SLACKJAW by JIM KNIPFEL
December 14, 2014

Cubic Memoriam

 

Lord knows it wasn’t an easy decision. In fact it was one I’d been dreading for years now, knowing all too well what it would mean.

            In recent months, my fourteen year-old Mac Cube, a machine that was pulled off the market and declared outmoded a week after I bought it but which has served me well much longer than anyone expected, started to show signs of digital Alzheimer’s. It was able to read fewer and fewer of the documents people sent to me, and people were able to read fewer and fewer of the documents it sent them. What’s more, it had started dozing off in the middle of a sentence two or three times a day. That was no good. I knew the day was coming when it simply wouldn’t wake up at all.

            In an era in which machines of all types are by nature designed to be relics in a matter of months and break down completely within two years, a machine that faithfully did what it was asked for this long is nothing short of awe-inspiring. To me, anyway—those useless and unthinking slaves to the contemporary who surround me just thought it was stupid I would insist on working on such a ridiculous antique when the rest of the world was doing so much more with fancy new-fangled gizmos. But together the Cube and I wrote eight books and hundreds of stories, and just within the last year or two I (with no little help from Morgan) finally got it configured perfectly. What was I supposed to do, just leave it on the curb? Drive it out to the woods, toss a stick, and speed away? Despise technology as I do, I owed the Cube too much.

            With its faculties starting to fade, however, I had little choice if I wanted to save all these thousands of files without a bunch of hair-pulling and foot-stomping. So Morgan, knowing just how much I could tolerate of the modern world, did some research, and I sadly ordered a new machine. It was still old, still outmoded, and used an operating system that was no longer supported by anyone or anything. That sounded good to me, even though this still meant a leap of some four or five generations closer to the present than what I’d been using.

            Well, then it all began. All the expected crap. So the new wafer of a computer shows up, and only then do we realize something. The monitor, see (also perfectly functional) was also fourteen years old, and so though both were made by the same company, the old monitor would no longer plug into the new computer. That left us with two choices. We could either drop seventy dollars on an adaptor that would allow us to connect the two, or just buy a new fucking monitor for a little more than that. I didn’t like the way this was going, especially upon learning the only way to get a monitor the size of the one I’d been using would be to get one of those hand job devices, and lord knows that wasn’t going to happen. The smallest we could get for a desktop computer was itself the width of my desk (I guess a concession to all those losers who only need a screen to watch their little videos, and aren’t in the least interested in actually, y’know, working on it.)

            Okay, so finally we got the tiny new computer hooked up to the massive new monitor, and Morgan transferred all my files over. This is where my problems really began. The screen reader, see, the thing I wrote about a couple of months back that tells me where the mouse is, what I’m typing, and what all the hell else is going on with the computer at any given instant, was as upgraded as everything else, which of course meant it was much, much worse. Not only would it not do the simple, logical things it used to, but I no longer had the option of choosing the Robert Vaughn voice I’d been using for years. They had something by the same name (all the voices have useless names like “Doris” or “Mark”) but it wasn’t the same voice. Worse still, it stuttered. What the hell use is that, a stuttering screen reader? Instead I had to opt for a much sharper, higher pitched male voice that goes all gay at turns and has trouble pronouncing words like “where.” It wasn’t exactly what I’d consider the Voice of World Control (I’ve named all my computers from the beginning “Colossus”). Then upon further reflection, maybe that’s exactly what it was, much more than Robert Vaughn. It was whiny and shrill and lifeless and dumb as dust. It was the voice of modernity.

            To top it all off, it looked like my only option while trying to edit something I’d written was to either have the machine read single words as the cursor passed over them (an iffy proposition given how much my hands tremble these days) or read the whole fucking thing from beginning to end with no way of stopping and starting along the way. If you’re dealing with a 75,000 word manuscript, say, this can take quite some time and makes line editing a tricky business. It struck me this, too, was another concession to the Useless Generation, given they never write anything longer than 400 characters.

            Before gathering up this technological catastrophe and proof that everything I’ve always believed about the modern age is right and casting it out the window, I decided to look around online. There had to be a simple solution, some setting or checkmark or something I was missing, something that would allow the machine to do any of the simple things it used to. Had to be something, right?

            Well, after a day and a half I’d found little beyond basic descriptions of what the screen reader was at heart (“an application for reading what’s on the screen aloud”) and instructions for turning it on.

            Numb and pissed, I finally sent a note to a technician who, one, was a reputed expert in this particular program and two, worked exclusively with the blind, helping them with their computer issues. I sent what I thought was a very clear description of the problem I was facing and what I hoped to get the machine to do.

            To his credit he got back to me very quickly, but admitted in his first line he had no idea what I was talking about. Then he went on to tell me how to get the computer to do what it was already doing.

            It was not a good week, and the stories with deadlines of one kind or another were starting to pile up as I couldn’t type a goddamn word.

            What it boils down to (other than a thick black sludge of despairing hatred) is this. The new screen reader, bless it, is designed to be controlled exclusively through keyboard commands. For years now Morgan has been bugging me to learn keyboard commands, and for years I’ve been ignoring her. Sensing I was otherwise beaten and would likely begin a new career of sleeping in the middle of the floor and puking all day, she looked up a list of all the keyboard commands this screen reader uses and gave it to me. So now I am in the slow and painful process of ingesting them as I re-learn how to type.

            Oh, but there was one last kick in the throat waiting for me. My keyboard, see, is even older than the Cube, and even fourteen years ago required a series of fancy adaptors to allow it to work with my then-new machine. I hate modern keyboards. They’re too cheap and lightweight, the keys are too shallow, and when typed they make that light, chintzy clicking sound that crawls under my skin and digs away at my brain. There is no sound I loathe more than the sound of someone typing on a modern computer keyboard. This one here, see, is heavy and well-seasoned. All the years of dirt and hair and spilled beer and cigarette ashes have worked their way in there, leaving it with a springy, metallic play and a clang and pop that says something. It’s the kind of keyboard I can pound on when I get on a roll. It feels right and good. It may be the last vestige of technological quality and strength left in the apartment.

            Problem is, half these keyboard commands call for the use of function keys. Well, my old beat up and battle-scarred keyboard doesn’t have function keys. It never needed them and I never missed them. People began nudging me that I’d need to upgrade my keyboard along with everything else if I wanted all this to work. Here is where I’ve drawn the line. To continue functioning in the second decade of the twenty-first century I’ve hacked out enough of my spirit as it is, and don’t plan to hack away any more. They can have my keyboard when they pry it out of my cold dead fingers.

            This may explain Why Morgan sometimes thinks I’m pretty dumb and irrationally stubborn.

 

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