One hundred truths of technology

Features Mark Pickavance Jan 17, 2013

Mark Pickavance brings us 100 slices of computing wisdom

I’ve been working with computers since 1978, and lots has changed since then. However, some things are intrinsic to the technological world we live in, whatever happens. Here are 100 of my truths of technology. To paraphrase George Orwell, all truths are created equal, but some are more equal than others....

1. Every version of Windows is always ‘the best yet’, irrespective of the number of bugs it contains. Windows Me was described in that fashion, even though it patently wasn’t.

2. All hard drives are always made slightly smaller than you ultimately need them to be, and they don’t work well when they’re approaching being full to remind you of this universal constant.

3. Systems work flawlessly when they’re relatively unimportant but fail immediately when they’re declared as being ‘critical’ in any way. Any system described in this way it is immediately doomed to catastrophic failure.

4. An unintended software bug that’s difficult or expensive to fix is renamed ‘a feature’ and included in all future releases as such.

5. DVD/CD rot only attacks those discs you need to access, ignoring the rest.

6. Fans of some hardware companies always take the disinterest from others in that equipment range as being a shortage of knowledge on their part, rather than any personal choice. Some even suspect others of intentional ignorance.

7. When computers become older they slow down, much like humans. You can speed them back up by dropping them from a great height, where they’ll reach roughly the same terminal velocity as modern systems.

8. Dust knows where in your house you keep your computer and heads there.

9. Paying your broadband bill in proportion to how your ISP promoted it isn’t an acceptable practice for most providers.

10. Music you’ve licensed on iTunes won’t be public domain until 70 years after it was written, but your license to it will have expired one second after you die. Your beneficiaries might own your iPod/iPhone/iPad, but they won’t have any rights to the music you bought.

11. A ‘backup’ is something all users intend to do tomorrow but most never actually do today. Most users back up the idea, rather than their data.

12. Most user manuals would only be two pages long if they only came in the language that the equipment owner can speak.

13. If a computer runs very slow, some users will check under the desk to see if there are pedals to operate, thus making it go faster. This is called the ‘Flintstones’ effect.

14. Hardware will fail within days or weeks of the warranty expiring, so it’s easy to calculate when most things will break.

15. Hardware makers get bored writing drivers for their equipment long before all the bugs in those routines are found and fixed.

16. Software writers think that all computer users are Americans, irrespective of their geographic location or keyboard choices. Selecting another regional identity will confuse the computer, which will insist on retaining all the American settings ready for when you come to your senses.

17. Despite having a processor with billions of transistors operating at more than 3GHz, all computers are generally rubbish at telling the time reliably. One of the greatest contributions of the internet is to keep PC and smartphone clocks reasonably accurate.

18. Anti-piracy measures annoy legitimate users who bought their products, whereas pirates don’t suffer with these issues, curiously.

19. Apple computers never get a virus or crash, ever. They also contain the best mapping system in the world, which is ideal for vacationing in Australia.

20. Old equipment left on a shelf will die of loneliness, never working again when you come back to it. To work again the hardware must be cherished.

21. Keeping old computer parts just in case you’ll need them again is pointless, because you end up with so many bits that finding the precise part is impossible at the point you require it.

22. Despite the millions spent on software development to achieve this trick, very few people speak to their computer or phone, and computers hardly ever talk to their owners, with the exception of satnav gear.

23. Purchasing something gives you very little authority over how that item is used or changed, and in many respects the term ‘owned’ can be a very misleading one.

24. ‘4G’ doesn’t exist yet as a standard, even if many companies are offering to sell it to you now.

25. Everyone copies Apple, which had all the best ideas first. Even if by accident another company comes up with a better idea, Apple will copy that design and then travel back in time to appear like it did it first.

26. Fixing a PC always takes much longer than you anticipated initially, unless it was never actually broken in the first place, which is a common user-keyboard-interface problem.

27. Software developers never test their work properly, as they have the public to do that for them for free.

28. It’s statistically almost impossible to enter a 28-character serial activation code correctly first time.

29. Any game you fancy a quick play with will inevitably initiate a major update taking up all the time you’d allocated to enjoy it.

30. All USB external drive makers quote the theoretical limit of the connection technology even if it has little to do with how fast it will work attached to a PC.

31. Expensive HDMI cables are made from handcrafted bupkis of the finest quality, after which they’re sprinkled with fairy dust before being packaged by elves.

32. People who camp outside retail outlets for days in advance of product releases are in denial about other customers who pre-ordered the product online and received theirs at home the day before or even earlier.

33. Patent lawyers actually decide what technology you can buy and use, not you.

34. Retail computer outlets are places where technical people go to feel superior about the knowledge they have by listening to the staff explain technology to the public.

35. An existing hardware product branded with a new game title is always better than the identical one that’s not branded - always.

36. When people say ‘the computer deleted my file’, what they actually mean is that they deleted the file and the computer did nothing to stop them. Fault is always best allocated to inanimate objects.

37. IBM is secretly still very, very annoyed that the PC isn’t exclusively made by IBM.

38. Moore’s Law isn’t about the growth of computing power, it’s about the limited understanding of the mainstream press about computers, and how each year they must recycle the same meaningless story.

39. The bigger a government-funded IT project is, the less likely it is to actually deliver anything useful, and above a certain size complete failure is the only option available.

40. Business leaders see installing computers as a way to make people redundant, forgetting that they need someone to sit in front of them, and others to support their presence.

41. The best deals on any computer equipment are a warning that they’re about to be discontinued or replaced with something much better.

42. There are ports on almost every PC that will never be used, ever.

43. Paranoid people print off important emails that they receive, ignoring the irony of the phrase ‘paperless office’ and the fire hazard.

44. When people eventually stop watching broadcast TV, moving instead to 5,000-plus worldwide streamed channels, they’ll still complain that ‘nothing is on’.

45. People who talk to their phone’s voice interface in public when not on a call appear to have mental issues to those around them.

46. Tyrannical despots almost never have social networking accounts, so they never know how many friends they really have.

47. An automated switchboard that asks you to key your account number in before talking to a person will invariably be followed by a conversation where you’ll first be asked to provide the number you just keyed in.

48. Most modern video cards have features that will only ever be exploited in demos and never in retail games.

49. For every person who swears by Intel hardware, there are five who just swear.

50. Research shows that those people who break copyright by downloading movies and music illegally also buy more music and movies than those who don’t. As such, the media industry should actually be encouraging piracy.

51. There are features in Microsoft Office that you’ve never used, irrespective of what version you have or how long you’ve used it.

52. All broadband customers with a fault are directed by the providers to check on the internet for more information, missing the obvious flaw in that plan.

53. A search through the PC spares box will reveal both a part you don’t ever recall owning and another that you have no practical reason for keeping.

54. Hardware makers will use GHz, MHz, gigabytes, nautical miles or whatever representation makes their product seem numerically superior to any other, yet they can’t even agree on how big an 8GB flash drive should actually be.

55. Security software will often claim to write zeros to 100% of a hard drive to erase it completely, where statistically more than 50% of the drive will already contain zeros.

56. EULA (End User Licence Agreements) are designed to be excessively long and legally phrased to discourage people from reading and therefore understanding them.

57. Many products these days come with an instruction manual on a DVD/CD disc, which contains an explanation of how to use the disc to access the on-disc manual.

58. When fixing a PC, given a selection of ten or more cables to replace a faulty one, most people will instinctively pick another one with a different problem.

59. PC designers like to move on to new memory types on a regular basis, claiming it provides more bandwidth, but ignoring the fact that they haven’t yet used all that the previous technology offered.

60. If a technology fails to grab the customers’ imagination it will undergo a name change, making all the difference.

61. Hollywood has an unerring ability to take a much loved game character and place them in a movie that everyone agrees is both poorly conceived and executed.

62. When software companies announce they are pre-releasing software to gain important feedback, they fail to mention that they’ll only listen to those responses that coincide with what they’ve already decided to do.

63. If everyone insisted on enforcing the warranties that memory and drive makers offer with their products, these companies would go bust.

64. If you’ve had a computer since the early days, the memory taken up by the mouse pointer on your current system is more than your first computer had in its entirety.

65. TV journalists will explain that the Lunar Module used to land on the moon had a computer with the power of a smartphone, because they imagine people can understand that, not because it’s a remotely accurate statement.

66. ITC is a class where young people learn to use other people’s software, rather than how to write their own.

67. When the computer of a non-technical person breaks, they assume that whatever happened it was their fault, even if they don’t know what went wrong.

68. Trapping an Apple and Android user in a confined space together for longer than an hour will be fatal for one, if not both of them.

69. Installing all the browser toolbars offered in a typical surfing session would result in there being no actual screen space left to view web pages on most systems.

70. A software product brought to market with updates already in the pipeline or promised soon is sold as a positive thing, where code that doesn’t need fixing from the outset would actually be much more impressive.

71. Most pre-installed software on a typical branded laptop or desktop PC is often removed the very first time the computer is used.

72. Just because a CPU or memory module fits onto a motherboard, it’s no guarantee that it will work there. Intel made a great many processors that fit on boards that won’t run them.

73. The artwork on graphics card packaging is always impressive, even if the card inside is often much less exciting.

74. YouTube is proof that while you might have little spare time, others have seemingly limitless amounts.

75. Stories that circulate on the internet develop their own ‘truthiness’ irrespective of how fact based they are in the first place.

76. If the sales of a technology product are very good, companies will tell everyone how well they’ve done; if they’re bad they’ll declare that the information is ‘commercially sensitive’ and will withhold it.

77. A good portion of the people reading this indirectly heat their homes with computers, even if this isn’t a method that’s generally considered energy efficient.

78. Most people have a special drawer in their homes where old phones and digital camera go to become very obsolete.

79. Battery life is never great on anything mobile, because before better batteries are designed and made we’ve already consumed the extra capacity they’ll bring with a bigger screen, faster processor and more memory.

80. Fake Chinese copies of technology devices are often made in the same factories as official branded ones. However, they are categorically and intrinsically inferior, I can assure you.

81. Somewhere above version 10 and below version 20, most software products go through a complete rebranding and name change so the version numbering doesn’t seem quite so silly.

82. If most computer owners were asked to prove that they owned all the software on their PC they’d fail, even if they did own it all.

83. Oddly, technology companies think they have the power to tell people what they can call things. Apple declared the third generation of the iPad was just ‘the iPad’, and Microsoft insists that its Windows 8 apps aren’t ‘Metro’, but people still call that particular tablet the iPad 3, and Metro is still used in respect of Windows 8.

84. Given the current trends in phone design, in ten years time you’ll need an electron microscope to locate the SIM card, while most phones will be the size of tabloid newspapers.

85. Monitors now come with contrast ratios that have many more levels than it’s possible for the human eye to discern, so it’s impossible to know if they’re working correctly in that respect.

86. In my lifetime (possibly) computer storage will become so enormous that a bit will statistically flip from 0 to 1 (or vice versa) purely through the application of the uncertainty principle. I predict that the bit will be in the digital identity tag of a cat trapped for experimental purposes in the confines of a safe, which may or may not be dead at the time.

87. There’s a pending patent for reading, which you’re infringing, right now.

88. Most YouTube take-downs of infringing material aren’t initiated by the copyright owner but by their competitors.

89. The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) protects the interests of recording artists by pursuing children, old people, the dead and countless others, in court. The money it gets from these actions and settlements isn’t returned to the artists who have had their works infringed, because that would suggest that they needed the money.

90. Phone use is banned on commercial aircraft in this country because of an industry concensus that they’re dangerous to flight operations. This is despite there being no statistical evidence of these effects, and numerous airlines around the world allowing in-flight calls without issue.

91. All computers and monitors supplied in this country must come with a two-pin power cord, along with the normal three-pin UK one, just in case you decide to emigrate.

92. Tech companies that tell the truth about their products are viewed with the most suspicion.

93. The best technology acronyms are two, three or at most four characters. Technologies with bigger acronyms are often forgotten or just confuse people.

94. Most computers come with lots of documentation, which users make sure to keep but never actually read.

95. In Hollywood, people aren’t allowed by law to own computers that aren’t made by Apple, and each email they send must be accompanied by a tacky animation of a letter folding into an envelope.

96. An Intel 486 is more valuable to a scrap dealer than a Core i7, because when those chips were made they contained substantially more gold than is used in chips these days.

97. Most people don’t represent themselves accurately through social media, even though some of the others they communicate with there do know them in person.

98. A good percentage of data that’s stored on floppy disks in the world is probably inaccessible, and the amount on CD and DVD isn’t as high as those who own them would like to think.

99. Most tech companies strive for perfection while secretly dreading that possibility, because if a computer (or phone, or any other gizmo) was perfect, we’d never buy another one.

100. Einstein’s special theory of relativity, penicillin, aeroplane, helicopter, the nuclear bomb and TV were all created without the existence of working computers. Our developments have so far been less impressive since they’ve been around, oddly. 

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