BRYSON'S AMERICA: Me, my computer and the Internat

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The Independent Culture
WHEN WE moved to America, the change in the electrical systems meant I needed all new stuff for my office - computer, fax machine, answering machine and so on. I am not so good at shopping or parting with large sums of money at the best of times, and the prospect of trailing around a succession of shops listening to sales assistants touting the wonders of the various office products filled me with foreboding.

So imagine my delight when in the first computer store I went to, I found a machine that had everything built into it - fax, answering machine, electronic address book, Internet capability, you name it. Advertised as the "Complete Home Office Solution", this computer promised to do everything, but make the coffee.

So I took it home and set it up, flexed my fingers, and wrote a perky fax to a friend in London. I typed his fax numbers in the appropriate private box as directed and pushed "Send". Almost at once, noises of international dialling came out of the computer's built-in speakers. Then there was a ringing tone, and finally and unfamiliar voice that said: "'Allo 'Allo".

"Hello?" I said in return, and realised that there was no way I could talk to this person, whoever he was.

My computer began to make shrill fax noises. "'Allo 'Allo" the voice said again, with a touch of puzzlement and alarm. After a moment, he hung up. Instantly, my computer redialled his number. And so it went for much of the morning, with my computer repeatedly pestering some unknown person in an unknown place while I searched furiously through the manual for a way to abort the operation. Eventually, in desperation, I unplugged the computer, which shut down with a series of Big Mistake! and Crisis in the Hard Drive! noises.

Three weeks later - this is true - we received a phone bill with $68 in charges for calls to Algiers. Subsequent enquiries revealed that the people who had written the software for the fax programme had not considered the possibility of overseas transmissions. The program was designed for American phone numbers only. Confronted with anything else, it went into nervous breakdown mode.

I also discovered that the electronic address book had a similar quirky aversion to non-American addresses, rendering it useless, and that the answering machine function had a habit of coming on in the middle of conversations.

For a long time it puzzled me how something so expensive, so leading edge, could be so useless, and then it occurred to me that a computer is a stupid machine with the ability to do incredibly smart things, while computer programmers are smart people with the ability to do incredibly stupid things. They are, in short, a dangerously perfect match.

You will have read about the millennium bug, I am sure. You know, then, that at the stroke of midnight on 1 January 2000, all the computers in the world will for some reason go through a thought process something like this: "Well, here we are in a new year that ends in "00. I bet it's 1900, computers haven't been invented yet. Therefore, I don't exist. Guess I had better shut down and wipe my memory clean." The estimated cost to put this right is $200 trillion gazillion or some such preposterous sum. A computer you see, can calculate pi to 20,000 places but it can't work out that time always moves forward. Meanwhile programmers, can write 80,000 lines of complex code, but fail to note that every hundred years you get a new century. It's a disastrous combination.

When I first read that the computer industry had created a problem for itself so basic, so immense, and so foolish, I suddenly understood why my fax facility and other digital toys are worthless. But this still doesn't adequately explain the wondrous - the towering - uselessness of my computer's spelling checker.

Like nearly everything else to do with computers, a spelling checker is marvellous in principle. When you have done a piece of work, you activate it and it goes through the text looking for words that are misspelled. Actually, since a computer doesn't understand what words are, it looks for letter clusters that it isn't familiar with, and here is where the disappointment begins.

First, it doesn't recognise any proper nouns - names of people, places, corporations, and so on - or non-American spellings, such as kerb and colour. Nor does it recognise many plurals or variant forms, such as steps or stepped, or abbreviations or acronyms. Nor, evidently, any word coined since Eisenhower was President. Thus, it recognises sputnik and beatnik, but not Internet, fax, cyberspace or butthead, among others.

But the really distinctive feature of my spelling checker - and here is the part that can provide hours of entertainment for anyone who doesn't have anything approaching a real life - is that it has been programmed to suggest alternatives. These are seldom less than memorable. For this column, for instance, for Internet it suggested internat (a word that I cannot find in any dictionary, British or American), internode, interknit and underneath. Fax prompted no fewer than 33 suggested alternatives, including fab, fays, feats, fuzz, feaze, phase and at least two more that are unknown to lexicography; falx and phose. Cyberspace drew a blank, but for cyber it came up with chubbier and scabbier.

I have tried without success to discern the logic by which a computer and programmers working in tandem could decide that someone who typed f-a-x- would really have intended to write p-h-a-s-e, or why cyber might suggest chubbier and scabbier, but not, say, watermelon or full-service petrol station, to name two equally random alternatives. Still less can I explain how non-existent words such as phose and internat would get into the program. Call me exacting, but I would submit that a computer program that wants to discard a real word in favour of one that does not exist is not ready to be offered for public use.

Not only does the system suggest imbecilic alternatives, it positively aches to put them in. You have to all but order the program not to insert the wrong word. If you accidentally accept its prompt, it automatically changes that word throughout the text. Thus, to my weary despair, I have in recent months produced work in which "woollens" was changed throughout to "wesleyans", " Minneapolis to "monopolists" and - this is a particular favourite - "Renoir" to "rainware". If there is a simple way to unpick these involuntary transformations, then I have not found it.

Now I read in US News & World Report that the same computer industry that failed to notice the coming of the new millennium has equally failed for years to realise that the materials on which it stores information - magnetic tapes and so forth - swiftly degrade. Nasa scientists who recently tried to access material on the 1976 Viking mission to Mars discovered that 20 per cent of it has simply vanished and that the rest is going fast.

So it looks as if computer programmers will be putting in some late nights over the next couple of years. To which, frankly, I say hooray. Or haywire, heroin and hoopskirt, as my computer would prefer it.