THE WORLD INSIDE THE COMPUTER
Our Computer Handyman
Fred D'lgnazio, Associate Editor
Fred D'lgnazio is a computer enthusiast and author of several books on computers for young people. His books include Katie and the Computer (Creative Computing), Chip Mitchell: The Case of the Stolen Computer Brains (Dutton/Lodestar), The Star Wars Question and Answer Book About Computers (Random House), and How To Get Intimate With Your Computer (A 10-Step Plan To Conquer Computer Anxiety) (McGraw-Hill).
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. His column appears monthly in COMPUTE!.
Late last spring I was talking with David James, the computer instructor at Patrick Henry High School here in Roanoke, Virginia. I told David I was using and reviewing all sorts of computers, and I would love to have an assistant who could help me with the technical aspects. I complained about my .06 percent mechanical aptitude (see my October and November columns, "How Computers Made Me Smarter After Only Thirteen Years of Daily Use"). David smiled. "I have just the student for you!" he exclaimed.
Two days later Howard Boggess showed up. Howard was a senior at Patrick Henry on his way to Tulane University in New Orleans. He had worked at a local computer store and was a dedicated hacker. Most nights (school nights) he would sit up fiddling with his Apple He with its twin monitor screens until 2:00 or 3:00 a.m.
Before Howard came we had lots of computer equipment around the house. But lots of it was unplugged, disconnected, or banished to the computer "graveyard" in the attic.
The computer graveyard was an eerie place. A magazine photographer working on a story once made me take him up to the graveyard. He took pictures of me kneeling on the floor, surrounded and dwarfed by old card cages, S-100 motherboards, upended video monitors, twining, snakelike cables, stacks of out-of-date circuit cards, and dead computers. When his photograph appeared in the magazine I noticed that two joysticks were sitting on a box behind me and stuck up above my head like high-tech devil's horns.
When I first led Howard up into the attic, he was impressed. "Wow!" he said. "What is all this stuff?"
I explained, and he asked me why I stored it away in the attic. "Because I can't make it work," I confessed. "So I bring it up here. I don't have time to fix all this stuff. I'm a writer, not a computer mechanic."
Howard was appalled. All his computer equipment was scavenged, secondhand, and patched together. To him my graveyard looked like the delicious leftovers from a sumptuous royal banquet. "Maybe we can use some of this equipment," he said.
"All right," I said. "Do with it what you will." I turned around and fled back downstairs, glad to return to a world where at least some of the machines were still alive.
A Houseful Of Computers
Howard worked up in the attic for about a month, unearthing and resurrecting the machines. Then he brought his motley crew back downstairs. The machines made a miraculous recovery and beeped and whirred and processed information like any of my other healthy computers.
Howard had worked a major miracle, but he didn't stop there. Once he returned downstairs, he began fixing and plugging in all the computers that lay idle or ignored. And, I'm embarrassed to admit, there were quite a number of machines that fell into this category.
My five-year-old son Eric was impressed with all the new computers we seemed to have around the house. He didn't know we had so many computers because most of the time they didn't work.
Eric came home from kindergarten one day and walked around the house, watching all the machines happily spitting out paper, playing music, and flashing words and pictures. When he arrived in my study, I could see that he was in awe. When he asked me who had fixed them all, I named Howard. "How did Howard do it?" he asked.
Just then my eight-year-old daughter Catie stuck her head in the door and answered, "Because Howard is naturally intelligent.
"Unlike Daddy," she continued, "who is naturally dumb."
The Computer Party Line
One day while I was tapping away at my computer keyboard in my upstairs study, Howard came in and asked me why none of the computers was connected to a modem. I knew that Howard was a bulletin board fanatic. He spent most of the time using his Apple to roam around the country's bulletin boards, trading software and acting as dozens of people's on-line handyman.
"It seems a shame to have all these computers," he said, "and none of them can talk to each other."
I think I must have scratched my head at that point. Or else maybe I nodded. In any case, Howard took that as a green light to get our computers on-line with each other and communicating. Within a month he had every computer in the house talking with every other computer. We had joined four information networks, and the phone company was making house calls every other day.
By the end of the month our lives settled into a semblance of order. But during the month utter chaos reigned. For example, my wife would come home from work at night, and the phone would ring. She would run into the kitchen to answer it, but no one would be at the other end. This was because the kitchen phone was not ringing. Instead it was another phone on a different line that had just been installed that day. And it was still ringing.
Janet would hang up the kitchen phone and dash into our dining room and pick up the phone in there. Again nobody would answer. It was another phone that was ringing. It was the upstairs phone that had been installed in my son's bedroom the day before.
This daily mad dash for the telephone did nothing to improve my wife's mood after a hard day at the office. And it wasn't the only thing she faced when she returned to the house.
I tried to dedicate some of the telephone lines to the computers, some to my professional work, and some to the family. Except I kept changing my mind. So every couple of days, I called the phone company, and they came back and switched the phone lines. By the time Janet came home from work each night, all the phones had different numbers than when she left the house that morning.
Playing musical telephones was bad enough, but things got even worse. The computers began spending more and more time on the phones, and as they got on-line, they bumped family members off-line. For a brief period, almost every time somebody would pick up a telephone they would find that a computer was already there, chatting to another computer.
Also, during the same period, we went through a couple of days in which we were shut off from the world. No one who called us could reach us because every time the phone rang, a computer would answer. Whenever a phone rang, somebody would race wildly through the house picking up receivers and crying "Hello! Hello!" But a computer would always be there first, whining its irritating high-frequency carrier tone at whoever had the misfortune to call us.
As I remember, handyman Howard was not available during this period. He must have been taking tests at school or something. So without his help, we just gave up. One day my wife arrived home from work, and the phone rang.
"Aren't you going to get it?" she asked. "Nope," I said. "The computer will answer it."
It did. Then it promptly hung up.
It was a very efficient way to handle calls.
Our Family's Electronic Mailboxes
After about a month, as I said, our lives gradually returned to normal. We kicked the computers off the phones at certain hours of the day, and we forbade them from answering the phones, unless we were sure another computer was making the call.
This was when we discovered electronic mailboxes. Electronic mailboxes and bulletin boards have been the biggest new thing in our family's life since Eric was potty-trained.
With Howard as our guide, we began setting up electronic mailboxes and posting bulletins on The Source, CompuServe, MCI Mail, the Plato Learning Network, and on bulletin board systems around the country. Then we filled the mailboxes and boards with messages. Going online was a marvelous experience—like launching helium balloons with our names and messages tied to them. We were reaching out to utter strangers, and we didn't know who would respond or where they might respond from.
And the strangers responded. We heard from a teenager in Wisconsin, an engineer in Texas, a retired teacher in Kentucky, and from many other people. And we wrote back.
To encourage more people to correspond with me electronically, I began listing all my mailbox user-identification codes on the river of paper mail that flows out of my office every day. And whenever I called anyone on the phone I made a point of saying, "You know, this voice stuff is really old hat. We should be talking computer-to-computer, not person-to-person. That's the way to really stay in touch."
When I did this, even more people responded. I got software publishers on the networks, teachers, parents, and distant members of my family. But I still wasn't satisfied. In fact, none of us were. Then I realized: We were all hooked. We had developed an appetite for electronic mail the same way we had an appetite for paper mail. The big difference was that with paper mail, you know you can count on only one delivery a day, six days a week. But with electronic mail, there's always the hope that the electronic "mailperson" has delivered a letter for you and it's waiting on some computer system right now. All you have to do is turn on your computer and check all your mailboxes. One of them may contain a letter.
Intra-Home Electronic Mail
This hunger for electronic mail became insatiable, and it affected all of us, except for Mowie the cat. When we woke up in the morning, even before we made trips to the bathroom, all of us would dash to a computer and begin checking our mailboxes. After breakfast we would check our mailboxes again. As soon as my kids came home from school, they checked their mailboxes. When Janet got home from work, she checked her mailbox. And we all checked our mailboxes again at dinner, and before we went to bed.
We have a lot of friends, but we don't have enough friends who can spend all day writing us letters to keep our electronic mailboxes full. So we found that most of the time our mailboxes were empty, and this made us unhappy.
Then Howard showed up, listened to our problem, and came up with a great idea. "Why not," he said, "send letters to each other?"
At first this seemed like a crazy idea. Why should we send letters to each other? We lived with each other, saw each other, and talked with each other all the time. Why should we send mail to each other?
"Just try it," said Howard, "and I'll bet you like it."
He was right! We began leaving each other little notes on the computer, and pretty soon we were sending long letters. It was as if we had opened the floodgates. Apparently, we had a lot more to say to each other than we had been able to say face-to-face.
And no wonder! All the members of my family are so busy and going in so many directions at once that we rarely have the chance to sit down and casually ask questions like, "How was your day?" or "How is your life?" or "Is anything bothering you?" The moment rarely arises when two people in our family are in a mood or have enough time to have a conversation.
But now, using our electronic mailboxes, we ask these questions electronically and have electronic conversations—long, serious conversations unlike any we've ever had before. The mailboxes bring the different members of my family together by letting them talk when they have time or want to talk, and listen when they have time or are in the mood to listen.
In the past, it was rare that a family talker could find a listener when they had something to say. So they just didn't say it. And either it stayed bottled up inside and festered, or they simply forgot it. Now, when family members have something to say, they sit down at the computer and type it as a letter and send copies to each family member they want to say it to. And when those family members feel in the mood to get mail or have time to listen, they sit down at the computer and read their mail. And then they write back.
E-Mail Away From Home
We have all become so dependent on this new avenue for family communication that when Janet or I go out of town we take a portable computer just to stay in touch. When we get to a hotel room or pay phone, we log onto a network, check our mailbox, and send letters to the rest of the family. The rest of the family, meanwhile, logs onto the computer two or three times a day and writes long, chatty letters to the traveling parent.
This system is far cheaper than making long distance phone calls, and it's also better. For example, the other night Janet called us from Washington, DC, where she had been attending a conference for a week. She had been in daily touch by electronic mail, but she called because she wanted to hear our voices.
She got to hear our voices, all right. And a whole lot more. I was running the vacuum cleaner when she called and ran to the phone without turning it off. The TV was blaring. Catie and Eric had their friend Alexa over, and the three kids were playing breakdancing music on the stereo while racing through the house hooting and hollering. When I yelled at the kids to quiet down, the doorbell rang. I told Janet to wait a minute so I could go to the door. Just then the other telephone rang. Eric ran to get the phone and tripped over the vacuum cleaner and began crying.
When I got back to the phone a few minutes later, Janet was no longer in the mood to hear our voices. "I'll send you some E-mail," she said.
Most of these events happened during the summer and fall. Today our computer handyman, Howard, is a student down in New Orleans at Tulane, and things have calmed down around here considerably. The computers which fill the house still work, but not quite as well as when Howard was here.
We are still in love with electronic mail. We write to Howard every day on The Source, and he writes back. Janet and I have started sending each other electronic love letters. And Catie, Eric, and I have started exploring The Source's CHAT system and CompuServe's CB Simulator. Using these systems we can have an electronic conversation with over a hundred thousand people.
After our experience with using computers to communicate, I am firmly convinced that Howard was right when he said computers should talk to each other. He was right because when computers talk to each other, so do people.