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The Curmudgeon Columns

In November of 1999, after leaving IBM, I voluteered to teach at the SeniorNet computer lab in Kingston, NY. SeniorNet is a volunteer staffed organization dedicated to teaching older individuals how to use computers. Nothing could have been be more different from my experience at IBM, where my customers were the largest corporate and governmental entities in the world. I also began to write a column for Westchester Generations, a monthly paper for seniors. I called this column “The Computer Curmudgeon” Here are two of my favorites.

Computers: A good honest tool?

By Alan Silverman,
Your Complete Computer Curmudgeon

I commiserate with anyone who must use a computer. We computer engineers have created a machine that is difficult, confusing, and frustrating to use. If you become irritated while using one, remember that it's not your fault. EVERYONE feels this way! Computers drive us all crazy! Why would anyone want to use such a flawed tool?

Let me tell you about my friend Meredith - Meredith who loves art, especially the French Impressionists. But Meredith can no longer walk the long halls of museums. It is simply too exhausting. Now she strolls those halls with her eyes.

She can do this because many museums, great and small, have collections on the Internet. She can stroll the Prado, the Louvre, even the Hermitage in Russia. It is a different experience of course. But then Sister Wendy Beckett began her study of painting by looking at postcards.

Every day Meredith gazes on Monet's Water Lilies, Cezannes, Renoirs, and Van Goghs. She can even download these images onto her own computer. Sometimes she emails a copy to Laura, old college roommate and dearest friend.

Arthritic hands allow for few wasted strokes - but one can communicate quite simply over the Internet. A picture attached to a few sentences may suffice, or just a website address.

It is the everydayness of communications via the Internet which is so nice. Meredith lives in New York, while Laura lives at an aided living facility in Portland, Oregon. Laura and Meredith chat online. They can even chat when Laura is feeling under the weather, because she has set up her computer so can be wheeled over to her bed.

Laura, Emeritus Professor of Art History, has found herself doing original research again, after a hiatus of more than a decade. She communicates via email with colleagues and former students. She takes part in art discussion groups on the Web.

Computers manipulate information and make it accessible. As the technology for displaying images improves, many documents, primary research vehicles, are being scanned digitally, so that one can actually view them on the Internet.

For practical purposes, this means that Renaissance texts, written in a tiny hand difficult for Laura to read even when she was thirty-five, can be blown into bold inch high letters, in any color pleasing to her eye.

Laura examines an Albrecht Durer woodcut minutely, as if with a magnifying glass. Although software makers have made computers bizarrely difficult to use, how much more difficult and expensive to actually visit these museums?

Online museums never close. Meredith visits them even in the middle of the night, if she is experiencing a bit of insomnia, as she sometimes does.

Time and space are not the same on the Internet. Until one understands what this means, one cannot recognize how profoundly computers can change our lives. They make human connections possible which were impossible before. That is their deepest value.

Meredith and Laura are composites of individuals I’ve known. But Stephen W. Hawking is my real-life model for how computers can expand ones limits.

Dr. Hawking is an astrophysicist, perhaps the world’s foremost theorist on black holes, those odd features of our universe. Dr. Hawking also suffers from Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), or Lou Gerhig’s disease, a degenerative disease of the nervous system, for which there is as yet no cure.

On January 8th Stephen Hawking turned 60. Because his ALS is a very slow developing type, he’s been able to live with it most of his adult life. All of his important work has been done since he was first diagnosed, at age 21.

Since 1974 he’s been unable to feed himself or get in and out of bed. Until 1985 he was able to speak in a slurred manner - after that, not at all. In his own words: "However, a computer expert in California, called Walt Woltosz, heard of my plight. He sent me a computer program he had written, called Equalizer. This allowed me to select words from a series of menus on the screen, by pressing a switch in my hand. The program could also be controlled by a switch, operated by head or eye movement. When I have built up what I want to say, I can send it to a speech synthesizer.

“Using this system, I have written a book, and dozens of scientific papers. I have also given many scientific and popular talks. They have all been well received. I think that is in a large part due to the quality of the speech synthesiser." From Dr. Hawking’s website,

Stephen Hawking has had a debilitating disease for over 30 years, yet has been able to communicate with his peers, write books and articles, give lectures. Despite daunting physical handicaps, he is actively participating in the world.

To me, the implications of this are enormous. “To continue to actively participate in the world”, that is the hope computers hold out for us. They can greatly extend our useful working lives. Perhaps our physical lives also, because they allow our minds to remain engaged, even when our bodies limit us.

It is not easy to grasp the implications of the Internet. Throughout our lives we’ve always had to physically travel to get something done. But many of our limitations have absolutely nothing to do with the actual tasks we want to perform. The real difficulties come in just getting there, to do it.

No group can benefit more than older people from computers. They allow us to continue to participate in the world despite our limitations. Someday I believe every room in every retirement community, every aided living and nursing home, will have one.

I admit to being a visionary. I’ve been working with computers for decades. They still frustrate me. They should be as easy to use as TV, as easy as turning the key on in an automobile. Some day they will be. Someday they will be a good honest tool. But not now. Now it takes patience, persistence, courage, for individuals learning to use them, plus more money than it should cost.

So why would anyone want to use such a flawed tool? Because for all their flaws they allow us to do marvelous things, things impossible to accomplish in any other way.


Mystery Uncovered - Why the Dot-coms Failed

By Alan Silverman,
Your Complete Computer Curmudgeon

One day at IBM, as seven of us milled about the coffee machine, I said to a colleague: "Louie, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship." The room went silent. Suddenly I was staring at six totally blank uncomprehending faces.

The person I was conversing with was not, in fact, named Louie. So I added, "It's from the movie Casablanca." Again nothing. After an extraordinarily long time, someone said: "I think I heard of that movie once."

"I THINK I HEARD OF THAT MOVIE ONCE!!!" After years at IBM, still I couldn't conceive of being in a room with six normal human beings, none of whom had ever seen the greatest romantic film ever made, much less that they'd never even heard of it!

That's how I came to realize that the people I was working with were actually Wolf Children, like those one reads about in supermarket tabloids: "….the Shewolf dragged him from the fiery wreck which claimed his parents' lives…. He was brought up in a cave far from human contact…. then in 1985 he left the mountains forever to work at IBM, along with all the other wolf children".

How else to explain it? None of them had seen 'Casablanca'!

These were software engineers, people who design and write computer programs - intelligent, generous, civic minded individuals - a bit strange perhaps, from staring too long at computer screens - but as nice a group of people as one could ever hope to meet. But though they interacted wonderfully with machines, they often experienced enormous difficulties relating to their fellow humans beings - and this goes a long way to explain why computers drive the rest of humanity completely nuts.

Fast forward a few frames.

In 1999 I left IBM, exiting the cave to go out on my own. This was a propitious time. People called Venture Capitalists were throwing huge sums of money at anyone claiming to know about computers.

Because Wolf Children do not speak or write plain English, I found work writing 'Executive Summaries', documents meant to entice venture capitalists into throwing money. It was pure stimulus-response, like dogs salivating or the gag reflex. Say the right words and grotesquely rich individuals throw bags of cash at wild ideas.

For one of these executive summaries I wrote that the three principals had respectively 10, 12, and over 20 years experience in the computer industry. Reading this, our team leader said to take this out, "If you have more than three or four years in the industry, it doesn't look good".

He wanted me to lie, to say they actually had LESS experience than they did! I was flabbergasted, utterly staggered. It seems that individuals with huge amounts of money to waste didn't trust throwing it at anyone who actually knew anything!

The apparatus of capitalism had clearly fallen into the hands of idiots. If I actually owned any stocks I would have immediately sold them to invest in safer instruments, like stale Easter eggs. Fortunately, having children, I was not weighed down with excess investments.

Meanwhile…back at IBM… my ex-colleagues reported that their managers were recruiting college graduates in droves, courting them with generous bonuses and even more generous salaries - often more than veteran workers made. Unfortunately many of these young people quickly left, or were fired. The work was simply too difficult and stressful for them.

But in the outside world…

Around this time I volunteered to teach at the SeniorNet Computer Lab in Kingston, NY. SeniorNet is a national organization, wholly volunteer, dedicated to helping people over age 50 learn how to use computers.

This was a revelation. Before then I was aware that most computer programs were difficult to use, overly complicated, and unreliable - but I knew computers - I could overlook their faults. Teaching showed me how truly awful these programs really were. Our students blamed themselves for the difficulties they had learning to use computers. I told them the truth: If cars were built as badly as computer programs no one would ever drive except mechanics.

I also volunteered to teach computer skills at local nursing homes. This too was a revelation. I walked into nursing homes to see lines of individuals immobile in wheel chairs. But I saw people capable of fully interacting with the world. These people need computers more than any other group in society. Computers could reopen the world for them, invigorating them. Sickness or lack of mobility was not the problem. It was the wretched tools they had to get there.

I can teach anyone how to use a computer. I mean really teach, show intelligent individuals of any age how to use computers for research and communication, extensions of themselves. But current software makes this impossible to do on any scale. It's one person at a time, slow and arduous at that.

I decided it would be easier to just design a new computer program, simple to use, which does only the things one needs it to do. It had revolutionary new features, like "TEXT" instead of icons - for email, just click the word "EMAIL", in very large letters. There would be room for very large letters. Since people only really use a handful of computer programs, why clutter up computer monitors with advertisements for three dozen?

I contacted a well known software house with my idea. They were enthusiastic. Hopes rose. They approached the money men to pitch the concept. Unfortunately these venture capitalists found the idea fatally flawed - because it was a simple idea for a product which people actually needed. It wouldn't cost much to develop because the germ of the idea wasn't adding more complex functions, but rather taking them away, slice away everything useless from programs we already had.

The idea made a temendous amout of sense. That was its fatal flaw. Shortly thereafter DotComMania crashed, leaving us all sadder, but evidently no wiser.

It is no mystery why the dot-coms failed, not then and not now, not before, not during nor after. They failed because they were funded by people who believed experience counts for nothing - with ideas from people who think technology is the answer to everything - built by people who relate to machines better than to human beings. It is a simple formula for failure.

Interesting Addendum
One day years ago I walked up a driveway to the house where Howard Koch lived, the man who co-wrote the screenplay for the movie Casablanca. I was young. With me I carried a screenplay of my own and a loaf of zucchini bread, baked by my wife that morning. I had grown the zucchini.

I knocked on the door. A woman opened it. I asked if Mr. Koch would mind reading my screenplay. She took the bread and screenplay and thanked me. Some time later Howard called. He said the bread was delicious and asked if I would come over to his house to discuss my screenplay. He liked it. It was the type of call one has always dreamed of getting.

I went over. We talked. Eventually the screenplay went back into a drawer and I went on to other things. Howard Koch was a wonderful human being, a mentsh in the Yiddish parlance.

Here's looking at you kid.

Alan Silverman is a computer consultant and teacher living in Stone Ridge, NY. He is still pursuing his idea for creating a computer system which anyone can use, especially seniors, the elderly and disabled. If you're having problems with your computer, have a question, or are interested in investing, he may be reached at (845) 687-9458.
Copyright Alan Silverman 2003

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