In computing, a checksum is like a canary in a mine. It’s a number used to confirm that a much larger group of numbers is consistent and has not been been changed in some way. A tiny little indicator which does nothing by itself, and only serves to confirm the whole.
My favourite example of a checksum in the real world is the Van Halen Brown M&M story. It seems that Van Halen’s tour contract was long and detailed. When you are going from city to city with a big rock band, complete with light show and complicated electrical requirements, you need everything done right the first time. After all, people have died from microphones which were incorrectly earthed. The band and their crew got sick and tired of finding that their requirements were not met, and having to double check everything. So, hidden deep in their contract, they inserted a demand that the band have a bowl of M&Ms backstage, from which all the brown ones had been removed.
This story ended up being misunderstood and conveying the impression that the band were difficult and demanding. In fact, it saved a lot of time for everyone. No M&Ms? Assume nothing has been done. Flip out. M&Ms there, but brown ones still present? Assume sloppy mistakes have been made. Check everything. M&Ms present, brown ones removed? Relax. I have no idea whether they ever ate the M&Ms. They didn’t matter. They were a symbol of the competence of the whole organisation.
I used to work at a magazine publishers, and when I had the authority, I used to come down hard on small formatting errors in magazine articles. People used to put this down to pettiness on my part, but I knew that the authority of an article was often fatally damaged by the tiny details. It seems silly, but if you put a space between the last letter of a sentence and the full stop, you are sending the readers a set of messages:
1. It says you don’t care very much about getting things right. You don’t check stuff and you don’t expect your readers to care or notice.
2. It puts a seed of doubt into the mind of the reader that you might have been equally sloppy about the main thrust of the article as you are with the punctuation. Since the article might be instructions on how to build an expensive engine, for example, that seed might be enough to put you off attempting making it. Be honest: if you had to choose a medication to save your life, wouldn’t you prefer it if the bottle did not show a glaring spelling mistake?
I am no grammar nazi. I tolerate all kinds of syntactic nonconformity in the interests of clarity, humour, originality, or tiredness. Sloppy spelling in emails from friends is actually kind of friendly, as it demonstrates that the sender had let his or her guard down, and is not standing on ceremony.
The checksum I find most troubling however, is when I catch a technology story in the mainstream media. When a journalist tries to tackle an area that I know something about, they get it wrong. Not just in subtle ways, ways that can be excused as part of an attempt to simplify a complex subject, but in big, scary ways. I remember when I heard a BBC journalist in the Nineties, trying to explain the browser wars, whilst earnestly confusing the function of an operating system and a browser. Repeatedly and insistently.
Every technology report that I know something about seems to contain at least one howler. I sometimes wonder if the BBC apply the same standards to all of the news – even the important stuff. What if all the reports coming out of Iraq were as inaccurate as this nonsense? Maybe they are, because I started noticing it whenever I had a tiny bit of inside information, or personal experience. They always got vital facts wrong.
Which, if my checksum theory is correct, ought to suggest that we can’t trust very much of what we read or hear.