Garbage in, nothing out

Those four-letter words were probably, like, ‘love,’ ‘home’ and ‘pork,’ right?

Computerworld  |  Shark Tank
Computerworld / IDG

It’s way back, when all input is typed on a command line, and this pilot fish gets his first exposure to computers as a college freshman. He has to run a program on the school’s mainframe as part of a statistics class. He has a list of 10 sample numbers. First, he has to enter the number of samples, then enter each of the samples, and finally sit back and watch as the computer spews out the average, the mean, the standard deviation and all kinds of other statistical measures.

But in entering the number of samples, his finger bounces and he inadvertently types 100 instead of 10 — and then doesn’t notice. So after he enters his 10 samples, the computer wants more. Fish enters the samples again; the computer still wants more. As a flustered first-time user, he types, “Done,” “Quit” and “Exit,” all to no avail. He knows some other words with four letters and tries those. No help.

Finally admitting defeat, he asks the resident expert for help. He shows fish how to exit the program with Control-C and start it again. Fish accomplishes his mission and leaves, thinking, “I don’t like it when the computer tells me what to do. Someday, I’ll tell the computer what to do!”

And having made a living in IT ever since, he has routinely told computers what to do. But he remembers the incident for another reason. “When I’m trying to be patient with clueless users,” he says, “it helps to remember that I was once one of them.”

Do you have tales of nonstandard deviations — that is, true tales of IT life? Send them to Sharky at sharky@computerworld.com. You can also subscribe to the Daily Shark Newsletter.

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