Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Dear Mr. Computer

During the years I wrote Science Musings for the Boston Globe, I had a occasional column called Mr. Computer, in which I answered queries from "correspondents". Herewith a sampler.

Dear Mr. Computer,
After a lot of trouble, I managed to construct my own homepage on the web, with a list of my favorite songs, a picture of my cat, favorite links, little "Under Construction" signs, and everything. But so far, I haven't had a hit. What can I do to make my site more attractive?
Bill B., Boston

Dear Bill,
There are almost as many personal homepages on the Web as homes on our streets. It's unrealistic to expect a lot of uninvited visitors. Be patient, sooner or later you'll get a hit from the Jehovah Witnesses.


Dear Mr. Computer,
My 8-year-old daughter goes to a private school that has put a computer on every desk. The school's catalog promises to "make learning fun." Maybe I'm old fashioned, but I always thought learning was supposed to be hard work. Am I getting my money's worth?
Mary M., Miami

Dear Mary,
Depends on what you want for your daughter. If you want her to become a proficient member of the clickerati, she's in the right place. On the other hand, if you want a child who will curl up in a cozy chair with a book, fiddle with violin, or run barefoot in a sunny meadow, then you might want to reconsider your choice.


Dear Mr. Computer,
My husband Vernon stays up late every night, sometimes till 3 or 4 in the morning, "cruising the information superhighway," as he calls it. What's he going to do with all that information? He certainly doesn't seem any better informed to me.
Debbie D., Denver

Dear Debbie,
The information superhighway runs through some seamy parts of town. Vernon's nocturnal habits are probably harmless unless they start interfering with his day job. What your boy needs is less cruising and more snoozing.


Dear Mr. Computer,
For the past 12 months I have been telecommuting to my job, doing all of my work out of my house. I bank by computer, shop by computer. I'm even having a cyber-relationship with a nice man named Vernon that I met in a chat room. It seems I never get out of the house any more. Can this be good for me?
Helena H., Hartford

Dear Helena,
No, it's not good for you. Everyone should have some contact with the outside world. I would suggest a nice screen-saver from the collection marketed by DigiNature. You can select pictures of mountains, seashore, a forest, poppy fields, and so on.


Dear Mr. Computer,
I have a terrible crush on Bill Gates, the chairman of Microsoft. I know he's married, but I can't get him out of my head. My letters return unopened. My e-mail messages disappear into the void. How can I get him to pay attention?
Cindy C., Chicago

Dear Cindy,
I am afraid you are suffering a painful delusion. Bill Gates is not a real person. He is a company mascot, like the Pillsbury Doughboy, the Michelin Tire Man, or the Keebler Elf. The boyish, bespectacled "richest-man-in-the-world" was created for Microsoft by a advertising agency as a way to give the mammoth software firm a human face.


Dear Mr. Computer,
Help! I'm a college student addicted to the Internet. I'm on-line 20 hours a day, minimum! I skip classes. Miss meals. Go without sleep. I have no social life. My friends have left me. I'm flunking my courses. My fingers twitch involuntarily. I need help fast.
Danny D., Dartmouth

Dear Danny,
I get lots of letters from kids like you. Campus counseling services report skyrocketing cases of what they call IAD (Internet Addiction Disorder), more than they can currently handle. Your best bet is to find an on-line support group.


Dear Mr. Computer,
I have heard from a friend that a computer virus is going round that lays dormant in your machine for a while, then kicks in and starts converting typed S's into $'s. Should I worry?
Marvin M., Memphis

Dear Marvin,
You can avoid DTD's (digitally transmitted diseases) by staying out of disreputable parts of cyberspace.


Dear Mr. Computer,
I thought computers were supposed to make books obsolete. My local bookstore has row after row of books on computers. They are taking over the store. I can hardly find a good novel.
Peter P., Portland

Dear Peter,
I recommend that you buy my book, "How to Get Along in the Paperless Society." You will find it at your local bookstore.


Dear Mr. Computer,
I met this really cool guy in a chat room and we got on really great. Now we are talking about getting intimate, virtually-speaking, and I asked him to download a photo. What a hunk! The thing is, the photo is in Adobe Photoshop format. How can I be sure that he has not retouched his pix? I mean, really?
Dolly D., Dallas

Dear Dolly,
I think you miss the point about virtual sex. As long as you are doing it in cyberspace, you might as well do it with a "hunk."


Dear Mr. Computer,
I'm finally getting around to buying a computer. I've heard that in six months time the machines will be faster, more powerful, and cheaper than today. Should I wait?
Susan S., Sacramento

Dear Susan,
Buy your computer now and enjoy it while you can. Six months from now machines will indeed be better and cheaper, but then you will be six months away from even better, cheaper machines. You are going to feel rotten no matter when you buy.


Dear Mr. Computer,
We own a home computer and bought several highly recommended "totware" packages for our 18-month-old child. However, Jason insists on playing with his blocks instead of the computer. We are worried that he will not be competitive when he starts playschool. Should we take the blocks away and insist that he use the computer?
Terry T., Tallahassee

Dear Terry,
I would recommend a software package called Digi-Blocks. With this program, your toddler can move brightly-colored, simulated blocks on the screen of the computer, using the mouse. The future belongs to those who are comfortable in virtual reality. The sooner Jason stops playing with real objects, the better.


Dear Mr. Computer,
The Internet would appear to be the most important technological innovation of the millennium, yet I cannot find anyone who can tell me who runs it, who owns it, how it's financed, or how it works. It just seems to be there. Like air. Can you answer my questions?
Sam S., Seattle

Dear Sam,
Well, you $ee...uh...it'$ like...uh...that i$...uh...Mr. Computer i$ tired now. Maybe he'll an$wer your que$tion$ later.