Beginnings, Middles, And Ends

Nurses showing the eleven babies that were born on New Year’s Day 1933 in a hospital in Berlin, Germany
Beginnings are important.
(image: Nationaal Archief, license: No known restrictions)

Recently, I was sitting in the hot tub at a hotel in Laughlin, Nevada. The spa jets were on a timer and, after a relaxing soak, the timer expired. This returned the jacuzzi to placid stillness. The chilly morning air, coupled with the reset button that was seemingly far away, prompted the following conundrum: should I brave the cold to turn the jets back on? Or, maybe I liked it better without them running? Yep, deep thoughts… I sat there and hoped someone would happen by and turn them on for me, saving me from my first-world dilemma.

As I was pondering this, the air jets briefly spurted back to life! Had my prayers been answered? Alas, it was a false victory because after only a few seconds they fell silent again. I assume this last gasp was the system balancing the pressure that had built up while the hot tub was running. I also noted that this was something you’d only see at the very end of the hot tub’s timer cycle.

This throwaway event got me thinking about the numerous beginnings, middles, and ends you will see as a Troubleshooter. Specifically, we’re interested in examining these 3 stages during normal operation and over a machine’s lifespan. Because different and unusual things happen in each of these phases, recognizing which stage a machine is in can be extremely useful.

Beginnings

The important institutions of humanity, whether religions, cultures, nations, or organizations, all have accounts of their origin which are studied with reverence:

People are naturally curious about the backstory of something they deem important, whether it’s the tale of how their parents met, a famous person’s upbringing, the inspiration for a bestseller, or the key ideas that preceded a major scientific breakthrough. For many comic book fans, the story behind their favorite superhero’s powers is the most intriguing part of the character.

I think origins fascinate us because we are prompted to play a mental game of connect-the-dots. Whenever I read a news report involving violence or an unfortunate accident, I want to know the preconditions: he was drunk and walking by himself late at night in a bad neighborhood, she hired the cheapest skydiving instructor that could possibly be found, etc. We like to believe that by knowing how something bad started, we could prevent it from happening to us. Likewise for positive outcomes: she went to Harvard before making partner at her law firm, he was almost hit by a bus and then bought a winning lottery ticket, etc. In life we can sometimes read too much (or too little) into beginnings, but they are vitally important to those who fix machines.

When a machine is assembled and run for the first time, some special things need to happen. The many prerequisites for operation need to be fulfilled, including adding consumables like gasoline, oil, ink, or electricity. Then, the machine needs to be configured to do useful work. Lastly, a break-in period may be required, running above or below a target level of usage, to ensure the longevity of certain components. Many mass-produced items are expected to simply work “out of the box,” so these initial steps are frequently done as part of the manufacturing process. If a machine is re-made by your effort, you must manually take these initial baby steps that would normally be done at the factory.

Just like it was thrilling to discover that Peter Parker’s powers stemmed from a chance bite by a radioactive spider, you should learn the backstories of the machines under your care with a similar level of enthusiasm. Geek confession: I followed the histories of the systems in my startup’s infrastructure with the zeal of an obsessed comic book fan. “This server has already been back twice to the manufacturer for crashing,” “This keyboard was involved in an epic coffee spill,” etc.

These kinds of origin stories may not be the subject of a big-budget summer blockbuster, but they are worthy of your attention if you are responsible for ensuring things work around your home or business. History is something to screen as you consider whether to let a machine into your Circle of TrustCarFax is a good example of a company that is dedicated to the premise that backstories matter: for a used car buyer, accident history, odometer fraud, or title problems is drama best avoided.

STONE SIDE ELEVATION LOOKING SOUTH, WEST BOUND TRAIN LOCOMOTIVE IN MOTION - Bancroft Bridge, Middlefield, Hampshire County, MA
In motion: a machine does useful work in the (hopefully long) middle part of its lifecycle.
(image: Library of Congress, license: Public domain)

Middles

There’s comparatively less to say about middles except that, like a caterpillar or centipede, I hope there’s a lot of it for your machines. While beginnings get a machine ready, middles are where the work gets done. I find these are the most prevalent causes of problems in the Middle phase:

  • Lack of routine maintenance: when a machine has a reduced lifespan, inadequate upkeep is often to blame. Routine maintenance keeps components within specification, and is essential for a machine to reach its expected longevity.
  • Resource exhaustion: these are among the simplest troubleshooting problems to solve, as the remedy is to add whatever has been depleted: gas, oil, ink, batteries, etc. Operating a machine to do work consumes these means, which is why resource exhaustion is associated with the middle stage of operation.

Assuming any problems with setup and break-in were handled correctly, the middle part is where a machine just cranks away, churning out widgets, highway miles, or bytes. I’ve come to really appreciate well-tuned systems in this stage. Perhaps you’ve encountered a machine like this, one that is broken in and running just right. With mechanical machines, this is an analog, physical presence. I’ve ridden motorcycles that have had this velvety quality: the brake lever and gear shifter are neither tight nor sloppy, the throttle moves smoothly, and the engine purrs.

Cemetary Gun Salute
Endings are a time to reflect and a prompt to move forward.
(image: Library of Congress, license: Public domain)

So We Beat On, Boats Against The Current

`Oh, I don’t know. I can’t count days in Rivendell,’ said Bilbo. ‘But quite long, I should think. We can have many a good talk. What about helping me with my book, and making a start on the next? Have you thought of an ending?’
‘Yes, several, and all are dark and unpleasant,’ said Frodo.
‘Oh, that won’t do!’ said Bilbo. `Books ought to have good endings. How would this do: and they all settled down and lived together happily ever after?’
`It will do well, if it ever comes to that,’ said Frodo.
‘Ah!’ said Sam. ‘And where will they live? That’s what I often wonder.’
J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring

We might laugh at this, but Sam is right: a story can go on forever. Where to cut it off is a deliberate choice made by the author. Sometimes I feel like the denouement was perfectly executed (The Great Gatsby), sometimes I would have liked a resolution much sooner (Lost), and other times I desired the tale to go on and on (Arrested Development, which eventually was extended: be careful what you wish for).

The endings of machines are also wide-ranging: they can be clear-cut, ambiguous, planned, forced upon you, happy, bittersweet, sudden, or catastrophic. Sam’s insight also applies because those concluding moments can be greatly influenced by your actions: repair and preventative maintenance give you a significant degree of control over when and how a machine dies. Closure of a system’s working life can also be temporary, as anyone who has prepared a boat or car for long-term storage knows.

For most people, picking the endpoint of a machine will be an economic decision (for more, see what I’ve written about the “repair or replace” dilemma). Also, an ending for you can be a beginning for someone else: sometimes the expiration of your relationship with a machine just means transferring it to someone else. Regardless of how a machine under your care meets its terminus, it’s an invitation for reflection and a prompt to move forward. The world keeps on changing, and your needs along with it…

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