Tag Archives: computers

Patience in the Computer Age

Dave's first computer book, 1963

Dave’s first computer book, 1963, $3.95

Why should a person like me, with a long-exhausted reserve of patience, spend twenty-two years working full-time with computers? After all, these devices fail miserably to deliver exactly what you want even after weeks of frustrating effort. I must have been attracted by the tantalizing promise of these machines to complete, in mere fractions of a second, laborious tasks that once took human hours or days.

My early wisdom about computers evaporated when necessity forced me to work with them full time. I said, “Why program a computer to do something you will do once, when writing the program will take longer than the work itself?” Real programmers didn’t understand my point of view. What they didn’t know was that I found comfort and even relaxation in small clerical jobs.

The biggest failure of computers, as everyone knows, is their steadfast persistence in doing exactly what you tell them to do, instead of what you want them to do. A casual comment by a co-worker at a defense plant offered some hope. Speaking of an unclassified project, the Pilot’s Associate, he said, “We’ll use artificial intelligence techniques to lighten the workload of the jet fighter pilot, by predicting his intentions at just the right moment, and commanding the aircraft automatically to do just what he would have intended it to do. Then he’ll be free to cope with more pressing tasks, such as deflecting approaching missiles, for instance.” I had to laugh.“Mike,” I said, “May I borrow this program when you perfect it? It’s just what we computer programmers need to get the computer to do what we intend without our having to tell it exactly what we want it to do.”

Now I’m glad to be retired from computer work. Like the spurious notion that each person is granted a fixed number of two-billion heartbeats to expend at any rate they chose, I think that I was granted a fixed supply of patience at birth. Foolishly, I used it all up when I was a teenager, trying to get my first car, a true junker, to run reliably. I’ve been running on empty ever since.

Next week: Sea Shell City