View from the Classroom

Gone Fishing for the Summer

- June 13, 2000

Several weeks ago Low End Mac publisher Dan Knight graciously agreed to my request that we put View From the Classroom on hiatus at least for the summer. I'd told Dan that I wasn't really happy with the quality of my writing of late and thought it was time for me to chill out for a few months.

Actually, the column wasn't the whole problem. Spillover from my day job as a special education teacher had left me ready for something different. It seemed that I spent most of the month of May watching school psychologists and special education administrators creatively interpret federal and state laws and regulations to hide their programming deficiencies and effectively deny students their guaranteed "Free Appropriate Public Education." (If you're not a special educator, FAPE is a bit of special ed lingo established by court case that legally defines what must be done for students with disabilities.)

I found myself becoming cynical about the whole special education process. In addition, I found that when I sat to write a column, that cynicism permeated my writing about Macs! So, now that the dust has settled a bit, I'll post a last column until fall about some positive things in Macintosh computing.

Frequently, when I've done some minor "Macintosh magic" on one of our teacher's machines, they profusely thank me, saying something like, "How do you do it?" While the praise is nice for something as easy as junking a corrupted preference file or running a utility program, it also says a lot about the state of computing today.

Computers can quickly become intimidating, aggravating, unproductive beasts to both the computing novice and the seasoned user at times. Even on the Macintosh, where things are generally considered to be easier, Murphy's Law seems to work overtime.

On the first day of my summer vacation, I received an urgent call from our school's "Evil NT techie." He'd needed an AV capable Mac for a computer workshop, so I'd loaned him my G3/7500. The workshop was to begin in a few minutes, and the Mac's monitor was blank, but the desktop was visible through the projector they'd attached. After a few minutes of fruitless, long distance tech support, I realized that I couldn't help from home, as I couldn't simulate the setup at school.

I hustled to school to find that the profile for the Sony monitor had been replaced by a generic setting. Regardless of what any of the three computer professionals present had done, the display refused to come to life. Apparently, in the process of connecting the projector to the monitor cabling, a neat task since the G3/7500's video runs through a Orange Micro PC card, something bad happened. In just mucking about with the setup, a screen appeared saying the resolution selected for the monitor was beyond its refresh rate. On a whim, I got to look like a slightly flawed Mac magician by changing the colors setting from millions to 256 colors - and the monitor returned to life. The Sony display profile was still absent, however, leaving a choice of just a single somewhat undesirable screen resolution.

The workshop went on, and I did some paperwork. Afterwards, I took the 7500 home. Upon connecting and firing up the reluctant computer, the initial splash screen was still tuned to the undesirable generic RGB settings, but during startup it snapped back to the correct settings. When I fired up the Windows side using the Orange Micro card, much the same thing happened after a bit of manual tweaking. It occurred to me that I'd read that the Sony 17" CPD-200ES display, the best I've ever owned, only held two sets of video settings in its memory. Possibly the addition of a third set, the projection unit used at school, caused the problem. There also may not have been enough VRAM to power two outputs. I still don't know what happened, but to further complicate things, the problem has also occurred one time at home!

When computer learners watch experienced computer users and techies fumble around, as we did at school, it certainly doesn't engender any aura of ease-of-use for them. Most of the folks at the workshop were beyond the novice stage, but the experience brought me back to an issue I've had to address repeatedly in the last year - that of how one learns to become proficient on a computer on any platform.

When the currently inactive MacSimple site began its short run last year, Low End Mac columnist Charles Moore had written the following in an early column:

Computers, despite their technological sophistication, are not a mature technology. A good analogy is the automobile early in this century. Computers, even Macs - which are the best of the lot - are still at about the stage of sophistication as cars were when you had to manually crank the engine to start them, fiddle with manual spark advance and carburetor mixture controls to keep them running, use a clutch to get underway, and wrestle with a non-synchromesh manual gearbox that required double-clutching for downshifting. Computers will get easier to use, but meanwhile, like people who wanted to drive in the age of the Model T Ford, you have to work around the machine's shortcomings.

Computers should be about as reliable and easy to use as your coffee pot, refrigerator, or television.

They aren't!

The technology of today in its best form is still incredibly complex, buggy and unstable. Add to this situation a segment of new users who just want the thing to turn on and do Instant Messenger, Quicken, run a game for the kids, type a quick letter to grandma, or provide email without getting into any system stuff, and you can see that there will be some disappointed, frustrated new users. The result is a general computer using populace unaware of, unwilling, or scared to death to run Disk First Aid or ScanDisk. (Well, sometimes ScanDisk scares the heck out of me, too!) My wife practically has to do handsprings to get Windows users in her new job as a WAN specialist and troubleshooter to just reboot their machines when weird stuff begins to happen.

I've recently gone through a bit of the computing novice experience with three members of our family and a friend. Sometimes I feel that I'm on a personal quest to help Apple regain its lost market share by buying everyone I know a Macintosh. When I look at my MasterCard bill, I'm almost sure of it. Actually, our family largess has been limited to an iMac for my son and daughter-in-law, Scott and Michele; a Mac IIcx for my instructional assistant; a Power Mac 7200/90 for my parents (aged 87 and 84, but that's another whole series of columns); and finally, another iMac for our latest college bound daughter, Samantha.

Each of these users brought various levels of computing skills and expectations to their "new" machine. My parents had never used a computer! At the other extreme, Sam has had lots of Mac (and Windows) computing experience here at home and at school.

We got started down the Macintosh missionary road of saving souls from that other operating system when the most logical wedding present for our eldest seemed to be an iMac bundle. Interestingly, my oldest son's affinity for the Macintosh platform had been engendered by his use of iMacs at cyber cafes while in port from his job as an entertainer on a cruise ship. He needed no help in setting up or using his new iMac until his father-in-law bought him a computer top camera and the stock RAM deficiency of his revision D iMac became apparent.

We had made Sam save every cent required for her first car, save for many of her own clothes, and often borrow stuff she needed for her recent foray into the world of Junior Miss. When graduation time rolled around, Annie and I knew Sam would need a computer for college. Sam had been working as her high school newspaper editor all year on an iMac. She'd expressed a clear preference for computing on the Mac platform several times, and often casts envious eyes at my G3 minitower (and no, I don't often share). Even so, she usually completes themes and such, under protest at times, on our 150 MHz Acer Aspire, rather than the gracefully aging Power Mac 575 (a.k.a. Performa 575) she and her sister share.

Samantha only needed our ISP info before we were merrily competing nightly for phone line time. Her blueberry iMac was an instant joy right out of the box. Apple definitely seems to have gotten that part of the new computer user experience right. Sam instantly noticed the glaring absence of any internal removable storage device. She'll probably start with an external Zip drive. The infamous iMac hockey puck mouse didn't seem to bother her at all, although I found it a constant annoyance. The touch and feel of the iMac keyboard was surprisingly good.

Interestingly, Indiana University's Computer Buying Guide for Fall, 2000 is surprisingly Mac friendly!

Both Windows and Macintosh computers are well supported at IUB (Indiana University Bloomington), and both easily accommodate most general purpose software. Academic programs that rely heavily on business-oriented software are often better served by Windows, while academic programs requiring specialized graphics and multimedia software typically recommend Macintosh.

Wow! In a time when Macs are being pooh-poohed by many schools, IU's statement gave me hope. As I read IU's computer recommendations, both Windows and Mac minimum and advanced configurations were listed. The guide also clearly noted the deficiency of no internal removable media for Macs, but also gave good recommendations for external Zip, SuperDisk, and USB floppy drives. Their available software also clearly supports both platforms, although they need to cut a deal with Adobe to compliment their bargain software from Microsoft and Corel.

My teaching assistant received an antique Mac IIcx for general use. (She also does a lot of my grades at home on it!) Since both she and her children already had used Macs at school for years, their biggest problem was finding enough room for the IIcx without totally displacing the little-used screwdriver shop PC they'd purchased a year ago. They also didn't want Internet access for the machine, which was a relief, because I'm not sure I could configure MacTCP again without finding my old notes on it. After a couple of months of use, the IIcx has cranked out word processing documents regularly, but probably gets more use from the array of freeware and shareware games I'd installed on it.

My parents presented several special challenges and requirements for a computer. I may yet do a column solely devoted to their initial computing experiences, but for now I'll summarize their first time ever computing initiation.

Had we been able to get my parents an iMac with a large screen, I suspect their initial computing experiences would have been easier. Due to their age and physical needs, a large display with large icons and an oversized mouse were all requirements for them. The screen requirement ruled out an iMac. I settled on a Power Mac 7200/90 bundle I found on eBay for them. It included an Apple 1705 17" display and an Epson printer.

Their first attempts with the 7200 emphasized to me how much better the user experience has become with improvements in the Mac operating system. The machine was equipped with Mac OS 8.1, which is still one of my favorite versions. However, until my dad got well into the Macintosh manual, he spent many days going through the basics step-by-step with either my brother or me at his side. Even so, once we got past the initial, "How do I turn it on?" I could see he had a fire in his belly to learn computing!

The main thing my Dad wanted from the computer was the ability to send and receive email. My brother is currently home from his missionary posting in Kenya, but will return there in August. Kenya is both a beautiful and troubled country, but there is Internet access in between the scheduled daily power blackouts in Nairobi! Dad wanted to be able to communicate with my brother and his family in Kenya via email. He also wanted to be able to receive pictures via email. He was a made-to-order prospective Mac user.

One of the most frustrating problems we faced was just connecting Dad to his ISP. Via long distance, I wasn't able to figure out why the computer I'd carefully set up, tested, and got Dad started on suddenly refused to connect. Although my brother is a Windows user, on his weekly "carom" night visit, he quickly noticed a space before the username in PPP. Somewhere along the line, Dad had bumped the spacebar, added a space before his username, and saved the change in configuration! Along the line through all of this, I could see an emerging understanding and respect for the Mac OS in my brother.

The really neat part of all of this is that once again there actually is a sizable group of new Macintosh users. Not so long ago, we Mac users wondered if there'd even be a Mac platform in the near future. The challenge for experienced Mac users who end up helping the newcomers to the platform becomes one of supplying the needed answers without overwhelming the new user with features and advice.

Missing from the new Mac user experience is the old printed Macintosh User's Guide. When I started Mac computing, I found it a good first volume for one starting computing. While I'm a big supporter of PDF documents, it's just about impossible to take a PDF doc to the "reading room." I hope Apple someday sees fit to again provide a complete printed manual with their new computers. Beyond that, I ignored the volumes that had rocketed me into mainstream Mac computing, such as The Macintosh Bible and Macworld Macintosh Secrets, and sight unseen sent Dad a copy of Gene Steinberg's new book, How to Use Your Mac. So far, Dad finds it very helpful. There are a wealth of other good titles on Macintosh computing available, but I find Gene's writing style easy to follow and thought Dad might find it helpful.

I'm always surprised when a friend says, "I just bought my first computer." There are still a significant amount of people who haven't bought into the computer revolution. As regular computer users, we often think everyone uses one and are surprised at the newbies. All too often, they tell of their Pentium III with...blah, blah, blah. More often of late, a friend will tell of having purchased an iMac. What I don't hear is of new Mac users starting with a high end Mac! That, of course, begs the question, "Without adequate PCI slots and with current PowerPC chip speeds, is there such a thing as a high end Mac?" Having taken my cheap shot of the day at Apple, we can go on with the current discussion.

While MacSimple has passed the way of many other stillborn Mac sites, I still think there is a place for a Mac web site totally devoted to the new Mac user. There is an opportunity to serve the Mac newbies, either first time computer users or those that have chosen to "forward migrate" to the Mac platform. 

Speaking of "newbies," I find that even as a computer "expert" of sorts, I'm somewhat intimidated with all of the impending major operating system changes. On the Windows side, it will soon be time to say good-bye to the DOS based Windows 9x OS and begin learning the NT based Windows 2000 Millennium edition operating system. Linux is still a mystery to me, although I do regularly wear my PowerPC Linux T-shirt. When I finally have a free drive I can dedicate to the penguin, I may be able to format it so I can run Linux off something other than the installer CD!

In the Macintosh world, we're soon to be swept into the Unix-based world of Aqua and Mac OS X. At this writing, I've still not played with any of the developer releases, as I've been unwilling to buy access through Apple's Developer World and was unceremoniously dumped from Apple's OS beta test team after Bride of Buster (Mac OS 8.1). While my summer job jar is overflowing, I hope the public beta of OS X comes out in time that I can really wring it out before school begins.

Along with the summer chores generated by a 90-year-old house, I have a piece of vaporware to convert to a new shareware "workbook" in the coming months, a personal web site to update and transfer to a new server, a new grandson to spoil, a great creek a hundred yards from my house that I haven't fished in a year, and a host of family and church activities that figure to productively consume my leisure time to the exclusion of writing a weekly column.

At any rate, while mulling things over before talking to Dan, I'd written the following:

The fertile soil crumbled under my rake as I prepared a seed bed for sweet corn. A strong breeze swept across the field that abuts my garden plot, foretelling an imminent rain to help the seed germinate. Perspiration flowed in healthy exercise.

I asked myself, "Why on earth am I hurrying this pleasant task?" The answer, of course, was to get back to my Mac and finish writing a column!

Duh!

What slop! Obviously, I've lost the edge and it's time for a break! See you next fall.

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View From the Classroom columns copyright 1999-2000 by Steve Wood.

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