Ask Bob: The Computer Guy

I don’t like to brag, but around the offices of Courthouse News I’m considered a computer idiot. So when I spilled orange juice onto my keyboard, in the region of fghjkl and sou’west, did I go crying to the tech guys? I did not. I fixed it myself.

My wars with computers go back to the days of the Trash 80. The TRS-80 hailed from the glory days of Radio Shack, in the late 1980s. It was the first computer I ever had, and the first computer for many reporters. Its screen was about 2 by 4 inches, and you could see about 60 letters at a time.

To send my stories from Mexico I used an acoustic coupler, which looked like earmuffs for a telephone. (No cellphones yet.) To send a story I had to call my editor and tell him I wanted to acoustically couple. (Look of alarm goes here.) He would clear the lines, and I would stick the earmuffs on my telephone and dial again, then my story would be consummated. But usually not. Usually I’d have to do it two or three times, calling after each time until it worked.

I hated and loved my Trash 80. I hated it for obvious reasons, but I loved it because it was a gizmo.

I’ll bet if you hunt up nine old-time reporters and ask them what they thought of their Trash 80s, they’ll all tell you the same thing. They’ll say: “The Trash 80? Oh, man, that was … I hated that godda … though it was kind of cool.”

Important Note: I am not suggesting that you hunt down nine reporters, for anything. Or even one. But if you feel that you just have to do it, make the rounds of Homes for the Declining, Feeble and Feisty. That’s where old reporters go to wait for deadline.

After I lost Trash 80 to newsroom cutbacks (in 1990), my friend, the late great Charles Bowden gave me his Kaypro II, which ran on the CP/M operating system and weighed about 40 pounds.

This was a big step up from the Trash 80. Its screen was about 5 by 4 inches: You could see an entire paragraph on it. It was like upgrading from Kitty Hawk to a Piper Cub.

I wrote about 16 drafts of my first book on it, and saved them on floppy discs in CP/M. These were real floppy discs, 4 by 7 inches, and they actually were floppy. Then the Kaypro died, and as the old musician joke goes, there I stood with my goddamn piccolo.

By then everyone was using DOS. I had 300 pages in CP/M (actually, 5,000 pages, but all I needed was Draft 16) but no way to translate it into DOS for the 17th go round.

The Internet barely existed. I couldn’t punch up Google and search for a program converter. I had to call every computer guy in the Yellow Pages and beg.

Fortunately, computer guys are nice when you have a computer problem. One of them recommended me to a guy who happened to have the only CP/M to DOS program, on floppy disc, in Tucson. Or possibly the world.

“Oh, please, please, can you convert my book to DOS?” I asked him.

“Nah, come on over and I’ll give it to you,” he said.

And he did, and I learned how to use it so I did not have to retype all 300 pages; I just ran them through the program. And it worked … except, it converted the last letter of every word into a Greek letter.

Now, who would … why would … why in God’s name would … Anyway, that’s how I learned to use Search and Replace.

So you see I have a troubled history with computers. But when I spilled orange juice on my keyboard last week, and the keys stuck, did I go crying to the tech guys? (Vide supra.) I did not. Here is what I did.

After brewing my morning cup of tea, I took that keyboard to my kitchen sink. I tilted it at a sharp angle, and I poured that boiling water over it, from fghjkl on down. Then I turned the keyboard upside down and left it to drip in the sink.

Worked like a charm. And I’ll tell you what: I don’t expect to hear any backchat from that keyboard.

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