All Quiet on the Corpus Callosum
BY JAMES FALLOWS
THE BATTLE OF the brain halves has spread to the computer world. The left side of the brain, supposedly the home of logical, relentlessly linear thought, would seem to have a monopoly on anything related to computers. Indeed, you can’t turn out much program code with a flagging left brain. But some computer scientists, like many mathematicians, have tried to move over to the dreamier, more subjective realm of the right hemisphere.
The unveiling of Apple’s Macintosh computer, two years ago, was the right brain’s counteroffensive. Some people loved the Macintosh, because it freed them from the tedium of learning and typing detailed commands. They had only to point to one of the hieroglyphs, or “icons,” on the Mac’s screen, and Presto! their wishes were carried out. Other people hated it, because once you’d learned all the tedious commands, you could make a conventional, IBMstyle computer do your bidding more precisely, and much more quickly, than the Macintosh.
A left-brain man myself, I’ve been leery of cute or easy software, but the juxtaposition of two new data-base programs tempts me to open the other half of my mind. They take opposite approaches—one moving steadfastly to the left, the other circling around to the right—but reach the same destination in fine style.
The more familiar program is KnowledgeMan/2, a revamped version of an old standby. (The program is produced by Micro Data Base Systems, lists for $595, and is available from mail-order discounters for about $320.) Since its earliest versions, K-Man has represented left-brainism raised to a holy faith. It is the most perfectly adaptable program I know of, because it leaves all the important variables in the user’s control. For example, it will run on practically any MS-DOS computer, not just IB Ms and clones, because its installation program makes allowances for the idiosyncrasies of a very wide variety of systems. (It will even run on some 16-bit CP/M machines.) You can change the layout of your keyboard, change the way the program looks on screen, change the language of its commands. KnowledgeMan is the only program that has never made me think. If only they’d let me do it my way. . . .
The new version differs from the old in two major ways. One is a “menu-guided interface"—a way for beginners to get to know the program without poring over the instruction book. In the old days, when you loaded K-Man you faced a cryptic little symbol (“_”), daring you to enter instructions. Now, if you want, the program will hold your hand and list all the possible choices at each step of the way. (K-Man has always had an excellent “help” system, which tells you the right way to enter commands, when you‘re in doubt.) The other, more important change is a startling speed increase in one of the program’s most pow - erful features—its ability to extract related information from different files, or “tables.” In a typical business’s data base one table might contain a list of orders and another a list of customers’ addresses. All “relational” data-base programs let you combine the two lists—to send out bills, for example—but the process is usually slow and cumbersome. K-Man’s new approach lets you do so with tremendous speed. (For cognoscenti: KnowledgeMan/2 lets you “pluck” records from several indexed tables, rather than merely “selecting” them without indices, cutting the time for multi-table queries practically to zero.)
A new program called Paradox differs from KnowledgeMan in everything except results. (It is produced by Ansa Software and lists for $695. So far the mail-order price is stuck near $500.) The program created a boomlet of publicity when it was released last fall, mainly because it was backed by the venture capitalist Ben Rosen, whose previous projects (Lotus and Compaq) became big hits. Its name is an allusion to the computer world’s belief that no program can be both easy to use and very powerful. Paradoxically, its creators said, this program is both. On the whole they’re right.
Anyone who has used Lotus 1-2-3 will recognize Paradox’s approach to menus and commands, but I think Macintoshlovers will feel most at home. (Paradoxically, it won’t run on the Mac, or anything except IBMs and clones.) Its main point of contrast to other data-base programs is its reliance on pictures rather than words. To specify the information you want, you make little check marks at appropriate places on the screen. Then you push a button called “Do It!” and the answer appears, in a crisp and attractive display. If you want to extract information from two tables, you don’t type out a carefully structured “pluck” command; instead you put matching symbols in certain boxes on the screen. For some operations—such as taking a look at the data in one table—Paradox’s response is instantaneous. For others, involving extensive sorting or multi-table queries, it’s not so fast as KnowledgeMan. In all cases it relies on a different instinct—visual rather than verbal—for handling information. Even its instruction manuals, far better illustrated, clearer, and more nicely presented than the norm, reflect that emphasis.
Every data-base user soon yearns to automate frequently used commands. Here, too, Paradox has a novel if somewhat cutesy approach. It refers to automated commands as “scripts,” rather than as “programs” or “procedures.” You tell the program to begin “recording” a script, and it stores everything else you do until you tell it to stop. Then you can “play” the script with one or two keystrokes when you want to repeat the procedure. Paradox also has a powerful, complete, built-in programming language, like KnowledgeMan‘s or dBase Ill’s, for users who itch to exercise their left brains. But what are they doing here in the first place?
LIKE KNOWLEDGKMAN, a program called DoubleDos (from SoftLogic Solutions, listing for $49.95, copy-protected) appeals to the left-brain yearning to do more, more, more. DoubleDos is a kind of substitute operating system, which lets you divide your computer‘s memory into two parts and run a different program in each. Wouldn’t it be great to load a telecommunications program, let it start sending information over the modem, and meanwhile use your word processor to do something else?
With such hopes I bought DoubleDos, and I’m sorry I did. In general, computer hardware holds out possibilities that software has not begun to exploit. Here, the opposite is true. For the moment, most personal computers have a ceiling of 640K on their random-access memory. When you divide that into two sections, neither one is big enough to run today’s elaborate new programs. (Paradox by itself needs 512K.) No matter how I arranged the sections on my 640K machine, I never succeeded in running my word processor, WordPerfect, simultaneously with another big program, like KnowledgeMan. And when I chose smaller programs (CrossTalk, for example) and finally got two going at once, each one was depressiugly slow.
I think the answer is to wait for the next generation of machines, with more memory and faster processing chips—or to turn to a program called Lightning (from Personal Computer Support Group, $49.95 copy-protected, $89.95 unprotected; not to be confused with Turbo Lightning, from Borland International). Computers can retrieve information from memory chips tens or hundreds of times faster than they can draw it from disks. Lightning is an elegant “memory-caching” system that helps the computer draw information from memory, rather than disk, whenever possible. For example, if you are working on a data-base program, Lightning keeps track of the information you most often request and switches it into memory, where it can be rapidly read. In practice I found that the program noticeably pepped up my data-base work. (It had no apparent effect on WordPerfect, which has a memory-caching system of its own.)
SoftLogic Solutions, creator of the impractical DoubleDos, also offers a more useful speed-up utility, called Disk Optimizer (list price $49.95, copy-protected). The longer you use a hard disk, the slower its operations can become, because when files are edited they get broken up and stored in random order on the disk. Disk Optimizer re-consolidates the files and offers a modest improvement in speed.
On the other hand, maybe these new programs aren’t the answer. Maybe it’s time to recognize that computers are the devil’s work.
These machines are universally advertised as “productivity tools,” but when I really have to get something done I shut them down. I’m talking not about printing things out or totting up accounts—the computer’s bread-andbutter tasks—but about real brain work, in which you have to concentrate and get both hemispheres running. When the machines are on, the temptation to tinker is irresistible. (What if I changed that KnowledgeMan “WHILE . . . DO” loop?) Might Steve Jobs and Mitch Kapor and the other computer hotshots be moles, secretly planted by the Japanese to sap this nation’s productive energies?
Worse, what are computers doing to our language? My older son so detests scratching out compositions with his fat grade-school pencils that he strives to keep all sentences to less than four words. For him writing is too hard. But have computers made it too easy for the rest of us? I recently looked over a long piece of writing I had composed at the keyboard and had thought was up to snuff. When I went through it with a pen, a quarter of the words dripped right out, like hot lard.
Should we start worrying about raising a generation of sentence-padders? About the long-term threat to language that this short-term convenience may entail? Is our society destroying its intellectual patrimony through its infatuation with machines? Should we stop and think before rushing heedlessly on?