Moped Syndrome

[This is an essay I wrote in 2002, found in an old journal]

What do you get when you cross a clock and a computer: a computer. An
airplane and computer: computer. A VCR and computer: computer. [This argument I believe was my summary of something Donald Norman said in The Design of Everyday Things.]

Of course, computer here is used as a code word for Something which is
perverse and complicated, which most computer *are*, but they don’t have to
be. It doesn’t imply that you can program your clock radio with Python, for

These are examples of moped compromises. I owned a moped once. It was too
heavy to pedal and too underpowered to go up hills. It combined all the
worst features of bicycles and motorcycles, with few of the advantages of

These bad compromises are everywhere. When I studied to be an EMT, we learned
some Greek and Latin, a little CPR, but mostly we learned how to cover our
asses in case we were sued. By becoming professionals we would no longer be
covered by Good Samaritan laws, and the nature of the job (trying like hell to
save somebody’s life, often when it’s too late) meant lots of times the
patients died or lost a limb or whatever. Whenever the outcome is less than
optimal, the American knee-jerk reaction is to sue. So we inadvertently
became lawyers.

What do you get when you cross a paramedic with a lawyer: A paralegal.

Now I’m in computing and it seems that just writing code, pretty simple and
harmless code, not viruses or anything like that, can get you thrown in jail
or sued in all kinds of remarkable and unpredictable ways. In fact, you can
break the law without even knowing it, because what you’ve created is already
a secret. Add that to the awesome array of software licenses and we’re
inadvertently becoming lawyers again (or outlaws).

What do you get when you cross a computer scientist with a lawyer: A lawyer.

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