Monthly Archives: October 2008

Scott Birdseye

Computers vs. Humans

Frustrated Computer User
Many users of computers, perhaps even you, the reader, have been frustrated by what is seen as a malfunctioning program or operating system. Frustrating error messages, unexpected stops, strange loops, spinning beach balls and blue screens of death make our blood pressure rise, and in extreme cases, can lead to increased slide rule and type writer sales. But, the frustrations don’t arise from malfunctioning computers. Instead the computer is actually functioning just fine. It’s just programmed at its very core to be incredibly annoying.

Everything in a computer is controlled by basic binary. Either there is electricity flowing through a circuit or there isn’t. One or off, nothing in between. So, when you give your computer a command it follows its programming and sometimes an error occurs because for the binary brain something either can be done or it can’t. There’s absolutely no grey area for these machines. There’s no process to sort of open Minesweeper or almost save a file. No, either an operation can be performed or it can’t. It’s annoying to us users when something can’t be done, because we’re human and our thinking isn’t done in binary. We have ideas like ‘sort of’ and concepts like ‘almost.’

Our brains aren’t built for tasks. They’re built for survival. Animals that are the best at improvisation tend to live longer and leave more offspring than those which live according to hard-and-fast rules. When confronted with a problem, our brains naturally attempt to solve it by any available method. Indeed, in our natural lives the only binary is that you’re either alive or dead. Nothing else is that black and white, especially not our problem solving skills. Over the millennia, the harsh reality of existence has forced us to adapt, creating the idea of the desperate, improvisational fix.

Thus, when a system, a structure or a plan starts to fail, humans tend to interrupt the failing trajectory and improvise something, anything new. And if the unplanned jury-rig isn’t as good as the original planned idea, we learn to live with it, with something that sort of works, barely works or almost works. We’ll even take pride in an ingenious solution to a problem that allows a system to barely work. We’re even happy if something is the worse possible solution, except for all the others that we’ve tried.

We’ve all had our MacGuyver moments, where radical improvisation prevented a total failure. Mine involved my old beat up VW micro-bus, a veritable fountain of improvisational repair opportunities. One day, as I was driving, the clutch cable broke, snapped in half. The clutch pedal couldn’t communicate the user’s instructions to the engine. That car was, in the common parlance, broken down. As a human, I surveyed my surrounding and found a metal guitar string which I used as a jury-rigged clutch cable, enabling the car to function again. A human can think that way. No, a guitar string is not a clutch cable, but did the car run? Let’s say it barely ran, it barely functioned and I barely got the car to a garage where a proper fix could be done. Luckily, for a human in the real world, barely is good enough.

Computers don’t understand that concept because we don’t program them to understand that. In the same scenario the computer would probably alert the user that the instructions weren’t reaching the engine. If you were lucky. It might also just give you a message that the car was not operable. And it would do the same for a software or hardware problem.

Any deviation from the standard commands and the computer will simply not be able to complete an operation. It can’t just about run Photoshop if it can’t locate the exe file. No, something either can be done or is impossible. There’s the source of our frustration; two different methods of thought, one rigid, one flexible.

In truth, an error message, or a freeze up or even a death screen actually mean the computer is operating perfectly. After all, it’s been programmed to display that error message when it encounters something that deviates from the standard process. That’s its job. It does precisely what we’ve programmed it to do. Just sometimes we don’t like what the programs tell it to do. So next time you see an error message, don’t get angry with the computer, no get angry with the people who built and programmed it. Take your frustrations out on them, with a baseball bat if necessary. Then they’ll learn to start making better machines.

Scott Birdseye Special Feature

A Simple Guide to Underestimating Carrots

1. Draw up a list of your estimate of the basic attributes of a carrot. Then, lower those values by 98%.
2. Consult with a highly qualified carrot expert. Mockingly disregard his or her statements.
3. Find every book or peer-reviewed journal article about carrots. Don’t bother reading them.
4. Set up a scale for carrots as follows; 1-2 extremely poor, 3-4 markedly poor, 5-6 ridiculously poor. Roll a six sided die and let that stand as your determined carrot value.
5. Laugh mockingly at them while cackling that carrots could never defeat you. Then get defeated.
6. Draw up a completely fool-proof plan for destroying all carrots, but leave out one crucial piece of information.
7. Miss the average vitamin A content of a carrot by 3%.
8. Make a special rule where each inch mark is actually at the 2 and 3/8th inch mark. Then measure several carrots and record their lengths.
9. Look at a field full of carrots. Guess three.
10. Ask someone to name the best thing about carrots. When they give their answer, disagree with them.
11. Confuse carrots with seals.