen froze, went blue, press alt+g+the up arrow whilst raising your left leg and powering down then all will be cool].

    Geeks [I use that term affectionately, and not in any way as a derogatory put down] are remarkably tolerant of junk. We put up with having to drop to 16 colours to run this program, not being able to use the right-mouse button because the sound-card has an interrupt conflict with the water cooling system and trolling forums for workarounds to get our stuff to do stuff it was never designed to do. Normal people have every right to be very angry at having the pooter dictate HOW a task is to be completed. "Why can't I just ..." or "why won't it let me ..." are commonly screamed at pooters, with the pitch of the scream being in direct proportion to the urgency of the as yet incomplete job.

    We learn to use what we have - human beings are remarkable in their ingenuity and a pooter is a vehicle that allows you to think outside the box ... I can do this in this software, then export it to this software, rip it as this file, convert it to that, upload it to here, and so on. There is almost always a solution, workaround, patch, tweak ... compromise.

  8. Clutter and Junk.

    You only truly appreciate clutter, junk and disorganization when you use someone else's pooter. They have NO sense, you cannot find where they have put anything and the names and conventions they adopt are almost as wrong as your attempts to organize them in your own image. One person's trash is another persons treasure. Desktop organization is fascinating - OS tools let you arrange your tools in ways that make sense to you and baffle and infuriate others who use your setup.

    When you delete something, it is not actually deleted, or is it? If it lands in a recycle system, it is restorable, undoable and therefore only kinda sorta gone. I like this as there is nothing worse than the feeling just AFTER you irrevocably get rid of something you really shouldn't have. Such cold-prickleys are all too common in the digital world, sadly, unless... you have a backup regime that is actually a backup routine.

    Stuff just accumulates - when you purchased your system, unless you are an idiot you made sure it had as huge storage as you could afford - so much space. When space mattered [yes, I remember back to the 360k 5 1/4 " single-sided floppy disk days] you thought about what you saved, how big it is and what else was there because you needed to. Mind you, back then, documents were not multi-megabyte merely because they had a single picture in them, software had to be compact and optimized. these days software is bloated to the point of being unusable, has so many features illogically organized in re-organizing menus that using the software is almost as painful as installing it in the first place. Your hard drive fills up with stuff - some thingy you choose to put there, other things the pooter just decides should be there, still other stuff you put there to try out and then forgot to delete - the devil is in the data.

  9. In sickness and in Health, till SMEF do you part.

    SMEF - Simultaneous Massive Existence Failure [thanks to Douglas Adams, at last a term that matches both the action and the word you wanna use to describe it]. Sadly, or, more correctly infuriatingly, pooters break. Having a pooter smef is like losing a member of the family. It never rains but it pours - I have been in a household where a number of pooters have smeffed and the notwerk has gone down and let me tell you, it is not a pretty sight. I would like to suggest that anyone who suggests we are currently in a "high-tech" world is at best deluded, more correctly completely wrong. High-tech in my view is almost transparent - no, that does not mean sexy and see through, but rather it is there, it works where and when you want it to andit _augments_ your life, not gets in the way of it. People invest emotional energy in things, and pooters seem to be bottomless vortices that you only notice the volume of care and attention you lavish on them when they start not to live up to what you think they should be able to do.

    I for one adjust very badly to not being able to use a pooter - it is a physical dependency for me, habitual but deeply rooted in my psyche. I get twitchy and irritable when disconnected from teh net but often it is not that I need to do anything particularly important, rather I need my iFix and have gone to extraordinary lengths to get it.

  10. Compatibility is not a 4 letter word, but should be.

    Why don't we, as consumers, actively rebel at the nonsense that is incompatibility, versioning and hardware dependency. I am flummoxed to understand the seeming disregard that developers have for their customers, employing the Microsoft solution of requiring you to throw more hardware at a problem rather than just consider developing it efficiently in the first place. You see bloated slow and buggy junk marching through versions with buglists increasing and you have to ask why we put up with it. How can businesses be allowed to release stuff half-finished, then later release service packs that you also have to pay for - no other industry would accept it. How can the game industry not dissolve under it's own weight when, for instance, it releases a game that requires multiple graphics cards [a parallel processing array of graphics and physics chips] just to be able to play a game with a decent frame rate?

I am a pooter user, I willingly became so and am actively supporting my habit as my finances allow. They delight me, infuriate me, entertain me and occupy a large amount of my time budget every day. My life is enriched and impoverished by technological dependence - for better or worse, only time will tell.

What do you think?

Mail me with your ideas/feedback - I'll post it for others to see if you like.

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