In the good old days (I mean the middle ages -- old but maybe on second thought not so good) they used ordeals as a way of meting out justice. Ordeal by water and fire and battle. Nowadays trials are more like ordeal by money, but don't let's get started there, for my topic today is not criminal justice but computer repair. And competence. Last week I underwent a searching and painful ordeal indeed, as I tried to get a length of ethernet cable repaired. My regular computer place was closed for Spock's birthday or an anti-virus convention or something, so I went to a dusty shop in the middle of town. "Just stick a connector on the end," I said to the guy behind the counter. "The old one has come off." I didn't have much time because ... well, it's a long story but the key parts are train schedule, daughter, and hair appointment, but this repair guy looked perfect -- a geek from central casting. Soft teenaged body, style-less clothes, thick glasses, pimples. In fact he looked like the guys in my regular place. Would he know about Spock's birthday? You bet.
So I was confident as he went behind the desk and began hunting through a tool kit for the correct size of connector. Seemed to be taking him a while. Finally he dumped the whole box onto the desk, and picked through the bits and pieces of junk for the two-cent plastic connector he wanted. Couldn't find one. "I was sure I had one here," he muttered.
Tick tick tick. My confidence was ebbing.
"Oh, I remember now," he said. "I used it yesterday."
"Uh huh," I said, not to encourage him.
"Have to get a new one," he said.
So he went to the wall display, and took down a bag of connectors. As he opened it, they spilled onto the desk, and he collected every one of them individually, put them back in the ripped bag, taped it shut, and put it in his tool kit. His fingers moved slowly and awkwardly. My confidence was ebbing at a Bay-of-Funday pace. By now my regular guys would have fixed the connector, waved away my attempt to pay the three dollars, and sent me home, all while de-gutting three other machines, inhaling a sleeve of cookies and kibbitzing each other about various characters in World Of Warcraft.
I love those guys.
This guy moved ... well ... slower. He stripped the end of the cable ... spread the wires ... counted them aloud by colour and type ... tried to fit the connector on ... failed ... spread the eight wires again ... recounted them ... fit the connector on ... then wondered if his configuration of the wires at this end matched the configuration at the other.
"I'll just take it," I said, but he wouldn't let me. With painful deliberation he took the connector off the other end of the cable, spread the wires. "See here," he said with satisfaction. "These wires are in different sequence. I'll have to fit another connector here." He opened the tool kit and began to hunt for the bag of connectors with the Scotch tape around it.
I'm not going to replay my ordeal by incompetence because it would take too long and make me seem kind of mean. (At one point he had a friend of his going through his truck to hunt for a nine-volt battery so that he could replace the battery in the tester he was plugging my cable into to see if his repair had been successful. By now I had my head on the desk.) What I want to come back to is how much we love competence. There is something really cool about a job well done. The cabbie that knows his side streets. The electrician who fishes the wire through on the first try. The busy restaurant where the staff hustle around with armfuls of plates which always make it to the right tables. I hate standing in line at the suypermarket, but if the cashier is whizzing up and down her machine, rolling the items through and bagging tight, the time passes faster.
(To finish my computer story, my daughter walked to the train station in the rain, ruining her hair. That's not her up above, but it gives an idea. She was, um, slightly more upset than the model in the picture. Oh, and my regular computer guys informed me that fifty feet of ethernet cable cost 10.00. "Cheaper to buy new than to repair," they said. I sighed.)