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Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Artificial intelligence

– A Harrowing True Story of Truth and Harrowing –

On Sunday night I was scheduled to play two hockey games, one in the 7:45 slot (Capitals v. Wizzards) and one in the 10:15 slot (CCM v. Blues).  Here’s what that means: I would play my B-league game for 60 minutes, sit out the second game, then play my A-league game.  This is a bit tiring, needless to say, but it’s easier (at my age) than playing games back to back, so long as I warm up adequately for game two.

But what to do with the down time?  I’m a busy man with a looming book deadline, after all, and I just can’t sit around in hockey rinks for 75 minutes with nothing to do.  So I brought my laptop to the rink along with my hockey gear, thinking that I would answer email between games.  Most of it was standard business mail, like “thanks for your essay,” “you need to revise that other essay,” and “when are we ever going to see that essay you promised us by November?” Some of it was casual correspondence from friends.  The usual.  And I thought that if I got my email in-box all clear on Sunday night, I could get right to work on chapter six first thing Monday morning, and finish it by the end of the week.  Which would leave me with only a short conclusion to write– along with the brief talk I’m supposed to give at my old school, the U of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, at the end of the month.

So, dear reader, you understand that I was full of good intentions, doing my due diligence.  Except that when I plugged in the laptop, it didn’t . . . what is the technical term?  ah, yes– it didn’t work.  It wouldn’t even get past the “boot” screen, with the little Gateway and Intel emblems, and the keyboard appeared to be locked.

OK, you say, it’s a case of a Frozen Laptop.  Happens to everyone.  True enough, but– as the chill began to creep over my limbs– the frozen laptop in question contained the last two chapters of my book as well as my notes and drafts for the final two chapters.  Basically, everything I’d written since the New Year and hadn’t yet sent to my editor

But what about my backup copies?  Well, thanks to the fact that I got myself a sleek, thin-as-a-deck-of-cards laptop last August, I don’t have a floppy-disk drive anymore, so my only backup is a detachable zip drive, which I use every couple months or so.  In other words, I didn’t have backup copies.  But what about my hard copies?  Even in the summer of 2003, when my 13,000-word introduction to The Aesthetics of Cultural Studies mysteriously disappeared from my hard drive one evening just as I was preparing to ship it off to the publisher, I had a 40-page printout sitting on my desk.  And the prospect of retyping the thing from scratch, after finally putting together a project that had taken me three and a half years to complete, nearly brought me to tears.  But this time I didn’t even have hard copies, because . . . and here’s where the story gets involved . . . my laptop’s USB ports mysteriously kind of fried themselves three weeks ago, and I’ve been working without a mouse and without a printer ever since.

Why didn’t I bring the damn computer into tech support right away, you ask?  Because I’m a blithering idiot, that’s why, and I thought that I should finish the book first and then see what was going on with the USB ports.  Since the laptop wasn’t even recognizing that it had connections to its hardware, I feared that this was going to be a genuinely serious problem, so, of course, I put it off!

So there I was, half-dressed in my hockey gear between games one and two, thinking to myself that my ailing, six-month-old computer was now truly dead, and that I’d lost about five weeks and seventy-five pages of work.

What was curious about the panic that overtook me was how gradual, how gentle it was.  I could feel my chest tighten, but it was tightening very slowly, as if I wouldn’t really have to worry about actually suffocating for another few hours or so.  I began thinking over the arguments and narratives of those two chapters, and whether I could re-create them note for note; yes, I thought, I can probably come up with some plausible version of them, perhaps by the end of March.  But then I began to wonder whether I could even bear to try.

By that point I realized there was no way I could play game two.  I had to go home and try to see what was wrong with the laptop.  This made no sense, of course– unless the electricity in my house was somehow going to heal the computer where the rink electricity had failed– but I just couldn’t see myself concentrating on the game while desperately trying to remember the details of a 25,000-word chunk of writing.  So, making an incoherent apology to one of the players who, like me, was waiting around between games one and two, I undressed, showered, drove home, and plugged in the laptop again . . . with no luck.

I slept about three hours Sunday night, and dreamt about connecting computers to telephones and microwaves.  From 3 a.m. to 8 a.m., I made notes for rewriting those chapters.  Then at eight I brought the laptop to the English department’s tech support department– where (you knew this was coming, right?) it promptly, happily, and inexplicably booted up without hesitation.  I immediately sent those chapters to my editor, and then (since I still couldn’t print) sent copies to myself and retrieved them on my office desktop.  Today, I dragged the damn laser printer into my office, hooked it up to the desktop, and printed hard copies of both chapters.  But now– even as I type this (on the desktop)– the laptop is in the shop, and it looks like those USB ports truly are beyond repair.  Which means not only that I can’t print from and can’t use a mouse with the laptop, but also that I won’t be able to use the zip drive, because the damn computer still can’t “see” new hardware.  To back up my work since my last zip, I’ll basically have to email everything to myself as attachments and refile it all on this end.

Once, nine years ago, the very first laptop I owned (and on which I wrote Life As We Know It in the fall of 1995) crashed as I was writing a 50-minute talk that I was supposed to deliver the next day.  The talk was about a couple of Richard Powers’s early novels, and I had just gotten to the point of the paper where I was about to discuss varieties of human and artificial intelligence in Galatea 2.2.  I am not making this up.  Then when I asked the laptop to open the pod bay doors, it told me it was sorry, but it couldn’t do that.  What’s the problem? I asked.  I think you know what the problem is just as well as I do, it said.  Then it told me that this conversation could serve no purpose any more, and it shut down.

I just don’t seem to have any damn luck with these things.  But still, I am vastly, vastly relieved to have my chapters back.  Thank you, Hal, for at least that much.

Posted by Michael on 02/15 at 11:23 AM
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