In which I start to tell a story, but then have to tell another story first

Posted on March 5, 2011


Recently Knucklehead posted in despair about the number of typographical mistakes that manage to make their way through several layers of editing and management.

It baffles me no end how mistakes find their way into best-selling hardcover novels by A-list authors.  This isn’t some shitty-ass local newspaper like the Montgomery Advertiser (slogan: Alabama’s #1 Bird Cage Lining Since 1948) we’re talking about here.  These are major publishing houses like Little, Brown and Company or Random House who undoubtedly employ teams of highly-paid copy editors to sit around reading manuscripts and see that no errors make it to the final print run. (The “Bigest” Loser)

Well, Chris, let me tell you a story. This is a completely hypothetical story. It certainly is not a story about anything that happened to me. And it is most definitely not a story about how I managed to get myself fired from an editing job about ten years ago.

It was Hallowe’en, 2002. A lot of people in my department had dressed up in costume. I was dressed normally, but claimed that I had come as Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. “This is me as Dr. Jekyll,” I’d say. Then I’d turn away, wave my hands around for a moment, and turn back looking exactly the same. “And this is me as Mr. Hyde.”

It was stupid, but oddly enough it worked.

So I admit that I may have entered too much into the festive spirit, but I still think that firing me for what happened later that evening was going overboard.

On the other hand, it’s only fair to admit that before this particular hypothetical story, there is another hypothetical story that, according to some observers, helps explain the outcome of this hypothetical story.

You see, a few months previously, the Powers That Be (P.T.B.) had decided to replace our clunky computer system with something new and efficient. After looking at various options, the P.T.B. held a meeting to announce that they had chosen a software company that promised to create a data-management system specifically “for our unique business needs.”

Now, whenever anyone starts talking about “unique business needs” I get nervous. After all, not all snake-oil salesmen are as friendly as Professor Marvel in The Wizard of Oz.

My first test of the program didn’t inspire confidence, but that may have been the result of my unreasonable reaction to an interface apparently designed by someone who once actually saw a computer, and then suffered a tragic brain injury.

Input protocols changed from page to page. Pressing F5 on some pages saved the data, but pressing F5 on other pages immediately deleted it. Furthermore, users were having to learn new abbreviations, because the program couldn’t accept some of the abbreviations that had been used by the company for years.

This, I said when giving my report, is a bad program.

I wasn’t speaking merely as an obnoxious, employee, although that was an enjoyable side benefit.

I was also speaking as the programmer and application developer responsible for creating and maintaining the data system for Canada’s largest fucking advertising company, for crying out loud, it’s in my god-damned resume, you moronic assholes!

Besides, how much of an expert do you have to be to know a system that arbitrarily deletes data might be counterproductive?

This is a bad program, I said.

But no! I was told. This is a very professional software company, I was told. Just look at their website, it will put your mind at ease, I was told.

So I looked at the very professional software company’s website, which explained that the inspiration for their “programming philosophy” came from the Dadaists. Just as Dadaists such as Duchamp had taken “found objects, and used them to create art, so this company took subroutines from other programs, and used them to create new programs. They even managed to convey the strong impression that there was something admirably ecological about all this — but to be fair, they never actually came right out and claimed to be diverting billions of bytes of unwanted computer code from our landfills..

After looking at the website, I went back to the P.T.B.

“I’ve changed my mind.” I told them. “Not only is this program bad,” I said, “but I’m pretty sure it’s wanted for serious crimes, and should only be approached with caution.”

No. they said. It’s fine.

The tests progressed, and the product continued to live up to the standards of any data-management system stitched together from spare parts, and whose inspiration was the man who hung a urinal on an art gallery wall and labelled it “The Fountain.”

Nothing mattered, however, and after a seriously flawed testing period, the system went online as scheduled. But to keep it from completely breaking down, the IT department was forced to issue numerous memos telling users how to get around various problems.

By this time, everyone knew that an expensive, and now-irrevocable mistake had been made.

I did what I could do to help. I would, for example, look very, very smug when the regular problems came up, and for really bad situations, I would go the extra mile and make very, very smug comments.

That’s me, though. I’m a “giver.”

By the end of March, users were inundated with endless memos giving instructions like: “When you press ‘Enter’ after inputting copy on page #1C, the program will delete it. Just re-enter the data and press ‘Enter’ again. This time It will save.” (And although this is an entirely hypothetical situation, this hypothetical instruction was completely real. Hypothetically.)

By this point I was bored with smug, and had moved on to “what kind of psychological experiment can I do with this?”

I created a very official-looking memo that detailed a series of new “fixes.” These “fixes” ranged from odd, but-believable-under-the-circumstances instructions, such as entering data twice on certain forms, to outrageous, you’ve-got-to-be-kidding instructions, such as typing REDRUM in every third field.

Then I slipped it into the official inter-departmental mail delivery chain to be handed out on April 1.

Since they were delivered in the morning, I was confident that by the time I arrived for my afternoon/evening shift, their full impact would have been felt.

I was right. As I entered my department, the woman nearest the door held up my memo like a banner, and said, “You, sir, are a genius.”

And that’s when they started to clap — including the day manager, who later told me that she’d spent her entire morning trying to explain to a horde of irritated users that no, they didn’t actually have to “stand up and touch both sides of the monitor” before inputting the classifieds.

So it is possible that this incident may have had some bearing on how the Hallowe’en incident was perceived.

Or rather — the hypothetical Hallowe’en incident.

Next post: Hallowe’en Horror.