The Last Page

With Every Solution There's a Problem

By Dale Dougherty
Web Techniques Magazine
January 1999
Volume 4, Issue 1

Now these are the generations of the sons of Noah, Shem, Ham, and Japheth: and unto them were sons born after the flood. . . And the sons of Ham, Cush, and Mizraim, and Phut, and Canaan. . . And Cush begat Nimrod: he began to be a mighty one in the earth. And the beginning of his kingdom was Babel. (Genesis 10:1-10, bible.gospelcom.net)

Berners-Lee built an architecture to rise above the flood of information. And Mosaic begat Netscape. This was just the beginning of all kinds of problems we didn't even know about five years ago.

If you create something, you also create problems. New solutions beget new problems. The Tower of Babel can be traced back to Noah and any problem with your Web site can be linked to Tim Berners-Lee and Marc Andreessen.

A colleague who used to be head of research and development at a high-tech company took a job managing computer support services at a natural history museum. In his new place of work, users who experienced computer problems tended to walk away from them–they gave up. In his previous job, he worked with developers, and finding a glitch, bug, or snafu was practically cause for celebration. Like the Maytag repairman, for these folks a problem meant having something new and important to do.

It's a rule of life in the computing industry: Every problem is a golden opportunity. You really look for tough, interesting problems that can lead to a start-up dedicated to solutions.

This problem arrived via email: "If you want a prime example of a real 'bug,' try this sometime (actually PLEASE don't unless you have a full backup!). . . " Then I was told how to recreate a problem in NT that wipes out the registry if you create and then delete a root directory named "\Program." It adds: "This is just provided as public service information." Knowing how to reproduce a bug is the equivalent of knowing the secret behind a magic trick.

Ordinary people who use computers ask technical people questions and get answers that begin with "Yes, but. . ." They want to know if the computer will help them do something better or faster; and for many tasks, it will. The "but. . ." tries to temper their enthusiasm because each work of automation creates a new hidden level of complexity. For every improvement, there's a commensurate level of frustration and confusion. You know this as well as any prophet knows the future, and you can't keep it from happening.

My high-school-aged daughter recently "learned her lesson" about computers late on a Sunday night. She transferred her term paper to a floppy disk that turned out to be defective. With no backup, she was out of luck and came crying to me. I tried to figure out some kind of fix, but to no avail. "I never want to use a computer again," she screamed. "Why did it do that?"

This is one of those big life-and-death questions that you can't answer. I told her that it had happened to me before, but that was no consolation. I realized that coming of age today means coming to terms with the promise and the disappointment that is part of any relationship with a computer.

Retired people are having to come to this realization later in life. My father surprised me by going out and buying his first computer. He figured out what he needed, brought it home, and set it up himself. He got an Internet account but had trouble connecting to the service provider. He had a bad modem. He brought home another computer and made progress: He actually sent me his first email. Then he discovered that the sound card was bad and it caused the system to crash. That computer also went back in the box. I was amazed he was so patient in learning his lesson.

Recently, my brother called to ask about his furniture business: two stores in different states that use long distance lines to share data. He wanted to know if he could use the Internet to connect the two stores and reduce his phone bill. "Yes, but. . .," I began to answer. Sounds like a good idea but it's not necessarily simple. "We have UNIX computers," he adds. "I have a consultant telling me that UNIX computers can't access the Internet, that I need to buy a multiplexer." You have a problem with your consultant, I explained.

As I was writing this article, I learned that webreview.com was suddenly serving a three-week old issue. I was afraid we had lost data. I called our consultant, Nigel Hall. (It's the relative nature of being technical; to my relatives, I'm technical. To me, Nigel's technical.) Nigel found out what happened; some files had been overwritten. A production designer who will remain nameless (hi Kim!) ran an old program that mirrored data from an older production system to the public site. She was following an update procedure that had been replaced by a new, simpler procedure. The old program should have been disabled.

Soon, Nigel had restored the system. I asked him why we had to lose a whole morning to such problems. "They are meant to test you," he said. No matter how technical you are, you can be humbled.

We all have our scares–what the computer giveth, it can taketh away. With our intellectual assets more and more dependent on the Web, on networked computers, we seem as vulnerable as ever. Call this a pragmatist's view of progress: All things change but our life experience remains essentially the same; everywhere there are new problems.


Dale is the editor and publisher of Web Review and editorial director of Web Techniques. You can reach him at dale@webreview.com


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