Saturday, March 21, 2015

Living with computers

Just thinking how commonplace computers and such have become in my lifetime; actually it's not even that long. My first experience of computers, as far as I can recall, was when I worked at the Dunedin City Council, back in the eighties. We couldn't actually change anything on the computers (which in those days were still fed by cards with holes punched in them), but we could type something onto one of the terminals, and print it out. That was Big Time! (The actual computer filled an entire room and had enormous rolls of tape spinning around working very hard.)

I think the very first computer we actually owned was one that was about the size of a calculator: it was about twice as long horizontally as vertically, and you could only fit one program onto it at a time. With an upper limit of something like 64 bits...! It was very low level programming, but it worked...even though it was frustrating having to delete one programme in order to do another. From memory this was called the Casio PB-100, and it was very popular, in spite of its considerable
limitations.

I remember sitting up to the wee hours of the morning inputting information on its little keyboard, and getting very frustrated when one single error would make the whole programme refuse to run.

At some point after that I used a friend's computer. He was always somewhat ahead of us, and had a computer where you spent a great deal of time typing stuff in via the keyboard (that was progress). You had to add in information for bolds and italics and all that sort of thing, because of course it did none of these by the mere press of a couple of keys. There was no mouse, so if you made a mistake you had to go back by pressing the cursor (at least I think that's what we must have done - it's a long time ago) in order to change things.

And then all this information was recorded on a tape. You'd play the tape back and only then would you discover whether you'd done everything correctly or not. If you hadn't, you have to go back and find the error and fix it, and then record it again and then play it again...I don't know how we had the patience, quite honestly.

Was it really this big? Seems enormous. 
Finally, around 1989 we bought an Amiga 500; this was truly the Big Time! What a wonderful machine that was. Okay, you had to save things to disks, and it was wise to do this fairly regularly. And you couldn't use more than one programme at a time, so none of this modern idea of having several programmes open that you're working on simultaneously. You had to find your own typos and do your own proofreading. Woe betide if you didn't save on this machine...the work was gone for good.

I first learned to use a mouse with the Amiga. I can remember trying it out at a friend's house and seeing the cursor flying out of control all over the screen, and wondering how anyone ever got any finesse with it.

The Amiga played some great games, ones we thought we far superior to what Microsoft was producing at the time. And we eventually began to discover email, and the Internet. It would cost us a dollar an hour to be online, and we could spend an hour just getting online. Email was terrific; the Internet didn't seem to be that big a deal initially.

Regretfully, Amigas went out of circulation, and we finally had to concede to buying a PC. (Which was named Alphonse, as have all of his descendants since). Though we mourned the loss of the Amiga, it didn't take long to get used to the new style, and by now browsers had appeared, and we realised just how extraordinary the Internet was. And this was before Wikipedia, IMDB and dozens of other sites that we use all the time - even before Google. Remembering a time when these didn't exist, or when they were baby sites trying to find their way, seems odd now. They've become so much a part of the Internet worlds.

And then we added a laptop to the family (this must have been in the mid-noughties, because we had we carted it around parts of Europe in 2007). Later, though probably not that much later, an iPad invaded the place, and an iPhone (this was my wife: she's always been up with the play), and then Smartphones and such.

Now my wife even has a Mac after the laptop became sluggish and slow. I don't personally like it much: Apple seems to have contrarily put things that are normally on the right in the PC on the left, just to be annoying. And there are other things about it that don't grab me. Still, it has its points, and occasionally I do concede and use it for something.

The computers over the year have done very little 'computing' - for me they're biggest benefit has been being able to write at speed, and correct easily (I bought my first typewriter in the year I first started work and taught myself to touch-type; that was around 1960...), and cut and paste and so on. But the other big boon has been the music programme, Sibelius. If only I'd had this when I was younger I would have had a ball with it. The hours it would have saved writing out fair copies of music for others to be able to read. Not to worry, it came along in good time, and along with the millions of words I've written on the various computers, there have been hundreds of thousands of notes.

What a time to be alive!

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