Monday, October 16, 2006

When small things fail

Yesterday I had one of those funny days where things line up to make you ponder technology. Let me tell you about the day, and then you can tell me what you think.

Here is how the day started. I woke up, sat down to check some email, and there was a power failure that lasted about 5 seconds. Just a blip really. The computer was fine because it is on a UPS. But within about 2 minutes I noticed that the internet was gone. So I looked down at the cable modem on the floor and noticed that it was dead. No blinking lights. No lights at all. Not good if your goal is to check email. Replacing a cable modem on a Sunday morning would not be easy.

But as it turned out, it was not the cable modem. The problem traced back to another UPS hidden in a back corner of the office. This UPS is meant to keep the phone infrastructure on the Brain household intact in the event of a power failure. There are 4 devices served by this UPS:
  1. The cable modem
  2. The wireless router/hub/firewall that distributes internet throughout the house
  3. The Vonage box that provides phone service
  4. The cordless phone base, which services the 4 cordless phones we have in our home.
In a power failure, if all 4 of those parts have power, we can still make phone calls (assuming the cable TV network remains alive). So the UPS is big enough to keep those 4 things powered for more than an hour. Plenty of time to get a generator going in a long power failure.

However, the technology installed to prevent a problem has instead created a problem.

The battery in that UPS had died. A light on the UPS's front panel indicated the problem. But when the battery died, the UPS took itself completely out of service -- even with power flowing to the UPS, the UPS no longer provided power to its devices. So the entire network in our home died.

One solution would be to replace the battery, but that was not possible. Instead I bought a new UPS yesterday. Total time wasted on this problem and the solution? About 2 hours (trace back the problem, dig the UPS out of its corner, diagnose the problem, see if the battery is easily replaceable (no), buy a new UPS, install its software, replug everything, test...)

Next task for the day -- back up the computer. This is something that should be happening automatically, but it had been failing during the week and I had been unable to figure out why. The backup would start and then mysteriously fail halfway through. Long story short -- the backup device refuses to handle files over 2 GB in size. I had created several files larger than that with a recent video project. It is a fairly new device and should not have this problem. Can't return it because I've been using it for several weeks and don't have any of the packaging anymore. Now what? It took about an hour to figure out what was wrong. More time will be spent trying to debug that with the manufacturer, and probably replacing the device.

So, I went to work on the lawn. But there is no gas for the mower. I remember this as I try to add gas to the mower, recalling that last time I used the mower I also used the last of the gas. Off to the gas station to buy one gallon of gas.

I also want to use the little rototiller we have. The kids have killed all the grass under their swing set (the good news - they actually use the swing set!) and it needs to be reseeded. The rototiller is an easy way to get the soil ready for the seeds. The tiller works for about 10 minutes, but then the shaft falls apart. It turns out that there was a little set screw in the shaft no bigger than a pea holding the shaft together. This screw has wiggled loose and fallen out, and no doubt has been tilled into the soil in the rototiller's dying gasp. No hope of finding the old screw, but without the old one it will be an interesting challenge to buy a new one. So that project got stalled too, by a tiny 5 cent screw.

One way to look at this: There are many people on the planet dying of starvation or dying of cancer who would dream about having such mundane and petty problems. I should be thankful I am alive to have these problems. And I am.

Another way to look at it: Why can't things just work?

Another way: You sure waste a lot of time on stupid little problems like this. Is technology a boon or more trouble than it is worth?

But here is the way I ended up looking at it. David (my son) and I have been watching (in little bits and pieces) this 3-DVD box set on Apollo 11 -- the first flight to the moon. If you like history it is great -- it shows the assembly of the Saturn 5, the preparation for launch, the launch, the flight to the moon, the landing, all the EVA footage, the return, etc. And David is doing a school project on Apollo 11 so it's been really helpful.

As you watch the DVDs you realize that they were using so many new technologies on that mission... So much of what they used had not existed at all 10 years earlier -- space suits, space capsules, rocket engines, launch and landing vehicles, etc. No one had even been in space in 1960, yet we stood on the moon in 1969.

The other thing you realize is that there were so many things that could have gone wrong... The mind boggles. I had 4 things go wrong today, and I live a pretty simple life, all things considered. One little screw falls out on the moon, though -- two guys die and history is completely rewritten. It's amazing that it all worked so perfectly. I wonder how many people worked how many hours to make that mission go so flawlessly. Humans can be awesome when we put our minds to it.

These things come under the heading of Gumption Traps: things which cause you to lose your enthusiasm for a project.

If that doesn't ring a bell for you, the reference is to Robert Persig: "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance," wherein is described this all-too-common energy black hole. Briefly, the idea is that you decide to rebuild your motorcycle (substitute: rototill the yard, read email, etc.) You empty your garage so you have plenty of room and carefully take the bike apart, placing all associated pieces (e.g. all the bolts for the manifold) in separated containers.

Finally, you start to put it back together, but it turns out you need one small additional part. But it's Sunday, so you can't get it. Then it's the week and you're working. You're away the next weekend and your mother-in-law visits the following week. Then you have to get something from the garage, so things get pushed together and suddenly parts are mixed. Then you can't find the right wrench for the bolt which is now lost and you don't know the right size ... well, you get the idea.

In a mix of desperation and depression, you lose your gumption and the project remains scattered across your garage for indeterminite amounts of time, possibly measured on a geologic time scale.

Gumption Trap.
"Another way to look at it: Why can't things just work?"

"It just works" funny enough, thats one of Apple's selling points.
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