My Harem

published in The Oxford Magazine, Noughth Week, Trinity Term, 2007

It used to be an apple loft. Then, some years before I reached my Best-Before date, I put in a new window and rehabilitated it ready to house my books when I left Oxford. It seemed natural to call it my library. But although it still has lots of books on the walls, the focus has shifted. It is my computers now that are the chief objects of my attention, and it is as the scene of my wrestling with their differing personalities, rather than the place where I read books, that the locality impresses itself on my mind.

My Old Trusty is regarded by the young as an antique, fit only for an archaeological museum, but I am loth to dump her. It is true that she is rather bulky---but then so are many middle-aged women in Somerset. She has been with me since my Oxford days, and she understands me, and tries her best to do what I want. Admittedly her memory is somewhat limited, and she is a bit slow, but my needs are simple, and since she always makes back-up files, I have never been badly let down by her.

Some years ago one of my sons ditched his in favour of a younger model, but rather than throw her out altogether he donated her to my wife. They spent a year looking at each other in her study, but they never clicked, and in the end I took pity on her, and gave her house room with me. She is my Number Two, and has certain virtues. She has a good eye for colour and can do spread sheets, but she is no communicator, and has no networking skills. What I chiefly value in her, however, is that she can translate: she can turn .doc into .html and .dvi into .pdf, which is altogether beyond the scope of Old Trusty.

More recently my sons decided to up-grade me. To fit me for the twenty-first century, they decided I should get an up-to-date computer, a modern, slinky model that would revitalise my life. She is modern and she is slinky: she sits on my lap, and is replete with new tricks. But she is a terrible Ms, and instead of doing my bidding keeps on interrupting me, suggesting that we should go on a holiday in Bermuda, or telling me what the New York stock exchange is doing. Soon after she arrived, she went surfing without my permission, and picked up a horrible virus, and had to go back to hospital, where they removed all her software. She was somewhat chastened when she returned reclothed, but then took to refusing point-blank to obey instructions. Luckily, however, she slipped the leash again one Sunday, and must have gone to church and heard the prayer ``we have left undone the things we ought to have done, and done the things we ought not to have done, and there is no health in us''; for when I started her up later that morning, she proceeded to carry out all the instructions I had given her the previous week, regardless of the context. Since then she has not been obdurate in disobedience, but still is often a little minx. In the family she is known as the Wayward Wench.

Last year Old Trusty began to show signs of incipient heart failure, and I took her to hospital at 13 Banbury road to have a hard-disk transplant. The operation was a success, but the post operative stress led to a loss of certain functions. When we tried to go surfing together with Netscape she could not find certain files, and then would encounter a Java Error and crash. Her eyesight began to fail, and she could no longer read articles and book with optical recognition of characters. Her memory was affected, and she found it difficult to remember passwords. This is serious because passwords proliferate and change. I am often myself confused, and unsure whether I should be entering a login or a dialin password, and whether it is this year's one or last year's one. I now make a practice of choosing different passwords with different numbers of letters, so that by counting the number of asterisks on the screen I can tell which one is under consideration. But Old Trusty was showing signs of senile decay: she could remember the passwords of yesteryear, but not those of last week. Or not always. Recently she has been unable to remember the password for collecting E-mail, but able to send it without difficulty. Each time I send her to collect, she comes back empty-handed, except for a note saying she has used the wrong word, whereupon, if I send her again, I am given the opportunity to give the right one myself.

I sent Old Trusty to hospital again during the Easter Vac, together with Number Two, for physiotherapy to get their SCSI circuits working, but to no avail. While they were away I had to rely on the Wayward Wench, who took the opportunity to get her own back on the others for often being given jobs in preference to her. She started corrupting their disks on which they had stored the results of their labours. Luckily my system of back-ups meant that this bit of spite did not actually accomplish anything more than minor inconvenience, but I am now having to be careful not to let her get hold of any of their disks.

Although my tender loving care of Old Trusty has been unavailing, all is very much not lost. It was just that I was too old to charm the best out of her: she needed to be chatted up by a young chap. I got a Young Friend to talk to her this morning, and he has been able to coax her into recovering memories that had been unavailable, and to revive lost skills. We are able again to go surfing on Netscape, and I can ask her to go to the post for me. Her eyes are still poorly, but she can still write Greek, which is not bad for an elderly computer spending her declining years rusticated to deepest Somerset.

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