If you work with computers for any length of time, you're bound to run into a little glitch that drives you crazy -- something that goes wrong with your hardware or software and keeps you frustrated for hours or days until you realize the solution has been staring you in the face all along.
For example, one of my colleagues here spent a week trying to figure out what was wrong with a new Macintosh computer.
Shortly after the Mac was installed, a couple of terminals and electric typewriter nearby would suddenly quit -- drop stone-cold dead. A few minutes later they would be running fine.
The machines were all plugged into the same power strip, since like most pre-computer age buildings, ours has five electrical devices for each available outlet. But the computers and terminals were well within the capacity of the circuit, the electrician assured everyone.
As time wore on, the folks who worked in the area began to get a little testy, which is understandable if your computer goes south two or three times a day, trashing everything you've been working on.
The annoyed workers blamed it all on the new Mac. After all, everything had been fine until the Mac came along. Of course, this offended my buddy George, the company's chief Macintosh guru and proselytizer.
George tried everything he could think of. He took the Mac apart and put it back together. He checked the current in the circuits. He even had the other terminals replaced, piece by piece. No luck.
By nature an affable and outgoing person, George started undergoing subtle personality changes. He didn't smile as often. He grunted a lot. He could frequently be seen tearing at his hair, something he can ill afford to do.
One day, sitting by the Mac, he cast his eyes despondently on the floor and noticed something strange about the power strip. It had a little label on the side that said "Intelligent."
George had never run across an intelligent power strip before. Nor had anyone else, except the good folks in purchasing who thought they were doing someone a favor when they bought it.
As it turned out, the "intelligent" power strip was designed for single-user computer systems.
The first outlet on the strip -- the one the Mac was plugged into -- is equipped with a special current sensor. When it senses current flowing through the first outlet, it turns on the juice to the other five. When the current in the first outlet disappears, the sensor shuts off the power to the other five outlets.
It's a neat gadget for people who want a computer, monitor, modem and printer to go on and off with a the flip of a single switch.
But for three or four different computer users, the strip was pure poison. Every time somebody shut off the Macintosh, the other computers plugged into the power strip died.
George uttered some uncharacteristically strong language and replaced the intelligent power strip with a cheap, dumb one. Suddenly, everything worked perfectly. George is smiling again, and the intelligent power strip is -- well, George would never tell anyone what he did with it.
My friend Jane had a problem trying to get her modem to work. She plugged it into her power strip, attached the modem cable to the proper port of the computer, and installed her communications software according to the instructions.
"I can hear the modem going beep, beep, beep, but it never seems to make contact with the other computer," she complained over the phone after two frustrating hours.
Jane and I spent another hour going over each step of the installation. Yes, she had the modem assigned to the right communications port. Yes, the circuit board containing the serial port was seated firmly. Yes, she had entered the right phone number into the dialing directory.
"So you get dial tone, and the modem dials, but nothing happens," I said.
"Dial tone?" she asked.
"Yeah," I said. "It's like when you pick up the phone and hear dial tone, then punch the buttons."
"I didn't hear any dial tone," Jane said.
"Well you do have the thing plugged into the phone jack, don't you?" I asked.
Silence on the other end.
"Don't you?" I repeated.
"Uh, thanks," she said and hung up.
My final tale of woe concerns a computer columnist for a Great Metropolitan Newspaper in a large Maryland city.
The columnist, dispenser of sage advice to the computer illiterate, installed MS-DOS 5, Microsoft's latest disk operating system, on his home computer. Unfortunately, whenever he activated his mouse software, things started going haywire. Software wouldn't work, or the machine would freeze completely.
The columnist spent several hours adjusting his system configuration files, memory management software, auto-execute file and every other piece of paraphernalia he could think of. He even wrote a nasty little note in a column criticizing Microsoft for this ridiculous bug.
A few days later, a reader called to compliment him on the column, which he had found illuminating -- except for the item about the mouse software.
"You know," the reader said, "there's a README file that comes with the new version of DOS. If you look at it, you'll notice it says your mouse software won't work. You'll have to get a new version," the reader said.
The columnist, who spends a lot of time advising people to read the literature that comes with their software, was gracious to the caller.
"Uh, thanks," the columnist said. And he hung up.