Top-10 That I Miss

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MSN has a feature titled “Top-10 tech we miss“, part of the celebration of CNET’s 10th anniversary. It got me thinking about the technology that I miss.

  1. I absolutely agree with CNET that the #1 thing I miss is manned space exploration. I was born sometime after Armstrong and the others left their famous first footprints on lunar soil, so I missed the spine-tingling feeling of watching that event live on TV. But I do remember the thrill of watching the first space shuttle flight lift off on a brilliant plume of smoke and fire. In fact, the whole world watched in awe for at least the first seven or eight launches before it became a “normal” part of NASA’s function. I also remember the feeling of absolute shock as I watched the Challenger explode on the TV screen over and over again as the news replayed it.

    There is something about manned space exploration that really puts things into perspective. No problem ever seems to large, and no conflict ever seems so important, when you compare it to the immensity of space. We need that reminder on a regular basis. We also need to be reminded of the amazing sense of accomplishment that we get working as an international community of peers while solving amazing new challenges.

  2. I miss simple computers that you can understand completely. The first computer I owned (well, my parents bought it, but I was the primary user) was an Atari 1200 XL. I also regularly used Apple ][ and Apple //e computers, TRS-80 Model III and Model P-4 computers around that time. These were extremely primitive by today’s standards, with less memory for running programs than an old-fashioned 1.44MB floppy disk holds today. My 1200 XL, for example, only had 64K of RAM (that is 64,000 bytes total compared to the 1,000,000,000 bytes the computer I’m using to write this has). It was a very different world back then. In fact, my first mass storage device as a cassette tape drive. A large program might take 40 minutes to boot up, and on a 60-minute tape, that meant flipping sides after the first 30 minutes.

    So why would I miss such a confining piece of machinery? Well… I guess because it never confined me. Programs in those days were designed to run in that small memory space. I remember the salesperson stating that I “would never run out of memory on this computer.” I never did. But I did learn an awful lot about that computer. In the Atari BASIC programming language, there was a way to directly read and write to the memory of the computer (PEEK and POKE were the commands). You could get the computer to do all sorts of cool things just by tweaking with the memory locations. If you were a power user, like I was, you memorized a lot of those locations so you could tweak on the fly. After a while, you pretty much knew what every part of that computer did, from the hardware inside the case to the memory locations inside its brain. It was very empowering to a kid in junior high school at that time (remember the movie War Games?

    The computers now are much more complex. Except for some university grad students and some of the top-level programmers employed by Microsoft, Apple, Oracle, and other corporations, there is hardly anyone who really understands what goes on inside a computer any more. Most of those who do are very gainfully employed, or they are elite hackers (generally the more ethical type that hack for the love of knowledge, not the vandals and crooks that capture the attention of the news media). It leaves the rest of us feeling slightly disconnected from our machines. Some people feel outright fear and distrust because the machines are so complex. I miss the simplicity of the old days, but I love the power and capabilities of the cutting edge machines of today.

  3. Spam-free e-mail and ad-free web browsing are something I miss greatly. Certain economic factors have changed the face of the Internet, some badly, some for the better. But it sure was nice when every person on the Internet seemed like a trustworthy friend. Of course, the original Web browsers were all text-based, and the first browser I saw that could display images (NCSA Mosaic) was pretty primitive, but information was truly free back then.
  4. I miss dial-up Bulletin Board Services. I used to co-run a popular BBS on the Central Coast of California with over 400 active users (meaning they called in at least once a month). We had callers from as far away as Japan and England call over ordinary dial-up lines at 2400 baud speeds just to read and post messages, play text-based multi-player games, and share basic utilities. We eventually joined up with a couple of BBS networks (FidoNet and RenegadeNet), and later formed our own network of BBSes (WEST-Net, named after Will, Eli, Scott, and Travis who thought of the idea). Several other BBSes in the area joined in, as well as one way down south in the San Diego. It was great fun, and was one of the precursors to many of the popular activities people enjoy today on the Internet. Dial-up BBSes still exist, but they aren’t like they used to be.
  5. Pac-Man, Tempest, Joust, and Space Invaders were some of my first video games. I miss those mindless fun (albeit still challenging) games. The games of today tend to either be so complex or so bloody that I lose interest very quickly. Sure, there are still some beautiful games with interesting puzzles to solve (the Myst series), board games that have been computerized (Monopoly, chess), and the perennial favorite of people everywhere waiting on hold for some tech support or in a classroom listening to a lecture (Solitaire, Minesweeper, etc.), but they just aren’t the same. Enough other people must agree, because Atari and other companies are re-releasing their old classics to play on the modern PC.
  6. The Pets.com sock puppet and all the other cool marketing of the Dot.com Boom are missed. Remember when the Dot.com’s ruled the Super Bowl’s commercials? It was mostly marketing hype, but it was fun to watch. Too bad all that creativity apparently cost so much. Today’s commercials seem largely to be rather stale by comparison. This last Super Bowls’ commercial for the job listing company (can’t even remember the name right now — how sad) with the monkey “co-workers” was as lame as the whoopee cushion the guy sat on.
  7. Speaking of the Dot.com Boom, I miss the era when the geeks ruled. Mostly I miss it because I was a geek back then, and it was a great time to be in the job market as a geek. Probably as a business owner attempting to hire a bunch of geeks, it would have been something I wouldn’t have liked, but I wasn’t. Now geek programmers are being sent back to the windowless basement cubicles again. I heard that HP is going to be laying a large number of workers off, mostly in IT and HR. The golden era of IT jobs seems to have lost a lot of its shine.
  8. I miss the absence of some technology. Take the airports for instance. I miss the days before the ticket kiosks, the multiple layers of metal detection, and the ultra-processed and pre-packaged foods (if you even get any anymore) they serve. I miss the opportunity to board a plane without first removing your shoes. I miss being able to call a travel agent or the airline to book a fare, and not having to also check five travel web sites, three discount airfare broker sites, and each airline’s own private discount fare sites, all to be sure that I am getting the lowest fare. I miss that the airlines used to compensate the travel agents so I didn’t have to. I miss the feeling to being a customer of an airline instead of feeling like a piece of livestock being shipped for slaughter.
  9. Dennison used to make a brand of floppy disks (both 5.25″ and 8″ varieties) called “Elephant Disks.” They had the slogan something like “We never forget.” It was a cool marketing gimmick with a cute logo. They were my favorite brand of floppies back then. I wonder if I dug them out of storage if they really would still be readable after all these years?
  10. GIST.com was a terrific TV listings site. So terrific that we actually paid for a subscription when they had to go commercial. Unfortunately, they only lasted about one-month after that, and then they closed up. At least they were kind enough to refund the subscription fees they charged rather than pocketing it for themselves. As I said, they were a terrific site. I’ll squeeze in one more terrific site: sixdegrees.com. It was pretty similar to friendster.com, but it was very novel and seemed to work a bit better. Sadly, it closed up, too.

So there you have it. 10 tech things that I miss that used to be an everyday part of my life. Maybe sometime I will write a top-10 list of things that I love about technology now. That could be fun. What do you miss most? Leave some comments.

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