Eric Larson – St. Thomas E-Learning And Research
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Eric Larson


Invention, meet your Mom…

The 1999 MacWorld conference in New York was memorable for lots of reasons, not the least of which was the introduction of a thing called the “iBook” that — get this! — could stay connected to the Internet without wires.  Amazing.  But what I remember even more was a breakout session where the presenter described a workaround to do the impossible: Get email notifications… while you were outside!

Here’s how it worked.

Take an old but still fairly modern and powerful computer like a Macintosh LC or Quadra 605, and attach it to a modem.  (Nothing extravagant like a 56k; 28.8k would do fine.)  Install a new email program like Outlook Express and set it to check for mail every 15 minutes or so.  If you configured your system properly, it would automatically dial the modem to check the email account for updates, then you could set it to time-out and disconnect. (This was important, both to free up your phone line — so if anyone called they would ring to your answering machine — and to save on the monthly minute allotment from your ISP).

Here’s where the magic happens.

With some AppleScript programming, you could have your computer check to see if you had any unread messages that were now downloaded.  If it found any, it could run them through Apple’s text-to-speech software to read them out loud.

At this step, you have to skirt ethics and Federal law, but that’s beside the point.

Only a couple years before, in 1996, the FCC created a new level of license for “Family Radio Service” which was a form of glorified walkie-talkie.  While you weren’t supposed to use them for automated communication… well, let’s overlook that.  You could route the audio from your Macintosh into the “microphone in” of an FRS radio, and set it to the VOX setting so it would transmit whenever audio it “heard.”

When heading out to do yardwork or walk around the block, you’d simply turn on your FRS radio and set it to the matching channel.  If someone were to send you an email, you were guaranteed to know within 15 minutes that it was waiting for you… assuming you were still within radio range.  If you weren’t, maybe someone else was, so they’d get to hear a robot voice reading your personal email to them.  (Small price to pay.)

This, ladies and gentlemen, was what it took to avoid FOMO 20 years ago.

Someday… FRS radios might reach even greater distances!  ISPs might offer more minutes for the same monthly cost!  And… well, I can’t think of anything else.  What more could we possibly expect to have available while walking in a park?

This post was written by Eric M. Larson, an Instructional Systems Consultant in the St. Thomas E-Learning and Research (STELAR) Center at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minn., and could have been composed and published with an always-on pocket device from anywhere in the country.  To discuss this and any other topic, you can email and several of us at STELAR will get the message immediately, no radio involved.


“Just double-click on the seagull…”

One interesting (“interesting” meaning a mix of “humorous,” “encouraging,” and “demoralizing”) aspect of paleofuturism is finding decades-old technologies that were called “obsolete”…yet are still alive and well today.

In January 1987, Fred D’Ignazio wrote that “The desktop metaphor came from computer designers’ image of computers as business tools, as information processors. We process information at desks, they reasoned, so why not make a computer simulate a desktop? The computer as desktop is a valid, viable image. But it’s only one image. It’s time for us to search out new images that relate more to our senses, feelings, and imaginations.”

This sounds like a great idea… but how much progress has been made in 30 years?  (Hint: very little.)  Does that lack of progress toward an alternate metaphor mean that humans are unable to escape the confines of an image that was established for us decades ago?  Or have we arrived at the best metaphor there is and that’s why we stick with it?

D’Ignazio gave an example of the kind of alternatives he was envisioning at the time:

The Seagull "Finder" - I had a conversation with award-winning science fiction writer Orson Scott Card a few years ago. We talked about new metaphors for computer operating systems and what would be appropriate for children. Scott closed his eyes and dreamed of a child sitting at a computer. When she turned it on, a picture of a seagull flying high over a blue ocean appeared on the display screen. The seagull was (to use Macintosh terminology) the "finder." As the child flew her gull over the sea, little islands appeared with coral reefs, atolls, and palm trees. The islands were files. If the child wanted to acess a file, she steered her seagull (via some pointing device-like a mouse or a finder) to the island. This sort of imagery might sound inappropriate for today's files, which consist mainly of text and numbers. But it will not be out of place for tomorrow's files, which contain pictures, voices, music, charts, graphics, animations, and photographs.

We’re definitely living in the world of “tomorrow’s files” yet we still seem bound to a virtual desktop.  Some VR environments are starting to approach this alternate vision: when you don an Oculus Go headset, you find yourself on a beach, surrounded by floating screens that you click.  Your phone or iPad doesn’t have a “desktop” but a… “home screen,” perhaps?

Those alternatives are a far cry from a flying seagull.

A dozen years ago, “Second Life” helped connect people to one another and flying (seagull-like) was a mode of transportation from one area to another… but it was much less efficient than simply typing in coordinates to a very DOS-like box.  But Second Life itself is another example of a technology and “computing environment” that died (no pun intended).

Are we stuck on the desktop forever?

This post was written by Eric M. Larson, an Instructional Systems Consultant in the St. Thomas E-Learning and Research (STELAR) Center at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minn., from his very typical desk on a computer with a very traditional desktop. See it in person down at STELAR in the lower level of the OSF Library, where you’ll find yourself among friends. You can also email us at


How do you use your “earth station”?

We can instantly choose one of millions of videos to play on-demand with just a couple of taps on a magic piece of glass called a “phone”…and that’s really, really different than the way content was once consumed.

Thirty-five years ago, HOME Magazine ran a story on what they said were called “earth stations.”

"Will your neighbor's house look like a space station? Don't laugh. It's happening in a number of places around the country. Dish antennas -- some of them 12 feed across -- are sprouting like dandelions, many of them in front yards. You can imagine how neighboring property owners react. Called earth stations, the gadgets zero in on TV satellites, pick up the signals, and feed them into the homeowner's television set. As many as 80 different channels can be received, including many foreign-language stations. The antennas, which sell in the $3,000 to $10,000 price range, have been bought by the thousands in urban areas as well as paces not yet reached by commercial or cable TV. The earth stations can bring in any and every type of entertainment from ballet to X movies, any time of day or night. So if you thought the job of controlling your children's viewing habits was tough before...

The $3,000 price in 1982 would be more than $7,000 today.  Remember, this was an era when “time-shifting” was impossible unless you were one of the few to own a VCR, and “on-demand” was inconceivable.  Eighty channels has grown by a factor of about one million.  Viewing “many foreign-language stations” is nothing compared to having actual content from peers and producers sent to you across the planet.

And the notion of “controlling” viewing habits (of children, or of ourselves)?  Nobody could have imagined…

So at one time, people were willing to spend months’ worth of wages to fill their yard with a giant metal dish… to choose from among 80 channels.  Was that for education?  Or for entertainment?  Now that we have the world at our fingertips (literally), do we show the same level of dedication to learning from others across the globe?  Entertainment has changed in 35 years… but not that much.  We still go to movie theaters.  We still go to live theaters and concerts.  We still sit in our living rooms in front of large screens (now larger and flatter and clearer, but still remarkably like the televisions of the 1980s) viewing movies, one-hour dramas, sports and sit-coms.  Did swiping through Facebook (or Instagram or Tinder) change the nature of how we engage with the world?

This post was written by Eric M. Larson, an Instructional Systems Consultant in the St. Thomas E-Learning and Research (STELAR) Center at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minn. Eager to reminisce about classic computing? Stop down at STELAR in the lower level of the OSF Library, where you’ll find yourself among friends, or email us at


Paleofuturism: Everything old is new again

Ever since I was a really little kid, I’ve loved to dig out old books and magazines with “predictions of the future” and enjoy how quaintly incorrect they were. In recent years I learned that I wasn’t alone in this quirky pastime, which has been dubbed “paleofuturism.”  Part of my interest lies in the belief that “failed futurism” can give us a valuable opportunity:  Like the proverbial (and discredited) frog in slowly-heated water who doesn’t realize he’s boiling, we’re now living in the future once dreamed of, yet we might not see the opportunities we have because we’ve become slowly acclimated to them.

I hope this will become a regular series here, which is a fairly easy challenge to give myself because there’s so much of the past for me to draw from.  For starters, I reexamined an article from 30 years ago (June, 1988) by Fred D’Ignazio in COMPUTE’s Gazette magazine — a magazine for Commodore users.  (As an aside, I still haven’t gotten the flying car that I was promised by the year 2000, but I assumed I’d grow up to do 8-bit Commodore support and don’t spend much time astonished that we now walk around with magic pieces of glass in our pockets that can connect us instantly to any piece of content anywhere on the planet.)

D’ignazio joked about terminology that we now find commonplace:

Attack of the Terabytes: Last week a friend of mine, Dr. Gerri Sinclair, sent me some E-Mail. "I am so frustrated," she wrote. "Now that computers are starting to plug into CD-ROM 'libraries' and are processing digital sounds, photographs, and full-motion video, a million bytes of memory just doesn't cut the mustard!" I wrote back to Gerri asking what she thought would cut the mustard. Her reply: "Sixteen million bytes, minimum, for main storage, and another 80-160 megabytes on hard disk. And this is just the start. Soon we'll need gigabytes and terabytes, and even that might not be eno0ugh." Terabytes? It sounds like an invasion of Japanese snapping turtles.

Today, a terabyte is still a lot… but you can walk into any retailer and buy a 4TB hard drive for the cost of a nice dinner out.  When I read this reference in 1988, I couldn’t fathom that much data.  Now I have it in my basement.

Later, after lamenting that computers make us more busy rather than less (still true!), D’ignazio offered a whimsical dream of a program:

Every day we push ourselves a little harder, trying to keep up with our computers. But it's a losing battle. So, computer manufacturers, hear my cry: Please make a computer that, after a lengthy session, flashes, "Good work! I can see you'd like to keep going, but I’m pooped! How about a break? After all, tomorrow's another day."

It took a couple dozen years, but computer manufacturers did hear D’ignazio’s cry.   The notion of wasting precious computing power on a timer was absurd in 1988, when “multitasking” was a technical term for a computer switching between two programs (and that was an impressive feat).  Those of us who wanted a break from our technology (though… really, who would want to take a break from something so fun?) had one alternative:

Lux brand "Minute Minder" mechanical kitchen timer
Today, there are dozens of programs and phone apps — remember that magic piece of glass in your pocket? — that do exactly what D’ignazio hoped.

Whether we use them? That’s a different question…

This post was written by Eric M. Larson, an Instructional Systems Consultant in the St. Thomas E-Learning and Research (STELAR) Center at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minn. Eager to reminisce about classic computing? Stop down at STELAR in the lower level of the OSF Library, where you’ll find yourself among friends, or email us at