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IN PRAISE OF OLDER TECHNOLOGY

Web Site: http://www.bcstechnology.net

You know how it is. There always seems to be some crass individual, a coworker perhaps, or maybe your next door neighbor, telling you about their latest technology purchases. You know what I mean. Exuding copious quantities of techno-lust, they brag about a new VCR, a fancy camcorder or a faster computer, and like the credits scrolling at the end of a movie, there seems to be no end to the amount of mind-numbing detail spewed forth. To hear tell, this new gadget is the greatest thing to affect the human race since Adam figured out what was different about Eve. It's enough to make you want to use your cell phone as a wheel chock for a freight locomotive.

What is really odd, methinks, is that you never seem to hear anybody wax poetic about last year's technology. Now, think about it: when was the last time your neighbor expounded on the virtues of that 486DX33 Gateway decomposing in her attic? Has that bozo in the next cubicle at the office said much lately about the Sony BetaMax that he stuck on a shelf in the garage? You know which one I mean: the one that was once the last word in home entertainment and is now home entertainment to various and sundry multi legged critters, the sight of which would cause Hillary Clinton to scream like Jamie Lee Curtis in those creepy Halloween movies? And, what about you, gentle reader? Fess up! Where did you hide your Commodore 64?

It is a really sad state of affairs. Rampant discrimination against older technology is one of the truly shameful behaviors of our society. Just because it isn't under warranty anymore doesn't mean that your Atari Pong game should be treated with contempt! Sure it's older, slower and larger than its more recent brethren, but it still does what it was designed to do. And, come on, all you veteran computer jocks (defined as anyone who can remember when Monopoly Inc. was selling Micro-Soft BASIC to Altair owners - those who were willing to pay for it, that is). Surely you must have something nice to say about all that ancient computing machinery that caused to you stammer, sweat and swear so often so many years ago.

I, like many mature computer types, have fond memories of those old-time contraptions that defined the work place of another day, much as World War II military veterans have vivid cerebrations of mud-filled foxholes, evil-tasting C-rations and loud-mouthed drill sergeants. So lean back in your chair, close your eyes and let your mind wander back 25 or 30 years. Ah, yes, the memories are gushing forth, are they not? Just like muddy water from the floor drain in your basement after a heavy downpour.

How could anyone ever forget those old fashioned acoustic modems of yesteryear? It is a certain fact that today's modems are very fast and error-free. However, how can you possibly compare the U.S. Robotics Courier on your desktop to a modem that occupied as much room as an upright piano, had more lights than a Christmas tree, cost as much as a two week vacation on the Riviera and consumed more electricity than a New York City subway car? And what about all that sweet music emanating from the modem's innards? Even Beethoven would have been inspired by it had he not gone deaf. Of course those old modems seemed to generate more errors than useful data and were as slow as a snake in a snowstorm. But tell me, bucko, did one of those babies (modem, that is, not the snake) ever slither around on the desktop when you pushed the On-Off switch?

Every computer, we are told, needs mass storage to retain its data. Today's hard drives are marvels of capaciousness, compactness and reliability. However, they pale in comparison to the drives that were in use back when Gerald Ford was going *redacted* over teakettle down the stairs of Air Force One. That new 120 gig Seagate in your PC may hold more data than the Beijing and Hong Kong phone books combined, but it's absolutely boring when compared to those washing machine-sized, antediluvian boat anchors attached to yesterday's systems.

The old drives were as noisy as a bunch of protesters at a political convention and vibrated like the bed in a cheap motel room. And unlike today's drives, which are hidden within the bowels of your PC, yesterday's drives had all kinds of cool-looking indicators and push buttons. They would have seemed right at home on the bridge of the Starship Enterprise. Plus you could look inside them while they were running and they had a nice, flat top on which to set your coffee cup while BS'ing with your co-workers. As a bonus, you could always count on a head-crash to occur at just the right time so as to pulverize the payroll while the checks were being printed. You can't say that lifting out a discombobulated disk pack wasn;t exciting, can you? Not to mention cleaning all that brown er...stuff off the heads and from the interior of the drive tub while wearing a white shirt and tie. I'll even bet you miss crawling around on the floor and changing the air filters!

One of my favorites sources of nostalgia is greenbar paper (I still use it - old habits die slowly, I guess). How could any veteran of the data center not reminisce about this staple of computing life? Greenbar was as important to a seasoned computer jock as .50 caliber bullets were to the tail gunner on a B-17 bomber, as critical to the functioning of the MIS department as a full canteen was to a dog-face hunkered down in a foxhole. Try to remember handling that wondrous, bulky conglomeration of ground-up tree guts, recycled cereal boxes and noxious chemicals! Fantasize about the aroma that wafted forth upon opening a new carton of greenbar, a fragrance that surpassed even that of Canal...er...Chanel Number Five. Picture the paper cuts. Recall the back-breaking work of lifting a fresh box into the maw of a waiting printer, a task that would have brought tears to the eyes of an Olympic weight lifter. Marvel at the amount of arboreal landscape laid to waste so some big shot could get a copy of last month 's sales report. Kind of makes a ream of 20 pound, 92 brightness ink jet paper seem downright boring, eh?

Speaking of printers, I'm sure you think that new color ink jet of yours is a real wonder, right? Yes, it does produce typeset quality text and can crank out graphics that would have made Andy Warhol green with envy. Be that as it may, can you brag about its size or how much noise it produces? Truth is, today's printers are mere specks of matter when compared to the washing machine-sized monsters of yesterday's data center: huge contrivances that emitted more noise than a jackhammer, caused brownouts when turned on and consumed paper faster than a politician comsumes tax dollars. And talk about paper jams. They were the MIS department's equivalent of a 100 car freight train wreck, with pages scattered about like tornado wreckage and confetti from one end of the computer room to the other. It got even more exciting when multi-part forms were involved. The sight of it was enough to make the janitor turn and flee in sheer terror!

Printers, of course, are of little use without a computer to tell them what to say. Today's computers are speedy little demons and relatively inexpensive to purchase. There is no question that the new Athlon XP toy sitting next to your desk is much faster than the mightiest machine that was in use when Jimmy Carter told a Playboy magazine interviewer he had "lust in his heart." (Carter was a bit strange in that regard, as most guys experience lust at a somewhat lower point.) But is your new PC as cool? Not really. After all, one PC looks pretty much like another, and a Blue Screen of Death displays the same thing on everybody's screen.

On the other hand, those old systems were as distinctive as the stripes on a tiger and nearly as dangerous to approach. Huge and forbidding in appearance, they were tucked away in a climate controlled cavern referred to in hushed tones as the Computer Room, a magical kingdom to which entrance was sought by many but granted to few. In the Computer Room, the floor was raised to accommodate the tangle of cables that connected everything to everything else'and to provide a warm domicile for the only kind of mouse found in this environment. (I recall that more than a few system outages were blamed on rodents munching on cables.) Standing tall in the center of the room like a well-nourished T. Rex was The Mainframe. Covered with all sorts of blinking LED's and cryptic readouts, and as big as a cathedral pipe organ, the mere sight of one of yesterday's computing colossuses would make today's wimpy-looking PC's run for cover with their Intel tails firmly tucked between their legs.

Cool or boring, large or small, something that all computers have always had in common is utter stupidity. Computers are dumber than a sledge hammer. In fact, a computer without software is as useless as a leaky space suit (one could argue, considering SoBig, CodeRed, E-mail spam, etc., that some computers are useless even with software). Today's Windows programmers have all sorts of interactive conveniences for writing code: Visual Basic, Visual Java, Visual Virus, Visual Blue Screen of Death, none of which requires that you actually possess any vision. Windows coders also have access to real programming languages like C, Fortran and assembler, although to many, these seem to be as unintelligible as the legal mumbo-jumbo printed on the back of a car rental agreement.

Contrast that to what was available back when Richard M. Nixon was insisting he wasn't a crook. In those days, real programmers had vision, but no Visual whatever. The only viruses found near a computer were in the nose of a sniffling, first year intern. Coding was art on the same level as a Bach cantata, unlike today's coding, which mostly resembles Ozzy Osbourne's attempts at singing "Take Me Out to the Ballgame." Programming convenience was a Teletype machine that could print 100 words per minute - about eight characters per second - or a card reader that didn't jam and mangle eight hours worth of patient pecking at the card punch machine.

Some programmers were lucky enough to have access to a real video terminal, in which case convenience was defined as squinting at a tiny, blurry CRT, typing on a clunky keyboard heavy enough to sink a small ship, and watching characters parade across the screen with the alacrity of a three-toed sloth who had just finished his dinner. Debugging code was 10 percent inspiration, 10 percent chain-smoking and 80 perspiration, the latter the result of trying to beat deadlines, as well as having to manhandle 600 page program listings, printed on greenbar of course. It could be said that about the only thing interactive in this environment was the verbiage hurled at the Teletype or terminal by the programmer as he or she cursed out the stupid machine that kept producing worthless results.

Now, I could go on and on about how it used to be. I could describe the jobs that ran over the weekend, because that was how long it took for them to run. I could reminisce about how much time was consumed in restarting the system after a power failure. I could mention some of the stupid ideas propounded by pointy headed bosses who really thought that with a big enough computer anything was possible. However, I'm sure by now you are feeling very nostalgic, as well as downright exhausted from reading my ramblings. So I'll just leave you with some parting thoughts - questions, actually.

If it's new technology is it better technology? Are you really better off today because of computers? Are we becoming lazy wimps who wouldn't know how to act if confronted by old technology?

While you're contemplating these questions I need to run the payroll again. Can you mount that tape for me and insert a disk pack into drive number four while I load another box of greenbar into the printer?

© September 2003 Steggy All rights reserved


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Generally, old media don't die. They just have to grow old gracefully. Guess what, we still have stone masons. They haven't been the primary purveyors of the written word for a while now of course, but they still have a role because you wouldn't want a TV screen on your headstone. (Douglas Adams)












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