The Language of Technology: The Big Con

Good Old MPUI and Other Merry Pranks

It is no accident that modern information-technology history all but began the day I was born (October 23, 1947). My birth, in fact, coincides with the formation of the Association for Computing Machinery. Which is why I’m sure the Bittorrent Client and Pareto front are part of the Big Con.

Early history: Mistakes are made

As a child, I live, breathe, and eat technology:

1948: The transistor is invented. I discover radio. A Philco. I pull knobs off and gum them.

1949: MIT’s Claude Shannon builds first chess-playing machine. I discover chess pieces — entire drawerful. My experiments yield the following data: The knights are gristly and bitter while the pawns can be swallowed whole. I learn that experimentation sometimes produces intense pain.

1950: Maurice V. Wilkes uses symbolic assembly language on EDSAC. Experimentally, I use language on my dad that replicates model my brother uses with his friends. I hypothesize that my dad, like my brother and his friends, will pee his pants with amusement, but results surpass anything I might have hoped for: My dad washes my brother’s mouth out with soap. I learn that experimentation sometimes produces intense gratification.

1952: Univac predicts Eisenhower landslide soon after polls close. Big whoop. My dad predicted Eisenhower landslide previous February.

1953: Remington-Rand develops high-speed printer for use with Univac. I become highly efficient self-contained printer for use with spelling tests, independent of hoity-toity Remington-Rand, though I do collaborate with Jane Frovick, who sits beside me in back row, on spelling test containing unhypothesized word comb. Based on Univac-type logical algorithm (home = H-O-M-E, tome = T-O-M-E, and so forth), we experimentally print C-O-M-E at high speed on our spelling papers. We learn that logic is inimical to spelling.

1954: I memorize spelling of antidisestablishmentarianism. Univac is still scratching its head over comb.

1955-1956: This period marked by squabbles among large entities such as Burroughs, Sperry-Rand, IBM, and the U.S.A. I am likewise at odds with my brother, a large entity relative to me, over Stan Musial rookie card. In ill-advised midsquabble replication of 1950 language experiment, outcome is again not as predicted: My dad washes my mouth out with soap.

Adolescence to young adulthood: Reactionary period

1959: Computers and ordinary people (which is to say, people who rarely need to calculate guided-missile trajectories) begin to “interface” routinely. Early encounters are not promising. Ordinary people are receptive to computers much as Plains Indians were receptive to Iron Horse. The next few years are notable for…

·   Dawn of Era of Verbing, with nouns such as interface appropriated for simultaneous use as verbs.

·   Mutual suspicion erupting into overt hostility as ordinary people receive electric bills for $17,009.83 and college students enrolling in “History of the Napoleonic Era” end up in “Marine Biology Practicum” doing shrimp census in Gulf of California.

·   Gangs raiding corporate offices, seizing punch cards to Staple, Cut, Fold, Spindle, and Tear.

·   Regression to older, less threatening technologies (carbon-paper consumption surges).

1962: At public library, I discover 25-cent photocopier that produces a negative; for another quarter you can photocopy the negative and get a positive. Machine is slow compared to later models. In same amount of time, I could manually copy page twice, in calligraphy.  

1963: Through volunteer work, I learn to use Addressograph, Mimeograph, and Ditto machines. I discover with glee that Ditto “masters” are available not only in purple, the official public-school Ditto color, but in red, green, and turquoise. Why were we not told?

1965: Technology and I begin a dizzying convergence. Summer job requires mastery of IBM electric typewriter, Verifax “wet copier,” and Thermo-fax copy machine requiring use of special pink tissue sheets and heavy white paper with faint blue flowers on one side. Late in summer we acquire Xerox machine that prints “Xerox” in tiny letters across the top and bottom of every page.

September: I arrive at Stanford University for my freshman year. I gain instant popularity due to ownership of 1930s-era Royal typewriter that has big, fat pica type, filling page with fewer words than weenie elite type of most other typewriters in dorm.

1968: I work for temp agency, accepting every assignment regardless of skill requirement. Confronted with massive cord switchboard like mutant octopus, I plead temporary amnesia and ask for “a few reminders.” I catch on quickly and adopt officious nasal patois: “One moment, puh-leez; connecting you with your party.”

Technology and I grow up, get down to business

1970s find me in vanguard of emerging technology, from dictation equipment that shrinks each generation to sleek 64-line PBX systems and Mag Card electric-range-size word processors.

1977: I am in Arizona and new territory, literally and metaphorically. I edit University of Arizona catalog, programmed in SNOBOL, using HTML-like SOS (Son of Sam) text editor. We take turns arriving at office before dawn to avoid “login queue” since all CRTs on campus are “timesharing” on single DEC 10 computer occupying largish red-brick building three blocks north. Every five minutes or so we have to punch a few keys to let CRT know we’re there. Otherwise it will “throw you off.” Sometimes it throws you off anyway, with maniacal chuckle.

We order printout, wait three days, walk to DEC-10 site, pick up printout, walk back. Done periodically to make sure all coding accurate. If we have inserted code <it> as instruction to italicize text, but we omit <eit> at end of specified text, italics go on and on until halted at state border for illegal vegetable transportation inspection.

Our spellchecker is called Mary Lindley, who astutely points out peculiarities in text, such as Special Education course title entered as “Reading and Study Skills for the Dead,” which ordinary spellchecker, not yet invented, would in any case ignore, at sacrifice of much office merriment.

When time to print catalog, we haul tractor-tire-size magnetic tape to printer.

1983: I am in HutchinsonKansas, working at dial-up news service designed for farmers. We have TRS-80 Model II computers with up to four floppy disk drives and zero hard drives. If someone runs vacuum cleaner near server, it (server, not vacuum cleaner) reboots, causing total loss of data. Our modem is telephone-receiver cradle transmitting thirty characters per second.

I am computer genius. I converse smoothly about binary code, bits, bytes, and “baud” (modem speed). Computers produce mainly letters and numbers. It is cake to understand how each bit in eight-bit code represents tiny switch that is either ON or OFF and how sequence of ON and OFF switches determines letters or numbers.

We have full-time staff person, pretty Vicki, to instruct owners of TRS-80, Texas Instruments, Sinclair, Commodore, IBM, Atari, Apple II-e, and other computers how to access our database. It is precise configuration; tiny mistake links user’s computer to Interpol, causes international incident.

1992: Am back at University of Arizona. DEC 10 has been converted to student housing, CRTs are in museum with Commodores, Daisy-Wheel printers. New software is suspiciously colorful. What’s with the sinister floating windows? I balk at using mouse.

Recover aplomb, become adept at learning software, even if not easily comprehended in terms of ON and OFF switches. By end of decade emerge as Internet pioneer with own Web site. Breeze through graphic-design, spreadsheet, database classes. Experience bliss of broadband.

1995: Create “Small Business Builder” feature on fledgling Web site. Is first of many one-hundred-percent-remote assignments made possible by marvel of telecommunication.   

May 2000: Leave secure University of Arizona position with desirable benefits to accept big bucks, cushy job, impressive title with dot-com in posh foothills location. My ship has come in.

September 2000: Ship sails away. Am stranded on Gilligan-type island minus Gilligan, Captain, Professor, Jim Backus, Lovey. Some days am Ginger, other days am Mary Ann. Occasionally am Bishop Desmond Tutu, Pointer Sisters. It is as Teddy Roosevelt on San Juan Hill that I see passing ship, fire musket to signal, provoking Navy SEAL mission resulting in rescue.

I age gracefully, I.T. develops dementia

2007. I am Neanderthal woman. My computer is dinosaur. I no longer have vocabulary to describe problem to computer-fixer guy. I feel like caller on “Car Talk” making sick-transmission noises.

Attempt to download Mplayer for Windows. Do I need Binary Codec Package? What does “supported natively” mean? Is it racist/chauvinist thing, like “American-owned”?

“Great news,” subhead blares. My heart does a little dance. “Mplayer package contains SMPlayer front-end.” Sigh. “Of course, good old MPUI is still included.” Whew!

I click “download.” Do I want “Secure Download (US)” or “Secure Download (RO)”? What is “RO”? Rome? Republic of Ontario?

Am advised that “To download from torrent links” I “must download and install a bittorrent client.”

Scales fall from my eyes, clog keyboard. No matter. Is all Big Con. If I bite on “bittorrent client” scam, will get error message: “Access denied. Could not find active alienated download buffer. Repair by finding Pareto front of simple problem using Genetic Algorithms with fitness sharing. Or you could just stick peanuts up your nose. P.S. Your computer has 2,937 registry errors. Hahahahahahaha.”



One response

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