Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Gear for Non-Geeks (Like Me)

I'll be having a tech review column appearing in the online version of Rise! Magazine, here, starting in January. The editor tells me that Rise is a mag designed for the college audience, so there's a premium on the practical, the entertaining, and most of all, the cheap in toys, technology, and party links. So I gave them a piece on getting the most of the gadgetry that's out there without spending megabucks. I focused on things like wi-fi connectivity, which is the next big wave in the online universe: Google's giving it away in San Francisco, and the city government is doing the same in Philly. Wi-fi will do to dialup what the cell phone did to the public telephone booth. On my wintel box, I have an external wifi modem connected via a plain old USB port: plug it in, load the drivers, then just move it around like a pair of rabbit ears on a TV set until you've caught a hotspot. I get consistent 48 to 54 mbps (DSL speed) connections with no ISP, no hassle, and most important, no cost!

Mind you, even if wi-fi makes dialup obsolete, it won't do the same to cable. My iMac is connected to a cable modem, and that's where I do my high-power online stuff such as site uploads and application/multimedia downloads. For college kids, wifi will be the connectivity of choice on campus, while cable will always be there at Mom and/or Dad's place during vacations.

We're calling this week's set of posts "Geek Week," but let's face it: geeks are, of course, a relative minority in our culture. I'm talking about the pros, guys who write code and configure complex server/client structures that require some major cranial muscle to manage. The rest of us, young and otherwise, get by with what tech knowledge we soak up via necessity (struggling through Windows "ignorance bases" as I call them, and fighting OS crashes and hardware device conflicts) or by the magnetism of interest (many folks learn their way around a computing environment simply through gaming). For many more of us, computers are a part of our work: the better we understand them, the easier it is to find and keep a job.

What I have learned about technology derives from what I have learned about nature, animals, and relationships with people: you tend to get back from them what you put in. I try and develop a relationship with my tech gear, because I know that these things are not mere passive, dead recipients of human projections, but active forms of consciousness. Now before you brand me a nut case and walk away, think for a moment about how you've felt about a car, a house, a favorite dress; or how sailors will relate to a floating hunk of metal and give it a female identity, even a name. Treat the objects of your life with respect, and you will find yourself fighting far less often with "blue screens of death" and other nightmares of mechanical life.

If you still think I'm some tree-hugging lunatic for thinking this way, test it for yourself before you close the matter within yourself. Spend a day treating your computer like a dead piece of plastic and silicon—even curse it out or slap it around if you want. Then go to it another day (or more) and treat it like a sailor treats his ship: clean it and give it a name of honor; then communicate with it (no, you don't have to talk to it, just silently ask it to help you with your work, your writing, your web browsing, whatever..., and then thank it once in a while for helping you out). See if you notice a difference in how the machine responds. If you do, now imagine that if it works for a computer, how about doing the same thing in your human relationships at home, at work, and even at the bar on Saturday night? There is nothing that advances the cause of humanity like a little humility; nothing that furthers the progress of your life's course like an omnidirectional attitude of respect for people, things, nature, and the earth.

Every so often, I'll hear someone at work say that IT is all about zeroes and ones, on and off—that there's nothing more to it all than that. My answer is that yes, the rules that the technology contains (which we humans wrote) are limited to that at this point in history (keep in mind that the computer is only about a half century old); but the flow of consciousness between brain and machine is rather more diverse and multi-faceted than that "zero and one" dichotomy.

My experience in working professionally with geeks is that the most successful ones understand and respect this principle. The guys in the trenches, who work on a daily basis with the hardware and software, will most readily respond to these kinds of observations; while the managers and other bosses tend to view technology as a collection of dumb, mute, slave-objects that must be beaten and trained into submission through the force of corporate manipulation. Funny thing: that's exactly how they tend to treat people, too.

Of course, when it comes to technology, part of nurturing that attitude of respect and cooperation between man and machine is to accommodate the gear you have to the person that you are. That involves self-knowledge and also some savvy in navigating the technology marketplace. Let's say you're not the computer hobbyist type, and you're certainly not a geek, or even a geek-wannabee. Let's say you just need a basic technology setup to help manage your life and keep you modestly entertained once in a while. Here are a few recommendations on gear for the non-geek:

-A Mac is better than Win-Dell. You want your computer to be something you turn on and perform basic functions for you: email, Internet browsing, household accounting, gaming, simple multimedia entertainment. You don't want to be solving puzzles involving drivers, configuration settings, and registry entries. If that's you, then spend a little extra on a Mac. Even if you lay out more cash than you would on a $200 Wal-Mart wintel box, you'll profit in the long run. Isn't your time worth anything? Of course it is. Well, if you've ever spent most of a weekend fighting to get a wintel box back in order after a spyware attack or a system meltdown, just count the hours and multiply by your hourly rate at work. Add that to the original cost of the computer, and then you'll begin to see why I recommend the Mac and its no-hassle, low-maintenance profile of reliability and performance.
-Get out of the dialup world. Go cable, DSL, or wi-fi, and you'll never regret dropping out of dialup. The savings in time, frustration, and money cannot be overestimated, especially if you like to download games and view multimedia online. This is now a no-brainer, given the low cost and ease of use of wi-fi and DSL.
-Don't try to learn HTML in a weekend. Too many people delve into the technical minutiae of geekdom without any idea of what they're getting into—I see this at work all the time. If you want to build a website for yourself, there are options beyond trying to write HTML cold out of a book or spending $400 on Dreamweaver and getting lost in its labyrinthine layers of features. If you have a Mac, the choice is simple: Freeway, a graphical html editor from Softpress is a marvelous program for the non-geek who would like to build a website without geekery. For a sample of Freeway's prowess and potential, see my I Ching Counseling website, which I built entirely within Freeway. Another Mac option is a .mac account, which costs about $100 a year and provides email, a personal website with templates, 1GB of storage, and bundled backup and antivirus software. For the Wintel crowd, there are even more options, ranging from Netscape's venerable Composer, to lots of simple, cheap web editors, to the "EasyWeb" applications built into many website hosting plans. Even geeks are often daunted by the proliferation and complexity of today's online languages and scripts; most confine themselves to a particular area of specialization, such as html, javascript, or xml. The rest of us should seek out options that complement our abilities and experience (or lack thereof). I'm not discouraging anyone from trying to learn some markup or programming; but just do it in a relaxed and orderly fashion—don't attempt to master this kind of stuff while you're trying to post the family scrapbook over a few web pages.
Use external hardware when possible. Going into the guts of a PC can be like trying to fix a car's engine: it can make more of a mess than it's worth, and you often wind up with a machine that won't take you anywhere, except to an ayslum. And it voids the warranty, which is never a good thing. If you need a new hard drive, get an external device that simply plugs into a USB or Firewire port on your PC and sets itself up without your having to mess around with jumper settings and partitions. Sweat the details at work; otherwise, let it be plug 'n' play.
-When you're online, use common sense. I'm no fan of Microsoft (I think I've made that clear by now), but the fact is that poor old $50 billion Bill gets blamed for somewhat more than he deserves. He can't keep you from going onto those websites that send spyware onto your hard drive; he can't keep you from hitting the links or opening the email attachments that contain virus code; and he can't force you to read the dialog box pop-up windows with their warnings and other information (which most people simply click OK to without glancing at a single word on them). So go to sites that you know are solid, and remember one rule, which I call the Whorehouse Principle: if it flashes or talks seductively to you, it probably is luring you someplace you won't want to be.
-Blog responsibly. This is a related point to the above: if you would like to have a blog, you must first have a message, or at least an idea of what you'd like to post. Start simple, and don't load yourself down with useless software. Use blogger.com, livejournal, or one of the other popular and safe blogging interfaces online. Don't try to replicate Daily Kos in your early efforts.
-Keep your gear simple, organized, and neat. Most of us can get along just fine with a computer, a wifi or cable modem, a printer or all-in-one device, maybe a backup external drive, basic software for productivity, gaming, and learning, and the necessary peripherals (keyboard, mouse, display). Maybe you'll want a digital camera or videocam and an ipod, and perhaps an adapter cable for your cellphone or Blackberry. The advertisers will want you to think about adding all kinds of toys and gear to "make your life simpler"—but the effect of over-technifying your life tends to be just the opposite of simplicity. When you bury yourself under an avalanche of tech gear, you become like the old lady with the tiny garden filled with decorations, fountains, sculptures, and god knows what other repulsive junk. All that stuff does is prevent you from enjoying the plants and flowers that are supposed to be what a garden is about, after all. A profusion of gear becomes just such a jumble. Remember the etymology of "technology" that we discussed yesterday: it's about techne, the skill, art, or craft that is put to practical use. Good art is simple and well-ordered; its elegance is usually related to its directness and unforced, natural organization. The same principle applies to your tech life. You'll get a lot more enjoyment out of a few things that work well and easily together than from a profusion of expensive junk that eats up system resources and demands constant, high maintenance.
-And remember, always keep a place in your computing environment for your pet.

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