I don’t usually do these, but — this only has three questions and the first is a doozy!
1. What was your first computer?
THE OLD DAYS
After contemplating operating systems at length, I started rethinking the whole thing and I began to wonder if operating systems will be relevant a couple of years from now. Because everything is changing.
Change is hardly new to the world of computers and technology. Change is what drives the industry. Change is how come you need to buy new software, new hardware, new operating systems. Change can make things work better, but it’s not unusual to discover that your “upgrade” is a downgrade because what used to work no longer does. You pays your money, you takes your chances.
I grew to adulthood in a pre-computer society. I started working before cable TV, when encyclopedias were huge heavy sets of books and a computer was gigantic and needed a whole building for itself. It ran on punch cards and used special languages — COBOL and FORTRAN. Even decades later, personal computers were one step removed from a doorstop. Floppy disks were 5-1/2 inches across and flopped.
Those early machines (personal units, not mainframes) — I hesitate to call them computers — didn’t do much. They didn’t have hard drives. There was no software and no user-friendly interface. I don’t think the concept existed. No WYSIWYG* (*What you see is what you get).
What you saw was a black screen with lurid green letters that made you feel like you were going blind after an hour or two.
Then … everything changed.
APPLE, WINDOWS, ANDROID AND SO MUCH MORE
First, there was Apple and then Windows. Windows didn’t work very well at first, but soon enough, it got better. And then better again.
There were different players and more operating systems in the beginning. Wang and DEC plus a crazy quilt of dedicated word processors and computers made by Commodore, Atari and many others. For a while, I had an Amstrad, a European machine that was almost a computer, kind an intelligent typewriter with a screen that spit out paper.
Then, everything changed again. Computers started to really do stuff. It was magic!
For a while, it seemed like everything changed every day. One day, there was a thing called the Internet. I had to buy and install Netscape to access it. Once connected, there wasn’t much going on, but it was cool to just roam around and see what there was to see.
You could send electronic mail – email – if you had friends with computers and access to the Internet. You sent them messages over old copper telephone wires and everything happened in slow motion.
To get on the Internet, you turned on the computer and the modem. Went to the kitchen. Prepared dinner. Cooked dinner. Served dinner. Ate dinner. Cleaned up. By the time you got back, you might have managed to connect. Or not.
Then suddenly AOL popped up and I got a really fast modem, a whopping 2400 BPS! Imagine that. I worked in California from my home office in Boston. Cool! Telecommuting was the cat’s pajamas.
By the time my granddaughter was born in 1996, everybody had a computer or two. In her world, computers have always been fast and the Internet has always been the world’s biggest shopping mall.
At age three, she could run basic applications. Computers are to her as electricity is to me. It isn’t something you think about. It has always been there. I’m sure she can’t imagine a world without it or without WiFi, cable, and electronic cameras.
Even for me, it’s not easy to remember. My brain gets stuck in the early 1980s when I knew in my gut that computers were going to be my thing. I would never go back to the old ways. Typewriters and handwriting were dead.
During the 1990s, the rate of change slowed briefly. We drew a collective breath and didn’t have to buy new computers for a few years. High-speed connections arrived, though most home users didn’t have it immediately. Nonetheless, everything kept getting faster. Soon, no one could remember getting on the Internet using an old, copper telephone line. If you did remember, it made your brain hurt.
Every couple of years, there is a new generation of processors. Bigger, faster hard drives. Amazing super high-definition monitors and speaker systems to knock your socks off. Just when you think your socks have been knocked as far off as socks can go, there’s another “fix” and your super-fast computer is a slow-poke compared to the latest and greatest. I should know. I’m using one of them.
Meanwhile, the highway of information devolved into a chat room with ranting and a universal shopping mall. The Internet is a world unto itself.
I played bridge in real-time with a partner who lived on an island off the Pacific coast. Computers aren’t only computers, either. We have them everywhere. They are part of our cameras, our bed, our toaster oven. Our television. The car. Smartphones. GPS units. Kindles and tablets. Toilets (no kidding, really). Those mini-computers probably make “things” run better, but when they stop working, they are awfully expensive to fix.
And then again, a piece of your computer stops working and you can’t get in or out of your car because everything is locked tight. That little computer blew again.
ABOUT THE CLOUD
Same old Internet, but “cloud” is the “new” word for stuff stored on external servers.
We’re going back to where we began, to using stripped-down computers with no hard drives. Instead, everything is stored on someone else’s computer — out there. In the “cloud.” Our data might be anywhere. We have no way of knowing where it lives. Am I the only one who finds this unnerving?
I can see the advantages. When you eliminate memory sucking operating systems and cumbersome installed applications, your computer will run faster. Start-up is instant. You don’t have to maintain and upgrade expensive applications and volumes of data. You don’t need ever bigger hard drives, more memory, and video RAM. You wind up with faster computers that are less expensive and easier to maintain. It’s a win-win, right? Or is it?
YOU MUCH DO YOU LOVE YOUR INTERNET SERVICE PROVIDER?
If your cable company has a bad day or the servers on which you store your critical data go down — even for a short while — you have nothing. As long as everything works like it’s supposed to, it’s hunky-dory, but Murphy hasn’t left the building yet.
WHAT CAN GO WRONG, STILL GOES WRONG
Maybe it’s my age showing, but I would prefer to have data on hard drives that I control. Which I own.
The idea of entrusting everything from my photographs to the manuscript of my book to an unknown server somewhere in the world scares the hell out of me. What if the building in which the server storing my stuff burns down? Gets hit by terrorists? Taken by hackers?
You have no way of knowing what country your data is in, how stable its government is, or how good an infrastructure it maintains. Your financial data could be in Pakistan, Indonesia, or Kuala Lampur. Or next door.
Is there a compromise possible? Because when I think about entrusting everything to a cloud, I twitch. How many times have you been unable to access a web page because servers are out? What if you need a critical piece of data from a server when it’s offline?
My bank was hacked. BOA had to send me a new bank card. Land’s End and Adobe have been hacked. More than once. Equifax, Sony, Target, Marriott, Walmart, Alteryx, any number of huge credit card hacks, Facebook and of course, the American electoral system. Among many others.
I’ve been hacked because places I used were hacked and had to redo many accounts because they’d been compromised. Lots of other places over the years, places that were supposedly “unhackable” have gone down.
I know I am hackable. And there is very little I can do about it. The current methodology of trying to convince everyone on earth to memorize random passwords is absurd and it doesn’t work. No one can remember them all. I can’t even remember my user names.
If your ISP is down, you’re out of business. If you think your cable company has you by the throat now, how much worse will it be when everything you need to run your life and business is dependent on their services? If that doesn’t give you the cold sweats, nothing will.
You can’t totally avoid the cloud these days. I keep my audiobooks and eBooks on Amazon, and my email on Gmail because there’s no way on earth I could store all of that, even on this computer. But my personal stuff? Pictures, documents, and other important material? It lives here, at home. On personal, external hard drives.
I learned the hard way to perform regular backups. I don’t do them as often as I should, but I do them regularly. If you don’t, think about it. It’s a little late when you’ve already lost all your stuff.
2. Who would you cast as yourself in a movie of your life? This can be anyone, living or dead.
How about me? I’m pretty sure I know the lines. Okay, we’ll need someone else for my youth. Did I have a youth?
3. What are you currently reading?
And not for the first time, “The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul.“ but this time with Garry, too. Read by dear, dear Douglas Adams.