by ammophila

Renaming issue deferred to 31-10-2017


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.


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?


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]


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?


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?


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’.


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


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.)


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.


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.


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?


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.’


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.


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)