BRYSON'S AMERICA: Grand designs to drive me crazy

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The Independent Culture
I HAVE a teenaged son who is a runner. He has, at a conservative estimate, 6,100 pairs of running shoes, and everyone of them represents a greater investment of cumulative design effort than, say, Milton Keynes.

These shoes are amazing. I was just reading a review in one of his running magazines of the latest in "sport utility sneakers", as they are called here, and it was full of passages like this: "A dual-density EVA midsole with air units fore and aft provides stability while a gel heel-insert absorbs shock, but the shoe makes a narrow footprint, a characteristic that typically suits only the biomechanically efficient runner." Alan Shepard went into space with less science at his disposal than that.

So here is my question. If my son can have his choice of a seemingly limitless range of scrupulously engineered, biomechanically efficient footwear, why does my computer keyboard suck? This is a serious enquiry. My computer keyboard has 102 keys - almost double what my old manual typewriter had - which, on the face of it, seems awfully generous. Among other typographical luxuries, I can choose between three styles of bracket and two kinds of colon. I can dress my text with carets and cedillas. I can have slashes that fall to the left or to the right, and goodness knows what else.

I have so many keys, in fact, that over on the right-hand side of the keyboard there are whole communities of buttons of whose function I haven't the tiniest inkling. Occasionally I hit one by accident and subsequently discover that several paragraphs of my w9rk n+w look lke th?s, or that I have written the last page and a half in an interesting but unfortunately non-alphabetic font called Wingdings, but otherwise I haven't the faintest idea what those buttons are there for.

Never mind that many of these keys duplicate the functions of other keys, while others apparently do nothing at all (my favourite in this respect is one marked "Pause" which, when pressed, does absolutely nothing, raising the interesting metaphysical question of whether it is therefore doing its job, or whether several keys are arrayed in slightly imbecilic places. The delete key, for instance, is right beside the overprint key, so that often I discover, with a trill of gay laughter, that my most recent thoughts have been devouring, Pacman-like, everything I had previously written. Quite often, I somehow hit a combination of keys that summons a box which says, in effect, "This is a Pointless Box. Do You Want It?", which is followed by another that says, "Are You Sure You Don't Want the Pointless Box?" Never mind all that, I have known for a long time that the computer is not my friend.

But here is what gets me. Out of all the 102 keys at my disposal, there is no key for the fraction 1/2. Typewriter keyboards always used to have a key for 1/2. Now, however, if I wish to write 1/2 I have to bring down the font menu and call up a directory called "WP Characters", then hunt through a number of sub-directories until I remember, or more often blunder, on the particular one, "Typographic Symbols", in which hides the furtive 1/2 sign. This is irksome and pointless and it doesn't seem right to me.

But then most things in the world don't seem right to me. On the dashboard of our family car is a shallow indentation about the size of a paperback book. If you are looking for somewhere to put your sunglasses or spare change, it is the obvious place, and it works extremely well, I must say, so long as the car is not actually moving. As soon as you put the car in motion, however, and particularly when you touch the brakes, turn a corner, or go up a gentle slope, everything slides off. There is, you see, no lip round this dashboard tray. It is just a flat space, with a dimpled bottom. It can hold nothing that has not been nailed to it.

So I ask you what, then, is it for? Somebody had to design it. It didn't just appear spontaneously. Some person - perhaps, for all I know, a whole committee of people in the Dashboard Stowage Division - had to invest time and thought in incorporating into the design of this vehicle (its a Dodge Excreta, if you're wondering) a storage tray that will actually hold nothing. That is really quite an achievement.

But it is nothing, of course, compared with the manifold design achievements of those responsible for the modern video-recorder. Now I am not going to go on about how impossible it is to programme the typical video recorder because you know that already. Nor will I observe how irritating it is that you must cross the room and get down on your belly to confirm that it is actually recording. But I will just make one small passing observation. I recently bought a video-recorder and one of the selling points - one of the things the manufacturer boasted about - was that it was capable of recording programmes up to 12 months in advance. Now think about this for a moment and tell me any circumstance - and I mean any circumstance at all - in which you can envision wanting to set a video machine to record a pro-gramme one year from now.

I don't want to sound like some old guy who is always moaning. I freely acknowledge that there are many excellent, well-engineered products that didn't exist when I was a boy - the pocket calculator and kettles that switch off automatically are two that fill me yet with gratitude and wonder - but it does seem to me that an awful lot of things out there have been designed by people who cannot possibly have stopped to think how they will be used. Just think for a moment of all the everyday items you have to puzzle over - fax machines, photocopiers, central heating thermostats, airline tickets, television remote control units, hotel showers and alarm clocks, microwave ovens, almost any electrical product owned by someone other than you - because they are ill thought out.

And why are they so ill thought out? Because all the best designers are making running shoes. Either that, or they are just idiots. In either case, it really isn't fair.

`Notes from a Big Country', Doubleday, pounds 16.99