Things You Can’t Do Anymore After 9/11

19. February, 2009

A few years ago, I helped a friend out. He was working for a small project of a guy, let’s call him Tom, in Munich to build a system to etch waver masks with plasma. The setup was simple enough: A standard PC running Linux with a very simple control language which would send commands to various devices attached via the serial bus. Piece of cake. My job was to complete the “read the recipe” and “send the commands to the devices” (plus read some status data back).

If you’ve ever been in contact with Linux, you know that the words “hardware driver” can cause nightmares even today and that was 1995! Linux 1.2! one-point-freaking-two. After eight hours of frustration, I considered my options: Hack the kernel (and the multi-IO driver in it; only the driver I needed was closed source), give up or try a different hardware with a better driver. Did I mention that the whole thing had to be ready for oversea delivery by 14:00 the next day? Piece of cake.

I pulled out a Linux magazine and browsed through the ads (Finding companies on the Internet? 1995? You’re joking, right?). Lo and behold, there was an ad from a company which was selling eight port multi IO cards. I checked the kernel docs for this card. There seemed to be an open source driver. I checked the clock. 18:00. I checked the address. Hamburg. OK. That might just work. I called the company. Ring … ring … ring … YES! Okay … I didn’t get someone from the company but a security guy. He knew what I was talking about and he was willing to sell me one … but I had to pick it up. Hm. My mother is from Hamburg. One call later, I had the number of an old school friend of her’s. Let’s call him John.

Ring … ring … ring … come on … ring … Yay! He was just back from work, I had literally got hold of him with the door key still in his hands. I explained the situation to him: “Can you pick up a package at [some address], go to the airport and put it on the next airplane to Munich? Oh, I’m the son of your old friend Barbara.”

“Sure,” John said, “can do.” A few minutes later, he was on his way to the north of the city to pick up the package. I called the security guy to tell him that someone was on the way.

Time passed. I called my mother’s friend. No answer. I called again. And again. I got nervous. Again. Oh-dear-God-thank-you, he answered. Things had been a bit complicated, he explained to me. When he arrived at the company, he had no cash, only a credit card. The guard couldn’t operate the credit card reader. After a short discussion, he would accept a written statement that the bill would be paid plus a copy of John’s passport.

Next, he went to the airport, just in time for the last plane to Munich. I had worried how to get the package on the plane but that hadn’t been a problem; he only had to pay for a full seat. Uh … OK. You try that now … my guess is that airport security will shoot you on the spot, not even bothering with trying an arrest. Anyway, the package was on it’s way to Munich. The plane would arrive around 23.00. The clock said: 21:30. Time to pick up the phone again.

Tom, the project owner, had had a meeting in Munich and was on his way back to us (we were in a small city some 20 miles to the south of Munich). Thank God for mobiles! He answered on the highway. We told him to turn back and head for the airport.

23:30. Tom called to tell us that he had the package and he was heading back.

0:00 I got my new toy. Nice. I checked the driver module which loaded perfectly into my kernel. I ran my tests again. They worked. They f******g worked right away after refusing to do anything for eight hours! Can you imagine my feelings? I wanted to scream in frustration and joy at the same time. Anyway. Time to get the recipes to work.

6:30 I have my limits and now, I’d reached them. Usually, I type blind but now, the stuff on the screen didn’t look what I told my fingers, anymore. I made more mistakes than I fixed. But most of the stuff was in place and a first simple recipe, which triggers every system at least once, ran through. An eerie blue glow filled the garage as the plasma comes to life. Cool. I wonder what the neighbors might have been thinking. Forgetting to close the chamber would cause every computer within a 10km radius to burn through. Cool. I drag myself to bed before that little devil in my head gets any ideas.

11:00 I’ve slept only a few hours but there is still some more work to do. When I arrive back at the garage, I find the machine gone. Panic. They have already started to take everything apart and shove it into a freight container. Uff. Whatever bugs are still left in my code will have to be fixed in Asia.

So they sent me home, my colleague would go to Asia. One of Tom’s friends dropped me off at a gas station on the autobahn. There, I asked the owner whether he could call me a cab. Strangely enough, he did, even without asking any questions or even asking anything for the call. Must have been the look on my face. Exhaustion, you know. I bought some sweets in return.

A couple of minutes later, a cab pulled in. The driver, a woman, didn’t seem to be too surprised to pick someone up close to nowhere. Huh. It was her second job today (and it was afternoon), the last customer wanted to visit Zurich. It’s interesting how cheap those far runs are, compared to in-city. We arrived at Meersburg just as the ferry was about to leave. I paid, left a tip and jumped on. On the other side, the bus was already waiting.

It was a mad ride but a very satisfying one. In retrospect, it is a miracle that everything worked out, so much could have failed. I got some money out of it, too, which I invested in stock. It was a fixed date transaction and a few days after I got paid out, the stock market took a steep plunge.

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