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Tales from the dark screen: a hard disk's journey into night


The whole ugly business began a few days ago, when I turned on my computer and the words "Cannot initialize controller 0" flashed on the screen.

This I recognized as a bad sign. Bad signs are everywhere in this life: the hooting of an owl at midnight, a wisp of smoke from the No. 2 engine at take-off, the auto mechanic who says, "Won't know anything till we get 'er up on the lift."

And I knew the words "Cannot initialize controller 0" was a bad sign, too, particularly when I hit every key on the keyboard and nothing happened.

So I dragged the computer off to the computer store. The man behind the service desk took it, somber as a priest accepting a chalice, and unscrewed the back. Then he shook his head slowly. "Your hard disk . . ." he began. Then he paused, as if overcome by the enormity of what he was about to say.

"There's no hope," he said softly.

For a moment, I thought he was going to draw a chalk outline around the computer and then zip it into a little body bag. But he just handed it back to me and whispered: "Damn shame, that. The Japanese are making incredible strides in that area."

So the next day I went shopping for a new computer, which is like shopping for a new car, except that some beefy guy named Vic with gold chains and a loud sport coat isn't crushing your hand the minute you walk in the door.

Like dogs, the people who work in computer stores will automatically gravitate to the person who fears them the most.

In this case, a pale, sad-eyed young man of about 25 appeared at my shoulder as soon as I entered the store. Like all computer store employees, he had an enormous forehead and radiated intelligence, and of course I was very afraid of him. His name tag said: Martin.

"Can I help you, sir?" he said.

"Nice to meet you, Marty," I said.

"It's Martin," he said evenly.

This I recognized as a bad sign. A girlfriend who says, "We have to talk," a fly walking across your bleu cheese dressing in a restaurant, a doctor telling you, "This might sting a little" -- all these are bad signs. And when you call someone Marty and he says, "It's Martin," it's generally an indication that whatever is about to happen won't be good.

The first thing they ask you when you're shopping for a computer is: What do you want to do with it? And as soon as you tell them what you want to do with it, they say: "Oh, you don't want to do that. You want to do this, this and this." Anyway, I told Martin that the only thing I wanted to do with the computer is write with it.

"What about graphic design?" he said.

"I just want to write with it," I said.

"What about multimedia educational software?"

"I just want to write with it."

"What about desktop publishing?"

"I just want to write with it."

Martin's eyes narrowed.

"You're not making this a pleasant experience, are you?" he said.

With that, Martin went off to consult with a couple of his colleagues, who also had enormous foreheads and the glow of super-human intelligence about them. I estimated the surface area of their combined brains to be 3 square feet, particularly in the cortex.

When he returned, Martin showed me a half-dozen different computers. All seemed no more complicated to operate than a Trident submarine, although Martin assured me a chimpanzee drunk on Jose Cuervo could master the thing in minutes.

For the next hour, Martin talked of megabytes and memory and RAM and VGA monitors, in the same tone of voice you'd use with a slow child. Anyway, I ended up buying a 486-DX something or other, which plunged me even deeper into the financial abyss.

I took the computer home and a friend of mine set it up in my office and there it sits, because of course I have no idea how to use it.

Martin said: "Just read the manual, just read the manual." The manual is thicker than the Yellow Pages. It'll put you to sleep like someone smacked you in the head with a shovel.

Sometimes, just for laughs, I'll turn the computer on and stare at the screen and imagine my fingers sailing across the keyboard and actually writing something.

But of course there will be none of that for many months, if it ever happens at all.

Right now, I'm using the keyboard to dry some sweat socks.

Which seems to work just fine.

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