Sunday, November 22, 2015

Personal Observations on Entering an Age of Computing Machines

Another working paper, link, abstract, and introduction below.

* * * * *

Abstract: This recounts my history with personal computers, from a Z80 machine in 1981 through my Macintosh PowerBook Pro Retina today. I discuss the machines themselves, how I use them, the man-machine interface, and how computing has changed the way I work and afforded me new possibilities. Working as an independent scholar, the Internet has given me an intellectual life that would have otherwise been impossible. I have easy access to reference materials, to other scholars, and publishing opportunities that aren’t encumbered by old modes of thought or by the limitations of print publication.


Computers and Me: What We Have and Haven’t Done 2
Academic Publishing, A Personal History 1: An Outside Move 6
Academic Publishing, A Personal History 2: To the Blogosphere and Beyond 12
I’m Lost in the Web & Digital Humanities is Sprouting All Over 21
The Diary of a Man and His Machines, Part 1: The 20th Century 24
The Diary of a Man and His Machines, Part 2: How’s this Stuff Organized on My Machines? 29
The Diary of a Man and His Machines, Part 3: The 21st Century 32
Have The Internets Rotted My Brain and Wrecked My Mind? 41
Finger Knowledge, A Note About Me and My Machines 50

My Computers and Me: What We Have and Haven’t Done

When I was born a few years after the end of World War II, “computer” likely referred to a person, that person was more likely than not a woman, and she performed calculations for a living. Yes, there were computing machines at the time – and I don’t mean mechanical calculators, but electronic computing machines ¬– but they were few and far between. They were also very large and expensive.

Electronic Brains

And they were sometimes called “electronic brains” a usage that, according to this Ngram chart, peaked around 1960:

electronic brain

By that time they were common enough that they would show up in the news in various ways. One of those ways was in news and propaganda about the Cold War. Who had the best computers, us or the Russians?

Thus I remember reading an article, either in Mechanix Illustrated or Popular Mechanics – I read both assiduously – about how Russian technology was inferior to American. It had a number of photographs, one of a Sperry Univac computer – or maybe it was just Univac, but it was one of those brands that no longer exists – and another, rather grainy on, of a Russian computer and taken from a Russian magazine. The Russian photo looked like a slightly doctored version of the Sperry Univac photo. That’s how it was back in the days of electronic brains.

When I went to college at Johns Hopkins in the later 1960s one of the minor curiosities in the freshman dorms was an image of a naked woman ticked out in “X”’s and “O”’s on computer print-out paper. People, me among them, actually went to some guy’s dorm room to see the image and to see the deck of punch cards that, when run through the computer, would cause that image to be printed out. Who’d have thought, a picture of a naked woman – well sorta’, that particular picture wasn’t very exciting, it was the idea of the thing – coming out of a computer. These days, of course, pictures of naked women, men too, circulate through computers around the world.

Two years after that, my junior year, I took a course in computer programming, one of the first in the nation. As things worked out, I never did much programming, though some of my best friends make their living at the craft. But I’ve been interested in computers and computing in one way or another for a bit over half a century and have invested a lot of time and energy in the idea that the human mind is computational in some fundamental sense.

Intellectual Appliances

But that’s not what this collection of posts is about. It’s about something a bit less exotic. The first two posts are about how I’ve used my personal computers, hooked to the Internet, as a vehicle for interacting with others and for publishing my ideas. Two more recent posts give a capsule history of the computers I’ve owned, from a NorthStar Horizon in the early 1980s to the MacBook Pro (with Retina screen) I’m using to write (and post) this introduction. In between these two pairs of posts is a somewhat shorter post about how using a computer has affected my style of working with words.

Considered simply as stand-alone devices my computers have been enormously useful tools. As word-processors, they’ve made it much easier to create documents, both final documents and to work with notes and drafts. Moreover, much of my work involves diagrams. That I can prepare those diagrams with suitable programs (mostly Microsoft’s PowerPoint these days) and insert them into documents, that too is useful.

I’ve also gotten a great deal of pleasure from creating art on the computer, something I didn’t discuss much in these posts – though I mention it in The Diary of a Man and His Machines, Part 3: The 21st Century. I did the most intense work with MacPaint on my early Macintosh machines, then a program called Brush Strokes on my 1990s Performa model. About a decade ago, though, I began taking photographs, something I mention in that post, but don’t really discuss.

Nor I am going to discuss it much here. But I doubt that I would have gotten so interested in photography back when photography was dominated by film. My paternal grandfather was an avid photographer, even had his own darkroom. As a child I took some photos with the family camera when we went on vacations. But that was the extent of it.

There is a technical aspect of analog (that is, chemical emulsion) photography that I would have had to master in order get control of my photos, and I would probably have had to have my own darkroom as well. Digital photography changes that. Yes, technical aspects remain. Even relatively simply “consumer” digital cameras have lots of settings you can fiddle around with. But for the most part, I just set my camera (I’ve got both a low-end DSLR, digital single lens reflex, and a simpler “point and shoot” camera) on automatic and let it “choose” the settings. I shoot in RAW format, however, rather than JPGs. There’s no need to go into the details, but it means that I’ve got more flexibility when I render my photos with an appropriate program – these days I mostly use Lightroom and Photoshop, but I’ve also used iPhoto and its replacement, Photos. This is where I get to exercise real control over my images. In analog photography you’d have to have your own darkroom to get this kind of control, and even then you’d have been limited.

So, still considered as a stand-alone device, computers have opened up photography to me. And that has become my main medium of artistic expression, at least in the plastic arts. I’ve been painting and drawing since I was a child, mostly oils and acrylics, and I continued that into my early computer years up into the 1980s. But it’s been two or more decades since I’ve used paint and brush. To some extent this is a matter of not having enough physical space. If I had the space, would I get back into it? I don’t really know, but it’s not an issue I think much about.

That’s one thing, the computer as a stand-alone appliance, but the computer as gateway to cyberspace, that’s something else, and just as important. I am a scholar and an intellectual, but I’ve been without an institutional affiliation since the mid-1980s, when I left my faculty position at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Through the Internet I can publish at will, contact other scholars and interact with them, and gain access to published materials of all sorts. Through the Internet I can function as an intellectual in a way that was impossible before. That has made a tremendous change in my life, much for the better, and my first two posts, Academic Publishing, A Personal History, Parts 1 and 2, are about that.

And so, in a way, is the penultimate post in this collection, Have the Internets Rotted My Brain and Wrecked My Mind?, which I published at 3 Quarks Daily [1]. It’s about the intersection of computer use and my intellectual life and starts from the fallacious premise that using the Internet has destroyed my capacity to think – something that’s often asserted about ‘kids these days’. The way I go about my intellectual business these days is quite different from how it was in, say, the 1970s. Some of that difference is the computer and the Internet and some of it is just me. How to disentangle the two is anyone’s guess. That article is dotted with photographs, most of which don’t look like photographs, but I assure you that they came out of my camera and they got into my camera while I was walking around Hoboken and shooting things.

But Not Music

But what I haven’t done with any of my computers is music. Ah, that’s not quite true. I got music notation software with that G3 Mac from the turn of the millennium and I used it quite a bit. But when I replaced that machine with the G4 PowerBook I had to replace that program with a different one, which I never used. I also intended to hook the PowerBook to my Yamaha SY55 keyboard, even bought cables for that purpose, but never got around to it. The general idea was to compose on the Mac and then play the compositions through the Yamaha. It would have been slammin’.

But I just couldn’t bring myself to climb the learning curve it would have required to get that stuff working together. If I could have taken a pill that would have given me instant knowledge, well then sure, I’d have done it. But that’s not how things work.

When I switch into music mode, I mostly want to make music. I can do that with my trumpet, or to a lesser extent with that keyboard, or even a Roland electronic drum. I love making music. And I like composing stuff for the trumpet. I simply didn’t want to spent music time messing around with computer hardware and software. If I could have afforded to pay someone to hook it all up for me I might have done that. Then I could have composed on the Mac, played it through the Yamaha, and even played along with on my trumpet. That’s what I wanted to do. And I would have been fun. But I simply couldn’t bring myself to do that missing piece, learning the software and hardware well enough to get it going. It probably wouldn’t have taken more than a month. And then? But who knows?

That’s how the cookie crumbles. Even in the super-modern technologically enhanced postmodern pre-future age.

What’s Here

About the posts:

Academic Publishing, A Personal History 1: An Outside Move – Academic publication has been busted for years: from traditional hard copy, to microfiche, to the web.

Academic Publishing, A Personal History 2: To the Blogosphere and Beyond – Listserves, blogging, and social networking for academics. (BTW, the subtitle is a play on Buzz Lightyear, the central character of Pixar’s first animated feature film, Toy Story. His motto was “To infinity and beyond.”)

I’m Lost in the Web & Digital Humanities is Sprouting All Over – From notebooks, to blogging, and how do I keep track of all the work I’m putting on the web, which has become my main intellectual output?

The Diary of a Man and His Machines, Part 1: The 20th Century – My first computers, from a Z80 (processor) S100 (bus) machine to early Macs and digital art. Word processing and digital art.

The Diary of a Man and His Machines, Part 2: How’s this Stuff Organized on My Machines? – How do you keep track of over three decades of intellectual life on your computer? You do and you don’t. How do you want to spend your time, doing intellectual work or organizing and indexing the work you’ve done? No matter where your mind is – in your head, on a computer, and both – getting on top of it is impossible. It’s not your toy, it’s YOU.

The Diary of a Man and His Machines, Part 3: The 21st Century – Now we get some real computing power, a Mac G3 tower model, a G4 PowerBook, a Mac Mini, and now a PowerBook Pro Retina. Working on two screens is wonderful (wish I could afford three or four or more), Back-tracking, the physical interface: typing and mousing, then a trackpad.

Have The Internets Rotted My Brain and Wrecked My Mind? – No, they haven’t. But my current intellectual life is quite different from my intellectual life in the 1970s. Some of that is me, and some of that is technology. With evocative photographic accompaniment.

Finger Knowledge, A Note About Me and My Machines – This is a note about the nuts and bolts bottom level business of using a keyboard. There’s nothing intellectual about it, but it determines how you use this computational intellectual appliance. I offer a comparison with valve fingerings in trumpet playing.


[1] William Benzon. Have the Internets Rotted My Brain and Wrecked My Mind? 3 Quarks Daily. October 19, 2015. URL:

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