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Monday, August 23, 2010


I hate computers. There, I've said it, the cat is out of the bag and I feel better for publicly admitting it. I've quietly shared this sentiment with many people over the years who look at me puzzled as they know I have been in the computer industry for over 30 years now. Some have even suggested I'm a bit of a masochist staying in a field I do not respect. It's not that I am not proficient in the use of computers, I am actually better than most. As an aside, you'll notice I didn't say "computer literate" which is an expression I detest as it typifies the sloppy thinking permeating this business.

Nine times out of ten my frustration is not with the physical hardware but with the software instead. Maybe it's because I know how computers are programmed which can hardly be called an exact science. In fact, it is downright scary how programs are slapped together and superficially tested before being released to the public. Considerable time is wasted determining what a program is intended to do and how to best design it. There is also a lot of redundancy in work effort whereby the same code is rewritten over and over again. Rarely is there concern for producing programs that will be compatible with others, and standards are avoided at all cost. If the average person truly understood the organization and mechanics by which programmers practice their trade, they would be astonished as to how anything is accomplished and would probably never trust a computer again.

In their defense, programmers live in a world of complexity where they must juggle many variables even in a simple program. However, I am highly critical of how they manage complexity which is typically inscribed in the programmer's head and not on paper. The average programmer loathes documentation of any kind. Without proper documentation programs are difficult if not impossible to maintain or modify by others. But I digress.

Because the programmer lives in a world of complexity, they insist on sharing it with the rest of us, a kind of "misery loves company" phenomenon. Instead of simplicity, they tend to force us to learn their convoluted approaches to life. To illustrate, remote controls for televisions used to have buttons for power, volume, and station selection. Today, it is not uncommon to have upwards of fifty buttons on remote controls, most of which are not used by the consumer. It should be no small wonder that most devices today are under utilized, including cell phones, computers, and the electronic trinket du jour. Simplicity has been superseded by complexity, not because it has to be that way, but because programmers make it that way.

As consumers we patiently try to adapt to our computer, but we grow frustrated with such things as computer freezes (an endless hour glass), software downloads requiring the computer to be rebooted at the most inconvenient time to do so, and the legendary "blue screen of death" (a complete computer lockup). Nobody likes to execute the same task twice on the computer, yet due to programming snafus, such activity is commonplace. I don't have an exact figure, but a substantial amount of time during the business day is lost simply due to the peculiarities of the computer. Programmers make computers functional; they do not make them idiot-proof.

Recently I was involved in a writer's discussion group on the Internet whereby the question was asked, "Do computers now make better decisions than humans?" Actually, this is an old question and goes back to the 1950's when computers were first being introduced. Since the computer only executes the instructions as programmed by the human being, it will only be as smart as the person programming it. It's not so much a question of making "better" decisions, it's a matter of being able to execute instructions faster (processing speed). A computer offers invaluable assistance in terms of executing complicated calculations, then again, the answer would not be any different than that arrived at by the human-being. It's a matter of speed. Let us also not forget that if the formulas or algorithms are programmed incorrectly, the computer will produce an incorrect answer at an incredibly fast speed. As an example, there have been various calculation errors reported over the years in various software products, such as calculators, financial software, spreadsheets, etc. Here is one applicable to the MS Calculator:

3,600,523 divided by 6,000,000,000

Returns with: 6.0008716666666666666666666666667e-4

In other words, there is a problem expressing decimal fractions (the answer should be .000600087).

This number may seem innocuous on the surface but suppose it served a mission critical purpose, such as directing military operations, space trajectory, or patient health care? The number becomes very important in such situations where it leads to erroneous decisions or actions. The next question becomes: who is liable for the miscalculation, the computer hardware manufacturer or the person who programmed it incorrectly? Ultimately, it is a PEOPLE problem.

"If the mind really is the finest computer, then there are a lot of people out there who need to be rebooted" - Bryce's Law

Keep the Faith!

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Tim Bryce is a writer and the Managing Director of M. Bryce & Associates (MBA) of Palm Harbor, Florida and has over 30 years of experience in the management consulting field. He can be reached at

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