Saturday, May 19, 2007

Broken Glass Cockpits

In September of 2005, Houston had a hell of a hurricane scare, during which I hammered out exactly what to do the next time it happens. This is my plan for In Case of Emergency, ICE, also partly applicable in the event of unnatural disaster such as terrorism. Now I've just had an ICCE drill – in Case of Computer Emergency. It made me think about aviation, distraction, and fear of the future.

What happened:

(a) With no warning and in the middle of a white-hot project, my flat panel monitor went white with faint blue and pink vertical lines.

(b) When I connected it to my laptop, no difference. Meanwhile a little string of diagnostic lights on the back of my desktop PC all glowed healthy green – no problems noted, including no problem with the video card. Web research and phone calls to computer repair places further incriminated the monitor. Off I went to a monitor repair shop with the ailing monitor seat-belted in my Celica's passenger seat.

(c) The white-hot project had to get done, so I raced home and fired up my laptop. Unhappily WordPerfect, running on the laptop, did an imperfect job of opening and reproducing the relatively complex Word documents I had been working on. I gritted my teeth and made a string of edits anyway, tailoring six separate documents and saving each to the laptop's hard drive and to a flash drive. Thank heaven for the good and faithful flash drive with a copy of everything I've worked on since the last time I systematically backed up all of my documents. But:

(d) I could not print to my color printer from the laptop. LaserJet printer – no problem. Deskjet – no go. Something about the printer driver installation needing Java Virtual Machine. Ack! I rebaselined my planning along the lines of getting documents edited and going elsewhere to print them.

(e) Then WordPerfect on my laptop stopped showing my precious documents. There was something there, not empty files, but it was INVISIBLE. Ackackackack!

(f) Whereupon the repair place cheerily informed me that the monitor was running fine. So the original problem must be in my desktop PC.

(g) The desktop PC with my e-mail account and my inbox, complete with some critical mail that wasn't backed up; the computer harmoniously hooked up to three printers of three agreeable and complimentary flavors; the machine with everything just right; my cozy virtual natural habitat…. broken?!

That was what wound me around the axle in the worst way. I flailed at the invisible documents of (e), making things worse instead of better. Finally a friend on the other end of the phone said, "You know that if an airplane is in a spin, you should immediately reduce the power and briefly let go of the control stick?"


"Yes, and that is what you should do right now!"

With that inspiring image, I did manage to let the computer mess go and go do something else for the evening. The next day dawned bright and clear, I went and got the monitor, plugged it in at home, and everything worked fine (!) Then I immediately backed up everything of any use to me on flash drives and CD's and prepared to archive fresh backup CD's off site. The hum of happy technology returned to my house. More or less.

(h) The desktop's CD drive went on the fritz but that was OK because I ran the laptop to make CD backups from data backed up on flash drives.

Now I know my ICCE drill. With that and some canned beans, canned greens, dried fruit and bottled water in the pantry, I'm ready for whatever may happen. Hooray, or something like that.

Item (g) gave me food for thought, though. Interesting how upset I got, not just because a project was in danger of falling into the ditch, but also because my comfy, cozy computer setup fell apart without warning. As my friend on the phone reminded me, electronics failure can be like that. No warning and no apparent logic. It's the stuff of superstition.

Sometimes I suspect that computers as we know and love them are way too absorbing, interesting and appealing for our own good. And too disruptive of our lives and hearts when there's computer trouble. As a species, we started out immersed in vibrant, ever-active, never-predictable nature. We built sterile cityscapes to inhabit. Now we are oh so easily enthralled by the moving lights and many colors in liquid crystal display monitors. I don't know where the fascination will take us in the future. Possibly not to a good place, although I'm not saying Information Technology Will Be the Doom of Us.

At least not usually.

A lot of new, small single-engine, single-pilot airplanes now come equipped with glass cockpits, meaning electronic instrument displays. Information in vivid color, layers of it, just twirl a knob to scroll down and see more, tap a knob to open a spigot of information. But this technology has a jagged down side. Paying too much attention to the pretty electrons means giving too little attention to the situation. Weather trouble is always waiting for an inattentive pilot to stray into its coils. And what if there's a (g) event when the displays malfunction and God only knows why? Without a great deal of good training and self-discipline, a dangerously distracted pilot will fixate the displays trying to make them work right. This could definitely put the "urgency" in "computer emergency." I don't ever want to be flying a sailplane in front of a power pilot who's transfixed by a broken glass cockpit!

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