"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 12 August 1996. Updated every WEEKDAY.

To Err is Human, to Crash, Divine



When Animals Attack isn't the

only sick indulgence to carry on

the tradition of decadence we

once enjoyed in Faces of Death.

Jonathan Harr's recent article

in the New Yorker immersed its

highbrow readership in an

exquisitely gruesome flight

disaster. The fact that it was a

story without a conclusion is

irrelevant: the surgical detail

Harr relates in his telling of

the 1994 crash and subsequent

investigation of USAir Flight

427 is a sinful temptation to

factory-installed human nature,

which can neither look nor not

look. Not since the "Woman"

issue last March have Ms. Brown

and company shown themselves to

be quite so opportunistic; when

planes started falling from the

sky again this summer, they

could finally go to press with

this pulp nonfiction.



The crashes of TWA 800 and

ValuJet 592 put a fine point on

the bizarre compulsion we have

to get to the bottom of flight

disasters. Flying is an

unnatural way for our species to

travel. More to the point, it's

an exceptionally horrific way to

die. Thus, though we tolerate

error, inaccuracy, and sloppy

paperwork in almost all other

aspects of modern life, there's

simply got to be one helluva

good reason for a plane to plant

itself this way. If not (as the

insurance industry so

optimistically says) an Act of

Nature, then it had better be

the handiwork of a terrorist.

Plain old mechanical failure is

not an option, never has been.

Sure, misguided faith is what

lubes the wheels of most

industries, but think about it -

just how long was the advent of

commercial air travel delayed by

the discovery that Icarus

plummeted due to human error?


Of course, digital crashes tend

to be somewhat less threatening

than analog ones, especially if

you factor out the stock market,

which is a kind of weird bridge

between the two. In computing,

regular folks have a high

tolerance for error.



Consider, for example, Netscape's

continual release of yet another

Navigator in beta. Not only will

we be up to our ears in Type

11s, we'll be happy about it ,

what with Netscape's "bug

bounty" program in which

churlish geeks worldwide will do

the company's dirty work for the

price of a lousy tee-shirt. Now

imagine the National

Transportation Safety Board

giving away those cool blue

federal windbreakers to any

passerby who happens to find a

sticky valve or a blasting cap

among the smoking debris of a

crash site. Or imagine how many

people would line up for the

Boeing 747.03a in beta. Now that

would put some teeth in the term




If only real world crashes were

more virtual, there'd be a lot

less cleaning up to do. More

often than not, network crashes

are actually freeze-ups. Try

rolling that ergonomic office

chair of yours over that gray

Ethernet cord a few times - just

like stepping on a garden hose,

the packets will build up

enormous pressure, which, when

released, will easily flood your

PC's IP stack. Your LAN will

have the responsiveness - and

approximate value - of a

freezer-burned pork chop, and

neither the patience of Job (or

Miracle Thaw) will thaw it out.

Still, you've got what's left of

your health, and there's always




Unless you're a dyed-in-the-wool,

card-carrying, pointy-headed

code cruncher, it's hard to

believe there's a rational

reason for each error, glitch,

and whatsit that announces

itself on a typical workday. In

reality, we prefer to believe

there's a theological reason for

every little unexplained fart

that slips out of our Power

Macs. Umberto Eco may have been

the most famous pundit to

identify the true War of the

Roses going on between the

platforms. But no matter what

your denomination, I/O errors

seem to come around with roughly

the same fleeting

unpredictability as the Virgin

Mary, Elvis, and any other

paranormal phenomenon. As far as

we're concerned, we just want

the angels to beat the devils in

the more influential precincts

of our humble motherboards.


Ironically, analog technologies

are far more forgiving. Like

anything run through a dogma

mill, the digital (and

digerati's) reduction of

everything to its binary signage

tends to do real violence to the

fuzzy products of human wetware.

Computers and their papal

inflexibility translate code

with a logical precision that

would shame a Salem Puritan.

Hence the classic spellchecker

fuckups that are apparent

throughout even the most

prestigious major media

websites. They may not be

crashing our system, but they're

not doing much for our patience.



We know we should be more

forgiving, but somehow we're as

driven as the NTSB to get to the

root of all error, and weed it

out. We want to do our part to

keep the skies safe for browsers

everywhere. At least we'd like

to see a few more copy editors

getting their seating

assignments. All things

considered, the Web is still the

safest way to die. Er, fly. Just

make sure your hard drive is in

a state of grace before you

install the latest version of

Navigator and walk up the


courtesy of E.L. Skinner