More Digital Distress

The more essential our technology becomes to our lives, the more frustrating it is when something doesn’t work.  And the more complex it becomes, the less of it we can fix ourselves, which adds another layer of frustration.

Thanks to all that technology, it took me only a minute or two to find the correct quote for what I had in mind, Arthur C. Clarke’s Third Law:  Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

About a week ago, on a Friday night, I noticed that my computer was behaving oddly as I visited familiar sites on the Internet.  Pictures weren’t loading, site formatting was off.  It was late, and I didn’t think much of it.  But the next morning some of the sites I visit regularly refused to load at all.  I couldn’t reach my blog, or any other site with a address, although the Firebirds site on came right up to greet me.

Being the sort of person who worries at annoyances like a rat terrier, I spent a great deal of that Saturday exploring the depths of my computer.  I rebooted the computer.  I rebooted the modem.  I tried to blame my problems on a recent Windows update and restored the computer to an earlier point.  That didn’t help with the connection, but at least it gave me back my Internet Explorer settings–trust me, don’t restore IE to its default settings unless you want to spend quite a lot of time getting it back to the way you like it.  I ran Spybot and Malwarebytes, and couldn’t find anything wrong.  I ran every diagnostic I could find.  Nothing helped.

By Saturday evening I had learned a good bit about the inner workings of the computer, but I hadn’t solved my problem, or gotten much of anything else done (well, I did my grocery shoppping, washed my filthy car, and ran three loads of laundry), and I could feel my blood pressure, not a good thing.

On Sunday morning, not even the weather widget on my desktop worked.  I couldn’t get on line at all.  Oh, the horror:  no email!  I dug through my files for the Verizon user guide, resigning myself to a long and possibly indecipherable phone conversation with someone who probably knew the solution but might not be able to explain it in English.  But there in the list of things to try before calling for help, right after making sure the plug hadn’t fallen out of the wall, was a suggestion to turn the computer off and reboot the modem by unplugging it.

I do not understand enough physics to know why unplugging the modem would have a different effect than simply turning it off and on (which I had tried.  Several times), but I was willing to give it a shot.

And it worked!  Well, mostly.  I could get back on line, and reach most of the sites I wanted to visit.  My email worked, although I couldn’t get to my bank.  I could get to my blog, but I couldn’t open a widget to change it.  I could get by.

By then I had pretty much come to the conclusion that the problem was not in my computer, but somewhere in my modem or my DSL line, which likely meant dealing with Verizon.  At work on Monday morning I told my story to my friend Ha Tran, who can always figure out what’s going on when the computers at the Scorekeeper  don’t work.

Ha recognized the trouble.  Not the modem, he said, it’s not old enough to fail.  More likely the DSL line, but don’t call for a couple of days, because it will probably fix itself.

And he was right.  When I got home Monday evening, everything was working fine.  Email, TV schedule, social media, online banking, the things I truly need and the things I waste time on.  I was greatly relieved, and not a little concerned by how much I depend on this collection of boxes and wires sitting on my desk.  And I don’t even have a smart phone.  Or a tablet.  Yet.

Welcome to the Wired World.  Indistinguishable from Magic.


Circling the Digital Drain

Sometime early this morning, my computer updated and rebooted itself, normally pretty much a non-event.  This time, however, my personal organizer program suffered some sort of glitch and reopened with an empty file.  My data file had not only failed to load, it had vanished.

My digital calendar is not particularly crowded.  A couple of recurring monthly meetings, a few birthdays, holidays, a few future appointments.  But the same program (an inexpensive but very useful piece of software called C-Organizer Professional) also holds my address book and all my passwords.  The thought of redoing all that was not attractive.

Fortunately C-Organizer also nudges its user to back up fairly often.  When I hit back up on the menu, however, a small box opened and asked me for the name of the back up file.  Huh?  I’m supposed to know that?  Mind you, it’s 7 AM, and dark out.  I haven’t been up all that long, and I have to go to work.  Not the best conditions for computer experiments, but I am constitutionally incapable of letting something like that go.


Doesn’t it look like it’s asking for a file name?  I hunted around my hard drive and my back up drive (yes, I do have an automatic back up program running, along with scattered flash drives), and I found the organizer back up files, but trying to enter a file name didn’t work.  After ten minutes or so I gave up and, just for the hell of it, hit the “OK” button.  And up popped the whole list of back up files.  I clicked on the one from two weeks ago, it loaded with no problems, and I had all my information back, undamaged.

Somewhere I do have printouts of both the address book and the password list, and I’m going to make sure they’re up-to-date.  I’ve been working on computers for nearly thirty years now, and I still need paper copies of the important files: manuscripts, tax files, receipts.  I edit on paper.  At the Scorekeeper we do most of our work on computers–then we print the results and store the reports in our tightly-packed filing cabinets.  What was all that talk years ago about the paperless office?

It isn’t just computer files that seem perishable.  My Kindle is a technological marvel, containing well over a hundred books, but e-reading is just not the same as holding a book in my hands.  I know books can be lost, burned, torn, destroyed in a dozen ways, but they remain permanent, self powered, in a way computer files (or those floppy disks in my attic) are not.

I returned from a weekend trip not long ago to discover that my DVR had ceased to record.  The hard drive hasn’t crashed–the box still supports the TV, and the stored programs still play.  This may be a message from the universe, telling me that I should be writing and reading rather than watching recorded programs.  One of these days I’ll have Comcast replace it.  And when I do, I’ll lose the old movies I’ve recorded on it, because they are only computer files.  Even old VCR tapes are more permanent.

When I trade that DVR for one that works, where will I find another copy of Johnny Guitar, possibly the strangest Western ever made?

Whatever Happened to Instruction Manuals?

When I bought my first computer, back in 1984, it came with a stack of fat instruction manuals, each an inch or so thick, one for each software program, one for MS-DOS 1.2, and one for the computer itself.  Of course, none of them appeared to have been written by someone whose first language was English, but there was information in there if we dug deep enough.  Over the years the software manufacturers cut their manuals down to the level of pamphlets, but publishing companies stepped in and produced guides for just about everything.

These days we really don’t need printed manuals.  Computers and software have become far easier to understand, and the help files in the software actually help.  Even huge, complicated programs like QuickBooks, the bookkeeping program we use at the Scorekeeper, no longer come with books of instructions.

I don’t miss those old software manuals (or most of the old software!).  But I spent a good chunk of my day off today figuring out the myriad features of my new cell phone, and an actual instruction manual would have been a big help.

When I decided to upgrade my Tracfone service from an antique Nokia with a monochrome screen the size of a large postage stamp to an LG800G with a colorful touch screen, icons and widgets, browser access and a camera, I didn’t expect it to be a five-minute process.  I didn’t expect it to take six telephone conversations with various denizens of the Tracfone Customer Care department, either.

Mind you, I’m not complaining about Tracfone’s service.  Everyone I spoke to was unfailingly courteous and helpful.  The system just had a problem with someone who paid for service by the year, collecting tons of minutes that she didn’t use.  The first call got the phone activated and the phone number transferred, on Sunday afternoon.  On Tuesday morning, another helper got my minutes transferred, but not my service days.   This morning someone else got the service days added, and then it took two more calls (one from Tracfone to me) to set up the voicemail.

So by this afternoon I had a fully functional phone–and very little idea of what to do with most of the functions.  The phone came with a lot of packaging and a small “services guide.”  Half of that is in Spanish, and half the English section is legalese, leaving about twenty pages, maybe four by four inches in size, with information on the phone and its functions.  Some of its functions.  The basic functions.

The Tracfone web site does include a set of tutorials for each of its various phones, and those covered a different (but overlapping) set of functions and tasks.  From other sites I downloaded two entirely different manuals in pdf format–one is the sort of “quick start guide” that comes with electronics and one is actually 45 pages long, although only the first 18 cover the phone functions, the rest being Safety Guidelines from the FCC.  And after reading all four of these, I still have quite a few questions about mysterious settings and widgets, things I can’t find explained or identified anywhere.  Things, perhaps, that I am not meant to know.  Or mess with.

Speaking of Messes

Here are a few random lines from the Safety Guidelines, the cell phone equivalent of don’t stick your hand under the lawn mower while it’s running.

Never place your phone in a microwave oven as this will cause the battery to explode.  Gee, that was high on my list of things to do with a new phone.

Do not paint your phone.  Darn it, I had in mind a tasteful chartreuse.

Do not turn your phone on or off when putting it in your ear.  I’m having a hard time visualizing this one.

Do not take notes or look up phone numbers while driving.  Or read the newspaper, or put on makeup, or shave.

Could be some of the most important instructions really are buried in the Safety Guidelines.

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