Discovering the wonders of e-mail

Posted: Friday, July 14, 2000

The 18-page paper prepared for legislators finally led the ladies to the Commissioner's Office to take action. For months my assistant Sunnie valiantly labored transcribing dictation from tiny microcassettes. As deputy commissioner of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game I was required to prepare reports, briefing papers and correspondence - a bureaucrat's life's blood. Use of dictation equipment - in this case a tiny hand-held recorder - is easy for me, although my friends prefer the familiar yellow pad either in the official legal size or the smaller format, which I've always called the paralegal pad.

I bounced into my office early one morning, having returned from an extended trip the night before and there, occupying a corner of the small square, was a brand new beige computer. For a moment I thought a mistake had been made, but then I realized what the crew had one and laughed loudly.

I did not know how to turn it on. With Sunnie's help and the assistance of my old pals Denny Johnson and Carmine DeCostanzo I was finally able to understand enough to rough out documents, saving everyone some time and making Sunnie's life a little easier. She was busy enough as it was. Unfortunately no one thought to tell me about ``saving'' my work. It was a lesson learned the hard way when someone inadvertently tripped a breaker switch about noon one Saturday after I had been working since 7 a.m. on a single document. I believe I was on page 16 when the entire morning's work vanished into the ether. It may still be clinging to the walls of the ADF&G building in a jumbled mass of little Is and Os.

The biggest struggle I had with computers was my insistence on understanding everything that went on inside them and how they did what they did. I took two or three courses at U of A Southeast, including one which involved the total disassembly of a computer, and still was not able to grasp how a mixture of Is and Os could create documents, do large calculations, and yes, even play Solitaire. It may have been Denny who finally persuaded me to forget all that and just use the machine. Things have been much easier since then. I now have two desktop machines and a marvelous little laptop that travels with me. I still do not understand what goes on inside them, but now I don't worry about it.

This preamble was prompted by a newspaper advertisement I saw this morning which offered, for just $99, a nifty little machine consisting of a nearly full size keyboard and what appears to be a 15'' monitor screen. According to the ad, this little machine will permit you to send and receive e-mail, surf the Internet and ``a whole lot more.'' It guarantees you can check the weather, do some shopping, write to the kids and even order a pizza. Just plug it in and turn it on. In addition to the price tag of $99, you will have to pay a monthly service of $29.95, but that's fair.

Not long after I began playing with computers, their value as a communications tool became apparent. It is now literally possible to ``reach out and touch someone,'' no matter where they live. A morning radio listener called to tell me he had taken my advice, bought a small computer, learned how to use it and was now corresponding regularly with his children around the world. It occurred to me that computer use for simple human communications, regardless of the other important and marvelous changes these devices have made in our lives, might be the most important application of all.

I've continued to maintain that senior citizens may have the most to gain from this nearly instant form of communication. With children and grandchildren sometimes thousands of miles away, quick and easy notes, birthday greetings and simple ``hellos'' can be cheering and make the distance disappear. If you are a senior and have thought about a computer, but put it off as ``too complicated'' or ``too expensive,'' do yourself a favor and look into it again.

The machine mentioned above is only one of several items coming to the marketplace. Don't worry about your ability to use one. It truly is about as simple as plugging it in, sticking a phone line into the back (it can be the same phone line you use for your household telephone or a separate line) and turning it on. And even if you do need some help the store where you bought the machine surely will assist you, or you can ask a friend or neighbor. Or a grandchild! For your purposes you don't need sophisticated computer or keyboard skills. Can you hunt and peck out a simple message on a typewriter? Then you can use your little computer to talk to anyone, anywhere in the world.

In the months I have been writing for the Empire, I have received e-mail notes from all around the world, sent by present and former residents of Juneau. I have received notes from all around Southeast Alaska, Hawaii, Europe and dozens of states. This winter I linked up with some old legislative pals spending the winter Outside and several other people who had either read a column online or who had received a clipping from the paper. Notes from Juneauites via e-mail arrive regularly, sometimes with a simple greeting, maybe a compliment or a criticism, and often with an idea or observation. It is a fascinating and easy way to stay in touch.

Unlike some, I do not consider a regular letter sent through the mail as ``old-fashioned.'' But I honestly believe you will find it quicker and easier to stay in touch with one of the modern and inexpensive little machines. See you online.

Warren W. Wiley, a former Juneau resident, political observer and radio personality, now lives in Montana. He can be reached by e-mail at

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