Making Excuses

The internet, and computers in general, seem to think we’re dumb.  I say that because of the false information they routinely give.  I was recently on a website run by a reputable *ahem* agency.  It turns out that the information they gave me was incorrect.  The next week when I went to check the status of my transaction, it said I couldn’t do so because cookies were blocked on my computer.  Well, cookies aren’t blocked.  I had to call said agency to ask about the status.  I was then told that what I’d requested was valid “only during the pandemic” (excuse me, I thought we were still in a pandemic?) and that was the reason I couldn’t check the status online.  That service was no longer available.  So why did the auto-response blame it on cookies?  I miss the generic “technical difficulties.”  At least it was honest.

We’re all busy these days.  Keeping websites up to date matters.  It doesn’t help when some software person decides some techie-sounding excuse ought to satisfy you.  Whenever I restart my computer, for example, I get a dialogue box—it’s more of a monologue box, really, since it isn’t asking for anything but acknowledgement that its incorrect information has been delivered.  In any case, it tells me that the computer decided to restart because of a problem.  No it didn’t!  It restarted because I gave the restart command!  Is this a problem?  I thought I was authorized to restart my own computer.  Why is it lying to me?  Is it colluding with the websites that are making up excuses?

Are we really that stupid?  Computers seem to think so.  On my work computer (PC, of course) you no longer have a trash can in which to discard old files.  No, now we have a recycle bin.  Recycle bin?  Really?  While I appreciate the message that we should recycle whatever we can, this is not a case of recycling at all.  It is a matter of getting rid of something I no longer need.  I guess what I’d like from our machine overlords is a bit of respect for our intelligence.  Sure, we may be subject to biological constraints that don’t apply to the electronic world.  We do have lapses in judgment just as surely as devices have bugs.  A world that runs by algorithms alone is hardly a world in which we could live.  So my devices may well be more logical than me, and if so they should figure out that they don’t need to lie or make excuses. Just say “technical difficulties,” I can live with that.


Anticipation

My work computer was recently upgraded.  I, for one, am quickly tiring of uppity software assuming it knows what I need it to do.  This is most evident in Microsoft products, such as Excel, which no longer shows the toolbar unless you click it every single time you want to use it (which is constantly), and Word, which hides tracked changes unless you tell it not to.  Hello?  Why do you track changes if you don’t want to see what’s been changed when you finish?  The one positive thing I’ve noticed is now that when you highlight a fine name in “File Explorer” and press the forward arrow key it actually goes the the end of the title rather than just one letter back from the start.  Another goodie is when you go to select an attachment and Outlook assumes you want to send a file you’ve just been working on—good for you!

The main concern I have, however, is that algorithms are now trying to anticipate what we want.  They already track our browsing interests (I once accidentally clicked on a well-timed pop-up ad for a device for artfully trimming certain private hairs—my aim isn’t so good any more and that would belie the usefulness of said instrument—only to find the internet supposing I preferred the shaved look.  I have an old-growth beard on my face and haven’t shaved in over three decades, and that’s not likely to change, no matter how many ads I get).  Now they’re trying to assume they know what we want.  Granted, “editor” is seldom a job listed on drop-down menus when you have to pick a title for some faceless source of money or services, but it is a job.  And lots of us do it.  Our software, however, is unaware of what editors need.  It’s not shaving.

In the grip of the pandemic, we’re relying on technology by orders of magnitude.  Even before that my current job, which used to be done with pen and paper and typewriter, was fully electronic.  One of the reasons that remote working made sense to me was that I didn’t need to go into the office to do what I do.  Other than looking up the odd physical contract I had no reason to spend three hours a day getting to and from New York.  I think of impatient authors and want to remind them that during my lifetime book publishing used to require physical manuscripts sent through civilian mail systems (as did my first book).  My first book also included some hand-drawn cuneiform because type didn’t exist for the letters at that particular publisher.  They had no way, it turns out, to anticipate what I wanted it to look like.  That, it seems, is a more honest way for work to be done.


Upgrade Downgrade

I don’t have to have the latest toys. In fact, I am happy to stay with what I have as long as it works. I’ve been a frugal lad all my life. The increasing demands of technology worry me. Nobody has to tell me that I keep odd hours. Waking up between 3:00 and 3:30 is hardly normal. Since I post on this blog before I go to work, I get up and turn on the computer, ready to write. As I learned three laptops ago, if you don’t keep your updates updated, you soon find yourself unable to do anything on the web. With my last laptop, whenever an update notice came, I immediately acquiesced. “What humble work I have to do, sir, pales in comparison to your mighty plans.” Now updates begin automatically. Most often I have no say in the matter. In fact, the first thing I saw when I started up my most recent computer was a message saying that a software update was ready to install. So what does all this have to do with my insomniac habits?

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Computer companies assume nobody is getting up and working at 3 a.m. While we’re sleeping our computers are making their electronic deals and sending out their electronic handshakes. We mortals need our slumber. I don’t even know what half this software on my computer does. I know that if it’s out of date, problems are sure to arise. So when I awake to find my computer’s too busy to accommodate me, I wonder how to post on my blog. Some updates politely run in the background, but others necessitate that I turn off the software I actually know how to use until it’s done updating. By the time it’s finished, I’ve forgotten what I was going to write. The computer now determines what might be expressed. When something goes wrong, we’re forced to learn its language. We’re in its country now. Technology is its national language, by law.

Once I was told that travel faster than the speed of light was impossible because of navigation. If you can’t see what’s in front of you because you’re traveling as fast as anything can, how do you know you won’t run into a planet, comet, or software update? You have no means of getting feedback in time to react. It strikes me that we’re already traveling well beyond the speed of light. I grew up writing without a typewriter. I wrote stories and articles on paper with lines, using a pen or pencil. Now I rely on my devices to store my ideas, but they’ve got other plans. I have to wait until they’re done to do my work. Of course, we must conform. At 3:30, human, you should be in bed. My advice to you, dear reader, is this: don’t wake your machine at the witching hour. You might not like what you find.


Ancient History

In the white heat of rhetoric, my word processor froze up. I don’t have much time for writing with my commuting schedule, so the full forty-five minutes lost between the typing of a letter “s” that apparently caused the meltdown and being able to access my text was lost in a prayer that my work hadn’t been lost. I remember the days when everyone used Microsoft Word and there was this joke going around about the Devil and Jesus being tested on their computer skills. I can’t remember the joke but I do recall the punchline: “Jesus saves!” So it was in those days that you had to hit “save” every few minutes or your work would be lost. Many laments could be loudly heard of students having lost an entire paper because they’d forgotten their prophylactic “save”s. I found that working on a Mac that such problems weren’t always so bad. But then, system upgrades became more frequent. Two programs that you needed open simultaneously, Word and Internet Explorer (called something else in those days, but I can’t remember what), were a sure recipe for mutually assured destruction. The memory required would freeze even an Apple to its core, and so the systems gurus made improvements and things got better.

Of course, those of us who’ve spend the Gross Domestic Product of a small country on Apple devices have been lulled to complacency. Over the years (since the fiasco of the original iMac) we’ve come to learn that Apple will save our work, and that crashes, while infrequent, will bring our files back onto the screen after recovery. You really don’t need to save since autosave is capable of being the messiah of all computer files. Then the gurus upgraded the system. For the past several months I can’t run a word processor and internet browser simultaneously on my computer without freezing up the system. Imagine my chagrin when, having less than an hour to write, copy, paste, and post my blog entry for the day, my word processor decides that it doesn’t recognize the letter “s.” Of course, Apple long ago stopped being compatible with Microsoft Word. Those of us who used both Macs and Word cheered when the two finally became compatible about a decade ago, but in the battle for computer supremacy, we no longer have that option. My Mac can open Word files and save documents as Word files, but it can’t run Word. Instead it runs word processors that don’t recognize that most rare of characters, the insidious “s.”

So I went to back up my files over the weekend. I keep some files on a memory stick (so called) because they take up a lot of space and I don’t use them that often. The memory stick failed in the middle of a save (doesn’t Jesus save anymore?) and I spent an entire Saturday trying to recover files that were already saved. According to some Christian traditions, once saved, always saved. You can’t be unsaved. After losing an enormous amount of work that equated to many hours of precious weekend time, I’m beginning to have my doubts about my faith. Using Pages, Apple’s version of Word, is sure to lead to a crash. This has been happening since at least September. I get systems upgrades more frequently than calls from telemarketers. I really don’t ask for much. I’ve got about an hour to get my writing done in the morning and I would really, really appreciate it if forty-five minutes of that hour weren’t taken up by Pages trying to recognize the letter “s.” After all, not even Jesus can save without it.

In the beginning was Word...

In the beginning was Word…


Christian Computing

Science and religion are often portrayed as fighting like dogs and cats. Both claim superiority and a comprehensive worldview that should make sense of everything. With reality television probing deep into the lives of rural folk who still hold to the old ways, it is easy to think that religion is awkward and backward and an embarrassment to the technologically sophisticated. In electrons we trust. As with most simplistic views, however, this dichotomy is overly dramatized. I recently found a flier for Computers for Christ. I didn’t have time to read it carefully, but the space-age font immediately told me that this was vintage 70s or 80s, back when computers were still so new that most of us had never seen an actual exemplar and we had to guess what the future might hold. Would these things catch on or not? A little closer reading revealed the date of 1982, back when I was a college freshman. I had, by that point in my life, never knowingly glimpsed a computer.

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Sitting here with a computer on my lap, and another in my pocket, I wondered what ever happened to Computers for Christ with its space-age crosses and early embracement of technology. I didn’t find anything that really matches it with a half-hearted web search, but it did make me realize that some enterprising Evangelicals had latched onto computers long before I ever did. I recall making a pact with a couple of friends my senior year in college that we’d never give in and use computers. Since I can’t find them online, my guess is that they kept their end of the deal. As usual, I caved. By 1985 computers had found their way even to Grove City College. A strange thing called a “server” allowed people to access it via multiple “terminals.” The computer science professor wore a large cross around his neck. I would go on to seminary and graduate with a second degree not ever having used such a device.

Dogs and cats are both mammals, and neither regularly preys upon the other for food. Although Computers for Christ may no longer exist, the internet has been fully exploited by some of the religious. Jesus was an early meme. I remember when “the winking Jesus” was all the rage since an image on screen was actually animated! The savior virtually moved an eyelid! Now we can find Jesus doing everything from walking on water to riding on dinosaurs. The son of God has adapted to life on the web quite well, and often with a sense of humor. There are those who would argue that this is a travesty of true faith. There are others who would argue that it is a silly use of serious technology. I grew up with both dogs and cats and learned that when domesticated together they seldom fight. As I file away this aging paper, I wonder how the world might change if people behaved so sensibly.