On The Road With Fred D'lgnazio
How Computers Made Me Smarter After Only Thirteen Years Of Daily Use
On this occasion of my third anniversary as a COMPUTE! columnist, I am going to look back, back into the mists of time, and count (on my fingers and toes) all the blessings computers have brought me.
Blessing 1: Cuisinart-Brain Thinking
Sometime ago I was up in Toronto, Canada, making a speech to educators on using computers in the classroom, and after my speech, an educator came up to me and complimented me by telling me I was an "integrated brain thinker." She explained to me that, from my speech, it was obvious that I could think with my left brain (the analytical side), and I could think with my right brain (the creative side). Ergo, I must be an integrated brain thinker.
I was flattered, but modestly I said she was far too generous. I told her that I wasn't a left-brain thinker, a right-brain thinker, or an integrated-brain thinker. Instead, I said, I was a Cuisinart-brain thinker. As a Cuisinart-brain thinker I had the rare ability to process facts and ideas by slicing them, dicing them, mixing them together, then spinning them around. I told her I owed my talent to a long and deep association with computers.
Blessing 2: An Algorithmic Lifestyle
The next morning after I had talked to the educator in Toronto, I was in the shower in my hotel room. I had soaped up and rinsed off, so I was ready to turn the shower off.
With my computerlike memory I recalled that most showers have screw handles. You usually turn them to the left to get more water; and you turn them to the right to get less. Since I wanted less water, I turned my shower handle to the right. The algorithm was simple and clear, and I was determined to follow it.
However, when I turned the shower handle to the right, the water didn't turn off. Instead, it became cold—freezing cold.
Gasping from the ice-cold water and dancing around in the shower, I swiftly concluded that:
- My algorithm had some bugs in it;
- To the right was not the way to shut the water off in this shower; and (3) I had better find a way to shut off the water soon or I would succumb to acute hypothermia.
I clenched my teeth and coldly reasoned that if the shower didn't shut off by turning it to the right, it must have a reverse screw in the handle. This made sense. I was in Canada, wasn't I? Canada is a foreign country. In Canada they probably used reverse screws for everything.
If the handle had a reverse screw, that meant that if I wanted to turn off the shower I had to turn to the left. Boldly I turned the handle all the way to the left to shut off the water.
This time I got a blast of steaming, scalding hot water. "Aagh," I yelled. I backed away from the shower head and conked my head on the towel rack at the rear of the tub.
In another moment I would be boiled like a hot dog in my own shower. I had to think quickly. In a last-ditch effort, I called on my brain's full computer-trained reflexes and realized that my shower handle must not be a left-right, on-off shower handle at all. Instead, it must be a push-pull shower handle. Pull turned it on. (Something I had unfortunately forgotten.) And push must turn it off.
In a final, desperate gesture I charged toward the front of the shower and jammed the handle into the wall.
Instantly, miraculously, and logically, the shower stopped.
Blessing 3: Computers Give Me Lightning-Fast Logic
In the last year I have traveled to 13 conventions, made 49 speeches, given 11 interviews, and appeared on 18 radio programs and 14 TV programs. And I am not alone. There are dozens of others in the computer industry with a schedule similar to mine. We are roaming the country, playing with the latest gadgets, trading gossip about computer companies and their media superstars, and searching for juicy stories for our magazines.
Back in the spring I was attending so many events each week that sometimes I forgot which city I was in. But I never lost the lightning-fast logic that years of close association with computers had given me. That tided me over even during my most grievous overdoses of travel, speaking, and interviewing.
I remember well one conference I went to (which conference? which city?) when I was handed a name badge with a unique and wonderful feature. I noticed this feature the moment I put the badge on the lapel of my sport coat. The badge had been designed to allow me to look down at my chest and read my name as if it were rightside up.
During the day, as I made speeches at the convention and interviewed a number of illustrious conventioneers, I continually glanced down at the badge and marveled at its design.
That night I went out to dinner, so I took the badge off and stuffed it in my sport coat pocket.
The next morning, when I put the badge on again, I was startled. All of a sudden the badge no longer worked. When I glanced down at it, all the information on it was upside down and backwards.
I puzzled over this problem all during breakfast that morning. At last, as I was munching on a sprig of parsley that had come with my fried eggs, it hit me. The badge was not a special badge after all. I could read my name the first day because I was wearing the badge upside down.
Blessing 4: I've Become A Whiz Around Machines
When I first got into computers I was no wizard with machines or a do-it-yourselfer. In fact I had almost no mechanical savvy at all. As proof I need only cite a test I took in high school in which I achieved a score of 0.06 percent for mechanical aptitude.
Yet I've always loved computers.
However, since computers are machines (a fact that I frequently try to overlook), I often run into problems. It's not their software or their logic that waylays me, mind you, since I have become quite a thinker in these areas (see my blessings above). Instead it's their physical nature—their "machineness"—that confounds me.
For example, last spring I was ecstatic when my newest computer toy arrived, special delivery, in the mail. It was a portable Compaq computer, and I intended to take it with me to London, England, to teach a course on robotics.
Except I couldn't get it open.
So, after I unboxed this lovely machine, I spent half an hour just looking at it on the kitchen table. But I couldn't, for the life of me, figure out how it opened up. It looked like a big ivory-colored sewing machine or suitcase, except there were no handles, no latches—no nothing.
I was getting more and more nervous and depressed as the minutes ticked away. My plane to London would be taking off soon, and I had to get packed, yet I hadn't even turned the computer on. Maybe it didn't work. But how was I to know. I couldn't get inside to find out.
I sat there and stewed, and I cursed my miserable 0.06 percent mechanical aptitude.
Then Catie came home from school.
Catie is my daughter, and even though she was only seven years old at the time, she was very perceptive. She immediately noticed something was wrong when she saw me slumped over the kitchen table, crying on what looked like a sewing machine.
I told her my problem, and she began snooping around the computer case looking for a way to open it. About fifteen seconds later, she popped up from the other side with a big grin on her face. "No wonder you couldn't open it," she said. "You were looking at the top. The latch is on this side—on the bottom."
Five minutes later, Catie had the computer out on the table, plugged in, and running a word processing program. "You shouldn't cry over a computer, Daddy," she advised me. "Wait until I come home from school next time, and I'll help you."