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I’ve had to drive across the country a few times, and I have to tell you, in my experience, there is no more desolate place to drive than across North Dakota. Understand, that doesn’t mean it *is* the most desolate place, but it’s the most desolate I’ve experienced.

This day, we’ll call it ‘a few years ago’, I was coming back home after finishing Grad School, headed west out of Fargo. I left the Motel 6, filled up the tank, got an Egg McMuffin and a big ol’ cup of coffee, and hit the onramp to I-94. I went through first, second, third and into fourth, where I stayed for most of the next 460 miles.

After leaving Fargo, the countryside was absolutely flat, the road arrow straight, and I remembered that my dad had told me about countryside like this, where, as he said, it was so desolate that it was 100 miles between fence posts.

I was seeing it with my own eyes, and he was right.

I think, though, they might have planted a few more since he’d gone through to keep the fences up during the brutal winters up there. I didn’t have to worry about the winter, though. I was driving in the late spring, and was, for whatever reason, driving what appeared to be the only car on the road. There were spots where I literally saw no one else. Not through the windshield, not in the mirrors…

No one.

At least I had the radio to keep me company…

…until that, too, faded out.

So I’m driving along, about 70 mph, it was the speed limit, and it was a comfortable speed for the car –

(which for some reason had been ordered with Ford’s venerable 2.3 liter 4 cylinder engine AND a 4 speed manual, (normally reserved for their larger six cylinder engines). By the time you got up to speed on this thing, it hardly even thought of gasoline.)

– but the road was so straight I found myself looking for something to just lock the steering wheel to.

In fact, as I was looking around, I tried to see if there was anything to catch my eye, to see if I could have something to focus on as I was driving, but there was nothing.

At all.

No cows.

No Antelope.

No Wapiti. (oh, go look it up J)

And no, no fenceposts.

On top of that, there was nothing but static on the radio.


I had never seen so much nothing in all my life.

I did not know that nothing was manufactured in such large quantities, or how North Dakota had become the recipient of so much of it.

I figure it must have been some congressional thing or something, but after a while, I’d exhausted all the variations of geography (flat), geology (none), wildlife (none), and politics (not even going there).

I’d been driving for roughly 4 hours, and something that rarely, if ever, happens in my life happened…

I got bored.

I think it is at this time that my Guardian Angel’s pager went off.

It is astonishing the kinds of things that happen when you’re bored. I’m sure a surprising number of teenage adventures happen by default, simply because those teenagers were bored.

I wasn’t a teenager, but I was driving.

Through North Dakota.

And I was bored.

I looked around for something to do.

(Keep in mind, for some silly reason I was thinking that keeping 3,000 pounds of car and all my worldly possessions between the lines apparently wasn’t enough “to do”)

I found, after a while, I could just hold the wheel rock steady, and it would drive for close to a minute without me having to move it at all.

I found that the need to do anything (steering right or left) was preceded by either the right front tire hitting the rumble strip on the right, or left front tire smacking the reflectorized turtles between the lines.

Heh… I could drive by braille.

<One note: don’t do this at home. In fact, don’t do this in North Dakota. They might get a little miffed. What follows next is about as far from smart as I was from civilization. I don’t recommend that you do this at all, the fact that I managed to survive through this doesn’t mean everyone will, so you have permission to laugh at youthful idiocy, but not to repeat it.>

So, being bored out of my mind, I decided to do something to pass the time, and snagged a book out of the back seat. I remember it still – the book was called ‘Enola Gay’ – and was a historical book written by, if my memory serves me correctly, the pilot of the plane, Col. Paul Tibbets. At any rate, I propped the book up against the steering wheel to see if this whole thing would work, and found that I could read and see where I was going through my peripheral vision. It did work!

The book that set off my Guardian Angel's pager.

The book that set off my Guardian Angel’s pager.

Understand, it was stupid, but it worked.

My Guardian Angel realized that this wasn’t a drill, and that he needed to get there in a hurry.

I drove a little slower than speed limit, and did a scan of everything, windshield, mirrors, gauges, every few seconds. I was still the only car on the road, so felt relatively safe. I drove for miles, reading chapter after chapter, holding the book onto the steering wheel with my thumbs, and flipping it down a bit when I noticed (key word there) another car passed me.

This worked beautifully.

Until at one point, being engrossed in the story, and driving below speed limit, I completely missed the big Cadillac coming up in my rear view mirror.

I would have flipped the book down, holding it so the other people couldn’t see it, but just didn’t see them in time.

I looked up just in time to see an elderly gentleman and woman in the car looking over at me with a look of utter horror and revulsion, her face telling me exactly what she felt, without her mouth ever having said a word.

Her face clearly said the one thing that had completely escaped me when I came up with the idea of reading a book while I was driving a car, that in the grand scheme of things where you have stupid on one side and genius on the other – what I’d done clearly wasn’t on the genius side.

It was only after they passed and I saw their tail lights getting smaller in the distance that it all seemed to sink in. I tossed the book in the back seat, and noticed that my Guardian Angel was giving me a look you don’t want to get from your Guardian Angel.

I think, given that a few years have passed since this happened, I understand that look of hers a lot more now than I did then. And now that I have a little bit of that gray hair, if I saw a young kid reading a book while they were driving, I’d probably be the one giving it…

…and I’ve tried a little harder to keep my Guardian Angel’s pager from going off.


I was talking to someone about being an “expert” at something, and strangely, I’ve found myself accused of being an “expert” too – which just wigs me out no end.  I just don’t think of myself as an expert, but I’ve learned I’m in the minority on that.   I mean, I do my job to the best of my ability, people ask me questions, and I do my best to answer them.

The thing is, sometimes they have no idea how close they’ve come to a sheepish look and an “I don’t know.”  It is at these times that the ability to think fast and type faster has been a great asset.

Come to think of it, the rather strong reluctance to say “I don’t know” to someone is pretty much part of it, too.  If someone asks me a question, I’m going to do my best to get them an answer, in part because it’s my job, in part because it’s who I am…

I remember one place I worked, a fellow in came up to my cubicle with the guiltiest look I’d ever seen – if he’d been a dog, his tail would have been so far between his legs he’d have been able to nibble on it.  He’d done something wrong – muffed something up pretty bad, and he needed me to fix it.  The reason he came to me was because I was “the expert” and he asked me this question about a problem that I absolutely, positively, honestly, had no idea how to solve.

I’d never heard of it, never seen it, and never thought about it.

In fact, in all the years of my life, I’d devoted precisely zero percent of my brain space to this problem.

But he didn’t know that.

And he wasn’t going to know that.

After listening to him describe what he’d done, I gave him a big sigh, “the look” and swung around in my chair to try to figure out how to fix it.

I called up Books Online (the database reference material I needed) and muttered something about “let me see if I can remember the syntax for this thing…” while I found out precisely how to do what it was he needed to have done.

While I was looking, and typing, I was just constantly flipping him crap about what it was he’d done that he needed me to fix, in essence, gently chastising him for muffing up whatever he’d muffed up, but all the while, doing everything I could do to make sure the problem he came to me with was solved.  The thing is, this whole ‘flipping of crap’ stuff – it’s what I do with folks, it’s disarming.  They realize I’m joking a bit, but they’re just off balance enough to not be completely sure, until – well, we’ll get back to that…

So while I was flipping him crap, I fixed his problem, and swung back around and looked at him “sternly” and told him, “Now go away or I shall have to taunt you a second time…” (a la Monty Python)

Then, figuring the problem was solved, I turned around and went back to the work he’d interrupted when he walked up.

But I noticed a shadow on my cubicle wall – and realized that while he’d stepped outside my cubicle, he’d stayed there and hadn’t moved.

Now one of the things I’ve always done with folks is just – as I said, flip them crap about anything.  Often folks tend to put the DBA’s (Database Administrators) on such a pedestal, with the whole ‘bowing’ thing and the ‘I’m not worthy’ thing (also a la Monty Python).  (okay, I made that part up, deal with it… :).  Sometimes it drives me just this side of nuts – but I have fun with it… I rarely if ever get angry at folks at work, because I’ve been around long enough to realize I am fully capable of doing something stupid – I mean, I’m human, it comes with the territory.  My gosh, having the system administrator’s password or being in an administrator’s group only allows me to apply this human stupidity to more machines, far more efficiently, at any given time than they can – so I’ve learned to be very, very careful.  But because of this, I just accept that things happen, help them fix it when they muff things up, and then try to teach them how not to do it again. However, whenever someone does something exquisitely stupid, I tend call them a butthead.  I didn’t realize it – but over time, it turned out that being called a butthead by Tom had become a coveted thing, of all things, a badge of honor…


If I called them a butthead, then all was right in the world.

If I didn’t, there was this inequality, this buildup of tension that they couldn’t get past, and they thought I was mad at them, and they literally cowered when they came to me the next time.

It was so weird…

So this time – I just went back to work and forgot about it until I noticed that shadow and the fellow standing outside my cubicle, clearly nervous that he’d done something very, very bad.

Not knowing what was going on, I looked at him… “What?” (said still using my ‘stern’ persona)

“You didn’t call me a butthead…” (said with all the boldness of a whipped puppy)


“Oh… right…‘Butthead!’”

And he smiled, you could actually see the stress melt off him, and he walked, no, floated away, totally content, his knowledge reinforced that Tom Knew Everything, and that Tom WASN’T mad at him.

And when it comes to communication, either at home or at work – if people, for whatever reason, are only afraid of you – you just won’t be as effective as you can be.

People need to respect you, but they also need to feel comfortable around you.  Much to my surprise, Craig’s (yes, Craig, this one’s for you) nervousness when he came up to me showed me how much he respected me, and the way he melted when I called him a butthead showed me that while he was respectful, he was also comfortable enough to ask for help when he needed it

And I’m okay with that.

Yes, I know it’s Thursday as I write this.  However, this is ‘Patch Tuesday’ week – where all the monthly patches from a certain software vendor a little east of Seattle get pushed out and we have to apply them to all the servers at work.  It’s a lot of work, a lot of musical servers, and a lot of ‘hurry up and wait’.

It’s during those ‘wait’ moments that I find myself pondering things – and found myself going way back to some computers I saw a long time ago, in a data center far, far away…

A number of years ago – when the electrons in our computers were still young and frisky, I took a college class in data processing.  One of the things we did during that time was go to the Washington State Computing Center in Olympia to see how real data was processed in huge amounts.

I remember them showing us one of the first laser printers – and talking about how it could print 21,000 lines per minute.  It took many pages just to get it up to speed, and then it was like a very, very fast freight train… it would print statements, bills, invoices – whatever was needed – in astonishing amounts at blinding speed.  One of the things the operators had to be careful of was simply keeping enough paper in it.  Just like it took a while to get up to speed – it took a while to slow down, and running out of paper with this thing was a bad thing.

I remember walking past some of the computer terminals, which, at the time, looked like many other computer terminals – amber text on a black background.  They didn’t look much different than the Apple IIe’s we’d been programming on in class (other than the color of the type).

The keyboards back then were the ones that IBM made during the transition from manual typewriters to what we know now as a keyboard.  On these keyboards you had to push the keys pretty hard – and they’d click, both on the way down, and on the way up.

Typing on one of those keyboards was actually almost as loud as typing on a typewriter, and because you got two loud clicks for every keystroke, absolutely anyone sounded fast, even if they were typing with two fingers.

They took us to a room that was full of about 50 disk drives.

And I know, just know, there are some of you wondering how a room can be full of 50 disk drives.  Either the drives are really big, or the room is really small…

It was the first one.  The drives themselves – the motors – were in this casing a little bigger than a dorm room refrigerator – about waist high.  The disks themselves were stacks of disks in dark plastic housings – you could actually see the disks through that housing, and the disks were stacked 17 high inside it– and were about 18 inches in diameter.

There were, as I remember, three lights on each one – a green one, a white one, and a little red one.  The white one was lit constantly for power, and as I recall, the green one was – well, if it was green and on, it was a good thing, and as I recall, the little red one was when it was actually reading or writing.

We were told that you could store the name and address of every man, woman, and child in the state on one of them three times and still not run out of room.

It seemed like a lot at the time.

And then we went back to the terminals, and the person leading the tour showed us the power in those terminals.  She said there were about 500 of them around the state at the time – and when someone made a request on one of them, asking for an address, for example, the information would come through a dedicated telephone or telecom line to the data center we were in, it would hit the computer, which would look up the information on those drives we’d just seen, and then send the answer back to the person who’d made the original request.  You could actually see it sometimes, where this wave of little red lights flickered on for a split second as the request worked its way through the system.

Total time for this? – well, depending on the request, the answer could take anywhere from a couple of seconds to minutes.  Complex requests took longer, and you could tell when one of them came, in – a lot of red lights would go on – and it was almost like a little game of electronic volleyball as the information moved back and forth, until all the problems that question was supposed to answer were indeed answered, and then you could see the lights flicker again as the answer was sent out.

It was a pretty neat thing to watch.

And then the person leading the tour told us one thing that sounded so casual that we didn’t realize its importance until much later.  We walked back to the computers – at the time we didn’t know the difference between a computer and a terminal – and we were told that if the terminals weren’t hooked up or dialed into the mainframe we were looking at, then they were simply dumb terminals, that’s what she called them.  They only had the power that they had inside themselves, they didn’t have the power of this entire data center that was dedicated  to doing nothing but solving the problems these 500 terminals sent in all day, every day.

She told us about how, once a connection was made, it was better to keep the connection open than to close it and try to reopen.  If you did that – the terminal would have to resynchronize itself with the mainframe computer – and there’d be a lot of data moving back and forth just trying to do that, before you could actually get any work done.

The longer the terminal was off, the longer it took to get back in sync, so even in those days when time on telephone and data transmission lines was expensive, it was still cheaper to leave them on than to use the incredibly precious time on the mainframe computer just to get the terminals in sync – so the terminals were, for the most part left on, and connected to the mainframe.

Let’s move forward a few years.

I now work at a job where I spend my days with computers, irritating electrons all over the world, and once a month, we get what are called “patches” – little fixes to programs where – well, just think of patching a pair of jeans.  Either someone made a hole, found a hole, or wore a hole into the jeans, so you patch them.  Same thing with software, only instead of patching with needle the patching is done with herds of electrons, and they come from the company that created the software in the first place.

The patches can be pretty tricky sometimes, and it’s good to keep things maintained.

Every now and then something falls through the cracks, or a computer (we just call them boxes) either isn’t able or isn’t set to connect to the net to get all the patches, and then things get weird.

The software on the box, because it hasn’t been able to connect to its creator, has not been patched, and has weaknesses that other boxes don’t have.

The box is out of sync.

The box is no longer synchronized with its source, and the whole process involves the box checking in with the creator, the box and the creator finding out what’s wrong, and what’s right, and then fixing what’s wrong and affirming what’s right.

I talked to a friend about all this, and we came to the conclusion that this was a lot like any communication in any relationship.

Whether it’s a relationship between machines, or between people, or even if it’s a relationship between you and God, check in often.  Make sure you understand the other person, make sure you’re being understood.  Don’t assume that because you think everything’s hunky dory that it actually is.

At work, we had one box just like this – it had been up and running for 461 days without being patched.  While this is a testament to the way the box was built, and the software running on it, there was a problem. The box thought everything was hunky dory, but at the same time, the box was well over a year out of sync, and the time it took to patch that one server was absolutely agonizing.  I had to patch some, then reboot the box, and patch more, and reboot again for the better part of a day get the box back into sync, but it would be in fits and starts, and it would be very, very hard, sometimes tenuous where you weren’t sure if you’d be able to get the box back up again.  I ran into one box where I simply couldn’t patch it at all.  It’d been out of sync – or out of compliance for so long, that there simply wasn’t room on the box to do the patching without rebuilding the entire box.

That was rough.

It made me realize that even though it takes time, patching works much better when it’s done in little steps, and done consistently, and continually.  Conversely, the longer the space is between times that you communicate, the longer it takes to get back into sync, and sometimes that can be enormously challenging, whether that’s talking about servers at work, or relationships with people.

And that’s rougher.

He was dressed in rugged, but ragged clothes, the kind you find yourself wearing when you don’t have the opportunity to clean them, and you don’t have a comfortable place to sit down.

I managed to squeeze in next to him, his duffel bag taking up part of the aisle on the bus, and as we sat there, gently bouncing off each other with each bump of the road.

I looked at that overstuffed bag.  It looked like it had all his worldly possessions in it.

He asked the driver about where to get off – and in the 5 minutes left, we talked.

The bag did indeed have all his worldly possessions in it.  His house had burned down.

He’d had a demolition business, but that had, for lack of a better word, imploded with the economy.

He’d moved in with his kids, but he realized that this was their time, they had their own children, their own families, and so he was staying at a shelter.  Oh, he’d visit them every now and then, but he kept a respectful distance, to allow them the room they needed in this time in their lives.

He said he’d take anything for work, but right now there just wasn’t anything.

The bus stopped.

He got off.

And walked toward the shelter he knew was there.

Tom Roush

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January 2011
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