Do we really need online dorm laundry?


I've been writing about technology for 17 years, give or take, but I never cease to be amazed by its potential to improve the human condition.

Consider last week's announcement of yet another astonishing breakthrough from IBM. You may have read about it. No, no, it wasn't the emergency response system IBM is building for the nation's capital, or its work on the world's most powerful electron microscope, or its nanotube transistors, or its research into the uncertainty principle as a linchpin of online privacy.

No, this one was so profound that I'll let the company tell the story in its own words: "IBM and USA Technologies today announced that they will Web-enable 9,000 washing machines and dryers at U.S. colleges and universities, eliminating much of the hassle associated with laundry day at the dorm."

Known hereafter as e-Suds, the system will link those 9,000 washing machines, mostly in the Midwest, to a back-end system that enables students to visit a Web site and find out if a washing machine is indeed available in the basement of their dorm.

Should there be a vacant machine, students will be able to arrange online for the proper dispensation of detergent and fabric softener. Once they've deposited their laundry and paid for the transaction with a swipe card - or even by punching in a code on their cell phones - they can return to their dorm rooms secure in the knowledge that the system will send them e-mail when the load is finished.

Thus in one fell swoop, e-Suds will eliminate one of the most demoralizing rituals of college life - the long trudge down to the basement with a load of grimy sweat shirts and the heartbreak of finding all the machines full of other students' grimy sweat shirts.

Nor will a student who finds an empty machine be faced with the excruciating choice of sitting in the laundry room and watching his sweat shirts tumble for 43 minutes, or returning to his room to agonize over the possibility that some other student will unload the clothes the minute the machine's cycle is done and scatter them around the laundry room.

According to psychologists, these concerns are the most common causes of PDSS (Pre-Detergent Stress Syndrome), which left untreated over the long term can result in a decline in academic performance, extreme anxiety and excessive consumption of liquid Tide.

With the exception of the previous paragraph, all of this is true. I have to admit being struck by the silliness of that digital horsepower being harnessed to the laundry room, which has functioned perfectly well for the last half-century without such assistance.

But then, my techie friends often accuse me of being a middle-aged Luddite in these matters. They can't understand why I'm not excited, say, about the prospect of having my refrigerator and microwave wired to my PC in my House of the Future.

So I decided to put it to an expert. I ran the announcement by my son, Ben, a college sophomore who generates more laundry in a week than the average family of four (when he leaves for school, our water bill drops by half). If there's a potential e-Suds customer out there, I figured, it's Ben.

As I described the system, Ben thought I was kidding at first, but I assured him that e-Suds was actually happening. So what did he think?

"What a waste of technology," he declared.

Backup hindsight

Now to more practical matters. From time to time, I lecture on the advisability of backing up your hard drive.

Now I understand that today's hard disks are so large that it's impractical to back up everything to CDs, and most people have neither the money nor the inclination to install a tape drive. I certainly don't.

My compromise advice has always been to copy the data that you can't replace - your correspondence, reports, financial records, digital photos, music and other files. If your hard drive crashes, you can always reinstall the operating system and software from the original disks. It takes a while, but aside from taking up your time, there's no real damage done.

It finally happened to me last week - the first time in years that I've had a hard drive head south. After a lot of swearing and tinkering, I decided that it wasn't worth trying to salvage the computer itself (it's about five generations old) so I set up a new machine.

That's when I discovered that my backup system, such as it was, had missed a few things. The most important were my Outlook Express e-mail and address book.

I subscribe to a couple of technical mailing lists, and I keep a lot of messages that contain specific information that I may need someday. Outlook Express is good at searching for things, and the system always worked well. OK, it was more like a trunk full of old stuff in the attic, but I did use it occasionally and now it was gone.

What I'll really miss, though, is my address book -which had about 150 entries with e-mail addresses and phone numbers. I'm re-creating that from scratch, and it's a pain.

It turns out that there's an easy way to save this stuff. In Outlook Express, just click on File/Export and you can save your address book or even your mail itself. If the file is too large for a floppy disk (which is likely to be the case), make a backup folder on your hard drive and save it there first. Then you can copy it to a CD, assuming of course that you have a CD writer (which you should).

To transfer the data to a new or repaired computer, just choose the File/Import function to restore the information.

I wish I'd thought of it ahead of time.

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