Sunday, January 1, 2012

A look (back) at computers

Jan. 1, 2012—Santa gave my granddaughter Maddie, who is 12, a laptop computer for Christmas. Her gift reminded me of her father’s first computer and how I almost ruined it. And it made me reflect on how quickly technology, which helps link me to the real world while we are traveling, has changed in such a short time span.

As I remember, Rob’s father was always fascinated with technology. He even took a course in programming (not sure why). So, it did not surprise me when he gave Rob a computer for a Christmas or birthday present. Nice gesture, but that computer just sat on Rob’s desk.

It was huge—probably two-feet square. It had, as I recall, a small hard drive (perhaps 20 MB) and I think two 5.25” floppy drives. This was back in the days of DOS. Everything you did on a computer back then required using special symbols, such as C://>DOS. There were no menus; there were no icons. Everything was done by inputting symbols, and if just one thing were not entered correctly, you could forget about technology helping you out.

I didn’t have the foggiest idea what those symbols meant. I barely knew which button to push to turn it on, or what to do once it was turned on. I’m guessing the gift must have included some type of word-processing program, so that Rob could use it to do his homework. To get to the program, after the computer booted up, you had to type in something like: C://>wp.

At the time, I was working as manager of employee relations at Ball Corporation. My secretary, who was a college graduate and eventually wanted to get into the IT department as a programmer, was computer literate—a good thing for me, because one day I decided to use Rob’s computer. I was thinking about doing some writing, and I thought perhaps the computer would make revising a document easier than retyping on a manual typewriter.

I asked my secretary what to do; she told me, and I went home and attempted to boot up the computer.
Letters and symbols whizzed past on the black and white screen. Then I tried inputting what I believed was the correct information. Nothing. I tried again. Nothing. Then I made a mistake: I somehow backspaced and erased everything. And when I went to boot it up…nothing appeared.

I had killed the computer.

The next day I pleaded with my secretary for help. Fortunately, she lived only a block away from me, and she came over after work. She did her magic. She put some disks into the floppy-disk slots, ran her fingers over the keyboard, and suddenly the computer came to life again.

And that’s how it stayed. I never touched Rob's computer again, for fear that I would again kill it somehow. And I don’t think Rob ever tried to use it. The gift was a nice gesture, but it was given ahead of its time.

The next summer (or perhaps it was the summer after that), Jennifer, who was attending IU, stored her worldly possessions, including her computer (also a gift from her dad, and virtually identical to Rob’s) at my house. It sat in my office. I looked at it for a long time and decided I had to get the courage to overcome my fear of that electronic monster, because I knew if I did, it would make my life easier. I asked her if I could use it, and she said yes.

Well, I looked at the thing for a long while but I couldn't  figure out how to turn it on! There were too many chords, too many buttons. I wasn’t going to have a repeat of the incident with Rob’s computer. I let well-enough alone, and it sat on my desk gathering dust over the summer.

Shortly after Jennifer had gone back to school in the fall, I was commissioned by a weekly employment magazine of The Wall Street Journal to write a series of five articles. My first paid publication—$1,000! I wrote them using a typewriter, which was good enough for me, I thought—until I had to make some changes in the material to satisfy the editor. I’m a fast typist, but to improve just one paragraph required retyping five pages! I finished the assignment, but I resolved I had to get a computer for myself.

Computers still scared me, though—all those wires and buttons and all those electronic symbols! My research took me to RadioShack, where I met an informed salesperson. I ended up purchasing an innovative and compact laptop computer—very lightweight for its day, only 13 pounds! To use it, all I had to do was plug it in (no batteries back then), insert a 3.5 inch rigid “floppy” disk containing the DOS 1.1 program, and then insert another floppy containing a word processing program. The computer had no hard drive, but it had two floppy drives. I would insert a blank (but formatted) floppy in a drive to save my work. Easy as pie!

And the speed of the thing! It had a 10 mhz processor. (Yes, 10 mhz. The computer I’m using right now has 2.5 GHZ. I can’t even do the math to figure out how much faster it is!) I thought that first laptop was superfast, and I couldn’t imagine ever needing anything more in a computer.

That was probably in 1988 or 1989. Oh, how times have changed. And with them, so did I. I fell in love with computers. I've upgraded several times, sometimes just to get better technology; other times, because my computer crashed. I still don't understand how they work (just as I don't completely understand how a car works), but I accept that they do. And somehow, over the years, as I became more computer-literate, I became the family's go-to person for computers--actually computer programs. I got Mom started on computer when she was in her 80s, and she's still going at it as she approaches 90. She calls me occasionally and complains she can't get the darned thing to work, but almost inevitably, I get her going again (thanks to the magic of LogMeIn, which allows me to have remote access to her laptop).

I don’t know what kind of computer Maddie received for Christmas, but I guarantee it is lighter, faster, and easier to use than her dad’s first computer, and mine too!

I drool over technology today. I want to buy a tablet, but I really can’t justify it yet. I will eventually get one, when the prices come down a bit and I decide exactly what I want on it. A tablet won’t take the place of my desktop, nor will it even take the place of the laptop I use while we are traveling.

That laptop is already “old”—probably four or five years old. We have updated its operating system to Windows 7, however, and it serves its purpose, which is to browse the web, write my e-mail, post my blogs, and to do my occasional freelance writing assignments. Despite its doing its thing, I keep looking at ads for new laptops, too. Oh that I had a lot of disposable income, what technology would I buy!

Space is a consideration in our motorhome. We came up with some workable solutions. We velcro the multi-purpose printer to the table behind the passenger seat, which also serves to hold file folders. We purchased a metal magazine rack from Ikea, which is affixed to the wall near the printer. Jim modified the bottom rack to be able to hold the computer. When I write, I merely sit in my recliner, put the computer on my lap, and go to it.

Keeping connected is pretty easy, too. After getting back from our long trip out West last summer, I upgraded my phone to an Android smartphone, from StraightTalk, By purchasing three months’ of time, the cost of unlimited Web, talk, and text comes out to $42 a month. It’s a 3G phone, which is actually pretty fast. I use it to check gas prices and find information quickly on the Web, when I don’t want to boot up the computer.

To be able to use the Web on the computer, I have a Broadband2Go device from Virgin Mobile. The device itself cost $50 from Amazon, and I purchase the amount of time I need, when I need it. (Pay as you go, no contract.) On our last trip through south Florida, I spent $30 total. I also had use of free wifi in some of the RV parks where we stayed. When we leave next week, I’ll buy 30 days’ worth of unlimited 3G access (up to 2.5 GB) for $50. (After 2.5 GB, theoretically, the speed slows down. I’ve never hit that mark, so I can't vouch for that.) If we stay somewhere with free Wifi and it is faster, I’ll access it, but I’m happy with the Broadband2Go device, by and large.

As you can tell, I’m obviously no longer intimidated by computers. I love technology. I might not have that love affair if I still had to use the old DOS system. Thank goodness Maddie doesn’t have to! Kids today don’t know how good they have it. Babies play with cell phones and IPads. Kindergartners have computers in their classrooms (at least Ben did). And middle-school kids have their own devices. I think teachers expect the youngsters to do research on the Web and type up their reports.

Of course, costs have come down. My first laptop with only two floppies and no hard drive cost me $1,300. You could buy three laptops or two IPads for that amount of money today.

Ain’t technology grand?

Until next time, when we hit the road again,

Your Reluctant RoVer,


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