Bill Burton at the Computer
Alan Doelp on Teaching an Old Dog New Tricks
Editor’s note: While in the hospital for surgery on a troubled toe, Bill Burton cannot write his column because he hasn’t yet learned to use his portable computer.
Way back in the dawn of the personal computer age, I drew the short straw and was forced to read the user manual for a computer that co-author Jon Franklin and I had just bought. There was no need, we reasoned, for both of us to learn all that technical stuff, so we drew lots. I still suspect that Jon rigged the game.
In any event, I dutifully set about learning the innards of our new computer, while the fortunate Mr. Franklin needed only to learn the keyboard, which in those days looked much like a typewriter keyboard. Presently I learned that while the keyboard looks like a typewriter, it behaves like one only because some programmer decreed that it would be so.
Once I realized that the keyboard was programmable, I reprogrammed it. The next morning when Jon sat down to pound out some deathless prose, only gibberish appeared on the screen. Jon turned pale and made gurgling noises; from the look on his face, one would think the very universe had begun to shatter in front of his eyes. Then he saw me shaking with laughter, said some bad things about my ancestors and never fully trusted me or the computer again. But he told all our friends that I had “cracked the code” of the computer, which is how I came to be branded as a computer guru.
In the decades since then, I have helped many friends learn the basics of their computers. Some were more adept than others, but all shared a desire to learn, to explore, to make their new magic box sit up and do tricks.
Except, of course, for Bill Burton.
Born in the year that Lindbergh flew the Atlantic and Babe Ruth hit 60 home runs, Bill predates the computer age by so many years that he will probably never become comfortable with it. The gulf between depression culture and computer culture is simply too great. In Bill’s formative years, crystal radios and wooden airplanes were high tech. There were typewriters then, but they didn’t have cords. Words went to paper through a simple, mechanical, understandable process.
Not so with computers. In Bill’s eyes, a computer produces something perilously close to witchcraft. His advance into the cyberworld has been reluctant at best. He doesn’t use email; in fact, he doesn’t use the Internet at all. He began using a computer because the newspapers wanted electronic copy; to him, a computer is a typewriter with a disk drive, nothing more.
He writes on an Apple computer so ancient that replacement parts are no longer sold, and his modem is long since deceased. When he writes a column, he copies it onto a diskette and drives to a nearby Internet cafe, where for a couple bucks they email it for him. He’s been doing it this way for years.
A few weeks ago the Internet cafe offered a used laptop for sale. Bill, who has had to pass up many a trip for want of a portable computer, took the plunge and bought it. I can’t figure what possessed him, but I’m not complaining; I’ve been urging Bill to go portable for years.
But with a new gizmo comes a new learning curve. The laptop is of PC heritage, whereas Bill understands only Apple old Apple at that. Ever since his new purchase, I’ve been making weekly housecalls to the Burton habitat, attempting to bring Bill up to speed with his new toy.
By far the biggest barrier is the keyboard, which is only a little different from the Apple, but the difference is deadly: the Shift and Ctrl keys are transposed. This has led to some interesting experiences.
On the first day, I showed him how to click on the word processor’s icon to bring up a blank document. I typed the practice phrase Now is the time, etc. … to show him how it worked. Then turned it over to him. Instead of Shift-N, he hit Ctrl-N, which opens a new blank document. On the screen, it looked like the text I’d just typed had vanished. Puzzled, he hit Ctrl-N a few more times, opening several more blank documents.
When I explained what was happening, Bill demanded to know why they needed Ctrl-N when there were two other perfectly good ways to open a blank document. He had me there. I tried to explain how there were sometimes several different ways to do the same thing, but that’s a hard concept to get across to a new user. Bill started to get the same look that I had seen on Jon Franklin’s face so many years ago, and I knew he was on the verge of cyber-overload.
Cyber-overload occurs when computer logic runs counter to common sense, and the brain rebels. Some people’s eyes glaze over at this point; others are prone to panic attacks. Over time, a user becomes desensitized to the illogic, but when you see the symptoms in a novice, especially a novice of Burton’s age, quick intervention is necessary.
“It works that way,” I said with authority, “because Bill Gates wanted it to work that way.” That seemed to settle it. Bill made a remark or two about Gates’ ancestors, but the crisis was over.
Bill’s still not using the new computer to write his columns. He insists that he has to get comfortable enough that he can think about his writing, not his typing. We were making good progress until his big toe intervened, and as soon as he’s back home from surgery we’ll start the lessons again.
I’m just glad it was a toe and not a finger; we’re going to have enough trouble with that keyboard as it is.
Burton buddy Alan Doelp is a former Baltimore Sun police reporter and the author of five nonfiction books for general readers, four on medical crises.