Sunday, February 7, 2016


Many, many years ago, I was in engineering school, with lots of friends who were computer geeks, working helldesk. Help Desk is a job where one has a phone line to even more concentrated stupid than twitter in political season, and is forced to try to help people from the most inarticulate to the most clueless fix whatever went wrong (usually user-caused.)

I swore I'd never work helldesk.

Fast forward quite a few years, and I've gone from working for airport maintenance to taking a job just for the fun of it, at Alaska's best avionics & pilot shop. (Miss that place! They're Good People, and do excellent work!) I was the pilot of the pilot shop ladies, and as such, I got to spend a fair amount of time doing updates, changing settings, and fixing many a pilot's GPS. Backing up their data before doing an update was an interesting in negotiation and trust.

For some reason, many a gentleman whose livelihood depended on guiding clients to his few scratch strips out in the bush where no one else knew a way in to a Dall sheep herd with trophy-sized males... was a might bit paranoid about people handling his GPS data.

And if you think guides are paranoid, let's not even talk about small-claim miners!

They responded well to complete honesty. "Look, sir, I'm rebuilding my T-crate. I couldn't care about your scratch strip, and I couldn't get out there anyway. Now, if you had a line on pre-WWII thickness aircraft sheet aluminum? That'd be a different story!"

I knew they trusted me when they came in and asked when I'd be on shift to fix their GPS.

Well, one day, the talented and beautiful leader of the pilot shop staff answered the phone, then stuck it in my direction with a rather odd look on her face. "It's for you."

"Awesomest Pilot Shop, Wing speaking, how can I help you?" I chirped, raising an eyebrow at my fearless leader.

There was a pause. A pause of a very peculiar variety. The quality of pause that told me this was a satellite phone call, and the pause was mostly lag as voice bounced back and forth from orbit. You get the oddest little hesitations ingrained when you do enough satellite phone calls, waiting to be sure you're not speaking over an incoming voice. And sure enough, after the small hesitation of I'm not saying anything else + lag, came a male voice that was hitting the highest alto of panic, near unto soprano as he yelped in fear.

"I'm on a sandbar and my GPS doesn't work!"

Ah. Interesting. Depending on where he was in where-ever-in-the-world, this could be real trouble. I pitch my voice as low and soothing as possible. "What happened?"

"I was chasing caribou tracks up a braided river, and got completely lost, and now I'm low on fuel and my GPS doesn't work!!" The panic was strong with this one, and for good reason: if he ran out of fuel before he found something that vaguely passes for civilization, he might get the CAP to do a search sweep and rescue him. Or he might die. If he panicked and left the only easy thing to find - the airplane - the chances were pretty high on the latter.

So I hitched myself onto the barstool of Long Phone Conversations, tucked the phone between my shoulder and ear, and slowed my speech down while dropping it to the same register as used for enticing scared cats out from under the pile of parts. "All right, sir. We can fix this. Let's start at the beginning. Does it even turn on when you push the power button?"

"It does, but it can't find the satellites!"

"Aaaah. Okay, I want you to turn it off, and then listen to my instruction before you turn it on. When it comes on, I want you to tell me what number shows in the lower left-hand corner of the boot-up screen. And then, when it goes to the satellite page, what date it's showing."

The pause is longer this time. "If I turn it off, do you think it'll come back on?"

"I'm sure of it, sir. We're going to find the software version number, the internal date, and then we're going to reset it so it thinks it's fresh from the factory and has to search then whole sky, instead of staring fixedly in the wrong spot for the satellites."

I'm sure of it. Just as sure as I'm working helldesk.