Far From Everything There Is To Say About Upgrading Operating Systems


Every now and then it’s good practice to upgrade your operating system. This teaches you to stop trying to do daft things like that for a year or two. I here mean your computer’s operating system. You’re welcome to try upgrading the operating system on something else, such as your thermostat, your hips, or your frying pans. That’ll teach you an even harder lesson.

The earliest computers had no operating systems at all. Users, like you but more old-fashioned, would just take whatever you had and bring it to them. Primitive weather models, Pi written out to eight digits, those oscilloscopes they show you pictures of in saying this was somehow a video game, large blocks of nutmeg, military-surplus tennis rackets, whatever. Then the computer would put whatever you had in wherever something fit. They trusted this wouldn’t avalanche too often, not during working hours. It would anyway, and they’d blame it on a “tube”. These were heady, exciting times. It seemed like computers could do anything. A high point of this was during the Presidential Election of 1952, when UNIVAC stunned television reporters by tipping over and spilling 25,000 golf balls over the CBS Newsroom. They tried to make this more plausible by reporting it as only 22,500 golf balls.

But we couldn’t keep up that happy state of affairs for some reason. Probably respectability. Everything good gets foiled by people who want to be respectable. By this they don’t mean, like, being considerate of people. They mean boring. So we got the modern operating system. This takes everything that might go into a computer and tries to organize it. This starts out well, the way it starts out well when you put things in a new house. All the surfaces are neat and as clean as they ever get. And the computer, like you, stacks things in neat little containers. They’re marked things like “Music” or “Kitchen” or “Miscellaneous” or “Misc” or “Misc 2” or “Living Room/Paid Bills/Books/Saved Games/Movies/etc 4-A” before the organization breaks down altogether, later that day. If you’re wondering why you have the folders Games/Music/Saved/ToSort, Music/Saved/ToSort/Games, and ToSort/Saved/Music/Games, consider this: not one of them has anything containing music nor created by any game in it. They’re all the digital equivalent of that strange piece of metal that’s in your junk drawer. The one that looks like it might be this weird multi-tool? But also might be what’s left over after something fell off an airplane? And you don’t dare throw it out because how would you ever get another one?

And this organization breaks down too. Bits fall loose, perhaps because you’re using “lossy” data formats like JPEG and forgetting stuff. Frames drop out of those Let’s Play videos. You know, where you find some game you could never do anything with, and someone’s explaining it all? But you can only ever find, like part 28 of a 154-part series, and when you search for the start you get parts 26, 78, 55, and 184, and that’s it? The bookmarks you have rot, so when something reminds you of a web site you used to visit all the time, like, four years ago you look now and there’s just compost and a warning that you need to update RealPlayer. Support files for old software rolls loose, getting caught under the file cabinet, and then one day sitting in the middle of your desktop is a 45-second audio loop from when you played Zoo Tycoon 3: Ungulation Nation!. This e-mail from 2014 you’re totally going to answer someday has now declared it needs to be opened by the rxRawrSnag-CodeMaster tool, which does not and never has existed.

Thus the value of the complete upgrade. It wipes everything clean. Every program has to re-establish its right to be where it is, and to do what it does. Right after the upgrade there’s the promise of a new start. You get to fiddle with the desktop pictures and maybe how fast the mouse should respond to things. Your software goes through a land rush, each bit of code fearing that it’s now going to be declared obsolete or at least not really useful. Everybody ends up stressed about different things than usual, which counts as improvement.

Some operating-sytem makers are trying to get rid of the big upgrade. They would. How are we supposed to ever fix a thing?

When It Comes Time For The Upgrade


Your computer’s been pleading for the system upgrade for a long time now. A very long time. It was never insistent, but it kept asking, pointing out how the current operating system dates back so so very far, back to primitive times when the Internet was a bare-bones affair, much of it conducted on teletype machines or by throwing rocks at one another, when technical limitations required the caption on a cat photo to be sent on a separate Vitaphone-printed record. Why, back when the current operating system came out people had completely different ideas about what made an acceptable desktop background picture.

You click the installation button. The computer wants a password you never even knew you had. Maybe it’s the one you use for everything. Maybe you forgot to ever set one. Maybe you just have to hold a rock over the computer until it accepts the threat. The download begins.

In the old days you would wastefully go out to a store and pick up the operating system in a box large enough for a microwave oven, containing a cardboard box skeleton with a fascinating puzzle of cutout circles and rectangles believed to be landing instructions for ancient astronauts, and four sheets of paper offering stuff, you guess. Then you’d get caught between clerks who really, really want you to know that if you’re having trouble finding anything they can help you, until you curl up in a ball somewhere between flat-screen TVs and adaptor cables hoping all this social interaction will go away. Then a clerk would ask if you’d like a sports pillow. No more. Now you just download stuff for as few as 46 hours while you wonder if this was really a good idea, particularly given how your mail client growls like an riled tiger as you approach it anymore. If you want to curl up under a sports pillow nobody’s there to help.

In the new days finally the download is done and the computer asks you for permission to do the installing. You thought it was done already. It wants a password or at least a properly-held bludgeon. The mail client finishes growling and announces it’s going to shut down, which it will do over a course of three hours and a number of messages about how if you really cared about it you’d know why it was shutting down. There’s evidence the web browser might be going feral.

You shut down everything. Probably it’ll need to shut down anyway, right? You couldn’t do an upgrade like this without shutting things down. It’s just saving time. The computer is busy thinking about whatever it thinks about in the middle of a major upgrade. Probably it knows what it’s doing. You can sit there waiting for direction for a little while. Maybe a little longer. These are the moments when it’s easiest to believe the computer doesn’t actually need you to do whatever it’s doing. It couldn’t hurt to read reviews about what programs you use have conflicts with the new system so you’re ready ahead of time to feel the agony of stuff no longer working.

If the Internet is accurate part of the upgrade involves instantiating a small yet viciously quarrelsome demon who spends his days making the ‘find text’ function on your web browser no longer work right anymore, and occasionally will toss through the screen a used sneaker set on fire, plus they’re figuring before the end of the year they’ll have an update so your word processor doesn’t crash every time you use the subjunctive case. The programmers say it’s a very tough bug to track down because they keep mixing up which is the subjunctive and which is just petty arguing about “who” versus “whom”. It’s difficult to say just what the future will hold but you do consider whether the best action is to lie in the street and let a truck run you over. It turns out there’s less truck shipping on this street than you imagined.

The computer reboots, and spends some time before saying it needs to reboot again. Next, let it finish rebooting and reboot it again, and then finally reboot once for good luck.

E-mail doesn’t work anymore, the web browser is being cranky, and the chat client appears to be some manner of tire fire. But, you know, those are some lovely new desktop backgrounds. There may someday be joy back in life.

There’s a new major system update out Tuesday.

Compu-Toon, Math Comics are Compu-Toon, Math Comics


I grew up watching mostly cartoons, heavy on the Warner Brothers and Tex Avery catalogues, with probably too big a helping of Hanna-Barbera’s stuff from the 60s and 70s. That’s my way of saying that I’m kind of pre-adapted to laugh if a wrecking ball appears on screen, even if it isn’t doing anything wrecking just yet. I know its time is coming.

'Upgrading can sometimes be misleading', which is why a wrecking ball is following this guy.
Charles Boyce’s _Compu-Toon_ for the 17th of August, 2014.

So this is why Sunday’s Compu-Toon has me baffled, because the idea that someone puttering around his computer would get a wrecking ball for his trouble ought to be funny and then the caption goes and confuses me. I feel like I can almost work out the joke, that an upgrade always breaks stuff and sometimes it’s just worse than just leaving things like they were, I guess, but then … I don’t know. On the other hand, a guy looking warily at a wrecking ball pursuing him ought to be a pretty easy giggle.

Meantime, there’ve been a bunch of comics, mostly Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal, that talked about mathematics subjects, so I talked about them. They don’t talk about me.