Good News: You don’t need to know this shit!

The Dream of Poor Bazin

Jerry Stratton

What if the Three Musketeers were journalists in Washington, DC? What if journalists were swashbuckling, swaggering, hard-drinking warriors of truth? Find out in Jerry Stratton’s The Dream of Poor Bazin.

  1. A Wake on the Internet
  2. InfoShok

Read this book, but keep in mind that the topics written about here are illegal and constitute a threat. Also, more importantly, almost all the recipes are dangerous, especially to the individual who plays around with them without knowing what he is doing. Use care, caution, and common sense. This book is not for children or morons.--William Powell, The Anarchist Cookbook

When I was in high school, it was assumed as a matter of simple fact that, in a few years, everyone would need to know how to program computers. High school students would study hexadecimal and binary, the ‘numeric languages’ of the computer, and have to learn some kind of ‘programming language’. In 1983, in The Cartoon Guide to the Computer, Larry Gonick wrote, (?)

In the computer age, everyone will be required by law to memorize the powers of two, up to 210. Better not wait! Avoid jail and do it now!

1201
10212
100224
1,000238
10,0002416
100,0002532
1,000,0002664
10,000,00027128
100,000,00028256
1,000,000,00029512
10,000,000,0002101,024

He was being facetious, of course. And the idea that the high school student must learn programming has fortunately disappeared. The average person doesn’t need to know computer programming any more than the average person needs to know how to build a car.

Unfortunately, this outdated thinking hasn’t yet disappeared in schools. Our high school ‘programming’ classes are quite useless at preparing someone for a life of computers: by the time students pass through college, the programming language they learned in high school is out of date. I learned PL/I in college. Today only elderly computer geeks even recognize the name. C++, the current programming fad, was barely a twinkle in Stroustrup’s eyes. And memorizing the binary table up to 1,024? That’s what computers are for, for God’s sake!

When Gonick wrote that, 1,024 was the ‘unit’ of computer memory. A year before, I’d purchased a computer that had 16 of those units. Most other people were still making do with four of them--4,048 bytes. By the end of the summer, I’d saved up and upgraded to 48 of those units. It was a bottomless chasm of memory I thought I’d never fill. Today I have to pull out the calculator to figure out how many of those old units are in the computer I’m typing this on: 196,608. And the latest Macintoshes announced just yesterday can take up to 1,536,000 of those units.

The old ‘1,024’ sized-units were called kilobytes. My first computer had ‘16 kilobytes’, and I upgraded to ‘48 kilobytes’. The first Macintosh came out with ‘128 kilobytes’ (and boy did it need it, they quickly shifted to 512 kilobyte models). Today, we talk about megabytes. Each megabyte is 1,024 kilobytes. The computer I’m using right now has ‘192 megabytes’. I’m greedy. I want at least 400.

Even the pocket calculator I’m using to figure this out has four kilobytes, and a built-in programming language as powerful as the computer I bought in high school.

So don’t worry about it. If anything you see on your computer annoys you, you’ll have the last laugh. It will be obsolete almost as soon as you turn your back. You won’t be obsolete for another few decades, unless you work in the computer industry.

Ah, but who doesn’t work in the computer industry today?

I say you won’t be programming, but that isn’t true. You will be programming. You just won’t have to know how. All “programming” is, is telling the computer what to do. When you tell your computer to ignore electronic mail from your mother-in-law, you’re programming your computer. But you will not be using BASIC, C, Pascal, or any other language your children might be learning today in high school. You’ll either use some written language that looks almost like English, or a spoken language that actually is English.

set mother in law to [E--do--a] at [cloud9.salem.il.us]
find family form letter
on incoming mail

tag from mother in law (!)
reply with family form letter
trash tagged messages

done with incoming mail

This is an example of the kind of “written” language that software manufacturers are working towards. The Eudora mail program is far from this easy, but it does the same sort of thing for you. The holy grail, however, is to be able to talk to your computer. Like most computer “advancements”, it’ll be easier to use and take a lot longer to complete:

Algernon. Lane, I’m not feeling well. If my mother-in-law calls, send her that form reply we worked out for family members.

Lane. Very well, sir. Let me describe the steps that I’ll perform, sir. One, mail from your mother-in-law is to be tagged for special action. Two--

Algernon. Yes, yes, Lane. Life is far from the details. You’ll do it right. Why are the lower classes so neurotic these days?

Lane. Very sorry, sir. We’re computers, sir.

Algernon. You just can’t find good silicon these days.

Lane. No sir. Sir, it may not be my position to say this, but your mother-in-law, according to my records, is Ernest Worthing, your elder brother. Before I take it upon myself to trash all his... or her--mail, sir, is there not a possibility that my memory chips are failing? Or, since my diagnostics indicate no such possibility, that perhaps sir entered the data incorrectly? Sir.

Algernon. Sir did not enter the data incorrectly, and while I would not dare to question the fallibility of your memory chips, they are in this case correct. Now do as I say. Good lord, Lane, I’m an effete snob, not a computer doctor.

Lane. Yes sir. Action initiated, sir.

Notice how much smarter this computer is. It not only knows that Algernon’s mother-in-law shouldn’t also be his brother, it knows when to shut up. There are no computers this smart today, but engineers around the globe are feverishly working on it.

Not.

Buying the Thing

There are at least two schools of thought when it comes to purchasing computer equipment and software. The first is to get the most kick-ass computer system you can afford. That way it’ll take a couple days longer than the cheap shit before it becomes obsolete. The second is to buy something cheap and obsolete, because even if you go and waste your money on something state of the art, it’ll still be obsolete in a month, and then you’ve got something expensive and obsolete.

At the time that I’m writing this, ‘state of the art’ in the IBM compatible world is a ‘Pentium II at 266 Mhz with a 6 gigabyte or greater hard drive and 32 Meg of RAM. I can see your eyes glassing over already. Pretend you don’t care what those numbers mean. (As if that’s hard...) Obsolete is a ‘486 at 100 Mhz with a 400 or greater megabyte hard drive and 16 Meg of memory. Anything lower than that isn’t obsolete, it’s a doorstop: modern software won’t run reliably on it.

There are two major computer ‘types’ out right now: IBM compatibles and Apple Macintoshes. I’ll get to ‘state of the art’ and ‘obsolete’ in Macintoshes in a moment. Right now, I want to explain what those damn numbers mean.

The CPU

The Pentium or G4 is the name of the CPU, or the main computer chip in your computer. A Pentium III is faster and more powerful than a Pentium II, which, in turn, is faster and more powerful than a Pentium (and they all get dwarfed by the G4). These chips were all designed by a computer chip company called Intel. The Pentium was Intel’s answer to the call for ‘superchips’. Once Intel managed to get it to do accurate math (!), it took over from the ‘486. Someday, they’ll come up with something that is as fast as the Macintosh chip--at which point, the Pentium III will be the ‘obsolete cheap piece of shit’, and the Pentium II will be the doorstop.

On the Macintosh side, you’ll see chip names like G4, PowerPC, G3, 68000, 68030, 68040. The PowerPC G4 is the state of the art in the Macintosh. The standard PowerPC is the obsolete piece of shit, and the 68040 is the doorstop. Apple’s more successful answer to the superchip is the PowerPC. (!) Note that ‘obsolete’ for the Macintosh is a little different than for Intel (or ‘Wintel’, because generally they run Microsoft’s ‘Windows’). You can usually run modern software on obsolete Macintoshes, they just run slowly. You can even usually run them on doorstop Macintoshes, and people do every day.

Macintoshes can actually hear your voice and understand what you’re saying, as long as you keep it on moron level and there is absolutely no background noise. So you end up saying things like “open file”, “make alias”, “close window”; also, “Jesus Christ!” when a friend walks in and deletes an important computer file by saying “Hey, dude, like, what’s up?”.

Speed Hertz

Computer speed is measured in (megahertz), abbreviated Mhz. The Mhz rating of a chip can only be compared to the Mhz ratings of other chips with the same name. A 100 MHz Pentium Pro, a 100 Mhz Pentium II, and a 100 MHz PowerPC G3 all run at different speeds. A 100 Mhz Pentium II, however, is definitely slower than a 200 MHz Pentium II. A 450 Mhz PowerPC G3 is faster than a 233 MHz PowerPC G3, but not necessarily faster than a 400 Mhz PowerPC G4. The G4 series of chips are mean motherfuckers with hair on their legs. They’re faster and more efficient at modern computing tasks than the Pentium series used in IBM compatibles: in fact, they can pretend to be Pentiums at reasonable speeds.

This is in general. For any specific task, you’ll want to check things out. If there’s a specific bit of computer software that you want to buy, test drive it on every computer you can get your hands on before going out and purchasing a computer.

Drives Hard and Big

When it comes to hard drives, the bigger the better, baby. Just like Hustler. Hard drives are where you store computer information. Your hard drive is your computer’s long term memory.

A hard drive is like a monster huge file cabinet: you put computer stuff in it. The size of the hard drive is how much stuff you can put in it. Four hundred megabytes will hold the entire Encyclopedia Britannica. Unfortunately, computer software is often also as big as the Britannica, so that after installing the most up-to-date versions of your operating system and word processor, you don’t have room for anything else. The modern ‘state of the art’ hard drive size is 13 to 24 gigabytes. The obsolete size is 4 to 8 gigabytes. Next year’s size will probably be about 30 gigabytes. That, as Larry Gonick might say, is one big gig.

RAM and You

RAM is another form of memory that computers have. RAM is your computer’s short term memory. Your hard drive doesn’t lose anything when you turn your computer off. Your RAM does--it loses everything. While you store junk on your hard drive that you haven’t seen in years, you only store stuff in RAM if you’re using it right now. You do this because RAM is a lot faster than hard drive memory, and it’s also more expensive. Being faster, using it makes your computer work faster. Being more expensive, it makes you have to work faster. One megabyte of RAM currently costs about one dollar; one megabyte of hard drive space costs about 10 cents. RAM costs and hard disk costs have been dropping like crazy. By the time you read this, a megabyte of hard drive space may well cost a penny. Of course, you’ll have to purchase them in 1,000,000 penny lots.

How do hard drives and RAM interact? If you want to write a chapter of the Great Cyberspace Novel, you’ll tell your computer to read the book from the hard drive and put it into RAM. You’ll edit or write the chapter in question, and then save the new version of the book back to the hard drive. Assuming that your computer doesn’t crash during the writing process. Also, computer software is getting a little smarter, so if you decide to edit one chapter in your novel, your word processor may well end up only reading that chapter in, instead of the entire book. Hey, tomorrow it’ll write the book for you.

Because you only use RAM for a few things at a time, you don’t need nearly as much RAM as you need hard drive space. RAM is measured in megabytes, Hard disk space in gigabytes. While most computers come with 32 megabytes of RAM, that’s still an obsolete piece of shit size. If you plan on actually doing things on your computer like people do in movies, you’ll want to upgrade to 64 megabytes of RAM. If you want to do really wild shit, you’ll need at least 128 or 256 megabytes of RAM.

Buying a Computer

You still want to buy a computer? Haven’t you been listening to anything I’ve said?

If your Navy buddies get you drunk and you decide to buy a computer, remember one thing if you remember anything: figure out what you’re going to use the damn thing for before you plunk down some money for it! Once you figure that out, find some software that will perform the job you want, and test drive this software on every different kind of computer you can find. Start with the cheapest computer you can find and work your way up until you find one that does the job at a pace faster than a snail’s crawl.

Here’s a handy table, reasonably accurate in 1999, but sure to look funny a year from now, of obsolete, almost obsolete, and superchip. And within ten years, we’ll be using completely new CPU lines, and we’ll have new ways of measuring speed.

Macintosh
CPUSpeedHard DriveRAM
ObsoletePowerPC 604200 Mhz10 Gigabytes16 Megabytes
Almost ObsoleteG3400 Mhz8 Gigabytes64 Megabytes
SuperChipG4500 MHz60 Gigabytes512 Megabytes
 
IBM Compatible
ObsoletePentium100 Mhz10 Gigabytes8 Megabytes
Almost ObsoletePentium II400 Mhz20 Gigabytes32 Megabytes
SuperchipPentium III700 Mhz60 Gigabytes256 Megabytes
 
By 2005 AD (1993 prediction)??1,000 Gigabytes10 Gigabytes

Macintosh or Windows?

When the Macintosh first came out, I was not very impressed. It was built with technology that was ten times as powerful as what I’d been using, but with all the “ease of use” added on top, it had less power left over than obsolete computers. Sure, it was easy to drag your files to the trash, but there wasn’t much power left to actually create files to begin with.

Times have changed, however. If you aren’t a computer geek, I strongly recommend a Macintosh. I work in user services (computer help) at a small University here in San Diego, and I’ve seen the trouble that Macintosh users have, and the trouble that Windows users have--including Windows ‘98. Macintosh users always want to, and are able to, do more. They can get their every day work done, and then they want to go even higher.

The Windows users just want to do something. When they do finally get that one important thing working, they do not want to do more. Doin something different is too much trouble.

Everyone but one person I know who owns an IBM compatible is a computer geek. Half the people I know who own Macintoshes are computer geeks. The rest are artists, writers, carpenters, and housewives. The one IBM owner who isn’t a computer geek keeps her computer in working order by only dating computer geeks. She has chained herself to a life of slide rule mates, simply by the computer she purchased. (!)

If you are looking a first-time computer buy, I strongly recommend checking out the Apple Macintosh iMac. Fast, sleek, and it comes with a wide array of software... and it comes ready to plug into your telephone line or your cable television cablemodem, for instant Internet access.

Modems

I’ve already talked a bit about modems, but they have their own obsolete, almost obsolete, and super models: the 14.4 kbd, 33.3 kbd, and 56k. I expect that 28.8 will be the almost obsolete model by the time you read this, but there’s an upper limit on modem speed: the carrying capacity of the telephone lines. Telephone lines can only carry a certain amount of information reliably, and even 14.4 modems strain some out-of-date telephone lines. The maximum limit of most telephone lines is not going to go beyond 33.3 kbd. So even if you have a 56k modem, most of the time you’ll be using it as if it were a 33.3 kbd modem anyway.

The really cool modems are the ‘DSL’ and ‘cable’ modems. The former you can get from your telephone company and the latter from your cable company. These are cool for two reasons: one, they’re much faster than telephone modems. And two, they are more reliable: they plug into your ethernet port and they give you a full-time connection. Your computer no longer has to maintain an Internet connection over flaky telephone lines. You are on-line all the time and never wait for a dial.

Green Computers

Oh, and a word about ‘green’ computers. Get them. These are gifts from the gods. A ‘green’ computer figures out when it isn’t being used, and shuts down the parts of itself that it doesn’t need. I have a ‘green’ computer monitor. I had to upgrade because my other monitor died. It just shuts itself off if I go somewhere else and forget to shut the computer down. This saves money, although not as much as you might think. My computer monitor--this huge cathode ray tube that weighs a ton--only uses 85 watts when it’s fully on. A couple of 75-watt light bulbs use as much power as my entire computer system. But then, I try not to leave my reading light on when I’m not using it, either. Hm... we need green light bulbs too, that know when they’re being used or ignored.

Give us computer geeks time, we’ll think of everything.

  1. Larry Gonick, The Cartoon Guide to the Computer, p. 118.
  2. This is an example of smart programming technique. By setting the value of “mother in law” to the address of your current mother in law, you make it easier to modify this program. If you mention “mother in law” forty times inside this program, you’ll only have to change where the value is set when you get divorced and re-marry. If your next wife is Serina, of course, there’s not much point. But Serina wouldn’t have you anyway, so I don’t think that’s a problem.
  3. In late 1994 the news broke that the Pentium screwed up while doing certain mathematical operations, and that Intel had known about this problem for at least six months. Intel’s response was that these were unimportant mathematical operations, and why should you care if you can’t trust your computer’s math? This did not go over well in the scientific community.
  4. The PowerPC is a joint design of Motorola, Apple, and IBM, and both Motorola and IBM produce the chips. In my not-so-humble opinion, the PowerPC kicks Intel butt, and that was before the infamous Pentium Math Disaster.
  5. What hertz? Some people gotta ask the dumbest questions. It isn’t a dumb question because you should already know it, it’s a dumb question because nobody cares. Anyway, here goes. You may have heard that your computer has a clock. This clock “ticks” at certain times, and every certain number of ticks, it tells the computer to go ahead and do something silly like add two numbers. This clock turns on, and it turns off, and it turns on, and it turns off, and it just keeps ticking away. Like your life, which you’re wasting reading worthless footnotes. The time between the beginning of one tick and the beginning of the next tick is called one cycle. Hertz is the number of these cycles that occur every second. One hertz means one cycle per second. Megahertz means millions of ’em.

    If you listen to your radio, you’ll hear the terms “kilohertz” and “megahertz” there as well. It means the same thing. If you’ve ever seen “pictures” of radio signals, you’ll see they go up and down, up and down. One cycle is the length from the beginning of one up to the beginning of the next. Thirty-three kilohertz means thirty-three thousand ups and downs every second.

    Happy now?

  6. I could go further, and I have. See my Macintosh Rant written after a particularly harrowing Windows connectivity problem.
  1. A Wake on the Internet
  2. InfoShok