The Maltese Novice

The night was as thick as a Netscape bug list. The fog was as black as a CEO’s heart. I had just returned from a case–some rich kid wanted to make sure his Nintendo would handle the Year 2000.

The name is Rowe. Mack Rowe. Private consultant.

I had just returned to the office and was contemplating a bottle of Jolt Cola into which I’d just dropped a lit cigarette. Then the most beautiful woman I’d ever seen walked in the door. She had long blonde hair, a slinky red dress, and legs that wouldn’t stop. Literally–she kept walking into the wall.

"Mr. Rowe," she said, "my name is Natasha Furd. I run a small scroll bar manufacturing plant in Cupertino. I need your help. It’s about my father."

"Sorry, sweetie," I said, "but I don’t do missing users."

"That isn’t it," she said. "It’s just that he refuses to go online. He keeps complaining that I never call, I never write. So I tell him–‘I do e-mail.’ Last month I bought him a Pentium II 300, hoping he’d get interested. He won’t touch it."

Now I understood what she meant. "And you want me to encourage him with a little muscle, eh?"

"No, of course not. I want you to go to his house and teach him how to use his computer."

"Well, I don’t know," I said, leaning back in my chair, putting my feet up on the desk, and stapling my pants legs together. "That sort of work is dangerous."

"Will this help?" She reached into her purse and pulled out five crisp, clean, brand-new CD-ROMs. I took a quick glance. They were the real thing, alright. Not an AOL disk in the lot.

"Okay, lady, you got yourself a boy."

Visit on Green Street

The next night I paid the old man a visit. He proved to be suave, British, and very overweight.

"So," he said as he waddled back to his study, "you’re the chap my daughter thinks is going to get me using the Internet."

"Yeah," I said. "I go where the money is."

"Fine, fine. Would you care for a drink?" Without waiting for an answer, he handed me a tumbler of bourbon. Floating in the glass was a black mouse wearing white gloves and short pants. The guy was trying to slip me a Mickey.

I put down the glass. "So let’s see this computer of yours."

He ushered me into a study where a minitower computer sat on a large mahogany desk. Six other computers gathered dust in the corner. "Her other attempts to get me wired," he explained. "The bottom one is an Amiga."

"So what seems to be the problem?" I asked. "Why won’t you use a computer?"

"Let me see if I can explain myself. Suppose I wanted to write my daughter a letter on my computer. How would I go about doing it?"

"Piece of cake. You’d turn it on, wait for it to boot up, load your e-mail program, click the New Message icon, wait for a window to pop up, type your letter, click the Send button, wait for your system to make a connection, get a Mailer-Daemon error message back saying the address had fatal errors, retype the address, and start over. What could be easier?"

"Using the telephone."

I calmly lit a cigarette, took a deep drag, and coughed until my eyes watered. Now he was ready to listen. "What’re you gonna do when the telephone fails you? When you’ve got fifteen punks with Tommy guns outside your house shooting their way in and the phone line’s been cut? When that happens you’ll be mighty glad that you can e-mail the police."

He smiled at me indulgently. "How will I send e-mail if the phone line’s cut?"

His jibe hit me like coffee on a keyboard. This guy was going to be tough. "You’re a business man," I said. "You’ve probably got confidential information all over this place. And where do you keep it? On paper? Anyone can break in a steal it!

"Now suppose you kept it on a hard drive. You could encrypt your information, delete all backups, empty the recycling bin, and reformat your hard drive so that no one will ever see it."

"Personally," he said, "I keep confidential information in my collection of Perry Como albums. No one would ever look for it there."

I tried another tack. "Mr. Furd, I’m being paid to help you feel comfortable about using computers. If I don’t do that, I don’t get paid. Is there anything I can do to change your mind?"

"Can you speed up my modem connection? Keep my browser from crashing on me? Explain why I must click a button labeled ‘Start’ in order to stop?"

"You expect the impossible!" I said bitterly.

He laughed. "Let me make a proposal. How much is my daughter paying you?"

"I never divulge that type of information. Five CD-ROMs."

He smiled "What would you do if I offered you twice that to get her off of her computer?"

A smile slowly curled its way up my face. "Interesting challenge. I suppose I could sell her a 486 with 8MB of RAM, Windows 98 beta, and Netscape Communicator 4.01–the special Buggy Edition. Then I could e-mail her the complete works of the Microsoft Legal Department every hour. Finally, I’d set her up with an e-mail connection to alt.support.chronic.complainers."

He smiled back. "You’re a cruel man," he said, reaching for his wallet. "Would you accept money, instead?"

By the time I left his home, it was almost morning. The fog was lifting and newspapers were landing on roofs all over town. Somewhere, not far away, a fist was going through a monitor.

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