Me and the Personal Computer

This being my first Slaw column, it would seem to be a good place to reflect on where I’ve been and what I use now. In the late 70’s at UBC Law I was a “TA” to one of Bob Franson’s early “Law and Computers” courses — featuring 300 baud access via a Texas Instruments Silent 700 thermal paper terminal to something called “Quick Law” (Well it did see quick, even at 300 baud). In 1982 $5,000 or so bought me my first computer, an Apple II Plus with various accessories and software — and then I splurged for the upgrade to 64KB of memory and a chip that enabled upper and lower case letters on the green display. A stint as in-house counsel to an early insurance industry computer company gave me critical skills such as the ability to make serial cables and write useful DOS batch files. A lot of hardware and software has come into my home and office since, temporarily being my favourite until taken to the landfill.

These days I’m mostly sitting in front of generic PC’s, with XP Pro still the OS of choice and a couple of screens turned portrait. Information really is “at my fingertips”, both on the internet and from our internal computer files; and the concept of “baud rate” just doesn’t come up. Aside from the usual “big apps” from Microsoft and Adobe, I still enjoy at home and the office a variety of useful small applications that just work. For each of them there are dozens if not hundreds of alternatives that I will probably never even hear of.

Irfanview for working with images, Audacity for sound files. “LAPS audio” (seems to be no longer available) for capturing the audio. Dropbox provides wonderful file sharing and coordination between my various computers and others. Home system backups still rely on “Mr. Mirror”, another “shareware” tool that seems to have disappeared. Screen captures are done with Faststone Capture – a tool that has replaced much more complex and expensive programs. I use Macro Wizard to make keystroke shortcuts for common tasks. Dual monitors are made more useful by using UltraMon

Voice recognition has never lasted long on my systems. Keyboard shortcuts seem old fashioned – but I’d rather not have to reach for the mouse for everything. <Ctrl W> still seems to me an easier way to close an open PDF or Word document. I actually use several Windows key functions, and frequently “right click” on files. Filezilla works great for FTP – if you need or use that sort of thing. It has a “Norton Commander” style of interface – and that was software I would not leave home without for a decade or more.

I do have my share of “shelf ware” – some condemned to 5 ¼ inch floppies that no longer fit in any drive I have. Looking back I see that there seems to be a limit to the number of software and hardware tools I really seem to be able to use at a time. The products I use actually use slowly change – usually as necessitated by big business and business failures. Some just become irrelevant – my expertise at writing scripts for CrossTalk, a terminal program for PC’s and modems just isn’t needed anymore. 

Looking back though, the sum of what is now 30 years of fiddling with computers, and working with hundreds of lawyers and firms seems to be that I still think the computer should be made to do what I want, how I want to do it. I’m amazed what many put up with, not realizing that a tweak or two could vastly simply life with the tool we now all live with in our practices. I just don’t accept that the way it is has to be the way it stays, and I’m thankful for the experience that I’ve had along the way that lets me see this. Many users seem to be stuck as they really are in the state of dealing (or not) with Rumsfeld-ian “unknown unknowns”. You can’t make a “tweak” or use an “app” if you can’t imagine that things could be different. So I do appreciate that my experience (long enough to have used both Microsoft Access, the terminal emulator for the Apple II, and Microsoft Access, the database program) is enough for me to frequently say to myself “I bet there is a way to do this…”. And the amazing thing about the computer world we are now in is that a well formulated Google search will probably connect you in moments with that “way” to do it.

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