net.wars: The view from afar

by Wendy M Grossman | posted on 03 January 2003

How often have you wished that, Robert Burns-like, you could see the world through someone else's eyes? But this is one of the weird powers of the Internet ...

Wendy M Grossman

"O wad some Power the giftie gie us / To see oursels as ithers see us!"

This is one of the weird powers of the Internet.

But I should begin at the beginning.

Here's what happened. A computercidal mug of hot tea (with milk but no sugar) attacked Thurb - my beautiful little Lifebook - a couple of Saturday nights ago. It was one of those stupid accidents that happen to you when you stop paying attention for a moment. A slightly wobbly occasional table, a top-heavy stainless steel thermal mug to combat the slight chill in my friends' living room, an incautious knee movement, and over it all went. Poured directly onto the laptop keyboard in a splash that froze the many live windows on the machine. Yes, I turned it off shortly afterwards. Probably not fast enough, because the standard advice in a crisis is: pause for thought. Whereas this crisis wanted the opposite: act fast to disconnect the machine. And - if this happens to you - the BATTERY.

OK, you're in beautiful downtown Shiremanstown, PA, and your laptop may be dead on the Saturday before Christmas.

First, you spend a few sleepless hours reviewing mentally every bit of data you had on the machine to decide whether you've lost anything crucial. I make it a handful of email messages, a few notes for article ideas, a partial rewrite to an existing document, and the four-hour MP3 personal interview from the preceding Wednesday. A few of those email messages are not replaceable. The article notes are minor. The partial rewrite ... well, I still have the original and the handwritten notes I worked from. The MP3 file I copied onto the MP3 player the same day and also to the article's subject. (You see why we need copy-unprotected recording formats?)

A trawl through the phone book produced: a local repair shop and a rental outfit. Emailed the rental place. On Monday, called the repair shop. Repair shop kindly offered to charge $35 for the American equivalent of sucking their teeth and saying, "Ooh, now, guv." Dropped off the laptop (you never know). Day after Christmas, the rental place responded with an offer of a Thinkpad for two weeks for $165.

But by then I'd found a three-month-old backup CD I'd made for the previous trip that had my email address book on it along with a bunch of other useful files, gotten my beleaguered assistant back in London to send me more recent stuff from the home machine - and my hosts had relinquished all hope of using their computer. So things were looking up.

Except. They don't organize their computer the way I do mine.

You forget until something like this happens how much you have personalized your computers to all respond in the same ways to keystrokes you've learned - but that no one else uses. They have a Microsoft-colored desktop. They have a jumble of icons I itch to rearrange into tidy categories, and menu sprawl into 2004. All the program window backgrounds are glaring white. They insist on Windows 98. (But I shouldn't complain. They let me crash the computer repeatedly into unusability so I could spend Christmas day restoring it to working order.)

Of course, the reason Windows 98/Mozilla was crashing was a game. When I mentioned this, one of my UK friends suggested I termserv into his machine, which is running .NET server, and run it from there. Which is what I did. So now I'm looped through two other people's views of the world, from one teal desktop to another. And you know what? The Internet looks pretty much the same except a lot slower.

But this, it occurs to me, is the answer I was groping for last week ("Defending Your Net") to Bill Thompson's insistence on a zoned, regulated Net. The instant someone tries to split up the Net geographically, ten thousand .NET servers will bloom so users in one country can piggy-back onto friends' computers in another to access the services they're being blocked out of. Fuhgeddaboudit.

The whole incident has given me a much greater appreciation for the value of free software to some of us. Say you depend on commercial software. Even if it's downloadable shareware, being able to restore your daily tools will require you to travel with all the keys, codes, and signatures needed to render that software operable. For full commercial software, you'll need to add to your overall risk by traveling with the installation CDs.

By contrast, if you work with Mozilla and Open Office , all you have to do is download and run install, and you're on your way again (subject to configuration), with maybe one CD needed to carry templates, address books, and a few data files. Even copies of the full set of software fits on a single CD. I like this idea better than the usual alternative, which is an online storage place with a complete backup of the machine. (Though storing the data online with daily backups is absolutely a great idea, as is owning a laptop with a CD-RW.)

There remains the small matter of the laptop formerly known as Thurb. We're considering a Viking funeral. And Thurb?

Thurb is actually the name of the previous computer, which was going to be transferred to the Lifebook. I guess the name is free now. It's from Alexei Panshin's The Thurb Revolution. Thurb is the sound Torve the Trog makes when he's thinking.

Editor's note: You'll probably have to read it ... and as for Torve, I'll bet he's reddit, reddit, reddit ...

Wendy M. Grossman’s Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, follow on Twitter or send email to netwars(at) skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).