Wednesday, September 02, 2015

Trusting Technology

Comptometer - click image for larger size
Source: Comptometer Model WM by Ezrdr - Own work.
Licensed under Public Domain via Commons

When I was growing up, technology was virtually all mechanical, or at best, electro-mechanical. We had those telephone switchboards with all the jackplugs and the little white balls. Things like washing machines were a bit of a miracle and it was rumoured that some people constantly watched them in action, just like the TV today. Radio valves, which admittedly were electronic, started giving way to transistors, and great big calculating machines, called comptometers, started giving way to electronic calculators.

In the office, when important documents were being typed up, on manual typewriters, they were accompanied by carbon copies, produced by inserting a sheet of carbon paper behind the original and a sheet of plain paper behind that again. Additional copies could be produced simultaneously by repeating this procedure provided both the typewriter and the typist, always female, were fit for purpose.

So, the advent of the photocopying machine was traumatic. We progressed from wet ones where the image was developed like a photograph, to dry ones which used powdered ink. And then they started getting bigger and bigger and faster and faster, and before we knew it, we were drowning in copies.

Well, that's the background. Now, here are the stories.

There was a rumour in the office that one very senior officer, hyper intelligent but not very tech savvy, used to always check the copies against the originals. This story was probably apocryphal as it was subsequently told about other members of staff. Nevertheless it was a very funny story in its day and allowed some of us to harmlessly vent our spleen about our, in our estimation, less intelligent bosses.

Much to my surprise, I have now come across a piece of research which appears to vindicate them and make a fool out of me. Apparently, Xerox scanners/photocopiers randomly alter numbers in scanned documents.


If this short statement doesn't satisfy you, check out the research. I have Donal to thank for pointing me at this.

My second story is of a different order. I was once at a very high level and confidential meeting in my work. One of the participants produced a top secret one page document which he offered to share with my boss. The boss asked me where was the photocopying machine, as he was not in his own building. I offered to copy the document for him but he wouldn't hear of it. So I brought him to the massive IBM photocopier in the basement. Again he refused my offer to handle the mechanics of it.

"What do I do now?" he asked.

"Well", said I, "do you see that cover there. Lift it up and put the document face down on the glass plate under it."

This he did, all the while shielding me from any sight of his precious paper.

"And then what?"

"How many copies do you want?"

"Just the one"

"OK, just press the green button and wait"

"And what happens now"

"Well", said I, trying desperately to hide a smile, "it comes out down there at the other end"

He suddenly leaped the length of the long machine to grab the paper coming out the other end before the imaginary enemy could seize it and whisk it away.

Somewhere in mid-leap it struck him that he was now leaving the original unattended, and it was truly a miracle he did not break in two as he then tried to cover both ends of the massive machine at once.


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