2nd Valentine's Day Massacre riddles E-mail

Personal Computers

February 19, 1996|By Peter Lewis

ON VALENTINE'S DAY in 1946, scientists in Philadelphia unveiled the Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer, Eniac. The first electronic computer weighed 30 tons and filled a room.

A few years later, experts were predicting that computers might someday weigh as little as 1.5 tons, and that dozens of them might be installed around the world.

Today, computers weigh far less than 1.5 tons. Tens of millions of them go into service each year, ranging from massively parallel computation engines that simulate weather patterns to humble little chips in watches.

What about 50 years from now?

Even the experts know that it is reckless to forecast more than five years out. But, here goes:

In 2046, we'll still be complaining about slow computers, lack of band width, incompatible standards, high prices, rapid obsolescence, incomprehensible manuals, computer bugs and viruses, on-line porn, invasions of privacy, and poor technical support.

And last week was, from a technical standpoint, the St. Valentine's Day Massacre.

First, my laptop died. It would cost more to repair and upgrade it than to buy a new model. Then, my new digital voice mail went on the blink, eating the first 10 to 15 seconds of each new message and sometimes garbling the rest.

Then there was a curious E-mail message from my Internet provider, assuring me that the company was aware of the technical problems and was hiring more people and installing new equipment to fix the problem. Sure, it was often a problem to get through the busy signals, but I had not noticed any significant troubles.

Then my E-mail vanished.

When I tried to retrieve the next batch of my E-mail, a euphemistically named "dialogue box" popped on screen with the message "ERR: Maildrop lock busy." More than 100 electronic messages I had received in the preceding two days, most of them unread, simply vanished.

As a seasoned computer professional, I realized that the proper response was to grab my head and scream. The sudden rush of carbon dioxide had no effect on the computer, and the voice-recognition system had not been trained to recognize the phrase "Aaarrrrgh!"

Plan B, beating on the keyboard with the mouse, was equally ineffective.

However, I discovered that while I was barred from receiving my mail, I could still send messages. So I composed a memo to my Internet provider. "Dear Incompetent Morons," it began. My Internet provider is not named here, because experience has taught me that the angrier I get with technical support people, the more likely it is that the problem can be traced back to something stupid I have done. With the humbling possibility in mind that it was my fault, not theirs, I took a deep breath and called technical support, by telephone. A recorded voice told me that the average wait to speak with a human was 18 minutes and 45 seconds.

No time to wait. An emergency call went out to an executive who promised to pull some strings to help me. Several hours later, I checked voice mail.

As expected, the phone system ate the first few seconds of the message. But I caught enough to hear: "You reported that something was wrong with your electronic mail. We've checked it out and there does not appear to be a problem. If you have any other questions, you can reach me by E-mail at. "


I waited until midnight, hoping that the telephone waiting line might be shorter. It was, by a few seconds. Finally a human answered. He told me that the problem was simple, but the people who could fix it would not be in until the next day.

Dusting off my Unix skills, I dialed my Unix shell account and successfully logged on to my mail system. The relief was overwhelming as two days' worth of backlogged E-mail began pouring onto the screen.

One of the last messages was from Technical Support. It was an automatic reply, generated by the computer, acknowledging my "Dear Incompetent Moron" message. Because of a serious backlog in technical support requests, the reply stated, I should not expect an answer to my query for two to three weeks.

Peter Lewis is a columnist for the New York Times.

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