Wednesday, February 28, 2007

My History With Modems and Heavy Drinking

Hi All!

I've gone out on a big limb by convincing my in-laws to move from dial-up internet to DSL.

As a cable internet subscriber of several years, this move is a baby step. They are getting supposedly 512K speed versus their dial-up which is typically 42K, so things should go over 10 times as fast. Still WAY slower than what I use, but plenty good enough for them, and half as expensive.

I got them set up with US Family which uses Qwest for DSL. The customer self-installable modem and software has arrived in the mail.

Tonight, "I'm goin' in..."

It should be simple, but for some reason, since about 1991, I have lost my knack for making computer related things happen without much head and heartache. This curse is especially strong when doing things I've recommended to older relatives -- I convince them to dip their toes in the frightening waters of modern technology and sit and scratch my head when it's time to install.

That REALLY gives them confidence (sarcasm). After confirming their worst fears with my ineptitude I deserve the extra "support calls" I get when the toaster doesn't brown as well or the TV remote doesn't work right a week after I sweated for an hour in hooking up a printer. Suddenly, everything that goes wrong points to me as a prime suspect.

It's at times like this that I don't wonder whether than my parallel career of heavy drinking has killed a bunch of brain cells. I guess the trivia storage area is the last to go, ''cos I still got that goin' for me, FWIW -- I mean, "for what it's worth".

I keep forgetting that saving bandwidth and "save a bit, save a byte" mentality that led to old internet acronyms like FWIW, IMHO and ROFL and "smileys" are more a way to show off your 1980 computer savvy than the need to save space in cyberspace.

From 1979 to 1995 and somewhat beyond, I made a decent living making computers and software do the impossible ... or at least, improbable. I could not only trick up the hardware but the software as well, and I worked damned hard and did amazing things considering that I was a business major with all of one computer class (FORTRAN 101 - that was REALLY useful -- not).

My first experience with the magical MODEM (Modulate/Demodulate) device was at the College of St Thomas in 1972. There were a few "dumb" workstations at the library and demand always exceeded supply. When I was lucky enough to get a chance, it was required to dial a number on a regular phone and listen for a whistle and quickly seat the handset into a dealy with double rubber cups. After a simple log-in procedure, I had some huge, mysterious compter at the U of M working for me, harnessing the vast power that is now contained the cheapest of watch calculators.

All of this power at the blazing speed of 300 bits of information per second (ideally, with a really clean phone line).

By the time I was in da data bidness a few of my bolder clients invested several large in circuit boards and software to work with the radical new Racal Vadic 300/1200, which, due to the breakup of Ma Bell's monopoly provided 4 times the speed as well as being able to work with the traditional 300 modems. These $2000 devices eliminated the acoustic coupler, plugging right into the phone line and able to be dialed with software.

My modem-enabled clients included legal and brokerage firms which needed access to remote main frame computers for case law lookups and securities quotes. However, that was not the main reason that all of my clients eventually were required to have modems, like it or not.

You see, I found that I could connect to my customers for programming work without leaving the comfort of my basement office. I sold a $5000 package that included modem, a communications board in the computer, software and setup. In light of how dreadfully slow 1200 and later 2400 baud was, the old mini-computers were totally text based. Fancy graphics consisted of making cleverly arranging regular typewriter characters -- later by graphic character extensions which allowed programmers to draw boxes and highlight input fields.

What I am trying to say is that considering what was demanded, 1200 was fine and 2400 was a luxury.

It was good for both my clients and good, but not quite as good to me to have this remote access -- especially those who were 100 miles away, let alone 10 miles away at rush hour or 1 mile away in a blizzard. No suit required, no driving, work when you want and complete opportunity to "inspire" my work with gallons of booze.

Mind you, this was pre-internet. Once the web became more accessible and modem technology got speeds up to 56,000 the cat was out of the bag.

With that, the invention of the PC and MS-DOS and the total 180 degree turn from the hardware outrunning the software to the software driving the hardware, my goose was cooked.

My market rapidly dried out and I was not intellectually (soberly) capable of switching gears to the PC fast track.

Oh, I DID, to a great extent. The last years of my business were spent "migrating" clients from their old Wang mini-computers to PCs using conversion software that allowed the propriety Wang BASIC-2 language to work on these crude new beasts.

As my clients advanced from simple Wang Word Processing to Word Perfect and Wang-Calc to Visi Calc, I was left in the dust. I was simply and totally burned out and could not adapt, even though I saw what was coming. Rather than embrace the progress, I embraced my addiction.

The wistful effort of career change through running for public office drowned, along with my health.

Where I once confidently waded in to any technological challenge with excitement and success, I now am actually frightened by the prospect of installing a "plug-and-play" modem for my wife's parents.

When my kids ask for help with EXCEL and WORD and POWERPOINT and all those other scary things, I feel like an idiot -- not just feel like it -- am.

Now that I've set myself up for yet another technological defeat, things will probably go as slick as a greased hog. I'll let you know.



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