Reflections of a ModemJunkie

June, 1999

Plugged In -- Unglued

by Leonard Grossman

It's been over thirty years since Timothy Leary wrote "Turn On, Tune In, Drop Out," one of the bibles of the 60's. I lived through the 60's. I don't pretend to understand them. But sometimes, I realize that there was more wisdom in that age than we really understood. Today we are all turned on all of the time, not in the hazy drugged daze of our youth (or so we remember it) but by caffeine and latte. Stimulated beyond sensation to an ennui we could never have imagined. And our machines are tuned on all the time.

Unlimited access, news sources that refresh every few minutes, endless bombardment of factoids and noise. We are tuned in. We listen, cable t.v, radios, Palm Pilots, There is no escape. And in the end, one way or another, many of us drop out. Youngsters today (Gee, there has to be a better term. And did I really say, "Gee?") don't get the 60's. But there was passion. Even dropping out was a statement. The very act of doing nothing meant something.

Today we are not engaged in the way we were then. My office looks out over a Federal Plaza, in days of yore, mounted police had to separate opposing factions for every military action. There have been a few pathetic gatherings since we started bombing, few supporters or opponents, mainly silence, except during the African Arts Festival when the Peruvian flutists fill the air with their repetitive and rhythmic melodies. (How do they play the same mantra like music over and over day after day? No wonder they have such blissful smiles on their faces. They must be on a long, long trip. Who needs drugs?)

But I promised this month to write about plug-ins.

The Internet is more than addiction. It is an excuse. It is amazing what I have been able to avoid over the years because I HAD to update a page, check a source, check my statistics, write this column.

Still, lately, my time online has been more and more focused on getting news updates. I have lost the energy to hunt and seek new and exciting pages and on line experiences. Quite frankly, the web is becoming boring. Better: I am becoming bored with the web.

This is the tenth Spring that I have spent so many glorious hours before a screen. A whole decade communicating with strangers over phone lines. First a local BBS, then Prodigy and GEnie and CompuServe and then finally the real thing. It has been more than seven years since I first wrote about software and touched upon the online world in print. I began writing as the ModemJunkie not long after that.

Reviewing my old columns, which are collected at, it becomes clear how long I have known that it was taking control over my life. The first time I used the name ModemJunkie, I should have taken the hint. But, like addicts to other recreational drugs, I felt I could beat it. I was only joking, I said, making fun of my hobby But the symptoms are real.

Like a real junkie, I find excuses to log on when I really don't want to. Writing this column has kept me going, too. I tell myself, I must log on to learn. My readers depend on me.


Last month I promised to report on plug-ins. I had recently begun experimenting and thought I would have much to say. I expected the opportunity to explore Plug-ins, those additional programs which enable browsers to view video, listen to the radio, and witness tremendous feats of animation wizardry to kindle a fire. I could watch the trailer for "Eyes Wide Shut" and see previews of the latest Star Wars dollar sucker.

In recent weeks, I have updated the QuickTime viewer, added RealAudio, tried to update to RealPlayer G2, added Java and Shockwave and assured that my browser can handle Javascript, at least some of the time. Somewhere in that I have added the ability to view Flash and I have managed to go to the office in the daylight hours.

But I find that while there have been a few enjoyable moments, the overall experience is confusing and hardly worth the effort.

Part of the problem is Windows itself. While much of this new multimedia wizardry would not be possible without it, the automated installation applications have taken over our machines. Perhaps there are those, wiser than I, or with even more to avoid, who have the time and patience to actually understand these applications and how they are installed. But I grow old. Though shall not wear my trousers rolled, I find I would rather dare to eat peaches than spend the time engaged in such pursuits.

Part of the problem is the proliferation of plug-ins. There are competing applications and cute little applets (in baby blankets and pink bows?). How does one know which one to select? Which ones are mutually exclusive and which ones are capable of peaceful coexistence?

I find, it seems (or else something else is screwing things up), that some of these cuties install .dlls that overwrite others of similar names. Sometimes these affect other applications, even some totally unrelated to the web. Even within one application, there seem to be several competing versions? Or at least versions with similar names. It is hard to sort these out. Which is the latest?

Which really does what? Which will work with my browser of choice?

I had hoped to answer these questions and more in this article, but as the month progressed since I first began this project I have become more confused. I can't see the forest for the trees.

And then there is a philosophical issue.

I still believe in the using the simplest possible interfaces on the web. My browser can still be stored on one floppy. Yet I believe use of the web should be seamless. Which leads me to ask, Why not include all the plug-ins in the browser package.. Build them in, Make it really seamless, But these goals are incompatible.

Which brings me back to my original position: Special applications should not be necessary to view a page. Warnings should appear and alternatives should be available before your are taken to a world requiring plug-ins. But even more important. Special applications should be limited to occasions when they are necessary to the kind of information being provided. No browser should break on a page just on a whim.

But I have not explored the world of plug-ins as I "should" have. I am resisting. I started writing this column on Memorial Day. As I wrote, I got angrier and angrier. This column requires several hours of tinkering. I should be getting all the links to the plug-in sites. I should be reinstalling RealPLayerG2. I should be providing links to demos of the applications.

But instead I kept asking myself, Why am I sitting here. I became angrier and angrier. Finally, I said to my wife, "Let's get out of here!!" And we went for a hot steamy walk in an arboretum. It took over a mile before I calmed down.

But, I do have a few things to say.

My counter service requires the use of a Javascript in order to enable it to provide me with "referrer" data, that is, information which will let me know what web page you were looking at when you found a link to mine. I am not a programmer. I have no understanding of scripts. Yet, when I added the script, I took the time to ask how I could make the script transparent to someone whose browser cannot handle Javascript. That may be a small universe, but why should I exclude readers unless I have to. Which brings me to a favorite issue of mine.

To make the point, I will even bite the hand that feeds my ego.

Have you looked at the WindoWatch home page lately. It is beautifully designed, from a visual point of view. But it violates almost everything I am talking about. I don't know whether the June issue will be any better. But, first of all, as soon as you hit the page a Java Console opens up giving you loads of useless information while your computer processes the Java code. All for what? To present a scrolling banner containing information which could have just as effectively been presented in another form. TO W-Ws credit, I have discovered the page works quite well without Java, which begs the question......

Even worse, virtually, no pun intended, all of the text on the WindoWatch home page is contained in images. That is, the words are captured and presented in images. There is almost no actual text on the page. Viewed in Lynx or in a browser with graphics turned off the page looks like this [excess white space has been deleted]:


              logo5_5.gif - 24569 Bytes
                     date5_5.gif - 9425 Bytes

                    nowndows.gif - 10446 Bytes
                    captn5_5.gif - 30654 Bytes


              Mail Directory -

There are several sad things about this.

  1. The page takes an unnecessarily long time to load
  2. The page is unreadable to speech synthesizers.
  3. The page is about words not images.
  4. On the practical side, WW is cheating itself.
    Web crawlers and index services index the text content of a page in addition to the content of a meta statement in the page source. There is a brief meta statement on the page, describing WindoWatch which does get picked up by the indexes. But none of the other "text" gets picked up, depriving WindoWatch of countless readers who would discover the site if the topics covered each month were available in text form.
  5. It could easily be fixed. The use of "ALT" tags behind each image, containing the same text that appears in the image would permit text based browsers and speech synthesizers to "read" the page and permitting indexes to grab the text.

WindoWatch is not the only example. There is a gifted animator, who is capable of making simple animated .gifs do amazing things on your screen. Recently she has started playing around with Flash and Javascript. Today I froze two machines watching her latest artistic effort. Yet what she can do with .gifs alone is amazing. To explore her amazing world visit She has a new page almost everyday at

[Confession: Since writing this page, I have correctly configured Flash on my machines. I truly enjoy Ellen's Flash experiments. I have also added a javascript to my Chicago Weather page. It randomly selects a different cloud background for the page when each time it is loaded. Cool. eh? Is there no end to my depravity?]

You will note something.

There is passion in the last few paragraphs. It feels good to make the point. Like most addictions, there are some highs. I can get involved. I do care. And that makes the online world more addictive. And the need to write this column feeds the flame. So once more I left my wife at the dinner table and came up here to this solitary space. In the decade since I have been online, I have expanded my world, but I have cut down on real life social interaction, I have gained back 50 pounds I lost the hard way 20 years ago. (Of course I can say, once again, "I weigh exactly what I weighed OVER 20 years ago.")

The anti-social nature of the web is discussed in what turns out to be a very constructive article in a recent issue of The Nation. The article, "The Net That Binds Using Cyberspace to Create Real Communities" by Andrew L. Shapiro, discusses ways in which the Internet can be a useful social tool but he acknowledges the issue I am raising:

"Few people, of course, intend to use the Internet in ways that will cause them to be distracted from local commitments. But technology always has unintended consequences, and social science research is beginning to show how this may be true for the Internet. Researchers who conducted one of the first longitudinal studies of the Internet's social impact, the HomeNet study, were surprised when their data suggested that Internet use increases feelings of isolation, loneliness and depression. Contrary to their starting hypotheses, they observed that regular users communicated less with family members, experienced a decline in their contacts with nearby social acquaintances and felt more stress. "

I have joked for a long time that there is a Twelve Step Program for ModemJunkies, but you have to log on to get to it. But I was wrong. There is a cure. And it doesn't require logging on. For more information go to: The 12-Step Program for W.A.S. (Web Addict Survivors)

So, to go back to where I started, Turn On, Tune In, Drop Out. That is exactly what has happened. I have turned on the Internet, I have tuned in to the world, but some how, I feel as though I have dropped out. Look at my old columns. For years I have been crying out for balance, for a way to cut down. Well, I am not going to quit cold turkey. But I am going to cut back on excuses. And one way is to stop promising myself to write this column every month, or even nearly every month. Can you guess how many times I have justified surfing by telling myself I have to have something to write about?

Well, I am going to take advantage of WindoWatch's summer hiatus to try to restore some balance. I'll be back. I am not sure how often and I am not sure if it will be as the ModemJunkie or in some other guise.

By the way, there is a Too Much Surfing? section on my home page. The latest addition is The Walking Place, a collection of great walks.

Get out of the house. Have a great summer.

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Copyright 1999 Leonard Grossman

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My essays regularly appear in slightly different form in WindoWatch Magazine which contains a wealth of fascinating information.

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