Use Your Printer

Let's Talk about TechLast year, my father-in-law in Wales was in a nasty accident. The way he tells it, he was pulling into a parking place in front of a shop in the village, and suddenly the car accelerated, out of control. He tried like mad to brake the car, but an eighty-something matchstick with two artificial knees wasn’t going to win against a car set on self-destruction. It was a miracle that the only ones hurt were him and a traffic barrier pole at the bottom of the road, and their injuries were minor.

But my father-in-law was mentally devastated. It was the second time in recent years that a car had done something unexpected, resulting in an accident. Was it him? Was he getting too old to drive? What were his friends going to say? No one was going to believe him. I could tell he was worried, maybe headed for depression. But I didn’t know what to say. Did cars really accelerate on their own, outside of horror movies?

Half way around the planet, I did what any one of us would do. I handed the phone to my husband, to keep the conversation going, while I went on the net, and searched for “unintended acceleration.” Bingo. I found other cases. GM. Toyota. Claims of cover-ups for faulty design. Lawsuits. Somebody writing a book on the subject.

The problem was clear to me. Cars are systems, just like the software systems that I use every day. Software has bugs – unintended behaviour. One of the worst kinds of bugs is the “intermittent, unreproducible” bug. It’s very time-consuming to track down the cause, and even if you think you’ve found the bug and fixed it, it’s hard to be sure, since it’s so difficult to reproduce. Is it fixed, or just being intermittent again? There must be an intermittent, unreproducible bug in the car’s system. Maybe the cause of the accident was “user error”, but it could just as well have been an intermittent bug. Here was a plausible alternative to the dire conclusion that my father-in-law was an old has-been, a menace to himself and others.

My father-in-law wasn’t on the net, though. He couldn’t see what I was seeing. But he needed to see those articles. I could tell him what I was seeing, but that wasn’t going to be good enough. Not when his friends came over. “Sure, your daughter-in-law would say that…” They might not say it out loud, but their eyebrows would do all the talking.

So I did what needed to be done. I printed out those articles. I put them in a big white envelope, weighed it, looked up the postage on usps.gov, put stamps on that envelope, and shipped it off to the father of my husband, the grandfather of my daughter.

And you know what? It worked. I’ve seen him in person a couple of times since, not always in the best of circumstances, but he’s thanked me both times. He doesn’t drive anymore now, but he gets around, and is as spunky as ever.

So think about it. Next time you’re on the internet, and you find something that would be useful or interesting to someone you care about who is off the internet, use your printer. If you don’t already have them, next time you’re in Staples, pick up some big envelopes and a weighing scale. Order some stamps online, or pick up some in the grocery store or at the post office or the ATM. But use your printer. You can even print that letter that you would’ve e-mailed if they had been on the net. It only takes a few extra minutes, but I’m telling you, it’s worth it.

Happy Father’s Day.

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