Sunday 24 February 2019

Baffled by strange errors

Geelong Advertiser, Thursday, 20 March 2008, p. 19.

I was in my favourite local computer store the other day picking up some new software and discussing the glitches and behaviours which my machines display from time to time. ‘Intermittent strange errors’ is how my computer shop person described them. ‘Wonderful’, I said, ‘you have just given me the title for a column.’

Sometimes when I press a button or key one thing, the thing I hoped would happen, does. But the next time, something different occurs and I can’t see why. ‘Oh, you have to go into System Preferences and switch off Active Corners,’ says the guru. You go blank. The mind seizes up. You try to write down some of this gobbledegook in the hope that it will deal with that issue, knowing that if you have missed a step, you will have set up a whole chain of Sir Humphrey Appleby’s unintended consequences.

As my wife pointed out if cars or aeroplanes had these problems there would be riots, or as the delightful Sheila Allison wrote:
‘However, I can think of things that reliably make me grumpy. Microsoft Word can turn the air in my office blue. I know it’s a great program but I resent the fact that I’m expected to find time to read a 500-page manual every time a new version comes out that I have to go into it and turn off things that I didn’t turn on and didn’t know were there! And then suddenly the program does something I didn’t tell it to do. Qantas has a policy that if an aircraft does something that the pilot did not ask it to do, they switch to manual control and report it to Boeing who send people out from Seattle to investigate. I would like to see the same thing happen with Word!’

Have you noticed how when installing new software or an update there will be a little message box telling you how long it will take to complete the operation. Let’s say it announces 30 minutes at the outset. Time for a cup of coffee you think. But just as you get out of your chair, it is suddenly down to 15 minutes, and a shortly afterwards, 7 minutes. I might as well wait till it is finished, you decide. Under a minute, finishing session comes up. But then it is like an American football match or a basketball game. The last minute lasts for half an hour. You could have had lunch, not just coffee.

Then when you start the new software you have to learn its peculiarities and try to second-guess the effects it will have on the people with whom you have to correspond. They might not have the latest systems and hence your deathless prose may be totally inaccessible. If, like me, you use a Mac, then you have to remember to tell PC users to add .doc or .xls to the file name if it does not open. Now Microsoft has a new format .docx which is not compatible with older versions, or at least cannot be read by older machines. I’m bound to forget when writing to old friends overseas. Friendships in danger because of a kiss, or the sign for it.

I admit that I am the cause of some of my problems. Just as every shelf in the house, apart from those in the kitchen, is full of books, so my computers are stuffed with old files some going back to the dawn of civilisation or at least 1984. All kept in the usually unfulfilled expectation that I will need them at some time in the future. Faint hope. Sure the experts tell you to back-up your files but keeping them in multiple copies on your hard drive is not the answer. Like Linus and his security blanket I can’t bear to part with them. Just in case.

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