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Good laptop!

In the computer training workshops I run for OIT, people are always asking, “Mike, how do I train my computer to stop crashing?” So I thought I’d share some tips.

The first thing to realize is that computers are part of an intricate dominance hierarchy—a pecking order, if you will—with Apples at the top and discount Dell clones near the bottom. Subordinate machines are continually acting up, testing the social order and jockeying for position, while Alpha computers are secure in their status. This is why Macs hardly ever crash.

As a computer owner, your laptop sees you as part of this hierarchy, whether you realize it or not. It will test you, to see who backs down first. If you blink enough times, the computer will eventually assume it is the boss. I’ve seen users cowed into submission by their computers, even frightened of them. You’re the alpha brain! You have far more synapses, even if you can’t add as fast! The key to computer obedience is winning these dominance challenges.

When a computer freezes, you should of course immediately slap the desk and say “No!” loudly. Almost everybody seems to know this much. Do not berate the machine, though, or swear at it. Voice recognition is quite poor in computers, and they are extremely literal—you’ll probably only confuse it. (The older technique of squirting it with water has been completely discredited.)

Use a firm but not loud voice. Make steady eye contact with the screen and try not to blink. Give the command once and once only—repeating yourself shows the computer that you won’t follow through on a threat. Never slap the keyboard or strike the screen; this can traumatize it. (Do not back down and restart. If you do, the machine thinks it has won. It will freeze more and more frequently, eventually becoming uncontrollable.)

If you persevere, the computer will back down and display classic submissive behavior (usually, the screen saver). This can take a while; most people do not realize how stubborn a badly-trained computer can be, particularly if it is used to getting its way. Be patient. If it still refuses, ‘time out’ is a dark room usually does the trick.

Computer training is always better in groups. In my workshops all the participants line up, place their laptops on the floor, turn them on and step back, maintaining eye contact during startup. The first machine ready is picked up, praised and rewarded in front of the others. Computers are very social, and often take their cues from their peers. This is why the well-socialized machines in Duke’s clusters hardly ever crash, while problem laptops are usually the only computer in the house.

Computer training can transform your companion machine. A problem computer is sluggish, lousy with spyware, continually crashes and uses the Blue Screen of Death to get its way like a child holding its breath. An obedient computer will burn CDs faster, Google more accurately and pick up less spam. It’s important to catch computers early, while they are still malleable laptops—by the time they’ve grown into desktops, most are far too sedentary and set in their ways to be easily trained.

Dominance is the theory behind computer training, but the secret weapon is appropriate rewarding. Contrary to what most people think, praise and physical contact are not powerful incentives for laptops. What they really crave is of course electricity. If a computer refuses to back down in a challenge, you should withhold power, even if it whines and complains about a “low battery” (usually an act—they aren’t in any real distress). Plugging it in should only be a reward for good work. Needless to say, indiscriminately recharging your laptop will quickly create a pampered problem computer.

Many participants in my workshops have gone on to apply these techniques to other companion machines, and you can too. Next time your car develops an annoying rattle, don’t back down—it’s testing you. Keep driving, and don’t give it gas until it behaves. Remember, you’re the boss.

Mike Dickison is a graduate student in zoology. His column appears every other Wednesday.



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