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Crashing the TV

A not-really-funny-but-perhaps-important rant by Rob Terrell

My girlfriend called me tonight and said, "I crashed the TV." See what the world is coming to? Computers are going into everything, and this is the result. My TV set-top box is secretly a Linux computer that happens to know how to change channels and record programs to a hard disk. You'd only know it was Linux if you read all of the web site. Or when it takes two minutes to turn on -- because it's booting. Or when it crashes. Like it did tonight, when she tried to change the channel at the same time it was trying to change the channel to record "The Simpsons." Froze right up, solid.

(What's that, you Linux snobs? Linux never crashes? That's bullshit, and yes, I can prove it. Come on over to my house and try watching your precious crappy anime shows. Frozen SOLID.)

I told her to reboot the TV. She tried -- but the power switch, both on the remote and set-top box, is a "soft power" switch. Pressing the power button doesn't actually physically disconnect power from the device -- it just sends a request for powering-up or -down. So you can't really turn the power off.

So I told her to pull the plug. She was reluctant, but it seemed like the only thing to do at the time. But now I'm worried -- won't that screw up the disk drive? How do you fsck the TV? What's next? Norton Utilities for TV?

So she powered down the old-school way and powered back up. One side effect of the computerization of everything is that, like ancient analog equipment, once again there's a warm-up period where you have to wait before you can use stuff. Rather than tubes getting toasty, you're waiting for the kernel to load, but the net result is the same: you wait. Folks, I hate to break it to you, but the transistor renaissance, that brief period of time from say 1978 until 2001 wherein stuff just turned on, is over.

While the TV was booting I started to rant along these lines: "This is what happens as computers spread everywhere. Imagine crashing the refrigerator. Or the stove." And then she told me that she has crashed the stove. The oven, actually.

It was at her parents' house around Christmas time. They had just gotten a new stove/oven combo, and they inaugurated it into service immediately after installation by cooking dinner. The stove was controlled by a super-complex black-and-silver panel of far too many buttons. Dinner almost ready, the stove beeped or something to alert her. She pressed some keys and boom -- the stove crashed. And it crashed hard -- it went into "clean" mode. The door locked, the shutter covered the window, the thermostat cranked up to over 600 degrees, and the timer set itself to 4 hours. Visions of a totally carbonized dinner danced in their heads as they futilely pressed buttons, in all possible combinations, to make it stop.

Finally they dug out the manual. Get this -- now they have tech support for ovens. So she called tech support. And the tech support guy was familiar with the problem. He told her, all you can do is to power down -- via the circuit breaker -- and wait for the oven computer to reset itself. Which it would, automatically, six hours after a power cycle. So either way dinner was ruined.

I didn't hear how the story ended because the TV was finally working again. But frankly this crap scares me. I've been a computer geek since the early 80's. I've owned computers for most of my life. I can hardly imagine life without one. But I'm done with it. Remember "Maximum Overdrive," the laughably crappy movie Stephen King directed, where machines came to life and tried to kill their owners? Laughable because it just wasn't plausible.

But imagine a world where all consumer electronics devices are interconnected -- where everything in your house, every blender and toaster and coffee maker and light bulb and each individual ice cube, has its own IPv6 address. And everything is interconnected through Jini or COM or SOAP or whatever. Imagine the wicked virus some high-school script kiddie is going to whip up that makes all of your shit turn against you, poor pathetic you, with your toast burned and your daquiris liquified and your coffee cold and your ice cubes warm.

That would really suck.


© copyright 2001 The Van Gogh-Goghs