[EAS]The Way Things Mean

Peter J. Kindlmann peter.kindlmann at yale.edu
Mon Nov 5 03:04:35 EST 2001

Dear Colleagues -

[My title for this mailing is the title of Chapt. 3 of Ralph
Caplan's book "On Design" (1982), one of my favorite examinations
of the role of design, artifactual and social, in our lives.]

This Phil Agre article is long and perhaps best put aside on a busy
Monday. But I suggest making some time for it later. There is a lot
of refreshingly detached sharp thinking here, about design,
technology, social settings and communications, to make it amply
worth it. [To those to whom I mailed this earlier, before deciding
it was worth distribution on EAS-INFO, my apologies.]

All best,  --PJK

Date: 11/4/2001 7:15 PM
To: pjk
From: Phil Agre

[This is the article that I wrote to blow off steam on the morning of
September 9th.  I realize that the title is not exactly suited to the
moment, but the underlying purpose is at least somewhat serious and I
hope we've still got room for the unserious aspects too.  I've revised
it slightly, but I've left the ranting tone intact.  I hope it's of
some use.]

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  Minor Annoyances and What They Teach Us

  Phil Agre

  Version of 4 November 2001.
  12000 words.

Table of Contents


Part I.  Dysfunctional Institutions

(1) U2
(2) Starbucks
(3) The "New Report Out Today" That Isn't On the Web 
(4) Untraceable Spam
(5) Cell Phone Companies' Service "Plans"
(6) Ritual Humiliation of People Who Ask Questions at Public Talks

Part II. Abuses of Language

(7) Business Jargon in Government
(8) Trend-Mongering
(9) The Language of the Staff in Computer Stores
(10) Op-Ed Columns That Make No Sense
(11) Left-Wing Discouragement and Disempowerment
(12) "Generation X"
(13) Subscribers Who Irrationally Flame Me Out of Nowhere
(14) People Who Write Me Snippy Little Notes Saying "Unsubscribe"

Part III. Cliches

(15) The Fake Little Laugh That Screams "Bad Acting"
(16) The Word "Aggressive" Used As If It Were a Good Thing
(17) Anything Called "The Insider's Guide"
(18) Being Told "I'm Sorry You're Having Problems"
(19) The "Thoughtful Executive" Cliche in Business Ads
(20) Stereotyped Rhetorical Questions in PR Jargon
(21) Advertisements That Say "Over 43" When They Mean "44"
(22) Meaningless Technical Phrases on Consumer Electronics Gear
(23) "We're Being Asked to Do More With Less"

Part IV. Bad Design

(24) Bad Information Design in Scholarly Books
(25) Computers That Can't Learn What Needs to Be Swapped In
(26) Dryers in Commercial Laundromats
(27) Useless Rubber Buttons on Remote Controls
(28) Air Intake Vents Next to the Loading Dock
(29) Hotel Minibars
(30) Value-Added Marketing


For several years now, I have kept a list of Things That Piss Me Off
-- small, gratuitous annoyances that happen so routinely that they
are impossible to escape.  I've kept the list because I'm fascinated
by several phenomena:

(1) The conditions under which we notice things, or don't notice them.
If I were a slightly different person, I could have lived a long life
without paying the slightest attention to these annoyances, and I'm
fascinated that so many phenomena can live unnoticed in our peripheral

(2) The role of annoyances in motivating design.  Every annoyance is
an invitation to design new gadgets or new institutional arrangements,
and I like to think of each small annoyance as a thread that we can
pull to unravel a vast fabric of bad design in the world around us.

(3) The process of gathering fragments and seeing what patterns emerge
from them.  I have no idea what patterns will emerge as I write this.
Hopefully they will make the exercise worthwhile.

(4) The changed experience of everyday life that comes from noticing
these annoyances, spelling out my thoughts about them, and then making
my thoughts public.  It's not as though I am telling you anything
sensitive about me, yet as I write these commentaries my life starts
filling up with small reminders of my public voice.

Here, then, are thirty small annoyances that I have noticed over the
last six months.  I've divided them into four groups: dysfunctional
institutions, abuses of language, cliches, and bad design.

Part I.  Dysfunctional Institutions

(1) U2

The rock band U2 is a morbid study in the dialectic of art and ego,
and I think it's worth taking a minute to trace this dialectic in
action.  U2's 1983 album "War" still holds up.  By superimposing
stories from Northern Ireland onto the more universal vibe of the Cold
War, they found a way for rock to mean something again.  Many people,
including my early-20s self, found this persuasive.  I wouldn't say
that I was ever a hero-worshipping fan, but I did go to the lengths of
reading interviews with the band, accepting song lyrics as slogans of
my own, and the other things one does at that age.

But then something insidious started happening: U2 turned into the
worst sort of monster raving ego freaks.  It took about ten years.
The process holds a certain fascination in retrospect, provided that
one adopts a sufficiently cynical point of view -- in other words,
the opposite extreme point of view from the one U2 had originally
represented.  At the time their progress from sincere musicians
to ego monsters was confusing and weird, the weirdness deriving not
least from the fans' own denial.  The most fascinating moment is their
live EP, "Under a Blood Red Sky", which is generally considered to
be their best work.  Their later pretentiousness was just taking form,
and if you can imagine embryonic pretention then that's what it was.

The struggle between art and ego had just begun.  If they had
gone immediately off the deep end, then the story would not be so
interesting.  But it was more complicated than that.  I can still
find their 1987 album "The Joshua Tree" moving; even though their
megalomania was now in full fury, they managed to sublimate it to a
remarkable extent.  You had to ignore things, like the huge symbols
that they tossed gratuitously into their lyrics.  But you could do it.

The struggle of art and ego then intensified to an amazing extent.
They are evenly matched in "The Unforgettable Fire" (whose lyrics
make a lot less sense than they are commonly given credit for), and
ego won decisively in their film and double album "Rattle and Hum".
And in "Achtung Baby", a zillion dollars of producers and machinery
brought forth an impressive hunk of musical technology that, despite
the Berlin Wall atmospherics, had precisely nothing inside.

About this time, singer Bono became insufferable.  He has remained
so ever since, and despite his undoubted good works on behalf of
the poor I cannot bear to hear the first word about him.  The critics
tell me that U2 have sworn off the bloated rock-star personae, but
I am totally unpersuaded and refuse to have anything to do with them.
I realize that the critics mostly like their latest record, "All That
You Can't Leave Behind".  But I think the critics have been fooled.
Nothing is worse (or more contradictory) than ego parading in the
guise of spirituality, but that's what "All That You Can't Leave
Behind" is.  I can't bear to listen to more than a few seconds of it.

It is arguable, of course, that this whole arc would have bothered
me much less if I hadn't been hooked by the rock-and-roll promises
of Meaning in the first place.  Though I wrote large parts of my
dissertation while listening to Husker Du, I was born too early for
the subculture of anti-commercial underground music that endlessly
changes form to avoid being eaten by the corporate marketing machine.
The promise of communal meaning still meant something when I went
to school, and I had that promise torn out of me in the most brutal
manner at the precise moment that it died.

When U2 got into the rock star business, they thought they knew what
they were doing.  It was all ironic, they said.  They could stop
whenever they wanted.  But they were kidding themselves.  They are
tedious fame addicts, dinosaurs who never earned their bloat but
grabbed it in the most disingenous way.

It was a good system when rock stars died young.

(2) Starbucks

The executives at Starbucks are said to love Ray Oldenberg's book "The
Great Good Place".  Subtitled "Cafes, Coffee Shops, Community Centers,
Beauty Parlors, General Stores, Bars, Hangouts, and How They Get You
Through the Day", Oldenberg's book is about mundane "third places"
where communities get built, or as we say today, where social capital
gets formed.  Third places are reputedly in decline as people get
lost in their jobs and televisions, and the Starbucks people claim to
be mending this tear in the social fabric.

It's bunk.  If you listen closely, the Starbucks people will admit
that they don't want or expect anyone to be spending more than
ten minutes in a Starbucks shop.  Starbucks is basically about real
estate, and about calculating the maximum number of dollars that
can be extracted from a quantum of space-time.  It is the AOL of the
physical world.  Starbucks is a retail experience concept, as they say
in business, and they decorate every corner of it with encouragements
to spend money.  No cute signs from the shop staff like they have
in real cafes; no paintings from neighborhood artists on the walls.
Little tiny tables incapable of holding a newspaper.  The cashiers
who translate your order into the precision combinatorics of Starbucks
coffee lingo and shouts it to the coffee-makers loud enough for you
to overhear -- their express intention is to teach you the correct way
to say it.  Yuck.  At Starbuck's it's not about community.  It's about

Then there's the coffee.  I gave up coffee a while ago, and caffeine
a while before that.  But I always felt sorry for the people who
believed Starbuck's propaganda about their brainiac coffee-processing.
Nobody who has had actual French, Italian, or Turkish coffee, bracing
bitterness cut with precise amounts of sugar, could possibly be
interested in the bland, flat taste that Starbucks somehow imposes on
coffee beans from every corner of the world.

(3) The "New Report Out Today" That Isn't On the Web 

Many stories in the news concern a "new report out today" which
details some outrage, proves some hypothesis, crunches some numbers,
warns of some danger, or whatever.  In the old days, those "reports"
might as well have been fictional, because it was nearly impossible
to get ahold of them.  In the 1980s I remember trying to get hold
of "a new report out today" from the Reagan-era Defense Department
proving that Soviet military and industrial might was going to leave
the United States in the dust unless Congress appropriated such-
and-such billions of dollars to stop it.  This seemed like such an
obvious, childish lie -- you will recall that the Soviet Union was
on the verge of collapsing at the time -- that I went on a mission to
secure a copy of this report.  I made many phone calls, but the people
who answered the calls either had no idea what I was talking about or
laughed at me.

Since then our expectations have quietly changed.  We expect as a
matter of course that a "new report out today" will be on the Web,
and we are puzzled and/or pissed off when it is not.  Well, let me
tell you, I am puzzled and/or pissed off a lot, because my experience
has been that a "new report out today" is rarely on the Web.  You hear
the story in the news; you pull up the organization's Web site; yet
the Web site rarely (and I say "rarely" purely as a hedge, so that I
don't have to suffer through some counterexample that someone manages
to dredge up, and not because I can think of a counterexample myself)
even mentions that the report exists.  This is *so* annoying: the news
is authoritatively telling me that this organization has issued this
report, but I'm looking at the Web site, and the Web site is nothing
but empty slogans and menus of program areas, like it's a Reagan-era
bureaucrat laughing at me over the phone.

Now, I do understand part of what causes this: organizations that
want the media to broadcast their press releases typically offer an
exclusive to particular media outlets, promising to embargo the report
until the privileged outlets have fully broken the story.  That means
that I can't get the report right away.  Instead, I have to make a
note, somehow recall a week later what the note was about, and swap
the issue back into my head.  This is nearly impossible in practice,
such that it would take a major concerted effort to determine what
proportion of new-reports-out-today *ever* appear on the Web sites.

(4) Untraceable Spam

I've been getting spam for as long as anyone, and some will recall
that I mobilized RRE readers to put together a guide to complaining
about spam a few years ago.  Well, to this day I report every single
item of spam I get.  I document the spam to the sites it came from,
the services that host the spammer's Web pages, and whichever e-mail
service the spammer uses as a mail drop.  I do this partly as a public
service and partly to get even.  It's like the spammer has smeared
something on my car, and I'm going to wipe it off and smear it on
his car instead, just to get a feeling of completeness.  With Emacs,
samspade.org, and copy-and-paste, it doesn't take long.

What pisses me off, though, is what you find when you run "traceroute"
on a lot of the IP addresses that appear in spam message headers.
Many of the spam sites cannot be traced, and even when the traceroute
does complete, the hosts along the route routinely turn out to be
howlingly ill-configured, with broken or false DNS entries or worse.
Many of the ISP's don't even have "postmaster" aliases defined.  This
is particularly true in Third World countries, though I don't want
to pin the whole problem on them.

So I have evolved a new specialism in the spam wars: writing to
backbone providers to document the mess of ill-configured hosts whose
traffic they are carrying, and to urge that they stop carrying traffic
from the ill-configured networks until they clean up.  Of course, only
in rare cases do I get the faintest idea whether this has any effect.
(I did manage to shut down a spammer in Spain after several months
by complaining about twenty times in great detail to the US backbone
provider who carried the traffic from the ill-configured Spanish
ISP whose customer the spammer was.  So it can be done.)  Despite my
efforts I am still getting plenty of spam from Argentina and China,
which are the three countries where I seem to be on the local spam
lists.  But I'm trying.

What most pisses me off, however, is not the spam as such, but the
Internet architecture and Internet backbone operators that allow
this level of configuration screw-ups to persist.  In my opinion the
backbones should traceroute a random sample of the packets they carry,
and should automatically cease carrying traffic from any network whose
traces produce more than a certain proportion of configuration errors.
The threshold could be gradually lowered over time.  Unfortunately,
the backbone operators don't have the incentives for this sort of
effort, not least because it's their paying customers (for the most
part, as opposed to their peers) that we're talking about.

Last point: it's not just local Third World companies that have
these configuration problems.  One chronic offender is the Turkish
branch of a prominent German firm, whose headquarters has been made
thoroughly aware of the problem.

(5) Cell Phone Companies' Service "Plans"

Cell phone companies keep detailed records of your calls, and so
it would be trivial for them to charge, say, 10 cents a minute for
your calls.  Instead, they sell you these complicated "plans".  Some
of the complexity has a purpose: business people don't call much on
the weekend, so weekend airtime is essentially free.  But the main
purpose is deception.  I, for example, have a "plan" that (simplifying
only slightly) involves 500 "minutes" a month for $50.  Let's leave
aside the fraud of rounding up calls to the next minute, so that you
can get charged for half an hour per month more than you actually
used.  The real problem is with the illusion that "500 minutes for
$50" means "10 cents a minute".  It doesn't mean that, of course,
because you pay the whole $50 even if you only use 350 minutes, and
if you use 750 minutes then you pay 25 cents a minute for the extra.
(Thus, these "plans" do not have the same justification as fixed-rate
schemes, which people are willing to pay extra for in order to make
their bills more predictable.)

To quantify the problem, I have here a stack of cell phone bills
that I've received recently.  I will now pick a few of these bills
at random and calculate the actual cost-per-minute -- bottom line
divided by number of actual minutes used -- that this service cost me.
Here we go: April 2001: $0.122, June 2001: $0.275, March 2001: $0.144,
May 2001: $0.205, average $0.186.  I am overestimating just a bit
because I'm only subtracting out the longest weekend calls, but a scan
of the itemized bills reveals that I make few short calls on weekends.
I am also including taxes.  I conclude, however, that my real costs
are at least 50% higher than the 10 cents a minute that "500 minutes
for $50" sounds like.

(6) Ritual Humiliation of People Who Ask Questions at Public Talks

You're attending a talk in a large auditorium.  It's question
time.  You raise your hand and get called on.  You start asking
your question, but your voice isn't being amplified, and maybe
you're not entirely confident about speaking before a large audience,
so that your voice is a not as strong as you'd like.  Suddenly some
jerk behind you yells "speak up!".  You're rattled, but you try to
proceed.  But just having been screamed at in front of hundreds of
people, you're intimidated and can't make your voice go any louder.
So now the rest of the audience joins in, mocking and sneering at
you to do something that you are now completely incapable of doing.
"We can't hear you!"  Or maybe you just give up, in which case the
whole audience is looking at you and wondering what your problem
is, and because you are incapable of communicating loudly enough for
anyone to hear, you have no way to make them leave you alone and move
on to someone else.

I've seen this happen to an awful lot of people.  What's going on?
Partly it's just the thoughtlessness or poverty of the organizers who
don't have audience microphones available.  But more fundamentally it
happens because people who have experience with public speaking have
forgotten that most people are terrified of public speaking, and that
most peopl do not have the professional performer's ability to take
control of a space with their voice.  We need to look at the thousand
small ways in which we prevent people from getting public voices, and
this is certainly one of them.

Part II. Abuses of Language

(7) Business Jargon in Government

Back when democracy went out of fashion, it became fashionable
instead to replace the language of public service with the language
of business.  Thus, for example, it is common for government agencies
like the IRS to speak of themselves as having "customers".  Government
reports are now "products".  This is ridiculous.  The argument for
it is that business is efficient and that government, which is not
business, is therefore inefficient.  The fallacy here is considerable.
Business is only efficient in conditions of functioning competition,
and competition is only practicable in certain contexts.  That is,
only certain kinds of products and services lend themselves to the
creation of competitive markets.  If government is doing something
that can be done more efficiently by the creation of competitive
markets, then I say sure, let's look into privatizing it.  In most
cases, however, we have gone way beyond that point.  The British, for
example, are effectively renationalizing their railway infrastructure,
and California is staggering under its boneheaded attempt to privatize
its electrical system.

Products and services can be inconsistent with competitive markets for
many reasons.  Some of them, such as military defense and clean air,
are public goods, meaning that you can't create them without letting
everyone enjoying them.  Others, such as electrical distribution,
involve gigantic fixed costs that reward the biggest players and thus
creating overwhelming forces for consolidation and monopoly.  Software
is like this too, although for obscure economic reasons cooperative
arrangements (i.e., open source) can often produce the public goods
without much help from government.  In yet other cases, the product
or service is hard to measure and package.  Much of the assistance
provided to the public by librarians falls in this category, and it
would be very hard to operate the reference desk and a public library
on a $5-per-question basis.  Finally, there are products and services
-- fire-fighting, for example -- that will never get delivered except
within a heavy coat of civic meaning.  It's good that we've remembered
what incredible heroes fire-fighters are; now let's remember that they
are government employees.

In short, markets and government both have their role.  If a product
or service is provided by the market, let's go ahead and use market
language for it.  (Some market languages are more ethical than others,
but that's a separate topic.)  But if a product or service is provided
by a democratic government, let's use the language of democracy
for it, and be proud that we're a civilized society that can organize
itself to provide those things in a democratic way.

(8) Trend-Mongering

The main job of public relations people is to cause stories about
their clients to appear in the media.  Often former journalists
themselves, the PR people have reverse- engineered the reporters'
thought processes.  As a result, they know how to frame their clients'
prescribed message as a story.  And it's not just a matter of getting
their clients' names mentioned.  Their clients usually have a very
specific agenda of points they want to communicate, all of which must
be made to fall along the critical path of the story that comes out.

Reporters, for their part, need a steady supply of stories that their
editors will buy.  Some reporters have the benefit of covering real
subjects where real events happen and stories can be produced simply
by cultivating all the players.  Not that the players aren't spinning
you, but at least there is often a real story behind what they are

The problem arises when reporters are assigned to beats where little
of any intrinsic importance happens on its own, so that most if not
all stories are artificial creations from the get-go.  Writing about
celebrities is the bottom of that particular pit.  Writing about new
industrial products is pretty close.  I imagine it can get desperate
out there, and I know I'm seeing real desperation when I read an
article that starts like this:

  Sinks that cook dinner.  Rooms that vacuum themselves.  Americans
  are turning to a wave of new gadgets that do the housework.

That's from the Wall Street Journal (5/11/01).  You probably see the
problem here: a trend has been announced ("Americans are turning"),
but the trend has been announced in such vague language that the
discerning reader will wonder whether it has been concocted as an
excuse to talk about some company's gadgets.  Well, here is the
sole evidence that the Journal presents for its grand generalization
about Americans and their gadgets:

  Americans spent $1.2 billion on home automation last year, up 25%
  from two years earlier.

What does "home automation" mean?  Are people really spending that
kind of money on new gadgets, or did people who were blowing their
high-tech capital gains simply buy 25% more of the regular gadgets
than they did when stocks were only at moderately crazy levels?
Never mind, because we're soon off and learning about new gadgets and
the points that their manufacturers wanted to communicate about them.

This is trend-mongering, and once you have a name for it you see it
everywhere.  Somehow it isn't news enough to say, "these companies
introduced these amusing if dubious new gadgets, and regardless of
whether anyone outside of a demographically minute subculture of rich
gearheads actually wants to buy them I think they're diverting enough
to spend a few minutes reading about".  No, you've got to pretend
that they are a trend, and that "Americans" unspecified are snapping
them up.

I have to say, for all their faults, that one of the great virtues
of the Journal's competitors at New York Times is that they routinely
identify real, actual trends that are worth knowing about.  One that
comes to mind, for example, is the shift of the bicycle industry from
kids to adults, which is surely symptomatic of some deep cultural
shift.  The front page of the Wall Street Journal (as opposed to
page B1, where I think that kitchen-gadget story came from, much less
those unilluminating ad-driven supplements) often does the same.  So
it can be done.  Which makes it all the more annoying when it isn't.

(9) The Language of the Staff in Computer Stores

People who work in computer stores are a different breed.  The level
of product knowledge that they require is so great that management
can't also require them to act like salespeople in other stores.  So
when you go to Fry's, you have to adapt yourself to a different kind
of interaction.  It's not rude, exactly, but rough, as if Wal-Mart
were staffed by cowboys.  But okay.  If you can find the right gear
then it's not so bad.

Except for one thing.  It pisses me off when computer store workers
ask people questions they couldn't possibly answer.  Say, for example,
a customer comes in looking for a scanner for a Macintosh.  The store
workers are liable to say something like, "Do you have FireWire?".
I can't quite tell whether they are being clueless or lazy, or whether
they are actually being sadistic.  The average human being has no idea
even what sort of question that is, or what sort of thing FireWire
is, or whether having FireWire is a good thing or a bad thing, or
how they would possibly know whether they have it.  The customers
who get asked this question all go into a little dance.  You've seen
it.  It's a slight bow, a slight twist off to the side, and a sort of
recoil.  Then they stammer.  Not only can't they answer the question;
not only can't they come up with a suitable way to explain that they
can't answer the question; but they can't even come up with a counter-
question that might elicit a clarification.  It's an absolute impasse.

Part of the problem here is bad design.  Apple is great at providing
its wires with cool textures, but the plugs that go into the back of
the machine are a disaster area.  I have a PhD in computer science,
I've been using Apple computers since the first Macintosh came out,
and I still don't know what all of the stupid little icons above the
sockets in the back of the computer mean.  And if one of those plugs
is FireWire, well, I refuse to know about it.  Designers these days
are supposed to care about the "total experience", but design still
hasn't confronted the final frontier -- the biggest, baddest interface
of them all: the language that happens at the interface between normal
people and the institutions of computing.  Computer stores are one
such institution.  Dealing with system administrators is another.  So
are error messages, which are *so* awful, and every last syllable of
the utterly dysfunctional experience of getting broadband.  Computers
are machines that are made out of language.  Interface is language.
And until the computer world develops user-friendly language, it's
still just geeks and their toys.

(10) Op-Ed Columns That Make No Sense

Often I read columns on newspaper op-ed pages that don't make logical
sense.  Sometimes these columns are written by professional sophists,
and sometimes they are written by people whose minds are so addled by
fashionable political jargon that they "think" in loose associations
that have no logical connection.  Often their arguments, which sound
so impressively seamless when they are shouted, fall apart if you stop
and think about them for two seconds.

My favorite example these days is Norah Vincent, beloved of the
Village Voice and LA Times and now writing for Salon.  (Oh, but maybe
there's a conspiracy: liberal publications hire Norah Vincent because
she's gay and she gives conservatism a bad name.)  Then you have
Thomas Sowell.  His columns in Forbes rarely make logical sense, but
the logical problems are not evident at first because he writes with
such assaultive hostility that you feel like you've been kicked by a
mule.  It took me years of reading his columns at the newsstand before
I managed to penetrate their toxic surface and search for an actual

Of course, it will be suggested that I would be less likely to detect
these problems in authors with whom I agree, and that is surely true.
But whether non-conservative columnists are similarly chowder-headed
is beside my current point, which is this: it ought to be considered
editorial malpractice, an actual breach of journalistic ethics, for
an editor to print an opinion column that does not make logical sense.
The magnitude of the offense should be proportional to the flagrance
of the column's irrationality.  We are often told that the press is
sacred because a democracy requires public debate.  But that is not
so: democracy requires *rational* public debate, or at least debate
in good faith.  Irrational public debate is the enemy of democracy,
and editors who print nonsense should not be allowed to hide behind
democratic pretenses.  Nor should "nonsense" be confused with "bias".
The latter term has been twisted in recent years into a cover for
attacking anybody whose views you disagree with.  "Nonsense" refers
strictly to arguments that violate the classical canons of logic that
were once taught in school, and especially to the fashionable jargon
that rejects logic in favor of a loose, illogical association between

Of course, it would be crazy to give this norm of editorial ethics
any legal force, since nothing could be more sinister than a Federal
Bureau of Logic.  Even so, it seems to me that citizens who do believe
in democracy should denounce editors who publish nonsense, and that
the relevant norms should be taught in journalism schools and upheld
by media watchdogs like Columbia Journalism Review.

(11) Left-Wing Discouragement and Disempowerment

Once upon a time, the whole point of the left was optimism.  The
left's purpose was to help people find their power and persuade them
that they could take action to improve their own lives and the lives
of others.  Even conservatives believed that the left represented
progress and the future.

What happened?  Well, obviously the answer has several parts.  But one
part of the problem is that the left drifted away from its optimistic,
empowering message and moved to the opposite extreme.  To put it
simply, the left became preoccupied with trying to persuade people
that they were oppressed so that they would rouse from their torpor
and take political action.  But at some point this stopped working.
If you're talking to a lecture hall of undergraduates, most of whom
have their own cars, then the language of oppression is not the right
place to start.

But on another, more basic level, the problem was caused by Marx.
Marx believed that each historical form of society was a totality
in which every part was wrapped up with every other part, and in
which everything was wrapped up with a mode of production such as
capitalism.  It follows that attempts to reform bits and pieces of
the system are not only futile but serve to legitimate the system
and postpone its downfall.  When militant Marxists encountered people
who were empowering themselves to improve life for their community,
therefore, they saw something bad.  Faced with such deviations, the
militant Marxists figured that they had two choices.  They could
destroy the attempted reform effort.  Or they could persuade the
misguided reformers that their effort was impossible because their
issue was interconnected with every other issue.  The idea was to
persuade you that the system had to be overthrown as a whole, and
that the logical consequence was that you had to join a sectarian
Leninist party, namely theirs.

Over time, through the routinization of this political strategy,
an elaborate rhetoric developed -- a rhetoric of destruction and
discouragement that became passed along in fragments and patterns
to corrupt the thinking even of people who weren't even sectarian
Leninists.  I wish I had a nickel for every left-winger who has
lectured me for my "optimism" (now a bad word), called me "naive",
accused me of "ignoring the political realities of power", and so
on.  Some of these remonstrations are relatively polite, but others
are not, and their cumulative effect is not to raise consciousness
but to induce the very sense of futility that the left was originally
intended to overcome.

As the decades of the 20th century wore on, this sort of destructive
thinking provided the outer horizon of so many types of political
and intellectual language that many people of otherwise progressive
leanings could find any way out.  They just gave up.  One of the
many illusory virtues of conservatism is that it provided former
leftists with a way to feel revolutionary again, having completely
rid themselves of all optimism during their time on the left.
But conservatism is only revolutionary when someone else besides
conservatives holds power.  Then it becomes conservative again.
Somewhere between the left-wing and right-wing types of conservatism
is a decent way to live that offers hope and empowerment without the
self-defeating resort to a secular eschatology.  That decent way to
live is called democracy, and we should act like we believe in it.

(12) "Generation X"

The idea of people coming in distinct "generations" did not always
exist; it arose in the 19th century.  For us moderns, though, the
prototypical "generation" was the "Baby Boomers" who staffed the
counterculture in the 1960s.  Those people (who are a decade older
than me) had a clear sense that they were collectively inventing
themselves through the meanings they made of a set of huge,
traumatic experiences.  Unfortunately, the success of that talk
of "generations" has caused fourth-rank journalists ever since
to try to identify further "generations".  So we have Generation
X, Generation Y, Generation D, P, Q, M, Z, R, and heaven-knows-what.

There are two problems with this.  One is that these subsequent
cohorts are not constructing their collective meanings themselves,
but are passively being told that they are slackers, don't care about
politics, know all about computers, etc.  The prevailing discourses
about these later generations have become thoroughly embedded in the
media echo chamber, even though there is very little evidence that
they are true.  Some of the young people that get labeled in this way
actually believe in the labels, which is really depressing to watch.

The other problem is that these more recent cohorts simply do not have
the same unity of experience that shaped the Baby Boomers.  No events
have put them through anything like the changes that were brought
on by the Vietnam War, the murder of Martin Luther King, and the
other events of that time.  (Will September 11th define a generation?
Probably not: it affected everyone the same.)  Nor are we experiencing
anything like the cultural innovation of that period.  Rather, culture
is heavily segmented, and the segments often cross generational lines.

Lately we have seen the post hoc coinage of the "Greatest Generation"
to name the cohort who fought World War II, and that's fine, given the
unity of that cohort's experience.  In fact it might have helped them
if they had had a collective self-consciousness when they were going
through it.

Much more annoying, though, has been the recent media attack on the
Baby Boomers for their supposed "self-indulgence".  This is nothing
but conservative stereotyping, led by people like George W. Bush,
against a generation that had the nerve to declare its independence
from conservatism.  We can expect these attacks to get much worse.
Only if the Baby Boomers' memory is defiled can future generations be
prevented from defining their own experience without the mental chains
of conservatism.

(13) Subscribers Who Irrationally Flame Me Out of Nowhere

So I run this big mailing list, which exists largely to distribute
useful information and strong opinions on controversial public issues.
I have thousands of subscribers -- not big thousands, but thousands.
Sometimes they write to me.  I used to have a policy of responding to
everyone, but earlier this year I had to give it up.  The sheer level
of emotional randomness was too great.

Despite its many potentials for social good, e-mail nonetheless has
a basic problem: it takes all of your involvements and relationships
and collapses them to a linear in-box, where everything gets leveled
down into the same abstract blur as everything else.  As such, e-mail
lends itself to various pathologies, perhaps the worst of which is

And it is surely impulsiveness, or let us just say so, that explains
messages in my mailbox that say this: "I've been a huge fan of your
list for years and I've gotten tremendous value out of it, but now
you've sent out one single message that I don't like, so I am going
to viciously attack you".  You might think I am exaggerating.  Surely
nobody is so bone-headed as to make their perverse logic -- "I've
been a huge fan of your list for years" plus "but now you've sent
out one single message that I don't like" plus "so I am going to
viciously attack you" -- quite so explicit as that.  But you would
be wrong.  People do this all the time.  Okay, not all the time.
But it's a harsh enough experience that once every three months
makes an impression.  It happens less now that the list has drifted
toward packages of URL's, which despite their great numbers and often
confrontational content are a step further removed from me than a
message of several pages that I've put my own name on.  But as I get
back into sending out my own essays, I expect it to start happening

What offends about these random attacks is not so much that they are
abusive -- although after the election I did adopt a policy, which
I am very happy with, of banishing from the list anybody who abuses
me -- but their irrationality.  It's like someone out there on the
Internet has gone through a tiny little psychotic break, and rather
than bury it in the garden they've chosen to inflict it on me.

(14) People Who Write Me Snippy Little Notes Saying "Unsubscribe"

My aforementioned mailing list has something like 5000 subscribers
and a daily turnover of three or four.  That means that something
like 100 subscribers come and go per month.  I never hear a word from
most of them, and so I assume that the great majority are successfully
interacting with the creaky mailing-list software at our school.
Of the 100 monthly list-leavers, however, a few cannot be bothered
to find out the proper method of unsubscribing.  I'm not talking about
the people who can't unsubscribe because of a mail forwarding problem.
No, I'm talking about the people who decide that they're bored with
the list and that they're going to respond to one of my messages with
a snippy little phrase like "unsubscribe me".  I used to respond to
these micro nastygrams with "unsubscribe yourself".  That policy wasn't
sustainable, though, and so I finally came up with a canned message
that reminds the offender of the correct method for unsubscribing.

The real problem here isn't the rude or clueless people who treat me
like a servant, but rather the laws of statistics who make such people
inevitable.  In running a moderate-sized list on the Internet (5000
subscribers is no longer a large list, lists with 100,000 or more
now being common), I have personal relationships, however tenuous,
with all of those 5000 people.  With a turnover of 100 per month,
that's 6000 people in the course of a given year.  Every one of those
people is milliseconds away from me, and so even a 97% good-behavior
rate, which would be striking in most contexts, is not enough to
save me from a steady stream of small annoyances.  I don't tolerate
small annoyances all that well, as may be obvious, and what's most
intolerable about them is their inescapability.  You probably heard
the lecture about the mice who get electric shocks randomly versus the
mice who get electric shocks when they fail a complex cognitive task.
It's the mice who get the random shocks who go crazy, and getting
those snippy little messages from soon-to-be-ex-subscribers is like

Part III. Cliches

(15) The Fake Little Laugh That Screams "Bad Acting"

I watch TV only in hotel rooms.  When I stay in a hotel I tell myself
that I'm an anthropologist, and that it's my duty as an intellectual
to know what's on television.  Don't get me wrong -- some of it is
good.  The X-Files is great.  NYPD Blue was great for years until it
ran out of things to say and turned into a right-wing cartoon.  The
Simpsons used to be great and is still alright.  I never understood
Seinfeld, but okay.  Still, I'm aware that television has an awful
lot of channels these days, and a fixed number of advertising and
cable-subscription dollars somehow have to fill an awful lot of
channel-hours with programming, day after day, night after night.
So it's inevitable that most of it is junk, and that some of it is
actively evil.

But we don't need to get into that.  The badness of most television
doesn't really piss me off, and I don't look down on people who watch
television unless you count the people who actually believe that Fox
News is fair and balanced.  That's scary.  I'll tell you what pisses
me off, though, and it's something you may never have noticed.  It's
a little laugh that bad actors do.  They're sitting down, usually,
having a serious dramatic conversation, often for purposes of
narrative exposition.  One of the actors gets reflective, maybe
looking back on some regret, and, pausing, gives a little laugh,
with a glottal stop in it, like a "huh".  The laugh is supposed to
convey mild surprise at oneself, or maybe chagrin.  Like the cop is
talking to the father of the murder victim, and the father says, I
guess, huh, I guess I wasn't paying much attention.  But it doesn't
work.  I mean, it *really* doesn't work.  Why?  Laughter is supposed
to be spontaneous, but the bad actor's little "huh" is the most
unspontaneous thing in the world.  Now that I notice it, I see
it everywhere.  It's the radioactive tracer that makes me realize
that I am wasting my life by watching fourth-rate TV acting.  But
now I am wasting my life by *writing about* fourth-rate TV acting.
So I'll stop.

(16) The Word "Aggressive" Used As If It Were a Good Thing

When did "aggressive" become a good thing?  Now you have engineers
boasting, in the Silicon Valley equivalent of simian grunting and
screeching, about their "aggressive" technology, by which they mean
that they have pushed the limits of what can be done with it.  The
word is particularly loved of sportswriters (for whom it generally
means what it's supposed to, even though they seem to regard it is a
good thing anyway) and by financial people (for whom it is generally
pure posing).  Here are some financial examples, from a couple days'
newspapers in early September:

  ... is a fairly conservative use of options as distinct from the
  more aggressive speculative purchase of call options ...

  The aggressive dumping of shares raised the specter that stock
  prices, which had rebounded in spring after a yearlong slide, are
  on the verge of a new free fall.

  Interbrew, the Belgian brewer, issued an aggressive justification of
  its DM3.5bn (Dollars 1.6bn) purchase of Beck's yesterday, insisting
  that it had proved its doubters wrong in many previous acquisitions.

Then you have cases where the word is clearly meant in its hyperbolic
sense, but somehow slops back into the literal range, carrying
implications that the speaker doesn't intend:

  The companies say the aggressive marketing will give them contracts
  with dealers who are worried that firms known for low-end bikes will
  win the bidding.

  Webster Bank, whose aggressive acquisition strategy in the 1990s
  transformed a tiny Waterbury thrift into one of the state's largest
  banks, is on the march again.

  What we're seeing now may signal a somewhat less aggressive approach
  than we saw under the Clinton administration but should not be taken
  as a sign that under the Bush administration, antitrust enforcement
  will be dormant.

Here is a strange one, from a NY Times review of a TV show about art:

  In the fourth hour, John McEnroe materializes to point out
  the improbable connections between art and tennis, his image
  flip-flopping with aggressive graphics by Barbara Kruger on
  the theme of "Consumption".

"Aggressive", perhaps, is replacing "edgy", whatever that meant.
And here is one of my favorites, from the sports pages:

  There is a lot to like about Tampa Bay, from the cool leadership
  of Tony Dungy to the clutch kicking of Martin Gramatica, and all
  that goes between.  Their aggressive offseason has converted some
  skeptics, but a couple of acquisitions aren't the only reason to
  buy the Bucs.

I hope you had an aggressive offseason too.

The problem with the word "aggressive" used in this way is, obviously,
that it implies, hopefully falsely, that a real human being is the
object of the aggression.  Find another word, guys!

(17) Anything Called "The Insider's Guide"

Over many years a pattern has slowly dawned on me: anything that
is called "the insider's guide" will be, far from the real insider's
guide, a superficial public relations exercise.  Try it for yourself
and see.  Isn't this a paradox?  If you think about it for a minute,
you'll realize what the problem is.  The phrase "the insider's guide"
is ambiguous.  Is the "insider's guide" *for* an insider or *by*
an insider?  Well, it can't be *for* an insider, because an insider
doesn't *need* a guide.  But it can't be *by* an insider, either,
because nobody who's really an insider is ever going to be idiot
enough to publish a guidebook declaring themselves to be an insider.

"The Insider's Guide", therefore, is invariably produced for people
who are so wrapped up in outsider-consciousness (which is a state
of mind, albeit a self-fulfilling one, not a real position in
the world) that they haven't a clue what insiderdom would even be
like.  Only such people would trust something that calls itself the
"insider's guide".

This situation might be contrasted to the outstanding Rough Guide
tourist books, whose authors make no claim to be insiders, and who
to the contrary project a strong sense that travelers are a community
who are too busy enjoying travel to get into any ego trips about it.
They present their opinions *as* opinions and not as the exclusionary
information of insiders.

(18) Being Told "I'm Sorry You're Having Problems"

I was stuck in an airport once, needing to make a phone call and
bereft of a cell phone.  I found the nearest bank of pay phones,
and in the middle of it was an exceedingly high-tech phone with a
computer screen.  Having nothing better to do, I decided to try to
use it.  I picked up the handset and tried to place a call, whereupon
the computer screen started displaying an infinite loop of nonsensical
error messages.  I tried several variations but kept running into
the problem.  In a fit of altruism I used the phone to call 611, the
number for pay phones repairs, and told the person very politely
that maybe someone might want to come out and repair this high-tech
pay phone.  Whereupon the operator informed me that, no, that was an
ordinary pay phone.  I said, um, it looks completely different from
all the others, has a big computer screen on it, and proclaims itself
in big letters to be the TechnoTouch Z-9000 or whatever it was.  But
rather than acknowledge this data, the operator simply informed me
again that, no, that was an ordinary pay phone, that nothing was wrong
with it, and that if I was having problems then perhaps it was best if
I used a different phone.

There it was: "you're having problems".  This is the formula for
pretending to apologize while insinuating that the person that you are
non-apologizing to is a feeble person who is responsible for whatever
problems there might be.  This is so obnoxious.  Now, I do know
where it comes from, having worked in a couple of jobs that required
me to deal with "the public".  It comes from the fact that a certain
proportion of "the public" use customer-service people as a captive
audience to inflict whatever feeble dramas are going on in their
heads.  So people who deal with "the public" have evolved a repertoire
of defense mechanisms that they apply to everyone whether they deserve
it or not.  This is one of the downsides of mass society, where
institutions arise that constantly bring people into contact in the
most superficial, instrumental, rule-bound, disembedded, transient

(19) The "Thoughtful Executive" Cliche in Business Ads

I am a dedicated reader of business publications, but I have had
little enough actual involvement in business (enough to have a clue,
but not enough to be rich) that I experience it as another planet.
Among the most irritating of that planet's conventions is a kind of
advertisement in which models who are supposed to represent business
people are presented in "thoughtful" poses.  You've seen them: the
business guy is shown holding his chin (it's usually a guy, and
usually with distinguished-looking silver hair) as if his lower jaw
might fall off.  He's thinking, or so we are told, "how can I find
the right mutual fund?" or "what enterprise solution is strategic for
growing market share?" or some such cliche.

Their utter lack of imagination aside, what I find interesting
about these ads is their straightforward attempt to script the
thought processes of the reader.  That is what all sales pitches
do, especially in the business world where selling can be a long and
complicated process of getting inside someone's head and designing
language that fits precisely into the receptors you find there.
In this sense, the chin-grasping, thoughtful-look-into-the-distance
advertisement symbolizes a much larger pattern.  Business people
are well aware that their thought processes are being scripted, and
many of them are connoisseurs of the process.  They like being sold.
They know exactly what's going on.  And that's what's so striking
about these ads: by contrast with the subliminal manipulations of
consumer ads, they make the process explicit.

Of course, other business-ad cliches abound.  One is the group
picture with the silver-haired senior executive attended by a junior
executive, invariably black, who is standing behind him and looking
at a piece of paper over his shoulder.  But don't get me started on
that one.

(20) Stereotyped Rhetorical Questions in PR Jargon

I remember the first time that a headlight went out on my car.  I had
never spent one second thinking about headlights before, so I had no
idea how illegal it was to drive with only one headlight.  In fact,
I had no idea how *common* it was, even though I had been driving for
fifteen years.  So I ventured onto the highway with my one headlight,
and I watched the oncoming cars to see if any of them had a headlight
out.  To my surprise, I found that cars driving with one headlight
were quite common, certainly more than couple percent of the total.
I had never noticed this before, and I have never noticed it since.

Well, this is another story like that.  Consider the following quote
from someone who had been interviewed by a newspaper:

  Will there be failures?  Of course.  Will everything work
  perfectly?  Never.  That's why we have redundancy and backup.

Then consider these:

  Are they [Microsoft] a gorilla?  Absolutely.

  Is it our job to present the president's position on Capitol Hill?
  Yes, and, frankly, we do it unabashedly.

  Are we interested in creating a community of people who know each
  other and are organized?  Absolutely.

  Do I think Apple shipped [OSX] with far too many problems?
  Absolutely.  Do I think it's Apple's responsibility to fix them,
  rather than that of "the community"?  Most assuredly.

  Was it a strategic blunder to lose Jeffords?  Sure.  Jim Jeffords
  was always an honest, honorable moderate Republican, and I am sure
  would have liked to stay that way.

Never mind the tricky smear in that last quote.  What is it that's
so annoying about this use of rhetorical questions?  The problem can't
be with rhetorical questions in general.  They're just a grammatical
form like any other.  Part of the problem, perhaps, is the use of
a rhetorical question in order to avoid responsibility for the way
you frame an issue.  Consider what these quotes would sound like as
straightforward assertions:

  There will be failures.  Not everything will work perfectly.
  That's why we have redundancy and backup.

  Microsoft is a gorilla.

  It is our job to present the president's position on Capitol Hill,
  and, frankly, we do it unabashedly.
  We are interested in creating a community of people who know each
  other and are organized.

  Apple shipped [OSX] with far too many problems.  It's Apple's
  responsibility to fix them, rather than that of "the community".

  It was a strategic blunder to lose Jeffords.  Jim Jeffords was
  always an honest, honorable moderate Republican, and I am sure
  would have liked to stay that way.

Imagine how most of these would sound when quoted out of context.
Some of them, for example, can be recontextualized to sound like
boasts.  In other cases, the rhetorical question softens the impact
of a confession, placing the emphasis on the speaker's courage in
owning up to a mistake rather than on the failings that made the
confession necesssary.

To be fair, in some cases the speaker really is responding to an
assertion that has been put by someone else, and if the assertion
wasn't fair then we can't expect anyone to reassert it in their own
voice.  But even then, the speaker is simply refusing responsibility
for the way the issue was framed, rather than explaining what was
wrong with it.

In the end, what's most annoying is having to confront this heavily
stylized variant of the English language.  It would resemble the
court dialects of some other languages if it weren't so mechanical
and instrumental.  Life would be better if everyone could be real.

(21) Advertisements That Say "Over 43" When They Mean "44"

"Annoying" isn't the word for advertisements that say things like
"over 43" when they mean "44".  Nor does "silly" quite capture it.
At first one might be tempted to dismiss this formula as advertising
hyperbole of a particularly low-rent sort.  But I think it goes deeper
than that.  Ever since the days of Edward Bernays, a parallel language
has arisen of professional "communications" that converts all thought
patterns into associations among blurry commonplaces.  From this
perspective, the precision of "44" is intolerable.  Much better to
give the listener the blurry sense of muchness conveyed by the word
"over".  "Think of it, *over* 43!"  That way, you're not just telling
people that it's 44 (in fact you're telling them less than that); you
are telling them how to *feel* about the fact that it's 44.  The point
is not that feelings are bad.  What's bad is when reason is blurred
and replaced with equally blurry feelings that aren't grounded in any
real experience.

(22) Meaningless Technical Phrases on Consumer Electronics Gear

Consumer electronics gear is routinely decorated with technical
phrases that are certain to be meaningless to the average person.
A recent visit to Circuit City yielded a sample of these meaningless
phrases, as follows: "digital direct progressive scan", "ferro-fluid
cooled tweeters", "super t-bass", "variable attenuation control
system", "super woofer bi-wiring", "digital optical output", "direct
linear conversion", and "enhanced compulink control system".

Now, I realize that some of these phrases might mean something to
engineers, and maybe to serious audiophiles as well.  But I've taken
actual courses in electronics, unlike 95% of the population, and if
I don't know what they mean (and, please, I don't want to know) then
there is no good reason to be printing them on equipment meant for
normal people.

There are books to be written about the cultural role of techno
jargon.  For example, where do they get the meaningless jargon in the
Star Trek TV shows, and how do the actors speak their lines without
cracking up?  Then there is the sense of power that many people feel
when they utter a word that marks their membership in some club that
others don't belong to.  (This works just as well with the jargon of
social theory.)

But the techno phrases on the consumer electronics aren't like that.
The point isn't that anyone will understand them, but precisely that
they won't.  The electronics companies are selling intangibles for the
most part, since few people have any idea how to test the equipment.
So the jargon marks an empty space where people can project an occult
concept of "quality".

(23) "We're Being Asked to Do More With Less"

If I understand right, the phrase "doing more with less" originates
with Buckminster Fuller, a mid-20th century designer whose supposed
genius has always struck me as spurious.  But Fuller's not to blame
for the main use to which his phrase is put.  "We're being asked to
do more with less" is *the* stock phrase that managers use when they
tell their subordinates that they are being expected, well, to do more
with less.

What is so infuriating about this phrase?  To start with, it's the
word "ask", which is a euphemism for "tell".  Many people tolerate the
euphemism because they don't want any unhappy displays of power, but
I think it is better to use words like "compel" in order to make clear
that you're taking responsibility for your exercise of authority.  Of
course, you don't have to say it in a way that conveys sadistic glee,
unless you do take sadistic glee in it.

What's also annoying is the way the phrase positions potential
objectors.  If you disagree with the idea of doing more with less, it
intimates, you aren't creative, aren't willing to take responsibility,
and so on.

Even more annoying is the idea that, from the perspective of those
on high, our whole being down here in the trenches can summed up with
the amount we consume (i.e., too much) and the amount we produce (i.e.,
too little).

But most annoying of all is the phrase's uselessness as a concrete
guide to action.  Real leadership doesn't say "more" and "less".
Real leadership provides a substantive vision of what the organization
is about, and what fundamentally it *does*.  It provides qualitative
goals and meaningful values.  Telling people to "do more with less"
isn't just a cliche.  It is an obnoxious refusal of leadership.

Part IV. Bad Design

(24) Bad Information Design in Scholarly Books

I often read scholarly books, that being part of my job.  And
most scholarly books come with endnotes.  This "scholarly apparatus"
is indispensible if you are trying to map a new field, and so I spend
much time referring back and forth between the text and endnotes.
(I don't care about the choice between footnotes and endnotes, and
I understand the publishers' concern that footnotes depress sales.)

Now, properly designed books make this flipping-back-and-forth easy
by printing things like "Endnotes for pages 137-144" at the top of
each endnote page.  What pisses me off is the majority of publishers
that *don't* do this.  In fact it's doubly annoying: they make you
flip around to remember what number chapter you're reading, which
makes you feel stupid because you can't remember the number from
one minute to the next, or else you have to exercise great cognitive
effort in order to keep the number in mind when you'd rather be trying
to understand what's in the book, and then they make you flip around
in the endnotes to find the endnotes for that chapter number.  Ack!

There are plenty of other ways to present scholarly notes, as
designers of more arts-oriented scholarly books have shown for years.
But publishers, well, publishers have their habits.

(25) Computers That Can't Learn What Needs to Be Swapped In

One of the pillars of computer science is the "memory hierarchy":
programmers and users would like to address a larger universe of data
than they could afford to accommodate with memory chips, and so the
data is shuffled among different kinds of memory, each with its own
trade-off of speed and cost.  The fastest memory is the "registers"
inside the processor, the second-fastest memory is in the processor's
onboard cache, the third-fastest is in separate memory chips, the
next-fastest memory is virtual memory on hard drives, and so on.

Central to this philosophy is that the hierarchy should be made
transparent, so that a programmer can address data freely without
knowing where the data resides in the hierarchy at any given moment.
The result is a "virtual address space" that can extend nowadays to
billions of bytes, or trillions, with no end in sight.

The annoying problem with the memory hierarchy is that the "swapping"
process by which data is moved up and down the hierarchy is not always
transparent to the user.  On my Powerbook, for example, the hard drive
has to be spun up every time the operating system wants to flash the
screen (I turn off audio alerts), or whenever I want to change the
audio volume (when listening to MP3's or whatever).  I use the "energy
saver" control panel to make the hard drive spin down pretty quickly,
though, since the sound of the spinning drive is annoying.  As a
result, every time I hit the end of a buffer in Emacs, the machine
stops dead for a few seconds while it spins up the hard drive.  This
is even more annoying than the whirring drive, and so I am always
fiddling with the hard-drive spin-down setting in order to find a
tolerable compromise.

One solution to this problem is to suffer until memory becomes cheap.
A more immediate solution is to let the programmers write optional
code that strategizes about which data, and particularly which code,
should be swapped in when.  This code could be adaptive, so that my
Powerbook could learn that I hit a lot of alerts, especially when
running Telnet (I run Emacs on a Unix box over a Telnet connection).
This is harder than it sounds, because it requires the machine to have
names for all of the coherent hunks of memory that might want to get
swapped in under certain conditions, but it's not impossible.

In any case, the principle generalizes: there's no such thing as
"virtual" anything.  "Virtual memory" is a rough idealization that is
okay for a first pass, but not for a serious system.

(26) Dryers in Commercial Laundromats

I have traveled a fair amount, and have lived in several apartment
buildings, so I've had more experience with coin-operated laundromats
than I want to think about.  In my experience the number one problem
with coin-operated laundromats is that the clothes dryers are too hot.
They scorch the sheets.  I have a closet full of yellow sheets and
pillow cases that got burned up by dryers.  Setting the dryers on
the lowest setting doesn't seem to make a difference.  Is there a
constituency that feels ripped off if the clothes aren't too hot to
touch when the dryer turns off, or what?

In Europe they have solved these problems with a complicated system
of standards that match the clothes to the washer and dryer settings.
That's Europe for you.  The Europeans also solve these problems with
amazingly functional personal washers and dryers that are designed
for cramped apartments.  Europeans have internalized the idea of
being densely woven together into a functioning society, which for
all its claustrophobia has definite advantages over the peculiar mix
of individualism and communitarianism of American culture.

(27) Useless Rubber Buttons on Remote Controls

Immense research has gone into buttons on electronic gear, and yet
most buttons are terrible.  The worst are those rubbery buttons that
are commonly found on television remote controls.  For one thing, the
rubber compresses, so you don't know whether you are squeezing the
rubber or depressing the button.  But more importantly, the button
provides you with no auditory or kinaesthetic feedback about whether
you have successfully registered a button-push.  (The green indicators
that pop up temporarily on the screen are no use.)  So you end up
exerting much more force than you should have to, and pushing the
button multiple times, inevitably entering something different from
what you wanted.

(28) Air Intake Vents Next to the Loading Dock

Having been trained as an engineer, I tend to relate to architecture
as a way of solving the mass of practical problems that comes with
living or working in a real building.  In my head I know that this
is wrong, and that architecture also has a symbolic function that
is just as important as anything practical (and in many ways just as
practical).  Even so, I often have experiences with actually existing
architecture that reinforce me in my practical-minded biases.

Take, for example, the placement of air intake vents, a matter of some
interest in these times of anthrax-consciousness.  When you have a
building with primitive climate controls and windows that don't open,
most of the air that people breathe comes into the building through
vents.  So it matters where those vents are located.  But you can't
very well put the unsightly vents on the front of the building, so
they often end up on the back.  But what else is in the back of a
building?  The loading dock!  And what happens next to the loading
dock?  Big trucks pull up and idle their engines!  Okay, so all
the air that people breathe comes from a place where big trucks are
blasting out diesel exhaust.  Sometimes you'll actually see a sign
on the building telling the drivers not to idle, just for this reason.
But that hardly solves the problem.  If the loading dock is actually
in operation, after all, the exhaust fans in every office in the
building will pull air through the loading-dock doors, down the
hallways, and under the office doors.  I once worked in a building
that housed a couple of television studios, so that artist types were
constantly out on the loading dock painting their sets with spray
paint.  I went home with a headache several times, and when the powers
that be finally put up a little paper sign asking the artist types to
desist, the sign decayed and disappeared in a couple of weeks.

I am happy to say, however, that among all of the annoyances in the
present list, this is the one problem that is coming the closest to
actually getting solved in the world.  Green architecture is probably
the leading edge of architecture right now, especially in Europe, and
even large companies are succumbing to numbers that purport to show
that things like fresh air and natural light make people quantifiably
more productive.  Whole centuries of settled practice need to get
destroyed before the green architects can institutionalize their
practices.  But the design magazines (more than the architecture
magazines) are full of their progress, so there is hope.

(29) Hotel Minibars

I stopped drinking alcohol several years ago, and I haven't had the
faintest desire to drink ever since.  Nonetheless, I don't like having
alcohol around.  I don't even like going into a bar.  So I especially
don't like walking into a hotel room and finding a noisy refrigerator
stocked with booze.  It's so obnoxious.  I don't mind the hotel trying
to make a little money.  What bothers me is that real alcoholics,
people who have to make a fresh resolution not to drink every day of
their lives, check into hotel rooms in large numbers.  And the moment
when you arrive in a hotel room is usually not your strongest moment
of the day.  You've just been through an airport and city traffic and
had your nerve endings scoured clean off, and the last thing you need
is a whole refrigerator of alcohol humming away eighteen inches from
the end of your bed.

I make a big point of resisting the hotel minibar.  If it has a lock
on it, I lock it and drop off the key at the front desk at my first
opportunity, but only after I've managed to turn the stupid thing
off.  Turning off the hotel-room refrigerator is often an adventure
in itself, given that the electric socket is usually behind the
refrigerator and surrounded by cabinetry.  It's even worse when the
refrigerator has no lock, which is just egregious.  In those cases
I have been known to call the front desk and have them remove the
entire contents of the refrigerator from the room.  It's extreme, but
not half as extreme as having the alcohol there in the first place.

(30) Value-Added Marketing

I like old photographs, not because I can find any interest in the
formal aspects of photography, but because I like to see the way that
people lived.  One thing that always strikes me is how simple the
objects are.  Cars were cars.  Houses were houses.  Hand tools were
hand tools.  I don't mean that things were plain, because every form
carries a meaning and good industrial design goes back a long way.
I mean, rather, that the objects had few parts and few functions.
Objects began to get complicated in the 1950s, when cars and
refrigerators acquired ridiculous numbers of gadgets, such as the
device in the refrigerator door that actually warmed the butter so
it wouldn't be unpleasantly hard.  (Before refrigerators, people
just left their butter on the shelf.)  But even that development was
so obviously haphazard and simplistic that it had its own charm --
a creeping featurism, as computer people would later call it, that
signified prosperity when prosperity was a new and unfamiliar state.

The insidious development came later, very quietly, starting in the
1970s but then pervasively in the 1980s.  It was called value-added
marketing, and it was the thoroughgoing application of the marketing
perspective that was revolutionizing American business at that time.
Here is the concept.  Let's say you're selling something simple, like
a hammer, and let's say that research and market experience show that
people are willing to pay $3 for it.  Now, make a list of everything
you could possibly do to that hammer that anyone could ever possibly
want: make it out of different materials, give it a comfy handle,
make it in colors, add extra gadgets to it, sell nails along with it,
sell a carrying case along with it, throw in some hammering lessons or
a book about woodworking, motorize it, set the handle at an angle,
give it a rubber handgrip, make the business end bigger, call it
something else besides a hammer, put some fancy packaging on it, sell
it door-to-door, deliver it overnight, provide a lifetime warranty,
write some words on it, make it heavier, make it lighter, get a famous
designer to design it, get a famous carpenter to endorse it, give it
a fancy claw that is capable of extracting a wider range of nails,
put a storage compartment in the handle, bundle it with some other
tools, and so on.  Then for every single item on your list, find out
the answers to two questions: (a) how much would it cost us to add
that feature to a hammer, and (b) how much more money would people
be willing to pay for a hammer that had that feature.  Some features
will prove to be money-losers, others will break even, others will
make a slight profit, and a few will make enough profit to make the
investment more worthwhile than simply putting the money in the bank.
Add to the hammer every single feature that makes a sufficient profit.

That's the formula.  Imagine applying that formula to everything,
and I mean everything, that anyone ever buys.  That's what happened
during the growth phase of value-added marketing.  Things got more
complicated during that time, more featureful.  And more expensive.

Now, if you know any economics then you might ask what the problem is.
If people are willing to pay more money for a feature then they must
want it, right?  Several responses.  First of all, what the marketers
investigated is not which features make people's lives better, but
which features caused them to part with more money.  Nobody who is
standing next to a store shelf has perfect knowledge of how much
better their life will be if they get a hammer that's a different
color.  The marketer's job is to get inside that gap -- the gap
between the images conjured in the store and the realities experienced
at home -- effectively reverse engineering the consumer's thought
processes by determining exactly what triggers the buying reflex.

Then there's the insidiousness of it.  You see it when people get
laid off from work: the level of consumption that they've gotten used
to, and the painful process of ramping down their lifestyle to fit
their straitened means.  The million value-added features were like
the heat turned up under the proverbial frog: one small increment
after another of extra stuff that you didn't really need.  (Of course,
a real frog will jump out of the pot long before the water gets hot,
but people aren't that smart.)  Things got slowly and imperceptibly
more expensive, offering one small enticement after another.  What
gets lost is the opportunity cost.  If 85% of the products we buy
were rolled back to their feature sets in 1940, how much earlier
could we retire?  How much more time could we spend doing human things
that don't necessarily require us to consume value-added commodities?

Finally there's the design aspect of it.  Good design is not a matter
of piling on features, but of a single clear conception worked through
in a coherent way.  I have nothing against design that investigates
all of the ways that things are embedded in our lives and responds to
its discoveries with fresh thinking about form and function.  That's
what good design is, and the current fashion for design couldn't
make me happier.  The problem with value-added marketing is that
it conceptualizes features as discrete add-ons and not as facets of
a coherent whole.  Good design is simple, but the objects driven by
value-added marketing are, in a deep sense, complicated.


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