It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s Super-Geek!

Like many techies, my self esteem is pretty high. There’s no run-of-the-mill tech problem I can’t solve. Networking? Operating systems? Application crashes? Crazy error messages? Bring ‘em on, says Alan “MacGyver” Zeichick, a veritable St. George ready to slay every virtual I.T. dragon.

There’s one category of problems that MacGyver can’t solve: Epic failures caused by my own epic stupidity. The most recent example wasted time, wasted money – and demonstrated that software problems aren’t necessarily software problems. Let my sad story serve as a cautionary tale for other Super-Geeks.

Until recently, my everyday computer was an Apple 15” MacBook Pro (Mid 2007). However, starting last summer, it began driving me crazy with frequent pauses (like it would ignore all keyboard and mouse input for a few seconds), occasional hard crashes, and lots of spinning beachballs that seized up the whole computer for several minutes at a time.

System diagnostics didn’t show anything. Swapping out the memory didn’t help. After one particularly nasty day of constant beachballs last fall, I purchased a new hard drive, installed a clean copy of the operating system and restored my backed-up data. Nope. Didn’t help either.

With the constant pauses and beachballs affecting both my productivity and my sanity, the only conclusion was that the computer was doomed. Yes, I was forced to buy a new 13” MacBook Air. That was back in November, after the sexy new models came out. (As you might guess, I wasn’t too upset by this.)

Meanwhile, since the MacBook Pro still kinda sorta worked, I relegated it to a side table next to my desk. It found new life as a second machine – even with its little pauses, beachballs and occasional crashes, it’s a fast computer with a big display, ideal for running Parallels and doing other assorted tasks.

Last week, however, it was driving me crazy again. One day after school, I shared my frustration with my teenage son. As he watched it pause and beachball, he asked, “Maybe it’s the power supply?”

“Don’t be silly,” I replied. “That’s the power supply I’ve always used with it… oh, hmm, okay, let’s check.”

A quick moment’s study showed that the little white brick that I’ve been using with the MacBook Pro is a 60-watt power supply. That’s the wrong one. The correct power supply, according to Apple’s specs for this model, is a nearly identical 85-watt little white brick – which lived in my briefcase for road trips.

Come to think of it, the MacBook Pro never paused, beachballed or crashed when I was traveling or running on batteries. It only misbehaved in my office. With the too-small power supply. Yup. There we go.

We swapped the power supplies, and you know, the MacBook Pro runs like a champ. It’s like a brand-new computer. Not a pause, not a beachball, not a crash.

Don’t I feel stupid. I’m mildly annoyed at Apple, who made its incompatible power supplies look identical and use the same plug. You’d think the machine would notice that it was being fed by 16.5 volts, 3.65 amps instead of 18.5 volts, 4.6 amps — and would pop up an error message saying, “Wrong power supply, you dummy.” It doesn’t. But let’s be honest, there’s nobody here to blame but myself.

The temporarily humbled Super-Geek offers two morals to this story.

First: When you’re debugging problems with your systems – even if they look like software problems – it may be the hardware. In fact, it may be hardware that isn’t computational hardware. I’ve seen systems have intermittent issues caused by dirty cooling fans, or dust on the motherboard. It’s amazing what a blast of compressed air can do for solving hardware issues. And of course, power supplies are notorious for causing intermittent problems. I truly should have thought of this myself.

Second: When you’re stymied by a tech problem, try demonstrating it to someone else. By looking at the issue with fresh eyes, they might instantly produce an answer that you’ll never find.

And yes, my son did me proud.

Z Trek Copyright (c) Alan Zeichick