The Machine Stops

As foretold by E. M. Forster in 1909, we have two exhibits of the machine grinding to a halt.

Amazon sent one of their prescription savings cards, followed a few days later by a note:

We recently mailed you a physical copy of your Amazon Prime Rx savings card, and are writing to inform you that the BIN listed on your Prime Rx card printed incorrectly. The correct BIN is 019363.

So I wrote the corrected number on my card, not that I will ever use it:

Amazon RX - BIN error
Amazon RX – BIN error

Although the BIN (whatever that stands for) is a numeric value, it’s not treated as a number by whoever reads it. I’d lay money down that the source code’s formatting string changed from %6d to %06d or the equivalent in whatever fancy language they use nowadays.

The Social Security Administration sent me an email telling me to check a corrected version of a statement they sent a few months ago. Unfortunately, attempting to do so while writing this post produces a heads-up notice:

We apologize for any inconvenience accessing my Social Security. We are aware of some technical difficulties and are working on them at this time. We appreciate your patience as we work to solve the problems as quickly as possible.

Attempting to sign on seems to proceed normally, until this technical difficulty popped up:

We’re Sorry…
There has been an unexpected system error.

Your login session has been terminated. For security reasons, please close all of your internet browser windows.

The first statement put my nearest Social Security office 130 miles away in Wilkes Barre, PA. The corrected statement put it back where it belongs, in the hot urban core of Poughkeepsie.

Perhaps an off-by one error in the database lookup?

As far as I can tell, the world now depends on software nobody can understand or control.

5 thoughts on “The Machine Stops

  1. As far as I can tell, the world now depends on
    software nobody can understand or control.

    Not “nobody.” It is understood by experienced professionals who were “surplussed” in a “resource balancing” action. The work formerly done by them is now (mis)handled by contractors in distant lands.


    1. contractors in distant lands

      That seems to be changing., but whther it’s a good thing is ponderable….

      My Dish (Hughes) Internet went toes up at 0 Dark 30 a few days ago. Called the support number, and instead of getting Sean from Mumbai, after the usual AI automagic questions, it told me that the support line wouldn’t be staffed until 8:00 EST.

      Whether this makes for more informed/competent support people is debatable (1 of the 2 people I talked to was capable), but at least the accents are easier to understand…

  2. My take on “As far as I can tell, the world now depends on software nobody can understand or control.” is due to the constant hacking (in the crude sense) of those who don’t care or have no business monkeying around with the inner workings of mission critical projects. In addition, those who are in love with the language of the month club that end up being quite similar to C except for the line terminators, are easily wooed into making the switch and leaving it difficult to maintain by others. The number of job postings I looked at over the summer (“for reasons that are not relevant here” ;-) requested experience with xyz language that I had never even heard of until that very moment. And finally the issue of testing comes into play, so many people don’t even partially or fully test anything and just assume it works. I actually worked with someone who didn’t test what he was asked to write unless asked to. He would indicate that he didn’t know he was supposed to. How do people like this even graduate college or continue to find new jobs? It’s frustrating to say the least and I only minored in software!

  3. BIN is “Bank Identification Number”, which apparently also includes Insurance. Long ago I worked in finance and, for reasons that aren’t relevant here [grin], you could tell a fair bit about an AMEX card from the first six digits – type of card, country it was issued in, and roughly when it was first issued. That was going away when I left, but at last check there were still quite a lot of old-style account numbers and they’re still hiring programmers experienced in pre- Summer of Love database they were using.

    Anyway, yes, it’s sort of a number, but it has to have six digits for the checksum to work. As a database person it annoys me when people code information into an identifier, violating First Normal Format. Sometimes they end up paying for it. But I also recognize that sometimes you want to be able to recognize things at an eyeball glance, and I certainly appreciate having checksums.

    1. So it’s slightly more than a number, but not quite a string. Thanks for the pointer!

      The checker site kvetches about the Amazon BIN not being in its database, which is unsurprising given that Amazon is surely making this up as they go along.

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