Monday, September 1, 2014

@Cogdog, Ticker tape, Gandalf, Lazarus, and I.

Ticker tape, piles of the stuff, full of holes flung out in a sense in it, if you ask me.

What they called a 'computer', the school computer was hidden somewhere above the chaplain's study.

From hearsay, I imagined  it looked like some sort of barbaric type-writer on steroids. Only advanced maths types got to play with the aforesaid, I was happy that maths stopped when I was fourteen.

I was hooked.

I spent one day and one night on my maths-literate brother's Sinclair ZX Spectrum, playing 'The Hobbit'. I couldn't tear myself away from the thing when I was rewarded with a faint line drawing of the door to Moria and a dwarf that understood if I typed at him.

The measure of my motivation was a desire to go beyond a rubbery touchless 'key'boardy affair.  I could talk to Gandalf, he understood me...up to a point.

That was my first and only addiction to video games.

It lasted about 24 hours. Fortunately, I left to go back home the following day.

Alone in an office in Kentish Town, for my first 'proper job', all I had for company, for about two weeks, was a  aerial-less TV and a BBC computer with accompanying instruction book.

After two weeks of painstaking effort, I managed to make a red line go across the screen at mid height and a green line to slant annoyingly.

I decided computing was not for me. No sense in it if you ask me.

1985ish two months later
It was called an Apple Macintosh. It was small, friendly looking, it had something called a mouse.

After about half an hour of messing around, I was producing pictures on Macdraw.

I was hooked, I quickly did another drawing just to make sure that it wasn't a fluke.

Pictures made sense to me.

I bought my first computer, an IBM (remember them?), with Windows 95.

Pretty much like a Macintosh, but cheaper, coming in at a reasonable 8000 francs. I could work with it, I could do stuff which made sense to me.

It had an annoying habit of freezing for no apparent reason. I was terrified, what could I have done to break it?

I spent about two weeks poring through the reference manual, I decided that it wasn't dead.

I proceeded to do what they called a reformatting of the hard-disc. It seemed to take a long time. It talked in a language which I didn't understand, that was scary.

Eventually after much praying (something I only ever do when I am desperate as I am a convinced atheist) a Window(s) of meaning reappeared.

Annoyingly I had to do the bloody reformatting carry-on about six times in the next six months.

IBM Lazarus...a miracle
A student, who had come round for some help with his English looked on aghast.

"Excuse me, what are you doing?"

"I'm reformatting." I replied knowledgably.


"Well, if Windows freezes, you do this..." I reached over for the IBM bible.

"Well," he ventured, "I can show you a shorter way."

"Go on..."

With a swift two handed finger combination (which I later learnt to be Ctrl Alt Supp) he made my IBM come back from the dead.

"Bloody hell!" I exclaimed, "How did you do that?"

He showed me his magic trick.

A new world opened up to me. I was an insider. I could speak computer...with a very limited vocabulary.

From that moment on I gained confidence, I wouldn't break the computer.

It was forgiving. 
We could get on, I could forgive it its inability to communicate properly when it was under stress, running through its lines, reformatting.

Anxiety I understand.

RAM (random access memory)
I quite get a kick out of being able to understand a few phrases of HTML, it's like the tourist in a foreign country who is able to show off to his friends that he knows how to order a beer. Wow!!!

I do however get those BBC Acorn moments.

I accept computers because they enable me to do things I love to do.

I do get panic atttacks still.

"The f****ing thing, what's it doing now!" 

I can fully appreciate my colleagues fear, loathing, and annoyance at the thought that somehow they should learn to use these tools better.

Honestly they would rather stick to chalk.

I get that.

It is a horrible feeling when you feel stupid in front of people when you would rather not draw attention to your short-comings.

Learning to deal with RSS
All this brings me to the trigger for this reflection, a comment of Alan Levine on my last post about how being part of a community enables you to overcome technical problems and to learn from obstacles.

I f**ked my blog syndication, as the result of an over-eager #hashtag sowing.

David Hale and Alan helped me sort out the mess.

Alan commented that it was no bad thing that the syndication process was a bit clunky as I got to learn something about RSS.  I agree Alan...up to a point.

However, I am absolutely sure that my colleagues would run away from any connection at the mention of RSS or blog or Twitter.

I have read much written by those who suggest that kids should be taught to code.

I am pretty sure that if I had learnt coding with Scratch, I might have made sense of it.

I am pretty sure that Minecraft might have made sense to me... like the Hobbit.

It's all a question of where we put the entry point, the difficulty of the obstacle for the individual to overcome before they can make sense of what they are doing and enjoy playing and feeling a sort of mastery. I am sure that that depends on the person.

Personally, I feel that no obstacle must be put in the way of people who need to connect to a community who can help them learn.

There are a number of critical moments along this learning path that enabled me to get this far to write this post.

It would be a shame to let people's fear of breaking stuff stop them meeting people who might reassure them that they will be OK.

Thanks Alan.

The f***ing PC's battery packed in just as I was about to post this.


  1. Come back to a Mac, leave those PC cussings behind you.

    As you suggest it's not possible to pick that same entry point for everyone, and I certainly do not want prohibitive obstacles that keep someone from even starting. I frankly feel like we often set it too low, but that's me.

    What we can do at the entry is offer a message that there will be things that go wrong, or not as expected, and the keys to asking for help as you demonstrated well. In an open connected course, if you are fortunate, there will be people there who will try to answer or offer help before the course facilitators do.

    It's just a matter of letting people know (a) they are not alone; (b) it's okay to ask for help; and (c) for me, I maintain a constant model of messing things up myself in public. It's not a problem if you break something, as your examples show, it is a problem if you do not try to find your way out or ask for assistance.

    We are baked in to fear fear but overcoming small obstacles are a gateway.

    1. Thanks for your reply. I think u are going to the heart of
      a) the problem of solitude that many learner/teachers face
      b ) the answer to how to enable progress
      c) the models of behaviour we need to push.

      In a French context modeling mess (I am a master of that) is culturally difficult - I have written about that here (Mickey Ange). Fear is used to control and to maintain power by keeping a few 'experts' who are inevitably too busy to help u well-rewarded and unattainable.

      All of this is central to what I want to achieve by networking widely and connecting with other cultural contexts in which my 'mess' is valued rather than despised. Little by little I am making progress...

      Connecting people is what I am most concerned with - the technology will enable that but so much more. I am happy I f***ed up my RSS. I am always on the edge - that's where I feel alive.

  2. I think that computers are avatars. At least I treat them that way. They exist for my like the warning bell on car that so happily dings when I forget to turn off the headlights. In fact his name is Mr. DingDing. I thank him happily every time because I was once notorious for leaving my lights on and running the car battery down to AAA strength. Your apt line, "The f****ing thing, what's it doing now!" evoked Mr. DingDing. I anthropomorphize the damned things. And they do plot. I think Elon Musk is right to fear AI. Google won't be our evil overlords, but the spawn of Google mos def will.

    This brings me to the notion in Alan's post that differentiates users from facilitators. It is a valid distinction. I was a facilitator who was a participant. And I knew participants who became facilitators. I wonder, "How useful is the distinction?" Is it just a handy mapping onto the organizational hierarchy? Does it define power relationships in a worthwhile way? Maybe we should 'muss up' the arrangement? I love Alan's public noodlings about what did and didn't work. I do that, too. I think that messiness means that Alan is already subverting, sticking it to that particular distinction without overtly saying so.

    How does this complement what you are saying about your longstanding relationship with computers? Perhaps not a lot except to say that the relationship is about connecting, sometimes with a hammer and sometimes with a loving touch. Just like this:

    1. I can feel a blog post coming on about magicians. Looking forward to hangout!

  3. This is a very useful post for me, thanks! I've created a local cohort to try and work on Connected Courses together, and some folks are having trouble finding their starting point amidst lions and Twitter and blogs, oh my! It's a small enough group, though, that we could put some thought into useful starting points for each individual.

    1. Be good to meet up. I have a cohort of thousands with similar profiles :-)

    2. Where are u Joe? Do u do Google docs/G+/Twitter? I have a plan.

  4. Ah, sorry - I've created a local cohort at Kenyon College in Ohio, USA. Perhaps not very useful to you. But yes - I'm @joefromkenyon on Twitter, and could certainly do G+/Docs.

  5. It's interesting how not only the technology of reformats have evolved over the past few decades, but their utilities as well, which you wouldn't even contemplate before. Now, you can actually get paid and earn from having people clean up your drives for you. How cool is that, right?

    Mike Barreca @ Tab Data Systems