Category Archives: Technology

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.

By viewing our site, you agree to reams of crap

We see it all the time, do we not? “Use of our site constitutes agreement to [a massive Terms of Service that has probably been read once in history, by the paralegal who mashed it up for the lawyer’s signoff, and contains gods only know what].”

I am making the case for paying such TOS little to no heed.

Here’s my approach: I don’t recognize them. Yes, they probably in theory have the law on their side; no, I don’t care. I will not comply, and they can go to hell for trying to give me orders. Here is my reasoning:

  • No one put a weapon to the organization’s head and caused it to publish a website viewable by the random general public. The information now has the moral privacy rights of a billboard, or the side of a city bus, or the painted front window of a business.
  • I am not planning on misappropriating their information, nor plagiarizing it. If the site has downloadable content, it looks to me like a pile of flyers with a sign that says “take one.” Any information whose distribution they wish to restrict, they will put behind closed doors (requiring login and password, perhaps more). The New York Times does just that. In turn, I decided not to keep visiting the Grey Lady in her assisted e-living home.
  • If the site doesn’t like people using itself unless one allows all the data mining and other widgets to work, fine; have the designers break it for anyone who will not. Oh my heck, they say, but that results in a lot of complaints? Too damn bad, not my problem. If the company does not care about my problems, as evidenced by a bulky TOS, it gives me no moral reason to care about its problems. I have the loophole here and I see zero reason not to use it.
  • Absent some moral reason, only enforceable laws and claims matter. One can claim that someone ‘signed’ an agreement all one wants, but unless one is willing to sue to enforce it, and would win, it means nothing. If the law or claim cannot or will not be enforced, the question then becomes whether it has moral force. For example, taking too many napkins at the burger joint: how many is too many? Legally, it’s probably as many as you can pull out before being noticed and kicked out. Morally, it’s as many as necessary to maintain some semblance of civilized dining. Morally, the business has trusted you without putting up an admonishing sign, or putting the napkins behind the service counter, or trying to tell you that your eating here constitutes acceptance of these terms. Trust deserves validation.
  • The best case for a moral reason comes from sites which ask politely, but do not penalize anyone for declining. is one. DuckDuckGo is another. In those cases, with no compulsion, the site’s offer has moral validity and deserves reasonable consideration (and will get same from me).

The same is true for license agreements. The law has let the software industry construct a bizarre situation which now allows, for example, a car company to install software in your vehicle and thus claim that you haven’t really purchased all of your vehicle, that you don’t really own it. In service of the legitimate cause of fighting piracy, the law has let them construe it that you don’t ever actually own anything tangible, just a license.

That’s crap. To me, morally, a piece of software looks more like a book (or a coffee maker, etc.) than like a legal right to do a thing. I believe that if I bought a copy, I own that copy. The law says otherwise, and I do not care. If I duplicate the book and sell copies, that’s morally wrong. If I copy part or all of the book and claim it myself, that’s morally wrong. But if I tear a page out of the book because for some reason I don’t like it, I see nothing morally wrong with that. And if I want to hack the software for my own use and purposes, I see no moral problem with that either. It’s when I rob the producer of sales, or misrepresent the producer’s work as my own, that I step over the moral line. If it’s shareware, though, I should (and often do) pay if I plan to use it.

It is an example of how corporations and government frame a situation the way they prefer, and we allow them to get by with it by speaking in their terms, acknowledging the moral legitimacy of their framing. We could cease to do that.

  • “The TOS says you agree to take cookies and not to block our ads.”
  • “That conflicts with my own TOS, which say screw you, since there’s nothing you can do about it.”
  • “But you made a legal agreement!”
  • “Great. Sue to enforce it, and see how well that works. I don’t recognize agreements done in slimy ways, like four pages of fine print written in legalese full of hidden gotchas. If you want us to make an agreement, make it up front, sensible, and readable. If it’s not stupid, maybe I’ll agree to it. If it’s stupid, I’ll just say screw you.”
  • “You can’t do that!”
  • “Then stop me. There are a lot of things I would stop you from doing as well, perhaps, but I can’t. Better hope I never can. In the meantime, tough; screw you.”
  • “But the ads are part of our revenue stream!”
  • “The implication is that I care about your future. I don’t; we all have our problems. If you feel that way, then break your site for anyone who blocks them.”
  • “That’s not feasible!”
  • “I’m still waiting to hear how your problem is my problem. Some of your scripts, cookies, and such serve useful purposes for site operation; some are just data mining and shoving stuff in my face. My own TOS, which are not written down but which I consider binding, say that I should avoid all data mining that I can, and that once your site attempts it, you forfeit all moral anything and I can use your site however I want provided I don’t damage it.”
  • “If everyone looked at this your way, we’d have to become a pay site.”
  • “No one held a knife to your neck and required you to publish a website. You think it looks like your office filing cabinet. I think it looks like a billboard. I can look at the billboard all I want, and I don’t owe the billboard any data about myself. And if the billboard demands data, I get to flip off the billboard. Do what you have to do, but I’m not letting you frame this from a standpoint of legal or moral superiority. Legally, there’s nothing practical you can do. Morally, you have done the opposite of establishing moral high ground, turning the gesture of flipping you off into a pleasing act of rebellion. Party on.”

The philosophy in play here is simple: we are not morally obligated to comply with a situation/agreement/TOS just because it has some tortuous legal basis. Law is not morality and shouldn’t ever be mistaken for it. And when we forget that, we are letting government and corporations define all the terms, set all the parameters, dictate right and wrong.

They’d like that, wouldn’t they? They do like that. They hope you will troop along in submission.

And what of my own website, this one? Well, I’m the maintainer, not the user. I can’t do anything about whatever rules WordPress imposes; it imposes some on me, and I have to abide by them or they’ll kick me off. I have no difficulty with that in an ongoing relationship as a trade for a permanent hosting platform, since I get something of value.

But perhaps some users don’t like something about whatever TOS WordPress may have. If so, someone will probably circumvent them, with a minor impact on me–one is user data. But how, then, do I feel about the missing visitor data? I feel great about it. My right to compile visitor data doesn’t reach the moral level of my readers’ right to privacy, and if I ever try to say that it does, someone needs to put me out to pasture. Therefore, if you are reading this yet blocking a bunch of cookies or scripts or what have you, okay. I have no opinion on it. If I were the type to set up hoops for you to jump through, I’d be doing that. I am not, and it’s not feasible, and you could just ignore them, so it’s a stupid discussion that we need never have. I am just glad you are a reader, and that you visited today, and I hope you come back again regularly. Thank you for not plagiarizing or misappropriating; those are all I do ask, and I appreciate that you do not do them.

I hope more of us, in more situations, will require a better reason for obedience than “because a corporation tells us so.”

Swoopy cyborg keyboards for writers

I’m fussy about keyboards. And since my work demands that my keys do as they are told when pressed, I can’t afford a crappy keyboard.

That’s what I had until recently, when my space bar wore out on one side. I grant that it was something of a crappy keyboard to begin with, but I did not consider it so crappy it would last only a year. It still worked, but about every tenth time, it would fail to insert a space between words as desired.

If we measure anger in curse words used, and assume that I cursed 50% of the time when this happened, and figure that I type several thousand words most days, we may see that it was getting on my nerves.

It sounds so simple, right? A keyboard’s a keyboard? I suspect that every user has his or her foibles, and here are mine.

  • My keys must do as told when pressed, every time. When this does not occur, I have the disposition of a cottonmouth.
  • I must be able to pop off the stupid Windows keys, sources of so much irritation. Only Microsoft could have come up with those, and put them where literate persons might bump them by accident.
  • The board must have risers to angle it.
  • It must be rectangular, so my wrist rest will stay in place.
  • No decals; I will wear them off in a month. Painted symbols are okay; molded are much preferred.
  • Has to have the full number pad.
  • Needs the full Insert/Home/PgUp/etc. block, by itself, above the arrows like the gods intended.
  • All stupid newfangled keys (defined as anything I don’t ever want to bother with), that I cannot remove, must at least be somewhere I won’t hit them by mistake.
  • Any ergonomically cruelty-free fair trade gluten-free free-range keyboard that looks like it went through a microwave, no way.
  • Has to feel sturdy, not crappy.
  • No wireless. I do not like things that require a battery. I like real cords.
  • No touchpads. Only a technology company could think it intelligent to put a pointing device right where my thumbs are likely to hit, but I don’t even want to look at a touchpad that’s well out of my thumbs’ range. In my ideal computing life, I would never again even see a touchpad.
  • Did I mention that it mustn’t have a touchpad?

You can see why I don’t like laptop keyboards. I’m an 80 wpm typist, and I don’t normally stop every ten words. (80 is not bad, but my wife–who does not spend a tenth of the time I do on a keyboard–slaughters me at a blistering 120 wpm.) I can’t write if the keys don’t do what I say. On top of that, I’m a former bookkeeper whose fingers know where to go, and my fingers had better find the key where they expect them, without me having to send out a search party for some mystery Fn key to use the 10-key or the Delete key.

Well, it turns out that my requirements are very expensive to meet. Like $150 expensive. I did find one: the Razer Blackwidow Ultimate, a gaming keyboard that does a crapton of things I’ll probably never want, but has a number that I do:

  • Clicks. I so sorely miss the tactile click.
  • Molded symbols with backlighting.
  • Heavy enough to stay in place unless I choose to move it.

Of course, I was fool enough to assume that I could just plug in one of its two USB connectors, and that the other was for all the gaming stuff I don’t need. Didn’t work. In the end, I had to slide the machine out, shuffle the USB devices, and fiddle with all the cable re-routing. Now my keys glow with green backlit symbols, as if I were some hardcore gamer nightly dealing frags to others around the globe

And joy of joys, Windows recognized it, so I don’t have to install Razer’s software and create an account just to use this thing. At first, it looked like that might be the case.

It’s going to be fun editing people’s romance fiction, Native American historical fiction, and horror thrillers on a keyboard meant to withstand a lot of Cheeto dust in the dark.