Nineteen Eighty-Three, revisited.

In the early 80s, when I was but a child, I wanted the coolest new toy that any of my friends had: an Atari 2600 games console .  My parents were of the opinion that a computer had to be more than just a games machine – it had to be something that whole family could benefit from.  And so we ended up with a TRS-80 Colour Computer  with “Extended BASIC” and 16K of “memory”.  (This memory was divided into RAM and ROM, so you ended up with just over 8K of “useful” memory)  They could not have realised it at the time, but they pretty much set me on my path to a career in the computer industry. 

“Secondary storage” for the TRS-80 was a tape drive.  A proprietary plug on one end of a cable, led to three connectors for microphone, speaker and “remote control” plugs.  Any tape deck that had the mic and speaker plugs could be used.  The baud rate for the tape device was quite fast for the medium used.  As a result, “saving” your work was very much “in the hands of the computer-gods” and the chances of success were certainly improved with the crossing of fingers and holding of one’s breath.  If memory serves me correctly (this was 25 years ago, so maybe it doesn’t…) there was also a nasty price to pay:  When loading saved programs from tape, any program in memory would be overwritten.  Now, if loading the program failed and they did fail  you were left with nothing.  So not only was saving a dubious process, but you were left with no way to check without performing “destructive testing”.  I learnt two things from this:

  1. Always keep more than one copy of your work.  (i.e. perform multiple saves)
  2. Patience. – Sometimes even three copies of your program wasn’t enough to ensure success.

It was sheer madness to expect that this solution for secondary storage was ever going to be acceptable to the general public.  It was far too unreliable – but worse, it was unforgiving.

Skip ahead to the current day and allow me to draw a parallel with web based applications.  Have you ever found yourself in the position of writing a vast amount of “stuff” into a text box on a web-form, hit the submit button only to be confronted with some sort of page error?  It’s happened to Eric Sink:

I actually spent about half an hour wordsmithing a multiple-paragraph response.  But when I hit the submit button to post it, WordPress gave me a generic error page.  Presumably something timed out while I was crafting my reply.

And when I hit the Back button, my comment was gone.  :-(

My mind raced.  What are my options here?

Maybe I should just re-type the whole thing?  It was only 300 words or so.  Nah.  The text I wrote was perfect.  I probably won’t be able to remember it just the way it was.  And why should I have to?  Firefox and WordPress screwed this up, not me!

Now Eric’s story had a happy ending – he got his masterpiece back.  Some of the comments on his post suggested other ways – including writing the post “off-line” in Notepad and copying the text into the on-line editor.  (The strategy I use composing most of my blog entries) But non-computer folk use the Internet too!  It is simply not acceptable to throw away people’s thoughts because of some silly error!  One of the commenter’s mentioned that the Opera web-browser wouldn’t have lost the text.  If this is truly the case, kudos to them! 

I’m not sure what the best answer to the problem is.  Maybe it includes the Google Gears project?   Maybe browsers should just be better?  Maybe a web-application for composing long comments isn’t the way to go?   The only thing I know for certain, is I’m closer to my death now, than I was in 1983.  In those days I had more time to waste!  Please don’t make me waste my time needlessly now!