Planting Seeds

I enjoy writing though I’m not very good at it. My spelling is horrible. My sentence constructions can be bested my many 10 year olds, and my grammar hasn’t improved since junior high school. Yet I continue. Becoming a writer is what I dreamt of becoming when I was a kid. I’ve yet to realize that dream. It doesn’t mean I shouldn’t try.

Kids dream of all sorts of things they’d be when they become adults. While in Namibia, I had put together a series of lectures I would present to secondary and high school kids that exposed them to things I thought they just would not see otherwise. The lecture series was my way of addressing what I saw as a limit to the imagination natural to young minds. Whenever I asked a Namibian child what he or she wanted to be when they grew up I would get invariably the same answers: a nurse, a teacher, an engineer. All admirable careers, but the answers all lacked vision. What kind of nurse? Did they know they could specialize and become an emergency or operating room nurse? Did they know they could teach yoga, programming, or the art of sword making? Did they have any idea that nearly everything in our modern world requires specialized engineering? 

They did not. 

One of my early attempts at lecturing.

My lectures were supposed to expose these young minds to the vastness of human endeavor. I showed them how medicine and engineering produced prosthetics that allowed people to walk, pick up a can of soda, or see again. I showed them people who taught machines how to dance, open doors, and run on two legs like its creators. I showed them devices engineered to take people into the deepest, darkest, coldest places on earth and view, first hand, creatures never seen before by man.

Did it work? 

I don’t know. They were wowed when the watched a Boston Dynamics robot do a backflip and open a door without human assistance. They appeared mesmerized by men and women who seemed to possess comic book-like powers granting them superhuman speed, and strength through engineered prosthetics. They gasped when a diver surprised an octopus that had disguised itself as a rock. The students and teachers applauded loudly an asked for more, but did any of it mean anything?

I like to think that my lectures and presentations were more than hour-long distractions. I earnestly hope that hearing me talk and showing them video snippets of the world beyond their classrooms and auditoriums planted a seed in what I hope were minds still fertile and nourished with imagination and wonder. But I’m a realist, I know I will likely never know if anything I said or showed took root.

I left Namibia is 2020 as COVID became a pandemic. Some of those high schoolers may be freshman now in the University of Namibia or other institutes of higher eduction. Hopefully, by the time they are seniors, they will have decided of a career path and, hopefully, a few may remember the lectures and videos I showed and make a decision based on what they saw and heard.

I suppose what I’m wondering at the moment is what many teachers must wonder at some point in their career: did I make a difference? I am no teacher, but the sentiment is the same and I’ll likely never know if I made a difference, but I believed it was worth the effort. 

Maybe I should keep trying.

Stay tuned.


Back It Up!

I know my way around computers.

When I was 16 my high school was donated a computer from one of the colleges or universities in the area. It had 128 little black rings with hairlike copper wires running through them, all visible through a plexiglass panel. I would soon learn that those little rings formed the memory of that computer, memory you could program by flipping a set of little switches located on the front of the device. Those little rings were called magnetic core memory and it was my first encounter with an actual computer.

Magnetic core memory (photo courtesy of Wikipedia)

When I was in the Air Force I programmed computer controlled radar jamming equipment using tiny dip-switches. The memory for those jammers were little integrated circuits which functioned similarly to the magnetic core memory, but was scaled a lot smaller.

While in the Air Force I bought my first computer, a TRS-80 Model 1. It had 4K of RAM and a cassette tape player to load and save programs. I learned BASIC on that machine and wrote my first application; a computerized version of Yahtzee, complete with an image of dice that “rolled” when it was your turn. 

After the military I worked tuning satellite amplifiers using an Hewlett Packard 3582 Spectrum Analyzer. I taught a friend Basic and we wrote a game similar to Battleship on that spectrum analyzer,  at its core was a computer that understood a version of BASIC. The game we created was called Sub Hunt. It was set up on a 10×10 grid that was 5 levels deep. The sub moved in a line varying its depth through the five levels incrementally. The object was to locate the sub, drop depth charges and destroy it in as few moves as possible. It wasn’t very sophisticated, but it was fun to program.

I took software engineering courses in college. I seemed to have a knack for figuring out logic problems.

Since then I’ve learned several programming languages including C and C++, ADA, system languages for IBM mainframes and Series 1 computers. I’ve wrote parts of the ill-fated DisplayWriter Word Processor for the IBM PC, wrote and played games on a series of Atari computers, then moved to Apple Macs. I’ve worked in the IT field for over 30 years, so I’ve seen my share of system failures, lost data, failed networks, and more. One would think that I would be one of those folks who would never lose data because he has taken every precaution to secure it, right?

One would think that, but one would be wrong.

When I went to Namibia in 2017 I brought along with me a 4tb hard drive. I was big into photography then and I knew I’d have a lot of photos I needed to store. Unfortunately, 3 months into my 3 year stay I drop that hard drive and killed it. I was able to get some of the data off of it, but the drive never worked again. It became an expensive brick and lesson. I needed something more reliable than a delicate silvered plater spinning at 3200rpms in my rough and tumble world. Solid State Drives (SSD) was the only way to go.

SanDisk Extreme 2tb SSD

I bought a 2tb Sandisk Extreme SSD to replace the dead hard drive and used it the entire time I was in Africa. It had been so reliable, dependable and rugged that I bought 4 more, bringing the total of my portable storage to 6tb: 1tb for my writing, 1 tb for photos, 2tb for my new video interests, and 2 tb to back up my MacBook. I was happy with this arrangement. I did not have to depend of cloud storage and spotty access. My data was always available, and fast. It was a best possible situation for me, until it wasn’t.

About 3 weeks ago the 2tb drive stopped working. It would not show up on my MacBook or iPad regardless of how many times I rebooted, reset, or reconnected it. I dove deep enough into the problem to find that the drive was present on my computer’s USB bus, but it would not do anything more. It was as dead as the 4tb hard drive it replaced. Worse, it contained years of video, much of it taken while I was in Namibia. I tried different applications and called several companies about restoring data, I just couldn’t afford the extremely costly amount these companies wanted to resurrect my data. Sandisk only offered to replace the drive since it was still under warranty, but offered no help in reclaiming my data.

Three years of memories, gone.

My first impulse was to blame Sandisk for making a crappy product and not supporting it adequately. Their online support kept saying “…sorry for the inconvenience…”, which only pissed me off more. This wasn’t an inconvenience, an inconvenience is when my local market runs out of the brand of peanut butter that I like. This was pieces of my life that I had recorded and is now lost due to failed technology! Sandisk technology!

My mobile storage solution

But now, after a few days to think about it I realize that is is just as much my fault as it is Sandisk’s. I was lulled into a false sense of security thinking that SSDs were fail-proof. After all, these drives can be dropped, flung across a gravel parking lot, dunked in water, left in the sun or in the bitter cold and they continue to work. 

Here’s the thing, something a person with my background should know all too well: No technology is fail-proof. It will break. In may not be in the foreseeable future, but all tech breaks. The only thing you can do to protect the data that you care about is to replicate it and back it up. Often.

In my setup that would mean duplicating each drive and storing the duplicate somewhere. Back before I left for Africa I backed up my data of DVDs. Now I am backing everything up by copying everything on the drives I use daily onto drives only used for backup. I do it once ever 2 weeks for my writing, once a month for my photos, video, MacBook and phone.

If you take anything away from this sad tale it should be this: back up anything you want to keep. It will save you a lot of headache when your tech decides not to cooperate anymore.

Stay tuned.