Things don’t always go according to plan, especially where technology is involved. We humans tend to be unduly optimistic in expecting devices to operate as we imagine they will and this optimism sometimes leads to disappointment. Two events have recently brought this to mind.
We don’t use our printer very often. These days, it’s so easy to communicate by email and to send big attachments that the need to print stuff out is accordingly decreased. Just occasionally, however, you do need that old-fashioned piece of paper with writing (or print) on it.
For example, when we went on the courier run to Bilbao, we booked our flight online with easyJet and this company invites you to print out your boarding card yourself. More recently, I needed to write two business letters and if you were to see my handwriting – which was never good to start with and has deteriorated still further in the Age of the Keyboard – you would understand my desire to type these and print them out nicely.
When easyJet instructed me to print the boarding pass, I fired up the Canon Pixma iP1000 that sits on the corner of the desk. The result was a near-illegible mess. Something, obviously, was wrong. After fiddling with it, cleaning the print heads and so on, I gave up, and emailed the file to Tigger for her to print at work.
As for those business letters, I just had to buckle down and write them by hand, concentrating on making them legible rather than on a high calligraphic finish. That experience convinced me that I needed to get the printer working again as soon as possible.
The problem, I decided, was that the ink cartridges needed replacing. Ink cartridges are expensive. I am sure the price is artificially inflated but in a near-monopoly situation, we are stuck with it. I scoured the Web for the cheapest set and bought them.
The cartridges arrived and I set aside time to install them. With the manual open in front of me at the right page, I switched on the printer. Or rather, I attempted to switch on the printer. It didn’t work. We checked the power point; we checked the cable; we checked the printer for obstructions. All in vain: the printer simply does not switch on. This model is obsolete and so it seems we have wasted the money spent on replacement cartridges. We need a new printer.
Next up, the power tower. I noticed that this did not always turn on when I pressed the switch and as my computer and all its peripherals draw their power from it, this was a matter of concern. I decided to buy a new one.
On returning from our courier run to Cambridge on Tuesday, we popped into Maplin’s at Liverpool Street and bought a replacement. My old one had an on-off switch on top which was useful as the power tower stands behind the desk and reaching the power point is a bit of a stretch. The new one doesn’t have an on-off switch at all but in view of the urgency of the need, I bought it.
This is where Tigger had one of her brainwaves.
She had noticed remote control power adaptors. You plug the adaptor into the power point and then plug your devices into this. With it comes a small remote control like a simplified version of the remote control you have for your TV. With this, I could switch the power tower on and off without twisting myself into balletic postures over the desk.
It worked perfectly. Or, at least it did, until half-way through the evening.
Imagine the scene: There I am, working away on a photo for my blog when, suddenly, my screen dims. It recovers some of its brightness but not its usual intensity. What’s wrong? I look around and gradually accumulate the evidence: in the system bar, the computer battery icon has appeared, and all the little lights on my external disk drives and USB hub have gone out. Realization: the power tower has closed down and the computer has switched itself to battery power.
Before the flat was refurbished and fitted with a modern door phone, the ancient doorbell failed and we replaced it with a wireless doorbell. The button, in its little box, could be put somewhere near the front door and when pressed, would send a wireless message to the ringer here indoors. We soon discovered that this would sometimes ring even when no one had pressed the button. We soon worked out why.
That was the clue to understanding why the power tower had been switched off. In our crowded cities, we take for granted that our close-packed neighbours will impinge on our lives visually and audibly. Less obvious is the fact that they impinge on us at other wavelengths as well.
As I was working, someone somewhere switched on a microwave cooker, or changed channels on the TV or set some other wireless equipment in motion. The radiation reached through the wall and by chance matched the wavelength of the remote control in the power socket, switching it off.
I could change channels on the device, of course, as there are about 12 to choose from, but there is no guarantee that whatever channel is chosen will not be matched by a stray signal from someone else. I cannot risk it. The remote control now languishes in a drawer until some less critical role can be found for it.
The human race is good at planning. Arguably, this is what has given us the dangerous dominance that we today exercise so selfishly and thoughtlessly on the world and its other inhabitants. But planning takes place in the imagination, using our stored knowledge and experience. If there is something we do not know or haven’t understood, then we cannot include it in the plan. There is no direct connection between our plans and the world in which we try to implement them. In that disconnect lurk unexpected problems and sometimes frustrate our designs.
So I am in the market for a cheap printer and getting used to fumbling behind the desk to switch the power tower on and off.