18 August 2013

The Truth shall set thee free

by Leigh Lundin

For at least the past half century, clerks and bureaucrats offer consumers the excuse “It’s not our fault, the computer made a mistake.” As a computer specialist, I know that behind a mistake is another human and the proffered excuse is an attempt to mitigate or evade responsibility. It’s not that computers are infallible, but they do what people tell them to do.
In a couple of small towns where I grew up, town gossips considered their mission to find out about everyone else’s business while hiding the skeletons in their own closets. One of the women complained her husband wouldn’t share the tidbits he picked up at the local grain elevator. He became my hero.

Some victims must have felt vindication when one of the worst dashed back and forth, spying upon her own daughter making out in her boyfriend’s car in front of her house, then running to the back bathroom, climbing up on the tub and peering out the rear window spying on another couple having at it. In her gusto, she slipped on the tub, fell and broke her arm. Her screams and the subsequent ambulance brought all pleasurable activities to a halt. The lessons I took away was that– private as I am– tight lips and an open bearing is a wise policy.

Thus, when it comes to government, I lean towards the-truth-and-damn-the-consequences policy, not in every instance, but the vast majority of the time. And this is what I’ve learned from the Snowden and Manning affairs: Our nation, our government survives pretty damn well when the truth comes out. Might these examples suggest the less secrecy the better? Or at least shouldn’t we open our eyes and engage in a discussion what secrets are wise and what aren’t?

Friday morning I was listening to CNN pontificate about the Edward Snowden affair. Their hostess pointed out that people either believe he’s a hero or a traitor. I’m not sure this reflects political leanings but the guest on the left took the position Snowden’s a betrayer whilst the guy on the right claimed Snowden’s a patriot. I never did hear anything of importance from the guest in the middle, but my mind may have tuned out following an amazing, jaw-dropping, mind-numbing statement: The NSA apologist (the guy on the left of the screen) said something to the effect we can’t so much blame NSA’s crimes on people, because these crimes are committed by computers.

Wh– what?

Going back to my opening paragraph, computers do what people tell them to do. In centuries past, defendants might have tried “Your Honour, t'were me fourteen vicious dogs wot ripped apart me wife’s paramour all on their own selves,” or “It were an accident pure and simple, Judge. Me horse reared up and clopped the landlord on ’is head.”

But blaming computers, it’s like saying:
  • “I didn’t cut them joists too short, my saw did.”
  • “Officer, I didn’t run the red light, my car did.”
  • “Judge, I didn’t shoot the guy, my Glock did.”
Fortunately, we crime writers seldom bring up the computer-ate-my-homework excuse, else without humans, we’d have little to write about. Imagine the detective’s dénouement: “Based on the prints, I determined the digits are digital and the bite marks are bytes. Yes, the culprit is the CDC-6600.”


  1. Hey Leigh: It's not just the individual computer, but the entire system set up by Darth Vader Enterprises that is at fault. How do you find the culprit responsible when you can't even locate the source of trouble within our vast Universe? Think about it. I usually receive your posts at 9:00 pm Left Coast time. Even though they're supposedly posted just past midnight East Coast time. But today (tomorrow?) it arrived an hour early. Whose (sic) to blame? Not you certainly, nor I. So much for security. Yours truly, Toe.

  2. Good morning, Toe. I'm not certain what happened, but I did see a notice that Blogger is making some 'improvements' (he says cynically). Oddly, yesterday's article came up when I first brought up SS today, but after clicking the headline, it decided I was serious. Some residue might have been left in the cache from yesterday, but that doesn't explain what you experienced!

    (Pssst. Must be the NSA.)

  3. Good morning, Leigh,

    Unfortunately passing the buck and blaming someone else or in this case something else has become the norm. I wonder if the NSA guy knew how stupid he sounded. Most "news" shows these days seem to be a cacophony of mindless chatter anyway. I can get more achieved by staring at weeds in the back yard.

  4. (chuckling) Vicki, at least the weeds do something useful from an ecological standpoint as opposed to talking heads soaking up all the oxygen.

  5. I’m guilty: When I worked as a claims representative in the Social Security field office, I and my fellow workers would explain a mistake in a claimant’s benefit payment by saying “it was a computer mistake,” even though we knew somebody in the payment center had hit the wrong key.

    Now, we know computers do eat students’ homework. What happened to that book report due yesterday? It disappeared into cyberspace, in other words my computer ate it. Did I mention that I hit the delete instead of the save key?

  6. Louis, you're correct that computers can eat homework: hard drive failures, power outages, and of course user error. I recall a local artist stored her work on Zip magnetic media discs and left them in the rear ledge of her car in the Florida sun… which did a great job of erasing her discs.

  7. You know, I was so upset about the erosion of our civil liberties in the name of anti-terrorism tactics that I wrote a letter to the White House on their website. I told them how dangerous I think this is, and told them that it should matter to them that I have voted Democrat for 40 years and feel this way. I told them I thought it would lead to a future when people felt they could not speak freely without fearing repercussions. Just before I hit "send" I thought, "Shoot, this will probably get me put on some List somewhere." And then I went ahead and hit send because it hit me, "If I had that thought, it means we're already there."

  8. Anon, good for you and I'm glad you set an example.

    Edmund Burke is reputed to have said "All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men (and women) to do nothing," a theme repeated in Sergei Bondarchuk's screen version of War and Peace.

  9. I write letters and e-mails to politicians, etc., all the time, so I know I'm on lists. I don't care, because I know the lists have been around since J. Edgar and before. What the heck. Say what you think.

    I agree, the computer excuse was stupid. But I think we've gotten (or are close) to the situation of E. M. Forster's "The Machine Stops", where people believe that the machine runs itself, and cannot be meddled with, only obeyed.


Welcome. Please feel free to comment.

Our corporate secretary is notoriously lax when it comes to comments trapped in the spam folder. It may take Velma a few days to notice, usually after digging in a bottom drawer for a packet of seamed hose, a .38, her flask, or a cigarette.

She’s also sarcastically flip-lipped, but where else can a P.I. find a gal who can wield a candlestick phone, a typewriter, and a gat all at the same time? So bear with us, we value your comment. Once she finishes her Fatima Long Gold.

You can format HTML codes of <b>bold</b>, <i>italics</i>, and links: <a href="https://about.me/SleuthSayers">SleuthSayers</a>