My life with computers Will I have anything to show for it?

By David Walden (Copyright 2002)

Presented at a conference of people interested in micro computers, etc.
Asilomar State Park, California, April 25, 2002

When I was invited to this conference, I didn't know what a presentation for this informal evening session should be about. However, I did know that this was a conference of micro-computer people, and that got me thinking about my experience with micro-computers.

The more I thought about it, the more I realized that my dominant memory of using micro-computers (or computers more generally) is of losing files. I don't mean little losses of files, such as when the computer crashes and you haven't done a backup several weeks of work. No I mean what seems to be a massive systematic tendency for everything I've ever created on a computer to become, sooner or later, inaccessible to me.

To help me think carefully about this systematic "destruction" of everything I've ever done on a computer, I created a chart (see below). I won't go through the whole chart I'll just summarize the three phases of my computing history that are outlined in the three parts of the chart.

Looking at the first part: For the first 17 or 18 years I was involved in computers, from 1962 to about 1980, I primarily used mainframe and mini-computers. Each company I worked for and each project I was involved with involved a different computer and the move from one computer to the next tended to make my files from the previous computer inaccessible to me because of incompatibilities among storage media, computer formats, archive formats, and so on. All these incompatibilities came substantially from computer vendors making their products deliberately different from each other. (In those days, the software of a particular vendor didn't evolve very fast assemblers and compilers remained essentially the same for years.)

Looking at the second part of the chart: Sometime in the mid- to late-1970s I read about Visicalc in Ben Rosen's newsletter on electronics, wandered across Cambridge to where Bob Frankston and Dan Bricklin had their little company and got a demo from Bob, and bought a little Apple computer on which to run Visicalc one of those Apples which had a display that could only show half a page width at a time. This was my first use of a personal computer. I really got going with personal computes in the early 1980s and since then have been primarily a personal computer user. In this personal computer world, I have repeatedly lost access to truly large numbers of file because of changes in application software packages, changes of from PCs to MACs and back, new releases of software packages, incompatibility of storage media, and so forth. Again, much of this incompatibility comes from computer and computer software vendors making their products be deliberately different from each other. However, during the personal computer era we also have the phenomenon wherein software vendors deliberately and frequently obsolete their own software out from under their customers and users, and the vendors are now working hard to make it impossible, in the name of anti-piracy, to maintain any long-term accessible file archives at all.

Looking at the third part of the chart: Today, in April 2002, I need to upgrade my personal computer, and I believe I am faced potentially with the greatest loss of computer files of my 40 year career as a full time computer user. My current PC is a 233 MHz device, running Windows 98 (or is it 97 I can never remember if it's Office 97 and Windows 98 or the reverse), a 6GB hard drive with three 2 GB partitions, etc. I have been unhappy with my PC system for several years but afraid to upgrade for fear of file loss potentially massive file loss and fear of having to spend months doing reinstallation, reconfiguration, and repurchase of software. The more I consider my situation, the more daunted I am.

It was my present frustration and fear, and my 40 years experience with computers that I have just sketched for you, that led me to title this talk, "My life with computers Will I have anything to show for it?"

I'll stop now and leave you to ponder the possible morals of my story. I'll welcome a later opportunity to discuss the possible morals and any advice anyone has for me for escaping my current and long time situation. My feeling it that these discussions will best be served if significant amounts of wine are available to lubricate the discussion. Thank you, and I'll see you later.

Part 1
System Software Storage media Archive situation
IBM 1620 (circa 1962) assembly language, Fortran punched cards lost everything when I left system (no big loss)
IBM 7094 assembly language, SOS operating system, Fortran, debugging from core dumps punched cards lost everything (a couple of significant programs) when I left system (should have kept a card deck for one Fortran program, but there was no card input to my next system)
Univac 1218 (my first mini-computer) Teco editor, Macro assembler, DDT debugger punched paper tape lost everything (a couple of significant programs) when I left system because I left the world of 1218 assembly language
PDP-1 (my first time sharing system) Teco editor, Macro assembler, DDT debugger punched paper tape and shared hard-drive file system, with backup to mag tape lost everything (several interesting programs) when I left system because I left the world of PDP-1 assembly language
Honeywell 516 Teco editor and Macro assembler running on PDP-1 and DDT debugger on 516 punched paper tape and shared hard-drive file system, with backup to mag tape several large programs were later converted by other programmers to other computers for on-going development and operation, but I no longer had access to these historically interesting programs
SDS-940 LISP shared hard-drive file system, with backup to mag tape lost one major program because I didn't think to move it to TENEX (see next entry)
TENEX (circa 1970) MSG (for email), Mrunoff (for document preparation), BCPL shared hard drive file system, with backup to mag tape lost vast quantity of historically interesting emails and documents and a few interesting programs because I didn't think to find a way to move my files to PC before the TENEX archive tapes were lost
Apple(my first personal computer) Visicalc don't remember (floppy disks?) lost a number of spreadsheets when I left system (but not a big loss)
Unix (on a VAX my last mini-computer) full Unix development environment for C and Ratfor shared hard drive file system when I left the system, I lost access to the software I developed but other people on the project carried the system forward
Part 2
System Software Storage media Archive situation
IBM PC and then AT Word, 1-2-3, email program (can't remember which) floppy disks on the PC and hard drive for the AT (if I remember right) after a few years of PC use, converted everything to MAC except email which was lost
succession of ever more powerful MACs Word, Excel, Powerpoint, MacDraw, MacDraw Pro, email program (can't remember which perhaps on a central TENEX system accessed from MAC) initially floppy disks and later hard drive and shared file server lots of trouble initially accessing files created on the PC when PC and MAC versions of Office applications were out of sync; a large number of valuable MacDraw and historical email files from the MAC became unavailable when I moved back to the PC (see next entry); also, a large number of valuable Office files that had come to the MAC from the earlier PCs were no longer accessible on the PC
succession of ever more powerful PCs Word, Excel, Powerpoint, Access, Canvas, Eudora 4, Visual Basic, Visual C, Lotus Notes, Conversion Plus (permits access to a few more file and version types), MiKTeX for LaTeX, WinEdt, Adobe Acrobat 3.0, QuickBooks, Perl, Illustrator 8.0, Photoshop 6.0 (and earlier), ArtScan, M4, PGP, Aladdin, CuteFTP, Norton AV, plus a dozen or two others (many of which I don't have current CD ROMs for because upgrades or shareware were downloaded from the net, I am using releases one or more versions old, etc.) hard drive, shared file server, floppies, Zip disks, CD ROMs, and private 120GB SNAP server (for local backup) lost access to useful Access, VB and C files when current PC ran out of space and I had to delete those applications (also the VB and C development environment were several times harder to learn than the programming language, which made using these systems not worth the bother); lost access to many valuable Canvas files when the next version of Canvas no longer allowed the program run on the D: or E: drive and there is no space on the C: drive, so I had to delete Canvas;
Part 3
System Software Storage media Archive situation
My current 233 MHz PC with 6GB of hard drive space in three 2GB partitions has needed replacing for year, but the thought of upgrading has been too daunting.

What should I get next: state-of-the-art PC, state-of-the-art machine from Apple, Linux, or some combination of systems?
I want to keep using all the programs I already use (see last row of part 2 of chart), except Lotus Notes), get access to my Canvas files again, add a non-linear video editing program and some sort of program for burning music CDs (not copying existing CDs)

Additionally, I wish I could someway regain access to the MacDraw and MacDraw Pro and Word files I have previously lost access to
I hope my SNAP server and scanner will still be able to be connected to my new computer. My various fears:

1. If I move to Linux, I may lose access to most of my gigabytes of application files, my PC peripherals (HP 4000 laser printer, SNAP server, UMAX scanner, etc.), and a number of the applications I use, and I will spend months learning to be a Linux system administrator

2. If I move to some sort of Apple system, I may lose access to fewer but still many of my application files, some of the applications I use, and my PC peripherals

3. If I move to a new PC, I must spend weeks or months reloading or reconfiguring my applications, in many cases won't be able to use the versions I am currently using, may lose access to some of my applications (e.g., things that run under DOS), probably will lose access to some of my application files (for unforseen reasons), and must live with the new "anti-piracy" mechanisms

4. I promised my wife, as I moved her with me from the PC to MAC and back to PC (to contain my home system admin burden), that she would never have to change operating systems and applications again

P.S.: Related to, but not quite on the topic of this note, is Neal Stephenson's book In the Beginning Was the Command Line (Avon Books, New York, 1999). If you haven't read this short book, I recommend you do.