Some things you just can't fix by kicking

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December 08, 1996|By MIKE BURNS

WHY IS IT that a drive down the information highway all too often leads to dead-end streets?

Computers are as fallible as ever, even if prices have plummeted while features and raw power have expanded exponentially. You get much more bang for your buck, but you can also get a lot of bangs that end up costing a buck, too. Or at least a lot of aggravation, which carries its own price-tag.

Keeping my personal computer going over the past year has involved nearly monthly office visits (to the experts at the store) or house calls (from a patient friend, who is not so patient any more).

After changing the operating system, which tells the machine how to operate, and installing a larger hard drive, which remembers more things to make the computer work, I still had problems. So I bought more memory modules, which let the machine use the things it remembers at a faster, more efficient speed. But all that high-speed thinking drove the computer to collapse in exhaustion.

Not enough to administer final rites, but just enough so that it would temporarily give up the ghost at a most inconvenient time: in the middle of a homework project, or a PTA committee report or just when a record score for a difficult game was within grasp.

Our computer doctor yielded to another tearful plea to examine the patient one last time, before abandoning the case forever. His bedside manner was stern; no half-hearted humor about past ailments or cheerful predictions of recovery.

His medicine kit was nearly empty this time, the diagnostic tools and software medicaments left behind in the expectation that there was likely nothing that could be done.

He gave it a quick checkup, put it through its self-examining paces, and found no apparent cause for the problem. He then took off the cover, unscrewed one of the computer boards, looked at it with no sign of inspiration, then screwed it back into the rack and replaced the cover. Presto, it was fixed. And it has been working without a flaw for some time, better than ever.

The jiggle factor

What was the magic treatment?

"Don't know," admitted the silicon savant. "Probably just the jiggle factor." What's that? "Oh, you know. You just jiggle the stuff and sometimes you get lucky," he explained, without explaining anything.

So what it came down to was that this high-tech sophisticated machine needed a no-tech kick in the pants to regain its senses. If it doesn't work, just give it a solid rap -- the way that many of us unhandymen have always been forced to try and fix things.

Now I know that's no cure-all for every computer woe. I would not take a hammer to the screen should it start to do funny things next time. In fact, there's a curative skill in guessing where and what to jiggle, somewhat like chiropractic. While the incident did not necessarily take the mystery out of computers, it did illustrate that their failures are not always due to inscrutable super-technical reasons.

Computer failure is becoming a fact of modern life. "The computer's down so we can't do anything," is a common refrain that we've all heard much too often. Things that used to be done quickly with a pen and paper have become impossible now that records are computerized. The system locks up and nothing can be done; there is no backup system for doing business manually.

Some converts to computerization, especially small businesses that depend on customer service to survive, have been skeptical of computer magic. They've wanted to keep a human alternative to the computers that have taken over their businesses.

Such was the case of the service station where I often buy my gas and have work done on my car (that doesn't require four-figure bills to replace a faulty computer chip under the hood).

A couple years ago, the pumps with the old-fashioned, odometer-type gauges for prices and gallons were replaced with digitized computer windows. You could pay at the pump with a credit card and never see a station attendant, if you wanted.

But the owner felt it was important to keep humans in the `D station, not just a single cashier but other employees who could help customers (as well as work in the service bays). Hand-written receipts were still available. "You can't replace people with computers," he told customers, although computers allowed him to sell more fuel more quickly.

His caution was justified, even if he couldn't predict how tight the stranglehold of the computer would be on his business. Last week, his computer system went haywire. The gas pumps were shut down for four days to fix the problem. Frustrated customers went elsewhere. Keeping open the repair garage doors simply attracted more disappointed customers for gas that was not available.

No matter how much human backup, the contrary computer wouldn't let them sell any gas.

Not even if they'd tried to kick the pumps.

Mike Burns is The Sun's editorial writer in Carroll County.

Pub Date: 12/08/96

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