The Personal Computer Chaos Theory

July 31st, 2008

During this week’s episode of The Tech Night Owl LIVE, my friend Adam Engst, a noted Mac author and editor, was talking with me about the fact that Internet connections on the Mac generally work perfect out of the box, as it were.

Except when they don’t.

You have undoubtedly come across such situations. Say you are trying to connect wirelessly to the Internet using your Mac’s AirPort card. Most times, it works just fine. Sometimes, it just won’t make the connection. Try and try again, and it still fails.

Now Adam spoke of one such instance during the interview on the show, where he had to connect his Mac via FireWire, using TCP, to another Mac to share a connection and get online. His conclusion about such matters: “There’s a certain amount of chaos in the universe that we’re never gonna be able to break free of.”

Now I am not talking here about paranormal phenomena or the other weird stuff we cover in detail on our other radio show, The Paracast. Instead, I’m talking about the trials and tribulations we all encounter on a regular basis with all sorts of electronic gear.

I know I’ve run into situations of this sort occasionally when performing various tasks on my Macs. At least 98% of the time, everything works perfectly. Then, to site one example, an application quits, but that particular symptom doesn’t appear again for at least several weeks. Now I know that random crashes and other anomalous behavior, if it’s repeated fairly often, may be traced to defective RAM or some other hardware ailment. But these occurrences are far too rare for that.

Surely it happens to you, and, if you think about it, you can probably set down an ongoing diary about other weird events on your Mac. It’s easy to forget about them, unless you take note at the time, as weeks of bliss may cause the unsavory moments to fade from your conscious memory

But it’s not just personal computers that are afflicted by such ailments. I dare say lots of electronics can do things that are totally strange.

For example, I use a Logitech Harmony 890 universal remote. It’s really a well-designed product, with backlit display and color LEDs for the main functions. With a little time and effort, you can program it it to work with pretty much any standard home entertainment device, from your cable or satellite company’s set top box, to your TV, DVD and even your trusty old VCR.

Without going into much detail, the Harmony sometimes has to be set so it activates a function, perhaps to turn on your TV, and then enters a pause before it activates your cable box. If that doesn’t happen, it will try to switch them both on at the same time, and that can cause problems. Well, this is one of those situations where everything works most of the time. But every few days, one or more devices fails to turn on, or the TV’s input setting goes to VCR, when you really want it to switch to the DVD player.

Well, Logitech has a Help feature on its remote that assists you in finding a resolution by asking simple questions, such as whether the TV is on, whether it switched your home theater audio system to the correct input and on and on until it resolves your problem.

Sometimes, you just have to dig out the old remotes and do it all manually.

Now I suppose you could blame Logitech for not being able to anticipate all the possibilities of perhaps holding the remote at the wrong angle, or a glitch in the software on the entertainment gadget in question that makes it respond incorrectly to a random command. Eventually, the system breaks down and you have to just turn it all off and start again.

But these functions are relatively simple and straightforward in the scheme of things.

With personal computers, whether a Mac or a PC, you are dealing with sophisticated operating systems containing millions of lines of code. One function depends and 20 others, which, in turn, depend on another set of code activating still another command at the very same time. It’s amazing that it ever works.

Long ago, a tech support supervisor from a hardware company gave he his pet theory, that programmers are actually just a tiny bit insane to go into that profession. Now I’m not singling out anyone in particular here; I’m just telling you what he said. Anyway, after a number of years on the job, the programmer might occasionally slip out of control and express the encroaching insanity with errant code entries. So if the proper conditions are met, things will go wrong.

In another situation, I actually had a lead programmer from a company come to my home office and try to debug a problem they had difficulty reproducing. Well, after I demonstrated how easily it was to repeat the problem, which caused my Mac to crash, he opened the source code, which he had copied to his note-book, and fiddled around with something. After a few minutes of this, he pronounced the problem cured.

Indeed, he gave me the revised version of the utility, and the crashes were history. That version became the final shipping build for the product, a tiny app that would simply flash an icon on your Mac’s menu bar when the hard drive was reading or writing data. Nothing to it, right? Well, evidently the original developer, who sold the code to the software company in question, left a single line of code that, under most circumstances, did nothing. When a certain combination of functions were present, however, it would go into a endless loop, and your Mac would crash.

Now I won’t mention the name of that programmer. I’m sure he has long since lived that one down, but I bet he’ll know what I’m talking about if he reads this article.

But between the eccentricities of the developers, just plain human error, and maybe the great unknown, hardware and software will occasionally misbehave. Worse, sometimes we’ll never know why.

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3 Responses to “The Personal Computer Chaos Theory”

  1. Terry McCune says:

    As a corollary to the chaos theory, I’d submit the OPE factor. That’s Other People’s Equipment factor. When called upon to be the IT genius at friends’ houses, I’m inevitably confronted with equipment, that I’ve recommended, behaving badly.
    Sorting this out has one of two bad endings. Either you become the Dolt Who Knows Nothing, or worse, Practitioner of Digital Voodoo who can do anything.

    Keep up the great work.

    P.S. as a retired English teacher, I can’t help it – “work perfectLY out of the box” and “to Cite one example”
    Underlining doesn’t work here, so I’ve used capitals.

  2. adam says:

    Thank you Gene for a great summation of something i have tried to explain for years!

  3. Thank you Gene for a great summation of something i have tried to explain for years!

    I’m still trying to explain it, actually. 😀


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