Computer Romance, Part Ii


LAST SUMMER, I described my affair with the Processor Technology SOL-20, the computer that had been my helpmate and obsession for the previous three and a half years (“Living With a Computer,” July, 1982, Atlantic).

Since then, I have heard from nearly every owner of a still-operating SOL-20, many of whom took offense at my calling the beautiful antique “obsolete.” (Would I say the same about a 1956 T-Bird?) I have heard as well from huffy belletrists, who saw a declaration of loyalty to any computer as a slur on the prose that flowed from their pencils and pens. (Did Tolstoy need a word-processor?)

Thanks to my (shaky) standing as a computer expert, I have been able in the past six months to try out demonstration models of many new machines. At one blissful point, I had an IBM Personal Computer sitting on my desk and a Victor 9000 facing it from a packing crate on the other side of the room, with the SOL still operating on the floor. The new devices enabled me to try for myself the proliferation of new programs that inspired such longing when I read about them in the computer magazines. Now that my initial curiosity has been satisfied, things are not quite the same.

My liaison with the computer has moved into comfortable middle age. I am looking for a warm meal on the table, for a dependable friend. The Victor 9000 (which I finally bought) came equipped with several “character sets.” By changing from one to another, I could convert the screen display from the Roman alphabet to Greek, or Hebrew, or—since I could create other characters myself— conceivably even to Chinese. Before, I would have killed my evenings for weeks playing with this program. Now I say, So what? The character-generating program sits in the bottom drawer of my desk, next to the teach-yourself-German program and the game that promises a sixhour excursion through a “Colossal Cave.”

In my new maturity, I have been drawn to programs that unobtrusively earn their way, to systems that can be swung into action quickly and that simplify life rather than confuse it. So far, I have found only four that meet this standard. Day by day, these are the programs I actually use, as opposed to merely marveling over their descriptions in the computer magazines.

I approached the first of these, The Random House Electronic Thesaurus, as a total skeptic (n. disbeliever, agnostic, atheist, doubter, cynic, infidel, heathen, nullifidian). Through the years, I had rarely resorted to a thesaurus of the conventional kind. My stated reason was that it bred needless polysyllabification. The real reason was that, with its endless cross-references and its onionskin pages, it was a nuisance to use.

No such complaint can be made about the computer version. The Electronic Thesaurus, produced by Dictronics Publishing, of New York, is a giant step toward purely effortless (or, in the language of the trade, “user-friendly”) computer systems. With this program, you can pause at any point while working on a text, select one word, push a certain button twice, and in a little more than one second, a list of possible synonyms appears at the top of the screen. It is so easy to use that I find myself using it all the time. Most often it convinces me that I had the right word to begin with. But at other times it has helped me find the mot juste that I knew was out there but that I could not recall.

The program’s source document, the Random House Thesaurus, lacks the encyclopedic completeness of Rogefs. Still, at 80,000 words, it is hardly skimpy. I am more often surprised by the words for which the program offers synonyms (testy, rook, forlorn) than by those it overlooks. Its principal limitation is that in its initial form, it will work only with the word-processing program WordStar (Dictronics says it is now adapting the thesaurus to other programs). WordStar is the most widely used of such programs, but it lacks the advanced features that several others offer.

My second favorite among the new software offerings is The Word Plus, the most elegantly simple of the spellingcheck programs. (It should not be confused with “THE WORD processor,” which is a computerized version of the entire Bible.) Proofreading programs are a dime a dozen these days. Actually, like other software, they cost $100 or more. The Won! Plus (from Oasis Systems, of San Diego), at $150, is far from the most expensive. Most of them are so cumbersome or slow that, however helpful they may seem in theory, they are agony to use. The typical program will know that “horse” is a word but will stop to mark “horses” as an error. It may recognize “walk” but not “walked,” “walking,” “walks,” or “walkathon.” Depending on the formulas they apply to the herculean task of sorting all the words in a document and checking them with the dictionary, the programs can take so long to function that you’re better off doing the job yourself, with a pencil, a green eyeshade, and a dictionary.

The Word Plus is something else again. It works faster than most other programs, and its internal dictionary contains more unusual words, from “arteriolar” to “pachyderm.” This second advantage carries its own peculiar penalty. Unlike a more limited dictionary, The Word Plus would recognize both “spore” and “faction” as correctly spelled words—but it would have no way of knowing that the words you meant to spell were “sport” and “fraction.” This problem is more than offset by the program’s ease of operation. It compiles one master list of misspelled words, rather than requiring you to slog through the text and indicate that each of the twodozen occurrences of a seeming error such as “Lyndon” is in fact a proper spelling. It offers two or three entries from its dictionary as possible right spellings for a misspelled word. If so directed, it can even remove the mystery from crossword puzzles and acrostics, through functions that list anagrams for a group of letters, or the six-letter words that begin with p and end with r.

The balance tips heavily toward the positive for these first two programs, at least for my purposes. (When someone puts Bartlett’s on a disk, spawning a new generation of quote-spouters, then I will object.) But certain other programs suggest the needless and at times offensive kinds of “help” computers can provide, probably because designers cannot resist the temptation to harness all that electronic power.

Consider, for example, Grammatik, produced by Aspen Software, of Tijeras, New Mexico. (Aspen has since been acquired by Dictronics, the same company that created The Electronic Thesaurus. Dictronics intends to put out a revised version of Grammatik, probably based on both the Chicago Manual of Style and Strunk and White’s Elements of Style.) It performs one limited service that is valuable enough to justify the program’s presence on the disk drive, but it also attempts to do several things no reasonable person would want done.

As the program’s name suggests, its implied promise is to move beyond mere spelling checks to offer guidance about grammar and style. Grammatik does so by checking the nuts and bolts of punctuation. Is there a period or question mark or exclamation point at the end of each sentence? Is there a space between the end of one sentence and the beginning of the next? Do capital letters appear at the beginning of names and sentences and nowhere else?

True, most people can handle such questions without relying on a computer. But it can be convenient to have an automatic backup to your proofreading, especially if you happen to be turning out newsletters or frequent reports. Every time I have used the program on a long document, it has detected a punctuation problem I had missed. That is why I value Grammatik, despite several other attributes that seem to me perfectly idiotic.

The most egregious is a feature called “Sexist,” which is designed to cleanse one’s prose of objectionable gender-specific usages. If you write “gentlemanly,” it will instruct you to substitute “polite.” (For “ladylike,” its only counsel is “Revise!”) A reasonable case might be made for such corrections. But “Sexist” will also scold you for every appearance of “he,” “she,” “her,” and “his” in a document, which can be a nuisance if you happen to be writing about a person of either sex. Those who value such reminders probably do not need to get them from a machine. Others will find them severe provocation.

Fortunately, Grammatik permits you to “disable” (I like to think of it in the physical sense) “Sexist” and several other parts of the program, such as the one that will place a blinking marker at each appearance of “accept” to make sure you didn’t mean to say “except.” Another feature reminds you that “would of,” “could of,” and “might of” should be changed to “would have,” etc. (Sociologists, note: This program suggests that these days a person can earn enough money to buy a computer and unravel the mysteries of WordStar without ever learning to shun “would of.”) Indeed, you can remove any item from the program’s checklist, or insert any new one of your own—for example, sentences that begin with “And” or “But,” I have retained in my version of Grammatik those features that make it a healthy scourge. The blinking signal forces me to stop at each “very,” “rather,” and “basically” to contemplate what I have done.

Finally, there is SUPERFILE, a program that falls only a little short of the convenience it potentially offers. If you have ever collected a shoe box full of note cards for a research paper or bibliography, or pawed randomly through your correspondence to find a letter you wrote last year, SUPERFILE can help you. It provides a fast, simple way to organize almost any material—names and addresses, financial data, research notes, letters—so that it can be quickly recalled. When you copy a paragraph out of a book or write a letter on your computer, you attach as many “key words,” or references, as you like. Later, you can tell the program to pull out all the letters to Mr. Weiner that were sent in November but were not about real estate, and in a few seconds you get the results. The people who made The Electronic Thesaurus so easy to use should someday have a talk with the creators of SUPERFILE (FYI, Inc., of Austin, Texas), because SUPERFILE requires a lot of superfluous punching of buttons to confirm your original intent. Not enough punching, though, to negate the flexibility and value of the program.

Forcing me to confront the burningout of early passion is not the only way that this stage of my computer education has been sobering: I now recognize that I have the soul of a clerk. The friends I have made in the business live on the edge of great adventures, risks, and rewards. Careers have been made (and broken), financial empires have been built, in just the few months since I began taking the time to observe the computer world. The grubby small-timer I knew last year is now a man of wealth. A former computer titan is now between positions. All the while I placidly watch, marveling at the entrepreneurial spirit and resolving to keep notes under that heading in my machine.