For the Love of Black Boxes

imageForgive me if I forget during this post that I am not writing for my Information Management blog, but this topic is currently crossing both areas of interest. I usually like it when something I am doing at home, in the workshop or in my otherwise free time spills over into my day-job. In this case, not so much. The day-job issue is ‘information governance’ – Please, stick with me, I won’t say it again, I promise.

It, the thing I promised not to say, is a big hairy problem that infiltrates every aspect of business in the way that Bittersweet takes over a healthy shrub. In order to work through issues like this, one, well actually everyone has to roll up their sleeves and get dirty. While it isn’t possible with something like Bittersweet, I want to avoid the problem by following the technical equivalent of Homer Simpson’s campaign promise “let someone else do it.” In other words, embed that stuff in the system. Bury it in a black box and let me do my job.

In my experience, black boxes are viewed from two different perspectives. From one view, black boxes represent things to figure out, i.e. “what’s in the box?” From the other view, black boxes are things to be grudgingly trusted.

In 1975, I took a Multi-Disciplinary Studies course in imageproblem solving at West Virginia University. We worked in groups and we worked through problems as a team. The first problem we were given was a black box. Literally, the problem was a black box. The box had two sticks (Pick-up Sticks if you are old enough to remember when toys weren’t digital) passing through in the east-west direction and two more in the north-south direction. The box also rattled when shook. Our task was to describe the interior of the box without opening it.

I’ve performed this kind of exercise numerous times during my career in data processing. I have inherited code (source code of systems) written by programmers who have retired/quit/been fired/died and I’ve had to figure out what the code did. I’ve been asked to ‘exercise’ systems (where I had no access to the code) to reverse engineer what the code “must be doing” behind the scenes. I call this ‘digital archeology’ because sometimes, even when I had the code, I had to ask myself what the original programmer was thinking. Ironically, this kind of sleuth work represents some of the most fun that I’ve had at work. But, sometimes the question was: “what were they thinking?” and sometimes it was: “what were they thinking?”

The other kind of black box is the type we all have experience with; the “new feature” on some device that is marketed as making our lives easier/better/faster/safer. Some of these, like the automatic S’more maker are things that should never have been created. Others are things that became necessary because we actually can’t deal with the stuff in the box. The box is too complicated. My favorite is the check-engine light.

While this might be the most universally hated imagesymbol of modern technology, we actually do need it today. I was already driving when the check engine light was first introduced. Back then, the light seemed like a cost-cutting-income-driving-combo-insult to consumers. We were deprived of gauges that most of us understood, and we had to swing by the dealer every time the light came on. Like many backyard mechanics, I simply took care of the problems on my own and drove around with the light on forever. That’s not the case today.

Truth be told, I have driven to the dealer only to be told that my gas cap wasn’t tight, but most of the time, if the light is on there’s a problem.

Last year I took the car to the dealer because the check-engine light had come on and the car had a funny smell. The smell was familiar, but I hadn’t smelled it in a long time – it smelled like burning oil. It turns out that the dealer had not replaced the oil fill cap when they did an oil change. Oil splashed out of the engine and slowly burned off. Over time, enough oil remained and fouled the Oxygen sensor.

That sounds like an easy thing to notice and repair. It would have been, if all of that stuff wasn’t buried beneath some big hunk of plastic.

That was a simple thing. But the check-engine light responds to several hundred error conditions throughout the car. There’s no way that you could outfit a modern car with enough gauges to track everything and virtually no way to address the conditions without hours and hours of training. While I’m sure there are lots of backyard mechanics who resist accepting that notion – I’m over it. I’m sure pilots resisted fly-by-wire systems when they were first introduced, and I’m guessing that most pilots love those systems today. It comes down to either sticking with things that are simpler, learning more and more about complex things or trusting what’s in the box. I don’t have an across the board answer, but the more my job depends on complex systems, the more I like black boxes.

By the way, the box in my class at WVU rattled because there were imagehard plastic rings around the sticks at two intersections. Also, if you’re wondering: yes, the dealer made all the repairs for free. They even gave me $25 worth of coupons for future service.

23 thoughts on “For the Love of Black Boxes

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  1. Pictures – That’s one of the Quince bushes in our front yard being attacked by Bittersweet. I need to get down and dig that stuff out by the roots or it will eventually strangle the Quince. The lower picture is from my Jeep, but fortunately the light is on before I start the car just to show that it’s working. The “illustrations” are the best I can provide. The blog is free; the artwork is the best I can afford.


  2. best of luck solving the Bitter sweet problem.. does not sound fun at all… and are we suppose to think Outside the box? That would mean that it dose not matter what was inside it to start with?


    1. A lot of the stuff I inherited from eat programmers was made harder to read because they didn’t choose variable names very well. Some of today’s scripting languages are tough to follow though. The worst is reading older code that is still in use – even my own :)


  3. Hi Dan, Very interesting post – Knowing zilch about mechanics or code and easily frustrated with black boxes I belong to the turn it on and hope it goes brigade. If a little light comes on when it shouldn’t then I practice the reboot solution otherwise known as hope it goes away strategy: I stop, switch off the ignition, wait a moment and then turn it back on. If the light is still there, then off to the garage we go, grudgingly on my part!

    By the way I was interested in your quince bush – where I’m from a quince is a tree. I have one – its about four metres high now. A rose is rambling through it, but the quince is so vigorous the rose isn’t going to take over anytime soon.


    1. Thanks Jill. What you described is pretty much how I treat my car these days. And, despite a career in information services, it’s getting to be the way I handle my computer. We have several Quince bushes, none seem to want to be trees. Here’s a picture of one in bloom earlier this year. it’s not the best picture but they are pretty. We end up with ping-pong ball sized green fruit which the birds take care of.


      1. Hey, thanks for linking to the photo, Dan. Maybe your quince bush is a different variety. This a photo of mine from last spring.
        (I’m not sure if the link will work – but worth a try.)
        I’d like to say my garden is not usually that messy but sadly it is! Nevertheless you can see how different the two quinces are. Come late summer, early autumn our tree is covered in large green yellow fruit – they are a bit like a pear and a bit like an apple. You’d break a tooth if you tried to bite into it but poached in red wine with cloves and cinnamon – ambrosia.


        1. Our fruit is mostly green, very hard and looks like little apples. I hope I remember this comment in the fall, maybe we will try the recipe (if the birds don’t get the fruit first). thanks for sharing it.


    1. Thanks Don. I started comparing that task to archaeology when I first realized that you can’t rely on the code alone. You have to consider the artifacts that were available at the time. You have to ask: “what kind if data did they have?” “How much memory were they working with?” “What languages were available?” It’s never as easy as it seems it should be.


  4. Oxygen sensors remain a mystery to me, although both times I had to take a vehicle in for check engine light, that was exactly the problem. My husband bought a special tool to replace the second one. It seems one of the problems machine assembly creates is that human hands cannot go where robotics did. I hear about this all the time, because The Mister would like to choke and strangle engineers, or somethin like that.


    1. The car I gave my daughter needed new spark plugs. It costs $460 for spark plugs because of all the stuff that has to be removed to get anywhere near the plugs. The good thing is that they are good for 100,000 miles, but still. I gave up trying to turn a wrench on my car. If you do buy the special tool, you can count on the fact that they will change that thing before you buy another car. Thanks for the comment. Good luck with the sensors.


  5. I undertook a project in 2008/2009 that utilised Microsoft Office Project to record historical data for a total of 75 measures which were rolled out into 72 communities. Each of these had sub measures and in total I had over 14000 fields of information all of which had to be hyper-linked to OQE, and all of which had to have very clear parameters set.

    I was like a ‘Sharepoint Sherlock’ No one had used the same methods on any given activity let alone measure and I started out with very little information and with an executive mandate went hunting, interrogating and digging for anything and everything I could find to develop my stash of Objective Qualifying Evidence.

    I was basically working backwards to move forwards – one of the most enjoyable times I’ve experienced in my working life. Every piece of OQE was a high!

    I’m not sure what produced that rant… apologies…

    Now, as for cars and their sensors, I used to be able to service my own car and change my own tyres. Now I’m worried I might break something!


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