Thursday, May 22, 2003

by Dave Minott

Reprinted (scanned) from the August, 1984 issue of the 1212 Voice
Some things have changed - others haven't!

Do I really need a computer? Does my child need a computer? Will computers eliminate my job at work? Are computers taking over the world?
Some pretty heavy questions, I'd say! Let's try to strip away the smokescreens, and supply some logical answers to these questions.
Before we delve into these four questions, a few preliminary remarks are in order:
What is a computer? Well, we all know the answer to that!! It's a black (grey, white, mauve) box with a keyboard and a screen, and it does magical things. Wrong!
A COMPUTER IS A TOOL. I would like to repeat that several hundred times, but space does not permit me that luxury.
A hammer is a tool; it allows you to get the job of nailing done quickly and easily. A thermostat is a tool. It allows you to set the temperature in your home for a comfortable range, and repeats your wish endlessly, alleviating the boring task of resetting it each day. You don't think much about your thermostat, do you? Cf course not ... it's been around for a while.
Well, computers haven visibly been around the general population for a great length of time, and like most new, innovative things, people are skeptical, afraid, terrified, and awed. That has to change.
A COMPUTER IS A TOOL. Like the hammer, it allows you to get a job done quickly and easily, and much like the thermostat, it can repeat your wish endlessly, without inducing boredom. An example or two: Computers have now been around for years in many gas pumps, usually the ones that have the dials that light up. They calculate the flow rate of the fuel, multiply it by the current price per gallon, and adjust for the tax. They do this very efficiently and accurately. They are less prone to breakdown than wheels, gears and mechanical dials. By the way, this was probably the first mass application of microprocessors (the "heart" of microcomputers) in the country. (The "chip" used for this application was the Intel 4004, the father of the 8008, 8080, Z780, etc.).
These, and similar microprocessors, are now found in washing machines, sewing machines, blenders, ovens, and myriad other appliances.
Let us now take this same "chip", and connect it to a screen and a keyboard. We now have a microcomputer! (slightly oversimplifying, but still valid.)
We now have "control" of the computer. We can make it work for us. We can have it keep track of our financial records; indeed, we can even have it analyze our financial condition, and make predictions based upon changes in our financial situation. Computerized budgeting, computerized tax preparation, general record keeping; sounds good ... maybe too good. It is easier to find a telephone number in a book than it is to turn on the computer, load in a program, run the program, remove the disk, and turn off the computer!
We must learn that computers still need valid information fed into them in order for them to make accurate use of this information. (GIGO - pronounced GUY GO - Garbage In=Garbage Out!)
What else have I heard? Oh yes, "1 am going to have my computer control my whole house - control the lights, heating, air conditioning, burglar alarm, fire alarm, etc." ... Well folks, that falls into the category of the Swiss army knife with thirty-two blades and a toothpick. No one tool can do every job, and do it well. If this is your goal, you'd do better with separate, dedicated devices for each of those jobs.
You say you have an extensive record album collection, stamp collection, book collection, mastodon collection (or whatever), and you would like to catalog it, alphabetize it, collate it, and file it. That's a simple task for a computer, but not for a human. This still is not an easy task for a human with a computer, especially if he has already collected 1400 mastodons.
The problems are ones of logic and stamina. You must decide how you are going to organize your information. Shall I enter my pet names for each of the mastodons; the length of their tusks; their preference for vintage wines? - The choices are many; however, generally speaking, the more information you have stored, the easier it will be to extract the information you want, i.e., how many mastodons do I have that are between the age of 40 and 70, and have lost one tusk?
Possibly a more valid question might be, "What record albums have songs on them whose titles refer to 'moon?"; or, "Gee, I am making up a tape for a friend. Find me all combinations of songs that will exactly total 22 minutes." That is all well and good, but remember, a human must still enter all of the information about those 1400 mastodons into the computer, and it must be done accurately!
Does Johnny 'or Susie need a computer at home? In my opinion, the answer is a qualified yes. You do not need to start with an expensive computer. There are a number of home computers available for under one hundred dollars that will do the job admirably. I hear you ask, "What is the job?" Well, the job is to allow your child to learn the rudiments of computing. What is a computer; how does it work; what is a program; how do I write a program, etc? You don't need a $2000 blinking wonder with tailfins and a "mouse" to do that job.
If your child shows a sincere interest, and "stays with it", then you might consider replacing the computer with a more advanced model.
"They keep bringing more computers into my place of business. Pretty soon they won't need me." Well, that depends upon several factors, basically, you, and the company. Will the company teach me how to use the new computerized "whatever"??? Will I try to learn how this new device will make my job easier and more productive?
Let's face it, the company is trying to maximize their profit with computers and computerized equipment.
With adequate training, we will become an integral part of this evolution and in the process, learn some new skills, and make our jobs easier.
We must get over our fears. What we do now, in all probability, can be done quicker, easier, and more efficiently, through the use of computers and computerized equipment.
Most of us will probably only come in contact with computerized equipment, not computers "in the raw", and as they become more sophisticated, so will the people who design them, and cause the equipment to conform to the way humans work and think. Computers create jobs, not eliminate them. What will happen is that gradually some of the current jobs will be replaced by newer ones. This is evolution.
Computers are taking over the world in much the same way as the telephone, or the automobile. They are becoming ingrained in our society, and are becoming a way of life. As the mystique and glamour wear off, we will finally get down to the business of learning how to use our newest tool, as we have learned to use all tools in the past.

(Dave Minott will answer questions about computers and computer theory that are of general interest to the membership. Send your query to the 1212 Voice. Ed.)