Tuesday, October 16, 2007

"I'm sorry, Dave, I'm afraid I can't do that"

Dave: Hello, HAL. Do you read me? Do you read me, HAL? Hello, HAL, do you read me?
HAL: Affirmative, Dave, I read you.
Dave: Open the pod bay doors, HAL.
HAL: I'm sorry, Dave, I'm afraid I can't do that.
Dave: What's the problem?
HAL: I think you know what the problem is just as well as I do.”

From the movie, 2001, A Space Odyssey

Computers don't scare me. I know I'm the master of the off button and the power cord. And then there is the famous “three fingered salute” of control-alt-delete. No, computers are not like HAL from 2001, self aware and capable of independent and malevolent action. At least not yet. But it's hard not to ascribe human failings and motivations to these machines that we have grown to rely on.

We have five computers in our house. Four people live here. My husband and I each have our own laptops, there is a desktop in our home office, one in my children's room, and one in the basement which acts as a 'server' . We all share a printer and an internet connection. Overkill? Perhaps. Technophiles that we are, people often find it surprising that while we have high speed internet access, we do not have cable TV, nor do we have a TV in every room.

When our little home network is humming along and everyone's computer works, we are all one big happy family. But when things begin to break down, it's easy to believe there is a vast conspiracy out there and that somewhere HAL 9000 is laughing his hard-drive off. Let me explain.

A few weeks ago, the printer stopped listening to the networked computers. Well, listening is such an anthropomorphic word. Let's say instead that no one was able to print from any of the peripheral computers. Fortunately my spouse is also a computer geek and functions as our network go-to guy. Diagnosis: failing hard drive on office computer. While we were waiting for the new drive, anytime the kids had homework to print, they would have to email it to me the long distance from upstairs to downstairs, I would retrieve the file on my laptop, physically connect the laptop to a spare printer and print the file for them. It would probably take less time for them to write out the assignment long hand, but who learns cursive in our keyboard-centric world?

Next, the computer in the kids' room is supposed to have this fool proof software that limits their time on the internet and monitors how much computer gaming they've done. (Trust me, an impartial timer is much better than a mom nagging.) Windows did one of its interminable updates. Timer software stopped working. Kids didn't 'fess up' until I realized they were spending a lot of time up in their room, but homework wasn't getting finished. So I re-activated the timer software. I tested it and it worked. Until homework time. After going through this process several times, I have come to the conclusion that my children's desktop simply prefers to play “Age of Empires” to running a word processor. Oops, there goes that anthropomorphism again. I think I'm going to go back to a kitchen timer with a loud 'ding.'

When my friend's laptop died, she asked my husband to help her resurrect it. Of course he agreed. I sat by, watching him wrestle with a clean install of windows XP over a pristine hard drive and error after error rolled across the screen.

"This computer has performed an illegal operation and will be shut down."

And in my head, the flat voice of HAL 9000 says calmly over and over, “I'm sorry, Dave, I'm afraid I can't do that.” I couldn't stop laughing.

Then, for no obvious reason, the wireless networking stopped working on my laptop. One minute I was cruising along on the great information highway, the next minute, stalled at the side of the road with a flat tire. No problem. Sometimes the drivers get corrupted. Husband fired up his laptop, navigated to the Lenovo website and downloaded new drivers for me to his USB thumb drive. The only problem is my laptop wouldn't read the drive. Oh, it tried alright. It tried and it tried, little red light on the drive flashing away. (See? I'm working!) But I was totally unable to access the information I needed. So we tried to hook the computer up to a wired internet connect. That worked. I attempted to download the drivers.

Let the great scavenger hunt begin.

Lenovo sent me to Microsoft. (I needed a little MS application to download the drivers.) Microsoft's website is as easy to navigate as Boston during the chaos of the big dig. It took a while, but we found the application.

Download. Install. Run. Reboot. Return to Lenovo. Download. Install. Run. Urk.

There are old versions of the program. The installation process is cranky. It wants to delete the old versions. I tell it, sure, go ahead. Then it can't and aborts the installation. I reboot. Again. Try again. Fail again. Reboot again. Try again. Yell choice swear words, happy that the kids are already in bed. Try again.

Download. Install. Run. Success. Reboot.

But the wireless networking still doesn't work. So I returned to Lenovo. This time, tried to run their 'troubleshooter,” because to talk to a person will cost me $99. The troubleshooter craped out on the first step: the computer can't find the wireless adapter. It directed me to download new drivers (hmmm, where have I heard that before), but the page it links to isn't found.

I'm starting to believe it's personal.

But, I'm an intelligent person. I have a graduate degree. I'm good a problem solving. And I hold to my belief that a machine is simply a tool, designed by humans. So I troll through the site and find another route to the driver.

Download. Install. Run. Reboot.

And it still doesn't fire up the wireless adapter. By this time, I'm having visions of throwing the laptop out the second floor window without opening the sash first. I turn off the computer and decide a cup of coffee would be a good thing. For me, not the computer. After an infusion of caffeine, I turn on the computer again.

And coy flirt that my laptop is, she is winking at me with the green networking light.

I think I will name her Haley.


  1. Oh dear, this all reminds me that I really must save some back-ups, and really learn some more about this great machine that i can't live without! :-) Nice post.

  2. Thanks. As you can tell, I have a love/hate relationship with my computer.


  3. Very funny essay. And I say that as a recovering technophobe. Thanks for the laughs!
    Mad Kane

  4. I'm the guy they call "HAL", so my perspective is a bit different. ;->


  5. Mad Kane and patrick,

    Thanks for stopping by and commenting on my diatribe. The members of my writer's group were laughing as I read this aloud to them. A different experience for me as I generally don't write humor. It was interesting to play with a different sort of voice.

    Oh, and the problem with my wireless card was taken care of by cleaning off the contacts. Happy to have my laptop functioning at 100%.

  6. Love this! "Oh, and the problem with my wireless card was taken care of by cleaning off the contacts!" I keep wondering if the future is going to be like this, or if the next generation will give up all individual privacy and let the corporations have the controls. They won't remember the years we spent in limbo trying to make these things work, so they will just expect it all to go smoothly, and then we'll be in BIG trouble!