December 7, 2001 Halifax Herald

An old dog learns new tricks in Internet age

DURING late summer and early fall, sensing it was probably inevitable, I began to mull over the prospect of joining the modern world of instant communication by accessing the Internet. It, I'll admit, wasn't being done with enthusiasm. Much of this was attributable to two things: my dislike for the new mechanical gizmos that are being thrown at us almost on a daily basis; and what I then believed wouldn't be a pleasurable undertaking - buying and using a new computer.

In fact, just the knowledge that I would have to replace a comfortable, reliable work tool, which had served me extremely well for 13 years, with an unknown weighed heavily on the con side. This was especially so when I considered that it hadn't once failed to perform during the uncountable hours that I had used it to write four books, several hundred newspaper columns, countless letters, reviews, etc. But, inescapably, it wasn't capable of handling the Internet.

With foreboding, on Nov. 3, I opted to do it. I called Adrian McDonald in Shubenacadie, a friend who sells computers, and ordered one. He, assisted by his son Shawn, a very up-to-date computer expert, delivered the new mechanical critter on Nov. 10. With little fanfare, Old Reliable was removed from its place of honour and relegated to the rec-room table to await having its store of accumulated information transferred to the interloper.

When he had finished installing the new unit, Shawn, started explaining its operating complexities to me as if I were a peer. From listening to his recital, I quickly accepted that the computer expertise I had acquired from operating the 1988 model was mostly outdated. Things had changed drastically; for instance, dictionaries are now described in manuals as "word lists." Such a simple change, but it later caused me to lose a great deal of time trying to find "dictionary," which I only found by luck.

This delay caused me to realize that if I wanted to keep gainfully producing, I had an urgent need to quickly learn a great deal of new skills. Hoping to do it alone, I doggedly muddled through for the first week - trying to make sense out of the mostly incomprehensible manual. Finally, accepting the futility of it, I decided to call upon knowledgeable, computer-literate family members and friends for assistance. I figured that with their help, and by working at it for more than 100 hours in the second week, I could master the basics of WordPerfect9 to meet deadlines. During this period, my hitherto problem-free, 13-year-old printer kicked the bucket.

Setting aside for a week the need to deal with such things, I pushed ahead with getting educated. My brother-in-law, Robert MacMillian, was the first teaching volunteer recruited. He, with a great deal of patience, imparted the knowledge needed to get things rolling.

To be candid, all was not difficult to pick up. For instance, I quickly acquired by experimentation the rudimentary knowledge needed to traverse the Internet. Thus, from the first night, I was able to roam without much difficulty. This was probably related to the fact that I viewed doing so as a tool that might make my work life easier, not as an essential thing to help make a living.

This perception was altered radically during my second night of roaming. It was then that I discovered information about a new book that I had written, Twenty-First Century Edition: We Were Not the Savages, that was very counterproductive to selling it. I found two Net references; one implied that it was out of print and the other, now changed, that the new edition was just a reprint of the old. It, however, illuminated for me why so many people had been asking me these two baseless questions about its status: When is your new edition going to be published? Why is it out of print so soon? I was not, to understate it, a happy trooper. However, it provides an excellent example of why it pays to be on the Net. Had I been on it when Savages was published in October 2000, I could have then taken immediate action to contain the damage; it may now be irreversible!

Back to WordPerfect. The next volunteers recruited were my daughter Lenore and son-in-law Todd. They came for a few hours one evening and took me through the process of transferring documents from program to program, and how to set up new files, etc. By this time, my head was beginning to hurt from the load of info being crammed into it.

While this learning exercise was going on, I started transferring Old Faithful's information to the new unit. Lord, but I was lost and messing up! As if in answer to a prayer, my nephew Peter Adema agreed to come one afternoon to undo errors and to teach shortcuts. He also brought along, and was willing to install, a program that would have enabled me to train my computer to respond to my oral commands. Yep, believe it, you can now train 'em. For the present, already having enough on my plate to give me an ulcer, I declined.

Based on my experience, I want to issue a challenge to the computer industry: Write manuals that are capable of imparting the basics of using computer programs in simple, understandable language. Complex ones, such as the 733-page one that I've got on WordPerfect, can be produced for expert use. It makes absolutely no sense to give unschooled novices something that, for the most part, is incomprehensible to them.

Daniel N. Paul


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