Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The gumption trap

Thomas Edison famously remarked that "invention is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration". Unfortunately, it's the same regarding debugging.

I bought a wide LED screen for the children's computer and on Sunday connected it up. The screen didn't work. After eventually finding the power switch and turning the screen on, it still didn't work. As it was fairly late and I was very tired, I decided not to continue but to leave the problem for another day.

On Monday evening, I started again with the screen and verified that it wasn't displaying a picture. I then disconnected it from the children's computer and connected it to mine - voila! There is  a picture on screen, so we know that there is not a problem with the screen itself. I moved the screen back to the other computer - no picture. I connected my screen to their computer - no picture. I even swapped the video cable; the new screen's video cable worked fine on my computer whereas my video cable didn't work on their computer.

At this point I did the sensible thing and took the dog for a walk. Getting out of the house - or more importantly, getting away from the problem - helps me see more clearly and theorise what to do. Obviously it's a problem with the computer's video card.

When I got back (and after eating something: food also helps the brain), I opened up the computer and verified that the screen card was sitting properly in its slot. I also managed to cut my thumb on the sharp edges of metal which have been cut to allow a fan to sit on the video card. I connected the video cable to the video card, connected the electricity - and saw a picture on the screen. I then disconnected the electricity and video cables, connected a disconnected wall fan inside the computer, put the side of the computer case back on, connected everything up - and no picture appears on the screen.

The wall fan was making a large amount of noise so I disconnected the computer again, opened it up, disconnected the wall fan - and then I had the epiphany which I should have had much earlier. I had been connecting the video cable to the onboard video connector instead of to the external video card! Once this was noted, I closed the computer up again, reconnected everything properly - including the video cable - and could begin working.

Well, not quite. There was an icon on the screen saying that the network card was disconnected. I checked the connections - wall first, computer second - before the inevitable epiphany occurred again: I had connected the network cable to the internal ethernet socket, which had been disabled, instead of to the external ethernet socket. Easily solved.

  1. Write on the computer case to use the external video and ethernet sockets in the future
  2. Take the dog for a walk more frequently
This morning, whilst thinking over this affair, I remember "Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance" which discusses what I would term 'debugging' and the importance of the 'gumption trap'. When debugging, one often gets into a mental state which leads in one direction whilst ignoring other directions (one of which will be the correct direction). Thus one wastes a great deal of time whilst increasing one's frustration as one goes in the wrong direction.

I am about to order a book which discusses this issue more thoroughly - "How we know what isn't so: fallibility of human reason in everyday life", by Thomas Gilovich. Ignore the price which is going to be displayed by the Amazon link: British Amazon is selling the book for 6.66 GBP but charging something like 8.25 GBP postage, whereas the Book Depository will sell me the book for 10.94 GBP including postage. Why pay 36% more?

Here's the blurb of the book: "When can we trust what we believe - that "teams and players have winning streaks", that "flattery works", or that "the more people who agree, the more likely they are to be right" - and when are such beliefs suspect? Thomas Gilovich offers a guide to the fallacy of the obvious in everyday life. Illustrating his points with examples, and supporting them with the latest research findings, he documents the cognitive, social and motivational processes that distort our thoughts, beliefs, judgements and decisions. In a rapidly changing world, the biases and stereotypes that help us process an overload of complex information inevitably distort what we would like to believe is reality. Awareness of our propensity to make these systematic errors, Gilovich argues, is the first step to more effective analysis and action.

I look forward to reading this book. 

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