Fatal Error Number 27


From IEEE Spectrum Magazine, May 1997


 Iím working along on my computer, minding my own business (literally), and all my stuff disappears from the screen except for that dreaded message "Fatal error number 27," together with a highlighted box that says, "OK?"

 "NOT OK!" I scream at my computer. With increasing exasperation and futility, I click elsewhere on my screen. But Iíve been there before, done that, and I know with dread certainty that my computer wonít let me do anything else except click on "OK."

Why does the computer make me acknowledge complicity in this terrible thing it is about to do to me? It isnít my fault Ė Iím entirely innocent. I shouldnít have to agree to "OK." I want a "Not OK" box to click!

Other messages that we all get from our computers every day are just like this. Thereís a famous one that gives you the alternatives "abort, cancel, and retry." I always choose "retry." Sounds like a good idea, doesnít it? After all, everyday life is like this. Weíve all learned the old wisdom, "If at first you donít succeed, try, try again." So I click "retry." It never works. The awful thing about computers is that if doesnít work the first time, it isnít going to work the second time either. Nevertheless, hope springs eternal; maybe next time "retry" will work. I never learn.

What I really want is an "undo" button. When this is an option, this is where computers are actually better than real life. How many times in life have I wished that I could push undo? Now that computer lore has become the culture, I think of it often. If only I could go back and not have done whatever it was that I did. Alas, all too often. My behavior in life, as in computers, is often imperfect.

Whenever I deal with computers there is one sure bit of knowledge in the back of my mind Ė I can always reboot. The reset button beckons to me. Even pulling the power plug from the wall has a certain emotional appeal. Forget everything Iíve done lately, letís just start all over. Again, sigh, if real life were only like that. Just every now and then Ė because this is a drastic solution Ė the notion of a personal reboot to the last preserved state appeals to me. Maybe with all the progress in cloning technology, who knows what might be possible?

Incredible, but true, that just as I finished that last sentence, my screen half disappeared, and I got a message box saying, "This program has performed an illegal operation and will be shut down." Iím using a brand new version of the word processor. What was the illegal operation, I wonder? Am I not allowed to talk about these error messages? Is there a filter in the new version that detects my negative slant on the error messages?

This time the box gives me two options: "close" and "details." Obviously, I donít want to close, though fortunately I have just saved the work (as if this were worth saving!). So, as always, I push "details." I know what I am going to get, but I push it anyway.

You would think that when you ask for details, you would get something like: "Well, unfortunately, you tried to invoke the flogistor when you were in the obviator mode. Please donít do that again." But no, what it actually says is, "fatal exception 0E at 098A3772." Is there any human being who can actually understand these messages?

Having exhausted the possibilities with the enigmatic output from "details," Iím once again forced to the masochistic "close." Go ahead, do it to me. I donít agree to this, but you give me no choice.

I wonder; who writes these error messages? Is there a learned field of study here, or do they hire people off the street, and deprive them of food for days, while subjecting them to an unending sequence of telemarketing calls? Just to get them in the mood, as it were.

I should remark that this unhelpfulness in error messages isnít confined to the computer industry. One of the worst I can recall is when I got lost in a rental car after midnight on some lonely road. Suddenly there was that ominous red warning light on the instrument panel. "Check engine," it said. "What do you mean, check engine?" I scream. Maybe this is the automotive equivalent of a general protection fault. I worry that I wonít be found in these boondocks for months, and when I am the rescue workers will see the faint glow of the still-persistent red light, and shake their heads sadly. "He should have known not to drive with that warning light illuminated," they will say to each other.

The thing that I have been pondering, and which has led me to the writing of this diatribe, is the question: What do I want the error messages to say?

At first I considered obsequious messages that would apologize profusely for the computerís unseemly behavior, but I decided that these wouldnít wear well. Next I thought about analytical messages that would try to assign fault where it most likely lay. These would be non-accusatory, but antiseptic in their judgment of the problem. So you wouldnít feel too bad when it informed you that you had done something stupid.

Halfway in between these possibilities is the "This program has performed an illegal operation" message. Itís actually not bad in its own little way. First, it assumes the blame, but in an abstract sense. The program has done something wrong. No apologies, no handwringing Ė just the bald, if artificial, statement. It also avoids some of those loaded words, like "fatal," that appear so regularly.

Whatever the message is, however, it is going to be unhelpful, because nothing is going to be able to be done about whatever it was. Whatever you did, or it did, probably wonít happen again. It will get you for something different the next time. So what I decided is Ė forget the message bit. The computerís speaker should emit a faint sizzling sound that grows in volume and ends with a loud popping noise. The screen should cascade with firework-like colors, and then should turn black with the culmination of the popping noise.

Then everyone would understand. Thatís life. Reboot.

 

Robert W. Lucky

rlucky@bellcore.com