16 March 2014

Computers and me

Last night, I got my first good night's sleep in days. I think it was the computer problem. In fact, one night I know it was specifically the computer problem. I woke up at 2 a.m. and tossed and turned for a while trying to figure out what I was going to do to get the old machine up and running again. I got out of bed at three. Yesterday morning, I reconciled myself to giving up and I ordered a new computer, which should be delivered tomorrow.

My psychological dependence on having a computer that's running normally is nothing new. As soon as we started getting personal computers at work, back in the 1980s, they became a major part of my life. I got my first computer in about 1984 in Washington DC — it was a laptop, and was really more a dedicated word processor than a full-fledged PC. I tinkered with it until I succeeded in making it capable of displaying and printing the accented letters that I needed if I was going to write documents in French. When I have a computer that isn't working right, or won't do what I want it to do, my whole psyche is perturbé, as they say in French. And I want to fix it myself — not ask anybody else to do it.

A non-working computer is about as useful as this brick. I use bricks like this one as door stops here.

Walt and I moved to California in late 1986, and I somehow ended up working in the computer business. First I was managing editor of a computer magazine, and then in 1989 I went to work as an editor and then manager at what was a well-known software company back then. I never really liked living in Silicon Valley, but I loved my work there for years. I bought my first real PC, which was a DOS-based IBM-compatible that had one of those black screens with a blinking cursor and green characters, and no graphical capabilities. I taught myself at home and at work how to take the computers apart and add new components or swap out defective or outdated ones. In general, I'm not a very mechanically inclined person, but with computers it's different.

This tangle of trees looks a little like the inside of a PC — a tangle of wires.

I've always had a computer since then, mostly running Windows. Keeping it upgraded and running smoothly has been a major preoccupation. I even had a Mac once, but I didn't keep it very long — that was when I was working for Apple in the mid-1990s. Then I bought a slide scanner and started taking photos that I could store and view on my PC. By 1998 I had my first digital camera, and the rest is history. Now I have literally hundreds of thousands of photos archived on my PC and on CD/DVD disks. And I have two Android tablets for viewing them over our home network (among other tasks).

I love having easy access to all my photos, so I need to have a computer in good working order. I guess that means I'm a nerd. I don't think I could live a happy life out here in the French countryside, or maybe anywhere else, without a computer (or two or three), good Internet access, and a digital camera (or two). It's hard to imagine how we young American students lived in France back in the 1970s, with no computers, no e-mail, and not even a telephone at home! The only way we could communicate with people was to see them face-to-face, which meant contact with our family and friends back home in the U.S. was limited to letter-writing and snail mail. The good old days... maybe they weren't so great after all.


  1. Ken, I may also be a nerd. At 64 this year, I love this technology and enjoy each moment of a new leaning process. All good wishes to you.

  2. aerograms - packed tiny writing, no margins.
    I met Paul.....went to a doctor who told me I needed parental permission to get the pill. I went over to the Odéon post office to call my parents, collect, and had to wait more than an hour for the call to go through.
    For study, a year or so later -- Paul had a typewriter, but I just couldn't manage the French keyboard as well as normal mistakes. I ended up handwriting my senior thesis.

  3. Glad to hear you're over your computer stress! What brand did you buy? And are you switching back to good-old Windows7 ? I would, given the chance :) Have a nice Sunday! Martine

  4. My first encounter with computers was in 1980 when we went from typewriters and WhiteOut to computer terminals and Delete. That was a couple of years before you joined us at USIA! The Atex System had not figured out how to place accents on top of letters so you had to place them next to the letter involved 0n top of a greenish rectangle[!!!]. My French pride was really hurt and I categorically refused to do so. I would type articles on an american keyoard without accents and they had to hire a French lady to enter all the accents next to the right letters. On the black terminal screen, the text would appear in an awful green color. Word processing was a real feat at the time!

  5. Ken - do you have access to Vanity Fair Mag - the last issue had a very scathing artile entitled "lIBERTE!EQUALITE!FATIGUE! concerning the author's perceived fall of France in many ways. Curious of your opinion of what you see going on in our fav country besides the USA

  6. Hmm. My Dell desktop must be ten years old at least, but I'm hoping to keep it staggering on for another couple or so.

    As regards the transition, I fondly recall the Christmas my brother showed us his brand new "luggable" computer way back in the 80s. It was the size of a suitcase with a drop down keyboard and a 6" screen. He showed our mother the WP program and touch-type tutor, and off she went. The trouble was, I don't think she'd even used an electric typewriter in her long office career, so we were all in fits as at the end of every line she leaned out to whack the side of the computer.

  7. Be careful what operating system you get.....I have windows 8 and like it and still find dealing with photos so unsatisfactory. Dell is still selling machines with windows 7. My husband was a professor of computer science and did consulting for several companies. Univac bought him a very big sort of pc in the early 80s to use at home for his work for them....He really didn't think people who didn't work in the field would ever really want such things....He was part of the DARPA network in the '60s when he was a grad student at Case....Memories.......

  8. So true!

    Can't wait to see what you've ended up with for your new computer.

  9. Working life at Rowntrees. Oh the joys of computer programs on punch cards! Red stickies to make corrections! A water-cooled IBM mainframe computer that filled a large room, the equivalent five years ago would power my mobile phone. P. (ps useful comments about Windows 7 - thanks)

  10. Enjoy a good night's sleep tonight...before you have the anxiety of getting your new buddy up and running.

    I'm so happy that I married a computer geek, that has made my life a lot more interesting and fun. Wouldn't have met you otherwise!

  11. Those were the days! I had no trepidation about opening a computer and replacing whatever needed replacing. Or, in the case of hard disks, going bigger and better.

    Those days are gone.

    I still have two towers... one Windows XP (!) and one Windows 2000. But the majority of my work takes place on my 3.5 year old Windows 7.0 laptop.

    Ellen - your comment about aerograms brought a smile. Remember them well. Except, when I first got to France in 1974, the postal workers were on strike so we would go to CDG and ask departing fliers to send letters for us!

  12. When my PC isn't working or the internet is down, I feel totally cut off from the world!


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