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?

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.

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.

AND NOW


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.

REMEMBER INDEPENDENCE DAY? THE MOVIE, NOT THE ONE IN 1776. – Marilyn Armstrong

FOWC with Fandango — Battery

So there was a terrible movie, released on July 4, 1996. It was called “Independence Day” and was about the invasion of Earth by Aliens (not from Central America — the outer space variety).

It featured an all-star cast and made mountains of money.

Directed by Roland Emmerich
Produced by Dean Devlin
Written by  Dean Devlin and Roland Emmerich

Starring:

Will Smith
Bill Pullman
Jeff Goldblum
Mary McDonnell
Judd Hirsch
Margaret Colin
Randy Quaid
Robert Loggia
James Rebhorn
Vivica A. Fox
Harvey Fierstein

Budget $75 million
Box office $817.4 million

Remember Jeff Goldblum’s Apple computer? How it ran all day for a week, was never recharged yet still had enough juice in it to send a virus to the spaceship trying to destroy the Earth?

I want THAT battery. 

HACKING, OPERATING SYSTEMS, AND THE END OF THE WORLD – TOM CURLEY

I watch a lot of television. Probably too much. I’m fond of action shows. I’m really fond of all the various comic book shows.

The single thing these shows have in common is they all have at least one computer genius. A girl or guy geek who’s the best hacker in the business. They always have at least a half-dozen computer monitors in front of them. Each one has 10 or more windows open with lines of data scrolling by at about a hundred miles an hour. They can do anything and everything. Instantly.

falcontradingsystems.com
falcontradingsystems.com

BOSS: I know this is illegal, but I need you to hack into the CIA, NSA and FBI servers. They have the most secure and impenetrable firewalls ever designed. Can you do it?

COMPUTER GENIUS: I was into all three 15 seconds ago, sir.

The ones that work for the FBI can find anything in 10 seconds or less.

FBI BOSS: Our serial killer is male, early thirties, white, and probably living in a two square mile region south of Albany, Georgia. He’s left-handed and likes string cheese. We need to narrow our search …

FBI COMPUTER GENIUS: Found him! His photo, home address and a copy of his permanent High School record have already been sent to your phone.

Not the real bad guy
Not the real bad guy

But this got me to thinking. What would these shows look like if they were happening in the real world?

BOSS OF SUPER SECRET GOVERNMENT ORGANIZATION TASKED WITH SAVING THE WORLD FROM SUPER BAD EVIL DOERS:  OK, listen up. You two are the world’s best black hat and white hat hackers. We’ve brought you here because a Super Bad Evil Doer has stolen software that will allow him to access all the world powers’ nuclear codes. He is demanding 1 trillion dollars in ransom or he will launch all the missiles at once and destroy the Earth. You each have a whole bunch of computer screens in front of you with dozens of boxes open scrolling lines and lines of stuff. You have less than 10 minutes to somehow find our Evil Doer and figure out a way to block him from launching those missiles. Can you do it?

HACKER #1: Yes, but we will need to write some specialized software, at least 10 to 20 thousand lines of code.

BOSS: My God!  Can you do it in time???

HACKER #2: Already done sir. Now, all we have to do is upload it to the Evil Doer’s computer. Ready to send in 3, 2 ….

HACKER #1: NO! NO! NO!

HACKER #2: What’s wrong? OH GOD NO! NO! NO!

BOSS: What’s happening?!

HACKER #1: My computer is shutting down!!

HACKER #2: MINE TOO!

BOSS: Are you being hacked? Have your computers been infiltrated by some kind of malicious software? Does the Evil Doer have a genius hacker of his own???

HACKER #1: WORSE! Windows just installed updates! It’s rebooting so the updates can take effect!

windows shut down

BOSS: Can you stop it!??

HACKER #2: It’s too late! Look! It’s already started rebooting and configuring the updates!

windowsupdateinstalling_40853_l

BOSS: There’s nothing you can do???!

HACKER #2: No sir. Look at the screen. It says “Please do not power off or unplug your machine while updates are in progress”!

windows updates 1

BOSS: How long will it take to reboot?

HACKER #1: God only knows! Look! It’s still installing update six of ten! This could take an hour! Even more.

BOSS: We have less than ten minutes before nuclear Armageddon! What are we going to?

HACKER #1: Wait! I’ve got it! I can use my smartphone!

HACKER #2: Yes! We will have to adapt about 15 thousand lines of code but …

HACKER #1: It’s done! OK now, all I have to do is input and send the kill command. “NEUTRALIZE ALL NUCLEAR LAUNCH CODES.” And … done!

BOSS: Thank God!

HACKER #2: Oh NO! You entered “NEUTRALIZE ALL NUCLEAR LUNCH CODES”!!

HACKER #1: What?! Damn you AUTOCORRECT!

autocorrect

BOSS: What do we do now!!

HACKER #2: You know what? Pay the ransom. I’ve had it with Windows. I mean look, it’s still on update 6 of 10! We’re going to be here all day!

HACKER #1: I agree. Pay the money. This is just too much trouble. I’m telling you, ever since my phone updated to iOS 9.0.1, nothing works right.

HACKER #2: Tell me about it.

ios-9-overnight-update

As the two hackers walk off into the sunset discussing whether or not upgrading to Windows 10 would make the situation better or worse, small mushroom clouds appear in the distance.

doodleordie.com
doodleordie.com

Yeah, that’s pretty much how it would happen.

ON THE INTERCONNECTNESS OF THINGS – Marilyn Armstrong

The late great Douglas Adams (who shared my birthday, March 11th — I’m sure that means something, but I have no idea what) created a character that I dearly love. Dirk Gently (also known by a number of other names, including Svlad Cjelli), was the owner/operator of Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency.

It operated based on the “fundamental interconnectedness of all things.” I believe in Douglas Adams and Dirk Gently. We all operate, knowingly or not, on the fundamental interconnectedness of all things. More than half the posts I write — including this — are born while commenting on someone else’s post.

We are intricately and intimately linked. I wonder if we take for granted how bound to others we are in this strange cyber world we have created. I have read and heard much talk about the isolation of each person, alone and lonely with their computer. It has been put out there as a metaphor for the estrangement of people from each other, the symbolic isolation of individuals in the technological world.

I don’t think it’s true.

For me and for many friends isolation would be life without the Internet. Without computers. Without cell phones. For anyone who suffers a chronic illness, for those of us getting on in years who can’t get out as much as we used to — and whose friends have died or moved far away — and for young people whose studies, work, happenstance or life choices have settled them long distances — continents and oceans — distant from old friends and family, electronic communications are a godsend.

Super moon

If we cannot share a hug, we can share face time. Electronic communications are fast or instant and let us share in ways that were science fiction a few years ago.

Without my computers, I would be truly isolated. The fibromyalgia, arthritis and heart condition make getting around difficult. Without electronic connections, I would be a squirrel up a tree without fellow squirrels to hang with.

Bonnie guarding my computer

This post was originally inspired by Dawn Hoskings on whose post I was commenting when I realized how lucky I am to be living in a world that lets me enjoy virtual travel and participate in a larger world. I’m proud to be part of a community of bloggers, a community of friends around the world.

And grateful.

How about you?

JUST ANOTHER MEANINGLESS XMAS ZOMBIE EVENT – Marilyn Armstrong

Weekly Word Prompt: Xmas Zombies

So I was going to check into my bank and see if a particular payment had gone out. Instead of getting my account, it asked me how I wanted to get my access code.

Access code?

Yes, access code. Do I want as a text or a phone call? I selected a phone call.

I don’t do text. In fact, the last time (a few days ago) I tried to text. I couldn’t remember how.

Pathetic? Absolutely, but there it is. I don’t text and I don’t remember how to text and I have never felt that my failure to text disenfranchises me from citizenship. However, Bank of America seems to feel that anyone who doesn’t have a smartphone isn’t American and shouldn’t be allowed to use their own bank account. Because they called me on the phone and their calling robot told me I had to text the data back.

Did I mention that I don’t text?

I tried to enter the access code in the field and it told me it was the wrong number, probably because I had typed it on the computer and did not text it using a smartphone.

I breathed slowly. Then, I called the number they give you if you are having trouble with your access code. They said ON THE SCREEN, “When you get to the menu, ask for an agent.” Which I did.

After which the robot wanted my bank card number, my social security number, my account number, and the name of my best friend. All of which I supplied and none of which they recognized. Probably because I didn’t type the information on a smartphone.

You see, I DID have an iPhone. When I was working. And I needed one. But I’m not working now and it’s just a big expense that I use once in a blue moon when we are lost on the road to someone’s house! If they want to give me the phone and PAY for it, then I’ll have one. Until that time, stop jerking me around.

Eventually, I got a person by declaring that I had “lost everything” including my checkbook, bank card, and social security number. The human had no idea why they even wanted all this information because there was no problem with my account. She assumed BOA was helpfully making my account “less hackable.”

They’ve been hacked twice. I keep track of this stuff.

She gave me a new access number after which I tried to enter my PIN, but the field blanked out when I typed there. So she asked for my driver’s license number and I pointed out, to the best of my knowledge, they don’t have that number. She said: “Just the one you had when you signed up with the bank.”

“That was more than 10 years ago,” I pointed out. “Massachusetts has since issued entirely new cards with different numbers. Did you think that in all this time we’d still be carrying THE SAME DRIVER’S LICENSE?”

By now I’m shouting at the phone. I have lost it.

Garry finally asked me, “What’s going on?”

“NOTHING IS GOING ON,” I yelled.

Literally. Nothing was going on. The bank was helping me avoid future hackers by making it impossible for me to use our account. Which is where all our money is. And through which I pay all our bills.

The lady to whom I was speaking said she had no idea what was going on or why, but assured me she was going to escalate the issue. I said I wasn’t interested in her work problems. I wanted to be able to use my account right now, not tomorrow or the day after. How long did she think the credit card people were going to wait to get paid before I’m considered in default? Like … a minute maybe?

She reminded me that this was an attempt by BOA to improve their security.

It certainly made it impossible for ME to use the account. No idea if hackers would be daunted, but I was dying. She explained — again — that there was no problem with my account.

I said that just because I don’t use a smartphone doesn’t mean I’m not an American. As far as I know, using a smartphone is voluntary, not a legal requirement. Making it impossible to use my account without a smartphone probably IS illegal and I was getting really angry and if this wasn’t resolved right now, I was going to do something I’ve been avoiding for years.

Change banks.

It’s not that I love BOA. They are just your basic evil representative of billionaires oppressing the working class, but they are located right next to the grocery. The bank I’d rather use doesn’t have a location in Uxbridge or any other nearby town. The nearest bank is more than 20 miles away. Back to Bank of America.

So the kind lady gave me an access code.

I entered the code in the field. Then it asked for my PIN, but when I entered it, the field stayed blank. It refused to let me enter the PIN number because — are you ready? It only accepts that information if you type it on a telephone. A smartphone. ONLY a smartphone.

By now, it’s nearly an hour later and I am seething.

Eventually, their server decided my knowing my best friend’s name was enough to get me into my bank account. It stopped asking me for my PIN but did require my bank card number. It also required my birthdate. And the name of the first car I bought with my own money. And its color.

I was really glad it stopped before asking about the upholstery because I don’t remember it. It was 1977. It’s possible I intentionally forgot because I have a vague memory of it being seriously ugly. Green plaid? Something like that.

Now, I can use my account. Until the next time, when they decide to foil hackers by making me yell at a telephone robot for an hour or two.

Merry Christmas. We’ve foiled the hackers. I’m sure of it.

SOMETHING ALWAYS HAPPENS – Marilyn Armstrong

When Garry came into the bedroom, I was staring at the radio. Garry takes his hearing aids off at night, so we have bedtime conversations at high volume. Shouting, really.

“Why are you staring at the radio?”

“I’m trying to figure out if it’s on. Oh, it just started to make noise. It’s on.”

“But why are you staring at it?”

“I thought if I stared at it for a while, it would start to play. Or not. One way or the other, I would find out what the red light means.”

“What red light, and why are you staring at it? How will staring at it help?”

“That’s how I figure things out. It didn’t come with instructions.”

Pause. “Have you taken any drugs?”

“No. See, there’s the red light. I didn’t if know the red light means the CD player is on or off. I had to wait to see if it started playing. I was pretty sure a blinking red light means pause, but I wasn’t sure what a steady red light means. I waited when there was no light. Nothing happened. So I tried it the other way. Now it’s making noise. Therefore, the red light means it’s on. It’s slow getting started.”

I wasn’t trying to be funny, but Garry started to laugh and couldn’t stop. “That’s the sort of thing I would do,” he said,

“Well, how else would I know what the red light means?”

He laughed some more.

Garry thinks I know a lot of stuff I don’t really know, especially about technical issues. I push buttons. If staring (and waiting) doesn’t fix what’s broken, I push another button. Or push the same button again. Or hold the button for a couple of seconds and see if it does something different.

While I’m waiting, I watch. Intently. Maybe I’ll get a message. Isn’t this how everyone fixes stuff? I used to look things up in the manual, but since no one supplies a manual anymore, it’s more art than science.

My husband finds this hilarious.

I spend a lot of time staring at computers, waiting for something — anything — to happen. Hoping an idea will occur to me or for the system to reboot. To see if a blue screen will recur, or the diagnostic will tell me there’s no problem, even though I’m sure there is.

I am waiting for a message.

I must be doing something right. Beethoven is playing on the CD player/radio. And most of the time, the computers work.

TECHNO-ADDICT – BY ELLIN CURLEY

I didn’t realize how dependent we are on technology, or more precisely, our household machines. Then our Keurig coffee maker had a glitch and wouldn’t work.

How were we going to make coffee??

!!XX??

We’ve always had a French Press and a regular drip coffee maker in the house. So I dug them out from the back of a bottom shelf in the pantry cabinet.

The only problem was, we had no real coffee to go into the real coffee makers. We only had Keurig pods. I used to always keep fresh ground coffee on hand. When we actually used it. But that hasn’t been for two years — since we got our Keurig.

We’re obviously not coffee aficionados. We buy our coffee, even our real coffee, at the supermarket. Not a gourmet store or a coffee specialty shop. We don’t know the difference (or care) between coffee from different countries, or different blends from the same country. We don’t need notes of fruits or nuts or wood or chicory in our coffee.

We know we like light roast, not medium or dark. That’s our only requirement.

I used to like flavored coffees and I tried endless different ones. I landed on a few that I liked. But after a while, I stopped liking them. Now I like plain coffee, with my own home flavoring. I add vanilla extract, cinnamon and/or nutmeg, or some combination of these flavors to my regular coffee. I like it much better than the artificial tasting flavored coffees.

Sometimes I’ll add orange extract to black coffee. Or if I want to go wild, I’ll throw in some flavored, sweet liqueur, like Kahlua,  Amaretto, or hazelnut.

I panicked when the Keurig wouldn’t make my morning cup of coffee. Tom stayed calm. He’s dealt with a lot of finicky machines in his life. He knows what to do. He had read the manual. He ran a mixture of vinegar and water through the system. He poked a toothpick into the part of the machinery that might be clogged. He puttered around while I paced and asked if it was fixed every five minutes.

Finally, it was working again!

Victory! Crisis averted!

Thank you, Tom!

Our hour without coffee-making capabilities reminded us that we are too dependent on our machines. Like when the power goes out and we lose phone and internet service.

But that’s another blog!