Technology is great, except when it isn't


Nothing sucks the productivity out of a day at work quite as much as spending the first half of it under one’s desk, wiggling wires.

I know you’re all on tenterhooks, wondering “but what about those adventures in software installation? He got halfway through the backup process and then gave up! I was waiting for a long, lovingly detailed description of the entire reinstall process, complete with slapstick sound effects for every data-vaporizing error!”

Halfway the backup process is precisely as far as I got, in fact. I rapidly became mired in essentially unanswerable questions — would it be better to use the default Apache, or upgrade to v2 to match my live webserver? Should I upgrade MySQL to go along with Apache, even though I’m unable to do so on the live server? Wouldn’t I really rather be playing Warcraft than watching progress bars slowly crawl across the screen? — and decided that maybe my computer hadn’t been acting as badly as I had convinced myself it was, and that I could get away without a full reinstall.

Nonsense, obviously. The 10.4.2 update actually did seem to help, a bit: at least I can copy and paste into Illustrator without crashing it now (though when problems are intermittent anyway, you can never really be sure whether they’re fixed or just biding their time.) But I’m still in a situation most geeks will find familiar:

No computer used for anything more complicated than email and word processing works perfectly. There’s always some minor annoyance that doesn’t perform as desired, or some small problem that you can’t quite find the cause of. But you discover workarounds, little rituals that either avoid the problem or make it go away for a while: always launch this program before you start that one; if this other one fails to start, run this shell script to reset it; if the wireless network goes down you can usually start it up again by toggling the preferences from X to Y and back to X again; if the satellite network goes down you have to unplug it, touch the wire to the side of the filing cabinet, and plug it back in again; when this disk doesn’t mount you have to reboot the machine twice, once with it unplugged, once with it plugged in but turned off. And so on.

A friend of mine calls this “magic chicken bone debugging.” You don’t know what’s really wrong, or how to fix it, and it’s probably caused by a bug in compiled software you can’t modify anyway — but you know that if you wave a magic chicken bone over the machine in just the right way, the problem generally goes away for a while. Probably two-thirds of each ritual doesn’t really have anything to do with the problem, it’s just extra stuff you happened to do when you stumbled across the solution, but with intermittent problems it can be difficult to tell which part is actually doing what you need so you go through the whole ritual every time. (Software is deterministic, there’s no such thing as an intermittent problem. But they happen all the time.) And the more of these rituals you figure out, the more of them you need, until you’re spending nearly as much time wiggling wires as actually doing work.