My Binary Life

Someone was ranting on the radio today. That’s not unusual, of course. But what caught my attention was the subject of the rant. “I blame computers,” the ranter said. “It’s all this TV and video games and computers that’s ruining the kids. There’s no creativity.”

And that got me thinking.

First of all, full disclosure: I’m a geek. Specifically I’m a Mac geek. I love me some computers. And I firmly believe that my computer is a tool that makes me more creative. When it’s not completely wasting my time. God knows I’ve spent many an hour tweaking my configuration  and searching for a better way to do whatever I should be doing and developing intricate systems for managing my tasks and generally procrastinating with the full aid and comfort of my computer. And that’s the thing: if you want to waste time, your computer is the ultimate enabler.

But when you want to get things done, the computer is your best friend. I have used mine to manage my writing, make my photos look AMAZING, produce music and make a multitude of other creative endeavors possible. I update my blog, post pictures on the web, distribute my music and keep up with friends all over the world thanks to my computer and a ridiculously high speed internet connection.

I frankly don’t know what I’d do without computers. Or how I lived without them.

I can actually remember life before computers. My baby sister, who just turned seven, has never lived without one. She was a couple years old when she first crawled into the computer chair and started banging on the keyboard. By the time she was four she would announce that she needed to check her email; and then she would crawl into the computer chair and bang away on the keyboard.

This year I set her up with her own email address (linked to my parents’ address for safety, of course). It’s a riot to get an occasional email from her. They almost always end with “The End” followed by a P.S.

My first experience with a computer was in middle school, on the Tandy TRS80. Or, as it was lovingly dubbed by many, the Trash80. There was a game called Hot Dog Stand, a glorious text based adventure in commerce. The idea was you ran a virtual hot dog business, and you had to learn Useful Math Skills in order to make your business succeed. If you didn’t properly implement the Useful Math Skills, your Hot Dog Stand went bankrupt and you lost. Losing looked something like this:

> You have no more hot dogs.
> _

Don’t even get me started on Oregon Trail. That game was stressful. It was a text based adventure that pitted your knowledge of history against the power of the natural elements. At stake: the VERY LIVES of your traveling companions. Talk about putting some pressure on a kid. Losing Oregon Trail was a very traumatic experience; the computer certainly didn’t break the news easily:

> Your party froze to death.
> _

We also learned some basic programming. And by basic I mean BASIC. It was amazing to me that I could put together literally tens of lines of code to do things like multiply 24 by 24. Or have the computer type out my name ad infinitum. I wrote killer apps, let me tell you. Witness the code genius that freaked the screen out on a regular basis:

> 1 Print Timothy is awesome.
> 2 GoTo 1
> Timothy is awesome.
> Timothy is awesome.
> Timothy is awesome.

And so on.

It was at our local public library that I truly fell in love with technology. It was an Apple IIGS, complete with glorious 256 color display, 1 MEGAbyte of RAM and the power of 16 bit processing. Of course, I didn’t know that at the time. What I did know is that I could play a text based adventure that also HAD PICTURES AND SOUND! The game was Swiss Family Robinson, which was also one of my favorite books, not to mention the 5,000 or so times that my sisters and I had watched the old Disney movie.

Oh, that game was truly amazing. Not only did it show you pictures AND describe your surroundings, you could move around the game USING THE ARROW KEYS on the keyboard. As you moved about, the pictures might change to give you clues about what you should do next. Of course sometimes it was hard to know what the right move would be.

> Look West.
> You see a bear.
> Look East.
> There is a tree with low hanging limbs.
> A snake is coiled around the lowest branch.
> Run North.
> The ocean is to the North.
> The bear has noticed you. He looks hungry.
> Shoot bear.
> You don’t have a gun.
> Pick up gun.
> There isn’t a gun here.
> Make friends with bear.
> The bear doesn’t want to be friends.
> Freak out.
> I don’t understand “Freak out.”
> Run.
> Run where?
> Run South.
> The bear has eaten you.
> _

Of course, you could always try again. And again. And again. Our library had a one hour limit on computer usage, but I’d always hope and pray there wouldn’t be anyone waiting in line so I could try JUST ONE MORE TIME. Honestly, I don’t know if I ever got to the end of that game. But I sure had a good time trying.

In between rounds of Swiss Family Robinson, I explored the Apple IIGS system software. The graphical user interface fascinated me. I was intrigued that you could click on these little pictures and open up new windows with more little pictures in them; and somehow all of this represented knowledge and information – stored in that little beige box. I really took a liking to the thing. And I became the library’s de facto IT department as a result.

Which, it turns out, is kinda the story of my life. I don’t know how many calls a week I get from family and friends asking me a question or wanting me to “come over and take a look.” And I’ve developed a bit of a mantra that has become an almost automatic response when I get those calls. It’s like a scripted dialogue:

Them: Standard computer related question. (I half listen to this part of the conversation. Seriously, I’m on autopilot for the majority of these calls.)

Me: Are you using a Mac or a PC.

Them: PC.

Me: This wouldn’t happen if you had a Mac.

If they ARE using a Mac the conversation’s a little bit different at this point.

Them: Mac.

Me: That’s odd. Have you tried rebooting.

Them: No.

Me: Why don’t you reboot the computer for me.

Them: Okay. (Sound of the famous BONG in the background as the Mac reboots.)

Them: Okay. It’s coming up now.

Me: Okay. Now try to do whatever it was you said you were doing when you had the problem.

Them: Okay. Just a second. Wait, wait. Oh. Wow. It’s working now.

Me: Cool. Talk to you later.

This may happen multiple times in the day. With the same person. And every time I ask if they’ve rebooted, the answer will be no.

Here’s the thing about the reboot: sometimes it really does fix an actual computer problem. But, more often than not, the reboot is for the user, not the computer. Rebooting makes the user I’m talking to slow down, retrace their steps and do the task the right way. It’s unbelievable how many times the person on the other end of the phone will say, “Oh. I see what I did wrong!” when I have them go through this process.

I hear a lot of people complain about computers. Many see them as annoyances, however necessary they might be. Some see them as unnecessary gadgetry that stands in the way of getting any real work done. And others, like the ranter I heard this morning, blame them for the downfall of western civilization.

Me, I think computers are as useful as you let them be. I happen to love mine. Whether I want to get things done or just kill some time, chances are I’ll be using a computer to accomplish either goal.