Grasshopper Enterprises

Chapter 5 - Hardware (Organizing with Technology)

Machines - The Cybernetic Connection

Sidekicks and companions on the path of success

GRASSHOPPER NOTE: The following chapter (and indeed, this entire book) was written by Angus in the early 90’s. This was before the advent of mass communications on the Internet, and before the general population had access to email. This was a time before the PowerPC, Windows95, the Apple/NeXT merger, or Microsoft’s attempt at dominating the Internet. But much of what is said about hardware usage is still relevant.

The true cyborg never takes it upon himself to do everything by hand. There are numerous devices out there that help take the burden of mundane and repetitious activities off us, and allow us the freedom to enjoy life, and more time and energy to minister to the tasks that really need our attentions.

To some readers, the emphasis on electronic technology in this chapter may seem over-indulgent. Yet this technology is omnipresent in the modern world. To diminish its importance would be skirting the issue. The fact is, the computer may well be the most important addition to human life in the history of humankind. No other tool provides us with so much power, because no other tool was designed to manage that most important resource of all: Information.

When the personal computer revolution got under way in the late seventies, few people took heed. In fact, even IBM ignored the personal computer market, thinking it a fad that would quickly pass. The IBM PC was virtually the last hurried entry into the personal computer market. Still other companies may have missed the train altogether. Not until the mid-eighties did the majority of people realise that they not only should start finding out what all the fuss was about, but suddenly knowledge of the new phenomenon was vital to their functioning in society and business. Now, in the early nineties, we find the personal computer as much a household item as a microwave oven. People spend a lot of time, money and energy on books, tapes and lessons trying to catch up on the past decade of technological advancement. Ten years ago, to function in business, it may have been enough to know how to type. Now, almost everyone is assumed to be capable of using Windows®, Lotus®, or whatever the latest software revolution is. Better to have started early before the tide swept one over and made one obsolete.

Computer technology is here to stay. You should make yourself comfortable in integrating your life with it. I totally believe that the next major trend in computer awareness has to do with telecommunications, databases, and information retrieval. Even as you read this book, more and more people are learning how to use the new technology of information networks. A simple rule of thumb to measure your pace with the technology is to ask yourself just how alien the “other world” seems to you. Do you experience resistance within, when confronted with the new medium? Are you intimidated by the enormity and seemingly-overwhelming complexity of it all? Yet, would you prefer to be forced to understand it by way of job requirement (at a later time when everyone else already knows how to use it), or get into the action now and gain the tactical advantage of its benefits? The more fearful and resistant you are of the technology, the more pressing is the need for you to learn it.

Imagine how a person would be able to survive in the world if he refused to learn how to use telephones, fax machines, or even the television. Computers intertwined with life is already a reality; the need to understand information retrieval and telecommunications will be inevitable. The bright side of it all is that once you have made your way into the “electronic village” you will wonder how you ever got along without it. Should you so wish, simply balance out your immersion in the technology with opposing interests (e.g., reading great novels, or socializing, when your objectives have been achieved). Although I too prefer a life less dependent on the new machines, lamenting about the “complexity” and “coldness” of it all will get one nowhere in the modern world. Naivete is a poor substitution for knowledge and skill.

Without further preamble, let us examine how machines can enhance our lives in a cybernetic connection. One of the key functions of a good cybernetic device is to help us manage our lives. For this important job, we turn to the mighty organizers.

Organizers - Our Personal Secretaries

Extended memory functions for our human brains

There are basically two types of organizers we can use. One made of paper, and one made of metal and plastic. The paper organizers come in the form of the “FiloFax” booklets, with special formatted pages for the various categories of information we need to keep track of. They are relatively inexpensive, and available in many stationery supply stores. On the other side of the coin are the electronic organizers, pioneered most probably by the wonderful Sharp “Wizard” units, and now come in an array of models by many other manufacturers.

Any organizer, whether paper or electronic, must do the following things:

  • Record our daily schedules
  • Maintain our telephone and address list
  • Provide various levels of overview of our schedule to allow us to see projects and their due dates in the proper perspective
  • Hold bits of information that are important yet prone to be lost if not properly filed away
  • Let us observe our past, present, and future activities in order to see the direction in which we are going

Of the above functions, the most important one is keeping track of our schedules, or agenda. Recall that I use the term “schedule” not to mean a static structure that constrains our actions. Rather, I use the term to mean the overall “plan” in which we are free to make changes and adjust to the ever-changing environment and personal demands.

For our purposes, I highly recommend an electronic organizer. The greatest advantage of it over a paper one is the speed at which data can be accessed and manipulated. For example, if I wanted to find a particular phone number, I can search the electronic database and come up with the result in a few seconds. A paper phone book might take considerably longer, and entries may not be in true alphabetical order. In fact, with my Sharp Wizard, I could reverse the process, and find the name that a certain number belongs to. This is especially useful for checking on Caller-ID numbers (see Chapter Four). With a paper organizer, this could take a long, long time. With regards to dates and times, if I had to find out the exact date when a particular assignment is due on, I simply type in several characters of the assignment, and find the date, using the electronic search function. With a paper organizer, I would have to flip through each page on the datebook, and locate by eye the assignment.

Another benefit that the electronic organizer - EO - has over the paper organizer - PO - is that I can invoke an overview of my schedule by daily activities, weekly activities, monthly activities, and perhaps even an annual summary. These are available on demand, in seconds. It would be nearly impossible to achieve with a PO. I would have to flip through the datebook to get an idea of what is happening in the vicinity of a certain date I’m interested in, and then try to remember what is happening the week after that, or before that, or what is going on next month, and then forget what I had wanted to do all this for in the first place! The benefit of the EO’s summary function is indispensable when encountering new demands. For example, I would enter in all the assignment due dates for certain projects throughout the year, when school starts. When I encounter a new project, I could look at how all my other projects and events are organized, and figure out when would be the most appropriate time for me to attend to the new project. The EO also allows me to plan ahead for my activities and budget my time for each task. Every morning, when I wake up, I check my daily listing of events, and then I check my weekly summaries Every weekend, I check on the month’s listings, and examine what future months will bring. All of this in 30-seconds. Because the EO is so easy and quick to use, I am encouraged to check and recheck everything. This way, I would have a constantly updated subconscious sense of where I am in my life, and how everything is coming along. If I had to use a PO, I would probably not be as eager to examine my schedules so frequently.

Electronic organizers also have the added ability to accommodate special “program cards.” Granted, not all EO’s have this function. Nevertheless, when shopping for an EO, it is something to be kept in mind. Program cards run the gamut from electronic dictionaries, to spreadsheet programs, to language translators. Electronic dictionaries, in particular, are very helpful in learning new words, and understanding their correct usage. A lot of people put off looking up new words because of the inconvenience associated with flipping through a paper dictionary. The electronic dictionary saves us from this inconvenience. In addition, it allows us to double-check the spelling of words we are unsure of. Finally, the vast selection of applications cards out there virtually guarantee that many tasks we have to do will be conveniently automated.

Because there are so many organizers out there by so many different companies, and because the technology is changing every day, I cannot safely recommend any particular brand or model. The student or executive shopping for one would be well served by research, and trying out different units. Keep in mind also the options and peripherals available for the unit, and the possibility of future expansion (such as in memory capacity). One important option to look at is the availability of a cable or software that allows the organizer to communicate with a personal computer. This “computer-link” will make your EO a portable version of your computer’s data. Some EO’s include word-processing programs, and you could then use this portable mini-word-processor to edit essays or reports that you normally do on your home computer. Advanced EO’s even have modem and faxing capabilities, expanding yet more of your reach as a user in the task of managing information and data. My own unit is a Sharp IQ-8200, but there is already a new 9000-series even as I write this sentence.

Regardless of your choice for an EO or PO, make sure you learn how to use them. PO’s generally need little, if any, instruction. They are simply booklets in which you write. There are, however, some very ingenious formatted pages that make better use of this kind of medium. On the other hand, the EO’s usually need some time getting used to. The biggest complaint that beginning user of EO’s have is that they are not as quick entering data into the EO’s as they are writing something down on a PO. This will change with practice and use. Soon you may find - as I did - that entering and retrieving data on an EO is much quicker and more efficient than fumbling around with a paper organizer and pen. My sister had an EO once, but she refused to use it, swearing by her FiloFax. To this day, she still uses the FiloFax. She says she likes reading handwritten words on real paper, not a pattern of dots on an screen. To each his or her own, I guess.

Recently, however, Apple Computer released their hand-held Newton, a “personal digital assistant.” The Newton PowerPad is a computer organizer unit that can recognize handwriting. Thus, information does not need to be typed in. Handwriting, on the Newton screen, is translated into the corresponding characters via optical character recognition (OCR) technology. Therefore, the best of both the worlds of handwriting convenience, and computerized information management, is now available. Unfortunately, the Newton is rather high-priced, and costs just under $900 at the time of this writing. With any type of organizer, you must make a commitment to use it. It would serve no purpose if you still try to keep everything in your head. By putting your information into the organizer, you are freeing up your mental energies that are used up when you try to keep everything memorized and try to juggle all the bits of information in a coherent and useful manner. Again, we are minimizing our multi-tasking.

One additional point that needs to be emphasized: You must keep a backup of all your data. How often you do this depends on the priority of the data and the rate you change your data. The more you do, and the more the organizer has to keep track of, the more frequently you should backup. A general rule of thumb is to backup once every two weeks. I backup my organizer on a weekly basic. With PO’s, backing up becomes a bit difficult, but the quickest way is to photocopy the pages. With an EO, you can either send the information to your home computer as a file, or print it out and put the hardcopy in a safe place. Some units also allow you to backup your data onto memory cards, which can be removed or inserted much the same way a home computer uses floppy disks.

Microcassette Recorders - Instant Scribes At Your Service

Why talking to yourself isn’t always a sign of insanity

Organizers keep track of information you put into them by writing, or by punching keys. Sometimes, there are situations in which it is inconvenient, or impossible to do this. For example, while driving, or when your train of thought is so fast, you need to record your ideas as quickly as possible before they vaporize into outer space. It is in these scenarios when a microcassette recorder becomes vital.

The key function of a microcassette recorder - MR - is to serve as a temporary storage location for your ideas. Most people continue to ponder and solve the problems that they turn over and over in their minds, even as they go about their daily activities. Sometimes, ideas and inspirations just pop into their heads. These times of insight should not be wasted. Ideas are fleeting things. Reminding yourself that you will remember a certain idea will not guarantee that you will absolutely remember it, or recall it successfully when the time comes to use it. Even when you apply the memory skills learned in Chapter Three, remember that we cannot compromise on our mission as a cyborg. We must guarantee success. If we come up with a really good idea to put into an essay, we must make sure that we remember to do so when we sit down to write it, and get the marks we deserve. The ease at which we can simply pick up the MR and record the idea into it is remarkable. I make keeping records of my ideas a high priority. One would be amazed at the reservoir of inspiration and solutions the mind is capable of on a daily basis. When we use the MR, we maximize the efficiency of our brains. The subconscious efforts that it makes to solve our problems should not be wasted. You see, the mind almost always is engaged in problem-solving. It is another survival trait of humans and cyborgs. Unfortunately, when we finally do come to a solution, the brain considers the matter finalized, and the case closed. It is up to us to record the results in a permanent form, and free the mind to work on other things.

Another very important function that a microcassette recorder does for us is make our memory skills more effective. The manner in which this is accomplished is by recording our memory stories into the MR. Then, when we start to memorize the story by picturing the images in our heads, we simply close our eyes, and listen to the MR. This added benefit of concentrating on the physical sound of our voice narrating the memory story highly reinforces the imprinting of the information into our memory. In addition, we would not have to open our eyes to check up on the accuracy of our memory image. We simply rewind the tape, and listen to the story again. With the MR, memorizing the images is best done when lying in bed, ready to go to sleep. We are relaxed, and our minds are focused. There is no external distraction, no noise, no light, to disrupt our attention. In this totally focused state of mind, memory images achieve a vividness not otherwise present. Then, when we go to sleep, the memory images are well ingrained and our minds can perform the consolidation process during our sleep. In the morning, it is as easy as pushing a button, to review the entire memory sequence.

One important issue I must raise is the controversy surrounding the use of cassette recorders to record classroom lectures or other such information. I highly discourage this. If a student knows that the entire lecture is being recorded onto tape, he or she will not likely pay as much attention in class, letting the MR do the job. Then, when the time comes to review the material, not only does the student have to listen to the entire lecture again, but has to really pay attention for the first time, and take notes. It’s like going to school twice! Once is already more than enough for most people! Therefore, use the MR conscientiously. Don’t make it a substitute for paying attention. Above all, don’t use it as a mental trashcan, filing away all your ideas but never listening to the tapes again, and never doing anything about all those neat ideas. It is very easy to accumulate an enormous collection of MR tapes, and not have to time or patience to listen to them and extract the ideas. One full cassette is more than enough work for one night. Consolidate your tapes as soon as possible, and that means whenever you have access to a pen and paper, or a word-processor, or your organizer.

Finally, always label the cassettes, and make sure you don’t record over information that you haven’t yet consolidated. I have two cassettes that I mainly use. One is entitled “random thoughts” and the other is labeled “project.” On this latter tape, I record inspirations and revelations related to an ongoing assignment. In effect, the assignment is constantly being completed while I go about my activities. The only tasks remaining would be to consolidate the ideas in a coherent manner and type out the resulting product. The MR makes my life much easier by making normally unproductive periods of time - such as while traveling in a car, or walking to school - fruitful and potentially lucrative.

Cyborg SideKicks - More Products that Enhance your Power

Recommendations from the curator of all things neato

One basic premise of working or studying is that it is usually confined to a desk. This is an unfortunate situation, for the desk and chair do not necessarily offer the body a comfortable mode of posturing. Students and executives often complain of back problems, or difficulty in concentration, because of discomfort at the table. This is especially apparent during the reading of textbooks. However, a device has been invented which brings a whole new meaning to the term “bedside reading.” I refer to nothing other than the miraculous prism glasses. These are eyeglass frames on which are mounted twin optical prisms. They reflect light at an angle, and allow you to read a book while lying flat on your bed. You simply put the glasses on, head resting comfortably on a pillow, and put your book on your chest or tummy. You can read entire books very comfortably, and your brain might even benefit from the additional oxygen through increased circulation. One caveat of this is that you may find it somewhat easier to drift off to sleep in such a position! Nevertheless, the prism glasses offer a very feasible alternative for aspiring academic hunchbacks and corporate gargoyles. The prism glasses can be found at specialty stores such as The Sharper Image and Hammacher-Schlemmer.

In the event that your work requires writing, or otherwise demands that you remain at the desk, you should take measures to ensure maximum comfort. The most effective way of achieving that is to purchase an orthopedic support, or contoured backrest, to sit on. The best product in this category is probably the OBUS Forme®, an award-winning backrest created by Frank Roberts, a Canadian industrial designer. While recovering from an injury, Frank found it very painful to sit without some kind of back support. Conventional products did little to ease his discomfort, and thus he took it upon himself to design what he felt would be the best orthopedic support product in the world. He seems to have achieved that goal. The OBUS Forme® is internationally-recognized and acclaimed. It attaches to the chair you sit on, and is a world of difference for the desk-bound worker. OBUS Forme® products are available at many places, and your local chiropractor would assuredly be able to help you locate a source. Be sure to ask specifically for it by name.

Another important item on the agenda for a comfortable environment at the desk is good lighting. Sometimes, desks have lighting that comes at an angle, creating shadows that are not only distracting, but obscure certain portions of the work. The shadow of a pen, for instance, can fall on the writing in a very annoying manner. To minimize this problem, use multiple lighting sources. Position the lights in such a way as to cut down on the extent of interference by shadows. Usually three lights positioned around the person will be the optimum arrangement, and two lights are the minimum requirement. The increased ambient illumination will also help you focus and awaken you during the working process. As for myself, I use three lights. The first is a standard desklamp, followed by a hovering light just above the book I am reading, or the paper I am writing on. The third light comes in the form of a spotlight with a “crane” neck, that shines from behind me and over my shoulder. This way, I eliminate all shadows, and can even train the lights to focus on the book, subconsciously helping to redirect my attention away from my surroundings and onto my work. Remember, careful attention to detail when it comes to creating a proper working environment will help you perform at your best. Physical discomfort is the easiest and most apparent problem to tackle, and should not come between you and your work. Good lighting is important, but comfort while sitting is a must. That is why I recommended the orthopedic back rest. It would be especially appreciated during your sessions in front of a computer.

The Personal Computer - A Cyborg’s Best Friend

Preventing your investment from becoming an expensive paperweight

Have you ever wondered how many personal computers there must be out there? The actual number must be quite impressive, as personal computers have become more economically viable for the average household. However, how many of those computers are actually being used by people? I am speaking of real application, with real value, not merely for playing games, or even simply as a high-powered word-processor. I am talking about opening up a whole new world of information, right at your fingertips.

In the remainder of this chapter, I will show you how a computer will significantly empower you to achieve success. Perhaps you want to know from what standpoint I speak? Well, computers have been my lifelong interest. Ever since the day I put my kiddie fingers on a Radio Shack TRS-80, in 1978, I had always considered computers to be one of the most powerful tools human beings have ever invented have owned and used virtually every microcomputer the industry has been able to put out for the public. I have written programs, and been hired to teach other people how to use computers. Over the years, I examined the diverse applications that personal computers are capable of. Word-processing remains a popular option and a lot of household computers are used mainly for that single application. However, I am convinced that word-processing, and indeed all other applications, must take lower priority because that there is but a single, main job that a computer can perform marvelously: Remote information retrieval. The PC is essentially a magic box that can provide you with answers to virtually any question.

First of all , do you even have a computer? If you do not, and cannot afford one, you must make sure you somehow have access to a unit. Perhaps you can borrow a friend’s model. Most schools have a computer lab for student use. In my case, I have friends who either don’t have a computer of their own, or prefer using my Macintosh. The end result is the same: They come to my place from time to time, to do their work. I don’t mind at all, and welcome the opportunity to help them out, so long as they keep everything clean and don’t use up all my printer paper. I have, however, yet to enjoy all those dinners that they keep promising to buy me!

If you are thinking of buying a computer, for the first time or to replace your old unit, it is best to secure the expert advice of a computer enthusiast. Actually, you should consult computer enthusiasts, with an emphasis on the plural. Like all humans, enthusiasts have individual preferences and biases. For example, some 55 million people swear by the Macintosh computer operating system but the world in general is using the Windows operating system (mainly because it’s cheaper, and that is not an insignificant factor).

Keep in mind, also, that most universities and colleges have educational-pricing. They offer computer systems such as the Macintosh and PC computers at exceptionally discounted prices that no commercial vendor can challenge. Be sure to check your school’s computer shop and compare prices around town. If you do manage to find a commercial vendor matching, or even beating, the educational-discounted price, ensure that it is an authorized dealership, and that they are unlikely to disappear within the next year. Some retailers sell “grey market” machines that may have a low purchase price, but the warranties are not covered by the original manufacturer. You may also want to explore the possibility of buying a second-hand machine. As always, get the opinion of a friend who knows about computers so that you can tell whether or not the used machine is a viable unit.

No matter which computer you end up using, make sure that you have support using it. That means, you must ensure that (1) there are a lot of stores selling products for it; (2) enough of your friends and associates have similar models so that you can ask them questions; (3) the company you buy from is not going to leave you hanging without customer support.; and (4) enough people in the world are using the machine to make it “important” and guarantee continued support. Put simply, make sure your computer will be compatible with the world. As of this writing, the only two computer systems that I feel can really fit the bill, especially for students, are the Macintosh computers, and the IBM PC (or compatible) machines. In fact, all things considered, I would recommend a Macintosh unit for its superior ease-of-use. The Mac has the ability to not only use disks from the IBM PC and the Apple II computer, but it can even run both of their programs (with the proper software). Actually, the Amiga and the Atari ST machines can run both Mac and IBM PC programs as well, but the user-interface on the Macintosh is so much nicer, and the support in the other areas so much better, that I would have to recommend it instead of the other contenders. An exception can be made, however, for the Amiga computer. That is a unit superior to all other personal machines in the realm of video processing. If you are involved in commercial video production, you should seriously consider the Amiga. However, all things considered, a Macintosh system would best serve the needs of most people.

AUTHOR’s UPDATE: I now work for a large computer hardware corporation and can no longer objectively comment on operating system choice. However, I am happy to report that the end-user has even more choice than ever before, especially now that Apple has announced that it is highly likely that the MacOS will be released to run on Intel architecture. Meaning you can run Macintosh on your PC instead of being stuck with Windows95.

A second criteria to consider is whether or not you want a portable laptop computer, or a desktop computer. As a general rule, you will pay much more for a laptop compared to a desktop computer with similar capability. The ease of transportability of a laptop is seductive, but I would suggest that as a general rule, you will find that the times when you are really doing the most productive work will be at home, regardless of the type of computer you use. Your home is your HQ, after all! Therefore, unless you plan on doing a lot of work while traveling, or setting up your laptop computer during a lecture in order to type in notes - as opposed to writing them by hand - a desktop computer system will offer you more power, for less money. Laptops tend also to suffer from the limitations of battery life. A rule of thumb is that most laptops batteries only provide for a couple of hours of operating time before they need to be recharged. Carrying several batteries will soon become a burden. Laptops are relatively fragile. You expose your computer to many risks by carrying it around. Portable computers are also rather heavy, and can weigh in at seven to fifteen pounds apiece. On the other hand, if can afford the best of of both words, there is the Macintosh Duo, a laptop computer that can attach to a docking station at home and essentially transform itself into a desktop computer with the full complement of desktop power options. At the time of this writing, it is the most flexible and powerful model that money can buy.

If you are planning on buying a laptop in order to take notes during a lecture, be advised that you will probably still have to draw out diagrams by hand, on separate pieces of paper, and unless your typing skills are relative competent, you will not be able to keep up with the lecture speed. A laptop, however, is a valuable tool for increasing productivity when you are “on the road” if it is used properly and if its limitations are acknowledged.

Now, before you spend any money on anything else other than the basic computer system, be sure you get a modem. I will teach you how to use a modem properly in the next chapter, but for the time being, just know that a modem allows your computer to “talk” to other computers over a regular telephone line. In my opinion, the modem is the most important piece of computer equipment you can have. If I could only have one item out of my entire collection of devices, I would take the modem. I would trade all my hard-disks, colour screens, and even my laser printer, for the use of a modem. A computer without a modem would be like a television and VCR that could only play videocassettes, and cannot receive normal broadcasts.

When shopping for a modem, get the fastest modem you can afford. The maximum speed right now is 14.4 kilobits per second (kpbs). [fusion_builder_container hundred_percent=“yes” overflow=“visible”][fusion_builder_row][fusion_builder_column type=“1_1” background_position=“left top” background_color="" border_size="" border_color="" border_style=“solid” spacing=“yes” background_image="" background_repeat=“no-repeat” padding="" margin_top=“0px” margin_bottom=“0px” class="" id="" animation_type="" animation_speed=“0.3” animation_direction=“left” hide_on_mobile=“no” center_content=“no” min_height=“none”][update: for 1997 it is 28.8 kbps and 56 kbps is coming]. Ignore the technical considerations for now. A general rule to follow is that anything with 9600 bits per second (9600 bps) or higher is considered fast. Anything lower than 9600 bps is relatively slow. Ask your computer salesperson for this information. You would do nicely to bring a computer enthusiast friend along on the day of the purchase.

I don’t want to confuse you with too much technical jargon, but let me say that there are ways of increasing the speed of a modem by data compression, to squeeze the data into a smaller size before sending it. The addition of data compression options in a modem may allow the modem to be rated at a higher speed. For example, a 2400 bps modem with data-compression might be marketed as a 9600 bps modem. Make sure the “raw” data speed of the modem is being considered, and not the “effective” or “enhanced” data speed. There’s a big difference between real strawberries, and artificial strawberry flavours. Finally, most modems nowadays offer fax capability. If you can afford it, get the fax option. You will find a lot of uses for it over time, and the quality of a computer fax transmission is superior to that of a regular fax machine. It is, however, not recommended as a complete replacement for having a real standalone fax unit.

When you have gotten the modem stuff sorted out, throw in a terminal program. This is a program that lets your computer, and you, utilize the modem. A computer cannot use a modem unless it knows how. But don’t buy the terminal program, unless you really enjoy spending money. Most commercial terminal programs are quite expensive. Ask your computer friends, or the storeperson, or a local computer hobby group, to copy a shareware or freeware terminal program for you. These are usually comparable to commercial terminal programs and often times are superior. Freeware is, obviously, free. Shareware may require you pay the author of the program a nominal sum, usually about $20.

Finally, get a hard disk. Forty megabytes (40 MB) is usually adequate; less than that is pushing it; more than that is sometimes wasteful. You will also need a floppy disk drive. Ensure the floppy drive is compatible with the High-Density format, since that is the industry standard. The final peripheral you need is a printer. With regards to that item, if you can afford it, buy a laser printer. A model adequate for most people’s needs would cost about $1200 (for 1993 pricing, that is). However, if you’re spending more than $2000 for a laser printer, you may be paying too much or you may be getting more laser printer than you really need. If you cannot afford laser, the next best option is an inkjet printer. These print at almost the same quality as laser printers, but are much slower, and the ink tends to run if you get the paper wet. If you don’t mind the lack of speed, inkjet printers offer laser-quality at astonishingly low prices. A generic inkjet printer would run around $500. The remaining printer type, the dot-matrix printer, is all but obsolete and should be avoided. On the other hand, if you cannot afford a printer at this time, there are alternatives. You can print either from a friend’s printer, provided his machine is compatible with your computer, or bring your disks to the hundreds of service bureaus around the country that offer laser printing. In Toronto, for example, a lot of Kinko’s service outlets offer Macintosh laser printing with a per-page pricing plan.

Barring all of the above printing options, and if you have a modem with fax capability, you can use any fax machine as a makeshift printer. Simply fax your documents to the machine. The resulting printout of thermal paper will have to be photocopied before it is presentable for handing in as assignments. However, the quality of the fax printout will be superior to many dot-matrix printers, and this method is useful in emergency situations. A friend of mine who found that his printer was damaged did exactly this, and was able to make a deadline and hand in an assignment on time.

One of the most important things you should get when you have compiled your computer system, is a surge protector. These are multiple electrical outlet “bars” which filter the electricity from your wall socket before letting it go into your computer and the other devices. This is a very important part of your whole system, because unprotected components are susceptible to irreparable damage from fluctuations in the electrical current. Some surge protectors even include protection for the modem’s telephone line, and this is a feature that should be available on yours. A final note on this is that during a lightning storm, it is best to refrain from using your computer because of the higher possibility of sudden and destructive electrical surges.

Floppy Disks

Their Care and Feeding

Most of the time, you will depend entirely on your hard disk. It’s faster and has a larger capacity than a floppy disk. However, for backup purposes and to transport files, you will still require the use of floppy disks. (Floppy disks are named such - even though 3.5" disks are hardly “floppy” - because of a carryover from the earlier days of personal computers. Back then, the 5.25" disks were, indeed, “floppy.” They were also called “flexible disks.” - I, of course, flexed one too many of them!). You must always, always backup your data. I cannot stress this point enough. You don’t need any fancy backup or “archival” programs. You just have to remember to copy your files onto floppy disks. Make several copies. I recommend four copies on four different disks (three floppies, one hard disk). Some may consider this overkill, but maxok works here too. I’ve had backups, and even backups of backups, fail me, so I take no chances for important stuff. If all you do is save the latest version of your files onto your main hard disk, and then copy those same files onto your floppies, you will ensure a reasonable margin of safety. During the writing of this book, I saved copies in no less than seven locations (my main hard disk, two removable SyQuest hard disk cartridges, and four HD disks). [UPDATE: For 1997 I recommend the Iomega Zip or Jaz disks].

In fact, it was nearly too much of a coincidence that, while working on this chapter, my entire computer system failed on me. Although I had taken considerable precautions in the end the only reason why you are reading this book was because I backed-up my files. This incident demonstrates that you can never be certain just how reliable your hardware will be, and the only way to be sure that your work will not have been in vain is to backup, with as many copies as you can tolerate making. This golden rule of computing should not be learned the hard way.

Now, while we’re on the subject of floppy disks, be sure to buy top-quality floppy disks. Don’t try “el-cheapo” disks at bargain prices. In other words, don’t buy “no-name” brands. However, some computer supply stores are able to match no-name prices with their name-brands. For example, I recently purchased Polaroid HD disks for less than $10 a box. Always take advantage of these bargains, and steer clear of inferior disks. Over the past one and a half decades of computer experience, I have experienced total disk failure with just too many of these no-name disks. Brands of good quality disks include: Dysan, Polaroid, 3M, Sony, Kao, and Verbatim. Using disks of lower quality, you might get by with up to 70% of the disks you buy, but the remaining 30% will either fail to initialize outright, or are timebombs waiting to fail you sometime “real soon now.” If you forget which disks are the ones that were totally OK, and which ones you had trouble with before - but seem fine now - then you might record an important termpaper onto the wrong disk, and find that you computer refuses to read it on the day the paper is due. The savings in disk cost are just not worth it. After all, how much money do you need to save, to justify the cost of a lost assignment?

Some computer users advocate buying single-sided (SS) disks and formatting them as double-sided (DS) disks. This practice is potentially dangerous. DS disks were certified on both sides. SS disks failed certification on one side, or were not certified at all. You are playing roulette with this practice, even though there are very few SS disks that do not work as DS disks. Again, with the low prices of disks these days, you should not be trying to save money with these gimmicky tricks. Using SS disks as DS disks, and non-HD disks as HD disks, by punching an extra hole in the disk, were methods invented during the 1980’s when disk prices were astronomical. Nowadays, not only are disk prices very reasonable, but you would be hard-pressed to find single-sided disks - they’re all but virtually extinct now. As for HD disks, their magnetic surfaces are specially prepared for use with the high-density drive’s read/write heads. DS disks have too unrefined a surface to work properly with an HD drive. Don’t be fooled into buying a “disk hole-puncher” and think you can convert DS disks into HD disks.

Unless they come pre-formatted, initialize all your disks when you bring them home . That way, you have a constant supply of formatted blank disks ready to be used. Not only is it an inconvenience to format a disk halfway into your work, but some programs don’t have a formatting function, and won’t let you quit it, in order to go back to the main operating system for formatting, without losing your work.


The most immediately available, and usually best, form of support for your computing comes from your friends and associates who have the same type of computer as you do. They are more often than not more understanding of any questions that you may have, and can offer more time and effort than a more commercial source. Perhaps there is a “computer-whiz” that you know personally, or can locate through a friend of a friend, and these computer enthusiasts really do know their material. At any given moment in time, it is highly likely that a “nerd” is saving humanity from utter destruction, somewhere in the world. It is to your best interests that you either establish rapport with one of them, or become one yourself.

Barring the expert advice of a computer hobbyist, your next source of support comes from the store you purchased your computer from. It is perhaps unfortunate that although the people there had been more than efficient in selling you the machine, they may not be as adept in solving a technical problem. In such cases, you should try other stores which carry your computer model. Be advised, however, that whichever store you receive your help from, it is quite possible that they have an inherent bias towards convincing you that you need to buy a certain product from them to alleviate your troubles. In such cases, be sure to ask the salesperson specifically whether or not he or she can absolutely guarantee that your problem will be fixed through the use of those products. Unless they swear on their dog Rover’s grave, I would seek a second opinion. Opinions - whether second, third, or of the order infinity - are the very essence of electronic Bulletin Board Systems, or BBSs. These are computer systems that have been devoted specifically for the purposes of allowing a lot of people to share information by “posting” messages digitally, analogous to leaving bits of paper on a corkboard. BBSs are accessed with your trusty modem, and they are usually free of any service charges. You see, BBSs are often run by the same “nerds” that have been saving civilization as you know it from crumbling, and are computer systems that have been “dedicated” for public use much in the same way that you offer the temporary use of your house for a party. You will be able to find telephone numbers for these systems from a local computer newszine, or by word of mouth. There is more information on utilizing BBSs in the next chapter.

Your final avenue for knowledge about computers will come from books and magazines. The latter is the more effective of the two, simply because of the frequency of publication. Because the world of high-technology changes so rapidly, the material contained in books are very often obsolete by the time anyone actually sits down to read it. This is especially true for books that teach you how to use certain programs. Because manufacturers may produce several new versions of their programs in the span of just one year, you must keep up with the Joneses through more current periodicals, and regard the advice of books with a certain degree of skepticism. The most up-to-date information, of course, will be found in the BBSs which are frequented by a myriad of computer users who have a comparable myriad of information sources. Very often, on the BBSs, you will learn of products that are not even on the shelves yet, or hidden features of programs that were not mentioned in the documentation.

To summarize, you should seek help or advice first from your friends and associates, then your computer store. However, it is best to leave a few messages on BBS systems and see what the 16-year old experts say. Their opinions and suggestions are usually the most sound out of the above sources of help, although it may take several days before you get an appropriate response. Finally, you should make it a habit to read at least one computer magazine each month to keep abreast of everything. Otherwise, you have no one to blame but yourself for not “getting with the programme.” [UPDATE: For 1997 there is the world-wide INTERNET and you probably know all about that already.] You have probably realised by now that there is a lot of power available to you via the computer, perhaps more than you’ve ever realised before. But there is yet more to come. Let us examine the ways in which you interact with the world, the way you handle your…[/fusion_builder_column][/fusion_builder_row][/fusion_builder_container]