Saturday, December 03, 2005

Programmer Technophobe: Living with technology without loving it

I was one of those long-term holdouts who didn't want to ever get a cell phone. The thing is that I'm not really a phone person, so it already annoyed me to have to answer the phone at home and at the office. I couldn't imagine wanting to take that task with me wherever I go.

Since getting a cell phone, I've learned that the trick -- which most of you probably already know -- is to only give your cell phone number to people you actually want to talk to. That, coupled with my usual strategy of discouraging potential callers by just being really ornery whenever I answer the phone, has made it so that this new modern convenience I've been strapped with hasn't given me too much trouble.

You see, even though I write computer programs for a living, I'm a bit of a technophobe. I will never buy the latest gadget just because it's the coolest newest thing. A new gadget really has to convince me that using it makes my live easier and/or more wonderful than whatever old curmudgeonly thing I was in the habit of using instead.

For example, instead of a portable computer or PDA, I like to bring an old-fashioned paper notebook with me to take notes during meetings. This is mostly because I don't like to take notes during meetings. As far as I'm concerned, it's bad enough I have to sit there and listen to it the first time. A paper and pen is much more convenient for the kind of notes I like to take, which mostly consist of portraits of the other people who are also stuck in the same meeting. Now, when notebook computers get really good at saving drawings -- and add a feature so that they flip immediately from the drawing to something that looks work-related as soon as someone looks over my shoulder -- I'll for sure go out and get one. That's the kind of life-enhancing convenience that a really good gadget would provide in my ideal world.

I also like to use a paper notebook for writing first drafts. Acutally I would prefer to compose at the computer if that were feasible, but the problem is that if I spend too much time on the computer at home, a couple of naughty little boys come around and press the power button and manhandle all of the discs and start dismantling all of the computer hardware as much as they can. With a paper and pen, the worst they can do is decorate the page with trains and scribbles, which only serves to remind me that I'm supposed to be playing trains or blocks with the little guys anyway.

Pencil-and-paper technology is underrated. A pocket-sized spiral notebook is the perfect tool for carrying with me to jot down any snide comments that strike me about France which could be later used in a column. It may sound like I'm being ungrateful here to my new homeland that has been so kind as to welcome me with open arms, but really this activity helps me fit right in. Making cynical remarks about anything and everything is one of the national pastimes here, right up there with workers' strikes and pretending to be able to tell different wines apart by taste.

The only reason I finally broke down and got a cell phone was because I was writing a book on how to write Java programs for cell phones, and I could hardly give reasonable advice on the subject if I'd never tested my programs on the real thing.

In my opinion, it's loads of fun to write a program for a cell phone, but actually getting the program installed on the phone? That's hardware. Sure I could figure out how to do it if I wanted to, but it's just that much easier to let my system administrator do it. Fortunately, I'm on good terms with my home system-and-network administrator. In fact, I'm married to him.

My husband is a huge Linux nerd who loves nothing more than constructing a bunch of computers from parts and networking them together and installing all the latest Linux versions on all of them, plus whatever other fun stuff he can find on slashdot.

All of you who work in the software industry know that the programmer and the sys admin are natural enemies. Putting that on top of the fact that my husband is French and I'm American -- which I don't think I have to tell you is like cats and dogs -- it's a wonder he and I were able to overcome our differences and get together.

Actually, I was thinking of writing a romantic comedy about our courtship. The story would open with me annoying him with my incessant demands for more bandwidth and disk space and him annoying me by keeping lots of stinky French cheeses in the server room. As the story progresses, all of our fiery disputes would be laced with sexual tension which would evolve into heart-warming passion by the end of the movie. You know the standard romantic comedy formula. Anyway, it's a thought in case any of you movie producers out there are short on scripts or something.

So when it came time to write the part of my Java book about how to load your program on your device, I just took my husband's detailed notes on the subject and translated them into my own homey style. (Don't worry, his contribution is detailed in the acknowledgments of the book.)

Normally I would expect that having a Ph.D. in math and a published tech book to my credit would mean that I should at least get to be the smartest person in my own house. But noooooooooo! It's not enough for my husband to have a Ph.D. and leave it lying around or something, he also has to be a professor with lots of papers in journals and research grants and stuff. It's not enough for him to have practically written one of the chapters of my book, he also has to have three thick math books to his own credit that not only did I not help him write, but that I couldn't read and understand in any finite length of time. And I'm pretty tall, but he had to be just a little bit taller. It's like he has some sort of "anything you can do, I can do better" thing going. At least I can console myself with the knowledge that he has never been invited to write a column for a prestigious publication like the Utah Valley Monitor.

It might be fun to one day devote myself to being a full-fledged technophobe rather than just being half-technophobe, half-information-technology-professional. That would be possible if by some miracle I could support myself on writing these silly stories and columns. But for the moment I'm not quitting my day job.

Published in the Utah Valley Monitor November 24, 2005.

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