Portable Computing: Catch the Wave

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REGULAR readers of this column may remember my travails with laptops. Years ago the Monitor supplied me with a Tandy TRS-80 Model 100, which was great in its day but didn't run DOS. Last August, the paper sent me a Toshiba T1000SE, which ran DOS but didn't have a hard disk. Finally in February, computer prices dropped to the point I could buy my own portable.

That purchase has changed the way I work. Perhaps a portable computer will do the same for you.

The machine - a Twinhead SlimNote - wasn't cheap. But I got a less-than-six-pound portable with a fast 486 microprocessor, a 200-megabyte hard drive, eight megabytes of random-access memory, and a trackball (which works like a mouse but is much more convenient for portable computing). Those of you who understand those numbers will realize I didn't skimp. About the only thing I didn't opt for was the color screen.

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The SlimNote does double duty. In the office, it hooks into my Lantastic network and works like a server. That means any program or data on the portable can be accessed by my desktop computer, which is slower but has a better keyboard and a big color screen. On the road, the SlimNote shines even brighter.

In my pre-SlimNote days, it took hours to prepare for a road trip. I'd print out reams of background articles. I'd try to think of all the possibly useful contacts in my computer database and print them out, too. If I forgot something, that was too bad.

Now, I just pack the SlimNote. All my important programs and data are already stored there. (That's the beauty of networking: You can keep your data on any server, even if it's a notebook.) The machine makes trip preparation nearly forget-proof. Too bad you can't pack socks and toiletries on a hard drive.

But the greatest reward of portable computing, I'm finding, is the writing itself.

Critics of computing often complain about the dehumanization of technology. Writers, they say, should feel the scratch of the pen or, at the very least, the clunk of typewriter keys against the platen. The clickety-click of a computer keyboard, they say, can never engage the writer in quite the same way.

I think that's bunk.

If the tactile-writing crowd could follow me after a day on the road, they'd discover some spectacular writing spots. I've written stories while watching California surfers ride the Pacific. I've written a few yards from a husband and wife watching their toddlers find Easter eggs. I've typed while a girl and boy fished the Mississippi River in the rain.

I can't prove those experiences make me a better writer. But I wouldn't trade them for anything. This story was inspired - and partly written - in that quiet spot by the Mississippi River. I'm finishing it here in my living room. In a few minutes, I'll climb the stairs to my home-based office to transmit the story to Boston by modem.

Thomas Jefferson, I'm told, moved from room to room in Monticello to follow the sun while he worked. I find myself doing the same thing - finding a sunny nook in the house or an offbeat parking space on the road - to do my most creative work. He used the writing instruments of his day. I use mine. That's the answer to the computer critics.

Those who say creativity is limited by the tools we use miss the mark. Creativity always finds ways to be expressed. Technology never supplants thought.

It's clear, however, that technology changes how we do things. As I click away in the living room, I can't help wondering about the future of my office upstairs.

The more I use my portable computer, the less I'm satisfied with that room. The idea of having an office - even one in the home - seems increasingly outmoded.

It's a place to make phone calls and collect paper. But it's not my most creative space. Could portable computing one day make it obsolete?

Sure. Surfers on the Pacific are much more fun than four walls.

* Laurent Belsie lives far from the Pacific Ocean in western Pennsylvania. But you can reach him on CompuServe (70541,3654) or Prodigy (BXGN44A).

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