AOL and Me

At the 1988 AppleFest, Apple demonstrated something cool called “AppleLink – Personal Edition”. It was an online service for Apple II users, providing chats, libraries, forums, and access to Apple technical documentation. The latter, especially, appealed to me, so after a couple of months, I joined. It was a small enough community that while I wasn’t able to get the screen name “Ted”, I did get a pretty low number tacked onto it, and I’ve been Ted38 ever since.

Apple and the company running the service, Quantum Computer Service, parted ways a few months afterwards, and the service was rebranded America Online shortly before the Macintosh version left beta. While the Apple tech docs disappeared, the Apple II Forums remained, with their message boards, chat rooms, and software libraries staffed by volunteers. I found myself spending more and more time online, even though it was expensive at $5 an hour for off-peak usage. At first I was a lurker, then I started becoming active in a couple of forums, and started attending chats.

My favorite part of the Apple II Forums was the “Across the Boards” message board. It was a message board available from all of the Apple II Forums. It was a place for non-technical discussions of Apple, Apple and AOL, and how both companies were (mis)treating the Apple II. It was a place to talk about rumors, ways the Apple II could be promoted, and what Apple wasn’t doing for the platform. It was our back fence. The biggest contributors were the forum staff — those wondrous people with the fancy AFL (forum leader), AFA (forum assistant) or AFC (forum consultant) prefixes on their screen names.

Eventually, in early 1990, I think, a Forum Consultant position opened up in the Apple II Art & Graphics forum, and I got my very own spiffy AFC screen name. Oh the joy! And an overhead account too, meaning I didn’t have to pay for my online time anymore. I really enjoyed that job. I got a glimpse of the behind the scenes areas of the system, and got to moderate message boards. When the forum assistant was called to active duty during Operation Desert storm, I took over running the library.

It was fun for a couple of years, and then a couple of things happened. First, Apple II usage dropped — partly because the Apple IIGS AOL software sucked, and partly because Apple was actively steering people away from the Apple II and to the Mac. Secondly, I switched locations for work, and was working later in the day, and spending large amounts of time online was less fun. For the last 10 months or so, they consolidated most of the Apple II forums under two forum leaders, and I actually got to moderate Across the Boards.

At the end of October 1993, AOL discontinued Apple II service. By that point, I myself had gotten my first Macintosh, and was mostly accessing the service via the Mac at that point. The software was so much better. I was offered a position with the Apple Beginners Forum (ABF), and took it reluctantly.

The ABF experience for me, was not a great one. I’d been kind of auditing the forum quietly for a little while, trying to decide if I wanted to join, when the forum assistant, who was a friend, recommended me to the forum leader, and I didn’t feel I really had a choice anymore. The job there was to answer questions from beginners, so I’d been contributing to their forums. I was pretty new to the Mac myself at that point, so mostly what I could contribute were directions for getting to the proper forum where the user could get help.

What I didn’t realize until too late was that the forum leader, Sandy, who was a wonderful person, one of the most encouraging people I’ve ever met, would also solicit emails from new users. “Confused? Email me, AFL SandyB, and I’ll help you.” She would then parcel out the emails to her staff to answer, in addition to message board duty.

I quickly became overwhelmed. Remember, I was now getting home relatively late, and I was now getting a bunch of questions that had to be answered very painstakingly, because new users are both easily confused and easily hurt or discouraged. I don’t know if Sandy ever realized just how artificial the voice I used for answers was for me — I had to strip out every little bit of sarcasm and snark, and most of the humor from my prose. I laughed hysterically one day when she asked me to write something, and said something to the effect of “Don’t spend too much time on this, just let it flow…” I think she would have had a heart attack if I’d done as she’d requested…

One thing I did enjoy was doing graphical help screens. These were little graphics explaining various concepts like navigating via keywords or uploading /downloading:

diagram explaining uploading and downloading
Uploading and downloading explained.

Probably my favorites was a pair explaining good and bad online behavior:

Diagram explaining good behavior with an angelic Mac
Online don'ts illustrated with a devilish mean Mac burning in hell

I dithered for a couple of years. I wrote a resignation email one night and nearly sent it — and then the following week, AOL fired Sandy over a dispute about her mailing list, and made my friend Andy, the forum assistant, the forum leader. I stuck it out a little while longer, to avoid leaving him in the lurch, but eventually left. I was burnt out on chats, tired of answering questions I didn’t know the answers to, and not having any time to have fun online anymore.

I was also discovering the web, and starting to leave AOL’s walled garden behind, and frankly, AOL had less and less to offer. In the early days, when they charged by the hour, there was an incentive to provide content via libraries and message boards and chat. Once they switched over to a flat fee, the incentive declined. Also, back in the Apple II days, the service had been a small town, where everybody knew everyone, or at least, all the most colorful characters. Now the service was a big city, full of people, and some of them, not so nice.

Eventually, I got broadband access, and wasn’t reliant on AOL for dialup access anymore. I converted my account to a free plan, and kept the email address mainly for the sake of a few friends who were still using it. I haven’t really spent any time on the service or on the online portal in years, though.

I would have been content to leave it like that, but lately I’ve been getting a prodigious amount of junk email on my AOL account. A frightening amount of it gets caught in the junk filters, but not all, and it’s becoming untenable. I checked, and I haven’t had an email worth saving on that account in years. So Saturday, I deleted the sub-account I had, and in four weeks, I’ll be able to shut down the main account.

But before I do, I wanted to remember the good times I had, way back at the beginning.

Magical Thinking

One of the things I find most dismaying about the current political and cultural climate is the utter disdain for facts among some people. If a fact is inconvenient, just lie and say things are the way you want them to be.

Put more charitably, this is “magical thinking”. The fact of asserting something will make it so, or that if you can convince enough people, saying something is so will make it so. I find it maddening.

To be fair, there are times when magical thinking does in fact, work. It’s most effective when it’s directed at human efforts, because of the self-fulfilling prophecy effect. If people believe something is so, they will work to make it happen. Over and over again, when you read about how something was done, you read that “If we had known how difficult this would be, we would have never done it” Or you see the person who fails because they gave up on themselves.

Steve Jobs was a notable magical thinker. He was able to envision how things would be, and had a “reality distortion field” to make others believe along with him. The original Macintosh was built partly on magical thinking — for both good and bad.

On the plus side of the ledger, he was able to get his team working 80 hours a week to create the first semi-affordable graphical user interface. On the other side, the original Mac only had 128 KB of memory, a laughably small amount of space for the work the computer had to do, because Jobs insisted on it. Within 6 months Apple had to admit it wasn’t enough, and released a Mac with somewhat more memory.

More critically, the physical world doesn’t believe in our magic. Thinking something will become so when it isn’t, doesn’t help with things like viruses or cancers or the atmosphere. When Jobs first found out about his cancer, he insisted on trying diet based remedies, despite the urgent advice from his doctors that surgery was needed. By the time he agreed, the surgery was too late, and his cancer had spread.

Magical thinking won’t make climate change go away. There has been pretty good scientific consensus about what’s going on for a couple of decades. I remember Isaac Asimov writing about it over three decades ago. The world is getting warmer, on average, than it was. Fall lasts longer into winter, and springs — not every spring, but on average — have been coming earlier. What we’re seeing aligns well with predicted models, and we need to accept that the climate is changing, and that the seas are rising.

Mitigation work, on the other hand, probably would respond to magical thinking. It’s unclear what it would take to update infrastructure to take the rise in sea level into account; a “can-do” attitude would help.

Magical thinking won’t make the corona virus go away. The virus doesn’t know or care what people believe, it just wants a host to infect. It’s just as contagious whether you think it is or not, and the effects on any one person are a crapshoot. Some people, will feel crummy for a couple of days. Some people will be respiratory cripples for a long time. And some people it will kill.

With that in mind, I think it’s really foolish and stupid and selfish not to take the warnings about social distancing seriously. We know it’s crazy contagious, and we know it kills. To believe otherwise just because it’s what we want to believe is magical thinking, and magical thinking doesn’t work with the physical world, and not recognizing that is the peak and pinnacle of stupidity. It angers me immensely that this country has so many stupid fools.