Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Computer, give us a break

Before the current iteration of my career, I wrote and edited reviews of computer hardware and software. I say this not to brag; I’m sure I know less than most people in, say, a company’s IT department. I say it to explain that working for those years as a critic of computer-related products has basically ruined my hopes of ever being a satisfied computer user.

On the bright side, I tend to understand common error messages or odd behavior. What I don’t understand doesn’t usually intimidate me, and I enjoy the challenge of trying to answer computer-related questions. All but one…which brings me to the problem: Don’t ask me what computer brand is best, for I can’t recommend a single one. I don’t like any.

Take this Windows-based laptop. It has a power-management utility in which there’s a simple checkbox: “Always show icon on the taskbar.” I don’t know about you, but I see no room for interpretation in the word “always.” (I suppose I had the same problem with the word “is” during the Clinton years.) Sometimes the icon is there; sometimes it’s not. If you can’t guarantee you’ll remember to put the little icon in the taskbar when you promise, so I can cursor over it to check the battery-charge level, don’t offer the choice in the first place.

I had another complaint recently about a product I downloaded to help me while I’m cruising websites. I’m not fond of web pages (not counting video sites like youtube that automatically start playing videos. To me, it’s the equivalent of shoving your product in my face and yelling how good it is. So the utility I bought says it disables the Flash software that lets the video play uninvited. An icon it puts in the taskbar—yes, that taskbar—lets me right-click to, say, re-enable the Flash software when I really, really do want to see the video. The problem? You guessed: The icon took frequent vacations. (It probably booked them through a video ad it blocked from me.) So until I uninstalled the utility, wasting the money I’d spent, I couldn’t use my 21st-century computer to watch a video on Facebook. Or, for that matter, anywhere else.

You could say both are problems with the Windows taskbar, that the secrets of access are kept in a lockbox in Redmond, Washington. You could also advise me to get a Mac, though I’d just respond with nightmare stories about the Macs I’ve used at the office. I’d rather say, though that computers and the software that run on them, Windows or Mac, have gotten too complex for their own good. Along with ours.

One last point. I suppose I’m dating myself (don’t tell Elena) to admit that my earliest computer experiences were on IBM PCs running DOS, which stood for Disk Operating System. This was before the earliest version of Windows. No graphical interface, no wireless networking, no USB anything you could plug in. They offered very little. What they did have was the Ctrl-Break key combination.

You’ll see the Break key, now muted, if you’re reading this on a Windows-based PC. But holding down the Ctrl key and pressing Break was beauty in itself. Imagine yourself on the Internet. You click on a page, maybe a search-engine result, and realize that no, you didn’t mean to go there. And it’s taking forever to load. Somehow, in such situations, you’ll click on the Back button, or Home, anything that takes you out of that limbo. Nothing works—probably because the page is loading a video. But in the DOS days, anytime you tried to do something and then changed your mind, you simply hit Ctrl-Break. And the process stopped dead.

Life itself could sometimes use a Ctrl-Break, no? But that’s for another blog.

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