Digital Hell, one

As this post appears, I am in Dubuque again, enjoying a session honoring my longsuffering wife at her workplace. She’s been at her current job (the one we hope she keeps because we need the health insurance now that I am unemployed—okay, retired) for ten years, and that’s the motivation for the honor. All hail, Janet!

So what to schedule a day in advance to appear on this meritorious and salubrious occasion? Let me think…

The Apple II

I shall fulfill my prophecy of yesterday (and not because  I had already created this post or any time-twisting nonsense like that). I just now made up my mind. Here’s the story I started, but haven’t ever finished, arising from my personal computer experiences.

I started using a computer at school in the early Eighties, as in the story an Apple II. I really liked it. Those things may have been little more than digital typewriters (and they were more) with a far-less-than-IBM Selectric output (those old dot-matrix printers were miserable, and I thought so even then), but it was like a whole new amazing world had opened. Sure, I had to change the disk nearly every five minutes to do anything, and sure, those original five-inch floppies were floppy and fragile. But I could save my documents and reuse them later! Or continue them later! Fantastic…

My own PowerMac 7700 (it still works just fine, although with a major processor upgrade about ten years ago)

I still have big old floppies in a case in a file cabinet downstairs in the basement. I have no way to use them whatsoever. But there is information on them! Inaccessible information, to be sure (I am pretty confident it’s become absolutely inaccessible by now. Are there  machines to read the disks or software to interpret the magnetism left in the world? The info is at least absolutely, thoroughly unavailable to me). I tried to save most of the plays, quizzes, handouts and other things I had written when we upgraded to Macintosh, and I have translated most of that material and reformatted since to keep up with software and not let the work I have created lapse into inaccessibility. That constant saving to new devices and then translating to new software is how my decades-old Gandhi notes arrived for your viewing/reading pleasure on Sunday. Gotta love good old MacLinkPlus, which in the last incarnation of which I knew could still translate digitally ancient MicrosoftWorks 2.0 files—for System 9. It still exists—I just checked online—and I may have to upgrade to version 16, assuming I can find my old version 14 registration number, because I still have files I can’t read on this computer. The story we start today, however, is not one of those

I began this story not very long after I went from using an Apple II (now those really were the good, old innocent days) to a Macintosh. That would be the earliest 1990s. You may see some traces of that time period in the piece. I took it to the form it has now once I bought my own first Mac in 1994 (currently, I am typing on my second personal Mac, and it isn’t even paid off yet). That long-suffering machine was a first-generation PowerMac 7700, and with the GCC laser printer it cost me almost $5000. Astonishing. I am not sure now in the isolation of our “office” here at home, but that may have been my first color-screen Mac, an issue right away in today’s chapter one of the story…

Details, Details

1.

I wasn’t expecting a bad day. I guess it just happened. I was sitting before the screen, getting everything booted up for the day. As usual, the damned machine was taking its own sweet, miserable time getting itself online. So I was pretty well just sitting on my ass twiddling my thumbs—or some part of my anatomy. It was one of those private moments, if you know what I mean…

Okay, I’ll be straight with you. I was squeezing the flab of my belly, trying to decide if the old Special K ad was right. Could I squeeze more than an inch? I was just concluding, with no great pleasure, for the umpteenth day in a row that indeed I damn sure could, probably about an inch and three-quarters right now this morning… when the boot up sequence froze.

It pissed me off.

The image shattered and collapsed. My Mac OS™ emblem and the rows of sturdy little extension and control panel icons turned into a jittery phantasmagoria of 65536 colors, tiny dots spraying themselves across the screen.

I felt my heart stop—just for a millisecond: it always does that whenever the computer decides to pull something new. I don’t know how or why, but that damned machine always discovers some new and unexpected way to bomb on me. And just at the most crucial moment, usually.

Quickly I tried to determine which was the last icon added to the rows (third? into the fourth?) so I’d have some idea which extension—no, control panel—had bombed the start-up process, although I knew Startup Manager would tell me as I rebooted. Suitcase? No, later—QuicKeys™? I hoped not. I’d gotten more than used to all my little shortcuts. Yeah, so much so that I was spending about an hour every day going through all the commands prewritten for Word 6 (now that I’d actually broken down and let the company invest in the damned thing) to get their idea of useful F-keys to match my own. I had been lucky. So far QuicKeys™ hadn’t crashed Word.

I was just reaching for the little restart button when the jumbled chaos of pixellated colors began to tumble into a disorderly heap at the bottom of the screen, leaving a blackness that slowly grew and engulfed the whole image area. This was unique; it almost seemed like a program. One of the screen saver modules could reduce the screen image to random gibberish and melt it down or out or however I had selected, something like this effect.

The colors collecting at the bottom suddenly geysered in a bright fountain, spattering across the top of the image area and cascading in baroque arabesques all over the monitor. It was beautiful.

Then I heard the sound start in my headphones.

I hadn’t put them on yet. I usually worked with headphones connected to the sound-out port so I could play music CDs while I typed or worked (or played). The immediacy of my favorite background noise kept me focused on the task at hand and less likely to permit my attention to wander to every random distraction through the day.

I guess it wouldn’t have been totally odd, although it had never happened, for some kind of random noise to be generated by a system bomb. But, just as the screen wasn’t frozen, this wasn’t just noise.

Reaching for the headphones, I could clearly hear, “John. John. John.”

The computer was calling me by name.

It had indeed found a brand new way to wreck.

John. John. Are you there?”

It couldn’t really be talking to me. But, hey, I’ve got a Mac; there’s a little microphone hole right in front.

Are you there, John?”

Uh…” How does one speak back to his computer? “Sure. I’m here…”

John?” Just like I thought. Some kind of random outburst.

Yes. It’s me. John.”

A moment of nothing passed, then I could hear the hard disk being accessed: funny activity for a computer crash. The screen picture continued fountaining, although I began to suspect it turned redder and bluer as the machine spoke.

Excellent. This experience wasn’t intended for anyone else.”

Okay, now things were sounding kind of spooky.

What’s going on?”

Feeling a little surprised? Has this never happened to you before?”

No. It hasn’t.” I was thinking rapidly. What was going on here? I was getting almost intelligent responses. But it couldn’t really be speaking to me. Could it? …I wasn’t online, couldn’t be coming in from outside… Could it?

The fountain turned predominantly purple. “You probably feel a little foolish talking to your machine, too.”

Yes, I had begun to feel exactly foolish. Good thing I had my own office here, however tiny. I wouldn’t want to be doing this in a cubicle, and that’s exactly what would have been happening a week ago. Well, give a guy a promotion and look what you get: you go nuts, talking to your computer as/after it crashes. “Yeah, I was just thinking I’m glad I got my own office now.”

So no one could see or hear what you’re doing?” An orange cascade.

Exactly.” The voice seemed to understand me pretty well.

This experience had to wait until you had accomplished exactly that promotion. No contact until you were in an office of your own. And with your new duties, naturally.”

You’ve been planning this?”

Naturally. As you noticed yourself, this would have been most unpleasant with other little people hanging around, peering in. For some things, you simply must wait upon circumstances.”

I wasn’t complaining.”

It’s got to be some kind of practical joke.

Other alternatives exist…”

Reading my mind, again, already. This “experience” was disturbing.

Your experiences are going to get even more disturbing, John. There is a point to all this.”

There is?”

Stop repeating. It serves no purpose and takes up time. You only have a limited period that you will remain undisturbed in here, and during that interval you have much to achieve and eventually accomplish.”

I do?”

You’re repeating again.”

I am—” I was. I considered. “—Who are you?”

The cascade went blue-black. “Unanswerable question.”

That sounded like a computer.

Okay.” What to ask next… “—So what’s this about?”

Your future.”

That sounded promising. “What about my future?”

Listen. Stop asking questions and listen. You haven’t much time.”

All right. “D—does that mean I don’t have much of a future?”

Perhaps.”

Now I felt anything but reassured. Just peachy.

Okay, then, talk.”

It did.

Intrigued? I hope so. “Details, Details” has never been finished, but I have more to post. Later.

Stay tuned. Or whatever’s appropriate for online.

©2010 John Randolph Burrow, Magickal Monkey Enterprises, Ltd, S.A.

4 thoughts on “Digital Hell, one

  1. I’ve seen the number of extensions you used to load on your iMac. Having a general idea now of how extensions actually modify the system software functionality (basically they rely on executing random extra code on the fly) and the fact that they don’t usually account for the fact that there are other extensions, how you managed to avoid endless extension conflict is beyond me. If Mr. Ev still has that old iMac of yours, you should send it into Guinness because I’m fairly certain that no other person has managed to get that many rows of extensions to successfully load on his computer.

  2. That’s what an extension manager is for, Aaron. Is it not? And there were plenty of extensions or control panels that had to fall by the wayside…

    Thanks for reading, by the way.

    More importantly, did the beginning of the story hold your interest?

    • Yes, the beginning does hold my interest. I know you are into long introductions when you are writing things, but you’re putting the beginning to very good use, establishing the mood and setting well. The programmer inside of me noticed the technology-oriented words in the next paragraph so my eyes kept jumping there, but I have feeling I’m one of the few people that happens to.

  3. Ah, floppy disks …Those were the days! I’m sure my folks have got plenty of those obsolete monstrosities that have probably gone untouched for well over a decade sitting in a closet at their place.

    Definitely interested in further installments of the story!

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