Friday, October 13, 2006

Friday the 13th

Friday the thirteenth… Today, like many days, I am spending MUCH time waiting on computers. First, to boot, reboot, log on and log off. Then, to copy, then to move. That seems to be the story of my life. Waiting on computers. Perhaps that will be the title of my autobiography. If I could recover the time spent waiting on computers, perhaps I could accomplish some great thing… But this time is indeed recoverable, in most instances. Like now, for example… Instead of sitting here idly playing solitaire, I could be knocking out my 1000 words for the day. I could be studying something online, or I could have brought a book and be reading it while I wait. (Although sitting in the corporate office reading a book is not generally considered “working your way up the corporate ladder…”) Nonetheless, there are many things much more beneficial to my existence than solitaire with which I can pass the time waiting for e-mail messages to transfer from the .pst file to the .ost file and then synchronize with the exchange server mail box…

As a child, I always thought it would be fun to be a computer hacker type of guy. I even imagined I had some skills, when I took a computer class in seventh grade and actually learned to run some simple programs. However, I soon learned that the life of a programmer is a life spent searching line after line of code for that comma or period that is out of place and causing your program to crash. “Syntax error in line XXX” was the most common error I recall. So you go to line XXX and check the syntax, and find out why the computer thinks that you typed the wrong command. Maybe the most frustrating thing about it was that the computer was always right. An extra space, or a ‘t’ instead of a ‘y’ and the entire program came crashing down around your ears. Of course this is frustrating to humans, since we are so used to our imprecise and entirely inaccurate verbal method of communication. If I tell my buddy that I need one of those thing a majiggies that we used last time, he gets it. His brain is able to make the logical leap from what I said to what I meant. A computer on the other hand, will search its immediate vicinity for a thing a majiggy and not finding one, proceed to pout and display error messages until someone comes along and provides the exact location of the thing a majiggy as well as a detailed description of what it is, who is authorized to use it, and the parameters under which it may be used. Then, when any one of these several parameters are found to be inaccurate, the computer will once again, display a pouty error message, and promptly refuse to do anything further.

Even so called “intuitive” computers fall prey to the same problems, only much worse. They have been programmed to try and make that leap of logic, to guess from partial information exactly what the user wants. They then attempt to provide it before the user asks for it. The problem with this seems to be that such programs or computers end up being more trouble than they are worth, because as soon as they guess wrong, you have to figure out how to convince the computer that it has guessed incorrectly. For some reason, programmers always fail to make the turning off of the intuitive routine accessible to any but themselves and the privelidged few who are allowed to take the training they have created for their software. Otherwise, the user is forced to make a fruitless and highly frustrating search of every function and command in every menu until he or she finally locates that one magical button that they can push to tell the computer not to capitalize the first letter of every sentence. (or fix double letters, or change numbers into scientific notation.) Also, the cleaning up of the mess after an intuitive computer has modified your data is completely frustrating and can also be as impossible to figure out. Of course, the fool who cleans up the data before finding the magic button to turn the intuitive function off first runs the risk of having the computer simply guess, once again incorrectly, what you want your data to look like and changing it back for you.

I am now almost finished waiting on this particular computer. Of course, it is difficult to tell, since the helpful “Time Remaining” counter continues to fluctuate between 60 seconds and 60 minutes. I understand the reasoning why it does so, but that does not make it any less frustrating to watch. When these counters are running, they are evaluating the time required to transfer a certain amount of data. After watching a few standard sized units transfer, and computing an average time and rate of transfer, it then evaluates the amount of data left to transfer and extrapolates a time remaining. Of course, this is not a foolproof method, and has little to do with how much time is actually remaining. Different types of data transfer at different rates, and transfer rates vary widely depending on the hardware, and network or hard drive traffic at the time of transfer. To further complicate the issue, I am moving a folder containing many subfolders. The time remaining displayed on the dialog only indicates the time remaining for the current sub-folder, not for the entire folder. So when it says fifteen seconds remaining, and I watch excitedly as it counts down to one, it will suddenly jump back up to sixty minutes, when it begins transferring the next sub-folder. This is the primary reason that I don’t like to watch while the computer transfers files. Not only is it as exciting as watching paint dry, it also teases with the promise of a quick finish and then torments with the highly inaccurate calculation that you have hours remaining rather than minutes.

Well, I managed to use at least a part of my wasted time today to accomplish something. 1036 words. That IS something!

Friday October 13, 2006 - 04:12pm (EDT)

© 2006 Tyler Willson. All rights reserved

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