Rely most on supercomputer between your ears


Q: My relatively new high definition television randomly turns off while we are watching. It doesn’t happen often but obviously it worries us. What should we do? — Marvin Waters

A: If it’s a new set and under warranty you should immediately contact the manufacturer and ask for help making things right. As far as knowing what’s wrong with your set, I can’t even begin to guess. It’s like asking what’s wrong with a car that won’t start — there are too many possibilities. But here are some things to check. 1. Make sure the set is the problem, not the cable or satellite box. Check the power-on light on the TV. If it is glowing when the screen is blank, the problem may be with something connected to the set, not the TV itself. 2. Try disconnecting the power to the set for four or five minutes. That works like rebooting a computer and is worth trying. 3. If it’s a hardware problem, the leading candidate is the set’s power supply. A failing power supply sometimes dies slowly, randomly turning off the set and then working fine for a while before completely failing. If it’s a hardware problem, then your course of action is simple. You need a professional repair technician. But get a binding estimate for repair costs first. Repairs can be so expensive that there are times when it makes more sense to replace the set.

Q: We are considering not replacing our aging computer and just relying on our iPad. That seems like a smart way to go since we only use our computer for email and checking websites. What do you think? — Alex McClain

A: Some people could happily exist doing what you suggest. But most folks need the power of a real computer. For one thing, typing anything longer than a grocery list using an onscreen keyboard is painful. I can’t know how things would work for you and your family. So I suggest this test. Before getting rid of your old computer pretend it’s already gone. Use only your iPad for a few weeks. If you find that you can handle all your online chores just fine, then you’re right in ditching the computer.

Using a computer can trash a person’s common sense. Turn it on and turn off your brain.

Instead of doing any thinking ourselves we sometimes shift that job over to the computer. After all we say, it’s a thinking machine. The trouble with that is the thinking part. A computer calculates. It doesn’t reason.

When a person stops thinking and relies on the computer, all sorts of ugly things can happen. And it’s not only computers that let us down; all our little computerized devices have that potential, too.

I’ll be glad to serve as the bad example on this one. Not long ago, I was in Maine. I had never been in the state so my navigation skills are nonexistent. I asked my iPhone to do the navigation needed to travel from the airport to the cabin I’d rented. I entered the name of the town and the address, and sure enough that weird little voice from the iPhone was soon telling me where to turn.

Despite the fact that some of the turns didn’t make sense to me I faithfully obeyed that voice and was there in no time. As I pulled into the driveway that the iPhone insisted was home, things didn’t look right. There was an aging barn, some animals, a few tractors and a woman and her son in the yard. It was a working farm, not a rental cabin. I rolled down the window and asked if I was in Winter Harbor. Forget about being at the street wrong address, I was in the wrong part of the state.

“Oh that’s a long way away, I can’t remember how far. I haven’t been there in years. You are really lost,” she said with what seemed like joy.

I wish I could tell you what I did wrong when I programmed the address into the iPhone. Maybe my phone simply took leave of its senses. Who knows? All I was sure of at that moment was that I needed to find an old-fashioned paper map. My cabin was in the opposite direction.

In my case, that was no disaster. I got to see a lot of new scenery as I drove to my rented cabin using a map and the correct route. I even happened across a nice roadside stand where I picked up live lobsters for the grand total of $15 for the two.

But my reliance on the iPhone got me thinking. I remembered a comment made to me years ago by an elderly professor of engineering. He was complaining about a side effect of the fact that engineering students no longer used a slide rule and relied on a pocket calculator or a PC instead.

The slide rule doesn’t tell you where the decimal point ought to go. So if the answer is 1.3 you have to know whether that stands for 1.3 billion, or 1,300. Since the answer is relative, engineers had to know the ballpark answer to make use of the slide rule’s result. So they developed the ability to recognize crazy answers. Not so with a calculator; you get an exact answer. If that answer is wrong, it’s impossible to catch the error without an innate ability to know the answer just doesn’t make sense.

It’s the same deal now if you rely on a computer alone — without throwing in some common sense — as you ask for its help to figure out medical symptoms, to decide if you can afford that new house, or if you are searching the Web for a way to fix some computer problem. You’ll get plenty of answers, but some of them will be wrong. If you disengage your brain during those searches the consequences can be a lot more serious than adding an hour or so to your drive.

Someone once said that common sense is an uncommon virtue. I’m not sure that’s completely right. Most people — if they stop and think a bit — are pretty good at separating nonsense from the reality of things. It’s just that many of us have given up the habit in this computer age.

Let me show you what I mean. If some stranger walked up to you in the mall and asked you to give him your Social Security number you’d laugh at him. But many people eagerly respond when they receive an email that claims to be from their bank asking for their user name and password. We trust what we see on the computer beyond all that is reasonable.

So that’s today’s sermon. You don’t need to know a hard disk from a slipped disk to take heed and change your ways. All it takes is the realization that you’re pretty smart — you’ve navigated your way through life just fine using your own judgment. When something happens online that doesn’t pass the good sense rule then listen to your own common sense.

Use the computer to get help and find information. But when you do, make sure you keep that supercomputer between your own ears engaged.