There are some weeks where I wish I were using something other than a PC as my main work tool. As in this past week, where everywhere I turned I was dealing with a bunch of parallel port problems.
The week began with me trying to test a bunch of different kind of scanners for an upcoming Computerworld article. Many of these attach to a parallel port. And I have been working on developing an MP3-based music system for my home, including the new portable MP3 player from Creative Labs called the Nomad. Of course, it too attaches to my PC via the parallel port.
First I had to upgrade my parallel port to something called an Enhanced Capability Port or ECP. I think this has something to do with enabling two-way communications over the port, but your guess is as good as mine. I've never been much of a graphics guy, so I usually haven't had to do much with my parallel port, other than to attach a laser printer.
Well, after several reboots and having to fiddle with my BIOS setup and Windows configuration, I think I have it right for my Nomad to work properly. Trouble is, the parallel port has one of those "dongles" that the suspicious folks at AutoDesk want on my machine to make sure that no one rips off their software. Hello, copy protection -- this is almost year 2000! You think we could have lost these things by now. (For those of you lucky enough not to be familiar with these beasts: they are a small connector that sits in between your printer and computer. They don't interfere with the printer, but every time you run AutoCAD it looks to make sure that the thing is attached to your computer. This keeps you from making illegal copies and spreading their software around.)
Then I got a phone call from a friend. He was in the dumps because his PC was trying to run a scanner, a camera, and a Zip drive. All from the parallel port. Oh, and he still needed to be able to use his laser printer -- remember printers? Those things that were the exclusive domain of the parallel port? He has uninstalled and reinstalled each of these devices above so many times he can't remember. Not a fun way to spend a Saturday afternoon, for him or for me.
Then a cousin I saw at a family barbecue was having trouble with his laptop. Same problem: he upgraded his parallel port to ECP and all sorts of alarm bells and error messages began popping up. I think I fixed it for now, until he installs the next device that requires the port for its communications. So while the rest of the family was enjoying the afternoon, I was closeted away with Windows Setup and Scandisk.
Another friend wanted help with his Macintosh setup. Yes, even the Mac isn't immune from these kinds of problems. When CEO-for-life Jobs created the iMac, he left out the AppleTalk ports that connect it to all sorts of existing Mac devices. So if you have an older, Classic Mac and don't have Ethernet, you are out of luck when it comes time to network them together. True, you don't have to reboot to install drivers, you just have to run down to your nearest computer store and pay through the nose for a bunch of cables to hook things up. Sigh.
Remember Plug And Play? Remember the Universal Serial Bus? Remember the (Classic, pre-iMac) Macintosh, how everything just sort of worked? Those days are gone. Now we have what I call PPM (Parallel Port Madness). It is sort of like those high-volume, fast-talking used car salesmen ads on TV: Everything must go, go, GO!
I used to enjoy working on computers. Really, I did. It is nice to help out friends and family with their configuration problems and rescue yet another parallel port from oblivion. However, I wish that someone, somewhere would design these devices so that they work right the first time (or at least the first two or three times), so I can have a weekend off once in a while.
I gotta go. My accountant is on the phone. Somehow, some new tax software he purchased came with a virus and he can't boot his machine anymore. At least his parallel port is still working, I think.
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