Category Archives: Technology

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.

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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. Fark.com 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.

razer

The client question I dread most

No, it is not, “Where do you get your ideas?” It is not, “Now that I have gone through and torn apart your completed editing work, will you re-edit it for free?” And it is not even, “Will you look at my child’s writing and give her a critique?” It is not, “How do you deal with writer’s block?”

Not that I don’t dread those questions; I do. But for all of them there are responsive answers to offer: ‘from life,’ ‘not for free, nope,’ ‘only if you understand that I will lie,’ and ‘it doesn’t exist.’ For this one there is no good answer:

“How do I do that in Word?”

You might be amazed at how often clients look to me for Word tech support: on how to enable this feature, or make that go away, in a Word document. Often I am their first point of call, and it does not occur to them that I dread the question.

Perhaps the assumption is that I’m a Word expert, and that I have mental models of every version of Word since Word 97 to summon forth. What else can I assume?

So why do I not just say “no, not my line of work?” Because that come across as bad customer service. It doesn’t matter that the expectation is unreasonable. How I feel is beside the point. If I say what I am thinking, the client will think I’m a jerk, unhelpful, and crabby. That’s no good. Most clients find me easy to work with, helpful, and cheerful, and that’s important to me.

But life is not fair. As an editor, at one point or another in the relationship, every client will ask me for Word tech support, and I will have to attempt to offer it, and if I cannot do it with a happy smile, I must at least muffle the curse words and replace the grimace with a mask of calm. Never mind that I feel like a flight attendant who has just been handed a baby and asked to change the diaper.

What’s the big deal? Why all the stress and dread? Because:

  • I am incompetent at it, I know this, and being inept is intensely uncomfortable for a person who takes pride in capability.
  • I don’t want to become competent at it. I’m an editor, not a technical guru. All I want from my word processor is that it serve my work functions. I don’t want to be the Word Answer Man. I want to help people perfect their brainchildren, combining candor with consideration and camaraderie.
  • I used to be a computer shaman, and came to hate it, and when I left that line of work, my mind and heart left it behind. When I have a computer problem of my own, I don’t go very far trying to solve it myself. I call the tech support guy I know in Utah who does a fantastic job (that’s Ray Ross of Bugzap), and I do whatever he says to do.

So why is it impractical? Why can’t I just joyously answer the formatting question and be happy to be helpful? Because:

  • The client and I are probably not using the same version of Word, nor will we be, because Word gets worse with every new version. I’m using Word 2002 and will not switch unless/until forced, and if forced, may end up switching to a Mac. With each new version, MS rethinks the names of some concepts, and moves some features around so that one no longer knows where to find them, and calls that an ‘upgrade.’ I don’t have time or patience to go on a new treasure hunt every year, paying for the privilege, so I am not ‘upgrading.’ Neither should most people.
  • Clients vary in technical know-how, but writers often seem to take a perverse pride in technical dufosity. Most computer users don’t even know the real meanings of words like ‘login,’ ‘download,’ ‘malware,’ and even ‘word processor,’ thus often we do not even begin by speaking in the same terminology. It is a weakness of mine, related to my line of work, that I count upon knowing exactly what words mean.
  • Since we are probably not using the same version of Word, I can’t know what s/he is seeing, or where/how to tell him or her to start looking. I can, with laborious effort, explain in some cases how it is done in Word 2002. But if it’s Word-flaky, I can’t answer why theirs isn’t working like mine.
  • Since that is the case, the client will probably still have questions, which I can’t answer. I will look useless, feel uncomfortable, and silently dislike the unfairness of the situation, powerless to change it.
  • If on the other hand my help does solve the problem, the client may decide that I am a Word Deity, and may even come to depend on me for Word tech support in the future, since that went so well.

Thus, there is no good outcome for me.

What do I wish people would do? Join a discussion forum about Word. Many are staffed by actual Microserfs, or people blessed by the company. I don’t know of a specific one to suggest, but I know they are there. When I find myself confounded, here’s what I do (or would do if need be):

  • Save a backup copy of your document beforehand. Now you can experiment and butcher it to your heart’s content, because you have a fallback position.
  • Check Word help, though it will probably be irrelevant and clunky. I marvel at how much worse they have managed to make it.
  • If you think it’s a technical problem with Word, restart your machine and try it from a fresh Windows and Word session with nothing else going, just to rule out some potential conflict sources.
  • Use the exact terms Word uses, and feed your problem to a search engine. That will probably lead you to the MS Knowledge Base, or to a message board discussion about the situation, where someone already solved this for someone else. Be sure to include your version of Word in the search, but when the search turns up solutions that seem to apply to other versions, try to run with them.
  • Sign onto one of the message boards that seemed to have the most helpful people. Read the FAQ in case you are about to become the 101,000th newbie to ask this question; it may solve your problem. Be prepared for very brief, direct questions and answers; gurus don’t waste lots of time. Be prepared also for at least a few people who don’t read your post with attention to detail. List your version of Windows, your version of Word, the type of document, what you are trying to do, and if necessary, take a screenie of the problem, using these instructions. Explore anything they suggest.

Some other generally-sound-practice technical tips, while I’m at it:

  • Always save a copy of your work before doing anything daring, so you can revert if you butcher it.
  • There are two types of computer users who do not back up their data files: those who have lost data that way and do not learn from their mistakes, and those who are waiting for doomsday.
  • Just because software offers you an update does not mean it’s always an upgrade. There are exceptions, but the usual result is everything gets moved around and you gain nothing new. Firefox is the poster child for software that gets worse with every new version.
  • If you do not keep a virus scanner updated and current, you are just waiting for the suffering. If you take my advice, you’ll either go with Panda AVG for a free version, or for a powerful pay version worth every penny, Eset’s NOD32. That’s what I use. When I hear that someone got a free trial of McAfee and just stayed with that after the trial period expired, that’s someone I’m expecting to hear got a virus.
  • Not everything your computer vendor pre-installed is garbage, but a lot of it is free trials, tutorials you will never use, and other whizbang stuff from which you can not benefit. Always be careful (like the time I uninstalled a network speed monitor and it took my Internet access with it), but a lot of that is just crapola that can be uninstalled.

The E-Tranquility Catechism

I find this mantra to work for me like the Desiderata for some, or Psalm 23 for others, especially with my morning coffee.

The E-Tranquility Catechism

  • I can get through an entire day without letting a person I’ve never met make me angry.
  • I do not have to respond to every stupid thing people say.
  • No one is entitled to demand an answer of me.
  • I may stay out of any discussion, even if it covers a subject about which I feel passionate.
  • Some of my friends keep idiots around. It does not matter why; it only matters whether I let the idiots affect me.
  • Most people do not write with care, so most people do not read with care. If someone responds to a thing I did not say, I am free to write simply “please read it again before you respond.” If the person does not, I am free to cease wasting time on him or her.
  • A good person can be irrational on a given issue. If I do not accept the bait to trigger that irrationality, life will go on, the sun will rise tomorrow morning, and someone else will probably trigger it.
  • Likewise, a good person may be a hothead. Another’s tendency to overreact does not obligate me to overreact. It is a discussion, not an attempted robbery.
  • There will be people who, for reasons I do not understand, find it stimulating to begin gratuitous and ill-informed debates with me. I am not required to indulge them.
  • Social media are not a scavenger hunt, where failure to ‘like’ everything possible could give offense. Anyone who weeps openly because a post did not get ‘liked’ needs to wait for the advent of FaceBubbleWrapBook, not whine to me, for I am not obligated.
  • If I find myself losing composure, I will step away and watch some old Beverly Hillbillies, and try to emulate Jed rather than Granny.
  • Before I engage, I will consider age. If an elder writes something absolutely clueless, I will bear in mind how many of his or her peers don’t even have the guts to participate, and I will show respect through silence. If an elder wants my opinion on clues or lack thereof, s/he knows perfectly well how to ask me for it.
  • If a child is obviously whining for attention, unless it is my child, I will let someone else be dragged into the vortex.
  • I will recognize that some adults are emotionally children at times.
  • If someone is suffering political incontinence, I will not gawk or stare or laugh. This is not Walmart. I will look politely away and go somewhere else, to spare their dignity while they soil themselves.
  • I need not be irritated by fetishism. Whether the fetish be cats, dogs, kids, camels, lame self-reassurances, trigger issue posts, preaching, anti-preaching, or any other personal quirk that baffles me, I may choose not to let it affect me.
  • If the forum has a blocking feature, I should feel no compunction about using it. However, I should realize that each time I use it represents on some level an admission of failure.
  • I will stay out of anything that is assuming the shape of a pear.
  • If while composing a reply, a vile profanity plays on my mental dictaphone, I will recognize that that now is not a good time to reply at all.
  • Above all, I will recognize trolls and trolling for what they are.

Turning the Windows Security phone scam into amusement

Everyone has his or her way of dealing with obvious phone scams. Some just don’t answer the phone unless caller ID checks out. Some pick up the phone and politely say they are not interested. Some pick it up, curse and hang up. There are many attitudes one may take: karma will get them, it’s not worth one’s time, be nice to everyone–even scum deserve peace and love, meanness only hurts you, and so on.

I’m not here to judge those attitudes, but I do not share them. I don’t really believe in karma, and in any event, I believe that I can be the agent of negative feedback for bad behavior. It’s not worth my time if it makes my day worse, but if I walk away feeling I did a good thing, it may be well worth while. I do not believe that criminals deserve courtesy. Life has taught me that criminals need to have an unpleasant and unproductive experience. Now and then, life summons me to be the agent of that experience.

Phone scam callers are criminals who prey upon the most vulnerable people they can find: the very elderly, the fearful, the ignorant, and so on. I can’t tell anyone how to view that, but I view it as so contemptible that the question is not “should I annoy them?” but “if I ditch the chance to annoy them, what kind of passive enabler am I?” I will take action against them in the same way that, if I saw someone breaking into your house, I would not just walk past and say “not my problem.”

The Windows Security phone scam goes like this. An out-of-area number shows up on caller ID, sometimes looking like a US number, sometimes ‘private caller,’ sometimes a strange number beginning with a V. No matter how you answer the phone, the script begins: a very heavily south-central Asian accent, perhaps Indian or Pakistani but could be from elsewhere, identifies himself by an English name and says he is calling from Windows Security about your Windows Computer. Note that upper case is used advisedly, because he will repeat both terms often. He explains that they have identified a problem, which may be a virus, a scam, or some other malady that your system is propagating.

Of course, he wants you to go to your machine and navigate to a website, where he can rob you blind.

Since this is an enemy operating under deceitful premises, undeserving of fundamental kindness or empathy, we should do our intel analysis on him (and it is always a he). We may assume:

  • He will not understand heavy regional accents or slang. This means that you control the degree to which he has any idea what you’re talking about.
  • Likewise, he probably cannot tell a US accent from a Canadian or Australian accent. I speak French, but I can’t tell you if the speaker is from Marseilles, Brittany, Haiti, or Saint John. In Spanish, I can tell a Spaniard from a Mexican, but not a Mexican from a Guatemalan.
  • He is using a phone connection that, due to distance, means that sound is not simultaneously bidirectional. This means that if you talk over him, he gets only scattered words.
  • His goal is to talk you to the website, and as long as he imagines that possible, he will try. This means that if he hears enough promising words, he will stay on the line for a while.
  • He has stock answers for a few standard questions: “what is my IP,” “where is your office,” and so on. Lies, but meant to sound plausible. This means that the normal challenge questions are pointless.
  • He will seek to remain in control of the conversation, just like a car salesman. Thus, when he cannot control it, this will frustrate him.
  • He is used to dealing with the computer illiterate and confused, because those are his prey. The dumber you sound, the juicier a target you seem to be.
  • He is very far away and has no idea whether you even own a computer. The odds that he can retaliate against you are remote. Thus, it’s not like telling your local legislator to perform a disgusting and illegal sex act, which might just inspire him to find a creative way to get back at you.
  • The only thing he knows about you is that you are an American. He assumes that you are therefore stupid and gullible. This should offend you, even if in an alarming number of cases (who do not read the blog), that’s not far-fetched. His opening stance insults your intellect, so in addition to being a criminal, he’s offensive and bigoted.
  • While he is on the phone with you, he is not bilking Mrs. Edna Miller of Wheatena, KS out of her Social Security money, nor rewarding Mr. Olaf Nielson of Ice Lake, ND for his brave Korean War service by ripping off his VA money. Your donation of time is bread cast upon the waters, a random act of protection for someone you will never meet. Time is finite. And if enough people donate a bit of it, the scam may become unprofitable.

So how can you ruin his call and waste some of his time? Oh, there are so many delightful ways. I derived many of them from my own experience as a computer shaman, remembering the most irritating clients I had, and found others online. I recommend you vary them, always remembering the things you may not legally do: threaten violence, impersonate the secret police, and so on. Mix and match, and find the method(s) that work(s) best for you:

  • Remove ‘yes’ and ‘no’ from your vocabulary, merging them into an indefinite grunt that sounds like ‘hunh.’
  • Affect the most outrageous accent you can pull off. Go full Clampett. Do a terrible Cockney. Pretend you’re Borat or Cheech Marin or Pee-wee Herman. Test out your New Jersey or Boston phonetics. See how much hip-hop slang you know. The Anglophone world is delightfully diverse.
  • Talk over him, in short sentences. He will get only scattered words due to the connection.
  • Find a random device in your vicinity, and pretend that it’s a computer, and have him talk you through what he wants done. He doesn’t need to know it’s your microwave.
  • Use very big words and accent the wrong syllables. That will make it hard for him to understand you. He is a foreign speaker, and accented syllables are very important to comprehension. Even if he knows the word, recognizing it over the phone when mispronounced will be a challenge.
  • Tell him you are using a version of Windows that is obsolete or never existed. Windows 3 is a good call for obsolete. Windows Works Home Edition would be a good fictitious version.
  • Affect an inability to differentiate Windows, an operating system, from Microsoft. Or from Excel, a spreadsheet application.
  • Mix up your technical terms, using ones you have heard but do not know precisely what they mean (for most people, that is most technical terms, like ‘download’ and ‘login’). Just throw them in. He knows what they mean, probably, and will either make wrong assumptions, or will get bogged down explaining things to you, which of course you will misunderstand. Tell him you bought a rootkit online. Affect not to grasp the difference between Windows Explorer and Internet Explorer, and oscillate back and forth.
  • Invent words you know do not exist. Ask him how to disable the contrapulation software. On your finger drive.
  • Let him actually guide you in the direction of the website, but keep ‘mistyping’ it. Make him repeat it back many times. Careful, though, about slipping in .org rather than .com, for example, because they may have the scam set up at similar-looking domains. Pretend not to understand. Tell him it says ‘404 not found.’
  • Tell him you went to the website and that it’s porn. Give medically graphic details. If you need help, go to some actual porn and just describe it. Express that you find it immoral.
  • Mispronounce, commingle, and butcher product names. If your computer is an Acer, pronounce it like ‘occur.’ Tell him you bought a Hewlett-Packer-Dell with Microsoft and Adobe Internet.
  • If you have two phones, put your husband or wife on the other line ‘to help figure this out.’ Revel in your spouse’s creativity.
  • Repeat back his instructions in ways that suggest you did not understand what he wanted. He can’t see what you see, remember.
  • Talk to your cat now and then. Let the caller sort it out. If you don’t have a cat, for purposes of this call, I herewith gift you an imaginary cat named Boris, who is swuch a wittwe snwookums. If you need more cats to pull it off, add to taste.
  • Start a friendly line of inquiry into his accent, telling him it’s charming, and ask where he came from. Take an absurd guess, like Finland or Japan. Ask how his day is going. Tell him he must be very proud to be helping clean up all those virus spam malwares.
  • Let your mind and your topics wander. Our society likes brief bullet points, sound bites, getting to the point. We are conditioned not to bloviate, interrupt, or say irrelevant things. Suspend this conditioning. Technical people especially hate wasted words.
  • Invent a grandson or nephew who is your main technical advisor. (Your scammer is probably very sexist and would not believe it if you cited a granddaughter or niece. Likewise, if your voice is identifiably female, he will probably make foolish assumptions about your intellect that can work to your advantage.) Extol the kid’s computer virtues relative to yours, the Second Coming of Spock. Frequently cite spurious, irrelevant, or stupid technical advice as coming from the whiz kid.
  • Work in obscure terms that only a very fluent (and somewhat perv) English speaker would know refer to kinky sex toys. See if he tries to use them in sentences responding to you while he tries to figure out what the hell you mean.
  • If you can, record the whole conversation and share it for comic value.
  • Go beyond everything I have suggested, and invent your own ways. Please share them with me in comments, so I can learn and grow with you.

Alternatively, you could just go to an online dictionary of profanities, but the trouble there is you don’t know his native language, so that will usually fall flat. Although when you score a hit, the resulting loss of composure can be most entertaining.