Sunday, 14 July 2013

On Fighting the Wrong Battles

Today as I sat at my computer I suddenly began hearing a vaguely familiar whirring or churning sound.  Oh, no, I thought.  This reminds me of years gone by – ancient times in computer-speak – when my limited computers would grunt and wheeze because they were running out of memory or space or something.  I ran a diagnostic, feeling a bit like Data on Star Trek – or no, I didn’t feel like that at all.  Even when things were going wrong Data always seemed calm and composed.  I felt desperate.  Was my computer going to die?  What should I do?  Should I call in a tech?  Would I have to buy a new computer?

The diagnostic found nothing.  I could still hear the noise, but I was also hearing my room fan, which was doing a reasonable job of keeping me cool (physically if not mentally) on a rare summer’s day in Vancouver.  I thought perhaps I could identify the computer noise better if I turned off the fan.  So I did.  Then I could hear nothing.  It was like one of those childhood movies in which the hero thinks he hears someone walking as he walks, so he stops and there’s nothing; he walks again, and there’s the noise; he stops … and so on.

I felt frustrated.  The forces of the universe were conspiring against me.  They wouldn’t let me hear the computer noise clearly.  I got up and turned the room fan on again.  There was the noise again.  Just like in the movies.

But wait.  I suddenly remembered that the room fan had been bothering me itself recently.  It had been making a periodic whirring, churning sound.  Oh, I thought.  Oh.  I turned off the fan; the noise stopped.  Of course.  And to think I was ready to throw out my computer because something else in my apartment was making a noise.  Sigh.

I remember the last episode of Star Trek: Next Generation.  The Enterprise thinks there’s some alien entity that needs to be rebuffed.  Enterprises of three different eras train their weapons on the entity, but things just get worse and worse until Picard suddenly realizes that their own “defence” against the alien is the real problem.  Turn off all the weapons, he says, and suddenly the problem is solved.

I confess there is a logic issue there: wasn’t there at least some real problem to begin with?  Some real alien entity?  But let that go.  I think of a clever virus from a few years back.  Actually, it wasn’t a virus at all, but a malicious message warning people their computers had a virus and that in order to combat it they would have to take the following steps – which, it turned out, if they did them, actually disabled their computers.

So I am wary of people promoting nostrums for problems that may not even exist.  Just today a friend of mine was talking of a new app (something that could let you order a drink without summoning a waiter) as something that was solving a problem that didn’t exist.  It could put some waiters out of work, though, I thought.

I am wary of solutions when there are no problems, though of course sometimes there are real problems.  Why, there’s this other noise my computer’s been making, and this time, trust me, it’s really coming from the computer: what should I do about it?

Sometimes there are real problems, but sometimes we just need to take a deep breath.

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