Tuesday, March 13, 2001

PULFER: When can we blame computers?

        I was shushed at a movie. Twice. This is not my fault.

        Next to me was an important civil servant who can be reached only through an overworked switchboard, which then gives you many complicated electronic alternatives to talking to an actual person. So when he offered to reveal his direct line, plus his e-mail address and his cell phone number, I jumped at the chance.

        By then, the lights were being dimmed for “our feature presentation.” This was after a half hour of commercial messages and brain teasers aimed at people with the IQ of Vaseline.

The PC's helper
               “Do you have a card?” I whispered.

        “Do you have a Palm Pilot?” he responded.

        To my great wonderment, I do have this little device, a purse-sized electronic date book and calendar that periodically confides everything it knows to my PC. I still can't believe I have my own personal computer. It seems like only yesterday I wasn't sure I could tolerate an impersonal computer for the office. Now I have one there, one at home and one for my purse.

        We use them, of course, because they are so marvelously efficient, saving us thousands of person-hours, which we can devote to telling Bill Clinton jokes and watching reality TV.

        At first, all I did was play. For instance, you do not have to settle for a simple beep when you have annoyed your computer. If you have the deluxe model, you can choose from a variety of barnyard and jungle sounds. You have no idea how irksome a quack can be when it's repeated several hundred times, and I spent most of an afternoon finding and silencing the bleeping monkey.

        The screen saver is a random graphic, originally developed for office use. This was designed to keep the computer from burning a permanent copy of your resume onto the screen in case you had not shared with your colleagues your intention to tell them to shove it as soon as the economy improves or you win the lottery.

        But I digress. The point is that a baffled reader has urgently requested my assistance. After several hours of sifting through windows and envelopes and megacomputabytes, I found my notes. Fran Shannon of Indian Hill has asked my opinion. This is such an unusual occurrence that I carefully saved it in the “Hell Frozen Over” file, which I finally located amid much bleeping and quacking.

Risky behavior
               Now that most of us have computers, now that they are not some mysterious Univac in a climate-controlled room operated by people with advanced degrees in computer science, Mr. Shannon wants to know if the phrase “computer error” can be retired. “Don't most of us understand that the errors occur where they always have? With people.”

        Well, Mr. Shannon, this may be true. But maybe the computer really did make a mistake. Maybe it's sick. It might have a virus. This would not be surprising considering the number of people who are having unprotected communication with relative strangers.

        I was preparing to do so in a darkened theater.

        “Just hold down your Address Button,” he whispered. “And point your unit toward me.”

        I glanced at my Palm Pilot. “Transaction complete,” the lighted message read. We had exchanged business cards. Without a sound. Except for a beep and my involuntary shriek of satisfaction.

        Somebody shushed. Twice. It was not my fault.

        It was a computer error.

        E-mail lpulfer@enquirer.com. Past columns at www.enquirer.com/columns/pulfer.


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