• Thu
  • Apr 17, 2014
  • Updated: 4:17am

It always pays to look for simple solutions

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 09 May, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 09 May, 2006, 12:00am

An eagle-eyed reader spotted a lovely error on my part a few weeks ago. I answered a question about handling file extensions with a long and complex response. Harry Chen wrote in with what he thought might be a far simpler explanation:


'Regarding the recent query about opening a .pps file, your correspondent did not specify if he had Microsoft Office installed on his machine. If not, then he would not have had PowerPoint installed. He can't open .pps files, can he? I reckon there is freeware out there that can read .pps files.'


Mr Chen could well be right about this. My assumption had been that Microsoft Office was there and it was not responding. Mr Chen has correctly gone right to the heart of the matter: was Office there? This situation is a bit like spending an hour working on some electronic device, trying to understand why it is not working, only to discover it is not plugged into the mains.


This idea has come down to us in the form of a principle attributed to the 14th-century English Franciscan friar and scholastic philosopher, William of Ockham (also spelt Occam). It is known as Occam's Razor, which is: entia non sunt multiplicanda praeter necessitatem. Translated, it means entities should not be multiplied unnecessarily.


In modern parlance that principle would be rendered as the acronym KISS - keep it simple, stupid. What all this means is that when you have a number of possible explanations for something, it is usually the simplest one that is correct.


If your computer will not boot, it could be because tiny green men from Mars have set up camp inside your machine and are wreaking havoc. But it could also be that the power cord is unplugged.


Occam's Razor is not magic. It may not explain everything, but it is a great starting point. Some people - Agatha Christie, for one - have created elaborate examples to show that the simplest explanation is not always the correct one. But in general it is probably a good idea to look for a simple solution to a problem before chasing after a more complex one.


In the world of computing we call this process debugging. It is said that writing code is science, but debugging is an art. There is a great deal of truth in that.


Whenever you are about to ask for help, take a moment and reflect on how the problem manifested itself. Did something unusual happen before the problem occurred? Did the hard disk start making a funny noise? Did you just load up a new application? Did you just download an e-mail from someone you do not know and 'nothing' happened?


If you have a problem with your computer, check that it is plugged in, reboot it, watch for what gets loaded at boot time and always know how much random access memory you have and how much free disk space. That is a start, at least. We hope then to be able to answer your questions.


As far as reading .pps files goes: Yes, there is freeware. Try OpenOffice at www.openoffice.org.


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