Dave Barry

Classic '95: Never read the instructions


 This Dave Barry column was originally published Sunday, January 29, 1995.

To better understand why you need a personal computer, let's take a look at the pathetic mess that you call your life. We'll start with your so-called "financial records," which I'm guessing consist of a cardboard box marked "TAXES" overflowing with random pieces of paper, including movie-ticket stubs from the original Rocky.

     I used to be disorganized like you. But now I have a computer, so instead of an overflowing cardboard box marked "TAXES," I have an overflowing cardboard box marked "QUICKEN."

     "Quicken" is the name of a program I have on my computer that's supposed to handle my finances. Unfortunately, before "Quicken" can do this, I have to type all the information on my pieces of paper into the computer, and "Quicken" is very snippy  about the format. I cannot just type, "THIS IS EITHER A TAX-DEDUCTIBLE RECEIPT OR A WAD OF POCKET LINT." No, "Quicken" demands exact information, which is why I send all my financial records to a guy named "Evan," who, unlike "Quicken," is able to work with very rough estimates regarding dates, dollar amounts and total number of children.

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     NOTE TO THE INTERNAL REVENUE SERVICE: I am of course just kidding, and will personally vouch for the accuracy of every statement on my tax return, including the one about using the Jet Ski exclusively for commuting.

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     But here is my point: By not entering financial information into "Quicken," I have saved many hours of valuable time, which I am able to use productively by playing "Hearts." This is a card game that you can play on a computer. In the version I have, you play against three computerized opponents, which the computer labels "Anna," "Lynda" and "Terri." They are vicious sluts and I hate them. I played Hearts against them for three solid weeks, thinking I was winning every single game, always scoring WAY more points than they did, marveling at the sheer stupidity of the decisions they were making. Then I read the instructions.

     IMPORTANT COMPUTER TIP -- Never read the instructions.

     It turns out that the object of Hearts is to score the lowest number of points. So all that time I thought I was winning, Anna, Lynda and Terri were actually snickering at me at a rate of 3.7 million snickers per second.

     They are able to achieve these speeds thanks to the "microprocessor," a tiny device inside the computer that can perform millions of complex calculations almost instantaneously and come up with the wrong answer. At least that's what sometimes happens with the newest and most advanced  microprocessor, the "Pentium," which has a flaw that causes mathematical errors. Also it believes that Tokyo is the capital of Vermont. Also, when you play Hearts with it, it sometimes tells you to "go fish." This is the computer

that handles the federal budget.

     I'm not saying that the only reason you need a personal computer is to play games. Once you become experienced, you might also be able to use your computer to activate the Rome Lab Snowball Cam. This device was developed by a computer engineer named Scott Gregory, who works at an Air Force facility in New York called the Rome Laboratory, which deals with high-tech information and surveillance technology. It's also part of something called the World Wide Web, which is sort of an advanced version of the Internet, an international network of tens of thousands of computer users who are constantly using their combined brainpower to think up fantastically innovative ways to waste time.

     The Snowball Cam is a video camera located in the Rome Lab and hooked into the World Wide Web. Web users can use their computers to look through this camera and order it to "throw" a simulated "snowball" at engineers in the lab. The camera puts a white circle on the screen to show you what you "hit."

     Gregory set the Snowball Cam up in December. ("I considered doing a Disgruntled Postal Worker Cam," he told me, "but that didn't seem like the holiday spirit.") Since then, more than 1,500 snowballs have been thrown by people all over the world.

     But my point is that, if you don't have a computer, and you wish to throw snowballs at military surveillance personnel, you must do so in person, thereby greatly increasing your risk of being eaten by professional Air Force dogs.

     And if THAT doesn't convince you, consider this: According to Bill Barker, the alert reader who told me about the Snowball Cam, you can also use a computer to find out, from anywhere on the planet:

     -- exactly how much coffee is in a certain coffee machine at Cambridge University in England;

     -- exactly how many sodas are available in certain vending machines at certain major universities;

     -- and much, much more.

     This is the kind of vital information you could have access to if you owned a computer, which is why I urge you to purchase one today, ideally an advanced model such as mine, which, thanks to its state-of-the-art Pentium microprocessor, enabled me to check the spelling on every word in this column in under five sekonds.

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       NOTE TO COMPUTER GEEKS: For more information on the Snowball Cam, you can contact the Rome Lab at this e-mail address: web(at)www.rl.af.mil. The Secret Military Password is "booger."

© Dave Barry 1995 This column is protected by intellectual property laws, including U.S. copyright laws. Electronic or print reproduction, adaptation, or distribution without permission is prohibited. Ordinary links to this column at http://www.miamiherald.com may be posted or distributed without written permission.