Don't you hate those computerized form letters? I received one the other day -- a classic specimen of this lamentable genre -- that was addressed to the "Reid/Schrage Computer Report" (that's the official name for this column in the file drawer at the Copyright Office where they keep official names for columns).
"Dear Mr. REPORT," the letter began. "We think you and the other members of the REPORT family will want to buy our. . . . " At this point, of course, I saw to it that the letter was filed permanently in the trash bin.
Perhaps the only thing worse than receiving one of these offensive form letters would be to send one. I've been tempted. Every word-processing program I've ever bought included extensive "mail merge" capabilities. "Mail merge" is the computer industry's term for software that will take a standard letter and "personalize" it with names, addresses and text so you can send "individual" letters to thousands of different people with the touch of a key.
Presumably I am paying for this merging power when I buy the word-processing package. Being a thrifty sort, I sometimes think I ought to use it. But I've resisted the temptation to date.
This means, though, that I just can't answer all the mail that comes in from readers of this column. I am gratified when you write or call (yes, many people call, which is fine with me) or leave me a message on CompuServe (I.D. No. 70001,576). But so much mail comes in I can't answer individually.
Occasionally, accordingly, I set out to answer the more frequent questions here. This is one of those occasions.
I'm grateful to the many readers who wrote to tell me about the checkbook-balancing programs they created out of standard data-base and spreadsheet software. I've heard from users who are keeping track of their personal finances on Multiplan and Visicalc, on Supercalc and Lotus, on dBase II and Personal Pearl and PFS: File. The clear message is that it can be simple and useful to put your checkbook on the computer -- but you don't need to buy one of those checkbook-balancing programs, because any spreadsheet or data-base program will do the job.
My suggestion that Americans should buy only American-made computers prompted the Union Label Department at the AFL-CIO to declare me a distinguished scholar. But a surprisingly large number of readers denounced me for this seemingly innocent suggestion.
The attitude of my critics was that consumers should make their buying choice without regard to a product's national origin. Many readers also thought I was calling for a governmental protection scheme for domestic computer makers.
In fact, I was actually urging private action by individual consumers. And I still urge it today. Americans should buy nothing but American computers -- because they're better computers, and also because they're American.
A passing reference here to a "RAMdisk" brought in several queries from computer neophytes (and from editors who wondered whether a "RAMdisk" was appropriate fare for a family newspaper). A "RAMdisk," or electronic disk, or disk emulator -- all these terms mean the same thing -- is a hunk of RAM memory (i.e., the memory chips built into your computer) that is programmed to act just like a disk drive. You can dump words or numbers into the RAM disk and take it back off just as you do when storing or loading data with a disk drive.
But a disk drive is a mechanical device -- the disk spins on a turntable, like a record player. It is much slower than the electronic circuitry on a chip, where the only "moving parts are electronic pulses traveling at the speed of light. Thus, transferring data to and from a disk is much, much faster if the "disk" is really a patch of memory programmed to work like a disk.
I use a RAMdisk every day on my PC. I use it for long files and programs -- a spelling checker, for example, runs much faster if it is installed in RAMdisk. I always use the RAMdisk to hold a file I'm sending via modem to another computer or data base. That way I save time and money -- I don't have to watch the disk spinning while the long-distance charges mount.
You can get a software program to create a RAMdisk in memory from most user groups and data bases. Some IBM clones, such as Zenith, include the software free with their versions of MS-DOS. And almost any memory expansion board -- Quadboard, AST Sixpak, etc. -- will come with software to emulate a disk drive in RAM memory.
Keep those cards and letters coming!