Keyboard Lord

August 20th, 2010 by Harrumpher Leave a reply »

kingAs alpha-geek in my circles, I help chums and family choose, configure, repair and use computers and software. That may have more to do with longevity and happenstance than cleverness. I go back to when being a computer user meant telling the guy who could generate the mainframe punch cards what you needed from some data.

Then and in the following several decades, I had to know how things worked. Even if I couldn’t do all the programming myself, I had to know enough about the hardware, firmware and software to make things work. That’s kind of like the days when cars all had carburetors and spark plugs. Plain folk could fix them.

Blessings and curses now. Even Windows has so emulated Mac that we’re reduced to plugging computers and their peripherals together. If something doesn’t work automatically, if the operating system doesn’t perform blind magic, we’re lost.

Tech helplessness

In that sense, we have become the gentle Eloi, as in H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine. Likewise, short of some fictional drama, most of the time, that magic happens. We pay for lots of memory, a fast processor, and high-end graphics. The flabby, invisible operating system and firmware find the printer, internet connection and so forth. We pretend we are cybernetic experts.

The fun comes when we get all regal on our PCs. We for our $400 or $700 or $1,200 or more are lords of our electronic servants. How dare they delay us?!

Sure enough, computers continue to increase power and decrease price. Few of us notice that the software, particularly the operating systems, have become flabby beyond belief. In this era of media and personal panic over obesity, we don’t see the gluttonous, demanding critters before us.

Depending on how far your WABAC machine can take you, you may recall much smaller, but less capable software. Back when PC were starting in the days of CP/M and DOS and then early Windows OSes, programs took some kilobytes of memory. My first word-processing program loaded in 32K.

Forward to our new version of the real world, we’ve gone to programs that took megabytes (each 1024 kilobytes) and some gigabytes (1024 megabytes). On the hard drive, those programs may take many hundreds of megabytes or even several gigabytes for their stuff. You can see examples of all those maybe useful components if you load an Adobe/Macromedia program, say Acrobat Pro or Photoshop. The hundreds of parts load and load and load.

Then we feel like kings indeed. Our servants are muscular, with many powers. They have 250 or maybe a terabyte of hard-disk memory and four or six or eight gigabytes of RAM. We command such an army on our desks or in our briefcases!

Flabby software

Yet, let’s not delude ourselves too much. Those gigs of RAM and HD are necessary for the absurdly large, complex and compensating OSes and software. They have to be compatible with older versions as well as other programs. They need to have drivers for hardware and dozens of utility functions to do all the magic behind the curtain. The Eloi don’t know how to fix anything that doesn’t work seamlessly and without error.

Like Macs from the beginning, the Windows versions from NT up are waddling fatties. They need tremendous nourishment in terms of disk and RAM. They need faster and faster processors just to function, like a tubby queen immobile without her sedan chair.

There are alternatives, such as Linux. Its various flavors are each a trim, fit OS that makes few demands on hardware. Alas, they are beyond the capability of the Eloi. We need to understand some programming and know about peripheral interfaces and a little networking to install and configure it. Pardon the pun, but fat chance for the computer kings to forgo their luxury and sense of power.

The funny part is when royalty find themselves waiting. The browser page is slow to load. The high-power PC doesn’t print the file. The spiffy MacPro can’t save the file when the royals just know there is plenty of disk space. The screen freezes and minutes or hours of work go to the unknown fate of derelict electrons. The PC seems to get a little slower every week and the royals are like their 16th century counterparts with suddenly decrepit lackeys.

That’s where this geek alter kaker (GAK; I think I can reuse that) becomes useful. I have rescued Mac users who have work in some odd limbo. I cleared Windows cache and temp files, and then defragmented hard drives, and finally removed useless programs that load automatically, filling memory.

Sometimes, I’ll answer the why questions. Yes, Macs are easier, but some versions require you to remember exactly where you stored something last or they lose it. Yes, PCs are more powerful, but Windows retain the absurd flaw of picking up a program you use, putting it into RAM, then redepositing it more or less randomly back on the hard disk, placing its components’ fragments farther and farther in myriad pieces.

Help us

I suppose it’s true that kings and queens should not have to fill their heads with such things. Yet, wasn’t it the likes of Frederick the Great of Russia who chose to understand everything in Russia from the plow to the throne?

We surely have gone too far in our dependence on computers to configure and fix themselves. That should be plain enough when we royals become subjects as we submit to tech support or the horrors of the God awful lameness of Microsoft help systems. Even royals can read what’s on the screen. What they want to know when they press F1 are the most likely fixes to the most likely problems on that screen. As I learned from my days as a tech writer, the help system user has a simple, single, reasonable thought — “Make me smart fast.”

What our modern world of cheap cybernetic power has generated is a legion of entitled pseudo-royals. We tend to feel indignant when our machines do not satisfy our whims instantly. We are entitled. We deserve instant everything in the internet age.

When I help chums clean up their systems, get rid of parasitic and unnecessary software, and explain why this and that and the other clogged the works, they are invariably contrite. They say they should have known or acted.

Then again, why should they? Both hardware and software vendors, as well as the monsters of Microsoft and Apple, pretend all is plug and play. Buy our crap and you don’t have to know anything. It all just works.

Well, Eloi, yes and no. You can get adequate performance out of the box and package. That’s true enough. Knowing why things work or don’t honestly isn’t going to hurt and is likely to come in real handy.

I’ve tried to teach my three kids what’s inside the case, literally and figuratively. The first one works in IT and in some ways has far surpassed me. The other two know more than their peers and can tweak their systems well enough.

Those are skills and lore that may be like people reading unabridged dictionaries and encyclopedia for fun. It’s freaky but makes one much more interesting and useful.

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