Saturday, January 19, 2013

What Does a PCV Do Anyway?

My daddy taught me a lot about living a good life. I wish I'd been smart enough to pay better attention when I was 18, but I survived long enough to be able look back and pick out the important stuff through the prism of my own experience. For example, he taught me not to try to fix a PCV without the right tools, the right parts, and the right kind of training. Let me tell you about that.

My father and brothers ran a fuel distribution business in the late '70s and early '80s. That included what was still called a "service station". You may remember them, the corner gas station with a half dozen pumps and a service bay or two where the station operator fixed flat tires, did oil change and lubrications, and other minor mechanical repairs. My dad loved working there because he got to talk to dozens of people every day. My dad loved to talk to people about everything under the sun; he was very smart, and he read a lot. He knew a little bit about many subjects and a lot about a few subjects. And he was always eager to learn more, or just tell or hear a funny story. Running a service station was a good fit for him.

Anyway, I happened to be working there one summer. I was looking for a full-time job and my family let me work at the station in order to make some money, rather than go on unemployment. So it worked out that he and I were alone in the station late one Saturday night. It was summer, so it was still fairly light out.

A car pulled into the station and up to the service bay door, not stopping at the gas pumps, so we knew he had some problem. The driver hopped out and hurried into the station. He was obviously agitated. He told my dad that he had a bad PCV and he wanted it fixed, replaced, whatever. He went on to tell us he had an important meeting Sunday morning in a town two or three hours on down the road, and he couldn't wait. He demanded Dad fix the PCV immediately. Demanded, yes, that's the right word.

I was bit surprised that my Dad refused. Instead, Dad suggested he get a motel room and wait until Monday morning, when the car dealership would be open, and have them fix it. He was usually accommodating to such requests, and I'd even known him to get out of bed in the middle of the night to deliver a five-gallon can of gas to a stranded traveler. I thought maybe it was the attitude of this stranger that raised the stubborn streak in him. It was there, too.

Eventually, the driver left, after tossing a few nasty comments our way, and slamming his car door loud enough to signal his displeasure even further.

We watched him drive across to the convenience store on the other side of the street. Now, I ought to pause to explain that, in those days, service stations like ours were still common, but they were being pushed out by the convenience stores that sold gas, pop, hot dogs and other junk food. Cheap gas and a Big Gulp were beginning to win out over old-fashioned service and a candy machine by the door.

So, we watched as the counter clerk came out this gentleman's car, popped the hood and proceeded to whank on parts with a crescent wrench and a pair of pliers.

It was about then that my Dad shared his insights into fixing PCVs. He pointed out that he really didn't mind trying to fix a PCV, IF, and only IF, he could run over to the local dealership or the parts store to get a replacement, if he needed it, and if he could call his friends at the dealership for advice if he couldn't figure it out on his own. That wasn't going to happen in a small town on a Saturday night. But since he figured he might also need a special tool to replace it, and because he'd never worked on such things, he didn't want to risk making the problem worse.

You see, my Dad was a fair mechanic up until the time the vehicle manufacturers starting putting electronics and things like PCVs and so on in their cars. He knew his limits, and tackling that PCV on a Saturday night with no chance to get the right tools or parts or advice was on the wrong side of those limits.

Well, you can probably guess the rest of the story. On Sunday morning that car was still sitting right where it had been the night before, only the hood was closed. And it was still there Monday morning when the dealer sent his tow truck over to get it. Apparently the Saturday repairs had gone wrong in a bad way. To his credit, my Dad said little; however, he DID catch my attention and nod over at the car as it was being towed away. He wasn't a saint, after all.

So, once again, you're wondering what in the heck a PCV has to do with Access, aren't you? Let me see if I can tie them together.

Long-time Access developers have become really good working with the tools of our trade: Access and related Office Automation. And some of us have included SQL Server in our tool kits. But now, we're faced with a real choice. We can go on fixing flats and changing oil and even doing some fairly complicated mechanical repairs. But there's a new game in town called "the cloud" and we have to decide whether we're going to go on running the local service station, or if we want to acquire the tools and knowledge that will take us on to the next phase.

Looking back at that day, I think I'm pretty close the age my Dad was when he decided he didn't want to learn the new stuff. He didn't complain much about it, that I recall. He just recognized where the line was and chose not to cross it. He may have been disappointed; I don't know. But he did NOT complain that the new technology was leaving him behind. After all, a PCV, whatever that is, was a useful thing on new cars and that made people's lives better. He was always a believer in making people's lives better, but that is another whole story. If the mood strikes I might tell that one, too. I just can't figure out a way to tie it to Access development.

So, here I am staring at that same technology line. Unlike my Dad, I have already committed to stepping over it into the new world where Access Web Apps will start making people's lives better. It's easier for me, in one way. The technology is far more accessible to me than it would have been to my Dad. We have Bingoogle, for goodness sake. And the tools I need to do my work are readily available and relatively cheap. Still, the thought that I could just coast on through the next few years, fixing flats and changing oil in the random Access databases that come me, is never far from me.

Here's my question for my colleagues in the Access Development business. What's it going to be?  Go on fixing flats or learn how to change PCVs (whatever the heck they are)? We have the choice and the web tools are easily available. I am pretty sure it would been really bad if my dad had gone out onto the curb to throw lug nuts at the kid from the convenience store.  The one thing I think we can't afford to do, as I see it, is to go on throwing lug nuts at the people who are making and installing the "PCVs" in Web Apps. That does no good to anyone, does it? And if we hit them in the back of the head enough times, they're going to start putting distance between them and us. And that would be a real tragedy, IMO.