Wednesday, December 19, 2007

O radix Jesse - misfitting technology

Tredegarville School held its big carol service this morning in St German's Church. It's a vast imposingly beautiful building, able to take an amazingly tall Christmas tree without it seeming disproportionately large. Fortunately the microphone used by the children worked well enough to allow their specially written Christmas narrative to be heard, with all their different accents, and pace of speech to remind us of the diversity of their homes and backgrounds,

It's a real worry arranging events with people who may not be accustomed to using a particular church PA system, to ensure speakers can be heard well throughout the building, whether its great or small in size. These days, most churches rely on valiant volunteers. It's not the same as the old time caretaker or Verger who can double up as a technician, a security officer, handyman and switch roles if needed when things to wrong. It's dreadful when a microphone battery dies during an important moment with a church full of visitors. I know a single-handed country priest with four churches who never leaves home without spare batteries, a biro or matches - just in case.

We have a recurrent problem with central heating at St John's at the moment. Everything works perfectly. The problem is that the radio linked thermostat has a timer with such an esoteric programme of settings that nobody reading the manual and then playing with it can remember for long how they got it right if they did. We go through periods when it works fine as it should, then one of its four obscurely labelled buttons gets touched accidentally so that next time someone goes to manually adjust the temperature they end up doing the unintended, and plunging the building into ice age for half a day, instead of keeping the temperature at a stable moderate 14-15 degrees. It's just too complex by far for the intended purpose. So frustrating.

It's like the computers you buy off the shelf in the big electrical commodity chain stores. They contain so much stuff you never use, and nags or ruses to persuade you that you should use stuff you don't need or want. Known by techies as bloatware or crapware, a new computer loaded with this stuff can be a time wasting nightmare to set up and make fit for purpose. The companies which make so many of these useful add-ons give financial incentives to the computer manufacturers to use their products. This means the commodity can either be sold cheaper, or at an improved profit margin. For the consumer it means time wasted getting started.

Pauline bought a new HP laptop this week to use for tea room accounts, having put it off for months because of the time swallowed up getting started, which she can't find in her busy life. I offered to 'commission' the new machine for her, as I did her desktop machine eighteen months ago. So she trusted me to strip out the useless and confusing software and deliver it to her ready to use. It took me just a couple of hours of machine minding while doing another job, and a brief visit to her place to register the wireless modem password settings, and install a printer or two.

So she's now got a working Vista laptop with all its bells and whistles in the name of security. A fresh install of Ubuntu Linux on her machine would have taken only half an hour to have given her a system fit for purpose. But persuading her to do this and showing her how it worked would have taken more time than either of us has to spare. How much time and energy is wasted by people getting their expensive commodity items to work the way they want them to? One day we'll have have kit that just works out of the box - like Macs do - did I hear anyone say?

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