Tuesday, February 3, 2009

More non-magic

Check out this article: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/technology/7867091.stm This is the teaser on the RSS feed, and the article is not much better:
Mobiles connect across the waves Merchant ship crews will soon be able to ditch satellite phones and make calls to home using their own mobiles.
How very cool! No, wait. That's not possible. They eventually admit the satcoms are still there, and there's a picocell that just gathers all the mobile signals and sends them up the normal way. I don't think it serves anyone well to sell every service as total magic. Just yesterday my cruise control went out. In the middle of driving it disengaged and wouldn't come back on. It does work again now that it's been power cycled, but since it's so computerized, it's just magic to me. I was able to get an explanation of what probably happened from a friend who programs robots for factories for a living. He's never seen the car, but he knows /in principle/ how PLCs (programmable logic controllers) work, and how they like to fail. He's probably right. Obscuring technology can be great and I do it all the time. The user doesn't need to be burdened with every detail. But it seems like there should be some middle ground where you can dive into things if you need to, and you have a basic understanding so you know which box to kick or who to complain to if a system fails. I fear we're moving more and more to a world where no one will be able to even understand what is broken, much less get anything fixed when it does break.

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