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By Jack Ganssle

Generational Differences

Published 1/27/2005

In September the History Channel interviewed me for a program about the failures of the Patriot Missile and the Ariane 5. It aired while I was on a flight back from Europe, so I missed the show.

Never fear, technology to the rescue. My nearly 80 year old parents taped the event and proudly handed me a VHS cassette. Proudly, I say, because for them mastering the VCR is quite an accomplishment.

After kicking around here for weeks we finally played the tape. Two hours of other programs, apparently ones before Modern Marvels, scrolled painfully by (we don't watch much TV. Now I remember why). Finally, the show started!

And the tape ran out.

My folks just haven't a clue about modern technology. They've got a desktop with gigabit Ethernet but transfer files using 3" floppies. A dial-up connection is the only safe part of their computer network; at those speeds not much mayhem gets through the wires. A new digital camera has me terrified since floppies are no longer a viable backup media, and it's hard to imagine them mastering the art of burning CDs.

Yet my dad was a mechanical engineer for a half-century, and one of the early space pioneers. He has a t-shirt that says "Actually, I AM a rocket scientist."

The electronics of today have left a large number of older folks behind. I get frustrated, but then find myself similarly baffled by inscrutable technology.

For instance, we recently acquired a Prius, Toyota's 55 MPG hybrid. This is a fabulous vehicle, a marvel of engineering that deserves an article to itself. Only through a network of 32 bitters running very smart code is it possible to attain these drastic reductions in gas consumption, and even more dramatic emissions benefits. Embedded systems are probably our best hope of dealing with looming environmental problems.

But it's, well, odd in some ways. There's a reverse beeper, probably since in electric mode the thing is so quiet it's a hazard to pedestrians. (Oddly, the beep only sounds inside the car, never outside. Go figure). Annoying? You bet. But there's a simple way to disable the noisemaker:
1. Press the power switch
2. Set the Trip/Odometer switch to Odometer (if it's already in that mode, one must go out of Odometer mode and back into it.
3. Press the Power switch to turn the car off
4. With foot on brake hit Power again and wait till the Ready light illuminates.
5. Within 6 seconds, press and hold the Trip/Odometer switch for 10 seconds or more.
6. While still holding that switch, after 10 seconds, shift from park to reverse, and then back to park. Now release the switch.
7. The Trip/Odometer display will show "b on" instead of miles
8. Toggle the Trip/Odometer switch till the display shows "b off"
9. Turn Power off.
We don't have the GPS option, but if we did there's a procedure to display the number of satellites in range:

1. Press the Power switch twice, without touching the brake pedal so the car doesn't start.
2. While pressing the Info button, turn the Headlight switch from "off" to "parking" to "off" to "parking" to "off" to "parking" to "off."
3. The screen will switch to a diagnostic mode
4. Press the Menu button
5. Press the Navigation button

Oh boy. Talk about intuitive.

This interface is just as baffling to me as the VCR is to my parents. Perhaps Toyota saved a few pennies by eliminating some sort of mode switch. Yet the vehicle has a touch-sensitive LCD display. Virtual switches, with which the car is already awash, cost nothing.

I mentioned the Power button. There's no ignition key in the conventional sense, no engine cranking to get the car going. Once you know the routine it's easier to start and stop than a conventional (i.e., Prius-storic) car. But it's sufficiently different that Toyota provides a pad of start/stop instructions to hand to valets. In the last week I had two chances to use these instructions and the results were fascinating.

The first valet was perhaps 18 years old. I explained the procedure and handed him a slip from the pad of instructions. His eyes opened wide and a smile appeared. He eagerly hopped in and sped off.

At another garage a few days later the scene repeated itself. But now the main character was in his 60s. As soon as he heard that somehow this car was different, he sighed: "the hell with that, just park it over there and keep the keys."

There are three or four contemporaneous generations alive today, all presented with masses of technology. Younger folks soak up new ideas as quickly as they master new languages. It's not as easy for older people. In the USA the population is aging. How will they (actually, us) manage with the increasingly sophisticated gadgets coming out each year? Do we need new design parameters to make devices more elder-friendly?