Stuff You Can’t Make Up


Last week, I dragged you guys into the bowels of my technical support journey with the WordPress Happiness Engineers. Along the way, I offered some hope that the future wouldn’t hold too many of those technical travelogues:

“Computers can do those things, easily, but they have to know all the steps in the workflow, and they have to understand the complete range of values and the results of all those judgements. Well, the programmer writing the software has to know those things. Next week, I’ll share some comical-ish results of not knowing enough.”

So, what happens when everyone on the project is only able to see a portion of the picture? In a nutshell, opportunities for fraud and costly errors. There might be other stuff, but I did suggest that I’d make this somewhat comical.

Southwest Shipping and Delivery, Inc – If you’re old enough to remember the time before PCs, then you might remember computer terminals that offered 24 rows of 80-character lines. The challenge for developers in those days was how to get all the necessary information to fit on the screen and still have the display make sense. One of the things we used to do was to truncate certain fields.

The airfreight company I worked for contracted with shipping companies at every station to deliver packages that were too far from the airport. This practice was called “Cartage Beyond Shipping” and it was good business for our company and the local shippers who didn’t mind driving all over, in this case, Arizona. We paid these people for making those deliveries, and the person processing those invoices had to have enough information to approve the payment. She had an invoice number, and the name needed to match a known vendor. Unfortunately, we only had room to display 24 characters of that name – so, in the case of the sub-title above, “SOUTHWEST SHIPPING AND D” – That’s fine, right?

Well, not if the woman processing the invoice had a boyfriend in Phoenix who created a fake shipping company called “Southwest Shipping and Delivery Services of Phoenix.” The screen and the payment approval report both looked fine, but the money, in this case a bogus payment, would be sent to her boyfriend. They were caught by accident when the Phoenix Station Manager was visiting. He knew that they no longer used Southwest Shipping and Delivery, Inc.

Unidentifiable Payments – One consulting project I worked on was with a mortgage company that had “lost track of” $93 million. My team was assigned to find that money. After a review of the overall operation, we identified 23 distinct processes. We started reviewing each of those. I was given “Unidentifiable Payments” to research.

The woman in charge of this process, was about 20 years old, and had no special training in computers, accounting or mortgage processing. She was a secretary who had been give the additional assignment of tracking down these oddball payments. An unidentifiable payment was something like a check or a money order that just showed up in an envelope with no way to link it to a specific mortgage. You might ask, “how could that even happen?” I did. I was told:

“Well, some people, particularly in the south (this was 1985) don’t have checking accounts. So, they give cash to a family member, and that person writes a check for them. They send the check in, but sometimes they forget to include the coupon or the account number.” The woman went onto explain: “I hold the check, because they will get a late notice, then they’ll call. Those calls are routed to me, and I can fix the whole thing.”

Great plan, except:

1) Due to the high volume of loans, the bank had to increase the size of the account number. Until that project was complete, the origination system wasn’t assigning account numbers to new mortgages. That meant they couldn’t print a coupon book. The developers told the mortgage service clerks to match payments by the last name and the address on the check. This was safe, because the processing screen would verify those items and the payment amount.

2) Because of a different problem that was causing an internal delay in processing payments, the bank had stopped sending late notices.

When I asked the woman how many calls she received on a daily basis, she said “none lately.” When I asked what she did with the checks, she unlocked a drawer in her desk. There, neatly filed by last name were $2.3 million worth of uncashed checks. It took our team several weeks to track down each person, sometimes calling the local bank for assistance, so we could tie the checks to a loan. Then, it took several more weeks to calculate what should have been the principle and interest remaining on the mortgage that the system considered to be in default.

I’m out of room for today, but I’ll return to this theme.

Additional signs of spring are on today’s gallery.


  1. The bank loan story… wow. I suppose I’d rather have the vintage solution to the problem. Today, if a loan is in default, even though Auntie May sent in the funds, a computer spits out reminders and then sends out collectors and no amount of pleading, “But the cheque is in the mail!” will call off the dogs.

    Liked by 1 person

    • That’s true, Maggie. This place was so screwed up. That young woman was totally on her own. She had a good idea, but she wasn’t privy to the information that was working against her. There were actually loans that had gone into default. We had to rescue them from the Legal department. It was a mess.


  2. Hi Don – I rather lost the plot on this one … but being a secretary assigned to find $39 million … I’d be doing my nuts … let alone $2.3 m in my top drawer … oh what fun and games! Love the elderly crossing … should be 1985 crossing and the appropriate sign for txt fiends today – Goose Xing … oh dear – cheers Hilary

    Liked by 1 person

  3. A secretary with no training and $2.3 million in her desk drawer. Who hired this chick??!! Elderly crossing, eh? How did Florida miss the mark on those signs? Have a good week, Dan.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Ha ha – I think you’re right about that sign, Lois. Your state should own the copyright.

      They gave that job to that woman because they figured there would only be one or two a month and she had extra time. No one had the whole story. It took us 6 months to figure out and repair all the problems, and I had 15 people working on the project.


  4. And that is why they called it computer science ! They did not have enough space to include the last two words. Computer science fiction. Actually Hysterical Computer Science Fiction. And yes space is the final front ear. Right smack in the middle of the forehead. The front ear is grown by programmers, analysts, and secretaries with 23 billion in their desk drawer who live in the future and have work with the digital experience. TCNH. The official response to keep coding and get it into production. TCHN – that could never happen. Happy Monday !

    Liked by 1 person

      • Fortunately I have not heard that for a while. The only reason being I am retired. Goes hand in hand with we have to test and verify every feature of the new release. Well it worked before. That is good. Do you want to be sure it still works now? And for all those doubters please speak to the good folks at the Boeing public relations dept. It is very much like my Monday experience. We do not offer a blended oil change. Me so this coupon I just printed from your website for a blended oil change is imaginary?

        Liked by 1 person

        • That’s like the “we’ll beat anybody’s lowest price on this model” – of course, the manufacturer makes this model exclusively for us. It’s the same as the other guys appliance, but it has a different model number so we can all make this pledge.

          Good luck with that coupon, John.

          Liked by 1 person

          • Communication is a key skill business leaders need to maintain a high level of chaos in the competitive world of daily trade. blah, blah, blah. Maybe that is why they are having so much trouble getting us all to sing from the same song card…

            Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Maggie. In this case, I might be sorry to bring back the memories. I never saw so many things wrong in one place, before or since. They eventually went out of business.


  5. Funny stories Dan. Today, it seems archaic the way some things were done.

    Love the first pic! I think you need an ELDERLY CROSSING sign in Maddie’s park for Galloping Grandma!! And I haven’t seen a GOOSE XING sign in years! Sammy seems quite content with his peanut.

    Hope today begins a great week for you.
    🐾Ginger 🐾

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Ginger. If I walked Maddie past that sign, she’d be on guard. She looks for that woman every time we walk by the park. I’m guessing she will be out there pretty soon.

      I’m sure we don’t have the same issues, but I’m sure we have equally stupid decisions being made today. At least we were being paid by the hour.

      Maddie and I got rained on on our walk this weekend, and I think the squirres are waiting for the leaves to appear and give them some shelter.


  6. If you’re old enough to remember the time before PCs, then you might remember computer terminals that offered 24 rows of 80-character lines

    I fondly remember the Burroughs TD 700 terminal. Finally, it was said, “A computer terminal for the blind…..or those who want to be.”

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Gotta get me one of those “Elderly Crossing” signs for days when I have to park my car across the street from my house, especially slippery winter days. Not that it would help much seeing as the street curves and drivers probably still wouldn’t see me until it was too late.

    Loved the story about the mortgage checks. Even if it was 1985, I find it mind-boggling that there were so many.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks CM. We could use one of those signs around our neighborhood, too.

      Apparently, the number of unidentifiable payments shot up as the mortgage company expanded south. In 1985, checking accounts could be pretty expensive. In any case, it was a comedy of errors that almost cost some people to be forced into foreclosure.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. The mortgage story reminds me of the Seinfeld episode in which Kramer convinces Jerry to cash the decades worth of birthday checks he got from his Nana — at which point, she becomes overdrawn. Nothing wrong with the process, really, but ran him headlong into the Law of Unintended Consequences!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Steve. The theory behind this woman’s process was sound. She just had no way of realizing that the bank had bigger problems. We kept a running tally of how much of the $93 million we found. This wasn’t the biggest, but it certainly was the strangest find.


  9. That last scenario…😳I guess predates instant bad credit reporting for late payment.
    Beautiful photos. I love the blooms. Have a great week. Im still on call and can’t believe I didn’t post in a week!!

    Liked by 1 person

    • It really is sad, Laurie. I learned early on that you have to design security into systems for internal as well as external threats. Modern PCs, networks and the Internet have only made it worse.

      Liked by 1 person

    • It really was. I remember when the file name length expanded to 256, people were afraid to use them, and others were reluctant to give up the cryptic naming conventions they had invented. Thanks for visiting and for the Tweet!

      Liked by 1 person

    • Yeah, keep checking my desk drawers, no millions…

      I wish I could send you some of our rain. It’s been raining off and on, very hard at times since Friday – enough already! Go see Heather!

      Liked by 1 person

  10. When I was introduced to computers back in my school days (I believe it was 1992-93) I was terribly scared of it. My mother had no clue about these expensive giant machines and she warned me not to touch it. So, when I was in the class, I would not touch the keyboard. One of my classmates would press the keys for me and do my work. One day the teacher noticed this and she had to convinced me in details that nothing would go wrong if I type something. My most embarrassing moment came in 1999 when I was in a computer institute and my faculty told me to open/register a new Yahoo account and I stood up saying, ‘Madam, how much will it cost? I don’t have enough money in my wallet.’ Ouch! the entire class was staring at me with WTF expressions.

    Liked by 1 person

      • I never forget my old days because I have transformed myself quite a bit since 1995. I was this pampered mamma’s boy who doesn’t know a thing about the world or just about anything. My elder brother used to say I was the stupidest person in the family. He crushed my self-esteem and confidence in many ways. Later on when I started working I was subjected to exploitation, hard work, office politics and insults. However, the good thing is that I have survived all that. Also, that is the reason why I am a bit unfriendly. I keep few true friends whom I can trust, like you. The ONLY person who knows me completely is Sarah and so I chose to marry her. I became more tech savvy and today most people around me believe I am a walking Wikipedia. They call me for recommendations before they buy phones or when they want to travel some location or want review about some restaurants. When I tell them this Yahoo account story they say I’m bluffing. Do you think I’m bluffing?

        Liked by 1 person

  11. I know that was supposed to be funny after the fact, but really? This is why we Americans as a whole had to bail out the Mortgage Industry! Do you want to do that again folks? I don’t I. Can’t. Afford. IT!! Can you? If you can then you pay for cause I am out! OMG! I don’t see the humor only horror and price tag for all Americans. Yes, I am just that literal.

    I love the Spring foliage and all that yellow! $2.3 million in checks in her bloody draw! I can’t get past it! I just can’t! WOW!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I share the outrage, Deborah. I wish I could say this was a weird one-off thing, but it wasn’t. The mortgage company was rife with errors, misunderstandings and fraud. The mortgage company and the parent bank eventually failed. In a future post, I will walk you through the meeting where I tried to explain that failure was a possibility, and I was laughed out of the room. It’s not only why we had to bail out the industry in the late 80’s, it’s why we had to bail them out again 20 years later. It’s why we will likely have to bail out some industry in the next 10 years.



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