DEALING WITH IRREPRODUCIBLE MALFUNCTIONS

Justin B Rye 01 Nov 2016
(Non‐Geek Escape Route)

This page is here because I've just realised that a word I've been using for decades is unknown to Google.  I'd always assumed it was a piece of folklore I picked up in the mid‐nineties while I was working (for no pay) on a technical support phone pool, or to be more precise while I was browsing the World Wide Web instead of working; but then again maybe I heard it from one of my friends while they were providing me with technical support in person?

DEMONSTRATITIS
Demonstratitis is a syndrome commonly displayed by ordinary users, characterised by a tendency to repeatedly interrupt your vital systems‐administrative plate‐spinning duties with claims that you need to fix something for them before they can get on with doing whatever it is they do.  When you follow them back to their cubicle and watch their attempts to invoke the alleged bug for you to see, there's no sign of anything going wrong.

This is of course a sysadmin's‐eye‐view version of the kind of phenomenon long known to developers as a “HEISENBUG” (or “PHASE OF THE MOON” problem) when it manifests itself in a piece of code; but it can also appear in network services, third‐party applications, Operating System features, or critical items of hardware such as printers, laptops, and coffee machines.  It even more closely resembles “MECHANIC SYNDROME” (and may have acquired its name via confusion with its antonym “DEMO SYNDROME”), but that again is a backwards way of looking at it: if car mechanics could make problems magically vanish, they'd wait until you'd gone before they did it!  Defining the situation in terms of “demonstratitis” has the advantage of putting the focus where the real problem is – on the one thing these support requests all have in common: a user.

Now that I've noticed that nobody else seems to be aware of the term, I'm giving it some publicity on the grounds that having other people familiar with the epidemiology of demonstratitis makes it easier to apply the canonical strategy for treating it.  What you do is this: instead of waiting for the person showing the symptoms to put on their futile display, you quickly find a third party and drag them over promising to show them a case of demonstratitis.  Naturally, under these circumstances the bug will completely fail to disappear under observation, and you'll be able to get on with fixing it.