When things don't work

By Barbara Florio Graham
True North Perspective

Barbara Florio Graham is the author of Five Fast Steps to Better Writing, Five Fast Steps to Low-Cost Publicity, and Mewsings/Musings. Her website is

Barbara Florio-Graham
Barbara Florio-Graham

Raise your hand if you've wrestled with a malfunctioning piece of equipment in the past few months?

Welcome to the club.

It took me a year to find out that a faulty motherboard in my new computer was causing the UBS ports to fail, after three trips back to the place where I bought it.

The VCR/DVD combination took six months to figure out, after I discovered that the reason why it wasn't recording the programs I'd chosen was that the clock was set on automatic. A helpful person from the support line said it was unfortunate that “automatic” was the default, because often the signal the unit picked up from the satellite wasn't accurate. Once I set the clock manually, it worked fine.

I bought three different electric can openers before finally giving up and opting for a manual model.

What's wrong with these items we've all come to rely on, and which so frequently fail us?

There are several possible reasons why things don't work:

1. The designers try to pack in as many features as they can invent, in order to top the competition. The result is that many of these gadgets do far more than any normal person needs, and the bloated menus to navigate the maze are beyond the comprehension of most of us.

A typical example is everyone's favorite scapegoat: Microsoft. The programs are bloated, full of add-ons few of us use and which slow down everything else. Names of files are obscure, and every new program has the possibility of changing an essential setting without notice.

Why didn't I opt for a Mac? Because I have so many older programs I rely on – which are easy to use, perform beautifully, and keep my business running smoothly – which are not transferable.

Which brings me to another MS problem. Since their own operating systems are so frequently eclipsed by a newer version (with its own new set of bugs), why do they make it impossible for us to migrate an older program to a new computer? I have the license for Word on my old computer, but the new computer won't recognize it.

2. The instruction manuals are hopeless. A couple of things I bought actually contained a “quick guide” of just a few pages, to enable the user to set up the basic functions. Like most camera owners who are not professional photographers, that's all I used for my digital camera, as I still can't figure out what all the strange icons and their so-called explanations are in the thick manual.

The exeption to this is the Flip video camera. I have one of the first models of this little marvel, and it comes with a single small sheet of paper which explains how to turn it on, shoot a video, and download it to your computer. That's what it does, all it does, simply and elegantly.

3. Tiny controls are impossible to read. My new toaster-oven works great, although I had to prepare a “cheat sheet” to keep beside it, because the settings are in such tiny and faint type that I can't read them even with a lighted magnifier.

4. Some items are either poorly manufactured or designed to fail after a short while (so we'll buy another one?). Essential parts fall off, break off, or contain something that wears out quickly, like a blade that can't be sharpened or a rubber gasket that doesn't hold up to the heat generated by normal use.

5. Manufacturers don't offer much help. Call a support line and you'll likely get either someone with minimal training located in a foreign country, or reach an automated message with numbers to press that don't correspond to the answers you're looking for.

Websites aren't much better. With so much consolidation of corporations, the website is likely to be crammed with a wide variety of items, resulting in a complicated search for the particular appliance that's giving you trouble. Then, when you finally find the microwaves (for example), your model isn't among those listed.

So here I am, waiting for my new computer to be returned with – one hopes – a new motherboard that will allow me to utilize all 8 USB ports I paid for, consulting my “cheat sheet” every time I use the toaster-oven, relegating the manuals to my camera and GPS to a bottom drawer, and preparing a list of steps to take every time I want to record something on either VCR or DVD. First step is turn off the timer, which is a very tiny button on the bottom of the remote, not at the end or highlighted in any way. I'm going to revert to a very old-fashioned tactic, and dab it with a bit of red nailpolish.

When things don't work, you have to come up with creative solutions!

12 June 2009 — Return to cover.