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Despite the brainwashing that was once taught in our schools (no one’s sure what they teach now) the name of one Ned Ludd is synonymous with mindless machine wrecking. In my grumble for this week, I prefer to honor this man for his courage. Just reading about him causes something of a belly laugh because some authorities state that he never existed; others name him specifically and his name has become synonymous with an anti-technological view of life, hence the appellation “Luddite.”

I don’t propose to plumb the depths of history because if he didn’t exist it would be necessary to invent him. In some accounts, he was born in Anstey, Leicestershire (UK) in the 18th century and was either an idler or an idiot depending on who does the writing. In 1779 according to some histories, he smashed two knitting frames in either a “fit of passion,” or a direction from his father. Some say that he had been lashed for idleness while others described him as an idiot boy, but he holds a special place in the hearts of many who suffer from the rapid advance of technology and the anti-technological movement in England took the name Luddites to commemorate his acts. As Wikipedia kindly puts it the act of machine-smashing was to inspire his transformation from an 18th century common man into a 19th century proletarian hero.

The gentle reader of Tasmanian Times could be forgiven for asking why this particular article focuses on the perils of technology, not of the exotic variety but perhaps that that’s found in most homes. A few examples might explain: the cordless phone that can never be found; the remote control for various gadgets which works after you realize that the manual was originally written in Chinese by a Bolivian, translated into Hungarian and then to English by a journey man translator from Egypt. As someone who values simple explanations for operating any machinery, today’s manufacturers of what we used to call consumer durables, until they became less durable, have a great deal for which to answer. After spending huge sums of money on electronics from computers to TV sets, DVD drives and any range of small handheld devices, the instructions are by anyone’s standards quite woeful.

One example: I have a pocket watch of advanced technological design, purchased in Singapore but manufactured in Japan and for a change, it gives me something to talk about but I can’t use it because the instructions came from a small piece of paper of A 4-length but about 2 1/2 inches in width. On one side instructions are in Japanese together with illustrations and on other side, it resembles English but it is microscopically small and when I scanned it into my computer and expanded the size to the largest possible and even then, something must be missing because it’s easier to herd cats than change the time. Were it not for the fact that it is rather attractive, I would send it back with a blistering note about faulty English but time has passed and I’ve already returned one such timepiece because it didn’t work. So much for Japanese technology and quality control!

Not everybody is as silly as your wayward chronicler but get a group together and start talking about mobile telephones that have manuals which run to over 100 pages and are obsolete by the time you’ve managed to work out half of what is written and even my favorite brand is not immune from that criticism. I think we all know that mobile phones can be balky, drop in and out and eat electricity even with emergency battery packs. It so happens that Australia is very rich in lithium which should be used in batteries and would most certainly extend the life of mobile phones and any other battery driven gadget. We don’t seem to have entrepreneurs who recognize the worth and are prepared to take the risk. We are far more likely to export raw material overseas and buy it back processed or in a finished component. Think I’m joking? When you’re paying nearly $1.50 for a liter of gasoline (and those with diesel engines or those powered by LPG need not be so smug) you have to wonder what happened to Ralph Sarich and his Rotary engine. Australia is famous for developing good ideas and next to useless for producing them in a usable form. Mr. Sarich was forced to take his inventions overseas where the patents were bought out. After the first oil shock of the 1970s, lean burn technology was promised and never came and the Sarich engine was tried and tested in the UK and the US. In both countries the engine was placed in a small Ford and the police forces in a number of English cities were extremely impressed by the performance and the economy but when the trial was over, it never entered commercial production. However Wikipedia tells us that the orbital engine had technical difficulties which prevented production, surely news to UK police, and the patent was bought out by an oil company - what a surprise. Far better to encourage everybody to drive gas guzzling V-8 and V-6s and ensure that we were in thrall to the Middle East for oil. And a special thanks to John Howard, sometime Prime Minister of this country, who was responsible for us paying world parity prices for our own fuel.

“The SeaWing”

Back in the 1990s, there was the case of the Tasmanian designed and built ground effect craft, the SeaWing, which had numerous applications potential including military. The Mercury transposed a picture of it flying under the Tasman Bridge and the problem was getting sufficient financial backing. Somewhere the prototype is locked up and its day may yet come but if the SAS thought highly of it, what were our governments doing? No money for R&D in Australia, let alone Tasmania.

My particular bêtes-noire are usually remote controls for TV sets and the like. All those buttons and keys and if your eyesight isn’t at least 20/20, then using the damn thing is by guess and God rather than the manual which contains the usual Pinglish. It stands to reason that by the time I’ve mastered three remote controls for TV, DVD and Austar, everything has to change again. Somewhat unkindly, it has been suggested that I am technophobic when in fact the opposite is true. I love new and neat little things and mutter darkly about politicians being given them while we pay for them. If there was an allocation on the basis of need, I would be at the head of the queue.

Among the other essentials of life are reliable headphones for an iPod. I’ve invested a small fortune over the years and even the expensive ones have the same disease as the cheapest: the thin ties cord ties itself into knots and woe betide the person who finds his microphones “tidied up” because when the damn things get together, they attempt to weird mating ritual and become more intertwined than a bag of snakes. Inevitably, parts fray because they’re not intended to last very long and cannot be repaired. I happen to be browsing the Internet only the other day and a boy genius has invented a little card around which the dreaded cords can be wrapped. I wish him well but I don’t see the idea taking off. Sooner or later, there will be wireless earbuds for the users of iPods, iPads and inferior imitations thereof. If headphone technology in general is anything to go by, a wireless headset with a dongle to plug into your computer is every bit as effective and efficient as one with a lead. The latter have a nasty habit of trying to choke you, being singularly bad tempered and having too much length and the only way to control the writhing snake is to cheat with garden ties: trust me it causes less aggravation than some of the wraparounds that come with the headset.

If the electronics industry could be accused of planned obsolescence, it’s probably true but I can’t complain about color TVs and I bided my time until succumbing to the dreaded flat panel but it’s too late, we have about 64 channels and they all show crap. And while I’m on that particular subject, Channel 9, which is always finding new ways to tell us how much they love their viewers, has no weekend news in Tasmania. So we are subjected to what is euphemistically known as Channel 9 lite or as they prefer to call it WIN, an acronym for what incredible nonsense. The half-hour news service that runs to 18 min. and is so insubstantial that it reminds me of New Zealand toilet paper. Not that the ABC is much better because there’s no one at home over the weekend, one Saturday morning talkback has finished and if you telephone them, you find the call is answered in Sydney. Enough said perhaps but some of these little developments should be an object lesson to those who believe Tasmania should be part of Victoria. Those familiar with the dismal capital of the dismal state know better than to make suggestions of amalgamation in the columns of the Mercury. The prerequisite for that view is a frontal lobotomy and while there is some merit in Tasmania annexing Victoria and calling it northern Tasmania, who would want a burden like that? They give lessons in crime and corruption and violence that make Tasmania look like a garden paradise as it may have been once and before the developers moved in.

The rich and the famous are usually technophiles and want the newest and the latest in everything. Provided they have the money, I can’t see too much wrong with that especially if they can sleep after seeing the homeless and needy. I can’t claim that there’s a few items in my house which bear the little mark of personal indulgence but they are few. It is said of Elvis Presley that he had so much money that one room in his mansion had a wall made up of TV screens and usually had several stations playing at the same time. If there was one he didn’t like, a .357 Magnum took it out and I often wonder whether he claimed insurance for the damage.

” It has been pointed out to me that the people behind Harvey Norman are philanthropic, caring people. “

To the housebound, television may appear to be a godsend but experience proves otherwise. It is strictly for those who are tone deaf, unworried about the obscenity of interrupting advertising with programs and derive pleasure from watching people make fools of themselves on excruciatingly painful TV shows both domestic and imported. In days gone by, when the program was described as a series it usually meant at least eight episodes but now it’s down to four and two programs comprise a miniseries. If you remove two small letters from the last word you can get a fair description of what some of these amount to even at their best. It has been pointed out to me that the people behind Harvey Norman are philanthropic, caring people. That sits ill at ease with the blaring advertising which is enough to turn anybody off and I wish they would go and soon. The genius behind their advertisements has struck the right balance of excruciating noise, caterwauling sounds and frequent irritation to provide the family GP with many cases of advertisement fatigue, typified by glassy eyed people wandering around singing advertising jingles. The associated condition is advertitis where a person’s vocabulary is limited to what is absorbed during TV watching. The lesson is that it doesn’t matter how many channels you have, the moguls cater to the lowest common denominator and my TV watching averages less than one hour per day each week, unless there is something particularly interesting.

My view is that we need to invoke the spirit of the real Ned Ludd and not break machines because they are machines, only when they serve no useful function. It’s easy to see why ABC-TV has canceled The Collectors, which had a distinct change in culture and dealt with far too many obsessive-compulsive types who collected matchboxes or bottles and who could forget that wonderful person who collected electric jugs.

On a more sombre note, while certain Australian politicians rush around screaming about carbon footprints, having successfully morphed global warming into climate change and are now convincing us that far too much carbon dioxide is around, the ever vigilant Australian media has not seen the change in attitude overseas and the number of scientists who are concerned about massive global cooling. This brings me back to nice little electronic gadgets and you would be truly surprised at the number of things that we take for granted which have computer chips in them. According to a report aired by the BBC, there are signs that the Maunder minimum is upon us and soon we can expect large sunspots and solar flares which could cause havoc with communications satellites and even fry our little chips. I’m certainly glad I don’t need a pacemaker at present.

Lastly, I want to make a plea on behalf of the disabled who are unable to use computer keyboards. There is a fortune to be made in a good reliable speech to text software system and no one has yet managed to market the goose that lays the golden egg. With an aging population and the problems associated with growing old such as arthritis, such technology would be a boon provided the sunspots don’t get it.