The Grumpy Old Man

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Errors in Computers and Call Centres

Note:this grump was originally published in August 2015, and updated in December 2018

A background to computers, what they can actually do and what they cannot do as against what people, especially call centres, expect of them!

Nowadays we all use them in every walk of life. In fact, to read this you must be utilising some form of computer.

All of us seem to exhibit an implicit, almost blind trust in our computers these days. We believe totally in the information they supply to us. Grumpy believes this is exceedingly dangerous. He can almost hear you saying what the hell does he know about computers? Let me explain, for the whole of his working life Grumpy has been involved with computers in one form or another. Most of his work was involved in the hardware (electronic chips, bits and power supplies) as opposed to the software (programming) side of computing. Having said that, he has certainly gained more than a nodding acquaintanceship with what was required and some of the problems one meets with software.

The first computer he used came in two boxes, each box was about nineteen inches (480 mm) wide, fifteen inches (380 mm) high and maybe twenty-four inches (610 mm) deep. (They were large and heavy!) One box was memory and the other box was processing. As regards computing power, the device on which you read this (even if it is a held device) will have well over a thousand times more computing power than Grumpy's first machine. Whereas nowadays the computer comes complete with all its software fully loaded and ready to go, Grumpy's first machine needed the software to be loaded every time it was turned on and even before that was possible, a series of a dozen or so instructions had to be fed into the machine via some twenty toggle switches across the front panel. Such simplicity is almost impossible to comprehend when compared with today's equipment.

It is interesting however that the fundamental high level architecture of all computers has changed very little from those days. They still have a bulk memory, processing, input/output facilities and of course the software that tells it all what to do.

From a hardware point of view, although things are much more reliable nowadays Grumpy has still experienced the odd hardware problem. In the fifteen or so years that he has been using his own personal computer he has had two keyboards fail, he has had a basic processing card replaced, a new mouse and a new printer to name but a few. So hardware can and does develop faults. As regards software I am sure, particularly users of Microsoft operating system, will recall that sometimes, a message appears when you turn off your computer. The message reads that a "software upgrade is being installed". The fact that this is happening indicates that there is a minor higgle in your software that Microsoft are correcting. Grumpy would observe that when Microsoft do this, even they don't always get the correction correct! Quite recently, one of these automatic software upgrades failed to properly install on my computer and was automatically removed by Microsoft. Every day for the following week they tried to install the same upgrade with the same result each time. After a week of this they eventually got the upgrade right and it installed correctly. So software also has faults designed into it or it develops faults as it is used. It is not perfect.

As an example of this at work, Grumpy also recalls that while he was working at Plessey, part of his department was a small group of staff whose full-time task was to keep all the desktop PCs on the site fully operational. From memory, there must have been between forty and fifty PCs in use around the site mainly being used for software development. It was the task of this section to ensure that all the PCs operated correctly. This would include repair of the hardware when a fault developed and similarly with the software loaded into each machine. The hardware was frequently repaired by installing a replacement circuit card. Trouble shooting the software was a little more difficult but frequently the problem was resolved by a simple reload of the software. This task kept at least one member of staff permanently occupied and frequently additional staff had to be drafted in to keep things running smoothly.

But what may you ask is the boring old fart wittering on about? Well, the point I am making is that computer hardware develops faults and equally, so does the software. It is accepted that the systems engineer can do much to mitigate these effects. However I would point out that the system, hardware and the software are all man-made. It is surely arrogant for man to assume that his systems are perfect and without fault.

With this background Grumpy feels sufficiently qualified to pass comment on our blind reliance and belief in our computers. Grumpy accepts that they are more reliable than they were, but to mitigate against that, they are far, far more complex and they have far more computing power than was ever the case in the past.

Having said that one must ask "what are computers good at?" The only thing they are supremely good at is that they can do the same task over and over and over again in exactly the same way each time. Provided there is no fault in the hardware or oddity in the software, the computer will carry on doing this task ad nauseum.

So now we come to the crunch. Ever since he worked with computers Grumpy has been acutely aware of a very simple axiom that applied to his first computer and every single computer he has come across since. The scale of modern computers is actually not pertinent to the matter because they all use the same basic structure and materials outlined above. It is accepted that everything is much smaller, much more complex, much faster and probably has many more safeguards built in than Grumpy is aware of. However, they are still man-made and they will still suffer from the problems outlined above.

The simple axiom is and always has been "rubbish in, rubbish out". The rubbish out, can only be caused by one of two things those being either rubbish input by the operator, or a system (hardware or software) fault (rubbish computation). Grumpy notices that there have recently been, particularly in the banks, a number of system faults. It is accepted that the banks do their utmost to correct these errors but the point Grumpy is making is that they still happen. For some poor customers it was four or five weeks before they had proper access to their accounts.

What is of far greater concern to Grumpy are the instances were incorrect data has been fed into the computer. This has had catastrophic results for some customers of the organisation using the computer. Over the last few months Grumpy has seen examples of people's credit ratings being falsely blacked. Grumpy has experienced multiple debits to his account, people have received mammoth utility bills, and so the story goes on.

It is of great concern to Grumpy that every time one speaks to these perishing call centres one is effectively talking to a computer. The person being spoken to at the centre invariably believes that the data on his/her computer is one hundred percent correct and accurate. They are totally unable to accept that there could possibly be any error in the system.

What can we do to protect ourselves against this? Grumpy does not recommend the route he took some time ago when he was querying an electricity bill that was so astronomic that it was obviously incorrect. The operator at the call centre assured me that it was correct, after all that is what the computer said! It was clear that either incorrect data had been fed into the computer or it had been scrambled by the machine. The operator on the telephone repeatedly insisted the computer was right. She justified it by saying "but that's what the computer says " as if that made it the absolute gospel truth. Grumpy pointed out they had either put rubbish into the computer or had carried out rubbish processing of the data. He, after all, was in the computer business and designed the blessed things.There was a deathly silence at the end of the telephone and the operator said "in that case Mr Grumpy I will arrange for it to be investigated". Following this investigation it transpired that they did have a fault on their computer and a large number of other customers' accounts had been similarly scrambled.

Now I'm not suggesting that everybody tries that approach but Grumpy believes the best thing to do is to ask to speak to the Supervisor. There will always be one on duty and if he is unable to help, then one can always request to speak to his supervisor! Believe me, that does actually work! What I would say is don't give up and when the problem is resolved, write a strong letter of protest to the company concerned. In the past Grumpy has invariably been successful with this approach and has frequently been offered compensation for his trouble. Perhaps he should have asked for Management Consultant fees!

So don't give up, don't be hoodwinked or pushed around by these people, at the end of the day you are the customer and deserve a common courtesy and investigation of your complaint.

Ultimately should you still be unsuccessful, most countries these days have a data protection office. Once you have threatened the company with referring the matter to him, I can assure you they will sit up and take notice.

For the moment, that's it on Computers and the danger of blindly relying on them. I am sure the topic will arise again, so watch this space!

Note:this grump was originally published in August 2015, and updated in December 2018

It has been quite fascinating to read a report in the Daily Telegraph on bankers meeting the UK Parliamentary Select Committee sitting to investigate the recent rash of IT failures in the banks. The head honcho at Barclays bank actually stated that "no banking system can be 100% failsafe". He went on to say that "it can be challenging to provide a seamless experience all of the time when we typically deploy thousands of software improvements each day. Unfortunately, no hardware or software can be 100% failsafe".

He went on to illustrate the complexity of modern banking systems when he revealed that a one day outage in September this year occurred when software updates interacted in a rare and unexpected manner that did not appear in extensive pre-testing. As a humble Electronics Engineer with a lifetime experience in systems design, IT systems and computer usage, even Grumpy can say that if it can happen, ultimately, it will. One hates to be racist, particularly as I'm living in Ireland, but this adage is known to engineers worldwide as Murphy's Law. One expects it and one either designs the system to be unaffected by it or incorporates corrective measures in the overall design/implementation process. In the Barclays incident it should have been possible to "wind back" the system to the "pre-update" status while the fault was sorted. Failure to have this facility available, Grumpy suggests, is grossly irresponsible. The designers of the system should always remember that they are working with building blocks (software subroutines) that were maybe designed a number of years ago on much older, slower systems such that many oddities were "ignored by the system".

Touch wood, Grumpy has been lucky in that he has only recently come across a "banking" problem when his debit card was declined when he knew that there was a three figure sum in the account that covered the requested debit multiple times over. It appears that this requested transaction was one of the first to fail as it was later reported on the national news that Visa transactions after the approximate time of Grumpy's transaction all failed to work. On a lighter note it seems that drivers heading into Wales on the Severn Crossing were also unable to pay their toll fees! From past experience Grumpy knows what the slightest delay at the Severn Bridge can do to traffic flows.

It is gratifying to see the Visa European Chief has stated "hardware failure had caused the company to boost its crisis management arm and work more with other financial institutions to further mitigate potential disruption across the industry". At least somebody is beginning to learn the lesson that computers are not infallible and it is dangerous to totally rely on them. It is perhaps worrying that the use of computers is also widespread in the defence industry. Let's hope any crisis management in their operation is superior to that of the financial industry!!