Deals, Failure, and Fun

I’ve found that the always entertaining FAILblog is a rich source for revealing errors. Here’s a nice example.

Every reader on FAILblog can chuckle at the idea an item is being offered for $69.98 instead of an original $19.99 as part of a clearance sale. The idea that one can “Save $-49” is icing on the cake. Of course, most readers will immediately assume that no human was involved in the production of this sign; it’s hard to imagine that any human even read the sign before it went up on the shelf!

The sign was made by a computer program working from a database or a spreadsheet with a column for the name of the product, a column for the original price, and a column for the sale price. Subtracting the sale price from the original gives the “savings” and, with that data in hand, the sign is printed. The idea of negative savings is a mistake that only a computer will make and, with the error, the sign-producing computer program is revealed.

Errors like this, and FAILblog’s work in in general, highlights one of the reasons that I think that errors are such a great way to talk about technology. FAILblog is incredibly popular with millions of people checking in to see the latest pictures and videos of screw-ups, mistakes, and failures. For whatever reason — sadism, schadenfreude, reflection on things that are surprisingly out of place, or the comfort of knowing that others have it worse — we all know that a good error can be hilarious and entertaining.

My own goal with Revealing Errors centers on a type of technology education. I want to revealing hidden technology as a way of giving people insight into the degree and the way that our lives are technologically mediated. In the process, I hope to lay the groundwork for talking about the power that this technology has.

But if people are going to want to read anything I write, it should also be entertaining. Errors are appropriate for a project like mine because they give an a view into closed systems, hidden intermediaries and technological black boxes. But they they are great for the project because they are also intrinsically interesting!

Bad Signs

I caught another revealing crash screen over on The Daily WTF.

Travelex Crash Screen

Although the folks at WTF did not draw attention to the fact, a close examination revealed that the dialog box on the crashed screen is rotated 90 degrees.

If you step back and look at the sign, it makes sense. The folks at Travelex wanted a tall poster-sized electronic bulletin board to display currency information and promotions. Unfortunately long screens are rare and LCD screens of unusual sizes are extremely expensive. Travelex appears to have done the very sensible thing of taking a readily available and low-cost wide-screen LCD television, turned it on its side, and hooked it up to a computer.

Of course, screens have tops and bottoms. To display correctly on a sideways screen, a computer needs to be configured to display information sideways — a non-trivial tasks on many systems. If you look a the Windows “Start” menu and task-bar along the right side (i.e., bottom) of the screen and the shape of the dialog, it seems that Travelex simply didn’t bother. They used the screen to display images, or sequences of images and found it easy enough to simply rotate each of the images to be display 90 degrees as well. They simply showed a full-screen slide-show of sideways images on their sideways screen. And no user ever noticed until the system crashed.

It’s a neat trick that many users might find useful but most would not think to do. Although they might after seeing this crash!

A close-up of the screen reveals even more.

Travelex Crash Screen Closeup

Apparently, the dialog has popped up because the computer running the sign has a virus! Viruses are usually acquired through user interaction with a computer (e.g., opening a bad attachment) or through the Internet. It seems likely that the computer is plugged into the Internet — perhaps the slide-show is updated automatically — or that the image is being displayed from a computer used to do other things. In any case, it’s a worrying “sign” from a financial services company.