Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Computing the Living Low Way

I like to include a picture of one of my gardens even when it has nothing to do with the post. This is the herb garden on July 26, at the height of summer.

Sometimes I feel really ancient, although I’m actually still middle-aged. Contemplating the evolution of computer technology can produce that feeling. In high school in the mid 1970s, the only computer classes offered were Fortran and Cobol programming courses. Computer class consisted of learning the programming language, figuring out routines to solve the problems given, creating a deck of punched cards with each step of the routine on a different card, and waiting for the computer operators to run the deck through the computer to learn if the routine was correct. The high school would run just one set of punched cards each day. In spring 1979 when I was in my last semester of college, the college computer lab finally received terminals for inputting programs into its mainframe computer. When I attended grad school in the first half of the 1980s our lab had a PDP-11 minicomputer that was interfaced with the experimental apparatus and controlled an X-Y recorder to capture the raw data, but I had to do a lot of data analysis on the raw data by hand. My PhD thesis was typed on a typewriter as existing personal computers were not up to that level of word processing.

The only personal computers I saw before 1984 were a Sinclair ZX-80 that my first husband owned and a Commodore 64 that a friend of ours owned. These were no more than toys in my opinion. It wasn’t until the Macintosh computer came along, with its ability to run office software and print out documents, that I saw any utility in personal computers. The company I worked for had one of the first Macs in its computer lab, where I used it to write articles for the newsletter I edited for the local chemical society. By the end of 1987 I’d set aside enough money to pay cash for a new Mac SE and a printer. I’ve had a computer at home since then.

You may be thinking that in 25 years of home computing I must have gone through a lot of computers. Not so. In all that time Mike and I have had only four different computers. Of those we still have two of them: the Mac SE, which I still use, and the computer I’m writing this post on. In this post I’ll discuss how we have resisted the trend to buy new computers every few years and avoided becoming too dependent on computers.

I suspect that many, if not most, of us who use a computer at home don’t need the best computer now available do do things like browse websites, use most software marketed for the home or small business use, manage online banking or use home accounting software, or use the computer for entertainment as long as you don’t insist on playing the latest computer games or having the fastest downloads possible. Computing on the cheap is another good skill to develop for those of us who are living low by choice or chance.

To apply the Living Low Way to computing, consider what you need either or both of a computer and Internet access for versus what you want them for. Do you need to receive and respond to email from your employer at home, or do you have a home-based business? In those cases you need both but maybe not the latest and greatest computer or the fastest Internet access depending on what you are doing. Do you have students at home who need either or both for their schoolwork? If they have certain websites they must access for their studies then whatever computer they use must be able to access those websites.  Again, however, they may not need the newest and fastest computer for their studies. Are you using the computer and/or Internet for personal purposes such as managing your finances, using office software for home purposes, pursuing hobbies, sending and receiving email, and/or uploading or downloading music, photos, or videos? I suggest that for people in this situation, the older the computer and the slower the Internet connection that you can live with, the better off you are. In fact, you might want to consider whether you really need either or both at home. Don’t forget that widespread home computers and Internet access are recent phenomena, not older than 15 years or so in the US. You, and I, can do fine without a computer at home. Now is a good time to consider backup ways to accomplish tasks that you currently do with a computer in case you find yourself unwilling or unable to spend the money to keep a working computer or Internet access at your residence.

The key to low cost home computing is being willing to keep a computer for much longer than upgrades for the operating system are available. My Mac SE is a case in point. Its operating system (System 6) is over 20 years old. Any browser that would work for it would be so primitive and slow that it’s pointless to connect the computer to the Internet. However, the computer itself runs as well as it did when I bought it, and the software is still as useful for the same purposes as the day it was installed. While I no longer have the original printer, the inkjet printer I bought for it over 20 years ago also still works and I can still get ink cartridges for it.

When Mac’s System 7 OS came out I didn’t rush to install it as I had with Systems 5 and 6. The SE, though only a few years old, did not work well with System 7. It was then that I learned a valuable lesson: trying to keep up with the computer Joneses is a fool’s game. Any new computer will become obsolete, in the sense of not running the latest version of its software maker’s operating system, within just a few years of its purchase, long before the computer itself quits running -- at least, if the computer was well made. But even though obsolete the SE was capable of interacting with other computers through the 1990s via documents on floppy disks that the more-recent computers at the office of the nonprofit I volunteered for could read. I continued to use all the same programs. For 13 years that SE was the only computer we owned, and it did everything we wanted it to do.

During these years the Internet and personal email accounts went from almost nonexistent to a big deal. I had no need of either at home because I could do both when I volunteered at the nonprofit’s office, using its computers. However, when I left that organization in 2001, I no longer had that option. At that time a friend of ours no longer needed or wanted the notebook computer he’d had to purchase for his studies. We bought it from him. It was an IBM PC running Windows 95, already behind the times, but that made the purchase price low. We economized on hardware by purchasing a used inkjet printer. I downloaded free office software for the computer. My mom had a scanner that didn’t work on her current computer so she gave it to us. With a 56K modem and dialup Internet service we had a computer that was capable of sending and receiving email as well as browsing the Internet. That computer worked for us for 5 years. While I moved office software use to the PC I didn’t bother buying software for home accounting or music notation for it. The software on the Mac SE for each of these did a fine job; no sense duplicating it. We could use the money better elsewhere.

When that computer became reluctant to boot, we had to decide if we wanted another computer. Since we weren’t on a schedule we could go to the nearby public library branch to use their computers when it was open. If a friend of ours who also lives low hadn’t offered us a free Mac G3 computer that he had no more use for, we might not have replaced the PC. But the G3 came to us. We kept the dialup connection and got a 56K modem for the Mac. I traded scanners with our friend and downloaded a driver so we could use the same printer. That computer ran System 9, long surpassed but usable for simple home computing. I found a free office software package that gave us the ability do word processing and spreadsheets. I continued to use the Mac SE for home accounting and and music notation. Before long, however, the only browsers that worked for System 9 became incapable of loading an increasing number of websites. Within 2 years of acquiring that computer we were having difficulty accessing the website with our email accounts on it. Now the question became should we give up on web access at home, in which case we could continue to use the computer for office software but little else, or should we get a used Mac which could run System 10? Our living-low friend offered to assist us in purchasing and setting up such a computer, a G4 manufactured in 2001. Knowing that hardware and software for Tiger computers would not long be available (soon after we obtained the computer Apple ceased providing updates for Tiger), we bought a keyboard, DVD drive, printer/scanner, MIDI interface, and office and music notation software. Four and a half years later, this 12 year old computer is in nearly daily use, with the SE still used for home accounting. We’ve yet to encounter the website that our browsers cannot handle, but we cannot view some videos. We use DSL to access the Internet, though we could add a card to the computer that would allow for wireless access. However, since we don’t have smartphones and this is a desktop computer, wireless service offers us no benefits.

Sooner or later, however, this computer will become less useful for browsing the Internet and eventually become too frustrating for us to use it for that purpose. This time we may choose not to upgrade to another used computer as I suspect the cost will be more than we want to pay. Apple has changed chip suppliers, so for any computer running a more recent OS we’d need to get all new software and peripheral hardware. But we don’t really need Internet access at home. I can surf the web on the library’s computers, which the library has to purchase, equip, operate, protect, and fix. As a taxpayer I have paid my share toward those; might as well reap the benefits by using them. As long as the software I use to write posts for this blog can be read on the library’s computers, I can keep writing for the blog at home on this computer, uploading posts to the web on the library’s computer. Why should I spend more money to do at home what I’ve already purchased with my tax dollars?

For any of you who are considering your own situation in the light of what I’ve written, here are some questions that might help you to make a good decision on the best use of your limited time and money.

1. Could you replace Internet access at home with Internet access at your public library? This will depend on what you use the Internet for and on whether the hours the library is open mesh with your schedule. Perhaps putting data on a jump drive could replace using the Internet to transfer data between your home and a work or school computer. If you don’t need Internet access at home you might be able to use the computer you now have for more years of service than otherwise, thus saving money on Internet access fees and on the cost of computer equipment.

2. Can you do yourself or find a good serviceperson to do whatever is needed to keep your current computer running for years after its OS is no longer updated? What that entails will depend on what kind of computer you have. Microsoft has been updating its OSs longer than Apple but PCs seem to have more difficulty with viruses (so far) and also seem to be less rugged than Macs. I prefer Macs as used computers but your mileage may vary. Whatever sort of computer you choose, I suggest learning enough about it and keeping track of the OS situation so that you can add all the hardware and software you need or want to your computer before you can no longer get it in a version that works for your OS. If you don’t want to spend time doing computer maintenance, you’ll need to find someone who can help you keep your computer going as long as possible.

3. If your current computer quits working, could you replace it with a newer but still used model that will offer enough years of service to be worthwhile? This will save a lot of money over buying new equipment if you are careful to choose the right computer and OS. Do some research on the various computers and OSs available and the software versions that run on them so you can pick a combination that you can use for several more years. Low End Mac is an excellent resource for Mac users.

4. If you cannot keep your current computer going and don’t have or don’t want to spend the money to get another one, can you get access to someone else’s computer? Library computers may offer everything you really need to do on a computer if you can use them when the library is open. Some workplaces are touchy about what you do on their computers but perhaps yours isn’t, or maybe you do volunteer work that gets you free computer access and enough time to do personal computing once your volunteer duties are completed. Maybe you have relatives or friends who will let you use their computers on occasion. You could offer to pay a share of the cost of Internet access and/or of computer upgrades and maintenance.

5. Do you really need computer access in the first place? I know people who have never had and don’t want a computer. They pay bills by check and balance their checkbooks by hand, just as I did from my late teens till my early thirties. They shop in person or from paper catalogs, just as we did before we got Internet access at home in 2001. They watch videos on TV and listen to music on the radio or on stereos (we still listen to music that way). They write letters and do computations by hand, just as I did for the first 30 years of my life. Truth be told, Mike and I don’t need a computer, at home or anywhere else, and many other people don’t need one either. Should free computer and Internet access at the local library go away, we’ll go back to doing things the way we did before we had computers. But for the foreseeable future we’ll have a computer and access to Internet, and I’ll keep on blogging. Meet you here next time!

1 comment:

  1. A really interesting post and thought provoking. I've been feeling like I'm spending far too much time online these days; I know that I lived without a home computer for a long time, and that I often feel that I don't have "time" to accomplish tasks on my list. But I seem to have time to surf the net!

    My convenient laptop is on it's last legs, and I'm considering not replacing it. I have an older, but perfectly serviceable, desktop computer in my home office, and am online all day at work. I think I would be far more productive--and adapt/revert to living "lower"--if I had to decide that I needed to do something online, go upstairs and turn on the desktop, etc, rather than just popping open the hibernating laptop...

    I've considered talking to DH about even cancelling home internet, given my work access. But he doesn't have that option during the day, so it doesn't seem fair at the moment! :0