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Column: When seconds count, I'm clueless

WASHINGTON — I like to think of myself as pretty darned tech-savvy for an older guy. It's only rarely, though, that I get to show it. One day recently I arrived at the Apple store with my computer and a question so complex, I worried I'd have a hard time explaining it even to the experts at the immodestly named "Genius Bar." The genius who was assigned to me seemed very young.

I told her that I am writing a book and doing it on my 4-year-old laptop, meaning that for safety's sake, I employ an external hard drive, on which I save the contents of my computer every few days.

"That's wise," she said.

I'm a writer. I notice words and the way they are used. So I noted to myself that with a younger man, the Genius Bar woman might have used the word "smart." I think she was acknowledging our age difference but in a respectful way. I liked that, a lot.

When my computer finishes each save, I continued, it registers this operation by displaying the time of the save in year, date, hours and minutes, like this: "2013-04-16-09.17."

She nodded. Still with me.

"My problem," I explained, "is that on the next line it gives me a two-digit number that seems to fluctuate almost at random. Look how it has varied hugely with each save, from a high of 57 to a low of 04." She leaned in, nodded, and I detected a faint smile. This was pleasing her; a good technician must thrill to a good challenge.

"Okay," she said. "What is your concern?"

"My concern," I explained, "is that if, as I suspect, this last number represents the amount of information it has saved — in gigabits or megabytes or apps or something — it should not be fluctuating like that, should it? The number is sometimes small after I have done a large amount of work, and it is sometimes large after a small amount of work. I am worried that there is some sort of glitch in the software — that it is not saving everything every time, and that if my computer suddenly fizzes to death, I will lose important parts of my book. I'm thinking this might be a warning signal, a subtle forensic indication of a larger problem that I'd otherwise never suspect."

She seemed nervous about how to handle this situation. I saw her eyes dart side to side, as though looking for help, or escape. Possibly, I thought, she might have been intimidated in the presence of a professional author. Worse, it occurred to me that she might be embarrassed by her inability to diagnose this problem — and how humiliating that might be for a young woman trying to prove her mettle in a male-dominated field. It was unfair. I tried to put her at ease:

"I know. It's weird. If you need to consult someone else, please do. I have time."

"Sir, did you come here today just for this?"

"Yep," I said. No biggie, an hour by Metro and footfall.

"Okay. So, um, that last number is the seconds."

Excuse me?

"It is giving you the time of your save in year, day, hour, minute and seconds."

"B-b-but it's on a completely separate line. ..."

She tapped a key. Now it was on the same line. Some seconds passed without comment, a few too many.


"Everything's just fine," she said, in the soothing voice one might use to tell one's dog that he is the best dog in the whole entire world, or to comfort a senior citizen with a three-toed cane who had shuffled into an unfamiliar neighborhood and was disoriented and terrified. I would not have been surprised if she frisked my pockets to see if someone had written down my address someplace.

"Ha-ha!" I said. "I'll bet this sort of thing happens all the time!"

"Not really," she said, looking past me to the next customer.

© 2013 Washington Post Writers Group

Column: When seconds count, I'm clueless 05/11/13 [Last modified: Thursday, May 9, 2013 4:06pm]
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