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Sentient and malicious

Topics/tags: Miscellaneous, technology

As I’ve noted previously, I try to teach my students many different things, some technical, some general, some moral. Along the way, I introduce a variety of aphorisms (e.g., Trust the magic recursion fairy and There’s more to life than computer science). One of the more important aphorisms I give is Computers are sentient and malicious [1]. I do add some additional background to that statement. It goes something like this.

Computers reveal that they are sentient and malicious through a common behavior. You will try to do something. It won’t work. You will try again. It still won’t work. So you’ll ask me or one of the class mentors for help. And we’ll suggest the same thing you just tried. You’ll say, I tried that. But we’ll ask you to try again. And, lo and behold, the action that failed two (or more) times before will work.

This behavior reveals some important things about computers. First, they know what you’re doing. Second, they want to frustrate you. Third, they know that you’ll be embarrassed when things suddenly work once someone in authority is standing behind you. As I said, computers are sentient and malicious.

I don’t really believe that computers are sentient. But I must accept that I see this behavior again and again and again. A student asks a question. I say Try this. They say I tried that. I say try it anyway. And, magically, things work. Of course, there are also times that they are off by one character [2] or I ask them to do something slightly different than what they’ve tried in the past. But I’m pretty sure there are times that things just seem to work because I’m there. And, in the end, blaming the computer makes things feel a bit less stressful [3].

I had a similar experience this week. On Monday, I was so involved in code camp that I managed to allow my MacBook’s battery to drain to 0%. When I plugged the MacBook back in, the light on the charger wouldn’t come on [5]. I spent some time searching for the problem on the Web but got no good answers. A day later, I managed to get the amber light to turn on, which means that it’s charging. But the computer still would not turn on. I tried resetting the SMC. It wouldn’t turn on. So I left it overnight. No luck. A day later, I unplugged it and plugged it back in. The light turned green. That’s supposed to mean that it’s fully charged. But the computer still wouldn’t turn on.

So I did the next reasonable thing. I made an appointment at the Apple Store. I figured they would tell me that something needed to be replaced. I made some mental estimates on what would lead me to repair rather than replace the machine.

Today I got to the Apple store. While waiting for the friendly Genius Bar representative [6], I plugged in the Mac and tried to turn it on. Lo and behold, it turned on. The battery showed 0% charge. The system information showed sixteen hours to full. But it turned on. We’d spent the hour driving to the Apple store, so I thought I’d go through with my appointment. I described the situation. We talked about the 0% charge and what appeared to be a long charging time. And he suggested that we run system diagnostics. He expected some error to come up for the power supply or the battery. But the diagnostics on those were fine. There was a suggestion that we run a more detailed video check. That worried me a bit since my last problem with the Mac had been a non-working screen. So we waited fifteen minutes for the video test to progress. My Mac passed with flying colors.

So, why wouldn’t my Mac start the other times? I have no idea. Even the tech seemed somewhat frustrated, I’d really like to give you a reason. I guess I’ll stick with the aphorism, Computers are sentient and malicious.

[1] Rumor has it that some CS faculty are also sentient and malicious.

[2] For example, our login screen makes it particularly hard to tell if you type a space before your username. If you type a space before your username, it won’t recognize your account.

[3] I also tell them to remember how much they laughed when things went wrong while they were writing nut butter and jam sandwich algorithms. That’s right, you should laugh, rather than get frustrated, when your program screws up [4].

[4] That statement assumes that you are not writing software that affects people.

[5] For those who don’t know, the MagSafe 2 connector has a little light on it. It shows amber when the computer is charging and green when the computer is fully charged, or at least it’s supposed to.

[6] My general experience with the Jordan Creek Apple store is that the Genius Bar folks are generally pretty friendly. I did overhear one being a little snarky to someone who had dumped their phone in water and said, But it’s supposed to be waterproof!. But they’ve always been helpful to me. I wrote this endnote while sitting at the Apple Store and the rep who was next to me was being very helpful to the customer, being clear, patient, and sympathetic.

Version 1.0 of 2018-06-24.