Goodbye, and ... good luck

Sunday, October 25, 1998

BY CHARLES BREWER
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Most of my readers probably think that writing this column and editing this page is my full-time job.

If life were only that easy.

My real job is systems manager for The Cincinnati Enquirer's newsroom. I do this "Plugged In" stuff in my spare time.

In the computer business, time is always in short supply. As we use computers more and more, my spare time has become spare indeed. So the business editor has generously agreed to take over this page.

I'm retiring from the columnist business too, since too often lately I've been absorbed in real work as my deadline passed.

I hope the columns I've written, peripatetic and occasionally accurate, have been helpful to at least a few.

When I started writing this column three years ago, some people sent me e-mail complaining that the column was too simple. Others griped that it was too technical. Writing about computers for a general-interest publication is challenging, since while the majority of readers are probably techno-beginners, other readers want the nuts-and-bolts advice found in computer magazines.

I tried to find a middle ground, writing about trends and interesting Web sites.

Seeking publicity

Another thing that amazed me was the deluge of technology companies from around the country looking for publicity in the Enquirer. Every day I got many calls, e-mails, letters and elaborate press kits, pushing everything from cellular phones to Web sites. A Web site is easy and cheap to create (as evidenced by the millions of personal sites), yet some companies apparently spend huge sums on them.

One liquor company sent me two or three elaborate press kits about its site, really just a silly, poorly executed game advertising booze. Some companies obviously spent more money promoting the site than developing it.

But what struck me the most were the regular letters from readers who were interested in, but flummoxed by, home computer technology. These folks think computers are important and they should use one, but can't understand why they're so complex.

Between the lines in these letters was the question, "Why is it so difficult for me to understand this stuff, when everyone else seems to?"

I believe most people really don't understand their computers. People who spend a lot of time using computers learn to deal with their idiosyncrasies. They learn to restart after the computer complains that the "application has performed an illegal operation." They are reluctant to alter software or hardware, saying, "I don't want to screw anything up."

They learn to live with computers, much the way our grandfathers learned to live with automotive technology at the beginning of this century.

Long adolescence

Despite the hype, I believe home computer technology is very much in its adolescence. And like teen-agers, computers do the damndest things.

Push them too hard and they quit. They always seem to run out of memory and forget what they're doing. They speak a language that could very well be Martian.

And occasionally, despite all your best efforts, they take a turn for the worse. If they do, finding help is frustrating and sometimes costly.

I think home computers will probably have a prolonged adolescence. The people who make them are often overaged adolescents themselves, creating faster, more complex computers at the cost of sensible things like simplicity and functionality.

Software designers seem to believe that we all aspire to be computer geeks like them. Why else would they write programs that tell users, "Error: Unable to control A20 Line! XMS Driver not installed." or more to the point, "A Fatal Error has occurred."

So my final advice to you, dear readers, is simple: Don't fret over computers. They are no more important than any other bundle of wires and plastic. Like all man-made things, they too will pass.

When you get ready to put your fist through your computer, take a deep breath, relax and remember that the important things in life are friends, family and God. Not computers. Certainly not computers.

Send e-mail to Charles Brewer at CBrewerenquirer.com

Send e-mail to Charles Brewer at CBrewer@enquirer.com.

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