The Interface Problem

The first two definitions of “interface” are: (1) the point where two systems, subjects, organizations, etc. meet and interact and (2) a device or program enabling a user to communicate with a computer.

One of the greatest problems with the increasing use of computerized systems is that all too many human/computer interfaces are flawed, both on the human side and on the computer side, as exemplified by the following examples.

A little over a week ago, the local Walgreens called to remind my wife that she was due for her second Shingles shot. She couldn’t do it immediately, but she had time after a dental appointment last Tuesday. So she stopped in at the Walgreens around 5:00 p.m. and went to the pharmacy. There was no one waiting for anything, and two pharmacy technicians and a pharmacist were on duty. She asked for the shot. She was told she had to make an appointment, except the store’s pharmacy telephone information line said that appointments were only necessary for COVID and flu vaccines, and that people could go to the pharmacy without an appointment. The main Walgreens website said the same. She pointed out that when she’d called the store, she was told she didn’t need an appointment for Shingles. She came home furious, but she called for an appointment, but was told by the Walgreens central vaccine scheduling office that they could only schedule COVID and flu shots by telephone. Other shots had to be scheduled online. But when she tried that, the Walgreens system wouldn’t schedule anything but COVID and flu. Another call back to Walgreens vaccine scheduling didn’t solve the problem, but the person on the other end suggested a Walgreens’ scheduling subsite that she could go to directly, a site that wasn’t listed anywhere. That worked… so far as getting the appointment, but that site wouldn’t accept her doctor’s info, which mean more of a wait when she did get the shot.

That’s definitely an example of an interface problem.

Another example is something experienced by a Canadian reader who was trying to obtain a Kindle version of ISOLATE from [the Canadian Amazon outlet]. He could get the audiobook and the hardcover, but not the Kindle ebook. The same was true for a number of his Canadian friends. I brought the matter to TOR’s attention, and my editor looked into it. Amazon replied to TOR that there was no problem. The links worked fine. Except they didn’t for those Canadians. Paradoxically, my Canadian friend got the Kindle from [the U.S. Amazon], but he informed me that still said the Kindle version was unavailable, not only to him, but to number of others.

I’d like to think that these are isolated examples – but they’re not. Too many organizations have websites that are close to impenetrable even for people with considerable familiarity with computers, not to mention those businesses with semi-AI telephone systems that not only work poorly, but often never allow a caller to talk to a real person, or only if the caller spends forever going through menu options and trying to reply to a computerized voice saying “I didn’t get that. Did you mean XXXX,” or the equivalent.

Yet more and more businesses are relying on flawed computerization and voicemail systems that don’t deal with real-world people and their problems… and with the shortage of workers, this problem is likely to get a lot worse.


Now that Isolate is finally published, I’ll be interested to see if reader reviews follow a familiar pattern to that of my earlier books, a pattern, interestingly enough, that also occurs in the political world.

Once one of my books is published, usually the first reader reviews are mixed, but almost immediately, along with those who liked the book are those who go to great lengths to find faults with it, of all sorts. Those quibblers and naysayers tend to have a greater presence in the days and weeks immediately following publication, but then, over time, those who quibble and carp about what’s in the book and about what’s not (and find the book “boring”) drop off, and later comments tend to be more positive.

What I find interesting about this is that it’s very similar to the reaction to major political events. Whatever the event or occurrence, the naysayers are usually out in force first, whether it was January 6th, or Obamacare, or walls and immigration, masks and vaccination.

Part of the similarity, I suspect, lies with the subject matter. Neither politics nor my books are simple, and anyone who’s studied either knows that. Anything that’s complex tends to draw opposition, possibly because saying “no” is always easier than a considered and thoughtful response.

In addition, in dealing with large numbers of people, even the best crafted regulation or law will have repercussions on someone. If a vaccine is 93% effective (and that’s high for a vaccine), that means that it doesn’t work well on 7% of those who receive it.

Likewise, even the best crafted thought-provoking book will irritate some people, and as study after study has shown, negative reactions show up more often first and more strongly than positive reactions. This has been true in politics as well. The AMA and most businesses were initially dead-set against FDR’s Social Security proposals. Going back a bit farther, the southern states would have blocked the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution had slavery been outlawed from the beginning.

But it doesn’t always happen that way, which is why, sometimes, it’s better to think things over, from books to politics.

Arrogance and Arrogance

In the United States of today, I’ve observed two types of arrogance manifested by those who have ability and power, usually but not exclusively by males. The first type of arrogance is that typical of most elites in most societies – that they’re special and everyone should know it, even if they gained their position, power, and wealth largely aided by factors they had little to do with, such as family economic and social position.

The second kind of arrogance is the assumption that, if they can do it, anyone can, if others only work hard enough. I’ve seen this kind of arrogance manifested far more than a few times, usually by white males. I’m not saying that most of them didn’t work hard to get where they got, because many of those I know did in fact work hard, but all too often hard and even hard smart work isn’t enough.

What few of them fail to realize, or at least to acknowledge publicly, is that many of the aspects of their lives that they take for granted as “normal” are anything but normal for tens of millions of Americans, things like a stable home life growing up, having enough to eat as a child, a decent grade school and secondary education, living in a low-crime area, not having an ethnic/cultural background that makes strangers suspicious, having good role models.

Another factor that too many “self-made” individuals ignore or minimize is the role of luck and timing. I owe a great deal of my success to what I’ve learned from my wife, yet how we met was statistically effectively impossible.

A publisher once told me that the great success of a particular book/series was made possible by a set of circumstances that existed for only one five-year period ever in the publishing industry. Now, the writer in question had been published previously and could have likely continued as a successful midlist author…and perhaps eventually done better than that, but those circumstances and the fact that the publisher recognized them gave the author far greater success than others who had equal ability, but wrote earlier or later in time.

I’m not writing about myself, but in my case, I got my first and long-standing editor as a result of the intersection of three facts – the fact that I’d published a handful of stories in ANALOG, that he read short stories because he compiled anthologies, and that he recognized my last name because he’d known my cousin [with the same uncommon last name] in college. Those were just enough to get him to read my first novel… and to publish it and eventually many others. And it was pure luck, from my point of view, that he then became an editor for a publishing start-up then known as TOR.

Yes, I sold my first stories over the transom to people I’d never met, and I worked hard, damned hard, and I sent that first novel to every F&SF editor whose name and address I could find, but I’ve known lots of other authors who have worked hard and weren’t in the right place at the right time with the right book. And even after that, it took me another ten years to be able to become a full-time writer.

It’s been said by others that great success comes when hard work meets great opportunity, but hard work doesn’t always meet such opportunity. For those reasons, and quite a few others, I find that it’s arrogant when someone says, “If I can do it, anyone who works can do it.” It’s just not that simple… and it never has been.

Dying for Your Beliefs?

The fatality rates of diseases, at least in theory, shouldn’t have any connection with political beliefs. That’s in theory, but since this past June, that theory has been proven wrong.

Since Delta began circulating widely in the U.S., COVID has exacted a horrific death toll on counties where Donald Trump received at least 70 percent of the vote, killing 47 out of every 100,000 people since the end of June. In counties where Trump won less than 32 percent of the vote, the number is about 10 out of 100,000.

In October, twenty-five (25) out of every 100,000 residents of heavily Trump counties died from COVID, more than three times higher than the rate in heavily Biden counties (7.8 per 100,000). October was the fifth consecutive month that the percentage gap between the death rates in Trump counties and Biden counties widened.

Is this a lethal political litmus test? In a way it is. Because of the vast amount of COVID misinformation circulated and accepted by Republicans, or for other factors unique to Republicans, they are far less likely to get vaccinated, and vaccination keeps the vast majority of those vaccinated from being hospitalized or dying from COVID.

A late October poll by the Kaiser Family Foundation’s COVID-19 Vaccine Monitor found that 39% of Republican adults remain unvaccinated, while just 10% of Democratic adults were unvaccinated.

Yet depending on the state and the statistics, between 89% and 98% of patients hospitalized for COVID are unvaccinated, and the current number of U.S. COVID fatalities is now at 751,000 and continuing to grow.

What I want to know is why so many Republicans believe that dying for the freedom not to be vaccinated is so glorious.

Election Insanity?

Not all election insanity or power-grabs are national. Last Tuesday, Cedar City held an election for its mayor and for two city council seats. The city’s population is roughly 36,000, and the city’s annual expenditures are [if I’ve added all the scattered budgets correctly] are around $42 million, which, besides normal government functions [administration, water, trash, sewage, parks, police, and fire] also include operating a modest airport, a municipal theatre, and a golf course.

Councilors serve four years and are paid slightly more than $13,000 annually. The mayor has a four year term and an annual salary slightly above $20,000. The City Council is the body that decides policy, and the mayor has no voting power.

On the surface, the council seat elections were unremarkable, in that the four candidates [all male – after all, this is Utah] all promised that they would be the best in guiding the city forward. The four candidates spent from $5,000 to $15,000 each on their campaigns, for a total of roughly $40,000.

The mayor’s race was another story. The two-term incumbent is a corporate attorney in her very early thirties, married to a doctor, with deep family roots in the area. She was the youngest mayor in city history and the only woman ever elected mayor. She raised over $106,000 from a variety of business and corporate sources, as well as from personal sources, but the majority of contributions came from the business and corporate sources.

Her challenger was a local businessman who had founded and expanded an extremely successful plumbing supply business for over 30 years, who put $130,000 of his own money into his campaign, and who also donated $11,000 each to the two council candidates that he favored, effectively allowing them to significantly outspend their opponents.

In the end, money won. The challenger came up a winner by a little over a hundred votes out of a little more than 7,500 cast… but only one of the two council candidates he backed happened to win.

I still have a hard time understanding why the race for a mayor’s position that pays only $20,000 a year and has no voting power ended up costing close to a quarter of a million dollars, except that the mayoral challenger clearly wanted the position.