Someone not too long ago asked if we were a computer column and I told them not totally, but I asked them why they were inquiring. I was told that computers are fun and interesting, but what about other things electronic.
It got me to thinking, and I sat there trying to think what these days does not have a computer (or several smaller ones or chips) hidden somewhere in the innards. I really, aside from a jar of ketchup and a pound of meat was pretty hard-pressed to come up with anything. In fact, the ketchup and meat might have RFID chips on or in the packaging to let inventory control systems and cash registers which use such items work.
But lets look at things which are a bit more obvious. Or maybe not. This all came to mind recently when our washer broke down. It’s a 2009 model made by a major manufacturer and it's packed with chips and computer controls which make it almost impossible to fix or work on (per the repairman the local shop sent).
The days when one selected regular wash and timed the cycle with a big dial are long gone, aside from a very few base bottom-of-the-line models. These days instead the machine wants to think for you (and I) and often this results in disastrous consequences.
No longer do we throw in the jeans, select a water temperature, turn a dial and hit start, but instead there’s a "jeans” cycle. There's one for woolens, delicates, perma-press, whites and things one wishes to sanitize — and all of that information about spin speeds, water temperatures and whatever else the machine needs to know (or thinks it does) are hidden in computer chips somewhere in the bowels of the washer. The issue is what if you do not want to use what someone in some factory has been told to program? Or what if something goes wrong whilst the cycle is underway — like a power glitch or water issues or worse?
The latter happened to us recently with a door latch breaking, dumping soap, bleach and all the towels we were washing in the middle of the laundry room floor — all while the drum continued turning and water continued to run and the machine continued to spin like some plot from a 1954 I Love Lucy show.
The matter is made yet worse because appliances want to "think” for us. This washer thought everything was A-OK and went right on. And the timer showed had we not been home to catch it, the whole process would have continued another half hour!
There's also the matter of timers. They are computer-generated numbers, too, and are estimates. If you have used a dishwasher, washer or dryer which puts up the time for a cycle to complete, all we can say is do not believe it. If you do I have a bridge to sell you.
A load of towels, which the computer chip in a friend’s washer (at right above) attempted to balance, rebalance and balance again left the time to go indicator at two minutes for almost an hour recently — all while we twiddled our thumbs waiting for the final "beep!”
And do not think I am singling out washers and dryers. The computer chips to make things think for you are in everything.
Our microwave asks whether we are thawing beef, chicken, fish or bread and what the weight is, before putting up a time when one hits start. Problem is, the estimate is just that — a guess — and often not too educated. Let's be logical here: How good can it be because the machine doesn't know if the item being thawed has been frozen two hours at -10 degrees or two weeks or two months at +20 degrees, therefore how CAN it possibly know what time will be needed for it to thaw?
To avoid hungry guests revolting, buy fresh, thaw a day ahead or give yourself some extra time. And keep an eye on things because if that chip thaws your food too long, your chicken breasts will come out of the thaw cycle half-baked before you ever start cooking.
But again it doesn't stop here. We thought we were being clever and bought a major manufacturer's radio for our car. We had a photo and wrote about it in this column a month or three ago. It’s one that connects to the internet, has a screen to allow GPS and also lets the driver answer calls hands-free and does everything but mop the floor.
Problem is that they spent all our cash on the whizz-bangs and gimcracks, and there was not much leftover for the radio circuits.
On a recent long-distance trip we found station after station we tuned to distorted and lasting just a few minutes before being over-run with static.
Fearing the radio was defective, when we returned home, we contacted the shop where we bought it a few months ago and were told, “Oh, that's a great set but they don't have much of a tuner in it because most people use it to play from their iTunes playlist or through their phones so the radio is not very good.”
Again, those computer chips and the cost factors are at play. And again the consumer loses.
And finally, don’t get me started about cars and motorcycles and other modes of transport.
The chips in them are "big brother” and know (and can tell your insurance company, police or government safety folks, too) how fast you were going, if you hit the brakes and a lot more if you have a wreck and claim damages.
Others are equipped for everything from breath tests to see if you have had too many drinks to drive and locks to keep folks who don’t know your code out.
There are also chips which tell us to "check engine” (When that lights I open the hood to see if someone stole the motor before calling the auto club!) and others to say tire pressure might be low when usually it's not anything serious but when Fall and cold weather arrive tires naturally lose a bit of buoyancy, fooling the sensors and that chip into thinking you have a flat. Of course, those "smart" computers often cannot tell what's really up, and report an issue which is sure to send you to the tire shop or service garage.
So the chips and mini-computers are everywhere and sadly, in my way of thinking, the more we allow them to be the "brains” behind our lives, the less likely we are to get things done, but the more likely we are to have unnecessary repair bills and the definite likelihood we have of being “stranded” in the laundry room for 45 minutes waiting for that "2 minutes to go” load to finish.
Of course that means machines have beaten man and our time is now useless, right?