Software specs

Dave Wilson discovers a computer system that lets him have something for nothing.

‘When you go in search of honey you must expect to be stung by bees.’ – Joseph Joubert.

A fortnight ago, I went to the local high street optician with my daughter to get her eyes tested. Since her last visit several years ago, it seemed that her eyesight had deteriorated and a new pair of spectacles was therefore in order.

But after spending ages hunting around for a pair that would duly frame the wondrous face, I’m sorry to say that not a single suitable pair could be found. And so, the purchase was postponed so that she could spend at least another day in town with her girlfriend the following week investigating further possibilities.

Last weekend, I heard that she had finally located some specs that she liked. And so, credit card in hand, I set off with her, boyfriend in tow, to make the purchase. And what a purchase it would have been. In a move befitting the rather more financially-endowed Ivanka Trump, she had chosen a pair of rather spectacular looking Gucci frames – with a price tag to match!

Fortunately for my bank manager, her boyfriend didn’t like them. He much preferred some rather less expensive frames. To be more precise, they were children’s glasses that had a red sticker with the cheering word ‘Free’ affixed to them. And the truth was they suited her face better. So we decided to ‘buy’ them.

At the counter, of course, the sales clerk informed us of course, that ‘Free’ didn’t exactly mean ‘Free’. Certainly, they were free to 16 year olds and under. But not to 17 year olds. That was government policy. Possibly, they’d cost us around £50. And we’d also have to cough up another £100 for the lenses and coatings.

But when we sat down at the computer system to order the frames and the lenses, it was another matter. You see, the chaps that had written the spectacle software had been told that anyone who ordered children’s specs would be given them for free – because they would obviously be under 16.

So they’d developed the software to automatically default the price field to zero whenever any pair of children’s glasses was selected.

After several uncomfortable minutes while the assistant tried to override the default without success, he finally gave up, announcing that he would have to sell us the specs for free because there was nothing else he could do. The computer simply wouldn’t let him alter the price of the frames, so he could only charge for the lenses.

After writing out a cheque for several hundred pounds less than I had expected too, I took my daughter and her boyfriend out to lunch at a rather nice little Mexican restaurant. For his visionary input, I figured the boyfriend had earned it.

Reader replies:


I was amused to read your spectacle story.

Software causes other retailers unexpected problems too. A few months ago, a local supermarket had erroneously combined a ‘two for one’ offer with a price reduction of more than 50%. These two factors caused their till to calculate that the supermarket had to pay me to take these items out of their shop, and neither cashier nor supervisor was able to override the till.

What a bargain! If I’d had time there and then, I’d have gone back to clear their shelves, but they’d fixed the problem when I returned a few days later.


Graham Ricketts


Whenever we let the software “nerds” loose, they make fundamental decisions on our behalf that we may not like.

Take my new Citroen with multiplex wiring. One of its features is a battery saving circuit which switches everything off 30 mins after the engine has been switched off.

I was incensed when I discovered this. One day, when I was sitting in the car waiting for a ferry, the radio stopped suddenly. Frantically pressing all the buttons, followed by reading the manual (naturally in that order for an engineer) were to no avail.

Eventually, I discovered the only way to reset it all was to start the engine! I spoke to the dealer who said he could not change the software to get it overridden. So we are stuck with a feature, put in by the software writer, and no way to get round it.

The rescue organisations are also upset by this feature. If a car breaks down and the electric windows are open, then after 30 mins there is no way to close them, so there’s no way to keep the wind and weather out when being transported.

John West