Punching Computers

In the 1999 classic movie Office Space, there's a famous scene where the three main characters take an office printer that has plagued them for years out to a field and smash it to smithereens using a baseball bat, shoes, and even bare knuckles. This is a feeling that so many of us have had with our digital tools when they fail to operate as expected. While the movie was 21 years ago, and printers generally have gotten better over the years, there are still a myriad of situations where a person might vent some rage on their equipment. I did this today when a solid pound bent the bottom of my MacBook Pro; a potent device that is hindered by the quirks in its OS.


There is no doubt in my mind that I would never engage in an activity like the one featured in Office Space as it's a selfish act that would cost far more than the temporary satisfaction might be worth. Machines should be recycled whenever possible, and most recycling shops will not take a smashed piece of equipment. Environmental justifications aside, there are a number of situations that exist today that more than justify why one might want to throw their computers out the nearest airlock. The ones I encounter most often1 include sluggishness for no reason, failures for no reason, file-encoding issues when working with source files from a Windows machine, and doing just about anything with a piece of software written by Microsoft2. Today's rage was the result of a lot of things, though triggered when the login screen couldn't keep up with my password entry.

My password this month is 23-characters long and I can generally type it successfully in just under 1.13 seconds3. Unfortunately, a lot of computers are simply unable to keep up with my typing speed on the login screens and in many Electron-based applications. When I need to connect to the employers' Linux servers located in Germany, I can generally type an entire series of commands into the terminal and have a sip of coffee before the connection catches up and displays all of the characters.

But why? Computers have been made to handle things like text since the 1950s. How is it that a human can type fast enough that a machine cannot keep up? This is where a great deal of my frustrations come from lately. Given the amount of processing power I'm fortunate enough to have at my fingertips, there should be no excuse for stutters or delays when I'm typing. If Clippy were still around, I would expect it to sit in the corner of my screen looking as though it were bored and waiting for me to do something interesting despite the flurry of activity that might be taking place through the keyboard.

This seems just about impossible, though. Despite the staggering advances in processing capacity, the fundamental operations of a computer — working with words and numbers — remains a problem yet to be solved.

Sometimes I wonder if it would make sense to build a machine using older parts that are right at the bleeding edge of what's supported by an older operating system. Ubuntu 10.04 LTS would be incredibly fast on modern hardware … if it had all the drivers to support the latest processors, NVMe storage devices, and video systems. Unfortunately, to use modern hardware one must use a modern operating system. macOS has a lot going for it and I will always choose to go with Apple's buggy OS over anything from Microsoft. The various flavours of Linux have their pros and cons as well. But none do what I need it to do consistently well for any length of time. It is almost as though our software is intentionally designed to make the mini-supercomputers in our hands feel barely adequate.

There are exceptions to the rule, of course. Sublime Text and Sublime Merge are two amazingly fast applications that do their job very, very well. If only every piece of software could have the same care and attention paid to it. The world would be a less-angry place. Or, at the very least, there would be fewer bent computers.

  1. Excluding the work-related emails that seem to be written for the sole purpose of infuriating Morbo.

  2. The company lives in Outlook, Word, and Excel. If it weren't for this unfortunate reality, my colleagues could probably accomplish a great deal more in their day.

  3. Being able to type with 8 fingers and a thumb allows for some remarkable speeds. Not sure how it is that I ever got anything done back when I needed to look at the keyboard. Mind you, it was because of fast-moving IRC channels way back at the turn of the century that I started to learn how to touch-type. That was the key motivation … as silly as it might be.