Tuesday, January 29, 2008

The mystery of history and the dusty PC in the attic

I was in college in the 70's and missed Viet Nam because of a medical deferment. My older brother though signed up and went. When he came back he filled in all the stories I had heard about the war. He also brought back with him something else, tapes of the music of the times. Jimmy Hendrix, Steppenwolf and others. There weren't any real west coast hippies in Ohio that I knew but hearing the stories and the sounds put me there. Yeah, we had records but the tapes were magical, they put me there. I can't remember when I first got computer cravings, I was into architecture in school. When that was no longer a practical pursuit, I guess I caught the technology bug. We live in amazing times even when we aren't in the center of where it's happening. I read magazines and journals not comprehending what I was looking at. It became real when I got my first computer (a Sinclair 1000). Many guys/gals like me dreamed of what I might of been like to be on the ground floor of earth shaking happenings. The 60's and 70's came and went so fast if all you can remember is hippies and disco you had your eyes closed. I just watched the movie "The Pirates of Silicon Valley". According to it, personal computing ultimately owes it's existence to Jobs and Gates. They weren't the originators but they did in huge part make computers personal and popular. They stand out today because their companies are big and in the forefront. But they don't tell the whole story as I have said before. Many, many users regard Jobs and Gates as iconic figures that overshadow their respective lives and characters. How they got there is no longer important because we just use the products of their companies. So if we criticize them we are sort of attacking their products creditability and such. Well, it is in fact good to inquire into the history of things. To know the circumstances from which things are born. Not for the technology itself, but the attitudes of peoples that caused opportunities to be taken or missed. The noise of the foreground focus often obscures the stuff going on the background. With the stage set, the stuff in the foreground happens because some seize the moment. If you were too young to remember or weren't born yet, I speak as an older guy, you have missed a lot of what has made today possible. If you only know part of the story then you will forever be short in your access to all the opportunities before you. This is why I say that if you know the truth, you should tell the Linux story, how it fits into the times to where it is today. I just saw "Pirates of Silicon Valley", and it is very eye opening as far as an example of American entrepreneurial spirit breaking the old notions and boundaries and developing into a mirror image of both their founders and the very entities they were repelling from. Absolutely nothing is said about Unix finding its way onto personal computers in the way of Linux. The development and growth of Linux was out of their scope though probably not out of their sight, after all Linux was born on the new thing called the Internet. I also just read one of many sites, http://www.sitepoint.com/article/real-history-gui , about the GUI. Many vocal users claim the superiority of Macs or MS Windows interfaces. You should look into the GUI history, the series of deals and misdeeds that took place to develop what we have today is not a glamorous one. For one vendor to claim a legal leg up is as stupid as claiming rights to turkey quills as the first ink pen. Sorry, to borrow or steal or appropriate or copy is just business to some. Who stole first, who drew first blood all happened before most of us were even aware of computers. Mr. Gates even insisted that computer hobbyist protect their ideas from being stolen. He, to this day still insist on rights of propriety and leasing the use of technology to other companies and to users. If you know these beginnings, you can understand the how and why of MS products and their relationship to users today. You can also ask the question of how can there be a Linux today if it didn't come about the same way that Microsoft and Apple came about? What was the source and the motivation that drove it because it wasn't market forces. Yet, Linux survives and flourishes, in spite of not being a commercial success. And you can ask if Linux is such a hot operating system, why am I just finding out about it, I grew up with computers?
In college you find out that the world is larger than even the media can expose. Things happen in your world, things happen elsewhere at the same time. The media shows you one thing and not another because it's not news worthy or something. Or the company that controls the media is in cohoots with someone paying for you not to know, or........it's the perception. Linux is for geeks and former IBM techies. How about Linus Torvalds not being American, how good can that be? You know the Edison/Tesla thing I keep bringing up. Well, I had an inkling that computers didn't need MS software to run because I read about it. One day I stumbled on a book (Power Linux) with a CD of LST Linux in the back in a local library years ago. I can't remember installing it but I must have tried. I do remember downloading Slackware Linux onto floppies. Then my first significant install was Red Hat Linux. I dual-booted with MS Win95, it was a total mess. I did a 5 year stint as an electrical draftsman at a NASA facility. There it was confirmed that computers can be designed to run without the aid of MS software. And that PC's could be run with Linux and that Linux was adequate on the desktop for most if not all of my computing needs. Engineers at NASA were still skeptical about Linux on the desktop and I heard all the typical user excuses for not using it from not looking right to not enough games. Getting back to the GUI, a touchy subject among users, it is such a subjective thing to pit one GUI against another. Sort of like comparing ink pens. Look, feel, and polish have all been expounded on. But GUI's improve with all the criticism in tow. Most of what we call a GUI is standardized down to point and click. If you point to it and click it, it's suppose to work and that is that. Most don't really care what the operating system actually is, as long as the point and click works. Most have bought into the pitch that one companies point and click is more natural than another or that you can only understand one style of point and click in your life. Also if you change from one point and click system to another, the learning curve is so high/costly. Gee, that says a lot about the confidence companies have in folks who grew up programming buttons on the microwave, TV remote, VCR and cell phones.
"Once you know it you can't change" has been the mantra of software vendors for years now. It is a marketing tool that says only our stuff fits you, forever.
I think I have said enough for now. Look into computing history and find out the how and why of things, it is interesting and it might change how you feel about things you accept as common place today. The larger lessons of ethical behaviors and outcomes of things and events all color the stuff going on today. Life did not begin with us, we stand on shoulders, take part in, mesh with and continue a pattern of in a time we pass through. Some of us make a difference and some are un-noticed but once we are here we experience and are a part of the story. To get the chance to tell the story is cool but to hear the same event from a number of sources is to hear the story in "HD".

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