Friday, January 29, 2016

Double trouble.

Son, you know when you got trouble? When you got two-cherry-picker trouble, that's how.

I have no idea what happened, but it looks bad. 
Computers seem to be at the base of about 98% of all trouble in the world, to use a completely false estimate that I had to make up because I was afraid to ask my computer.

We all know computers cause trouble. The old "to err is human, to really foul things up requires a computer" wheeze goes back to the punch card days. Computers are wondrous devices for multiplying effort, but they also multiply mistakes. A fascinating story about this concerns the disaster of Target Canada (HT: Lileks @ Star Tribune), Target's brief and ill-fated attempt at a massive retail incursion of our neighbors to the north, covered in this Canadian Business article. A staggering amount of Target's trouble came from software involved with distribution and inventory.

Strange things started happening in 2012, once ordering began for the pending launch. Items with long lead times coming from overseas were stalled—products weren’t fitting into shipping containers as expected, or tariff codes were missing or incomplete. Merchandise that made it to a distribution centre couldn’t be processed for shipping to a store. Other items weren’t able to fit properly onto store shelves. What appeared to be isolated fires quickly became a raging inferno threatening to destroy the company’s supply chain.

Billions were lost, along with thousands of jobs; careers were destroyed; and a giant was brought to its knees. Makes you wonder what would happen if hackers really managed to attack our major retail corporations---which sounds like fun to the Occupy types, I guess, except they also like having stuff and dislike starvation.

On a small scale, I learned that friend and occasional commentator Stiiv has been absent due to his old computer giving up the ghost. Whether it was natural death, suicide, or whether Stiiv took it out and shot it, we do not know. Perhaps he feared it had become self-aware like Skynet and he had to slam it with hammers.

Fears of such a thing predate the Terminator movies, of course; in 1970 there was Colossus: The Forbin Project, a film in which the U.S. and Soviet defense computers merge and take over the world. In 1977, in an issue of Justice League of America, a self-aware entity called the Construct arose from all the world's electronics and threatened to push us around as well. And at that time the total computing power in a city like New York probably didn't equal what you have in your neighborhood now.


Finally, let us not forget that the endless struggle of man vs. machine is not relegated just to the box on your desk, but on the printer to which it is attached as well:

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