A Modern Tale of 'For the Want of a Nail'
Jan 24, 2008 09:00 AM
All I wanted to do was turn on and off the light on the stairs in my house. It was a simple, modest ambition. But through a cascade of failures caused by other people not doing their jobs properly, I now have a truculent computer, a dark stairway, and a wife who wants to banish anything containing a transistor from our house.
The whole sorry tale crystallizes for me a neglected side of modern life: the sheer amount of time we spend every day dealing with other people's screw-ups. I should start keeping a diary of all the time I spend on phone hold fixing billing errors or sitting in traffic because someone blocked the box in an intersection. I bet if you added it all up, dealing with mistakes would be one of the main economic activities in America today. We live in the Screw-Up Economy.
Here's an example of how it happens in the realm of technology. If there are any software engineers reading this, please take note of what those of us who have to use your products put up with.
Failure #1. The people who wired our house failed to install a three-way switch for the stairs light. The only switch is upstairs, so if we walk down, we have no way of switching the light off again.
Response #1. Retrofitting a second switch would have been a major challenge, so when we moved in, I installed a wireless remote switch on the downstairs wall. It uses the X10 system. The wireless remote transmits a signal to a receiving module, which relays it through the house wiring to the light switch, which I replaced with an X10 version. While I was at it, I installed X10 switches throughout the house and began to run a computer home-automation program.
Failure #2. The X10 system, though popular, is notoriously poorly designed and error-prone. My switch often failed to control the light and frequently controlled other lights in the house instead. My wife found this mildly amusing until she discovered that the light in our baby daughter's room came on at random intervals during the night.
Response #2. I upgraded to Insteon, the next-generation technology. This meant re-rewiring all the X10 switches I'd installed. There are no Insteon wireless switches, so I continued to use the old X10 wireless remote and added a special receiver, the EZX10RF by Simplehomenet, to translate signals from one system to the other. Please do not ask me how much this system has cost. My wife will demand yet another new sofa in compensation.
Failure #3. The EZX10RF unit pulled off the amazing feat of being less reliable than the purely X10 system. It works maybe half the time at best -- that is, when we press the wireless remote, it's a coin toss as to whether the stairway light will actually come on or not.
Response #3. To try to fix the receiver, I needed to access it through my computer. But Simplehomenet has only a Windows version of their software. Windows is about as welcome in my household as Barney. But biting my lip, I rummaged through my closet for an old Win98 laptop someone had given me. To install the Simplehomenet software, I first had to upgrade the .NET framework, whatever that is. I downloaded and ran the upgrade installer, only to be told that half a gigabyte of free disk space was not enough to run it. When I tried to use Remove Programs, Windows demanded the original installer CDs. I had to clear out the disk manually. At times like this, I remember why Windows is as welcome in my household as Barney.
Failure #4. It will come as no surprise to you that when I finally ran the Simplehomenet software, it didn't work. It ran, but was unable to detect the EZX10RF unit.
Response #4. Thinking the problem lay in Win98, I thought I'd try XP. I don't have an XP machine -- but wait I do! It's my Macbook. I figured I'd install XP on my Mac using Boot Camp, which Apple advertises as being oh so easy. In a burst of foolish enthusiasm, I shelled out $160 for XP.
Failure #5. When I ran Boot Camp, it told me I had -2147483648 GB of free disk space -- yes, that's a minus sign. Is this anything like negative quantum energy of the sort needed to prop open cosmic wormholes and time machines?
Response #5. I cleared out some files from my Mac and eventually Boot Camp registered that I had 20 GB or so free disk space, enough to set up a disk partition for XP.
Failure #6. Boot Camp said it couldn't relocate files to establish the partition and that I'd have to reformat my disk. The Mac is beginning to sound like Windows.
Response #6. Reformatting and reinstalling all my software and files would take the better part of a weekend. I might as well retrofit my house wiring after all. To try to end-run this requirement, I thought I'd defragment my hard drive to free up a 5 GB block. The Mac OS has a built-in defragger, which I let run overnight, to no avail. So I shelled out yet more money for Coriolis Systems's iDefrag. I let its "Quick" defragger run overnight, again to no avail. So I burnt iDefrag and a copy of the OS onto a CD and ran a more thorough defragger from that.
Failure #7. Victory! By the morning, iDefrag had cleared out plenty of room for an XP partition. I rebooted my machine and â€¦ nothing. The Mac gave me a blinking question mark. I tried inserting my original installer disk and rebooting holding down the 'C' key. Again, the question mark. The only disk that would boot is the iDefrag disk itself.
Response #7. I rang Coriolis in Britain and they advised me to hold down the option key while rebooting.
And that is where things stand now. I'll try Coriolis's advice tonight. But geez, did this have to be so hard? By most Mac user's standards, I'm a well-behaved boy: I periodically fix my permissions, run regular backups, and clear out unused files.
Notice that my responses throughout were to upgrade the technology -- to seek an solution to old problems with new tech. That is, of course, exactly what companies want me to do. The only reason I ever upgrade software is to fix bugs -- few of the new features are enough to get me to go through all the expense and bother of upgrading (though I might come to like them).
If you have an hour or two to spare, ask me about the time I spend maintaining, stroking, caressing, and buying flowers for my PDA to get it to work. Or the time I sit on a motionless commuter train because the main train line in New Jersey runs over a drawbridge that often opens in rush hour -- evidently they can't run their mission-critical barges in the middle of the night. Or the time I spend fighting the blogging software to post this blog.
I don't know whether people's error rate is higher (quite plausible, given the fact everyone is so overworked) or we're simply exposed to more people's errors because of the complexity of modern life. Either way, it's enough to make you long for a manual typewriter and a PEnnsylvania 6-5000 phone line.
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