Autobiographic notes: First experience with computers and the Internet

© December 2023 Paul Cooijmans

Before owning a computer

Until the autumn of 1995 I had never had any contact with computers, let alone the Internet. During my composition study at the Brabants Conservatorium (graduated 1993) there had been the option to do an "internship" in the "electronic studio", involving the use of a computer for music notation, but I had declined that because I preferred pen and paper and disliked unneeded complication. By 1995 though, computer use was becoming so pervasive in society at large that I felt it would be disadvantageous to stay behind, so I decided to take an introductory course.

At the 1995 computer course
At the computer course (1995)

For clarity, I did not have a computer to my availability, and no intention to buy one; I just wanted learn the basic skills. The course covered the MicroSoft Disk Operating System and WordPerfect 5.1. Windows 95 had just been released, but the teacher told us that Windows was merely a shell around MS-DOS and not really needed for anything, and that it was much more important to learn DOS. In hindsight he may have been not too far off, given that today in the 2020s, one still hears the opinion that Microsoft peaked with MS-DOS 6.22. The first thing we had to do was to type "dir" behind the prompt and push Enter, after which the contents of the C:\ directory flashed by on the screen. We also got to change the appearance of the prompt, and leant to "park" the hard disk before shutting down the computer, to prevent damage to the disk. "Although crashes of the hard disk are rare nowadays", the teacher reassured us in case we would ever forget to "park" before shutting down. I believe that was the only time in my life I have "parked" a hard disk, or heard anyone mention the procedure. I suppose hard disks park themselves meanwhile.

Other things I remember from the course are the ASCII character set and the use of WordPerfect, with its "under water screen" with hidden layout codes in square brackets if I am correct. The teacher also mentioned the then relatively new Pentium processor, which was faster than the older 80286, 80386, and 80486. The Pentium was really the 80586 but had been given a more spectacular name for marketing purposes, he explained. This course started shortly after I had bought a recumbent bicycle, and I used that to get to and from it, which was about 8 km (so 16 in total).

On one occasion, a student mentioned a friend or acquaintance who had purchased an Apple computer with the Macintosh operating system. The teacher and some students talked for a while about how impractical this was, given that almost everyone else had a personal computer with MS-DOS and sometimes Windows, so that no one would be able to help you if you had a problem, and you would not be able to share software on diskettes with anyone. In those days, people were widely sharing diskettes, and this was also a notorious way to get infected with computer viruses.

The recumbent bicycle (1995)
The recumbent bicycle (1995)

My first MS-DOS computers

Late 1997 someone gave me an old computer with MS-DOS 6.22 and WordPerfect 5.1, and I started using it as a replacement for my typewriter. I had been using a typewriter for about three years by then; before that, I used fountain pens for about four or five years, and before that pencils. The computer had a 80386 processor and a hard disk of 20 megabytes, and I could not imagine how anyone could ever get that full. The Cooijmans Intelligence Test was created on it, and the Glia Society journal issue of January 1998 was the first computer-made one. Once a week I made a backup copy of my data on diskettes with the xcopy command in DOS. I had both large 5.25 inch "floppy" diskettes and smaller 3.5 inch ones. The large ones were much faster, but were not sold any more by that time. I still have a few dozen 3.5 inch diskettes.

For disambiguation, when I say that I created the Cooijmans Intelligence Test — or any test — on a computer, this means that I used the computer to type the test (as in using a typewriter), not that I used the computer to create the conceptual, logical aspects of the test items, nor that that I used the computer to "solve" the test problems in order to know the correct answers and be able to score the test. I mention this because it happens occasionally that candidates, apparently in earnest, believe that I have used a computer to create or solve test items in order to know what the answers are; it flabbergasts me every time again when this happens, but clearly it is incomprehensible to some that I have created my tests with the sheer capacity of my brain without external aids.

My first MS-DOS computer (1998)
My first MS-DOS computer (1998)

Over the next three years, I would acquire two more old computers as the current one broke down; first an 80286, and then an 80486. Both had somewhat older versions of MS-DOS. The latter had not only DOS and WordPerfect, but also Windows 3.11, which I never used though because I did not understand what it was supposed to do. I believe "Geoworks" was also installed, but I did not use that either, not understanding what it was for. The 80486 was not really faster in my memory than the 80386 I had before, and I believe this was because the 80386 had been boosted or tuned somehow to make it fast. I did not have Internet access ever in that period, although some people kept telling me that was perfectly possible ("I have seen an 80386 with full Internet access!") In fact, even before I had a computer at all, some were pushing me to get an e-mail account and use it from the public library, where, as they thought, were computers with Internet access freely available for everyone! Someone even set up a Hotmail account for me and sent the login data, which I never used.

In reality, the library here did not have computers for public use at the time, and when they introduced this attraction years later, it was not free but had to be paid per 15 minutes of use. Also, I had no idea how to use the Internet and e-mail so I would never have ventured into such an undertaking on a public computer. Meanwhile the 1999-2000 year change had gone by, to my relief without any "millennium bug" wreaking havoc.

Starting with Windows, Internet, and web site making

In January 2001 I felt confident to buy a new, up-to-date computer and get an Internet connection. This was no small deal: the computer cost 3248 guilders, and cable Internet of up to 1 megabit per second was 100 guilders per month. The computer was in fact my biggest purchase ever, though tied for first place with the Encyclopaedia Britannica, which I had bought in 1996. To put this into perspective, the monthly rent of my house was a bit over 300 guilders. As soon as I had the computer and was waiting for the Internet to be installed, I bought a book on making web sites and began writing my future web location in hypertext markup language, planning to upload it the moment I had an Internet connection. For clarity, in those days you got web space for your own web site with your Internet provider; alas, this phenomenon has disappeared somewhere in the 2000s, when social media and smart mobile telephones came up and the average intelligence level of Internet users dropped dramatically.

The Encyclopaedia Britannica
The Encyclopaedia Britannica

It may be good to say a bit more about personal web sites in those days: From your Internet provider you would get a directory on one of their servers, with an address like members.providername.com/~username. You could upload your own web site there with a file transfer program, and the whole world would be able to see it. There was no question of that you had a top-level domain of your own; such luxury was not for mere mortals. Also, server-sided scripting was generally not possible. Do notice the tilde (~) in the address; this denotes the home directory on a Unix or Linux system. Your web site was literally in in your home directory, hence the old term "home page" for a personal web site. Another variant was the subdomain, wich looked like username.webhost.com. This was just a directory too under the hood, only the address was formatted differently. Even if you had a dedicated webhost, you tended to get a subdomain unless you paid extra for a top-level domain. Then in the mid-2000s, a shift toward top-level domains for everyone occurred, and the myth was circulated that search engines would take you more seriously and send you more visitors if you had a top-level domain versus a subdomain or directory at a provider or webhost. Within a few years, everyone with a web site had a top-level domain, and if you had an existing subdomain with a webhost, you would be offered a top-level domain for free as a replacement, so that the webhost could delete that subdomain thereafter. Internet providers stopped offering web space altogether. I suspect that one of the real motives behind this development was that providers and webhosts no longer wanted to associate their company names with their customers' usernames in web site uniform resource locators. The notion that search engines send more visitors to top-level domains versus subdomains or directories is mistaken, in my experience; and by extension, the entire field of "search engine optimization" that came up in that era is based on lies and abuses of the Internet.

Incidentally, the example addresses given in the previous paragraph are just that: examples, paradigms, templates of how web addresses looked then. There is no use in trying to visit those example uniform resource locators and inform me of the result. I know that some will do this anyway, but at least I did my best to save you that work.

The new computer (2001)
The new computer (2001)

The new computer bought in January 2001 had a Celeron processor with 700 MHz clock speed and 64 megabytes of memory. The hard disk was 20 gigabytes, and I never got it full. The engineer who came to install cable Internet put a network card in the computer; computers did not come with such pre-installed then. And indeed, by midnight of that day I had my web site called "GliaWeb" online. The last hurdle was to figure out how to upload it, because the book had not told me that. By studying the online information of the provider I learnt that I needed a file transfer program and login information, and after obtaining those I managed to get it done. I ended up with a program called WS-FTP from 1995, which I kept using until some time after 2016, when Windows 10 caused the program to keep forgetting its settings so that I had to find a more current one (FileZilla).

Regarding the program I used to write hypertext markup language to make web pages, initially I tried Microsoft Word (unsuitable), then Macromedia Dreamweaver (somewhat better), then settled on the source-code editor Macromedia Homesite (formerly Allaire Homesite). The last was superior, and I kept using it until about 2016, when Windows 10 crippled its functioning and I switched to Notepad++, another source-code editor.

In the first weeks of getting to know this computer I spent a lot of time, often deep into the night, looking around on the hard disk at all the files, represented by funny pictograms. Especially those in the Windows system directories fascinated me, with strange names like TWAIN. The operating system was Windows Millennium Edition, and this would turn out not very good, so that I replaced it with Windows XP Professional a few years later. I also increased the working memory from 64 to 320 megabytes. Windows XP was much better, and I have used it from about 2003 to 2016 on my main computers, and still have it today (2023) on an old computer from 2005, never reinstalled and in perfect order.

When initially using Word, it was a big change from WordPerfect (which had no graphical environment when I used it) and I relied heavily on the pussycat to instruct me regarding Word. I mean the orange pussycat who served as office assistant then, I believe it was called Lynx. It answered all my questions patiently.

The web space I had with my Internet provider did not have any statistics or such of its own, and I found a web site called something like Netstat where one could get a free web counter. After inserting a piece of code into the source of a page, the number of visitors to it would be displayed. And, by clicking on the counter one would be taken to a page with a sort of ranking or hit list of web pages using that counter, and I used this feature extensively by looking at the other sites listed, visiting them and learning a lot about making web sites that way. I find it sad that this phenomenon of people making their personal web location in hypertext markup language, JavaScript, and/or P.H.P. has more or less gone extinct in favour of "blogs", content managements systems, and social media, wherein one has a web presence without needing to know the underlying code, while the rest of the Internet now consists mostly of ugly corporate, commercial, database-driven web sites.

It was also in this period — the months in 2001 after buying the computer — that I started learning JavaScript, and began to transfer my test statistics, kept on paper since 1995, to a self-created computer-based database format. Over time I have expanded this to a comprehensive system that includes the item statistics, the candidate records, some general test information, the norms, and self-written libraries for statistical computations, interconnected such that it can be accessed with programming code to enable many types of computations. This is one of the hardest and most complex things I have done in my life, and to my knowledge no one in the world of high-range testing, let alone that of mainstream I.Q. testing, has anything even remotely as advanced and powerful as this.

Another thing I started studying in 2001 was Linux; I found it attractive that there was an alternative to Windows and have been trying various "distributions" of it ever since to see if I could do everything I needed to do with it. Unfortunately, I always ran into a few problems that could not be solved, usually hardware-related, such as with the compact disk player, the sound card, or the scanner; and no, if even only one such problem occurs, I can not take that system into use for my work; and no, contrary to what Linux enthusiasts would like, I will not buy a new scanner or install a different sound card just to be able to use Linux! Over time (2001-2023) I have tried, and often had dual-boot systems with, SUSE, Red Hat, Knoppix, Ubuntu, Linux Lite, Debian, and antiX. Hardware recognition and support has improved, and I expect that moving from Windows to Linux on a current computer is meanwhile feasible for me, and I may actually do that by the time support for Windows 10 ends. My current preference is for Debian and the Gnome desktop environment. My present Windows 10 installation works so excellently though that it would be a pity to abandon it before its end of life, so that should be late 2025.

A view on Linux that I have developed over time is that Linux will always remain marginal unless major computer manufacturers start offering high-specification personal computers (not just laptops) with Linux pre-installed. As long as Linux needs to be self-installed by the user on computers with Windows pre-installed (or without operating system) only a tiny fraction of computer users will be using Linux. I do not know if computer brands are interested in this, but if they are, the approaching end of life of a Windows version should be the right time to offer pre-installed Linux systems. Not that Linux is necessarily better than Windows, but it is good to have alternatives to choose between, and to challenge the problematic oligopoly of Microsoft, Apple, and Google in operating systems. I expect though that this opportunity will pass, and Windows 10 users will wake up one day and find their computers smoothly upgraded to Windows 11 despite not meeting the hardware requirements.

Then another field I ventured into during the year 2001 is sound editing. Since I am a composer and musician, this was a logical necessity. I bought a program called Magix Music Cleaning Lab for this purpose, and after some serious study in the manual I used it to satisfaction until about 2018. Windows 10 was not compatible with it, so in the last few years I used it on an old Windows XP computer, until finally it could not read recent .wav files any more. I suppose the .wav encoding changed over time. Then I replaced it with the free program Audacity. Also in 2001, I began using the free program Anvil Studio for music notation and MIDI; this still works on Windows 10, but I am not using it much since I have reverted to writing music with pencil on paper like in the 1980s. I know meanwhile there is a program called MuseScore for this purpose, which I may try in the future.

A pattern one may notice is that I keep using programs very long, which keeps my "work flow" (as one calls this nowadays) efficient. WS-FTP, Macromedia Homesite, Magix Music Cleaning Lab, and Anvil Studio were kept in use by me for about 16 to 17 years or more without any "updates"; in the past, programs were not constantly updated but stayed the same, which has the formidable advantage that your skill in using them is not broken with every significant update. Also, the absence of updates allowed me to build up my own spell-checking dictionary from scratch in Homesite simply by "adding" words from within the editor; try that in a current editor, when major updates flatly delete your spelling plugins, including any custom-added words.

In my first few years on the Internet I tried a lot of the so-called "affiliate programs", with which you could supposedly make money by having advertisements displayed on your web location. None but one of them (that of Puzz.com) ever paid out one cent though. This was before Google AdSense, which I would use for a while later on and did bring in some money. Still, the income from advertisements I had in some periods was always much less than that from test fees and selling e-books. Eventually in the mid-2010s, I would give up advertisements and focus entirely on selling my own work; this was also because new regulations made it compulsory to ask visitors permission to store "cookies" on their electronic computers, and I did not want to bother people with that (the Google advertisements worked with cookies). I hate being disturbed by pop-ups or whatever things that have to be clicked away to allow cookies (they place them anyway) and followed the principle of "What you do not want done to you, do not do that to others" (this rhymes in Netherlandic).

Later in 2001, a period began wherein I took several courses in informatics, such as programming, web site making, and network administration. The things I saw there may be related in a later autobiographic article, when more time has passed. While writing the autobiographical material to date, it has occurred to me that it is best to only write about events that occurred at least well over twenty years ago, to avoid embarrassing or compromising the people and organizations involved.

My use of programs

Finally, as an addition to the above autobiographic text I will give an impression of how I use computer programs, by listing my preferred programs for various tasks, with some comment where appropriate:

For both writing text and writing programming or scripting code, I use Notepad++, a plain text editor. Since I write in it too, I have installed a few dictionaries for spell checking as plugins. I do not use a word processor to write text; I use a word processor only when I need to create a portable document format file, in which case I use LibreOffice Writer. To be able to start Notepad++ quickly, I have removed Windows Notepad from my computer, so that Notepad++ can be started by merely typing Windowskey, n, Enter. In general, I use the keyboard instead of the mouse when possible because this is much faster.

For electronic mail I use Mozilla Thunderbird, downloading messages with the POP protocol, so deleting them from the server. Only in exceptional cases, like when my main computer is defect, I will use webmail. Of all the programs I use, the e-mail client is the one that requires the most configuration. In general I avoid customizing programs and settings, to reduce the amount of work that needs to be done when installing a system or program from scratch, or when "updates" destroy one's settings or extensions. It is my experience and understanding that technologically knowledgeable users leave their software (system and programs) default as much as possible for the reason just mentioned. With a powerful e-mail program like Thunderbird though, one can not get around seriously personalizing the settings. There may be simpler e-mail clients that do not require so much work, but those are probably less safe. Annoyances with Thunderbird are that it is the slowest-starting program on my computer, and that it has horrific default behaviours like "threaded view" (which has to be disabled for each folder separately by going deep into a submenu).

To access the Internet I use Mozilla Firefox. I dislike the Chromium-based browsers that are currently popular (Chrome, Brave, and others). I find they are invasive on one's computer, and the settings pages are an incoherent mess. I have tried attractive Firefox-based alternatives like LibreWolf, but decided that Firefox itself is still the best; it may need some configuration, but at least the settings pages allow this easily. Another reason to use Firefox over Chromium-based browsers are the "developer tools", which I use because I write a lot of JavaScript, hypertext markup language, and more such. Chromium-based browsers have those too, but not as good. I also use Firefox for reading ePub files, with a browser extension. I keep the number of extensions limited to a bare minimum. Once I tried a program called Calibre for reading ePub files, but found it to be a very much too heavy application for that purpose. It supposedly "organizes" your e-books, but I can organize them myself in the file explorer and need no help with that. I just want a thing that reads ePub files and nothing else, and can open them in a fraction of a second; in Calibre, it took half a minute or more to open a simple e-book, because Calibre was "organizing" it in the background, creating files and folders for it, which I did not want, and if I deleted them, the same would happen the next time I opened that e-book.

Regarding web browsing, I tend to have only one to three browser tabs open at any given time. I understand there exist people who permanently have many more open than that, even in the hundreds, as if they are using tabs by way of bookmarks, and suspect the number of open tabs to be an inverse measure of conscientiousness. Also, by simply using bookmarks instead of tabs, one might save oneself a fair amount of money in working memory sticks. My own working memory usage rarely exceeds about 4 gigabytes. It takes quite extreme action to engage much more memory than that, such as exporting multiple videos at the same time, or having dozens and dozens of browser tabs open simultaneously.

For image editing I use Gimp, mostly in a lightweight custom installation without most of the optional components. I have been using Gimp since the early 2000s and have always been satisfied with it, although it was in some periods extremely slow on startup. For many years, it used to "hang" for 45 seconds or so while loading fonts, and this could be resolved temporarily by manually deleting a "fontscache" file in one's home directory. It is typical of the world of (open source) software development that such blazingly obvious "bugs" persist for years before being repaired, while meanwhile update after update is implemented without addressing the "bug" or even benefiting a typical user at all.

As image viewer I use the default Photos application of Windows. This works well enough (in 2023), there is no reason to replace it, even though it is an "app", not a real program. A program runs on hardware, an app in a virtual machine, although nowadays these terms are used interchangeably, and the term "native app" is sometimes employed to indicate that one is talking about a program. For clarity, with "virtual machine" I refer to systems like Google Android, Apple IOs, and the Microsoft .NET framework, which can be seen as successors of the original Java Virtual Machine of Sun Microsystems. There is a development going toward the use of "apps" over programs, and this is being pushed or enforced by large corporations under the guise of "security". But security is not safety; on the contrary, security is often an excuse to take away freedom. Security is double-locking your bicycle; safety is to live in a society without criminals. It is only the evil people that make security necessary. In a society of good people, not one security measure is ever needed. Security is bad, safety is good.

For uploading files to a web location I use FileZilla, or sometimes the online control panel of the web location in question. It is also possible to transfer files from a command line, but that is extremely unhandy, given that you have to navigate in two places ("here" and "there") and that it may take quite long to transfer large numbers of files that way, as may be the case with a web site. Less known is that you can add a "Network location" in the graphical file explorer of Windows and set it up for file transfer protocol to a specific server with a username and password; a dedicated file transfer protocol program like FileZilla works better though.

For sound editing I use Audacity. I find this easier to use than the Magix program I had before, but that may just be because of the many years of experience I already had when starting with Audicity.

Regarding the creation of MIDI files (digital music notation), I am not really doing that at the moment, but am planning to try MuseScore when I get to it. For playing MIDI files I still use Windows Media Player, mainly because V.L.C. media player, which I would prefer, can not do it without first installing a plugin, which is a very annoying thing to have to do, especially since it needs to be redone after updates or upgrades of V.L.C. And no, I am not going to reinsert that plugin every time, I will just use Windows Media Player then, which plays MIDI files natively. The problem of plugins and extensions that stop working after program updates is a general phenomenon, and another reason to avoid customization where possible.

For video editing I use OpenShot video editor, even though people say that Kdenlive is much better. I am used to OpenShot and it is acceptable, despite persistent flaws that will be fixed one day no doubt. I dislike having to learn the use of new programs, and besides, my experience is that programs for video editing are particularly counterintuitive and hard to learn, so I will not migrate to another one without necessity. For watching video I use V.L.C. media player. For information, some current long-term problems with OpenShot are that the video preview of the "Split clip" dialogue does not work (stays black) and that video can only be exported via the central processing unit; when attempting to utilize the much faster graphical processing unit for export, which seems a logical option for a video editor after all, bitrate and memory usage escalate out of control, the computer runs out of its nevertheless plentiful resources, and the export is aborted just before the system would crash. These things are different on different computers, and others may not have these issues at all.

For making a system backup (image, clone) I use Clonezilla. For some years I have also used the free version of Macrium Reflect, which is very good and comfortable to use, but went back to Clonezilla when Macrium stopped being free. For clarity, I am only using this for the system and programs, not for my data. For the latter, I make a normal copy, although I understand that puts more strain on the disk being read from than an "image" would do (a disk "image" is read sequentially, so that the head of the disk does not need to jump up and down all the time). For data backup, an "image" is useless in my view; after all, one would have to put the image back on the (or a) disk to be able to look into it and see one's files, thus erasing any current data on that disk and going through a lot of extra work. You can not simply look into the image itself to see, for instance, how a certain file was last week. You can not see the files in an image. Once I also tried the Acronis software for disk cloning, and found it too dangerous to use a second time.

For making a bootable universal serial bus stick I use a program called Rufus. This works excellently, and can also cater for BIOS's of old computers. I know that a program called "balenaEtcher" is often recommended for this task, but when I tried it, it not only failed, but also rendered the universal serial bus stick in such a state that I could not even reformat it for further use. Eventually I managed to reformat it from the command line, after the graphical formatting dialogue had failed many times. The program had basically destroyed the stick, from the viewpoint of someone not knowing the command-line formatting options. And I am not the only one with this experience.

Regarding search engines (insofar as one may call them programs) I alternate between Brave, Startpage, Yandex, SearX, and DuckDuckGo.

For completeness, here are some things I do not use but seem to be popular with others: I do not use a virtual private network, anything crypto-coin-related, anything voice-controlled, any "cloud" service, any premium streaming service like "Spotify" or "Netflix", a laptop, a tablet, an e-reader, a smart watch, a sports watch, a navigation device or anything using the global positioning system, wifi or bluetooth, cross-device synchronizing, a wireless keyboard and mouse, or a smart telephone. It is my observation that people who use at least several of these are not very intelligent.

A last important piece of information on my computer use concerns the monitor; I use a monitor with built-in speakers, which saves energy compared to external speakers. Only when I want to hear something well, I switch to external speakers of high quality. My monitor is also not as gigantic as is customary these days, but 23.8 inch and 1920 by 1080 pixels, which is as big as anyone can ever need.