Sunday, August 31, 2008

Computer Diet

At some point you have undoubtedly been where I was last week - in the middle of a computer nightmare. If not, rest assured you will be. Like death and taxes, computer crashes will happen - it's only a matter of time. I'll spare my readers the gory details except to say that I was on the phone with tech support for more than 47 hours over a six-day period. During this time I spoke with not less than a dozen international technical support "specialists" at various levels of expertise. Not possible you say? I should know - I was there. I consider myself a sophisticated computer user as I've been working with PCs in a business environment since 1984. If this were not the case, I most certainly would have been committed to Shady Pines by now - if for no other reason than being forced to type long strings of seemingly unrelated letters and numbers repeatedly in the search bar.

I was told I had a corrupted hard drive (I didn't), a seriously infected system (despite two leading edge programs to prevent such an occurrence), and a "known registry issue" with my operating system. No one really knows for sure what happened or why. It all started when my computer wouldn't load my user profile. I couldn't get past the password portal. It was like going to someone's home and looking for the front door. It wasn't as if someone inside couldn't hear the doorbell - it was if if there were no door at all. An impenetrable brick fort that could not be scaled. About a quarter of the way into the entire episode, the technicians began to take over my computer by remote (with my permission), each person escalating the problem exponentially. Sometimes when you give up control, you only make matters worse. I should have trusted my instincts.

Futurists tell us that the next revolution in computing will lie in the development of quantum computation - an advance known as "The Feynman Processor". These computers (at least according to the futurists) will provide lighting fast capabilities with unbreakable codes (which is probably why government and military agencies most likely support its research). Theoretical physics professor Gerard Milburn, in his book "The Feynman Processor" said ", ... classical computers are not protected from the arrow of time. Errors creep in along the way as the computer manipulates bits of information. Parts of the world external to the computer get mixed into the computation and, in effect, rewrite bits. Errors reverse information and are thus due to physically irreversible processes." Believe me, as soon as you take your new computer out of the box, the little ghosties and beasties are trying to corrupt and manipulate your system. Until the "Feynman Processor" becomes a reality, all you can hope for is to stay one step ahead while trying to maintain your investment, your composure and your precious data.

Of course quantum computation appears to have a few problems of its own. It seems that in order for a quantum computer to run properly - that is in a reversible way - it cannot have any contact with the outside world during computation (how do you prevent THAT?). Apparently, this would cause it to "decohere". Quantum computers would also employ the principle of "quantum entanglement", a phenomenon which Einstein called "spooky action at a distance." Uh ... somehow, none of this seems quite stable... but then physicists who study the strange world of quantum mechanics deal with concepts such as the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle and Chaos Theory.

What does all of this have to do with food? Everything - as any microwave snack eating teenager can tell you. In a computer crisis, there are only two ways to go - the junk food diet (remember Wayne Knight's computer programmer character "Dennis Nedry" in the film "Jurassic Park"?) and the no food diet. I found myself in the midst of the latter. As the problem escalated, my appetite waned - and frankly, there wasn't much time to eat. When I shut down for the evening, I just sort of fell into bed in a stupor watching old episodes of "Murder, She Wrote". By the sixth day, I was blabbering incoherently. At one point, however, I made a deliberate trip to the all night gas station for a chocolate candy bar. I also vaguely recall eating some unbuttered toast and a banana. The rest is a blur.

My computer appears (the operative word being "appears") to be working at ninety percent capacity. I have a telephone appointment with a "senior level" technician tomorrow to perform what I hope will be the final exorcism, after which I will no doubt regain those pesky five pounds I lost last week.

Gerard J. Milburn obtained a PhD in theoretical physics in 1982 and has since become a world expert in quantum information theory, currently working at the University of Queensland, Australia.

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