Introducing the Fool-Proof Computer

Gary Baldwin, for HealthLeaders Media, April 1, 2008
Ha! I got you with an April Fools' headline, now, didn't I? I just couldn't resist an age-old media tradition and use today as the basis for some outlandish humor. Even some otherwise serious publications get in on the act. Do you recall Sidd Finch, the pitcher who could throw a 168-mile-per-hour fastball? Sports Illustrated parlayed Finch into a national sensation in the 1980s. And some decades earlier, the stodgy New York Times ran a photo of a man flying by his own lung power.

What better day than today to join in the merriment with a little IT humor? After all, my computer likes to play April Fools' jokes year-round. It played one just the other day, when I was furiously pounding out e-mails to prospective sources (no, we don't make up those names, unlike the New York Times, which sometimes gets fooled by its own reporters).

Suddenly, in the midst of typing, all my words started coming out like this: Each*word*had*a*funny*symbol*following*it.*Same*for*the*paragraphs. Now that makes the messages a bit hard to read. Not one to burden tech support with such trivial issues, I decided to tackle the problem myself. It had happened once before, only I could not remember either what caused the problem (could 'user error' be in play here?) or how to fix it. So I turned to the Help function on Outlook. After typing in half a dozen key words to define the problem, I finally hit the jackpot. There it was, in black and white, "show or hide formatting marks."

I figured I had it made, and was on my way to typing without all those annoying symbols. Ah, if only computer life were so easy. Call me dumb, but I had those step-by-step instructions right in front of me, and still couldn't figure it out! Turns out my tool bar configuration is not quite the same as the one on the built-in help desk. Finally, after going through some pull-down menus, I was able to locate the answer. Funny thing is, I still don't have the slightest clue how I even managed to turn on those marks in the first place.

Like Yogi Berra said, that was déjà vu all over again. You see, while filing copy from the HIMSS show this past February, my typing inexplicably turned to mush. Somehow, while furiously pounding out my story, I managed to turn on the hidden numbers keypad on my laptop. On this keypad, for example, the u = 4, i = 5, and o = 6. Thus, when I typed, "the CIO said," it came out as "the C56 sa5d." Now my editors here at HealthLeaders give me remarkable leeway, but I knew that they would draw the line at this prose.

Not even the online help desk could help me with this one, so I toted my laptop into the HIMSS convention center, figuring that among 30,000 IT experts, one of them could solve the problem. Several people I approached said they didn't know how to help me, but gave me that quizzical look that suggested they really thought I needed a vacation. Luckily I ran into Neil Versel, the IT blogger who is more technically inclined than I. He knew right away that I had turned on my "numbers lock," and demonstrated the three keys that needed to be depressed--simultaneously--to let my keyboard return to sanity.

What is it about computers that they lend themselves to such shenanigans? Can you imagine what a physician would do if, suddenly, while typing his patient note, he saw a screen half full of numbers? Or what a nurse would do if, while looking up a patient history, hit the submit button and got an error message? Or envision the CFO diligently punching in numbers, when suddenly the screen freezes. I bet they would not be writing lighthearted recollections about it when April 1 rolled around.

Has your computer played a joke on you lately? If so, send it along to me.

Gary Baldwin is technology editor of HealthLeaders magazine. He can be reached at
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