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Zan Thompson

To Err Is Human in the Computer Age

November 09, 1986|Zan Thompson

Perfection is a cold and clammy virtue. And people who never make a mistake are hard to love. Fortunately, I have never had any trouble with these negative gifts.

Actually, I would like to approach perfection a little closer, but I don't think it is ever going to happen. I will continue to skip through the buttercups, naively believing that everything will be just fine. And very often, it is.

But there's something about making a mistake in a newspaper that makes it seem more sharply heinous, as if the mistake were made deliberately. Now that the paper is produced by computers, it is even harder to blame a mistake on someone in the composing room. Or even, as was possible in the prehistoric times, to blame it on a Linotypist.

Have you ever noticed when you call a bank or an insurance company or some financial institution how undone they are when something has happened to their computers?

I have just been through a lengthy bit of unpleasantness with the savings and loan company which holds the mortgage on my house. Early this summer, the company set up a new system of computers and everything since has been a jumble. The company has told me on several occasions that they are about to take my house, kill my cattle and burn my fields even though I possess the canceled checks for each month's payment.

I have seldom heard such a forlorn tone as that in the voice of a man or woman who says, "Our computer is down."

It seems like an affront to be told that my financial affairs do not warrant the time of someone with a sixth-grade knowledge of arithmetic who can add a column of figures.

Anyway, if I make a mistake and it appears in this space, just assume it is a gaffe on the part of the computer. Unfortunately, I have made several mistakes recently. I have one snarling correspondent who writes anonymously and underlines what he thinks are errors. He has an iffy grasp on the subjunctive and does not understand that the person of the subject and verb must agree. I don't count him because he doesn't sign his letters.

But more often than I like to admit, I make the tiniest little mistake. A couple of weeks ago, I referred to Dr. Allen Mathies as the former president of Huntington Memorial Hospital. That was a computer error. What I had written was, "Dr. Allen Mathies, former dean of the USC Medical School and now president of the Huntington Memorial Hospital." It came out "former president" because the headstrong computer dropped a line.

Not only that; I made two mistakes in one paragraph about William Butler Yeats, who does not deserve such treatment. I said he built the square tower on the river. He didn't. He rebuilt it from a fallen Norman tower. Not only that, it is on the Cloone River, not the Clone. And the name of the place where the swallows dart through the trees and skim the water is Thoor Balylee not Ballylea.

I also wrote that Sir Francis Drake was given estates around the charming seaside town of Youghal, in County Court and that he brought the potato to Ireland. A reader named Anne Raleigh wrote and told me it was Sir Walter Raleigh, and she is absolutely correct. However, Sir Francis Drake was in Ireland with Lord Essex and was later recognized by Queen Elizabeth for his naval exploits and explorations. All of those boys would have been better off if they had never caught the hungry eyes of Queen Elizabeth I. My, that lady was a sorehead.

Do you suppose Anne is a descendant of Sir Walter Raleigh? How colorful and romantic to be part of his adventures.

Now, none of those mistakes are terrible, just sloppy. And I do apologize. Not the one about Dr. Mathies because old Grendel did that. But I made the Yeats mistakes simply because I didn't check and the Raleigh mistake was plain wrong.

Oh, I'm not going to turn in my computer. But I will try to be more careful. And anyone who thinks those good intentions will last more than 20 minutes is a new reader. Welcome, little chum, and be generous.

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