6:41 pm

why me mac, one part

This is a post about computers. Even if you don't like computers, particularly, maybe you'll like it anyway.

I got my first computer back in 1983. It was from Radio Shack, and it didn't work. Unless lots of snow on the tv screen is considered 'working'. Which it might've been, then. Also, some of the keys were broken. It had been a demo model. I'm not sure what it demo'd. I didn't actually buy it myself; my girlfriend bought it and brought it home and we hooked it up and watched the snow.

I didn't buy another for a few years. I could, I reasoned, watch tv snow quite cheaply and easily simply by unhooking the antenna.

When I did buy one, it was in 1989 or thereabouts, and Apple had just come out with the Mac SE, which looked just like a Mac, except it had a hard drive as well as a (high density) floppy drive, or two floppies, if you preferred, instead of the single 800KB floppy drive of yore. (There was also the SE30, which included a much faster processor, but also cost a couple thousand dollars more. It was worth it. I didn't know that, nor would it, given that my annual income was just over $7,000, have made any difference.) I had to be talked out of the dual-floppy config; I'd never used, nor did I know anyone who used, a hard drive. I wasn't sure how you could carry your programs and files around if they were on a hard drive. You'd have to truck the Mac itself everywhere with you. Seemed a bit of a chore.

Anyway, it came with its own built-in monitor, and I'd seen friends' in action, and they weren't any of them covered with snow, so I thought it might be worth a shot. I had a thesis to finish up (Official Reason) and there was this cool D&D game some of my friends had and, well, there it was.

I got the thing home, and set it up (power cord to the wall, keyboard to the kb/mouse port, mouse to the other port, roped and tied in under 6 seconds) and hit the power switch.* While it was booting, I looked it over very carefully. Top, sides, vents, back. The Finder desktop, with its drive icon and trash icon and apple/file/edit/special menubar, appeared, and the Mac sat quietly. It'd done its bit. I kept looking for a little longer, then gave up and started playing with the apps and things pre-loaded on the hard drive. There was this weird little plastic tabby thing at the bottom of the box, and I saved it, but I couldn't find any mention of it in the docs.

What I was looking for was the switch one flipped to bring up the command prompt. I wanted to tell the Mac to do stuff, and the mental metaphor I had (and still have) for that was a command line. And if I wanted to tell it to do several things, I knew I had to write those down in a file, and then enter the filename at the command prompt, and it would do them. Some time before, my mom had gotten a grad degree in Computer Science, as well as doing something remunerative at that uni, something mainframe database-y. She had to go into work on weekends once in a while, and if I was home I went with her. (This is going somewhere.) While she did her work, I used to sit at unoccupied terminals and key in passages from LOTR poems from memory, which is just about as geeky as one can get, barring... no, scratch that. That was as geeky as it got, then and now. She had mentioned that whatever I typed in would still be there on the next Monday, you see, when the real workers came in and turned on their monitors. It kept me quiet for substantial periods, which suited Mama, and as I recall, was true. The point is, I knew about how computers were supposed to work, and text input was a key part of that.

But back to my first Mac. It continued to sit and hum on the counter, offering up all those little pictures and windows and menus in case I wanted to do something computational. It knew that I'd come around eventually, there's naught so passive-aggressive as a computer, and besides, one of the apps on the hard drive was HyperCard. Doing stuff with HyperCard satisfied all my imperial lusts for several years to come. By then I acquired Think C, and volumes of lore regarding the Toolbox and also by then that Mac was a positive sinkhole of modifications told off to play nice with each other or else. I was active in the local Mac user group, and had learned a lot about what went on under the shell. It turned out that the little plastic tabby thing was the switch I'd been looking for, sort of. If you snapped into the right place on the left side vents, one tabby warm-booted the Mac, and the other crashed it into the low-level debugger, or Macsbug if you had that installed. It wasn't the sort of thing Apple liked to document.

I had grown to treat my Mac as a necessary part of my life. I rarely went anywhere without it, except for little grocery errands and such. When I packed my toothbrush and socks and underwear for a trip home to see my mother, now doing a different job at the same uni, I also heaved the Mac into its own carrying case, and then into the passenger seat. With seatbelt. I might not actually use it, when I got wherever I was going, but I took it just the same. It was heavy enough so that the strap bruised my shoulder, just getting it from house to car, and from car to (wherever).

Bear in mind that I did not carry a purse. Why not? Too much trouble, purses.

At the time I also had a job with a startup that was developing software to do stuff that can, I think, best be described as a melding of HyperCard and the internet. (This was just prior to internet access becoming generally available. Theirs wasn't a bad idea, but it didn't scale.) I worked with both PCs and UNIX stations to do my job, and the guys that wrote the software encouraged me to learn all I could. When I was laid off, after about a year and a half, I got my next job based in part on the stuff I'd been exposed to at the startup. I still work there, too, which goes to show... something.

And I still have Macs. I only 'own' one or two at a time, though it does seem as if I've been responsible for the continued health of three or four or five, simultaneously, for at least a decade.

Which brings me to the point, if there is one, of this entry. I've never, ever, come close to spending money on non-Mac hardware. PCs are, to me, things that one's employer supplies. UNIX cannot be owned or run by an individual; what would be the point? If it isn't networked, why bother? Well, yes, all computers need an OS of some kind, and UNIX/Linux flavours are more sensible than anything Microsoft has sponsored, but when it comes down to shelling out cash for a whole, entire computer to be used by an individual, I have never been able to see the point in anything but Mac.

I came close when John "The Mac Is a Serious Business Asset" Scully was running Apple. That man could suck the joy out of a ride on an elephant. I thought very, very hard about switching to a PC, but in the end I just couldn't. Working with a computer is more than the sum of the applications you can run on it. It's the things it inspires you to do, even when it's not turned on. A PC inspires me to do what I need to do, as efficiently as possible, so I can turn it off and get back to my Mac.

I'm not the first person to notice that the tools I have influence how I think about a problem, if I should try this approach or that. There are a multitude of solutions to most problems, and it is, frankly, a luxury to be allowed to define the best solution solely in terms of what would truly be the best of all worlds, rather than what we can afford, in the time allowed, given that Fred's on vacation in the Andes.

The problem with Scully was not that he was Satan, or even Azmodius, but that he bought into the idea that "business" is the highest and best use of a human being's time on earth. The purpose, the true purpose of computers, I've long maintained, is to do those things that enable people to sit around under trees, watch butterflies, paint pictures, and write poetry. Computers are pretty good at that, given the right parameters. Macs are especially good at that. Microsoft sucks so hard at that, you can hear the black hole forming, and on the Mac side, John Scully was their cabana boy.

It didn't stop me using Macs, as should be patently obvious, but doing so did stop being quite the rejuvenating activity it had begun as. I thought at the time it was just how things went.

I was wrong.

And many of the widgets are available for PCs, which means that eventually there should be a whole lot more poetry in the world, as well as increasingly annoyed butterflies.


* I did not buy a printer; it was, I think, some four or five years before I bought a printer. A side effect of this is that I do not print things out as a rule. If you really want to move to a paperless office state, you might do worse than just disconnect your printer and put it in a closet. They're easier to live without than one might think.

tagged: , | 2 Comments


  1. posted January 27, 2005 at 2:17 pm

    I enjoyed this post, and not just because I’m a fellow Mac user. It’s odd how much certain inanimate objects assume places in our lives and psyches that usually belong to more animate beings — cars are like this, as are computers. Perhaps it is because they do things we don’t expect? Anyway, I can remember all my Macs, from my very first MacSE, then MacIIe, then Powerbooks, and now the iMac. By contrast, the only pcs I remember (and I’ve known a fair number, between work and my dad) were a strange little laptoppy thing (mid 1980s) and a touch-screen with little holes all around the screen (for the emitting of the light grid).

    I very much agree with the work=pc, home=mac divide; I have utterly no affection for my work pcs, and I prefer it that way. I like that they sit, trapped, on a desk at work, along with the work itself. My iMac, though — love it! — gets to go to coffeeshops, and libraries and on vacation, and to curl up with me on the couch. :)

  2. posted January 30, 2005 at 7:27 pm

    My work laptop is still tethered to an ethernet cable. I could get a wireless card for it. There’s a spare d-link router in the cupboard, that could be plugged into the ultra-secure pix router my company sent me. But then I think, why? Why bother? I’m not going to take it anywhere. But I do enjoy curling up on the sofa with my Mac.