crypto and public policy

Is There a Geek on the Plane?

Filed under: General August 4, 2003 @ 4:02 pm

I tend to pick my flights – especially the long ones – according to the plane model. Boeing 777s and Airbus A300s tend to be newer purchases with the latest and greatest in per-seat entertainment technology. So, given that my Paris/New-York flight this weekend was a Boeing 747 for large summer travel capacity, I was pleasantly surprised to find the latest Air France individual screens installed. Turns out, a few of the new 747-400’s are also new purchases!

The system boots up about 10 minutes into the flight and I start pounding away at the touchscreen, searching for some mind-numbing comedy to make me forget my cramped quarters. I notice I’m the only one pounding away, and I notice the system is responding very slowly. Within 2 minutes, my screen freezes up. And then, blue screen of diminished functionality: “We’re sorry, the interactive system is unavailable, but you can browse the music channels.” About 5 seconds later, I notice all the other screens going blue around me, like dominos, more or less in concentric circles around my seat.

Did my frantic button pushing cause a system crash?

Petrified at the thought of 7 hours with only pitiful reading material and 2 hours of laptop battery life, I notify a flight attendant. It takes a few attempts to convince her that the system really isn’t working (“But your screen is on, sir”). Within a few moments, another flight attendant is heard on the loudspeaker:

“As you’ve noticed, our entertainment system is not functioning. We’re going to try to reset the system and hopefully it will work again. Please, DO NOT TOUCH anything while the system is restarting.”

Oops… And as the video screens go blank for the reboot, I turn to my neighbor and note “I hope they pulled the power cable only on the video system…” He chuckles nervously. Okay, maybe that wasn’t so funny at 30,000 feet altitude.

What was surprising and unsurprising at the same time was that the flight crew had no idea what to do except push the reset button. The software industry (which, I admit, I’m a part of) releases products of such poor quality that the words “reboot” and “crash” are understood by all, and it actually makes sense that touching a button during such a reboot might make the system fail all over again. My friend Philip once lamented the constant cocktail party stories of crashing computers, noting that no one has stories such as: “Hey, I was taking my Toyota out of the garage last night when it just blew up on me!” It’s sad. It’s disheartening. We need to do a better job, especially as computers become ever more pervasive.

Meanwhile, here I am in seat 45L, aching to blurt out: “just let me check out the system, I’m sure I can help. After all, I am a geek.” But I can’t bring myself to say it. I’m sure they would have been worried. Maybe that I would try to crack the system. Fly the plane remotely from the entertainment center or something. Or they might worry about my three-day stuble and slightly middle-eastern features. And what do I know anyways, I’m just a passenger.

Thankfully, 15 minutes later, the system comes back to life and I’m able to watch three bad movies in a row. Yet if it hadn’t, would they have had the presence of mind to get on the loudspeaker and say: “Ladies and gentlemen, is there a geek on the plane?” We, the geeks, haven’t done a stellar job of writing software, but we’re out there, in the crowd, ready to help…. if only someone asked.

1 Comment

  1. Wendy:

    At least they didn’t say “That’s not a bug, it’s a feature.” 🙂

    Glad to see you made it back OK.

RSS feed for comments on this post.

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.