Monday, November 8, 2010

Lessons from the world of failure analysis

Last Wednesday was not a good day. In the morning I spilled a whole mug full of Cranberry Apple Zinger herbal tea on the wireless keyboard for my iMac. After I sponged it up I went over to my Toastmasters club meeting. When I got back the M, N, and period keys all had quit working.

At dinner I bit into a sandwich, and one of my teeth began to hurt immediately. Thursday morning my dentist examined it. He told me that it had split and would have to be extracted. In the afternoon an oral surgeon pulled it out.

After any component, product, or system fails, people ask what can be done to keep that problem from happening again. There is a well-known safety hierarchy that, in order of decreasing effectiveness, goes:

1. Design out the hazard.

2. Guard to reduce the hazard.

3. Warn the user to be careful, because not everybody knows.

A fully immersible keyboard would be an expensive redesign, but there are spill-resistant silicone cover skins for guarding a keyboard. I even found one on eBay and had it on my watch list of things to buy eventually. That skin would have cost $5, with free shipping. Instead a replacement wired keyboard was $53. I ordered a $15 silicone skin, and it arrived today. My only consolation is that the wired keyboard includes a numeric keypad and some more function keys.

Lee Potts has a blog about presentations called Breaking Murphy’s Law. He has discussed ways to avoid presentation disasters. One topic is how to make sure that your PowerPoint file arrives and can be loaded successfully.

Now, I usually bring along my vintage laptop so I can do a practice run. A USB thumb drive gets used to transfer the file from my desktop. That thumb drive lives on my keychain along with my house and car keys, so I won’t ever leave home without it. Also, I always wait for confirmation that it’s safe to remove the drive before I yank it out of the laptop.

Another backup gets burned on a CD and packed into a plastic jewel case (not just a paper sleeve) in the laptop case. Others suggest keeping another copy somewhere on the web like at

When I need to load my presentation on another computer the USB thumb drive is easier to use than a CD. However, in a June post about Promiscuous Sticks Lee mentioned how they can get infected by viruses. Maybe I should just stick with the write-only CD?

Dave Paradi has an excellent mobile Troubleshooting Guide that you can access for help if you get stumped. I keep an MS Word download of it on my laptop, right in the directory where my PowerPoint presentations are stored.

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