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Computer Stupidities

Computer Stupidity Throughout the World

Computer stupidity is hardly limited to what takes place in the privacy of the home, school, or office. Here is the kind of stupidity that has the gumption to flaunt itself to the rest of the world. Once in a great while, it even has an impact on foreign relations.

A former co-worker was called to solve a problem. The problem was that a customer called saying that his 23-inch workstation monitor screen was cracked. The customer was a mining company in the Andes mountains. (We live in Chile, South America.)

Upon checking the manuals, they found the monitor's maximum operating altitude above sea level was lower than where the mine was.

My friend's superviser was worried that the monitor might blow up in someone's face and create a major incident. They sent him right away with a replacement.

When he arrived, they took him to where the workstation was. He took a long look at it, then licked his fingers and wiped the screen. The monitor hadn't been cracked. It was just dirty.

While working for a software company in England, I was sent overseas to re-establish relations between the overseas office of a client and the local maintenance company, following the non-payment of a disputed bill.

When I got on site and brought representatives from both parties around the table, I was told the following tale:

The client had phoned up the maintenance company one morning and complained that one of the printers didn't work. The maintenance people went through a checklist of questions, finding out that the power cord was plugged in to the back of the computer but there were no lights on and no apparent way to get the printer online. So the maintenance company agreed to make a special trip to investigate. When they arrived, they found that the other end of the power cord was not plugged in to the wall.

The maintenance company had decided this was outside their standard maintenance contract and had invoiced the client extra, stating that the client should have known to plug the printer into the wall! The client had then refused to pay the special invoice, stating that the maintenance company should have covered plugging the printer in the wall in their checklist. So the maintenance company then refused to provide their standard service until the client paid up.

Finally, when I had fully heard the tale of woe, I asked how much the disputed bill was for. They said it was for the equivalent of $100. I suggested that both parties chalk it up to a learning experience and split the difference, with the client paying $50 and the maintenance company eating the other $50. Both parties readily agreed.

My round-trip air fare, hotel bill, and per diem cost the client's English parent company several thousand dollars.

We do a lot of business in Central and South America, which generally requires that we have a translator on the phone. Usually, it's our sales rep, who should know better, but that's beside the point. One particular day I was at my wit's end. The simple function of creating a user account for these people had already taken an hour and a half, and they just weren't getting it. They'd speak in rapid-fire Spanish for a while, the sales rep would translate for me, I'd make a response, and it would begin all over again. Occasionally, I'd hear the client make comments in English, so I know he could at least halfway understand me. I'd also explained time and again that this was explained in the manuals, which an outside company had translated into Spanish specifically for this client. I was told that they'd much rather be on the phone with us while they tried this.

Finally, it got to the point where even the non-technical sales rep was tearing out her hair. I was just about to go get my manager, seeing as how I'd now been on the phone for nearly an hour and a half, when the customer suddenly piped up, in English, "Huh, you know -- I think that we will try reading the manuals, and then call you back if we have any problems!"

Thank goodness for the mute button on the phone.

The Computer Museum in Boston is a very cool place and should not be judged by this anecdote. In 1995, I was there with my father. In a place with the first virtual reality machine ever built, Danny Hillis' Tinkertoy computer, and other lovely objects, their star attraction is a giant plywood model of a computer that you can walk around in. In fact, you can go on a tour of it, led by a young gentleman who explains how computers work as you went.

The tour guide failed to make a stellar impression early in the tour (Did YOU know they're called microchips because they're really, really small?), but we hung on bravely. That is, until he got to explaining what a floppy is. He pulled a 3 1/2" disk out of his pocket and said:

It was at this point that my father leaned over to me and said, "I really don't think I can take any more of this tour." I agreed, and we snuck off to explore on our own, but in retrospect I almost wish we'd stayed. I mean, suppose he finished by showing us the giant plywood cup holder!

This story was told by people from Motorola and is supposedly included in every microcontroller training course Motorola gives.

Test flights of F-16's were being conducted in Israel. The F-16's were doing low height rounds. On approach to the Dead Sea, the whole navigation system suddenly reset itself. The daring pilot landed the bird. HQ called up Motorola and ordered a team on the spot ASAP. The ground tests went perfectly, but every time the bird went airborn, it rebooted.

The pilots were getting restless. Flying on the border of hostile territory without navcom, with the Arabs pointing their earth-to-air missiles at anything that moves, wasn't that pleasant. Neither was debugging the whole navcom in-flight. Then someone figured it out.

The height of the Dead Sea relative to world sea level is -400 meters. As soon as the F-16 reached sea level, the navcom did a divide by zero, crashed, and rebooted.

What follows is an urban legend. It is not true. It contains several historical and cultural inaccuracies. It does, however, make a compelling case for its moral.

SuperMac records a certain number of technical support calls at random, to keep tabs on customer satisfaction. By wild "luck," they managed to catch the following conversation on tape.

Some poor SuperMac TechSport got a call from some middle level official...from the legitimate government of Trinidad. The fellow spoke very good English and fairly calmly described the problem.

It seemed there was a coup attempt in progress at that moment. However, the national armoury for that city was kept in the same building as the Legislature, and it seems that there was a combination lock on the door to the armoury. Of the people in the capitol city that day, only the Chief of the Capitol Guard and the Chief Armourer knew the combination to the lock, and they had already been killed.

So, this officer of the government of Trinidad continued, the problem is this. The combination to the lock is stored in a file on the Macintosh, but the file has been encrypted with the SuperMac product called Sentinel. Was there any chance, he asked, that there was a "back door" to the application, so they could get the combination, open the armoury door, and defend the Capitol Building and the legitimately elected government of Trinidad against the insurgents?

All the while he is asking this in a very calm voice, there is the sound of gunfire in the background. The Technical Support guy put the person on hold. A phone call to the phone company verified that the origin of the call was in fact Trinidad. Meanwhile, there was this mad scramble to see if anybody knew of any "back doors" in the Sentinel program.

As it turned out, Sentinel uses DES to encrypt the files, and there was no known back door. The Tech Support fellow told the customer that aside from trying to guess the password, there was no way through Sentinel, and that they'd be better off trying to physically destroy the lock.

The official was very polite, thanked him for the effort, and hung up. That night, the legitimate government of Trinidad fell. One of the BBC reporters mentioned that the casualties seemed heaviest in the capitol, where for some reason, there seemed to be little return fire from the government forces.

Ok, so they shouldn't have kept the combination in so precarious a fashion. But it does place "I can't see my Microsoft Mail server" complaints in a different sort of perspective, does it not?