I told my friend Dennis E. Powell that I’m starting to believe in Skynet.
Over the last week, virtually everything that could go wrong with the technology I depend on for work has gone wrong, as if it has actively turned against me. Having spent a fair number of years wrangling information technology, one thing has always provided a path to survival in those times: redundancy. Redundancy masks problems in the best of ways, much like the physical masks that are such a lightning rod in our culture today.
Though I’m a pastor and not primarily an IT worker any longer, the pandemic period forced a great deal of ministry to lean more heavily into the tech world and I have tried to embrace my past experience and run with that impulse.
One way I’ve done that is to embrace the live streaming medium with a sermon I write each week specifically for a Monday night stream. For 77 weeks now, I have streamed each Monday evening and, for the bulk of those weeks, the technology worked predictably. In those times that everything is working well, it can almost seem silly to have back up systems. Why bother with an extra microphone or presentation remote or Internet connection when everything works? Isn’t that a waste?
It is until it isn’t. Redundancy is something very few people appreciate until suddenly it saves the day. (This is why too few people backup their photos and other data and then suddenly become backup evangelists when an unexpected drive failure wipes out years of memories and work.)
A couple of months ago, just before stream time, the presentation remote I use to bring up Scripture and other slides on the stream gave up the ghost. It would only go backwards, not forwards. As interesting as it might have been to preach the sermon backwards, I opted instead for a backup: I had a wireless Bluetooth keyboard at my side if the remote failed.
I ordered a replacement remote the very same evening. One important thing about redundancy is that you need to replace the parts that fail when they do, otherwise you’re down to a single point of failure as if you never had backup plans to begin with.
A longer running example for me has been my Internet connection. My Spectrum cable Internet has an uncanny ability to sputter out minutes before the scheduled live stream. The cable company’s technicians have looked around and insist nothing is amiss — there isn’t anything wrong when they come — but I can almost set my watch to 6:55 pm on Monday nights by when my pipe to the Internet suddenly decides to help me relive the days of dial up modems.
The live stream would have long ago ceased by lack of ability to transmit it, but for another example of redundancy that I’ve become a huge fan of: Speedify. Speedify is a nifty service that lets me combine my cell phone’s hotspot and my Spectrum Internet into a single “bonded” connection, keeping my stream up even when one of the members of the bond isn’t fairing so well.
Those two measures have kept most things running smoothly. Until this week. Suddenly, the USB video capture device I use to bring video in from my camera forgot how to stay in sync with my audio. Anyone who has watched live streaming has seen times where the person speaking’s lips don’t quite match the audio, but this wasn’t just “a little out of sync,” this was “might as well close your eyes because the screen is no longer showing anything near what you are hearing” kind of out of sync.
In this case, even having a backup didn’t immediately save me: I’ve been using a surprisingly cheap, but surprisingly good, generic USB capture device and had a spare, but whatever was giving the first one fits interacting with the computer was no better with the second.
I raided the OFB Labs closet, which had the recently reviewed Esywen/Acasis video capture device. It still had the faults I discussed in that piece — and a new one I discovered: much higher system resource usage than my usual type of card — but it had one crucial advantage: it worked when the others were failing moments before I was supposed to stream Monday night.
Flawed, but working, after all, is better than not working at all. The stream did go on — and I got to preach the Gospel.
In that, I think, we see the answer to the memes going around about vaccines and masks. Kevin Sorbo had tweeted out one, for example, that made the rounds listing the various COVID protections and asking repeatedly: “If x works, why do we need y?” If masks work, why do we need social distancing? If social distancing works, why do we need vaccines? You get the drift.
The answer, much as with my technological tribulations, is redundancy of the less than perfect. Masks work, both pre-COVID and COVID era data suggests, but imperfectly. Social distancing works, but less than perfectly. Vaccines work, but imperfectly — and ever more imperfectly as the virus mutates thanks to ample opportunity to spread amongst those without any, you guessed it, redundancies.
In life there are very few things that work perfectly. We get insurance and look for warranties on things, precisely because we expect problems and failures. Certainly, as my experience this week highlights, sometimes even multiple layers of backups are necessary to overcome unexpected failures. When one has tiers of imperfect “backups,” it tends to be the stream can go on — or the virus can be stopped.
I urge friends and families to back up photos not because their computer’s storage “doesn’t work,” but because it does not always work.
Maybe, just maybe, redundancy will be what tides us over should Skynet decide to come to life and take a swipe at us. And, more definitely and less maybe, redundancy is a commonsense way to end this infernal pandemic that has clearly gone on way too long.