Computers are great devices, but when humans hit the wrong keys, or don’t hit the keys when they’re supposed to, the machine may react in unexpected ways.
Such a case arose in Pennsylvania recently with a regional office of the Selective Service System. The office gets its list of citizens from the state showing the names of people who have reached the age where they have to sign up for Selective Service.
Somehow several thousand people who have been dead for several years got letters saying they were of draft age and should sign up or face stiff penalties.
How did that happen? One of the examples illustrates what took place.
A man named Bert Huey was born in 1894, served in World War I and died in his 100th year.
Yet his grandson was astounded to get a letter addressed to his grandfather from the Selective Service office, telling Bert Huey to register for the draft.
“It said he was subject to heavy fines and possible imprisonment if he didn’t sign up for the draft board,” said the grandson, who is 73 himself.
He added: “We were totally dumbfounded.”
It turned out the state agency which supplied the names got a list that included Bert Huey’s name and the notation that he had been born in ’94. The computer system handling the messages thought that meant 1994, instead of a century before.
Of course, someone born in 1994 would be just reaching draft age this year. The Selective Service System likes to notify people early so there will be plenty of time for them to sign up.
In all, about 14,000 such messages went out, addressed to people born in the 1800s, not the 1900s.
A Pennsylvania official who investigated said: “We made a mistake. It was a quite serious error.”
A news article on the case got into the spirit of the thing with a headline which read:
“Please tell your ancestor he’s been drafted.”
Kendall Wild is a retired editor of the Herald.MORE IN Commentary
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