“Computer problem.” I’ve heard those two words a million times. Mostly, it’s a crock. Computer problems aren’t usually computer problems but problems which appear when humans operate computers. In other words, it’s mostly human error.
Computers only do what they’re told. Hardware failures that allow them to run amok are relatively rare. It’s that fingertip/keyboard interface where all the trouble arises.
With that perspective, it’s off to Chicago where, earlier this week, WGN radio found itself broadcast all over the radio and TV dial. I was tipped off to this story by Adam Chernow in Wisconsin, but I’ll quote the Chicago Tribune:
In the parlance of the Cold War era that spawned the federally mandated Emergency Alert System, launch codes were issued throughout Illinois on Tuesday morning, automatically pre-empting dozens of radio and television stations as if the region faced nuclear annihilation.
Rather than President Bush reassuring citizens after an atomic blast or some other calamity, the audience of many Chicago outlets was treated to the sound of dead air followed by the voice of WGN-AM 720 morning man Spike O’Dell struggling to figure out what had happened.
It turns out O’Dell’s pair of brief surprise appearances between 7:30 a.m. and 8 a.m. on everything from local public broadcasting to music stations — an “unintentional disruption,” a Federal Emergency Management Agency spokeswoman called it — stemmed from a FEMA contractor’s installation of the state’s Emergency Alert System satellite receiver in Springfield as part of a nationwide upgrade.
If the contractor had asked me to call all those stations, I would have pointed out the error of his ways. Computers are more obedient and, unfortunately, don’t question authority!
Why do we do this? Why do we allow an automated system take control so an errant human can cause chaos?
I know why. I was there the morning the old system failed!
It was February 20, 1971. As I remember, it was a sunny and mild winter’s day. I was working as a disk jockey at WQXT, located right on the ocean in Palm Beach, Florida. Life was good.
At 9:33 AM a series of ten bells rang out from the Associated Press teletype. Ten bells was the signature for a national emergency, an EBS alert… but this was Saturday at 9:33 AM. They tested the system every Saturday at 9:33 AM.
Somewhere deep within Cheyenne Mountain in Colorado, a technician put the wrong put tape in his teletype. Instead of sending the test, he sent the real thing!
From Wikipedia: An EBS activation message authenticated with the codeword “HATEFULNESS” was sent through the entire system, ordering stations to shut down and broadcast the alert of a national emergency. A cancellation message with the wrong codeword was sent at 9:59 AM EST, and a cancellation message with the correct codeword was not sent until 10:13AM EST.
Most radio and TV stations did nothing! They had no way of knowing the message was wrong. In fact, every indication was it was real.
In my case, I heard the bells and disregarded them. It was test time. I heard those bells every Saturday morning.
By the time I looked at the teletype, the alert had been corrected. The few people listening to my little radio station were well served because I totally screwed up!
After that debacle the government worked to change to a better, faster, more streamlined, heavily automated system. And yet, with this week’s problem, the cause was exactly the same – human error.
It’s this automated system that has sometimes allowed cable companies to cut my television station’s audio as they run emergency crawls… even though we’re giving emergency info when they kill our audio!
Society has become so complex, we can’t operate without computer assistance. Unfortunately, that has forced us to put much too much power in someone’s fingertip. The folks in Chicago understand.