Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Have you tried unplugging it and plugging it back in?

Interviewers have looked askance at me when I've given this or a similar answer to one of their technical questions. They think that technology should be much harder and more complex than this, and they probably think I'm something of a simpleton and a fake technology librarian, but the fact is that a lot of networking and other connectivity problems can be solved this way.

Case number 1: This evening we had the big kickoff for the summer reading program. The entertainer we had booked had brought his Macbook to be hooked up to our large screen television monitor. He's done this dozens of times at other venues without any problems. But our television didn't detect a signal from the Macbook. Yes, he had his own adapter to convert the Mac's video output to a VGA output for the television. He'd already tried System Preferences > Display > Detect Monitors. My boss the Director had already tried rebooting the Mac. Nothing worked. Then they called me.

I tried System Preferences on the Mac again. I had to. I made sure the adapter cable was snug at both ends, but I didn't unplug anything. I made sure that the television's input was set to "RGB-PC," but it still wasn't detecting a video signal. Finally I just unplugged the video adapter from the Mac and plugged it back in again. And what do you know, the television found a signal.

I can't explain why that worked. Maybe the order that things are connected matters. It shouldn't, but it frequently does--sometimes the hardware or the software at one end or the other is not yet quite ready to start, and maybe there is a window of opportunity outside of which the other device won't be detected. But the Director had already rebooted the Mac, and that hadn't made any difference.

Maybe it was just a bad connection that appeared to be okay but wasn't. If that hadn't worked, I would have gone for the can of spray cleaner and cleaned all the connectors. You can buy this at any Radio Shack--just ask for electrical contact cleaner. It comes in a spray can like WD40, with the same little red straw to direct the cleaning fluid onto the contacts. Don't squirt it into the TV or the computer. Just clean off the connectors at the ends of the cables.

Case number 2: I used to work in a library where at least once a month I would get called to fix a computer that didn't have network connectivity. It was always the same person and the same computer. In the manner of most librarians I know, this person always had several tote bags in tow. You know how it goes. You've got your lunch, and, depending what shift you're working, your dinner, too. You've got your book bag. You've got a change of shoes so that you aren't wearing your good shoes in the car or the bus or walking. Then there are all the miscellaneous things you have to have with you--in my case a netbook--and finally you have a pocketbook. This librarian was in the habit of tossing all of that under her desk when she first arrived. Well, guess where the network drop for her computer was? Yep. It "looked" like it was plugged in, but not all eight wires were making contact. All I ever had to do was unplug the connector from the wall and plug it back in. I tried to explain to her what was happening, but it always happened again.

So, the moral of the story is, it's not always that complicated. Most of the time, it's something simple. So why do we get paid the big bucks (that's a joke, by the way) if it's as simple as unplugging it and plugging it back in? Ah, but it's knowing when, and which one.

And that reminds me of an old engineering story...

There was an engineer who had an exceptional gift for fixing all things mechanical. After serving his company loyally for over 30 years, he happily retired. Several years later the company contacted him regarding a seemingly impossible problem they were having with one of their multi-million dollar machines. They had tried everything and everyone else to get the machine to work but to no avail.

In desperation, they called on the retired engineer who had solved so many of their problems in the past. The engineer reluctantly took the challenge. He spent a day studying the huge machine. Finally, at the end of the day, he marked a small "x" in chalk on a particular component of the machine and said, "This is where your problem is." The part was replaced and the machine worked perfectly again. The company received a bill for $50,000 from the engineer for his service. They demanded an itemized accounting of his charges.

The engineer responded briefly: One chalk mark $1; Knowing where to put it $49,999.

It was paid in full and the engineer retired again in peace.