The Saga of Bush Bush’s Son

I was talking with my friend Noah Nelson last night about world affairs, and it occurred to me that the current state of international law is not unlike that of medieval Iceland. That is, there is law, with very precise and complicated provisions, but no enforcement. The only punishment that could be imposed on those Icelanders who refused to submit to the law was outlawry (which basically means that it’s not illegal to kill you).

There’s an incident in Njal’s Saga, however, when a particularly rich, powerful, and popular Icelander decides not to go into exile as he was ordered, and becomes an outlaw. However, he’s so powerful no one dares to harm him, though his outlawry effectively excludes him from civil society.

It’s a very perplexing culture — sneaky lawyer tricks go hand in hand with men throwing axes into the backs of their enemies’ heads — but I begin to think it sheds valuable light on the state of international affairs.

Originally published on LiveJournal

A modest proposal

So I have a solution to our Iraq difficulty. I propose a president swap. I think it would be a win-win proposition.

Saddam Hussein can’t do that much damage in two years, not with a Republican-controlled Congress. And he’d get to say, for the record, that he finally got hold of some nukes (we’d have to make part of the deal that Colin Powell gets to hold the nuclear football or some such). In 2005, he retires having been the most powerful leader in the world, albeit not especially effectual. Good for him.

Meanwhile, Dubya gets more oil at his disposal than he ever dreamed, and you know that deep down he’d be happier in a dictatorial state without pesky checks and balances. He can settle down to enjoy a lifetime of petty tyranny, having been the most powerful leader in the world. Good for him.

Now we just need to get Tony Blair and Kim Jong Il to switch up, and we’re golden.

Originally published on LiveJournal

Whaddya Mean, I Hate My Computer?

In the pursuit of a remedy for misotechny, we need to ask ourselves why it is that people hate their computers. Technophobia makes perfect sense: computers are complicated and often unintuitive machines, and mastering their foibles is a daunting task. But it’s only a machine; why should anyone hate it?

The answer, I think, lies in the role that computers have come to play in our lives. Over the course of the 1990s, computers have ceased to become toys or conveniences for most of us, but necessities. There are many advantages to this state of affairs: easier communication, simpler revision of documents, cheaper production of documents, and so on for several pages. However, this means that there are thousands and thousands of people who depend on computers everyday–for whom these machines are a essential part of their work–and they don’t understand their tools.

To work every day with a tool which may, at any moment, stop functioning for opaque reasons, and which you are not able to fix or even to diagnose its problem, is extraordinarily frustrating. Frustration, in turn, tends to be channeled into anger. But who is the target of this anger? Most people in this situation won’t blame themselves; they know how to do their job, and they’re doing it correctly. They could blame the company who made the machine, but it’s often not clear whether the problem is with the hardware, the operating system, or the software, all of which were probably made by different companies. Which one is at fault?

In the end, most people, unable to find an appropriate target for their anger, wind up putting the blame on the computer itself. The computer is serving as a symbol for the entire computer industry and the societal structures which are forcing them to use this machine which they don’t understand.

The problem, of course, with being angry at an inanimate object is that you can never work out your difficulties with a machine. If it isn’t fixed, it’ll keep doing what it was doing that made you angry in the first place; it has no desire to get past the negative relationship between you.

Fixing the machine, of course, would fix its behavioral problems, but if you could fix the machine, you wouldn’t be in this position in the first place. And as we all know, a computer is never permanently fixed. So, the anger just builds up and festers. Anything you do with your computer takes on a bit of that flavor of bitterness. The next time something goes wrong, you are even less inclined to deal with it, moving closer and closer to the day when you hurl the big plastic beast out the window.

The solution to this, as we discussed in the first column, is understanding. Once you come to understand your machine, you can deal appropriately with problems, and you have a better chance of being able to place blame where it rightly lies. Your computer problems will remain problems, but they will be setbacks to overcome rather than slurs against your ability to do your job.

Holistic Technology:
Helpful Tips for Facing Your Machine
(Mar. 29, 1999)

Holistic Tech Tip #1: Check The Power

If your computer–or any machine, really–refuses to turn on, check to make sure that it’s plugged in and turned on. Not once, not twice, but three times. And don’t just glance at the plug. Really check. Wiggle the plug; check the power strip. Make sure the power settings mean what you think they do (in younger and more foolish days, I managed to interpret the 1-and-0 switch on a printer as “closed” and “open”, leading me to believe that 0 was the correct setting).

The reason for all this rigmarole is that, should you fail to remedy the problem on your own and be forced to call for assistance, there are few things so embarrassing as being told that you simply failed to plug the darn thing in. You will probably then blame the machine for your embarrassment, which will just add to the burden of your misotechny, and we’re trying to avoid that here. On the other hand, should you discover that, in fact, the machine was not plugged in, you will have the satisfaction and empowerment of having fixed the problem yourself, and will be able to say “Silly me; I forgot to plug it in”. You will feel better about yourself and your machine, and you’ll have more confidence that you can solve your own technological problems. Even if the power supply isn’t the problem, at least now you can rule out one possibility.

Holistic Life Tip #1: Calling For Help Doesn’t Mean You’re Dumb

Even if you do find yourself in the above-mentioned situation of calling your technical support person only to find that you didn’t plug the machine in correctly, you should know that you shouldn’t feel stupid. The reason that you ask a more knowledgeable person to help you with a machine, nine times out of ten, is not that something needs to be done that you couldn’t do yourself. It’s that knowledge helps you pare down the options.

You, the less knowledgeable user, are faced with a situation where things don’t work, and you don’t know why. For all you know, anything could be wrong. Even if you’ve checked something, you don’t have enough confidence in your own diagnostic abilities to rule it out. Furthermore, you have no confidence that the problem isn’t with some part of the machine you aren’t even aware of. This prevents you from being at all systematic about attempting to solve the technical problem, and probably makes the psychological problem worse. The negative feelings associated with things not working have not alleviated, and are now compounded by the frustration of failure.

The expert, whom we shall call Dave, on the other hand, can look at a part of the machine and say with confidence that part of the machine is not the source of the problem. His experience enables him to tell what sorts of problems usually cause the symptoms you’re experiencing. He probably doesn’t know what’s wrong. But he is much better equipped to narrow down the options and try to solve the problem systematically. So even though the problem was just a silly power cord which you could have fixed in a second, Dave was much more likely to discover that problem than you. You’re not stupid, merely inexpert.

Holistic Technology: What’s Wrong with This Machine?

I decided to write this column after working as a hardware sales consultant for a year. Lengthy exposure to people’s concerns and complaints about their computers has led me to the belief that the biggest problem that people face in putting computers and other machines to good use is not a problem of user interface, nor a problem of intrinsic design. The problem is that people hate their computers.

They like what their machines do for them, but on a deep and abiding level, they hate the malicious chunk of metal and plastic with which they are compelled to interact in order to get the good stuff, and they fear the unpredictable ways in which it may cause them trouble. This creates what they call in personal-growth circles “bad energy”. As a result, people spend their computer time stewing in their own bad vibes, which impairs their ability to deal with problems which may arise as well as their ability to be productive with the machine in any way.

There is an ongoing effort to make computing more and more inoffensive, in an attempt to alleviate people’s technophobia. For the majority of users, however, the problem is not technophobia but misotechny — hatred of machines, not fear. No matter how non-threatening and easy to use you make a computer, misotechny will still stand between people and their machines.

Most people are smart enough to understand and learn computer skills far beyond the level of most users. The problem is that they don’t want to. They don’t feel they should have to. Psychological obstacles prevent them. What we need, therefore, is skills for overcoming people’s hatred of their machines, so that they can devote their energies to making their computers help them do whatever they want them to do.

This column exists to take a few steps in that direction. It’s aimed at the basic user trying to establish a better relationship with their tools, but I think anyone who works with computers may find something interesting from time to time. There will be a little bit of theory, a little bit of philosophy, and a little bit of technical advice. With a little luck, we can all learn to groove with our machines.