Posted on May 8, 2008 Posted by John Scalzi 54 Comments
More server issues this morning. Be aware.
On another note, I think we need a word that describes what happens when a piece of technology stops working until you call technical support, only to start working again perfectly when you finally reach the tech support dude. Because, no lie, this has happened to me twice in the last day with the server: The moment the dude said “hello, tech support,” I’m suddenly able to connect to my site. And then, this morning, the moment I hung up — I couldn’t reach the site again. Now, that’s no coincidence; that’s cyber-karma messing with my head. Fortunately I made the tech dude run a diagnostic anyway. Who’s the smart one now, balky server? Huh? Huh? Huh?
Anyway, if one of you can come up with a word for that situation, I’d be appreciative. Yes, I know, I’m the writer here, I should be coining words, not you. But come on. You know you love the audience participation stuff.
There’s already a perfectly good term for that: landlord syndrome. As in: your apartment AC obstinately refuses to work through the hottest weather in years, half-a-dozen attempts to repair it have failed, so you call your landlord and complain about his incompetent maintenance. The landlord comes over himself to see the situation. The very instant he walks in, the AC fires up and works perfectly thereafter. And the moment he leaves, it quits again.
“Murphyan synchronicity” ?
“Heisenbug”. (A term of art among programmers for some time now; there are entries in the Jargon File and Wikipedia.)
The device is laughing at you.
I vote for “Murphyan synchronicity.” It’s perfect.
It is called life. I have been on both sides of this. I have taken my car to the shop because it is making a weird noise. Shizam! the noise stops as soon as I get there. I have also done local PC support and I don’t know how many times someone came to me with computer issues onlt to have them disapear as soon as I get to their desk.
By the way the server still seems a bit laggy.
When I was a desktop tech I used to describe the phenomenon to users all the time. It’s the technician chip. See, computers have a chip in them that detects when someone’s about to fix them and causes them to work until that person goes away. Some brands of cars come with a technician chip, too.
I’d call it “typical.”
Katherine @ 7:
I think people have that chip, too. When I have a mild but persistent illness and finally decide to see a doctor, I usually start feeling better within an hour of making an appointment…
My cousin and I already have a word for that kind of situation: “Bitterman.” Named after two brothers who though not particularly impressive guys broker our respective hearts anyway. Can it be coincidence that their last names contains the word “bitter”? I think not.
How about “Nerdgatory”. That’s Nerd + Purgatory.
Eddie @ 9:
The technician chip works in mysterious ways!
It’s called “technology.”
A friend of mine once defined “technology” as “something that doesn’t quite work.” When it works, it’s an appliance. Refrigerators used to be technology. Now they’re appliances. Computers are technology.
I firmly believe that technology is cussed enough to know exactly when working and not working would be most disadvantageous to its users. It would certainly explain the last few elections.
Aura of Consultant. It’s that the technology is afraid of what we’ll do to it if it fails, so it plays nice while we’re there.
Definitely a heisenbug, although it looks like the estimable Reverend Dodgson beat me to it.
We always called it Technician Proximity Syndrome back when I was working tecnical support.
It’s the electronic anthropic principle. Sometimes they just need attention from the right people. Unless you pay per call to tech support. Then it’s just a switch they set to flip at random intervals to take your money.
How about “spime”?
(What? I -like- namespace collision…)
I like your cyberkarma idea
Schrödinger’s Help Desk
I thought that was just the standard intermittent outage? The phone company and I had a 3 month go around with that (they would automatically cancel appointments when their diagnostics detected no problem). After many, many, calls all the way up to Albany and headquarters, while discussing my small baby and inability to reach 911 in emergencies, the senior tech discovered that a mouse was gnawing the wires and whenever it rained or there was a heavy wind, I would have an”intermittent outage” which never happened to coincide with when they would mosey out during good weather.
Anu Garg’s A.Word.A.Day email list once featured a word that fits this situation:
resistentialism (ri-zis-TEN-shul-iz-um) noun
– The theory that inanimate objects demonstrate hostile behavior toward us.
It’s my favorite word of all the ones I’ve learned from that list.
heisenbuggery is definitely a subset of resistentialism.
Once, this happened to me, only it was 100% testable. I pick up the phone, and dial a number, and the internet would work. The moment I hung it up, the internet would die again.
The culprit? A ground on my phone line that was being broken when I dialed out, and was keeping my DSL modem from making it’s proper connections. We ended up having to have some work done on our phone lines, removing the old alarm system from the loop, and it finally worked 100%.
I thought I was going crazy, but luckily the scientific process helped me in the end.
Wikipedia provides a long list of weird computer bugs and their names. Their definition of Heisenbug isn’t an exact match.
I think Leila @23 has hit the nail on the head. There’s a corollary behavior, where something you’re working on works great while you’re tinkering with it, but then completely and utterly fails when you go to show it to someone. This is exemplified well by this strip from PhD Comics.
Incidentally, I think another term for this is the ‘perversity of the inanimate’? Am pretty sure Piers Anthony used/uses it a lot in his Xanth series?
This behavior is best explained by quantum bogodynamics. Obvious you or something in your vicinity is a bogon source. When you call tech support they become part of the virtual local bogon field. Since the technically adept tend to be bogon sinks rather than sources, the net bogon flux is reduced, removing the cause of the problem. When they leave or hang up, the bogon field returns to its former condition, and the problem returns.
As the person who gets to provide the tech support, my description of this phenomenon usually boils down to, “It fears me.”
Since when I was a user consultant in college, I have always called that “Voodoo problem solving.” Of course, usually the problem stayed gone after the technical consultant was brought in and the user failed to repeat the problem and everything “just worked”.
This worked whether I was the consultant or the user. At least once which I was in grad school I remember calling someone over to watch me type in a command in matlab that just *would not work* so that it *would* work, which it did, as soon as they were watching.
There’s another effect which is worth mentioning, and that is that sometimes the things you do to try to debug something can make the bug disappear. This is a real effect. I believe that the term heisenbug is more aptly applied to this effect, than to what John experienced.
I don’t think John was trying to suggest that somehow his reaching the technician was really affecting the server.
When I fixed computers for money, we’d occasionally get machines in that were allegedly bluescreening and making weird noises and showing various other horrible death omens. And we would be utterly unable to duplicate any of the alleged problems, even after hours and hours and hours of testing. And then the owner would take it home and it would be fine.
We referred to such a device as “afraid of techs.”
We compared it to the kid who tries to get out of school by feigning ebola and, when told “okay, I’m making an appointment at the doctor,” pops up all “NO NO NO IT’S COOL I FEEL BETTER NOW.”
You could certainly put this in the general class of Heisenbugs. A Heisenbug is any bug where the act of observing it makes it go away, or at least change behavior.
In programming they’re typically caused by using uninitialized memory (which very well may have different contents under a debugger) or timing issues, since the timing is different under a debugger. With an outside chance of bad compiler optimizations that get turned off when you do a debug build.
From my tech support guys:
“We just call that PEBKAC*.”
Which is all very well and good insofar as they’re concerned, but probably doesn’t describe your actual situation. Still, it is a glimpse into the logic of tech support!
(*Problem Exists Between Keyboard and Chair.)
This is clearly related to the “demo effect”: there, the thing will work perfectly until you go to show it off (with the hope that it will continue to work), and then it will break. Here, it won’t work until you go to complain about it (with the hope that it will continue to not work), and then it will stop being broken.
Dystechxia after all it’s an order thing. Similar to Karmic Dyslexia; good things happen to me…at the wrong time.
I second (third, forth, whatever) “heisenbug”. It’s a bug that isn’t there when you look for it.
Anon @32, we used to say “the problem is with the nut that connects the keyboard to the monitor”
That happens from time to time with me. I call it “I hate you”.
So what I do is this: commit extreme violence where the server can see it. Where extreme is just extreme to technology.
Example: one day in the lab, one of the machines decided to refuse to boot up after we upgraded its kernel. After much tinkering from the more technical of us (and we were all pretty damn technical) I took a stack of 3.5″ floppies (ah, ancient days) and started tearing them apart.
Violently. It’s fun, actually; slam the case against the table until it cracks, then rip it apart, then tear up the fine white cloth inside into itty bits, then rip the plastic apart (works if you’re mad enough), then crumble the magnetic disk and stomp on it. HARD.
Pile remains in front of server.
I restarted it. It worked. Flawlessly.
Since then, that has been how I deal with mysterious technical funk. Of course, ever since my servers moved to datacenters far away, I have not been able to exercise this as effectively.
The innate animosity of inanimate objects. The main problem I see with computers is that there’s nowhere you can kick ’em. Hey, that’s what always worked with my mom’s washing machine!
I’ll take a fifth of Heisenbug, if you please.
(Currently working on one of those, in fact. Thank you, cfengine)
1. to fail or misfunction in the absence of technical support
2. to resume normal function when observed by (or in the presence of) a Technically Clued Person
1. Machine disfunction in the absence of technical support.
2. Resumption of normal machine function when in the proximity of technical support.
Skip@31: Sure, if it really was the act of observing it that made it go away. But if it was just coincidence that it started to work when John got a hold of tech support, then is it still a heisenbug?
“feigning ebola” (with the lower case) is the name of my next band.
Yes, it is still a heisenbug. Calling tech support is an attempt to debug so it counts. Granted many heisenbugs are related to debugging but the term also certainly covers things that really do just look random. Anybody who has worked as an admin for any amount of time will tell you that there are quantum effects that we simply don’t grok at play in modern computing. Why do you think we all have copies of the excuse generator? :)
Leaving aside for the moment the actual terminology, I still think it is useful as a software developer to distinguish between situations where there was actually something about the observation that changed the behavior, and situations where I just want to indicate that there was an annoying, repeated sequence of events with no reasonably likely causal mechanism.
It is very obvious to me that what you are talking about is Perversus Bastardius Technologicus (PBT), a little known syndrome first described in the ancient journals of one Billgaticcus Microsoftillyedropticus as one of the greatest money spinning ideas of his time. In the English translation of his work it appears under the heading “The Telecom Pact” and seems to infer that when first designing his software, now available on just about every piece of tech in existence, he went into partnership with all telecom companies to generate addtional revenue by means of repeated dialling of HELPLINE (high end line price link indexed not equitable ) telephone numbers.
Basically he designed specific signal recognition software that linked directly with the Lettusmesswittem chip (previously translated as ‘the sure fire way to cause hypertension’ chip) which forced the unsuspecting operator to squeel loudly – sometimes on multiple occasions – and then in frustration dial said HELPLINE. The dial tone of this specific number would then jump start the chip causing the PBT effect to hyperlink with the chip, ie the chip starts, the dial tone starts the hyperlink, the dial tone stops when answered causing the chip to stall, the problem stops, the connections severs, the hyperlink reactivates, the situation randomly starts overat an unspecified future date.
I don’t have a word for it, but my explanation is that computers posess the reincarnated souls of cats.
And I say that as a tech support person.
Actually, come to think of it, we do have a phrase for that. “The computer is just fucking with him.” Happens a lot. Hence the cat thing.
Mechanic’s Syndrome — the knocking stops the second your car pulls into his garage.
I think the Hacker’s Dictionary refers to this sort of thing as a Dancing Frog, after the Warner Bros. cartoon in which the frog would only sing and dance in front of the one guy and was at all other times a perfectly ordinary frog. Though that may be specific to irreproducible software bugs and not used in a broader sense.
Looks like not every version includes it, but here it is: http://www.catb.org/jargon/html/D/dancing-frog.html
Nincomfarction: A unit of measure used to quantify the innate tendency of any hardware or software to make an enduser look like a complete idiot in front of trained experts.
ex: WordPress has a rating of 12 nincomfarctions.