Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Computers are amazing

Not philosophy this time I'm afraid. Many people are surprised that computers aren't more reliable. Well I'm surprised they aren't less reliable. Much less.

Say what you like about computers, but they're complicated. Babbage's difference engine certainly looks complicated, Turing machines don't look complicated but they usually are, and now that modern computers are connected by the internet what we're really dealing with is a massive uber-computer of biological complexity. (I think Pascal's proto-calculator was pretty simple, but I'd have been surprised if that wasn't reliable.)

Complicated things break. Murphy's law always struck me as a bit silly, but I'd have thought we could safely say that if enough things can go wrong, something will. Well, with computers there are so many things going on that it amazes me that something doesn't always go wrong. But it doesn't! Usually when you type in a web address you get to the site you want, when you save a file it's still there a year later, emails get through and so on.

Of course the reason people get so annoyed with computers is that they rely on them too much. People don't save their work often enough, they put themselves in situations where they'll miss a deadline if the printer's playing up and they put too much trust in the sanitary status of files from dubious sources. I'm as bad as the next person in this regard, but I don't get annoyed with the computer when something goes wrong. I get annoyed with myself, because it's my fault. Same with train delays, but that's another post.

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