ASK A SILLY QUESTION – Marilyn Armstrong

Sandman’s Weekly Q & A

I don’t usually do these, but — this only has three questions and the first is a doozy!

1. What was your first computer?


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.


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.

This was the Amstrad!

Then, everything changed again. Computers started to really do stuff. It was magic!

I worked on this machine in Israel using the first word-processing tool, WordStar.

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.

My first personal computer.

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.

My first PC. I think everyone had one of these at some point!

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.

My old 486 ran for 10 years. It wasn’t fast, but it was durable.

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.

Memories of days of yore … but not halcyon I fear,

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.

Commodore 64 – the most popular computer ever produced.  More than 30 million of them sold.  I had one of these, too.


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.


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?


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.


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.

Categories: Computers, Photography, Q & A, questions, Technology

Tags: , , , , , , ,

23 replies

  1. You should be a detective; you’d be good in any domain…. this is an amazing story on the development of PCs. I remember having been one of the first ones in Switzerland to use word processors available to each person individually and I was able to send little messages live to other users…. that was fun!
    Also, I was in an apprenticeship when one of those HUGE first computers was built in my employer’s main building. It consisted of a whole floor with tremendously big equipment, Fort Knox protection and dozens of card punchers were subsequentially employed. We were on the cusp of a new era and didn’t know it!


  2. What a great, concise history of personal computing. Fantastic.


  3. I discovered, just yesterday, that some intrusive dipweed at my phone provider’s office put me on “cloud” and started charging me $5 per month for the privilege. I had called them because I was sick of the higher than expected bills every month. That $5 cloud charge was taken off and I’m pretty steamed that they decided to do it ‘for me’. I wouldn’t have agreed to it, because, like you, I don’t trust that idea much – I see a dozen pitfalls to it; and b) I don’t ever do anything on my phone except use it as a phone. I DO take pictures with it in a pinch, but those are downloaded to a thumb drive and my computer almost immediately. I don’t give two figs about the messages on the phone and the contact list is saved, in long hand and in a paper bound address book so I don’t lose it. What purpose would that cloud feature even serve? AUGGGHHH.

    BTW I’m reblogging this post of yours. It was FASCINATING walking down a path I, myself, trod “in the day” – albeit with IBM computers and their forerunners. I was taught to use ‘word processors’ (IBM, Wang, and some others I can’t recall) which were programmed by me each morning and which spit out letters, grants, memos, patient notes and all the rest for the doctors in the clinic I worked for. That machine was larger by far than any personal computer I’ve owned, and it had it’s own attached printer built right in. Those 5 1/2 floppies were very familiar to me. When they went to the smaller sized ones it was amazing, because they held more, even though they were physically smaller. The memory sticks of today weren’t even imaginable back then. Thanks Marilyn!! Fascinating!


    • I thought you might enjoy it. It took a bit of research to find some of the pictures. That Amstrad — which was never sold in the U.S. — was a strange machine.

      I won’t pay for clouds, either. THEY are what get hacked. My own external back-ups belong to ME.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. David’s first computer was a Vic 20, shortly followed by a Commodore 64. I remember him trying to show me how to use the word processing program. I complained that I could write a letter in longhand faster than I could format and edit one in Tasword. I didn’t really get interested in computers until Windows arrived and suddenly I could do things that I actually wanted to do. I think there are still a few of those 5 1/2″ floppy disks out in the garage with some of those old computer bits and pieces.


    • The Commodore 64 was my first WORK computer, but not my first personal computer. That was the little Mac. But eventually, Mac couldn’t keep up with the business world and I slid into Windows. Also, the PRICE of the Mac was ridiculous.

      The first computers didn’t do ANYTHING. They just sat there. You could type “Hi,” and it would type “Hi” back to you. I didn’t think I’d get far with that format. But I did see the change coming. I knew it would take a few years, but I was sure we’d all be doing everything on computers very soon … and I was right.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. thanks for the trip down “memory” lane


    • Did you see the PRICE for the 10 MB hard drive? YIKES!

      Liked by 1 person

      • I did see that. I always tell my students that my first PC was bought in 1985 (an AT&T computer – with a color monitor!) and came with a 10 meg hard drive. I tell them that such a hard drive could store about three or four MP3s or 10 high quality photos. I then tell them of when I bought my first internal hard drive that was over one gig. It was a 1.5 gig hard drive for $300. I then show them the thumb drive that is connected to my keychain, which holds 64 gig and cost $15. I know none of them are listening to my “back in the day” stories, but I always enjoy hearing myself tell them! But the price you show for a 10 meg hard drive – that ic crazy! I might have to slip that picture into one of my lectures.


  6. I hate cloud storage. It scares the heck out of me. My offices uses it for everything, and not too long ago it was down for several days. No one but me could get any work done – I had the foresight to store all the office form letters, agreements, etc. on my desktop.

    Remember how exciting it was the first time you heard, “You’ve Got Mail!”? I remember.

    I also remember the first time a tech support person asked me if I had WYSIWYG – I thought he was talking dirty.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ah yes. The arrival of WYSIWYG and the start of terminals that looked like real pages. I was there, in the trenches.

      I don’t like having all my stuff on”the cloud” which is just another way to say “someone else’s backup servers.” And THEY are what get hacked. if it’s on your personal hard drive at home, it might break, but it will never get hacked.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Mom, I had a very similar verbal encounter. I elevated my mind a few notches.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. I just finished The Sword of Shannara by Terry Brooks. – 700 hundred pages and I couldn’t put it down.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. I couldn’t get into The Long Dark Teatime of the Soul for some reason despite enjoying Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency.



  1. Computer Age.. | sparksfromacombustiblemind

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