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Dreaming in Rich Text Format

In the beginning, we shared 8K of RAM among three school districts. Our 200-pound teletype burped block-cap objections in near-real time from the back of a math classroom. You couldn't use it during class, so you waited till after school when the place became a detention center filled with juvenile delinquents with whom it was best to avoid eye contact.

In those days, programs were stored on punch tape, which was always getting ripped and destroying your data, especially when the delinquents did make eye contact. My big term project involved writing a game in which Klingon birds of prey attacked from random directions and fired random numbers of phaser bursts of random intensity. You could choose to shoot back or not, but eventually one of you would die. Man, I liked that random-number generator.

Somehow I forgot all about computers when I went off to college to major in English. Eventually, though, tired of re-copying my love letters every time I met a new chick-Gutenberg had by now invented lowercase type-I bought a used Osborne in grad school. This 28-pound portable sported two whopping 90K drives-one for programs, one for data-and packed a greedy 16K of RAM. On my six-inch monochrome monitor I could exhort, beg or pontificate all day in six-point type, and, incredibly, I could move a sentence from here to there at the touch of eight buttons.

My imagination soared. I could make typos much faster.

The year was 1981, and scholarly journals hotly debated whether computers might make us better or worse writers. When I offered extra credit to a freshman composition class to use the public cluster to do a paper, I faced insurrection. "If I wanted to learn computers, I'd be an engineer!" a woman complained, and the professoriat listened. Extra credit was withdrawn. Selah.

I often wonder what became of that student. Did she find work as a scrivener, laboring away in a dismal garret where she writes longhand copies of legal documents? Did she return from college to that lonely asylum in the Midwest so she could record her family's oral history, her grandparents' incestuous passion, the brother with his violent tic? Or does she now work on Wall Street, by day making coffee for her betters, by night disassembling parking meters in an alley off Times Square with an enthusiasm bordering on obsession? We will never know.

Mind you, I bear her no grudge, having always prized intellectual freedom, even among the misguided.

Later, I drifted south in search of a right-to-work state. In RTP they took me in and fed me but made me learn Macintoshes. I hired people there who became experts at losing valuable data. Eventually they accepted offers from Microsoft.

And yet I had come to understand with the unshakable faith of the simpleminded that computers are our friends. When I started dreaming in Rich Text Format, I knew I had found my vocation.

On staff at the University, I turned to making spreadsheets so arcane they provided a kind of job security. It goes like this: Competitors attack your service component/bookstore/basketball team from random directions with random degrees of viciousness, and eventually one of you dies. We can model that.

Today I have 10,000 times more data storage than on my Osborne, and a processor that makes floating point errors way faster than I can figure out what a floating point error is. Computers come into and out of my life these days without much hoopla-just another tool for getting the job done.

Yet I talk to my computer in a way I never dared speak to a pen-not even those saucy flair tips. We are-shall I say it?-intimate. As a personal challenge, I tried to draft this column on an actual piece of paper, and it was all carets and crossouts. The horror, the horror!

Were I to teach freshman writing again, I'd give extra credit for using a pencil. Five bucks says nobody would take me up on it.

Paul Baerman, Fuqua '90, is assistant director of the Auxiliaries Finance Office.

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