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Geek for Life
by Thomas Myer

I'm really feeling burned. It's a Monday, it's raining, and I've just spent over three hundred bucks on a dud: a palmtop that was supposed to raise my productivity. Supposed to. For the first week that I'd owned it, nothing had worked on it:
Not the batteries that had shipped with it.
Not the synchronization software that allowed my laptop to share data with the palmtop.
Not even the serial cable that connected the laptop to the palmtop.

And to make things worse, all the little chickenshit things I was doing to get things working (like stalking sys admins for copies of NT Service Pack 3 -- you don't wanna know) had caused my tardiness to or outright absence from several meetings. Plus I was getting really sick of trying to untangle the tortured prose in both the user's guide and the unhelpful dialog boxes. Plus I'd rebooted the laptop 46 times since buying the palmtop. You could say that my hackles were out this far.

Why do my interactions with technology always boil down to the banal? Am I cursed? Have the machine-gods cast aspersions on my lineage? I remember stories from my father, who worked on the UNIVAC computer in the early 60s, about spending hours tracking down a badly misbehaving vacuum tube. Fortunately, though, I can see copious evidence that others are burdened with similar curses:

A fellow technical writer is periodically afflicted by a mouse that literally goes haywire -- the cursor scoots around the screen under its own power, all the while opening applications left and right. The only solution? Shutdown and restart.
A Java application that I frequently use (name of program withheld) will occasionally crash upon initial startup. If I merely restart it, everything is fine, and I can go about my business. I can just imagine the frustration of the application's programmers and testers.
And on a larger note, entire cadres of Y2K programmers swim around in the source codes of thousands (if not hundreds of thousands) of utilities and programs, looking for date calculations that might cause system-wide crash and burn.

Vacuum tubes, serial cables, date calculations. For want of a nail, the horse was lost, and etcetera.

In science fiction, of course, we see characters interact with recalcitrant technology all the time. The misbehaving technology is usually not trivial (i.e., a palmtop), but rather central to the survival of the character herself, or even of the entire human race. And usually -- but not always -- the good guys win. They don't file bug notices, or grit their teeth and commit tedious workarounds to memory. They just win.

For example, in Empire Strikes Back, Han Solo and Chewbacca struggle throughout the film to get the Millennium Falcon's hyperdrive working again. Without the last-minute fix, our heroes would have been caught up in Lord Vader's trap.

And in the seminal Star Trek episode "Galileo 7", Spock, McCoy, Scotty and other crew members feverishly try to repair and refuel their downed shuttlecraft before they are exterminated by a Stone Age tribe of gigantic simians.

You get the initial impression that the characters are struggling against something colossal -- a threat to existence. However, I'm sure that if you peeked beneath the hood of the Falcon's ion drive, or into the guts of the Galileo shuttlecraft, you'd probably discover that a burned-out chip or frayed wire was the cause of all the havoc.

And if our seemingly indestructible heroes in our constructed fictions have to be wary of every little glitch -- and be able to apply their ingenuity and know-how to fix the problem -- then we sure as hell had better become more savvy (translation: more geek-like). And that's regardless of our job functions. There is an old saying in the UNIX world that every UNIX user is by default a UNIX system administrator -- which leads to the inevitable: "But how good a system administrator?"

It seems that for now, instead of running our lives and careers with tools that are transparent to us, we must all become somewhat adept at piercing the intricacies of our tools. Every office has at least one Microsoft Word wiz, able to get around the most stubborn problem. There are also other "power users" who can debug and set aright an application that has just shredded hours of their own or someone else's work.

A long time ago, when I was a lot younger, I felt that the increasing pace of technological change would cause humanity to reach some kind of Pan-Discord, a Techno Tower of Babel, if you will, with myriad groups divided from each other because of a lack of a common language or experience. I see now that I was wrong to be concerned -- we do have a common bond: we simply want to get some work done. And that usually means getting around the obstacles placed in our ways by buggy technology.

There is a happy ending to my own story, of course. But it involved another wasted day of reloading, rebooting, and lots of muttered curses. And now everything works just fine -- I get to carry my electronic conscience wherever I go, and it dutifully reminds me of all my appointments, obligations, and tasks -- yes, including this column.

Now if I could only get it to turn a blind eye while I goofed off.....

Copyright © 1999 by Thomas Myer

Thomas Myer

Thomas Myer is a technical writer with Cisco Systems, Inc. He is a Contributing Editor with the SF Site and has been writing reviews and articles here since early 1997. He claims he divides his time between reading, writing, and doing research. More of Tom's opinions can be found in the SF Site Insite Archive.

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