The Loss Of Knowledge

I’m in an email group, and someone sent out a link about a company that tried to bring back Craftsman tool manufacturing to the States. It failed. TL;DR: they had to buy their equipment from overseas, and get new parts and tech support from overseas. No one left in the US that could do it.

That brought out other stories about the loss of knowledge in manufacturing. Apparently there are only a handful of people in the US who really know how to repair toilet paper manufacturing gear.

But it’s not just manufacturing. In my latter days in telecom, I — officially — worked broadband support; DSL and fiber Internet. But one day, the supervisor from another group came to me in a tizzy, wanting to know if I knew Frame Relay.

I doubt that it’s used much anymore, but back in the day, FR was much beloved by customers who didn’t want to shell out the bigger bucks for dedicated T1 or T3 service. The company still had quite a few legacy FR customers, and one was out of service. And no one in that other group knew how to troubleshoot FR anymore. Apparently some manager remembered seeing the words “Frame Relay” on my resume.

The supervisor gave me the circuit number, and I pulled it up. LMI Down. “Problem’s at customer prem. His equipment is down.”

“How can you be sure?”

“Cuz that’s what LMI Down means.” (Basically, it’s our FR switch saying, ‘I’m fine, but the customer’s equipment stopped talking to me.’)

“But how can you be sure?!”

-sigh- So I looped the smartjack, ran a clean BER test, dropped the loop, and LMI Down again. “We’re good. It’s the customer.” Then I had to explain why the test I ran proved that. In small words. To the allegedly experienced technical supervisor for a multi-state telecom company.

After that, I seemed to get every Frame Relay trouble ticket, and every time it was LMI down.

Another company: I had recently started in the Indy office. One day, the shit hit the fan when a phone customer called 911. And the call was answered in… Evansville, I think. The office was new, and someone had screwed up the switch routing tables, and previous tech I replaced had never tested it.

Imagine you’re having a heart attack and you’re trying to get an ambulance from the wrong end of the state because a tech didn’t know how to do his job.

That lack of knowledge can bite you in the ass at lower levels than your technicians. If janitors don’t know what they’re doing….

At yet another telecom company, a customer’s circuit (also Frame Relay, by coincidence) started going dead Friday nights at about the same time. After a few weeks of that, the customer finally admitted that 1) their FR equipment was powered from a switched electrical receptacle on the same circuit as the room lights, and 2) their janitor was turning off the lights (and their gear) when he was done cleaning. After that, their circuit only went dead about every other Friday night, as the janitor was told not to turn the lights out, but didn’t always remember.

That customer was a nationwide trucking company. The Frame Relay circuit was how they coordinated loads between facilities for movement across the country. If you recall the shipping fiascoes during peak “pandemic,” you can guess what havoc the janitor was causing. Didn’t get your live saving meds on time?

Same company: Youngish engineer knocked out an entire SONET ring. He was doing potentially service affecting work, and shorted out a DC bus. When asked why he was doing that in the middle of the day, He replied, “The manual said it wouldn’t be service affecting.” But it was, because he didn’t know how to do the work correctly, or know enough to take in account the possibility of an error. That one affected a lot of businesses, including hospitals. Way to go, Sparky.

Then there was the high school that had an OC-12 SONET system. I started dropping Monday mornings, and coming back up about 15 minutes later. Turned out the janitor, for lack of a more convenient outlet, was stupidly unplugging the OC-12, so he could plug in his floor buffer. (I’ve heard a hopefully-apocryphal story of a hospital janitor doing the same thing with patient equipment; specifically a ventilator keeping the person alive.)

I’ve got more stories about ignorance causing problems; from the manager killing an FAA T3 connecting Air Traffic Control centers for coordinating flights, to a hospital IT manager who — I kid you not — didn’t know that his electrically operated computer terminal needed electricity to operate (and wanted the phone company to tell him when the electricity would come back on).

We’re running out of people who still know how to keep our technological systems running, when everything doesn’t work as planned. And it’s going to be killing people.

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2A advocate, writer, firearms policy & law analyst, general observer of pre-apocalyptic American life.

9 thoughts on “The Loss Of Knowledge”

  1. That old trope about John Titor ( time traveler BS) was based on the futures need to back in time to fetch an old IBM that they could use to correct a problem in future time. Nice story but pure BS. However, like the article, I am old enough to have lived through old legacy systems that no one lese could work on but me. Like an old WEM batching computer that still used floppy drives for back up and updates. It also had chip memory because because hard drives did not exist when it was built. I was the 40 year veteran that got the late night calls when there were problems.

  2. A short vignette for your enjoyment. My home has a basement sump pump that discharges occasional heavy rainfall, the clothes washer discharge and laundry sink drain. Been functional for 20 years. In 2020 I had a forced air furnace replaced. The fan circuit was in a junction box that also had the pump supply circuit. The replacement was done in one day, with a total demo needed. The power wiring was moved to a different location, but the junction box still contained the pump circuit. My wife washed a load of clothes several days later and the basement flooded. No damage but frustrating to clean up the mess. The washer was old, so I assumed the pump was the problem. Washed another load (under close supervision) and everything worked as needed. Curious, I was. Next day, another washer load, basement floods. However when I opened the basement door and flipped on the light, the sump pump ran and cleared the area. Turns out the electrician who wired in the furnace had miss wired the feed from the original pump circuit to the lighting supply. So, lights on, pump runs, lights off basement floods. Why he did not mark the circuits when removing / replacing them shows a lack of experience. And caused a ton of problems. I called the installer and he (same electrician) came over and fixed the issue. He will probably not make that mistake again. But it does emphasize the fact that we are rapidly losing the ability to accomplish even simple tasks. And I for one, am very sad about that.

  3. The more advanced a civilization is, the less resilient it is in the long run unless the standards are kept.

    And it was never more valid than today that
    “Tough men create safety,
    Safety engenders weak men,
    Weak men engender weak societies,
    Weak societies engender tyrannies.”

    We could re-write it as
    “Able men create civilization,
    Safety and comfort engender men without abilities,
    Men without abilities engender weak societies,
    Weak societies lose civilization.”

    I’ve read somewhere that we can’t build anymore Stinger MANPADS (an infantry portable AAA missile) because the last one was built 20 years ago and the people that knew how to build them (by hand, BTW, there’s no automatism there) retired and nobody replaced them because the requests had dried out and you can’t buy parts because the technology is today obsolete and then we create this WW3 in eurabia and give a lot of our stock to ukronazistan and now we are low and need more in a hurry and . . . . . good luck . . . . . . we can’t be built anymore and it will take years to solve the problem by developing a replacement from the ground up, basically.

    And, BTW, we probably don’t have enough Stingers in stock to fight our own war if we decide to involve ourselves in another one.

    And Stingers are not the worse of our problems.

    I once knew of a bank that had a legacy program in COBOL that had upwards of 10,000 lines that managed their checking accounts that had been running quite well for years but needed upgrading and the dudes that wrote it and debugged it and installed it were not available anymore and they could find nobody to work on it and the specifications had been misplaced a long time ago and the program was, by then, like a black box that nobody could touch and they didn’t even have the means to have a replacement written and, to add insult to injury, the code was somewhat esoteric because the source code was very sparsely self-documented and hardly state of the art when it was written.

    It’s an old problem. It is going to worse. Much worse. You know what some are saying “old, white dudes are not all that inspiring” Good luck with your submarine.

    In today’s anti-white environment white dudes are being shunned. Well. You can’t go to the cockpit at 10,000 feet and tell the white old dudes in there that they are fired because you life expectancy is going to be measured in seconds. But that is what we are doing.

    Ayn Rand gave us “Anthem” and leftoxenomorphs are using it as a “how to” manual.

    We will end up losing electricity.

    In germany they are collecting fire wood and buying large quantifies of candles because germany is de-industrializing and they won’t have the Russian gas that they used to.

    Civilization is under attack by an aggressive and messianic anti-human and anti-industrial religion of lefto-pukism that I call “leftoxenomorphism”

    And civilization is losing.

    And too many folks are not even aware that this is happening.

    Iatrogenics is murdering people left and right and nobody of any relevance seems to be giving it any attention.

    Yes, people are dying. And many more are going to die.

    And leftoxenomorphs are quite happy with it because they want to depopulate the Earth of humans.

    If it is bad for humans, leftoxenomorphs love it.

    If it good for humans, leftoxenomorphs hate it.

  4. I’m seeing this in my industry. I expect when I retire That job offers will still come in. I may accept one if I’m bored but my employer will have to pay through the nose for my experience. Some of these kids I see now couldn’t change a car tire and don’t seem capable of remembering anything technical even after detailed instruction.

  5. We are seeing the same thing in Power generation and transmission. Young folks are not coming into the trades, and us old farts are retiring as our bodies break down. The knowledge and skills to run a civilization are being lost, and yes people are dying now.


  6. Tangent:
    Client says: “Your company’s machine keeps turning off before it finishes processing the days receipts.”
    Me: “Around the same time you are closing the store?”
    C: “Yeah, usually”.
    Me: “It’s plugged into its dedicated ac outlet?”
    C: “Yes”.
    Me: “You sure? Could you please check?”
    C: “Just get here at midnight to fix it!” (Dec 23/24).
    I arrive.
    Me: “It’s not plugged into the dedicated outlet reserved for it.”
    C: “Yeah, we need the outlet for something else.” Click click.
    Me: “You just turned off the outside lights and the power to the outlet. Not covered by the contract. Sign here.”

    At a different site:
    Me: “Um, the dedicated phone line seems to have someone talking on it. I can’t run diagnostics. Did you hook an extension phone onto it?”
    Client: “You’ll have to wait until that guy outside gets off the pay phone.”
    Me: “Um. What? How do you run transactions?”
    C: “We didn’t wanna pay for a phone line. It’s cheaper this way”.
    Me: “Don’t customers get miffed?”
    C: “Nah. We just tell ’em your machine is broke”. (While I was working on the gear, this same numbskull tripped the silent alarm to see if the cops would show up. They did. We chatted for a bit…)

    1. Pay phone. Ok, that’s a new one for me. But then… there are those times at certain shops where card transactions can take an oddly long time to process.

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