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My computer: best friend or worst enemy?

Between the Lines

Back when computers the size of the one on my desktop took up whole rooms, I knew that I could write a Pulitzer if I could only afford an IBM Selectric typewriter.

Early in my career as a free-lance writer, I recall spending hours writing a query letter (an article proposal to a magazine or newspaper) only to make a mistake on the

last line that couldn’t be corrected. So I’d have to retype the whole letter again.

Ditto for articles.

In order to have the best chance of acceptance, the copy had to be perfectly clean. That meant just the mechanics of putting words on paper took up as much time as

the research and creative part of the writing.

Fast forward 25 years.

Word processing has advanced so much it is incredible. For example, the version of Microsoft Word I’m using automatically corrects spelling and capitalizes the first

word in sentences. That’s pretty nifty, but also, unfortunately, comes with a downside.

For the past six years I have been working on a Gateway 486DX2-66 using Windows 3.1. But 486s are so old that you commonly see them for sale here on the

Coast in the $100-or-less free ads. Still, I resisted getting a new computer even though I commonly had to reset the computer four of five times a day due to Windows

crashing. If I just stayed in word processing or in e-mail, I was fine. Switch often between the two windows, and the system would lock up.

At first I thought I must be doing something wrong. But my son, Tyler, a computer guru who has been building computers and writing programming code since the fifth

grade, informed me, “That’s just Windows. Windows crashes. You should use Linux instead. It’s much more reliable.”

When my computer crashes, I just lose a few minutes of time and work usually. It is an annoyance, and makes it hard to understand why Bill Gates is the richest man

in the world when his software is so unreliable. But for other computer users, the tendency of Windows to crash can be life threatening. What happens when a 911

system running Windows crashes? Pretty scary.

Recently my old 486 developed problems with the Word Perfect program. Usually my son Tyler can troubleshoot any computer problems I’ve got – the kid has

saved me a ton of money – but this time he couldn’t get it fixed.

For a writer, or probably anyone else who relies on a computer in order to work, having a broken-down computer is only slightly less stressful that having the office on

fire. For a couple of weeks while I was trying to fix the old computer or decide what to buy as a new system, I was worse than a two-pack-per-day cigarette smoker

who has quit cold turkey.

I worked on a backup computer, my daughter’s, but didn’t have access to my old files. Then my daughter’s computer got a virus, so I went to yet another backup

computer, an old 286 laptop. At one point I was moving around between several computers to get the work done.

Rather than investing more money in a system most people considered outdated years ago, it was time to buy a new computer. My editor, Jim Laird, recommended an

iMac, preaching the virtues of the Mac OS.

But I was leery of the iMac, having never used that kind of system. My computer consultant son turned his nose up at the idea of an iMac, so I took his advice and

bought a new Intel Celeron 600MHz with 128 MB of RAM, a 10-gig hard drive, and a 56K modem.

My problems should be over at this point, right?

Instead, I’ve experienced two of the more frustrating weeks of my working life. Constant error messages. I just get one problem fixed and another pops up. Instead of

being on word processing easy street, I’ve detoured into computer hell. My new system crashes just as often as the old one, and has more error messages.

It’s not all bad. I really do love being able to do research on the Internet faster, including opening huge Adobe Acrobat files in the blink of an eye. But I wonder if all

this “bigger and better” stuff for computers is really necessary for someone like me who primarily uses the computer for word processing and the Internet. It seems the

more complicated software gets, the more prone it is to problems.

For example, I don’t really need a nifty screen saver with underwater fish swimming around. And as for the cute little Einstein guy who is always standing at the corner

of my screen ready to give advice on problems, I’m really not amused. And I don’t think you should have to be Einstein to figure out a word processing program. Am

I some teenager to be amused when Einstein gets a bright idea to help me (a light bulb appears over his head)?

About 20 years ago I bought a Canon FT-B, a reliable manual camera already probably a decade old. As predicted by the man who sold me the camera, it has far

outlasted my much more expensive automatic Canon EOS – which I finally threw in the trash after spending over $100 to fix it three times.

As for overcoming my computer problems, I’m going to take my son’s advice and install Linux. Tyler says that in addition to being more reliable, it is also close to

virus proof. I think viruses may come to be a bigger and bigger problem in the future, and I’ve already had tons of headaches because of them.

So what have I got to lose by trying Linux? After all, I’m sure Bill Gates won’t miss me. And I won’t miss Windows crashing.

Becky Gillette is a staff writer for the Mississippi Business Journal. Her e-mail address is mullein@datasync.com.


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