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Jewish World Review Sept. 7, 1999 /29 Elul, 5759

Mona Charen

Mona Charen
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I've got mail --
I RECENTLY PURCHASED a new computer and no longer have to bear the ignominy of wearing last year's fashions. Surely there is no greater contempt than the computer maven's contempt for out-of-date equipment. To phone up a technical-support line was to risk derision.

"What are you using?"

"Um, it's Windows. I'm not sure which version."

"You're not sure? Well, switch off the machine -- the on/off switch is located on the big box. Good, now what does it say when the computer comes back on?"

"It says Windows 3.1, smarty pants -- and by the way, who wrote 'The Divine Comedy'?"

OK, I'm exaggerating, but only a little. In my actual conversation with a techie a few years ago, when I mentioned Windows 3.1 he asked me to hold while he canvassed the office to see if anyone remembered how to use 3.1.

While listening to music on hold, I pictured a doddering 30-year-old finally making his way to the phone.

But in any case, computers are becoming ever easier to manage --- and frighteningly efficient. The new word-processing program I'm using, for example, corrects my spelling as I'm typing (I keep it busy) and automatically changes the numbers in a list of numbered items if you insert a new one. (I know, I know, this is old hat, but it's new to me.)

The little brain inside the box doesn't require me to tell it what sort of printer I have. It can tell. And it comes equipped with a microphone in anticipation of the day when I will, Captain Kirk-like, say, "Computer, find the congressional debate over the Civil Rights Act of 1964."

I don't want to travel under false colors. I'm not sure I could really set up the new computer by myself. Fortunately, I had the expert help of Anthony Zurcher, Creators Syndicate's designated computer genius. You've probably met people like Anthony (though perhaps not so nice) -- 20- to 25-year-olds who make the computer their slave. All those options, all those different boxes, all those possibilities slow me down. But Anthony makes things jump from here to there, he pulls boxes down and kicks messages out the window (so to speak). Watching a young computer whiz is a little like watching a good juggler.

Chief among my worries when changing computers was e-mail. I was offline for several days during the transition. This, I knew, meant certain inundation. You see, one of the websites that runs my column, WWW.JEWISHWORLDREVIEW.COM, tells readers that I do read all of my mail even if I cannot answer every one. But the problem is that I get 40 to 50 e-mails per day. The box only holds 250, and that reminder, greeting me daily when I go online, feels like a rebuke.

(Incidentally: To all of you who've written asking me to return to television, I will as soon as the right vehicle presents itself.)

Just to make a dent in the huge pile of messages takes lots of time. Part of the reason it takes time is that I do not want to contribute to the degradation of standards by using e-mail incorrectly. Many, maybe even most people who send e-mail don't bother with greetings (Dear so and so) or formal closings (as I did for a day or two to experiment).

Perhaps they assume that because the sender's name is attached in the routing information, no introductions are necessary. But letters usually contain return addresses. That doesn't mean you dispense with "Dear X."

In fact, it has long been my practice not to read letters (the paper kind) that have no greeting. I will read vehement arguments, but life is too short to endure those who are rude.

In a way, e-mail is the greatest thing to happen to the printed word since Gutenburg. It has supplanted the telephone in many cases and permitted a return to written expression. So, on the cusp of this new literate era, let's not spoil it by using e-mail as cyber-pagers.

I'm very gratified to hear from so many readers. And if I don't respond to more, it's because I'm taking the time to write back properly.

JWR contributor Mona Charen reads all of her mail. Let her know what you think by clicking here. Please bear in mind, though, that while all letters are read, due to the heavy amount of traffic, not all letters can be answered.

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©1999, Creators Syndicate