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