The space time technology continuum

Osborne 1 on a Mac screen. (David Smith-Soto/

Osborne 1 on a Mac screen. (David Smith-Soto/

Teaching and Learning and Caring Blog

EL PASO – Sometimes I get so mad I could spit. Talking to an IT person (Information Technology, or so they say) makes me feel like I spent the first forty years of my life living in a cave and the next twenty-four being either senile or hopelessly incompetent.

I was there at UNM medical school when we had large machines that punched holes in IBM cards and we used things that looked a bit like knitting needles to analyze the data. I was there at the School of Public Health in Berkeley when the one computer took up an entire room that was climate controlled and almost surgically clean, and I had keys to it. I was there in 1981 when “portable” computers first came on the market and I bought one. It was an Osborne and I thought this 25 lb.  sewing machine sized computer was a miracle. Remember, the downsize was from an entire room to a sewing machine.

Osborne 1 on a Mac screen. (David Smith-Soto/

Osborne 1 on a Mac screen. (David Smith-Soto/

When I came to UTEP in 1989, I brought with me three large disks with what looked like movie film on them. These tapes were my data. I had to use a desktop to submit a request to the computing center, they had to load my tape and run the program, and I had to walk over to the computing center to pick up my printout. The printout was on large paper with columns of holes on either side.  Those holes fit on little spikes that turned as the platen on the printer churned out print. When I packed up my office to retire in 2010, I took a tape over to the computer science building to see whether anyone could read it and put it on a CD. Most of the faculty did not even know what I was holding in my hand. One, more seasoned, told me he used to keep one to show students the history of computing, the “back in the day” way. But no one could put my data on a CD. I think I threw my large tapes away.

Now that I have established my bona fides, hopefully I have convinced you that I was ahead of the technology curve at one point in my life. What happened that so many things became a mystery to me? Here’s my take. Computer engineer and programmer brains are different from ordinary people’s brains. They enjoy their exclusive club; they don’t give out decoder rings and have a sadistic bent. If you want to know how to do something, you have to figure it out for yourself or have someone with patience teach you. Often, there seems to be no underlying logic to required steps, and if you make a mistake you often get an error message that is not a message, but a series of numbers and letters.  There is no way to find out what the “message” means without an IT specialist. Reread the first paragraph of this blog. Some errors are even what computers call “fatal.” The question is fatal to what or to whom?

We can make computers so smart with algorithms of knowledge that they can win against really smart people in Jeopardy, but we can’t make them user friendly and transparent. Some of my Apple friends would argue with this statement, but I don’t mean relatively better, I mean really better. And, why is it that knowledge gained on one machine does not necessarily work on another. Scroll down with arrows, with one finger on the right hand side of the mouse pad, with two fingers, which? Left click, right click, double click. What ever happened to industry standards? Yes, we moved from cassette tapes to CDs; the technology is different but the user just pushes a button labeled play or has a forward arrow symbol. No problem. Who came up with the idea of a circle with a hand that looks like a clock at high noon for an on button?  Maybe that is their idea of industry standards. Whatever happened to red and green symbols for stop and go or real words like on and off? Upgrades of programs or operating systems are often oxymoronic … or just plain moronic. So sometimes, the really tech savvy uninstall the upgrade, and use the earlier version.

When my new laptop mysteriously erases something I just typed, Raymundo suggests I enter control Z. Low and behold the sentences reappear, but I still have no idea why the sentences disappeared in the first place. Just two weeks ago, I was trying to print a boarding pass for my friend Robine from the Netherlands. She was flying out of Cd. Juárez to Taxco. I had the electronic version on my computer screen from e-mail. There was no print menu, and there was seemingly no way to get one.  Suddenly Robine suggested I try control P, though she thought that might only work on a Mac. What do you know? The printer came alive. I had a far distant memory then, of both control Z and control P. It seemed an awful lot like using an Osborne. I used to know all those commands. Then technology happened.

2 thoughts on “The space time technology continuum

  1. I’ve often thought that Apple Z (aka, Control Z) would make a great band name. I find myself saying out loud when I’ve made a mistake offline that needs to be undone. Spill the coffee?? Apple Z!

  2. Great story. Many of us suffer from this sudden acceleration of time these days.

    My programmer friends would read this and say, “Yep, typical user.”

    My non-programmer friends would read it and say, “Yep, that describes my frustration with computers to a T.”

    Cheryl, I remember your Osborne computer and how impressed I was that you mastered Word Star and actually typed documents with it. I could never master Word Star.

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