On the Subject of Our

ELECTRONIC SERVANTS, Chaz Hill observes that they all run on software — buggy, poorly-documented, designed by engineers, engineered by marketers, marketed by designers.

Some days, it seems as though every other person has worked at some point in their career on a help desk, or served as a moderator/sysop on a BBS, or done something that could be called tech support. Everybody has horror stories from the experience. (Many of them sound vaguely familiar, too.) And everybody has a favorite acronymal joke — ID-Ten-Tee, PEBKAC, RTFM. One of mine stems from my own time in the trenches of peer tech support of commercial software. One of my colleagues complained of the lack of real support for end users on the part of software publishers. Fearing inundation by endless waves of clueless users seeking help with frankly unmerchantable products, the software companies had cast the user adrift, saying — in essence — “You’re On Your Own.” YOYO.

Another, having to do with bugs and workarounds, was all mine and was inspired by the famous Henny Youngman / Rodney Dangerfield joke: Man goes to the doctor. Says, “Doc. It hurts when I do this.” Doc says, “Don’t Do That.” ::ba-dump-bump:: There were times when the bug reporting ran ahead of the fixes — and even the official workarounds — and all we could offer for known bugs in the way of a workaround, was a Don’t Do That. The perfect prescription for a bug — DDT.

A lot of people over-anthropomorphize Our Electronic Servants, too. Back when Boris Fisher (or was it Bobby Spasky?) got tangled up in (Deep) Blue — that IBM supercomputer that programmers “taught” to “play” chess, people said that a the man was beaten by the machine.

Well… No.

Actually, the man was beaten — not by the machine — but by the machine’s programmers, and they cheated in two ways. 1) They ganged up on him. Traditionally, chess is a one-on-one game. The grandmaster faced not one opponent, but a whole team of them. I have no idea of the size of the Deep Blue programming team, but it had to have been at least five programmers, and could have run into the hundreds. Hardly cricket, eh what? And B) they also cheated by using a computer (Deep Blue) to calculate their moves for them.

Keep that in mind. All those little electronic gewgaws you surround yourself with — every one of them was made by men. Each was conceived in the minds of men. And each has all the flaws of men. At the patch factory, we call these Stupid Engineer Tricks.

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