Category Archives: Technology

Why I don’t have or want a so-called “smartphone”

It may come to pass that I am the last holdout in this area. This bewilders all but a handful of those I know. How could I possibly not want one of these devices? They act as though this were a Luddite decision, a sort of insanity, Old Grumpness lived out.

Not so.

I use technology (such as now) when I see the benefit from it. What I never do is adopt technology for the sake of technology. If the corporate world holds up an object and says, “This is what you get now,” most people just say “okay” and buy it. I do not. Instead of assuming that the corporation is presenting me A Good Thing, I assume the corporation is my adversary and never has my interests at heart. And that’s fair; if it were up to me, the corporation would probably see some dark days (and worse ones when it actually sinned), so I can’t expect it to mean me honest fairness when I mean it anything but.

So we begin with me thinking the corporation considers me too mindless to do anything but Just Buy Now, and me looking at the corporation like a suspicious car lurking in front of my house or Jehovah’s Witnesses standing on my front steps. It means I will think most critically about whether I want the thing. The corporation does not enjoy the presumption of honest intentions; the default assumption is that it wants me to spend money I should not. It spent a lot of money creating marketing in order to do this.

Must admit: naming it the “smartphone” was a stroke of marketing genius because it hoodwinked the world. This thing isn’t smart! This is just a miniature laptop with Internet and phone capability. I grant that some of them are gaining ability to interpret simple commands and engage in something resembling conversation, but this thing is not a fraction as smart as an average human being with a search engine. Most people just accepted the term “smartphone,” which made it sound as though all other phones (and by extension, other phone users) were dumb. It is my way in life to analyze clever marketing. If it offends me, I feel free hold that against the marketer. So, for starters, I don’t want one because the name is misleadingly stupid and insults my intelligence. For that alone I would resist owning one. I keep retraining myself to say ‘mobile phone,’ but that also includes my flip phone that doesn’t have Internet access.

Even so, I might have ended up with one of these phones had I not come to hate them 98% of the time. Not just a garden variety casual hate, but a long, slow, muriatic loathing that is to be savored. I hate them because people behave in shocking fashion with them. Look at a breakfast table, and you’ll see five people who got together for breakfast. All are silent and appear to be contemplating and/or manipulating their genitals. They are all texting. Some probably felt the world needed to see a picture of their food. Many will take calls at a restaurant table, or just about anywhere, having an outside-voice conversation in absolute disregard for everyone else. They have come to worship these things, to give them priority over the people they love the most, certainly over any consideration to complete strangers. For that alone I would hate them. Remember payphones? Eating in a restaurant these days is like in the old days if your table was next to a bank of payphones.

Then there’s usability. I am a man. While I have a man’s hands, I admit to a great vanity over them. They are big without bulkiness, almost ridiculous-looking on me, except that they border on feminine. They might be the hands of a WNBA center. And I’m good with my hands. I’m the guy who fixes the little screw on someone’s glasses, or achieves some other tiny, fussy, precise little repair. I type about 80 wpm, which by male standards is not bad at all. All this bragging is to explain that my hands are not clumsy bunches of sausage-shaped paw-tips. And yet I find it difficult enough to hit the right depressable buttons on my flip phone. To type on tiny chiclet-sized images on a glass screen, I would need a little stylus. My fingertip is big enough to hit four of those images at one time. Anyone who writes will tell you that s/he expects and requires keys to make, when struck with fair accuracy, the impressions s/he intends. Any other situation is intolerable. And while I muddle with the thing trying to figure out what to do, as when my wife asks me to look something up, it goes dark on me, and I have to wake it up again.

Then there is the screen. At 19″ my monitor isn’t large by modern standards, but it’s large enough to meet my needs. The modern mobile phone screen looks to me about 4″ diagonal, max. This is unusable for any sustained period. So my rejoinder is: “When you violate all the laws of physical space and time, and invent a telephone that fits in my pocket but has at least a 17″ screen and a full-sized 102-key keyboard, definitely get in touch with me, and let’s do business. Until then, I don’t want one of these.”

Also, I can mooch. Everyone else has one. If we as a group are going somewhere, and cannot find it, I don’t need to have one of these because someone else will. Probably everyone else will–and they will enjoy using them to solve our problem. I acknowledge the benefit of access to the data; I just don’t like the medium most of the time. So why not just mooch off those who love the medium? All I have to do is refrain from saying something hateful about the device while it is benefiting me. I’ll go that far. Since it’s a device, I owe it no consistency of opinion. I am welcome to like it in someone else’s hands, at his or her expense, while it’s making my life easier. I can hate it the minute someone pops it out to text in the middle of a once-civil conversation. Next time it does me some good, I’ll remember to be quiet for the duration of the benefit, and we all get along fine.

So I don’t need one. I don’t need to check my email when I’m out. I don’t need to be on Facepalm 24/7. I can do them when I get home.

And given the costs of these things, mooching is no small benefit. These are hideously expensive, with constant ‘new’ models that become faddish and create enormous buzz. “Do you have the new Hamhock FY2?” “No. I’m waiting for the Hemroid 5bs. It has a home colonoscopy app.” Monthly costs are outlandish, especially with data plans. I know because I pay our bills, and I see what we pay for my wife’s phone activity. This amount is far more than the device is worth to me–especially when I can mooch.

And even if I wanted one, there are some companies I won’t deal with on any terms. If Arrogant Turds & Trash buys out our current cell provider, we’ll hit the road. There is nothing I would wish to mail to that company that the law allows, except for perhaps a bag of small gummi penes. There are no telecom companies I want to deal with, only those I dislike least. When my wife’s former employer required her to accept a company-provided Ipad and pay a monthly (reimbursable) bill to Abhorrent Tongues & Tushies, requiring me to send money monthly to that company, I was not a happy person. Had she not been in a somewhat delicate position, I’d have tried to get her to refuse–what’s with this idea of making it obligatory for employees to lend money to the employer? So even if I did want one, I’d be choosing among the least hated, not the most liked.

Now you see what a stony resistance lies along this path.

It’s like with debit cards. Same thing happened. Corporations mailed them out and said, “This is what you get now.” Most people accepted the clever marketing implication that if credit cards got you in debt, and ran up your bill, debit cards did otherwise and were better. Debit cards simply give your money away sooner. If you do not realize why this is bad, read up on a concept called the Time Value of Money. You may not care, but your bank definitely does. I see two uses for debit cards: for people too lazy or innumerate to manage a checking account, or for people who want the free ATM feature (so they can pay cash for more things, again proving they haven’t read about the time value of money). I guess they might be okay for people whose credit or self-discipline precludes using a real credit card.

I took one look at debit cards and said: “This makes no sense. This benefits only the bank, at my expense. Forget it.” One credit union blithely mailed me one anyway. They did not do this a second time. To this day, I have had a debit card only for as long as it took me to drive the mailed item to a credit union branch and have the discussion. I have never used one.

So, no. I don’t want one of these phones. No, I’m not going to chew you out for having one. I may even mooch off what you can do with it. (Not “off of” what you can do with it. Anyone who uses that combination, please desist. It is acceptable until about seventh grade.) But I don’t want or need one.

When you find one that has a full-sized keyboard and monitor, yet fits in my pocket, made by and with serviced provided by companies that don’t roil my stomach too much, let’s deal.


What your keys used to do, long ago

What did they do? Why did they have weird names? Why on earth are some of our current computer keys called as they are?

This is an IBM Selectric typewriter. If you think electric typewriters sound painful to write with, you need to try a manual. For one thing, on a manual, light strokes would produce light or no impressions. You had to try for a consistent level of physical force when hitting keys; if you didn’t produce enough power, the type character might not make it to the ribbon at all.

I included this picture so that you didn’t have to guess what my 1980s writing implement looked like.





Starting along the top, the Mar Rel stood for Margin Release. Once you set your margins, the carriage (the typing ball and its mechanism) would not move past them. If you wanted to finish a word that went one character past the margin, you hit Mar Rel so that it would let you past just this once.

I’m serious.

The Tab worked much as it does today, except that it relied upon ‘tab stops’ which one set wherever one wanted to indent. Typical was five spaces in from the left margin, for para indents, but one could set more tab stops. As the web came along, this morphed into a way to cycle through links and fields, as one does now on a fillable PDF or online form.

I don’t even remember how we got [brackets] on the 1. On the number keys, of course, we got the symbols instead by holding down the Shift key–not different from now. For the alphabet, of course, that’s how we did upper case on a letter-by-letter basis. To get italics, we had to change out the ball, which was easy enough but tedious to do very often–if, of course, one had a ball with italic type of the same style. I never did, but I assume they existed. The Selectric was way ahead of other typewriters because you could change out the ball. Different fonts! Miraculous!

Notice that the shifted 6 is the ¢ sign, which one now has to hunt up in the ASCII character set. Nowadays you get the ^ (caret) for a shifted 6. The caret was unknown on the electric typewriter.

See the with the _ above it? Since we didn’t have italics or bold, by and large, we did emphasis using the underbar. We typed the text, backspaced to where we wanted to start underlining, and held down Shift and the hyphen. In both its forms, that key was one of the machinegun keys–if you held it down, it kept striking until you let up (as all modern computer keys seem to do). Very good when you wanted to underline a whole sentence. I do not remember the full inventory of machinegun keys from that era, but my hands would remember them. If you held down a key that was not a machinegun key, it typed its symbol once and did nothing further.

Backspace backed you up one space without deleting anything. In effect, it was the left arrow key. To delete something, you either painted it with white-out, or put tape over it or slipped in a sort of white carbon paper, and re-struck the key. Since photocopies cost $0.10 each in 1978 dollars (minimum wage was about $2.20 or so per hour; imagine if copies cost about $0.40 now), we used carbon paper, or ditto machines. Some forms still use carbons, mostly in government. Of course, if you made a mistake, you’d have to fix it on all the carbons. Sensibly, Backspace was a machinegun key.

Index has vanished as a concept. What did that thing do? It turned the carriage roller–advancing the paper one line–without returning the carriage to the left margin. It was more precise than turning the roller by hand, since the roller could be turned less than a full line. It clicked as one turned it, unless one released the catch that kept it in synch–then it rolled smoothly with nothing keeping it in horizontal alignment. Do that, and you would have a hell of a time getting it back into perfect alignment.

On the second row, notice that the ! has its own key, which shifted to °. For years, typewriter manufacturers varied on what symbol belonged with the number 1. (We obviously did not have a separate number pad, arrows, num lock, or accompanying mathematical operators. Had the number pad not come along early in the computer world, I’m not sure what accountants would have done. Seppuku, perhaps.) In any case, this is where IBM was putting the exclamation point on this model of the Selectric.

Return has become the Enter key, but you still hear people call it by the old name; early in the PC days, it retained that label. That was an important key because it advanced the roller one line and ran the carriage back to the left margin; one did it at the end of each line. On manual typewriters, this was truly manual. They had a bar one grabbed and ran the carriage back with physical effort. As word processors came along, we got the soft return and the hard return as concepts. Soft returns change positions with margin, font, etc. changes. A hard return says: “Start a new para no matter what.” Novice authors usually clutter their mss with loose hard returns. You’d be amazed how many create these awesome title pages (which should have been their very last act, not their first) and use a bunch of hard returns to center the title rather than use the software’s functions correctly.

Some writers don’t know how to tab or indent. They instead just hit the space bar five times. Dirty secret of editing: when I first begin to edit a ms, I clean up all the incontinent extra hard returns littering the place. I then do a global search and replace for two spaces with one, which fixes all the archaic and novice misuses of two spaces. Except that sometimes it’s ten spaces. I re-run the S&R until it makes no corrections. Even dirtier editing secret: I judge my client’s word processing software usage competence by the quantity of loose spaces and hard returns. If there are a lot of these, I know that my client doesn’t really understand much about document creation’s technical details. She may be a superb writer, but that’s not coupled to her user level on software. I’ve had clients come out and call themselves techno-doofuses, even those whose uses of English were at high levels.

This affects me because clients generally expect me to provide them with free Word tech support, especially with regard to tracking changes. I dread this; since this feature is central to my work, I don’t really have a choice. If they can’t use it, they can’t process my efforts efficiently, but it’s also hard to make people understand that I am not necessarily seeing what they see and can’t always just walk them through changes. The only place where I flat decline is typesetting; i.e. finishing the document. I don’t know the software well enough to help with that, it is beyond my scope, and I may punt.

The Clr/Set rocker was how we set our tab stops. The On/Off rocker is self-explanatory. When typing, things were clackety-clack noisy; when not typing, there was a quiet whirring hum.

The Lock you see at left, third row, is the caps lock. Num lock and scroll lock came along with computers.

Shift, of course, got us the upper case or other shifted character outcome. We needed one on each side because we were coached to station our fingers on the home row: asdf jkl; . Thus, if you wanted an A, your right hand did the shifting. If you wanted a P, your left pinky held down shift (if you were doing it exactly as taught). My high school had a yearbook advisor who had lost an arm in some accident, and having two Shifts must have been pivotal for him.

They called it the Space Bar because that’s what we used it for, much as now: advance the carriage one space without any image. Except there’s a big difference that I don’t think a majority of computer users grasp. While the space looks to people like an absence of something, to a computer jock or sophisticated user, it’s a character. It has more in common with an ñ or F or ^ than with nothingness. When you hit the space bar now, you type a character; it just happens to be a blank character.

We did not have: Esc, Ctrl, Alt, any of the F keys, `/~, \ / | (the backslash and vertical bar, in case that looks weird), Ins, Home, PgUp, PgDn, Del, End, Pause, or the stupid Windows keys I always pop off my keyboards. A typist circa 1975 would have wondered what in hell all those weird keys did.

“Pause? It pauses any time I do nothing. I don’t need a key for that!”

“PgDn? Page down, you mean? That’ll just spit the current sheet out. Pointless.”

“Esc? I’d like to escape, all right; I’d like to escape back into what I know, which isn’t this.”

Thing is, the transition happened by degrees and with variations before the advent of the 84-key keyboard (had only ten function keys, arrayed at left; combined directional keys with number pad). Only portables, then laptops had the number pad mushed into the main keyboard (which sucked then and sucks now). Each time there has been change, it has taken time to absorb. Some have made sense, but some have made none.

In any case, if you’re looking at a fiftysomething, now you see where he or she learned to type. And that fiftysomething probably learned on an electric typewriter; imagine the heckling he or she took from the die-hard manual typewriter oldsters as to how easy it was now.

I assure you of this: I completed a degree in history, resulting in a stack of term and other papers an inch and a half thick. And I typed every one of them three times (at least) on an electric typewriter. There actually was college before an Internet, and you’d be surprised how much we managed to learn without the ability to google anything.

The Facehole, and the hoarding world

Two things happened to me of late: my Facebook account got messed up, and I helped a friend with the prep for a hoarders’ estate sale.

The Facebook thing seemed like a bug. The system demanded I add a cell phone to my account, something I resist because in the first place go to hell, in the second because I don’t want my phone number in such a hackable place, and in the third because I don’t ever desire to have to rely upon Verizon’s text messaging to permit me to log in. I couldn’t bypass it, so I tried–and FB wouldn’t take my verification code. It behaved as though I had entered nothing. Eventually it threatened to punish me if I didn’t “slow down,” a warning that persisted even when I hadn’t tried it for nearly a day. In an abundance of caution, I took a guess my account had been hacked; I changed my password and clicked on some link to alert Facebook.

I vanished from my friends’ view. For all they could know, I’d blocked and defriended them. In the world of Facebook, I’d been grabbed by the hacks and thrown into the hole.

Facebook did not respond to a single email.

In the meantime, I kept trying. Once a day, I’d retry the login process. I also kept feeding more focused search strings into a search engine. I tried from three different browsers. Some of my friends e-mailed me; my wife notified as many as she could of my situation, and some helped by passing it on.

Facebook didn’t fix it; searching did. I finally turned up a slight FB variant site mentioned on a message board in direct connection with fixing my exact problem. It looked a bit different, so I knew I might have reason to expect a different result. Indeed so: I was back in.

Some have speculated that my criticisms of FB had come back to haunt me. I thought it far likelier that FB had declared war on people who used a number of effective ad blockers, but I didn’t put anything past them. There have been people who have, for no discernible reason, found themselves permabanned from FB with no right of appeal. By far the most disturbing aspect for me was the concern that I would lose touch with people, especially older people whose technophobia might lead them to jump to the conclusion that I had blocked them. How do you explain to all of six hundred FB friends what happened? Oh, sure, when you get back on, you can post, but some of the most technophobic will have hmphed and gone on their ways. I didn’t like not being in touch, and it’s fair to say that I value FB more than I once did.

After a few days I got used to its absence, but I did miss a lot of people. For many, it was the only way to get in touch with me. In time I’m sure I’ll find that I lost a few elderly game-related friends and referral friends (“omg you and this person should link up, you would love each other”), and I’ll get a PM or two asking me why I blocked them, then unblocked them, and how was I able to refriend them without them knowing it. I won’t try explaining. I’ll just tell them it looks to have been a bug.

One thing that happened while I was in the Facehole was that I got a visit from one of my oldest friends, an antique dealer who was in town for the Portland show and then had to begin work on the estate sale for a hoarder house. Being a little short on honest casual labor manpower in this area, my friend hired me to help him begin the shoveling process.

Hoarding is a frightening thing. In this case, both homeowners are now in assisted living and their descendants are managing their affairs. It took a lot of work just to clear paths through the home, which had been done before I got involved. The guy was a sort of Gyro Gearloose, and my friend assigned me to battle my way to the basement’s back wall. What an amazing experience.

Imagine this: several shelves full of loose fuses, gadgets, gizmos, gauges, light bulbs, gaskets, pieces of conduit, screws, wire nuts, switches, fossilized tubes of stuff, matchbooks, pencils, razor blades, tuning forks, and other crap. A bunch of the same dumped on the floor. Atop the loose stuff, many boxed and new versions of the same thing, most seeming to date back to the 1950s.

I gathered light bulbs of kinds I’d never even known existed. I gathered adapters and fuses by the dozen. I gathered pieces of conduit. I gathered up several huge pipe wrenches and many boxes of fussy little stuff. Thermometers. At one point, a large box containing a plastic bag was fused chemically to a pair of wooden blocks and a can of metal faceplates. The white stuff in the plastic bag had leaked. No matter how I might maneuver this awkward mess, I could not avoid rupturing the bag. Good thing I assumed the worst, because only then did I see the label on the now-exposed side: CORROSIVE: CONTAINS POTASSIUM HYDROXIDE.

In case you don’t know, that is near kin to the active ingredient in Drano. It’s possible that, in fifty years, all of it had reacted with ambient moisture or some other thing, but if you’ve ever had a caustic soda burn (KOH also goes by the name of caustic potash), you understand why I didn’t take that on faith. I told my friend to get some dilute vinegar and spray the area until nothing further foamed up.

Fighting my way through piles of electrical components and toxic chemical spills, I pushed through to the wire.

Much of the wire was remnant solid insulated copper, neatly coiled. I was an electrician’s helper, one summer long ago, and I never saw this much scrap wire around the shop. Stacked–if that were possible–it would have formed a human-sized column about 8′ high. My buddy’s clients are sure going to like the kicker of maybe six hundred pounds at about $2.50/lb., and on top of that, he doesn’t have to wait for estate sale clients to buy it.

At least they hoarded stuff like glass bowls and pipe wrenches and light bulbs, as opposed to yogurt cups, bags of trash, and rats. I’m a member of a Facebook support group for relatives of hoarders. It didn’t take them long to show me where I ought to count my blessings.

Deceiving Facebook advertising

Ever since the Ad Preferences thing became general knowledge, Facebook users have known a good way to feel creeped out. Yeah, we knew they would do this, and we can’t stop them.

However, I have figured out a way to ruin it, at least a little.

First off: why do that? “What part of ‘free service’ do you not understand? If you impair their ability to make money, you will no longer have a free service! You use this voluntarily! No one forces you!” Answer: because we aren’t getting paid enough. We, the users, are the product. Our compensation is not tied to the revenue we generate for a publicly traded company. Our views are the deliverable. If Facebook were to pay us, that would be one thing, but it never will. Because it never will, it’s moral to mess up their income stream.

How would one do that? At first, I though that deleting all the ad preference indicators would make sense. I then learned an odd thing: if you delete them all, they are soon repopulated with many more even if your FB usage is way down. I’ve been very busy the past couple of weeks and have spent far less time on the site. I checked last night and my “Ad Preferences” were as big a stew as I had previously accumulated (before the first Big Deletion) in years. If you delete them all, it seems, they are repopulated. Quickly. Like an ant colony.

All right. If you insist on keeping a dossier on me, I will ruin it. I will turn it into the hottest garbage I can.

Next time, don’t just delete all your ad preferences. Next time, go through them all and delete all those relevant to you: your leisure, your work, your beliefs, your hobbies, your passions. Leave only those that are complete whiffs. You like quilting? Delete any having to do with fabric. Oregon Ducks fan? There’s help for that condition, but in the meantime, keep any displayed ad preference that indicates you might like the Beavs or the Huskies. You voted for Jill Stein? Leave Mitt Romney on there and remove Jill. Make sure that all the remaining preferences represent lies.

There is nothing Facebook can do about this. It amounts to urinating in the data pool. It also takes less time than deleting them all, and is much more amusing. You’re a millennial? AARP is on there? That one gets to stay! You’re a stay-at-home mom? Facebook thinks you like diaper pails? Hell, no, you do not!

Have fun. We may not win the privacy war, but some of us will fight it just for enjoyment and pride.


Blowing off Steam

For those who don’t know much about PC gaming, Steam is an online service that provides copy protection, game e-tailing, and probably does other stuff as well.

I wouldn’t know for sure. Way back when Valve was announcing a game called Half-Life 2, there came an announcement that one would also have to use a service called “Steam.” One would have to permit one’s computer to phone Steam to validate one’s non-piracy right to play the game; not just upon install, but all the time. I had loved the first Half-Life to the level of remembering specific moments in the story and how I’d handled them. I also am not prone to automatic acceptance of pretty much anything. Me being me, I took at look at that and said: “nah, ain’t doing that, don’t need a game that badly.”

Most people did not take this stance. Most people just accepted the concept, just as most people accepted debit cards and juice bag drinks. I did not just accept it. And over time, I have come to understand that it means the end of my buying new PC games. When my old ones will no longer work under new systems, I just won’t be a gamer any more.

It wasn’t about unwillingness to buy. I don’t mind paying for software. I do mind the idea of having to keep spyware running just to play a game. For my OS and applications, it’s one thing; I hate it (oh, trust me, how deeply I hate it), but the price there would be my livelihood (and yes, I realize they know that and that’s why M$ does it, and yes, be assure that I take time to take that as personally as possible). I can be forced into it for a word processor, though I’ll remember that they did that. I can’t be forced into it for a game.

Thus, no Steam for me.

It ripples outward. I kept taking PC Gamer for quite some time, and would have continued, but now they no longer list in reviews whether a game uses Steam copy protection. When last they did, most games seemed to use Steam, so I infer that Steam is now assumed and thus needless to state, like “requires monitor.” With that, PCG lost its relevance to my world, and it’ll join about ten other print mag subscriptions in the recycle bin.

It’s not the only area in which I’ve done such a thing. There is increasing social pressure to own a “smart” phone, a device I consider mostly loathsome and unusable, not even very good for the basic purpose of speaking to others. For example, if someone under 40 organizes a meeting nowadays and creates an event on Facebook, and at the appointed time the venue turns out to be closed, the organizer will not post a sign on the closed door. The organizer will update the Facebook event, taking on faith that everyone checks Facebook from his or her phone. If you don’t, you’re left out. I realize that this will see me left out of a certain number of social events.

Once, I might have minded. Now I simply ask myself what I am really missing. That’s not sour grapes, but experience. An event with a bunch of people with smartphones will probably lead to the barbarism of a bunch of people staring down at their groins, madly “checking in” and posting Instagraphs (whatever they are), and making sure the whole world knows their status. I wouldn’t be a good fit anyway. At a group gathering, if I don’t mute my cell phone, you know that either something very important is going on, or I forgot, or I have so little regard for the value of the gathering that it’s valid to ask why I’m even there.

At some point during such obstinacies, the original issue becomes less important than the obstinacies themselves. No, I won’t take a debit card, even if I could see rare applications for it. Why? Because by now, debit cards can go to hell for their own sakes; I’ve enjoyed boycotting them for at least twenty years, and I see no reason to abandon the fun.

I don’t have phone conversations with disembodied voices, either. I will press numbers, but I will not speak understandably. Companies and government need to continue to hire human beings to do business with other human beings, and I’m not going to make it easier for them to get rid of more human beings. Making it harder for me? Okay, we can play that game. I view human interaction as important, and worth some invested time in order to foster.

It might seem like I have a fundamental aversion to new ideas. I don’t. I just have a fundamental aversion to new ideas that are pressed or forced upon me, especially when it’s one that is mainly for the forcer or presser’s benefit. Please consider that clause carefully. That’s my complaint about Steam: it’s there so that it can send information from my machine. That does not benefit me. That benefits game companies, maybe, but I’m not here to benefit them; therefore I’m fine if they go to hell. Same with smartphones. To me they look like a tiny chiclet keyboard and unusable screen at data rates that bloat up faster than a dead steer in August. Seems like $500 to begin the suffering, then $100+ per month of ongoing suffering. Go to hell, not doing it. Automatic bill pay? Seriously? Let me get this straight. I’m to let them take money out of my account without even reviewing the validity of their charges? What if they make a major mistake? You’re saying I should trust the company to do the right thing and be honest? Yeah. I’ll get right on that. I think I’ll be the one making decisions about who gets paid with my money, thanks.

I don’t look down on anyone who chooses to accept situations that I have rejected. I do think more highly of anyone who stopped and thought before making that acceptance. Can’t live without gaming, and decided to kneel and accept Steam? At least you thought. At least you did not just kneel by reflex. That’s really all I advocate: accept it for a considered reason, not just because a corporation ordered you to do so.

In the end, there may be more isolating choices, and I’ll have to decide what’s worth it to me.

I know one that is not, and it is Steam.

An eyewitness account of the rise of the Internet, for millennials

Why does everyone my age, the people who raised the millennial generation, now look to criticize the kids for being exactly as they were raised to be?

I hate it. My generation needs to take some responsibility for its choices, just one of which was the transformation of our society to a fearful, bubble-wrapped, constant-parental-supervision, hyper-PC world. Dodge ball is banned and yet school shootings skyrocket? Schools like jails? Crazy assloads of homework? Teaching to tests? At what point do we stand up and fess up to the kids: “We inherited a pretty good world, then got fearful and greedy, and screwed it up for you. We are sorry. We will stop giving you so much shit.”

Maybe, if we stop giving them shit now, they’ll pick out better nursing homes for us when the time comes. That, you realize, is the endgame. The vengeance of the elder is the calm understanding that the youth will one day experience arthritis, that one day Immodium will be more their recreational drug than ketamine. The vengeance of the youth is to make the elderly pray that their arthritic days end sooner. This cycle poisons us all. The kids need us: they need our support, our love, our examples, our wisdom, and our friendship. They need for us to share. And we need them: we need their liveliness, their change, their new outlooks, their ability to program the remote without wanting to throw it, their help with the physical tasks at which we are now semi-competent, and their friendship. We need for them to share. I can think of no more toxic way to spend my final years than in a gated community filled only with other old goats, who really buy into this ‘honored citizen’ and ‘senior citizen’ stuff, who leave miserly tips for harried waitresses they berate, and who do their best to hide from all youth, watching old Hallmark and INSP TV shows all day that reassure them how The World Ought To Be.

That world is gone. Be as nostalgic as you wish, but live in the now.

In the now, I just watched a video wherein teenagers attempted to use a typical twenty-year-old Windows 95 computer. I found their impressions fascinating. They did not intuitively grasp its basic functions, though some were very interested in the history. It occurred to me that many young folks, never having known a world without the Internet, do not apprehend how recent a phenomenon is this hyper-reliance on easy-to-use Internet. My generation’s harmful reflex is to ridicule them for this, which shows me that my contemporaries have lived this long without learning much. The proper response is not to make fun of the kids, and we ought to have developed enough wisdom to grasp this. If you’d like them to learn–if you would like some empathy and understanding from them–take time to teach them. Then let them teach you how their experience differs.

Speaking of which:

This comes from my own point of view as I lived it, now aged fifty-two, born in 1963, high school class of 1981, Bachelor of Arts 1986. When I was young, I reflected at how ancient I would be in the fabled year 2000: 37, practically a museum piece. I didn’t own my first computer until 1987, and it was a forgotten machine called the Atari ST. Of course, to use any form of Internet, one needs some form of computer, so it is essential to discuss the rise of the personal computer.

1980 (36 years ago): after striking a deal with Microsoft to bundle DOS (which in turn M$ buys off a fellow in the U-District who turns out to be like the guy who traded a winning lottery ticket for a caramel macchiato latte) with the product, IBM markets the IBM PC. At first, it costs about as much as a year’s public university dorm housing, or about 10% of an annual survival wage (at that time, one could almost eke by on minimum wage). The PC immediately wins, spawning a host of imitators (“clones”). Not much of anyone is on the Internet, which does exist in its ur-form, but is not for mere mortals.

1981 (35 years ago): That fall, I entered college at a major university which was as technologically current as any such institution. Very few students had personal computers, and none of them connected to the university’s systems, which were monsters that required entire rooms. PCs (to include all personal computers, including Apples and many long-deceased brands) cost several thousand dollars each, in an era where the minimum wage was around $3/hour. The university had computers for registration and other recordkeeping, as did large businesses. For computer science classes, there were ‘computer labs’ so people could practice fun stuff like Fortran programming. (Ask your engineer uncle about Fortran.)

1986: more students had PCs, but the Internet was still in its Arpanet ur-form, which had been around since 1969. This was a distributed network meant to operate by passing information through many possible paths to get from one point to another, rather than having to use This Dedicated Wire (which might be cut by an earthquake or the incineration of St. Louis, etc.). It wasn’t for us. I spent five years in college, as a history major, and wrote an inch-thick stack of papers. I typed and retyped every single one on an electric typewriter, typically three times: first draft, refinement and edits, final version.

By 1986 (30 years ago), a fair number of (the limited number of) computer users dialed into BBSes (bulletin board systems) in order to argue with strangers over common interests. It was like logging onto a web forum, but one had to dial in with a modem and phone line. Modems–little e-telephones which bore some resemblance to a DSL modem or cable modem in shape, size, and function–sounded bizarre when making the connection, like a bunch of springs boinging against a background of phone static. Maybe like a didgeridu played while tipsy. Of course, BBSes were never used as porn repositories or to share pirated software. That’s why we do not get the expression ‘l33t’ from ‘elite,’ which was not the term for a pirate BBS, because of course we would never indulge in warez (which was not the slang term for cracked pirated software). If the BBS was long distance, one paid through the nose in long distance charges.

1988 (28 years ago): PC ownership has moved well past IBM, which is showing an astonishing refusal to face facts. The Mac is the desktop publishing weapon of choice, but big companies still use ‘minicomputers’ (which could easily take up a whole room) or mainframes, a.k.a. Big Iron. IBM is cannibalizing its Big Iron business, trying to dictate to the PC industry, and the PC industry is listening to IBM about as much as you listen to your drunk uncle’s political and career guidance.

In 1988, I began a job selling computers, a foot soldier in the trenches of the IBM-Microsoft wars. M$ won, but it hadn’t yet decided to try and control the Internet. People who used modems to dial BBSes are now buying faster ones and signing up for Internet accounts; they still have to dial up. An always-on Internet connection, like your modern DSL or cable modem or fiber, is as affordable to average people as a yacht. Wireless is unknown. Windows is available, but it: runs on top of DOS, is buggy and cranky, and mostly sucks. This gives us a foretaste of what we can expect from M$ once IBM is crushed.

What did we even do with computers before we could dial up to the Internet and search? We wrote. We created art. We programmed applications, shareware, and so on. We compiled the code we wrote. We balanced checkbooks. We kept business books. We played games, oh god, how we played games. We used spreadsheets to automate calculations, letting do the heavy arithmetical lifting. We created databases to store large amounts of information, user interfaces to enable the research of the database, and report formats to present the research results. We drafted plans for building and bridges. We could look at the library’s card catalog, a voluminous wall of pigeonhole drawers we used to find books, and realize it would one day go away. So would the microfiche. There truly is much one can do with a computer that is not connected to a broadband network, and we did all of it.

1992 (24 years ago): The web will soon exist, and one will be able to browse it, but only with a text-based web browser. The dawn of the graphical user interface (which is how we elders describe the interactive front end of your Windows 10 or Mac OS whatever) is nearly at hand, ready to pave the way for unlimited porn. Windows is beginning to suck less. By this time, the PC has begun displacing both minis and big iron. Most people still get online with a modem, dialing in over a landline. Cell phones are uncommon and pretty spendy, and the idea of doing the Internet over your cellphone would have seemed like technological magic had anyone mentioned it. Laptops were big but not uncommon. Color inkjets were coming along.

1996 (20 years ago): a lot of PC office networks now ran on a thing called “Novell.” All you really need to know about Novell is that it was incomprehensible to normal people. By this time America Online–which had become one of the main ways people connected online (others were quaintnesses called CompuServe, Genie, etc.)–had unleashed its computer-illiterate, text-speaking “r u m or f?” and “ur a looser” hordes upon the Internet. That may have marked a transition point: until then, the Internet was sort of like a club that had unspoken rules and traditions, to which not everyone was willing to do the work to belong. It was rapidly becoming a free-for-all devoid of all standards (in other words, it was assuming a far more American character). For a while there, people like me got to enjoy a certain snobbish self-satisfaction, though I’m not sure how much good it did, since the AOL outlook took over. It was like one’s favorite pizzeria one day became a Chuck-E-Cheese’s–in mid-meal.

By 1996, the graphic web browser was king. The battle was between Netscape Navigator and Internet Explorer. The release of Windows 95, which you laughed at when you saw the video of the teens, marked a major turning point in making mainstream computing more stable and easier to work with. As you might expect from M$, it was doing everything it could to require the world to use IE, and the world refused. All that warfare against IBM, and it had learned not a single lesson about customers. There is no corporation that will not turn into a moron factory given enough time and success.

2000 (16 years ago): by now, broadband (DSL, cable, other ‘always on’ connections) was going mainstream, and phone modems were starting to look pretty dated. By 2000, most non-Luddites had some form of Internet connectivity; all companies worthy of the name had web presences. Also, at the false millennium (1/1/2000), there was a major scare because most of the remaining big iron software didn’t support eight-digit dating, and they had thrown away the source code. Much doom-and-gloom, much foretelling of apocalypse, and in the end, not much impact. But by this time, one didn’t need to watch the TV news to know about it. By this time, quite a few people learned about it on the Internet. I would say that around 2000 was the time when the Internet became like the telephone was to my parents, and the cell phone is to my nieces and nephews: “can’t function without it.”

Also around 2000, M$ followed up the very successful Windows 98 with Windows Me. Everyone hated it. Everyone. It was the Jerry Sandusky of operating systems. At that point, we began to realize that every other M$ operating system was going to be crappy, and the savvy among us planned accordingly. We’re still doing it.

By 2000, the Internet was an integral part of collegiate life. Our next transition would be Wi-Fi everywhere, and the decline of the PC in favor of the so-called smartphone, but you were around for those. I’ll let you figure out how to teach your grandkids about it, someday after I’m long gone. And if you do it better than I did, I’ll doff my spiritual hat to you, and wherever we go, when you catch up to me, we’ll have a single-malt.

Was it strange for me, having this enormous transition happen just a decade too late to help me through college? It was, but mine is not the first generation such things have happened to. It just is. We adapt as best we can, some better than others. (My mother is 75 and simply refuses to get on the Internet, and in her case I suspect that’s a pretty good thing.) Around 2000, too, Internet-based shopping and reviewing had gone very mainstream. That’s how I got into writing, through writing book reviews at Amazon, then product reviews at a now-moribund site called Epinions. I still keep in touch with a lot of people from Eps.

So. If you are twenty-five, by the time you were old enough to think about shopping, you never knew a world without the Internet; it was just something that had always been there, like oxygen or Abe Vigoda. (Like the telephone was for me.) And yet it wasn’t always there, and we did live productive and happy lives without it. I swear.

But one can never really go back, and for as badly as my generation has hosed down the world you live in, most of it knows that much at least. Even so, when next you take a look at one of those comical videos where teens look at Windows 95 and can’t even imagine how it was ever useful, at least you will know how it played out.

One last thing: lest the fogeys sell you a bill of goods, just as you look at a Windows 95-based computer and laugh at its abacus-level technology, your parents were doing the laughing in 1990. Only then, they were laughing at the people still using their pre-DOS CP/M machines, such as the Kaypro portable with its tiny green screen and floppy disks, the size of a briefcase. Or their old Compaq Portable, size of a hardshell suitcase, better known as the “Compaq Draggable.” They chortled at the elders still using cranky electric typewriters with worn-out ribbons, and at those who bought computers but still insisted on daisywheel printers (essentially, computer-driven typewriters) over the obviously superior dot-matrix printers. (That old, greasy printer at your mechanic’s shop with the word ‘Okidata’ on it? That’s a dot-matrix printer, with its rough images and its eardrum-tearing whine.)

As for our times, we can work together. If you’ll keep helping me figure out how to connect all these stupid new cords I don’t understand, I’ll be happy to reciprocate by helping you see how your parents’ world really was, and feeding you useful bits of data about their times to help you dominate them in debates.

Limping along with an eight-year-old printer

It’s true. I’m still using a printer from the Bush II administration days, a Samsung CLP-300, and I’m immune to the idea that I should just replace it. It still works, and I’m a cheap bastard.

Well, maybe I’m not what you normally think of as a cheap bastard. I may just quietly donate to your charity and not say a word. I wouldn’t resent my taxes if I didn’t think they amounted to a donation to organized corporate crime with handy government laundering. I don’t mind paying for quality. I don’t mind buying you lunch and leaving a nice tip. I insist that my wife buy business attire without looking at the price tags, so that she gets what she needs rather than trying for false economy. I don’t mind spending, but gods, how I hate waste. I bought a quality printer, it still works, and it would therefore be wasteful to buy a new one. If I figure a charity for phonies or wastrels, they’re dead to me. If the lunch I buy you turns out to be lousy, my furious yet private embarrassment will assure that the restaurant has seen its last nickel from me. If her new clothes don’t hold up, we are shopping somewhere else next time. So when I buy something, I’m going to take good care of it, and I’m going to get every second of safe life out of it that I can.

That would explain why my pickup truck, which is half my age (it dates back to the early part of the Bush I administration), is still on the road. And I don’t want a new one. If you give me a free Ferrari, I’ll never even drive it just for curiosity’s sake. On the block it goes.

The way my mind works is that, since most people buy new trucks after five to eight years, and I have not bought one in twenty-six, every day of operation is pure value profit–that is, the value I gained exceeded expectations, and exceeded what most others gain, and is still racking up the wins.

I remember when color lasers were four-figure office luxuries and color inkjets became the norm. Ever since the first HP DeskJet, though, which retailed for $1000 (and people paid it), the purpose of printers has been to sell supplies, not to make impressions on media. HP was once the gold standard, but it lost its way, and now gives users Fiorinal headaches. Now I’d buy a Canon or a Samsung.

My CLP-300 has a parallel port. Before USB took over the connectivity of our peripherals, kids, printers required a big thick cable called a parallel cable. It was pins on the computer side and an oblong block on the printer side, and it clamped down there. I don’t think my computer even has a parallel port now.

Its power draw is so heavy that I couldn’t print without a battery backup. Absent this power source, the draw would cause the computer to power cycle, probably before the printer had all the data. When it fires up, the lights in my office dim for a moment, and I am once again reassured that my battery backup will work at need.

After about ten pages, as each new page feeds, something begins to clack inside. At fifty pages, the clacking gets louder.

When I send it a long and complex job, it thinks for about thirty seconds before it even begins to print, like an elderly man assigned a young man’s job. You think I should what? it seems to demand. If it’s a picture, it makes a passive-aggressive protest by leaving a few weak lines the vertical length of the image, just to remind me that I have inconvenienced its repose.

My printer jams now and then, for any reason or no reason, which will require me to pull the beast out and extract all the stranded paper by pulling with force. There is no other way. I suppose that the rubber takeup rollers have become plasticized from heat and age.

It has a collector cartridge that gathers up loose toner from inside, presumably with some sort of blower. When that fills up, there is no real signal that it needs dumping, but the beast won’t print. Samsung thinks I should spend another $20 on a new piece of plastic rather than just dump its contents in the trash. Of course, since inhaling a bunch of toner is toxic, dumping it poses challenges.

Depending on my printer’s mood, after a certain length of printing time, I will start to smell overheated plastic. Soon thereafter, the job will halt until the beast cools off. I don’t start long jobs and then leave the house; I stay close enough to smell any real smoke and hear the alarms.

After printing, it will protest for an hour with periodic power draws. Not strong enough to pop the battery backup again, but strong enough to cause a click and the lights to dim a tad.

The toner cartridges, size and shape of half-pop-cans, go in like torpedoes in a submarine’s tubes. When the light starts flashing to tell me that a cartridge is low, I take it out and perform a sort of rocking motion to distribute the remaining toner as evenly as possible. When the light goes solid red to tell me that the printer has had enough, and insists that I replace the empty cartridge, I rock it again while cursing it. About half the time, that gets me another fifty pages.

I’ll take ’em. They are value profit.

I don’t mind spending, but holy hell, waste is my enemy and I will war against it to the knife.