My co-workers must think me quite insane. Every few days, at a time I cannot predict beforehand, I will begin erupting in curses like an overcaffeinated Jerry Springer guest. Sometimes I'm quiet about this, but other times I blurt out this unprintable language as I wag a finger at the beige apparatus on top of my desk. Occasionally, I pound a fist on the keyboard for emphasis.
These fits are all my computer's fault. I don't react to crashes, errors, freezes and halts well, and I suspect the machine I use has wised up to this. It's goading me, daring me to lose it one more time--preferably when somebody's kids are in the office and I can unwittingly teach them some useful new vocabulary.
At least I'm not alone. Lately, I've been reading some similar confessions from readers, after we invited subscribers to our e-mail newsletter to send in their own stories of dealing with computer dysfuncationality. A few folks who were able to compose and send e-mail without their PC freezing up replied with their anecdotes of computer-induced agony. Perhaps the most eloquent expression of this exasperation came from Ren Renfro, of Jupiter, Fla., who theorized that "If modern office windows would only open, by now virtually all computers could fly."
People take crashes personally. It shouldn't be that much of a surprise--people talk to their cars, so why not the box they spend all day staring at? And when things go wrong, disappointment soon turns to anger:
"When I spot the first signs of a slump, I usually start by cajoling my computer, saying it can do it, don't give up, etc.," wrote Kim Jackson of Arlington. "If that doesn't work, I move on to begging and threats ('Please don't crash!!' which leads to 'If you don't recover soon, I'll . . .'). At this point, seeing my computer is determined to go south, I start yelling ('What is wrong with you?! I can't believe I'm about to lose everything I've worked on for the past hour!! What kind of stupid computer are you?!'), after which my computer usually gives up the fight and locks up the screen."
Some correspondents advised sticking with a gentler approach. A student at James Madison University suggested what he called "computer whispering": "I try and talk to it in soothing tones. 'Come on baby, be nice to me. No, no, don't do that, I need you now.' Now, most of the time this works, and the computer perks up and starts to be good again (we all know how computers can be)."
Jim Cobbs of Laurel also advised restraint: "Sure, I mutter a bit, but no violence . . . resignation, rather than violence, is the best response to computer strangeness by those of us who have been in the computer game too long."
But the use of force is hard to resist: "I am a firm believer in the theory of percussive maintenance," wrote Dick Tatten of Fairfax. "When my computer stalls (it has never crashed but will freeze up/stall occasionally), I take the flat of my hand and give it a good belt on the side of the CPU. Works every time--hey, if it's good enough for the Coke machine, it's good enough for this cheap import I'm using."
Laugh if you must, but these tactics are entirely human responses to machine-generated, machine-aggravated problems. Jakob Nielsen, co-founder of Nielsen Norman Group, a usability-research firm based in Silicon Valley, explained that computers' inability to explain themselves forces crash victims to come up with their own explanations. "Because there's no communication whatsoever as to what went wrong, users establish completely superstitious behavior--'Last time I clicked this button, the computer crashed,' " he said. "Computers are pure magic."
One superstition people tend to fall back on is blaming themselves--internalizing the operating system's oppression, if you will. "My initial reaction is to say, 'Oh, [bleep!]' in a panic-stricken voice," wrote Sara Toye from Fredericksburg. "Once I have established that it couldn't have been me who messed things up, I sit down and try to figure out what happened and then fix it."
Nielsen offers some suggestions for making the crash experience less annoying:
* Free people from having to worry about losing their work. "People have developed this technique to save often, but why should we have to save at all?" he said. "My data should be the computer's data."
* Don't make people wait for a computer to recover from a crash: "Why should I have to wait for five minutes? Make it more like a television, where you turn it on and maybe wait five seconds, and it's there."
Those two goals are not impossible; a $180 Palm organizer fulfills both. It's just the $1,200 home computer that flunks.
But even the Palm OS flunks Nielsen's third, most basic suggestion: Don't make the user angry. The very few data-loss-inducing crashes I've seen on my Palm were unheralded by any apologetic message, just a "click to reset" button on the screen. And don't even get me started on what I see on PCs and Macs. "The application 'unknown' has unexpectedly quit due to an error of Type 1": What the #$%@!! is that supposed to mean? And Win 95's "This application has performed an illegal operation and will be shut down" brims with unanswered questions. Like, why can't the system act like a good beat cop and try to prevent illegal acts instead of catching them after the fact? Will this miscreant program do any time for its crime?
Said Nielsen: "Error messages are beneath contempt." He mocked the typical tone of these boxes that float up to announce the destruction of our work: " 'The system has crashed, click OK.' It's not OK!"
Living with technology, or trying to? E-mail Rob Pegoraro at firstname.lastname@example.org.
FFWD editor Rob Pegoraro will play "Tech Support Guy" in a live Web discussion at 1 p.m. today. Bring your computer queries and quandaries to www.washingtonpost.com.