Your computer’s architecture

Royal Mills condo complex in West Warwick. (commons.wikimedia.org)

Royal Mills condo complex in West Warwick. (commons.wikimedia.org)

I have a difficult time finding user-friendly architecture to write about, so let me write about the user-friendliness of computer word programs. In fact, the writing has already been done, not for me but by me, back in 1988, the last time I wrote about the architecture of anything but buildings.

Prof. Elaine Chaika. (elainechaika.com)

Prof. Elaine Chaika. (elainechaika.com)

The subject rose to mind during a lecture last night entitled “Beware of Grammar Checkers,” by Dr. Elaine Ostrach Chaika, emerita professor of linguistics at Providence College, where she taught for about three decades. Her son Dan’s ladyfriend Imelda, who has been a friend of mine for years, invited me to hear Elaine speak at the Thundermist Center, across Providence Street from the Royal Mills complex in West Warwick. (The center is in a building ancillary to the mill, and hence equally beautiful.)

Professor Chaika’s eloquent diatribe against grammar-checking programs denounced a long series of incorrect suggestions from programs by Word and Grammarly that corrected her nonexistent dangling participles, sentence fragments and other faux clunkers. I harked back to the time I wrote about word programs that analyzed one’s writing style.

Here is that column from May 26, 1988:

Ahead for society: Trials and tribulations of ‘user-friendliness’

MY COMPUTER program, which enables me to write these words on my computer, is many wonderful things, but one thing it’s not is user-friendly.

(s.717.photobucket.com)

(s.717.photobucket.com)

It makes me recall many commands that are difficult to remember, whereas a user-friendly computer program would put a choice of commands before my eyes. Some user-friendly programs have “menus” that are not only helpful but cheerful, issuing kindly instructions, corrections and clarifications to the baffled or wayward user. But XyWrite has no menus. It is not helpful, let alone cheerful. In short, it is user-unfriendly.

So I have a very matter-of-fact relationship with my computer. We do business together, but we do not socialize. If only my computer were not so user-unfriendly. I can imagine sitting at my desk, flipping the “on” button and waiting as a series of blinks and beeps loads the program. I’d be greeted with a smile and a “hello, Dave.” The computer would anticipate my desires, and produce a list of column topics on the screen. I would press a button and up would come a list of ideas on my topic. And then on we’d go. . . .

But as matters stand, I still have to do all the work. I have to think of something to write about, then think of something to say about what I want to write about. Someday I will stumble on a computer program of genuine user-friendliness, and new worlds will open up to me. Until that day, my computer will remain a glorified typewriter.

That day might not be too far off, however. In the January issue of Atlantic Monthly, Barbara Wallraff describes software that can analyze a writer’s prose style. Freshmen at Colorado State University use Writer’s Workbench to hone their English Comp. skills. They put work into the computer, and out cranks a printout enumerating its flaws of grammar, style and usage.

Wallraff lists its queries: “Has the student used a lot of passive verbs? Abstractions? Very long sentences? Are the sentence patterns repetitive? What is the draft’s ‘readability grade’? . . . What is the draft’s readability grade according to four slightly different formulas?”

Another program, Critique, not only identifies flaws but corrects them. It pumps out such thoughtful suggestions as “SENTENCE TOO LONG/Consider turning the highlighted portion into an independent sentence./Omit the first highlighted word, and, if appropriate, use a conjunct (e.g., ‘however,’ ‘consequently,’) at the beginning of the second sentence.” Who’s the writer around here, anyway?

Wallraff had similar feelings about Critique: “Sometimes a user, having read certain of the messages that appear in the blue box, will experience an internal conflict. The user may, for example, suddenly feel that Critique is a self-important mechanical meddler, that his own judgment about sentence length is wholly adequate, and that if a person is unable to read with ease the sentence in question, then that person is of subnormal intelligence. . . . Then again, he may recognize that the system means no personal affront but rather was created . . . to be a tireless helper and guide.”

Well, maybe.

Until I read this article, I didn’t know such programs existed. As an admirer of the prolix and digressive English essayist William Hazlitt, I’m not sure I would want to subject my work to the ghost of Mrs. Dunn, my fourth-grade teacher, bless her soul.

Still, thinking about trying out the style analyst must be something like peering over the edge of the roof of a tall building. One finds oneself resisting the urge to throw oneself off just to satisfy one’s morbid curiosity.

Since most such programs reside at distant institutions (I don’t even want to know if Brown University has one), my morbid curiosity will have to remain unslaked. But I don’t mind. These style analysts strike me as the ultimate in user-unfriendliness, even if they are easy to use.

I have here been considering user-friendliness as a concept of interest chiefly to individuals. But Wallraff describes one style-analysis program that hinted at the vast potential benefits of user-friendliness in an educationally decimated society. The Smart Expert Editor (a.k.a. “Max”; created by John M. Smart) takes any form of literature and pares it down to an eighth-grade reading level. Max is employed at the Murray Ohio Manufacturing Company, helping technical writers produce manuals for those who buy its lawnmowers.

Horrible as that sounds, user-friendliness could solve the problem of education in this country. Even under an “Education Presidency,” the ability of schools to produce technologically literate citizens is likely to lag behind the ability of technology to multiply its own complexity. America’s competitiveness is likely to erode unless user-friendliness bridges the gap between high tech and low skill.

Some day, all instruction manuals might be fed through computers to make them user-friendly. But if the United States is to solve its education crisis and become truly competitive, our vision of user-friendliness must be broadened to encompass all aspects of knowledge, profound and mundane.

If that means computerizing more aspects of everyday life – well, isn’t that the way we’re headed anyhow? Saturated as we are in a couch-potato culture, our descendants seem doomed to evolve into disembodied heads linked telepathically to tables cluttered with remote-control units, issuing instructions to some household robot. In fact, something called Butler-in-a-Box is already on the market, for only $1,495. It can be programmed to respond to your commands in a “mock-obsequious” tone of voice.

On reflection, user-unfriendliness sounds friendlier all the time.

Actually, I do recall that after writing this piece someone asked me if I wanted to feed it into a program that would analyze it. I said yes. To this day, I simply cannot recall the result. It may have said something like I “use too many words,” which sounds to me a lot like the famous critique of Mozart – “too many notes.” But I’m sure that Professor Chaika will let me know if the architecture of my prose style is deficient.

About David Brussat

For a living, I edit the writing of some of the nation's leading architects, urbanists and design theorists. This blog was begun in 2009 as a feature of the Providence Journal, where I was on the editorial board and wrote a weekly column of architecture criticism for three decades. Architecture Here and There fights the style wars for classical architecture and against modern architecture, no holds barred. My freelance writing and editing on that topic and others addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a fellow of the Royal Society of the Arts, and a member of the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, which bestowed an Arthur Ross Award on me in 2002. I work from Providence, R.I., where I live with my wife Victoria, my son Billy and our cat Gato. If you would like to invest your prose with even more style and clarity, please email me at my consultancy, dbrussat@gmail.com, or call 401.351.0457. Testimonial: "Your work is so wonderful - you now enter my mind and write what I would have written." - Nikos Salingaros, mathematician at the University of Texas, architectural theorist and author of many books.
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One Response to Your computer’s architecture

  1. Stephen ORourke says:

    I have a friend (former CFO at PHA) who lives there. Lovely outside. Didn’t care much for the inside.

    Sent from my iPad

    >

    Like

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