A Programmer’s Lot is Not a Happy One?

Embed from Getty Images

Well, I don’t know really. Most programmers that I know seem about as happy as the rest of the population, but I was thinking about programming and that variation on “A Policeman’s Lot” from the Pirates of Penzance appealed to me.

Programming in often presented as being difficult and esoteric, when in fact it is only a variation of what humans do all the time. When you read a recipe or follow a knitting pattern, you are essentially doing what a computer does when it “runs a program”.

Unix program to display running processes
Unix program to display running processes (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The programmer in this analogy corresponds to the person who wrote the recipe or knitting pattern. Computer programs are not a lot more profound than a recipe or pattern, though they are, in most cases, a lot more complicated than that.

It’s worth noting that recipes and patterns for knitting (and for weaving for that matter) have been around for many centuries longer than computer programs. Indeed it could be argued that computers and programming grew out of weaving and the patterns that could be woven into the cloth.

English: Pattern of traditional Norwegian Sete...
English: Pattern of traditional Norwegian Setesdal-sweater. The pattern is created to be used on a punch card in a knitting machine. Svenska: Klassiskt mönster från lusekofta från Setesdalen, Norge. Mönsterrapporten är skapad för att användas på hålkort i stickmaskin. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In 1801 Joseph Marie Jacquard invented a method of punched cards which could be used to automatically weave a pattern into textiles. It was a primitive program, which controlled the loom. I imagine that before it was invented the operators were giving a sheet to detail what threads to raise and which drop, and which colour threads to run through the tunnel thus formed. I can also imagine that such a manual process would lead to mistakes, leading to errors in the pattern created in the cloth. It would also be time consuming, I expect.

Jacquard’s invention, by bypassing this manual method would have led to accurately woven patterns and a great saving in time. Also, an added advantage was that changing to another pattern would be as simple as loading a new set of punched cards.

English: Jacquard loom in the National Museum ...
English: Jacquard loom in the National Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh. Nederlands: Weefgetouw met Jacquardmechanisme in het National Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

At around this time, maybe a little later, the first music boxes were produced. These contained a drum with pins that plucked the tines of a metal comb. However the idea for music boxes goes back a lot further as the link above tells.

The only significant difference between Jacquard’s invention and the music boxes is that Jacquard relied on the holes and music boxes relied on pins. They operated in different senses, positive and negative but the principle is pretty much the same.

A PN junction in thermal equilibrium with zero...
A PN junction in thermal equilibrium with zero bias voltage applied. Electron and hole concentrations are reported respectively with blue and red lines. Gray regions are charge neutral. Light red zone is positively charged. Light blue zone is negatively charged. Under the junction, plots for the charge density, the electric field and the voltage are reported. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Interestingly there is a parallel in semiconductors. While current is carried by the electrons, in a very real sense objects called “holes” travel in the reverse direction to the electrons. Holes are what they sound like, places where an electron is absent, however I believe that in semiconductor theory, they are much more than mere gaps, and behave like real particles.

It’s amazing how powerful programming is. Microsoft Windows is probably the most powerful program that non-programmers come into contact with, and it does so many things “under the hood” that people take for granted, and it is all based on the absence or presence of things, much like Jacquard’s loom and the music boxes. While that is an analogy, it is not too far from the mark, and many people will remember having been told, more or less accurately that computers run on ones and zeroes.

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When a programmer sits down to write a program he or she doesn’t start writing ones and zeroes. He or she writes chunks of stuff which non-programmers would partially recognise. English words like “print”, “do”, “if” and “while” might appear. Symbols that look like maths might also appear. Depending on the language, the code might be sprinkled with dollar signs, which have nothing directly to do with money, by the way.

The programmer write in a “language“, which is much more tightly defined than ordinary language, but basically it details at a relatively high level what the programmer wants to happen.

Logo for the Phoenix programming language
Logo for the Phoenix programming language (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The programmer may tell the program to “read” something and if the value read is positive or is “Baywatch” or is “true”, do something. The programmer has to bear in mind that often the value is NOT what the programmer wants the program to look for and it is the programmer’s responsibility to handle not only the “positive” outcome but also the “negative” one. He or she will tell the program to do something else.

When the programmer tells the program to “read” something, he or she essentially invokes a program that someone else has written whose only job is to respond to the “read” command. These “utility” program are often written in a more esoteric language than the original programmer uses (though they don’t have to be), and since they do one specific task they can be used by anyone who programs on the computer.

This program instructs other, lower level programs to do things for it. Again these lower level programs do one specific thing and can be used by other programs on the computer. It can be seen that I am describing a hierarchy of ever more specialised programs doing more and more specific tasks. It’s not quite like the Siphonaptera though, as the programs eventually reach the hardware level.

At the hardware level it will not be apparent what the programs are intended for, but the people who wrote them know the hardware and what the program needs to do. This is partially from the hierarchy of programs above, but also from similar programs that have already been written.

English: CPU
English: CPU (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Without going into detail, the low level program might require a value to be supplied to the CPU of the computer. It will cause a number of conducting lines (collectively a “bus”) to be in one of two states, corresponding to a one or a zero, or it might cause a single line to vary between the states, sending a chain of states to the CPU.

In either case the states arrive in a “register”, which is a bit like a railway station. The CPU sends the chains of states (or bits) through its internal “railway system”, arranging for them to be compared, shifted, merged and manipulated in many ways. The end result is one or more chains of states arriving at registers, from whence they are picked up and used by the programs, with the end result being whatever the programmer asked for, way up in the stratosphere!

Modelleisenbahn im Hauptbahnhof Wiesbaden
Modelleisenbahn im Hauptbahnhof Wiesbaden (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This is monumental achievement, pun intended, and is only achievable because at each level the programmer writes a program that performs one task at that level which doesn’t concern itself at all with any other levels except that it conforms to the requests coming from above (the interface, technically). This is called abstraction.

Data abstraction levels of a database system
Data abstraction levels of a database system (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One Hundred and One

English: Wayne County (NY) Route 101 shield. P...
English: Wayne County (NY) Route 101 shield. Public domain. Unlike most counties, Wayne County posts its county routes on blade signage. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The last post that I made was my 100th post on this blog. I’ve tried to keep blogs before now, but I’ve always failed at some point. There are blogs started by me at various places on the Internet, but this is the only one to have got past a few dozen posts.

I’m not sure of the reason why I’ve been able to keep this blog going and I’ve failed before. I don’t think that it is the fact that this is a WordPress blog, as I’ve not found significant differences between the various type of blog. They all do pretty much the same thing.

English: WordPress Logo
English: WordPress Logo (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Of course, there are myriads of themes out there, but it is impossible to hide the underlying structure completely – you create a blog post, you post it and people are able to look at it.

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There are no doubt those who have specific needs and need specific features, for example if they are selling something and need to accept payments, who find that a specific blogging platform is required to fill their needs, but most people will find, I think, that the blogging platform that they use is mostly irrelevant.

I have committed myself to creating blog post of around 1,000 words once per week and so far I’ve been able to achieve this. I plan to have a post ready to go on Monday evening. Below I’m going to describe how I write a post. It’s a creative process, with a small ‘c’. It’s not Creative with a large ‘C’, a work of Art, as I don’t aspire to such exalted levels. It’s just my small blog.

Brain, computer art
Brain, computer art (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When I sit down to write a post, I usually, but not always, have a topic in mind. If I am lucky I will have been thinking about it during the week and I have some idea on what I am going to include in the post. However, I don’t plan it out as such. I just some ideas, some pretty well developed in mind.

Sometimes though, I sit down at the computer with maybe only a topic or not even that. I type the title and I’m away! So far I’ve not had any real difficulty in reaching the 1,000 words, and sometimes I have to leave things out.

1000 Pennies for Your Thoughts - NARA - 534149
1000 Pennies for Your Thoughts – NARA – 534149 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It is usually reckoned that a work of this sort has a distinct beginning and end. I certainly open with a sentence on what I about to write about  and then go on to write about it, but I don’t try to tag on a definitive conclusion, especially if I am running on, and the word count gets significantly higher than 1,000 words.

So anyway, I start writing. As I write I might plan ahead a little, but more often than not I put down my current thought which might take a sentence or three and I correct and formulate my sentences as I go. I look back a little too, and may revise a sentence or phrase in the current paragraph if it strikes me as being too ugly.

English: New York, New York. Newsroom of the N...
English: New York, New York. Newsroom of the New York Times newspaper. Reporters and rewrite men writing stories, and waiting to be sent out. Rewrite man in background gets the story on the phone from reporter outside. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I don’t however have the whole thing in my mind, though I may remember and revisit thoughts that I have written earlier if something strikes me. I do think ahead a little, or maybe a paragraph or two, but in general, I compose as I write as I go.

Sometimes I pause, as I just did, to think my way ahead. This is an indication to me that I’ve said all that comes to mind on the point that I was making and that I should start another point.

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I am not formal about references and in fact mostly use Wikipedia for any references, but I try to link to the work of others and sometimes to major references. If a reader has an interest in any of the topics that I touch on, Wikipedia, for all its faults, can be a good place to start.

The result, I suspect, is almost certainly more of a ramble through the topic in question than a serious analysis of it. Caveat Emptor! Of course, anything that I write is my opinion only.

English: Front of Caveat Emptor, a rare books ...
English: Front of Caveat Emptor, a rare books store located at 112 N. Walnut Street in downtown Bloomington, , . Built in 1900, it is part of the Courthouse Square Historic District, a historic district that is listed on the . (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When I have finished writing the post, I save it, and then start “decorating” it. By this I mean that I insert images every paragraph or so, to break up the post into more readable chunks. A single mass of text is off-putting I find. That’s also why I kept the paragraphs short too.

I choose the picture purely on their look. I don’t check the websites that the image come from, so people should not assume that I in any way agree or disagree with the authors of the websites that I borrow images from.

Internet packet path
Internet packet path (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This is probably not a big deal, as I usually use Zemanta to provide the images and they provide links mainly from Wikipedia. Also using a source like Zemanta means that there should be no copyright issues with the images that I include.

When I have finished writing the post and I have inserted my images, I categorise the post using my usual categories and include tags. Doing this is supposed to help people looking for posts on particular topics and tagging in particular should enable my posts to come up in searches. Apparently tagging posts helps search engines.

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The way that I write posts mean that there is a danger that I might meander through a topic rather than do a tight analysis of it. That’s OK by me. However I don’t know if the readers of my posts consider them to be rambling or whether I unconsciously put in there a structure that I am unaware of when I write a post.

Essentially, though, I write for myself, to get my ideas out there, to amuse myself and to test myself. When I write, I am, in my own mind, in a way, writing to myself, as if I the reader were a different person to I the writer. I know the occasional real person stumbles on my writing, and if they get something out of it, I am glad. If they don’t get something out of it, well, that’s fine, but I guess that they won’t be back!

Wayne County (NY) Route 102 shield. Public dom...
Wayne County (NY) Route 102 shield. Public domain. Unlike most counties, Wayne County posts its county routes on blade signage. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Politics is a funny game.

Photo of the "Beehive", Parliament B...
Photo of the “Beehive”, Parliament Buildings, Wellington, New Zealand. The flags are at half-mast to mark the death of en:Pope John Paul II on 2 April 2005 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A very funny game. You go into it as a winner, and unless you die or quit while on top, you go out as a loser. Very often a politician will resign or declare that he/she won’t stand when it is pretty likely that he/she will not achieve re-election. If he/she should rise to become leader of the party, then he/she has the additional responsibility of winning or losing an election.

If the party fails to win, it is relatively rare that leader lasts long as leader, as there are always aspiring leaders waiting in the wings. Very often the loss of an election triggers a reshuffle that sees the leader and his closest associates losing control of the party. If the leader survives the reshuffle, he/she may fill the role of “elder statesman”.

A political map of the world with each nation ...
A political map of the world with each nation coloured to signify which side of the political spectrum each nations ruling party is of. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Politics in New Zealand is going through a time of turmoil. With an election scheduled for next month the ruling party has come under intense pressure from a political commentator who has acquired some emails between high level members of the party and a blogger aligned with the party.


English: Groucho Marx & anonymous blogging
English: Groucho Marx & anonymous blogging (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This issue has already caused the resignation of a minister of the ruling party, but in my opinion, this close to the election this doesn’t mean a huge amount. It does dent the aspirations of the minister in question. (A minister is the person responsible for a Ministry, which might correspond to a Department in some political systems. It’s a large self-contained portion of the public or civil service).

English: John Key, leader of the New Zealand N...
English: John Key, leader of the New Zealand National Party Македонски: Џон Ки, лидер на Новозеландската национална партија. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In previous elections, the communication between the politicians and the public was through the “media”, newspapers, TV and so on. In this election, bloggers have come to the fore, and the standards, either imposed from outside or adopted within the media business, no longer apply. Although there have always been some underhand dealings, since some media reporters will be aligned with one party rather than the other, it appears as the result of the rise of blogging as a political force, that skullduggery will be paramount in this election.

Skullduggery (board game)
Skullduggery (board game) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Briefly, a left wing commentator has received copies of email communications between high level members of the government and a right wing blogger. The left wing commentator has added two and two and got…. well, let’s say four and a half. He’s written it up into a book, which has sold, as I understand it, pretty well for a self-published book.

Brunswick is a stronghold of left-wing politic...
Brunswick is a stronghold of left-wing politics; this building’s architecture is typical of the suburb (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’ve got part way through the book and what has amazed me, more than the actual information contained in the emails, is the tone of the communications. To say that they were vicious in their attacks on the opposition would be an understatement. This is shocking in communications between ministers of the Crown and a supposedly independent blogger.

Also the book states that the usual time scales for the supply of information to interested parties, media or public, were altered for the right wing blogger. In other words not only was he pre-warned that he should request information from the ministry, but the supply of information to him was, apparently, expedited again by the ministry so that he got it first.


English: Former Conservative Club
English: Former Conservative Club (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Whatever the shenanigans surrounding the content of the emails, it is evident that the emails were obtained by hacking. This is stated by the mainstream media without qualification as if that explains everything, but really, it doesn’t. So far as I know, it has not been reported how the hacking was done. It may not even have been hacking in the technical sense – some “mole” may have simply forwarded the emails.

English: Andy
English: Andy (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

If the emails were obtained by hacking, this raises an ethical dilemma for the political commentator in question. Hacking is illegal and the emails can be considered to have been “stolen”, although it is difficult to see how electronic information can be stolen, since it is not comprised of physical things, and the original owner still has his own copy of the emails.

English: (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

However that is merely a matter of definition and the concept of stealing appears to morphing to include such illegal access to information. The usage has been around for a long, long time as evidenced by the concept of the theft of someone’s ideas and the concept of “intellectual property”.

English: Supporters of opposition party candid...
English: Supporters of opposition party candidate Kumba Ialá run beside his motorcade as he enters Guinea-Bissau’s capital on the final day of campaigning, 26 Jun 2009 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Anyway, the political commentator has in his possession stolen information. He looks at it and discovers that it can be used as evidence that the right wing blogger and others have been organising attacks on the opposition political party, and sometimes on unfavoured members of the right wing party. Should he use this stolen information to inflict damage on the right wing party or is it more ethical to ignore it? He chose to use it.

There is also a section where the right wing blogger and his associates appear to have engineering a coup in a minor political party, an ally of the right wing.

English: New Zealand National Party Cabinet mi...
English: New Zealand National Party Cabinet minister Judith Collins, at the National War Memorial – Wellington – 15 Sep 2010 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

More damaging than any other are the revelations that senior members of the ruling right wing party have been involved in and even encouraged these activities.

As I said above, the left wing political commentator now has a dilemma. If he publishes, then he is making public emails that the right wing blogger will have wanted to keep secret for obvious reasons. Among the information about the political goings on was personal information and correspondence of the right wing blogger. This he kept secret.

An Eagle bone whistle, a sacred instrument use...
An Eagle bone whistle, a sacred instrument used in the ceremonial practices of many Native American religions. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There is a place for whistle-blowers in society, to alert the wider population of misconduct and illegal activities carried out by people or organisations, but such whistle-blowers are usually insiders, people who work for the organisation, rather than outsiders, who infiltrate or otherwise spy on organisations or people.

English: This image was taken at the Europa Le...
English: This image was taken at the Europa Lecture 2008, University of Aukland, and is owned by the European Union Centres Network. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The political commentator has to decide whether he should publish the damaging content of the emails or should he just destroy the copy that he has been sent? If he doesn’t publish then the right wing blogger and his associates can continue to perform their allegedly dubious activities. On the other hand, if the political commentator publishes the contents of the emails, it could be argued that he is behaving unethically.

The Whale-oil Factory on Jan Mayen Island.
The Whale-oil Factory on Jan Mayen Island. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It comes down to the conscience of the political commentator. Evidently he has decided that it is in the public interest that the contents of the email be brought into the open and that this outweighs the ethical considerations of receiving the stolen emails. He has decided to publish his book for the public good, and has chosen to publish shortly before the election for maximum impact.

The Kiwiblog Kiwi
The Kiwiblog Kiwi (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Opponents of his point out that by publishing before the election he is not only bringing the mess to light, but he is also assisting the the left wing parties, not to mention making money on the book. It’s worth considering whether these opponents would behave any differently if the situation were reversed.

English: New Zealand Parliament Buildings, Wel...
English: New Zealand Parliament Buildings, Wellington, NZ. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

[Sorry for the excursion into our local politics. Normal service should be resumed next week!]

Death of print

English: A stack of copy paper.
English: A stack of copy paper. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It’s amazing how the world has changed in a lifetime. My lifetime. Phones, TV, the Internet, electronic funds transfers, payment by waving a plastic card.

My parents were paid by their employers in cash and they paid for everything in cash. Most people didn’t have cars and relied on public transport and paid in cash for their tickets. Today cash is endangered.

Money Cards
Money Cards (Photo credit: jacqui.brown33)

A little later, people started to acquire bank accounts, usually in conjunction with a mortgage. Their pay was paid into their bank accounts and the mortgage payments were extracted from the bank account directly. The thing was, the bank account came a lot of paperwork. There were statements and cheque books. To whip out a cheque book and offer to pay for something was a real show of status. Today cheques are almost unused, being almost completely replaced by credit cards, debit cards and charge cards. Some younger people have never seen a cheque and most shops will not accept one. Many banks will supply statements over the Internet these days.

English: 1912 US cartoon by Rollin Kirby, show...
English: 1912 US cartoon by Rollin Kirby, showing George Walbridge Perkins (with a check book symbolizing control of money) and Amos Pinchot (weilding a letter of support from Theodore Roosevelt campaing manager Senator Joseph M. Dixon) battling for control of the U.S. Progressive Party. Figure in the distance presumbably represents Roosevelt coming with his “big stick” to settle things. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Most people got their news through newspapers. Paper newspapers, from the rarefied air of the Times to the slightly more foetid air of the tabloids. The network of distribution of news via started from the printing presses and initially was distributed by vans, trains, and more vans. Bundles of papers were dropped off at strategic points, and newsagents picked them up, sorted them and gave them to young boys and girls to distribute, dropping them into letter boxes, countrywide.

Galveston, Texas, 1943. Newspaper delivery boy...
Galveston, Texas, 1943. Newspaper delivery boys with bicycles. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A similar distribution network was used for the evening papers. These however were distributed mostly to the streets around business places and railway stations and similar places where people would pick them up on their way home from work. The main headlines would be prominently displayed as teasers to persuade people to buy them.

Checking the headlines
Checking the headlines (Photo credit: gato-gato-gato)

Newsagents existed to distribute the paper that the news was printed on. As a sideline, they would sell other things, like magazines, tobacco, and confectionery. As newsprint volumes have fallen, the old time newsagents had to specialise in something else, like the confectionery that they used to sell as a sideline, or in some cases groceries, particularly the staples such as canned foods and milk. Some might sell books or glossy magazines, but even these versions of print material are under threat.

dakar newsagent
dakar newsagent (Photo credit: noodlepie)

My letter box is still full of paper. Much of it is the ubiquitous junk mail, of course, the flyers and offers which advertisers hope will entice us into buying. It appears that the expense of creating and sending junk mail is still worthwhile, or so the advertisers believe. Some of the paper is comprised of what can loosely be called “community newspapers”. These papers, largely funded by advertising, and run on the cheap, are distributed free, and contain local news only, mainly sports and local politics.

“Letter boxes” in the UK are slots in the front door of a house, not actual boxes on poles as in many other countries.)

English: Letter Box Detail of an old front doo...
English: Letter Box Detail of an old front door which now graces a small shed. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

What my letter box rarely contains is an actual letter, written by someone, stamped and posted by someone, sorted and delivered to my letter box by a real postman. There are a few firms that still insist on paper invoices and local tradesmen tend to still prefer papers invoices but apart from that and a few real letters from older relatives, I receive little real mail these days. No wonder that postal services world-wide are having issues.

Typical advertising mail
Typical advertising mail (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It is easy to see the reason for the decline of the print industries world-wide. In a word, the Internet. When it is simple and cheap to sit at a computer and type an email, or finger tap a  message into a tablet or phone, and have a response in minutes, why would anyone manually write a letter, find an envelope, find or purchase a stamp, and find a post box to drop the letter in? Although the vast majority of letters get through safely, there are exceptions, while email is almost certainly going to be delivered and you will get a message if your email doesn’t go through.

Email email email
Email email email (Photo credit: RambergMediaImages)

Similarly in banking. Once every transaction had a paper trail. All transfers and payments were neatly written in books, all ledgers were balanced by hand and banks shifted huge numbers of notes, cheques, coins and other forms of paper money. These days I rarely carry cash, and I haven’t seen or used a cheque in years.

I do all my banking on the Internet, using my computer or phone. I pay for things, even small things like a cup of coffee (actually I drink tea), with a debit card, with a credit card as backup for emergencies. Gas stations, grocery stores, tradesmen, and every other kind of store takes the plastic.

Swipes, Bytes, and Debit Cards
Swipes, Bytes, and Debit Cards (Photo credit: SimpleIllustrations)

More and more our transactions with government departments, like car licensing or tax matters, are conducted online. Even if you have to go in to a government agency for some matter or other, they will scan your documents rather than copy them. If you fill in a paper form, they will transfer the data to their computer systems while you wait.

Picture Scanner
Picture Scanner (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In all fields, except possibly the field of junk mail, paper is being used less and less. Even magazines are headed online, with smartphone apps for New Scientist magazine allowing you to read it anywhere that you may be. An added advantage of on-line magazines is that the electronic copy is, in general, cheaper than the paper version.

HTC Aria android 2.2 smart phone review www.li...
HTC Aria android 2.2 smart phone review http://www.liewcf.com/review-htc-aria-android-2-2-6878/ (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I have forgotten, until now, that I was going to mention books. Books are nice objects to hold, and they make a nice addition to one’s decor. I enjoy reading a book and have several shelves full. Maybe 200 books? But on my electronic devices I have maybe 10 times that number. OK, most are old classics, which are out of copyright, but a number I have bought specifically to read on-line. An on-line reader keeps your place, let’s you bookmark passages and allows you to quickly search for something that you read somewhere in your on-line collection.

books (Photo credit: brody4)

Books are not yet redundant, but they are slowly heading on-line. While it may not be soon, and while not every book will disappear on-line, printed books may become rare and expensive.

Print is dying everywhere and the amazing thing is that it has happened in a short period of time. The spread of computers first caused volumes of paper generated to increase, but the Internet and the way that it has allowed sharing of documents, plus the smaller and faster computers and hugely capacious hard drives, culminating is the ubiquitous smart phones has saved millions of trees from destruction.

Tree in Fog
Tree in Fog (Photo credit: Photomatt28)


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Granny has an iPad

Español: Tim Berners-Lee En el Foro de la Gobe...
Español: Tim Berners-Lee En el Foro de la Gobernanza de Internet. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

On 12 March 1989 Tim Berners-Lee wrote a proposal for what would become the “World Wide Web”, now enshrined in the “www” that is part of the name of many websites. This is often now voiced as “dub, dub, dub”, causing many people to cringe. Through 1990 and into 1991 Tim’s idea was refined until the idea was announced publicly on 7 August 1991.

Granny would have about 30 at the time, or maybe younger.

English: Graph of internet users per 100 inhab...
English: Graph of internet users per 100 inhabitants between 1997 and 2007 by International Telecommunication Union (ITU) recreated in OpenOffice Calc, source: http://www.itu.int/ITU-D/ict/statistics/ict/graphs/internet.jpg) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It’s worth remembering that the Internet had been around for a decade or so, in rudimentary form, so the chances are that Granny might have come into contact with it if she was working in it at the time, maybe at a university. It’s far more likely though that Granny’s first contact with computing would have come from working at a large firm where they had a mainframe computer.

IBM 3279-S3G
IBM 3279-S3G (Photo credit: vaxomatic)

Maybe she sat at an IBM 3270 screen and typed accounting data into it, or maybe she was one of the people who loaded punched cards into a reader or tended the huge printers  that spat out piles of paper with horizontal green stripes and sprocket holes down the edge. Or maybe she loaded magnetic tape reels into one of the tape reader machines which for some reason came to signify “computing” in many films of the era.

The Internet started as a linked network of computers, running online databases, using names such as “Archie” and “Gopher”. Everything was text based and there was no linking. That had to wait for Tim Berners-Lee’s insight. Universities embraced the new medium and most databases were held on University servers.

Gopher (Photo credit: cambodia4kidsorg)

When you blithely click on link to visit a web page a number of things happen. Firstly your computer recognises that you want to do something. A program on your computer called the browser (Firefox, or Chrome or Internet Explorer) analyses your input and decides what you want it to do.

This may involve sending a request to a remote server, but your computer doesn’t know where the server, so it needs to find out. This is done by sending a message to yet another server which has information about where the requested server is on the Internet, or knows how to find out.

Description unavailable
Description unavailable (Photo credit: Forest Service Southwestern Region)

In the early days of the Internet, when Granny may have first come into contact with it, this system did not exist, so every computer on the Internet was required to know the whereabouts of every other computer on the Internet. As you can imagine, updating the address information became a tedious chore and that is why the system that I sketchily outlined above was invented.

Once Granny found a document whose title looked interesting, she would have to download it. Today we click on a link and the document appears on our screen. But Granny would have had to tediously search likely sources for the document, then she would transfer it to the server that she was connected to, and finally she would be able to print it on a printer. If she was lucky the printer would be nearby and it would actually have some paper in it. Granny’s document would be printed in a fixed width font on striped paper by a printer with a ribbon and little hammers, like a glorified typewriter.

English: demonstration of how an impact printe...
English: demonstration of how an impact printer works (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Granny would have been around 20 when IBM introduced the first “IBM Personal Computer” in 1981, but she might have first come into contact with something like a Commodore 64 or Sinclair ZX 81 or Spectrum. She might have played games loaded tedious by command line commands from cassette tape. It’s possible that she was amazed by the blocky coloured graphics and the clunky game play, considering that the next best thing around was “Pong”, a primitive tennis game on a fixed device, sometimes set into a tabletop, or maybe “Space Invaders”, also hosted on a single purpose device.

English: Commodore 64 computer (1982). Post pr...
English: Commodore 64 computer (1982). Post processing: BG, B/C, noise, dust, spot Français : Ordinateur Commodore 64. Suomi: Commodore 64 -tietokone (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

If Granny had anything to do with computers in the early days of personal computers she would have had to deal with machines that by default booted into BASIC. That’s pretty much a fall-back as usually would have inserted a floppy disk with some version of DOS into the machine. Then she would have had to have loaded whatever program she wanted to run by using another floppy disk.

She would have had to become familiar with the DOS command line, including such quirks as the A: and B: drive referring to the same device. Most of the time. She might even have edited configuration files by hand.

Computer directory listing in a command shell.
Computer directory listing in a command shell. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When she got her first hard disk she would have installed DOS or even Windows on it from maybe three or four floppy disks. The first Windows versions ran as a shell on top of DOS, so she would have still needed to have a knowledge of DOS.

In addition she would have had to handle the dreaded device drivers. These were (and still are) small programs that handled interactions with specific installed hardware. Which in the early days of DOS and Windows meant just about any piece of hardware.

Mini CD used for delivering USB drivers for a ...
Mini CD used for delivering USB drivers for a webcam. Photo taken by user: O mores. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When Granny installed her new scanner she would have received a disk with it containing the drivers. She would know from prior experience that installing a driver could possibly make her system crash and be unbootable. But she would have still installed it and most probably (eventually) come out on top of it.

In addition before Granny got broadband she would have experienced the doubtful pleasures of using a dial-up modem, and would be familiar with the weird little song it sings to itself when it is handshaking with the remote modem. And she would certainly be familiar with waiting for half an hour to download a megabyte file and Grandad picking up the phone one minute before the end and breaking the connection.

Quicktel 2400EX
Quicktel 2400EX (Photo credit: debagel)

So, now Granny has bought an iPad. Don’t be surprised if she takes to it like a duck to water. After all, she probably has decades more experience with computers and networks, the Internet and downloading than you have. You weren’t born when she started!

she has a thing for it
she has a thing for it (Photo credit: creaid)
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