Buggy Holidays

Posted by Pierre Igot in: Technology
January 4th, 2005 • 1:23 am

In case this wasn’t clear from the lack of posts lately, I did try to take some time off during the festive season.

As someone who uses technology for both work and play, however, I must say I find it increasingly difficult to keep away from one of my main forms of professional activity, i.e. technological trouble-shooting and problem solving.

Even when I do my best to isolate myself from friends and family members who might need my help with a range of technology-related tasks, there’s one person I cannot avoid trouble-shooting for: myself.

See, in spite of all appearances, I myself am not constantly trouble-shooting. I am actually also using the technology. And, unfortunately, in this world where most technological tools appear to be stuck in some kind of permanent late beta stage in their development, simply using technology almost always means having to trouble-shoot. And I am not referring here to solving problems that are intrinsically related to the actual use of the technology. I am talking about having to deal with bugs in the tools.

Bugs are everywhere. During this holiday season, for example, on a typical day of leisurely activities, here is a sample of what I had to endure…

Having bought myself a spanking new iPod photo for Christmas, I thought I would demonstrate the photo capabilities to some friends who were visiting. So I transferred some photos to the iPod, plugged the iPhoto to my TV using the cable provided and, after fiddling with the settings for a few minutes, was able to get some pictures on the TV. Oohs and aahs ensued. (It is kind of neat.) Then I shut down the iPod and unplugged it, and put it on the shelf. A few moments later, I wanted to do something else on the iPod, so I pressed the Menu button to bring it back to life. Only it didn’t. The screen stayed black. I checked the Hold button to make sure the controls weren’t locked. I tried again. No matter how many times I pressed on any button on the clickwheel, nothing happened.

For a second I feared the worst, i.e. a dead iPod. Then I figured the iPod might just have experienced a system freeze, like any other computing device. So I located the iPod manual and looked for the section about resetting the iPod. Connect the iPod to a power outlet, toggle the Hold switch on and off, and then press and hold the Menu and Select buttons for at least 6 seconds, until the Apple logo appears. Sure enough, it worked. The iPod came back to life, and everything was back to normal after that.

But still. Should the simple fact of connecting the iPod photo to a TV, displaying some pictures on the TV, and then switching the iPod off be enough to cause a freeze? I think not. Freezes are supposed to be caused by rare bugs that only occur in rare circumstances. I didn’t do anything extraordinary here. I just used the iPod photo to display some photos on the TV.

Don’t get me wrong. I love my iPod photo. I use it as a music player, I use it as a spacious portable hard drive to carry all my software trouble-shooting tools around with me at all times, I use it as a quick backup device, and I even use it to show my digital pictures to people. But like the immense majority of technological devices out there, including Apple’s products, it’s buggy. Fortunately, it’s not very buggy. But, as my experience shows, it’s still buggier than a finished product should be.

On that same day, I had programmed my PVR unit to record a few TV shows that I wanted to watch later on. I am in Canada, so I am using a Canadian PVR with a Canadian satellite TV provider. The provider is Bell ExpressVu, and the PVR unit is their model 5800 receiver. It has a hard drive that holds up to 60 hours of TV. We bought it last Christmas. (Well, we bought our initial model last Christmas. Since then, we’ve already had to exchange it once.)

Not only is the user interface on this receiver — like on any other PVR receiver that I know — atrocious (to give you an idea: there are situations where you have to press on a button labelled “Cancel” to validate a change you’ve just made), but it’s buggy. On that day, I had programmed a couple of TV shows. Fortunately, I was near the receiver when one of the programs came on and the receiver was supposed to record it. The green light (the Power indicator) came on, but the red light (the Recording indicator) never did. I turned the TV on, and, sure enough, the receiver was on, but there was no satellite signal.

I looked outside. It had rained during the night, but there was absolutely nothing in the weather conditions that would explain a satellite signal failure. I ended up powering the receiver on and off a couple of times and trying a couple of other tricks, and eventually the signal came back on. But of course the receiver wasn’t recording. I pressed the Record button to record what was left of the show before it was too late. The stupid machine started complaining about the fact that my recording would interfere with an existing “recording timer” — namely, the timer for this very show that the receiver had failed to record! The receiver wasn’t recording, but it still thought that it was recording. Grrr.

I ended up deleting the existing timer and recording the remainder of the show manually. Once again, I had to deal with a buggy device, where a fatal failure happened under perfectly normal circumstances. VCRs had many flaws, but I cannot remember a single occurrence where a programmed VCR might have failed to tape a show that it had been programmed to tape. VCRs just worked. PVRs… Well, they work most of the time. But that’s not good enough. I guess I am going to be spending yet more time on the phone with ExpressVu trying to trouble-shoot this machine. Since I have no idea how to reproduce this buggy behaviour, however, I am not optimistic.

Finally, on that same day I went to my computer to do some — holiday — web browsing. I am normally connected to the Internet via dial-up at all times. (I have a separate phone line with unlimited dial-up Internet access, and my AirPort Base Station is connected at all times.) I am used to being disconnected every 50 hours. That’s the way my ISP (Sympatico) is configured. But on that day, when I tried to go on the web, I realized that I was not only disconnected, but that I didn’t even have an AirPort network! Internet Connect simply said that it could not see any network. I went to my Base Station, which is about 10 feet from the computer, and all its little green lights were blinking as they normally do. I went back to the computer, tried turning AirPort off and back on, etc. — to no avail. Mac OS X still complained that it couldn’t see any AirPort network.

I ended up unplugging the Base Station and plugging it back in and waiting for it to restart. Sure enough, after it had restarted, the network miraculously reappeared in Mac OS X on my computer.

What happened here? I have absolutely no idea. Yet another bug somewhere in the technology. But that was a bit too much for one day of “vacation”. I felt that I had done just about as much trouble-shooting as I do on a normal day of work.

Is it any wonder that I still feel that we live in some kind of unfinished world where most things that we use are in some kind of beta form? I know that I am a bit of a perfectionist — but this is not about perfection. This is simply about things working as expected. Simply put, they don’t.

And I find it all rather exhausting.

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