Cui bono?

honor hominesque honesti floreant

Month: October, 2017

Traffic of effluence

 Please note: the next issue of this journal (re-named) is scheduled for mid-month, 16-11-2017.

More news from the redoubtable Monty Skew (one of the best-informed men in London) though he explains that with things increasingly fraught over there it is not the right time to offer this journal another of his scintillating appraisals.  However with his permission I quote the following. from his message.   

Some of the proposals in the now infamous little black books circulating in the corridors of powerlessness, inciting suggestions to be posted anonymously on what to do as national bankruptcy bears down, border  on the imaginative even if many are physiologically impossible .  You will understand I cannot go into e-mailed details at present, though as the government’s ‘authority’ slides ever further past the S-bend I may take the chance in a month or so, or after a prime ministerial resignation, whichever is the sooner.  But I happened to see Hunt (a.k.a ‘the man with the predictable nickname’) striding along Whitehall a couple of days ago bouncing as usual over impediments whether they were there or not.  I put his jaunty air down to his innate ebullience which as you know has often had major obstacles cowering behind their stethoscopes, but it is rumoured that he has a plan.  He is going to solve the NHS crises at a stroke, in effect by abolishing patients, or at least eliminating the surplus of patients over and above the quantity which the NHS can handle while remaining true to its admirable principles of free treatment of those in need (provided of course that they provide satisfactory evidence of holding British nationality.)  His plan has the simplicity of genius, and can be summed up as ‘one-out, one-in’.   It will hold good both for GP surgeries and NHS hospitals.  For instance if a would-be patient arrives at an A&E entry point when that ‘facility’ has already reached its manageable quota of patients he or she must wait their turn until another patient emerges, discharged (or possibly thrown out in the case of troublesome characters), thus keeping pressure on the dedicated staff inside to the level deemed acceptable by the authorities.  Among the scheme’s  other advantages it is anticipated that local businesses could establish ‘extramural’ amenities, manned by volunteers, providing refreshments and other services for those waiting outside, thus developing an additional revenue stream for hospitals…

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Commentary. Kevin De Wong (Thessaloniki): In grandfather’s time the reasons for wanting to buy a car if you could were obvious.  Today, the fact that most city inhabitants still want one more car than their household already owns is striking evidence that societies change collective ideas (such as  hereditary enmity for at least one other nation) infinitely more slowly than the well-known supertanker can change direction.fn   It is obvious by now to all except most of the world’s urban population that the urge to buy a motor vehicle is not merely a major factor boosting GDP (as desired by governments) and personal debt (as ignored by citizens), but also good evidence of mental disorder (partly induced by raised levels of toxins in the bloodstream through living in a fog of air pollution).  Victims cannot form realistic estimates of (1) total cost of acquisition, including ‘optional extras’ e.g. spare tyre, licence fees, insurance costs, ‘special low-cost’ introductory membership of ‘prestigious’ car owners’ club, costs of celebratory night out ‘to give our new car a run’; (2) maintenance costs (continuing licence fees, continuing insurance, replacement tyres, visits to Auntie Maud ‘now we’ve got the car’, servicing, repairs, congestion charges, rapidly rising fees for membership of prestigious car owners’ club, penalties for traffic offences, cost of release from clamped vehicle pounds, medical expenses (after road rage incidents), costs of visits to distant prisons (in case of serious traffic offences); and (3) damage to mental health and family stability from everything covered by the above eighteen headings, plus worry about theft of vehicle or contents or parts, plus associated paperwork, demanded by ‘authorities’, all multiplied by incorrectly prepared paperwork to or from aforesaid ‘authorities’.  This leads to the dawning realisation, while stuck in the daily traffic jam, that changes in travel time were substantial, as anticipated, but negative.  You have here more than one ordinary problem with less than one realistic solution (short of extinction of the human race).  All this could be a serious drag on motor car sales.  But once it’s decided that the big problem with cars is the pollution then the obvious answer is to junk the polluting cars, speed to the showrooms, and shell out for an electric vehicle.  The manufacturers regretfully point out these will inevitably cost considerably more than corresponding vehicles currently marketed – but, you see, the big advantage is they are green (like many drivers) and emit zero pollution (unlike the power stations which produce the electricity.)  Somehow, though, I still have questions, such as who is going to generate the electricity, and how, and how much are they going to charge whom for it?  (Outsourcing production to, let’s say, Kalgovia where they have excellent coal-fired power stations does not necessarily lead to cheaper power in the UK.)  Moreover, at present the millions of transactions that keep society going depend on tens of thousands of people making individual journeys as required, not on a giant network vulnerable to lightning strikes at crucial points, or sabotage, or a solar flare, or machinations of some enemy state doing things on the internet that decent honest nations like our own never dream of doing (Ed: Why not?  Surely it’s their duty to get in first?).  If you want an example of how things are when a nationwide network fails, just look at Porto Rico many weeks now after the hurricane.  But let’s be fair.  (Editor’s note: Why?)  Let’s have that campaign to reduce air pollution, ban all petrol and diesel vehicles. Everything will now be hunky-dory, right?  Well, my careful  observations over the years reveal that when official action to deal with a problem finally rises from its comfortable armchair and sets to work there are just three possible outcomes: (1) progress, but not enough (though the consultants do pretty well);  (2) the problem gets worse;  (3) the problem is solved, but another one rises up in its place.  (Think ‘cane toad’.)  Meanwhile look carefully and you’ll see that we have failed to deal with any of the twenty-one car ownership headaches listed above.  (And I’d be prepared to bet air pollution is far from beaten.)  But now it becomes clear that what you really need to get to grips with is traffic congestion, too many people in cars in too little space.  Certainly, human beings tend to congregate in large groups, but it’s bizarre to assume that a city centre crowd exists because those in it set off that morning to be part of a crowd.  Some may have similar purposes, but that’s utterly different from having crowd membership as your goal.  Writers have long declared the human to be a social animal.  They should get out of the study and down to the beach.  Even on a busy day, the humans almost never aggregate into large groups.  They form parties of between two and about fifteen, normally well separated. (Compare the chimp; contrast the sea lion.)  In large herds humans have always been dangerous for other beasts (think ‘megafauna extinctions’, not to mention the dodo, et al, et al) and indeed for other humans.  (Cue photographs ad lib of close-combat warfare intercut with gigantic military parades.)  Even if large numbers do gather for a common purpose – a football match, perhaps – before long they find something to disagree about  (the fundamental flaw of the much vaunted parliamentary system).  Disagreement leads to quarrels, which given enough time and numbers end in war.  This age-old hostility to groups of ‘others’ is galvanised when thousands of motorists drive to the city for their separate purposes in cars sold to them as offering bird-like freedom, and find themselves blocked by the sheer numbers of other motor vehicles.  They slowly inch along past the overpriced idiocies of the consumerist state, not even allowed to simply leave their car and proceed on foot.  When at last they reach their destination, if they ever do, friends to be met have given up and left, all tickets to be bought have been sold, all restaurant tables are fully booked.  And as it gets dark muggers re-appear in the side alleys.

fn In the equally well-known and equally fatuous analogy the supertanker displaces a volume of seawater equivalent to ‘about 42,638,016½  Olympic swimming pools’.

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We were onto this years ago.  From this outlet in an earlier format (‘Esmond Maguire’, isbn 978-616-90476-1-2 publ.2010 :

        Wouldn’t it be splendid if we could replace all the traffic in our cities by human beings moving about under their own steam?  ‘Aha,’ you cry ‘there is no obstacle of principle as things are now; look at the cyclists.  The reason it doesn’t happen’  you continue, ‘is because most people aren’t idiots enough to do it.’  But the reason they don’t want to do it is that all the other traffic is still there.  What if everybody was moving about completely unmotorised?  To which you are no doubt already objecting that this is ridiculous since journey times would be preposterously slow.  Ah, but would they?

        I have been reading ‘A complete history of the stilt’ put out by some professor working in his candle-lit cell, and it seems that while we think of stilts nowadays as just a turn in the circus, in the past they have been worn in all seriousness for practical use in many countries.  For instance, in the cold winters in the 1700s the Swedes used them with snowshoe attachments to cross country covered with lots of snowdrifts.  And in the Landes region of France right up to the 1950s the peasants used to travel about on stilts a yard and more high (the book has photographs to prove it), and the really good part is they were able to move as fast as a cantering horse (and without the associated smell) –  a damn sight faster than you can get round the centre of most cities these days.  Don’t forget, with all the motorised traffic out of the way you have the whole width of the road to play with.  Picture to yourself Oxford Street packed wall to wall with nine-foot high pedestrians whizzing up one side and down the other!  No disgusting air pollution and a wonderful attraction for tourists.

      I grant you would need somebody keeping things in order.  Stilted police!  Trained within an inch of their lives till they can do the tango on stilts, and there’s no reason why the unit should only consist of men. Think of it – ‘The police specialist stilt-mounted company presents an evening of tango at Covent Garden’ and what that would do for relations between the public and the police!  And during duty hours they’ll be mounted on stilts a foot longer than anyone else, to give them a view over the crowds and an extra burst of speed.  I’m going to send you the designs.

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Tech note: At present lie detection by machines using electronic sensors is not as reliable as facial and kinesthetic diagnosis by experienced humans, which averages about 75%.  But reports suggest the latter may soon be combined with fresh advances in the first method.  Interesting questions may then arise when it is applied to people featured in historical newsreels, or – why not? –  up-to-date newsreels from the USA.

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This journal has a fine record with predictions.  You may soon have a chance to see its current form, starting from this pair, published 14-12-2015:

Prediction of the week: When the Fed puts up interest rates, banks and bankers will become much richer; with rare exceptions, everyone else will become poorer

Guess of the week: When that happens, economic commentators will describe it as ‘baffling’ and ‘unexpected’.

 

Supplement

Renaming issue deferred to 31-10-2017

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I believe I belong to a minority group.  I found a message from Microsoft on my computer saying my version of Windows was not genuine so I sat in front of my computer, debit card ready to buy a genuine  version.  I’m told this is not altogether usual in the country where I live..  After 30+ minutes, I gave up, unable to find comprehensible instructions on how to do it..  This scenario has since been repeated three times except the time wasted was longer.  The reasons seem related to the difficulties of Rosa (whose letter was mentioned in the posting submitted 30th September), so I’ll start by quoting her account of one bad session.  Rosa is not stupid.  (She got a first, in psychology, in the days when a first was a first.)  But for twenty years she had hardly even seen a computer, helping her husband run a mountain farm in Wales.  A year ago the marriage ended.  On getting divorced she moved to remotest Australia (on a fifteen-month contract to study ‘Coriolis effects in sand dune formation’).  Friends assured her that thanks to modern computer communication and the social media she’d still be close to her social circle and in regular contact through the computer which she was allocated for her reports on latest developments in sand dunes.  Those friends were wrong.  Rosa now is close to a serious nervous breakdown.  After an interview which ‘went wrong’ she was invited to check in to a facility in Ceduna.  Her biggest problem is not the isolation, nor the temperatures, nor the behaviour of the neighbours, nor even alarming beasts in the natural environment. She is ‘on the edge’ because of computerese. Her own  description of one recent episode, the only time, she says, she managed to make herself take notes after a battle with the electronic alien:

I turned the ****** thing on and straight away this message came up.  It said ‘Email hack: Hyperlink your selected text  by pressing [Ctrl+K] then posting a link’.  So someone’s been hacking my e-mail (?).  But has that left a virus in the bloody machine?  This Hyperlink is a way to wipe out that virus? If it’s not for that, what is it?  But that doesn’t tell me what selected text I have to do something to (nor how to do it either).  Anyway that’s crap because I haven’t even got any text to be selected, because I haven’t even been able to get started yet.  Or is this how to get started?  Or is it just an option?  If it is and I try it what happens?  If I don’t do anything, will it just start in normal mode, and how long would I have to wait.  Anyway whats the difference between a hyperlink and an ordinary link?  I guess it must be a way of joining two – whats?  And what sort of join?  Suppose I find a way to ‘hyperlink’ something and do it and don’t like the result can I change it?  Will I be prosecuted if something I do interferes with somebody else’s files?  Also, how do you post a link (if you have worked out what that is); is ordinary post alright or does it have to be e-mail (or does it have to not be e-mail?  Also who would you post it to?  No clue.  Just guessing, I think a link must be an address like you put in that bar at the top but am I supposed to find it, or invent it?  If ‘find it’, where?  (And in that case how can I post it?)  Or do I have to invent it?  ******** ******

I don’t claim to have had so much trouble, but have had plenty of chances to make notes of my own on the war between human and computer over the years.  (E.g. 1-13 below.)  I’ve been writing (under various names) and editing books since 1990, always using computers (and standard English, and by the way my career included three years leading a major semantics course in one of the world’s leading universities).  Over the years I have watched, amazed, the inability of the average computer, despite all its vaunted computational intelligence, to reach halfway decent understandability in natural English, the language most widely attempted around the world.  This is no clash between two different languages.  Computerese is not a language, but what is properly called a jargon, based on existing language but with a high proportion of words for items or processes or relations belonging to a field of special activities, which express ideas or items which didn’t exist before those special activities started.  Sharing the new words makes their users feel part of a special group superior to people who don’t know them.(a little like Russian aristocrats speaking French before 1917) (and cf Linux).  All this is more or less normally human.  However, ‘computer stuff’ has got so big so fast affecting so many aspects of normal life, that many people want, and some need, to know how to play with these meanings (and perhaps do profitable business with them).  This is where things get awkward.  There are various reasons why potential customers may not understand the new items.  (1) They may be too stupid to understand the processes or items they refer to.  (Explanation popular with some geeks.)  (2) Because the field has got so big so fast specialists on different sites may use quite different words for essentially the same thing.  Or (obviously less often) the converse. Those two factors apply whether you are borrowing or inventing new terms.  But don’t leave it to the users to guess.  Don’t forget the default assumption of most readers will be that the word means what it looks like in ordinary English.  E.g. I’m wondering if Microsoft thinks ‘resolve’ means ‘pay’.  This is not its normal use in normal English.  (3) Much that appears on screen has to be made as short as possible.  Don’t overdo it.

Suggestions to offer your computer programmer with TLC: whether borrowing from existing language or inventing, don’t try too hard to sound impressive, or cutesy; try not to borrow from a local slang or dialect (e.g. econospeak) which may be unknown to 80% of your potential customers. (Remember the nation with the largest number of fluent English speakers is India with 400 million and still counting.)  Don’t abbreviate beyond intelligibility (an issue which interacts hugely with the others)Try to stay in touch with real language well written.  (Jane Austen would actually be more use than certain exhibitionist smart-arse modern novelists.)

            None of all this matters too much if those in difficulty can get help, which can all too seldom be done through computer help files.  But it’s often quite easy if you can add human help.  (I’ve attended eight computer courses since 1990; every time the only useful aspect was that I was able to put specific questions to experts face-to-face and get comprehensible answers.)  To be fair to computers which have recently left me baffled, my own case is unusual.  I moved some years ago to a city in a country with a good supply of people prepared to do computer business, a smaller proportion who can do so with competence, and a great shortage of people able to explain clearly what they are doing in language that I can understand.)

1]  Back in the early days it started with quite simple attempts by Computers and their  programmes to unhorse greenhorn computer users.  E.g. Computer: ‘Disable BIOS memory’.  Self: ‘Why? What is it? How can it be disabled? What happens if it doesn’t get disabled?’  Etc.  Later things got more serious.

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2]  Computer: ‘an event was unable to involve any of the subscribers’ (re attempt to download incoming file.).  Self: ‘What was that ‘event’?  Why wasn’t I invited, or if I was why didn’t I receive the invitation?  Is my computer going to do anything about it?   ‘Why should I care if those subscribers stayed stumm?  Who are they anyway?  How much do they pay and what do they get in return?  Is it legal?

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3]  There seem to be many recondite possibilities after clicking a ‘Contact us’ lozenge on the site of a popular operating system.  Finding yourself in an unproductive repeating loop is one, and encountering what seems surreal irrelevance is another.  Two examples of the latter (and I am not making these up):

     A} ‘The preceding expression [sic, no expression visible on screen] assigns ranks 1 through 4 to four different titles, and assigns rank 5 to all others.  When you perform the sort [what sort?], assume that the Employees table [?] refers to more than 50 different’

            Message apparently cut short there

     B}  ‘Please do not read this sentence.  Please ignore the previous sentence’  [sic as given here]

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4]  Computer: ‘Do you want to save this file?’ Self clicks to say ‘yes’.  Result: steady black information-free screen, no indication as to what, if anything, to do next.  Perhaps part of an early attempt at a zen operating system?

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5]  Incoming message after expected progression fails: ‘Audit your server permissions’

            Reaction level (1) Why?

            Reaction level (2) How?  and Who/What?  I.e. Who is my server?  How do I find her, him or it?  And, if I can find them, would those be his, her, or its permissions to my computer to do things, or for persons or programmes unknown to do things to my computer?  What do I do if it, she or he refuses to play ball and negotiate about the distribution of permissions?  Residual worry, since ‘Audit’ seems unlikely to mean ‘audit’ in any sense hitherto known to the English language (we are after all dealing with computer ‘science’ – some might say ‘the secret code system of a private dialect only distantly related to English’) the same probably goes for ‘permissions’.  What might that mean?  Payment of subscription?   Passwords for locked files?  Anti-virus security measures?

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6]  After printing a good deal of material, and having changed neither the equipment nor the configuration , Self is informed by the computer that it had no driver for the printer being used.  Computer reported Windows online as declaring that it could not find a compatible driver.  On the website of the printer’s manufacturer Self found the driver needed.   Then tried to return to the document to be printed.  Programme now slammed in Self’s face, giving message ‘locked for use by another user’  (Other user non-existent.) Yet Self somehow succeeded in returning to document, tried to print it.  Failure. Printer still marked ‘no driver’.

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7]  Self asks Computer to uninstall a programme; Computer silently declines; instead updates a different programme

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8]  Computer: ‘the procedure entry point GetLogicalProcessorInformation could not be located in the dynamic link library’.  Self, thinking:  What is a link library?  What makes it dynamic (if it really is)?  What is a procedure entry point (maybe just an entry point?)  If Computer cannot get in that way why doesn’t  it try a different entry point?  (To Computer) Why were you trying to go there anyway?  (Suspicion that something here is not as dynamic as it’s cracked up to be.)

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9]  Message from anti-virus site:  ‘Choose the program you want to open this file’ {14 to choose from;  Self has no idea which of them might work, which should be avoided like the plague, and what in any case might happen next.  No instructions or help offered.}  Perhaps by chance the choice succeeds, produces message ‘Instructions on how to proceed by e-mail.’  E-mail from the site does indeed arrive but consists solely of two (why?) copies of the last receipt for money paid to the company.

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10]  On trying to open a dowload, presented with choice between ‘Open Inside’ and ‘ Open Outside’  No indication of whether one choice is ‘right’ and the other ‘wrong’.  No indication  of ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ relative to what.  Nor of benefits or penalties imposed by Computer depending on choice made.

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11]  Computer informs Self it is to undertake programme compatibility procedure.  This is only slightly irritating – if  a conductor says he must check everyone’s ticket before the train sets off for  the next station you may sigh but accept..  (But Self got no reason why it might be needed.)  Trouble sets in at next step, with arrival of message ‘The program requires additional permissions’.  To do what?  From whom?  How does one get permissions?

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12]  From Microsoft: ‘Move this window onto the display you want to calibrate’  Easy to understand –  if you already know what it means.  This tends to keep expertise satisfactorily in-house.  (Presumably it spreads from to person by direct demonstration of what is actually done, these words being mere verbal accompaniment,.like background music in a film.  But if you don’t happen to have a competent and comprehensible demonstrator within hailing distance it’s as meaningful as  e.g. ‘Trace the foreside onto the pattern by disconnecting  the interstices.’

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13]  Presumably this bit got put in as light relief in the battle against the ‘outsiders’ still resisting on the human side of the human/computer war.  Message on screen: ‘cannot open this document’.  Waited uncertain what to do next for about 40 seconds.  Then, (probably giggling to itself ‘Only joking’) it opened spontaneously with no additional move or input.

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Thirteen seems about the right number of examples to offer in this sort of context.  But on account of its elegant artistry let’s throw in this finely crafted sequence:

(0) ‘Computer is not secure – you have a problem’

(1) ‘To fix the problem you should update now’

(2) Self clicks to update

(3) Computer:‘No updates possible’  (And a sound like stifled mocking laughter)