Sunday, April 3, 2011

A moment of sympathy for the user

This Thursday one of the staff members asked me to help a customer who had purchased a laptop several weeks prior and was having ongoing difficulties with his wireless card. The customer eventually arrived on a bicycle, bearing the offending device. He seemed to be naturally pretty tightly wired, and having spent the previous evening attending Windowless Wednesdays only to encounter another problem shortly thereafter, his patience was strained.

He hadn't spent a tremendous amount of money for the laptop by laptop standards, but it was one of the higher-end ones we get at Free Geek and we wanted to make him happy. So I started into my chat-with-the-customer-while-working-on-their-machine spiel, which isn't one of my favourite activities -- working on someone's machine while they're looking over your shoulder can be a little nerve-wracking. (A lot of debugging is educated guesswork, and while there is some wizardry, I've done enough tech support to know what it's like when the customer discovers the man behind the curtain.)

The situation was this: the fellow spent an evening at Windowless Wednesday and left with his wireless apparently working after some hefty hacking. (What they did I can only guess, but I presume it was a driver or firmware problem.) Satisfied, he took his laptop to a cafe the next day and it worked -- for an hour. Then it stopped.

Long story short, after some head-scratching and an abortive plan to swap out his wireless chip for another, just in case he was having intermittent problems due to temperature or something -- a not uncommon situation with laptops, and a hard one to diagnose -- I discovered that he'd accidentally hit the wireless kill switch on the front of his laptop:
This button cuts off wireless access for those of you who are concerned about security. (Photo nicked from; this wasn't quite the same laptop, but you get the idea.)

Now I'll admit that I'm tempted to reduce this to a quick anecdote about a customer who turned off his wireless, then got angry wondering who the hell turned off his wireless. But put yourself in his shoes for a second.

This is someone who's pretty new to computing -- he's quick to note -- but he's generally a handy guy with enough of a technical turn of mind to know his way around non-trivial bike repairs (I say this because we happened to chat about it). He's not a fool but he admits that computers make him feel pretty foolish. Immersing himself in a Windowless Wednesday repair session where someone doubtlessly charged head-first into a terminal session with astounding fluency in order to fix his wireless the first time would hardly dispel that feeling.

Ubuntu's reaction to his hitting the kill switch didn't help matters either; wireless access simply stops working with no "your wireless is disabled" message popping up like it probably should. Pressing the button again to re-enable wireless doesn't take effect immediately -- the wireless card might take 10 seconds to start listing wireless networks after that. And the wireless light on the machine doesn't indicate anything helpful either. (I don't know how much of this is an opportunity for tweaking in Ubuntu, or the ath5k wireless driver, or the machine itself.)

I'm able to put myself in his shoes very easily with one word: mechanics. I've owned three cars in my life, and the first was a truly awful Mercury Topaz that I loved only because you always love your first car. 1989 was the first model year that featured multipoint fuel injection, and between that and the air conditioning rat's-nest and overall Ford flair for poor design, popping the hood revealed something that looked more like an oil refinery than an engine and cost slightly more to maintain. The infernal beast was perpetually breaking down, either in subtle ways (a burnt-out headlight switch or slipping clutch) or in excruciatingly expensive ways (a burst radiator or a heater core that coated the interior of the windshield with greasy grey goo).

My mechanic was also a customer of the computer repair shop where I worked, and I can't help but suspect that he achieved some measure of revenge whenever he invoiced me for working on that car.

We are not all nerds, nor are we all mechanics. A friend of mine said of modern cars that maintaining them is a lot more like veterinary medicine than actual repair work -- they're so complicated and temperamental that it's hard even for the pros to know what's going wrong. (Witness the recent Toyota "unintended acceleration" debacle, which has generally been pinned on user error, but not with much certainty, and not before millions of dollars were spent on a complete engineering teardown.)

Computers are just the same -- back when many of us started, the user experience was so near to the hardware guts of the machine that it was possible to know what was going on at every level. When you installed a sound card, you set the jumper switches manually to tell it which IRQ to use, and if that happened to be the same one the printer used, then neither would work. Simple. Then came plug-and-play (as it was initially called, plug-and-pray), and then umpteen layers of abstraction. Have a look at a diagram of the DOS ecosystem (from, accurate of home computing in general about 20 years ago:
...and compare it to a diagram of today's Linux kernel (from
This is a very rough comparison, but you get the picture -- a modern OS (Ubuntu, Windows 7, MacOSX, etc.) is orders of magnitude more complicated than things were in the 1980s or early 1990s. Those of us who started back then saw all of these complexities added gradually and were able to follow along step by step: graphical user interfaces, home and dial-up networking, multimedia, USB and the like, and all the attendant layers to keep all the software (hopefully) compatible with all the immense variety of hardware. But imagine coming fresh to the computing world today, free of all this background knowledge, and already knowing that you're behind society's expectations for know-how. Not so easy.

Well, I'm taking my truck into the shop next week. Let's hope I was humble enough on Thursday to have earned some clemency from the turbo diesel gods.

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