Electronic Design

Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Bug?

Dov Schechter, a Penton colleague on the publishing side, passed along this (http://powerbookdefect.info). In case the site changes by the time you see it, what is there now appears to be a rant about a bug in multiple Apple computers of the last PowerPC generation that affects audio recording. It’s a call to action for all users who suffer from the bug to contact Apple and demand that the company fix it.

I hope that works. I’m a PC user, so I’m accustomed to bugs. Just before I started writing this, I experienced the one where Adobe Reader makes IE freeze. (When that happens, I close Reader and find an instance of IE that I can close from the taskbar. That generally works, although it closes all instances of IE). There’s supposed to be a download from MS that will fix the bug, but when I follow the link to the site that’s alleged to have the fix, I can’t find it. I probably wouldn’t download it anyway. The Penton IT department discourages us editors from “fixing” stuff on our own.

I suppose that what I’m saying is that Apple users and PC users live in different worlds, and it’s diverting to see what happens when the bubble bursts for our comrades who can be, let’s admit it, a little smug about their usually bulletproof boxes.

When a bug like this does occur, it shows the downside of Apple's positioning as a sole source. A closed system is supposed to eliminate the finger-pointing that goes on in the wintel world when our wheels fall off. But of course, open-source or closed, something eventually doesn't work when you're engineering on the bleeding edge with vanishingly short product cycle-times. When that happens, vendors may prefer to be dealing with us PC users, who are inured to snafus. We mutter "in'sh'allah" and proceed with workarounds, some of which even work.

Another thing that strikes me is the way, when something like this happens these days, how quickly the word gets around, even outside the world of the cognoscenti. In pre-Web days, only insiders learned about the bug in the HP 35 (the original scientific hand-held calculator) that would give incorrect results when you took the natural log of 2.02 and then raised e to that power, or about the trick you could do with TI's Speak-and-Spell that would cause it to utter an embarrassing phrase that referred to something that the poet Robert Browning once confused with a nun’s wimple. (Apparently, that phrase had somehow failed to be purged from lexicon memory between the toy's product-development and production phases.) Nowadays, with the Web, even the most junior sweeper in a second-tier monastery in the remotest suburb of Lhasa would be clued in to that story within days.

By the way, here is a link that includes the following illuminating story about the HP 35 "bug" (www.hpmuseum.org/hp35.htm).

“Hewlett-Packard Integrity and ‘The Bug’”

“The HP-35 had numerical algorithms that exceeded the precision of most mainframe computers at the time. During development, Dave Cochran, who was in charge of the algorithms, tried to use a Burroughs B5500 to validate the results of the HP-35 but instead found too little precision in the former to continue. IBM mainframes also didn't measure up. This forced time-consuming manual comparisons of results to mathematical tables. A few bugs got through this process. For example: 2.02 ln e resulted in 2 rather than 2.02. When the bug was discovered, HP had already sold 25,000 units which was a huge volume for the company. In a meeting, Dave Packard asked what they were going to do about the units already in the field and someone in the crowd said "Don't tell?" At this Packard's pencil snapped and he said: "Who said that? We're going to tell everyone and offer them a replacement. It would be better to never make a dime of profit than to have a product out there with a problem". It turns out that less than a quarter of the units were returned. Most people preferred to keep their buggy calculator and the notice from HP offering the replacement.”

(Interestingly, Google finds no links to the phrase in the Speak and Spell embarrassment. I expected the Google Groups/DejaNews archives to have it, but they only go back to 1981, and this was circa ’77-‘78.)


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