The Perfect Storm

This week’s post may have little in the way of specific tips and guidance for computer teachers. However, it is a topic that, as a computer teacher, I spend a lot of time thinking about: the balance of the benefits of technology verses the drawbacks. It is all too easy for us to tout the benefits of technology without giving time to the negative aspects. When considering technologies and software for home computing I find that the balance of benefits and drawbacks oftentimes comes out about even. Today I had a serious run-in with the drawbacks, and I believe that it will be therapeutic for me to analyze it through this blog. Perhaps you can relate…

In my house, we have four computers (three Windows, one Mac), one printer, a wireless network, and Internet access through a cable modem – a fairly typical home set up. When I awoke on this pleasant Sunday morning, I had no clue that over the course of the day several conditions and circumstances would build and combine to hurl me into the middle of the “perfect technology storm”.

It all started when my 5th grade son, Tyler, asked me for some help getting started on a homework project. He was to create a three-fold flyer for his science class – a two-sided, 8.5” x 11” paper folded in thirds with content in each of the six areas. I set up a new file in Word. It didn’t take long to figure out that using a table rather than columns would work best. Getting the table to be (and stay) the right size took some doing, but after about 10 minutes, I had a good template setup for him to use.

I checked back in an hour and progress was going well. Tyler had inserted cool photos, and had half the content typed up. Ten minutes later, while working on getting my one year old down for her nap, news came that Word had crashed. “How could you have crashed Word with a simple flier?” I asked. After giving up on the baby’s nap, I investigated the mystery. Word had saved a backup prior to crashing, but the backup was seriously messed up – the table was corrupt, and the little Wizard cartoon character that my Son uses for Help suggested that I transform the table to text. The only problem was that there wasn’t enough of the table left to convert. Fortunately we found a previous copy of the file and started from there, only half an hour of work lost.

Over the next half hour, Word had crashed twice more. Tyler had saved several copies of his work – only one of which had anything of use left in it.

I sat down to watch Tyler’s progress to see what might be causing the crashes. We tried to download some images from the Web but were unable to connect to any Web sites. This led to a 45 minute debugging session with the Internet connection – rebooting the access point, cable modem, and PC several times, with no positive results. I even turned off security features, and ultimately restored the access point to factory defaults. Network utilities show the network connection strong and the Internet connection strong, why on earth can’t we pull up a Website?!

We gave up on the Internet; back to the brochure. After another half hour of work Word seized up again and we had to kill (Ctrl-Alt-Del) the process. Thinking that all these problems might be due to the PC –the oldest in the house, we transferred the old original file to a thumb drive and moved to another PC. Still no Internet connection on the second PC. Another 20 minutes of network trouble-shooting. We finally guess that it must be a problem at Comcast and give up (again) on the Internet. After another two hours of Tyler working on the flyer and me observing, we finally have a finished product. Now it’s time to print it and get on with life.

You guessed it, the “wireless print server cannot be found” says Word. Knowing that this can’t be Internet related I go through fifteen minutes of printer trouble-shooting: rebooting the printer and the wireless printer server to which it is connected. Still no printer access. Of course each print attempt is padded with the usual five-minute wait for Windows to negotiate with the printer and decide whether or not it feels like printing. Argh! Reboot (another 10 minutes). Still no printer. I swing the notebook over beside the printer and swap the USB thumb drive for the printer cable. Wait! The file is on the USB drive and still open in Word!! Quick put the USB drive back in!!!!

Too late. You guessed it. The open file in Word is now deemed corrupt. There is no trace of the original file on the USB drive – even though we had been saving every 10 minutes. Back to square one, four hours of work down the drain. At this point, using notebooks for Frisbee practice, and maybe some sledgehammer therapy with our Dell desktop is sounding like just what the therapist ordered.

I finally ended up taking over the typing on my Mac as Tyler dictated what he remembers of the flyer to me. Since this is the forth or fifth time he’s written the flyer he remembers quite a bit. My Mac had no trouble with maintaining a stable file through the process. Unfortunately our printer is not compatible with Mac so I transfer the file back to the PC and we eventually are able to get the flyer printed.

As the last of the flyers is printing, me back at work on my own homework (writing this article), Tyler exclaimes from his desk in the next room that the Internet is back up. It seems that the perfect storm has passed. Microsoft, Linksys, and Comcast failures had combined to take us to the brink of insanity. But we survived. I wish that I could say that we are stronger for it, but we are simply more exhausted and stressed. I wish that I could say that the lessons learned could be applied to prevent a similar storm in the future. But I cannot. We are at the mercy of substandard products and services so long as we choose to use them –and what choice do we have?

Tyler and/or I may have been at fault for using some strange combination of formatting that Word found unacceptable. I was certainly at fault for yanking a USB thumb drive while the file was still open, and not ejecting it through the proper procedures. I don’t think that I’m at fault for my access point’s inability to connect with my wireless printer server. Whether it’s user fault or not, one would think that by now, after more than two decades of personal computing, systems would be more tolerant, if not expectant, of errors, and provide trustworthy failsafe mechanisms for recovery.

As a computer teacher, I am a close observer of technology’s impact on people’s lives. The perfect storm that Tyler and I survived today illustrates the dark side, the overly complex, non-intuitive side, the time-wasting, mind-numbing side of today’s technologies. Almost a year ago, when I realized that I was spending as much time maintaining, securing, and fixing our home Windows PCs as I was using them for productive and enjoyable activities, I went out and bought my first Mac. Very few software crashes, fast effective recovery, it reboots in less than a minute, a pleasure to use, no security concerns, no regrets.

What have I come away with after today’s brush with chaos? I’ve decided to hasten my timeline to migrate all of our household computers to Macs. It has also motivated me to download Open Office ( and look at it seriously
as a Microsoft Office alternative. Finally, I will be much more understanding the next time a student comes to me complaining that he was up all night wrestling with his computer trying to get his assignment done, only to be late in turning it in.

I have no choice. I must teach Microsoft Office, the market demands it. I look forward to the next generation of Microsoft products: Windows Vista and Office 2007. I only hope that the new generation offers a completely different user experience than the present in terms of usability, reliability, and security. The same goes for home wireless networking and high speed Internet services.

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