Engine failure on the
20, 1994 09:48
8:00 Toowong, Australia :: 21 JUL 94
You all may be wondering why I've been out of touch for so long. Well,
Murphy the Optimist discovered many laws governing everyday reality, the
primary axiom being "Anything that can go wrong will." In my
close encounter with Murphy, the PCMCIA II high speed modem in the Toshiba
partially broke down sometime after the first day of my trip into the
Australian bush. It failed to acquire a dial tone from the telephone line
and wouldn't dial out (even with an X3 in the init string). In all other
manners it appeared to operate flawlessly, even responding to all known
AT modem commands.
Since I'd been experiencing various difficulties connecting on some phone
systems already, and seen a friend's modem fail to connect in much the
same manner, I couldn't be absolutely certain the lack of a dial tone
didn't originate as an incompatibility with the local telecommunications
system which In some remote areas remains somewhat backwards. Only three
years ago an operator manually switched lines for Canaway Downs (an outback
sheep station I recently visited and about which you'll hear more) and
neighbouring properties. Remember those ancient images from Pathe newsreels
of telephone switchboards?
The breakdown occurred on my first day of travel into some of the most
remote country in the industrialized world. For the next two days, believing
the local phone systems to be at fault, I got further and further away
from technological salvation. I was never certain whether the modem itself
was at fault until this week back in Brisbane where a service tech confirmed
my worst fears.
Given these experiences, I here define
Jennings' Law of the Technological Frontier
The Mean Time to Failure for any portable technology is defined
by the following relationship:
Where M is Mean Time to Failure measured in years; D represents
the hours required to transport the device to a reliable service technician
using any available transportation; R is the probability of systematic
interface failure between the portable device and any local technology
to which it must be connected.
The formula M = 1/D², a classic Murphyism, governs situations such
as your car running out of gas when the distance to the nearest filling
station is maximized. This relationship does not adequately define the
conditions of portable technology. For example, the likelihood that your
PCMCIA modem will break down increases with distance from civilization
and decreases with local telecom system reliability. In this new formula
the variable 'R' accounts for two additional factors.
- The probability that the portable technology's failure mode will be
indistinguishable from a system interface failure.
- The probability that the interface itself will break the portable
The second of these represents not a Murphyism but a very real problem
described by systems theory. For example, plugging your 110v appliance
into a 220v Australian electrical socket will likely result in a defunct
appliance. The failure occurs at the interface, breaking the device.
On the other hand, the first factor is pure Murphy. If your modem fails
to connect via the remote microwave station link 3 days into the Australian
bush is it due to an interface problem, or is the modem broken? Remoteness
limits your troubleshooting options; until you connect it to a system
known to be reliable you can't be sure whether the modem has broken or
simply failed to interface properly with the foreign system. Or as Murphy
would say, the more difficult it is to determine whether the device is
broken, the more likely the device will appear to fail.
The Murphy gotcha here: "What do you do?" Do you go to the
expense of shipping the modem to a service center only to find that the
modem works fine but couldn't connect properly to the local interface?
Or do you continue traipsing about the Outback hoping to find an oasis
of reliability in Australian Telecom's rural/bush technology when, in
fact, the modem is broken?
Neither of these options appealed greatly to me, but being, like Murphy,
an optimist, I took the second.
11:51 Kingscliff, Australia :: 1 AUG 94
Well, I'd have been better off to be pessimistic.
In addition to learning that the modem was indeed broken, I also discovered
how expensive communications technology can be here. A PCMCIA Type II
14.4 Fax Modem runs in the neighbourhood of $700 Australian, about $720
CDN. The same device can be had in Canada for less than $300 CDN.
Had the cost been lower I'd have simply replaced the modem. Once reconnected,
pursuing the Vancouver retailer of the broken modem for satisfaction could
easily and inexpensively have been achieved through email. Instead, several
lengthy phone calls to Vancouver were necessary and I have been required
to pay the costs of FedExing the defunct modem to North America and shipping
the replacement back to Oz. Further, no replacement would be shipped until
the broken modem had been received and the warranty verified by the manufacturer.
That process began two weeks ago and I have not yet received the replacement.
1:17 Toowong, Queensland :: 20 AUG 94
Replacing the modem proved to be where Murphy really went to town. It
would take 4 weeks + a day for the replacement to arrive. This delay was
due primarily to a mixture of tragedy and incompetence in equal parts
at the Canadian retailer. After assuring me the replacement would be shipped
in the afternoon, it sat on Rene's desk for one week while he recovered
from his lunchtime car accident. His coworkers didn't even apologize a
week later when I called. Initially, they insisted it had been sent! An
apologetic Rene was back at work a week after that. "It's on it's
way!" he assured me. "When was it sent?" I asked. "Ummm.
This morning." was the reply.
At least he apologized.
When a courier assures you a package crossing the Equator and both tropics
will arrive "Noon Friday", assume Monday morning. That's how
it happened both there and back. I sat around the apartment on three Fridays
and three Mondays before it arrived on the third Monday at 8:45. The knocks
on the door didn't wake me up so the modem wasn't actually delivered until
Tuesday, at Noon, even though I was up at 8AM waiting for it.
So it was Tuesday, August 16 that I finally inserted the long-awaited
device into the PCMCIA slot, booted the computer, started my mail client
. . . and failed to connect.
Small problem. PCMCIA modems, of course, require software configuration
and that software comes on a setup disk. No such disk came in the envelope.
I know where mine is-the one that came with the defunct modem-in a box
at the bottom of a pile of boxes in a storage locker. No one distributes
Megahertz modems or setup disks in Australia and the technical service
numbers in North America are useless here because Australian Telecom doesn't
generate the proper tones to activate their touch-tone menus and the lines
offer no fall through case to get a human receptionist.
Salvation came in the form of a 1200 baud external modem my brother-in-law
borrowed from work. It only took about 2 hours to download the setup disk
at about $16 US an hour ($8/hr to connect to CompuServe via Australia's
FALNET and another $8/hr, I think, for downloading software from Compuserve's
Finally, IT WORKS!!!!
I learned a few lessons from this ordeal:
- Prevention: I'm trying to track down a telephone line filter that
will hopefully reduce line spikes and foreign signal abnormalities that
could damage the modem.
- Modem Replacement:
- If you really, really must stay connected, bite the bullet and
purchase a new modem locally.
- Beg, borrow or rent a temporary modem replacement.
- Order one from home: the cheaper prices will offset the shipping
- Wait until you get home.
Don't be tempted by the carrot dangling in your face 'cause Murphy's
holding the stick. Even a used low-baud external can keep you operational
and these can often be gotten cheaply with some legwork. Should
you elect to have a replacement shipped out and you're more than
a few time zones away from all your suppliers, you should probably
consider it very important to stay connected; beg, borrow or rent
a temporary replacement. eMail and FAX are much more cost-effective
methods for communicating with the people 'handling' your problems
than telephone, particularly if you're forced to make those calls
in the middle of the night. Save the phone calls for when you're
- Dealing With Suppliers: The reliability of industry people seems inversely
proportional to your ability to walk in their door and hassle them.
Follow up on every promise rather than waiting a week for your dreams
to come true. And if something feels wrong, or someone tells you they
'think' something's going to happen, press the agent until they've verified
their beliefs. Essentially, treat them as if you're the technical service
rep and they're the dumb user, be courteous but firm and make no assumptions
as to the depth and breadth of their knowledge.
-- Responses Sought --