Saturday, March 29, 2008

Made With Macintosh

On March 12, I acquired my latest Macintosh, the new iMac, with a ginormous screen that I feel I am sitting too close to. Quite a far cry from my first Mac, which was the first Mac, the original, adjectiveless, numeralless plain ol' Macintosh computer, which looked like this:

It is hard to imagine now how thrilling that little Mac, with its monochrome nine-inch screen and its Imagewriter tractor-feed dot printer was back in 1984. To put it in context: I was working for a magazine-publishing company that had recently installed a very expensive computerized editing system, giving us all big green-screen terminals on which to compose or edit manuscripts. We had to insert various codes in order to use the correct typefaces, point sizes, column widths, etc., for our publications. Likewise, we needed codes before and after words we wanted italicized, boldfaced, SMALL-CAPPED, etc....and if we forgot the end code, well, then, everything was bold/italic/small caps up until the next time we inserted a code. If we put something in bold, the plain green lettering on the terminal monitor showed up somewhat brighter, giving us some kind of visual clue, at least; but there were no such clues for italic, small caps, etc.--or for the wrong typeface. Characters appeared onscreen sans descenders, so a g looked a lot like an s, and a lowercase p looked a lot like an uppercase P, since they both sat on the baseline. Not idea...but a heckuva lot better than the typewriters and paper we had used up till then!

Personal computers, such as they were, were much the same--green on dark-green, or amber on dark-amber, or white on such thing as a Graphical User Interface--with all sorts of command codes and break codes and who knows what else. And the dot printers of the day were nothing to dream about, certainly not for someone interested in producing professional-quality manuscripts.

And then came the Macintosh. If you wanted something underlined, you underlined it. Bold? You made it bold. Change the font? Hey, shows up right here on the black, on a pleasantly bluish background. And when it came time to print, the serviceable Imagewriter (my recollection is that the W became uppercase with the later introduction of the ImageWriter II) printed pretty much what you saw on the screen!


Coincidentally, at about the time the Mac came on the market I had just sold my first novel, The Nebraska Quotient, upon the conclusion of which I vowed I would never write another book on a typewriter. There was a small Apple Computer store just around the corner from my wife's workplace in St. Paul, Minnesota, and so I left to pick her up a bit early one day in order to look at the Mac in person. They were so new, and so much in demand, that the man had only a single demo model in the shop. No matter, my mind was made up. The proprietor tried to convince me that the Mac was a fad and that for "real" computing I needed one of the Apple II computers that would soon be gathering dust on his shelves (did he really believe the Apple II to be a superior machine? Or was he trying to unload them before the Mac overtook them? We'll never know...but even then I had my suspicions!), but I was unconvinced. WYSIWYG was a term that had not yet reached my ears, but I know it when I saw it, and I saw it, and I wanted it.

It so happened that a friend of mine was still in college and thus able to score the coveted Mac package with a student discount, and so I placed the order via his good offices, and waited. Indeed, I had begun my second book on a typewriter when finally the Mac arrived one October afternoon in 1984. I taught myself to use the enclosed MacWrite software by retyping the two or three chapters of Moving Targets that I had already pounded out on the Smith-Corona. The Mac boasted 128 kilobytes of RAM, no hard drive--to my knowledge, they didn't yet exist--and a built-in microfloppy drive that read and wrote 400 kilobyte disks. MacWrite had a memory-use issue that slowed everything to a crawl after about 14 pages, but that was okay: I soon learned to break chapters up into smaller chunks, stretching them out across a couple of floppy disks. To avoid the risk of damaging the printer heads on the Imagewriter, Apple recommended letting it cool down after an hour or so of use, which meant--dot printers not being noted for speediness--that it took two solid days to print a book-length manuscript. This involved a certain amount of "babysitting the printer," since you never knew when the tractor-feed paper was going to go off-track, and it was pretty frustrating to wander into the office to see how things were progressing only to discover that the Imagewriter had been overprinting the same line for the past half-hour. Since you could do nothing else on the Mac while printing was in process, I quickly learned to drag the rocking chair into the office and kill time with a book whilst "babysitting."

By today's standards, primitive. By the standards of the day, The Jetsons!

A year or two later, Apple introduced the Macintosh Plus, the so-called Fat Mac, pretty much the same machine but with with 512K of RAM and a double-sided floppy-disk drive. I bought a kit from a mail-order house (this was pre-online retailing, mind), cracked open the Mac's clamshell drive (which required special tools, for the Mac was not designed to ever be opened by the user), popped in the green board with extra RAM, popped out the old floppy drive, slid in the new one, put everything back together...and held my breath when I plugged it back into the wall and booted it up.

Not much later I would add a LaCie hard drive and a LaserWriter II, and worked happily with that configuration on into the early 1990s--I'm thinking 1991, but maybe 1992--when I invested in a Mac IIsi:
One of my everlasting regrets is that, when I bought the IIsi, I traded off the original Mac in return for some extra RAM. I wish I had saved it and turned it into an aquarium or something. Alas.

The IIsi was a nice machine, certainly faster than the Mac, and with the added bonus of color, but it was hardly a standout computer. Indeed, I don't remember that much about it. So I assume it was neither especially fabulous nor especially terrible. I worked with the IIsi until about 1996, when I invested in one of the Mac clones, from the time of that short, ill-starred experiment that Apple Computer undertook. Mine was a PowerComputing PowerCenter Pro IINT, which looked like this one:

The PowerCenter Pro was a lovely computer, and I eventually replaced it only because I had bumped my head against the upgrade ceiling...Mac OS 9 was as good as the PowerCenter got. But it was a fun, speedy, and trouble-free computer for a lot of years, and I was sorry when Apple discontinued its clone program, for that seemed to be the end of PowerComputing. I still have the PowerCenter Pro, on a card table in a corner of my office. As far as I know it still works...tough to judge, though, since the last time I powered it up the monitor refused to cooperate. Might have to fuss with it some one of these days.

The next Mac was a used Blue and White G3, code-named Yosemite, which I bought via eBay perhaps five years ago.

It too was a useful and enjoyable--and pretty!--computer, right up until January of this year when it started running...dreadfully...slow. My attempts to fix it were unsuccessful, and I sometimes wonder if I made it worse. (Hard to see how; I suspect that it was simply failing--perhaps a hard-drive issue--and would have conked out no matter what I did/didn't do.) One fine day last month the silly thing quit booting at all--I'd get the start-up "spinning gear" for, literally, hours on end, and then--perhaps--my desktop pattern, followed by hours of the spinning beachball, followed--perhaps!--by a log-in screen, followed by more beach ball. That is, up until the time it started to refuse my log in. Which is about when I decided it was time to go shopping again.

Odd thing about the G3 purchase: It came as a package, CPU, monitor, keyboard...and no mouse. Why no mouse? I mean, no big deal--I went to Best Buy and bought a USB mouse--but I wish I had asked the seller what the story was with the mouse. Did it fail and he just decided not to replace it when he sold the G3? Or did he have a mouse that he really, really liked and didn't want to sell? Whatever, I guess.

Earlier this month I went online to the Apple Store and ordered up the latest iMac:

This a simply a grand computer, fast, quiet (hell: silent), simple, and a pleasure to work with. I could have stepped down to the next smallest monitor, but what the heck. I do have to reorganize my office to accommodate it--I currently have to peer around the edge of my desk lamp in order to see the extreme left side of the screen--but it seems worth it. Of course, my old scanner, my old LaserWriter II (still works, though hasn't been used in a year or more), my old Zip Drive, my old CD burner (which I don't need, thanks to the iMac's built-in CD/DVD burner), and that old, old LaCie hard drive are now completely obsolete. No idea what to do with them, so I suppose they'll head up to the attic to be dealt with "another day." That's progress, I guess.

Upon learning of my recent purchase, a family member commented, "So you decided to get another Macintosh, huh?"

What a question!

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Keep it to Yourself!

What in the world would give the idea that I upon visiting their web site, would want to be startled, by George Strait's voice suddenly and uninvitedly "welcoming" me and asking me to buy his new CD?

I have whined about this in the past, but apparently my wisdom has gone unheeded.

And it isn't just me. Ken Magill, writing in the latest issue of Direct magazine, hilariously details his experience with "one of the most ignorant e-mail campaigns in the short history of the medium":

    It came in the form of spam from Bing energy drinks, pitching delivery service to offices in Denver.

    It's bad enough that the receiving e-mail address is not used for commercial purposes — so the address was clearly harvested — and that Direct's offices are in New York.

    Clicking on the unsubscribe button spawned a pop-up window that had audio.

    A friggin'
    surprise talking pop-up window in my cubicle.

    "Hey, this is Jeremy from the Dom and Jane morning show and I want to tell you about a product I've been using for a little while," said my computer out of the blue. "It's called Bing. It's a brand-new energy drink that's out there, and it's made from black bing cherries, hence the name."

Magill concludes:

    Message to marketers: Just because you can do something doesn't mean you should. If you want to make a sales pitch on my computer, especially the one at work, please shut up unless I indicate it's cool for you to talk.

I would extend that advice to webmasters as well.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

...Only Pilots Will Have Guns

A far-flung correspondent sends a link to the following report:

    McClatchy Washington Bureau

    Posted on Wed, Mar. 26, 2008

    US Airways pilot's gun went off as he was stowing weapon

    Jefferson George and Lisa Zagaroli | Charlotte Observer

    last updated: March 26, 2008 11:52:32 AM

    According to a report by Charlotte airport police, a bullet that passed through the fuselage of US Airways Flight 1536 from Denver on Saturday was fired by the aircraft's captain as he “was stowing his weapon.” The captain was carrying a 13-shot Heckler & Koch USP .40-caliber pistol as part of the Federal Flight Deck Officer program run by the federal Transportation Security Administration.

    That program has very detailed procedures for handling and transporting firearms, said Richard Bloom, a professor who teaches aviation security at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. Although he didn’t know the details of Saturday’s incident, Bloom said there are a few possible explanations for gun being fired accidentally: impairment by alcohol, drugs or medication, some kind of distraction, or “somebody was just messing around.” “There’s extremely little room for misunderstanding,” he said. “The procedures and so clear and so specifically described.”

    TSA officials and US Airways continued to withhold the pilot’s name Tuesday, citing the investigation. The airline has grounded the pilot without pay. The aircraft remained out of service. The bullet, the police report revealed, penetrated the left side of the cockpit and went through the A319's fuselage. Air safety experts said most planes can withstand such a breach and continue flying normally.

    Read the full story at

Of course, David Letterman had some fun with it last night:

Top Ten U.S. Airways Excuses

Thought it would be fun to shoot empty liquor bottles

Air traffic controller's "Clear to land" misheard as "Squeeze off a round"

Media never reports when plane takes off and pilot's gun doesn't go off

Pilot thought he saw one of them "Cloverfield" Godzillas -- Buy "Cloverfield" on DVD April 22nd

Oh, like you've never fired a weapon onboard a passenger plane before

Don't worry -- His parole officer was in the cockpit

Chillax, bro

This is what happens when you let Dick Cheney fly a plane -- Did you see it coming folks?

If you didn't want gunplay, maybe you should have flown United

Pilot distraught after picking Duke to win it all

Well, fun's fun and all, but it occurs to me that this episode points to an issue that those who favor allowing students, faculty, and everybody else to carry concealed weapons on college campuses has conveniently overlooked: Accidents happen.

Take a look at the McClatchy report again: The pilot was packing heat "as part of the Federal Flight Deck Officer program run by the federal Transportation Security Administration"...that is, it was okay for him to have the weapon on board with him. Luckily no one was injured, or worse. But I can't help but think the scenario might be different if, say, a firearm "goes off" in a college classroom, or dormitory, or cafeteria. For one thing, there are more people there than in an airplane cockpit, so it seems to me that the chance of injury or death is that much greater. Moreover, if--as proponents of armed campuses seem to hope--many if not most if not all of the other denizens of the classroom/dorm/cafeteria are also carrying, are not the odds pretty good that some if not many if not most of them, upon hearing a gunshot (and perhaps witnessing the collapse of an injured person), will draw and start returning fire?

Since, after all, that is the point of allowing them to carry weapons, no? To shoot back at some deranged someone who opens fire? Well, what if the someone is not deranged, but rather careless or clumsy?

The other problem, overlooked by those who favor totin' guns, is that it's difficult to tell by looking who the badguys are. The idea seems to be that we can tell the badguy because he's armed. But if we're all armed...well, since no one is in uniform, how are we to know whom to shoot? Seems to me that, rather than averting tragedies on campus, arming college communities is invited more, and more frequent, tragedy.

Meanwhile, I would be in favor of revisiting that Federal Flight Deck Officer program, too. It's good to know that "most planes can withstand such a breach [a bullet piercing the fuselage] and continue flying normally"...but human beings are somewhat less resilient where bullets are concerned, and the next time it might not just be metal that's in the way.

And Some Have Greatness Thrust Upon Them

Well, I must say, I am both surprised and deeply, deeply humble. Surprised because my inbox this afternoon contains this notification: "Congratulations! joining the eBay Silver PowerSeller Program!" Despite the dubious English, I plunged on ahead to the message itself. It seems I am now a Silver PowerSeller, apparently because I've "been on a super sales streak" for some little time now. Among the perquisites and honorifics that now ascend to me are the right to have the "PowerSeller icon" () next to my User ID, not unlike badge of honor. I am also now entitled to "PowerSeller Priority Support via email webform and phone support at Silver level and above," which I'm pretty sure is good, and I shall be able to hobnob with my fellow PowerSellers via a "Discussion Board"--a proper noun, no less, so you know it's important--where I have no doubt we shall indulge in the cyber equivalent of sitting in gree-leather wingback chairs smoking cigars and drinking brandy.

And yet, despite this towering achievement, I feel a sense of humility, a small still voice that says perhaps--just perhaps--I am not worthing of such a distinction. Why, you ask. Why, as I stand at this pinnacle of greatness, do I hesitate, why does my Mighty Mouse not jump immediately to "Go to the PowerSellers Portal"? Can it be a deep-seated fear of success? Can it be insecurity to associate with other, possibly greater PowerSellers? Can it be feelings of guilt at pole-vaulting over other, lesser mortals whom I would now leave behind?

Or could it b that I've never sold a damn thing on eBay?

Sunday, March 23, 2008

What Works, What Doesn't

That Worked!

It is a sign of our times--and not a good one--that one finds himself amazed and gratified when something actually works as it's supposed to.

A recent case in point: Last week I acquired a new iMac, and am in the process of porting files, adding software, etc. One of the pieces that was missing was an infrequently but well-liked application called RadioLover, which allows one to record internet radio for later listening.

Miraculously, I had the order confirmation from when I had purchased the software in 2003, which included re-downloading instructions. I followed them, installed the software, entered my ancient registration number...and say presto! it was up and running! Strange but true!

That Worked...Eventually

Meanwhile, I spent the better part of two days horsing around with the Apple AirPort Express that arrived in Friday's mail. Not quite the plug-and-play exercise that Apple would have you believe. First, Airport Utility refused to "find" the AirPort Express, which was plugged in some three feet distance. Well, plugged and unplugged, and the iMac was restarted and restarted. Finally I had the bright idea of running the Ethernet cable not from the DSL router to the unfound AirPort Express, but rather from the AirPort Express to the iMac, and, behold, they began to communicate! Thus able to configure the AirPort Express, it was on to creating the wireless network.

That proved more problematic. Actually, creating the silly thing was easy I discovered while doing it over and over and over again. Getting the network to stick around so that I could instruct AirPort to use it was the tricky part. Many attempts, re-attempts, restarts, and words that are inappropriate to the Easter season. By late Friday, I had about decided to pack everything up and ship it back to Apple.

Saturday morning I dinked around with it some more, did a "factory reset" of the AirPort Express, and for no reason that I can think of managed to create yet another network that, this time, appeared in the AirPort menu and seemed inclined to last awhile. Indeed, I was able to get the iMac online wirelessly, even though the AirPort Express stubbornly continued to display a blinking amber light instead of a steady green light. Eventually I got tired of looking at the blinking light, ran AirPort Utility for the 10,000th time, and managed to correct whatever problems it was having.

All seems to be working well now, and the wireless network seems to be working well on my daughter's MacBook Pro as well as the Dell Inspiron laptop I have on loan from my workplace. But what a colossal pain! Occasionally one wonders about Apple's much-vaunted reputation for simplicity!