What is a Bug, Anyway?

Publication Date: 2012-04-04

I had an odd exchange the other day that made me realize that people need to take more responsibility for their use of technology.

The story starts with the Ministry of Education in BC. I'm a parent and I write emails to the Minister of Education stating my views. (I keep it short and polite, honestly.) Occasionally the Ministry writes back with updates. A few weeks ago the person doing the emailing whoops'd and put 345 email addresses in the cc (carbon copy) field as opposed to the bcc (blind carbon copy) field.

Anyone who's worked in a large company knows that this can happen. When you make this mistake, typically you apologize like crazy and take your lumps as people make fun of you at coffee break.

Sadly some folks in the cc list took this as an invitation to do a Reply All and express their views. Strangely only those with extreme views seemed compelled to be impolite and use Reply All.

The Ministry tried to use the Recall function that Outlook provides, but as I remember, it only works if all the email recipients are on your networked version of Outlook and no one has opened the email yet. In the end, the Ministry sent a note apologizing for the mistake. This was all that was needed, because sane people know that mistakes happen. A vast majority of the 345 did what the smart and correct thing; they kept quiet.

A further discussion with a PR professional led to a discussion about the bcc field. Was this problem a bug? In my mind, it's not a bug, it's a lack of education. Someone needs to tell people, especially those for whom actual carbon paper has never been experienced, that having your name in a carbon copy fields tells you that this email is FYI and you are not expected to respond. Blind carbon copy means the same, but the names in the list are not shown to others. If you put addresses in the bcc field and the addresses are subsequently exposed . . . well, that's a bug.

However, the discussion turned to the concept that "the system should not let you do that. It's a User Interface bug."

That stumped me because my next thoughts were argumentative . . . along the lines of the car analogy. There's a gas pedal and a brake pedal. One makes you go. One makes you stop. When you use them is up to your judgement. If you accelerate through a red light, you might die, kill someone, get a ticket or all of the above. If you make the wrong choice, how is that the car's fault? If a car was as smart as a horse, then you'd have a chance for the transportation technology (in this case an equine entity) to do something smart, like throw you.

This made me think of Toyota, which had the problem with unplanned acceleration issues. In my computer programmer mind, if the car accelerates when it shouldn't that's a bug.

However, if you read this: www.nytimes.com/2011/02/09/opinion/09wed2.html

It was found that "the acceleration problems that led to the recall of nearly eight million Toyota cars and trucks in 2009 and 2010 were mechanical, caused either by gas pedals snagging on floor mats or sticky gas pedals that didn't retract when drivers released them." The article further goes on to say "in a separate study of Toyotas involved in accidents, the agency concluded that most cases of sudden acceleration were probably because of drivers stepping on the gas when they thought they were stepping on the brake."


Overall I think we humans need to spend time thinking about our role in the use of a machines. Since we can't yet make a machine as smart as a horse, we have to be extra careful when using technology because our role in safe and effective usage is huge.

Did I mention that when I write to the Education Minister, I ask for more resources for our children? My logic for this is simple: You rarely hear people in regular conversation saying "kids today are just too dang smart, we should only send them to school for half the year."

Robert Ford is a business owner and IT consultant based in Vancouver. His latest venture Dwindal is testing many for bugs from many angles. Robert@quokkasystems.com
Google+ Profile