During a pleasant but foggy part of my life, I saw the movie "2001: A Space Odyssey."

I cannot recall the plot. I remember monkeys throwing stones, cool music and Hal. I remember him very well. Hal was the computer on the spaceship. He tried to take over.

That was a lesson worth learning. Computers are not our friends. I am often reminded of that.

Not long ago, I visited Edward Dickinson in Marthasville. He is 50 years old. He has been married for 25 years. His wife is a teacher. They have two kids. Their daughter is married and lives in another state. Their son is 17.

Dickinson used to spend a lot of time on his computer. He told me he used to visit chat rooms.

I have never been to a chat room, but I am told you sit at your computer and converse with strangers.

There was a time when a person who wanted to converse with strangers went to a bar. Of course, you have to leave your house to do that. Also, you are somewhat limited as far as pretending to be someone you're not.

In the virtual world of a chat room, you can be anybody or anything you want to be.

So can everybody else in the room. I would guess that almost nobody is exactly what or who they claim to be.

In Dickinson's case, Megan was not really a 14-year-old girl who had wandered into an "adult" chat room. He was a detective with the St. Charles County Cyber Crime Unit.

According to the ensuing indictment, Dickinson talked to Megan twice. According to the indictment, the talks were sexual in nature and Dickinson suggested they get together and do more than talk.

No actual arrangements were made, Dickinson told me, which is probably why the state went light and gave him probation after he entered an Alford plea earlier this year to two counts of attempted use of a child in a sexual performance. By entering an Alford plea, he did not admit guilt, but he conceded that prosecutors had enough evidence to convict him in a trial.

I say "the state went light" only because a person can go to prison for this kind of stuff, but the fallout from the case has been anything but light. Dickinson's life has been turned upside down.

He's now a registered sex offender. He can't go to his son's high school activities. The humiliation to his family has been immense. Many friends have dropped him. He used to do remodeling work, but now he can't find any. He said he had been offered an over-the-road trucking job but couldn't take it because he can't leave the state.

He goes to mandatory counseling classes once a week.

There is something creepy about a 50-year-old man talking in a sexual manner with somebody he thinks is 14. I am not defending that behavior.

But I would point out that in his pre-chat room days, Dickinson raised a couple of kids and also stayed married. In the real world, he never got in trouble for soliciting minors.

Maybe emotional problems were bubbling along under the surface. Maybe he was a time bomb.

Or maybe Hal had a large hand in this.

To those of us who stay away from the virtual world, there is something disturbing about a man visiting "adult chat rooms" and talking to strangers in a way he would not talk to strangers in a bar.

Hal makes it easy to do. Just sit down at the computer and type away.

I asked Dickinson if he drank while he visited these chat rooms. Yes, he said. He liked to have a drink or two while he talked with his virtual friends.

It's cheaper to drink at home than to drink at a bar. You don't have to worry about driving, either. Probably most wives would prefer their husbands not go out.

So if you're the sort of person who feels the need to converse with strangers, maybe you're tempted to visit a chat room. Maybe it sounds exciting to meet racy, albeit virtual, friends.

But remember "A Space Odyssey." Remember when the astronaut asks Hal to open the bay door.

"I'm sorry, Dave. I'm afraid I can't do that."

Computers are not our friends.