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Jack Smith

A beating with a rubber chicken and a few sharp dance steps exorcise those Gayer's Law gremlins

August 12, 1985|JACK SMITH

In our contemplation of Murphy's Law and its corollaries, we have been concerned with Dixon Gayer's observation that "anything that can go wrong will go wrong, except at the repair shop, where it will magically, mysteriously (and temporarily) repair itself."

I have received many testimonials from readers suggesting that Gayer's Law really works, though it would seem to give inanimate objects a sensitivity that they shouldn't have.

I myself am skeptical of any kind of paranormal phenomena, including the reluctance of machines to perform badly in the presence of repairmen or mechanics.

I do not believe in voodoo or witchcraft or in supplicating the gods to intercede in one's conflicts with machines.

That our machines can be stubborn, perverse and exasperating everyone knows; but few of us know how to reach them; how to get in touch with them emotionally, as the therapists say.

But I am fascinated by a method that has worked for many years for Perry L. Cohen of Van Nuys. To Cohen, his method proves that "the rites of magic still have a place in today's technocracy."

To begin with, Cohen was by his employment in a critical position to observe the strange behavior of technological machines. For 29 years he was with the IBM Corp., which of course makes computers, big and small.

As an IBM computer owner, I am only too familiar with the sudden tantrums that these machines are subject to. Sometimes, I confess, my IBM PC has failed to operate properly because of some error on my part. It has also had failures that could not be explained, and which vanished when I did something mysteriously placatory.

As we get higher and higher into high tech, it seems to me, we are going to find out that Murphy's Law and its corollaries are ever more likely to be at work; as our machines become more complicated, so will they be more subject to inexplicable failures.

Most of his 29 years with IBM, Cohen says, were spent as a "customer engineer," servicing many types of data-processing equipment.

As new equipment is announced and manufactured, IBM sends its CE's to school to learn how to service it. At one such school about 12 years ago, the following incident took place:

During a break in the instruction, Cohen and his fellow students were discussing some of the perplexing problems they had encountered. They agreed that the toughest they had seen was the one described by Gayer's Law--the problem of not being able to reproduce a failure when you want to.

They also agreed that the best way to deal with such a problem was to get a thorough description of the failure, and to use their experience and intelligence in finding its cause and its solution.

"If inspection of that area caused us to find something that could have caused the failure," he said, "we felt that we had a good chance of bringing about a fix. If nothing was discovered, the best policy was honesty, and a promise to return if the equipment failed again."

One of that group of students was a man named Jim Butler, a "good ol' boy" from Savannah, Ga. Jim agreed with the group's approach, but told them he took it one step further. Cohen recalls Butler's explanation as follows:

"After I look the machine over, I dig down into the bottom of my tool bag and bring out this here rubber chicken. I start dancing around the machine, beating it with the rubber chicken.

"When I get all done, I drop the rubber chicken back into my tool bag, close it up, and start out the door, telling the customer, 'If this thing ever fails again, y'all call me, y'hear?' "

Naturally this broke everybody up.

"You guys may be laughing at me," Butler said, "but I never had a call-back. The machine may fail again, but they never call me back."

That may sound like an apocryphal story, but Cohen swears he had used the method often, until his recent retirement, after one of his co-workers gave him a rubber chicken on his 50th birthday.

"For many years the rubber chicken was part of my tool bag. . . . The staid and reserved reputation of IBM survived this frivolity and even my managers got a kick out of hearing from one of our customers who requested 'the guy with the rubber chicken' to come out and fix his broken machine."

If Cohen had any doubts about the magic power of the rubber chicken, they were dispelled one day when he was working on a terminal for one of IBM's accounts while some of the company's technical hotshots were trying to induce a failure on the mainframe. They had been at it for three days, with no results but frustration.

"One of the CE's who knew the story of the rubber chicken induced me to bring it out and try my luck. Ever willing to be a party to a good gag, I agreed. Out came the rubber chicken, along with a few dance steps and strokes upon the console.

"At the third or fourth stroke, red lights came on, and the system came to a screeching halt, displaying the long awaited error. Awe-struck, our hotshots paused only long enough to give the rubber chicken a few fond pats, then proceeded to fix the problem. At last we had been vindicated. . . ."

I see no reason why Cohen's rubber chicken should retire just because he has. I wonder if he'd sell it.

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