Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Crimson Tide

A particularly un-noteworthy film starring Gene Hackman and Denzil Washington features an allusion entirely lost on UK audiences. The star of the film is the fictional submarine USS Alabama – a nuclear powered ballistic missile boat whose mission is to counter a fictional Russian megalomaniac who is threatening to launch an attack against the USA. Because the University of Alabama's football team is known as the Crimson Tide, the title of the film makes perfect sense to audiences in America – and is lost to the rest of the world.

Most of the excitement in the film concerns the conflict between Hackman and Washington, who cannot agree on what course of action to take when communications are garbled, Hackman believing they must launch a strike to take out the Russians before they can launch, Washington holding that they must re-establish communications so as to be sure they are not starting a nuclear war by mistake. Quite a good idea not to start a nuclear holocaust by mistake one would imagine.

What the audience doesn't realise is that, while this is a work of fiction, it is also is a fairly accurate depiction of naval communications.

Navies operate a different system than the rest of the forces – or the rest of the world for that matter. Because, they say, their ships are always manned and always listening, they simply broadcast messages over and over, hoping that the ships will eventually get the ones meant for them. The senders have no way of knowing if a message is received and read or not. They just assume that if they keep sending the messages, eventually they will all get read by the folks that need to. Interesting system – especially if you are carrying enough nuclear warheads to destroy most of the known world. Touch a large piece of wood – it has worked for the last 40 years, let's hope it continues!!

Which brings us neatly to emails. Email operates pretty much like naval communications. Lots and lots of messages are floating around out in cyberspace and we, the consumers, just trust that someone is listening – and hopefully that someone is the someone we sent the message to! We assume this works quite well, but we have no real way of knowing. Some people add tags that are supposed to flag when the recipient reads the message, but these are few and far between and most people simply assume if the message isn't bounced back by the recipient's mail server – it must have got there. So, when you send an email and get no reply, it may be because it hasn't been read yet, or it has got lost in the system, or whoever you sent it to just can't be bothered to reply! How to tell which?

You can't really.

Therefore, email is a very imperfect system. So, as a matter of fact, is snail mail. While the mail strike is on – people will expect delays. So far – so good. Even in ordinary times some mail doesn't make it to the destination. Some gets lost in the system and turns up years later; some the lazy, irresponsible postman throws in the bin (yes, it happens, but fortunately not very often); some goes to the wrong house and your neighbours can't resist opening it to see what you're up to and then are too embarrassed to hand it on. The list is long. We assume when we post a letter it will get there, A dangerous assumption!

Where does this lead us? Back to the phone, Never mind the paper-less office, the technocrats who drive the communication revolution, the internet gurus who drive us to the computer to cure every ill – facts are - if you want to be sure that someone gets your message – you better get them on the phone and speak to them.

Everything else is problematical.

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