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Learning to type without margins


MY CO-WORKERS and I have been attending computer "school" part-time over the last couple months. It's my fifth such experience with an employer since 1980, and it has this graying head feeling a bit reflective about the computer age - which our children accept as so non-threatening - information overload and stress.

Actually, I don't find computers threatening, either. Frustrating at times, sure. Daunting, sometimes. Tiring, many nights. But fascinating, all the time.

We in this newsprint estuary off the great sea Mass Communications have experienced more technological change in the last 25 years than our predecessors saw between Johannes Gutenberg's movable type in the 1450s and Ottmar Mergenthaler's faster, better, cheaper Linotype in Baltimore in 1886.

Truth is, "mass com" is looking more and more like mass dot-com, and that means we face exciting times.

Wait until all the words, photos, graphics, colors, sounds, film, live broadcasts, and ones and zeros get blended within a cheap "thing" you can keep in your pocket. That is, until you absolutely can't do without a Taiwanese stock quote, or soccer score from Valencia or, as some wag said recently, pricing goats some Ethiopian is selling on the Internet.

The seers say it won't be long before we all will plug an electronic tablet or foldable, image-saving material - not newsprint - into our computer, phone or TV before going to bed and pull it out to peruse whatever new information we want over morning coffee.

Anyway, the industrial-strength word-processing system that has served us with remarkable reliability for 15 years is out. Given its age, it still functions OK, but all we can do on it are words - for articles and headlines, captions and informative, little boxes.

What's in is the ability to do all that, plus use - without leaving our chairs - photos, graphics, the Internet's array of newspapers in all 50 states and 130 nations, countless magazines and journals. And we'll have a grammar checker that performs (not all that surely, by the way) as we write or edit.

Also, never underestimate the impact of this switch on what MBAs call productivity - fewer workers doing more work more efficiently. Some of us journalists have only months left before our evolution into writers-editors-printers-engravers for one salary is complete.

But that, as they say, is progress.

I learned typing in the mid-1950s on an ancient Underwood; it's an antique now. An IBM Selectric typewriter intimidated me in 1971; how fast that weird little ball spun and struck paper as fingertips merely brushed its keys. Learning to play, not hammer, those keys took several years.

My computer initiation occurred in 1980 in Norfolk, Va., where the Virginian-Pilot computers could crash anytime, unremorsefully vaporizing work that took 100 people six hours to do. Talk about frustrating.

Four more newspaper systems have followed; only occasionally do they crash, and they don't trash - as much. I've also tinkered on a $99 Timex-Sinclair personal computer with, as I recall, 16K of memory, hardly a comma by today's standards. An old black-and-white TV was its monitor, and what you programmed in BASIC could be saved on a tape recorder.

Next came a Leading Edge PC with a dual-floppy memory and Bill Gates' sadistic DOS, six laptops built by a total of four makers and, two years ago, a Pentium box that in mere weeks became a slow relic with Pentium II's introduction. Not counting fun forays into Atari and two Nintendo generations, that's 14 computers - on average, one about every 17 months -- intertwined lately with Windows 95 and Windows 98.

I'm on my third Internet service provider in two years; the first couldn't keep e-mail working, the second merged into the third, which, soon, will merge into a fourth.

No wonder I feel stressed. No wonder my brain hurts in this newest computer class. But know what? Goat hunting sounds like a giggle. And, betcha, that Ethiopian villager won't be any harder for my favorite cyber-spider to stalk than the dancing baby someone turned into a 15-day fad a couple years back. Fascinating.

Lowell E. Sunderland, a member of The Sun's Sports staff, has been a writer, editor and news manager at the paper long enough to remember pencil editing and carbon paper.

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