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A Few Words

I Am Not A Computer Guy
I'm A Programmer

A gentle warning to young or up-and-coming IT Professionals: keep your professional identity a secret! Guard your privacy like a superhero, because before you can say "what do you mean reboot?", you'll be the neighborhood troubleshooter, constantly on call to save the day.

I'll be the first to admit that I mistakenly admitted, years ago, that I'm a professional programmer. That doesn't mean that I can turn a PC into a toaster or that I build anti-virus-spam-bio-domes in my garage. It just means that every week, I trade a bunch of clackety-clack-click-thunks for a slightly-higher-than-median income paycheck that gets filtered through my checking account (or temporary economic holding facility) and delivered directly to Countrywide Home Loans and the Sire Bar & Grill. But don't take this wrong: it's an altogether fabulous life — after all, we're walking distance from the Sire.

Every Monday through Thursday, I get up at the same time as every employee on the West Coast and go to work. The difference is that I travel just one mile, whereas most other West Coast employees are a long helicopter flight away. My four to six minute commute, occasionally complicated by a passing train carting those who have neither the means nor opportunity to procure a whirly-bird, is littered with deep, incisive thoughts of software designs, network uptimes, operating system paradigms and all manner of tech-talk-thoughts.

Ok, not really. I used to think a bit about these sorts of things, but not any more; I'm too distracted by the miracles of existence, like the peanut butter, asparagus and rat fur pizzas they serve at local "gourmet" joints. Maybe it's because much of Southern California's water comes from Canada that the pizza doesn't measure up to New York or New Haven. Then again, it's probably just the rat fur.

By the time I actually get to work and immediately walk over to the local coffee shop, I reconsider the miracle that, let's call them "PlanetBucks" coffee is the sludgiest, bitter, rotten goo to ever pass through a filter, yet four have just sprung up in the past few months ——— where was I? ...

Programming. I stare at a screen. I drink coffee. I type things. I observe obsolescence take over last year's work, and quickly encroach upon current projects. That's it — a sort-of-logic through a buzzing box and a cathode ray tube. Sometimes I remind myself that the intensity of the radiation emitted by the tube is inversely proportional to the square of the distance between it and my face, and I thank my lucky stars that I have long arms.

That's programming in a nutshell: long arms, good coffee, and a natural aversion to rat fur. See how the necessity of interaction with the computer, as a programmer, is surprisingly low? The thing is that most programmers are also complete geeks whose hobbies include messing around with these machines. I'm not one of those, but apparently, I'm easily confused with them. Consequently, I'm what they would call, though I'd never lay claim to the name, an "expert".

Indeed, I have had people ask me Socratic "computer questions", to which I respond quite honestly that I don't know. They often have the audacity to retort, "But I thought you were an expert?" Nope. I'm a programmer, not a computer guy.

If I'm anyone, I'm a Linux (or perhaps *NIX) guy. This distances me even further from those who think that I'm some kind of "expert", because for most folks, "expert" is equivalent to "Windows expert". They like to ask me lots of questions about their "Microsoft", as I've heard it called. I have an expert-shaking response prepared for any such inquiry: "I don't know."

"What does it mean when the computer says that———"

"I don't know."

See. Now, it's not my intention to fire back with all the sensitivity of a postal worker who moonlights at the DMV. But that's how it has to go. Because, frankly, I really just plain old don't know. I don't do Windows.

It astounds me how few consumers seem to realize that Microsoft is not the only game in town. Moreover, it astounds me that it is, for all practical purposes, impossible to tell most consumers that there is another game. As a sports discussion, it would go something like this:

"Did you watch the Raiders game?"

"No, I don't follow football ———"

"What do you think of the new quarterback?"

"Really, football's not my thing. I don't know."

"I thought that you said that you're a sports fan?"

"No, I said that I watched tennis."

"Right, so what did you think of the penalty called in the Raiders game?"

"I watch tennis."

"Why would they call a penalty like that?"


What is a poor programmer to do? I'd consider taking the time to learn more about the machines if I didn't distrust them so deeply.

The personal computer, in my estimation, is a sneaky device. I don't mean sneaky like it's at home messing with the thermostat or ordering mismatched socks from the Home Shopping Channel — I mean that it finds new and innovative ways to take over your life at every turn.

The PC used to be sold as a replacement to the typewriter. But I always preferred Courier font, so I was never able to get on board the arial replacement-train.

Then it became a communication device, with the advent of email and the Internet. In principle, I still think that these are fantabulous inventions and handy as hell. But now the machine is a DVD player. A jukebox. A dictionary. A teacher. Telephone. Scrapbook. Film developer. Food processor, toaster oven, daquiri blender, etc.

To be anthropomorphic about it: the bloody machine seems to think that it can be all things to all people. That's the source of my deep worry. I really don't think that it's a good idea to allow the PC to take a central role in how one interacts with the people, places and things that accidentally collide to create a life. If anything, I think that we should be relegating gadgets to as submissive a role as possible in modern life, with an eye toward one day re-declaring our independence from the Industrial Revolution, v. 2.0.

Crazy stuff, I know. It makes my role as a programmer all the more odd, but I'm ok with it.

The fact of the matter is that I'm particularly bad at using the PC for little other than the Internet-based programming that I do. This is why I sternly maintain, in the face of enormous pressures from the Windows users of the universe, that I'm not a computer guy — I'm just a programmer.

Got a Windows question? Call Bill.

July, 2005