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Loh Tech

Author and commentator Sandra Tsing Loh has some biting words about computers.

March 29, 2001

In literary Los Angeles, Sandra Tsing Loh comes closest to being our combination Dorothy Parker and Rodney Dangerfield, complete with acid witticisms, self-effacing put-downs and utter disdain for what passes as hip.

Formerly a performance artist (she once played classical piano music for 1 1/2 hours next to the Harbor Freeway), she's best known these days for her radio commentary series, "The Loh Life," which originates on KCRW-FM (89.9), and also is heard nationally on public radio's "Marketplace." Loh also did a pair of one-woman theater shows, "Bad Sex With Bud Kemp" and "Aliens in America," and her essays that appeared in the now-defunct magazine Buzz are collected in "Depth Takes a Holiday." Mirroring her love/hate relationship with the city, her novel scheduled for release next month is called "A Year in Van Nuys."

Loh, 39, who had her first child in September, has a physics degree from Caltech.

DESKTOP: I hate my computer so much. My junk e-mail got so backed up that my computer exploded and destroyed practically everything on it. That was just the latest thing. It's been one nightmare after another, and each of them is so time-consuming.

The next time the littlest thing goes wrong with my computer, I'm going to take it into the backyard, break it into little pieces, bury it and get something else. I've already spent way too much time dealing with computers not working right. I have a baby now, and life is too short.

Q. Where did you get your computers?

I got my first IBM in 1982, with its two floppy drives, one for Wordstar and the other one for data. I graduated from Caltech, and in those days the thing to do was get the most complicated system you could and then modify the files yourself. You were not cool unless you modified autoexec.bat so that it would say "Hello" or "Disco sucks" when you booted up.

The desktop I have now is an IBM clone that I got in a just-off-Ventura-Boulevard mini-mall kind of place where they had a bunch of people soldering things together. I went to them so I could save $200, and I could never find them since. That was about five years ago. It was the fastest thing I could find at the time, but it doesn't even run [the computer game] "Riven."

Q. Now it's having trouble because of e-mail?

I get a huge amount of junk mail. I'm in live theater, and every actor in town who has a play opening in some 42-seat theater, is giving a class or is looking for work sends out e-mail to everyone. And I get some fan mail, which I should wish for, but it takes up a lot of time. Someone might say, "I loved your commentary on shoes, and I have a story to tell you." Then the story goes on for 3,000 words. You don't want to appear impersonal by sending them back just a line, but if you send a long e-mail back, then they follow up with more. It's hard to keep up 1,000 pen pals and have a life.

So last year when I was pregnant, my e-mail was getting more and more behind until some tech person from CompuServe contacted me to tell me I was getting way overloaded. He gave me some advice to modify my system somewhat, and then Windows wouldn't boot up. Finally, I was able to get my financial data out of it, at least, but my e-mail melted down, like a hard lump of plastic somewhere down there.

Q. Sounds like you don't miss any of it.

I did get some very nice fan mail, but I also got some weird stuff, like an e-mail from a person who said, "I heard you on the radio and I was curious, so I went to Amazon to look up your books, and I found this reader review that was really mean about you." Then he cut and pasted the review in the e-mail and said, "Please convince me to buy one of your books."

Q. Performers have always had to deal with mail.

If someone bothers to send me a real letter through the mail, I always answer it. Even if it's an angry letter. There is something heartfelt, tangible and lovely about a handwritten letter that an e-mail can never be. Especially one sent off to 50 people.

As a writer, it's painful enough for me to sit at my computer whenever I need to. I don't need to spend time with more e-mails.

Q. Is there anything good about e-mail?

Sometimes it's handy for scheduling things with friends. But I have friends who when they became older turned into Unibomber/hermit types who seemed to communicate only by computer. My attitude is: If you can't bother to get dressed and come out for dinner, I don't want to see your e-mails.

LAPTOP: About two years ago I got a NEC Versa at a large chain store that is the den of Satan. It crashed within 24 hours, and when I took it back, they asked, "Did you buy the extended warranties?" Finally, I got them to reload Windows. I took the computer with me to New York, where I was appearing off-Broadway and writing a novel at the time. In 3 1/2 weeks it crashed again.

Eventually, I gave up and went to another store and asked them, "What is your best-selling laptop?" They said the Toshiba Satellite, so that was good enough for me. I bought it.

That was shameful in a way because in the old days the cool, hip thing to do was to get something only us smart gear heads knew about. It was like AOL was Adam Sandler and CompuServe was Jeremy Irons, so of course I got CompuServe, and that eventually turned out to be a disaster. So now I get the best-selling thing that every American schmo buys and it's just a defeat, but it totally works.

HAND-HELD: No. It would be another thing to lose.

BOOKMARKED SITES: I don't surf the Net, but I will admit I was a big computer solitaire freak, especially when avoiding writing something at Buzz. Now that I have the baby, my solitaire time has shrunk to zero.

SCREEN SAVER: Nothing special, just one that came with Windows. You have to remember: For me, a computer is purely a tool, like a toaster oven.


--As told to DAVID COLKER

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