The Best of Creative Computing Volume 2 (published 1977)

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Let Us First Make It or And Now I Saw, Though Too Late, or Robinson Crusoe: A Book For All Computing Seasons (backing up major system components)

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myself with the design, without determining  whether I was able to undertake it;
not but that the difficulty of launching my boat came often into my head; but I
put a stop on my own inquiries into it, by this foolish answer: Let us first
make it; I warrant I will find some way or other to get it along when it is

This was a most preposterous method; but the eagerness of my fancy prevailed,
and to work I went. I felled a cedar tree, and I question much whether Solomon
ever had such a one for the building of the Temple at Jerusalem; it was five
feet ten inches diameter at the lower part next the stump, and four feet eleven
inches diameter at the end of twenty-two feet, where it lessened and then parted
into branches. It was not without infinite labour that I felled this tree; I was
twenty days hacking and hewing at the bottom, and fourteen more getting the
branches and limbs, and the vast spreading head of it, cut off; after this, it
Cost me a month to shape it and dub it to a proportion, and to something like
the bottom of a boat, that it might swim upright as it ought to do. It cost me
near three months more to clear the inside, and work it out so as to make an
exact boat of it: this I did, indeed, without fire, by mere mallet and chisel,
and by the dint of hard labour, till I had brought it to be a very handsome
periagua, and big enough to have carried six-and-twenty men, and consequently
big enough to have carried me and all my cargo.

When I had gone through this work, I was extremely delighted with it. The boat
was really much bigger than ever I saw a canoe or a periagua that was made of
one tree, in my life. Many a weary stroke it had cost, you may be sure; and
there remained nothing but to get it into the water; which, had I accomplished,
I make no question but I should have begun the maddest voyage, and the most
unlikely to be performed, that ever was undertaken.


But all my devices to get it into the water failed me; though they cost me
inexpressible labour too. It lay about one hundred yards from the water, and not
more; but the first inconvenience was, it was up hill towards the creek. Well,
to take away this discouragement, I resolved to dig into the surface of the
earth and so make a declivity; this I began, and it cost me a prodigious deal of
pains; but who grudges pains that have their deliverance in view? When this was
worked through, and this difficulty managed, I was still much the same, for I
could no more stir the canoe than I could the other boat. Then I measured the
distance of ground, and resolved to cut a dock, or canal, to bring the water up
to the canoe, seeing I could not bring the canoe down to the water. Well, I
began this work; and when I began to enter upon it, and calculate how deep it
was to be dug, how broad, how the stuff was to be thrown out, I found by the
number of hands I had, having none but my own, that it must have been ten or
twelve years before I could have gone through with it; for the shore lay so
high, that at the upper end it must have been at least twenty feet deep; this
attempt, though with great reluctancy, I was at length obliged to give over

This grieved me heartily; and now I saw, though too late, the folly of beginning
a work before we count the cost, and before we judge rightly of our own strength
to go through with it.

This passage gives a very graphic picture of how the seduction takes place. His
decision to "first make it" and then to worry about launching the boat later
characterizes all too well the misplaced optimism we all seem to succumb to from
time to time in designing and implementing systems.


Backing up major system components

The second illustration concerns Crusoe's design and implementation of a backup
supply of goats. Earlier in the narrative, Crusoe went to considerable pain to
capture and domesticate some wild goats and they have since become a principal
component in his diet.

While this was doing, I was not altogether careless of my other affairs: for I
had a great concern upon me for my little herd of goats; they were not only a
ready supply to me on every occasion, and began to be sufficient for me, without
the expense of powder and shot, but also without the fatigue of hunting after
the wild ones; and I was loath to lose the advantage of them, and to have them
all to nurse up over again.

For this purpose, after long consideration, I could think of but two ways to
preserve them: one was, to find another convenient place to dig a cave under
ground, and to drive them into it every night; and the other was, to enclose two
or three little bits of land, remote from one another, and as much concealed as
I could, where I might keep about half a dozen young goats in each place; so
that if any disaster happened to the flock in general, I might be able to raise
them again with little trouble and time; and this, though it would require a
great deal of time and labour, I thought was the most rational design.

Accordingly, I spent some time to find out the most retired parts of the island;
and I pitched upon one, which was as private, indeed, as my heart could wish
for: it was a little damp piece of ground, in the middle of the hollow and thick
woods, where, as is observed, I almost lost myself once before, endeavouring to
come back that way from the eastern part of the island. Here I found a clear
piece of land, near three acres, so surrounded with woods, that it was almost an
enclosure by nature; at least, it did not want near so much labour to make it so
as the other pieces of ground I had worked so hard at.

I immediately went to work with this piece of ground, and in less than a month's
time I had so fenced it round, that my flock, or herd, call it which you please,
who were not so wild now as at first they might be supposed to be, were well
enough secured in it; so, without any further delay, I removed ten young
she-goats and two he-goats to this piece; and when they were there, I continued
to perfect the fence, till I had made it as secure as the other, which, however,
I did at more leisure, and it took me up more time by a great deal.

That Robinson Crusoe should provide backup for such an essential component of
his survival as his goat herd seems so obvious as to need no comment. However,
how often do professional programmers and analysts fail utterly to provide
backup for equally essential components of their own systems?


Further reflections

Cases like the two just presented abound in the book. Mistakes and successes are
even replicated, just as they too often are in the contemporary systems world.
The insight which these cases afford is particularly appealing because the
adventure does not purport to deal with systems or computing at all! Moreover,
though the cases largely lack the complex human interface problems common to
systems involving many people (Robinson Crusoe lives and labors alone on his
island for most of the narrative), this simplification allows Defoe to strip
problems to their essentials. Crusoe's work is done primarily for himself. He is
his own end user. As such, he must, in the most literal of all senses, "live
with" the system he creates. Defoe thus presents us with the entire systems
environment in a very compact form.

What else lies within the narrative of Crusoe's life on the island? Get a copy
of Robinson Crusoe, read it, and find out. Be prepared to see your systems work
in a refreshing new light. And should you feel too critical of Crusoe's
solutions to his many problems, notice how long he survived. His solutions were
viable enough to keep him going for 27 years, 2 months, and 19 days. Can any of
us top that?

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