you're the electronics that hold the sky up from the ground

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When I used to work at a children's science museum in Berkeley, we constantly had problems with our parking machines. Jon Carroll memorably examined the parking lot issue in Bad Ideas Hither and Yon, and even after the museum's plaza construction ended, parking was a constant problem. Patrons could not understand how to pay, or the machines would not take certain denominations of money, or it would rain and everything would break. I suspect that the first problem was to blame most of the time, but we at the Front Desk were eager to report problems to Cal's Parking & Transportation office after the first complaint, because it meant we got to park for free that day.

When befuddled guests came to the Front Desk, I was usually the parking liason. I had a standard phrase that nearly always satisfied a frustrated would-be parker. "There's a problem with the machine," I explained. "You see, the system is...electronic."

Invariably, the guest would nod his head in commiseration. Even though I'd given him a throughly inadequate explanation, I had conveyed that no human being was responsible for his parking hassle, and implied that no human being could solve the problem. He and I were comrades, both victims of the unpredictable vagaries of the gods of Electronics.

I use "electronic" in the same way that a medieval man might say "magic" or "witchcraft". "Electronic" is a catch-call category for any number of computer-related devices and machines, but what it really means to me is, "something I don't understand". Why aren't the dinosaurs moving? There's a problem with the electronics. How does the reflex tester work? Electronics. People rarely asked a follow-up question, for fear of looking like they didn't know what electronics were. "Right, right," they'd say. "That makes sense. I was thinking it was something electronic."

Currently, our house is having a great deal of trouble with our wireless router. Comcast has come out twice to attempt a repair, with no real results. The connection sometimes works well, sometimes works slowly, and sometimes doesn't work at all. We unplug wires, push in cables, and sometimes it comes back to life, and sometimes it's down for days at a time. There is no way to predict the results. It's electronic, after all.

I think the solution is to treat the router like a capricious deity. We will construct a tiny shrine for it in the living room, forbidding visitors to touch the router, or even look directly at it. In fact, we will no longer write down its name, referring to the device as R--ter. Every evening, we will leave an offering in front of the r--ter - a thimble of WD-40, a sacrificial burnt CD, the semen of a righteous man - in hopes of currying favor. We might even leave curry. We're already composing songs of praise for the r--ter, because what else are we going to do? It's electronic, after all.

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living with gene, i've come to realize computers really are magic. even he is often completely baffled by their behavior, and our house frequently resonates with cries of "why is that not working/why is that working? That SHOULD/that should NOT be working! You did all the wrong/I did all the right things!" and then it's "honey, come in here and bring your tarot cards and your chicken foot."

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This page contains a single entry by Sean Keane published on October 19, 2006 2:51 PM.

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