Orienteers up and down the country are hotly debating the accuracy of Microsoft's "Where do you want to go today?" software, otherwise known as Autoroute, after Mole reported that the package had severed the A4103 between Worcester and Hereford. One user leapt to Microsoft's defence with the claim that this act of highway vandalism was made in an earlier version of the product when it was still owned by Nextbase, the British company that developed it. Not that it's much of a defence, because if memory serves, Microsoft got its paws on Autoroute three years ago, giving it more than enough time to cure any deficiencies. Contradicting this claim, another customer reports that the pre-Microsoft version he owns plots a perfect link between the two towns, concluding that "Microsoft has obviously added an enhancement to increase driving hours and pleasure", which is a very plausible explanation.
Along similar lines is Autoroute's assertion that the best way to reach the A4 from Waterloo is to turn south. This is very possibly true, except that the southbound route will add around 22,000 miles to the journey, while the northbound route, though almost certainly less pleasurable, is the quickest.
Then there is the advice that the best way to get from Cambridge to Bedford is to take the A14. Only travellers who wish to visit relations in Birmingham should try this.
The strangest omission is that of Microsoft itself. In the version of Autoroute Express that was superseded a few weeks ago, the junction of the A329(M) that leads to Microsoft's headquarters in Winnersh, Berkshire, is unaccountably missing. Could it be that Microsoft doesn't want its customers to know where it lives?
What this illustrates, only too clearly, is there are certain things even Bill Gates shouldn't try to interfere with. Geography is one, time is another. Recently in Australia, the clocks went forward as New South Wales and Victoria moved to Daylight Saving Time. Windows 95 also added an hour to the clocks of computer users in Queensland, throwing diary and scheduling programs into confusion. Queensland is in a different time zone, and adopted Daylight Saving Time for a single summer three years ago before deciding it had enough daylight already and wouldn't bother trying to save any more. A customer who had the audacity to phone Microsoft and ask when the bug might be fixed was told: "It's not a bug."
"Because Queensland had Daylight Saving Time when we wrote the code."
Think this minor problem on the other side of the world doesn't affect you? Imagine it's the first of January in the year 2000. You've just got into work and someone calls you to say there's a problem with the computers.
You pick up the phone to Microsoft ...
Some residents of that part of the country served by South Eastern Gas have been disturbed to receive red reminder notices of their bills before the gentler black variety, which, given the time of year, looks suspiciously like a warning to the region's poor, infirm and elderly that late payment of bills may sometimes result in freezing to death. No doubt South Eastern Gas would call it a computer error, but they would say that, wouldn't they?
With just this sort of thing in mind, about a thousand people protested at a meeting of ministers of the Asia Pacific Economic Council, in Manila to debate US proposals to create a booming information-technology trade zone in the region. The protesters, many of whom were waving red gas bills, reportedly objected to the agreement on the grounds that it will "hurt the common man". On the evidence to date, Mole fears they may be right.
The growing intolerance of computer errors is illustrated by a story, no doubt apocryphal, from the US, where a clerk working for a government department rang a supplier to say the payroll system had broken down.
When the person at the other end of the phone said it wouldn't be possible to get anyone out to fix the problem until the following week, the clerk stressed that the matter was urgent. "You don't understand," she said, "there are people with guns here, and they aren't waiting until next week!" Somewhat alarmed, the supplier promised to despatch an engineer without delay. The source of the emergency turned out to be the municipal police headquarters where there was some frustration at the delay to pay cheques, but no immediate threat of a bloodbath.
Found on the Web: at game-land.com, the highest roulette score last week was clocked up by George Carey. Well done, George, but is this any way for the Archbishop of Canterbury to spend his time?
Next week's Mole is the last before Christmas. Make it a cracker. Send your stuff to the Email address above or phone 0171 316 9068.
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