Monday, November 19, 2007

Back in the day, we used to walk uphill both ways to use a computer...

One of my senior thesis students is using some freeware written by an academic for her senior thesis research. Now, I love freeware, and I am in great debt to people like Rick Allmendinger and Frank Spear and Rod Holcombe and others who write software and then let the rest of us sponge off their hard work and programming expertise - for free.

But occasionally, relicts of operating systems past appear and confuse the heck out of undergrads used to web apps and commercial software packages.

(Image credit: Wikipedia)

Today's relict was PostScript. Now, I confess that I've never known much about PostScript, except that it was associated with printing, and that my maps in my dissertation always gave me a "PostScript error" when I tried to print them out. (That was back when we had to walk uphill both ways to the laser printer... *shakes cane at young whippersnappers who have just finished dissertation drafts, hooray!* ) Well, in the process of figuring out how to view the images (open them in Adobe Illustrator, and then edit them to our hearts' content), I ended up looking up the history of PostScript, so I could explain why a piece of software that I first encountered in 1990 would use that particular image format, rather than formats she had heard of.

And that led to stories about using a Mac that didn't have a hard drive.

And at that point, as my student looked at me in horror, I realized it.

I have become one of those people who talks about how it was in the "old days."

(And this was just a few weeks after a student looked at my eighteen-year-old solar-powered pocket calculator and teased me about it, and I threatened to give him a slide rule instead.)

Postscript: You know, I still don't think anything with a GUI interface ought to count as "old technology" - after all, when I was little, I drew pictures on the punch cards that my dad brought home from work, and I remember a computer the size of a small building, complete with flashing lights and beeping sounds. *shakes cane some more*


Anonymous said...

Yup. The good old days when they glowed in the dark and heated large buildings. :)


CJR said...

Vast numbers of printers still use postscript - so it's hardly obsolete. It's just that the kids today have no idea how computers actually work (*grumble, grumble, I remember when the operating system was BASIC, grumble, wave zimmer frame*)

Kim said...

Postscript isn't obsolete, but it also isn't as universal as it once was. It's not something that every image-editing program can open (like, for instance, jpeg). The default image-viewing Mac software (Preview) couldn't read this version - it wanted to convert it to a pdf, but failed. Back in the day (*shakes cane*) you could open it in... well, I think you could open it in MacPaint, but I'm not sure - the file format was hidden even on the early Macs.

Was BASIC an operating system? I played with it on an Apple II, but I'm not quite sure what was written in BASIC (other than my rudimentary programs).

I confess - I've always used computers as a black box, and my dad did numerical modeling in the 70's, so I don't have a good excuse to not understand the underlying principles. And, well, I guess that the genius of Mac and Windows is that they allow people to use computers without needing to understand them.

But the more basic understanding one has (of anything!), the easier it is to troubleshoot.

Thermochronic said...

I had a cane-shaking moment the last time I was TA-ing mineralogy. The students were talking about where else they applied to college, and I made a comment about how I still remembered the first piece of college mail I received ("How does Puget Sound?"). College mail? They were befuddled, all of their college searches, applications, and even SAT's were on a computer. I lectured them about writing colleges for more information, and, *gasp*, typing my application forms on a typewriter.

By then it was 4pm, time to hop in my Buick and drive to Denny's for dinner.

Kim said...

Thermochronic -

There's really something to be said for doing college searches on the computer. I had a huge box full of glossy brochures - and it had to go in the trash, because glossy paper couldn't be recycled. So much waste...

I'm also really glad that forms can now be completed on a computer. Typewriters were abandoned for word processors while I was in college, but every office needed one for a long time afterwards, because every form - college application forms, cover sheets for NSF grants, GSA abstract forms - had fields that were easier to fill in with a typewriter.

You know what I wish, though? I wish that some other things had changed as fast as computer use has. Alternative energy and energy efficiency, for instance. The technology is very familiar to me from the days of the last energy crisis. I bet your Buick wasn't that much less efficient than their cars were. (Maybe it was more efficient, if they drove giant SUVs around campus.)

Yami McMoots said...

What? College spam mail is obsolete? Why, I remember the day my friends and I hauled our piles of shiny brochures to the park for a bonfire... glossy paper doesn't burn very well, either.

ScienceWoman said...

I had no idea that college spam mail was gone. How will the postal system stay afloat?

Thermochronic said...

I think the postal service stays afloat by sending me academic job rejection notices. Hey, at least they don't use glossy paper! Between those and Campmor catalogs I keep our post office busy.

Kim - I agree, there are many more technologies that I wish would move at that speed. The only goos sign I suppose is that things can move at that speed. I suppose eliminating mailings and replacing them with web pages is a fairly simple transition, driven I am sure almost entirely by cost-cutting. What surprises me is how sharp the transition was.