So, I’m working away today….

So, I’m working away today, sharply focused on pulling together a wiring harness. The radio was close by, but NPR was fading into the background noise of hammers nailing crates closed, the fork truck moving assorted sheets of 3/8″ aluminum and a drill press drilling holes. As I fumbled with a 20-pin Molex plug, I heard a quiet sound behind me, so different from the others that it stopped me at my work table.

In the primary work area where I install and configure our Linux systems and do all the electrical work, we have a rack of 5 computers with a Quantum tape backup unit. These computers are half of what it will take to control our telescope in Japan. The other 5 are … well … Windows boxes. A few months ago, pressed for time and manpower, we outsourced the heavy-lifting type coding for archiving to the Quantum images produced by the telescope. A small firm in Atlanta took the job, and have been very diligent in working on the project remotely.

The Quantum is actually a tape backup library containing 24 tapes, each with gobs o’ gigs capacity. A mechanism inside changes the tapes when they’re full and reads a barcode on the tape to index the contents. Fun stuff.

So here I sit, in Iowa City, Iowa, at 2:45 in the afternoon, when this strange and quiet noise disrupts my wiring. I stood up and looked around, following the sound as best I could. When I stopped in front of the computer rack, I realized it was the Quantum, tape changer whirring away, running by remote from Atlanta. With utter geek glee, I dropped to the keyboard of the main computer, opened a console window and entered “users.” Sure enough, there was our Atlanta developer logged in and working.

Even though computers and networks put food on my table, I’m sometimes still amazed by the tasks we can accomplish with technology and by the ability to do it all remotely. A small moment, I know, but the sound of that running tape drive reminded me that only 20 years ago (when I was half my age!), operating that machine remotely would have been a much, much bigger accomplishment. Today? No big deal.

It’s a pretty cool world, indeed – one that still occasionally fills me with remote amazement.