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TECHNOLOGY IN PRACTICE

PERSONAL TECHNOLOGY WITH STEPHEN J. HARHAI

Some Maturity, Please!

If office servers are still having nervous breakdowns, can we really call that technological progress?

In the early days of the automobile, you had to be a pretty fair mechanic just to get behind the wheel. Not only did the cantankerous machines break down regularly, but even their basic operation required manually coordinating low-level engine functions such as ignition timing and the fuel-air mixture. We’ve come a long way to today’s highly reliable vehicles. They can even, through a laptop hookup, tell the mechanic what’s wrong with the engine or decide, in a millisecond, whether to protect us with an airbag.

That’s the life cycle of a maturing technology. It starts out with lots of cobbled-together pieces that sort of work, and then evolves into a more integrated, reliable system. I think it’s about time we had a little maturation in the law office computer.

Oops, Wrong Turn

I jumped on the office technology bandwagon at the Model T stage. We ran cable and installed network cards with hardware IRQ settings. It was a bear to get it working. But once it was running, it didn’t break.

After many evolutions, we arrived at the current amalgamation of hardware and software that brings us powerful document imaging and management, financial analysis, accounting and billing. The problem is that along the way, the whole system has gotten much more complicated and less reliable—the opposite of the way maturing technology ought to go.

A Case in Point, A Tale of Woe

A while back, my office’s main server started getting indigestion after rebooting. It would get a rumble in its tummy, think and grind for a while, then usually finish its bootup and get to work. After much tinkering and serious brain damage, we deduced that an operating system "feature" called The Installer (I think of it as what comes after The Terminator) had decided something was missing in our server setup. It never told us what was missing. It just kept looking and looking for the elusive missing part of the server’s existence so it could install it. Come to think of it, I’ve known people who have been in long-term therapy for much the same purpose. In any event, when the server became so overwhelmed by existential angst that it called upon The Installer for help, the poor server would become slow, unresponsive … in a word, depressed.

Life is not good around a depressed server. People talk softly and say prayers to avoid the machine’s potential ire. It soon became apparent that drastic measures were necessary. Nothing short of euthanasia would avoid the looming crisis.

When it came time to build the Brave New Box that would take over for the failing server, I realized that computer science had overtaken my ability to cope—at least in the available time. So I called in Wizards, I mean Technologists, to perform the rituals necessary to propitiate the gods and give Brave New Box an auspicious birth.

Alas, matters had deteriorated further than I suspected. Even the Technologists could not fully grasp the arcanum of transmuting the spirit of the dying domain controller into a new ruler of the domain. The only recourse was supplication to the Oracle of Microsoft, by means of the mystic "incident report." After the plea was passed up to the highest of the Engineers, the Great Secret was revealed.

I wish I could share it. But we swore in blood to maintain the Great Secret on penalty of further system crashes.

Forward We Must Tread

Where was I? Oh yes, mature technology. Mature technology is reliable and understandable. It performs its function with minimal need for "experts" to tweak and tune it.

We’ve got a long way to go.

Stephen J. Harhai (steve@harhai.com) practices family law in Denver, CO. He is the author of the Colorado Divorce Handbook site, www.COdivorce.com