Thursday, May 01, 2014

Clouds and Races

Is it really four whole years since I last had a go at Microsoft? [Yes: Ed]. Now that I commute less than before, there is more time to study the morning paper and I spent some time today trying to understand (or perhaps debug is the more appropriate word) a two page colour splash that mostly features a huge photo of a Formula 1 racing team doing wheel changes and other maintenance during a pit stop.

The copy is all about how using Microsoft's cloud storage can be of benefit. This is not in doubt - computer systems have been assisting decision making since the 1940s, all computer systems require data storage and the cloud is just a silly name for storage accessed over the internet instead of being based on equipment in your own premises. As usual, it is the language that provokes thought, not to say a certain derision anchored firmly in a loathing of admen and their ways.

The strapline "The cloud that helps win the race" we can pass over, as having no determinable meaning at all, other than to reiterate my point above that humans use computers to help them do things.  But this is the first part of what follows: "The winning edge can boil down to nanoseconds, and data can be just as important as the driver. ... Lotus F1 Team analyse and share information from over two hundred sensors..."

I pondered just how an edge, winning or otherwise could boil down to anything. You can sharpen an edge and blacksmiths have for thousands of years known how to heat metal and hammer it so as to create one; I have not heard of the boiling technique before. And how does something boil down by a amount of time equal to a few billionths of a second? And what would that mean? Even at the fast speed of an FI car, if it was going at 200mph this amounts to 0.0035 inches in a millionth of a second, about the width of the paint on the bonnet. [Sorry, haven't had time to check this but it looks convincing: Ed]. So let us not worry too much about the nanoseconds.

Remember this ad is not aimed at the owners of other Formula 1 teams (at least, I assume not, since it would seem to be a ludicrously ineffective way of targeting them). It is surely aimed at business users of Microsoft products, for whom the odd nanosecond when opening an email or typing a word into a report does not really matter a great deal. I myself frequently spend several nanoseconds in honing my finely-chosen prose prior to boiling it down a bit just to improve the edge and, believe me, a couple of extra ones makes very little difference to the finished product.

I suppose what they meant to say was that in a time-critical event like a race, the faster you can make decisions the better. But for those of you with a knowledge of IT, the second part of the sentence will make you blink. The driver?  Nothing in the copy so far has referred to a racing team and the text appears above the picture so it is natural to look at it first. This is a Microsoft ad. So it is natural to assume, at first glance, that driver must mean software driver, the bit of code that tells your computer how to manage an attached device such as a printer or a smartphone when you plug it in. Every IT person knows how important it is to have the latest drivers when dealing with hardware problems. But what does that have to do with a racing team mentioned in the next sentence? Surely, when they do those rapid wheel changes, they don't have to watch an hourglass whirling around for a few seconds until the message "Device driver installed" appears? Actually "Device driver" is a pretty good description for the bloke seated behind the wheel, given the degree of computerisation involved these days.

There is a delicious irony in Microsoft promoting a team called Lotus, given the bitter rivalry between the Lotus Software Corporation and Microsoft in the 1980s and early 1990s. For many PC users the first software package they encountered was Lotus 1-2-3, essentially a spreadsheet with some other bits added on. Microsoft's Excel eventually replaced it as the spreadsheet of choice, although I believe 1-2-3 still survives (I much preferred its Apple-based predecessor, Visicalc, and then the genuinely integrated word-processor/spreadsheet/database package, Smart Software, but there will be other times to recall ancient history).

There is a final question as to whether "Lotus F1 Team" is a singular or plural construct, because I think the phrase "Lotus F1 Team analyses and shares" sounds better but let us leave this one aside as there are limits even to my desire for pedantry [Phew. Let's have some coffee: Ed]

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