Modern life requires workarounds. Under the principle of Murphy’s law – whatever can go wrong will – there are many situations where having more than one way to do something will save your butt.
This is also an argument for redundancy, or, as I like to put it, using both a belt and suspenders. That may be an outdated metaphor – I’m not sure anyone uses suspenders to hold up their pants these days – but I’ve always liked it.
Both workarounds and belts and suspenders are at the heart of the way I deal with tech, but they can also apply to other things. I use workarounds when I cook, for example — if we’re out of one thing, I use something else.
Earlier this week, I needed to make granola. I like an easy cold cereal for breakfast, but it’s hard to find ones made from whole grains with very little sugar and a lot of nuts, so I make my own. My preference is to make it with mixed rolled grains — wheat, barley, oats, rye — but I have been known to make it with just barley.
We can usually get one or the other in bulk at a health food store, but my backup is Bob’s Red Mill 5-Grain hot cereal. However, we haven’t been to the health food store lately and our local store’s been out of the 5-Grain for two weeks.
So this week I made it with rolled oats. (No one is ever out of rolled oats, near as I can tell.) It makes very little difference in taste, though it doesn’t give me the perfect mix of grains I want for good health (barley is very good for you). Still, it will do and it’s still way better than the commercial brands.
Workarounds are often imperfect, but in a lot of cases, perfection isn’t worth all the extra effort.
A typical workaround in tech is saving documents as rtf if you need to be able to open them in different word processing programs. Or emailing them to yourself in addition to saving them. Or even printing things out just to be on the safe side. I save my taxes on the computer, but I also keep a print copy.
Another is having multiple browsers available because one of them won’t work for some things you try to do. For some reason, I can’t pay one of my health insurance bills in Firefox, but I can in Safari. That’s the sort of thing I mean.
Making extra copies and having multiple browsers are both redundant, but that’s where the belt and suspenders point comes in. It’s a lot easier than spending hours trying to find something that should be saved online but isn’t or even more hours figuring out what’s causing the problem. Redundancy can be very useful.
A couple of months back, I was doing a podcast via Zoom. Now I’ve been Zooming for years and I almost never have trouble with it, but on this particular day, something went amiss. I got on the call using my laptop and I could hear and see the others, but they couldn’t hear me.
So after turning everything off and on a couple of times, I pulled out my iPad (which is much older than my laptop) and got the same result. As a last resort, I tried my phone and – wonder of wonders – it worked fine.
Here’s the thing. I use a Mac laptop and of course the iPad is also an Apple product. But my phone’s an Android.
I’m pretty sure it was the fact that I could do it on a different operating system that solved the problem. Different operating systems allow for workarounds and are a version of belt and suspenders.
Sometime back, I talked with a guy who sets up tech solutions for people like me who use multiple devices. He recommended that I use computer, tablet, and phone with the same operating systems. Everything would be integrated, he told me.
And I had always intended to. I converted over to Apple years back when I got sick of Windows – Apple irritates me a lot, but not enough to deal with Windows ever again and I’m way too lazy for Linux. So when I went out to get my first smart phone, I fully intended to get an iPhone.
Except I went to a store to get it and got to handle different phones, I didn’t like the way the iPhone felt. I liked an Android model much better. So I’ve stuck with Androids.
That’s not efficient, as anyone will tell you. But you know, efficiency is overrated.
In How Infrastructure Works, Prof. Deb Chachra points out that overlapping systems make it possible to keep things going when one system goes out. A good example: In the Loma Prieta earthquake of 1989, the Bay Bridge between San Francisco and Oakland went down. But BART (after a systems check) and the ferries continued to run, and there were other bridges if you went the long way around.
In the early days of the pandemic, we saw the failure of “just in time” supply chains. Having things stockpiled in a warehouse may seem inefficient, but it sure comes in handy when there’s a breakdown.
Maybe what the world needs now is a lot more redundancy and inefficiency. With some workarounds available, just to be on the safe side.