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A PHYSICIST WRITES . . .
I must admit that I like sticking to routine, and don’t much enjoy ‘change’, particularly when it is going to cost me time in managing it and then adjusting to it. Sometimes, though, I can see a benefit: I might be able to make a story out of it! So this month, let me tell you about my experiences in upgrading a couple of pieces of technology.
They are nothing to do with motoring – though saying this reminds me first that yesterday I was waiting in my VW Golf for a while with the engine off, the radio on and, er, possibly the lights on also, when the display suddenly announced: “Low Battery!” Today, I was about to apply my battery-charger when I thought I had better check the owner’s manual first. It said: “The vehicle battery should be charged by a qualified workshop only.”
What? Have the rules changed so that we can’t even top up a low battery ourselves, now? I phoned VW, and they reassured me that low-rate recharging at home was quite safe for my vehicle’s electronics (as long as I connected up before switching on). What I didn’t mention, because I am still digesting it, was another warning that I had just noticed in the manual: “Never charge a frozen battery; a flat battery can freeze at around 0°C (–32°F).” This is not the first time that my Golf has forced me to adjust to modern motoring physics: I’m certain that in the past 0°C was +32°F.
Seriously, I do realize that much of my problem with ‘change’ is that I put it off for so long. I kept each of my previous two cars for a dozen years, and naturally there were technological advances during each period, needing to be grasped! Worse, exchanging cars is usually done in the space of a few minutes, with no overlap...
...On second thoughts, maybe no overlap is a good thing: here I am, typing this column on a tatty light-grey computer-keyboard which I’ve had for 12 years (again) – when really I should be using the smart black keyboard that’s sitting next to it, belonging to my new PC. I am in the process of ‘transferring’ everything from one PC to the other (not a simple matter, as many readers will be aware), but it’s the difference in the keyboards that is causing me the most trouble.
I’m a competent touch-typist, but because the new dark keys are flat and sensitive, and only depress a little way (instead of being dished and springy and having a decent travel, like the old grey ones), my fingers easily drift out of position unless I watch them, and the keys too. And if I try to illuminate these with my desk-lamp, either the light reflects off some of them, or it dazzles me directly, or it shines on the screen and swamps it (or, all three at once)...
I went back to the store to see what other keyboards looked like: they were all the same (apart from a few silver-coloured ones). How on earth can the design of so necessary an item have become so un-user-friendly? I am much tempted to plug the old keyboard into the new PC to see if it works. But my worry is that it will, and I’ll then be likely to keep it for another 12 years.
Meanwhile we have brought ourselves up to date (or nearly so) in another respect, by changing our second-hand bulky TV for a simple new flat-screen one. We had the old set about a dozen years (like everything above!), and I can remember being just about able to carry it in from the car. Carting it out again, however, was more than I could manage: either it was the extra weight of accumulated dust inside, or else I must accept that I am less strong now.
Anyway, the picture on the new TV looked good, except that it seemed to be squashing faces a little, horizontally – and I couldn’t make just the necessary small correction with the picture settings. I was about to contact the shop about it, when I realized that it didn’t happen if I sat square-on to the screen, but only when I was in my usual seat which is angled about 30° away from straight-in-front.
So, it was a simple optical illusion, the effect of viewing slightly from the side! But hang on (I thought): why didn’t I experience it with the old TV? Especially as this had a slightly curved screen, which you would expect to emphasize the effect sometimes.
The answer (I think) is that with the old solid TV my brain ‘knew’ exactly which way the screen was facing, and automatically made allowances for viewing from the side – just as our brains always do when we’re looking at a picture (or screen) hanging on a wall, say, so that everything in the picture (or on the screen) seems OK even from an angle.
But our flat TV is not against a wall but across a corner, and although I know which way it’s facing, my subconscious brain can’t work this out just from the simple outline of the screen. So it ‘interprets’ the picture as if this was facing me straight, rather than at an angle. And the result is that the faces look slightly squashed... well, they do to me! Mrs S usually sits square-on to the screen, so wouldn’t normally notice the effect. Also, I suspect that many people aren’t perturbed anyway (as I am) by seeing faces actually distorted on a screen – to judge by the number of clearly maladjusted TVs that I catch sight of!
Still, it was an interesting puzzle. And it prompts me to mention that in these columns I have often discussed optical illusions in relation to motoring, for example blind spots, the effects of relative motion or lack of it, not recognizing complete objects (cars!) from seeing sections of them, and perhaps most serious, not realizing that your eyesight has deteriorated. I guess it can all be summed up in a simple message: as you drive, ask yourself constantly, “Is what I’m seeing really what’s there?”
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