Those of us in a certain generation will remember the “The Rocky & Bullwinkle Show” with fondness. One of the running gags that made an impression on my young mind at the time featured two infrequently recurring characters named Edgar and Chauncey. Their set up was always the same:
Edgar: 'Now there's something you don't see every day, Chauncey.' Chauncey: 'What's that, Edgar?'
This past weekend I got the chance to experience my own Edgar and Chauncey moment. However, since I was by myself at the time, there was no straight man to pick up the cue.
In Oregon (land of no retail sales tax and full-service gas stations), there is a five cent deposit fee on cans or bottles of water, soft drinks, and beer. You can reclaim your nickel if you return the empty container to a designated recycle center accepting bottles and cans. Retail establishments of a certain size are required by Oregon law to provide such a facility. Thus, I found myself outside my local grocery/department store at 8:00 AM with some cans and plastic bottles. (I like to recycle early in the day before the crowds start lining up with, literally, cartloads of cans and bottles.)
The can processing station was working just fine and I got $1.90. However, the two bottle stations were having problems. A store employee had them both open and was tinkering with the innards. Here’s a picture of what is behind the façade.
In the middle is the bottle intake where the label and UPC is scanned. If the bottle is accepted it goes into a collection bin (below); if the label is unreadable or something else causes the bottle to be rejected, it is returned to the user. Up above is the computer system that runs the scanning and recognition software. The mouse and keyboard are in the middle of the top shelf next to the CPU black box sitting in the upper right.
After poking around the mechanical bits, the impromptu repairman decided to reboot the computer systems. He pulled out the CPU box and manually did a power recycle. As the system went through the booting process, I watched the screen for the sake of curiosity. I was flabbergasted with what I saw come up, which led me to my “Edgar” moment. Before I could take out my phone to snap a picture, it was gone. Fortunately for me, the reboot initially failed and was tried again. This second reboot I was ready and got the following picture.
Now, that is something you don’t see every day, Chauncey, or at all. Especially in 2014.
As I ruminated on it further, I remembered that NASA is reluctant to change computer equipment and software since they have extremely rigorous qualification protocols to certify that such equipment will not fail. Asphyxiating astronauts or losing track of a manned mission in space or exploding rockets on the launching pad are all good reasons to be certain that the chance for catastrophic errors are all but impossible.
Recycling cans and bottles isn’t such a mission critical endeavor, but if the system ain’t broke there’s no need to replace or fix it. Either that or following the letter of the law is going to be done as cheaply as possible to protect the bottom line. Thus, if we’re “lucky” enough to gain a peek behind the scenes, we will continue to see outdated versions of operating systems and processor technology driving simple automated systems. On the plus side, I don’t see hackers dusting off their 3.25 inch disk drives to recover virus files and applications that can be unleashed to attack these systems. Safety in obsolescence?
In the end the bottle machines never got running, so I had to pack up all my empties and cart them back home.