our spouses would be chimpanzees
Wednesday, March 2 2005
Occasionally a client asks me if I can handle the details of buying them a computer. And for some reason I always allow myself to say yes, even though I know something bad always happens. On one occasion I received a desktop that was dead on arrival. Another time the case was significantly dented. Today I took delivery of a big eight pound Sony Vaio laptop and sure enough there was something wrong with it. The video was unstable and would bounce around to varying degrees. Obviously there was a problem with a connector, because when I'd smack it the video would completely recover. The normal procedure in a case like this is to quickly ship the defective product back to the manufacturer, but to do so would have meant delays for my customer and paying part of a cost that I didn't feel it was my responsibility to pay (at least one shipping leg). I also knew that if I were to attempt to ship this laptop in the flimsy box in which it had arrived, the UPS people would have laughed at me. These things are all the inevitable result of buying a product at the cheapest price available.
In the end it was easier just to take the damn laptop apart and tighten the connection myself. This might have technically violated the warranty, but (at least on this refurbished laptop) there were no warranty seals in evidence. Mind you, it's never easy getting a laptop apart, particularly when you're dealing with tiny little plastic clips whose interlocking relationships can only be sundered by a pressure nearly as great as the kind needed to break plastic. Indeed, I did end up cracking the screen bezel slightly, but I was able to fix it with Super Glue such that you would have to know the crack was there to find it.
On the web today I read an interesting article from a woman who claims the Mac operating system makes her more productive than she is on a Windows machine. In the article she introduced me to a number of features (on both Macs and PCs) that I didn't know existed. I didn't know, for example, that you can drag a folder to the Taskbar in Windows. (Doing so doesn't do anything I'd ever find useful, but it's there for someone who wants to try it.) The author also reminded me of one of the worst aspects of UI design in Windows: the fact that once you've accidentally repositioned the Taskbar there's no obvious way to move it back again. I still couldn't tell you what it is you need to do; when it's in the wrong place I always find myself executing a series of frantic grabs like a rat introduced to a food-dispensing psychological contraption. I've yet to identify the movement that sets the Taskbar right again, and whether or not holding down the Control or Shift buttons had anything to do with it. As far as I can tell there is no documentation of this behavior anywhere except, perhaps, by very helpful non-Microsoft people online.
Regarding the relative benefits of the Mac OS versus Windows, I'd have to concede that I've been working too long and exclusively in Windows to be unbiased. Recently I've tried forcing myself to use a Mac more (even taking an iBook with me to Ecuador), but there are things about the Windows interface that I miss on the Mac. When dealing with photos, for example, I've come to depend on the thumbnail view.
Also, there are a number of things about the Mac that are not great and drive me insane. Why, for example, must I always type in a username and a password every time I log onto an NT file share across the network? Why does the Mac insist on defaulting my username to my Mac username even though I've never once used that to log onto an NT file share? And why does checking off "Add to Keychain" accomplish precisely nothing? The intuitive reason for the existence of that checkbox in the user interface would be that my username and password end up getting stored locally on my Mac so I wouldn't have to keep retyping them.
But let's return to my preferred subject: things I hate about Windows. My latest pet peeve concerns Explorer, the Microsoft name for the folder and desktop browsing environment in Windows. I have a question that's been nagging at me for years: why do the icons for various documents occasionally change to reflect some new application loyalty? Sometimes my .htm documents have Mozilla icons, sometimes Homesite icons, though on occasion they go through weird periods when they all have Macromedia Flash or even Adobe Photoshop icons. This doesn't seem to alter the default editing programs for the files (which hardly matters, since I always specify a launching application by the process of drag and drop), but it isn't entirely a cosmetic issue either. In a graphical user interface, the specifics of the icon are very important for providing predictable visual cues for the user. If the icons all change because of some mysterious force buried in the operating system, the user is made to wonder "what else is afoot?" He or she is suddenly on edge, off his or her game. The OS is less productive that day.
Similarly, why does the operating system periodically conduct a complete reshuffle of the view modes for folders throughout the computer's file structure? Why, the other day, did every single folder on my Windows 2000 box adopt the "thumbnail view," which is useless for all but image directories? I never ordered such a change! That alone has cost me a good many minutes of lost productivity as I've had to switch to other views or pause for moments of failed comprehension. If an OS can remember the way settings are, it should leave them that way until specifically ordered by a user, using the user interface, to change them.
The GUI is supposed to be a metaphor for the way things are in the real world, but in the real world we can count on things looking the same until something very definite is done to alter them. If the world were like a Windows desktop, some mornings we'd wake up and our spouses would be chimpanzees and our dogs would be armadillos, and they would remain that way for weeks, though they'd continue watching Law and Order: Special Victims Unit and chasing squirrels.
Here's another thing that makes no sense: why does the operating system sometimes briefly seize control from the user interface in a way that kills the continuity of something the user is doing? Sometimes, for example, I'll be in the process of editing a file name in Explorer and there will be a hiccup as the OS reshuffles the file list and the changes I've made to the file name will be wiped out. This sends me on a time-wasting hunt for that file so I can attempt to change its name again, perhaps to have the same experience a second, third, or nth time.
Such glitchy behavior also happens when I'm in the process of pulling down a menu, often with the result of me launching an application I hadn't been attempting to launch. This problem continues in Windows XP, though it's the sort of thing that should have been fixed in Windows 95. The UI is demanding enough of fine motor skills without throwing in such an unnecessary time dimension. It's stuff like this that keeps grandmothers from using computers.
While I'm on a roll, here's another complaint: rebooting. A computer should never under any circumstances require a reboot. Windows 2000 and XP are an improvement over earlier OSes in this regard, but they have a long way to go. In particular I need to rail once more against installers that automatically assume you're in a position to reboot at the end of the install. This is the kind of arrogance that has no place on a modern multitasking machine.
But arrogance is the name of the game when it comes to software companies. I don't care how small a company is, its employees are convinced it's going to be the next Microsoft. Consequently they'll bury their buggy little half-baked application in the Program Menu within a folder bearing only the name of their bedroom-based yet-to-go-public "company." You're forced to remember that your Whizbang Spyware Installer is in the Stankbuttsoft folder, or that your trusty BargainAssistant rides along in the TotallyRad Systems folder.
several assorted web things
The Modern Right is actually propelled by "Anxious Masculinity" - you see it in everything from the cocky strutting that George W. Bush calls "walking" to the references Arnold Schwarzenegger makes to "girlie men." In their alternative universe it's actually okay to be gay, just so long as you're the one doing the penetrating. (Matt Rogers sent me this link.)
Incredible Creatures That Defy Evolution - not one book but a whole trilogy documenting the many creatures too perfect in their biology to have come about by evolution. My guess is that there's no reference to the octopus eye, which is more perfect than our own because it lacks the fundamental design flaw God put in all vertebrate eyes: nerves and blood vessels casting shadows on the light-gathering cells.
A Graphical Charting of American Baby Name Popularities over Time - this is a fun toy. Check to see if your parents were behind or ahead of the curves. Gretchen's parents, for example, rode the crest of both the Brian and Gretchen waves. Whenever a Michæl marries a Jennifer, somewhere a burger is being eaten with freedom fries.
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