the computer revolts

“Why does the computer keep telling me I suck?”

She’s calling from her classroom, where her computer has her completely flustered.  Truth be told, for her this isn’t an unusual experience.

“What do you mean, it’s telling you you suck?”

“That’s what it keeps saying, that I suck.”

Every day I see something new in my job, some piece of technology screwing up in a wholly unique and inventive way, so very little surprises me.  This one, however, I’m having a hard time grasping.  “You’re actually hearing these words?  Over the speakers?”

“No, the computer keeps printing it on the screen.”

An image flashes through my mind: an operating system so vexed by the fumbling misclicks of a novice that it finally invokes some heretofore unknown lines of code buried deep within the Windows kernel meant to convince the user, once and for all, to give up.  I shake off this image and continue.  “And what application are you using?”

“Word.”

Aha!  That gives me an inkling of what’s going on.  No use trying to talk her through it, though.  “I’ll be right down.”

In person she’s even more flustered than over the phone.  “You see, look,” she says, jabbing keys accusingly, panting with humiliation.  She’s always suspected the computer believed itself superior to her, and now this fear has materialized in glowing pixels of point-blank insult.  “Whenever I type something …”  She types: “w-h-a-t  s-h-o-u-l-d  i” – whereupon Word, with a soft mechanical jingle, replaces “i” with the words “I suck.”  It’s funny.  I ask to try, then type some lines that turn out as:

So now I suck need to decide what I suck’m going to type.  I suck guess it’s going to replace only when I suck type the word I suck, and sure enough I suck can see that I suck’m right.

She’s beside herself; I’m caught somewhere between wonder and giggles.

“But why is it doing that?”

“One of your students has pulled a little prank on you.”  I explain Microsoft Word’s AutoCorrect feature, demonstrate it with a common misspelling, then show her the Tools -> AutoCorrect Options area where, sure enough, a custom alteration has been added so that instead of merely capitalizing “i,” the additional select letters are added in.

“So don’t worry,” I reassure her, undoing the hack.  “Your computer doesn’t have anything against you personally.”

“No, but one of my students does!”

True, and a clever one at that.  I don’t have the heart to tell her that other unflattering edits might lie within AutoCorrect’s hundreds of error checks.  I’m not about to sit down for the hour it would take to scan all those lines.  She’ll simply have to discover them as they spring into action.

Which is more fun anyway.

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6 Responses to “the computer revolts”

  1. david Says:

    That is a great one. I would definitely try it out on a co-workers computer, except for the fact that it might result in something terrible going out to a client. Still – quite funny that a student would have done that.

    I have been looking for a victim in a screen reversal trick… less menacing overall, but still fun. You press control > alt > one of the arrows, and the screen will change its orientation. Great stuff.

  2. RubeRad Says:

    A cool one I heard once. In Margaret Thatcher’s office, there was an unknown leak. Some clever person adjusted the default margins in everybody’s installation of MS Word, but very subtly, like a pixel difference each or something. Over a long enough text, each margin setting would structure the same paragraph in a unique set of linebreaks. So when a leak came out, they xeroxed the paper that the press had, and they could retype the text into every computer, and the one with the matching linebreaks was the culprit!

  3. RubeRad Says:

    Another cool one. This one walkup computer was determined to have a “bug” such that you could log in when you were sitting at it with a stool, but not when you were standing up. Turns out somebody had switched some keycaps, and it is a common unconscious habit, when you are sitting at a computer, to touch-type — but when you are standing, and can’t get your arms into their usual position, to deviate from your normal typing mode — and to look at the keys!

  4. the forester Says:

    I know what you mean about the keycaps. That’s a favorite vandal ploy in our computer labs — and it annoys me to no end when students act as though the keyboard is nonfunctional simply because the keycaps have been switched around. Come on, kid, learn to type!

    When I was in eighth grade I played a great prank on my dad’s Apple IIe. In those days computers didn’t have hard drives — the OS (DOS) had to be installed on every startup via the first tracks on the 5 1/4″ floppy. Also, you could write a little “HELLO” program that would run upon startup, right after DOS loaded. CTRL-DEL forced any program to stop running, and CTRL-APPLE-DEL restarted the system.

    My prank was inspired by a bit of code I learned that prevented a user from accessing the DOS prompt by using CTRL-DEL to break out of a program. Pressing CTRL-DEL instead had the same function as CTRL-APPLE-DEL, restarting the whole system.

    So I wrote a “HELLO” program that used this code to prevent my dad from stopping it. The program did something very simple: it printed “COMPUTER MALFUNCTION” on the screen, and then just as quickly erased it. Then it randomly moved one character left or right and one line up or down, and printed the same words, again immediately erasing them. The result was a flickering “COMPUTER MALFUNCTION” message that jumped insanely and quite ominously around the screen.

    When my dad saw this, he naturally hit CTRL-DEL, only to cause the system to restart, DOS to reload, and my “HELLO” program to re-run … bringing back the “COMPUTER MALFUNCTION” message.

    Considering that the Apple IIe had cost around $2,000 and was relatively new, you should’ve heard my dad cussing. To fix this “malfunction” all my dad had to do was swap in a different 5 1/4″ floppy with a different “HELLO” program — but that didn’t occur to him for about five minutes, by which time his blood pressure had already hit boiling.

    I still remember burying my face in my pillow to hold in my screams of laughter.

  5. Jim Fisher Says:

    I keep meaning to dig out my old TRS-80 (Radio Shack) computer, so I can show my daughter what a computer looks like when there is no Hard drive and no operating system, and when you load a program (from a cassette tape) you actually see the code and you actually have to type “run” to make the program work. Oh the good old days of playing Zaxxon (of course we had to upgrade our TRS 80 from 16K to 64K to get old Zaxxon to run.

  6. RubeRad Says:

    I wish I hadn’t sold my Commodore 64! What a trip!

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