Make it Run Now, Fix It Later — The Dying Art of Troubleshooting

In this age of politics, I always get asked how I manage to keep from losing my mind over the everyday {IMPACT!] headlines. After all, news coverage is something that is so in the face of everyone out there. Nine Hells, even my iPhone has a section dedicated to the news, which I would remove, if Apple would let me. Admittedly, wall-to-wall news is, in my not-so-humble estimation, annoying at its best. I tend to view the avoidance of the stuff as a matter of putting the media in its place, and spending time doing other things – like reading a book or watching a movie.

Interestingly enough, news avoidance lead me to a movie that is currently playing on F/X these days – “The Martian” starring Matt Damon. I have heard the book is even more intriguing and involving than the movie, which is a good thing – I could use the distraction. The storyline; however, has a particular point I wanted to focus on. At the end of the movie, Damon’s character – astronaut Mark Watney – is standing in the middle of a classroom of students in an introductory program for future astronauts. He makes the point that things will go sideways in their careers in space, and that they will need to be ready to accept those challenges in order to survive.

At some point, everything’s gonna go south on you and you’re going to say, this is it. This is how I end. Now you can either accept that, or you can get to work. That’s all it is. You just begin. You do the math. You solve one problem and you solve the next one, and then the next. And If you solve enough problems, you get to come home. –Mark Watney

This one quote really sticks with me from the film – though there are others that I love just as much, such as “… in the face of overwhelming odds, I’m left with only one option: I’m gonna have to science the shit out of this.” However, this one quote from the end of the movie highlights something I have noticed over time is becoming a lost art – troubleshooting.

Troubleshooting is More Than a Mundane Thing

I will admit, most of my training in the art of troubleshooting came from my time in the United States military – specifically from a time where I was attached to a North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) unit. Pure NATO units, which I was in, are those that have multi-national components to it. Funding and equipment for these units is usually the very last part of what any country puts forth in their budgets. The equipment utilized is typically old, and held together with spit, gum and bailing wire – and that’s if the unit is lucky in what they have been provisioned. Learning what equipment is capable of, not designed for, is paramount to being able to get the mission completed. You have to understand how something works, what it can potentially be capable of, and be willing to try any solution – no matter how crazy it sounds. The same can hold true for your Pagan or magickal life.

Think back just a bit in time. Look to where a ritual didn’t seem to work because only five people showed up, instead of the twelve you were expecting. You make do by having people double up in roles. The individual responsible for calling the elements in the East also does so for the South. Whoever has the West, also takes the North. Whoever is leading the ritual handles the calling of the element of Spirit, as well as the God and Goddess. And that’s if you have those elements in your ritual. But you get the picture, you double-up on tasks to get the job done. Its not ideal, but if the participants can take the concept of multi-role situations seriously…you can make it work.

What about spellwork? Can’t find that piece of weapons-grade plutonium for that curse you are going to work against the President and his allies? Well, you find something else to make it work. Maybe a simple lava lamp can stand in for that plutonium. Right? It might not have the same physical qualities, but you can make it work with the glowing aspect. And just think, you won’t need the heavy shielding and clothing to avoid those nasty burns. Improvisation can always be helpful. But to get there, you have to do some troubleshooting. You have to find something that will be able to mimic what you are trying to do. The lava lamp was fairly inexpensive at a little more than fifteen dollars at Wal-mart (after taxes). Plus, you didn’t have to run around bribing Libyan terrorists with Michael J. Fox.

The Art of Sciencing That Shit

So, let’s bring things back from me pumping in bad puns and terrible imagery into the mix. Troubleshooting is exactly what my second quote stated – its sciencing the shit out of the issue to try and find a solution that may seemingly not provide the most efficient results. Remember, you are looking for results. I have taken a coffee pot apart in order to utilize a circuit board contained within it to keep a piece of cryptographic equipment running. Granted, the machine transmitted at an error rate above seventy percent because of the insufficient voltage that the circuit board could handle, but the solution allowed a critical transmission to go out. Never really thought I could make Mr. Coffee become Mr. Secure-Transmission-Device, but it was the fact that circuit boards were nearly identical in usage – just not in voltage – that allowed for the Frankenstein method to be used. The same can hold true for your spell-work, for your rituals, for your group work…its not about falling apart when stuff doesn’t go your way. Its about finding solutions…even at the last minute. And when that solution is found, be aware that more issues may arise because of what you did to manage that solution. A domino effect of issues….just solve each problem as they arise.

Stay Calm…After the Meltdown

Trust me, when the shit hits the fan, you will wring your hands and scream at the skies. You will curse the Gods for giving you miserable luck. You will try and put your hand through the wall. You might even succeed. Go ahead and have that meltdown. And when you’re done, pull it all together and see the problem as it is. Work THAT problem. Don’t anticipate and try to work the next problem. One thing at a time. Solve the problem. Analyze and work the next problem. Keep doing it. Remember, sometimes the things you need to solve the problem may not be readily at hand. Be prepared to figure out what needs to be done, what materials can be utilized as a stand-in – and TRY.

The old P-40 can opener. I cannot tell you how many things I have used this for that did not involve opening a can.

Troubleshooting is an art-form. In the business environment, you have to comprehend processes that you don’t know or even understand. Some processes, you may not even have a right to know about. Those you have to trust that the problem isn’t there and try to solve around those. If you eliminate everything on either side – those processes you are locked out of will need to be investigated – probably by someone other than you. Its not about making things perfect. Its about finding the problem, working the problem, and developing a temporary solution, so that others can figure out a more permanent solution. Its not about being the “fix-it” person. Troubleshooting is about getting things back to running order so that everything moves forward.

Troubleshooting in a Throw-Away World

Around 2006, one of the trends in Information Technology was not to repair equipment in place, but to replace it. This perspective makes sense, particularly in a business environment where every second of down-time causes a loss of unimaginable proportion of dollars. Its just easier to buy the same equipment, configure it, and put it in place of the damaged stuff. Then the damage stuff is jettisoned like yesterday’s coffee grounds, while a new replacement is purchased to await the next time the equipment goes into failure. This is the type of society that we have become accustomed to. Our smart phones get older? We trade them in for newer models with better capabilities – and those capabilities will be obsolete and old in a matter of weeks after we acquire this new phone. Troubleshooting has been set back to a position of “make due” until new technology can be obtained. Sad, but very true. I am not sure where this leaves the value of a troubleshooter in today’s overly technologized, easily-replaceable society.

But, I am proud of what I have done in my career as a troubleshooter. Keeping computer systems running with re-wiring solutions for network capabilities that are a nightmare straight from the kitchens of Spaghetti Warehouse, putting cryptography equipment back online using Techniques that seem impossible (Mr. Coffee) or are blatantly illegal (You want it running Commander? Well, its running – just don’t ask how). The job of a troubleshooter is to find the problem, find the temporary solution, implement that temporary solution, and report the break up the chain of command. I’ll get it running right now…I’ll fix it correctly, later.

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