More Thoughts on Communication and Transportation Technology

When I was a kid in England there were two things which few people had, and those things were telephones and cars. Most goods and services were in walking distance. If things weren’t in walking distance could always catch the bus. If travelling was considered a waste of time to find something out, and post was considered to take too long to get the information, then could always use the public phone box.

The important point to note is that most things, at that time, were still human scale, and those things which weren’t were optional extras: we did not need buses, cars, telephones or post. Now our towns and cities have been transformed, they are no longer human scale and we are dependent on machines. Using machines to achieve some future benefit, is not the same as creating a future dependent on such machines.

For example using excavating machines to construct a canal along which boats under human power can move, is potentially better than building a high way along which cars can travel. Assuming in the future there will be no fuel for cars. Sure we can stretch the fuel supply with biofuels, and use all kinds of exotic materials for batteries. But how long into the future can we stretch this availability of suitable resources? For certain, humans are meant to be mobile: but because they have legs not because they have cars.

So goods and services should be available in walking distance. Powered vehicles should mostly be used for shifting heavy loads rather than travelling large distances quickly. Where practical heavy loads should be broken down into lighter loads, which can be moved with assistance of human powered machines. The wheel is a more important machine than the internal combustion engine.

Supply Chain

There is no need for a retail store to have a telephone. People can visit the store to get what they need, or see what is available. If people want something which is not available at the store, then it may need to be ordered from a distant location. Knowledge of such product would typically mean there is written information about the product in some magazine or catalogue. The order would therefore typically be placed by post, and would take a few days for the order to be fulfilled.

Now if the suppliers facilities were open to the public, then a buyer could get in a car and go and buy and pickup straight away. Chances are however that the supplier is a manufacturer and their facilities are not open to the public. So having a car doesn’t help unless there is a retail outlet. Unfortunately retail outlets are limited in what they can and will make available: as they don’t want money tied up in goods they cannot sell or sell very slowly.

Transcription Errors

So enter the telephone. With the telephone can place the order faster than by post. but telephone orders are not very reliable: as there is high potential for transcription errors between buyer and the seller. When the seller fills in a order form there is potential for error between what the buyer actually wants and what the seller believes they want. When the buyer fills in the sellers order form, there is potential for the buyer to misunderstand the meaning of the order form. Basically a sales person is a translator between the suppliers internal communications and their external communications with buyers. However unless the goods and services are complex, the salesperson is an unnecessary hindrance between supplier and buyer.

Recording and Retrieval of Purchase Order Details

So how to use the telephone to record orders, and achieve rapid storage and retrieval of information? Well the first thing to note is that we do not want voice records. Why spend a few minutes listening to something which can be read in a few seconds if it was written? Second issue is how to retrieve a specific order? Winding the recording back and forward and listening to “see” if found the required order: is an extremely slow process. We could get a sample of the buyers voice, and then develop a device to compare one analogue voice recording against another, and thus see if we can find the order amongst a collection of recorded orders. However, due to slight variations in speech, it wouldn’t be very reliable. For the purpose of storing and retrieving orders, we are only interested in the information contained in the spoken word, not any other attributes of speech. If we remove all the other attributes before storing, then we can store and retrieve faster. That is we want to convert the information contained in the spoken word into some simple symbolic representation which we can rapidly store and retrieve from some storage medium. That seems complicated. No! Wait a minute, there’s this thing called the written word, it’s been around for a few hundred years, possibly a few thousand years.

For certain it is only during the last hundred years that populations have aimed for 100% literacy. But was anyone collecting statistics as to how many people could actually speak a given language, or more importantly actually used speech? Throughout history it has not been necessary for all people to speak. Not all people lived in communities, nor did they need to interact with those communities which did exist. For a family communication could have mostly been by pointing and showing: no need for anything as abstract as language, spoken or written. Families and other groups do actually created their own dialects of language.

So we have a symbolic system, so the task would therefore appear to be: how to convert the voice recording into the written word? But that seems a waste, when humans can produce the written word in the first place. The problem there: is that handwritten is inconsistent and difficult to decipher, whilst type written is more consistent and easier to decipher. So we could use telephone lines to transmit handwritten orders by fax, but type written orders would be better.

The Information Flow

However, handwritten or typed, the order is only part of the information flow. Internal to the supplying organisation, the buyer’s order needs to be transformed into shop floor orders, purchase orders for raw materials, picking lists, despatch notes, cart notes, and invoices. That is the information needs to be communicated to many people, each performing a different task along the supply chain, and each person requires the information presented differently.

Enter the general purpose computing device with high speed information storage and retrieval. Enter database management systems (DBMS), along with materials requirement planning (MRP), and manufacturing resource planning (MRP II), computer aided production management (CAPM), management information systems (MIS) and enterprise resource planning (ERP). And no doubt a multitude of other acronyms.

In these systems, humans are a source of error and the telephone is little more than a piece of junk.

But enter the handheld computing device, the personal data assistant (PDA) and personal information manager (PIM), and combine these with a mobile phone, to provide mobile computing in the form of a smart phone.

The voice part of a smart phone, still not much use for the information part of business. Voice to written word translators are relatively poor and need a lot of training. In similar manner the ability of the phone keyboard to predict words is also relatively poor. In simple terms a lot of proofreading is required to fix the errors introduced by these automation systems. The problem with such translation is that it does not record what was actually said, it only records the translation, and therefore have to try and remember what was intended: which entirely defeats the point of recording your thoughts.

So voice part of phone, use to phone home, phone a friend, but avoid using to phone business, unless the business wants you to phone. Just because a business or individual has a phone, does not automatically mean that you are free to phone them.

Default Policies of Phone Companies are Inappropriate

The phone companies, have the inappropriate default policy. The phone companies place household phone numbers in the white pages, and business phone numbers in the yellow pages. This is not necessarily wanted by any party. Households do not want anyone phoning them up, most especially sales people attempting to trick them into buying stuff they cannot afford, do not need, and do not want. Similarly business does not want anyone phoning them. Business may have a phone so their accounts manager can call a suppliers account manager: not any one in an accounts department. Just two people from the two companies connected for a specific purpose. Some member of the public phoning up the jet propulsion laboratory (JPL) to see if they sell pizza. I don’t know if that’s actually happened to the JPL, but I have worked for consulting engineers, and whilst in the office on the weekend, received calls from people wanting to order home delivered pizza: there had been a misprint of the phone numbers.

Phone numbers should not automatically be: a need to know for everyone. Individuals should be able to choose their preferred use of their phone, and business likewise should be permitted to choose their preferred means of conveying information.

If you are reading this then you are on a website. The website has an email contact form. If you cannot find the information you want on the website, then the website has possibly failed to inform. I would like to know of such failure, so that I can add extra information to the site if need be, or make the information easier to find, or clarify that such topic is not relevant to the website. If I talk to you on the phone, then I have to repeat myself over and over again to each caller. If I reply to an email, I only have to answer the question once, and I have the basis for an article to place on the website so that people do not have to ask in the future: or if they do ask, I can just point them to the article.

As for the telephone and the spoken word, that is for exceptions. However, I would contend that if there is a failure to convey information, then a telephone call is unlikely to fix it. This is because improved communication would require making use of all 5 senses, rather than choosing a different one. More importantly a telephone call requires two people to be available at the same time. The caller doesn’t know what the other person is doing, So if the caller is lucky they may get through to the other person, if they are unlucky then they won’t get through and will have to try again, and again, and again until they eventually get through. Assuming of course that attempting to contact the other person, by phone, is the sensible approach for that person.

Contacting Me

If that other person is me, then attempting to contact me by phone is not sensible. First of all my phone is switched off most of the time. If and only if I remember, my phone will be switched on between 14:00 and 17:00 Monday to Friday. It may be switched on earlier, it may be switched off later. If switched on earlier or later it is because I need to use the computing capability of the device, not use the phone. Alternatively my phone maybe switched on because I am expecting a call from someone specifically, not just anyone. So I won’t be happy if that specific call is prevented from getting through.

Using a phone is like throwing a dice, you don’t know what is going to turn up, so its not a very efficient way of getting something specific done.

Ok! An email may get trapped by a spam filter, or it may not get through. If the message did not get through then there should be system response advising of such. Its not very sensible to blindly delete everything tagged as spam. Also don’t write emails which have the attributes of spam. The main problem is possibility of sending to the wrong person and not knowing: unless the unintended recipient responds. But that is like keep trying the wrong phone number and not getting through to find out. If you keep trying the same thing, typically expect to get the same results, it is therefore a waste of time. To avoid wasting time, therefore should try something different.

Sending an email and then phoning a few minutes later to see if they received it, is a waste of time. It merely demonstrates that you are impatient. You could set your email to request a reply when email is opened. But such are not reliable as people may read emails offline and otherwise cancel such requests. Depending on circumstances it may be appropriate to make a phone call, to check, if haven’t received a reply in 24 hours, in other situations a week may be a better waiting time. But even then the phone call still indicates an issue of impatience. {It may indicate a lack of faith in the technology, but it’s more likely impatience.}

If have a lot of telephone calls or emails, then potentially using the wrong technology for the task at hand.

I get the idea that people liked turning up at the office and discussing their projects. But they didn’t just wake up with an idea and pop in the office. They have been brewing the idea for weeks or days, but never committed anything to paper: why? I get the idea that some people don’t like to write and believe that they cannot draw. So clearly they need someone to get the idea from inside their head and get it down on paper. Clearly such face to face discussion cannot be replaced by a telephone call.

Hazards of Fast Response by Phone

More importantly telephone calls are dangerous. People phone council up to see if they need approval for a retaining wall. They get asked if the wall is less than 1m, they reply yes, and then they are told no approval is required. A few years later they receive a letter advising them to remove the wall or seek approval. The problem is that the complete rule is not about 1m, and the caller is not providing a complete description, and the person working for the council fails to get a complete description. It should all be put down on paper or the digital equivalent.

People make the phone calls to council to avoid documenting their proposals, not simply to avoid obtaining development approval. They want to dive straight into building without thought and consideration of the consequences. There is something they want to do, and they want to get on with it, without interference from anyone else. The question is how many people are willing to research before they dive in?

Another part of the issue is people don’t want to pay for development approval, nor for trades or anyone else. Paying for architects and engineers, is not only expensive but it also introduces unwanted delays.

If people are not willing to buy books, or borrow books from library and read, then how else can information be made available? Clearly youtube has a large following of people, and large collection of DIY videos. The internet does demonstrate that images are typically preferred over audio, and images over written word. Audio/video however are not suitable until something exists. Whilst we can create an animated movie of how to make something which doesn’t yet exist, the original description is likely to be the written word or drawings.


  1. [02/02/2017] : Original [wrote in TreePAD]
  2. [17/02/2017] : Original Post