From the Boidem - 
an occasional column on computers and information technologies in everyday life

August 31, 2004*: Tools I've known and loved ... and often abandoned.

Recently I installed a new operating system on my home computer, and as a result, in order to get the machine running in the manner to which I've grown accustomed, I had to reinstall quite a number of programs. This is a time-consuming task, and probably one that more often than not gets aborted somewhere in the middle. As is also to be expected, one of the side effects of reinstalling programs is discovering that many of those that were previously installed haven't been in use for a very long time (and some probably were never used at all). But there were others that I still define as absolutely essential to my every day use of the computer. I installed the Google Toolbar, for instance, as soon as I had my communications software up and running and I opened my browser.

Quite a few of the programs sitting on my drive not only haven't been used in ages - they don't even work. They're simply incompatible with the new operating system. There are others which I thought (long ago) to be absolutely essential for which today, even if they're still installed, I no longer have any use. Often I only discover this when I turn to them after ages of disuse. Converting visual Hebrew to logical Hebrew for instance, an important and oft-needed task of years gone by is now, on the whole, an unnecessary task.

Though my computer use is primarily web-directed with many of the tools I use situated on the web rather than on my hard drive (or on my bookshelves), I use many sorts of program. First and foremost of these are, of course, a word processor and my e-mail program, but I also use an image processor, a web-developing tool (or two), FTP software, and numerous accessories like a screen capture tool, compression software, a note taker, and numerous additional small programs. I even use the calculator that comes with Windows.

But wait a second. That makes it sound as though I actually have only a rather limited number of programs installed, and that's certainly not the case. What else is there? Well, the entirely of Microsoft Office sits on my hard drive (as it does, I suppose, on the hard drive of everyone that I know). Though there's much of it that I don't use, I can at least make the claim that I occasionally open (and use) Excel - something that others very rarely do. What's more, though I never use it to prepare a presentation, I suppose that it's a good thing that I've got PowerPoint there as well. Without it I wouldn't be able to view those uplifting presentations that seem to make the rounds every couple of months, arriving in my inbox under the Subject line of "that's what friends are for" or "don't underestimate the power of a smile".

In the best of all possible worlds I suppose that Office should be (more than) enough, but of course it's not all. When I installed the new operating system Eitan, who is now old enough to want to talk via the computer with friends whom he can easily visit with face to face, asked me to install ICQ. It had been at least three years since I'd last used ICQ and this request gave me an opportunity to try my hand at it again. So I diligently found the latest version of the program, downloaded and installed it, and then tried to find my old, seven digit, ICQ number. I found it - along with what remained of my old user list. So far one person on that list seems to still be an ICQ user and we've said hello a couple of times since then. Eitan is presently pleased with this tool, but do I need it? Well, since I've installed it I've conversed with my brother a few times, and in general Instant Messaging seems to have grown up since I first played around with it years ago, but unless I rebuild a list of users with whom I've got reason to be in contact when I'm sitting in front of my computer, I may remove my number and leave Eitan play around with his.

Three years ago I certainly didn't think that my hard drive(s) would be stuffed with countless images and digital photos, and music files. And of course I need programs for storing and sorting these, and viewing and/or hearing them. I'd pretty much stopped using an image indexer until Picasa recently came along and I found that in many respects it made life easier. But easier or not, after a flurry of use, I began to discover that I could do without it. Along similar lines, an mp3 player is mandatory, but the various other tools, like a CD ripper, that I once thought I'd put to constant use seem only to take up hard drive space.

At least once in the past I've referred to the important advice on purchasing a computer that my brother in law gave me years ago when I was first trying to decide what computer to buy. The numerous changes that over the years I've made in how I use these machines have given me more than a few opportunities to learn that he was right, and I've learned to refer to that advice as a basic law of computer use - what I want to do with the machine today isn't necessarily what I'll want to do with it tomorrow. But with the perspective of a number of years of experience a couple of corollaries to that basic law seem to be called for. First, it's not only that we don't know what we'll want to do with the computer tomorrow, but that we don't even know what it's going to be capable of doing tomorrow. Sadly this means that when we know what we want to do, more often than not we'll discover that even when we planned ahead, our hardware isn't strong enough for what we want to do. The second corollary doesn't concern hardware, but instead our own hardwiring. Though the computer is the ultimate multi-purpose machine, most of us seem to be single-purpose users. Yes, tomorrow we'll discover that we want to do something new with the computer, but chances are good that we'll also discover that we no longer want (or need) to do what we once thought was our basic reason for having the computer in the first place. Some of us will clean up our mess and allow our computers to focus on the newer uses we've adopted for ourselves. Others (and I'm certainly one of these) will leave an historic trail of previous uses, footprints marking the paths we once traveled, signposts to territory we've explored. And perhaps these will also serve as diving board into oceans only waded into in the past, still waiting for new leaps into yet uncharted waters.

That's it for this edition. Reactions and suggestions can be sent to:

Jay Hurvitz

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