Lorenz Borsche: Mr. Ten Thumb

Three oaths

Dr. Murphy has five thumbs on each hand

Once upon a time,when I was a young man of 25 years I swore that computers are the Big Brothers of tomorrow, and I would never ever ever...

Two years later I was a bean counter, i.e. having taken up sociology, we went through the leftovers of huge surveys for training purposes. The proper way of finding out, why a catholic housewife tends to vote republican, was to type in your questions coded in an non-understandable language on huge typewriters weighing tons, which then would spill out a deck of cards with punch holes in them, one card per line - you guessed right, the first set always was something the 'know-it-alls' would call JCL, and the worst was to have asked for 2 minutes CPU time - which put your job on a waiting list far behind all the smartasses, and then get it returned after hours with a JCL error in line 3 ....

Thus I learned how to type my jobs on the screen, copy the crucial lines and ease my life a bit - and suddenly I was into 'it'....

Having programmed a word processor with full scientific footnote automatic and a full secondary greek alphabet on a Z80/64Kbyte homecomputer in a time, when WORD 1.0 still asked silly questions brought me the respect and envy of my co-students - and my first job in a computer shop.

One day a customer brought in his brandnew plasma screen schlepptop he had just purchased the day before for the lump sum of 10.000$, about to give it back, b/c one of his old programs wouldn't run. There I made my second oath. The program was a database management program, fully menu driven in a time when dBase still asked silly questions, but it was looking so poor on the screen (not even using ASCII frame characters, but +, | and - instead) that I swore never to touch this program in my life again. Ah, the problem? The problem had been the screen colours....

About two years later I was working for exactly that database company and learned that this smart database would run on an Apple II with 2 x 180 KByte disk drives, but just as well on a PC, a VAX and even under UNIX of various sorts. Especially well sold the version for HP UNIX on the 3xx series.

Having done just my first steps in database programming in a language similar to dBase I was spending just another evening in the bureau, when my boss came in. I had noticed, that he had been looking not to good for a few days and now I should learn why. The company had accepted an application offer for a laboratory information and data handling system for one of the worlds Biggest Plastic Manufacturers, and the name is *not* DuPont. The project was lined out to cost half a million, they had had one year time and 300 pages of 'duties'. Four programers and one project manager had sat on it for one year. All the money had been used up. The time was more than up - it was overdue by 6 weeks. The manager had left two months ago (for the Big Plastic Manufacturer). So had the programers. There was not one single line of code to be found, but a three feet pile of protocols. Cafeteria protocols, I called them.The penalty for not fulfilling the contract was - half a million. No wonder, my boss was pale in the face.

He, ridiculously enough, asked me, if we could do the project in our homebrew database programing language. I, ridiculously enough, said "Yessir!".

After having worked for nine months as hard as never in my life before and afterwards, together with another guy, it was all smiles when my boss and the managers of the Big Plastic Manufacturer saw their system running. We went to the famous "Blue Room" to celebrate with a real nice five course meal. Since then dozens of chemists hacked in their new thought up recipes, the workmen in the basement mixed the stuff, baked and cooked it on the first floor, pressed it into proof pieces on the second floor and destroyed it under various conditions on the third floor bringing back the proof data automatically from HP Basic computers in the net database on a HP 350 house wide system, where all of them got their information from - instead of cards scribbled over and over with four different colours. And the laboratory chief manager could - real time - find out, which machine had done how many hours this month, which group of chemists caused the most 'urgent' labeled projects and the like. 24 hours and 365 days per year, it was all smiles, really.

Of course a crucial point for such an application having to run all through the year, was the backup and safety question. The book of duties dryly had proposed mirrorered hard drives. Haha. On an HP 350 under HP UX 5.0. Get that communicated, and the bosses just will reply: So *you* cannot do it with *your * program? Knowing this I had created an automatic record export / import. Whenever a user had completed his entries for a full step, the whole record set was exported in ASCII. A background task lurked around for these files, renamed, copied and imported them into a mirror database on hard drive 2. This concept convinced even the EDP-thought-to-be-pros of the Big Plastic Manufacturer, who had never programmed a single line in their life, but could really ask nasty questions. The weekly tape backup on friday afternoon actually was thought to be only for cosmetic reasons. An HP hard drive doesn't die. And if so, then two won't. Hohum.

Of course many adaptions had to be made over the first two years, but all the while the system ran smoothly day and night (the best thing about the language used was that you could change applet-like parts of the application while the system was running). Thus I learned to know the people at the site quite well. In the proof lab there was this bear-like guy tapping around the room always with instant sweat on his forehead, when you only put a simple question to him. He actually wouldn't have had to work, as he had inherited about four or five huge blocks of flats - but he wanted to do something real in his life, thus he played the helping hand in the lab, fumbling around with the computers as best as he could with the five thumps he had on each hand. Why not, they may have thought, we have a foolproof double backup system, let him play.

It was a Friday morning, when the emergency call reached me. Hard drive 1 had, with a final whine, given up to run smoothly. Instead it didn't run at all anymore. All through the house, fabrication of new plastics stopped. What could they do? Smilingly I said "Well, see, if the system is still alive, just switch to HD2 and commence...". "No, no, of course the system is dead" I was interrupted. "Ok, then, this is what we have trained for, hook up HD2 as boot drive for the 350 and start from there. Then you can switch to...". "No, sorry, that doesn't work, HD2 is dead too" came the answer. "What?" I gasped, "but that's impossible, it's physically another system!" Well, what had happened was, that Mr. Ten-Thumps had - while the system was still up and running, detached HD1 and detached HD2 both physically, changed cables and attached them back on. The FAT of HD1 being written on HD2 of course killed HD2. And it was Friday, just a few hours before backup time.

Thus I grinned and said "What a pity, now you will have to use the backup from last Friday and hack in all the entries done this week." "Ahem, " they said, "last Friday was 'company excursion', no one has made the backup then." "Ouch", I said, "that's bad, now it's fourteen days you have to retype in...". "It's worse " they replied, "the tape of the Friday before has a read error in the third block...". They ended up with having to restore the data of full four weeks manually. I never got another assignement there. No chance against the man with ten thumbs.

Ah, about the third oath I broke? Another time...