The human connection
Storms play electrical havoc with phones, computers, printers, network hardware, and Internet paraphernalia. Destructive surges sizzle through telephone lines that today conduct data as well as voice communications and form the arterial system, which nourishes modern workplaces. Voltage drops leave those lines undernourished. Either way, it's havoc.
Lately the weather has been heavenly, so it's not easy or desirable to recall the mayhem caused by the week of easterlies that estranged Chappy from Edgartown earlier this month. But, storms like that one, and the electrical flood tide they push can do enormous damage. A few years ago, just such a storm sparked an electrical surge that found its way to our local network server and on to 15 or 16 desktop computers scattered around the office, and on to the associated printers, copy machines, fax machines, modems, routers, backup servers - you name it. You could smell the charred result. As a result, and thanks to insurance, we got a lot of new equipment.
For me, it doesn't take a hurricane to undo my technical tether. For me, technical disappointment is common and predictable in all matters digital. It is similar to the difference between what one is led to expect from a heavily promoted new movie and what one experiences at the theater. The reality never measures up to the tout.
For example, I have spent years researching and assembling the components of a phone and computer connection that would enable me to be away from the office for a few days but still do my work. I imagined myself five, 10, even 20 miles at sea, rolling along before a following wind while downloading and uploading to beat the band. I would be at work but not be at work, at the same time. Getting the gear mix right to make such a dream real became a bit of an obsession.
For a long time, you could find a portable computer that might do the trick, but what sort of cell phone could be married to the computer, and what modem would work with the chosen laptop and cell phone? And then, what sort of software would make computer, modem, and phone unite in harmony? And finally, the cell phone network: which one will best support data transmissions? Actually, the notion I had was a bit beyond the technological horizon when I fixed on it two or three years ago. Last year, the technology arrived, I got a PCMIA card (don't ask) and I put it to the test.
The performance review, I am afraid, is disappointing. The cell towers are too sparse, especially as one leaves bigger cities behind. And recently, the network server, when there's signal enough to ride on, deigns to deliver e-mails to me, but refuses to deliver my outgoing e-mails to whomever I'm writing. It may be because we're a newspaper, and all sorts of things we produce are plastered across the World Wide Web, so we get tons of spam. Some spammers try to get a ride on our coattails, and from time to time, respectable servers give us the black spot. When that happens, signal or no signal, my e-mails don't get out.
With technology, the promise is bright, the reality dim, or at least dimmer than one hoped.
But if technology sputters, good-natured, helpful, generous humanity performs delightfully, just as it always has, I suppose.
I learned this in the earliest days of my cell phone-laptop connection failures, and I think I've mentioned it. But, once when the cell signal was too slight, I went searching for a landline, to use with a dial-up modem. I was in lovely, tranquil Bucks Harbor, Maine, at the western end of the Eggemoggin Reach. I walked up the hill to the grocery store above the harbor. Everyone from the boats moored below and from the hilly surrounding town was at the store for groceries or breakfast. I asked the proprietor, who doubled as the cook and stocker, if I might use a phone line for a few minutes. He said, sure. I plunked the laptop on the lunch counter, plugged his phone cord into it, and proceeded to have about 10 minutes of what we technological sophisticates call configuration problems.
All the while, from the front of the busy store, I could hear the hubbub building. A glance in that direction revealed a growing mob of sunburned folks clutching eggplants and croissants.
Soon, a powerful voice of accustomed authority bellowed, "Joe, what is wrong with the phone?"
"Oh," Joe said, some internal alarms going off, "this fellow's using the line."
"Well," the voice said, "he's got to stop. That's the credit card line."
Joe's generosity had nearly put him out of business.
"Sorry," he said, "but I gotta have that line. I thought it would only be a minute or two."
I packed up my gear and skulked away.
From the front porch of the tiny store, across a field where a steel band (for some unfathomable reason) would set up for a weekly dance party later in the day, I spied Condon's Garage, an auto and boat repair place.
Condon's does brake jobs and ring jobs, valve jobs, head gasket jobs, and muffler jobs. It does not do Internet access. The folks at Condon's could keep your old Ford pickup on the road by welding a bit of steel to the frame to span the rusted hole in the beam. The parts department, some of it anyway, lay beside the building in the form of old vehicles that hadn't escaped in running order but still had contributions to make.
Condon's was not technologically advanced, but I guessed it had a phone. It did, and Mr. Condon, a bearish man with a closely cropped head, a sideways Downeast sense of humor and a bemused look on his face, said, "Sure, go ahead and use the phone line. Take all the time you want, I don't want no phone calls anyway."
I plugged in, rested the computer on a capsized outboard propeller, and, thanks to a human connection, I was in business.