Personal Computing Today: Too Many Headaches?

I had to think twice about writing this post! On the one hand, I am a long-retired electrical design engineer – from the computer industry – responsible for at least a tiny sliver of today’s technology. I remain a dedicated user of the latest technology. My two self-published books were written (and “designed”) by me using today’s tools; the same is true of the blog you are reading. Thank goodness for the technology tools which enable such personal endeavors!

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On the other hand, Linda and I are both finding ourselves quite enveloped by those same technology tools. She uses her Apple MacBook Pro laptop heavily in support of volunteer duties as a board member of our local Sunnyvale Historical Society. I recently bought a MacBook Air laptop computer as “backup” to my main desktop iMac. I run Microsoft Windows 7 on both of my Macs using Apple’s “bootcamp” feature which allows booting up either in Mac’s OS X operating system, or Windows. Most engineers of my era grew up with Windows since it alone offered early engineering software applications via third-party programmers.

Yesterday, Linda and I spent over two hours with a resident genius at the “Genius Bar” of Apple’s flagship store in Palo Alto, CA, reloading OS X on my new laptop.

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Earlier, while installing Apple’s bootcamp software and Windows 7 on the machine, I had worked through the entire process only to find that Windows would not accept my just-created password for log-in; yes, I know all about the potential CAPS pitfall, etc. In attempting to uninstall Windows and restore the original Mac operating system partition from my backup drive image, the process stalled, and I was left with an “erased” operating system and no good options for recovery. Our Apple genius knew just what to do, but it did take even him (and me) over two hours to recover my system and successfully install Windows 7 (at the store, this time!).

Despite my former professional resume stating “electrical engineer” and not “computer scientist/engineer,” I nonetheless managed to absorb a lot of computer science during my thirty-seven years designing those rotating magnetic computer memories known as disk drives. For a very long time, every personal computer contained a disk drive, and business was great! Today, disk drives are being replaced by semiconductor memory chips – as in the MacBook Air computer – but I diverge a bit.

The main point I would like to make?

Computer software has reached a critical point for consumers due to the complexity of the functions it increasingly offers with each new upgrade : It is becoming too time/energy intensive even for (some of) us retired engineers.

For those who get their jollies regularly perusing operating manuals for Windows, OS X, and their companion software applications – there is no problem. For the rest of us retired techies and the public at large, the complexities of today’s systems have become barely manageable.

The Apple Stores around here are always very busy – with potential customers, yes, but even more so with recent purchasers who have run amuck as I did, or those mired in a thousand questions of “how to do this” and “why this doesn’t work for me.” To Apple’s great credit, the “one-on-one” appointments they offer and the last-resort  “Genius Bar” make life bearable for many. Linda is ready for another one-on-one session with an expert at the store to help her understand why certain things don’t work the way they once did now that we upgraded her Mac operating system from “Snow Leopard” to “Yosemite.” The Apple Store with its ground-breaking customer service features was a stroke of genius….and a necessary one, at that, in order to keep folks happy behind the screen and keyboard…and to maintain sales!

Two recent events prompted me to finally express my frustration at the trending of computer technology. First, our son-in-law, with a degree in computer science and a considerable programming background, recently offered that the industry would be well-advised to market a more bare-bones operating system and applications package that would be easier for the general public to use. Second, an Amazon customer review on the “Missing Manual” for OS X which I purchased commented on the growing “thickness” of the book with each new system “upgrade.” While praising the manual, he decried the industry momentum which seems to require ever-more complex features in order to “sell.” I agree with my son-in-law: Offer a basic system which is almost bug-free and which offers only the basics that most folks will need. Bigger is no longer necessarily better! I use Microsoft Word for writing my books and my blog, but, actually, I use only a tiny fraction of Word’s myriad features, many of which serve only to confuse and obfuscate!

A parting thought: I always purchase third-party print manuals for software that I use. I am not a fan of screen-based help menus when dealing with a system problem: Too hard on the eyes, and too messy to go back and forth between multiple screens – an actual manual and a few bookmarks work for me!

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A final parting comment: As I watched my new MacBook Air gobble-up data streams during the aforementioned activities, I thought back upon my experiences with my first computer – the Apple II – back in 1979. I still have it! OMG, what hath Apple Computer and Microsoft wrought over those thirty-six years? As an engineer who fully appreciates the technology represented, I am overwhelmed by the tremendous progress. As a senior citizen whose memory can no longer store and unfailingly retrieve and process all of the clicks and keystrokes required to take full advantage, I am also occasionally overwhelmed – but not in a pleasant way. I really do miss my morning reading hour each day now that computers and the complexities of life absorb so much of my time. Technology is always a two-edged sword which cuts both ways – for better or for worse, depending on how we utilize it.

There must be others of you out there who feel the same way?

Apple Computer History: Sadly Saying Goodbye

There comes a time when we must say goodbye. So it is with me and a significant slice of computer history – Apple Computer history, to be precise. The Apple II computer system I purchased in 1979 at the dawn of the personal computer age must go. It is time to face the fact that my wife and I need the storage space in order to make everyday living bearable these days. My system has been carefully packed away and stored in the garage for many years, now, while I have periodically turned to the newest, latest, most powerful personal computers that have come along. My latest is the Apple MacBook Air laptop which I purchased several weeks ago.

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I purchased my Apple II in 1979 from a small local computer store (remember those?) here in Sunnyvale, California, called Computer Plus. I still have the original sales receipt, my cashed personal check, and the business card of the salesperson who sold me the system: Mark Wozniak, the younger brother of Apple co-founder and designer of the Apple II, Steve Wozniak!

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The Apple II was my initiation into the world of computers and computing systems – a realm not served by college and university curriculums in the nineteen-sixties when I was at Stanford – consequently a realm of knowledge which presented us working engineers with a very steep learning curve in the late seventies. Yes, we had the Hewlett Packard HP 35 scientific pocket calculator since 1972 which replaced the old slide rule, but simulating electrical circuit designs on one’s own personal desktop computer was a wholly-different ballgame which required a tremendous learning leap. Such personal engineering computing and the replacement of tubes with transistors in electronic circuits were the two major “leaps” my generation of engineers were required to make in order to stay highly productive… and employable – especially in Silicon Valley.

Comparing the Apple II with my newest computer, Apple’s MacBook Air, is somewhat akin to parking a Model T Ford automobile next to a Ferrari. There are similarities between those two cars: They both have four wheels and an engine – that’s pretty much it! Similarly, the two computers also have similarities: They both have electrical circuits for computational purposes, and they both have memory in which to store information. Other than that, it is truly astounding to contemplate the vast difference in capability between the two computers. The Model T Ford compares infinitely more favorably to the Ferrari than the Apple II to today’s computers. Take a bow, Mr. Wozniak and Mr. Jobs; equally astounding is the fact that this has all taken place in less than thirty-five years!

The year 1979 marked the beginning of Apple Computer’s tumultuous rise in the fledgling personal computer arena. Aside from hobbyist kits, there were few competitors – Radio Shack’s TRS-80 and the Commodore PET were the most notable. IBM’s “PC” was still two years away. I remember distinctly the dawning of the commercial personal computer age for me: I was an electrical engineer with the Memorex Corporation in 1976. One afternoon, I came across two colleagues examining an advertising flyer in the hallway. One was excitedly pointing out the Commodore PET computer which had just been announced…the first integrated, affordable, desktop PC.

 Woz & Jobs & Apple IISteves Wozniak and Jobs and the Apple II – ca. 1979

At the same time in 1976, two youngsters named Jobs and Wozniak had, like good surfboarders, anticipated the coming wave and were tinkering with computers in the garage of Jobs’ parents in nearby Cupertino, California. Thanks to their efforts, Cupertino, in the heart of Silicon Valley, was destined to become corporate headquarters of one of the most valuable companies in the world – Apple Computer. Apple is currently uprooting a considerable tract of nearby land to build their huge (and revolutionary) “circular ring” headquarters – in Cupertino, of course. Apple currently occupies a myriad of large and small buildings throughout the Valley region, so space consolidation will surely result.

The whole Apple saga and the travels of Steve Jobs – Apple’s corporate visionary – is already the stuff of legends. In thinking about it, only Henry Ford and Thomas Edison come to mind as corporate individuals who have had equal influence on the way we live our lives, today. Other corporate giants come to mind, but not many possessing the flair, foresight, and imagination brought to bear by these three.

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My Apple II system is very unique and desirable for a number of reasons:

  1. It is a complete system with matching Apple CRT monitor and twin Apple Disk II floppy disk drives. This, in itself, makes my Apple II very unusual.
  2. The entire system is in pristine, working condition – also rare.
  3. All boxes, packing, and papers that originally came with the various components are present.
  4. I have the original system software cassettes and system floppies as well as a plethora of various Apple Manuals – all in “like new” condition. Also present: The famous Apple II “Redbook” system reference manual.
  5. I am the original owner and have the original sales ticket, my cancelled personal check, and Mark Wozniak’s business card from Computer Plus.

Basically, I would describe what I have as a one-in-a-million Apple II system which qualifies as far better than museum quality.

Gee, the more I talk about my Apple II, the more reluctant I become about putting it up for sale soon on E-Bay. I think I’ll wrap up this post right now!

The Work Ethic and the Dignity of Excellence

There are some things we “just feel in our bones.” I suppose such feelings are nurtured by demonstrated example, perhaps even from something in our genes; such embedded attitudes seem implanted quite early in life. One example of this that intrigues me is the inherent belief that anything worth doing is worth doing well. Some people live their lives framed in that philosophy, while others are consistently content to do enough to “get by” – to just get the job done.

                                 Notable Disciples of Excellence: Steve Jobs                                of Apple Computer and My Father

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Two people come to mind as the ultimate practitioners of “excellence,” Steve Jobs of Apple Computer… and my father! Jobs was a visionary, but one who had the drive and discipline to turn visions into reality – real products that everyone wanted. Why did products such as the Apple II computer, the McIntosh computer, the iPod/iTunes tandem, the iPad, and the iPhone succeed so brilliantly? Because they each served a market looking for a solution….and they worked extremely well at a user/technical level.  Steve Jobs was obsessed with the desire to design truly excellent products. His successes were characterized by ease of use (and usefulness), superb reliability, and, equally important, appealing aesthetics – product “sizzle,” if you will. His favorite phrase about these milestone products echoes still: “Insanely great!” He clearly drove his design teams at Apple to constantly strive for product excellence across the board.

Jobs did not – could not – do it by himself, of course. Anyone hired under his tenure at Apple had to run a possibly unprecedented interview gauntlet before being asked to join the company. Jobs suffered no fools in the process. When I was an active design engineer here in Silicon Valley, stories circulated throughout high-tech of Jobs’ sometimes brutal and blunt interviewing process for prospective high-level Apple employees. He was looking for the spirit of excellence in the people who would be Apple Computer. If you were not on board in that regard, you did not belong. Certainly, “Bozos” need not bother to even apply!

My Father

My father was the perfect example of the attitude that the world needs. He was a gentleman perfectionist in all aspects of his life, with only one year of high school (of economic family necessity) who worked his way up the ladder, the hard way, to become a mechanical design engineer at United Air Lines, responsible for much of their ground-equipment in the nineteen-fifties and sixties. Although he gravitated to the more cerebral occupation of engineering, he was also the finest hands-on craftsman I ever knew – extremely skilled at both the design and execution of any project.

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Everything he designed, made, or repaired, was a work of art including his many RC (radio-controlled) model airplanes and his paintings of early aviation. Even his RC work -station which he took when he went flying was designed by him and hand-built – truly a work of art.

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See my blog archives for the post of June 9, 2013, Family Funnies / Great Laughs for more insight on my father and his RC flying.

As a youngster growing up, I admired his talent and ability. Most importantly, I took away from his personal history and example a distinct appreciation for work well done, whether a product of the mind or the hand. That appreciation has never left me; I will add that he has been a tough act to follow!

Most importantly, Dad respected ANY man or woman of good character who always tried their best and, at least some of the time, produced good results in their chosen endeavor – no matter what their “station” in life. I learned that from him and his example.

The Work Ethic, Excellence, and Personal Dignity

What do we gain personally by putting out the extra effort required by a task well-done as opposed to “good enough to get by?” Here is my take: Individually, we can feel proud of our efforts while hopefully earning the respect of our peers. In most cases, one’s good efforts will be noticed by friends, family, and colleagues, and they should be noticed and appreciated. Incorporating a spirit of striving and excellence into our daily activities infuses us with an innate personal dignity that money and “station” in life cannot procure – a dignity that no one can minimize; call it “feeling good about ourselves.”

What does society gain when its members strive for excellence in each and every daily endeavor? First, a more efficient and pleasant existence for all; second, an elevated esprit-de-corps which serves to intensify even further the drive for excellence while promoting the idea that “we must all pull our own weight, for we are in ‘this’ together.” People with a solid work ethic are the folks who make the world go ‘round – no matter what their occupation or their so-called “level” in society.

             The Dignity of Work Well-Done: Equally Applicable to Steelworkers,      Janitors, Fast-food Cooks, Doctors, and Engineers

My father was able to overcome great obstacles early in life and enter the engineering profession. Not everyone can do what he did. He truly believed that each and every one of us should be judged more by the attitude and effectiveness we bring to whatever activities and profession we embrace than by our ultimate “station in life.” The true dignity of a person and their profession is far better reflected by one’s character and efforts to excel at their work than by the perceived “status” of the profession itself.

A janitor who can add value by demonstrating an ability to repair things on the job and make constructive suggestions while efficiently and effectively fulfilling the typical job description is someone to be admired as opposed to one who knows and cares only how to empty trash cans and vacuum floors.

My wife is a retired schoolteacher from the Catholic schools. During her years on her school faculty, she came to know one or two of the custodians very well, men who always went the extra mile, were always there to help, and were willing and able to make helpful suggestions to the teachers. “That’s not in my job description” was an attitude never heard. These men earned and received great respect from the faculty and were treated as important members of the staff.

Speaking of janitors and the work they do, it saddens me to go into a McDonalds or a Starbucks and observe over-filled trash bins and restrooms with papers strewn all over the floor. I hasten to point out that this problem is not unique to these two businesses; rather it is becoming more the rule than the exception out there. My immediate reaction is two-fold: Why is the public so careless, and why doesn’t the staff take more pride in their premises? Frankly, of the two parties involved, I come down harder on the public at large which seems to have less and less respect for property and for those who operate it.

If all patrons would do their part and pick up after themselves, the world would be a better place – not just cleaner, but more civil. How many times have you seen take-out food and beverage containers sitting forlornly in the middle of a parking lot, the consumer too lazy and uncaring to take their trash with them? Respect is a two way street. I respect those who make an honest effort to do their part and shoulder their responsibilities every day no matter what their “station” in life. As for those who just do not care: Grow up and earn some respect!

                                             Recognize a Good  Attitude                                               and a Job Well Done

I make it a point to single-out and praise anyone who is providing special service or delivering a job well done. Tipping at restaurants is the usual way to cast your vote on the service, but why not tell an outstanding server verbally how you appreciated their attitude and service as well?

Years ago, we had some very stubborn wallpaper removed at a fixed price determined ahead of time. The company sent out one of their workers (not the one who bid the job!) who soon discovered that removing this wallpaper was not at all a typical effort. The guy worked like a beaver the entire day, sweating heavily the whole time – always cheerful. I was so impressed with his energy and positive attitude throughout that I tipped him $100 for his efforts. I suspect he was paid not much more than that by his employer. He was surprised and pleased that I validated the dignity and worth of his efforts in such a way. I was pleased to observe that the work-ethic was alive and well and was pleased to reward it.