February 13, 1996


The Computer Ate My Homework

On Valentine's Day in 1946, a half-century ago Wednesday, scientists in Philadelphia unveiled the Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer, ENIAC. The first electronic computer weighed 30 tons and filled a room.

A few years later, experts were predicting that computers might someday weigh as little as 1.5 tons, and that dozens of them might be installed around the world.

Today, computers weigh far less than 1.5 tons. Tens of millions of them go into service each year, ranging from massively parallel computation engines that simulate weather patterns to humble little chips in wrist watches and dolls and automobile dashboards.

What about 50 years from now?

Even the experts know it is reckless to forecast computer technology more than five years out. Bill Gates once said that 640 kilobytes of RAM ought to be enough for anyone. But what the heck, here goes:

In 2046, we will still be complaining about slow computers, lack of bandwidth, incompatible standards, high prices, rapid obsolescence, incomprehensible documentation, computer bugs and viruses, smut on line, invasions of privacy and poor technical support. It is just that there will be more computers to complain about.

If this last week was an indication of things to come, I am tempted to go back to the typewriter and rotary dial phones. From a technical standpoint, it was the Valentine's Day Massacre.

First, my laptop died (RIP, 1991-1996). It would cost more to repair and upgrade it than it would cost to buy a new model.

Then, my new digital voice mail system went on the blink, eating the first 10 or 15 seconds of each new message and sometimes garbling the rest.

Then there was a curious electronic-mail message from the chairman of my Internet provider company, assuring me that the company was aware of the technical problems and that it was hiring more people and installing new equipment to fix the problem.

Sure, it was often a problem to get through the busy signals, but I had not noticed any significant troubles.

As if on cue, that was the last message I received before my electronic mail vanished.

When I tried to retrieve the next batch of my electronic mail, a euphemistically named "dialogue box" popped on screen. The dialogue consisted of the message "ERR: Maildrop lock busy." The only repartee I was permitted was to click on a button that just said "Sorry."

Just then, poof! More than 100 electronic messages I had received in the preceding two days, most of them still unread, simply vanished from my mailbox. As a seasoned computer professional, I realized instinctively that the proper technical response was to grab my head and scream.

The sudden rush of carbon dioxide had no effect on the computer, and the voice-recognition system had not been trained to recognize the phrase "Aaaaarrrrgh!"

Plan B, beating on the keyboard with the mouse, was equally ineffective.

However, I discovered in the process that while I was barred from receiving my mail, I could still send messages. So, I composed a terse memo to my Internet provider's technical support electronic hot line. "Dear Incompetent Morons," it began, and the tone grew less polite from there.

My Internet provider is not named here, because years of experience have taught me that the angrier and more accusative I get with technical support people, the more likely it is that the problem can be traced back to something stupid I have done.

With the humbling possibility in mind that it was my fault, not theirs, I took a deep breath and called technical support, by telephone. A recorded voice told me that the average wait to speak with a human was 18 minutes and 45 seconds.

No time to wait. An emergency call went out to an executive at the company who promised to pull some strings to help me. Several hours later I checked voice mail.

As expected, the phone system ate the first few seconds of the message. But I caught enough of it to hear: "... you reported that something was wrong with your electronic mail. We've checked it out, and there does not appear to be a problem. If you have any other questions, you can reach me by E-mail at ..."


I waited until midnight, hoping that the telephone waiting line might be shorter. It was, by a few seconds. Finally, a human answered. He assured me the problem was easy to fix. The trouble, he said, was that the people who had the tools necessary to fix it would not be in until the following day.

Dusting off my Unix skills, which can be completely buried under not much dust, I dialed my Unix shell account and successfully logged on to my mail system. The relief was overwhelming as two days worth of backlogged E-mail began pouring onto the screen.

One of the last messages was from Technical Support. It was an automatic reply, generated by the computer, acknowledging my "Dear Incompetent Moron" message. Because of a serious backlog in technical support requests, the reply stated, I should not expect an answer to my query for 2 to 3 weeks.

Fifty years ago, on the day they pulled the sheets off Eniac, no one could have imagined the wonders of personal computers, digitized voice mail and electronic mail. One can only imagine what marvels await us in the future.

PERSONAL COMPUTERS is published weekly, on Tuesdays. Click here for a list of links to other columns in the series.

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