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Technology May 2018

Munchy Words and Possibilities

By Ruth Chamberlin

But now the computer’s mad, fed up with my gripes. It races across the page, erasing letter after letter, eating my words. Line after line. Chomp, chomp. I wave my hands and yell, “STOP!” There’s no key for “Stop.” “Undo” won’t undo.

My computer and I are having a talk. A tech-wise friend advises: “Tell the computer you’re the boss! Say, ‘You don’t run my life! I’m in charge!’” I’m tweaking that plan. I’m talking to the guy who invented computer lingo.

He works under a solo lamp, way past midnight. Too little sleep, too much to do. Poor guy! He’s young and homesick, and hungry. He misses Mom. He thinks: “Cookies!” Cookies? It’s like that mystery in football. The ball lands free, and everyone stands around and stares at it. My husband Burt explains it, over and over, but I still don’t get it.

I complain to Lonely Guy, “Why didn’t you keep things simple, like on the old IBM?” A wall-sized IBM sat in Burt’s Atlanta office in 1983. Alone with coffee at 3 a.m., I taught myself the program, hunting and pecking and peeking at instructions in three (count ‘em, three) five-inchbinders. Once I learned it, I loved it. It had common sense. Line numbers ran down the page. Margins stayed put. Graduate papers nearly wrote themselves. I miss that IBM!

I whine, “Why did you use the same terms, over and over? ‘Format’ on top, again below, with different meanings? ‘Tools’ and ‘Toolbox?’ ‘Help’ in two places? (Besides, ‘Help’ never helps!) What about automatic actions I never asked for? I’ll be typing away and the left margin ups and indents itself, and keeps doing it . . .”

Unbelievably, as I type “doing it,” the right-hand margin spills off the page, leaving no border at all. I shout at Lonely Guy (I don’t think he’s listening), “Why would ANYONE want margins running off the page?” I twitch and wriggle; I tap randomly. Where’s the key for “Margin?” Or “Border?” After a period of puffing and steaming, I get the borders back.

But now the computer’s mad, fed up with my gripes. It races across the page, erasing letter after letter, eating my words. Line after line. Chomp, chomp. I wave my hands and yell, “STOP!” There’s no key for “Stop.” “Undo” won’t undo.

I groan at Lonely Guy (who’s morphed into an aging techie), “Help!” I hover over the keys. Here’s “esc.” Yes! I want to escape this erasing! Does “esc” mean I can? No! “Return?” Yes, please! Return to normal! It won’t. “Control?” Who’s in control? I’m not, that’s for sure! “Command?” I have no idea what that means. “Shift?” Nothing shifts off this erasing craze! “Option?” Erasing everything is NOT the option I want! (Who would?) “Delete?” Yes! Delete this problem! It doesn’t.

Frantically pecking, I accidentally return to normal. I recall a story about children who had never seen a computer. I look it up online. In 1999, Dr. Sugata Mitra, chief scientist at NIIT, a technology research company in New Delhi, India, carved an opening in the wall between NIIT and the adjoining slum and set an English-language computer in the hole. Children gathered around it, tapped keys, and in 75 days taught themselves computing skills and basic English and math. Dr. Mitra, head of Hole-in-the-Wall Education, Ltd., recently won a TED prize. He said he will spend the million-dollar prize on “non-formal” education to help “rid us of a system that is fast becoming obsolete.”

I see a photo and buckle in remorse. Kids at a Hole-in-the Wall kiosk in India remind me of Nichar, our World Vision-sponsored child. My children and I met Nichar in Madras in 1980, a bright-eyed 10-year-old who lived in a small village. Back in the U. S., we had received mail from him, including drawings of his favorite things — mountains and peacocks.

His caseworkers, Satyam and Marina, brought Nichar to Madras for three days. The kids spoke different languages but laughingly tried new strange words and made up games without words.    

Nichar had never seen the ocean, so we went to the beach, where we all got our feet — and in Marina’s case, her sari — wet in the waves, then my kids buried Nichar’s legs in sand and patted him some new ones. After our trip, I lost track of Nichar. How could I be so careless?

An upswing: “Non-formal” education happens many ways. Even if they never met again, one Indian boy and four American kids gained much from simply hanging out together. The grownups did, too; we parted in tears.

I’ll try to imitate the Hole-in-the-Wall kids, treat computer problems as puzzles to solve. Actually, I’ve done that. I figured out the IBM, fixed the erasing, stopped the margin from falling off the edge. So what am I grumping about?

Okay, I admit it. I’m glad computers exist. They can take you anywhere, answer any question. (Except, perhaps, “Where is Nichar?”)

Lonely Guy, let’s be friends! Sure, you use words in nutsy ways, and you invent them when you’re hungry—“Magic sauce?”—but so what? You like words. I like words. How about if I give you a few? They’re chewy in their own ways. You can use them or not, as you please.

Whirligig, merry-go-round, periwinkle, popsicle! Periscope, gyroscope, kaleidoscope, calliope!

And I’ll admit something more. Your term, “cookies?” It’s not bad.