From Duck and Cover to Flip and Power to . . .


About eight years ago I learned that there was a basic computing skill that had to become part of the training for each new employee in my department: What to do if/when you spill a liquid onto the keyboard. This is serious. Every new staffer in my department, and I employ a lot of work-study students, had to learn the routine: Quickly flip the keyboard upside down and stop power to the machine as fast as you can, whether by hitting a button or yanking on a cord.

Our mantra became a computer era version of the early Cold War “Duck and Cover” – except that we said, “Flip and Power.” But I am at a complete loss as to what to tell people who keep on dropping their cell phones into toilets, puddles, and sinks – or who run them through the laundry.

You might think it was just a bit geeky to make people practice flipping their keyboards upside down, but this was driven by a real disastrous experience. Our organization only had a few computers and when we moved our office on site for our annual conference each year, we took two of them with us – as carry on luggage. We had to have our entire membership database and registration information for more than 1,000 people with us. This was back in the old forgotten days before broadband. Nowadays, of course, we’d simply access the data on line or would have carried it on a key fob flash drive.

But, in Chicago, eight years ago, the sole machine with that data on it died just before the conference started. I don’t recall how we recovered the data, but the conference ended up going well – after tons of stress for we staff. Toward the end of the week I caught our membership director in a weak moment and he admitted that, yes, those brown stains on the keyboard were where he had accidentally spit up a mouthful of coffee onto his keyboard, eventually frying the machine.

So, we all learned to "Flip and Power." Interestingly, over the years the frequency with which people consume a beverage while they are computing has gone up and up, but the frequency with which we seem to learn of spilled drink damage has gone down to almost nothing. A good thing, really, because the Flip part of Flip and Power might itself damage a laptop and you can’t even turn the power off to one very quickly.

My guess is that we users have just simply gotten more proficient at handling drinks while we use a keyboard. In my own case, for example, just like my left hand hits the CTRL-S by reflex every few seconds, my right hand knows to keep that glass of Diet Coke as far to the right and as deep on the desk as it can reach. I don’t believe that James Glieck mentions this particular skill when he talks about learning new skills for the information age in his very interesting book, Faster: The Acceleration of Just About Everything.

We humans appear to have some learning curves yet to go through with the mechanics and kinesthetics of manipulating handheld devices. Seriously, if you’re an adult right now, unless you grew up working in a china shop, a fine jewelry store, or in a family of jugglers, you don’t have a lot of childhood experience at handling heavy but palm-sized, expensive and important objects. And I had heard that many manufacturers now place a soluble dye packet in cell phones so that when one is returned for warranty work it can be identified, once taken apart, as having been dunked in water. So certainly they perceive it as an issue of importance.

I wasn’t surprised, then by the premise of this week’s, USA Today story on the growing increase in such incidents in an article titled "When nature calls, cell phone owners should answer carefully."

Since I got my first cell phone, less than four years ago, I’ve gone through at least nine phones. Frankly, I’ve lost count. It seems wasteful, but they feel like disposable commodities. None of those were from being dropped in water, but I was aware of the problem from talking with friends. So, I was impressed when I read about the woman who had dropped a phone in the toilet twice: "Cosmetology student Lexi Phillips has dropped her cell phone into the toilet twice. 'Both times, my cell phone was in my back pocket,' she explains."

Now, I could see that happening. My daughter busted one of my first digital cameras by dropping it onto a ceramic floor at the Montreal Zoo. I’ve dropped my phone a time or two, causing no apparent damage. But, kind of egged on by the knowledge about the dye packets, I wanted to see how common it was, so I asked my office colleagues about their experiences.

It turns out that I work with a cell phone-dunking expert. Barely 21-year-old "Katie" admits to being a serial dunker, having submerged cell phones five times in her life, already. The incidents she revealed included:

* Washing her hands in the sink while trying to hold the phone in the crook of her elbow, result: dead phone. * Answering an important text message while standing near the toilet in a small bathroom, result: phone survived. When asked if she hesitated about dipping in for the phone, she says “It was a very important text message.” * A full-body spashdown in a campus fountain while horsing around with friends, result: dead phone. * Phone slipped out of a tight back pocket (see Lexi Phillips, above), result, dead phone. * Arm jarred while walking across a very big and deep puddle in the rain, result: phone survived.

Somehow, Katie got new phones each time! But her brother, who put one through the washing machine (must run in the family) was tripped up by the dye packets.

I admit that I’ve also dunked a cell phone. Last summer, while luxuriating in a Jacuzzi tub at a Des Moines motel after a rough 18 holes of disc golf at the Professional Disc Golf Association world championships, I dropped my Treo 600 into the tub. Luckily, I have quick hands and I also have the “Flip and Power” mantra as such a deep reflex that my training held true. I grabbed it fast, flipped it upside down, shook it briskly, realized that I could not turn off the power, and then headed for the room’s blow dryer.

After I let it sit for a couple of hours, it continued to work just fine.

So, the new mantra – half a decade deep into the 21st century - for handhelds is "Flip and Blow": Flip the phone upside down, shake it, and blow-dry it ASAP. At least until we all learn to handle such heavy, yet delicate, and very important items as our handhelds are becoming, perhaps we should teach our users to "Flip and Blow."

Even if it d'esn’t save the phone, it might keep the dye packet from dissolving!

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