The secret history of a small but vital component, that has been
dogging you throughout your whole computing history!
This is the inside story of a small, unsung, but very influential piece
of hardware, that has been with people ever since the dawn of home
computing. Way back then, it was decided pretty quickly that a home
computer needed such dull and commonsense items as an operating system,
BASIC, a keyboard, RAM, ROM, and so on. In addition to these, a secret,
but very advanced component was included with all new designs of home
computer, from the ZX80 onwards.
The existence of this was kept secret up to now, but often jokingly
referred to, in computing circles, as the infamous "Embarrassment
It was a component that would lie dormant most of the time, quietly
sitting in the background, until such a time as the user was trying to
impress other people with their computing prowess, then it would
activate, and throw in a random fault, which would defeat the object of
the prowess showing exercise.
The specification, and reasons behind such a device, will be made
clearer a bit later on. For now, we will look at a few case histories,
which will bring the secret existence of the embarrassment chip into a
It most certainly featured on the Acorn BBC computer, where type in
listings that performed flawlessly when I was on my own, suddenly
crumpled to non operating dust, in front of a sceptical friend. It was
probably at this point, I decided my programming career was over.
The embarrassment chip followed on to the 16 bit machines too, where it
manifested itself most often at user group meetings. Software that used
marginal or illegal techniques, worked fine at home, but when the
machine was transported to the user group, decided not to work at all!
It even turns up in the most modern Wintel systems, as my recent visits
to the premises of Dave Hollis, former editor of the 'ST+' Diskmag, and
current PeeCee fan, have managed to produce at least one major hardware
death, per meeting, when they attempt to link up their windoze boxes.
Again, careful note has to be taken of the concept of 'trying to
impress people and failing.' And no, I'm not going to get into the
argument of Windows being a possible software substitute for the
hardware based embarrassment chip, as my final illustration will show,
this is not the case.
The embarrassment chip even makes an appearance in other sorts of
hardware, which only appear in specialist fields. Where I work is
something to do with garage equipment. I won't bore you with too much
detail, but it is sufficient to say that this includes some electronic
or computer-based diagnostic tools. Now we had a slightly worried
sounding person on the phone, the other day, to say that his diesel
emissions measuring device had froze-up in mid test, in front of a
Ministry of Transport Inspector! Which is the LAST person in the world
that you would want such a failure to happen in front of, and proof
conclusive, of the spread of the embarrassment chip in just about every
significant electronic device in the world! Are even pocket calculators
So now we know it is there, what is it, where did it come from, and
what the fuck is it doing in my computer? We reveal the answers, next!
The embarrassment chip is a self-contained device. A complete computer,
within a computer. Owing to the original source of the technology, and
more on this in a minute, be patient! It is always much more advanced
than the surrounding components of its 'host' machine. How it actually
works, has to go into the realms of speculation, but the most likely
explanation, is that there is a voice recognition system, and a core
routine, which 'learns' the voice patterns of the person most often
using the host machine, the intended owner of it.
The fault randomiser, only goes active when it detects a different
voice pattern, which operates IN ADDITION TO the regular voice pattern
it is used to. In other words, when another person, as well as the
owner, is in close attendence to the Host machine. Another semi-serious
suggestion, is that the above is activated by some kind of brain wave
detecting technology. A suggestion totally off the wall perhaps, but it
may have more credibility, when you've read the next paragraph!
Where did it come from? Well, I've always wanted to go off on a
breathless and excited tangent, making wild claims of alien
interference in Earth's affairs. Yes, it's another Roswell put-up job,
but rather than the somewhat extravagant mass abductions and
assassinations that are claimed for them, the little green (or grey?)
fellas chose a more prosaic method of sabotaging humankind. The
embarrassment chip, is alien technology!
The reason behind it, is that they are fearful of what could happen, if
the bulk of the Earth's population become computer literate. The
embarrassment chip was included in all new hardware, as it was intended
to undermine most people's confidence in computers. This would prevent
the early development of a race of coding superbeings, able to
challenge the aliens on equal terms!
Thus, only a few dogged and obsessive people would bother, which
accounts for the weird mindsets of those people we call coders, today.
The aliens would seem to have it covered, but it looks like they may
have also been reaching the wider population, through their front
company, known to us as 'Microsoft'? That is another story though,
which will have to wait until another time!
CiH - For Alive! Magazine, Jan 2001. But it's not real, is it??