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The Snake That Ate The Centipede

May 1, 2014

It must have been a ferocious battle, a young female horned nose viper versus a monster centipede that weighed more than she did. Evidently the viper eventually got the better of her foe. She ate him.

But, that’s when it got interesting. The centipede wasn’t about to give up simply because he got eaten. Like Tommy Lee Jones in Men In Black, he attacked from the inside.

When the battle was over, both the snake and the centipede were dead. Fortunately for “J” he did better than the centipede.

(Photo credit: Ecologica Montenegrina)

What could this possibly have to do with business or computers? I’m glad you asked.

I was making one of my frequent visits to Washington DC as part of the WordPerfect SWAT team (How I Saved the EPA. Don’t Tell Pete!) This time I was meeting with Ryan Watkins, the administrator for the International Monetary Fund. (IMF) Ryan was old school even back in 1990. He ran a BBS on the side.

A BBS is a computer Bulletin Board Server. It was what the internet looked like before they invented the internet. Basically you dialed up on your 2400 baud modem and you were able to navigate through a set of folders. You could share files, or post comments. The Internet killed all the BBS’s long ago.

I enjoyed working with Ryan. Today he was fuming about one of his users.

Stupid users screwing up my email system!

What’d they do?

Well, a user was supposed to get a new computer. He didn’t want to bother with backing up his 40 megabyte hard disk to floppy disks.

That would take like 30 disks. What did he do instead?

He zipped up the entire thing. . and mailed it to himself.

Not like this.


He decided to email his entire hard drive to himself. Perhaps he’d seen the Star Trek The Next Generation episode where Mr Scott from the original series uploaded himself to the transporter buffer to survive a ship’s failure. (Relics)

Unfortunately for Ryan’s user, his experience was more like the snake and the centipede than it was Star Trek. Forty meg might not sound like much to you today. I’ve created Excel spreadsheets that were bigger. But in 1990 it was HUGE. Ryan’s entire email system probably only had a couple hundred meg of storage. So, when the user attached his huge file to an email message and addressed it to himself, it pretty much crashed Ryan’s system.

He had to manually rip the file out of multiple locations. He also had to explain to the managers why email was down for the day. Strangely he wasn’t able to “save” the file. Like the centipede, Ryan decided the file had to die on it’s way out of the system.

Mostly I think he was trying to teach the user to stop abusing the system.

Today, we lack such drama. A good email administrator can restrict the size of attachments and restrict the size of mailboxes. Storage has increased many times what it was in 1990. But, no matter how big you make your database, users will find way to fill it up.

More often than not, their attempts to cram too much into a system end up killing both the data and the host. After all, Men In Black was just a movie.

Rodney M Bliss is an author, columnist and IT Consultant. He lives in Pleasant Grove, UT with his lovely wife and thirteen children.

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