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NN/g Home > AskTog > Columns > Separating the men from the Boys Ask Tog, July 10, 1998

Separating the Men from the Toys

Computers are inherently cryptic and complex, with convoluted navigation that must be learned and understood. Only through extreme effort are such natural characteristics overcome.


When I first took up programming, back in the 70s, my mentor, Jef Raskin, counselled me to learn at least two languages, so that I would be able to differentiate between what were general characteristics of computers and specific characteristics of individual languages. As a result, I learned BASIC and LISP, two widely divided endpoints of the programming world.

Now, by learning to fly, I've gained some understanding of the difference between computers and their designers.

Most pilots are men. In fact, when you achieve your wings in the US, the FAA sends you a certificate declaring you an official "Airman." It would seem, on the face of it, that most women just aren't cut out for it. And they aren't, once you come to understand what "it" is--and it has nothing to do with flying.

Men have turned flying into a boys club, just as they've tried to turn computers into a boys club. You remember boys clubs from school. Their rituals were cryptic and complex. Gaining access to the clubhouse, hidden as it was in the woods or down a top-secret alley, was gained through convoluted navigation that had to be learned and understood. And, of course, there was the initiation.

Men have to make a secret out of everything. They succeeded admirably with computers, at least until GUIs came along. They've done pretty well with airplanes, too.

Overcoming Unnecessary Illusions

Just one of the tasks of learning to fly involves learning to overcome landing strip illusions. From the air, runways have a tendency to look alike. For example, last weekend I flew into two airports in succession. One was the former Castle Air Force Base in California, home for years for a fleet of B52 bombers. The runway is 11,000 feet long and 150 feet wide. The next airport was a tiny private field at Harris Ranch, where the runway is a 2800 feet long, but only 30 feet wide.

Illusion #1. When you look down from high in the air, the Harris Ranch runway tends to look longer, because, proportionally, it is long compared to its width.

This illusion seems silly unless you've experienced it. After all the runway at Castle Air Force Base is almost two miles long! The thing is, you see such a runway from a lot further off, when it fills just about as much of the aircraft's windshield as the much smaller field does by the time you're close enough to spot it.

Illusion #2. The next illusion kicks in as you approach the runway. Near the ground, landing at Castle makes you feel like a cockroach landing on a freeway. The runway just keeps getting bigger and bigger and bigger, and you still haven't touched down yet. You have a tendency to turn off the gas when you are still way up in the air. ("I must be down!") This is a bad thing.

Harris Ranch, on the other hand, makes you feel like Godzilla. You touch down when the picture out your window looks just like the field at Castle did when you were still 100 feet in the air. Very disorienting. Very dangerous. Easy to fly the plane right into the ground.

This illusion, too, seems difficult to imagine until you experience it. When I was first starting out, my instructor, Jim Schmidt, alias The Comedian, told me to land at Half Moon Bay South, easily spotted through our aircraft's windshield. I lined up on said runway perfectly, using the hangers that boardered the field to judge my altitude and distance. But as I approached the runway, it just refused to get bigger. Down and down I went, watching the altimeter dive toward sea level, and yet the runway continued to appear as in minature. Then, about the time I became eye-level with a rather bored looking cow, Jim finally told me to "go around."

"Ha, ha," said Jim, "That's actually an airport for radio-controlled model airplanes. Those hangers are only three feet high. The runway is four feet wide and 50 feet long. You would have crashed and burned! Ha, ha, ha, ha."

Some flight instructors have weird and twisted senses of humor. Choose wisely.

Compounding these landing illusions are those formed by runways going uphill, downhill, or, worst, runways with a hump in the middle. (You are only half-way down the runway, can't see over the hump, and the runway appears to be quickly running out. Then, just as you panic, you go over the hump and the rest is revealed.)

Fledgling pilots spend a great deal of their initiation ("training") learning to overcome these illusions through the sheer force of experience. Along the way, their (typically) male mentors guide them through the necessary steps. Most try to avoid having them both end up grease spots on the runway.

Not in 90 years has anyone proposed they fix the problem. Not when the boys are having so much fun learning how to overcome it.

The solution is easy: Just paint two parallel stripes exactly six feet apart down the center of every runway in the world. Add a few additional elements like cross-stripes to mark one quarter of the way, halfway, and three quaters of the way down the runway and you're done.

Pilots would then gauge height based on the standard gap between the stripes, rather than having to read the width of the runway in a book, process that abstract information into a mental model of what the runway "picture" should look like, and apply it to what they actually see out their window, while ignoring the screaming mental voice saying "Go around!"

Such a scheme, of course, is doomed for three very good reasons. First, it doesn't cost enough. Clear Air Turbulance radar costs millions. That's worth doing. A couple of runway stripes costs 2 gallons of paint and a Saturday afternoon. That just doesn't seem cost-defective.

Second, the boys are having fun.

Third, like boys clubs everywhere, they have a strict no-girls policy, and "everybody knows" that girls are not as good as boys at building mental models, particularly ones that make no sense.

MS-DOS takes a Flyer

The aviation world just screams MS-DOS, both figuratively and literally. Figuratively, it's accompanied by unwritten rules--"secret handshakes"--for radio communication, cryptic maps, and numbers, numbers, numbers, where letters and words would do. Literally, the Federal Aviation Administration is still using vacuum tube computers for some air traffic control operations.

Of course, pilots don't have to interface with vacuum tube equipment. All the systems we interact with have been "transistorized," but, as you know, a byte remains a very expensive thing indeed.

The gummint here in these United States is saving a few bucks on said bytes for pilot weather reports. Now, you might think that, in this modern age, were you to point your 400 mhz Pentium 128 meg computer with 18 gig hard disk to the weather service and ask what the wind was like 6000 feet up that they might come back with something intelligible, like "winds from 357 degrees at 15 knots." But, no, that would be too easy. Instead, they come back with 3615. No problem, just multiply the 36 by 10 and you get 360. That's the direction (well, close to the direction). The 15 is the speed, and you don't have to do anything to that, except remember it's in knots, not mph and not kph. If you can just remember that the first two characters are related to wind direction (divided by 10) and the last two are related to speed, you'll probably have it made.

Unless, of course, the weather is bad. 'Cause when the weather is bad--really bad--the wind exceeds 100 knots, and cutting the windspeed down to only the first two digits would be about as useful as cutting the year down to only the first two digits. (Oops, bad example.)

Oh, wait a minute! This one is easy! Since degrees only go to 360, we can only have numbers between 0 and 36 for the direction part of our secret code (degrees/10). So what we'll do, any time the wind is over 100, we'll take that pesky old 100 and divide it in two, resulting in 50, and we'll add that 50 knots per hour to the 36 degrees/10 to get 86 knots-and-degree-things. So a wind of 115 from 357 will be coded as 8615. Got that? You don't? Well, then, I GUESS YOU DON'T GET IN THE CLUB!"

General Aviation (the private plane sector) has been decrying for years the gradual thinning of its ranks, and yet no one has given a single thought to simplifying the system. Even as they add Global Positioning Satellite systems, rather than using the power of the GPS unit's computer to simplify the process, they are managing to make things worse.

General aviation will continue to decline, I'm afraid, as no one is even aware of the problem, let alone working on it. The good thing is, if you can stand the initiation, the skies are just that much clearer.

We were lucky in the computer field that enough economic pressure existed earlier that the boys were forced to share their toys with the girls, and the women, and the men, who didn't want to spend their entire life just trying to get their computers to work. Unfortunately, nothing major has been done to the interface since the mid-eighties (other than the continuing process of making imperfect copies), and computers are getting more and more difficult to learn and use. Soon, only official members of the boy's club will be able to use them again.

So, the next time your company takes delivery on a brand-name, million dollar CD-ROM read-write "juke-box" and no one can figure out how to make it work--as happened at a friend of mine's company recently--don't blame the inherent complexity of computers. It is just boys with their toys, having a little fun, all at your expense.



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