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We all have to tolerate a kind of messy “cultural evolution”, which sometimes produces less than ideal results. Without being presented with possible alternatives, we end up with "the way the world is"! This collection of examples, which might be termed “interfaces”, occasionally presents some alternatives to consider: the way the world could be! The following is a ramble through a selection that I have tripped over, or bumped into, along my ever- winding road.
Over many years, like some lunatic who picks up old bus tickets, or who pockets used cigarette packs, I have been collecting cultural oddities that I feel could do with some improvement. As they sporadically appear, I stow them in a big fat file: “The Insanity File”! As you tramp the road with me, you will get a better idea of what I mean by these “interfaces”. When considering how they are used, I have in mind, the average user: ME! I am not thinking of the expert, who may well have spent even more years, (than this compendium took to assemble), lessening the interference the various interfaces cause, between what we wish to achieve, and how to accomplish it.
I’ll start with language, which is a mental interface. It is the device or method I use to express my thoughts, and the filter by which I understand your thoughts. We can all cite some ridiculous examples of language, but to give a mundane one: why don’t all plurals in English work just by adding an ‘s’ to the singular form? Studying the history of a language (its etymology) will provide answers. And how about how words are spelled? Same answer!
Bernard Shaw’s assertion that “if we don’t spell the way we speak, we will soon be speaking the way we spell” may eventually come true. I think that he may have forgotten the role accents play in determining speech, since the same spelling can and is, sounded in different ways, leading to more confusion. In British English, B-U-O-Y is pronounced BOY, not BOOEE. Bernard Shaw was able to demonstrate that the word, FISH, could be spelled as G-H-O-T-I… ‘GH’ from ‘rouGH’, ‘O’ from ‘wOmen’, and ‘TI’ from ‘staTIon’. What fun there is to be had at the expense of these idiosyncrasies!
Jumping from the mental to the physical, here’s a different interface. The spade that Irishman, Bernard Shaw, might have used when digging his potatoes, is a very practical object. It has a heart-shaped, pointed metal blade, and a long wooden handle that tapers outwards towards the top. The sharp point penetrates the soil easily, just as any wedge-shaped object does. The widening of the handle prevents sweaty hands from sliding off the end. An English spade, on the other hand (or is that in the other hand) has a square-ended blade. It has a triangular termination for one hand on the end of a short wooden handle. It is not much use for digging, and is more like a gentleman’s toy in comparison. It comes into its own when leaned on in order to discuss the weather. This implement stands up nicely against a shed wall, which is where it should remain. The English spade is, in appearance, a well-developed, refined tool, but is nothing, in actual use, compared with its Irish rival.
A writer may or may not need a spade, but if a pen is not mighty enough, they might choose a typewriter as their weapon. The typewriter or computer keyboard is a prime example of an interface urgently needing reform. You would have thought that the common word ‘THE’ would be quicker to type than the less common ‘TOP’. It isn’t, and the reason for the problem is historic. Typists could type faster than the primitive mechanism of the time would allow. The keyboard layout was devised to slow them down. With the advent of the electronic keyboard you would think that all that expediency could be behind us. It is like trying to swim with rocks strapped to your legs, but the manufacturers and we, press and press and press blindly on. There is a solution to this problem. My ‘Insanity File’ has a page or two on the Dvorak keyboard, which has far more logical layout. Commonly used letters are grouped under the index fingers, the less common under the middle finger and so on to the least adept pinky. Surprisingly, most computers actually have the Dvorak layout built into the operating system. Maybe the keyboard manufacturers never noticed!
This leads me on to piano keyboards. What a ridiculous set up! Popular composer, Irving Berlin’s talent was in composing, not playing. Since he could only reliably play in the key of “F sharp” (using just the black notes) Mr. Berlin needed a specially adapted keyboard, which would transpose from that key to any other. He could have chosen to play in the key of “C” all the time, by just hitting the white keys. If not in “C”, he would have been all at sea! And why wasn’t “A” chosen to sit so well on the white notes, instead of the third letter in the alphabet? (Not that the letter names really matter!) Perhaps you can tell me.
There is a clever example of a piano keyboard that does allow one to play easily, in any key. Learn the layout for playing in C major, and, as if by magic, by shifting just your starting position, all the correct notes fall under your fingers in the same way for playing in C, D, A flat or whatever. That keyboard is known as the Von Janko. It has other, almost inadvertent, properties that elaborate the possibilities of the piano. It is a total rethink, rather than a mere adaptation. Brilliant! It is used in a modified form on continental chromatic accordion keyboards. Sadly, It seems that pianists have spent far too many hours practicing the difficult keys and developing their finger skills over years in unbelievably ways, to change to the Von Janko. We are impressed by their displays of dexterity, but could impress ourselves with our untapped talent, if we had access to such a keyboard. There is an old example of this keyboard at songwriter Stephen Foster’s old home.
After letters, numbers are yet another instance. Speakers of Cantonese are able to manipulate 9 digits in their heads. The best the average Westerner can do is 7. Maybe that’s why there are so many Chinese! Their astounding ability is due to the logic of their number system. Number words are short and work sensibly together. They don’t have the anomalous 11, 12, 13 to 19 that we have or the ridiculous ‘four twenties, ten, eight’ that the French have for 98. Amusing perhaps, but inconvenient in the extreme. It wouldn’t take much to jettison these aberrations. The world didn’t end when the European Union countries changed their currencies to the Euro. Britain’s quaint 12 pennies to a shilling and 20 shillings to a pound system was lost, eventually, to the beautifully simple system of counting in 10s. I could talk about measuring in the even older chains, perches and scruples, but will spare your poor ears!
The world also didn’t end when the calendar we use today, was corrected in September 1752, and everyone thought they’d lost 11 days from their lives! As far as logic goes, 360 degrees in a circle is just silly! And so is 60 seconds in a minute, 24 hours in a day, or 7 days in a week.
And do you realize that, with inches and feet, you have to remember 3 numbers for every dimension, (think of 13 and 11/16ths) instead of just one number when using millimeters. Try carrying more than 3 of those numbers along with your plank of wood, on the journey from measuring to electric saw. These things can be changed if the will is there in sufficient numbers; we just need a slight cultural shift, or a critical mass to make it happen. What is really needed in all these examples is the cultural equivalent of the enzyme used to snip out pieces of DNA in the lab, in order to manipulate its sequence. Get rid of the gene “for” “Dunderhead” and replace it with the one for “Genius”! If only!
A chair may be a beautiful piece of visual design, but your rear end can tell just how comfortable it is far better than your eyes. If you always had to walk 10 miles to get to your breakfast, or swim across the river to get home every evening, you might quickly harness a horse or invent the bridge. Fix these interfaces, and a whole herd of horses will be able to gallop over the mental arch of that elegant, golden span!
Our over-exerted brains, sore eyes, tired hands, and slack mouths will thank you, once these annoying, officious gate-keepers become truly invisible servants.
Although I do enjoy these quirks of history it is time for me to close the folder and let some sanity reign (spelled ‘REIGN’).