A Monthly Column
The World Inside The Computer
Fred D'Ignazio is a computer enthusiast and author of several books on computers for young people. He is presently working on two major projects: he is writing a series of books on how to create graphics-and-sound adventure games. He is also working on a computer mystery-and-adventure series for young people. As the father of two young children, Fred has become concerned with introducing the computer to children as a wonderful tool rather than as a forbidding electronic device.
The Computer Playground
Eric ran over to the royal-blue sliding board, standing like a petrified monolith in the corner of his school playground. He lookedlup, searching for the top of the sliding board. It was lost somewhere in the drifting clouds. The metal rail glinted in the sun, resembling the arm of a giant crane. The dirty blue stairs seemed to go up and up, maybe ending somewhere in heaven.
Although Eric was only three, he confidently grabbed onto the sliding board's steel handrail and began clinging the steep metal stairs. After he got to the top, Eric stopped, panted like a puppy, and surveyed his playmates, screeching and dashing around the playground. His friends looked strangely small, since Eric was so high up.
Eric stretched on his tip-toes and grabbed the chinning bar above the sliding board. He swung back and forth wildly.
"Karla, watch!" he yelled to his teacher.
Halfway through each arc, he smacked his feet against the top of the sliding board. Loud percussion noises echoed across the playground.
Suddenly, Eric let go and went flying down the sliding board. He slid dizzily round and round the board's corkscrew spirals. He flew off the end of the board, sailed across a mud puddle, and demolished a sand castle being built by two of his friends. His friends went crying to their teacher. Eric howled. When he landed on the sandpile, he had scraped his bottom on the tip of an upturned shovel.
Moments later, the two kids were at work on another sand castle, undisturbed about the prospect of new children falling from the sky.
Eric was far away, on the opposite side of the playground. His cheeks were splashed with gritty tears, and his ears were filled with sand, but he was smiling. He had a new project. He was crab crawling across the green-shingled roof of the school's playhouse, trying to work up his courage to jump into the old rowboat beached under the house's eaves. Eric thought maybe he could do it. After all, what's jumping off a roof to a three-year-old who can climb to heaven and drop from clouds and clobber castles?
The Computer Alchemists
The dark-suited men were frowning and fiercely intent. They spoke a cryptic, arcane language. "Disk error in sector five," said one. "Uh-huh," said another. "We'll have to bleed the accumulator." A third stared at a wide piece of paper he had just ripped off a green-and-white sheet of paper so long it could have covered a banquet table." The OS slave program keeps stripping the control bits!" he said angrily. He crumpled up the paper and tossed it into a navy-green wastebasket under his spotless desk.
The men worked in a cool, almost Arctic room, drained of color by the overwhelming bath of white light emanating from the banks of flourescent lamps fastened to the ceiling. Tall panels of lights winked like a city's streetlights viewed from a distant hill. Rows of metal boxes were filled with rotating platters and reels of gleaming tape that spun and whirred.
Staccato, machine-gun noises filled the room, as three of the boxes disgorged endless sheets of paper. The paper looked like a giant, jerking tongue or an impossibly long scarf pulled from a magician's sleeve.
The men were only vaguely aware of the tap-dancing printer and the clacking tape drives. These sounds were muffled by a loud whooshing noise that seemed to cover everything in the room like an invisible volcanic ash. The noise came from air pouring through the wall grates from huge cooling and filtering fans. After several hours in the room, the noise could numb a person's whole body and make it feel wrapped in a cocoon of cotton candy.
When Alien Worlds Collide
Eric on the sliding board and the men in the cotton-candy room seem to be worlds apart. Eric is a toddler having fun on a playground. The men are high-level programmers and analysts designing a new computer system.
Eric is outdoors in the sun. The men are buried deep in the bowels of the Pentagon, in a guarded, windowless computer room.
Eric is covered with dirt and sand, and sweating from his exertions. The men are covered with plastic badges that proclaim their dedication and their utter seriousness about their craft. Dust and dirt are not permitted in their room. Only, sweat — cold sweat.
I used to be one of those men. And Eric is my son. Now Eric's world and the world where I once worked have intersected, like alien worlds colliding.
When did the collision take place? It occurred when I first turned Eric loose on my home computer.
The shock was antic. It was also profound.
Eric is a person of arbitrary, random action. He is a person driven by fantasy, by enormous appetites and desires. His energy seems boundless. His temper is formidable. He vibrates to the tune of unchecked emotions and enthusiasms. He cringes from invisible monsters that scare him half silly, then walks unconcerned past real monsters he still hasn't learned to fear. To my most careful, clearly put instructions, he answers, "What?"
Computers, on the other hand, are creatures of reason and precision. They are powerful tools, the product of advanced technology. Computers are predictable. If we put in the right command, we get the right answer. Or, if we feed the computer garbage, we get garbage back.
Computers and three-year-olds seem worlds apart. Just imagine a computer that acted like a three-year-old. Or imagine a three-year-old that acted like a computer.
Three-year-olds are hardy and tough. Computers are finicky and delicate. Three-year-olds revel in dirt, mud, and grime. Computers like to be clean. They work better that way.
Knives, Forks, And Attila The Hun
Eric has lots of nicknames: Little Hulk, Commando Kid, Tank, and the Lone Ranger, among others. My favorite, though, is Attila the Hun. This is an apt nickname because Eric, at heart, is a barbarian.
Can a barbarian ever learn to eat with a knife and fork? Can he be trusted in the same room as a computer?
Sometime, over a year ago, I was on the phone in the kitchen talking with someone in California. I was trying to obtain some photos for a book I was writing.
Eric was home with me all day, back then, while his mommy went to work and his sister went to school. I didn't worry about Eric while I talked on the phone, since Eric was busy crayoning on a piece of scrap paper on the floor of my study. Or so I thought.
I was deeply engrossed in the conversation, trying hard to visualize the Californian's robot turtle, which I had never seen. Then I happened to look up, and my heart stopped.
There, on the kitchen floor, Eric was hard at work, creating a flagstone sidewalk made out of my floppy disks. My floppy disks. I had stored all my books and programs on those disks. Eric must have known how important the disks were because he had carefully removed each disk from its protective case and gently dropped it on the floor. He had placed all the disks in a neat row that ended at the refrigerator. Now that he was finished building his sidewalk, he began to walk on the disks. Then he started to hop! "Eric!" I screamed. I gagged something inarticulate to the person at the other end of the phone and hung up. I charged across the kitchen floor. Eric fled to his bedroom.
I knelt beside the floppy disks. I was in shock. I was certain that the information they contained was squished, trampled, ruined. Several of the disks were covered with small dusty footprints.
Did I flog Eric? Was my information destroyed?
But that was only the first of a brief, but emotional, series of incidents involving Eric and the floppy disks. The problem was he couldn't keep his hands off them. Something perverse inside him told him he had me by the throat. All he had to do was point to a disk, and I flew into a tizzy. Every time I left my study, he would sneak in and rob several disks and hide them under his bed. For awhile, things got so bad, I began sealing my disk drawer shut with strapping tape, just to thwart Eric.
Then I had an inspiration. I gave Eric a disk of his own. It was an old disk that was no longer reliable. I wrote Eric's name on the disk in big green, magic-marker letters. I wrapped the disk up and gave it to him as a present.
He was delighted. He still keeps the disk in a place of honor on his bookshelf.
And he stopped robbing my disks.
Now You See It, Now You Don't!
I have two kids. Eric, of course, and Catie, who is six.
I have several computers, and I have turned my study into a videogame arcade and a computer programming workshop for neighborhood kids.
The kids can use all the computers in the room except one, my writing computer. That computer is supposed to be off limits.
One day, while the kids were banging away at the other computers, I got up from my computer to stretch and make a snack in the kitchen. On my way back into the room, five minutes later, I happened to glance at my computer screen. Before I left, the screen had been filled with words – a section of a new book chapter I was writing. Now the screen was empty.
I panicked. I ran into the room yelling at the kids. "Who messed with my computed" I hollered. "My chapter's gone. I've lost hours of work."
Then I checked the computer. I was sure it had been turned off, but it was still on. I did some more checking. Finally, I noticed the screen brightness switch. I turned it. Magically, my words reappeared. My chapter was untouched. Nothing was lost.
Just then, a very contrite five-year-old boy came up to me with his head drooping. "I did it, Mr. D'Ignazio," he said. "I didn't mean to kill your computer."
Joystick Tug Of War
Another time, I was in the kitchen eating dinner with my family. Several children were still playing computer games in the study. All of a sudden, from the study came shouts and scuffling noises.
"It's my turn to blast them!" one child cried.
"You just blasted them!" cried another child. "Now it's my turn!"
I ran into the study and found a six-year-old and a nine-year-old (brother and sister) doing their best to rip two joysticks out of a computer.
"What are you two doing?" I shouted.
The kids turned toward me. Frightened, they dropped their joysticks. One broke open on the study's hardwood floor.
"Out! Out!" I yelled.
They dashed past me and ran out the front door of the house.
How Come This Doesn't Fit?
Another time, I was in the kitchen preparing dinner for my family. It was close to five-thirty, and my wife, Janet, would be home soon from the office. As usual, the study was filled with kids playing with the computers.
I was slicing up some carrots for the salad, when I heard strange grunting noises coming from the study. Were the kids in there wrestling among the computers?
Hurriedly I dried my hands and went to see what was the matter.
When I got to the study door, I couldn't believe what I saw. A five-year-old boy was standing in front of one of the floppy disk drives. That was okay. I had taught all the kids – even Eric – how to insert disks properly into the drive.
But this kid wasn't inserting a disk. He was trying to shove a game cartridge into the drive. He was trying to squeeze an inch-thick plastic box into a hole designed for a disk only a sixteenth of an inch thick. He grunted loudly because he was trying so hard. He knew it was a tough thing to do, and he was giving it his best shot.
Strategies For Survival
Given these tales of abused and violated computers, what is the best strategy for mixing young people and computers?
You could put a lock on the computer room door until the kids all turn sixteen. Or until they leave home.
You could keep the computer in the car trunk and only bring it in the house after the kids are asleep.
You could even fortify the computer, beef it up, and make it indestructible, the way the military does with computers onboard tanks, guided missiles, and submarines.
You could do these things, but I would advise against it. In their place, I would advise a "Computer Orientation Session," followed by frequent "refresher" courses. I would also recommend a few simple precautions. And trust – lots of trust.
Based on my experience, I know that even toddlers can be taught to use computers properly.
Sure, there are lapses. (Oh, boy, are there lapses.) But, for the most part, Eric and his little friends do an amazing job with the computers. They turn them on and off. They adjust the TV screen. They insert and remove disks and cartridges, even tapes. They know how to call up programs and operate the keyboard, joysticks, and other controls.
But they must be taught first. You need to sit them down and go over the "etiquette" of using a computer. Compare it to the family pet. You shouldn't pull its tail or try to ride on it. It wouldn't like that.
Instead, you need to be gentle with it and take care of it. If you do the right things, it will be nice to you and give you pleasure.
Frequent drills on specific rules help a lot, here.
It would help if you give the kids some responsibilities for the computer's care that are just their own. Like keeping the keyboard free of cookie crumbs. Keeping the screen wiped clean of finger-prints and all sorts of unmentionable objects. Or reporting any irregularities such as wires in the wrong place, or anything that looks dangerous.
Remind the kids frequently that computers run on electricity, and that electricity, like fire, can serve them or hurt them.
Also, if you can afford it, give them their own floppy disk, cartridge, or tape. Help them store their favorite programs and games. Give them a small case to store their printouts, game instructions, and other computer-related materials. This way, the computer will become partly theirs. As its owners, they will try harder to care for the computer and protect it.
The following precautions, like the advice above, are just common sense. For example, I learned to put rugs on my study floor. Then, when computer objects dropped, there was a smaller chance that they'd actually break.
Also, back up all your important programs and files. Then keep those backup copies in your office, your bedroom, or in a locked safe. I can tell you, it's a lot easier to keep your cool when your child puts your floppy disk in the toaster, if you have a backup to the disk.
Keep all plugs, wires, and cables (anything electric) hidden and out of the line of fire. My kids could trip on a paper clip. How about yours?
Put all your equipment on top of large, sturdy tables, surrounded by lots of sturdy chairs.
Keep your cartridges, disks, tapes, manuals, programs, etc. organized. Make everything accessible to your children. But make them respect and adhere to your organization.
Teach them standards. All devices must be shut off after use. Disks and tapes must not be left out after use. Everything has a place. (Nag them about this rule, if only to preserve your sanity.)
Two last elements of strategy. First, try hard not to get upset when it looks like your kids have done something to the computer. Most of the time things are a lot better than they seem at first. We've had dozens of accidents with computers here at the "D'Ignazio Arcade," yet we've never broken a computer. At least not completely.
Second, don't push your kids to use the computers. Your three-year-old doesn't have to use educational programs to benefit from the computer. Your six-year-old doesn't have to learn to program.
Just the exposure to computers is doing your kids a world of good. Just switching buttons off and on. Or typing letters and shapes on the keyboard and watching them appear on the screen.
If you make kids' computer time synonymous with drudgery, with work, with tension, or with pressure, the kids won't like computers.
Don't push the kids. Just open the door, and sit back and watch. Computers fascinate kids, and that fascination will motivate them to learn on their own.
And congratulate yourself on your accomplishment. You are bringing together two very different worlds. And the results? The results are anybody's guess.