Thursday, February 26, 2009

Obsolete

I recall some writer - I think it was Warren Ellis - explain that his creative writing process consisted of absorbing as much strange information as he could, storing it in the back of his brain and let is smash around a bit until something strange and mutated eventually crept to his frontal lobes.

I always like that description and remains one of the better ones, to me anyway, to explain the creative writing process. As I was trying to figure out what to blog about today, I had one of those small moments where colliding bits of information managed to produce a thought for today's blog post.

The first came from Kerri Breen, the current editor of the Muse. She dropped me a line on Facebook saying she wanted to interview me about trying to write and produce the paper before the internet came into common use.

Then I read this post from Jackie, who seems to be in fine ranting form over the past 24 hours (I sincerely mean that as high praise) talking about how awful her current computer is. And given that the CBC is in "Oh-my-Jesus-we're-all-doomed-Doomed-DOOMED" mode right now, I wouldn't count on the equipment getting better anytime soon. But that's when the idea sparked together and came up with this little epiphany.

I have worked in a lot of newsrooms with just abhorrent computer equipment.

Well, I never said it was a grand, biblical level epiphany. No bushes were burned as this idea came into being.

But honestly, there's something about being a journalist that gets you stuck with just the most awful computers. I recall my time with the Muse when we were use ancient 8088s (Google it and behold the horror). They were named Lenin and Mao and these things were slow, creaky ancient beasts when I joined the paper in 1990. The absolutely barest minimum that would allow news copy to be produced. It could get no worse than this, I thought.

Except when I went to journalism school we were using Mac Classics, which while a step up from the obsolete 8088s, it was only by fractions. But the truest horror was yet to come. That was when I worked with The Telegram as an intern and a summer student.

Reporters there used these....things. These massive, brutish, slow, evil....things. Legend has it The Telegram acquired the computers from a sister newspaper in the United States (Insert your own joke on how many times The Telegram has been passed around over the years in the comments section) when the paper decided they were obsolete and upgraded. That US paper decided the computer were obsolete in 1980. And The Telegram was still using them in 1995.

Gods, the horror. The keyboards were a nightmare. Trying to correct mistakes would have been easier on a typewriter. And the bloody things were huge. A reporter at the time told me, "It's so there's room for the hamsters to spin around on their wheels to power the bloody things." I think he was joking.

The kicker was that they all linked to this central - hard drive, I guess - that was so massive it required it's own room, was surrounded by a half dozen fans at all times in a desperate attempt to keep it cool. I'm not sure if was kept cool so it wouldn't overheat and stop working or so that it wouldn't overheat, explode and take out half the building. Oh, and it used 8-inch floppy discs.

And these were still being used in the mid-90s. Granted, they upgraded less than a year later, but still...

I remember when I joined The Packet in '98 I was using a Mac Classic that was exactly the same type had been desperately obsolete when I was a journalism student in '94. We eventually upgraded to iMacs, but that was a hard fought battle with both sales and head office wondering why we needed fancy, expensive new machines.

"You just need them as typewriters, after all," one sales person said to me. Miraculously, that person is still alive.

There's still a view by some that journalists are little more than glorified typists and why do you need good computers. Which just goes to show the staggering level of ignorance that many in senior management have about what it is exactly that reporters do.

(My all-time favourite quote from my time with The Telegram came from a sales person, complaining that, "all those stories are a waste of perfectly good ad space." The irony of the statement was completely lost on him.)

So is there a point other than reporters often get stuck with really crappy equipment? Just this. I suspect the crap equipment is often a sign of the lack of respect that some organizations have for their reporters. I won't say bad computers is what drove me from the Express back in '05 as we were using perfectly functional iMacs (although we were still using OS 9 and management was resisting mightily the urge to upgrade to OS 10.) But I'm willing to bet if The Express was still an on-going venture and I was still there, I would be using the same iMac. And probably still on OS 9.

And that lack of respect gets to you. I think that, more than the pay and crap hours is what finally wore me down.

By the way, one of the earliest things I did after we moved to Iqaluit, had the bills paid off and were financially secure was to buy a MacBook Pro. Did I need that much computing power? Probably not. But after that many years on bad computers, it's always a nice treat to come home to a well-powered machine.

Anyway, feel free to share your computer related horror stories in the comments section.

Last Five
1. Better than most - A.C. Newman
2. Candle - Drive
3. I don't wanna - The Von Bondies
4. We got the beat - The Go-Go's
5. Bohemian Rhapsody - Queen*

3 comments:

Hallett said...

Ha.

When I was Muse editor, sonny, we had no computers at all.

As News Editor the previous year, I was obligated to learn how to typeset. I spent many, many hours at it, a hard learned skill that within years was about as useful as learning to make horseshoes.

In those days the typesetter went home at 5:00. Anything left over on 'layout night' had to be done by me.

The typesetter was also a staunch Pentecostal, so I also had to type in any profanity, anything about religion, or anything to do with sex, homosexuality etc. As this was a student paper, I often ended up typesetting over a third of the pages myself.

Aaahh, the good old days.

Kennie said...

I remember the 8088's ... I think I was using those in like grade 4/5 .. and that was back in the early 90's. But I still say the Tandy TX was the best of them all in grade 2.

But for horrors, here at school I've got quite the collection of macs for students to use ... back to the Apple ][ and some Classics that need some major help.

Geoff Meeker said...

For the first five-or-so years of my career, I wrote on an electric typewriter (and an old Underwood at home). Whiteout was king.

Then, along came PC's. I bought the first laptop computer at The Herald, a Tandy, with a hard drive of 40K. Yeah... 40. Space for one article. When done writing, I had to send it by modem to the phototypesetting machine, delete, then start writing some more.

But 40K notwithstanding, it was still liberating for me, for the delete and cut & paste functions alone.