Geek speak: If computers are so smart, why are they so obtuse?


Ah, the joys of The Great Electronic Universe: I tried to log into one of my e-mail accounts just now and received this cryptic message: “Cycle prohibited. Could not process your request for the document because it would cause an HTTP proxy cycle.”

Say what? I haven’t the foggiest notion what that means.

Why the login that I’ve been using for months and months is now, all of a sudden, unacceptable to a server who-knows-where, is mystery beyond my power to resolve. Fortunately, I was able to do an end run around it by logging in from another access point — this time. But who knows when it may arbitrarily deem me persona non grata? Kersplatt!

It was somewhat blackly humorous in movies/TV of the early digital era when computers, in robotic voices, would administer supercilious put-downs to mere mortals. Who can forget the sardonic HAL in Stanley Kubrick’s still-visually-stunning 1968 movie, 2001? That HAL also turned evil and deadly only served to reinforce the then-mostly-science-fiction possibility that computers and robots would one day become superior to puny humankind.

As one who has been witness to the evolution of the digital world from the early era (Commodore 64 anyone? Apple II?), I still am in awe of the technology spawned by using billions of 1s and 0s as instructions for tasks as diverse as guiding jumbo jets or showing wall-size TV.

On the other hand, it is annoying that those responsible for these wondrous advances have (perhaps on purpose?) formulated and perpetuated computer-to-human messages that only the geekiest geek could love.

For example, this recent error message: “The functionality you have requested is offline for maintenance.” It couldn’t have just said: “Sorry, our server needed some attention, but will be up and running again soon”?

There are occasional rare — even amusing — exceptions in the world of unfathomable error messages.

The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s Association for Computing Machinery website has one that is hilarious. It starts out by typing, “The requested document is no more,” then goes on and on and on with new, ever more self-pitying comments (“I’m sorry to burden you with all this,” “Everything here is just mind-numbingly stupid. That makes me depressed too, since I have to serve them, all day and all night long.”), finally ending with, “Now, please let me sulk alone. I’m so depressed…”

Check it out at

There are even haiku error messages. A few of my favorites: “Yesterday it worked/Today it is not working/Windows is like that”; “Login incorrect/Only perfect spellers may/enter this system”; “Printer not ready/Could be a fatal error/Have a pen handy?”; and “Three things are certain:/Death, taxes, and lost data./Guess which has occurred?”



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