Saturday, July 19, 2014
Musings on Windows 8.1 and writing
I used to be quite the computer fundi. I worked on mainframe systems in my much younger days, everything from operating them, to programming them, to leading a project team in systems development. I also had exposure to minicomputers, microcomputers (what we call PC's today), the so-called 'end user computing' environment, so-called 'expert systems' (early, primitive implementations of artificial intelligence or AI), technical (military) computers and systems, and so on. That part of my life came to an end when I changed career directions and studied for the ordained ministry, but it gave me a useful foundation in computer technology that's stood me in good stead ever since.
I've been applying that with good results until Microsoft came out with Windows 8. The paradigm has now shifted to the point where the user interface is something I can't intuitively understand from a programming and systems point of view. Of course, it's probably easy enough - heck, people are taking online classes in writing an 'app' (what I used to call a program) on their smart phones, so it can't be too tricky! Even so, the underlying nature of the systems has shifted gradually over time, until we're no longer manipulating bits or bytes or fields, but rather 'objects' or 'elements', each with associated classes and properties and attributes and . . . you get the idea. The basic elements at the bit-and-byte level aren't in the equation at all any more as far as developers are concerned. Where I'd sometimes write an assembler routine to wring the best possible performance out of a memory-challenged computer partition by minimizing code size and maximizing efficiency, people today would laugh at the very thought. Processor speed and memory size have grown so vastly since my early days in computers that it's almost impossible to compare common systems. (My first work PC was an original 4.77MHz 8-bit IBM PC with 256KB memory and two 320K - not the later 360K - 5¼" floppy disk drives. It was considered 'state-of-the-art'. Today it's hard to find any system starting with less than a gigabyte of memory, and floppy disk drives haven't been made for years . . . )
Today I began setting up a new laptop computer. Miss D. and I bought matching ones from the local outlet of Consumer Depot. I have to give them a serious shout-out: they had outstandingly good prices on reasonably well-equipped refurbished laptops, the salesperson knew what he was talking about and could answer my questions, and they took time and trouble to show us the options that were available. We bought our systems for at least $250 less (each) than I've been able to find comparable computers anywhere else, and so far they're running just fine. We'll be shopping there again.
The process of setting them up is reinforcing to me how my knowledge of modern user interfaces needs to be updated. I've always loathed Windows 8.1 on my desktop computer. It's a very clunky interface when used with a mouse and keyboard. I keep it only because it's what came with my desktop system, and changing it would be more of a pain than working around its limitations (which I do by booting into desktop mode, using a Start menu clone, and working as if it were a Windows 7 machine). However, on a touchscreen laptop with sufficient memory and processor performance to make it fly, Windows 8.1 presents an entirely different and much more useful interface. I'm reluctantly being forced to admit that I need to move away from my technological-dinosaur past and learn to live with the new generation of software . . . even if that does mean mastering a steep and sometimes frustrating learning curve.
I can't help but think back wistfully to my assembler language coding days. If we'd had available then the sort of computing horsepower that's taken for granted today, would we have bothered to code so efficiently at the bit-and-byte level? Or would we have grown lazy and said, "Never mind efficiency - we've got processor power and memory to burn!" Methinks we'd have followed the latter course, even though my old-timer's computer brain sometimes curses modern programmers for the sloppiness of their work. I suppose that also shows in the way I write my books. I come from a little after the 'Golden Age' of SF, when the trinity of Asimov, Clarke and Heinlein dominated and many of the edgier modern themes hadn't even been invented. I guess I still write accordingly. Fortunately, a lot of you seem to like it that way! I'm sometimes accused of writing stilted dialog; but it's not really stilted - just 'different' to modern ears. I talk that way, too. It's partly the result of a classical education and a background in classical SF, and partly because I think and write in English-English rather than American-English. (Miss D. teases me a lot about that.)
Oh, well. I suppose I'm still an unrepentant dinosaur in many ways . . . but if Miss D. loves me like that, and you like my writing and occasional rants like that, I guess I can live with it!