Spell check this; Hal's last laugh

Posted: Friday, December 15, 2000

I've had just about enough advice from my computer. I get red squiggly lines under bad spelling, green squiggly lines under whole lines of alleged bad grammar and now I get alerts from a thing called Mood Watch. If I compose and try to send an e-mail that contains potentially offensive material, I get a window with a rating in peppers (one is mildly offensive, two, moderately, etc.) and I am asked if I'd like to tone it down before sending. I am allowed to override and send the message by clicking a box that says, "Yes, I know I am being mildly/moderately/horribly offensive, but I mean it. Leave me alone."

Remember Hal, the computer in 2001, a Space Odyssey? He's here, talking to me in a calm and soothing voice. "Nita, you know I enjoy working with you, but we agreed you would work on your split infinitives." It's spooky. Sometimes I get the green squiggly line and I can't figure out what the problem is. I rephrase, cut, and punctuate half a dozen different ways before yelling into my screen, "What do you want from me?" Many, many times, I have tried to ignore the squiggly lines, but, of course, I cannot. "Thank you, Hal, you are, as always, right." What's really creepy is when the lines appear after I've gone on a couple of paragraphs. Perhaps Hal has to think it over or maybe he has to go look it up.

I am afraid to upgrade anything because I'll get more advice. What if there is a style monitor? Worse, what if there is a fact monitor? Would I get some new color of squiggly line every time I bent the truth? Would Hal say, "Nita, puleeze!" (Oops, red line.) I can see a bleak future with all this monitoring. Middle-aged Generation X survivors the world over who teethed on keyboards will meet in coffee shops and scribble clever, poorly spelt, grammatically incorrect notes to each other on napkins, laughing until latte foam bubbles out their noses. They will be free.

The miracle I am discounting, I realize, is that all this help with my writing is automatic. Years ago, I would have had to consult a dictionary, a style manual, almanac and a slang dictionary to get through a page of written English. Now that I have this modern miracle, though, I long for the old days. I miss pulling the heavy dictionary off the shelf and reading all the many uses of a word and how it has changed over time. I loved looking up one word and spending a few minutes or hours reading everything else along the way. There is more to spelling than red line or no red line.

Of course, we are all way too busy now to use a printed dictionary. It is faster and less distracting to just type what we're trying to say and get corrected or not, like guessing on a test. It's possible that we'll actually be correct and can go on, unassaulted. Oops, I agree with you, Hal, "efficiently" would be a better word. I also agree it would be foolish of me, as we discussed, to disable all my helpful tools since they are here for my own good. Like this chip in my head.

Nita: You are being mildly funny. Would you like me to increase the humor content? - Hal

Nita Nettleton can be reached at nitan@alaska.com. Hal is in a meeting.



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