Thursday, June 4, 2015

Embracing the Cloud

I want to believe that my head works better than most heads. I want to know shit that nobody else knows, and I crave the capacity to figure out puzzles, usually by routes nobody else would have taken. And in particular, when it comes to recalling the past, I want to remember everything.  Sharp, rich recollections are the most useful raw materials for any writer.

Unfortunately, the universe doesn't have much interest in what I want.

In some areas, my brain works well. Bits of science, bits of world history. But I’m lousy with every language besides Midwestern American.  Always have been.  I’m also taxed by fresh names and the strangers attached to those names.  At 58, I'm beginning to feel as if my head is juggling too many faces and too many complicated life stories.  A shortage of cognitive RAM, that’s what this is.  I hope. And to make matters worse, authentic lives are vast and murky, badly acted and most endings happening far offstage.

But despite those liabilities, my personal past remains immediate.  My childhood.  My twenties.  And to varying degrees, events closer to today.  The substance of conversations that everybody else has forgotten: That's my specialty.  Facial expressions, the tone of the voice, and the buried, revealing meanings inside offhand statements.  The precise phrasing usually gets lost.  (My wife, the trained journalist, does a far better job pulling out authentic quotes.)  But I like to believe that the heart of every important conversation is mine to hold.

I began to write in junior high, Bic pens filling up spiral notebooks. But no matter the writer's name, editors don’t like inky scribbles.  So I learned to type. There was an old black Underwood with an agreeable rattling music, and in college, a manual office Royal.  Where other students tried pot, I experimented with an electric third-hand IBM, learning to despise its humming, hot engine and how it shut off without warning.  Later came a succession of electronic typewriters.  "Pragmatism" is my middle name, and those early digital days brought me a series of electronic Brothers.  I still sent paper manuscripts to the magazines, but I'd reached a point where I could at least save my work as ASCII files. If the story was bought, I had to tuck a magical disk inside a magnetically-protected envelope and then launch both by mail.  But this sluggish evolution frustrated the markets.  I can't recall our actual words, but one important editor warned me that with all the money she’d sent my way, I should buy a real computer.  Which was a $1500 investment, as I recall.  The CPU and monitor, a printer and all of that other necessary crap.  At 5 cents a word, a state-of-the-art beast was rather less important than paying my rent.


Three more conversations come to mind.

My brother is three and a half years younger, though strangers often assume that I’m the younger one.  He has always enjoyed responsibilities and paychecks as well as notoriety in his profession.  And being a brother, he thinks he knows more than his sibling knows, and I should welcome his gracious help.

I liked those cheap electronic typewriters.  Dimwitted pieces of machinery helped me write all of my early successes, and like cherished lovers, each died under me while I was enjoying myself.  At the same time, my brother was working for a college, inhabiting an office filled with new Apple computers, and with a very serious tone, he informed me that I needed to buy one of these marvels.

Honest as can be, I explained that no, computers were too expensive.  If I wasn't working part-time, I wasn't working. Besides the writing, of course.  $1500 was too much of an investment in a machine that looked as if it would break down two seconds after you began believing in it.

But my brother refused to let it go, which generated a second painful conversation.

“You really need a computer,” he said.  “It’s the wave of the future.”

Those probably aren't his words.  But the “wave of the future” cliche was buried in his argument.

Needing another rebuttal, I offered my best second answer:  I hated the green letters riding on the dark background.  And I meant that word, “hated." I absolutely despised that flashing cursor and the slow responses, and those old screens that were either tiny or extraordinarily expensive.

Nothing deserves scorn like two honest answers.

There was a third conversation, and again I suffered the pestering tone, that younger-sibling-knows-best attitude.  And being tired of this shit, I finally offered an idea that he apparently believed.  Because years later, seeing me pushing through my working life, my brother said, “But hey, I thought you hated technology.”

Apparently he had forgotten my two genuine excuses.


Newly married, with two credit cards and a healthy bank account, I felt flush.  But I still avoided purchasing a computer.  My wife with the real job took that gamble.  A Windows 95 system.  No green glow on the monitor.  My new brother-in-law worked for Gateway, and we got what we thought was a solid deal.  The entire system cost us $2000, including the printer and a lot of software that sounded essential. And then a few hours after we made the historic order, the transmission of our Chrysler LeBaron’s failed.

My wife’s computer was always hers.  Except when I played Civilization 2, which was a wonderfully compulsive game that I have no interest in returning to.  I really don’t.  Except today, working on this little essay, I still see the very simple, very random landscapes generated by the computer, and the enemy armies that I had to face, and Christ, I get halfway embarrassed, remembering how those nonexistent empires would piss me off.

For writing, I stayed loyal to electronic typewriters.  But the ribbon cartridges were growing scarce and Brother wasn't building new models.  I had no choice but purchase my own computer, another Gateway, and not long after that--I believe this is correct--my wife’s machine began to have enormous troubles.  Something about the hard-drive needing to be reformatted, and a friendly voice in North Dakota told me how to do this necessary chore. The woman's husband was serving in the Air Force, I recall. And I remember asking if it was important, hearing a distinct pop when I booted up the machine one day.  “No, that's nothing,” she lied.  Later, my brother-in-law admitted that Gateway had shitty hard-drives, but a good reformatting could give you another few months of illusionary health.

As a rule, my computers always lasted just long enough.  I used them daily, sometimes for full days and part of the night, and I've been both lucky and shrewd when picking my particular species of Windows.  My first was a 97--reliable and not too slow.  My second and third computers were XP.  Very stable, at least compared to the frail contraption where the operating system lived.  Through my wife’s machines, I got to experience the prurient challenges of Millennium and then Vista.  Which leads me to this observation:  Terrorists have tried and tried, but that have never inflected as much economic pain on the West as Microsoft manages with its balky operating systems.  Viruses swarm. Commerce stops while Windows reboots. And then comes the blue-screen-of-death, wiping away one woman’s faltering dreams of doing the household books.

Hating Microsoft is the central cliche of our age.

It's like hating the Yankees. Except in this case, what you despise is living inside your house. Mickey has broken into your liquor cabinet, the Babe is chasing your women, and A Rod is sitting on your office desk, shooting god knows what into his arm.


Good writing has many ticks, but one very important item is usually neglected by those who teach writing.

The words you use are just not that important.

Imagine your favorite story. Right now, think of the tale that stirred your imagination most when you were seven or seventeen.  Or sixty-three.  I bet you don’t remember every word used by the author.  You might have a few passages memorized, but not five or fifty thousands words, you don’t.  Unless you're someone who wants trying to steal honest work from a computer.

For the purpose of this writing exercise, let's agree that this is the perfect story.  You remember where you read it. You still get a buzz just thinking it. The story lives in your mind.  But the specific words are gone.  In fact, they've been removed from the world, every copy burned, every digital file erased. And now let’s say that you want to resurrect that piece of fiction.  Resurrect it just from memory, and you’re a good enough writer to pull off this trick.  And you aren’t the only one trying.  On the same day, ten thousand and nineteen other compulsive fans set to work.

All of you remember the basic plot and most of the characters.  But nobody knows the specific letters used or the spaces between letters or those dots and dashes that make copy editors happy.  Ten thousand and twenty people set to work independently, and the project takes a full year, and twenty of you die during those months.  But the rest of you endure and succeed, and that’s why ten thousand versions of that first story now exist.

For shits and giggles, let’s assume that each version is a success.

Ten thousand stories, and each is its own beast.  Very similar characters and very similar adventures, but in the end, each effort is unique.

This is what I mean when I claim that the specific words don’t matter nearly as much as you might believe.


My first laptop was a Windows 7 machine--a slab of plastic and rare-earths that cooked my thighs for several years.  I was loyal to Microsoft Word in that way you have to be loyal in a monopolistic world.  I knew there were other writing programs, but I was comfortable with this one.  If usually took a few minutes to boot up the machine in the morning, and unless there were updates and patches, but I could always do other things.  And well, sure, the machine might lock up before noon, but I could always reboot and have lunch while waiting for that ritual to pass.

I don’t recall when I started playing with Google Drive, but I'm rather sure it was called Google Docs.  Maybe.  I had a much slower Internet connection, and the program wasn’t as advanced or as stable as it is today. But what I appreciated, probably from the first few lines, was the simplicity.  “Pragmatic” means stripped down and clean, and Docs didn't distract me with features that I never used, writing like a crazy boy until the Internet gave out.  Which it always seemed to do.

Eventually I moved all of my files to Docs/Drive.

But I kept local copies on venerable Word.  And of course I leaned hard on Microsoft whenever I had to deal with the larger, less forward-thinking publishing world.

Chromebooks already existed.  At first I didn't have any burning urge for that kind of machinery.  But I got more comfortable with the Googleverse, and Samsung put out a well reviewed and wonderfully portable Chromebook.  I wanted portability.  I wanted to pay less than $300, which is a pretty cheap revolution.  And after making that enormous step, I felt absolutely entitled to be furious when the machine refused to load my longer works, and then three days into the relationship, the keypad stopped playing nice.

I sent the Samsung back to Amazon, but still enamored with the idea of writing in coffee shops around Lincoln, I bought a second PC, a Toshiba Satellite ultrabook.

The Toshiba proved heavy and slow-witted and I hated the keys.

Which leads me to another professional observation: Words do matter, but the writer’s relationship to his or her keys can matter almost as much.

I stayed with my old slow workhorse laptop, although the machine continued to get crankier and hotter, collecting various species of malware as the months passed.  Then Acer put out their little C720, the model with 4 gigs of RAM and a dependable solid-state drive.  For more than a year, that little Acer screen and keyboard were my closest companions, and the old computers were booted up only on special occasions, for Word work and updating, and a good round of cursing too.

That new normalcy might have continued for another year or two.

But the Toshiba Chromebook 2 came out, sporting a gorgeous screen. I couldn’t ignore the opportunity.  Amazon didn’t have any C2s in stock, so I went to Best Buy, coming home with a machine that served me well enough for several months.  But despite the beauty of its display, it proved laggy, particularly with the largest files.  Plus the space bar and I never liked each other.  And then Google, knowing my mind better than I do, suddenly put out a new top-of-the-line marvel:  The Pixel 2015.

I bought the cheaper of the two Pixels, which can't be confused for cheap.  The Ludicrous Speed with 16 gigs of RAM and the i7 processor was a temptation, but my i5 Pixel is already like a gun being brought to a knife fight.  The LS delivers a platoon of Marines, and I couldn’t justify that additional expense.


I’m not a business man.  I am the business.  My head is my office, my factory, while these digital files are my showroom and warehouse.  The Pixel is a dream for typing, and it is swift swift swift, and the screen is brilliant and rock-solid clear, and when I guess about the future, I can imagine remaining loyal to this one machine for years.  Particularly as Google brings in more functions, including android apps and a better music player...well, my new best friend is going to grow faster and more competent.  Not slower and dumber.  Which is what every normal PC will do.

Two minutes of power washing, and I gave the Toshiba Chromebook to my daughter, and she put in her account info and was loaded and ready in minutes.  Which is another huge benefit with the Chrome  OS:  Like Doctor Who, you wipe away one identity, giving a new face and personality its chance to shine.

My old machines are still in the house.  And in fact, they’re busier than ever.  The Toshiba ultrabook became a much better machine when I stripped it of iTunes and Word and all of the bloatware that I could find.  I use LibreOffice for the occasional Word problem, and a lightweight program when I need a pdf reader, and doubling the RAM helped quite a bit too.  When I need a PC, there it is, booting up in a surprisingly brief while.  Meanwhile, the old Acer remains my emergency Chromebook, and just to see if I could, I pulled the tiny hard-drive, replacing it with a 100 gig monster.  In Chrome terms, that’s gigantic.  Then I put on Crouton and a Linux OS--xfce--that runs like grease beside my normal Chrome files. The only problem is that I can't seem to download my Google Play movies.  A bug?  A feature?  Don’t know yet.

As the original laptop, the heavy hot quirky Dell?  Windows 7 is banished.  After several experiments, I settled on Linux Mint Cinnamon.  Mint comes with a program to analyze your hard-drive, and Mint warned me that my drive was failing and to back up everything, preferably last week.  But I just yanked the old drive instead, replacing it with a 120 gig SSD beauty, and now I have a Linux machine that flies.

I’m considering throwing Linux on the Pixel, for fun and to increase its functionality.

Sometimes I think this is just the beginning. Growing comfortable with the magic, I'm making for the day when I back myself up on the Cloud.

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