Blog Posts from June, 2009

Automation Bias, Documentation Bias, and the Power of Humans

Tuesday, June 30th, 2009

A few weeks I went down to the U.S. Consulate in Toronto to register Ariel, my daughter, as an American citizen born abroad. (She’s a dualie, because she was born in Canada to an American parent: me. I’m a dualie too, born in the U.S. to Canadian parents. Being born a dual citizen is a wonderful example of a best practice. You should follow it. But I digress.)

The application process is, naturally, fraught with complication and bureaucracy. There’s also a chilling and intimidating level of security; one isn’t allowed to bring anything electronic into the Consulate at all. No cell phones, no PDAs, and certainly no laptop computers. That means no electronic records, and no hope of looking anything up. So one has to prepare.

There’s a Web site for the Consular services. One of the first items that one sees on the site is a link for telephone inquiries. Note a couple of things here: the telephone services are for visa information, not for general information; and that visa information costs USD$0.90 per minute for a recorded system with no operator. (Oddly, that’s the price for calls from the U.S.; calls from Canada are cheaper, at CAD$0.69 per minute.) I didn’t test that.

With only a little digging, I was able to find information related to registering a birth abroad. I gathered the information and documents that I figured I needed, and took it all down to the Consulate. I was getting ready to travel the next day, and so in typical fashion, I pushed things out to the noon deadline for receiving applications. I watched the clock on the car anxiously, parking at 11:53 and getting to the Consulate at 11:55. “Wow, that’s pushing it,” said the security guard. “Last one today.”

When I spoke to the friendly, helpful lady behind the counter (I mean that; she was genuinely friendly and helpful) she they told me some things that the Web site didn’t.

  • The application form itself is online, and these days it’s one of those PDFs that has input fields, so everything can be nice and tidy. Again, though, there are some fields in the form that have several possible answers. There is some helpful information available, but I still had questions.
  • The consular officers want to see original documents, but accept and keep only photocopies of them. You need to come with your own photocopies. If you don’t, it costs you $1.00 per document—and there are lots of documents. This isn’t noted anywhere on the Web site that I could see.
  • On one of the Web pages listing documentation requirements, it says “In certain cases, it may be necessary to submit additional documents, including affidavits of paternity and support, divorce decrees from prior marriages, or medical reports of blood compatibility.” Well, what cases? The page doesn’t tell me, and getting it wrong means an extra trip. The lady behind the counter reviewed what I had brought, answered a number of questions, and told me exactly what to bring next time.

As I travel around, I sometimes see an implicit assumption that documents tell us all we need to know. Yet documents are always a stand-in for some person, an incomplete representation of what they know or what they want. They’re time-bound, in that they represent someone’s ideas frozen at some point in the past. They can’t, and don’t answer followup questions. As Northrop Frye once said, “A book always says the same thing.” Yet if we look more closely, not even ideas that are carefully and thoroughly debated can be expressed unambiguously. That’s why we have judges. And lawyers.

The next thing that happened emphasized this. After I left the Consulate, I returned to my car. At the collection booth, the posted time was 12:20. I’d been less than half an hour, which is good because parking at that garage costs $3.00 per half-hour. I handed the attendant my ticket. The charge was $6.00.

“What?! I’ve only been gone for 25 minutes.”

She looked at the ticket. “Sorry, sir. You checked in at 11:40.”

“No way,” I said. “I know what time I checked in; I was running late. It was at least 12 minutes later than 11:40. I got to the entrance to the Consulate, just over there, at 11:55. No way I could have taken 15 minutes to walk 75 metres!” She showed me the ticket. It said 11:40. “That’s impossible. I want to check the clock.”

The difference was only $3.00, but I was furious. I exited the garage, drove around to the entrance and check the display. It read 12:24, the correct time. I pushed the button and pulled out a ticket; it too read 12:24. To her credit, the attendant appeared and checked the clock, and asked to see the ticket I had just printed. “12:24. I’m sorry, sir, there’s nothing I can do.” Quite true, no doubt.

In this case, the (clearly fallible) machinery and the (clearly fallible) documentation were more credible than I. I didn’t check the ticket on the way in. And yet I know when I arrived, and I know that there must have been some kind of failure with the machinery. A one-off? A consistent pattern? Happens only at a certain time of the day? A mechanical problem? A software problem?

All the way home, I pondered over how the failure had occurred, and how one might test for it. But what impressed me most about my experience with the Consulate’s Web site, and the consular officer, and the the parking ticket machine, and the parking attendant, was the way in which we invest trust, to varying degrees and at various times, in machines and in documents and in people. When is that trust warranted, and when is it not?

Postscript: Just now, as I attempted to publish this post, the net connection at this hotel was suddenly unavailable. Again.

Exploratory Testers’ Meetup, June 3

Tuesday, June 30th, 2009

Thanks to the energetic James Lyndsay, a bunch of us are meeting at the conclusion of his Exploratory Testing class and my Rapid Testing class on Friday, June 3 2009, in London, UK. I expect we’ll be there somewhere between 5:30 and 9:00pm. The venue is the Prince Arthur pub, 80-82 Eversholt Street, Euston, London, NW1 1BX, right across the street from Euston Station, north of Euston Road. Three large tables have been reserved. All are welcome; please spread the word!

After that, I’m off to The Magnet, a pub near the Archway station, where a gang of folks gets together every Friday from 9:30pm until late to play Irish traditional music. I’ll be armed with my mandolin. All are welcome there, too!