Read an Excerpt
You need to know right off the bat that I’m a total computer geek. I am pathetic. You’ve seen all those computer magazines with names like Data Dweeb and cover headlines like:
EXPLICIT COLOR PHOTOGRAPHS
OF BIG HARD DRIVES!
WAX YOUR MODEM FOR IMPROVED SPEED!
No doubt you’ve asked yourself, “What kind of no-life loser actually reads these magazines?”
I do! All the time! I read them in bed! I look at the pictures of new computer systems and become moderately aroused and say things like “Whoa! Check out the 6X SCSI-2 CD-ROM drive on THAT baby!”
I’m always on the lookout for a new computer to replace my current one when it becomes obsolete, which usually happens before I can get it all the way out of the box. I am not proud of this, but I have owned more than twenty computers,1 dating back to the early 1980s, when I got one of the first primitive Radio Shack models, which looked like a mutant toaster oven that had been exposed to atomic radiation and developed a keyboard.
This computer had virtually no practical use other than to consume electricity. You know how modern personal computers contain a microchip “brain” that, despite being no larger than a Chiclet, can perform millions of mathematical calculations per second? Well, I don’t think my Radio Shack computer had one of those. I think there might have been an actual Chiclet in there, calling the shots. Because this frankly was not a gifted computer. I would not have put my money on this computer in a head-to-head IQ test against a doorknob.
I had two programs for my Radio Shack: a word processor and a game where you were a spaceship commander, trying to destroy invading alien spaceships. In terms of enhancing my personal productivity, there was essentially no difference between these two programs. Both were very difficult to get working; both frequently stopped working for no apparent reason; and both had insanely obscure instructions that were written neither by nor for human beings. (“To delete a word, you must first enter the Command Mode by pressing the slash key, followed by the percent key, followed by the key with that little squiggly thing, followed by the first five digits of your Social Security number, followed by …”) It was impossible to use these programs for more than a few minutes without seriously screwing up and losing an important document or (even worse) your spaceship.
But I loved that computer. I spent many happy hours cursing at it. I even learned to program it a little bit. At one point I spent hours writing a simple program that made the computer count.
… and so on, until the Chiclet pooped out. I ran this program over and over. I was proud of myself for developing this innovative way to utilize my data-processing resources to do my counting for me automatically, thereby freeing me to devote my valuable time to the important task of shopping for a new computer.
Of course today I have a far more powerful computer containing numerous important computer things such as “megahertzes” and “megs” of “RAM,” and I use it for many vital tasks other than counting. For example, I am writing this book on a computer that is running the hugely popular Windows 95™ operating system, which has revolutionized the software world thanks to its capability of accomplishing the seemingly impossible task of making Bill Gates even richer than he already was.
I love Windows 95™, because first of all, it is so unbelievably complicated that I will never, ever in one trillion years really figure it out; this is an important feature for us computer geeks, who would much rather spend our time diddling with our computers than using them to do something productive. If you don’t believe this, pick up a copy of Byte2 magazine sometime and read a column in there by a guy named Jerry Pournelle. Jerry is an author and a famous computer guru, and every month his column has basically the same plot, which is:
1. Jerry tries to make some seemingly simple change to one of his computers, such as connect it to a new printer.
2. Everything goes hideously wrong and the computer completely stops working. Sometimes several of his other computers also stop working. Sometimes there are massive power outages all over the West Coast. Poor Larry spends days trying to get everything straightened out.
3. Finally, with the help of Customer Service3 and other computer experts all over the world, Jerry gets his computer working again approximately the way it used to, and he writes several thousand words about it for Byte.
I swear it’s virtually the same plot, month after month, and yet it’s a popular column in a magazine that appeals primarily to knowledgeable computer people. Why? Because Jerry’s coming right out and admitting that we knowledgeable computer people primarily use our computers for messing around. Windows 95™, being virtually impossible for a normal human to comprehend, is ideal for this purpose. Also, thanks to its advanced graphical capabilities, Windows 95™ enables you to put the little ™ sign after “Windows 95.” In fact, you can put all kinds of little things up there, such as Windows 95, Windows 95, Windows 95, and of course Windows 95BILLGATESISAWIENER (I’ll have more to say about dressing up your documents in the chapter on word processing, or “How to Press an Enormous Number of Keys Without Ever Actually Writing Anything.”)
And here’s another important capability that I have, thanks to the powerful studliness of my computer and Windows 95: I can do “multi-tasking,” which means I have the ability to run several programs at the same time, which means that I can waste time faster than ever before.
For example: As I am writing this chapter, I am also running a program called Sim Tower™®, in which you build this simulated building with little simulated elevators, escalators, offices, hotel rooms, etc., and then all these little simulated people come and you have to try to keep them safe and happy. This is not easy. In fact, during the preceding paragraph, when I was trying to solve the complex word-processing problem of how to make the mark, I received an urgent message informing me that a terrorist had planted a bomb in my building and was demanding that I pay a $1 million ransom. Also I have office workers demanding parking spaces, and a number of my hotel rooms have been invaded by roaches the size of Rush Limbaugh®. Right now I am dealing with these problems, AND writing this informative book about computers, AND using a program called “ABM Commander” to protect several cities from nuclear destruction, AND checking my “e-mail” to get important guidance4 from my editors. Thanks to the miracle of computers, I am able to accomplish all of these tasks simultaneously, in stark contrast to famous authors of the pre-computer era such as Chaucer, who had to stop writing altogether when he wanted to play “ABM Commander.”
My point is that I have learned to use my computer as a productive tool in my everyday life, and you can, too, by applying the many helpful tips and practical techniques that you’ll find in this book.
Also you can find out how to get on the Internet and make contact with hundreds, even thousands, of people whom you would otherwise never have had anything to do with voluntarily.
But even if you don’t use a computer; even if you’re just an ordinary human being or member of the legal profession, this book can help you better understand computers—these amazing devices that play such an important role in your life, every minute of every day, from the moment, at 6 A.M. each morning, when you punch your clock radio to make it shut up. Think about it: Inside that clock radio is a miniature computer, an electronic “brain” that, despite being no larger than the reproductive organs of a standard female mosquito, is capable—thanks to the miracle of microcircuitry—of understanding not only basic commands, such as “ON,” “OFF,” and “ALARM,” but also advanced data-processing concepts, such as “SNOOZE.”
And that’s just the beginning. As clock radios become more intelligent, they’ll start to actually anticipate your actions. Even as you read these words, top appliance scientists are working on a prototype clock radio of tomorrow that will have little feet, so that after it sounds the alarm, it can dart around the night-stand, evading your fist. Eventually your clock radio will be so smart that it will figure out, after being punched a few times, that you don’t really want to wake up at 6 A.M. Instead of sounding the alarm, it will tiptoe quietly out of the room, telephone your workplace, and, mimicking your voice, inform your employer that you’re quitting.