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Stupid Software Tricks April 10, 2012

Posted by johnhemry in Uncategorized.

How many times have you seen a science fiction story in which the human characters discover a piece of alien technology and within a few minutes figure out how it works?

When was the last time you actually encountered a new piece of software, allegedly designed by humans for use by humans, and were able to figure out how it worked within a few minutes?  Or a few hours?  Or days?

One of the things SF rarely gets right is how ridiculously and unnecessarily complicated software often is in the real world (especially the software labeled “intuitive” which is your primary clue that it will require months to learn how to use basic functions).  I recently encountered a prime example of this when I was trying to figure out how to turn on closed captions for my TV.  After much effort and research, I finally discovered the answer – in order to turn on the closed captioning feature, you need to use a menu which you can only access if you press the “menu” button on the cable remote while the TV is on and the cable box is turned OFF.

If you ever need to define “Counter-Intuitive” you now have a perfect example.  Access the menu while the box is turned off.  Who thought of that?  Who thought of it and thought it was a Good Idea?  Is this stuff actually written by humans, or have aliens already secretly taken over and are writing software that matches their own mysterious ways of thinking?


1. bridell - April 10, 2012

Logic should be a constant you’d think. Like mathematics, having a universal formula. In a way reason and logic do work like that, in practice logic varies on individual basis. Because of course everything the person knows, has learned including all of his experiences define what he sees as logical. So naturally culture plays a major part in logic. Perhaps that’s why we all come across these various illogical operation systems. What’s intuitive and logical for one is the most ill-designed piece of explicit to another.

So I have to agree with you on the question of understanding alien technology. No shared references so on what basis could we possibly have any understanding. What logic? No I think we would have to resort to trial and error and hope we wouldn’t blow ourselves up in the process.

johnhemry - April 14, 2012

Very good points. One of the things I have to watch in writing is to avoid assuming that the readers know everything that I know. It’s an easy trap to fall into. “I don’t need to explain this because I know all about it.” I usually find a number of places in any story where I have to put in the stuff needed to understand what’s happening and/or why. Same problem with assuming a shared reference.

2. Thomas Bätzler - April 11, 2012

So you’d expect alien VCRs to have blinking time displays, too? 😉
I’d say the biggest problem with using alien technology would not be a convoluted control design, but rather the alien control philosophy.
Think Star Trek IV with Scotty trying to talk to the computer for instance.

johnhemry - April 14, 2012

I remember watching that scene in Star Trek IV and thinking “if he’s used to interacting with a computer by talking, how does know how to type at all?” Let alone type faster than a professional typist (or which there are a dwindling number today). But, yes, how do you make it do what you want it to do? Some sort of reverse engineering might be needed, if we can figure out the engineering being used. (Speaking of reverse engineering, the animated series Phineas and Ferb had an entire episode devoted to that, along with a musical number about “How do it do what it do?”)

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