Category Archives: Computers
Despite fulminating and ranting about the misuse of English, I love some of the new ways the language is used. One of the words I’m particularly fond of is ‘random’. ‘Random’ meaning haphazard, without aim or purpose or without an underlying principle. Nowadays it’s often used to mean strange or weird – indeed sometimes it’s the only word that fits the situation.
Take last week. Last week was random in all senses of the word, old and new. Correct or otherwise. It was scattered. It was weird. It was definitely haphazard. I was editing blogs and writing content. I was trying to sort out the cover for my book, with the help of a friend who is not only kind but more knowlegable and technically savvy than I am in all things jpeg. I was dithering about booking plane tickets – cheap and lethal Ryanair or slightly more expensive but definitely more civilised EasyJet?
While juggling with all this I had foolishly agreed to enter a Tall Tales contest for my Early Birds Toastmasters Club, in aid of a good cause World Child Cancer. What is a Tall Tale? Wikipedia was unhelpful for once as none of the examples were contemporary. Having to fit a story into a formula, of sorts, did bad things to my brain. It froze it. The contest was on Friday. On Wednesday I was still staring at a blank sheet of paper. The only thing I could think of was my ex-cat, Eric, who used to send emails.
A brain frozen takes some time to defrost. Thursday morning I was still struggling. However, thanks to the encouragement and suggestions of my lovely Toastmaster and Twitter friends, a story gradually took shape. A convoluted story involving my beloved Eric, who had, it seemed worked for MI5. Pavel, the psychotic goat, a Russian agent. A plot to blackmail Larry, the Downing Street cat. An exciting chase across Whitehall into Trafalgar Square. A fall from the top of Nelson’s Column, a broken leg and the 73 bus also figured. A fortuitous cat flap and an Islington safe house appeared to signal the end of the story. But no. There was yet another dastardly plot involving the corgies and the Queen, a faked death and a mysterious box of ashes.
If the word random can be applied to anything, it can be applied to last week.
I came third, by the way.
Some thoughts on the lack of clarity and logic in manufacturers instructions. Or, to put it another way, a great big fat rant!
A couple of weeks ago my printer got sick. It developed a strange disease that caused it to believe it was a rainbow. Of course a colour printer should make rainbows, but only when asked. My poor machine had what appeared to be a severe identity crisis. What should have been mono print came out green or green and yellow. And then it would change its mind and print exclusively in pink. Attempts to rectify it sent it into further vibrant hysterics. Although there were diagnostic thingies to help, in most cases I find them virtually useless. The reason? Language. And logic.
Way back, when I was training to be a social worker, I signed on for an optional course called ‘The Use of English’. Some of my friends thought it irrelevant – what had use of English to do with being a social worker? The answer is ‘everything’. It’s all to do with clarity. It’s not only writers who need to make their meaning clear. For them it’s a matter of reputation and personal pride. But in other professions it can be a matter of life or death – literally. Think doctor. Think air traffic controller. Think engineer.
While computer and printer technology may not be a matter of life and death, lack of clear instructions can lead to hours of wasted time, great frustration and dent any good will felt towards the manufacturer of the equipment. While perhaps unquantifiable, this is nevertheless undeniable. Just take a look at some of the reviews next time you are buying a piece of technology.
Perhaps the most valuable lesson I learnt from that ‘Use of English’ class was this. If a piece of writing doesn’t make sense, don’t immediately assume it’s because you are not clever enough to understand it. Think instead – is it me, or is it badly written? You will find that in many cases it’s the latter. The meaning hasn’t been made clear in the writing. Punctuation plays a large part here. The placing of a comma, for instance, can alter the entire meaning of a sentence.
To get back to the matter of technical instructions. Language is critical, but so is logic. In my experience, people who know a subject really well make an entirely unconscious assumption that everyone else does too. When I started to read ‘A Brief History of Time’ I was delighted that I appeared to understand it. At first. I can’t remember where I got lost but it was quite early on. Later I worked out the reason. It began well enough. A to B, B to C, C to D. Then suddenly we had jumped to J, K, L and another leap to Q and so on. The bits just didn’t link up; I couldn’t follow. As I result I gave up on a book that I had really wanted to read.
I gave up on my poor printer too. My attempts to recalibrate it were frustrated by the incomprehensible instructions. The words bore no relation to the images in front of me. The instructions for my new printer were not bad, but still left a great deal to be desired. If there is a choice between using the printer to set up or using the computer, why not say so? If you want me to return to a section later – and presumably it’s important as you are asking me to do it – why don’t you tell me how to get back to that page?
Since beginning this post I have spent a frustrating half hour trying to set up the ePrint function on the new printer. (Why I’m not sure because I doubt that I will ever need it.) It asked for my password. I entered it. It told me the password is wrong – or at least up popped a little cross, in red in case I am too dim to know what a cross means. After several futile attempts I wondered if perhaps I didn’t have an account after all (although in fact I do). So I tried to create a new account. Only to be told that my email address is already registered. So I attempted to change the password. Simple, you’d think. Not. I was directed to a completely different site, a commercial site that prints photographs. I do not want to use a commercial site that prints photographs. I have just bought a printer that does just that. Doh!
I’ve given up for now. Maybe for good. There’s no phone number so I can ask a helpful person for the information that should have been there from the start. Which account are you talking about? Do you mean the same one I always use for Hewlett Packard’s products? (There! I’ve said it.) If not that account, why don’t you tell me which one you are talking about? Why am I obliged to sign in to a totally random account that I don’t want in order to get a password for an account that I do want? Or might conceivably want in the future? Can you please direct me to your communications department? I would willingly accept the task of writing logical, fool proof instructions in clear English for you. Please ask them to get in touch. You can contact me via the contact page on my website. You won’t need a password.
“There’s an old story about the person who wished his computer were as easy to use as his telephone. That wish has come true, since I no longer know how to use my telephone.”
That’s quite a statement, coming as it does from Bjarne Soustrup, the man who invented the C++ programming language (whatever that is!) I sympathise. Two weeks ago I received my longed for and much coveted iPhone. I ordered it on a Thursday. It arrived on the Saturday. I couldn’t believe my luck. Sadly my luck soon ran out. For the past two weeks I’ve spent great clumps of time tearing my hair out, swearing loudly, banging things and startling the cat, which stomped off to its own home, next door.
A visit to the Apple Store in Covent Garden identified the problem, apparently caused by an incompatibility between Apple and my very ancient email (now operated by Virgin – why isn’t that a surprise!) Getting it sorted was a long and horribly frustrating experience, only made bearable by the helpfulness, cheerfulness and patience of the chaps at Apple.
I sighed a sigh of relief and prepared to use my shiny new phone. But when I called 02 I thought their call centre had been submerged in water. Then the phone kept cutting out (water in the wires?) All my family and friends appeared to be living underwater too. Another call to O2. It appears that the phone is probably faulty. So I’m off to Apple again.
This seemed a good time to find some quotes about computers, technology, phones and frustration. These all come from DevTopics – and there are many more than I can fit on here. Worth a visit.
Robert X. Cringely “If the automobile had followed the same development cycle as the computer, a Rolls-Royce would today cost $100, get a million miles per gallon, and explode once a year, killing everyone inside.”
Steve Wozniak “Never trust a computer you can’t throw out of a window.”
Jeff Pesis “Hardware: The parts of a computer system that can be kicked.”
Dave Barry “Microsoft has a new version out, Windows XP, which according to everybody is the ‘most reliable Windows ever.‘ To me, this is like saying that asparagus is ‘the most articulate vegetable ever.‘ “
Bumper sticker “We are Microsoft. Resistance Is Futile. You Will Be Assimilated.”
Rich Cook “Programmers are in a race with the Universe to create bigger and better idiot-proof programs, while the Universe is trying to create bigger and better idiots. So far the Universe is winning.”
Linus Torvalds “Software is like sex: It’s better when it’s free.”
Mark Minasi “If McDonalds were run like a software company, one out of every hundred Big Macs would give you food poisoning, and the response would be, ‘We’re sorry, here’s a coupon for two more.’ “
Paul Ehrlich “To err is human, but to really foul things up you need a computer.”
Mitch Radcliffe “A computer lets you make more mistakes faster than any invention in human history–with the possible exceptions of handguns and tequila.”
Dennie van Tassel “I’ve finally learned what ‘upward compatible’ means. It means we get to keep all our old mistakes.”
Bill Gates “Software suppliers are trying to make their software packages more ‘user-friendly’… Their best approach so far has been to take all the old brochures and stamp the words ‘user-friendly’ on the cover.”