The new lexicon of errors

One of the minor branches of hackerly interest concerns itself with "cool error messages". The all time classic is generally reckoned to be the BIOS complaint:

Keyboard not present. Press F1 to continue.

Indeed, the most enjoyable ones tend to spring from the PC world, perhaps because a) there's so many possibilities and b) laughing is a sane alternative to pounding the keyboard into little bits and then eating them.

But is it perhaps time to redefine our own handling of error messages? So far, we've been content to make them generally perplexing, frustrating and obtuse. Bonus points here for supplying a weird number code that the poor sodding user has to go look up in a thick "troubleshooting" manual (often better called a "trouble-running" manual), where they receive either a nonsensical explanation ("There are too many device designators in use. Recreate your parameterization index to free some.") or a bleeding obvious and utterly useless one. Something obscure that you've probably never heard of called the Remedy Action Request System (ARSe) recently spat the following at me:

Error 802: arservd failed to start.

And when I looked up 802 in the manual, it more or less said, "There has been a problem during initialisation and the arservd daemon could not start. See the error log for more details." When I eventually located the error log, it said:

Error 802: arservd failed to start.

It also gave 801 and 800 errors, which turned out to mean exactly the same thing. (And then it core dumped, all because its config file was missing - why, f'chrissakes, couldn't it have said so in the first place?)

I think we've had our fun with these kind of idle amusements now. As our industry strives for maturity, it is time to put aside such childish things and take a more responsible attitude. And once again, we can look to Sun to lead the way. At a customer site the other day, I was privileged to view the following error message from Solstice Print Client, their remote printing BSD rehack:

Strange, the LP print service accepted
the delete form request but the disk
copy can't be deleted.

I mean, how big a Dr Who fan was the programmer who wrote that?! The opening alone makes it: "Strange..." There's an air of distracted curiosity about it, as if the error is somehow as puzzling to the program that produced it as it likely is to the user. From our distant childhood days behind the sofa, Tom Baker adjusts his scarf, peers at a charred circuit board and mutters, "Strange, it appears to have been melted by a high energy laser weapon...", just before the daleks burst in and fry everything in sight.

Error messages of this kind could do wonders to repair public hostility to computers. No longer would they curse the salesman who sold them the system, the engineers who installed it, the consultants who configured it or the caged bozos who wrote it, for being unable to do their job properly. Instead, they come to view errors much as tech support people comprehend them: weird, unexplained phenomena that "should never occur in normal operation."

Soon, users will be ringing support hotlines to report: "Well, it kept giving me a 'Most odd' and then it crashed with a "Gee, that's peculiar" fault." ("Hmm...did you notice any 'Oh fiddlesticks!' messages?") Kernel panics will become "How bizarre"'s. Query parsers will adopt real natural language capabilities, by returning "Gosh, that should have worked!" syntax errors.

At that stage, we'll be looking to rewrite those error message guides. Here's a few suggestions:





Oh dear


Oh my, oh my

Oh shit.

This is most perplexing

Better find that installation CD.

Whoops! I hope that data wasn't important to you!

'Cause it went down the crapper.

Ahem, we seem to be having a minor problemette here

I hope a customer never calls me with one of these.

You did take a backup of that, didn't you?

Did he hell.

Sorry to be a crashing bore, hawhaw

You're screwed now.

Was that important?

Dude, glad I'm not in your shoes.

Linux error messages

OK, so I screwed up but if this were NT, it would be far worse.

Tell anyone about this and Open Source is DOOMED!

21st August 1998

Big Bubbles (no troubles)