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Graphic of the letters F.Y.I.

Betrayal and Compassion

by Claude Needham Ph.D.

Normally an open letter such as this would start with "To whom it may concern."

Well, that won't work in this case because those to whom it may concern have no power to rectify the situation. They are the hapless victims. Rather this letter is addressed to:

To those who may care,

Let me start with an illustrative story. The other night I received a telephone call from the teenage daughter of a friend. I say teenage, I think she is all of thirteen. Even so, she is bright, inquisitive, self-initiated, and eligible for a dozen scholarships already. She loves getting onto chats and talking with her international "pen-pals". She is engaged in these chats from home many hours each week. But this week she was at a sleep-over and wanted to setup her host's computer so that she and her friend could go on the chat together -- talking with her Spanish friends to practice her Spanish.

She was able to find the web page that contained the necessary software. She was even able to click on the proper hyperlinks to download the software. Three megabytes of horizon opening software lay somewhere on the harddrive of her friend's brother's computer.

Now what?

This is where her phone call to me usually begins. "Uncle Claude," she begins, "the software doesn't work."

"What do you mean the software doesn't work? What is happening to lead you to this conclusion?" Trust me she is bright enough that these are the appropriate questions.

"I downloaded the chat software but it doesn't work," she replied.

"What do you mean it doesn't work?"

"I can't find the yellow happy face," she continues.

"What makes you think there should be one?" "It downloaded. The thermometer thing went just fine." Ah ha I thought, the Netscape download indicator.

"Okay, did you then install the software?" I asked with growing certainty of the usual problem.

"Yes, I downloaded it." she insisted with some concern that I was too dense to hear her the first time.

You see, the problem is this: most, if not all, computer users equate downloading software from the InterNet with installing the software. They honestly don't understand why they can not just start the stuff up and go after the download.

"Well, she is just too dumb," you may be thinking. "If she can't figure out how to install the software, she is just too dumb to use the software." If I could I would start a class action suit against Intel, Microsoft, Netscape, and every other subvocalizing cretin that shares this view. Does the phrase "Let them eat cake" mean anything to you? Well, it should, because in effect this is what you are saying.

"Oh, no. I never said that," you protest. No what you said was, "Why not write a faq to explain it?" LOL. ROFL. HEFY?

If someone can search on the net for a faq, find the faq, download the faq, locate the faq on the computer, load the faq into a text reader, read the faq, understand the jargon in the faq, and then be capable of applying what they learn from the faq....well they don't need this particular faq.

"Well, they can just read the faq on their browser screen," Says the whole unethical computer industry.

I can't accept that it is impossible to write a browser plugin that can act as an installation wizard.

In an idealized world, when someone clicked on an installable file the installation wizard plugin would be invoked.

The wizard would automatically determine what type of software the download was.

The wizard would stuff the raw incoming package into a holding folder.

The wizard would run one or more virus detection programs.

The wizard would unravel the software package and give control of installation to the native setup program.

The wizard would regain control after setup and cleanup the holding directories and return control to the user.

Which part of this is impossible? With the combined talent of the collective community of computer programmers there is some part of this that is impossible?

Out of several hundred individuals that I help in one way or another with computer issues I would say less then 10% could download and install a program off the InterNet without a great deal of help.

"Well, you must collect a particularly stupid bunch of friends." These are not friends. These are folks that call because I've trained myself to walk out of the extreme arrogance that permeates the whole computer industry, the arrogance that, in the past, allowed me to just brush these folks off.

"Well, they should have learned how to do it?" You ask...and just where were they supposed to learn all this?? At your computer shop? The one that sells them a computer, shows them how to get into a few cute programs, and then slam-bam not-even-a-thank-you mam out the door they go leaving a check and/or credit card number? Maybe on your webpage. Dream on. The instructions you believe are so fool-proof fall utterly apart when the user has no idea what a folder or directory is.

"What are they doing with a computer if they are that dumb?" You sold them the computer. If not directly, then indirectly, by supporting the pirating, thoroughly opportunistic computer industry's stand.

There are programs that have made some strides in the direction of helping users use their computers. WinZip is one such program. What about all the others? Well, I'm sure there are others. I use many programs that I like, and feel are very good at the job they do.

At the beginning of this letter I used the address "To those who care." If I had the money, or the power to have others put up the money, I would create an advisory team comprised of Soledad O'Brien, Robert Sheckley, E.J. Gold, Shuki Levi, Richard Hart, and myself (Claude Needham). I would give this team veto power over a team of programmers -- several teams of programmers. I would have this team produce the Software Wizard and I would call that product "Angel". After the product was produced and approved by the consulting team I would give the program lock stock and copyright to the programming team. Let them have the money side. For me it is not a money issue. I would still be writing Big Time Insurance Software, if it was money I wanted.

Why this team?

Why Soledad O'Brien? Yes, she is personally knowledgeable about the web and issues related to being a newbie. But mostly it is her compassion for newbies that I like.

Why Robert Sheckly and E.J. Gold? Both are science fiction writers among other talents, but that is not why. It is maybe part of the how. They have both demonstrated on more than one occasion a profound understanding of the power of instinct, and both are all-but, helpless computer newbies, yet use computers every day and are profoundly compassionate for the cause of justice.

Why Shuki Levi? Well, I happen to know personally that he truly loves children. But that is not the reason. Either Shuki or someone in his organization have a firm finger on the pulse of children and adults. So for issues of color selection, user interface, and distribution I believe he could bring a unique focus into the panel.

Why Richard Hart? He is one of the spookiest programmers I have ever met. No, he isn't the world's greatest programmer. If I had known this was going to be a pissing contest I would have drank more water before coming. Even though he picks up computer languages the way good actors do dialect, it isn't his brain power that I respect the most. Richard has an intuitive, almost precognitive component, to his programming that I have seen in few others.

Why myself? Admittedly I'm not stupid. I have a Ph.D. in Molecular Biophysics. My dissertation was a quantum mechanical treatment of coupled multi-level systems interacting in a bath of electrical and vibrational stimulation. I have a firm background in customer support having been a part of Computer Rescue Squad off and on for almost 20 years now. I'm a synergist and at one point was near the top of the field in Information Theory. I'm a sculptor and pretty darn good block printer. None of these things have any bearing on why I want to be included. I believe I should be included because I care and I'm am boiling mad. Mad to the point of white-hot rage if I allowed myself to get mad instead of trying to correct the situation. It will take the combined weight of the whole team to convince me that the job is done. I'd be like the holdout jurer that refused to vote "yes" just to get the trial over.

Oh yes, I forget that you all (Mr. Big Shot Bill Gates and the rest of the computer industry) think this is much ado about nothing, a mute point in need of no solution. Well, I ask: "Why could this young bright girl not download and install the program, if there is not a problem?"

But then again, I forget: you obviously don't care whether or not she can download and install a program.

That is why I believe you deserve to be sued into abject submission for your crimes against humanity.

Yes, I am over the edge impassioned about this. Prove me wrong. Show me how you are actually empowering creativity rather than enslaving yet another generation of computer-users.

Today I am transferring this article from its 1996 format for use on ScienceFictionMuseum.com. Unfortunately I find the content of this open letter to have even more relevance today than it did five years ago. How sad.

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