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By Joel Klebanoff

Questionable Quality

My previous columns in this space notwithstanding, I love gadgets, provided, of course, they exist to serve me rather than the other way around.

I have a Treo smartphone. That was a somewhat frivolous purchase. I rarely take it with me or turn it on when I do carry it because I have only three friends, and they're not particularly eager to talk to me. Moreover, if I turn it on, some people—almost certainly telemarketers—will take that as a sign that I want to hear from them. Perish the thought.

I also have not one, but two Roomba robotic vacuum cleaners—one upstairs and one downstairs. Now that I think of it, I guess I have five friends. If my Roombas ever learn to vacuum the stairs; clean the toilets, sinks, and counters; dust the furniture; and pick up the papers and clothes I leave lying around in great numbers, I might start inviting people over to my place again. (I know what you're thinking. You can't believe that a catch like me is still single. I get that a lot.)

Then again, because two of my three friends live in other cities, entertaining would require that I get more in-town friends. How do you go about that? Do you stop random people on the street and ask, "Will you be my friend?" I live in a nice area, and the people here are friendly, but if I did that in my neighborhood, people would get the wrong idea about me—not that there's anything wrong with that. However, I don't think I'm allowed to explain here why people in my neighborhood would misinterpret my sociable advances.

Even if I were successful at making new friends, they'd probably want to talk to me occasionally. To accommodate them, I'd have to start carrying my cell phone and turning it on. The hell with that!

In addition, I'm not young anymore. How much longer will I be able to enjoy my new friends if I go through the effort of getting some? It hardly seems worthwhile at this point.

But I digress.

I was talking about how much I love gizmos. Be that as it may, I'd gladly give up seeing new gadgets come to market for the next few years if it meant that their developers would turn their attention to improving the quality of the ones that already exist.

Before you start flaming me in the forums (and doing so despite Joe Pluta's eloquent plea a couple of weeks ago to stop the malicious flaming), yes, I know. System quality is enormously higher today than it was in the early days of computing. When banks first converted from paper to electronic account records, I frequently trudged to the bank only to hear, "I'm sorry. I can't complete that transaction because the system is down." I can't remember the last time I heard that. So yes, systems are much more reliable than they used to be.

At this point, I'm going stop to take the opportunity to make it crystal clear that I think that, at most, only a small portion of the global software quality improvement—no more than 25 or 30 percent...45 percent tops—is a result of my decision to stop programming in 1988. But, once again, I digress.

True, our high-tech stuff is more dependable now, but it's still not good enough. You know there's a problem with technology when my mother is familiar with the term "reboot." A few months ago, she accepted an offer to try out digital cable TV free for a year. Every once in a while, the digital terminal decides to not work. How is she supposed to fix this problem when it occurs? That's right; she has to reboot the box.

The worst of it is that my mother is a technophobe. Only occasionally caving in to technology's illusory charms, she usually avoids it like the plague. No, that's not quite correct. She'd rather have the plague than technology. When something goes wrong with any of the gadgets that she does employ, it takes her less than a second to use yet another technology—the telephone—to call me and make her technical problems my technical problems.

Then there are the glitches that I experience directly, principally the blue screen of death that my computer seems to revel in displaying. I used to see it a lot shortly after I got my current computer and foolishly copied onto it the software from the computer it was replacing. Unfortunately, my current computer seems to be a prig with a penchant for virgin software, but I accept the possibility that there is some other explanation for its petulance.

To be fair to Microsoft, I should state that there was a period of probably six months to a year when I saw only one or two of those dreaded "fatal system error" screens. My computer lulled me into a false sense of security, but then, a few months back, it began to crash again occasionally. It might be just my imagination, my paranoia, or a combination of the two, but I swear that Windows XP started failing on my computer around the time that Microsoft launched Windows Vista.

That having been said, my computer's crashes are not what concerns me most about the less-than-perfect technology in the market today. My computer fails. Big deal! It makes me much less productive, but, by working a little longer on those days, I usually still meet my deadlines. Consequently, the setbacks have little impact on anyone other than me. And, to paraphrase Richard (Rick) Blaine, the Humphrey Bogart character in Casablanca, I'm no good at being noble, but it doesn't take much to see that the problems of one little neurotic don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.

No, what I'm talking about is something much bigger than any problem I might have with my personal gizmos. Allow me to explain.

When I fly somewhere, it's usually on Air Canada. That's not because I think it's a fantastic airline. Instead, it's because I'm a member of Air Canada's frequent flier program and I like earning those points that I can't use because there are never any reward seats on flights to anywhere that I want to go to that I can get for the points I have in my account. All right, maybe my loyalty to Air Canada is more than a little irrational, but I'm digressing yet again.

For many of its short-haul flights, Air Canada uses regional jets that it bought from Bombardier and Embraer. I prefer the Embraer jets. It's rather unpatriotic for me to admit that because Bombardier, a Canadian company, builds its regional jets in the true north strong and free, my home and native land, Canada. (I'm told that geography tends not to be the strongest of subjects in American schools so, for the benefit of American readers, Canada is that big blob that sits on top of the 48 contiguous states on a map of North America.) Embraer builds its jets in Brazil. (Brazil is the blob that occupies much of the mid- to upper-right portion of the bigger blob labeled "South America." Brazil is the country that bulges eastward into the Atlantic Ocean.) I prefer Air Canada's Embraer jets because they are roomier, have seatback entertainment units, and can accommodate more than a cardigan in their overhead bins.

My preference for Embraer lessened recently. Before each of two different flights, after I'd boarded the plane and gotten as comfortable as it's possible to get in a steerage class airline seat, the intercom clicked on: "Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. This is the captain speaking from the flight deck. [In my opinion, this is the best of all places for him to be speaking from. I would have been a trifle upset if he had been broadcasting from, say, the bar back in the terminal.] My screen is showing a serious error. I have to reboot the plane to clear the error before we take off. I'm sorry for the delay." He then switched off all of the power in the plane except for the batteries serving the emergency lights. Three minutes later, he switched the power back on, and the plane's systems began, haltingly, to come back to life. We pushed back from the gate a few minutes later.

The first time this happened, after hearing the captain's pronouncement, I directed my attention to a nearby flight attendant and said, "Ah, excuse me. Before you settle into your normal job of totally ignoring me for the rest of the flight except for those few seconds when you smash your cart into my elbow as you ask whether I'd like a ration of bread and water, minus the bread, would you mind answering a question? Do you have any idea how long it would take me to walk to Boston from here?"

Don't get the wrong idea. I've never been a nervous flier. Well, that's not entirely true. I'm constantly nervous, just not about aviation. I have plenty of other angst to keep me fully occupied during a long flight, without the need to worry about flying or, more to the point, crashing. Nonetheless, those two airplane reboot incidents caused me to reevaluate the rationality of my airborne courage. Sure, rebooting the plane while it's on the ground, still attached to its Jetway umbilical cord, is not a serious safety threat, but if a plane's systems can fail on the ground, they can fail in the air.

"Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. This is Captain Schlemiel speaking. We're cruising smoothly at 35,000 feet. We're flying through a clear, blue sky, and the visibility is excellent. If you look out your windows, you'll see that we're over the majestic, snow-capped Rocky Mountains.

"Oh, yes, there was one more thing I wanted to mention. My screen is showing a critical error. I have to reboot the plane to reset it. If you're religious, this would be a good time to pray your sorry, soon to be smashed and incinerated, little heart out. If you're not religious, the sensible thing to do would be to spend your last dollars to use the rapaciously priced seatback phones to call your loved ones and say goodbye. Thank you for flying Air Sysdown."

Obviously, I'm exaggerating. I know nothing about the art and science of flying, but I figure that at 35,000 feet the captain will likely choose to risk leaving the error on the screen rather than rebooting the plane. I also hope that he'll have the good sense to not tell us about it because the weaker among us (that would be me, in case you are wondering) might panic.

Besides, it may not be as bad as I picture it. I've read newspaper reports about at least a couple of instances when passenger-filled, commercial planes inadvertently ran out of fuel in mid-air, but the pilot was able to glide safely to a landing strip. (The reports didn't actually say the fuel shortfall was inadvertent, but that's probably a safe assumption.) Still, call me neurotic if you must (you wouldn't be wrong about that), but, for me at least, the need to reboot a plane doesn't exactly instill confidence in aviation technology.

Maybe a regular commercial airplane could, possibly, glide to a safe landing, but what about the International Space Station. I'm guessing that the people there were less than pleased when they recently had to reboot a few systems—one report I read said two; another said six—on the Russian side of the space station. This process took a couple of days to complete successfully.

Oh, you say, those computers were probably running inconsequential applications. The people who built the space station would be much more scrupulous about vital systems. Oh yeah? The systems that failed controlled oxygen production and navigation. Maybe I'm wrong, but that sounds kind of important to me.

It's only a hunch, but I suspect that, right about then, the astronauts and cosmonauts on board were of a mind to agree with me about the need for a greater focus on quality.

Trust me. Should I ever have what I would consider to be the astoundingly fabulous, but equally amazingly improbable good fortune to get on a junket to the space station and there's a system failure while I'm there, you won't read about it here even if I do make it back alive. If I'm orbiting 390 kilometers (240 miles) above the earth, my life totally dependent on a bunch of computer systems, and one or more of those computers needs to be rebooted, MC Press is going to refuse to print the words I'm going to insist on using to describe the episode.

This article originally appeared as part of a weekly series of "Tech Tirades" in MC TNT from MC Press Online. The first year's worth of Tech Tirades does not appear here. Instead, you can find them in BYTE-ing Satire.

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