Friday, August 05, 2011

The Butterfly Effect


Some faceless chap in Nairobi owes me — big time.

We all know what the butterfly effect is, right? A butterfly flaps its wings, somewhere in the jungle in Papua New Guinea, and stirs a leaf which drops a drop of water onto a hapless frog. Startled, the hapless frog takes a leap ... right into the mouth of a hungry alligator. (Do they have alligators in Papua New Guinea? I'm not sure.)

The alligator, delighted with its meal, decides it's time for a nap. He crawls out into a warm, sunny space on a rock and falls asleep. Right before a tiger comes sauntering across the rock. (I suppose there aren't tigers in Papua New Guinea, either, but just go with it.)

The tiger comes unexpected upon the napping alligator, and a big fight ensues. The roars and snarls startle a huge flog of pelicans, nesting nearby, and they all take to wing, rising high into the humid sky. The massive stir of air from the wings of so many large birds is just enough to encourage a little storm action in that humid cloud, and a thunderhead begins to form. It's near a convergence zone — where warm air meets cooler — and the thunderstorm begins to swirl angrily and grow larger.

Slowly the storm crosses the Pacific, gaining momentum. Eventually it gathers strength and becomes a terrible hurricane which rains down destruction on many countries.

All because a butterfly flapped its wings in Papua New Guinea.

So, back to Nairobi. Well, first I should let you know that I have been using the same old dog-slow laptop computer, a Dell D-630, for several years now. I am hard on computers, always trying to push them to their limits and beyond, so the net effect is they get slower and slower and slower. Eventually I am trying to do the job of a web guru with stone age tools. At least in relative terms.

So, I was overdue for a new computer. My new department didn't have budget for it, but they did have a used hand-me-down E-model (left by someone else who had moved on from my old department after it was closed) which was still significantly newer and better and higher capacity than my old Dell D-630. So they sent it to my employer's IT department who started working on configuring it for me.

Unfortunately this is not a rapid process. The easy part is erasing the hard drive. The hard (and slow) part is putting all the software I need on it, copying across all my data files, configuring it to be exactly the way I want it. As it turns out, this takes weeks.

A week ago, it was almost ready. But then the guy who was working on it either quit the company or got laid off, I'm not sure which. I was sure he was done with it, but apparently he didn't document his process very well, because they weren't. They assigned a new guy, who was going to start over.

Enter the faceless chap from Nairobi. One of my colleagues was there on assignment, covering the famine in East Africa. She was walking down a crowded street, toting her nice fancy laptop (at least fancy compared to mine), when our faceless, nameless chap snatched her bag from her shoulder and quickly disappeared into the crowd.

So my colleague was laptopless. She managed to get a loaner and was limping along.

Meantime, my coworkers here started trying to figure out how they were going to get her a new laptop. We have no budget for such things. So they started looking at me hungrily. "Hey, she can have my old one," I volunteered.

When they gave me that look like, "Yeah, right," and didn't say anything in response to my generous suggestion, I knew I was hosed. Damn that butterfly.

So, what was formerly MY new laptop is now being reconfigured for my colleague's use, when she returns. The hurricane is gathering strength.

Okay, okay, I didn't write this blog just to gripe. I think there's a principle at work here. Perhaps one lesson to be learned is that our actions have ripple effects, consequences which we can in no way envision when we decide to act. That thief had no way of knowing, I'm sure, that his choices would put in serious jeopardy my ability to save the world.

And perhaps another lesson is: take care of your laptop computer. You might be using it for the next 10 years.

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