Thursday, July 31, 2014

Neighborhood Tech Support

I've been doing technical support for years. Since computers "came of age" as I did, I've had the benefit of using computers for most of my life. I put tapes into Tandy computers (the ones that co-opted a TV as the monitor), I put floppies into the Apple II to play "Number Munchers," played "Oregon Trail" on the Apple IIc, and I marveled at how much STUFF one could pack into the 3.5" HD variant of the disk drive on the IBM PS/2 my dad won in a business card drop.

For a large portion of that computer time, I've done tech support for other people. I can remember acting as a kind of teaching assistant for classes I was supposed to be in during elementary school. Helping various people get their computers working, programs loaded, commands understood, and designs drawn on LogoWriter. While I felt very self-important doing this, it really just amounted to obeying the three fundamental laws of tech support:

1) Is everything plugged in? Even if you think everything is plugged in, remove it and plug it in again. Much in the same way that gun safety has the primary rule "treat every gun as if it is loaded, especially when it isn't," sometimes even the cords that are plugged in are unplugged.

2) Try restarting. This is the biggest tool in the tech support arsenal. It also has the highest success chance of any fix. Computers are fast, but they think in straight lines. If they get nudged off the right path, they will blindly continue into the bushes, thinking they're still right on.

3) Restart again. Yes, seriously. Many is the time when restarting has failed to fix a problem, but restarting a second time solves everything. Yes, it's the same operation. Yes, it shouldn't make a difference. Yes, it totally worked the second time. Yes, this is why computer science feels more like "witch doctory" than something whose answers are usually 1 or 0 should.

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I bring this up because Lowell Zuck once needed my help applying all three rules. Lowell lived next door but one when I was growing up. He and his wife were regular fixtures in the neighborhood I grew up in, which is exactly the sort of place one means when one talks wistfully about "the neighborhood I grew up in."

Once, I was asked to come over to their house. Lowell had received a new computer from his son (I think) and though it had been working as recently as that morning, it was now inoperative. I walked the hundred yards of sidewalk and performed the Three Laws. Whatever problem this computer had previously benefited from the second restarting, and everything was going as normal. Cash and baked goods were pressed into my hands, despite my protestations that I hadn't actually "done" anything. The event is still remembered and mentioned years later.

Lowell was a retired professor of church history at the local theological seminary. And, yes: my neighborhood was one of the ones that has a "local theological seminary." He taught at seminary for forty years, and had "retired" into being an archivist at the library. He received a PhD from Yale in 1955, and his dissertation is entitled "ANABAPTIST REVOLUTION THROUGH THE COVENANT IN SIXTEENTH CENTURY CONTINENTAL PROTESTANTISM." Like any dissertation worth its salt, the title alone makes little sense to anyone except the people who need to see it. Nonetheless, if you search for his name on, you get results of books he was involved in. This is definitely the mark of someone cool.

"Doctor Zuck" is an appellation that comes strangely to me, because he was always "Mister Zuck" when I addressed him. And even more commonly, I would hear him referred to by my parents as "Lowell" so often, that's how I thought of him. "Lowell" is a distinctive name, so it was easy to keep him straight in conversations about the neighborhood activities long after I had moved away.

And yesterday, just after noon, Lowell died.

Close to midnight last night, I received a text from my father, letting me know of his death. He died shortly after lunch with his wife, which is a detail that is mundane and yet ominous, simultaneously echoing an Agatha Christie story and a Norman Rockwell painting. But there's nothing sinister here: he was long retired and had recent health problems when I was visiting last week.

When I searched for his name in the research for writing this entry (research I don't think I'd ever done before today), I found a pleasing article about his "emeritus" status from the seminary. It's an undated article that simply says Lowell had sat down "recently" to talk about his childhood. The link address (HERE) identifies the page as "Reflections on the Journey."  The final sentence is a pleasant image: "Today Dr. Zuck is Professor Emeritus and can frequently be seen on the Eden campus as he continues to contribute to the life of Eden Seminary."

Like all academics, his legacy causes only a minor shift in the structure of that sentence. "Doctor Zuck's works can be seen on campus as he continues to contribute to the life of Eden Seminary."

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