Thursday, May 17, 2012


I appreciate the modern conveniences bought about by the technological advances in my lifetime. Take the computers this is being written on by me and read on by you. This computer I am using is a Hewlett-Packard DV9700 Pavilion that I have been using on a daily basis since the summer of 2008. This blog was begun on this very machine. Just a little (semi-obsolete) laptop.

But this little lap-top puts at my fingertips more and faster computer power than the room full of refrigerator sized crew served machines - running spools of punch tape and sitting on perforated metal tiles so as to be cooled by a constant flow of chilled, filtered air - that were prevalent even to the mid-1980s. And unless you are one of the guys at the National Security Agency or the Russian, Chinese, Iranian, or North Korean intelligence services who read this thing in the mistaken belief there might be something of value in here, your computer is probably something similar to what I have.

Cell phones have gotten so ridiculously tiny that sometimes I need to get someone to call mine to find where in the clutter on this desk it has gotten buried in.

All the money you have, plus your complete personal history and more can be stored in a little strip of magnetic tape on a card that fits in your wallet with all the rest of the cards that "they" are constantly trying to sell us on to order our lives around (and this, though it may be "convenient" is even more convenient if ever used to track and control you, and this is an insidious threat to liberty indeed; but I digress..)

There has been for some time a push to provide every student from middle school on up with a lap-top computer. Why this should be in the face of the fact that the self I was when I was sixteen could sit in today's classroom and be appalled at the relative ignorance of today's kids I don't know.

It has been my belief for some time that before a schoolkid is issued a computer, he or she should FIRST be taught TO COMPUTE! Just as I believe no adolescent should be allowed to drive without first learning to drive with a manual transmission, so I believe that no school kid should have a computer before he or she has learned how to work a slide rule. (And yes, smartass, I DO think learning how to work problems on an abacus would be a good thing, and in and of itself for its own sake into the bargain!)

You see, computers are great until the lights go out. Batteries only last so long. Then you need smarts that aren't locked up in some data base or program.

I would wager that if you put twenty American guys of average to high intelligence between 35 and 60 years of age into an isolated area which contained iron ore, coal, oil, sand, and other raw materials plus adequate supplies of game and wild plants and fish for food and a good supply of timber for building and flint or obsidian for primitive tool making; but otherwise only a supply of clothing suitable to shield them from the elements; and starting on March 1st they would be tasked with building a small factory which could turn out uniform nuts and bolts which were fully interchangeable and powered by a steam engine, that team would be able to accomplish the thing by Halloween, and possibly have a rudimentary internal-combustion engine to boot. The first thing they would make would be a primitive lathe, operated by treadle and using flint shapers to fashion the wheels and spindles of a multipurpose water and/or wind powered mill. Brick-making kilns would yield the makings of ore-smelting facilities, facilitating heavier and better tools the better to make more and better tools, etcetera. From the stone age to the Industrial Revolution in seven months.

Task the same thing to a bunch of average 18 to 30 year olds, and they'd be lost without Wikipedia and they'd quit halfway through summer because they were bored without being able to play "Angry Birds".

Today I have personally seen the results of an overdependence on technology. The taxicab company I drive with has for the last decade been gearing its dispatch operations to be automatically driven by mobile computer terminals. The person actually operating the dispatcher's chair did not need to allot work assignments to the cabs by voice in an orderly and equitable manner, as this was done by the impartial and rapid machinations of a computer program.

Voice communications over the radio to a group of people, trying to coordinate them in an effort to service the needs of another group of people, is a very demanding job. There is a specific set of procedures, with a long history in the taxicab industry, of dispatching a service call and handling various problems that may crop up.  There are things called "prowords" - words or phrases used to condense song-and-dance explanations or requests that in normal conversation would take paragraphs (and time) and condense them into clear, conscise, and brief and effective constructions. (Example: instead of "I understood that you said go to Flat street, but I didn't understand the address or who you said I should ask for" one should say "Say again, all after Flat street".)

However, so confident were the folks who run the cab company that this computer dispatch system represented the wave of the future that they did not bother to teach the time-honored voice bidding system or the pro-words or any other vestige of voice radio discipline either to the dispatch staff nor to the drivers.

Yesterday it was announced that the computer system was being upgraded and dispatch would be by voice for about thirty minutes. This must have been some upgrade, because there has been no computer dispatch for more than 24 hours as I write this, and as almost no one on staff has the necessary experience  or even know-how to dispatch a fleet of over 250 cabs by voice, IT HAS BEEN A FRICKIN' NIGHTMARE!

As I rubbed my temples after I'd decided to say "screw it" and knock off for the day, I started thinking about what we would do without all this marvelous technology to do all our thinking for us, and came up withthe inspiration to write this post. I hope SOMEBODY is amused, informed, or entertained by what I have written here. At least then I will have accomplished something today.

(And ironically, I couldn't have done it without that @#$!^%& technology.)    

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