Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Few Technological Conveniences

The photocopies are long overdue. There are several other more important things on my agenda for the day, but I've delayed doing them for so long I have no choice.

Wearily, I rush upstairs to the photocopier and insert my clump of papers. I enter a security code and a few other options causing the machine to spring to life, sucking paper in at one end and spiting it out in several places at the other.

But then -- as one always knows will eventually happen with photocopying -- the sounds of activity cease. It all comes clanking to a halt, my work being left undone.

The lights blink ... then there is a message on the little console screen: please change the paper in tray 2.

Ok. No problem, I think. I can handle this.

As I look down, to my horror I see that there is no tray 2. There never was. For some insane reason the machine has gone on a bender half way through my work and is now pining for something that never existed in the first place. Foog! Stupid technology. Fooled again.

But hey, I'm a software guy, this happens to me all the time. Maybe not with photocopies, but certain with at least 70% of the applications I use on a day to day basis. They suddenly choke up for no good reason.

Further investigation only shows that I should not have left my bed this morning. Some engineers, somewhere, decided for some reason that they don't have any empathy for their users, which I happen to be right now. They decided that they don't want to spend that extra effort to clean up the mess. They decided that it really ain't that bad. Or they even decided that they like the way it works, it speaks of their character.

The truth is, I don't much care. And if I could send them some bad karma, well, they should just be careful and not move around the house too much today.

So much crap, so little time to expose it.

At least with physical things like photocopiers, most people can immediately identify the crappiness of it, so it gradually gets fixed over time. Not so with software, where it may have been good once, but sooner or later some fun-starved geek is going to turn it into an uber-complexity nightmare. Even if it works today, it may be wrecked tomorrow.

Bad technology is so easy to build. Just sprinkle in a little bit of:
  • Fiddly bits that you can play with, but shouldn't or things will break.
  • Weird unintuitive abstractions that are unrelated to the problem.
  • Inconsistency to show that the coder is a creative sort.
  • Sensitivity to small changes, causing big random effects.
  • Non-documentation and torture-torials, preferably with minimal editing.
  • One-size-fits-all errors that are not traceable back to the original input.
these things make for some big entertainment.

Nothing is more fun then changing some small seemingly insignificant parameter only to see that the whole application blows up spectacularly. Even better: have it blow up a few days later so it is even more difficult to trace back the crashing to the changing of the parameter. That kind of "well-designed" software is just such a joy to play with.

I could go on and on forever I think, as there are way too many good examples of bad technology out there. Worse though, is that people are becoming accustomed to the crappiness. They look at me like I am mad for just wanting something to work consistently or correctly. There was a time when much of what we use now would have been rated with an F-, but now it has become standard fare. The coders probably aren't even trying to fix it, are they?

I'm tired of complaining, but I keep getting sucked into this stuff. It is particularly awful with the stuff floating around the IDEs that people are using. "Use the new module X to solve all of your growing needs" they proudly exclaim while you watch another two to three of your hours get flushed away on another pitiful excuse for technology. I keep falling for this, I am such a sucker.

I get caught, I guess, because I am still looking for tools that work. And I am still being disappointed.

These days I can definitely say that the depth and frequency of my disappointment is increasing. If we have progressed, we have done so by learning how to churn out more crap at a faster rate and by convincing ourselves that it ain't so bad. Yes, thats it, progress from being able to tie the blindfold around our eyes that much faster. That's a form of accomplishment, isn't it?

So I kick the photocopier, then I open up all of the trays and close them. After that I turn it off, then on, then off again. I spin three times, kick the trays again (for good luck) hit the on switch and enter my security code. I hit go and it springs back into life, without any sense of why it had previously failed.

Whew, I exclaim, to nobody in particular. I dodged a big one. It could have been weeks before that machine worked again. If ever.