Rusty 0s and Broken 1s

So I was on-site at a dev shop the other day watching three guys fighting with a printer. It seems they needed some particular project report to send to a customer, and the printer was refusing to play ball. I watched them try various combinations of "press-and-hold" buttons on the printer, check the network cable, try printing from another program, try printing from another computer, ping the printer, and reinstall the printer drivers a couple of times.

Just then, the receptionist appeared and asked when the report would be ready. When told about the printer problem, she flipped open the side cover, pulled out the jammed sheet of paper, slammed the cover shut, and within a few seconds the report appeared. Meanwhile, she stood there with that "Are all men useless?" look, which - if you are a man - you will no doubt recognize.

So why is it that men seem to be able to make even the simplest technical jobs seem complicated? Or is it just an IT industry thing? A friend of mine, who definitely falls into the "user-not-programmer" group, sometimes phones and asks me to go over and "look at the computer, and bring your toolbox". Now, he knows that the contents of my toolbox include a large hammer, a selection of bent screwdrivers, and several rusty spanners that never fit anything. But I'm sure he doesn't actually expect me to put a drip pan underneath the machine, clean the spark plugs, and adjust the tappets - yet it seems like he naturally assumes it's some mechanical problem. Even though he knows that a computer is just a box full of odd-shaped bits with wires sticking out.

Likewise when the freezer in our kitchen stopped working last time, my wife made a pretty fair assumption that it wasn't a software glitch - it was down to me using a carving knife to scrape the ice off last time I defrosted it. And when our son phones to report yet another "in need of repair" scenario, he makes no distinction between a broken wardrobe door handle and the mobile phone he dropped into the bath. OK, so I have a hammer that fits the screws on his wardrobe door, but it's pretty unlikely that any of my spanners will fit his mobile phone.

Maybe this isn't a comprehensive survey of behavior, but it does suggest that perhaps it's a "computer programmer" thing. Could it be that us geeks are so involved in the nebulous vaguarities of software we automatically assume the problem is complicated? For example, we use Media Center for our TV, and occasionally it throws a hissy fit so my wife can't watch Coronation Street. I know that the answer is BRST (big red switch time), and it generally sorts itself out after a reboot. Yet I still can't convince my wife that pressing the remote control buttons harder (a mechanical solution) will have any effect other than breaking the remote control.

It's rather like that old story (stop me if you've heard it) about the physicist, chemist, and computer programmer touring Switzerland in a car. Halfway down a winding mountain road, the brakes fail and the car races down the road bouncing off rocks and crash barriers until it finally comes to rest at the bottom of the hill. Shaken but not hurt, the three guys get out and survey the situation. The physicist says "I reckon there's a problem with the braking system. We should measure the available braking force and calculate the resulting pressure on the calipers." The chemist disagrees, saying "No, I'm sure its problem with the brake pads. We should analyze the asbestos content, and compare it to industry recommendations." "I've got a better idea", says the computer programmer, "let's push it back to the top of the hill and see if it happens again."

Isn't a bit worrying that we seem to automatically assume any problem with something more technical than a light bulb is most likely to be a software issue? Does it show how little faith we, who know about this stuff, really have in our art? I mean, when you think about it, mechanical stuff is surely the most likely culprit in most situations. Metal bits go rusty, wear, bend out of shape, and seize up if you forget to oil them. Plastic bits invariably snap, or melt when they get hot. Yet software is just 1s and 0s. I've yet to find any rusty 0s lying in the bottom of a broken computer, or broken 1s jamming the cooling fan.

So here's a suggestion. Next time Microsoft Word gets confused, or Windows Explorer can't find your USB drive, take the lid off your computer and apply some mechanical diagnostics instead. I've got a large hammer you can borrow.

Skip to main content