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Posts Tagged ‘Willis Adcock’

Computers

Things have been inordinately quiet around here for good reason; I’ve been wrangling with a cranky computer. It’s my own fault, I tend to hold on to computers until they become impossible to operate.  Now, I have a new machine and it  is like a housebroken puppy, fun.  Of course, because it is considerably faster than my old one, I’m very happy, but it is more than that.

I’ve lost count, but this is probably my twenty-fifth computer, and it is nice to see that the technology has matured to the point where a lot of things that were once required to get up and running are now accepted to be something that is necessary, right out of the box.  It hasn’t always been that way, and when you had to wade in and start looking at IRQ’s and DIP switches, it is little wonder that computer geeks and computer companies got away with the things that they did.  As my new computer was doing its little start-up thing, it was a time for me to reflect.  In the earlier days, I would have been reading the manuals as the little machine chugged away, but now, there’s almost no paperwork with the new machines, just a superfluous “How to plug things together” sheet.

Of course, none of this would be possible without Willis Adcock.  Nor without the NASA Moon Program and the integrated circuit board.  Nor without PARC, etc.  And, Moore’s Law.  As with all technological advances, we stand on the shoulders of those who worked before us.

I got out of college in 1971, and like many other liberal arts graduates, I became curious about what it was that I was supposed to do with the thing called a BA.  Naturally, I went to the college career counselor, who slapped a bunch of standardized tests on me to help me grasp what my life’s duty was supposed to be.  It turned out that I had a promising career as a computer programmer, even though there was not enough data to establish if I really was going to be good at computer programming or not.  It was really too soon for the standardized test makers to have firm data.  The computer field was that new.

Fortuitously, I was shanghaied and ended up in another field, sparing me from a life of sitting in a cubicle underneath fluorescent lights, staring at a computer monitor, poring over endless lines of code.  Now of course, I spend a good deal of my time in a lovely home office, staring at a computer monitor, etc.  At least the lights are incandescent (for as long as that lasts) and I have my own executive bathroom.  Instead of vending machines, I have a well stocked larder downstairs.  Instead of snippy co-workers, I have calico cats Alice & Bess.  And, both my spouse and I could not do what we are doing without the benefit of personal computers.  I am thankful for my new computer, but it’s been a long and strange trip, indeed.

When I got back to Atlanta in the early 1970’s, computers were still reserved for big financial institutions and big companies.  At lot of record keeping was still conducted by hand.  The “big” computer in town was at the Federal Reserve Bank; it had 128K worth of memory.  Other big institutions used computers with 64K worth of RAM.  These computers were housed lovingly in special rooms with special air systems and security guards.  Let’s face it, if you spent the money necessary to obtain a computer in the 1970’s, you’d put a guy with a gun in a chair nearby.

I saw my first “personal computer” at a place called Ancrona Electronics, on Piedmont Road near Tower Place.  It wasn’t much to look at:

It cost zillions of dollars, and didn’t even have a monitor or keyboard.  Programming was done with toggle switches and programs were stored on paper tape.  I stared at that contraption, with its indicator lights & toggles and shook my head.  I really expected more.

I had been primed by Star Trek.  Of course, the computer on Star Trek was unrealistic considering that the scene was hundreds of years into the future.  But it was pretty much what television viewers in the 1960’s were able to grasp at that time.  You figure that human beings were able to travel across the galaxy faster than the speed of light, they should have had a computer that didn’t make mechanical noises as it contemplated a question.  Of course, maybe computers had become so sophisticated that the computer realized that it needed to let the humans think that they were superior, instead of the other way around.  Thus the slow response times, which evidently lulled Kirk and Spock into believing that they were in control.  Of course, because so many of us caught the Star Trek bug, there was spillover into reality; consider the 3.5″ floppy disk, which looks remarkably like what Spock would hand to Kirk every week.  No matter, it got us there.

My first computer was a VIC-20, little better than a contemporary child’s toy.

No doubt, the people in marketing struggled long and hard to come up with a term that conveyed the capacity of the VIC-20.  The Dumbass Computer is a bit harsh, yet accurate.  It did have a keyboard, and with your television, it did have a monitor.  And, it did give me access to Compuserve; I was 73465,155.  I found out much later that I had what was reverentially described at Compuserve as “One of the early numbers”.  It was interesting.  As an aside, the VIC-20 had 4K worth of RAM, and I paid $100.00 (in 1980’s dollars) to bring it up to 16K worth of memory.

From there, it was an easy leap to the Commodore 64.

Notice that this unit was Only $595.00 (again in 1980’s dollars).  It was marginally better than the VIC, and, for additional cost, it had a 5 1/4″ floppy drive for data storage.

There were a lot of computer toys on the market, and perhaps the most interesting of these was the Timex Sinclair.

Yes, that Timex.  It sold for around $200.00, and if you wanted to save money, you could buy it as a kit for $50.00 less.  (The growth on the back of the computer is the additional memory).  There is nothing that gives you a notion of the size of this quaint machine, but it is about the same size as a handheld video game controller.

Meanwhile, the business market was getting serious and the “real” personal computers began hitting the market.  Credibility was given to the concept when IBM began marketing the PC, a term which we use to this day.  What followed was a rapid series of new models, the PC-AT, using CPU’s like the 8086, 8088 (the CPU for the IBM PC), 80286, 80386, 80486 and on.  The computer buyer, either an individual or business, began to feel like a rodent on a treadmill.  The new computer would be blazingly fast only to be stopped in its tracks when new software versions came out.  Eventually, business put its foot down about the constant flux of technology.  The computer makers and software writers began to concentrate on reliability.

Along the way, as more people got involved with computers, a slow process of losing control began.  With so many people entering the market, most inexperienced with computers, computer design slowly took operational control away from them.  It’s the same with automobiles; you can’t go in and fiddle with the carburetor any more.  You probably shouldn’t.  When you open the hood on some cars these days, there’s a little sign that tells you to close the hood and call your dealer.

It’s good news / bad news, but it is part of a long term trend toward losing direct control over a lot of things in your life.  Airline pilots comment upon the fact that the aircraft they fly and the land-based aircraft simulators they train on are merging.  That is, the simulators have the look and feel of a real plane and the planes fly like simulators.  The last “real” airplane with wire cables was the DC-8, with pilots flippantly saying the “DC” in DC-8 really meant direct connect.

Fortunately, the computer companies want us to have an enjoyable experience, and so the operating software has been increasingly automated, taking away a degree of control from the end user but also serving to improve reliability.  A lot of maintenance procedures such as backing up, disk defragmentation and error report are now automated and largely invisible to the typical computer owner.

The really good news has to do with my new purchase.  It is a Hewlett Packard, a hard decision for me after many years of owning Compaq machines.  It replaces a six-year old, 2.6 GHz Compaq.  While the new machine’s processor speed is similar (although it has a dual core processor), everything else is bigger and better.  Likewise, the new machine operates with Windows 7, while the old Compaq was holding on with XP; I managed to successfully avoid Vista entirely.

Perhaps the most interesting thing is that I ended up paying, with tax, $500.00 for this unit.  Note that the Commodore 64 retailed for $595.00 in the 1980’s, more valuable dollars for a much less valuable machine.  I bought the Hewlett at a place where all the prices end in “88”; I hate this place but I am like a moth drawn to the flame of low, low prices.  I won’t go into certain other stores, such as the one that profiles its customers with names such as Buckhead Biff.  My profile appears to be old-fart with no money or knowledge.  You can make up your own cutsey name.  Suit yourself, but in the end, I chose low price at a store in my home county, because we need the sales tax revenue.

I’m happy with Windows 7, while acknowledging that I don’t have the same degree of control over the machine’s operation.  At the same time, because the OS is new (released in October, two months ago), there are still a few quirks and stutters.  I can’t get the machine to backup to a Seagate 500 GB external drive; trying to do so results in the feared Blue Screen of Death.  Likewise, the machine tells me that there is a video driver problem, but I’m still trying to figure out what the symptoms are.  But these not the traumatic events of the old days; the Hewlett quietly resets, tells me that it has reset and presumably sends error data back to the mothership for problem solving.  Eventually, there will be the Service Pack 1, and all will be reasonably right with the world.

Overall, things are good; I bought much more machine for much less money, and the computing experience is satisfactory to me.  Holding on to very old technology until you eventually break down and buy something new also gives you an initial extra euphoria of blazing speed.  As an aside, the old Compaq was scheduled to become my train room computer.  Stripped of all the resource hogs such as iTunes and MS Office, I planned to continue using it for mundane chores.  However, when I attempted to restart it, the power supply had failed, probably because of all the jostling during the move out of my office and down the stairs.

I look back at all the computers that I have owned and I smile; things are so much better.  A lot of personal fortunes were made by individuals and companies that wanted to make better computers.  More than a few fortunes were lost, too.  In the end, things are so much better, and we are better for it.

Capitalism did this, but I do wonder what sort of computers would have resulted if government had handled this instead of private enterprise.

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