Whether it's paying our bills, keeping up with our friends, or unleashing vicious verbal attacks on random strangers with little to no provocation, you can bet there's a computer involved somewhere along the way. But as we've mentioned before, the line between "computerized utopia of the future" and "utter chaos" is just a line of computer code.
#6. California Unleashes a Horde of Violent Prisoners on Its Unsuspecting Citizens
The Tiny Mistake:
Prisons can only hold so many human beings before they're so tightly packed as to be too cruel even for murderers. As common sense would suggest, prisons have a system for releasing low-risk, nonviolent criminals first and making sure the truly dangerous ones -- the violent felons and rapists -- are pushed so far to the back of the line that they'll never board the freedom coaster. Like everything else these days, the prison system runs off of a database, so it's just a matter of asking it to spit out a list of the guys with the least scary arrest and disciplinary records. Then a human skims over it and says, "Looks good!"
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The dispatcher clicks "Like" and then moves on.
But in 2011, investigators for the California prison system discovered that the computer determining release priority apparently didn't feel the need to look all that closely. In some cases it couldn't access the full arrest records; in others, the prisoners never had the appropriate conviction information entered into the system at all. And whenever the computer hit a big ol' blank space while reading a prisoner's conviction history, it gave that record a big red "PAROLE PARTY!" stamp and moved right on to the next.
More than 450 high-risk, violent criminals were plopped out onto the unsuspecting streets, as well as an additional thousand or so deemed likely to traffic in drugs or wreck people's property. So ... time for the cops to get to work rounding these guys back up, right?
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"Can't you just get a posse together? It's taco night."
Nope! That's the best part: Even though the glitch was eventually identified, the California legal system couldn't do a damn thing about those who had already been released. See, this computer system was nothing if not thorough in its glitchiness -- in addition to releasing the unreleasable offenders, it had also placed them on the "non-revocable parole" list, meaning that they never had to check in with a parole officer and could only be reimprisoned if they were caught, say, murdering someone. You know, in addition to however many someones they had already murdered to get thrown into prison in the first place.
It doesn't take a master's degree in criminology to see that this situation was not destined to turn out well. Take Javier Rueda, a documented violent gang banger who had been placed on non-revocable parole: He went down in a blaze of glory when police tried to pull him over for a DUI. One officer was shot but survived; another officer received a fracture (the bullet didn't hit him too hard, we guess?), and Rueda himself arrived at the hospital in much the same manner as a Swiss cheese sandwich (in a baggie).
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So, prison overcrowding still solved, right?
For those Californians keeping count, that means there are about 449 still out there. Sleep tight!
#5. A Hospital Accidentally Declares Thousands of Patients Dead
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The Tiny Mistake:
When Saint Mary's Mercy Medical Center in Grand Rapids, Michigan, performed a routine upgrade of their patient management software back in 2003, the project went just swimmingly. That is, except for one tiny data field in a certain batch of patient records dropping a single digit during the transition. It's what a patient management software nerd might call a "mapping error" and we might call a "numberfuck."
Bigger than a smathfu, yet far from a mathastrophe.
But it's just one little digit, right?
That one little digit meant that 8,500 unequivocally living people were declared deceased. You think insurance is a pain in the ass now? Try filing a claim when you're dead.
That's what happened to scores of patients who had recently been discharged from the hospital because they were in fact the exact opposite of dead. They started receiving letters from their insurance companies inquiring as to how precisely they were still receiving medical treatment when they were no longer among the living (and the only cure for zombism is an inexpensive bullet to the skull). The errant death notifications were also sent to the Social Security office, which is in turn responsible for determining whether disabled or elderly patients are eligible for Medicare (being a corpse is a big disqualifier).
Looking like a corpse is fine; being one is a step too far.
The hospital was quick to point out that it only took them a few days to fix the errors, but as anyone who's ever dealt with a government agency or an insurance company can guess, this was followed by months of having to untangle the mistake. After all, declaring customers dead is something these agencies do on a daily basis. Convincing them that a dead patient is back among the living presumably means that some poor bastard at the hospital had to listen to a shitload of hold music.
#4. A Computer Summons a Small Army to Jury Duty
The Tiny Mistake:
Jury duty is an annoying thing that we force ourselves to tolerate in order to live in a society featuring "justice for all" and all that jazz. Usually it entails waking up early, driving across town, and spending an inordinate amount of time with a group of strangers who would rather be doing something -- anything -- else. Yet, ass canker that it unquestionably is, it turns out that jury duty can get much worse.
And Peter Fonda won't be there to save anyone's ass.
If you've ever been called to perform said citizenly chore, you probably noticed that the little card you received in the mail wasn't handwritten with a quill pen and sealed with wax -- no, it was printed out from a computer (quite possibly on an '80s-style hunk of dot matrix, the next best thing to a quill pen). Well, back in 2012, the computer at an Auburn, California, courthouse that was responsible for summoning jurors glitched and went into its "default mode," and apparently, in jury selection software terms, "default mode" translates to "summon every-damn-body in the database."
Instead of the usual dozen or so, the computer summoned 1,200 people for jury duty -- all at the same bat-time, same bat-channel. Two-thirds of those people gave enough of a crap about doing their duty as upstanding American citizens and asked off of work, cancelled appointments, and freed themselves of those shackles known as friends and family to report to jury duty at the local courthouse ... and instead found themselves trapped in gridlock traffic. The roads weren't prepared for a sudden surge in cars all going to the exact same place, and the would-be jurors couldn't even get to a restroom, let alone the courthouse.
She's not a convict. They had to give her a change of clothes.
People late to jury duty were stuck in traffic with other people who were late to jury duty, and everyone was calling the courthouse to say that they'd be late for jury duty. When a small, confused, and frustrated army finally congregated at the Auburn courthouse, people began to suspect that this whole mess was the work of one summons-happy computer, which was later found skulking under its desk, quietly snickering. Court officials apologized "profusely" to the jury/mob and thanked them by informing them that they really would be summoned for jury duty that week -- just not all at once.
With all of those annoyed people in one place, we're kind of surprised a riot didn't break out. The people in this next example weren't so lucky ...