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By Jack Ganssle

Walter Mitty Dreams

Published 9/23/2006

An hour into the Hong Kong-bound flight an attendant came on the PA and apologized for the broken video system. "We're calling our maintenance people and will work with them," she assured us.

As a confirmed nerd long cloistered in various labs my life is short on action stories. I have no tales of heroism under fire, nor have I performed an emergency tracheotomy with a pocket knife by flashlight. The President doesn't call when he needs urgent advice on complex foreign policy matters. Unlike James Bond I've never slipped into a country illegally, and my non-existent license to kill would probably result in an accidental suicide as I'm clueless around guns.

But I do know about embedded systems, and here was my chance to live a Walter Mitty dream! No, the aircraft wasn't in danger and there were no lives at stake, but 300 fuming passengers were facing 16 hours crammed into the A340 with the prospect of no entertainment. Things could have gotten ugly. Now an engineer could save the day.

But they'd probably never do a Hollywood dramatization ("based on a real story!") of the rescue.

The lead flight attendant listened politely till she understood that I wanted her to cycle the system's circuit breaker. Then she backed away and lost her plastered-on "can I help you?" smile and firmly suggested I return to my seat. Her arched eyebrows and now severe expression made it clear that just offering advice about messing with any part of the aircraft's electronics raises the terrorist specter. Fine; I had what turned out to be a beautifully-written 800 page book (The Way the Crow Flies by Ann-Marie MacDonald) to while away the hours.

Half an hour later maintenance apparently came up with a solution. The same attendant announced they were going to (surprise) turn the system off and then back on. The screens went blank for a moment till a penguin appeared which like a Buddha benignly presided over a command-line interface. Several hundred Bash-shell commands screamed off the displays. Twenty minutes later, the boot complete, passengers had their video back.

On the return flight last week we were again treated to a mid-ocean reboot of the same system, though this time I kept my mouth shut. My dream of leaping into the fray to save the day - even if that meant nothing more than doing a routine reboot - remains as much a fantasy as Walter Mitty's reveries.

Engineers rarely dramatically save the day. In real life it's Delta Force; in the movies count on Bruce Willis or the governor of California.

There still are those daydreams when I think that the bleating phone will be a summons to an emergency meeting with Condie Rice. But she'll probably just be looking for advice about rebooting her iPod.