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Computers, gremlins and things
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Forsyth County News


I seem to be in a state of constant warfare with my computer -- and everyone else’s, for that matter. A computer consists of a metal box, housing a very bright, very fast but very temperamental little gremlin. Some days Grem (my guy) feels good, in which case the perversity of his humor stays within moderate bound. Other days -- there are no limits to the consternation he can cause. But even worse, he has millions of cousins, all connected together, and chances that one of these relatives is not up to mischief at any point of time is virtually zero.

My sense is that as time goes by, more and more of us understand less and less about this technology that has greater and greater impact on our lives.

It’s like automobiles. In the old days (this obviously dates me), when something went wrong, you grabbed a screwdriver, a wrench and a few other tools in your garage and you fixed it.

Just try that today! If you don’t have the right code you can’t even start the car, let alone correct whatever perversity its gremlin decided was appropriate for today. Elaborate and expensive computer systems mean that only specific dealers can service specific vehicles. It’s become an interesting world.

Clearly, the producers of today’s computers are guilty of terrible discriminatory action which violates the civil rights of a large portion of the population. These gremlins are partial to youngsters. Few teenagers, for example, seem to experience most of the problems that are inflicted on the rest of us. Strong legal action is required to correct this travesty.

My first inkling that there was really going to be a problem came many years ago sitting around a table with a group of CEOs of Japanese companies. The conversation turned to computers, and someone stated that the day his company introduced computers was one of the saddest of his life. Everyone else laughed and nodded.

The man explained that prior to the advent of computers, pay slips were written out by hand. Employees took their pay slips and the cash home to their wives who then allocated the funds to various budget items, including an “allowance” for the rice-earner. Once the computers started producing the pay slips, everyone found that their erasers and pencils no longer worked, and they had to both explain the raise they had just received and learn to live with substantially less pocket money. It’s incidents like this that should have been portents of the problems with this new technology.

Today, everything seems to be dependent on computers. I spend hours sitting before my desktop. I can’t even remember how I spent those hours before -- but somehow they seem essential. Often the e-mails come in faster than I can respond -- and every sender assumes that I’m waiting there to respond immediately. Alexander Graham Bell’s great effort has turned to naught -- why make a two-minute phone call when you can send 30 e-mails to accomplish the same task?

I think some gremlins get paid per e-mail. When replies are sent out, only the “reply all” button is activated. Why send one when you can send five? And if e-mail traffic is low, they can always reach out to a cousin to make sure some inane message comes in -- or perhaps they create them themselves? And just to spice things up, they have spam, viruses, Trojan horses, and all kinds of things to play with and wreak additional havoc.

Computers can be very relaxing, if one has no time constraints. It’s amazing how much time you can spend -- just waiting. Good for contemplating one’s navel or any of a dozen meditative techniques.

Communicating on my high speed Internet connection is frequently faster than sending smoke signals, but not always. I can punch a key, and Grem seems to say -- “I’m busy thinking up something else to confound you. You’ll just have to wait.” Anywhere from 5 seconds to 5 minutes later, something happens, often not what I intended. He’s a mighty independent cuss. And of course, he’s often engaged in “conversations” with his cousins. During that time, forget it! It’s like an octopus has grabbed the computer. Nothing works. You just wait, or in frustration, pull the plug and start all over. That sometimes gets his attention.

It wouldn’t be so bad if the computer hadn’t become part of my lifeline. It’s a vital organ, like a heart or lung or kidney. And it’s not only what goes on in my household that is affected, but everything that takes place. Without it, airlines can’t fly; water and electricity won’t flow. You can’t even go into a store and buy anything if the computers are down -- although these days it’s easier to sit on one’s derriere, in front of a computer, and let Grem handle the purchases.

If evolution really works, we are likely to see our legs atrophy as we develop incredibly strong and dexterous fingers. Of course, the further development of voice recognition to communicate will result in fading fingers and incredibly developed vocal chords. But all that is yet to come.

Despite the continuous frustration -- most of all from the fact that when something goes awry I haven’t the slightest idea why or how to fix it -- clearly, the computer has many advantages. I just haven’t figured out what they are.

But other people have (and, in a serious vein, that is of great concern), particularly the people who have figured out how to make not only some of my computer experiences frustrating, but that of all the systems on which we have become so dependent. In today’s environment, most of us are aware of and concerned about threats from terrorists who wear bomb-filled vests and who plot to maim and destroy people and facilities. But even more damage can be done, with considerably less risk to the perpetrator, from people sitting at a computer console.

Our systems are vulnerable, and not just the machines sitting in our homes and on our laps as we travel. Despite many efforts to protect vital flows, virtually all computer-dependent systems are vulnerable. It’s not just data that can be captured (as unprincipled individuals clean out bank accounts). Defense communications can be disrupted, vital life-line systems can be turned off or destroyed, and the chaos that Grem often visits on me can be magnified enormously to affect almost everything upon which our lifestyles (and even lives) depend.

There seem to be at least three alternatives. One is to build better safety structures, firewalls and the like. That normally results in an escalating see-saw type of contest as hackers and others expend equal effort to penetrate these defenses.

A second is to find ways to get the bad guys before they can do harm. Yeah! Good luck.

A third would be to reduce our dependency on computers and networks (e.g. by building non-computerized redundancy into key systems) -- another path that is unlikely given the complexity of the systems we have built (requiring computers) and the costs that would be involved.

I don’t know the solution to this dilemma. But it is one that deserves an enormous amount of national effort. Perhaps somewhere out there, there is a bright 15-year-old who does know the solution. The trick is to find him or her -- and before he/she goes to the “dark side.” And perhaps he or she can help me whip Grem into line as well!

Melvyn Copen lives in both Georgia and Arizona. He is an educator and businessman who has worked and lived in many foreign countries and provides consulting services throughout the world. His column appears every other Wednesday. Please share your comments with him via e-mail at