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February 2002

Computer Shunts
by Brian Dunning

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Not long ago, I had felt driven nearly to insanity by the constant crashing of OS 9 and Windows applications, and by the not-quite-there-yet ability to switch completely to the tantalizing stability of OS X.

But I recently acquired a new lease on life. I had been old, gray, weary of a crashing operating system and its trials, and prepared to lay myself down for an eternity of restful slumber. Then, one fateful night, we watched Le Mans, starring Steve McQueen and the Gulf Porsche 917K. Le Mans is nifty, invigorating, memorable, and quite enthralling. I dreamed Le Mans for a week. It became my fresh new purpose in being. When I complimented the guy who installed my air conditioner on a job well done, he said, "Installing air conditioners is what I do. That's what I'm about." One day I hope my viewership of Le Mans will be complimented so that I might respond, "Watching Le Mans is what I do. That's what I'm about."

At one point in the film, the track announcer mentions Steve McQueen's recent crash at the Nürburgring, "or as it's called in the racing world, a shunt." Shunts are bad things. However, when seen from a certain perspective, the mundane annoyance of a crashing computer can impart the same mystical quality of adventure and illustriousness that the ghostly 1400-bhp long-tailed 917/30 bore. In a way best described by Hemingway, computer crashes can be cool.

A few years ago, many racing fans watched Jos Verstappen fly through the air, inverted over Martin Brundle's head, at the Brazilian Grand Prix in São Paolo. We got to hear Derek Daly pronounce "shunt" properly, with a touch of Irish whimsy. Sort of like "shoont." Jos strolled back to the pits with a dignified, unconcerned air about him and was doubtless an object of envy. As he relaxed on the pit wall and watched parts of his Benetton Zetec-R towed back to the garage, he was not a poor, shaken victim who had "crashed," he was a hero who had manhandled a dangerous shunt with an easy, carefree confidence.

Now, whenever I have a shunt with my computer, I casually stroll over and have some coffee with Jos.

Not long ago, I gave a PowerPoint presentation to an audience of investment executives at a forum in San Jose. Naturally, the computer froze up almost immediately, sending my effectiveness into the basement and the scores on my audience feedback forms into the toilet.

"Wow," said the forum administrator as he handed me my scores. "You got a 2 out of 5 on a basic presentation like this? Are you sure you gave the right speech?"

I shrugged and answered, with the air of Rambo describing an insignificant scratch, "Had a bit of a shunt."

"Ooohh," came a dozen voices as I made my way out, perhaps throwing in a bit of a limp for effect, and I heard the sweet music of whispers from all corners of the lobby saying "He had a shunt."

The other speakers whose computers had worked were forgotten. I, the ragged bearer of tribulation and strife, had defended the banner and gotten my butt whipped in a manly fashion that Steve McQueen would be proud of. A computer crash, executed with style, can be a great way to transform a loss into a heroic.

At no time has this metaphor seemed more real than while racing through the black Nevada night on a road twisting through a treacherous canyon. Fog and darkness never combined to make so impenetrable a night. I was strapped into the passenger seat, with an entire Radio Shack's worth of electronic gadgetry rolling back and forth across my lap. We were running checkout on a road rally, something that's done by the organizers prior to the actual running of the event, to check the speeds and route instructions to make sure A actually gets you to B. On this occasion, either A and B had different calendar formats, or we were late. We had put together a FileMaker database full of road segments: records containing distances and ideal speeds, with the resulting time calculations. The records could be reorganized if necessary in case estimated times between checkpoints that did not match reality. My driver was determined to force reality to fit the numbers. My job was to switch back and forth between FileMaker and the mapping software, to make sure we turned where we needed to, and got where we were supposed to go, when we were supposed to get there. The reader is advised to do this at reduced speed, and make the necessary mathematical adjustments later.

As the road dove deeper into the ever-tightening canyon, I followed the moving dot of our car along the line twisting across the laptop screen, looking out for the all-important turnoff up a side canyon to avoid a disastrous plunge down a boat ramp and into the cold Kern river. My driver, increasingly agitated, kept looking over at me, and finally asked why I was pounding my fists on the laptop. "I'm afraid we've had a shunt," I blurted out, just in time to see water burst over the hood and feel the grab of my seatbelt.

Once again, surviving the crash with the air of adventure, pride, and laid back, war-worn hardness. And being damn glad it wasn't my car.

Browse Mode
Jan 10 Solving Performance Emergencies with FileMaker Server
Aug 06 Top Ten Sessions Cut from the 2006 FileMaker Developer Conference
Jul 06 Who's Driving This Thing, Anyway? Or, How Marketing and Engineering Buried the Hatchet (Warning: Contains a Curse Word)
Nov 05 Shingle Grandiloquence
Oct 05 In Celebration of Geek Magnetism
Aug 05 A Rogues' Gallery of Devcon Attendees
Mar 05 Lies, Damned Lies, and Project Specifications
Feb 05 Pick the Right Tool for the Job
Oct 04 Home Media Server Requirements
Jul 04 Leveraging Your FileMaker Lingo
Apr 04 Technical Support Redux
Mar 04 Enforce Seats in FileMaker 7/8/9 Commercial Solutions
Feb 04 Reinventing the Wheel
Oct 03 WAP: The Technology That Wasn't
Aug 03 Brian Dunning's California Governor Election Platform
Jul 03 Sex and the Single Software Developer
May 03 XSLT: Creeping Out of the Closet?
Feb 03 A Consultant's Guide to Traveling
Nov 02 Adventures of Bat Magnum, FileMaker Consultant
Sep 02 FileMaker at Area 51
Aug 02 FileMaker Terminology
Feb 02 Computer Shunts
Dec 01 Aquabase Alpha & the Consultant's Challenge
Aug 01 It IS the Size That Counts
Jun 01 On the Trail of Sasquatch
May 01 Spring Cleaning
Feb 01 FileMaker Mobile Survivor Challenge
Jan 01 Letter from Nürburg
Dec 00 Performance Anxiety
Nov 00 Objection, Your Honor
Oct 00 Leveraging Convergence: Jargon for the 21st Century
Sep 00 Top Ten Things to Do at Devcon
Aug 00 Aesop's FileMaker Fables
Jul 00 Ten Commandments of FileMaker Pro
Jun 00 Explats Cross Examined
May 00 iMac, Therefore iServe
Mar 00 Valley of the Dollars
Jan 00 Are You Up for a Review?
Nov 99 Tales from the Script
Sep 99 Tech Support Revisited
Jul 99 Moderns vs. Classicals
Mar 99 Nashoba, We Hardly Knew Ye