By Harry McCracken | Tuesday, October 7, 2008 at 4:29 am
People just love error messages. Love ‘em, love ‘em, love ‘em. At least that’s the conclusion I’m drawing right now: “The 13 Greatest Error Messages of All Time” is by far the most popular story in Technologizer’s short history. And hundreds of folks didn’t just read the article–they shared their own favorite errors in the comments, with at least as much passion as the community brings to burning subjects such as the iPhone NDA or the fate of Windows XP.
I thoroughly enjoyed delving into all that feedback and learning about errors which I’d never heard of…and in some cases, being reintroduced to ones which I’d managed to block out of my memory. If you don’t have time to burrow through nearly 400 comments’ worth of conversation like I did, I understand–and I’m here to help. Here are some truly outstanding error messages, selected from all the ones mentioned in comments by a blue-ribbon panel which consisted of…well, me. I focused on ones that were verifiably real, and mostly on ones mentioned by multiple contributors. And I ended up with a bakers’ dozen of them, just as in the first story.
I call this list The 13 Other Greatest Error Messages of All Time…and as with the first roundup, let’s do it as a countdown, shall we?
13. Nonsense in BASIC (ZX Spectrum)
I am an American, and while that distinction carries any number of benefits and privileges, it does mean that I’ve been deprived of some truly inspired error messages over the years. Back in the 1980s, the UK’s wildly popular ZX Spectrum home computer sported a version of the BASIC programming language that responded to errors on the user’s part with a message that was snippy and even a little insulting: “Nonsense in BASIC.” If I had owned a Spectrum, I’d have done my best to avoid being chided by my computer that way. Which might have made me a better programmer, and therefore grateful that it minced no words.
12. Make: Don’t know how to make love. Stop. (Unix)
If you’re not a Unix nerd, this one almost isn’t worth your time. But it came up multiple times in comments, so it’s clearly beloved by some. It’s one of a number of nerdy Unix games that involves entering a Unix command with purposefully meaningless modifiers or other errors that cause Unix to respond with an unintentionally funny message. In this case, you enter “make love,” with make being a Unix command and love being a meaningless modifier. Unix responds with Make: Don’t know how to make love, which–oh, let’s just move on to errors that are easier to explain…
11, 10, and 9. WHAT?, HOW?, and SORRY (TRS-80 Level I BASIC)
I’ve encountered these messages many times myself, but had forgotten about them until commenter John brought them up. When Radio Shack’s TRS-80 personal computer debuted in 1977, it shipped only with a programming language known as Level I BASIC. It fit in 4KB of memory–.0039 of one megabyte, and one-third of the space used by the image of a TRS-80 on the right–which left little room for features and virtually no room for fripperies such as error messages. So it had only three of them, all of which consisted of one word (rendered in ALL CAPS–the original TRS-80 also didn’t pamper owners with luxuries such as lower-case letters). WHAT? meant that the TRS-80 didn’t understand you, perhaps because you’d made a typo. HOW? meant you were asking it to do something impossible, such as divide by zero. And SORRY usually meant that the computer had run out of memory…which happened all the time.
With only three errors to cover every possible problem, the TRS-80 was necessarily general rather than specific. But unlike many computers of the era, it didn’t spew errors laden with numbers or abbreviations. There’s a weird elegance in WHAT?, HOW?, and SORRY–and that’s not something you can say about many error messages.
8. You don’t exist. Go away. (Unix)
Computer geeks are known for their lack of social graces. Unix (and latter-day offspring such as Linux) are known for being loved by computer geeks. End result: Unix has more brusque, undiplomatic error messages than any other operating system. Such as You Don’t Exist. Go Away, an error which Unix systems sometimes fling at the user when there’s a password-related problem. It’s delightfully dismissive and demeaning–I’m saying this as someone who’s never gotten it, of course–and, like many great error messages, is gratuitously unhelpful. It’s also the only message here which makes me think of both an Eleanor Roosevelt quote (“No one can make you feel inferior without your permission”) and an Emily Dickenson poem (“I’m nobody! Who are you?”).
7. Silly (Acorn BBC Microcomputer)
Yup, another error message from a 1980s British machine! Silly wasn’t how the “Beeb” responded to any error on the user’s part that might reasonably be called silly. Instead, it reserved the message for instances in which the user attempted to renumber or auto-enter a BASIC program with line numbers that incremented by zero (which was impossible) or more than 255 (which was possible but excessive). Maybe I’m reading an empathetic tone into the message that isn’t really there, but I don’t see Silly as a potshot–it feels more like an amused appreciation of an intentionally comical act by the user. In other words, the BBC was laughing with its owner rather than at him or her. It’s a pity that more error messages aren’t so ingratiating.