Part 26. Typhoid Mary
Young Mary Mallon came to America in the early twentieth century and found work
as a cook for wealthy New Yorkers. Apparently she did her job well, and she was
able to work for several of these blue-blood families in a relatively short period
of time. However, despite her best efforts at cleanliness and cooking excellence,
nearly everyone she cooked for soon became ill of typhoid fever, and many of her
clients died. Public health officials were stunned when they realized what was going
on -- a person was running amok spreading disease without suffering from the disease
themselves. Thus the notion of a disease *carrier* was popularized, the idea that
a person could have disease immunity and yet spread these germs unknowingly to many
other people. She became known as the infamous Typhoid Mary, and she was quarantined
to a small island for almost the rest of her life.
In the computer field it is interesting to see how this same kind of carrier effect
exists among know-it-all computer users. It seems like every community has some
busybody who goes around "helping" people. This "help" usually
involves insisting that they install some version of Microsoft Windows on the PC,
claiming that if they don't do it, something bad might happen. This supposed helping
usually doesn't help at all; instead, the computer runs slower or perhaps crashes
all the time. Or maybe a favorite program suddenly doesn't work any more. But the
would-be helper just goes on his or her own way, blaming the unfortunate victim's
PC for the problem instead of fixing it. And of course in many cases it can only
be fixed by a trained professional who must wipe the hard drive clean and start
It is interesting to note that most such busybodies don't let anyone else touch
their own computers. They don't allow people to put stuff onto their PCs, and they
don't try something unless somebody else has done it first. Thus the crew of know-it-all
PC breakers acts like a team of digital Typhoid Mary's, making their rounds regularly
and messing up things that at least were fairly useable. And of course there are
no health authorities to quarantine them and prevent their woeful incompetence from
spreading like a disease.
The biggest Typhoid Mary of the computer industry, however, is Microsoft itself.
Just when a corporation gets their systems stabilized and working with at least
acceptable failure rates, just when the training courses and the unpaid overtime
have finally gotten the workforce up to their previous level of competence, just
when the bugs and problems have at least become predictable and repeatable, along
comes Microsoft with a new version of the operating system, or a new version of
the major application software! Just like some kind of digital Typhoid Mary, bringing
disaster and destruction to datafiles and departmental networks, Microsoft insists
that entire corporations dump their stabilized configurations and start another
round of so-called "upgrades" -- or else they won't be able to get the
same kind of special "deals" that they were offered on the previous sales
cycle. Managers who are offered a price differential of half a million dollars will
usually fall for the false economy of the Microsoft offer, sacrificing corporate
reliability for a short-term cash savings.
And just how does Typhoid Microsoft avoid this plague themselves? Considering the
number of IBM AS400's and UNIX machines used at Microsoft, the answer should be
obvious: they choose products which are immune to Microsoft's own self-created plague.
Most recent revision: January 29, 1998
Copyright © 1998, Tom Nadeau
All Rights Reserved.