Midday Break


Maybe it’s time to put the tools down for a moment.

One computer expert worked for Opera Software to port their browser to a toaster. I thought you’d put two slices of bread into a toaster, but I guess some people put a browser in theirs. Give me a toaster and a CD and I wouldn’t even know how to get started.

Sometimes my computer misbehaves. Then I send it to bed without dinner.

I’m not a doctor, not a surgeon, but I did a head transplant all by myself. I don’t think I washed my hands and my tools might have been a bit rusty. Afterwards, the patient was able to read and write, but was blind and mostly catatonic and sometimes whined. The skin was beige; the blood supply was about six quarts short. I doubt I ever heard “Mac” (a nickname) talk after the surgery. Visualization was colorless. I consider myself pretty generous for providing Mac a home for a few years, even though I never provided a glass of water and sometimes limited Mac to eating dust. I encouraged low self-expectations, befitting the small memory, so that every little accomplishment would be remarkable. It was a nice Macintosh computer. I replaced the hard drive, which had read/write heads, thus I performed head transplant surgery. You can call me Doc, I say, modestly. Thanks, but you don’t have to send me a medical license.

We know about an anagram. We know about Google, which sometimes takes your spelling and asks if you meant another. Now search Google for “anagram” (without quote marks).

If you know about HTTP status codes, here’s a new take on them. “On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog”, but if you are a dog, this might not be your bowl of kibble.

I’m about to fix a computer’s hardware. I don’t want static electricity from me to wreak havoc (and force me to buy an expensive circuit board). I wrap a strap around my wrist and, with the strap, plug my wrist into the wall, into the 120-volt outlet. People watching me evidently have never seen anyone do this. I guess they trust me, since they’re not screaming at me or yanking me away from the wall. I start doing the next step and they leave the room. They probably didn’t notice that the plug had only one prong, the grounding pin, and, unless the outlet is badly miswired and that likely is okay, I can’t get electrocuted or even surprised by a shock. What they don’t know won’t hurt me.

We print a page. The paper comes out of the printer. The middle is blank. It’s not supposed to be. As we discover this, the phone rings in the room with the printer. It’s the boss, from outside the office, probably at home, a few miles north. She says it’s coming out blank. Our network is as local as can be, maybe twenty feet of cable, nothing through the air or up the street. I almost ask her how she knows. I can’t think of anything else to say or ask. Then, before I get the first word out, she says, “[t]he fax.” Now I get it. The fax machine is in another room and probably someone’s trying to fax something to the boss exactly when we’re printing and when she called I happened to pick up the phone. I told her, “I gotta tell you this” and I tell her about the near mix-up. She appreciates it.

I show up somewhere and ask someone to sign. They get out a pen or maybe I hand them one. I say, “What? You don’t have a pen in your finger?” I helpfully tell some of them, “I know a good surgeon.” I’m trying to convince people that “it’s the latest Internet thing.”

I make a delivery to an office. Someone comes to the door to accept it, but doesn’t have a pen. No problem; I have one. But then I say, “What? You don’t carry your desk everywhere you go? No fax on your belt?” Women get it. Men don’t.

I deliver a bunch of papers to a secretary who probably doesn’t want the paperwork. I promise that the paperless office is right around the corner, should be here any day now. This works on women in the 50s or 60s. It doesn’t work so well on those in their 20s or 30s. The younger ones probably don’t know that decades ago the popular press touted the future with home and desktop computers instead of mainframes. The paperless office? Some functions have moved to electronics, but a big office likely has cartons of blank paper and a supplier trucking more. A sheet of common paper weighs almost nothing, but the average American still uses about 12 pounds a week. And at home? They told us that women could keep recipes on computers in their kitchens, before it occurred to most of us that no one in their right mind would put a $3,000 computer in a room where egg yolks and flour get slung around like ping-pong balls.

I’m the office computer wizard. I didn’t call myself that and I’d rather other people pick up skills and I’ve built a library people can use, but most of them would rather leave zeroes and ones to me and the library is hardly ever touched except by me. I don’t do the IBM-style PCs, just Apple, but no one else does the PCs to the depth that I do Apple, and they probably bring in a specialist for the PCs. This is a nonprofit I support, so I do my stuff for free as a volunteer, except for whatever I have to buy and I hardly ever have to buy anything. I DIY even when I’m slow. I tell another expert that I use the very good desktop publishing program PageMaker as my word processor (even though most of us use Microsoft Word) and she tells me “[y]ou’re the only person who can do that” and she’s likely right. I crack encryption a couple of times; I tell her how for one and she says “that’s the oldest trick in the book” (she’s criticizing the security software). I unerase a floppy disk and feel like a cat that caught a mouse. I didn’t know I could unerase it and I had to convince the floppy disk’s user to let me try it because the worst that’ll happen is they’ll have to spend 50¢ to replace the floppy and she reluctantly lets me try because she’s probably already given up on ever seeing her files again. I left the finished recovery on her desk and saw her about 10 hours later and she was happy. In the middle of all this and more, a boss comes and asks me if I can “stay late and send a fax?” I say, “Yes; can someone teach me how to send a fax?” She starts to say yes and catches herself midsyllable, smiles, then resumes, “Yes”. I’ve never faxed anything or needed to, I’ve never learned how since other people already know, and I’ve never been asked to fix the machine or even reset it. She goes into a big meeting and, I’m told, asks if someone can show me how to send a fax. Lots of people gladly raise their hands. I guess it makes them feel very smart: They know more than I do about some technical subject. Soon, two people separately teach me how to send a fax. I thank both of them. Later that night, I send the fax, successfully. Now, years later, it’s old hat for me.

A leading expert on website usability design has loaned his expertise to the question of how to design a website to engage cats. I have heard of a TV ad designed some years ago to be seen by cats (and presumably their huuman companions interested in why the cat is watching TV). One might note that the website expert’s (Jakob Nielsen’s) article is dated April 1, and that at the end are links to several articles in the spirit of April 1.

Concern was raised by some lay people that a big new atom smasher could destroy the Earth. The staff there has helpfully supplied a website that keeps us up to date on whether the planet has vaporized yet. And, if you poke into the source code using your browser, there’s more, including a rabbit and Twitter updates. Older versions of the website are available at the Internet archive.