It Don't Compute

I was recently called on by an old friend who needed my help with something.

Turns out that a program I had written for his business almost 15 years ago had locked up on his computer system and he needed me to help get it going again.

He didn't know enough about it to give me any details but only said they were in the middle of renovations and something got screwed up.

First of all, I was shocked to hear that after all these years, he was still even using that old system. Secondly, amazed that it hadn't ever bombed or crashed in all these years (even through Y2K) and thirdly, when I arrived at his business, was amused to discover that amid his multitudes of modern, shiny new, slick, state-of-the-art, black computer terminals and screens that he had peppered everywhere, there sat an old dusty, yellowed 14" monitor and beneath it, a dinosaur of a computer to run it. It was still connected by the thin black wire that snaked its way out the room to the very back corner of his business somewhere, to another similar little computer in another office there. Inside of all that was my program that he used for his inventory system --- the original setup.

He had just been renovating his business place and the crew had re-routed the black network cable through new, different walls and ceilings and somehow in the course of that, the program on these ancient computers had ceased working.

In a way I suppose I was slightly flattered that after all these years he still preferred to stick with my little program instead of moving on to some other modern package. But at the same time I was also a bit frightened. It had been years since I had written the programming code, all the support routines and protocols for that program and have long since moved on to more sophisticated and advanced languages and systems. I had only the faintest memory of what I had written in there and wondered if I would even remember a single thing about its function by now, if I had to get into it to fix a problem.

It's kinda like trying to remember what you had for breakfast on the 16th day, of the 3rd month of your 8th year as a kid. You're pretty certain you had something but not the darndest idea what.

I had created that system back when you certainly couldn't go into a store like Staples or Office Depot and buy an accounting/invoicing/inventory program like QuickBooks or something similar at all. Computers back then, at that time, were still a novelty to businesses. I had written a program for him, custom designed according to his style of business and had installed it all on a small BNC based, two computer network.

Anyway, I went to his place and took a look around at things and soon wondered to myself why one of the computer experts he had had in over the years to install the piles of computer gear he now used hadn't simply moved my system onto this modern network of terminals that were set up all over the place.

I guess everyone who came into his place to install and upgrade equipment since then, would look at the little system and simply advise that since it ran every day without problem and wasn't ever broken, just leave it be to continue on in its own little world. Why mess with something that isn't broken they figured? Maybe leery, not understanding the architecture of the system, to be the ones to move the system over only to discover it might then happen to not work properly or at all? (The file directories and relationships in any database based system are intimidating just to look at, let alone understand).

But for whatever reason, the little yellowing, 2-computer-network had managed to avoid death all these years and just chugged along doing its inventory thing... until now.

So I went about diagnosing and as it turns out, I quickly discovered that while re-stringing things, the renovation crew had simply lost one of the terminators on the BNC connector. This is not a good thing for a little BNC network. Nobody noticed this or understood it so when it was all hooked up again to the best of their knowledge, the whole system would cycle endlessly while initializing, trying to 'see' the network but couldn't and wasn't able to move past this stage. Stuck in a loop forever.

When I noticed this, I thought for a second of simply moving the inventory system onto the big, modern network --- problem would be fixed and inventory system even kind of upgraded in the process. I was very tempted, but as I stood there I smiled to myself and thought that such a dinosaur deserves to live its life in dignity within the framework of its original environment. It just seemed more poetic and romantic to me to restore the old system in its old carcass hardware and fire it all up again, in it's original glory --- a little flame of computer-past, alive and kicking amid the rush and roar of progress. If anyone happened to ask I could just make up little white lies that my software was so ancient it couldn't possibly work with new computer configurations and networks. No one there would question that.

So no problem, I thought. I'll just grab a new terminator for the connector from a store and restore the system. Well, guess what? It's 2007. You can't find such a thing in stores anymore! Not for years apparently. As I phoned around, if I happened to actually find a techie in a computer department who actually knew what a BNC cable was, they'd laugh. Others thought I was just talking gibberish and would hang up fearfully at the perceived prank call.

So I left and went home to look in old junk boxes of computer gear I had stashed in the basement years ago as they had become obsolete. After an hour long search I found a single old BNC connector in the bottom of a box with the terminator still attached to it. Later on I returned to his business, installed it onto the network line and soon had his trusty old buddy fired up again.

He shook my hand, asked how much? I smiled and said it's no charge of course.

For a second I wanted to confess what I had done and tell him that he could indeed simply move his beloved system onto his hot, fancy network, but I caught myself and didn't.

I left there thinking to myself about the amazing advances in technology that I hadn't noticed so clearly until I saw that tired, lonely, yellowing computer sitting amid that sea of black and chrome, wide-screen, splashy monitors, glowing keyboards and wireless mouses.

Here was a system that worked just fine for his purposes. Buddy was comfortable with it and it remained dependable.

It led me to wondering as I drove home. Why is it that we, in our society, always discard perfectly good things for the next 'best', 'bigger', 'better'? We're constantly upgrading to a better house, better car, better wife, better husband, better clothes, better job, better friends. We throw away a computer that we only use to browse the internet and write a couple letters on because there is a 'faster' one in the store with shinier paint.

Keeping up with Jonesís has a lot to do with it I think. We're victims of suggestion and marketing? We just don't appreciate the things already around us enough probably? We've become so affluent it's now easy for us to be frivolous with possessions and money? We always think the grass is greener elsewhere? It's just human nature?

I don't know.

What I do know is that it was nice to see my buddy with his sense of loyalty to his little computer.
To me it's almost touching actually, in some strange techno-emotional sort of way, to see that little 'being' pumping away dependably and proudly in the midst of the glamourous, dazzling machines around it...

It all made me smile ---- maybe there's hope for me yet...



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