Mudsock Heights

Mudsock Heights

The View from Mudsock Heights: A Happy Computer Reverie is Interrupted by a Low-Tech Malfunction

By Dennis E. Powell | Posted at 10:39 PM

Yeow! Why is it that hot coffee defies gravity and manages to escape the spout of the coffee pot and — sometimes actually flowing uphill — find its way onto the hand holding the cup, or the tablecloth, or the early morning bare feet?

I’ve been told that smearing a little butter on the lip of the spout will prevent this, and if sometime I develop a taste for coffee that tastes like rancid butter, I’ll give it a try. A drop of soap in the coffee would do the same thing — disrupt the surface tension of the liquid — but that is even worse than the butter business.

Before being scalded to distraction, I was going to sing the praises of technology, a new piece of technology in particular.

This column is being written on a little thing called, generically, a “netbook.” It is a tiny computer, but big enough to be useful.

Very small computers have always interested me. Upstairs someplace I have stored away my first portable computer, a device called a DataVue Spark, which had two floppy drives — no hard drive at all — and which with its AC adapter and associated accoutrements weighs about 20 pounds. In exchange for portability I had to give up power; its processor is flimsy, its screen is blue and grey, and it is very slow. It runs no software written in the last 20 years or so.

In my computer museum there is a succession of machines tracing the history of the portable computer, down to the VHS-cassette-sized Toshiba Libretto of a decade ago. It was tiny and powerful, obscenely expensive, and possessed of a keyboard too small for efficient work.

The goal has been to find the smallest machine I could that is still big enough and powerful enough to be worth toting around. Price has been an issue, too — it used to be that a good portable machine of any size cost $2,000 or more, once you added a spare battery, a bag, and so on.

The netbooks have it just about right. The one I’m using cost a little more than $300 — $500 when you add a battery that allows it to run nine hours without recharging, plus a wireless trackball pointing device, and a little case that holds it all. (A bag of some sort is essential — what’s the point of a portable machine that is never transported?)

It is very small, about 7 by 10 inches and weighing three pounds with the big battery attached, but it has a powerful processor, a plenty big hard drive, and lots of memory. It came with Windows aboard. I hate Windows. But I was fairly easily able to install my operating system of choice, the remarkable — and free — Linux, and when I turn on the machine I have a choice of Windows or Linux.

I wish I didn’t have to carry around the little trackball, but at some point in the last few years some unidentified person who I do not like decided that those awful little skidpad things were the mouse of the future. Fie on them! IBM’s wonderful Thinkpads used to have a nifty little pointing stick — it looked like an eraser head — in the middle of the keyboard. That was as good a pointing device as one is likely to find in a little computer. But to my knowledge only one netbook has such a thing, and it’s a Sony that costs upwards of $1,000. Seems to me that $700 is a high price to pay for a pointing stick.
The little netbook connects wirelessly to my home network, so I can surf the web and get and send email from anywhere here, even the porch swing. A few weeks ago I managed to connect it to my cellular telephone, so that I have Internet service anywhere there is cellphone service. This is cool.

Sometimes it’s fun to step back and view with awe and wonder the progress that has been made in areas such as consumer computers. This tiny machine has more computing power than existed in the entire world when I was born. It has more computing power than NASA possessed when John Glenn orbited the Earth. It has more power than the best desktop computers had when the courts were arguing over who won the 2000 presidential election.

Today I can take my little machine to a coffee shop or, say, the Columbus airport, and be hooked up to the wealth of information and misinformation that is the World Wide Web. This kind of thing amazes me. It makes me curious as to what will come next. My guess is that it will always be exciting. We’re in a world of change, and our connections to and with computers are at its center.

So, then. why can do all this, but still be unable to make a coffee pot that doesn’t drip?

Dennis E. Powell is crackpot-at-large to Open for Business. Powell was an award-winning reporter in New York and elsewhere before moving to Ohio and becoming a full-time crackpot. You can reach him at