Friday, August 29, 2008

Insanity in the Computer Age

There's a semi-famous quote about the definition of insanity: "doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results." It's most often attributed to Albert Einstein, but I haven't found a reliable source for that. I've certainly heard the quote before.

Recent events in our office prompted me to ponder this quote. Within the same day two people working for me had problems that relate to this. One said the printer wasn't working. Okay. So I go and check out the printer situation and see something like the following:

I've seen this kind of issue with printers many times before. Someone tries to print something and nothing comes out of the printer. So they do exactly the same thing they did the first time. And strangely, nothing comes out of the printer. So they try exactly the same thing again. I created the above image by turning my printer off and sending the same print job six times. I think our recent incident had seven print jobs in the print queue. The point about this is that if the thing didn't print the first time, trying it again six more times won't make it print. Something is wrong, and you need to try something else to make it work.

Imagine if there was a brick wall in your way. You push it and it doesn't move. Would you push it seven more times, or would you look for a way around it?

There was another incident with the fax machine. There was a message on the small lcd screen about an error, and the user sent the same fax a few times because of the error message. The fax did apparently go through (and apparently did so three times). The solution to this particular problem was one that escapes most humans. I turned the fax machine off, waited about ten seconds, and turned it on again. The error message went away and did not come back.

I don't think this feature of human behavior really makes us insane. There's an interesting discussion of the insanity quote for those who want to read more. And there's also the common argument that it's not the computer user that's the problem ... it's the computer or the software not being user friendly.

But I do think this is a striking difference among humans. Some of us appear to be at a higher stage of evolution for this computer age. We find computers interesting and try to learn more about them. We actually play with them, which promotes the learning process. When something doesn't work on a computer, we try to figure out why it's not working. We look at the whole computer. We notice the bouncing icon on the bottom of the screen, click on it, and investigate. Then we try to find a different way of accomplishing whatever it was that we were trying to do.

Now, despite my evolution comment above, for most men this agility with computers does not make us more attractive to women and therefore does not actually promote whatever genes we have for the future of the human species. On the other hand, women who put such skills to use in the workplace find themselves surrounded by desperate men with similar traits and they sometimes choose to mate with one of these socially inept individuals, thus promising some hope for computer literacy sometime in the next century.

As for the rest of you unevolved creatures, here are some suggestions:

1. Try turning the machine off. Wait ten seconds or more. Then turn it on again. This simple technique solves a surprising number of problems.

2. Check to make sure all the plugs and cables are plugged in (don't just look at them - use your hands dammit) and that all the relevant devices are turned on. This also solves a surprising number of problems.

3. Do not send people images in Word documents. Images should generally be saved in .jpg format. It's the universal standard, mainly because it works a lot better. PDFs are okay if you have to, but jpegs are still better.

4. Stop forwarding jokes. We already heard that one from the last 17 people who forwarded it to us. The same goes for chain e-mails. Forwarding it will not bring you luck.

5. If you are actually so intrepid as to use a scanner, learn how to adjust the settings. Printed black and white documents do not need to be e-mailed as 600 dpi full-color scans in pdf format. These take 10 megabytes and are awful slow to download for people who don't have high-speed connections. 150 dpi grayscale works fine for most things, and that'll only be about 300K in pdf, and if you use jpg it'll be down to 100K or less. The extra bytes probably contribute to global warming or something, so you're doing your part for the environment, if that motivates you.

6. In a general sense, try playing with your computer. There's a menu bar at the top of the screen. These are options. Explore them. Look around the screen and see what else is there. See if you can figure out what string of actions will make the computer crash. This is not bad. This is great! Now you've learned something you shouldn't do in the future. But first, see #1, above.

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