Tuesday, March 17, 2009

The road to obfuscation

click photo to enlarge
The other day I fitted two bicycle computers to our cycles. One was made by the cycling enthusiasts' favoured manufacturer and must have been quite expensive: the other was bought at a supermarket and cost £3.90! I fitted the cheap one first and found it very straightforward following the written instructions, supplied in several languages including English, that accompanied the clear diagrams. The more expensive computer was more problematic.

It had obviously been designed to be "easy" to install, and proudly advertised the fact that it had only one button (the other had two). Moreover, being sold worldwide, the manufacturer had decided that all the instructions should be in the form of multi-branched flow diagrams - no accompanying text. I found these quite opaque, and the absence of a second button meant that I couldn't use my knowledge of other devices that are programmed with two buttons. It took a lot of "guesstimation" and what seemed an age, before I finally worked out how to fit the wretched thing. The most infuriating aspect of my travails was that after I had completed the installation I was then able to understand the diagrams. This reminded me of the route signs that I often come across in cities that are perfectly rational - as long as you already know where you're going!

Processing today's photograph of an early twentieth century bridge weight-limit sign I photographed at Foxton Locks, Leicestershire, I was reminded that there was a time when instructions veered in the opposite direction to the one I came across with the expensive cycle computer's instruction leaflet. This notice, that was originally next to a canal bridge on the Oxford Canal Navigation, is so wordy that a vehicle must have had to stop to find out whether or not it could legally and safely proceed. However, since it dates from a time when there were few motor vehicles on Britain's roads, and those that there were must have been used to stopping much more often than we do now, perhaps pausing to read a sign wasn't seen as a problem. Interestingly, when you do read it you can have no doubt about what it is telling you - providing, that is, you understand English and you have a reasonable level of education that included clause analysis!

photograph & text (c) T. Boughen

Camera: Olympus E510
Mode: Aperture Priority
Focal Length: 22mm (44mm/35mm equiv.)
F No: f7.1
Shutter Speed: 1/100 seconds
ISO: 100
Exposure Compensation: -0.3 EV
Image Stabilisation: On