WYSIWYG 7/18/22

Thoughts by Richard Bleil

And technology marches on.  I doubt that many of my readers know what WYSIWYG is.  Those who are younger never had to know what it meant, and probably most of those my age were not in computer technology when it’s narrow window was a thing.  WSIWYG is an acronym for “What You See Is What You Get.” 

When I wrote my doctoral thesis, it was with a software package whose name eludes me at the moment, another sign of how long it has been.  It was like a programming language, where you had to use keystrokes that meant different things, such as superscript, subscript, divided by and so forth.  It was necessary for me because my thesis was very heavily founded in mathematics, in particular, calculus and differential equations.  The “standard” word processors back then couldn’t really do complex mathematical formulas, so you were forced to do something different.

Many word processors could send commands to printers that they could not do on screen, so instead of “superscript”, the shorthand was a “carrot”, so 2^3 meant “two to the third power”. 

I remember when computers were just hitting the general public market.  I walked into a computer store and asked them if they had a WISYWIG word processor that would work on my home computer (an IBM PC).  Of course, they had no idea what I was speaking of. 

Today, every word processor can show on the screen the way it will print, and the term WYSIWIG has faded into obsolescence. 

I rather enjoy knowing the history and background of computer technology, having been in it in the early days, and being of advanced years.  Ask a young computer science professor what the difference is between the internet and the World Wide Web, and you’re just as likely to get a blank stare as you are an answer.  The internet came before the Web.  It is the physical wiring that allows computers to connect anywhere in the world.  It had just a few basic functions, such as Telnet which would allow you to work on another computer, usually a supercomputer, as if you were sitting on one of the computer terminals.  FTP stands for “File Transfer Protocol”, which allowed you to put your programs on or take them off of another computer, such as uploading your program to the supercomputer, or downloading the output file.  Then there were some utility things, such as email for communicating (long before Hotmail, the first web-based email server), and texting (long before AOL, the first commercially available texting). 

I guess that most people know that a “bit” is one piece of a byte.  A byte is made of eight bits, where a bit has only values of 1 or 0, and a byte is ASCII code for a letter, a number, a character or something special.  Few people know that a “nibble” is four bits, so there are two “nibbles” to a “byte”.  As I understand it, two bits have a special term as well, but I cannot recall what that is.  Or perhaps I misunderstood.

Debugging a program used to be quite literal.  In the early days of computers, back when the computers would occupy entire rooms, they used actual electronic switches, but since it’s two in the morning, even the name of these is eluding me.  They took a lot of space to build a computer of any significant size, and generated a great deal of heat.  This heat would attract insects, such as cockroaches, who would climb onto the poorly sealed circuit boards and, if they stepped on the wrong wires, they would short out the computer frying themselves in the process.  It smelled like chicken.  The computer would “crash”, and to get it back up and running, technicians would literally have to get into the computer, find the fried insect(s), and remove it (or them).  They literally “debugged” the computer.

I guess that’s the nature of time.  Things that seem all the rage today will fade, sometimes quickly, into obscurity tomorrow.  I still remember gopher sites for file sharing using FTP technology, sites that became obsolete with the web.  Some things stay around but fade into the background, much like I have been doing for quite some time now.  For example, every time a file is downloaded on the web, it still uses FTP technology.  The only difference is that it’s no longer necessary to “send” the request for the file as that’s done with the click of a mouse.  Heck, even today I use keyboard shortcuts when my screen seemed to lock up, shortcuts many people probably no longer know exist.


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