Macs, a twinge of sympathy, and a New Year's Resolution

- by Paul Murphy, -

A few years ago the only IT system I wasn't responsible for at a $60 million per year company consisted of an SCO server with an ancient accounting application maintained by the remaining representative of the company that had originally sold it. At the time I thought old Vitki (not his real name) a fool and his protector in the Finance group a greater one, but an incident over Christmas left me with rather more sympathy for both of them than I'd ever managed to feel before because, for just a minute or two, I was made to feel some of their pain.

Old Vitki was a COBOL guy who had signing up somewhere in the eighties with a group that had the western Canadian marketing rights for an American accounting package running on SCO Xenix. Although he claimed to be a programmer he had, I believe, become first an installer and then an owner more or less by survival and so had first learned a bit of SCO Xenix and later transitioned to SCO Unix when Microsoft stopped selling Xenix.

Since it was a COBOL package, report printing was a critical function and he'd perforce become something of an expert on printing those reports; first to Centronics and other parallel impact printers, and later to HP PCL lasers.

Sometime toward the end of 95, however, "his" machine had died frequently enough that even the Finance director agreed something had to be done and I upgraded it to a shiny new HP Pentium Pro with an unheard of 32MB of memory while replacing its printer with a 16PPM QMS laser to match what I had in other offices. These had TCP/IP network capabilities and big buffers as well as the ability to act as line printers, PCL printers, or PostScript printers depending on the content of the incoming data stream. As a result I had evolved a standard set of printer aliases which, when installed on Accounting's new SCO box, enabled users to print reports directly in each of our offices around the country without bothering with mail, fax, or email transmission.

Vitki, however, threw a major hissy fit when it came to installing "his" software on the new box. Not only was I so incompetent as to to waste money on memory but I hadn't even ordered or installed the parallel cable needed to access the printer. Worse, I'd been so stupid as to put the printer too far from the server to work with the cable he had thoughtfully brought as a backup.

When he, protector and boss in tow, came to yell at me about this, I used my desktop Sun to print some pages from "his" SCO server - and further infuriated him by pointing out that the rest of the company had been using network printing for several years. Worse, I followed up by showing both Vitki's buddy and the company owner he'd dragged along to see my defeat, how printing accounting reports directly in the recipient's office could cut costs and turn around time compared to mailing printouts or retyping them into Excel and emailing the files.

He never accepted any of this. He knew how to set up printers; and any nonsense about using /dev/null for output was harrumph, not just incompetent but outright evil. Never mind that it's standard practice, that it clearly worked, or that installing a new emulation or page treatment consisted of running a simple interactive script; for more than two years he worked (and billed by the hour) until he had things just the way he knew they had to be -with a parallel cable, the printer locked firmly into PCL4 mode, and no more network printing from his software, thank you very much.

I was uncomfortably reminded of this man's pain by something my wife did over Christmas. Apropos of nothing at all, she asked me to print some digital Christmas photos taken at 1280 x 960 x 24.

I don't remember exactly what I said, probably a vague promise to do it later because I wasn't about to confess that I'd never tried to set my QMS Magicolor up to print photos - despite having had it and the gimp for upwards of three years now.

She, of course, didn't let me get away with this: "just let me use your printer," she said.

Well, I knew that wouldn't work first because it takes a lot to get the color sync just right and more importantly because a 1280 x 960 image takes 1.06 x 0.8 inches to print on a 1200 DPI laser if you don't interpolate a lot of the information needed for a full page image.

So when she plugged her Mac into my office network, had to ask me for her password so she could copy the the photos from my machine, and then sent a large number of them to the printer in one batch, I knew I had her. I mean, she hadn't even asked for the setup guide or done a test print and I know she doesn't have a clue what the postscript rendering model is, never mind how to manipulate it.

The results were humiliating: the prints were superlative, my warnings silly, and my expertise not just superfluous, but obviously questionable. Vitki really could harrumph, I can't, but you understand why I was reminded of him; I mean, there I was vacuuming the house in disgrace before the dinner guests arrived instead of happily demonstrating great expertise playing with the gimp and various printer settings. Harrumph!

Having been warned several times to "be nice," I enjoyed the dinner but sat out the vapid inconsequentialities that pass for conversation among the literacy, thinking instead about just how insanely great the Mac really is and making up a new resolution for this year.

I bought that printer used, and before MacOS X came into existence. Nevertheless, the Mac found it on the network, "knew" how to drive it, and did a perfect job with absolutely no effort - or knowledge - on the user's part. It may not be an expert system, but it certainly has embedded expertise and demonstrates, I think, how open standards mesh with creative thinking to set the direction software has to go.

Embarrassingly, the incident also demonstrated the direction I have to go: so here's my resolution for this year: I promise to display a lot more empathy next time I deal with someone whose hard won expertise has been rendered obsolete by technical change.

Paul Murphy wrote and published The Unix Guide to Defenestration. Murphy is a 20-year veteran of the IT consulting industry.