Can I Give Up My Printer?

by James Wallace Harris, Monday, May 28, 2018

I hardly ever print anything anymore. I just tried to print a software manual so I wouldn’t have to study it on-screen when my printer stopped printing and demanded I install a magenta ink cartridge. A set of three colored ink cartridges is $34 from Amazon (or $48 at Office Depot if I wanted to immediately hop in the car to finish this print job). If I wanted to be a Boy Scout and get another black cartridge to have ready when my half-filled one ran out, it would be another $23 at Amazon (or $31 at Office Depot).

Epson 3540 printer

I just don’t feel like spending $57 for ink. $57 will buy a new all-in-one printer. That makes me wonder if I could give up my printer? Lately, I’ve mostly used my printer to print for other people who have given up their printer. Or as a copier for when I want to save a bill for my files. It annoys me that the printer won’t finish the job in black and white since I have a half-a-tank of black ink.

My immediate impulse is to print the manual to PDF to read on my iPad, and then unplug my printer and put it in the closet. The main thing I use it for is the scanner.

[ACTING ON IMPULSE – REMOVED PRINTER – INSTALLED OLD SCANNER]

I’m probably going to regret this. One day I’m going to have an emergency print job and will have to set up my printer again and then run down to Office Depot to pay full price for a magenta cartridge.

Since I neither go to school or work, it would seem I could do without a printer. Let’s see.

I still have a house phone. I guess I’m the kind of person that hangs onto old ways. Most of my friends have neither a printer or house phone. Some of my friends have given up wearing their watch. One friend even abandoned his laptop and now only uses a tablet. My phone has allowed me to give up a lot of gadgets, like GPS, camera, iPod, Kindle, voice recorder, etc.

Maybe the age of nifty gadgets is over. Of course, I’m learning this after everyone else. Why didn’t y’all tell me?

JWH

1939 – “I, Robot” by Eando Binder

by James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, January 24, 2018

When I reread “I, Robot” by Eando Binder today, a science fiction story from 1939, I wondered just how much Earl and Otto knew about robots, where did they get their knowledge, how much of their speculation was original with them, and how much did they borrow from earlier writers. I also wondered how wide-spread the concept of robots was in 1939, a term only coined in 1920. The concept of what would eventually be called a digital computer was first described by Alan Turing in a 1936 paper. I doubt the Binders had read it. Artificial intelligence wouldn’t become a concept until the 1950s. What kind of imaginative feat had these two brothers achieved writing a short story for a lowly pulp magazine?

Here is a nice graph from Google that shows how often the word robot was used over time. I wish I could track down all the science fiction stories that used it from 1923 when the English translation first appeared until “I, Robot” in 1939.

robot - eytomology

Eleven years before Isaac Asimov’s famous collection of robot stories, I, Robot, a short story appeared in the January 1939 issue of Amazing Stories called “I, Robot” by Eando Binder. Asimov admits his later robot stories were inspired by this one, and he had protested his editors naming his collection with the same name.

“I, Robot” is the first person narrative of a robot named Adam Link, and Amazing Stories would eventually run ten of his tales between 1939-1942. In 1965 Paperback Library came out with a fix-up novel based on many of these stories called Adam Link – Robot. Currently, this novel version is available from Wildside Press on Amazon as an ebook. However, if you’d like to read these stories as Amazing Stories presented them, they are available online as digital .pdf scans:

Amazing Stories 1939-01

The first two stories were combined and altered for a 1964 episode of The Outer Limits, and later that episode was remade for a 1995 episode of a revival series of The Outer Limits. Both shows featured Leonard Nemoy. In the 21st-century we’re becoming robot crazy, so it’s very hard to imagine a time when people didn’t know about the concept of robots. This 1939 story is a far cry from Ex Machina (2014) and Humans (2015- ) yet it dealt with the same themes those shows do. Until humanity has real self-aware robots to coexist with we really won’t know how we will react.

I’ve read “I, Robot” by Earl and Otto Binder (Eando) a couple times over the last century, and today, when I started Isaac Asimov Presents The Golden Years of Science Fiction (combining Isaac Asimov Presents the Great SF Stories 1 (1939) and Isaac Asimov Presents the Great SF Stories 2 (1940)) I wasn’t in the mood to read it again. Boy, am I glad I did. As my recent posts attest, I’ve been in the mood to read old science fiction short stories and I had bought all six of the Golden Years of SF series which contain the first 12 of the 25 of The Great SF Stories series (1939-1963).

[These six anthologies collect the twelve years of science fiction before I was born. I bought the combined double-deckers reprints because I can’t afford to collect the original 25 paperbacks edited by Isaac Asimov and Martin H Greenberg because they generally run $10-60 on ABEbooks and eBay. (Ouch!)]

Now that I’m rereading science fiction with a deconstructive mindset I realized immediately that “I, Robot” was a goldmine of a historical SF story. The Binders imagined a mechanical man with an electronic mind that could learn and was mentally much like a human. This was 1939 before the world knew about computing machines (the word computer back then meant a human job classification). Adam Link has television like eyes that see in shades of blue (like early TVs, well before color TV), and microphones for ears. The Binders imagine an artificial brain that has a perfect memory. Not only that, the Binders imagine a kind of machine learning phase for Adam Link. The bulk of the story worries about how humans will act when meeting a conscious, self-aware artificial being. “I, Robot” is modeled on Frankenstein, which is quite satisfying because Adam Link is a fictional descendant of Mary Shelley’s monster.

The term “robot” was first coined in the 1920 Czech play R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots), but the artificial creatures in that story were made from synthetic organic matter, more like replicants in Blade Runner. The history of robots is ancient, but they have mostly been magical automata and mechanical. In the 19th-century we had The Steam Man of the Prairies, which some say was the first science fiction dime novel in 1868.

The_steam_man_of_the_prairies_(1868)_big

The steam man was just an all-purpose versatile machine. I never read it, but my earliest memories as a kid include a robot, the Tin Woodman of Oz, that first appeared in the book The Wizard of Oz in 1900. I first encountered this robot-like-man in the 1939 film in the 1950s. The Tin Man was originally a human named Nick Chopper who kept losing body parts to an enchanted ax and having them replaced by a tinsmith.

TikTokofOz_BookCover_lores

The next proto-robot I remember encountering was Tik-Tok, after discovering that The Wizard of Oz movie was based on a series of books. The Tik-Tok of Oz by L. Frank Baum was eighth in the series coming out in 1914, but I didn’t discover it until 1962 while in elementary school. Tik-Tok was a wind-up machine that could talk, but little was made of describing how he actually worked. Like talking animals in fantasy stories, talking machines were for fun and not genuine speculation about creating artificial intelligence.

Metropolis

The next robot I know about that existed before “I, Robot” was from the 1927 German film Metropolis.  Like R.U.R., Metropolis is a social commentary on the working classes. I’m not sure Thea von Harbou was concerned philosophically with artificial intelligence, and I’m not sure where I can find out. Evidently, the concept of a robot was easily embraced by our society, even ones that could act human, but when did folks begin to think seriously how to create an artificial mind? (I’ve since found out the word robot isn’t used in the film, but the 1927 placards did list some actors as robots.

That’s what’s so fun about “I, Robot.” The Binders were putting everything into place. They theorized a metallic brain of “iridium-sponge” cells, not as fancy sounding as Asimov’s positronic brain but they did assume it would need to store information. The Binders made no hint of computer programming. I guess they assumed a being with senses would program itself through learning. The artificial thinking was still relegated to the magic happens kind of hand waving.

Helen O Loy by Lester del Rey

In 1938, “Helen O’Loy” by Lester del Rey came out in Astounding Science Fiction. I’m pretty sure the Binders could have read that one. I recently listened to that story, and it is another proto-AI tale. Two men who own a robot repair shop put together a robot woman they both fall in love with. Again, where did they get the word robot? How quickly did a Czech word from 1920 spread to America? Did Lester del Rey know of the story, “A Wife Manufactured to Order” from 1895? How do ideas spread? And is inventing an artificial wife something that just comes to guys. What story lays claim to inventing the sexbot?

Wikipedia has a wonderful list of fictional robots. It gives me several stories I need to track down to read. I’ve already read some of the Professor Jameson stories by Neil R. Jones from the early 1930s. His aliens had their minds transferred to mechanical bodies — not AI robots. I need to read The Metal Giants (1926) by Edmond Hamilton and Automata (1929) by S. Fowler Wright, both science fiction writers.

I’m going to assume the Binders were inspired by science fiction. Could there have been nonfiction books theorizing about robots before 1939? When does science fiction precede science and when does it follow? I’ve always assumed rockets for space travel and mechanical robots for artificial minds preceded science, but I could be wrong.

I did find An Anthropology of Robots and AI: Annihilation Anxiety and Machines by Kathleen Richardson that has a chapter on robots in fiction. It looks promising but is too expensive. Even the Kindle edition is $35.99.

Someone needs to write a book about robots like James Gleick did for time travel in his book Time Travel: A History. “I, Robot” is an amazing story in the evolution of ideas about robots. The Binders suggested an iridium-sponge for a brain. I suppose we can think of our current computers with a silicon sponge. They didn’t have enough information to guess about computers. Earlier stories only imagined robots having clockwork brains. The Binders speculations about a robot having to learn are also insightful.

Human-constructed creatures have been around a long time in our thoughts, and we’re getting very close to creating them. I think it’s fascinating to see how the idea evolved.

Recommended Reading

 

Updates

I’ve found some earlier citations in science fiction from The Encylopedia of Science Fiction.

JWH

What’s the Modern Equivalent of Byte Magazine?

by James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Byte 1977 - DecBack in the 1970s, I developed an addiction for computer magazines. My favorites were Byte Magazine, Creative Computing, and InfoWorld. But there were countless others popping in and out of existence. During that period I’d go out driving two or three times a week to bookstores, newsstands, and computer shops looking for new issues to buy. I loved Byte Magazine the best because it was so well rounded, covering all kinds of computers, computer history, computer theory, computer science, featuring code and wiring schematics – great reading for hackers and wireheads.  Plus in the early years before small computers became an industry, they had fantastic covers.

There was an excitement about computers back then when we called small computers micros before they became PCs or Macs, with lots of do-it-yourself projects for a small subculture of geeks and nerds. Today I seldom buy computer magazines. My addiction waned when they all split into specific platform titles and computers became pervasive. My addiction disappeared after the world wide web became a new addiction. A few times a year I’ll buy a Linux magazine. Linux and open source fans still have a subculture vibe with a do-it-yourself spirit.

Now that I’m thinking about the Byte Magazine, I realize the late 1970s and early 1980s as an era before the internet, and my nostalgia has a lot of implications. A monthly magazine like Byte was self-contained. It was a reasonable amount of information to consume. Today, reading off the cloud, I feel like I’m trying to consume whole libraries in a gulp. When I research a blog post I find way too much to digest. It overwhelms me. Reading Byte in the early days of microcomputers was like reading science books in the 17th century. It was possible to be a generalist.

I loved studying the history of science fiction because its territory felt small — or did. In the past year, I’ve discovered enough new scholarly books on SF history to crush me. I can’t write anything without referencing all I know and think I should know. That’s mentally paralyzing.

I loved Byte Magazine because it didn’t cause information overload. I wish computers were still just for fun, a hobby. Magazines are dying, but I wish there was a computer magazine published today that looked at the world of computers in a small way. That’s probably why Raspberry Pi computers are so popular. They are small, and their world is small.

Puttering About in a Small Land by Philip K. DickThe other day an old friend texted me and asked how I was doing. I texted back I was fine, enjoying puttering around in a small land. She immediately called me worrying that something bad had happened. I had to explain I wasn’t in a hospital room but enjoying my hobbies at home. I was riffing off the name of a Philip K. Dick novel, Puttering About in a Small Land. I just love that title. I think that’s why I loved Byte back then, we could still putter around in a small land.

I’m reading Thomas Friedman’s new book, Thank You For Being Late. In it, he decides to invent a new name for “the cloud.” Friedman believes cloud computing is changing humanity and deserve a name that reflects its impact. He chooses “supernova,” which I think is a colossal bonehead choice. The obvious name to replace the phrase “the cloud” is the “hive mind.”

I’m starting to believe living in the hive mind is wrong. Sure, having access to all the information in the global mind is wonderful, but overwhelming. I’m wondering if the good old days weren’t those days when knowledge came in magazines.

JWH

 

 

Email Management = Mind Management

by James Wallace Harris, Thursday, June 15, 2016

I’ve helped hundreds of computer users with their email. There’s probably a correlation between how a person organizes their email and how they think. Now, I can’t be the person who casts the first stone because of my own sins. I do better than most, but it’s a never ending war. Sometimes I lose battles and even ground, but over time I progress from chaos to order.

I know very few Zen Masters of the Inbox. The trouble is most folks don’t even know they have an email problem, or how they handle email reflects how they think. It’s like that old belief, a messy desk means a messy mind. Most people I helped are embarrassed to let me see their email program. Doctors see you naked, computer guys see your desktop and how you manage folders and email. That can be just as raw.

Email can be a treasure trove of history, just like old letters used to be. Unfortunately, few people make an effort to save them. Also, your email folder organization can mirror your interests in life. Finally, how you process and save emails can reveal how you categorize subjects in your mind. We all have a limited number of interests in life, If you have an email folder for each suggests a kind of mental orderliness.

email-logo

I learned this week that an email account I’ve been using for over twenty years is going away. I’ve been dreading that because I use email servers as external memory dumps. I’ve had email accounts in various forms since the mid-1980s, and I was on the internet with email years before the web. I’ve had to migrate email a number of times to new servers. I even ran an email server for a while for a couple hundred people. Each time I closed an account I saw evidence of my activities and thinking for a period of years. Moving this 20+ year account is a massive task because I have tens of thousands of messages stored in a hierarchy of folders.

Because I correspond with many internet friends those messages represented my only connection with them. Plus, my sent folder documents everything I’ve written in email since the mid-1990s. In six days it will all be gone. I’ve frantically been going through the folders looking for messages I think worth forwarding to my new account, but I’m sure I will miss thousands of emails that I will one day want to remember. I suppose I could do something wild like moving them all into the inbox, mark them unread, and then set up a POP3 client, put I won’t. I’m using this experience to clean out the past.

I wished I had moved to a large international email provider sooner. Maybe I’ll get to keep this account until I die. It’s a shame our society doesn’t have some way of archiving email history for the long term.

I am learning a lot about what I really need to keep. For example, I have folders for my mother and father’s side of the family, with emails from cousins and aunts. Like old letters, they represent a series of events we all shared. If I was to ever write a family history these emails would be invaluable documentation. I moved very few of those emails. That knowledge will now be lost. When my mother died, I had to decide what paper records to keep. I didn’t keep many. It’s just too hard to drag the past along with us. If it was easier, future historians would love us.

Under my old email account, I had numerous folders for organizing my personal interests and business connections. Plus, I used email as a way to remember things I wanted to read later. Whenever I read something on the web that I want to write about I’d send the URL in a link to myself in an email, and then file it by topic in my email folders. Now that I’m being forced to recreate my folder system I’ve decided it’s time to reduce my interests in life. I only forwarded a fraction of these “memory” emails to the new server.

In recent years I’ve canceled most of my email subscriptions. It’s best to avoid email whenever possible. In this current migration, I canceled all the rest, and only signed up for few of those under the new account. I love reading blogs, but easier to let WordPress manage my favorites. For favorite websites, I rely on bookmarks.

I’m making a top level email folder for all my main interests in life, but I’m learning that some of my interests might need to be forgotten. For example, I collected links to photography how-tos and DIY Raspberry Pi projects, two hobbies I wish I had the time to pursue more, but only piddle with from time to time. I might need to just delete those folders.

Whenever I read an essay that inspires me to write I save the link in an email to myself and file it in a folder. These are the hardest emails to delete. Deleting them is like deleting ambitions. But I need to Marie Kondo them too.

Email clutter is harder to manage than household clutter because we only see it when we open our email programs. Otherwise, it’s all shoved under the rug. Some web based email programs don’t even tell you how many messages are piling up in the folders. They seem to expect everyone to be bad at managing their email.

When I had to consciously decide what sparked joy, and what to delete, I realized just how many connections to the world I’m trying to maintain. Doctors, dentists, banks, retirement investments, warranties, repairs, service shops, taxes, library, streaming subscriptions, shopping accounts, etc.

Email represents our connections to a larger world. We used to keep such business relationships in file folders and then clean them out every seven years. Being forced to change email servers is forcing me to clean out over two decades of files. The trouble is I can’t look at most of them. I just have to hunt for the vital files and hope the thousands that get deleted aren’t that important.

It troubles me that most of my business interests have gone paperless and saved emails might be my only proof of transactions. I’m rethinking going paperless in some cases. If I died my wife might not even find some of my retirement accounts.

When I retired I was told I’d have my email account for life, and I organized my files thinking that would be true. That email life only lasted less four years. I hate having this done to me but I’m trying to look at it positively. Yes, tens of thousands of messages are being lobotomized from my virtual brain, but I can also see it as weight being lifted from my shoulders.

It also means I can redesign my email filing system again to match my current thinking. This might be v. 5. I’ve already thought of one innovation I wished I had made. It has occurred to me that I should have separate email accounts for my personal business and writing activities. And maybe even have different accounts for my personal life and my internet life. Would using multiple email accounts lead to a multiple-personality syndrome?

Some people leave all their email in their inbox and just use search to find old emails. If you don’t remember what you have you can’t search for it. Going through folders and looking at old emails reminds me things I’ve forgotten. Often that’s cool, but other times it’s wonderful to be reminded.

JWH

 

 

 

 

 

 

Rereading: The Soul of a New Machine by Tracy Kidder

by James Wallace Harris, Friday, January 6, 2017

The-Soul-of-a-New-Machine-by-Tracy-KidderI first read The Soul of a New Machine by Tracy Kidder just after it came out in 1981, before it won the Pulitzer and National Book awards in 1982. I read it again at the end of 2016. Thirty-five years later it is still a stunning book, even though the Data General Eclipse MV/8000, the title character, died long ago, a few remember. As I read The Soul of a New Machine a second time, I kept thinking, “What happened to these great people who worked so hard?” I decided I’d provide a review with research/annotations/links. If you haven’t read The Soul of a New Machine I highly recommend you do. Most books about science and technology date very quickly, but this one hasn’t. Why? Because it’s about people, not a machine. The story reads like a novel.

I’ve spent days struggling to write this essay. The book is about engineers who push themselves to produce a new computer, working 80+ hour weeks, not for money, fame, or rewards. They are driven to invent by their desire to master knowledge and skills. I’ve always wished I had that kind of passion. A few days ago I read “How to Become a ‘Superager’” in the New York Times, that reports that older people who push themselves mentally stay cognitively healthy longer. It’s more than doing crosswords though. I believe what they were talking about is like how the folks worked in this book drove themselves to master a problem. You just keep going, keep working, keep trying, keep pushing, until the problem is solved. Because I’m retired, I know I can quit and kick back at any time, when I tire of a task. But I want to finish this essay, and I’ve had to constantly push myself. I wanted to reread this book, carefully summarize it, and find out everything I could about what happen to the people in the story since it’s publication.

mv8000I’m going to hyperlink the hell out of this review for two reasons. First, if you just read The Soul of a New Machine and have the same questions I did, this should be a handy resource. Second, if you haven’t read the book, seeing why I’m so fascinated with a 36-year-old book about a forgotten minicomputer should make you want to read it. The Soul of the New Machine is a perfect example of what is now called creative nonfiction, but that term didn’t exist back when it was first written. It essentially means using techniques borrowed from novelists to write compelling nonfiction. This writing technique is old, but I first noticed it in the 1960s. Truman Capote used it in his 1965 book, In Cold Blood, which he called a nonfiction novel. Tom Wolfe used it for The Electric Kool-Acid Test in 1968 and called it New Journalism. So by 1978, Kidder had plenty of models to choose from.

What’s particularly impressive about The Soul of a New Machine is Kidder didn’t know anything about computers. His editor at The Atlantic told him to write about computers. He didn’t want to. Then Kidder went sailing with Tom West, the god of the new computer, and became part of the story. That’s another common aspect of creative nonfiction – the author becomes a character in the story, letting us readers know how the story came to be.

Here’s a Zen koan. Who would you want to be – the storyteller or the subject? Back in 1978 would it have been more rewarding to be Tom West or Tracy Kidder? Or Carl Alsing, Chuck Holland or Ed Rasala. A Hardy Boy or Microkid? But I’m getting ahead of myself, because you probably don’t know who those people are. My point is Tracy Kidder had to learn about computers, but he also had to learn about why computers were so fascinating to this small group of people, and why they wanted to build a new one. Kidder had to go beyond that, he had to learn what how each of these engineers got on the path that led them to become creators of a computer. His effort was no less than the engineers building the Eagle.

When I reread a book I love, I want to know everything I can about it, especially about how it was written, and if the book is about real people, what happened to them after the book came out. This review will be full of links to the articles that answer some of those questions. I wish I could write like Tracy Kidder and write the 2017 update to the story. But just writing these 2,000+ words showed me how much work that involves. Writing 100,000 words is beyond my comprehension.

Plot

In February of 1978, Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) introduced the VAX, a groundbreaking line of 32-bit minicomputers. The story opens at Data General, DEC’s competitor, and their need to quickly produce a 32-bit supermini to compete with the VAX. Data General had a popular 16-bit minicomputer called the Eclipse, but decided to design a whole new 32-bit computer, code named Fountainhead, that would be superior to the VAX. As a backup, manager Tom West proposed a second project, to upgrade the Eclipse to 32-bit, which they code named the Eagle. The Soul of a New Machine is about the tremendous management and technical effort to redesign a 16-bit machine to work flawlessly as a 32-bit machine without a mode-bit. So owners of the 16-bit Eclipses could buy the new machine and run all their old software without any conversion. This rush effort took place in 1978 and 1979. In many ways it prefigures Steve Jobs’ effort to produce the Macintosh a few years later. Because they are stories about the men and women working long hours, sacrificing their personal lives, to give birth to a machine.

Setting

Most of the events in the story take place during 1978-1979, at Data General’s headquarters in Westborough, Massachusetts, off Route 495, in building 14A/B. I wish I could find photos of the actual offices and labs, especially where the Hardy Boys and Microkids worked. I’d like to see what their debugging tools looked like, and the prototypes named “Coke” and “Gollum.” This one photo from the early 1980s is the best I could do.

Kidder interviewed his subjects secretly at Data General, and outside of work, going to their homes, parties, outings and even sailing with Tom West. I wish I could find photos of those events and locations, but so far I haven’t. It’s weird to think such an heroic project took place in a dull basement of a nondescript building.

Characters

eagleteamThe first report from Wired Magazine shows the photograph on the right and lists who they were and where they are now. Unfortunately, the photo does not include Tom West, the Ulysses of the story. West was the manager who gathered a team of about two dozen men and one woman to build the Eagle, essentially in secret. Data General gave the real Fountainhead project publically to the engineers who had moved to North Carolina. There were two teams – The Hardy Boys who worked on hardware, and the Microkids who wrote the software. West had two lieutenants, Carl Alsing, who supervised the Microkids, and Ed Rasala who bossed the Hardy Boys.

Tom West – was the top level manager, and essentially the protagonist of The Soul of a New Machine. The best post-book profile of West I found was “O, Engineers!” from Wired Magazine, for the 20th anniversary of the book. This essay is well worth reading because West talks about how the book affected his memory of events. He didn’t always appreciate the fame the book brought. Plus it’s a good summary of the story and an update about how people came to judge the book. I also found The Computer Museum Report from Spring, 1983 which reprints a dialog between Kidder and West. West died at 71, in 2011. Here is his obituary at the New York Times, and one at the Boston Globe.

Steven J. Wallach – was the Eagle’s architect. A 2008 New York Times piece that chronicles Wallach’s whole career. He continued to design computers and start companies after he left Data General.

Carl Alsing – was probably the second most important character in the book. Tom West was often a mystery to the Hardy Boys and Microkids. Alsing was his John the Baptist. This 1974 DataGeneral newsletter has some photos of younger Alsing and West.

I found this YouTube video for the Science Friday Book Club that interviews Asling, Holland and Shanahan in 2015. It briefly shows the ball maze Chuck Holland created and mentioned in the book. When I read that part I really wanted to see it.

Carl Asling, Chuck Holland, Betty Shanahan 2015

 

Goodreads Computer History BooksJust look at Goodreads “Popular Computer History Books” – The Soul of a New Machine comes in at #2. I’ve read many of these books over the years, and I find them incredibly inspiring. I worked with computers most of my working life, but I was always a low-level programmer, web designer, or computer tech support guy. I guess reading computer history books for me is about envy. Rereading The Soul of a New Machine is like reading family history, but about my cousins who succeeded in the big time. I’ve always loved science fiction and computers. I’m not the only one, became that combo is common. The Soul of a New Machine is also #2 on “50 All-Time Classic Books About Computers and Computing.” I have to assume there are many readers out there like me.

Yet, as I reread this book I constantly asked myself why I was reading about technology that went to the scrapheap decades ago, was never famous other than being in this book, and about computer engineers that few people remember today? Yet, reading The Soul of a New Machine was just as much fun in 2016 as it was in 1981. The Soul of a New Machine is about how hard work leads to creativity. It’s about being different. The men and women in this story have keen intellects, were often loners, and all had unique hobbies peculiar to engineers. It’s a story about people who can focus on one goal with such concentration that they almost forget everything else in life. Tracy Kidder tells an amazing story about amazing people in amazing detail. Yet, in 2017, why would anyone want to read about the design and engineering team that built a long forgotten minicomputer, or a company that went out of business, and was never legendary or insanely great? I doubt younger people even know the terms mainframe, minicomputers and microcomputers. Or care about a time when a business struggled to bring out a 32-bit computer to market when 16-bit was the standard.

All of that technical history doesn’t really matter. What matters are the people. Rereading The Soul of a New Machine makes me ask the question at the top of the essay. Most kids today daydream of growing up to be a star – whether in sports, movies, music, television. They want to be rich, famous, or some kind of superhero. If I was a kid reading this book, I’d want to grow up to be like Tracy Kidder, Tom West, Carl Asling, or any of the people in that group photo above, or the people profiled in the books at Goodreads. Most kids won’t become Beyoncé. I didn’t become Bill Gates. When I reread The Soul of a New Machine I experience a beautiful sense of regret. I lived through some of the most exciting times in technological history. I was in the stands watching, and that was great, it wasn’t the same as being on the field, but it was still very cool.

JWH

Dreaming of a Perfect Computer

by James Wallace Harris, Monday, December 26, 2016

On some days I hate computers!!! When I feel that way I daydream about my perfect machine. Right now that would be a Surface Studio, Microsoft’s contender to give Apple’s best iMac a good thumping. Yet, if I owned a Surface Studio and it was giving me the same problems my current machine is pestering me with, I’d hate it too. Microsoft is innovating like crazy, but it’s not going in the direction I want.

What’s annoying me at the moment is my Outlook for Office 2016 quit communicating with my Office.com and Office365 accounts. I have to use the web version of Outlook365, but I was able to configure Thunderbird to handle my Office.com mail. Because Outlook, Thunderbird, and Postbox will not configure with Office365, I’m wondering if my university’s setup with Microsoft changed. I’ve contacted the Helpdesk and they say no. I follow the configuration Office365 gives to use IMAP, but it doesn’t work. I’m wondering if the powers that be behind the scenes are pushing universal web access. I essentially pay $69 a year for Outlook. I do use Word, but not that often. I hardly every use the other programs. I love Outlook. Living without it is damn annoying.

When your favorite program breaks – do you blame it or the computer?

I’ve been a computer guy since 1971 when I took my first FORTRAN class, programming on a IBM 1620. I’ve always loved computers – but on some days I hate them. Today is one of those days. So was yesterday. Okay, maybe it’s been a bad week. I hate computing without Outlook. I think things went south when Microsoft’s updated my copy of Windows Pro Insider Preview. I can’t find out if Build 14986.rs_prerelease.161202-1928 is the culprit, or something else. Sure, I’m working with what’s essentially a continuous beta, but 98% of the time I notice no problems. I’ve had some bad releases before. Things will suck until a new version is pushed out. I can’t blame Microsoft because I chose this option. I wouldn’t do it again though, not on a machine I use daily.

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I should just buy the commercial edition, but I’m afraid I’ll spend $99-119 and still have problems. Microsoft continuously updates production Windows 10 too. And I’m not sure the problem is Windows. I subscribe to Office365, and it updates in the background too. And it might not even be an update. I have no way of knowing.

For decades I worked as a programmer and computer tech. I was the guy staff called at my college when they needed help. Now that I’m retired, I’ve gone three years without keeping up with current problems. I’m the guy to call when I have problems, but I wish I had someone else. I feel sorry for people who have computer problems, don’t know shit about them, and with no one to call. They must really hate computers much more often than I do.

Microsoft and Apple are in an eternal battle to sell us tech that wows us, but I haven’t been wowed in years. Computers have been more than good enough for a very long time. I never even bother to learn the new features of the new version of an operating systems. The innovation I want is different.

I want a computer that doesn’t update. I want a computer that always runs as fast as when I first bought it. I want Windows and Office to run off ROM (read-only memory) chips and not constantly change files on a disk drive, so viruses/malware can’t alter their code. I know this would mean giving up adding new features, but Windows has been around a long time – do we still need new features? I remember back in the 1950s and 1960s when TVs lasted decades without updates. Sure, you might replace a vacuum tube now and then, but their operation was simply and reliable. You turned on your TV. That was it. It worked. It didn’t need a manual. It didn’t need no stinking updates. It didn’t even need a virus checker.

I have an Intel NUC with a SSD drive and 16GB of memory. It boots up fast. But the OS is part of the file system, and can be corrupted. What if operation systems were etched into ROM chips? After almost 40 years of personal computer development, can’t they make one that doesn’t need constant updates? Wouldn’t it be great to have computers with a ROM socket with a replaceable chip that contained Windows and Office? A new version Windows and Office could be bought every few years with a new chip. Or wouldn’t it be great to buy an All-In-One computer that would run perfectly for ten years without any maintenance, updates, patches, down time, infection, malware, or repairs? That’s the kind of tech innovation I want.

Aren’t we smart enough to engineer a computer that never breaks or gets infected? They no longer need moving parts. My dream computer would come with 12 empty ROM sockets for the software I used the most, and that I wanted to be absolutely dependable. It would have at least a quad processor, with CPU 0 dedicated to the operating system. It would use a SSD drive for data that mirrors with two cloud services like Dropbox and OneDrive. And I want that data encrypted with multiple biometric verifications. Any software installed via downloading would be put in a sandbox part of the system with extremely tight controls. Each program would get it’s own folder, and not be allowed to interact with other programming folders. That way if some company wants to distribute crapware, they’d have to live with it.

Is a computer that always works too much to expect? Is a computer that’s always dependable and never slows down with age an unbelievable fantasy? Why do we have malware, viruses and identity theft? Wouldn’t it be great to have a computer and software that lasted years so we had time to learn to use it properly before the new and improved version is forced on us?

Aren’t there people who want to become billionaires willing to invent a dependable computer? Do we need to phase out TCP/IP and come up with a new protocol, and start the internet over?

If cars or HVAC systems had the reliability of computers, wouldn’t we start a revolution. Oh wait, newer cars and HVAC systems do have computers. My super-efficient HVAC has had its circuit board replaced three times. I love my old Toyota Tundra. It’s seventeen years old, but it’s simplicity and reliability is a virtue.

Okay, that’s enough daydreaming for one day.

JWH

Technofrustration

By James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, July 22, 2015

I know technofrustration isn’t a real word but it should be. In the last twenty-four hours I’ve had two aggravating experiences with technology. First, my Windows Media Center stopped retrieving data for it’s television guide, and second, my new version of Windows 10 stopped working with the new version of iTunes when it comes to downloading Audible.com books. Both issues I believe are due to orphaned technology. Microsoft doesn’t want to support Windows Media Center anymore, and Audible probably doesn’t want to support desktops anymore. Before smartphones, Audible users would download audiobooks to their desktop and then copy them to iPod/MP3 players. I’ve been using an ancient iPod Nano for my audiobook listening because it’s much lighter than my iPhone for carrying around in my shirt pocket.

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Microsoft wants to be out of the media center business, and I guess Audible wants to shift it’s audiobook delivery system to mobile devices. In other words, I want to keep doing things the old way, and I’m being frustrated in my efforts. I’m sure it’s very expensive for corporations to support legacy systems for the old farts who don’t want to keep up with the times. I wonder how many old techno foot draggers there are out there like me?

I only recently switched back to using an iPod Nano. It’s much easier to download an audiobook on my iPhone, but it’s a delight to just carry around a Nano. I was even shopping on eBay to find a 7th generation iPod Nano to buy to replace my ancient 2nd generation device. However, this morning downloading books to my old Nano stopped working, and after several software reinstalls I still can’t get it working. It might not be practical to go back to the old Nano technology. Many pundits figured Apple would never release an 8th generation Nano, but they did, so I figure I’m not the only audiobook listener who wants to travel light.

Part of my frustration is due to working with a prerelease version of Windows 10. When I talked with Audible’s tech support they didn’t seem to have scripts that covered Windows 10. What’s really hurting is not being able to record TV shows with Windows Media Center. Supposedly Microsoft contracted a different company to supply the guide data and some users aren’t getting the updates to the system.

I have to decide if it’s time to give up on my Windows Media Center PC and my old iPods. To avoid frustration I’m being herded towards using my Roku box and iPhone instead. I happen to have those devices—but what about all the people who don’t? Another way to avoid technofrustration is to give up on technology. I could just read books instead of watching TV or listening to audiobooks.

I wonder if the Amish are a tribe of people who suffered too much technofrustration in the 19th century?

JWH