Thursday, 26 December 2013

Rudolf and the New Operating System from a Very Big Company

The fifth in the increasingly inaccurately misnamed trilogy. You can read my other stories here.

Rudolf and the New Operating System from a Very Big Company

It's been nice and quiet recently. You might remember that a few years ago, 
I spent an unconscionable amount of time sorting out problems in Sir 
Sangrathta Claus's operation, many of them caused by Rudolf the Red (the 
reindeer's shop steward) and his consultant. And, since consultants help 
whoever asks, I have at other times helped Rudolf with some problems (mostly 
caused by Sir Claus and his consultant). Eventually, I suggested a merger 
between them, which led to a couple of years peace, and I thought all that 
was behind me, until I received a message, in the usual way. 

I expect you've sent lots of messages to Santa, but not many people receive 
them, so you might not be aware that he doesn't use email, or fax, or the 
phone, or even snail mail. No. He doesn't send many messages, but when he 
does, he delivers them personally. Out of a big sack. After sliding down the 
chimney. I offered him a glass of sherry, and invited Rudolf to come in from 
the cold for a mince pie, and we sat and talked about the problem. 

Like most problems, it wasn't just one thing, it was a combination. Now that 
most of the kids have computers and internet access, Santa had decided to 
set up a Web site. He would be able to show the kids what was on offer, and 
they could click on the presents they wanted. This would be fed 
automatically into Santa's ordering system (I'd rather not talk about that, 
if you don't mind, it wasn't one of my best designs, especially the idea of 
getting squirrels to write it). That would streamline the whole operation, 
leading to savings in personnel, stocks and manufacturing costs, and a 
noticeable improvement in profitability. At least, that was the theory. 

The Internet consultant they got in - well, you know the sort of person, 
don't you? Rather a lot of Internet experts have appeared lately; it's 
almost as if someone has been sowing dragon's teeth. His name was Jonny Come 
Lately, he'd spent nearly a month using the Web, and could write HTML if he 
avoided Forms and Server Push and anything else that was past chapter two of 
the How-to book. He recommended using HTTPD (an excellent shareware Windows 
Web server, but not really up to getting about ten million hits per day, 
because there's an awful lot of children in the world). His solution for 
making it run faster, was to use a Pentium P133. That wasn't fast enough, of 
course. So his next idea was to upgrade the operating system to the 32 bit 
one that they're making all the fuss about. You know? Comes from a Very Big 
Company? They say their New Operating System will run all your old Dos 
programs, and all your old Windows programs? And, since this was such a Good 
Thing, Jonny got a good deal on a site licence, and upgraded all their 
systems. Pilot studies are for Wimps who don't have confidence in themselves 
and in the Very Big Company that makes the OS. Trials never prove anything 
because they always work. And then Jonny moved on to his next consulting job 
(tuning up the control system in a nuclear reactor), leaving Santa and 
Rudolf to cope with the fallout. 

I winced. Wince, wince, wince. I knew what was next in this story; not in 
detail, but in general, and I was right. There were all sorts of unusual 
bits of hardware and software in this system, and that's without the bits 
that worked by magic. We'd bought a job lot of assorted ethernet cards from 
Sidney Mincing's Computer Emporium, so there were seventeen different 
drivers. Some of the sound cards were, well, unusual and interesting. The CD 
ROMs used IDE controllers instead of SCSI, because that was cheaper. The 
printers, well, Blue Dragon used to make a wonderful laser printer, fast and 
cheap. They've gone out of business now, of course, but we had the Win 3.1 
drivers for them. But not anything else. 

You get the picture. Most of the contents of most of the computers would 
still work, but there was only one computer that still worked as well as it 
did before Jonny came along, and that was because it was broken. Naturally, 
I asked if they could go back to their old system. Naturally they couldn't. 
They had backups of their data files, but that doesn't help much, and 
Jonny's boundless confidence in the claims made by the Very Big Company had 
made their upgrade a one way street. 

I looked at my wristwatch, and it said half past October. Ten weeks before 
Christmas, or to put it another way, judging from my local shops, Christmas 
already. I thought about the mess they were in, and then I thought about the 
consequences of a Christmas in which the little customers don't get their 
toys. It was an unthinkable scenario, so I agreed to do my best, although I 
couldn't for the life of me see how we could make their systems work in 

First things first - a site visit. I wrapped up warm (it gets chilly up 
there), and Santa and I mounted Rudolf, and I don't think I'll ever get used 
to the way that reindeer can canter uphill even when there isn't a hill. 
Soon, we were galloping along at 30,000 feet. Rudolf had timed it well, and 
over Iceland we met BA07 on its way to Tokyo via the polar route. "Always 
economise on effort", said Rudolf as he landed on the left wing. Some of the 
passengers saw us, but they didn't say anything to anyone, naturally. Well, 
would you? And how would you word it? As we passed over 90 degrees of 
latitude, Rudolf leapt off and glided down for a perfect four-point landing, 
and pretty soon, I was staring glumly at a few dozen computers running that 
New Operating System. The computers were almost, but not quite, operational. 
They booted up fine, but some wouldn't recognise the network, some would 
only work with screens in 640 by 480 by 16 mode, some had no sound, some 
couldn't print, some could print but only some fonts - I'm sure you 
recognise the predicament. 

I sat down with a piece of paper and made a list of the possibilities, and 
the drawbacks of each. No, I don't use a computer, not when it's something 
like this. Because that kind of deep thought needs an interruption-free 
environment, and the small room that provides this doesn't usually have 240 
volts available. 

1. Reinstall Windows 3.1. I couldn't just run SETUP for this, I'd have to 
back the computers up, reformat them, Fdisk and reinstall. Problems: all the 
configuration data would be wrong, and I'd have to reinstall all the device 
drivers, which were different for each one. 

2. Work out what drivers for the New Operating System were missing on each 
computer, and get them from the manufacturer. Problems: Some of the 
manufacturers were out of business, and even if they weren't, many of the 
drivers wouldn't be available. 

3. Get on to the Very Big Company and persuade them to make their New 
Operating System fully Windows 3.1 compatible. Problems: It would need the 
persuasive power of Torquemada. In case you've forgotten, he was the geezer 
in charge of the Spanish Inquisition. 

4. Write the missing drivers myself. Problem: I don't have the technical 
data about the devices, so I'd have to reverse engineer the old drivers. 

5. Find a full backup of all the computers. Problem: Pigs might fly.

6. Go back to a paper system. That had a lot of attractions, especially as 
it meant that Jonny and his ilk couldn't mess it up in future. Problem: I'd 
get struck off the Consultants Register if I ever suggested to a client that 
they stop using computers. One of the prime rules of consultancy is "The 
answer is a computer. Now what's the question?" Some people don't use the 
word computer, they say "system", or even "solution". 

When you don't know how to solve a problem, there's one tried and tested 
thing you can do. Yes - I called a meeting, and invited everyone I could 
think of. Best to spread the blame, no? I used Powerpoint (when you've got 
nothing to say, always make it look good) and laid out the six alternatives, 
explaining why each one wouldn't work. "So what's your proposal?" said 
Santa. Oh no - you don't catch me that easily. I didn't have a proposal, but 
no consultant worth his salt ever admits that. I suggested we discuss the 
matter first - maybe there were alternatives I hadn't thought of (said in 
the tone of voice that implies the total impossibility of the notion). 

The discussion went to and fro, like discussions do. Sometimes they talked 
about the subject at hand, sometimes they digressed onto production 
problems, or the dwarves' demands for new hammers. Rudolf just sat 
despondently with his head in his hooves, and when I asked for his input 
(always ask for "input", it sounds better) he just said "If only we'd never 
hired Jonny Come Lately". 

The buzz of conversation receded into the background as this comment 
triggered a blinding flash in the middle of my brain, the kind of thing you 
get once in a blue moon, the signal that an idea has just been spontaneously 
born. I could see a way out of this mess. "It's a long shot, but it just 
might work", I said to myself, and as everyone knows, if you say that 
mantra, then it's sure to work. I explained the idea to the committee, and 
it sounded even crazier out loud than just thinking it, but no-one could 
think of anything better, so we set to work. 

The first step was to get all the fairies in the organisation into one room. 
That isn't as easy as it sounds - fairies can be quite spiteful and catty 
about each other. Some of them refused to attend unless others were banned, 
some insisted that their special brand of mineral water be available, and 
several of them couldn't find their wands. But that was easy, compared to 
getting them all to hold hands. Have you ever tried to get a roomful of 
fairies to hold hands? Some insist on holding hands with certain others, 
some refuse to be within three fairies of their enemies, and the whole 
thing was an appalling non-linear optimisation problem. Fortunately, I still 
remember how to use the Fletcher-Davidon method (just to remind you, it's 
like Newton-Raphson, but multi-dimensional), and an hour's number crunching 
with my portable got the problem solved. Thank goodness for the floating 
point capabilities of the Pentium chip. 

I explained the task to the fairies - it would probably be the hardest wish 
they'd ever granted, which was why I needed so many of them. I needed them 
to change the past - easy enough for a fairy. But the change I needed, was 
to get a certain consultant, Mr Jonny Come Lately, to refuse a paid 
consulting job on the flimsy grounds that he wouldn't know how to do it. 
That, of course, is mind-bogglingly impossible. Fortunately, fairies are 
used to doing the impossible. 

Everyone closed their eyes, and there was a sort of "Pop", but a "Pop" 
without the vowel. And without the consonants. Something shifted, or maybe 
it didn't. Something changed, or maybe it didn't. We all opened our eyes, 
and the fairies were all flaked out; the magical outpouring had obviously 
left them exhausted, and we'd be lucky to see any magic from any of them 
before next Christmas. Never mind - it had worked. I distinctly remembered 
that Mr Lately had been unable to take on the assignment, due to an even 
more lucrative job elsewhere, and I rushed to the computers, expecting to 
see the old familiar Windows 3.1 on the monitors. 

Imagine my dismay when I started up a PC, and it came up with the Other New 
Operating System, from the Other Very Big Company! Imagine my consternation 
when I found that all the other computers were the same! Imagine my fear, 
uncertainty and doubt when I discovered that all the systems were just as 
smegged up as they had been before, but now in a different way! I thought 
about this, and then I remembered that when Mr Lately had declined, they'd 
found another consultant, whose email address was Which 
tells you everything, if you know what aol is. Yow! 

I sat in a corner of the room, closed my eyes, and put my arms over my head. 
I realised what I'd done wrong. Imagine relying on the floating point 
capability of a Pentium! How could I have been so stupid? How was I going to 
fix things now - the fairies were all unfairied, and I had exactly the same 
problem as before, and I didn't know what to do. Then it came to me - 
standard consultant's practice when you've totally smegged up your client. 
Tell him everything's fine now, and walk away from the mess. But then I 
thought of all the little customers who wouldn't be getting their presents, 
and I thought of my two, who would spend the whole of the Christmas holiday 
making my life miserable, and I thought of three billion other unhappy 
children, and I couldn't do it, I couldn't abide by the Consultant's Code. I 
had to stay and fix the problem. 

Gradually, the panic died down and I was able to think rationally about the 
problem. And the first thing that occurred to me was that I didn't have 
exactly the same problem. I still needed to make a change to the past, but 
all I needed to do was to get myself to buy a 486dx-100 instead of a 
Pentium, and since that was a smidge cheaper, that shouldn't be too hard. 
All I needed was a fairy that wasn't totally knackered, and I'd be home free. 

One of the problems with fairies, is that there's never one when you want 
one. But I know where you can always find a fairy. I hitched a lift on 
Rudolf, flew down to Florida, and there, in the middle of Disneyland, was 
what I needed (EuroDisney won't do, they don't use real fairies there, just 
French chaps dressed up as fairies). They use real fairies in Disneyland - 
I think they get them from California. A bit of persuasion from Rudolf's 
antlers, and I had my wish. I looked down at the notebook I always carry, 
and sure enough, a Panasonic CF41 with a 486dx-100 met my gaze - no Pentium. 
Rudolf and I traveled back to the place that is as North as you can get, and 
I checked their PCs. The reassuring sight of Windows 3.11 glowed from the 
screens, and everything was working normally again. 

So let this be a lesson for you. Never hire a consultant called Jonny Come 
Lately, and never rely on fairies to fix problems. I'm glad to say that this 
Christmas will be as per usual, and please, please, don't forget to leave 
the mince pie out for the reindeer. But I'm not so sure about the Christmas 
after, because just as I was leaving I heard one of the elves say to another 
one "You know, I've been reading about this New Operating System in the 
magazines, and I think we should start using it ..." 


  1. Reindeer eat mince pie?
    the kind with rum and raisins in it?
    We used to leave carrots out for them.

    1. The reindeer that visited us, ate mince pies. I know that, because when we left a mince pie for the, it was always gone the next morning.