Woody Allen had a standup comedy act during the mid-1960s. Because I was born in late 1952, I already had a few years under my oversized belt by the mid-1960s, but I wasn't yet old enough to have seen Allen live during his nightclub years. Fortunately, a record company produced a double album set of some of his bits. For the benefit of those of you who are too young to know what records and albums are, allow me to pause to explain that they were the first, crude attempts at creating what we now know as Frisbees. Records had a benefit not found on Frisbees. They could also be used to record (which is probably why they were called "records") and play sounds. If you can't get your hands on what we quaintly called a "record player," don't worry. The Woody Allen recordings are now also available on a double CD set.
In one of his routines, Allen mentions that he has "never had good relationships with mechanical objects of any sort. Anything that I can't reason with, kiss, or fondle I get into trouble with." He goes on to describe the many problems that he had with his appliances, including a television set that he once beat the hell out of because, despite having first tried to reason with it, the set refused to work properly. Allen goes on to say that sometime later he used an elevator that had speech synthesis and recognition capabilities. After Allen called out his floor, the elevator asked, "Are you the guy that hit the television set?" It then zoomed up and down between floors, threw him out on the basement, and made an anti-Semitic remark.
My abridged version doesn't come close to doing justice to Allen's routine, so I recommend that you get the CD. The point is that I used to think that the story was a joke, but I'm beginning to believe that it was non-fiction.
I've become convinced that our technologies are now sentient and literate. That wouldn't be so bad, but I think that they've been reading my technology tirades and, as a result of what I've written, they're out to get me.
Let me give you an example. Until recently, my telephone has been the most reliable technology I can imagine. I pick up the handset and make or receive a call. End of story. It's been so flawless that I almost forget that my phone and the systems behind it are technology. For me, the definition of "technology" had always been anything that is utterly incapable of doing what it is supposed to do. I modified that from "anything" to "any mechanical, electrical, or electronic object" when I realized that the former definition might be misinterpreted as encompassing many government employees.
A week or two ago, I changed my long-distance phone plan to get a cheaper rate when calling into the U.S. I stayed with the same long-distance carrier, and everything else about the plan is 100% identical to the one I had before. Of course, the company didn't tell me about this new, cheaper plan. I had to stumble upon it on my own, but never mind.
Shortly after switching plans, I tried to make a long-distance call and got a message telling me that my call could not be connected due to technical difficulties. I tried a few more times and got the same message.
I called my long-distance carrier's customer support line and was told that the problem had nothing to do with changing plans and I should try again. I did and got the same message. I tried one more time and everything was fine.
A few days later, I called an out-of-town business associate. I was connected without incident. We talked for a while and then, without warning, our conversation was cut off. My colleague heard nothing other than, eventually, a dial tone. While he was busy hearing nothing and then a dial tone, I was hearing the same message that I had been getting before--something to the effect of "your call cannot be connected due to technical difficulties." Connected? My call had already been connected. I just wanted to finish my conversation. Did my long-distance carrier suddenly, in mid-call, decide that I was no longer a worthy customer? I immediately checked my credit card statement and verified that I had paid my long-distance bill.
Again I called the customer support line. This time, I was told that somebody had switched my long-distance carrier. Living alone, I was reasonably certain that it was not somebody who should have had access to my phone. I'm getting old, but I usually remember stuff like that.
I was given a number to call that would provide an automated message telling me which carrier I had been magically switched to. The support person promised to call me back in two minutes. Why is it that these people will never let me call them? Are they afraid that I'm going to try to telemarket to them for a change? Then again, maybe it was because both of the customer service people I talked to, along with some telemarketers who called me recently from the same company, all had the same accent, and it was one that suggested there might be an ocean between us.
I called the number and a mechanical voice assured me that I was still with the same carrier. The customer support person called me back as promised and feigned shock at this piece of news. I suspect that he was just making it up as he went along.
After some discussion, he came up with the perfect solution. He put me on hold for 10 minutes while he consulted with the company's technical department. When he came back on the line, he did what all of the truly great customer support people do: He passed the buck. He told me that, "After a thorough check of all of our systems, we've determined that the problem isn't with us at all. No, no, no. The problem is with the provider of your local phone service [which is the company that used to be a monopoly before long-distance and, now, local telephone competition came to Canada]. Yup, it has to be your local phone service provider. Oh yes, absolutely. It couldn't possibly be us. Now that we've solved your problem to the best of our ability, kindly go away and leave us alone. If there's anything else we can ever possibly do for you, anything at all, please don't hesitate to visit our Web site. Thank you and have a nice day."
I thought about calling the company that provides my local phone service, but I'm 52. As of 1996 (the most recent statistics I could find), the average lifespan of a Canadian male was 75.4 years. I don't think that leaves me sufficient time to sit on hold while I try to reach one of the phone company's customer service people. Instead, I just gave a burnt offering to the phone god and hoped that it would banish the problem. So far, it's worked.
One incident doesn't prove that my technology is out to get me. But wait. There's more.
A couple of weeks ago, my computer slowed to a crawl. This frustrating condition lasted only a few minutes. It was then replaced by an even more frustrating condition, i.e., my computer stopped working altogether.
I use a laptop computer. If you press its power button briefly, the computer is supposed to shut down Windows before powering itself off. This doesn't do much good when Windows absolutely refuses to respond to any button that you might choose to press. When the computer is operating--or more accurately, not operating under this condition--you have to hold down the power button until you get a cramp in your finger before the computer will shut off so that you can restart it. It might be my imagination, but I think that there is some sort of sophisticated sensor that actually detects the cramping sensation in order to enable this feature.
I rebooted and, after a while, the same thing happened again. After doing this a few more times, I remembered that the definition of insanity is repeating the same actions over and over again expecting to get a different result. The recollection of this definition inspired me to use the few seconds after my computer started but before it totally seized up to open the Windows task manager and determine that it was probably my antivirus software that was causing the problem. I stopped the software, uninstalled and reinstalled it, reapplied all of the accumulated updates that had been provided for it since my purchase, and everything once again worked as it was supposed to work.
That is, it worked as it was supposed to work, but only for a few days. Then, without warning, my computer's keyboard stopped recognizing the "s" key. Ever since I started writing these columns, whenever I encounter a problem with one technology or another I like to quickly type a few notes into my computer in case I might later be able to spin the problem out into a full-blown tirade. When I ran into the "s" key problem, I immediately typed just such a note: "My computer i a piece of hit."
In retrospect, it's fortunate that it was the "s" key that stopped working and not, say, "z" or "x." MC Press prefers that I don't use profanity here. Had the "s" key been functional I doubt I would have been allowed to use that sentence.
As it turned out, it wasn't a mechanical problem. I still don't know what caused it, but after I rebooted my system the "s" key worked perfectly. Go figure.
Those are just the issues that were serious enough for me to justify reporting here. One of the blessings--or is it a curse--of writing these tirades is that I now have lower expectations for technology than other people. I was recently talking to someone who complained that Windows was taking far too long to start up on his machine. This was a long-time programmer, so you would think that his technology expectation level would be appropriate.
I didn't know what he was talking about. Windows loads quite quickly on my system.
I work out of my home. Each morning, the first thing I do when I go downstairs is turn on my computer. I then make some coffee and eat a leisurely breakfast while reading an article or two in the morning newspaper. When I go back into my office, I'm confident that my computer will be displaying the Windows sign-on screen, allowing me to type in my password and press the Enter key so that Windows can complete its startup process.
Next, I finish reading the paper, fulfill my morning toilet requirements, take a shower, get dressed, and come back downstairs. By then, Windows is usually fully loaded and ready for me to do work. The only exceptions occur when Windows crashes while trying to boot up. When that happens, rather than displaying the Windows desktop, my computer automatically reboots to the sign-on screen. That rarely occurs more than four or five times a week, so it doesn't bother me. Thus, it has been my experience that there is no reason to complain about the speed of the Windows startup process. But maybe I've lowered my expectations a little bit too much.
Because of all of these problems--problems that I'm certain demonstrate intent and malice on the part of my technologies--I'm afraid to use my vacuum cleaner. I'm certain that it will turn on me and swallow me whole. At least, that's my story and I'm sticking to it. Now I just need an excuse for not dusting.