On Computer Maintenance


Warning: this blog post is long, it may sound to some like a rant or self-advertising, but I assure you that there are a few morsels of “wisdom” to chew on herein.

I love my computer. I see my computer as a part of myself, indeed, a part of me that extends and enables me in nearly countless ways. And <<blush>> I actually feel more at ease with my computer than I do with people, generally speaking. People who know me, though, know that I am no introvert or anti-social misfit. So here is the story.

On December 24, 1979, my friend, John Ellsworth, came home to fiancée, Rosanda, and her friend, Jim Andris, and announced that he had sold 4 Apple II computers that day, and he intended to sell a fifth one before he turned in that night. So I bit. At some point I got a demonstration of this amazing device whose father had been born two years earlier in the garage of Steve Jobs’ partner and buddy, Steve Wozniak. I took this little baby home to my mobile home in Glen Carbon, Illinois and disappeared for six months while I learned to program in 6502 machine language, do computer animation and transcribe Scott Joplin rags into moog-like sounds. I was enraptured with the possibilites inherent in this miraculous gadget, and I resolved to master 6502 machine language when I retired—that was still a generation away.

My good friend, Byron Davidson, who was as literature literate as I was to become computer literate, cast a skeptical eye on my, to him, silly productions. He pronounced that my efforts resulted in cartoonish creations, and awaited my return to the real world. But that didn’t happen. Instead, I was to parlay my fascination with this emerging technology into a career reinvention. As it has continued throughout my life, I was an early adaptor of an innovation that would storm the nation. A couple of years later, the dean in the School of Education at SIU Edwardsville kept getting calls from desperate school administrators and superintendants, begging for courses in computer literacy for their teachers. They had been sold rooms full of computer hardware, and no one seemed to have the slightest idea of what they were good for. I did, though, and so I began teaching a lot of computer literacy courses at school sites around Southern Illinois. I loved it, and developed a reputation for that kind of thing.

My friend, Byron, eventually came around to the realization that my fascinations hadn’t been so silly after all. He was teaching at then Belleville Area College, and found himself in need of computer skills. He gradually got up the nerve to take my introductory course, and was excited about the prospects of himself becoming computer literate. That didn’t happen either. I didn’t realize how much of a challenge and a sour experience my course had been for Byron until after his death from AIDS in 1990, when his life-long friend, David Schlitt, told me that Byron carried anger and frustration about computers to his grave. I am a good and patient teacher, and I was especially patient and sensitive to Byron, who never seemed to find his place on the computer for even a minute. Byron was really a brilliant person, and had read vastly in the humanities. He inspired many lost-soul students at BAC. But he was a global, associationistic thinker, and the then linearity of computing—remember “SYNTAX ERROR”?—just drove him mad. He asked for a LOT of help in that class, and patient as I was, I was forced to move on to other students.

I tell you this story of Byron’s miserable failure at the hands of my own computer course as a way of showing you, dear reader, that from my earliest interactions with microcomputering, I realized that there were many people who found computing to be distasteful, frustrating, and possibly even society destroying. I have empathy with these folks, and I understand that there are many roads to understanding and competence. But I am also going to go along my own path and explore the implications of and even the responsibility for computer competence.

My career continuted to emerge. I became the Coordinator of Computer Resources for a few years, until the University, by necessity, centralized computer maintenance. Again I saw the significance of and became an early adaptor of networking technology. When Dean Hull and Prof. Don Keefe got a huge grant from IBM and I successfully competed for the first networked Mac lab on campus, I was the logical person to put these labs together—with invaluable assistance from my student workers, and a nod to Quint Maynard (RIP). Access to networked computers on a couple of platforms positioned me for the next technological emergence: the World Wide Web. Tim Berners-Lee created the web in 92-93 and by early 1994, I had the first faculty web server and web presence on the campus (one of the first, for sure).

I could continue to trace my career as early adaptor of computer and networking technology through the next two decades, but that is not the main point of this blog. All the things that came along: web publishing, integrated software, desktop publishing, artificial intelligence, simulation software, virtual reality, social media, I couldn’t leave them alone. I was like a technology sponge, I just kept experimenting and soaking things up. When blogging came along in the early 2000s, I got into that. And podcasting. I finally buried a whole family of Sims because I was neglecting my own growing family. I still miss them. I left Varden Falta trapped in a crack of concrete between a Mac resource center and an abandoned building in Second Life and never went back. But I wish I could.

And now begins the main point of my post. Technology is not opposed to nature. That is not to say that technology cannot be misused; of course it can. Other species build things, birds, spiders, beavers, but human beings have excelled at moulding their environments to their needs. I do think that denying evolution is just about as reactionary as denying climate change. Clearly, our brains, our hand-eye coordination, our culture, our language, evolved and continue to evolve. It is up to us to consciously monitor emerging evolutionary phenomena and shape them to our benefit. Interacting comfortably with computer technology and with emerging cyberspace living is a necessary step in the maturation and development of the human race.

In my relatively long life I have had to learn to take care of a lot of things. Take my body, for instance. Please . . . But seriously, it’s taken me a long time to learn how to be comfortable in and caring for my body. I never could do aerobic exercise, something even doctors have scoffed at. Over the decades I worked out a gentler routine of body fitness: stretching and mild yoga in the morning, tai chi in the afternoon or evening, and meditation in lotus position before bed. It works for me. It’s part of caring for this precious gift of a body.

I had to work out a different system of weight control. It’s quite amazing how many lectures I get on my system of weight control. One Adkin’s diet devotee regularly scoffs at my food posts on Facebook, they may have contained a carb. Others scoff at my calorie counting, which has become so automatic I don’t think about it. But there was a time in the early 2000s when I really struggled with my weight. I couldn’t stop ballooning, and it was making me sick. I really had to grapple with hunger. I would diet, and then I would feel like I was so hungry I was going to get sick if I didn’t eat some more. I don’t remember where or how I came across the idea, but it was a life saver. I began saying to myself: hunger is your friend. It lets you know when your diet is actually working. I began to learn to be comfortable with mild hunger on a regular basis. I then needed to count calories to make sure I was getting enough food. Now my set point is reset, and that never bothers me.

As a mild intersex and nonbinary gay male—something I’ve just recently come to grips with—I always struggled with my body image. Just like a lot of the rest of you, I let cultural ideals and sex stereotypes govern my self-acceptance. I always hated the feminine parts of my body. Now I am realizing how foolish that was. I call myself nonbinary and I am reembracing and trying my best to love and accept the body that I have, one that is more or less male, but certainly not the ideal stereotype. Hopefully, before I croak, I will have reset that particular set point, too, and I will never even have to think about it.

I guess what happened to me with computer technology is that early on I saw it for the mind-enhancing gift of evolution that it was. I saw that the computer was my friend, but in a different way than hunger. The computer was a tool for enhancing my very limited mind. When ipods and then cell phones and then smart phones came along, I was thrilled. I do have a functioning brain and a good memory, but I take no pride in remembering everything I need to without assistance. I don’t struggle so much with my age-related forgetting as a lot of folks seem to do. I jokingly say that when I get up in the morning, I reassemble my body: I put on my glasses, I put in my hearing aide, and I put my brain/smart phone in my pocket. I don’t willfully wave that smart phone around in front of my technophobic friends, but I’m definintely not any more ashamed of using it as a memory or communication assist than I am of using my glasses to see better.

But I have yet a final thought about the presence of emerging technology amongst us. I wouldn’t exactly call myself a hacker, but I’ve done my share of hacking, and in the early software days, pirating. I wouldn’t exactly call myself a geek, but I think geeks are neat, and I have a few of them for friends. I wouldn’t exactly call myself a nerd, but I have to admit, I put little stock in fashion. My physics and engineering buddies in college wouldn’t have been caught dead without their slide rules. In fact, I love these little tech communities. I’ve found a legion of kindred souls online, people who love programming and database construction, bloggers, Wikipedia denizens, various online support communities for various software apps and hardware configurations. They’re all just problem solvers, just like I am, helping to bring this new layer of consciousness into and onto the emerging biosphere.

So here is a really nerdy case in point; but I do some problem solving like this on a weekly basis. (This is long, so if you don’t read it, you got the point anyway.) I work on this old 2009 MacBook Pro 13″. It keeps threatening to fail, but I keep saving its sorry ass with a new mouse here, some memory there, a little spy-ware dumping over there. Recently it developed a really scary quirk. Even though I have 8 MB of RAM, RAM started filling up very quickly. I have a utility I like called Memory Monitor which puts my memory use in full display. I could literally watch the used app memory advance, and in a while, expect a computer crash. Oh, dear. What was it??! I told Stephen that it might be time to get last rites for this computer. I bought the memory from a friend, perhaps it was failing. Maybe I had a stealthy app that was vampiring my RAM. What was I to do?!

All these decades of computer problem solving have led me to the realization that if I have a persistent and describable computer problem, there are tens, hundreds, or even thousands of people out there who are having a similar experience. Many of them are smarter than me, problem then becomes, how do I network with them? My usual first step is to briefly describe the problem in a few choice words and then Google it, looking for others who are complaining about similar struggles. Learning to Google is a skill all in itself, and frustrating as it is at first, it gets better with experience. Another skill that improves with experience is discernment about which of the 200 links that the search identifies I should follow up on.

This particular time, my search turned up links to several Mac forums where many people were reporting the exact same expanding memory problem that I was experiencing. A couple of them had narrowed it down more precisely to an app: the Mac Mail program that was upgraded with the Yosemite operating system. As a side remark, Apple has a long history of slow response to bugs in its software. They simply no longer do interaction with individual software users. They are not alone in that trait. Then, bingo, I read the discerning communication: this guy had discovered that the bug appeared only after a user of Mail regularly attaches many files to an email they are sending.

Of course, that was it. I recently volunteered to contribute to the Trinity Episcopal Church online prayer presence on the web. So every week now, I record daily prayer for Thursday each week and send it off to the rector, who posts it on SoundCloud for everyone to use. The program has been quite successful and is supported by a handful of online prayer readers, including myself. I had been regularly mailing files in the Mail program. I read further. The post detailed exactly how to exterminate the bug: one must quit Mail from the Activity Monitor, rather than the regular quit. I did it, and Voila! no more mysterious expanding memory followed by crashes. Could it be that I will ride my little MacBook Pro into the sunset? We’ll see.

Here is my conclusion. Technophobes, Luddites, defenders of the 19th Century, I do hear you, you are frustrated. Believe me, we nerds, hackers and geeks know from frustration. But this particular hack hacker does not return your disdain. I will converse with you and not denigrate your computer-hating discourse. But secretly, I will be comforted by that vast, anonymous community in cyberspace into which we each, individually and as a race, are growing. I have seen the Omega Point, and it is we.

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Author: Jim Andris

Retired gay married early adopter. Cooking, cleaning, fixing. Makes good music occasionally; U name it. Churchy dude. Likes to think about things, too much, sometimes. Dump Trump. Trying not to do too much harm. Revisiting blogging. Looking for a new handle on things. Exploring genderqueer.

8 thoughts on “On Computer Maintenance”

  1. I worked for years as a web developer–self-taught. The online community for programmers and developers is very supportive and helpful to one another. I have relied on these groups many times and always found willing assistance.

    As an aside, our paths have crossed before, though you may not remember. I worked at the Building 3 Computer Lab where you taught at SIUE. I majored in Anthropology and Philosophy, but, ironically, it was working at the lab that gave me the technical skills I would rely on in my career.

    1. Now this is a coincidence! You know I worked with so many computer lab assistants and students at SIUE—over 30,000 over my career to my count. Do you remember who or what department hired you? We had lab assistants that I had hired working alongside departmental TAs and RAs. I do remember that social science used that Bldg. III Lab, but wasn’t so directly involved as with education, nursing and public administration.

      1. I remember Mehdi well. It was with his assistance that we put together the web server in 1994. I did work with Kade. Perhaps you were in the lab after Academic Computing was centralized. Mehdi, Kade and Wally all were AC staff.

  2. Jim,
    I had the pleasure of taking classes with you, and working with you in the early 1990’s at SIUE. Reading your blog posts has been interesting but this one really brought back a lot of memories. People like you you and Wayne Nelson had a profound influence on me although I was primarily a PC person and only reluctantly used the Mac.

    1. Bill, I was thinking about you as I wrote this. You were the tech support person in the School of Education for quite some time. Your service was exemplary, and believe me, you come to mind when I state my appreciation for the supportive tech communities I have known. Thanks for checking in.

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