Computer Illiteracy

The inherent challenge of relying on a machine so complex that I neither understand it nor can repair/maintain it.


Waking at zero-dark-hundred, I see the glow of the screen in the otherwise darkened room: my computer is quietly defragging itself.  Maybe I only imagine the happy hum of someone finding a place for everything, and putting everything in its place. Me, I’m not so happy.

In the maintenance of file systems, defragmentation is a process that reduces the amount of fragmentation. Ya think? OK, sometimes Wiki is less than entirely helpful.

But the basic issue is one familiar to anyone who has ever filled a filing cabinet: things to be filed don’t always fit neatly into the space available for filing. Unlike human filers filling a physical drawer, the computer can’t/won’t just lift out the last folder in the drawer and move it down one to make space.  (Talk about your unreasonable/unreasoning.)  Instead, as computers write files onto a disc, they sometimes break them apart — fragment them — to get them to fit.

File fragmentation means that the drive’s read/write heads have to jump around to access the entire file. In the olden days — say, 15 or 20 years ago — this fragmentation might actually have slowed computer performance. Hence, it was deemed a Good Idea to defrag(ment), thereby putting files into contiguous locations as much as possible. But as early as 2001, experts were saying that fragmentation didn’t affect computer speed. It might be desirable for data recovery, but not for performance.

Even in such a young industry, what passes for an old habit dies hard. Third-party utilities, designed to keep your computer in top-tip-notch (top-titch-nop?) condition included defragging as one of their services. Then, in 2009, Microsoft® introduced Windows® 7, which does its own defragging. Yet here we are in 2013, the last I checked, and my third-party utility (sold to me just last year by my computer manufacturer’s warranty folks) is still recommending regular defragging, while Windows denies that the computer is fragmented.

So — with this conflicting advice, with these divergent opinions from things that aren’t entitled to anything as human as an opinion, damn it — what’s the polar opposite of a computer nerd to do? What I do do is not what I should do.

What I do do is let the third-party utility do its thing and then I do what it tells me to do. Time to defrag, you say? OK then, even though Windows says it’s not necessary and even though it takes the computer out of commission for as much as a few hours. Hence the overnight glowing and humming from the electronic brain in the room, and the muttering and dark thoughts from the organic brain.

What I should do, no doubt, is invest the time to learn what I need to know about this advanced piece of technology. After all, would I live in a punishingly cold climate and be able to do no more than change the filter on my furnace? Would I drive a car without being able to change a tire or diagnose a breakdown? Would I watch television without being able to hook up the receiver, digital cable box and Blu-Ray player to make that television effective?

Well, yeah. If it’s a machine, my old habit is to keep my distance, at least intellectually, and usually physically as well.

As I roll over to go back to sleep, I swear to do better with my next computer: to be More Informed, so that I will know who, and what, to believe. Yeah, that’s it. As sleep claims me, though, something heard long ago, albeit in a slightly different context, drifts past.

I don’t really understand myself, for I want to do what is right, but I don’t do it.

Odd to think that we suffer from the same problem, St. Paul (a quintessential first-century guy) and I.  Old habits die hard, indeed.

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