1 language for people and computers?


When carbon-based life forms and silicon-based machines meet, the potential for miscommunication is enormous.

As Edward Stephens, former dean of the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University, recounted recently, when he went shopping for a computer, he thought he heard the salesman touting a "zis wheel on the bias that produces several maggots of surge amplification when snollicked to a seedy ram."

The good news is that computers are beginning to have rudimentary speech and handwriting recognition skills. So it may soon be possible to bypass computer salespeople and their palaver altogether. Based on recent experiences, however, computers may not turn out to be much of an improvement.

Last week, I scribbled a reminder to "call Compaq" in the calendar of a pen-based computer. The message emerged, through the wonders of an advanced technology called handwriting recognition, as "cAfe oumPa3." My own name somehow emerged as "Pee Cewls."

The makers of the pen-based computer insist that it is the most brilliant device ever to reach the market, so clearly the computer was having fun at my expense. I can imagine it sending a giggle-byte or two to its fellow computers on the network after work.

Later, I tried speaking to a Macintosh that was supposed to respond to spoken English commands. I said, "What day is it?" and the computer responded, "1:52 p.m." At best, the level of discourse between us was only slightly more elevated than that of Tarzan and Cheetah -- "Cheetah, open file! No! Bad Cheetah! Open other file!" -- but the computer found me incomprehensible most of the time.


So it appears that the burden of clear computer communications will continue to fall upon the executive who goes shopping for computers, be it for personal or corporate use. To that end, we continue the irregular series of computer definitions. Today's primer comes from an actual classified advertisement in my local newspaper:

"New 486dlc/33/170/4 mg ram, both fd's, 2s/1p/1g, mouse, dos6.0, win3.1, .28 dpi. N/I SVGA color monitor, 1yr warranty-parts & labor. $1,399."

Analysis: Because no brand name was specified, it is possible that the seller built this machine from parts or was not particularly proud of its heritage. Is there anything wrong with no-name clones?

Often not, but if something goes wrong, the smaller companies may be hard to find. The big-name computers -- IBM, Compaq, Dell, AST, Apple, Gateway and so on -- are not much more expensive than the clones and are much more reliable.

The "dlc" suffix to the 486 was curious. The Intel Corp., which makes most of the microprocessors used in computers with DOS and Windows operating systems, does have an "slc" 486 chip, a version of the 486 with power-conservation features. The dlc may be a typo.

The more common suffixes a buyer may encounter are SX and DX. SX refers to the "lite" version of a given 386 or 486 chip. The SX operates internally at the same speed as the DX but communicates with the rest of the computer system at half-speed. In general, SX performance trails DX performance by 30 percent, which will not hurt anyone who spends more time doing word processing than crunching spreadsheets.

The DX has a built-in math co-processor, a batch of circuits that make quick work of computer graphics and big spreadsheet computations. And that brings us to the next part of the advertisement. The 33 means 33 megahertz (33MHz), a measure of the speed of a given processor in millions of cycles a second.

The higher the number, the faster the processor. Thus, a 33-megahertz 486 (often written 486-33) is faster than a 486-25.

The "170" refers to the number of megabytes of information the hard disk can store. A megabyte (MB) is about a million characters, far more than even the most obsessed memo-writer can crank out in a year. So, 170MB is a lot of space.

But software writers can fill a megabyte without breathing hard. Some programs consume more than a dozen megabytes all by %% themselves. If you're the type who needs a big attic, because you can't seem to throw things away, get a big hard disk. If you're going to use the computer primarily for word processing, a smaller hard drive is sufficient.

(Peter Lewis works out of the New York Times' Austin, Texas, bureau: [512] 328-8258.)


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