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Monday, December 8, 1997
By Paul Ford
Laboring under the mysterious watchful eye of the Guru Meditation error.
My first computer was the Commodore Amiga. I begged my parents for it, convincing them that to buy it would ensure my future in the electronic world. At their request, I researched, made charts, and showed how the purchase would benefit the family. After a year, they gave in and spent the ridiculous $2,000. I was eleven and a half. Little geek that I was, I kissed its monitor before going to sleep, the night we bought it. We didn't own a car, but we had a computer.
The machine actually did ensure my future success; everything I began to do with it when I was twelve I do with computers now to earn a living. In addition to word processing and helping my mother with her spreadsheet, I drew pictures, manipulated photographs, and wrote programs that generated random music. On the Amiga, I could write shell scripts, edit sounds in stereo, and plow through hexadecimal code, looking for secret messages. In contrast, the Macintosh made a pinging noise on starting up, showed a little bomb when it crashed, and let you draw sneakers in black and white. It also cost twice as much. The Amiga had thousands of colors, enormous screen icons, and spoke, in a moronic, robotic Swedish accent. I immediately taught it to say "fuck!" When it crashed, it gave out scary-looking messages like:
Guru Meditation #00000004.002049D0? No one knows why, but it printed out a different Guru Meditation error with every system failure. The machine crashed constantly, because all Amiga programs were sloppily put together and inconsistently designed. At the same time, each one was marked by its creator, individualized, and quirky. There was a sense of play, of mystery, of making something new with each new graphics hack or 3-D system. To compensate for this flimsiness, users learned to peek under the hood and patch the cracks and holes in programs themselves. For someone who just needed to write a term paper or add rows of numbers, it was impossibly complex. But for a nosy kid, a world existed inside its beige box. I fed it disk after disk, running impractical programs, stolen and shareware. Each time I used it, I brought the technical and the creative together. It was a valuable tool.
Now I have a Mac, which I deeply loathe. It crashes. The software is often good, but desperately expensive. I can't easily poke through files and make them work properly. And Apple has a disgusting ad campaign that features Gandhi as their pitchman 13-nov-97. I miss the flavor of my first computer, even though they no longer make Amigas. Even with twelve years between the first Mac and this one, while I have a cute pile of icons, the computer I'm typing on is hard to use and unreliable. In addition to the perpetual crashes (7 today), it hates connecting to the Internet and forgets things I tell it. Sometimes it throws up evil, ambiguous messages like this:
The person who wrote that message should be punished by law. Even worse, its standard error messages, help messages, menus, widgets, and buttons never vary in appearance--which, I'll admit, is usually good, as we need those visual cues to function in the computer's world. But the way most programmers chose to communicate with users is rotten, flat, and humorless. I'd love for some semantic understanding to be programmed into my applications--a program that works with images could use a more iconic interface, a text editor could be purely textual. Or at least they could spice things up, add some variety to the "Saving file..." or "Are you sure you want to shut down this computer?" dialogue boxes.
Even a random insult would cheer me up, breaking the endless routine of working on a Mac. As it is, the only unpredictable, exciting thing about using an Apple or Windows machine are the crashes. But even these are predictable. I haven't lost more than 5 minutes of work to a crash in two years. You can see them coming, if you know where to look.
Of course, if they program computers to behave contextually, some programmers might make moral judgements about their users. But I'd take that risk. The machines need change; they need creativity built in, to foster creativity in their people who use them.
A computer is not a blank slate onto which we project our ideas. An operating system makes assumptions about how people think and work, and those assumptions affect the work created within its boundaries. Most modern systems ignore the human need to play and explore (a need recently filled by the Internet, a meta-system). Computers should provide a place to play while we work. Unix, a tricky and confusing system I use on my job, offers some entertainment. When I'm bored, my text editor, EMACS, lets me play gomoku or talk with a foolish, simulated psychologist. I appreciate the effort that went into those diversions, and it gives me pleasure, while I'm writing a bland company newsletter, to jump into stupid game of guess-the-animal.
I miss that playfulness at home, on my Mac. I may be married to the Macintosh's heap of icons by the fact that I blew a few thousand on it, but creative computing is my mistress, and I want my Amiga back--with all the spirit but none of the crashes. The company that builds a machine as evocative and fun as the Amiga will claim my two thousand bucks in a nanosecond.