Friday, 14 October 2011

Rant No.1 (I don't need this pressure on)

I destroyed my PC keyboard this morning, in the sense that I put it out of its misery. I picked it up and smashed it on the top of the monitor - keys everywhere.
Emma got it for me last Christmas because she was sick of looking at the stained and discoloured grey one I'd been using for years. Remember when all PCs used to be a sort of landing-craft grey? That's how old it was. But it worked Goddammit it worked!
The new one had been bugging me for a while - well, ever since Emma got it for me really, but it was a slick brushed steel effect wireless job so I stuck with it. And besides - Emma got it for me. But the keys were too close together and I was forever hitting the wrong ones. In particular I'd inadvertently hit the caps lock when I went for the A and since I caN'T TOUCH TYPE i'D NOT NOTICE UNTIL SEVERAL SENTENCES LATER. Like that. There's an Ebay thing you can go on called Fat Fingers where you can bid for things that have not sold owing to their posting having been miss-spelled. For example - anyone looking for, say, an aquarium will miss the fact that someone is trying to sell an aquaroium. You can find some real bargains apparently. Anyhow I resent the fact that they call it Fat Fingers. It's blatant discrimination against blokes like me with normal working man's fingers, and a refusal to accept the reality that we don't all have tiny tiny little girlie pin digits.
But that wasn't why I smashed it. I yelled at it for that but I didn't get violent. It was the fact that I couldn't log in sometimes that really began to get to me. Clearly it wasn't registering all my key strokes, but even that wasn't really it. What really did it was the message that came up. 'Did you forget your password?' it said. 'No' I fumed. 'I didn't. It's this bloody keyboard.'
Try again.
'Did you forget your password?'
'No I bloody didn't. Can you morons not countenance the possibility that it might be the technology that's at fault?'
'Did you forget your password? You're a bit stupid aren't you.'
'No I'm bloody not...'

The thing that really gets me about this is the fact that the Tekkies who design this stuff - who presumably wrote that little message to come up when the wrong password was entered, could not allow for the fact that the machine rather than the user might be at fault. I've come across engineers like this before. My father was one, which possibly explains the violent atavistic reaction. 'A bad workman always blames his tools' he'd intone, helpfully, whenever I failed to accomplish a simple practical task. OK sometimes it was me that was at fault, but not always. But what got to me was that he could not conceive of the possibility of Bad Tools. They are unthinkable to the Tekkie, and hence not an option.
And the old key board worked fine, for years. And we threw it away because it was a bit grubby (frankly it was unsanitary - it had food in it). Clearly it's not impossible to make a keyboard that works. Why can't they do it then, the Tekkies? It seems like lately I'm coming across a lot of things (kettles, car stereos, socks) that I know from personal experience it is quite possible to make so that they function perfectly for decades. It's not exactly cutting edge technology, and yet  for some reason they don't seem to be able to do it any more.
I used to drive an old Lada (it was given to me free). I used the radio and tape deck pretty much all the time because I drive better with a little gentle distraction on in the background. It stops The Deep Thoughts forming. It never let me down - the radio I mean, not the Lada (although that did remarkably well too considering its age.) It was simple and reliable. Likewise that of the old Ford Escort estate I had after that. A simple to use, reliable car stereo is something that's been well within our grasp for quite some time now.
More recently I've had an MG ZTT (I know, don't get me started) and now I have a SEAT. In the MG the radio constantly tried to re-tune itself whenever the signal went a little off. I was yelling at it 'Leave it alone! It's not going to get any better!' but no. Try try try again, every ten seconds. Even worse was the setting where, if the signal from the station I was listening was not quite perfect, it went and chose another, seemingly at random.
'Is the sound quality of In Our Time not totally pristine and perfect? Well here's a blast of ludicrous junk from one of the local commercial stations. We're sure you'll find that an adequate substitute.'
No I won't! Bloody leave it alone!
At least I found the setting for that 'feature' and managed to turn it off. If I recall you had to press TTP, bass and FM at the same time while whistling the Marseillaise.
And now the SEAT has some sort of setting where every time you start it up the volume goes down to almost nothing and the Air Con blasts you out, drowning out whatever tiny sound the radio might be emitting. I have to turn the one up and the other down every time I start the car. Maybe there's some sort of factory setting I can change to stop it doing all these things I don't want it to. Who knows? But why should I have to? It should be obvious. I shouldn't have to go and find the manual to stop it doing a lot of unnecessary crap! Simple and straightforward should be the default. Tekkies can't conceive apparently of not wanting to read the handbook from cover to cover, or memorise a whole lot of permutations of switches and knobs in order to get the thing just to do the basic thing it was designed to do.
Our stove is like this if you switch it off at the mains. When you switch it back on you have to reset the oven by pressing these two buttons simultaneously and then that other one, or it won't work. Why? Surely the default state for an oven, when you switch it on, is to be able to use it to cook things. You shouldn't have to remember the combination.
And then, to cap it off there's the volume control (we're back in the car now) which, if you're not ever so delicate adjusting it (whilst driving along mind) suddenly turns the volume down to, say, 5 instead of up to 20, and then back to 12. Why? I understand it's a certain sort of design of dial and I'm sure it must have seemed very clever at the time, but... why? What's the point? Did they even think about it? Who employs these people?
These things do not happen by accident, as unintended consequences of some other feature of the appliance. Someone somewhere in  the design department has looked at these idiotic proposals and gone 'An oven that won't come on until you press some random combination of buttons. That looks like a great idea!' or 'Of course, we know much better than the actual driver what settings the car stereo/ventilation system should be at!' They've made an executive decision to install these pointless settings. Why?

Two theories come readily to mind - one is that the Tekkies are incompetent. They just haven't done enough research or thought about it enough, or tested it properly. I think this is quite possible. We're so obsessed with everything being new and exciting these days we don't seem to ask ourselves any more - But does it work? Is it reliable? Or failing that, is it easily fixed? We just go 'Ooh! Shiny new gadget. Ooh!' (stroke, caress)
'Does it work?'
'No idea. But isn't it shiny. And new.' (stroke, caress...)
This points to a second, more sinister explanation, which is that they're doing it on purpose, because after all, who wants computer hardware that lasts more than eight months? Haven't you upgraded yet?
Nobody's going to complain, or not enough of us anyway. We just chuck it out and get a new one. Which I suppose is what I've done (borrowed one actually, although I will have to get a replacement eventually.)
But at least I'm angry about it. All this stuff going into landfill. All this money I'm wasting buying new stuff (DVD players - that's another one - and you can't even nudge the arm to make it move on when it's stuck. You can't do anything except chuck it out and buy a new one. We've had five I think, in the last six years. One was a Wharfedale too so apparently that name counts for nowt these days) Am I alone in liking having stuff around that's been with me for donkey's years, grimy and clunky though it might be? Workmanlike is what I call it. It does the job. But can you get the parts?
I have a third explanation. Contrary to a lot of the whining going on at the moment about the price of things, most things (Electrical goods, clothes, you name it) are massively cheaper than they were a couple of decades ago. As I recall, the actual price ticket on, for example a half decent pair of jeans (£30) or a mid range stereo (£150 - £200?) hasn't changed but the figure on my pay cheque has increased by an order of magnitude (as a gardener £30 a week then vs £400 now) Maybe the new stuff is cheap because it's rubbish. Maybe the good stuff, which I'm sure you can still get if you know where to look, is also an order of magnitude dearer.
I doubt it actually. That may be part of the explanation but I think they're just happy to sell us flashy sub-standard junk and frankly they're really not that bothered what we think about them. Who could you complain to anyway, even if you could find the receipt? Customer Services? Don't make me laugh.
A lot of people born in the last couple of decades I suspect don't even know what it's like to own something reliable and well-made that's been around for years. (Wasn't that something they had to do in the post-war make-do-and-mend austerity times?)
Chuck it out then. Buy a new one. It's good for the economy after all, even if not for the environment or our moral well-being.