If your pocket calculator made a mistake every ten operations, would you still use it? Or if the brakes of your wheeled-vehicle of choice only worked 99.9% of the time, would you keep using it? Or what if one in every thirty flushes resulted in your toilette backing up and surprise alligators streaming out? After I lost all the data on my phone, save the Chuck Norris-like audio files, I started thinking about what technology I’ve abandoned because it was so unreliable that it was more trouble than it was worth, or “nonereliable”1. More generally, I began to wonder what makes things or people so unreliable that we’re better off without them. So, in the blog post, I’m just thinking aloud, considering a few examples of things I consider to be unreliable and trying to determine some factors that influence whether I continue to rely on them.
PalmPilot — In my last year of high school, I received a hand-me-down PalmPilot IIIxe that I used as a graphing calculator, portable spreadsheet viewer, and newspaper reader. Unlike more recent devices, the PDA’s more-than-ample 8MB of storage, used for data and applications, was volatile. In layman’s terms, data go poof when power go bye-bye. Unfortunately, after someone literally ran into me while I was using it, the battery compartment became damaged and the batteries would sometimes fall out. Because I had such a small chance of making it through a day with all my applications and data intact, I decided it wasn’t worth carrying around. Though I had nothing to replace it with directly, I stopped using it shortly thereafter.
Whiteboard marker supply — I’ve had the opportunity to lecture and run tutorials with digital projectors, overhead projectors, chalkboards, and whiteboards. In increasing order of reliability in the classes I’ve taught in are whiteboards, digital projectors, overhead projectors, and chalkboards. Digital projectors have proven to be unreliable due to control panel problems, projection screens getting stuck, colour/contrast problems when showing images/videos, lightbulb burnout, and (though I’ve never had this problem on any of my own computers) trouble getting a signal from the computer to the projector. Whiteboard markers seem to disappear and run out. Meanwhile, chalk doesn’t have this problem (chalk one up for chalk). Because of the spotty supply of whiteboard markers in the computer science labs where I sometimes run tutorials, I just assume they’re never there and bring my own (although other TAs have made like bandits with the markers I bring, so I’m still caught empty-handed sometimes).
Slackers — Then there’s the ubiquitous freeloading slacker in many groups. I’m sure most people can relate to the existence of a person within a group that shirks his or her responsibilities. Eventually, if it’s not possible to expel these members, groups may adjust their plans to exclude relying on the slacker in the hopes that this will not promote a positive feedback loop of slacking. I’ve been in a few such groups and the breaking point towards shunning the offending member tends to occur after the second missed deadline (this also underscores the importance of frequent check-ins).
Bad timepieces — I’ve given some examples of things that are so unreliable that they get treated as though they don’t exist. But there are some other fairly unreliable things that continue to get used. One of my friends wore a watch during high school that stopped running (i.e., time seemed to freeze) while shaken. Shockingly, it was a digital watch. It was absolutely useless for keeping time while running laps around Varsity Stadium during PE and required readjustment after a long commute (or even after walking between classes). This was probably the worst watch in the history of digital timepieces, yet my friend continued to use it – and not because he had any sentimental attachment to it nor because he couldn’t afford another watch.
The TTC — Being a Torontonian, I am legally bound by a bylaw to kvetch about the TTC in a post about unreliability. The TTC was a source of many students arriving late to my high school during my time there. In the sign-in book for late arrivals, one was supposed to provide a note to explain one’s lateness. Sure, many of us factored in a 10-15 minute delay in our daily commute, but even then, the TTC managed to throw in a 30 or 40 minute delay into an hour-long commute frequently enough that, in lieu of a note, one could just write “TTC” in the sign-in book. While my TTC commute was smooth about as often as there are whiteboard markers in the rooms that have whiteboards, I continued to take it even though there were alternatives such as biking, carpooling, or even switching schools; my local public high school is just a five minute walk away.
Unreliable computers — My previous MacBook Air spent more than 10% of its life in a repair shop. Since it is the only computer I use on a day-to-day basis, you might think, as with the case of my PalmPilot, I don’t rely too heavily on it if I could afford to be without it for weeks at a time. I do rely on computers and it was a huge inconvenience. I just made sure to back up regularly so that I’d be up and running a few hours after getting it back.
So what factors play a part in deeming something nonereliable? The PalmPilot suggests that something’s importance plays a part; my friend’s watch was less reliable than my PalmPilot, but he didn’t bother replacing it: even though he never thought of it this way, it was “good enough” for him (satisficing) and he’d deal with its “quirks”, if you can call something that flaked out every time you so much as moved “quirky”. On the other hand, if something is easily replaced, such as whiteboard markers, it might be easier to deem something nonereliable and plan around it. In the case of a slacker, some of my groups continued to delegate things to people, despite their poor track record of getting things done. In each of those cases where we foolishly ignored the problem, always to our own detriment, it was for fear of the unknown. Even though things were working very badly for those of us still doing things, some of us were even more fearful of what would happen if we dumped the deadbeat from our plans. In the case of my daily commute via TTC, perhaps it would have been smarter to start carpooling, but because so many other people continued to use it, we built up a culture of accepting the TTC’s flaws. With my MacBook Air, I continued to use it due to a perceived lack of alternatives (I could have bought a much faster desktop computer for use while the Air was in the shop). Though Apple had promised me a complete replacement laptop, I held back until the hard drive died. After I learned to let go, Apple swapped it for an updated model of the laptop and things worked out very well indeed.
While this thinking hasn’t brought me any closer to determining when something crosses the line from being merely unreliable to nonereliable, I’ve at least determined some factors that have held me back from dumping things that I should have abandoned much sooner: fear; uncertainty; the (false?) belief that there’s nothing else as good; and satisficing. Hopefully these reflections will serve well the next time something unreliable is encountered. Is there really a good reason to keep this thing around or should it be left alone? Fear, uncertainty, the mistaken belief that this is as good as it gets, or that this is “good enough” are bad reasons to have to keep putting up with disappointment time and time again. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to run to the TTC.
- Yes, this entire blog post exists just so that I can make this word a “thing” [↩]