Elemental dangers

Thomas R. Temin

Many years ago, my in-laws had a tiny dog. It was a toy Doberman pinscher'a ridiculous animal in most respects. One time we gave it a mostly-eaten T-bone steak from a restaurant.

As it began to gnaw on the bone, the dog lost its comical pet qualities as the vestigial wild animal within appeared. This dog, which I used to joke would be suitable for drop-kick practice, turned into a vicious, snarling beast intent on protecting its bloody kill at all costs. The spectacle made me say, 'Whoa'we've got a dog here!'

I thought of that dog when following the story of the recent supercomputer fire at the National Centers for Environmental Prediction.

Quick as an overheated piece of wire, the destructive elements of nature intruded on the hermetic high-tech environment at NCEP in Federal Office Building 4 [GCN, Oct. 25, Page 40]. No one was immediately certain whether the fire and ensuing dousing in bicarbonate ruined the $35 million machine, or whether it could be cleaned up.

Our veneer of safety from the elements seems thin at times, just as the domestication of that toy Doberman was brushed aside by the taste of steak.

Caught up in the daily demands of keeping systems running, systems administrators often relegate disaster recovery to the back burner. Or they think of disaster merely in terms of failed disks or hacker attacks, not threats to life and property wrought by natural disasters.

Now, as agencies plan the 1999-2000 transition endgame, the meaning of date code fixing is a lot clearer. Many federal officials'and their contractors'will be at work through New Year's Eve. And many are worried about potential problems more elemental than the disruption of government benefits.

I'm willing to bet that the doomsday predictions of widespread power outages, riots and food shortages will not occur. Still, the thought of wading through nervous crowds on New Year's Eve to get to a building that might be inaccessible because the power's out'heck, that would cause any federal worker a moment's unease.

As the sergeant on a TV cop show used to say: 'Be careful out there.'

Thomas R. Temin

Editorial director

Internet: editor@gcn.com

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