Thursday, September 13, 2007

Tiny Things, Big Problems

Any time something goes wrong, people are apt to quote (or mis-quote) Murphy's Law. Murphy's Law is often said to be, "whatever can go wrong, will go wrong" though Wikipedia states the original law was "things will go wrong in any given situation, if you give them a chance." The latter seems slightly more reasonable than the former given that it allows for some sort of intervention or error in the equation, but Murphy's Law, like so many other pessimistic and cynical "laws" concocted by wags who everyone likes to read and quote, is simply wrong.

The truth is that, in any given time frame, very little goes wrong. If Murphy's Law were true, very few of us would ever manage to successfully leave the house and go to work each day. The alarm clock wouldn't go off, we'd spill coffee in our laps, the buttons would fall off our shirts, zippers would get painfully caught on sensitive fleshy parts, we'd choke on breakfast, trip and fall on the way out the door, and our trains would all get derailed. Clearly, many things go right far more often than they go wrong.

Sometimes though, things do go wrong and they do so in the tiniest and most unexpected ways. Those things are hard to detect and make trouble-shooting the resulting big problems that much harder. Though I wouldn't say I had a recent experience with Murphy's Law, I would say I was ever so slightly careless in a fashion I did not notice with unexpectedly large and irritating consequences.

Yesterday, I experienced three random power outages when the fuse kept blowing in the apartment. This was particularly baffling because I wasn't using as much power as we have in the past. In fact, in the past, we've run two air conditioners, the television, the oven, 3 computers and their affiliated equipment, and had on several lights with no ill effects. Since the weather had been a bit cooler as of late, I wasn't using the air conditioning when the second of these outages occurred and nothing other than a few lights and two sleeping computers were on.

A few months ago, we had the power capacity of our apartment increased in order to accommodate a second air conditioner and I was starting to wonder if something from that operation was going amiss or if perhaps we'd inadvertently been swapped back to our old capacity. I was dreadingthe high probability that we'd have to go and bother our ever-so-helpful landlord again and ask him to contact the electric company to have them come for a look at the situation. It's not that he wouldn't smile and act as if there is nothing in the world he'd rather do than waste his time assisting us but just that I think he's already done more than his share of such things in the past year and I would prefer not to trouble him if it can be avoided.

I tried to think of what could be causing this problem if it wasn't related to the over-use of various appliances (which it clearly was not). The only other odd incident I'd had with the power and fuses blowing occurred a few weeks ago when I plugged in an extension cord that I'd accidentally knocked loose. At the moment I plugged it in, the fuse blew and I figured that somehow that cord had shorted something out. When I threw the switch back, all was well and I didn't experience any other problems until yesterday.

I figured the next course of action was to consider replacing that extension cord. I really don't know much about how electrical systems work but I figured a malfunctioning cord could be causing shorts. When I looked down at it, I noticed that their was a wire from a 3-prong adapter with a grounding wire very close to the extension cord. As far as I know, there are no grounded outlets in Japanese places (though this could be related to my particular apartment and not all domiciles) so I have to leave the wires hanging free when I have to use such adaptors.

Yes, I know it's all dusty but I bet your extension cords aren't much cleaner.

I reached down to move the grounding wire and it shorted out the system and the fuse blew again. I then realized that the problem was that this had gotten caught in the plug weeks ago when I plugged that cord in but I hadn't noticed. Yesterday, I vacuumed and I'm guessing I pushed the cord a bit while vacuuming the sides of the living room and that pushed it closer and caused the random shorting out.

It's amazing how one little errant wire and not noticing where it had gotten to could cause all sorts of trouble. I'm very, very glad now that I didn't bother the landlord as I'm sure it would have been incredibly embarrassing to bring an electrician in and have him find out I made such a careless mistake which may have ended up wasting the time of two other people.

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