Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Boot Meditations

I saw in the news this past weekend a video of the world's oldest computer. It weighs two tons. After a little bit of work, the folks at the United Kingdom's National Museum of Computing have it back up and running. I found this reassuring, since most of the machines I work with are only about seven years old. "The Witch," short for the Wolverhampton Instrument for Teaching Computation from Harwell, first started crunching numbers in 1951. Sixty-one years later, it's back on the job, though primarily for demonstration purposes. The same might be said for the computers for which I am responsible, though I do tend to flatter myself in thinking that the output generated by the computers in my domain could eventually amount to something significant.
While I'm waiting for that significant output, I do what I can to keep that hardware from ending up in a scrap heap rather than a museum. Which is why sometimes I can be found, staring at a blank screen, muttering encouragement under my breath. I know that this box of plastic, metal and assorted mystery elements isn't listening. It's busy doing the best it can to set itself up to perform the operations that were programmed by Bill Gates or someone like him. If it takes a few extra seconds, or I hear a sound or see a flash of anything out of the ordinary, I get a little chill. What happens if this computer fails to boot?
Honestly? Not much. It's happened a few times at my school's computer lab. There, I just ask a kid to slide down the row and sit at another machine. Then I work feverishly behind the scenes to get the one that is misbehaving back on line. It's nothing like the reclamation done by the caretakers of The Witch. It took them three years to get those two tons of computing fury back to work. There isn't a first grader in the world who would sit still that long, waiting for Starfall.com to load.
And so I sit and stare, waiting to log on. Muttering my inspirational whispers to silicon chips, waiting for their chance to be in a museum.

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