Sunday, October 14, 2007

Wasted my Time

No doubt it is my own foolishness. My expectations are too high.

When I blog, I use Yahoo Notepad to write the draft entries. That gives me portability, and access to the draft articles wherever I am. The idea that I can access my writing from literally anywhere in the world is amazing. Something wonderful provided for me by the computer.

I was struggling with a particularly hard to write piece, where I was trying to take the reader backwards towards using first principles. Not easy to begin with, and even harder for a novice writer like myself.

I was happy with what I had done. I probably would have posted it.

After agonizing for a couple of hours, I hit the update button. Something I've done a million times before. This time though, because I had been logged in for so long, Yahoo Notepad decided to ask me to confirm my userid. The session had timed-out. Ok. No worries. This problem has caught me in the past, and in Firefox if I hit the back button, I can get back to the original screen with the textbox, which from there I can copy and paste into a text file, and use it to update the note after I've logged in again.

I could test it, but if I remember correctly, in Yahoo Notepad, after the login screen, the data in the textbox is lost. It goes through as a post, I think, and cannot get passed back into the next query, so even if the program continues from the point it left off, the right data will not be updated, and possibly the file would end up being blanked if they tried. I could be wrong about this, hitting the back button and copying out the data worked well in the past, I seem to remember. The myths we build up about our software is often interesting in themselves.

This time, when I hit the back button to my horror the contents of the textbox where the original contents, not my updated version. My notepad file is quite large. It contains a lot of draft material, so I suspect that the size of the textbox forces Firefox not to save the data. So, going back won't work. I went forward too, but that didn't seem to work either. Although by the time I tried that, the panic had already set in. All of my labor, all of my work was gone!? Vanished. Kaput. Ahhhhhh.

When the anger subsided, and I stop swearing and pounding on things I really starting thinking about it.

In the early days of PCs, in Word Perfect we developed a disciple where we hit save file function every 10 minutes or so. It was necessary because the machines of the day were so flaky, that you were always running the risk of losing work. 10 minute intervals minimized the amount of lost work.

In those days, our technology was new and had problems. If someone lost their work, we told them it was their fault. They clearly weren't saving enough. We pushed the obvious problems with the technology back onto the users. Later a big advancement was to performed this neuroses automatically. The computer could take care of constantly saving the file for you.

A while back, Microsoft Word crashed, and I lost a couple of hours worth of work. I though it had been doing the ten minute backup thing, but that option was turned off. Not sure why, could have been a local thing or an network share problem, or something equally uninteresting.

Hardware crashes are not as common anymore, although it might just be bad luck, but I've had more problems with hardware in the last couple of years than I have for the prior decade. At work, for instance I've had four machines die in less than a year. There seems to be a noticeable decline in the dependency of modern hardware.

I'd figured Word was set up correctly, so I never bothered to check it myself. It wasn't. But I should have checked, they said. It was pushed back to me as the user, to have notice that Word was no longer creating backups. This brought on a twisted sense of deja vu and a 'sad realization'.

A computer is an extremely powerful tool; it can do so much. It has been around for decades and can automate a huge number of tasks.

It is sophisticate enough that we could build a system that could not lose any of your work beyond a few seconds, right up to and including a major catastrophic event like and asteroid colliding with earth. Since we don't have a backup planet, there is little we could do about that, but we do have technology designed to withstand a nuclear war, major storms, earth quakes and we do know how to create fault tolerance redundant distributed implementations.

Disk storage is cheap enough that we can keep all of the key strokes we've ever entered into the computer for our entire lives; allowing us to rebuild any or all of our labors.

Our technology should not allow us to ever lose work. We have progressed beyond that point.

Computers have a huge amount of potential, unknown to even the most savvy of us, but we have not been able to tap it. We write the same stuff over and over, repeating the same mistakes and never really learning from the past. At its best, a web application is possibly the worst ever technology invented. One giant mess of poorly implemented ideas and political maneuvering. A great big ball of mud. We have at the foundation, a great technology in the Internet, that we've build a huge mess on top, the World Wide Web. We connect to it with our easily modifiable PCs, that are complete untrustworthy and getting worse with each new release. Web applications are improving, but they are still extremely crude. And very disappointing. One step forward, and one step back.

But our problems aren't technological, they aren't something we need to invent or fix. We have all of the technology we need, all of the understanding. Our problems lie with us, the people building the technology, with our culture, and our need to be free, inconsistent and messy, and with the way we organize ourselves.

For decades now we have approached the same problems in the same manner, and consistently the results have been flawed, yet we do it again and again. I really don't think it is difficult to build working systems, but it does seem extremely difficult to organize people in a way that they can build working systems.

We have the technology, if only we could figure out a way to utilize it to our advantage. Until then, I guess I'll just have to lower my expectations and get used to losing my work every so often. It is only a couple of hours...