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Jack Smith

Once bitten, twice shy: The communications revolution still has a few bugs in it

January 20, 1986|Jack Smith

Last week was not one of my better weeks.

Alert readers may have noticed, for one thing, that my column in The Times Sunday Magazine sounded vaguely familiar.

That would have been because it had already been published last Nov. 25 in the View section.

It began:

"As I recently noted here, I am obsessed with being on time, a virtue that is not always seen as one by my wife or by those I am trying to be on time for. . . ."

And it ended with an anecdote about my being one minute late for an appointment with retired Gen. H. M. (Howlin' Mad) Smith, wartime commander of the Fleet Marine Force, at his home in La Jolla. . . .

By now that should ring two bells.

To explain how this embarrassing error happened would require more expertise on the perils and pitfalls of a computerized newspaper's operations than I happen to have.

But I will try.

In the first place, I write my column at home on my IBM Personal Computer. Then I send it over the telephone to the View copy desk at The Times. There Tom Caswell, on that desk, finds it in his computer file, reads it himself and then assigns it to another copy editor, who calls it up on his or her own screen.

When it has been read, and every error has been expunged, it is sent on to the makeup department. I haven't the slightest idea what happens to it after that.

In the old days my typewritten copy would have been sent to a linotypist who would have set it in lines of lead type. These would have been placed in a page form on a metal table, which then would have been wheeled into the stereotyping room, where a matrix would have been made from the page of type. A metal plate would then have been cast from this matrix, and used on the presses to print the page in the newspaper.

Alas, all that is gone.

Now the problem is that the communications program I use to send my column to The Times over the telephone can send it only to the View section copy desk, not directly to The Sunday Times Magazine. Consequently, I have to send my Sunday magazine column to the View copy desk, which is then supposed to send in on to the magazine's computer "basket."

This system worked well until the other day. Like most magazines, each issue of The Times magazine is in preparation weeks before its publication date. Somehow, when the issue for Sunday, Jan. 19, was just being launched, the View section copy desk forwarded to the magazine that column, which had already been used in the View section.

It lay around the magazine for weeks, like a time bomb, and was already in type, beyond recall, when someone at the magazine thought maybe it sounded familiar.

It was too late to pull the column back. The wheels had begun to turn.

I hope I don't get tons of letters on this disaster because I can already anticipate their content:

"Dear Mr. Smith: Not being late is one thing. But writing the same column twice is something else. You are getting senile."

"Dear Mr. Smith: I have noticed that you are getting repetitious in your old age, but writing exactly the same column twice is too much."

"Dear Mr. Smith: If you're going to start reprinting old columns, why don't you at least do like Art Buchwald does, and wait till you go on vacation?"

Of course the readers' letters will be more poignant than those, because they'll be writing out of a sense of abuse and betrayal.

Having an old column reprinted wasn't the only thing that happened to me last week.

In writing about educating the illiterate I gave a telephone number to call for help as 625-LEARN.

I got that number at a meeting in the home of Sidney Sheldon, the author, and I am sure that I wrote it down exactly as it was given.

The first intimation I had that it might be wrong was when Bob Work, chief copy editor, phoned me to point out that it had one too many digits.

I told him I was sure that I had taken it down correctly, and suggested that perhaps the number actually was 625-LEAR, and that they added the N so that it would have meaning and be easier to remember. When you dial a seven-digit number and accidently add a number it will ring the seven-digit number anyway. Try it.

Work said he thought that made sense, but just to make sure he would try the number. He called me back to say that he had tried the number and it had worked.

After that column was printed we found out that the correct number was 62-LEARN, the number of the Los Angeles Unified School District's Division of Adult and Occupational Education.

But L is also 5 on the dial, and when you dial 625 you get some department of the School District, because 625 is the base number for the district, as 972 is the base number for The Times.

So when Work dialed 625-LEARN and asked for the illiteracy education department, they switched him over, and he thought the number was OK.

I hope this season of disasters that aren't my fault is over with, and I can go back to my simple errors of grammar, spelling and historical fact.

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