Apr 99

Helsinki Syndrome

You can’t succumb to the Helsinki Syndrome if you refuse to be a victim.

I despise machines.

This might sound a little odd coming from a self proclaimed Ubergeek, but it’s true. I hate them. Leaving messages on someone’s voice mail or an answering machine makes me grit my teeth just to get through it. My heart races, palms start sweating, and after I hang up, i have to take a deep breath and let it out slowly.

The ATM is the same way. My bank has conspired against me, the closest branch not being open on Saturday. Of course, those of us with nine-to-five (or more often, eight-to-six-thirty) jobs can’t very well get to the bank during the week. So I have to use the ATM to deposit or cash checks, and check my balance over the phone.

I make a special effort to gesture at the ATM security camera in the Roman ‘Digit Impudicus’ style on the off chance that someone reviewing the tapes will get a laugh.

I hate that machines have taken over what has traditionally, and should continue to be, the realm of human beings. Before I started working, I went to the bank about once a week, and was able to walk in and, after waiting in line, talk face to face with an actual person. My money was in the hands – hands – of someone who could understand my often unusual requests, or answer my esoteric questions.

The cashiers recognized me, so that I didn’t need to dig out a card with a magnetic strip or my digitally encoded photograph on it to prove that I was who I said I was. And that’s how my money should be handled. My belief is that, since only humans place phone calls, phones should always be answered by human beings, and I should be able to talk with one when I want to ask about strange charges in my checking account.

Most of all, I hate computers.

Now, there are those who love their computers, love all the machines that they believe make their lives easier. It makes a sick sort of sense. Psychologists will tell you that after a while, hostages, even in the most horrendous of hostage situations, begin empathizing with their captors, and even fall in love with them on occasion. It’s so common that science has a name for it. It’s called Helsinki Syndrome.

Yes, computers are the kidnappers – if you let them be. If you treat your computer like a person, and forgive its faults, then you’ve submitted to its rule. Begging for a term paper that was lost in a system crash, sobbing as you try to recover a hard drive after a virus attack, you’ve fallen into the trap. They have no emotions, yet they seem to evoke the strongest ones from their users at times.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m no Luddite, bent on reversing the technology wave before it takes over our whole society. I’m an informed geek, who has seen the dark side of technology wreak havoc far too long. I don’t want you to chuck your computer out a window for misbehaving – I want you to call the manufacturer, the software vendor, the programmers that made your computer so hard to use in the first place, filled the code with bugs and incompatibilities, the ones that bound your hands with rough twine and gagged your mouth with duct tape. I want you to call them and tell them what a rotten job they’ve done, and how it is their responsibility to fix it, and not yours. Most of all, tell them it is not your place to perform ‘workarounds’ or repeated updates and reinstalls just to be able to get your work done.

What can you do? You can’t write your own software, or debug someone else’s, you can’t build your own PC from parts and solder every circuit. Well, maybe some of you can, but then, you’re not the ones I’m talking to.

If you’re the kind of geek that revels in programming, being elbow-deep in assembly code, or likes the tangle of wires and boards splayed out before you while doing some hardware hack, like some kind of electronic autopsy, then you already know how to become the master of the machine. You may have the same kind of hatred for them that I have. To be a proper master, you have to hate your slave. And now, I don’t want to get any emails about how we should liberate our computers, dammit.

There is a satisfaction that only geeks can feel – it happens when they are in control of the machinery that normally is in control of them. It’s like being in the drivers’ seat instead of riding shotgun. You pull this or that, and the machine responds. Anyone else is stuck on the other side, gripping the dashboard with white knuckles, pumping an imaginary brake pedal and screaming obscenities – hoping to survive the ride.

So what can you, the non-geek, do to stem the tide of techno-dictatorship? What you can do is be an informed consumer. Don’t buy products that aren’t well tested, that have inadequate manuals and support, that keep the end user out of the development loop. Don’t trust brand names or corporate images to bring you superior technology over the less-known competitors – the latest shiny pebble from Microsoft won’t cure your migraine headaches, no matter how much marketing they put behind it. Don’t settle for hard-to-use, user-surly, “good enough” software – even if it comes highly recommended by the corporate marketing regurgitators at the local Computers R Us.

I had a car that started causing trouble for me. Every now and then, it would stall at an intersection. The mechanics I took it to told me it was something wrong with the automatic transmission. A part was cracked and leaking. After spending half the value of the car getting it repaired, I sold the car and bought a new car – with a manual transmission.

Now, if it stalls out at an intersection, it’s due to my own incompetence (I didn’t know how to drive a manual very well before I bought it) rather than a mechanical failure. Manual transmissions have fewer moving parts and are, therefore, easier and cheaper to maintain than an automatic.

I expect parts on a car to fail every now and then, but not so often that they become unreliable transportation or dangerous to drive. I also expect parts on planes to fail every so often, but not so often that you see 727s falling out of the sky with any frequency. Physics says things like corrosion or metal fatigue, or the occasional bird getting sucked into the intakes, will happen. In the physical world, that’s what you put up with.

Electronics, however, when put together properly, and with care, should never fail. Well, not never, but on the frequency that physics tell us that the occasional cosmic wave or neutrino will knock a vital circuit out of whack, which is on the scale of millenia between failures. Systems that run UNIX or Linux have been known to have downtimes less than a few hours a year. Today’s consumer systems, those running any flavor of Windows or Macintosh OS, generally have that amount of downtime on a monthly or weekly schedule.

Downtime means wasted time. Time that the network is unreachable, the computer is down for repairs or upgrades, or just down – for no tangible reason.

Downtime sometimes comes from poorly configured, or poorly maintained systems. On the other hand, though, solid, bombproof systems shouldn’t need to be configured once they are out of the box, and should need little or no maintenance between upgrades. This is a goal that all consumer technology should aim for – to be able to switch it on, and have it work. Just work.

My stereo, refrigerator, and washer and dryer all work on almost zero maintenance. I push the right buttons, flip the right switches, and they do as they are told. Exactly like the manufacturer says they should. That’s because they have only the features they need, and no more. The designers and manufacturers know that if they put out shoddy or second rate machinery, people will refuse to buy it, no matter how low the price.

Some computer vendors should learn that, too.

Before I go on too long, I want to finish this rant with a sort of mission statement.

Don’t become another victim of Helsinki Syndrome. I’ve become accustomed to my computers not working exactly as they should, but I’m comfortable with going in and hacking them back into working order. So comfortable in fact that I have a recliner pulled up to my computer desk, and typically type with my cat in my lap.

Don’t succumb to the myth that it’s normal for technology not to work right all the time. Most of all don’t treat computers like people. They hate that.

Apr 99

Y2k: a modest proposal

by now everyone, or at least everyone of any importance, knows that there is a problem in a lot of computers related to the rollover of dates at the end of this century. traditional date entries of two digits will very quickly be insufficient in determining a date. the rollover of ’99 to ’00 will effect many systems relying on date information, especially in calculations involving numbers of years difference. 2000 will behave, in some instances, like 1900, showing that, for example, my mortgage payments aren’t due for another 99 years. or else that they are overdue by that amount, and 99 years’ interest has accrued.

next year, according to all accounts, will suck. hard.

january 1 will leave innumerable people without power, money, credit, food, shelter, sanitation, or drinking water. so maybe that’s an exaggeration, but there will be some serious troubles come january 1, the full bulk of which won’t be uncovered until january 3 or 4, since the 3rd is the first monday of the year 2000, and the 4th is the first day most people will be staggering back to work after the hell-raising december 31 brought. nobody does any real work on mondays anyway.

and, as the deadline, and the breadline, draw ever closer for many of us, it becomes more and more imperative that we fix all those troublesome systems that have embedded year 2000 compatibility problems.

one solution to the programming mess is the brute force method: disassembling every piece of what, in computer/dog years, is ancient code line by line and patching every date call to be able to distinguish 2000 from 1900. in many cases this requires a full rewrite of large chunks of code that is written in the computing equivalent of sanskrit: COBOL. it’s a dead tongue, so dead that those few people that still spoke or studied it were ridiculed up until a couple of years ago when everyone who was born into the age of visual BASIC and C++ realized that capitalizing on the ‘Y2K’ bug was the only way they would ever make a buck, short of selling themselves and their burgeoning software companies to microsoft.

so, trudging through the rat- and rat-eating-snake-infested swamps of twenty- and thirty year old code is the main way in which the Y2K battle is being fought. There are bugs aplenty in the aged code, few comments to guide the way, patches of one sort or another all over the place from many generations of intrepid explorers blazing their own trails into the unknown. Then, by golly, there are the undiscovered tracts of lost code, those pieces that have been misplaced, filed, burned, buried, shredded, and mutilated to the point that they need to be replaced or rewritten entirely from scratch. some such endeavors are the equivalent of rewriting the Iliad in its original dialect, based entirely on the liner notes. who has time for all this?

my proposal is a much simpler solution. so simple in fact, i’m surprised no one has thought to do it before.

we must simply convert to hex.

yes, hex. beyond the simple limiting decimal system, hexadecimal notation has sixteen digits, including those of the outdated decimal system , and including the letters A through F. to the untrained eye, hex seems mysterious and even downright spooky. you got letters in my number system! you got numbers in my letter system! in fact, the untrained, unwashed masses are so unfamiliar with hex that i have, for years, etched the combinations of lockers and other combination locks directly into the lock itself in hex with no fear of anyone being able to unlock it. how do you dial in 1D anyway?

hex is a misunderstood child of the computer age, the most a lot of people ever learn of it is as a sidenote in math classes along with venerable binary.

however, if we were to convert wholesale to hex, next year would be 199A, giving us an additional six years to get systems 2006/19A0 compliant before returning to decimal. if programmers decided to be stubborn and put off updating their code to 4 digit dates, they would have 96 more years before 1A00 rolled around. of course, if we were to convert all 4 digit dates completely to hex, next year would only be 7D0, giving us only 48 years to prepare for 800. perhaps by that point we won’t even bother to convert back to decimal.

in some systems, changing the type of number a program works with is more economical than changing the number of digits it reads. a data entry of 00 will still illicit the dreaded 1900/2000 response, marking a difference of 1792 actual years, but it remains only to train those entering data to switch to hex, and convert all 00s to 9As. it’s as simple as changing to the metric system, and we know how successful those efforts have been.