Flogging. (An electrically-powered yet still moribund equine.)

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One should always beware of generalizations.

Well, almost always.

F=ma — except when it doesn’t. Rabbits eat carrots — if they’re drawn that way. The Coriolis effect (not) affects your toilet — in cartoons. Life is full of exceptions. Of subtleties. Of nuance. So it’s best to beware of overly-general statements.

Anyway. All of this is because I was going to start with the statement

I like technology

but I thought better of it — because while it’s sort of true, it’s not always true. To be more precise, I like technology sometimes, particularly if it’s used in a useful, clever or somehow innovative way. (See ‘hack value‘ — I like a good hack as much as the next guy-named-after-a-houseplant.) But technology-for-the-sake-of-technology? Not so much.

Which not-entirely-seamlessly brings me to my nomination for the award for ‘technology most likely to be used in a stupid, useless or inefficient fashion’:

electronic signs.

I’ve whined ranted discussed at length (for example) about how they’ve been used to ‘replace’ blackboards in arenas with a… let’s just say ‘stunning lack of success’. I thought I’d seen every possible way that they could demonstrate their, um, ‘inadequacy’.

Heh. Silly me. I forgot, well, the power of pithy quotes.

A few weeks ago I arrived at the arena on a hockey day and immediately consulted the giant TV screen to see what dressing rooms we had been assigned. Rather than telling me that, the TV showed me who was using the playing field(s) outside the building.

That’s nice — I guess — but I was looking for something with some relevance to, well, me. It’s all about me and *I* wanted one thing and one thing only — the dressing room assignments for the first ice thingy on the left at 4 PM. That’s really not too much to ask.

Or so I thought.

So I stood there, frowning at the sign and willing it to show what I wanted. Obligingly, it (eventually) switched to… the schedule in the fitness centre. Wait, the fitness centre has a schedule? I didn’t know that. Not that I care, but why? Before I could speculate on the answer to that particular question, the TV switched to ‘who was using the meeting rooms for the rest of the day.’ “There are meeting rooms?” I thought. “Why are there meeting rooms in an arena? And why hasn’t the TV showed me information on any, you know, ICE RINKS?” As if on cue, the sign switched to the dressing room assignments for the SECOND rink (not the first) on the left. Well, that’s close to being useful without actually being, you know, of any relevance whatsoever.

I put my bag down — hockey bags are heavy and it was looking like I might be there for a while. And I waited. It eventually switched to dressing room assignments for… the second rink on the right. I sighed. A passing girl pulling a bag with flashing wheels looked at me and rolled her eyes. (And why do figure skaters always have bags with flashing wheels? There’s probably Insight Into The Human Condition to be gained by answering that particular question but so far it’s beyond me — who would need (or want) a battery-powered bag? And why are they (the figure skaters, not the bags) so good at rolling their eyes, anyway?) The screen then moved on to the first rink on the right. A little boy walked by and gave the exasperated-looking old man an exaggeratedly wide berth. “Next must be mine” I concluded. “There’s nothing else it could be.”


Because when it changed it moved on to… the playing field(s) outside the building. Again. So after careful consideration of my options, I moved on too.

How did I find ‘my’ room? Well, opening every door one after another is guaranteed to work (a Famous Computer Scientist endorses this algorithm), took less time than waiting-for-the-sign-to-cycle-and-hoping-it-would-show-the-right-rink-next-time and only a few people glared at me. And heck, I’m used to that.

So sometimes an electronic sign can be worse than no sign at all.

In more than one way. For example…

On the way home I thought I heard a distinctive voice sing

It’s the burger that can break a rose’s neck

and I thought “I wonder how a burger could do that. Hey, I could go for a burger.”

That’s not what he said, of course. In my defense, people mis-hear songs all the time. And cars travelling on multi-lane highways where everyone tries to go faster than everyone else aren’t exactly renowned for their perfect acoustics. (The correct lyric can be heard at around the 1:50 mark here.) But no matter the reason, I had a modest burger hankering and no dinner plans so the joint up the street from home seemed like a decent idea. Besides, they don’t have any electronic signs so it should be stress-free.

Of course, things change.

There was the expected young lady at the counter. She seemed efficient, pleasant and Ready To Take My Order. Unfortunately, hanging over her head was an… electronic sign.

Damn. That was new.

And what did it say? Well, it proclaimed that it was 9:17 on Wednesday, January 5th.

Well, it wasn’t 9:17 — it was no later than 7:30. It wasn’t Wednesday — it was Monday (because Monday is hockey day). It wasn’t January 5th because it was sometime in April.

Every one of the ‘facts’ on the sign was incorrect.




But that’s not all: January 5th wasn’t a Wednesday — it was a Friday. The last time January 5 fell on a Wednesday was 2011. So not only was everything on the sign incorrect, stuff that wasn’t even on the sign was incorrect.

It takes real talent to get something that isn’t even there wrong.

So. What’s the best you can hope for when you see an electronic sign?


Back in late winter, one of my local supermarkets (the one mentioned here) installed a massive electronic sign. “Oh no” I thought. “How will they screw this up?” Because I assumed they would.

But they didn’t.

Well, comparatively speaking.

Because the information on the sign has never been wrong. Or misleading. Or an ‘alternative fact.’ Irrelevant perhaps, but that’s all — because there has never been any information — months after its installation, there’s never been anything displayed other than the manufacturer’s ‘attract mode‘. (And it’s not even an interesting attract mode.) So they paid for it, installed it, plugged it in, then… nothing.

Are there other technologies that are ‘likely to be used in a stupid, useless or inefficient fashion’? Of course there are. But electronic signs seem to be examples of ‘the-cool-kids-have-one-so-we-should-too’. The available evidence would suggest, however, that the copycats aren’t as clever as the cool kids. (Maybe that’s why they’re cool? Just saying.)

So I was probably right not to say “I like technology.” Because sometimes I totally don’t.

The only time it has shown anything other than the
demo mode since its installation. All it took was a
fan failure.
Uh oh.

The Author

Rose Glace is the pseudonym of nobody important.

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