Saturday, August 13, 2011

User Friendly

User Friendly.  That was the term coined by the computer industry to encourage the sale of their wares.  I suppose, after all the science fiction books and movies – remember Colossus, The Forbin Project, HAL from 2001, A space Odyssey, and Vonnegut’s ILLIAC – it was a necessary deception.  These stories depict computers as autonomous villains, able to run amok at will, for no apparent reason.  This, of course, is impossible, for the time being anyway.
            Computers were already user friendly, sort of.  We have been using primitive computers – as remote controls, digital alarm clocks, and cash registers – for many years.  Though to be honest, not everyone can program a simple clock.  Then came VCRs.  Another computer.  A VCR proved to me that not only do real men not ask for directions, they also do not read them.  The day I arrived home to watch Shane, my man was nearly in tears.  The VCR would not record.  He insisted that not only had he read the directions, but also I had obviously bought him a defective unit.  I quickly agreed, but said let’s look at it again before we exchange it.  Actually, it could not be exchanged, as I had purchased it under suspicious conditions.  After reading the manual, I was able to get it functioning properly, but alas, it was too late.  Shane was over. 
            Imagine the turmoil a PC (personal computer) would bring to that man.  Several years later, he bought one, from a home shopping show.  It was touted as the latest model, at a reduced price.  We later learned that these were the orts, manufacturers were selling off prior to releasing newer versions.  Having been a detective in the New York Police Department, he knew he would have no problems with it.  I still had the VCR on my mind.  Actually, he acquitted himself very well; it was I who had the problem.  Mind you, I had been working with computers, PCs, and programmers for over ten years.  Battles with programmers, who told me you could not do this or that, were won when I insisted they approach the situation from another viewpoint.  I got the data bases and search parameters I needed. 
            When Richie’s computer arrived I was ready, and so was hubris.  I knew it all.  Now, no one really reads all those huge manuals that are included, not even me.  However, you really did not need to, as so much was ‘user friendly’ or self-explanatory.  At that time, you still had the C:\ (command prompt) and your windows application.  For those of you who are just getting to know PCs, C:\ was a plain black screen, with green, orange, or white lettering.  Most computers would open into that function, even if they had a windows application  When I began using computers there were no commercially available windows programs for home purchase.  We were uptown.  I explored.
            By this time, Richie was a Private Investigator working with Legal Aid.  He wanted programs similar to those he had used at the P.D., where pressing an F key would bring up a rap sheet or some other form for him to fill in the fields, without changing the rest of the form.  That would have taken about $2000 for a programmer.  Six months of intensive study would probably have enabled me to learn how to program, if I was lucky.  I was too busy.  While there were programs I could have adapted in GeoWorks - the windows application - it did not look like the forms he was used to.  Lotus provided the next best solution.  I borrowed the disks from a friend who worked at a bank.  The warnings about non-qualified users and theft gave me no pause.  I loaded Lotus 1-2-3 onto the computer and created forms that Richie deigned to use.  Now I was a computer Goddess.  I could do anything.  Things went along smoothly, for a time.  I learned file management and how to create buttons to choose which application to use and which one to start the computer in.  They were well hidden, but I was even able to ferret out the games in QBasic.  Disaster struck.  Tooling along in my merry, confident way, I disappeared everything from the screen.
            Did I panic?  I did not.  Why, you may wonder?  Because I knew that everything was still in there.  I shut the computer down and waited til all sound died, and then started it again, knowing it would re-boot itself.  But the screen was still blank.  I heard the horses trotting along as if it were doing something, but there was no color, no light.  No problem.  I opened the manual and read the index.  Seemingly appropriate topics were useless.  Customer Support ran through my mind.  Where had I put that 800 number?
            This was when the home PC industry was still in its infancy, so there was only a two-minute wait for a technician, who cheerily asked me about my problem.  I told him.  First there was a pause, then he said to “shut the computer off, turn it on again and when the C:\ comes on” I stopped listening.  I knew he had not understood the extent of my loss.  When he wound down I simply said, “I’ve lost the C prompt.”  Another pause, then in incredulous “What?” came over the wire.I explained that the C prompt would not appear, though I could hear the horses, but no bells, lights or whistles.  An even longer pause as the tech attempted to gain control of his laughter.  When he could speak, he said “Don’t worry, it’s all still in there.”  “I know that.”  I said.  “I just can’t make it come out and play with me.”   He double-checked to make sure he had the right steps, while I waited, finger poised over the keyboard.  I did as I was told, oddly, without question.  The horses galloped.  Lights reappeared.  As the system re-set itself, I asked him to repeat the steps, so I could write them down.  Just in case.
            I asked if there were any other games, besides Gorilla and Nibbler.  He did not know about these, and asked if I had solitaire and chess.  Yes, in Geoworks, I said.  “Where are the other games?” he asked.  I told him how to access them through the C:\ and QBasic.  Although they were accessed through the C:\, they were full color graphics.  I had redeemed myself.
            State of the art computers have new quirks.  The disk I use in the MAC notebook Dad gave me cannot be accessed at Kinko’s.  Dad taught computer graphics for many years and if he couldn’t make it work with all the additional programs and training he has, no one could.  He was able to print out my phone book, but alas, Kinko’s machine had already altered the format on the disk, so it was in a peculiar format.  I sold the notebook.  Most of the time now, I use the new Gateways at our local University Library.  The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation donated some of these.  There are several older models I do not use.  Our governor had donated them earlier, albeit without programming.  Some wise University employee installed programming from even older computers.  They are not interchangeable with the Janklow donees.  There is one unit, which will not print unless it is connected to the Internet.  Unfortunately, this same machine does not like the Internet.  See how easily one ascribes human qualities to machines?  Is it any wonder writers make them evil?   You cannot reach the University website from any of the computers at the University Library, where most students use computers.  I have always said, computers are not logical.
            The Library was to be closed for four days last week and I had papers to write.  My friend Sharon graciously offered to give me her old computer.  It has no Windows application and the printer requires that special paper with the holes.  Nevertheless, it works and is in my home.  It does not have the usual distractions of the Internet.  The disc system is a 5.5” floppy drive, which no one uses anymore, and she had no manuals.  That means I will have to retype this onto the Gateway eventually, providing I can get the printer to work in the first place, to have something to copy.  Sharon said the games probably would not work.  So far, I have not been able to trick them into playing with me.  Perhaps when I am not on a deadline, or if I can find a number for the company, which took over from the original manufacturer....  Meanwhile, my time would likely be better spent attempting to work the printer.  If you are reading this....


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