Explaining Technology
To Household Pets or Elderly Parents

(c) Ray Levasseur April 2001, all rights reserved

I was born into the new technological post World War II world. My parents came form a simpler time, when people lived by the sweat of their brow. Dad was a fireman, a hard working guy who loved fighting fires and was a handyman on the side. There was not a project Dad would not tackle; plumbing, heating, electrical wiring, carpentry, automotive mechanics, but "electronics" was beyond his grasp. He appreciated, TV radio and the phonograph as entertainment devices, and it stopped there!

Dad had an old Philco AM/Short-wave console in his basement workshop and there were many a cold Winter night that I sat by his side as he tuned in Radio Free Europe, London, Tokyo, Moscow, Rome and other ports of call on the ether, as well as eavesdropping in on ham radio operator's rag chewing sessions.

I became instantly fascinated by the mediums, not being content to passively sit and take in the programs, I had to know what went on behind the magician's curtain. Dad slid the console away from the wall, pointing out how powerful the 9 tube receiver was, "it's all those tubes that make it so powerful." That was about all he knew about electronics the more tubes the better.

I became interested in electronics at the age of 9 and got my General Class ham radio license at 13. I had no interest in computers and things digital. Computers were those things that occupied entire buildings, tended by armies of men and women behind glass walls.

I wound up becoming an airborne data systems computer tech in the Navy, and swore I'd never touch the beasts again when I got discharged. I endured 3 semesters of COBOL in college after my discharge and wound up working for the world's second largest computer company at the time, working as a financial analyst.

It was during the mid 80's that I became interested in computers and programming, but knew next to nothing about either. To this day I don't claim to know much more than I did then. A friend told me that one mark of a good programmer is admitting that you don't know everything. The more I learn, the more I realize that I don't know, and the rules keep changing.

Over the years a lot of people have come to me asking questions about computers and technology or for recommendations on which PC to buy or my opinions on internet providers (the blind asking the blind to lead them).

When I stop and think, it is truly amazing the level of technology that can be purchased by any Joe or Jane in your average super store. The now archaic Intel 486 processor had more computing muscle than the systems on the lunar lander in 1969. Hmmm, how many vacuum tubes would it take to duplicate the functionality of an Intel Pentium IIII pc? Lots and lots, probably enough to cover Rhode Island, and a small army of immigrant farm workers to be sent out into the heart of the beast just to change tubes that crap out. But enough of this, it's on to mom and the other left behinds in the backward engineered alien technology revolution.

Kids these days seem born with the primal urge to point and click while still in the womb. Before they can speak they know where to click to open a paint program or find the games folder. By third grade they're writing c++ and Java programs (well not quite)

When I was a kid technology was just beginning to shift into high gear, but at least there was some constancy, vacuum tubes were king and transistors were though of as toys to many, not to be taken seriously. I was guilty of being one of those dinosaurs, "long live tubes! semiconductors are a commie plot to undermine America." Boy was I ever wrong. Technology keeps moving forward at an ever accelerated pace, and I'm finding it harder to keep up, mostly riding in the slip stream. By the time I learn something, it's already become obsolete.

My dear sainted mother

I can remember when Telstar was launched and the big news was a live broadcast from Europe. Mom and Dad were "amazed" and claimed this was truly a miracle of science. Well, science does not perform miracles, that's in God's domain. Dad was always blown away by the advances in technological slight of hand, "that's amazing". Now a miracle would be if the Blessed Virgin Mary appeared on Oprah of Jesus showed up at the Pleasant Meadows Mega-Mall and turned a single plain bagel and small coffee at Bernie's Bagel Heaven into enough latte, bagels, cream cheese and lox to feed the entire food court during lunch hour. Mom and Dad came from the generation where people worked by the sweat of their brow. My parents considered television pretty awesome. They looked upon their only son (yours truly) as some sort of whiz kid, who was always in the basement rag chewing around the planet on his ham radio, or slumped under and architect lamp, soldering iron in hand, brewing up some sort of electronics alchemy.

Now I'll fast forward to 1982. I was the first kid on my block to buy a VHS recorder, an RCA machine with piano key controls that sold for $900, but I picked up on sale for $500. Dad had long since passed away, and I had Mom and my sister over to see my new toy. Mom could not get over the fact that I could capture TV programs and even movies on tape, "but don't you have to send the tapes off to a photo shop to be developed?" A year later I bought Mom and Sis a VCR, which they used to death. My sister typed up an instruction page for Mom on how to use the machine, "no you don't insert the cassettes upside down and backward."

A few years later I had Mom and Sis over for brunch and showed them my new (DX33 486) PC. Sis was impressed and wanted a PC for herself. I could tell that my mother was totally overwhelmed, "uhhh, that's nice". Mom told her friends, "Ray has his very own computer at home, getting replies of, "Oooh he must be so smart."

I was always pulling off articles and other materials from the internet using ftp, gopher, as well as printing off articles from within my company's intranet. They also could not comprehend the concept of electronic mail, "don't you need a stamp?" The web was still about 5 years away.

My sister passed away in 1984 and in 1985 I put the first version of Bigboote's Area51 online. I tried telling Mom about the web and that I also had a personal home page; she just shook her head, "doesn't mean a thing to me."

As the web's existence became common knowledge, Mom began asking questions, "what's all this I keep hearing on radio and TV? come visit us online at "www.something.com" I tried explaining to her that those with PC's, access to the internet and the right software could visit most anywhere on the planet for free, plus send mail to anyone who had an e-mail address. This really threw Mom, "well that musty all be VERY expensive. No wonder you don't have any money. You must spend it all no postage and long distance calls." I told her it was not much different than her cable TV. No matter how many movies of channels she watched, her bill was the same, "no ma, I pay $19.95 a month for unlimited access."

Another time I printed a few medical articles for her and her response was, "thanks, but you're going to get arrested. I saw something on the news about hackers breaking into computers and stealing stuff. You're going to get into a lot of trouble with the FBI."

Then I told her about the millions of sites that offered almost unimaginable material for free, "but it must cost something!" she replied. One day I showed her my web site, "did you make this all by yourself, and why? What is it? What does it do?" Then she warned, "Ooohhh you're going to get into trouble. I was watching a show on TV about terrorists, pornographers and high school kids selling drugs and making bombs from their homepages."

To her, the internet was a dangerous place, filled with every sort of twisted weirdo (well it is in a way, heh heh). For some reason she felt because I had a web presence, people could break into my house (after all it's a homepage, right).

As time has gone on, some of her nieces and nephews now have e-mail so she hears about it much more, plus some of her elderly neighbors in her building are online. At this point I don't try to explain the internet to her any more. She still finds it almost impossible to believe that I can send an e-mail message and minutes later it appears at the other end, anywhere on the planet.

She will ask about chat rooms and how people can video conference online, "it's magic Mom." A couple of years ago she asked me what the heck a DVD player was, and I told her I had one, "you mean they can put entire movies on a little disk like a CD? But how do you play them? Don't you need a VCR?" I'll sigh and tell her, "no you play videotapes on a VCR and DVD's on a DVD player; it's similar, but the picture and sound are much better on a DVD."

With Napster in the news Mom asked what all this nonsense was about." I told her that if people have the right software, they can copy and play music from the internet, even listen to radio stations from all over." Poor Mom, I could tell she was totally overwhelmed by what computers could do, "my my they are modern miracles." No they're all snake oil and slight of hand.

I've told Mom on a number of occasion that even I'm amazed at what technology is capable of, and many of us take it for granted.

Cheers, Ray