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Hang Ups

The stars of Hollywood's Golden Age who advised against working with animals and children would surely want to add computers to their blacklist. They knew that for every Lassie, there was a pack of incontinent mutts who'd cock a leg when they weren't supposed to, and for every Shirley Temple, a monstrous regiment of pig-tailed horrors with noses ready to run the moment the director shouted "action". Computers can be every bit as unreliable. Yours might be the Apple (or, indeed, the Acorn) of your eye, but don't make the mistake of expecting it to behave if you are reckless enough show it off in public.

That's what I did this evening, ushering dinner guests away from the gossip so they could watch me put the computer through its paces. What they saw was a blood-chilling demonstration of the tragic fact that, in the world of IT, if anything can go wrong it will - and at a time when it causes most embarrassment.

Packages that I use every day refused to load. Those that did had more bugs than Porton Down. Lavish multimedia extravaganzas that once boasted CD-quality sound fell mute; animations remained frozen like the figures on a Grecian urn.

It didn't take long for my guests to make their hurried exits, leaving me with this article to write (on the delinquent computer which is now, for some inexplicable reason, as good as gold) and a new-found compassion for all those poor souls who, in the course of their work, have to rely on computers doing the decent thing.

Pop along to Olympia tomorrow for the last day of the BETT 96 show and you'll be able to see dozens of them in action. Wired for sound, they strut and fret in front of giant screens which ensure that every glitch and cock-up is seen by everybody within laughing distance. But at least the BETT crowd are a tolerant lot. Teachers who dare to use IT have to face a far more daunting audience.

I would sooner confront a class with a tribe of Mr Aspinall's lions than a network of dodgy PCs. You can at least shake a chair at a lion in the hope of getting it to do what it's told. When a computer lets you down, all you can do is resort to brave smiles, a theatrical scratching of the head and mumbled apologies. I doubt that it would be quite enough to keep even the best-behaved classes sufficiently enthralled for a double lesson.

We expect the other expensive consumer durables we buy to behave themselves. We wouldn't tolerate a CD player that threw a tantrum or a microwave that only cooked when it felt like it.

But when it comes to IT, as the Consumers' Association pointed out in a damning report last year, we seem too ready to accept anything that the industry chooses to throw at us.

Final exasperated note: I have had to e-mail this article as my printer is flashing an orange light which the manual says means that it's out of paper - although the tray is full. And, yes I have tried shaking a chair at it .

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