»  National Review Online

December 21st, 2000

   Silent Night


And silent morning, noon, afternoon and evening, too. No more familiar hum of fans, disk drives and industrious little electrons scurrying to and fro. No more cheery chirp of "E-mail!" No more pings, whoops and boings as the kids take over for a game of Tonic Trouble. Ladies and gentlemen, my system is down.

This happened twelve days ago, on a Saturday morning. My home system is a utilitarian desktop I bought off the rack at CompUSA in February 1998. I have beefed it up some — put in a 20-gig hard drive, better video card, CD-RW drive, ethernet card for my cable modem — but it's basically a 3-year-old system. This is important, because I got a 3-year extended warranty with it. My idea was, that after 3 years it would be obsolete, I would be rich from writing opinion columns for web magazines, and I could buy a super-duper new system. Ah, the best-laid schemes o' mice and men gang aft agley.

The Saturday morning this particular scheme went agley, I sat down and powered up my system. Yes, I know, you should just leave the damn thing on all the time. My system, however, has an unsatisfactory sleep mode, with lots of distracting hums and clicks and way too much sensitivity: if anything larger than a kitten walks past, it wakes up. So I power it off at night and on in the morning. Well, I powered on. The usual boot stuff rolled up, then Windows … but with an error box I had never seen before. I clicked it away, and a different one came up. I clicked that away, and found myself looking at a perfectly blank Windows desktop — wallpaper but no screen furniture. Definitely something agley. I fiddled, as far as I know how to, which is not very far. Safe mode … DOS mode … refresh Registry … reload Windows. After an hour of this the horrid conviction had settled on me: I had a motherboard problem.

Still, there were three months left on the extended warranty for parts, and the motherboard is indubitably a part. I threw the box in my car and drove over to CompUSA. The guy at the service window was friendly and helpful, but I had pretty much worked down his checklist already. Registry problem? I'd refreshed. Windows need reloading? Tried to — it crashed. "I'm sure it's a motherboard problem," I insisted. He sounded skeptical, but took the machine in. Three days later they called. Bad news, good news, and bad news. Bad news: I had a motherboard problem. Good news: It came under the extended warranty. Bad news: they could only replace like with like, and 3-year-old motherboards are not easy to find. They would try to get one and replace it.

And there, nine days later, matters still stand. I am not totally out of touch with the world. The stuff about getting rich from web journalism went even more hopelessly agley than my CompUSA motherboard, so I still have my day job, which comes with a nifty laptop and an e-mail service. It's a different e-address from the one shown on my NR Online pieces, though, so if you've been sending in responses to my web articles, I haven't been getting them — sorry. The laptop is also set up with a well-secured "company build," which means I can't load any of my stuff on it. In particular I can't load FrontPage, so I can't refresh my personal web site, which is now sinking into obsolescence. (Though still full of fascinating and informative articles on everything from analytic number theory to medieval Chinese poetry, so by all means take a look.

The down side of being system-less is obvious. I have missed twelve days of e-mail, including, no doubt, frantic offers from publishers eager to take up my proposal for a book on the Riemann Hypothesis, notifications that I have won the iWon monthly million-dollar lottery (but only if I confirm immediately by return e-mail), a commission from People magazine to do an all-day interview and photo-shoot with Gwyneth Paltrow, and, of course, responses from my beloved readers telling me that I am either (a) the greatest essayist since Montaigne, or (b) a fascist hyena who should go back to the pathetic, washed-up, dentist-free, foggy little island I came from. I am cut adrift, isolated from the great buzzing world, from what Samuel Johnson called "the system of life." And then, I have not been a good boy about backing up my hard drive. I have one of those tape backup systems, but the last one I did was in early November. I told CompUSA if they reformatted my hard drive I'd sue them, but they smiled and laughed in that carefree way people have when your life is in their hands but they are only paid fifteen dollars an hour. Oh, God.

On the whole, though, I must say I don't mind this present state of affairs. There are a lot of positives as well as negatives. A large part of my e-mail is junk: product notifications from software vendors I was foolish enough to register with seven years ago, sure-fire stock schemes, postings on e-groups I have lost interest in. It's nice not to have to exert myself dumping this stuff in the recycle bin. ("Silence of the spams," says wife. Very good, honey.)

And even the mail from fans … Well, I love you guys, but when I started doing opinion journalism I adopted the conscientious philosophy of Thomas Jefferson, that anyone who takes the trouble to write to me deserves the courtesy of a reply. This is morally satisfying, but awfully time-consuming. An average web piece brings forty or fifty e-mails in. If I say anything controversial, it goes up above a hundred — my record is in fact over two hundred. Things get really out of control if I say anything slighting about homosexuals, which I sometimes do. Homosexuals are the most diligent and persistent writers of Letters to the Editor nowadays. The merest remark opens the floodgates. As has so often been said, what Oscar Wilde called "the love that dare not speak its name" is now the one that can't shut up. Since homosexuals have only a very limited number of arguments — about four, I think — to offer in support of their disgusting, unhealthy and anti-social practices (uh-oh), reading their responses gets very repetitive and wearisome.

And given the volume of e-mail I receive, my mailbox at the Optimum Online server is now presumably full, and people who e-mail me are getting their missives bounced back to them with a tag saying: "Mr Derbyshire's mailbox is full." Hey, this makes me sound important. I mean, try e-mailing somebody who is important, and half the time that's what you get. There's a certain status about it, a cachet. Of course, I have a private line for things I regard as really interesting, but I can only suffer so much e-mail from hoi polloi, and right now I've got all I can handle, thanks very much. That's how the quality folk live. I bet that's how Michael Kinsley lives.

Most of all, there is the sheer amount of time I now have. I had not realized how thoroughly my system had taken over my life. Wife: "Oh, so that's what the front of your head looks like." I am reading books — other, I mean, than ones I am paid to read. My dog gets the long walk (45 minutes) every day now, instead of once a week. I can do my Christmas shopping. (And I shall, I shall … tomorrow.) I can watch The O'Reilly Factor without jumping up every three minutes to see who just e-mailed me. I can play Snakes and Ladders with my kids. (Whose American version of the game, no doubt in response to some directive from PC Central, has had its name wimped down to "Chutes and Ladders.")

So don't cry for me, reader.

A poor life this if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.

Right now, for a few days at any rate, I have time to stand and stare. At Christmas, too! A system crash is a misfortune of only the most minor sort, and no doubt all part of the Divine Plan. I shall take it in my stride. I shall go to church, sing some of those wonderful old carols, and hear the dear nativity story read, as I did when a child. I shall settle down with my family by the fire, with a glass of Sandeman's and a lump of fruit cake, and watch the Christmas specials on TV. I am sorry not to be able to answer your e-mails, but I shall catch up, I promise. In the meantime, I wish you all a very merry Christmas, and everything you wish for yourselves in the new year. Even if, aw shucks, you are an angry homosexual.