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l’azile » conspiracy theories

December 8, 2006

conspiracy theories

catherine @ 4:35 pm

In his wonderful story “The Alchemist”, Paulo Coelho wrote that “when you really want something to happen, the whole universe conspires so that your wish comes true”. Which is a comforting thought, not to mention so damn romantic. But more often than not, it is the other way around and you really get the feeling that the only thing conspiring is Murphy’s Law.

I have quite a bit of experience observing as well as personally experiencing the effects of this fundamental law of nature but up until this morning, I had never bothered to find out who this Murphy guy was. What on earth did he do to piss off the deities so far as to have such an unfortunate truth named after him, anyway ? Sniffing around the Web, I came across this Web site where the full force of Murphy’s Law was finally revealed through this seemingly insignificant contribution:

“One important fact about Murphy’s Law was that it was not actually coined by Murphy, but by another man of the same name.”

Talk about bad luck !

Anyway, yesterday, I felt the power of Murphy’s Law bear down on me, to the point that I just had to laugh and shrug it off. I had a presentation to give on communities of practice for a small research group. I was supposed to give it a couple of weeks ago but I was in the throes of a nasty bronchitis at the time and could not say three words without choking and coughing up some really yucky stuff so we rescheduled it for yesterday morning.

Although I usually do a good job when it comes to giving presentations, it is not something I enjoy doing. In fact, I rather hate speaking in public. But I was actually looking forward to this one because this subject really interests me, I was going to have the opportunity to “see” someone I had not seen in years and for whom I have immense respect and, since I was in Montreal and my audience was in Quebec City, I was going to deliver it via videoconference, a first for me.

The trouble started the night before. I was going to borrow my flatmate’s laptop. I had prepared some slides and also a list of examples on the Web of collaborative technologies and stuff. I was getting ready to transfer all this to his laptop and this is the moment it inexplicably decided to die. No more hard drive. Pouf ! Gone. So my friend Mona, being such a wonderful person, offered to swing by the place I was going to be the next morning to lend me hers. It should be noted that she was leaving from Laval and would have to deal with early morning traffic, not to mention being in a hurry because she had to make a meeting. I had to meet a technician at 08h30 who would help me set things up and explain to me how the videoconference console worked, etc., so Mona said she would be there at 08h15. One minor disaster averted, or so I thought.

Yesterday, I get up really, really early and after getting ready and stuff, I call for a taxi. Because I now live in some god-forsaken neighbourhood and that I am using a wheelchair these days (I am so not ready to walk again), I knew that I had to call the taxi in advance. So I called the taxi company 15 minutes before I planned to leave, foolishly thinking that would be enough time to find a driver willing to take a wheelchair despite the cold weather and the slush that has already started covering the city’s sidewalks and streets. Well, I ended up waiting 35 minutes and calling them back 3 times, all the while fretting that I would be late, that Mona would be waiting for me, that I would not have time to do the set up properly, etc. I am generally not known for my patience nor for being much of a morning person and waiting outside in the cold for more than half an hour did nothing to improve my mood.

So I finally get to my destination at 08h33, get the laptop from Mona (kiss, kiss, sorry, sorry) and then end up waiting for the technician until 09h00, which is the time the meeting is supposed to start. I am starting to feel rather nervous by this time, wondering what the people in Quebec are doing and thinking and having no easy way to reach them. Realising that the technician does not know where the videoconference equipment is does not help matters. Indeed, he can not find it and we both mistakenly assume that it must be in a big cabinet in one corner of the conference room. Unfortunately, the cabinet is locked and despite trying 15 different keys, he is unable to open it. He calls a colleague, they confer for a while and as a last resort, come back with some humongous cutters. But before they actually cut the padlock, one of them notices an accordion-type plastic curtain at the other end of the room and decides to have a look behind it. Of course, the equipment has been there the whole time !

“Ok”, I think to myself, “finally, we are getting somewhere”, assuming (well, more like hoping) that in a few minutes, we will connect with Quebec and get this show on the road. But of course, it could not be that simple. The technicians do not seem to know how the equipment works. I realise this because one of them gets out the manual and actually starts reading it. By this time, despite being stressed out, I am actually starting to find the whole thing rather funny. We chat while they fool around with the equipment and I tell them about all the things that have gone wrong so far and we have a good laugh about it.

They finally succeed in turning on the equipment and suddenly, one of the televisions starts transmitting image and sound from Quebec. My audience is there, patiently waiting. We start talking and they reassure me that they understand and that there is no need to explain because for the last 20 minutes or so, they were already receiving the feed from Montreal and have therefore witnessed the mayhem as well as regaling in my tales of bad luck. I must have looked horrified because they also felt the need to reassure me that I did not need to worry as I had said nothing incriminating…

Considering that by this time, it is well past 09h30 and that we have a very tight schedule with regards to the room I am occupying, I propose we get started while the technicians finish the set up (they still need to connect the laptop), and, giving up on my slides, I start my presentation, hoping that by the time I get to my examples, everything will be resolved. So for the first 15-20 minutes of my presentation, I try to concentrate and be engaging in order to convey, in a simple yet thorough manner, the basics on a subject that can be at times rather complex while I have two guys fluttering around me with cables and wires and stuff, walking in front of the camera, talking to each other, etc.

They finally get the laptop connected, interrupt me to explain how to pass from the camera to the laptop and vice-versa and try to make a graceful exit. I give the rest of my presentation but when I am ready to switch to the camera, following their instructions as explained, I lose the image from Quebec and so I end up spending the next 10 minutes talking to a blank screen (thankfully, we still have sound). The technicians stop by to see if everything is ok and realise that they had forgotten to give me the remote that would have permitted me to complete the switching operation. They do it for me and we then finish the meeting with only a few minutes overlap and despite all the bugs, the people in Quebec seem quite happy with my presentation.

And I think that in a way, all these screw ups were beneficial as they obliged me to let go and take it in stride. Indeed, there really was nothing much I could do about all these little accidents and because I was well prepared anyway and that it really was quite funny in a had-to-be-there kind of way, it actually helped me to relax and just do the best I could.

So I guess that Coelho is right. I mean, I still think that Murphy’s Law applies most of the time. But other forces at work in the universe conspire to even things out in the end. If you let them.

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