It's three in the morning in a hotel room where one of our writers is tapping furiously at a portable computer. The story is almost finished. Suddenly—pffft!—it disappears from the computer screen into the ionosphere. Shock is the writer's first reaction, followed by disbelief, panic and anger. Followed by a call to Beth Birnbaum.
"If I can't talk them through fixing it over the phone," says Birnbaum, SI's technology manager, "the threat I hear most often is that they're going to throw their computers out the window." So far none of our computers has suffered defenestration, largely because of Birnbaum's skills in calming the distraught writer and telling him or her which keys to push to restore the story.
"Her job requires tact and patience, and Beth has those traits in abundance," says Sheldon Czapnik, assistant managing editor for administration, who is overseeing SI's changeover from typewriters to computers.
Sometimes Birnbaum has to make an emergency trip, taking a replacement terminal to a frazzled writer who has experienced computer meltdown, otherwise known as the Pffft Syndrome. For example, during the Stanley Cup playoffs in Edmonton this spring, senior writer E.M. Swift's computer began playing games. It worked only if Swift placed it on its side. Birnbaum flew to Edmonton with a more obedient substitute.
Birnbaum is having her own problems with disappearing acts. The company that made the portable computers that SI has used for five years recently went out of business. "And the repair company we used for the old computers also folded," she says. "I have eight dead computers in my office now." Birnbaum has come up with a new portable model, though it is still having the bugs worked out. Besides her fix-it chores, she keeps busy by teaching SI's writers how to use the new terminals.
Birnbaum graduated from Rutgers in 1980 with a double major in human communication and elementary education. She was never very interested in the major sports—though she had been a cheerleader at Paramus ( N.J.) High. But Birnbaum did discover an affinity for disks and data. In 1983 she started working at SI and soon became our computer troubleshooter. She has one mild complaint:
"I never get to see a lot of people unless something goes wrong," she says.