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slightly geeky  slightly geeky

Case 101


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One morning the Temple found itself flooded with calls from panicked users, claiming that they had received erroneous emails from a particular billing system. The emails alleged that payments were now a year overdue, and regrettably the users’ heads were forfeit.

Temple abbots gathered in the courtyard, debating how best to locate the source of the problem before the Temple’s entire customer base disappeared into the mountains to escape the executioner’s axe.

“There is no need,” said the nun Hwídah from the edge of the courtyard. “The shame is my own. In our last maintenance build I carelessly modified a boolean expression in the accounting module, causing it to return false when the proper answer was true. I have now corrected the defect, and the spurious emails have ceased.”

Hwídah was banished for two months to the dungeons below the Temple’s deepest archives, where alone she would inspect mouldering printouts of old COBOL scripts for possible defects.

After a week the nun Yíwen came to replenish the prisoner’s allotment of cold rice.

“Forgive my puzzlement, Hwídah,” asked Yíwen as she pushed a tray under the cell door, “but why did you admit your fault after correcting the error? Had you remained silent the cause would have escaped detection for many days, by which time the Temple would have turned its attention to more urgent matters. Your involvement could have remained unknown forever.”

“Tell me, Yíwen,” said the prisoner, “what chaos would ensue if all the modules in our system occasionally returned false when the proper answer was true? And when I say system, what picture does the word make in your mind?”

Hwídah slid the empty tray back under the door. “On that morning, when the horror of my error was revealed to me, so too was this understanding: we are all a part of the system. It is an extension of our desires, our efforts, and—lamentably—our flaws. If I were to let my fellows waste precious hours searching for a defect that I had secretly corrected, I would only have failed the system a second time.”