Sometimes you can be so busy performing all of your daily tasks on your computer that you never stop to think about how amazing the development of computers has been and how much you have come to depend on them — until your computer suddenly dies.

I wrote my first programs in BASIC in fifth grade (1970-71) to run on a Honeywell mainframe situated at S. C. Johnson Wax here in Racine. We had a Teletype machine at The Prairie School, and I would peck instructions into it, then wait for the computer’s response to come back over the phone line and type out onto a roll of yellow paper.

Seven short years after that, I was finally able to have a computer in my home. The Interact used an ordinary TV for a monitor and a cheap cassette recorder as a storage device. I wrote a Yahtzee game in BASIC and a crude word processing application in machine code for the 8080A microprocessor.

Next came an Apple //e, then the first Macintosh, then Bulletin Board Systems, and pretty soon the Web. Amazing!

I remember Apple’s “What’s on your PowerBook?” ad campaign. The thought of being able to carry around hundreds of different types of files and applications on a portable computer the size of a book was giddying.

So too is Wi-Fi. I realized this while sitting in the dusk one evening, using my iBook to upload photos for The Steve Dahl Show via a wireless network. There was a warm breeze, and I was sitting in a chaise lounge. Underneath it, Pacific Ocean water was lapping as it rolled into Turtle Bay on the North Shore of Oahu, Hawaii. I had the strong sense that this was much better than working in a coal mine. My nephew instant-messaged me to ask what I was doing. “Watching surfers,” I answered, and I was able to show him.

I use my iBook all day, almost every day. I use it to read the morning papers from around the country before even getting out of bed. I use it to maintain this Web site and others. My job is all done through the iBook, and almost all of our bills are paid online through it. Many of our dinners come from recipes found online at Cooking Light or Epicurious or the Food Network. I get my TV listings online from MeeVee and Yahoo! TV. I track Wisconsin’s crazy weather online via The Weather Underground. We file our taxes, rent movies, purchase books, choose health benefits, write to relatives, share photos, and listen to music and Mischke and Katie Mac all through the iBook. In fact, I bought my iBook online using my previous iBook.

Tuesday morning, as I was sitting down to work with my iBook, the screen froze and a few glitchy, interlaced lines appeared. Then the display went into a test mode, rotating between all red, all green, all blue, and a few varieties of grey checks. Then it went black.

I had a lump in my throat. Luckily, I also had the old iBook, so I was able to look at Apple’s troubleshooting instructions. I zapped the PRAM, reset the PMU and all the rest, but nothing worked. The best I got was a repeat of the freeze/test/black behavior. Clearly, whatever I thought I was going to accomplish for the next few days or weeks was now postponed. Like it or not, I would instead be spending my hours watching progress thermometers and juggling files and re-entering serial numbers and passwords and waiting in toll-free telephone queues being told that my “call is very important” every 30 seconds. We’ll see how smart I was to buy the AppleCare Protection Plan.

[Update: I was very smart. AppleCare covered all repairs and shipping, and even supplied a custom, padded box in which my iBook was transported during its four-day service odyssey.]

All of this stuff is a tedious, throbbing headache, but the hurdle that really had me baffled was how to back up the impaired iBook’s hard drive without being able to see its screen. How could I click and drag icons around in the dark? (A situation like this gives you a whole new perspective on accessibility.)

A little searching turned up an ideal solution. Redstone Software makes an application called Vine Viewer, which allows you to see what is on the screen of another computer, provided that computer is running Vine Server. I installed Vine Server on the sick iBook using the Firewire target disk mode and set it to launch at startup. Then, running Vine Viewer on the working machine, I could see exactly what was on the screen of the bad one, and I could drag icons and pull menus and whatever else I needed to do to back everything up. Furthermore, with an Internet connection, Vine Viewer can be used from anywhere in the world. Oahu would be nice. It’s absolutely amazing what they are able to make computers do these days.

So I’m still in computer hell for the time being, but I think I can get by. The old iBook has just enough hard drive to hold Mac OS X and an old version of Dreamweaver, so I can do my job and pay my bills. There will be no Photoshop or podcasts or Google Earth for a while, but I have CDs in the basement, and those tribal areas along Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan really are very desolate and hilly. I was having no luck finding Osama bin Laden.

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