Alice Vs. The Machine

February 28, 2014

When Meg and I set up a new Microsoft touch-screen computer for Alice, everything worked, and we expected things to stay that way. After all, we two Mac people hardly knew how to change the settings on one of these things. Why would Alice?

All she had ever used for e-mail was Web TV, a simple but discontinued TV-based e-mail system for elders not familiar with computers. I knew she couldn’t switch to a mouse and cursor, but this computer’s touchscreen eliminated them. She was unable to see an iPad clearly, but the Microsoft model, discovered by my friend Justin, came with a large screen.

Meg and I spent several hours poking at the thing while Alice sat by patiently. With wizardly flicks and glides of our fingers, along with several visits to Help, we made the screen a humble shade of green to soften eyestrain. We fiddled with settings until the font shouted out, large and bold.

Per Justin’s directions, we removed all the “tiles” from the main screen except for four: Solitaire, Weather, News, and E-mail.



Down flew the unnecessary pieces, falling safely into the Windows basement without so much as a clatter and now in the company of all the apps Alice would never use. The only way you could descend into this cache was by sliding your finger up the screen.


Finally, in e-mail, we did as Justin directed so that Alice would have a black background for yellow letters, the easiest for her to read.

At last, Alice moved from her La-Z-Boy to the desk chair so we could give her a few lessons. Her first response to everything we said was, “I can’t do that.” Or, “I can’t see that.” But she leaned forward and stubbornly persisted, as if saying those words was obligatory and had nothing to do with whether or not she’d try.

Every now and then she’d sit up, look at one of us, and sigh. “I miss my Web TV.”

She’s been longing for her weekly contacts with friends and relatives back in the Midwest. If she could get the hang of the touchscreen, maybe she could have them back.

We dove into e-mail. The letters on the keyboard that came with the computer are too small for her to see, so she tried the on-screen keypad. It posed a challenge because her wrists don’t bend back like they used to, making it hard to hit the right keys. Most of the time she tapped them with her fingernail and forgot about the space bar. It’s been several months since she’s written an email. (The big, large-print, wired keyboard that I borrowed from her eye doctor’s office turned out to be too cumbersome for her.)

She focused on the keyboard and not on the screen.

She focused on the keyboard and not on the screen.

She liked the search feature.

Where's Hugh?

Where’s Hugh?

And she was delighted by the Solitaire game.

Alice_SolitaireWe gave her more lessons, then Meg left for Nevada, a little worried that the e-mail program which, for some crazy reason, would appear and then disappear each time we booted up, might not work out for Alice. “This might turn out to be a $900 card game,” she said.

I was glad Alice was enjoying Solitaire, but our two-week window to try out the computer and see if it would work for her e-mail was shrinking. If it didn’t work, we’d have to take it back. Days passed when I was feeling unwell and couldn’t help her.

Alice called each night with reports on Solitaire games won and lost. “You know when you win,” she said, “the cards go marching off the edge! Then they all come back again when you hit Play.”

One night she called to say that she “could not do anything” on the machine, not even Solitaire. Nothing worked. A couple more days would pass before I felt well enough to go to her apartment.

When I arrived, the background screen on the computer was no longer green. It was black. The letters were no longer black. They were white. Further, neither wired keyboard nor touchscreen keyboard worked. Instead, a robotic voice spoke to me.

I tried to make changes, but was quickly dismissed by the gremlin that had taken over:  “You do not have permission to make changes.”

“What did you do here?” I asked Alice, completely befuddled.

She shrugged. “I don’t know. I wanted to go to e-mail. I tried everything.”

I asked if she knew how to get to the settings, which required swiping along the edge of the screen. “Oh yes,” she said.

And the apps?

I flicked my finger up the screen, revealing the Apps Basement.

“I’ve seen all of those before,” she said. “I don’t know what they say. The print’s so small. I tried them. They’re not very helpful.”

As I struggled to return everything to the way it had been, she grew smaller and smaller in her chair. “I’d better give it up,” she said. “I made a big mess.”

I called Justin for help, which he calmly and patiently gave. At last everything had been restored to the condition Meg and I had created. With Justin’s help, there was now an even easier way for Alice to see Send and Reply in her e-mail program. However, the new look made the font so large that the space for an e-mail dwindled to less than an inch. Alice could not control the up and down arrows well enough to read a message in that narrow slot.

After several days and more fiddling with font size and more colors and more lessons, I’m afraid nothing has improved.

The online keyboard is too hard for her to see; the wireless keyboard impossible. The confusion of where to put her fingers on the touchy touchscreen, the unfathomable options on pop-up menus that suddenly appear when fingers lightly brush the wrong spots, the difficulties of switching between programs, the stress she feels at not being able to see what she’s doing – all have added up to a conclusion we both came to independently: this is not going to work for her.

So back to Microsoft it goes. I can’t tell you how disappointed I am that this story does not end happily. And I’m sure that Alice, though stoic about it all, feels quite a lot worse.

Many thanks to Justin and Meg for their patience and assistance, and to you for following along this trail to a dead-end.

I do have one happy thing to report: After many weeks of turning up her nose at Alice and Nadine, Mika broke her silence the other day and stopped in the dining room to greet Alice. She bowed in that exact and brief way she has of bowing, and held hands for a moment. The thaw has begun. Must be spring coming.

18 Responses to “Alice Vs. The Machine”

  1. Dee Packard Says:

    Andrea, I think you could write about anything and engage and touch me.

    This is such a tale of heroism in the best and true sense of that word which way too often describes a muscular, dragon-slaying feat. You four created something wonderful, a collaboration, played with such heart and hope, until good sense called the game, and brought an honorable surrender.
    Pure wisdom.

    On another note, that song! I sure miss 1976!


    • Yeah…let’s go back to 1976 and get stoned and listen to music. Life was so easy then. Nobody ever imagined they’d have a computer in the form of a phone or a pad or a box that sits on a desk. Well, I guess somebody was imagining. Bill Gates, for example. But not us.


  2. Meg Glaser Says:

    I’m so sorry to hear that this experiment didn’t work out. It is so frustrating that Alice and so many other elders lost the simplest email solution with the end of WebTV. I so admire Alice for giving it her best at age 98.


  3. Beth Says:

    Discouraging about the Windows device. It does seem that our new and improved devices are not designed elegantly, for easy use by anyone. They are really esoteric specialty items, intuitive only to people who are already acculturated to electronics and technology. They are not friendly at all.

    I have no better ideas. I am sure that some kind person will adapt what exists now into a simpler tool, with a large, bright, readable interface. But it could take a while.

    I frequently find that I cannot return to the screen I want, cannot log in to my G-mail, cannot copy or cut and paste as I would like. I feel both angry and like an idiot when that happens.

    I wonder if the Association for the Blind has any suggestions or work-arounds to recommend. There just has to be adaptive technology out there.

    I am glad you are feeling better. I have the head cold that has been going around. Blech.


    • Familiarity with computers and how they work seems to be a prerequisite for any option offered now. Alice just doesn’t have that. She had a wireless keyboard, a remote, and her TV set with WebTV, and that was so easy. She already knew about all three and how they worked.
      I did meet with the specialist for visual aids at the eye clinic where Alice goes for her macular degeneration treatments. There are a couple of options for reading that have helped her, but nothing to make a computer less of a computer, and that’s really what we want.
      I hope you’re feeling better soon, Beth.


  4. Sarah M. Says:

    It is so disheartening to lose communication with friends. Have you considered this?


    • Thanks, Sarah. Yes, I did look into that. It’s problematic because of the background colors. Alice cannot read black text on a white background any more. When I tried to get an answer from them about whether or not this could be changed, there was no response. I tried contacting them several months ago with another question, and again their response time was awfully slow. So I just don’t think it would work for us, but I appreciate the suggestion. I hope lots of people are getting what they need from that system.


  5. Denise Emanuel Clemen Says:

    Grrrr. This makes me very frustrated with Microsoft. I’m sad that Alice has lost her email connections, and also feeling sad and frustrated for how much time you’ve put into this, Andrea! Hoping for a solution.


  6. 37paddington Says:

    I was really hoping it was going to work. I got my 92 year old mom an iPad so she could play her beloved bridge but her fingers kept hitting the wrong spot and sending everything haywire and now her grandchildren play their games on that thing and she watches the game show network. I know what your two hearts hoped for. So well.


    • I’m sorry your attempt to help your mom failed too. The iPad doesn’t work for many seniors, I’m afraid. It’s just too touchy. If I hear of a solution, I’ll be sure to pass it along.


  7. cmflet Says:

    Oh, Andrea, this makes my heart ache for Alice. There must be thousands and thousands of seniors in the same situation, and it seems nothing is available for them now that WebTV is gone. (My mom used that, and loved it.) But high hopes, at least, that the Mika-frost may be starting to thaw!


  8. alancahn Says:

    Bummer. Glad you are starting to feel better and that morning has broken and nothing else.


  9. Oh you have the patience of a Saint! Well done for perseverance beyond the call of duty. Bring back Walkie Talkies I say. I almost flew into a panic when my 88 year-old mother mentioned she might like a lap top. My sister is still recovering from the daily calls which always begin with,
    “I can’t turn this TV on again – Yes, I am pressing the right buttons and yes, I have done that…” etc. etc. My mother is quite capable but a laptop? I shudder at the thought of the phone calls I would get. She is unlike my mother-in-law who, at a similar age, manages email and spreadsheets with ease. My mother has always tailor made her own clothes and went ballroom dancing, twice a week, until she was 83 and osteoporosis and other ailments set in but a computer? Help!
    Alice continues to amaze me :-)


  10. Justin Ting Says:

    Really not that frustrating, but I’m sorry too that this computer was not Alice-friendly.


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