Saturday, February 12, 2011

Just Turn It Off

Save a single semester of "Intro to Solid-State Electronics" in college, I have no formal training in engineering. Likewise, my knowledge of computer programming is based on one class in Ten Statement Fortran. From the first I vaguely recall how a transistor works, though I can't say I would any idea how to fix our TV should it stop working. And unless someone came to me and needed a set of punch cards in order to code blackjack on a mainframe, I probably wouldn't be of much use in designing a game for your smart phone.

That being said, in spite of this cursory training in the technical arts most would say that I come down on the geekier side of the ledger. When I was a kid my dad taught me to use tools and do basic household repairs, and I'm embarrassed to say that for years I dreamed of having my own socket set. Later, when I started to get interested in electronics, I took things apart, and got the basic idea of how a telephone or radio was constructed. I confess it was a big picture view at best, as I wasn't always successful in putting the same items back together again.

Even in the high tech arena, I was an early adopter if not always an early understander. When I started my own business in 1981, I ran out and ordered a Kaypro computer. This early Personal PC, considered portable because it had a handle, weighed in at about 30 pounds, and had 2 five-inch floppy drives, a 9" green screen and a whopping 64K of memory. When it arrived I ripped open the box and plugged it in, to be met by a blinking screen and nothing else. Long before iAnything, you had to be at least part geek to get things like that to work. And so from trial and error if nothing else, I learned the basics behind hardware and software.

Not so fast forward, and some 30 years later I still have at least a modicum of street smarts when it comes to troubleshooting a problem. Whether it's the car or the dishwasher, the TV or a computer, I may not have all the technical expertise to get it up and running, but I can usually identify and isolate the problem. Likewise, I can usually suss out if it's time to call in the experts, or alternatively stop someone from trying to fix it themselves before someone gets hurt, which usually results in the same thing plus a lot of swearing.

More and more, however, I'm finding this knowledge is a case of too much too late. I hate to admit it, but the ability to analyze a problem, sort through the myriad of potential issues and then formulate an action plan has been rendered somewhat obsolete by one particular piece of circuitry: the on-off switch.

Take the iPad, perhaps one of the most elegant and complex pieces of technology out there today. Mine was acting funky. I walked through all the settings, checked and renewed the IP addresses and cleared the cache. No matter if none of that makes sense to you; I did all the geeky things I could think of to no avail. Then my wife, whose technical prowess is... well, I want to stay married, so we'll just say "limited..." said, "Try turning it off and on." Ha, I scoffed, that's not going to fix it. She shrugged. But when she wasn't looking, I did just that. And before you could say Steve Jobs, all was working. Sorry, honey, you were right.

Likewise the next day at work when a particular piece of high end equipment was malfunctioning. I tried a few things: no dice. So I called over the chief engineer, a gentleman with 30 years of experience including stints with the BBC and a host of other major companies. He fiddled with it a bit, then suggested we try a "complete register cleardown." Sounded impressive, I noted aloud, but what did that entail? He smiled. "We'll turn it off, then turn it back on, and see what happens." Indeed, it powered up successfully, and we were good to go. Amazing what they teach in London.

They say a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. However, more and more these days, it's a lot of knowledge that can get you in trouble, or at least make it harder to fix the problem. Power cycle, reboot, implementing a temporary air gap... call it what you will. But if you can find the damn switch, nine times out of ten, you look like a genius. Now, if I could just figure out which symbol is for "on" and which is for "off," I might be home free.


Marc Wollin of Bedford is noticing a lot of his "knowledge" is getting somewhat dated. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, the Scarsdale Inquirer and online at

1 comment:

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