Of Uncertainties and Your Palm Pilot

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Ever felt like you were standing on shifting sands? A scientific study of the heavens currently doing the media rounds suggests we might be on the verge of triggering another Einstein-like explosion in our view of the universe: the laws of physics, apparently, are mutable; constants like the speed of light may change slightly over time. Pretty paradigm-shattering stuff, but for my psyche it wasn't nearly as hard to handle as the latest Palm Pilot story.

Apparently a small bunch of Palm users have had rather nasty shocks to their system. Static electricity, they say, has somehow made its way from their Palm cradles to their PCs during the HotSync process, which is where the two exchange and back up information. Result: fried motherboard. This appears to have happened enough times for San Francisco attorneys to file a class-action lawsuit last week. The law firm has garnered testimony from at least 40 new complainants since the suit started to be publicized. Palm maintains it is not aware of any such problem.

Whatever the merits of the case, the merest hint of a HotSync problem was enough to make my mind reel. For more than eighteen months now, ever since my Filofax got sucked into the vortex created by a cinema seat and my chronic forgetfulness, my Palm V has been my personal religion. Not only do I have every single piece of information important to my life stashed in there, I also have it regularly backed up on my PC for safekeeping. HotSyncing is so supremely simple — stick the Palm in its cradle, press a button, and you're done in less time than it takes to read this sentence — that I do it twice a day. God of cinema seats forbid, but should I ever leave this thing to the cleaners' tender mercies in the teary-eyed aftermath of another screwball comedy, my life would not be over. My addresses, dates and silly twisted sci-fi plot ideas would be safely duplicated at home.

In a universe where nothing from the speed of light on down is stable, not even a Palm Pilot can be relied upon with the kind of blind faith most users invest in it
Or so I thought. But what if I stuck the Palm in its cradle and both Palm and PC got fritzed? I know that static electricity can be a potential death blow for computers; that's why you're supposed to ground yourself by touching the metal casing before installing a new graphics card, sound card or internal drive. I also know it would have to be a huge long-shot for an electric current to somehow pass from your body to the Palm's casing, down the cradle cable and into the computer. It's not like this will affect Palm's stock price (which is already in the dumps due to a poor reception for its latest product, the m505). Millions and millions of Palm owners are going to continue life unscathed. But that's not the point. It's like thinking you had a watertight home security system and suddenly discovering a weak spot in your fence: the illusion of safety is dashed.

And we all seek illusions, especially in the tech world. Everything in this new Utopia is a lot more fragile than it seems on the surface, as any ex-dotcommer will tell you. But that's what happens when you construct an environment for analog-minded humans made entirely of ones and zeros. Take all those MP3s you downloaded or ripped from your CDs, for example. You think you're hearing the music as it was originally intended? You're not. MP3s are built on something called psycho-acoustic algorithms. These little beauties save a ton of file space by making your brain fill in the blanks. They actually work out what frequency they need to transmit to make you think you're hearing overtones that aren't there. I've never been able to listen to digital music the same way since I learned that.

Some hyper-sensitive people say they get headaches from listening to MP3s because of the psycho-acoustics; that it isn't quite blasting out the right frequency for their ears. I don't doubt it's possible that some thousandth of a percent of users are affected. Just as I don't doubt my lottery number might come up, or that I might have touched enough laundered linens and walked on enough carpets to blow up my Palm and PC. In a universe where nothing from the speed of light on down is stable, not even a Palm Pilot can be relied upon with the kind of blind faith most users invest in it. Personally, I'll be handling my HotSyncs with kid gloves from now on.