Viewpoint

Coming to Terms with a Crash-Proof Laptop

I've got a problem. My new laptop doesn't crash or freeze up. I've been using it now for nearly three months, and it just doesn't crash.

"How," you might ask, "does this present a problem?"

Well, it's a seemingly small thing that has cascading ramifications on my behavior and expectations in ways you might not anticipate. I know that I didn't.

Here's one: I now rarely ever turn my computer off, and when I do, it is more often a "hard stop," caused by pushing the power button down and holding it there, than a normal stop using the machine's operating system. I know that you are not supposed to do that, but read this from a user's perspective, please, and you will see that one of the ramifications of a never-crashing computer is that it outmodes the current "normal" way of shutting down.

My new laptop is a MacBook. One of the reasons I agreed with my IT guys that I would change operating systems was so that I could experience switching from Microsoft to Apple and write about it. I would not say that I have gone over to the dark side yet. This laptop still causes me regular angst due to the unfamiliar placement of buttons and scroll bars, and to the strangeness of the keyboard. But computing is changing for me ... because it never crashes.

So I find myself never wanting to turn it off. (It kind of reminds me of the place I was in when I decided that it was no longer worth taking the time to trash old files. Storage space is cheap and my time is valuable.)

I keep a power cord at home, one in the office, and carry one in my bag. At first, it was delightful to finish up working at my office, close its lid and pack the laptop into its carrying bag, then at home unpack it and open the lid back up.

Sometimes I would do that with one of my previous Windows-based laptops. It might work for one round trip, or maybe one and a half, but there would inevitably come the time when I raised the lid and the machine refused to come back to life.

That hasn't happened yet with my MacBook. Not one single time. Wouldn't it be nice for you if none of your faculty, students, and staff had computer crashes over the forthcoming holidays?

Here's the problem, though: My days at work and my time spent working while at home or elsewhere are not the kind where I often settle down into a single task for, say, half a day or more. I move between tasks with the speed of an electron. Starting at 6 a.m. at home, then moving to my office, then home again, I may use a dozen or more applications and open several dozen windows. Just in my browser, alone, at the end of a typical day there might be four to five open windows, with a total of nearly 200 live tabs.

You try shutting that baby down using the operating system. It wants you to approve the closing of each and every window, all 200-plus of which took hours, maybe days, to be opened as I proceeded through my recently performed tasks. It's much easier not to. Imagine going through a 15-minute shutting-the-computer-down ritual while your wife is waiting outside in the car to pick you up. So I don't turn it off properly. If I turn it off at all, I just hold down the power button for a few seconds until it stops running. But I'm finding that I don't even do that for weeks at a time!

The strangest, very unexpected consequence of all of this turns out to be the value to me inherent in having all of those programs running and all of those windows open. When I am actively engaged in writing, communicating, or learning, it's like having 200 to 300 open documents in front of me, between which I can switch nearly instantly.

That's pretty cool. Except that now my laptop, with its finely tuned 200-plus open windows, which I spent hours getting open, represents such a valuable resource that I have to treat it differently. If you have not experienced something like this yet, if I am losing you with this concept, try imagining with me a scenario using old-fashioned books and journals.

Imagine you are researching something in the graduate library on your campus. You've spent the last eight hours using the card catalogue, wandering the stacks up and down several floors of the library. You've blown dust off of the covers, scanned tables of contents, and before you on a single table are maybe 60 books and periodicals, each open to a piece of information you find useful to the research you are conducting.

Then the librarian comes along and says that it is closing time and informs you that while the library is closed that evening, someone is going to come along and re-shelve all of those books.

That's what it feels like, now, to turn my laptop off.

There have been times, during the heady decade-and-a-half of this wild Internet and information technology ride, when I can look back and see that I was enjoying something that would soon become commonplace for most technology users. I think this is one of those things that will become commonplace for all.

I don't know what to call it, it's sort of an "Instant On" for Your Outboard Memory (IOFYOM). I hate to think about the energy I am wasting, but this machine does go to sleep and wake up seamlessly as well, so I find it easy at the moment to balance the value against the energy cost and decide to keep things going.

I recall a few years ago at a conference that the president of the University of Phoenix spoke about wanting to provide its graduates with a continuously upgraded, virtual library of each of the texts and resources they had utilized while matriculating. I loved the idea then, don't know what has happened to it, but I think I'll go find out.

Meanwhile, whatever we call it, IOFYOM or whatever, I think it's a new feature, even if unintended and previously unrecognized. I'm pretty sure that in a very short time, not only are we going to have our portable Libraries of Congress that are our computers linked to the Internet, but we're also going to each of us have our library tables full of always open to the right place books, as well.
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