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Overthinking a Simple Battery Problem

I regard debugging and troubleshooting as among the most difficult engineering skill set, and one that is mostly learned through experience, mistakes, and practice. At the same time, it's easy to have so much experience that you get a little too clever for yourself and miss the obvious.

Like most of you, I have the usual collection of IR-based remote controls by my TV area — excuse me, “media center” — for the display, the DVD, and for other control boxes. When the remote that controls my TV started to act erratically, and then died, I assumed it was the batteries; in this case, a pair of standard AAA cells.

No problem. None of the other remotes also used AAA cells, and were working fine. I did the quick swap (each remote had a different brand of battery, so I didn't have to worry about mixing up the good and bad ones — a common occurrence when doing a good/bad interchange).

After the swap, the remote still didn't work. OK, then, I thought knew the problem: the remote control had gone bad. It was either an outright failure or it was poor contacts on the pushbuttons, which is a very common problem due to degeneration and oozing of the elastomeric sheet with conductive dots used for the keyboard-backing assembly and pushbuttons.

So simple, so commonplace, yet these remotes and their batteries almost had me going down a wrong troubleshooting path, due to my own quick 'jump to conclusion.'

So simple, so commonplace, yet these remotes and their batteries almost had me going down a wrong troubleshooting path, due to my own quick 'jump to conclusion.'

I was about to crack open the remote's case to look for any obvious problem (unlikely it would actually be visible, but what the heck, why not?) and clean the keyboard assembly with alcohol — something I have done on many remotes, cordless phones, and similar units with these elastomeric keyboards. So I put the batteries from the working remote back in that unit, and surprise: It no longer worked. Now I was really puzzled and ready to take everything apart, figuring that maybe a short circuit in the bad remote had killed those batteries as well.

Luckily, I was interrupted and delayed from my plan. When I got back to the project, I remembered the first rule of debugging: when you are not sure what is going on, do nothing. Stop, think, collect the facts you have already observed, review their timeline, and ask questions. And that's what I did.

Long story short: In one of those oddball coincidences, the batteries in the supposedly good remote were also marginal, but only a little less so than the ones in the remote which originally stopped working. As soon as I put fresh and tested batteries in both units, they worked fine. My plan to open and clean the first unit, or look for an internal short, would have been useless.

Admittedly, in the scheme of things, this debugging problem was pretty trivial, both literally and figuratively. No timing violations, no noise or EMI considerations, no grounding issues, no driver sourcing/sinking problems — just a set of marginal batteries tested against another set of slightly less marginal ones.

But I assumed there was a more serious problem, because I overthought the problem, and linked the observed symptoms to a complicated conclusion based on my previous experience with similar units. The simpler question to ask first would have been, “How do I really know the second set of batteries is good enough?”

Have you ever jumped to conclusions about a simple problem, primarily because your troubleshooting experience caused you to move too far, too fast?

This article was originally published on EBN's sister publication EDN .

42 comments on “Overthinking a Simple Battery Problem

  1. _hm
    March 15, 2014

    Yes, sometime it happens if one is in too much of hurry. But by the time you take one small break, you know solution and problem.

     

  2. Susan Fourtané
    March 16, 2014

    I am so happy I don't have those inconvenient problems. 🙂 I haven't had a mind control device, known as TV, for a long time. This means I don't have control, or battery problems either. 

    -Susan 

  3. t.alex
    March 16, 2014

    Susan, no TV at home and no tablet and smartphones too?

  4. Susan Fourtané
    March 16, 2014

    t.alex, 

    Ahh, you remember about my experiment with the phone? 😀 Very nice.

    There is no need for having a TV when you can have absolutely everything you need online without all the advertising, and choosing only what you really want to watch.

    Television is a thing of the past for me. Absolutely obsolet.  

    -Susan

  5. prabhakar_deosthali
    March 17, 2014

    My experience is at work , way back some 40 years ago , when I was working in a testing facility that had all kind of hardwired logic gates based control system.

    At one time the whole system had started to act weird – the signals would automatically change the state and the realyas would start chattering – sending all of us in a tizzy about where could be the problem.

    For days – we were isolating each signal path , to determine which one was creating havoc but no success.

    One fine morning , one of our technicians decided to jsut clean things up and while cleaning the bottom side earthing tracks – he found that the screws tightening the erath connections had all got loose over time because of the constant vibration of the high pressure testing facility .

    We all engineers had a hearty laugh at the simplicity of the cause of the problem and the complex symptoms that it created.

  6. Nemos
    March 17, 2014

    “I regard debugging and troubleshooting as among the most difficult engineering skill set, and one that is mostly learned through experience, mistakes, and practice.”

    I can't agree more to this statement, actually the troubleshooting in practice lead one to built up his/her level and to obtain more knowledge on the subject (how/to).

  7. Nemos
    March 17, 2014

     “primarily because your troubleshooting experience caused you to move too far, too fast?”

    In my case I can refer from my experience that all the problems came out when you move too far, too fast overseeing a lot of indications about what could be the problem.

  8. Wale Bakare
    March 17, 2014

    >>There is no need for having a TV when you can have absolutely everything you need online without all the advertising<<

    Difference in having both TV and Computer at home is gradually going down to nothing. But dont be overjoyed at watching films online without advertisement, though, depends on sites. Online space now becoming a place of ads – unfortunately, you can't pause neither skip until the time sliced for the online advert lapsed.

  9. Adeniji Kayode
    March 17, 2014

    @Susan.

    Can I assume you are a very busy person?

    Moreover, what about your cell phone and your wall clock.

  10. Susan Fourtané
    March 17, 2014

    Adeniji, 

    What makes you assume I am a busy person? 😀 Yes, I suppose I am, but why? I don't have a wall clock and I would never have one. They are super annoying. I am still in the experiment with the phone. I guess you know about this. 

    -Susan

  11. Susan Fourtané
    March 18, 2014

    Wale, 

    “Difference in having both TV and Computer at home is gradually going down to nothing.”

    What do you mean?

    When you watch movies online you don't get interrupted every 20 minutes with commercials. 

    -Susan 

  12. Wale Bakare
    March 18, 2014

    The newer TVs from Samsung, for an instance –  equipped with OLED screen, Sensor for volume control with human hands, Ethernet ports, HDMI and Scart ports. While its remote control got browse buttons and other special keypads, like PC.

    This type of TV is just like a computer, one can juggling the live TV programmes and surfing internet, as well making note with its remote control.

    So also in a similar way, computer is for computation, browsing and streaming videos like on demands, watching live TV shows. Are there too many differences now in TV and computer? Soon, the differences would vanished, i think.

  13. Adeniji Kayode
    March 18, 2014

    @Susan,

    Can I assume you are a verymobile person with mobile devices?

    I look froward to your comment on “What I would Love my Robot to do for me”

  14. Adeniji Kayode
    March 18, 2014

    @Wale,

    You made an awesome foresight there. You wiill quickly identify with the fact that in some part of the world, people still need decorders to watch TV but with the present movement, it will get to a time that movies can be watched on a Tv connected to the internet.

    Then there will be less need for DvD players, Blu ray Disc or CD.

  15. Wale Bakare
    March 18, 2014

    >>Then there will be less need for DvD players, Blu ray Disc or CD<<

    Adeniji, i'm not sure if any future holds for those. With internet of things (IOT), big disruption would consume many. Universal remote control or mobile phone may become multi-purpose smart device for users in a very near future.

  16. Eldredge
    March 18, 2014

    Have you ever jumped to conclusions about a simple problem, primarily because your troubleshooting experience caused you to move too far, too fast?


    Sure have. Often it's the classic overthinking problem……before you start opening the covers on (insert whatever electrical widget here) because it doesn't work, check to see if it is plugged into the outlet.

  17. Adeniji Kayode
    March 19, 2014

    @Wale,

    I agree with you on that. That means some generations of our children would get to see some of the innovations of today in tomorrow's museum and from that they wiill know where we have been coming from.

  18. Hailey Lynne McKeefry
    March 20, 2014

    @prabhakar, when i call a help line about some device or other that isn't working, the first question is always “is it plugged in?” Maddening, until you have this kind of reminder that it's these basic physical problems that often stymie us. We are looking for zebras instead of ponies when we hear the  hoofbeats.

  19. Hailey Lynne McKeefry
    March 20, 2014

    @Susan, to your point, I find it hard to watch traditional television anymore. I have a TV but with a digital recorder so i fast forward through all the ads.

  20. Susan Fourtané
    March 20, 2014

    Hailey, 

    Aha! You are cheating. 😀 You are also saving time. 🙂 You save between 10 to 20 minutes depending on if it's a 30, or 60-minute show.

    And you can also pause your show whenever you want for as long as you want, instead of waiting until the commercials. The more I think about it the more I see how annoying watching television is.

    -Susan  

  21. Susan Fourtané
    March 20, 2014

    Adeniji, 

    At this point you can assume it's very difficult to assume anything about me. 😀 I have spent a year without using a phone as an experiment to write about the experience. That's all I can tell you for now. 🙂 

    “I look froward to your comment on “What I would Love my Robot to do for me””

    Where is that?  :/ 

    -Susan 

  22. Susan Fourtané
    March 20, 2014

    Wale, 

    I see what you mean. 🙂 Yes, I think you are right.

    In fact, a friend of mine moved to a new apartment, so one day he was telling me about the things he was planning to buy. He mentioned a big TV to watch movies and play video games. 

    -Susan

  23. t.alex
    March 21, 2014

    Susan, and how would you go to ebnonline.com? laptop?

  24. Susan Fourtané
    March 21, 2014

    t.alex, 

    Yes, on my lovely Mac. 🙂 Why? 

    -Susan 

  25. SunitaT
    March 23, 2014

    Troubleshooting is actually the work that puts engineers in a rage. However they must be patient while debugging their work, because when the dominos start falling, the engineer would be cursing himself, without any benefits. For bigger projects, managers usually keep a mix of engineers who have a varied experience, and not just on one thing.

    Load balancing factor is greater in properly equipped project teams.

  26. SunitaT
    March 23, 2014

    @Eldredge: Most of us who believe they have enough experience in troubleshooting and debugging jump to conclusions because at the back of our minds we are simply too proud to accept that the given scenario is different from the scenarios where our ideas actually worked. This approach is disastrous in a company as it only increases the time for debugging. Any clever project manager knows how to handle such mentalities and works in such a way that debugging gets done without spilling too much resources, too fast.

  27. Wale Bakare
    March 23, 2014

    >>For bigger projects, managers usually keep a mix of engineers who have a varied experience, and not just on one thing<<

    You are right. And what actually matters is the nature of work, some critical projects would require experienced and out-box thinkers without restricting them to troubleshooting tools and procedures.

  28. Eldredge
    March 25, 2014

    @tirlapur – Very true. At times, I have to go back to the beginning of a troubleshooting exercise and ask myself “What assumptions did I make without validating them?” It is oftern the simple things that get us crossed up.

  29. t.alex
    April 3, 2014

    Susan, I mean you don't use phone but you still have a laptop 🙂

     

  30. Susan Fourtané
    April 4, 2014

    t.alex, 

    I don't see your point about the laptop. 🙁 What does the laptop has to do with my phone experiment? The phone experiment was for writing an article about it. I need my laptop for writing. 😀 

    -Susan 

  31. Hailey Lynne McKeefry
    April 4, 2014

    @Susan, Tivo saves tons of time…and yet I always feel there aren't enough hours in the day! 🙂  I may have to look around for some more technology time savers.

  32. Hailey Lynne McKeefry
    April 4, 2014

    @Wale, therte is a good lesson in your story…start with obvious and easy to fix and work your way to complex and difficult to address when trying to solve technological problems.

  33. Susan Fourtané
    April 5, 2014

    Hailey, 

    You feel there aren't enough hours in the day because there aren't enough hours in the day. 😀 That's my eternal problem, too. What kind of technology time savers are you looking for?

    -Susan  

  34. Eldredge
    April 7, 2014

    @Hailey – If time-saving technology has reached it's limit, maybe we need to go to a 30 hour day!

  35. Hailey Lynne McKeefry
    April 7, 2014

    @eldredge, you figure out how to do it and i'm in…as long as i don't have to use all the extra hours for work. 🙂

  36. Eldredge
    April 7, 2014

    @Hailey – Sadly, the best I've come up with is to redefine the hour to be 48 minutes long. Probably not too helpful.

  37. Hailey Lynne McKeefry
    April 29, 2014

    @Eldgredge, I appreciate the sentiment, but you are right…it probably doesn't attack the heart of the issue. Oh well, back to the drawing board. 🙂

  38. Adeniji Kayode
    October 22, 2014

    @ Susan, You are just one out of many people that does not buy rhe idea of having a Tv and so much dependant on the smart devices for everything.

  39. Susan Fourtané
    October 23, 2014

    Adeniji, For me, having a TV, especially today, is completely pointless. There is absolutely anything television could provide me with that I cannot find on the Internet. I always say I don't have enough time for doing all what I would like to do, watching television is not one of those things because I consider televison a waste of time and mostly, a tool for advertising and marketing. I have said many times that television is going to disappear. For that reason, manufacturers are looking at other applications for the TV set so they can continue manufacturing the product. -Susan

  40. Adeniji Kayode
    October 26, 2014

    @susan, I agree with you on that but what is your data consumption like?

  41. ahdand
    October 27, 2014

    @kayode: Exactly but what I feel is that if the consumption is high the risks are too high as well.

  42. Adeniji Kayode
    October 27, 2014

    Thats my thinking, I know video files and some other file formats use lots of data to download.

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