It is now Friday. My visitations to gym are completed for the week, saturation compelling a period of rest no matter how much I may intellectually desire to continue the regime. So too are the RSS feeds beginning to ebb with the change over from what the work week editor think is news to what the weekend editor has to pad the medium with to obtain adequate coverage to placate customers. Much of the news this week has been conflicted as the economic meltdown staggered into a new chapter, one with the promise of Yankee government salvation at the price of some degree of servitude. Perhaps the program could be called Every Banker Left Behind?
But with this relative staunch I have the opportunity, if not the actuation, of deeper consideration of matters than I have during the grrr brrr of the work week. One of my esteemed colleagues, Magnetic Field Energy, who has astounding patience in abiding my ruminations on the discipline of computer science, sent me an excellent article from ars technica. [Link] The subject of the article is a research performed at North Carolina State U, a name that shrieks academic pork barrel, but nonetheless speaks loudly in terms of the modern view of science as the hairdresser of engineering.
The research deals with a series of experiments whereby computer users busy doing some computing activity were subjected to a series of pop-up window boxes telling them a catastrophic download of malware was about to occur unless they denied the process. Approximately half of the test population, which is admittedly small, did the wrong thing. That is, they were apparently so intent on what they were doing that they did not distinguish the proper response to be taken. It can be argued that this is as much about general computer ignorance as it is about lack of attention, that what matters here is the large instance of counter-survival behavior.
I could also bring forth a study I heard about this week from one of the podcasts I listened at gym about how as one ages the ability to rapidly focus on things degrades, that in effect seniors see too much – or have too broad a range of experience to make reactionary decisions. This however is rather the opposite, about how people become so fixated on what they do that anything impinging on this fixation is a distraction to be swatted. In effect, the distraction itself is more evil than the consequences of swatting it.
I should comment that this is referred to by FD SCP as the “Husband Effect”. She claims that when I am engrossed in something, whether a book, an amusement, or even real work of making squiggles on paper, that my attention span for anything she says or does is measure zero (my term, not her’s, but the information content is closer to my comprehension.) She claims it a victory of her morality that I have not been gutted, spitted and roasted heretofore. I am also forbidden to offer that the same afflicts her when she has one of her sewing machines fired up in a bout of empassioned machine embroidery. Forbidden or not, the head-in-the-task effect is not new, it is a matter of human nature and however much we may decry it as being anti-survival it cannot be such if it exists in such profusion. (Or at least seems so to a physicist sprouting biology ideas.)
No rather than pummel the stupid stolidity of sapiens (unrighteous jealosy, Spiro?) I wish to advance that the problem is that we humans often do things in exactly the opposite fashion as we should, usually for superficial good but ineffectual and unintelligent reasons. The classic example of this is our legal system.
We have legislatures whose job is to merrily enact laws. Almost never do they unenact a law. Instead, they limit the number of constables in the employ of government. These constables are charged with the enforcement of these laws. This primarily means that they are reactive in that their modus operandi, to borrow one of their own classical phrases plagarized from antiquity, is to observe and apprehend people in acts of violation. In exceptional cases they act post hoc by acting on observation of past infraction and attempting, with far less success than the entertainment apparat propagandizes, apprehension after the fact.
Neglecting for the moment that there is a natural limit on the number of constables imposed by the size of the general population, the fact is that the number of constables is at best increasing much more slowly than is the number of laws that they must enforce. Hence, a state exists whereby the more laws enacted the less lawful is society because the constables are forced to selectively ignore more and more laws. Cases in point that I particularly enjoy are those dealing with the operation of motorized velicles: speed limits, the wearing of seat belts, and the use of cellular communication devices.
Every law in place in the Yankee republic, and indeed, much of the planet, in regards to the regulation of these is predicated on a constable observing and apprehending the infraction. In practical effect, these can only be enforced by either random sampling or when some more egregious offense is committed. They are also an example of doing things backwards and wrong.
Consider for the moment that a simple system of transmitters tied to speed limit areas could engage a computerized governor on the automobile engine to limit maximum speed to that limit, that an interlock could be placed in seat belts with a seat occupation sensor to prevent engine operation, and a cellular phone suppressor could be incorporated with engine function to automatically make each law inforced, without benefit of constabulary. That is, if manufacturers are required to build automobiles with tamper-proof hardware of these functions, then the dual foibles of legislatures are fulfilled without further effort, all by inverting the means of implementation.
I could go beat on other folks, other low hanging fruit as it be, but I shall not in the presumption of both the intelligence and impatience of any readers. Instead I shall harrangue a bit on the matter of operating system messages. The problem identified in the North Carolina State U research is largely one of doing things in the opposite manner as how they should be done. In this case, an action will occur unless it is forbidden, that action being the dwnload of malware. This architecture is basically fundamental to MegaHard Windows and to a somewhat lesser extent the Apple OS. It is rather the opposite of the Linux approach that in general is to forbid any action not expressly permitted. In Ubuntu terms this is “sudo” whereby one can perform an action only if one gives one’s password to permit the action.
I should note that neither of these is quite right. One may easily advance pathological examples of how this results in the same kind of disaster in Linux that is so prevalent in Windows. The point however is not that one or the other is right or wrong, but rather that it is possible to make an OS that operates in both fashions so as to assure that “the good is default”.
I would argue that this is what good practice of ergonomics is all about, not just the amelioration of piles. And in a modern world of information riches over poverty, a moral and ethical mandate for all of us.