A Survey for Curmudgeons

I have a simulation happily grinding away in the background, using one core of my spiffy new dual-core system, doing my work for me, so not only do I have a moment to procrastinate, but also I should be happy about new technology. However, the headphones which came with the iPod nano I got for Christmas picked today to fall apart. The earbug doodad is beside itself with the joy it feels at being part of a cultural icon, I suppose. Given that the iPod itself had to be reformatted twice and connected to three different computers before it was able to receive music, that the interface packs more absurdity into its purported simplicity than I would have imagined possible, and that consequently it has relegated itself to the status “device which plays “Mandelbrot Set” on demand,” having the headphones cheap out on me is rather like salting the fields after Steve Jobs has burnt the city.

All this to say that today I’m in a mood for appreciating old things which work.

Geoffrey Pullum wrote, four years ago,

Shall I tell you how The Cambridge Grammar of English was prepared? (I am not changing the subject; trust me.) The book is huge: 1,859 printed pages. The double-spaced manuscript was about 3,500 pages (yes, it actually had to be printed out and written on by a copy editor the old-fashioned way). It took over ten years to write. And it was done using WordPerfect 6 for DOS. Rodney Huddleston chose to upgrade to that around 1989, wrote a couple of hundred complex macros, and stuck with it. I learned the WP DOS macro language in order to collaborate on the project.

WordPerfect was basically in its final, completed form before Clinton first ran for office. It works. The file format is fine for authors, and records everything we need to record. Rodney and I are still using WP6 file format today to write our planned student’s introduction to English grammar. In all the years since the late 1970s, WordPerfect has not altered the file format: all the largely pointless upgrades in the program have been backward compatible. The format really does the job. But things are different with the WordPerfect program itself. The progress has largely been backward.

The things we have noticed about version differences are minor, but they all tell in the same direction: every upgrade is a downgrade.

Forget the Clinton administration: TeX basically solved the problem of representing mathematical equations as text, during Reagan’s first term. The LaTeX macro language, which handles document-scale organization, is almost as old. Perhaps we’re stuck at a local maximum, and with luck and pluck we could find a better way, and on some days, that seems almost mandatory. Still, we’re at a pretty darn good local maximum, as local extrema go.

(Something deep within me finds a resonance with PyTeX, an attempt to have Python sit on top of TeX the way LaTeX does, but the project seems to be moribund.)

The question for today, then, is the following:

What are your favorite Old Things That Work, and which changeless relics really do need a shake-up?

Previous surveys:

Comments on all the above remain open.

21 thoughts on “A Survey for Curmudgeons”

  1. Among mathematicians, there definitely seems to be a suspicion that any document not prepared using (La)TeX is inferior. This is a significant hurdle that any future document-preparation software which hopes to supersede LaTeX will have to overcome.

  2. This may be a little older than you’re after but: Scythes.

    You have to hold one to see what I mean, but a scythe is a beautiful piece of engineering. My father accidentally inherited one that probably originated somewhere in the west country, and the moment you pick it up it is obvious exactly how to hold it and how it moves. The handle is curved so that it fits the human form perfectly, and swinging it is effortless. Scythes were ergonomic before the word existed.

  3. Kind of out-of-date, but I still occasionally break out my Commodore 64 to play some old, classic games. I still explain to any youngster that will listen that it was the perfect computer: you could throw it against the wall, hard, and it wouldn’t break (as I demonstrated many times).

  4. I am a mechanical engineer and so for me it is my 1982 mazda B2200 diesel pick up. It would be my 1961 mercedes 190B 4 door but it died :(

  5. Fortran, seriously, and walking. The latter requires some planning ahead so that you live within walking distance of work, grocery stores, bookstores, and a library. There are a lot of things that used to work fine which don’t anymore because people have stopped doing them so there is no support for them. Fortran and walking are almost in that category.

  6. Favourite old thing that works? Me!

    what else?


    text editors when all you need is plain text

    A good CP/M computer… I used a CP/M machine long after DOS and IBM-PCs reigned supreme. I wrote a thesis on one (in WordStar). I analyzed my data on it (SPIDA). Not only could I read and write IBM-format disks, but I could store ~3 times as much information on the same floppies (960K vs 360K at that particular time), if I formatted them as CP/M disks. And the games I had were better than the ones I had on PC at the time.

    Things that really haven’t improved noticeably: I am not sure that for my purposes, Word has improved at all in 15 years. Apart from a couple of bugfixes, and slightly better plotting, I’d say much the same for Excel.

    html – I mostly write it by hand. Every piece of html code I write is deprecated, and the thing that it was replaced by is usually also deprecated, and sometimes the thing that replaced that is deprecated. I long ago gave up trying to keep up.

  7. Mai kitteh. Although she’s developed bronchial troubles in her old age, she’s still the homicidal ball of fluff that I’ve loved these nearly 15 years. In fact, she’s sprawling atop me right now, purring, just daring me to try to move her feet off the keyboard so she has an excuse to rip my hands off.

    That’s love, that is.

  8. Old things that work: Non-power anything (excepting steering and brakes) in cars. Phonebooks and other reference source that has been coopted by the internet. Doing molecular biology experiments by hand and not using a freaking kit. Imagination.

    Relics in need of a shakeup: Drywall. Fossil fuel driven anythings. Oh and the republican party.

  9. Um, LaTeX is an old thing? It’s young and vibrant maaaaaaan…

    “Among mathematicians, there definitely seems to be a suspicion that any document not prepared using (La)TeX is inferior.” Same in astronomy…

    Let’s see, I did use pine until recently. And duct tape continues to work.

  10. my acoustic guitar (a 40 yr old dreadnought – kinda like me!)
    and my son’s drum kit (nice maple shells) – tech from the turn opf the century!

    although we do use lots of cutting edge digital stuff for recording & such!

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