Digital Nostalgia

I was talking to Nick and Lee about digital technology, history, and advancement, trying not to be so much of an old fart – “When I was a kid we had to walk fifty miles to school through twenty feet of blowing snow….”.

They were messing with their IPhones and imagining what the state of digital electronics would be in ten, twenty years from now; when the IPhone will be as clunky and obsolete as a hand-cranked telephone. I talked a bit about when I was young – back then you were not allowed to own your own phone – you rented it from the phone company. They were usually hard-wired into the wall (when I was in college, our city of Lawrence, Kansas, was a pilot program for the now-ubiquitous cube taps – it seemed revolutionary [which it was, more than we imagined at the time]) and very, very few folks had more than one phone in the house.

The kids said that the smartphone was the most important digital invention in their lifetime (so far) and that it had changed the way they lived. They are right – the fact that you are now able to tap into the far-flung digital word from any spot (pretty much) on the planet at any time. They were especially adamant about being able to access the web at a moment’s notice is revolutionary – not only communications, but information, maps, social networks…. it really is amazing… here in this, the best of all possible worlds.

I think of going to high school in Central America…. I felt so isolated and out of touch. If the Internet existed then (forget about smart phones) I would have been able to stay up with things…. A few years later – single, back in the US, it was so easy to lose contact. Social Media, a smart phone – what a difference that would have made. I think of all the time I spent searching for pay phones, trying to keep up.

I started thinking of the moments of digital history that affected me. Not so much the technology itself, but the split seconds, the flashes of epiphany, when I realized that things were changing irrevocably – that new worlds of possibility were opening up.

Nick and Lee really didn’t understand what I was getting at, but I still thought about it-

I remember when I first understood the power of using a computer with a graphical interface. I’d been using the early Windows programs and the mouse and all was cool – but I didn’t see what the big deal was. Until one day, sort of at random, I realized I could cut from one program and paste the data, pretty much intact, into a completely different application…. I could do complex calculations in a spreadsheet, for example, and simply cut the whole mess out and paste them into a word processing document without any extra typing. And do that again and again and again until the report was done in a tenth of the time it would have taken me before.

That was a moment when I knew things had changed.

I remember, long before that, before the Internet, even when I discovered digital bulletin boards. I’d stay up late and use my computer to dial in (remember the sounds of dialup and modem negotiation, the tones, the hissing – like Pavlov’s dogs my fingers would itch whenever I heard that sound) and trade ideas and information with total strangers over the phone lines. Once the Internet arrived a couple years later, I was ready for it – it seemed like a single world-wide bulletin board (which it was).

There are hundreds of such moments… all clear as a bell with the perverse lucidity of nostalgia.

One moment stands out for me, however. In and of itself, it wasn’t a big deal, but something about it…. It was the first time I saw a laser printer spit out a document. I had been working for years with Daisy Wheel Printers and then with the Dot Matrix ones. The loud buzzing of the print heads, whopping of the paper, and the crash of the carriage return were ingrained in my ears, brain, and soul.

Of course, I had heard of Laser Printers, but they were somehow an exotic vision of expense and extravagance, something that worthless peons like myself would never have access to. I was visiting another company, one significantly more advanced than mine, and working on some joint reports. When we finished, the little box started spitting out documents with nothing more than an insignificant little whir. That is what amazed me, the silence. You want it? Here it is. No big deal.

My jaw dropped.

Things had changed; things would never be the same again.

New Screen

Last year, at Tulane, some time Lee stepped on his laptop and cracked the screen. He had a separate monitor, so he could still use the thing. Still, it killed me. I would love to have a nice laptop like that (I’ve got a decent one, it was Nick’s Toshiba – a present his Junior year in high school – until the hard drive fell out and he went out and bought an Apple – I retrieved his broken one and installed Ubuntu on it – which kicks it up a notch, IMHO) and I would take better care of it.

Still, accidents do happen. It’s a few hundred dollars in parts and labor to repair damage like that. Luckily, there is ebay, and without any trouble I could find a brand new replacement screen for seventy five bucks or so. I’m not so cheap to muck around on a used pull or something like that – though I did look for one at the First Saturday computer swap meet.

Luckily, there is even a YouTube Video of the procedure.

So, the Fedex man brought the box, I watched the video a few times. I collected my weapons: screwdriver, forceps, a couple little bowls to hold stray screws – on the kitchen table.

Lee's Laptop

Here's the laptop and the replacement screen - all ready to go.

So I took a deep breath and dug in. It was pretty easy. It was very easy until I had it all apart. The guy did a great job with the video, detailing how to get the thing apart and pointing out possible problems and potholes.

All Apart

All taken apart.

The only difficulty is that the video ends with the well worn bromide, “Just do the opposite of what you did taking it apart to get it back together.” Technically, this is true.

But it is a lot harder to get those tiny little screws to jump back into their holes that it was to yank them out in the first place. Especially with big fat clumsy fingers like me.

But I kept at it and soon enough, it was all back together. Works like a charm.

Now, lets see if we can get him to keep the damn thing in a bag when he’s not using it.

Yeah right.

First Saturday Sale

Customers

A wide variety of customers listen to a sales pitch at the First Saturday Computer flea market in Dallas.

Candy’s laptop is hosed and we need to get her back into the digital world. She is thinking about an iPad or a new laptop, but in the meantime, Lee has decided not to take his desktop computer back to school with him. It’s a Frankenstein machine I built for him years ago, carefully assembling it from pieces as they went on sale at Fry’s or MicroCenter. It’s now about half a decade out of date, but it’s still functional, chugging along as always. It’ll work fine for surfing the web or doing some light word processing. He has a nice monitor that he’ll take with him, so all we need is a new monitor and we’ll be good to go.

I know I can get a cheap used monitor at the First Saturday Sale. And today is the first Saturday in August.

The First Saturday Sale used to be a big deal. It started out in 1969, in the pre-digital days, as ham radio aficionados would gather in the vacant lots on the east end of downtown Dallas and trade tubes and microphones and whatever passed for electronic equipment back in the day.

With the rise of the personal computer, digital technology entered the picture, and the popularity of this high tech swap meet/flea market grew until in the 1990s it reached the stage where hundreds of vendors and up to forty thousand customers would descend upon the cracked asphalt. Rows upon rows of vendor tables would stretch over about a square mile of real estate with crowds milling between, staring at memory chips, picking through piles of used software, or feeling hard drives, wondering if they would work or not.

I remember needing to buy a replacement drive, and picking up three of them for less than a tenth of what a new one would be. I asked the guy if they worked and he said, “I have no idea, I pulled a thousand of these out of a corporate job and don’t have time to test them.” I figured at least one of the three would be good – two were.

I used to enjoy going down there during the salad days. Actually, I would seldom actually buy anything, but to walk up and down the crowded rows gawking at the stuff was fantastic entertainment. I remember once a guy had about a half-dozen high powered industrial lasers for sale out of the back of his pickup truck. The vendors were wildly diverse, everything from legitimate computer stores picking up a little extra business to people that were obviously spending the week dumpster-diving and dumping their crap in a big pile with a cardboard sign that said, “Everything One Dollar.”

The only people making big money probably were the folks that ran a breakfast sausage truck feeding all the hungry bargain hunters. I remember salivating at the smell of the cooking sausage as the sweet smoke crawled down the aisles between the vendor tables, pushed by the yellow light of the rising sun. The sale was officially Saturday morning, but to get the hottest deals you had to get there at one or two AM. The whole thing was pretty much over by noon. Candy went down there with me once to score some deals on used music CDs and said, “I have never seen so many nerds in one place in my entire life.”

It was a blast, and like all good things, it didn’t last. The rate of change in computer equipment accelerated to the point that used stuff wasn’t good for anything. The prices for hardware kept dropping until it was cheaper to buy something new. And software migrated into two camps – extremely expensive (and the First Saturday Sale has always been crawling with the authorities looking for bootleg software – there were some spectacular arrests) and free – neither category does well at a flea-market. The vacant lots of the east part of downtown were torn up and replaced by the billion dollar development of the Dallas Arts District and the humble computer sale was pushed west under the Woodall Rogers Freeway Overpass.

It’s still there. Even though it is only a vague shadow of its former self, bargains can still be had at the sale. I have had good luck buying headphones, networking gear, wireless keyboards, small obscure components, and especially, flat screen monitors.

monitors

There were several vendors with tables full of used flat screen monitors.

So down we went. We didn’t want to deal with the heat so we left as early as I could haul myself out of bed – about seven in the morning (it was still plenty hot, though the rumbling overpass overhead provides some well-needed shade) and everything was in full swing. Years ago, it would take an hour to walk from one end to the other, but now it is so compact that within ten minutes we had bought a nice used Dell flat screen monitor for forty bucks. We walked around a bit more and Candy bought a beat up old tool box for next to nothing, but I didn’t see anything else that caught my eye.

Working

It's a lot of work sometimes to get this old crap up and functioning.

There are still bargains. I you need a computer, you can buy a useful desktop for a hundred dollars or so. These are obviously corporate units that have been replaced and refurbished – they should work fine. There are still vendors selling top-quality stuff at a discount and there is still a big area where it looks like someone dumped a huge pile of random junk – if you are brave enough you can dig through this and find a jewel – something that you never knew you couldn’t live without.

Instead of a breakfast sausage truck there is a taco truck, and they seemed to be making the most money. But it is nice to know that there are still enough die-hard nerds to keep the sale alive, if barely.

Geezers

A couple of experience computer bargain hunters work their way through the many bins of parts. Coffee helps.

Setting up my secretary

This has been a terribly frustrating weekend. I had a lot I wanted to do… too much I had to get done – but I have been spinning my wheels. First of all, I feel exhausted. A lot of that is because of the unending heat, I’m sure.

But mostly I feel energized by accomplishment and that has been in short supply. Too much time working on repairs and not enough getting things fixed. Candy’s laptop is hosed (yes, it is a Vista machine and yes, it sucks) and that is causing me all kind of headaches. I can handle one problem, usually, but when multiple screwups come screaming down at once it all coalesces into a hopeless shitstorm of helplessness… you get the idea.

There is only one little thing that makes me smile this weekend. I have been successful in getting my secretary set up like I want it and that is good.

I bought a secretary for my office room a little over a month ago and I’ve been working on setting it up as a writing station. It was good for using my pens and doing some note-taking and hadwriting, but I kept wanting to type up work and would have to leave the secretary and walk over to my laptop – back and forth. I needed computer access – without taking up much space and without taking away digital capability from anywhere else.

So I dug out Candy’s old Dell Latitude D600. It’s what? About seven years old now? That’s ancient in computer terms. We bought it off of eBay back in the day. It’s way too weak sauce to run Windows anymore, but I have Linux on it, and it chugs along, doing what I need to do. I drilled a hole in the back of the secretary for the power cord and it sits folded up, back in the shelving unit, out of the way, until I need to pop it out and open it up.

Since I want to use it for writing, I did some thinking about software. Maybe I’m finally turning into an old fart – but I still miss typing into a console-based word processor (I still think Wordperfect 5.1 – the old white-text-on-blue was the best environment for pure writing). There are plenty of console-based text editors for Linux, but no full-featured word processor.

I found through LifeHacker and a book from the library, Ubuntu Kung Fu, (don’t know what I found first) that I could install a little dos emulator and then run a free version of Microsoft Word for Dos from Microsoft, full screen, no problemo.

If nothing else, the idea of getting something free from Microsoft…. So I did the work, and there it is. Old-school. But it is pretty cool, really. It prints, it saves… no distracting Internet – but it even has text-based mouse support (that little square cursor jumping across the page). Easy on the eyes, no tiny delay while you are typing, no onscreen fonts, formatting… nothing, nothing between my fingers and the pure words.

My secretary setup

My secretary setup

Here’s my setup – you can see the old laptop up and running Microsoft Word for DOS. To the left, I have a stack of Moleskines (notes and such). Above that is a cubby with a bottle of Noodlers Black ink (for the desk pen), a box of 3×5 cards (hidden back in the shadow) and a few spare fountain pens (A white Pilot Prera and some Sheaffer Snorkels). On the right are the current writing books I’m working through and a Staples Bagasse composition book with a desk pen set on top. That’s an Esterbrook desk pen in the Eight-Ball base (bought the pen and base separately at Canton – put a new bladder and lever into the pen). These are common pens from back in the day, but they write really well and have interchangeable nibs. I’m using a 9314M medium stub nib in there right now.

I Make the Switch (danger, geekiness ahead)

I have this image in my mind. There are the two guys, the cool, young, hip Mac guy and the old, chubby loser PC Geek.

The PC Guy and the Mac Guy

The PC Guy and the Mac Guy

They argue for a while then stand there, hand in hand, then… Have you ever seen Bambi Meets Godzilla? Watch it. I love the chord at the end.

That’s what I see in my mind, the big Godzilla foot crushes the two guys, the Mac guy and the PC guy. But Godzilla’s foot says, “Linux” on it.

PC and Mac guy meet Linux Godzilla

PC and Mac guy meet Linux Godzilla

The first time I ever gave Linux a shot was… I don’t know, a long time ago – an eon ago in computer time. These were the days when you still logged on to the Internet through a dial-up connection to America Online (I miss the tones of the dial connection and modem negotiation, the comforting hiss of the data stream starting, coming out of the tinny little speaker). I found a boxed copy of SUSE Linux at a thrift store in Mesquite, Texas. The box had a stack of 3.5 inch floppy disks and a thick, confusing manual. It was on the miscellaneous shelf between the used dishes and the mismatched shoes. It cost one dollar.

It might have been version 4.2, I don’t remember. That was the first version and should have been version 1.1, but they wanted to give it the number of Life, the Universe, and Everything. That sense of nerd humor is one of the nice things to permeate the Linux community.

That old SUSE distribution never ran very well – I think I installed it on a very crappy old 386SX, or something like that. But it gave me a taste and I thought it was cool enough to stay interested and I could definitely get the feeling for the possibilities to come.

So a few years later, I built a custom box and decided to put Linux on it. After shopping distributions and trying a few different ones out, I settled on Fedora Core 6. I was ecstatic.

My home computing setup was to have two boxes under my desk. One ran Fedora and the other Windows. I could switch between them with a KVM switch, which worked pretty well. I even built a switch box so I could play music on one computer and work on the other.

But as time went by, I pretty much stopped using Windows altogether. One by one, the dominoes fell and the Linux Open Source versions of applications became superior to the Windows Junk (plus they were free) and I only used Window for ITunes (to keep my Touch loaded).

I would upgrade my Fedora, usually every other upgrade, on through Fedora 13. Especially, once the Live CD spins became common, I would play around with other distributions. I found some of the smaller, lighter distros extremely helpful in fixing or rescuing other people’s crapped out Windows stuff. I built a server (now undergoing rebuilding) for music, file backup, and web hosting and put Ubuntu on it because the current Fedora choked on its odd video setup.

Over the years I switched from the desktop setup to a Toshiba Laptop running Fedora and Windows in a dual-boot configuration. Still, I rarely booted to Windows – only for Itunes, Adobe Illustrator (I use The Gimp instead of Photoshop, but still haven’t come around to Inkscape over Illustrator) and Dragon Naturally Speaking. Oh, and streaming Netflix – It drives me nuts I can’t do that on Linux.

The other day I cleaned up the laptop, reinstalled Windows (No matter how careful you are, that piece of crap still will eventually get larded up with malware and have to be redone) and moved up to Fedora 15.

And it crapped out. I tried and tried and could not get the newest bleeding edge Fedora distribution to work on my Toshiba. Up until then it had loaded and run without a hitch, but it kept freezing up at unpredictable times. I played around with video drivers and such, but realized I didn’t have time for this crap.

So I installed Ubuntu 11.04, Natty Narwhal. Not a hitch.

So now I’ve switched. I’m still of two minds about Unity, the new Ubuntu desktop, but It’s starting to grow on me.

I’ve never been a great proponent of brand loyalty, but in some ways, by switching Linux distributions, I feel like I’ve abandoned an old friend. Out with the old, in with the new.

Now I’m an Ubuntu freak. Yee-haw.