Saturday, 21 February 2009

Human Failure

Just read a random news bit on a sports site (German, thus not linking here).
Context: Formula 1.
Content: Ferrari testing (and intending to use) the electronic "traffic light" as replacement for the old school lollipop-guy to signal the driver when he can start again after a pit stop.
Background: Apparently, last year the system malfunctioned, signalled "green" to a driver too early, he started still having the fuel hose inserted, it all cost him time and (in one of those wonderful "what would have been if everything would have been exactly the same except for this one very event" scenarios) ultimately the championship.
Where it gets interesting: A person in the comments pointed out, that such mistakes did happen to human lollipop-men in the past as well. And, yes, although my F1 watching days are long gone, even I can confirm that such mishaps would happen a few times a year. You'd hardly ever go a full season without seeing at least one event of someone starting while still connected to the fuel hose ever since refuelling was introduced back in the 90ies.

And that reminded me of something. Something I was told during my computer science education (not to claim this is some highly complex truth, it's just a question of when it's pointed out to you). We are disproportionately harder on machines than on human operators when it comes to failure. Think plane crashes, to put forward a rather big scale example. When the investigation reveals "human failure", the story usually ends right there, because, well, to err is human. But when, on the other hand, it turns out that some sensor gave the wrong reading, you can be sure a big headline scandal along with a whole stack of compensation lawsuits will follow.

There are good and rational reasons for it, of course. Technical errors are more likely to reoccur and be found throughout all instances (installed in many different systems, e.g. planes) of the component in question, assuming they are deterministic in some way. So it's a generally good idea to go and find out exactly why the malfunction happened and how we can prevent repeat. Also, on a more cynical note, there's just not much fun in suing a pilot who might be dead himself or being in a half-coma, spending every wake moment feeling extremely miserable already - your 50-million-claim might get through, but you're unlikely to ever see any actual money.

But there's also a very primal and emotional side to it. If we're destined to die, we'd rather have it happen at the hands of a human than a computer chip. You know, sort of like .. keeping it in the family. We expect humans to fail. We expect machines to be flawless. And although this is a good expectation, one that ups responsibility and strengthens sound development patterns, we still need to understand, that machines are created by humans. And those still can err.

To add another thought and put the said in perspective: there's also another phenomenon on the rise and spreading, on the other end of the scale of man-machine-interaction. The "computer malfunction" excuse. Usually used by clerks and sometimes accompanied by God's Last Message to His Creation. It's supposed to be a magic formula implying "hey, look, I told you it's a computer malfunction, so it's obviously not my fault and there's just as obviously nothing I could have done to help you or prevent it, so there's nothing you can reasonably be angry about". Uh, sure, maybe my very health or financial existence was threatened, maybe I was forced to invest huge amounts of time into trying to achieve or fix something that should have been a triviality, maybe it's the 20th time we're having this conversation and you're still unable to get it right, but, seriously, how could I reasonably be angry about all of this. Just because during all the time, repeated requests and demands you could not be bothered to actually take matters in your own hands and do your job, and now are blaming everything on a "computer malfunction", that probably went somewhere along the lines of "you entered wrong data into the computer causing it to do wrong things to my life"? That'd be really insane of me, indeed.

Bottom line to this post: computers are not divine beings. They are neither perfect by nature, nor the ultimate excuse for screwing up things.

Wednesday, 18 February 2009

Dude, you have a blog now?

Yes. I do. This might be a little surprising if you've heard me ranting about blogging and all the "user provided content" that's slowly taking over the net. So, why am I doing it myself now? Well, I realised something. A few things actually.

First, I came across a few blogs I actually enjoyed (and enjoy) reading. Now, this is as such no big deal. I'm easily hooked up, especially if the subject at hand are eloquently written texts (heck, I'll read a manual for kitchen scissors if the command of language exposed is impressive enough). It's more that I began to accept that this specific form of writing is hardly possible in anything but the loose "notes of the day" blog scheme. The tripping point was, I guess, when I found myself interested not only in the blogger's writing, but also in what the commenters might have to say on the matter. Which brings us to...

The Revelation. The moment I finally understood what blogging is all about. No-no, this wasn't yesterday. As a matter of fact, it was more than half a year ago, and I still regard it as the moment of revelation. I was watching TV - an activity I don't pursue very often these days - when they brought a report on something, or had someone say something, complain about something ... I really don't remember anymore. What I do remember quite clearly however, is my own reaction of thinking "Hey, that's a pretty flawed view on the subject, and it's also pretty ironic for you of all people to state it, for the following reasons...". Now that in itself isn't that revealing, but something someone watching TV probably experiences every 10-15 minutes or so. The remarkable thing was, that I caught myself mentally reaching for the post comment button to "reply" to that report, inwardly celebrating that it's just been "posted" and thus my comment with the well reasoned criticism would be up top (also known as: "First!") thus gaining the attention it'd need to disclaim the unfounded statements. It's somewhere along those thinking lines that my mind stopped short and realised that I am watching TV.

Now, don't get me wrong, I'm not someone who tends to leave a comment on every piece of stuff he finds on the net. Not at all. But, this way or other, most topical input from the outside tends to reach me in interactive form these days, be it via internet or, old fashioned, via people telling me something (in other words, I just really don't watch much TV, since that's pretty much the only non-interactive topical medium still pretending to be alive). And it was that moment when I realised just now much I am used to having a reply button attached to everything I consume (or, you know, the ability to open my mouth and reply). And also realised that those are exactly the cases when people just log into their blog accounts and post their thought of the day. Screenplays life writes.

So, here we go. Blog. Expect all sorts of random thoughts of the day on all sorts of subjects that might be interesting to me. You've been warned.

Oh, and, no, don't expect to find any instructions on dangerous stunts you should not try at home - the title is yet another example of me being really uncreative when it comes to names and titles. That, and maybe, just maybe, my recently having watched this. As for the URL? That's supposed to be rm -rf /, a Linux/UNIX command you really should not try at home. Oh ... maybe there is some consistency in my naming scheme after all!