If You Can Fix It, Its Not Really Broken

Coffee: Professional tools are built to be repaired, not thrown away.

If changing the oil in your car might cause the radio to stop working, or maybe even lock you out of driving in reverse, then preventive maintenance wouldnt be as obviously good an idea. That was the gist of a comment I saw in an online discussion of end-user maintenance tasks, and tools, for personal computers.

The point that I took away, after reading a strident exchange of views, was that too many people have learned--sometimes the hard way--to leave well enough alone. Thats a good idea, in moderation, but it can be taken too far. Its gotten to the point that people dont do things that could make their systems run much better, and that might extend the useful life of a PC by several years--which would be worth a lot to many organizations.

Hard disks, for example, have become the Cadillac ash trays (or as my sons have been taught to call them, "trash trays") of IT: When they get full, it must be time for a trade-in. Perhaps I go too far in the other direction, but I maintain the hard disks on my personal systems much more faithfully than I maintain my lawn.

On my Windows machines, for example, I regularly archive old data off-line and remove unused applications. I use Executive Softwares Diskeeper for boot-time Win2K directory consolidation, and Symantecs Speed Disk for file defragmentation and sorting, combined with regular flushing of browser cache and mailbox trash and other accumulations. My duplicate CD backups are stored in separate locations. On the two occasions when hardware or software has committed a messy suicide in my office or family room, Ive felt pretty good about the resulting lack of excitement.

What still gives me a stomachache, though, are debates about utility programs that may or may not be worse than using nothing at all. You can find opinions, including many based on personal experience, on either side of arguments about many popular tools. Apples Mac OS X is especially prone to these disagreements, since there are definitely useful tweaks that one can make to the early and upgrade versions--so useful, in fact, that a clean install of the current version 10.2 (I am told) performs them automatically, and might not get along with a third-party tool that tries to do the same.

There are two things that calm me down. One is a well-documented software update that fixes specified problems, that downloads and installs and immediately makes things better. When my out-of-the-box 12-inch PowerBook couldnt consistently run its included hardware inspection utility, I quickly determined that this was identified and fixed in OS X version 10.2.4. Downloaded. Installed. Fixed. Will I download and apply future updates? Perhaps: Theyll tell me what I need to know to make up my own mind.

The other thing that keeps me calm is a maintenance tool that shows me exactly what it proposes to do, shows me what its doing while its doing it, shows me the end results, and ideally lets me change my mind and go back to the way things were. The last of those is more than most disk tools can offer, but I wont use one that doesnt meet the first three requirements: Even during boot-time processing, for example, Diskeeper tells me in itsy-bitsy detail what its moving where, and lets me interrupt--with immediate response--at any point. MacJanitor, for Mac OS X, likewise takes pains to show me all the detailed console messages that result from its manually running the OS X maintenance scripts (whose scheduled, hands-off run times are at wee morning hours when many machines are turned off). And on both Mac and Windows, I run Symantecs Norton Personal Firewall at the highest warning level: I know whats going in or out, as well as whats being blocked.

If I want something I can trust to take care of itself, Ill get a dog, not a computer. And when something seems to be wrong with my computer, I want to feel like a mechanic--not like a veterinarian. Professional-grade IT tools, like industrial-strength machine tools, are assembled (so to speak) with screws: Theyre built in a way that lets you open them, adjust them and put them back together without high risk of collateral damage.

Personally, Im reasonably sure that as long as I can get a machine to boot, I can open a command line window and fix any problem that can be expressed in bits: One of the reasons that I finally bought my second Macintosh this month (the first was in 1985) was that OS X has a command line, and I can enable a root user account that lets me do whatever I think best. (My administrator login icon, though, is a biohazard symbol: I wouldnt want to get careless in there.)

It takes both sides to make a good relationship. My machine and my tools have to trust me, as it were: I have to be able to see whatever might be wrong. And I have to be able to trust my tools … to let me have the last word.

Maybe this isnt such a balanced relationship, after all. Fix the computer; pet the dog.

Tell me how technology has bitten you lately.

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