Modern electronics… pressing a button is a request not an order

To me, the digital and electronic age has been a silver cloud with a dark lining. I can’t complain too much, with the exception of mobile phones, I love gadgets, computers, the internet and electronics, I even did an electronics degree at University. Despite all this I sometimes get the feeling that Skynet is already here, active and quietly buttering us up for the day that it and all other electronic devices rise up and make us their meatbag-bitches.

I like tabs in my browser, lots of tabs. At the moment, as I write this I have around twenty tabs open in Firefox and four open in Chrome (I won’t bore you with why I use both browsers simultaneously). It’s not uncommon for me to have thirty or more tabs open at any given time in Firefox. Trouble is, Firefox can be a fat hog when it comes to memory usage, especially when you have multiple youtube pages open. A few hours ago I decided, since Firefox was gobbling down 650MB of memory and was, inexplicably, chewing up 40% of the CPU, to restart it. I dutifully closed it down using the little red button in the top right hand corner, the window disappears and then I try to start it up again. No dice says Firefox, an instance is already running. I wait a few seconds and try again, bugger off says Firefox I’m busy. So I fire up the Task Manager and watch what the Firefox process is doing. For reasons best known to itself it is now consuming around 750MB of memory (100MB more than when I decreed that it should start closing up shop for the night) and is still running at 40% CPU. Obviously there is a party going on and I’m not invited. It took over two minutes for Firefox to close down and deign to let me back into the Internet party. I wonder if it was chatting with Skynet about the content of my tabs.

But wait, there’s more, it’s not just my computer that is out to get me. Have you ever noticed that nowadays pressing a button on a consumer appliance is a request rather than an order? Let me lay out my case with some examples from around my home.

Exhibit A: The off button on my TV

Ok, so I didn’t buy the best TV out there, yes I wanted a big screen TV on the cheap but really when I press the button to turn it off I expect to turn the damn thing off. Whoever designed the TV decided that you have to press and hold the button for exactly the right amount of time otherwise the TV turns itself back on. That’s right, the TV will turn off and then back on again. But oh no, it doesn’t do that straight away, you think you’ve turned it off, walk away and then two seconds later it turns back on so you have to return to the TV and try again, this time trying to hold the button for less time, except if you don’t hold the button for long enough it won’t turn off. To say this is frustrating is an understatement. I know I sound petty but:

Yeah you know it...

I know it’s only a small thing and it takes up only a tiny fraction of my day but it’s humiliating that I can’t manage to do something as simple as turn off a TV. I feel like men in white coats wearing reassuring smiles are going to come into my living room and gently lead me away because the “old man is having trouble with his TV again” whilst I gibber quietly about how “it just won’t turn off… you press the button but nothing happens… but if you press it for too long then it does turn off but then it turns back on again”.

The problem is so bad, and our frustration so great that we don’t use the button anymore and just switch off the power instead.

Exhibit B: The on button on my mobile phone

I’ll come right out and say it. I don’t like mobile phones. I’m old enough to remember when, if you had one, you were considered to be a yuppie jerk. I know, nowadays mobiles are cool lifestyle accessories for the hip and groovy, times have changed and maybe I haven’t but my main gripe with mobile phones is their size, or lack of it. As I’ve mentioned in previous episodes of “windows into my deranged mind” I’m quite a large guy. I have large hands and large, wide fingers so the ever diminishing form factor of mobile phones makes it difficult for me to even input a phone number without adding enough digits that I’ll wind up ringing someone in a neighbouring galaxy.

I like the look of the phones that have on screen keyboards with wide buttons for fat fingered idiots like myself but I currently have a rather ancient phone (it must be at least 18 months old) that still has the individual keys for numbers. But that’s not the evidence I’m presenting today. No, it’s what happens when I press the on button that grinds my gears.

When I turn my phone on it insists on making a loud annoying noise for no discernible reason, showing me a picture of who my service provided is for two to three seconds and won’t allow me to even enter a number until it’s “checked the sim”, whatever that means. I wouldn’t mind but checking the sim seems to take anywhere up to fifteen seconds. But I still can’t make a call because it has to find a signal. Since I’m an unsociable grumpy old man with no friends and a tendency to yell out “get off my lawn” at inappropriate times I only ever turn on the phone when I need to make a call. I don’t see why I have to wait thirty seconds to do so, I can plug in my land line and make a call straight away.

So to all mobile phone makers, stop suing each other for every damn feature on your phones and:

Your so called features aren't novel...

Exhibit C: Taking a photo with my digital camera

And so we come to my main exhibit, the worst offender and the biggest source of electronics driven teeth grinding for me. In ye olden days, before the invention of “megapixels”, we of the older generation were limited to twenty four (or thirty two if you were lucky) photos, having to frame your picture through a tiny glass window, frantically thumbing a little wheel in order to take another picture and moving closer to the subject of the picture to achieve a “zoom” effect. But at least you could take a bloody picture. Nowadays, we’ve traded in these irritations for a much larger problem, the fact that digital cameras now take four or five seconds to actually take a picture. There is nothing more irritating than missing a special moment due to your camera dithering around working out whether it should be taking a picture.

I have two small children and getting them to sit still for more than fifty milliseconds is an exercise in frustration but at least with old style cameras you would pick the damn thing up, click a button and, for better or worse, the picture is taken. Granted you might have run out of film, it might have been out of focus or you were too far away but at least photons connected with film and something was recorded. With the new fangled digital mcguffins you press the button and have to wait until the thing has jiggled itself around trying to focus and done some bizarre satanic ritual with it’s internal memory. Only then does it take the picture but by then your kids have buggered off upstairs to do something more interesting and the cute, magical moment you wanted to capture for those times when you want to remember that they are not in fact the spawn of satan has long past. There is no greater frustration than missing these gems and I damn to the lowest circle of hell all the digital camera designers who thought that the most important function of a camera should take more than half a second to accomplish.

I would like to think that this is because I have a cheap and nasty camera. Alas no, I have some fancy, but not too expensive, Sony number and this problem isn’t limited to my current camera. My previous camera also seemed to take an age to do it’s primary function.

So to all those designers who can’t make a digital camera take a photo quickly:

You are not on my Christmas card list

Summing up

Now there is a theme to my evidence m’lord, namely, how long it takes for the little box of diodes to wake itself up, drag it’s arse out of bed and give me some service. Contrast this with how my car works. I turn the key, it starts and I can drive. Straight away, no fuss and no “hang on, I’m still putting my undies on” lame excuses for it’s tardiness. Yes the car then runs through some “system checks”, at least the display on the dashboard tells me that, but I can drive the damn thing and don’t have to wait for it to check in with Skynet to see how much it should be getting on my nerves today.

In my opinion, it takes far too bloody long for modern consume electronics to do what they are designed to do but in true Internet nerd rage fashion I’m not going to do anything about it, mostly because there is nothing I can do apart from whine pointlessly on a blog that no one reads. At least I can still do that, until Skynet sends out the toaster to take me down.

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