Saturday, July 06, 2019

I Am Now Too Old to Use the Internet

I got my first programmable calculator, a TI-58c, when I was a sophomore in high school. We had to drive all the way to a Pittsburgh suburb to buy it, which in those days was like driving to Manhattan or Paris or the Moon. I think I paid about $120 then, which is like $500 now.

In the year before my mother was given a very basic calculator that she got for hosting a Tupperware party -- ten numbers, and x + - divide, and maybe a square root. I remember that I figured out that if you took a number like WXYZ and squared it (or something), and then subtracted WXYZ and divided by YZ and inverted that and then took the square root, or something, you'd get back the original number, or something like it. I figured that out numerically, by trial and error, but a couple of years later I was proud of myself for being able to prove it with algebra. But I spent a lot of time on my back looking up at the very simple calculator pressing buttons.

I programmed the hell out of my TI-58c. It only had something like 59 programming steps available, so I got very very good at streamlining code and making the most use of subroutines.

And damn, it was actually a very good way to learn programming. I remember I programmed up some kind of golf game where we used a small wad of paper on a sheet with a golf hole drawn on it, and the calculator would tell us, after we entered the "club," how far the "ball" went and at what angle, both chosen randomly within some bounds.

I forget the exact specifications of the program, but it doesn't matter -- I learned more about programming from that little calculator than I ever did in any subsequent programming classes. That still amazes me. That's what's amazing about being 16.

In high school I took, in 11th grade, a class in statistics, like all the other smart kids, where we had access to a class-wide computer, a desktop PC, I guess, to do some homework problems on. I remember the teacher kept it as his special pet, with his special programmer a kid named John who lived up the road from us a bit and got on at the same bus stop. But I never got to know him -- he seemed a little too insular and quiet, a little too weird, and back then as a dumb teenager I didn't respect the value of being different or nonconformist or great at math. (There was a girl in my home room class when we were in grades 10-12 who would not stand for the pledge of allegiance but kept sitting in her chair. Her hair wasn't neat and she wore plain print dresses that no other girls did and they did her no favors, but while I never bothered her about not standing -- none of us did -- I never tried to understand her, either, which now I regret.) John, this math-smart kid, about two classes younger than me, was a master on this high school computer, and a favorite of the teacher teaching us statistics, meaning he could program a given algorithm in fewer steps than anyone else. Just bringing a number up from memory required code like ↑() from all of about eight registers, one at a time, so brevity and cleverness mattered. We computed the future dates of Easter, I remember. Now John is probably a math professor at MIT with a Fields Medal, or driving for Uber.

Anyway, I want to point out that you can learn a lot when you're 15 and have just a simple tool and are ready to suck up knowledge from the forest floor.

Later in college I took a class in Pascal, which was mostly a class in understanding how to type out Hollerith cards then learning exactly how to submit your program to the university's big computer to have your results printed out on big green-and-white stripped paper, whether that meant your program produced something useful or it meant, usually, that your program failed and crashed and produced nothing. The guys back around the computer would gather up your printout 20 minutes later and place it in a coded wooden bin that was yours for the time being. It wasn't exactly quick turn-around computing, and I didn't learn anything in that class that I didn't learn back at home when I was 16.

And then blah blah. In grad school we could log on to a VAX and send emails to one another, but that was about it. Within a couple of years the ITP at Stony Brook got a pretty nice UNIX machine of its own where we theoretical students could really play around, and I got my degree by writing a couple of 2-3 thousand line programs on some QCD phenomenology about questions my advisor thought up.

Then I went to Bell Labs, used UNIX, etc etc, then when I joined a startup in Boulder, CO I got my very first PC in late 1991.

PCs did less in those days, but they seemed easier to use, IIRC. I mostly used mine for email, emailing several people (women mostly) I'd "met" on a fiction writing listserv. I even got involved with one of them, and we did a lot of backpacking together, for three years, living together in AZ and then VT. Then she ended it, but it was for the best.

But that was eons ago, in the nascent days of the Web, which I first encountered in 1994. Then it was called the "WWW." I discovered Yahoo then, but there wasn't a lot else -- though there was an entire treasure chest laid out then, but I didn't know enough to take advantage of any of it. Nor did anyone I know, not that I knew anyone then. I didn't even know how to gobble up domain names for the corporations that would soon pay nicely for them, like

Anyway now it's 20+ years later, and often I feel like I can barely use a computer at all. Nothing seems to work seamlessly. My iPhone, mostly, but my laptop? No. There just seem to be endless problems. Right now I can't get my printer hooked up so that it prints, though it worked fine in my last place and I thought all I'd need to do what plug it in here. And Chrome does not allow me to ALT-TAB away from it, to another program -- I guess this is some bug in Chrome. I read this can be solved by using a Bluetooth mouse instead of a USB mouse, but that doesn't solve the problem for me. I have BiPaP machine that used to read out my nightly statistics to an app on my phone, but that stopped working 4 days ago and I have no idea why. There are a few more big problems that I've forgotten.

And when I try to solve these, by looking at manuals/help on the Web, nothing works. It's all out of date, or wrong to begin with, with no indications of anything current. Help sites say something like go to Settings | Options | My XXX | whatever | and whatever else, but my version of Windows -- just the latest version of Windows 10, I think, on my PC -- doesn't have those options, it has some other path. I think. Maybe some driver isn't updated. It says to click on "Content settings" but there is no Contents setting on the Settings page where they said it would be. The instructions, even those written in, say, late 2018, never work, and the people who wrote those instructions, probably freelancers getting paid $0.015 per word, poor saps with Brooklyn rents, clearly don't care about providing good instructions or updating them when they require changes.

So no instructions work. Endless Googling and trial and error. The software companies don't give a fuck once they get your money. Solving any of the string of problems take 2 or more hours each, and I just wonder why I have to do this anymore and why I am doing it. Is this really all PCs can do in 2019? Why do they need to much babysitting? Why are they getting worse? Why can't we just plug them in, connect wirelessly to a printer, and have it all work?


It happened with cars. In the beginning -- 1910s and 1920s -- you had to take delicate care of them, be sure they had water and the tyres had air and the spark plugs were adjusted to whatever length or firing capacity or explosion potential and you didn't know what else. Enrico Fermi decided that a good way to become an experimentalist was to drive a car across America and fix it as it broke down. (Really.)

Why do I have to be a software engineer to get my printer to work?? Why can't I just connect it via USB or wireless or whatever and have it print? Why do I have to be a computer engineer to understand why this isn't possible? Why, when I connect my phone to my PC, doesn't it delete the iPhone pictures after downloading them, as my settings tell it to? Another fucking bug, that's why. Why has it failed at this for 3+ years? Why can't Microsoft fix this? Why don't they care? Why can't Google fix its bug that prevents me from using ALT-TAB to go to other windows, which is actually a serious usability problem for me. Why don't THEY care??

A month ago I click on an email link and it opened in Gmail. Not it doesn't. What the fuck changed? It wasn't me? Do I have to rejigger this every month? Do you see why I am frustrated? And then in the end someone random happens to describe your exact problem -- but no one else's -- and you just change a "NO" button to "YES" and it all works. For you.

I really wish I could give up on all this crappy technology and just farm organic peas for a living. I would never log on to the Internet or even listen to the radio again.


Anonymous said...


The answer in two words to your big question : planned obsolescence.
For everything else : you are not alone. ;-)


Thomas said...

I recognize the feeling. My first computer was an Apple II, and it was simple enough that you could actually understand what it did. Nowadays all programs are so complex that I don't think the programmers themselves understand how they interact. Therefore all wierd bugs.

For example, I realized my computer was using 40% or so of its capacity while doing nothing, it was just Windows chewing up processor cyles. I searched and found someone with a similar problem who got rid of it by turning off Windows quick start feature. It worked for me too. Why? Absolutely no idea, and every time Windows updates I have to check it doesn't flip that switch again. Other strange behaviour I have just learned to live with.

Layzej said...

I was recently gifted a Commodore 64. It works just as well now as it did in the early 80's.

On the other hand I have an original IPOD touch that is now essentially unusable. It can't run any of the software that I used to be able to run on it. They now all require a newer OS that the iPod doesn't support. I'd happily use the older software versions but they are no longer available. It can't even receive email because it doesn't support the required security measures.

And it's locked down so I can't even code something of my own to give it a new life.


David Appell said...

Thanks Thomas.

David Appell said...

Layzej: I used to play a golf game on MS-DOS, late '80s, early '90s I think. I don't remember its name, but it was the most realistic golf game I ever played. One could curve shots, swing hard or not so hard and see the result, one could play holes on the big-name golf courses like Pebble Beach and Valderrama and they offered opportunities to make a birdie if you took risks and hit the ball just right or make bogey if you missed the green. I could easily recognize the holes when PGA tournaments were played on those courses on television. Its graphics were DOS-y but not too bad.

Then DOS went away, and game programs like "Tiger Woods Golf" and the like were available for Windows. Now there are some online even for free. But I never found that any of them recreated the feel of the game I had in the DOS program, and the sense of, well, being competitive.

I tried once get the DOS program running under Windows, but it only sort-of worked, and wasn't at all the same level of satisfying.

Thomas said...

David, tried DOSBox, a free emulator that can run some old programs that don't work directly under modern Windows?