Jony Ive (Senior Vice President of Industrial Design at Apple) says that there is beauty in simplicity. It’s easy to get sucked into the reality distortion field (even without the influence of Steve Jobs) and rave about how great Apple’s latest efforts are without really analysing them logically, but I think that catch-phrase – beauty in simplicity – has a lot of truth.
As a programmer and database and web site designer myself I know how easy it is to create something with a lot of features and functions. But while a “Microsoft” type of product with every feature imaginable and a disorganised mess of user interface elements to access those features may seem impressive, it’s actually the simpler, uncluttered products, such as the one’s Apple makes, which are truly superior.
In some ways it’s about what you leave out rather than what you put in. If something is designed properly it can appear simple and uncluttered while still providing plenty of functionality. But that is actually harder than just trying to do everything with little thought to how the user accesses those functions, how they are presented, or how they work together.
I think this principle applies to everything which is why I used more general terms above, but it is most apparent in software design, hence the example of Microsoft software user interfaces.
So what’s the point of all this? Well Apple are currently holding their World Wide Developers’ Conference in San Francisco and the keynote presentation showed off several new iterations of Apple’s current products including iOS7, the latest version of the operating system for iPhone, iPad, and iPod Touch.
I don’t generally like to comment on products I haven’t used myself but I will present some initial thoughts here and perhaps do an actual review once I have used iOS7 for a while.
Many people (me included) think that the current version of iOS is very functional and simple to use but it is starting to feel a little bit lacking in some areas and maybe starting to show it’s age. After all, the first iPhone which used iOS was introduced a whole 6 years ago now – an eternity in computer terms!
So something had to be done and it seemed to make sense to have Apple’s design genius, Jony Ive, have a look at the system and bundled apps and apply some of his magic. It looks like he has succeeded. The new iOS looks simpler and cleaner but still has more functionality. The advanced features are accessible when they need to be, but don’t get in the way. It looks encouraging although I think they could have gone even further in perhaps eliminating the simple grid application layout.
Some people will say there isn’t a lot of real innovation there. I agree. But in many ways – despite what is often believed – Apple isn’t really about innovation at the most basic level. They are more about doing things right rather than doing them first. Let’s look at some examples…
The Apple II was the first home computer which most people could use, but there were a few other models which pre-dated it so it wasn’t really first home computer.
The graphical interface and mouse on the Mac (and Lisa before that) weren’t invented by Apple. They were developed at Xerox PARC. But Apple took those elements and improved them to a point where they worked (within the limitations of the hardware of the day). So again they weren’t the first with a graphical interface they were just the first to do it right.
The iPod was not the first MP3 player. There were plenty of others before that. But again the iPod was easy to use and had good capacity (although 5GB seems small by today’s standards) so it become very successful (at least once a PC compatible version was released) and to many seems like it was the one product which started the digital music revolution.
The same applies to the iPhone. There were many smart phones before that. Some of them had quite impressive feature lists, but those features were slow and awkward and most people didn’t use them. I had a very sophisticated Sony phone before I got my first iPhone and it had a web browser, email client, video chat, and many other features. But I didn’t use those features because they just didn’t work well. That all changed with the iPhone because everything was usable.
You must be getting the idea now so do I really need to mention that the iPad was not the first tablet, but that earlier efforts were truly awful?
So the same applies to iOS7. There are elements there which are just enhanced versions of what is in iOS6, and there are elements reminiscent of alternative systems like Android and Windows 8. But I suspect that it is how the functions work together and how they are so easily accessible and so intuitive to the user which sets them apart.
I guess I won’t really know until I start using iOS7. Luckily my iPhone 5 is new enough to be able to use all of its features. Sadly, my poor old iPad 1 can’t even run iOS6. Still, that is now 3 years old – virtually a vintage device in the fast moving world of computers!
In a recent blog entry I talked about my pet peeve regarding work: people who refuse to read and work on screen and insist on printing pages of paper instead. Today I want to talk about another one (and perhaps another example of me being a bit pedantic), incorrect use of the English language.
My favourite example is a common problem which many other people have commented on: use of the word “literally” when the person really means the exact opposite (figuratively). There was a classic example recently when a school principal said that the minister of education, Hekia Parata, was “literally drinking from a poisoned chalice”.
Many people might wish that it was true, but (presumably) it isn’t. She was forced to figuratively drink from the poisoned chalice because her party has forced her to implement its education policies even though almost every expert and a lot of the public disagree with them. Of course there’s also a good chance that Parata also thinks her party’s ideologically driven schemes really are a good idea.
So a school principal, who really should know better, made a really simple and obvious mistake. But I guess anyone can make an error like that in a highly emotionally charged situation where schools are being closed, and as I said before, maybe he was secretly thinking that the minister meeting an unfortunate end after imbibing person might not be so bad!
Another good misuse, which I have noted for years, is the use of adjectives with the word “unique”, specifically “quite” (and similar words) and “very”. Unique means one of a kind so how can anything be quite one of a kind or very one of a kind? It doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense although I have read a few justifications of the phrase “quite unique” which have a sort of twisted logic.
This mistake has been seen on some prominent sites, even the BBC. Here’s an example: “Another reason why our R&D department is quite unique is that we don’t just create insight and innovation for the BBC…” Clearly “quite” doesn’t fit here if the conventional meaning of unique is used (one of a kind) but if a technically incorrect one (very unusual) is used, it’s OK.
Here’s another classic. When US President, George HW Bush, was elected he said that he “couldn’t believe the enormity of the situation.” The correct definition of the word “enormity” is “the great or extreme scale, seriousness, or extent of something perceived as bad or morally wrong” or “a grave crime or sin”.
Bush clearly meant the strictly incorrect but increasingly common meaning of “something of great size” but I sort of think the real meaning was probably a lot more appropriate in that situation!
And finally I should attain the heights of pedantry and mention some punctuation. How about the good old apostrophe? Some people like to always put an apostrophe before an “s” on the end of a word. So I see words like “its” spelt “it’s”. Actually when I look back through this blog I see that I was guilty of something similar in the past (generally not using the apostrophe when it was technically required) so I guess I shouldn’t be too smart about this particular one!
The rules about using an “s” on the end of “it” to indicate possession are kind of odd, but the more common thing is to use an apostrophe when an “s” is used to indicate a plural of a noun in the form of an acronym. For example, I have seen this: “I read several FAQ’s on this subject” but much more rarely this “I have read several book’s on this subject”. Both are wrong, of course, but for some reason the apostrophe following the acronym seems less bad.
Actually there is one more thing (as Steve Jobs said) I should mention. That is using adverbs. The best example of this is Apple’s (or was it Steve Jobs’ again) advertising slogan “think different”. The word “think” is a verb so “different” is incorrect here and should be the adverb “differently”. At least that’s the way it initially seems.
I recently debated this with someone who counted herself an expert on grammar. Superficially it is clear: the second word here qualifies how we should think therefore it should be the adverb “differently”, not the adjective “different”. But I wanted to be awkward and show how initial impressions could be wrong so I came up with an alternative explanation.
I said to image different as a noun. I know that technically the noun is “differentness” but that sounds really clumsy. So if we allow the noun then the phrase is asking us to think about something, specifically the idea of difference. It sounded a bit weak at the time but it was the best I could come up with (except that it was a deliberate error which made the phrase stand out).
So imagine my delight when I read this in Wikipedia: “Many have noted that the clause ‘Think different’ is not grammatically correct. Since ‘different’ is considered a modifier, it has to be conjugated as an adverb, making ‘think differently’ the accurate phrase. However, according to Jobs’s official biography, this was because Jobs insisted that he wanted ‘different’ to be used as a noun, as in ‘think victory’ or ‘think beauty’…”
So clearly one of my heroes, the great Steve Jobs, thought about this the same way as I did. Of course, now that I think about it, all that means is that we were both wrong!
Most people have a few problems getting English completely correct, and if everyone understands what the writer or speaker is trying to say what’s the harm? There is none really, but it’s still fun looking at those little errors which are particularly amusing: especially poisoned politicians and evil presidents!
People’s work habits usually change slowly. Maybe they just don’t change, and it’s only new generations which allow any change at all (because they don’t have old habits to overcome) but I think it should be possible for people to improve their routines if they just made the effort.
In this blog entry I want to discuss one of my little pet complaints: how people can’t get out of the habit of wasting paper by printing every document they want to read or store. Why can’t they use modern technology and use less paper and save a few trees?
I have worked on being paperless for a few years now myself and have succeeded almost 100%. I must admit that I do still occasionally scribble notes on small scraps of paper but most of the time I type them into my computer, iPad, or (most times) iPhone. I have got quite used to reading from the screen of my various devices so I almost never print anything. And all my document storage is in electronic form.
Mostly this works well. The notes synchronise between all of my devices through Apple’s iCloud and I use the computer (a MacBook Pro with an i7 processor, solid state drive, and 15″ screen) as the “master device” to create permanent documents which synchronise back out to the other devices.
If anyone hands me a piece of paper (such as a receipt, business card, or order of some sort) I just take a photo of it with the iPhone and give it back to them. And I might mention that using an electronic version next time would be preferred. Again, the photos synchronise to the other devices for permanent storage.
And I don’t read books or newspapers, at least not in a conventional form. Ironically, the last book I read on paper was the biography of Steve Jobs, the person who allows me to dispense entirely with conventional reading material. I read news on the iPad and computer through news web sites and I supplement this with podcasts from Radio New Zealand and other sources which I download every morning. And I read a few books on the iPad but mainly listen to audio books which means I can “read” and drive or “read” while walking from one job to the next.
So paper is basically a thing of the past for me. I didn’t even have a printer driver installed on my computer until I had to do some testing for a client. But what about the people I work with? How have they adapted to the new technology?
Generally, extremely poorly.
Almost everyone I work with refuses to read from a screen. They print things and read from the paper instead. Some people even print their email messages! And this applies even to people with high quality devices intended for reading such as iPads.
There have been some truly absurd examples of this. One person has his PA print his emails so he can read them. Then he amends them on paper or writes a new email by hand which the PA types as a new email message. So several sheets of paper are temporarily used for no good reason.
Here’s another example. When I noticed someone printing a 40 page PDF so it could be read I asked why she didn’t get an iPad. She said she had one but didn’t have it at work so couldn’t use it for reading from. When I asked why she left it at home she said it was because she didn’t use it at work so why bring it in? Clearly this was not someone with with knowledge of philosophical logic such as circular arguments!
I try not to be judgemental and I try not to tell everyone how they should work, but I don’t think there’s any harm in suggesting that going paperless is a good idea or even that it is possible. It’s not just because of the environmental advantages of reducing paper use, it’s also about working more efficiently and making the most of the technology we already have available.
A friend recently sent me one of those amusing emails pointing out the farcical nature of many of the things in our daily lives. I’m sure we all get them occasionally and might wonder at the ineptitude of some decisions, or the bizarre nature of language, or whatever else might be involved in the particular item.
But, of course, I just cannot take things at face value and wondered what would happen if I actually took the idea seriously and answered the questions. Here’s what I came up with…
Question: Why do supermarkets make the sick walk all the way to the back of the store to get their prescriptions while healthy people can buy cigarettes at the front?
Answer: None of the supermarkets I know of have a prescription dispensing area at the back although I agree many have tobacco at the front. So the first part of the question makes no sense (maybe it does in the US or wherever this email originated). Regarding the second part: I guess it’s because tobacco is a controlled product which is particularly susceptible to both theft and purchase by under-age people, so having it at the front makes sense.
Question: Why do people order double cheeseburgers, large fries, and a diet coke?
Answer: Do they? In the fast food joints I go to if you “up-size” one item you upsize the lot and (just my anecdote) I don’t see a lot of people getting the least healthy food and the sugar-free drink option. But even if they did, maybe they want to avoid sugar but aren’t so concerned about fat.
Question: Why don’t you ever see the headline ‘Psychic Wins Lottery’?
Answer: Because psychics have no special abilities apart from a few basic tricks that anybody can learn fairly easily. Unfortunately these tricks involve how to fool people into thinking that there are special abilities involved and in no way help winning a lottery. A better question might be: why would anyone take psychics seriously?
Question: Why didn’t Noah swat those two mosquitoes?
Answer: Because Noah, along with most of the other characters in the Old Testament, never existed. There never were just two of any species and there never was a global flood. It’s just a myth and one which sends extremely mixed messages about God’s characteristics.
Question: If flying is so safe, why do they call the airport the terminal?
Answer: Because it is the end-point of the journey. Terminal means end and this should not be construed as meaning any permanent termination of the traveller!
Question: Why is the man who invests all your money called a broker?
Answer: Because the word is derived from old French “broceur” (small trader), of uncertain origin, but possibly from Old French “brocheor” (wine retailer), which comes from the verb “brochier” (to broach a keg) (source: Wikipedia).
Question: You know that indestructible black box that is used on airplanes? Why don’t they make the whole plane out of that stuff?
Answer: Because the black box (which is actually orange, maybe that anomaly would have been a better question) is made from multiple thick layers of aluminium, stainless steel, and titanium. This is both very expensive and very heavy. You could probably make a plane out of these materials but: it would be too heavy to get off the ground, it would cost so much that no one could afford to buy one, and even if it survived a crash the passengers wouldn’t!
Question: Why do they sterilise the needle for lethal injections?
Answer: I have seen several possible answers to this question, including that if the victim of the execution survives they are pardoned and getting hepatitis at that point would be annoying, or that last second pardons sometimes happen and an antidote might be used. However I think the most likely explanation is that the needles used are the same used in medical procedures and are pre-sterilised. It would cost more to supply needles specifically for executions which weren’t.
Question: Why is lemon juice made with artificial flavouring, and dish washing liquid made with real lemons?
Answer: In many cases they aren’t. There are artificial lemon drinks and there are drinks with real lemon too, just like there are dish washing liquids with both real and artificial components. Of course, many product ingredients are there primarily for marketing reasons. Maybe the demographic who still wash dishes by hand value natural ingredients where those who drink soft drinks don’t care so much.
Question: Ever wonder why the sun lightens our hair, but darkens our skin?
Answer: Yes, I did wonder. Here’s the answer I thought of: The ultraviolet light in sunlight has a bleaching effect on most substances. However humans have evolved a protective mechanism on their skin which darkens when exposed to sunlight. The mechanism involves cells called melanocytes which produce a dark brown protective pigment called melanin.
Question: Why can’t women put on mascara with their mouth closed?
Answer: Because women can’t do anything with their mouth closed. If there mouth was closed how would they boss men around, question their partner’s decisions, and bitch about their friends? (Sorry, just couldn’t resist that one!)
So there you go. Next time you receive one of these “cute” emails why not just spend a little bit of extra time and actually find out the answers? It’s fun!
I have been doing general computer support (along with a lot of other IT related jobs, such as web site design and general programming) for many years now so I have had a lot of interesting experiences in that area. In my last blog entry I discussed some of the reasons for computer problems in regards to the computer hardware and software. Today I want to comment on (or maybe whinge about) how the user contributes to the whole situation.
I mainly work in a university which is (theoretically at least) filled with intelligent, capable people. You might assume, in this situation, that supporting their computing requirements would be fairly easy. Well no, not necessarily!
If I can actually work on the computer then there are usually few problems. With ubiquitous networking it is usually possible to take control of a computer without being physically present, and in many cases I can actually visit to tackle the problem directly. But there are many other situations where phone support is required, and that’s where things get interesting.
Recently I spend 20 minutes trying to establish whether a computer was plugged in to the power or not. I know that sounds ridiculous but think about it: even with an iMac, which has less cables than many other computers, there are still a few to worry about, such as keyboard, ethernet, and printer cables. Some users look behind the computer, see some cables, and assume that it is plugged into the power.
And yes, I did describe the power cable as a “quite thick (about 5 mm) grey one which probably goes through a big hole in the computer’s stand and connects in the middle”. The user saw a fairly thin green one which didn’t go through a hole and connected on the right, and thought that was close enough!
So when I try to figure out why the computer won’t start, after being told the power is connected and switched on, you can imagine my confusion. I often feel like my time is being wasted by help systems which ask if the computer is plugged in to the power. I think “of course it is, get on to the helpful suggestions” but clearly you can’t assume anything!
Sometimes users just seem to be totally blind to what is on their screen. I asked another user to open the Applications folder and tell me if “Image Capture” was there. He said it wasn’t and listed some other programs with similar names: iPhoto, iTunes, etc. I was surprised by this because Image Capture is a standard program installed with the operating system (an install which I had done earlier).
So I said “just type I, then M together quickly”. He said that it had highlighted Mail. Obviously he had typed too slowly and instead of highlighting a program starting with “IM” it had highlighted one starting with “I” followed by another starting with “M”. So I asked him to type a bit more quickly but before he did that he said “Oh, here it is, next to iPhoto”. Yes, and it wasn’t there all along?
But that was nothing compared with a similar issue I wasted about 10 minutes on (these may not sound like long periods of time but if you get 2 or 3 in a row suddenly you start thinking about how you might prefer to be doing something else). All I wanted to do was confirm which program a user was currently using.
On a Mac that is quite easy because the second menu in the menu bar (which is always across the top of the screen) is the name of the program, and that menu is always to the right of the Apple menu which is at the top-left of the screen. So all the user has to do is look at the top-left of the screen, recognise the small Apple symbol and read the word immediately to its right. How hard can that be?
Well, as I said, it took 10 minutes to prise that piece of information from one user I recently worked with.
First of all I assumed a certain amount of basic knowledge on the user’s part and asked her directly which program she was in (that terminology usually works, instead of asking which is the “active” or frontmost” program). She didn’t know, of course.
RIght, so again assuming a certain amount of basic knowledge, I asked what is the name of the second menu. She said she had no menus. Now I really don’t know if she knew what a menu was in this context so I needed to dumb it down a bit. I said “do you see the small Apple symbol at the top-left of the screen”. No, she didn’t see that. I said “what’s at the top-left of your screen”. She replied ” some coloured dots”.
OK, that was progress, there are coloured dots at the top-left of each window. So I said “no, at the top-left of the whole screen, not just the window (of course, I knew for sure she wouldn’t know what a window was but I’m eternally optimistic). No, there was nothing there according to her.
So it sounded like the program was in full-screen mode but this was an older machine with a system which didn’t support that and, even if it did, the coloured buttons wouldn’t be visible then.
So I said “what happens when you move the mouse pointer to the top of the screen? Apparently it disappeared. Now, I’m fairly sure it didn’t disappear – more likely she just briefly lost sight of it – but what could I say?
So I was thinking about what I could do next when she said “what does Finder mean?” I asked her where she saw that and she said near the top-left of the screen. I asked “to the right of the Apple symbol” and she replied “yes”. I asked “what did you do to make that appear?” and she didn’t know. She thought it must have been there all along.
At this point a career in – well just about anything except IT – seemed like a good idea, but at least I knew which program was currently active so I could proceed to the next step. But I really wonder to this day what it was she was looking at when I asked her to look for the Apple symbol at the top-left of the screen. And I guess she still doesn’t know what a menu or a window actually is!
Other users seem to take a long time to do basic things, like select from a menu. When it takes a minute to choose an item from a menu I get worried that maybe the user is really doing something else.
Here’s an example: I asked a user if he could see the Apple menu. Yes he could see that fine (obviously this guy is like Alan Turing compared with the previous user). So I said “click on that menu and choose System Preferences”. I waited a few seconds then said “now…”. But he interrupted me: “wait”. OK, I waited, then I said “OK now?”. He replied “No, just wait a minute, you’re going to fast”. At this stage I wonder if this guy is erasing his hard disk or writing a shell script to hack into NASA in the time between clicking Apple, moving down 100 pixels and clicking System Preferences, but after about 30 seconds I could continue. I still don’t know what he was doing during that time.
Finally there is the most creative and dangerous user of all: the user who actually thinks he or she knows what they are doing! This is usually bad… very bad.
I often like to explain why I am doing certain things just so that the user is reassured and can possibly learn something from the experience, but usually it’s just easier to list a series of actions and have the user repeat them on their computer.
Sometimes it becomes apparent that the user hasn’t got to the expected place, so I need to backtrack and find out what’s gone wrong. Often it is because they have taken a “shortcut” or “applied their knowledge to make things easier”. So I think: yes, well you called me because you can’t solve the problem, let’s just try it my way for a change, OK?
Some users have learned a few computer words and are keen to show them off. But their explanations, rather than clarifying the true situation, often just make things a lot worse! For example, I had one user tell me she had “pointed the font at the window and clicked the pointer but nothing happened”. Well I sort of understand all of those individual words but I can’t make a lot of sense out of how they have been combined!
So yes, computers can be bizarre and difficult to understand, but compared with users, computers are a trivial problem. At least computers make a certain amount of sense and follow some basic rules which can be understood after a few years of intense study of computer science. Users on the other hand (despite the fact that I majored in psychology as well as computer science at university) will always be a mystery to me!
When you are an IT consultant there are two elements of the job which you have to be aware (or maybe afraid) of: the first is the computer and all it’s complex, and possibly conflicting, parts; and the second is the user, generally an even more bizarre and unfathomable part of the equation.
Many people think computers give far more problems than they should do, and wonder why this issue is so common. They compare computers with other machines which seem to have far fewer faults and accuse computer experts of being somehow negligent in being responsible for these problems.
There is a certain element of truth in this criticism. Computers do seem to develop more faults than most other technology, but I would say there are several really good reasons for this which I will go through here.
First, computer technology is relatively new. The computer as a common workplace tool is only about 20 or 30 years old. Some common functions of computers, such as use of the internet by non-specialists, were developed much more recently than that. So I think there is a partial excuse in saying that computers are still being developed to be more reliable and easy to use and maintain.
Look at how good they are now compared with 10 years ago and it’s obvious considerable progress has already been made. I agree that there is still room for improvement, but how good were cars (for example) just 25 years after they were first mass produced? I would suggest they had progressed nowhere near as far as computers have in the same time.
Second, computers are extremely flexible and tend to be configured with components from a large number of different manufacturers. The computer might come from one company, the operating system form another, various drivers from a third, software from several others, and various peripherals from still others. It is almost inevitable that there will be some compatibility issues when all of these components interact.
Imagine if you bought a car from Ford, then put a Toyota engine in it, with an engine management unit from Mitsubishi and a gearbox from VW. Would you expect these parts to all work together easily? Clearly there are likely to be more issues with this approach, but that is basically what happens with many computers, especially Windows PCs. One reason Macs tend to give a lot less problems is that Apple provides more of the components (hardware, OS, drivers, and some of the software) which are more likely to work together in harmony.
Third, people tend to fine-tune and customise their computers far more than other technology. Traditionally computers have been completely open to reconfiguration by the owner, which has provided clear benefits, but a lot of problems as well. There are exceptions to this approach, for example the iPhone which is a much more closed system, but one where software conflicts, security issues, and crashes are almost unheard of.
To use my car analogy again, it would be like the owner being able to change the way components of the car worked. Would we be surprised if a car stopped working after the owner started fine tuning the engine management system, or disabled the cooling system, for example?
Finally, there has been (especially in the past but not so much today) a trend by major software and hardware companies to engage in a battle with their competitors to see who can create the computer with the best specs or the program with the most features without worrying too much about how relevant those specs were to the average user, or how well those features worked together.
We now have programs like Microsoft Word which can do almost everything but which does all those things really badly, or we have stuff like Flash which comes from the distant past and has just been added to in an attempt to keep it relevant. Both of these approaches result in more functionality theoretically but in less useful functionality in practice.
So when all of these difficulties are considered it’s fairly impressive that computers are as good as they are. It’s not clear which direction these trends will go in future. Apple is making its systems more closed which makes them more reliable, secure and consistent, but also less flexible and configurable. Microsoft is also reducing some of the flexibility of the past. But Google seems determined to offer maximum openness in its Android OS (and that has always been the case with Linux).
As I said above, it’s not clear which is the best approach, but it does seem to me that every other area of technology has become more closed off to the user (few people can service their cars now for example) while becoming more reliable and sophisticated. If that trend also applies to IT then maybe Google is taking the wrong approach.
I think computers will continue to become more reliable and less prone to the problems we still get today, but even now I think a lot of progress has been made. Considering what we ask of them, modern computers (even PCs) are remarkably problem-free.
I seem to have spent a lot of time describing the first difficult element in computer support. The user is in many ways a far more fascinating topic but that will have to wait for another entry.
One of the most viewed blog posts I have ever done (at least on the WordPress version of my blog) is one titled “Geek Jokes” from 2011-05-12. It was a collection of jokes about science, engineering, and programming, and included an explanation of some of them.
So because that was so popular, and because I have been a big negative in recent posts (Market Schmarket, Two Complete Morons, etc) I thought it was time for something a bit lighter but also very cool (well cool in a geeky way, at least). So here is Geek Jokes, Part 2…
Heisenberg and Shrodinger get pulled over for speeding.
The cop asks, “do you know how fast you were going?”
Heisenberg replies, “no, but I know were I am.”
The cop thinks this is a strange reply and calls for a search and opens the trunk.
The cop says, “do you know you have a dead cat in your trunk?”
Shrodinger says, “well, I do now!”
Analysis of Joke 1
Many of these jokes seem to derive their humour from a sense of superiority the geek might gain from understanding the joke when others wouldn’t. Of course, many would say that geeks actually are naturally superior and deserve to be just a little bit smug as a consequence, however I couldn’t possibly comment on the idea.
Anyway, Heisenberg and Shrodinger were two famous physicist who were involved in important work and discoveries in the early days of quantum physics.
Heisenberg is most well known for the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle which states that it is impossible to know both the location and momentum of an object. The more accurately the position is known, the less well known the momentum (and therefore the speed) *can* be known. This isn’t just a failure in the measuring technique, it’s a fundamental property of the quantum world.
Shrodinger used a “thought experiment” involving a cat locked in a box with a vial of poison which could be released based on a truly quantum event (such as radioactive decay). Because it could not be known whether the event occurred or not it could also not be known if the cat was alive or dead. But again, the truth (or at least one interpretation of the meaning of the phenomenon) is far more subtle. According to one interpretation of quantum physics the cat isn’t just in an unknown state (dead or alive) it is actually simultaneously in both states until the box is opened.
So understanding that the joke is now obvious, right? In fact this is an enhanced version of the orignal which only mentioned Heisenberg. Shrodinger was added to double the geeky goodness of the joke a bit later.
How do you recognize a field service engineer on the side of the road with a flat tire?
He’s changing each tire to see which one is flat.
And the related problem:
How do you recognize a field service engineer on the side of the road who has run out of gas?
He’s changing each tire to see which one is flat.
Analysis of Joke 2
A field engineer is a person who is sent into the field (the client’s workplace usually) to solve problems. This joke seems to fit best with software engineers and related helpdesk and support staff so I’m going to analyse the joke based on that. Part of my job involves this sort of work so I particularly identify with this. I’m not saying I’m guilty of doing it, but I do see it a lot in other people!
Many “lesser” support staff try to solve all problems in pretty much the same way. They might either have a list of instructions they have to go through that they have been given as part of their job, or they might have limited experience and only know a few possible responses to all problems. They also go from one step to the next even when it should be possible to go directly to the source of the problem.
So naturally when your computer has a problem they ask you to restart it, or re-install the operating system, or reset the parameter RAM, or one of a few other common actions. These are real solutions to particular problems but they are often used in situations which are completely inappropriate.
So the analogy with fixing a flat tire is obvious. Anyone with a bit of real knowledge (and the permission from his company to use it) can just be a bit smart about it and analyse the problem and change the correct tire immediately. But that’s not the way most people work.
Maybe this is humorous because it is a situation many people find themselves participating in as the owner of the computer (or car in the joke) and maybe it’s even more humorous for superior software engineers like myself who actually analyse the problem and often come up with the correct solution first time as a result!
Never underestimate the bandwidth of a station wagon full of tapes hurtling down the highway.
Analysis of Joke 3
Bandwidth is a term used to describe the speed which data can be transmitted at. If your internet connection works at 10 Megabits per second for example, it can transmit about a million characters (single letters or digits) in a second (note that it takes 8 bits to make a single byte – the most common way to represent a character – plus a bit of overhead for control, so the number reduces by a factor of 10.)
But electronic transmission isn’t the only thing which the concept of bandwidth can be applied to. A pigeon which takes an hour to deliver a 100 word written message has a bandwidth of 100 words per hour, for example. And a computer technician who takes 5 minutes to deliver a 16G flash drive by carrying it to the required destination (sometimes known as sneaker-net) has a bandwidth of about 530 Megabits per second.
Of course those two solutions do vary in speed depending on the distance they must cover, plus there is a second concept which comes into play: latency. That is the time spent waiting for the transmission to begin. In the case of the flash drive the data comes in quite quickly but it takes 5 minutes to start!
So the joke is that sometimes the old way is best (in general, as well as in the specific case of data transmission). It might be possible to fit a thousand 100 Megabyte tapes into a station wagon and even if it takes an hour to reach its destination that is still a bandwidth of 300 Megabits per second. That might be faster than sending the data down a high speed data link!
There are 10 types of people in the world. Those who understand binary, those who don’t,
and those who knew we were using ternary.
Analysis of Joke 4
This is an extension of the classic joke I mentioned in the previous geek jokes post. I didn’t explain it there so I will here, including the added extra component, of course.
Initially it looks like the claim is that there are ten types of people in the world because that’s usually what “10″ means. But if you are working in a different base then 10 means something quite different. In fact in every case it means the number of the base. So in base ten (our usual base) it means ten. But in base two it means two and is more properly called “one zero” rather than ten or two.
Computers work in base two at the most basic level because it it easiest to handle signals which are either off (0) or on (1) very quickly. Most programming can be done in base ten, our normal base, because the computer (or more correctly a program called the compiler or interpreter) does the conversion to binary. But in many cases it is useful to undertand binary and any half decent programmer can work in binary with some proficiency.
But just to fool anyone who thinks they are smart enough to make the assumption the number is binary the joke goes on to make the claim it could be ternary (base 3) in which case the number is 3. Of course, that is unlikely because ternary isn’t used in computing applications, at least not as far as I am aware!
Finally, on a similar theme I present joke 5, which is in the form of a geek love poem…
Roses are #ff0000
Violets are #0000ff
All my base
Are belong to you!
Analysis of Joke 5
Base 2 can be quite clumsy to use because it involves long sequences of zeros and ones (for example one thousand in base 2 is 1111101000) so it’s usually best to use higher bases. But ten isn’t suitable because ten isn’t a power of two, and 8 bits (known as a byte) is a common unit meaning base sixteen (where two digits make a byte) is more useful. Because base sixteen requires more than the ten digits, 0 to 9, we usually use it extends these to the letters A to F. So fifteen is F, sixteen is 10, and two hundred and fifty five (the biggest number which can be stored in a byte) is FF.
When we represent colour on a computer (or any other device for that matter) we usually make use of the fact that the human eye has three colour sensors: for red, green, and blue light. By mixing different amounts of these three “primary” colours any other colour can be created. For example red and green make yellow and all three colours make white.
Note that devices which use ink instead of light use a different set of primary colours – cyan, magenta and yellow – which are the secondary colours of light. Also note that your printer uses a fourth colour, black, but it doesn’t strictly need it because theoretically black can be made from cyan, magenta and yellow mixed. However in real life that usually looks more like a muddy brown, plus it uses a lot of ink to produce the most common colour.
So light producing devices, such as computer displays and TVs, use RGB (red green blue) colour, and ink devices such as printers use CMYK (cyan magenta yellow black – black is K because B was already used for blue).
If we want to specify a colour for the screen we just use three numbers for the amount of red green and blue, and because we usually use use a byte (a number from 0 to 255) for each colour a two character base sixteen number makes sense. So ff0000 means 255 (maximum) red, no green, no blue (pure red) and 0000ff means no red, no green and 255 blue (pure blue). Any my favourite colour? That would be #3797ff, a rather nice sky blue.
That explains the first two lines (roses are red, violets are blue) but the other two are a bit more involved! Well, not really.
In 1989 a Japanese video game called “Zero Wing” was released in English. If the game beat you an evil character appeared announcing that he had taken over all of your bases. The translation was a bit odd though and came out as “All your base are belong to us”. For some reason this phrase sort of caught on in the geek world and that is the origin of the final two lines.
A true geek would understand all the jokes without any effort at all. I wrote these explanations entirely without reference to other sources, and I seem to have spent far more time discussing geeky tech stuff than the actual jokes, so I claim uber-geek status based on that. And finally, I would like to add my two bits to this whole discussion: 1 0. Thank you.
My “favourite things” posts are an excuse to rave on about some cool stuff, according to my rather geeky standards. In the past I have talked about a spacecraft, a telescope, a smartphone, and a car. Today it is time, I think, to talk about another one of my interests: planes. So I will now talk about my favourite aircraft: the SR-71 Blackbird.
Maybe one of the attractions of the SR-71 is that, unlike many other fast jets, it is not a fighter, so it’s main reason for existing is not to destroy things. It’s original role was for high altitude reconnaissance and it was also used by NASA for scientific research near the end of its military career.
But of course the main reason for celebrating the SR-71 is it’s speed. It set a speed record for a jet powered aircraft in 1976 and that still stands today. That is a remarkable achievement considering how technology has progressed since then. In fact, at that time it also set an altitude record but that has been surpassed since.
The actual top speed has never been officially revealed, but the record is 3,529.6 kilometers per hour (2,193.2 miles per hour, or about Mach 3.2) – the equivalent of over a mile every 2 seconds. Many people believe the aircraft could go a lot faster and one person commented if you fully opened the throttle it would just go faster and faster until it destroyed itself!
But even the official speed record is quite impressive. It is literally faster than a bullet. If you shot at the plane as it passed it would leave the bullet behind because of its superior speed. And it gets so hot during flight that the canopy gets as hot as an oven and the plane expands by 30 cm. To allow for this expansion the panels don’t fit together so well when it is cold, so it leaks fuel while on the ground. No sealant was ever found which could handle the extreme temperatures and expansion of the metal during flight.
The engines worked in two modes: as a turbojet below Mach 2, then as a ramjet above that. They used about 30 tons of fuel per hour at full thrust and each of the two engines produced more power than the ocean liner Queen Mary did in total. The engines needed to be turned by a “starter motor” when starting and the only thing up to the job were two V8s with no exhaust mufflers linked together and producing over 600 horsepower. Needless to say, the noise was impressive!
Night time engine tests were truly awesome. Running the engine at full afterburner power produced a flame 30 feet long and the length of a football field away the exhaust was still over 300 degrees and moving at 150 knots. The engine became so hot that some parts of the metal became translucent and the sound was so great that the engineer’s bodies shook uncontrollably even with full protective gear and standing a fair distance from the engine.
The highly modified JP7 jet fuel was actually quite difficult to ignite because it had an additive increasing its flash point which prevented it from breaking down at high temperatures. This made it difficult to start the engines and fire up the afterburners so a chemical called triethylborane was used. It has the interesting property of exploding when exposed to air! There was a tank of this material which was enough to start the engines and light the burners about 16 times during flight.
The plane, which was over 100 feet in length, was made 85% from titanium which actually strengthened after heating. All of the tools used for servicing were produced specially for the job because normal cadmium-plated tools would have caused corrosion.
The pilots wore a suit similar to an astronaut’s and the pre-flight check took over three hours to complete. But despite those issues pilots loved the Blackbird and there are many accounts of it’s incredible performance. Here’s a pilot describing the experience of take-off: “Both burners light at the same time. You can feel the acceleration and you just point the nose at the sky and go. There is nothing… nothing in the world to compare to that feeling.”
On 7 December 1903 Wilbur Wright flew the Wright Flyer at almost 7 miles per hour. I think he would have been rather impressed if he had been taken for a flight in the SR-71, just 60 years later.
A lot of the material in this entry came from the book “SR-71 Revealed: The Inside Story” which is full of interesting information about the Blackbird. There are also many web sites and movies dedicated to this amazing aircraft.
Note: the following blog entry is based on personal opinion and anecdotes. I have no real scientific evidence to support many of my contentions. I do think it is a valid hypothesis however, because I believe it’s difficult to refute most of my individual points. So, now that you have been warned, here’s the rant…
I often wonder why so many companies produce such mediocre products, provide such terrible service, and generally just don’t seem to reach the potential we might expect of them. I know that there are a few fairly good products around too, and even with the rather lacklustre service many companies provide most issues are eventually resolved, but it still seems to me that things could be so much better.
If you think the products we have today are good then maybe you are right… but maybe you are wrong too. When Apple started producing the iPhone many people wondered why they bothered because the phones then available were, they thought, perfectly adequate. But what has happened a few years later? Just about every advanced phone is either an iPhone or an iPhone look-alike. Maybe those old phones weren’t so good, but we just didn’t realise it until a much better one came along.
I’m sure the same applies to almost every product we use. One of my interests is in user interface design and I am constantly surprised at how terrible the user interface for almost everything is. How many people can navigate the arcane menu systems and change settings in their TV for example? And why are so many web sites so atrociously designed, and why is it almost impossible to get any help with these frustrating situations when they do arise?
I think I know why. It’s because, in almost every case, large companies simply don’t care about their products. The product (or service) is seen as an annoying but necessary ancillary issue to be dealt with on the way to the company’s real goal: making money.
I’m not saying a company shouldn’t make money. Clearly in our modern capitalist system that is an absolute necessity. What I am saying is that making money should be seen as an outcome of doing what the company is really there for (producing a product or providing a service) rather than it’s primary raison d’etre.
Let me give a few examples of where this phenomenon has become apparent. I’m going to talk in generalities here because it’s unfair to mention a company by name without giving them an opportunity to defend themselves, but you might be able to guess who I am talking about in some cases.
I work with many software companies in my professional life and many of them provide software which is really expensive. I also work with products of smaller companies (sometimes just a single developer) which are often quite cheap. Which of these products should we expect to have the greatest reliability and which company should be the most responsive to questions and requests for help?
If you have ever had to deal with a large software company you probably already know the answer. Surprisingly it is often the smaller, more focussed companies which create the most reliable and most functional software. And trying to contact one of the big companies to report a bug, ask for help, or request a new feature is usually a waste of time. On the other hand I have had a lot of positive experiences with smaller companies where they have given answers to questions very quickly.
On the subject of getting help I really must mention the greatest travesty of modern customer service: the helpdesk or help phone system. There are probably cases where these can work moderately well, and there are occasional situations where it’s possible to get certain issues resolved, but the main problem is that they have become the only solution for many companies, not because they give good results but because they are cheap or they are simple.
Many companies operate technical services which might be open to malicious attack or susceptible to highly esoteric problems, but you would expect the experts at these organisations to deal with those issues. In smaller companies where a person with good technical skills is in charge this usually happens but it’s surprising how often in bigger companies really basic errors are made.
For example, email systems might be hacked (just a totally theoretical example, you understand) or software of truly awful design might be produced (by a supposedly talented company). These technical problems happen in big organisations either because the people with real technical skills just aren’t there or if they are there they are constrained by the wishes of their “superiors” (I hate that word) for making money ahead of providing service.
Another cause of these issues is outsourcing. Theoretically this should be a great idea because a specialised company or other organisation can handle a subset of the tasks the company contracting it was previously required to perform and, because that’s their specialty they should be able to do it better.
But by now you should be able to guess what really happens. That’s right, instead of outsourcing to get better results it is done for other reasons: either to save money or to remove responsibility from the company and attempt to evade its responsibility. So, for example, an internet company could outsource it’s email services then blame the company it outsourced to for any (almost inevitable) failures. Again, service is forgotten and quick and easy profit is the sole aim.
So why does this happen in most big companies but rarely in small ones? It’s because of that greatest modern obstacle to progress: managers. Yes, professional managers generally don’t know much about the products and services of their company and they aren’t motivated to try to improve them either. Their focus is on greater profits at whatever cost is necessary: reducing staff, making products cheaper, providing the absolute minimum of service, using cheap foreign labour, etc.
The real problem is that this often works (from the company’s perspective). Many companies who take this approach do make quite good profits, at least for a while. Why don’t the famous market mechanisms operate here? Why don’t consumers just change to a company which still does provide good services and products? Probably for several reasons: most of the other companies are operating the same way so there’s no advantage in changing, the customer is locked in with some sort of contract, they aren’t aware of how poor the service they are getting really is, etc.
And the small companies which might start and are not yet affected by this malaise usually don’t get far before they are either destroyed by unfair competition from the bigger ones or are bought by them and assimilated into their corporate culture.
What can be done about this? I don’t use products from big companies where I can avoid it. For example, I only use Microsoft and Adobe products when I’m helping other users who use them. Unfortunately this means I have had to but licenses for them so in fact I haven’t achieved much there! Also I use almost exclusively use Apple computer products and Apple has grown into one of the biggest corporates of all. But at least there is a focus on innovation and quality of some sort there still.
So in reality there isn’t much that an individual can do without making their own life awkward, because we are all quite tied into the corporate system. But at the very least we know what to expect and why, in most cases: poor service and mediocre products because the leadership just doesn’t care.
I’ve always been interested in cars. Unfortunately I don’t have several hundred thousand dollars spare to “invest” in a supercar but that doesn’t stop me from reading and watching videos about them. Top Gear (the British version, of course) is my favourite TV program, although I must admit I don’t really watch TV so there isn’t a lot of competition there! In my list of favourite things there has to be a car, or – because I just can’t commit to one – a list of several cars.
If I had to pick one car as my favourite it would be the McLaren F1. I know there are faster and better handling cars around now, because technology has moved on since the McLaren was first produced in 1992, but the McLaren was just so clearly the best at the time, so important in the progress of car design, and such an uncompromising masterpiece of engineering, that it is impossible to ignore.
And if I was going to make a few other choices as honorary runners up to the mighty F1 I might choose the Pagani Huayra and maybe the Lamborghini Aventador. I would choose the Pagani because it is not only wickedly fast, but also reflects the same uncompromising design philosophy as the McLaren. The Aventador is technically the best “cheap” supercar out there, and by far the most refined, best handling, and fastest Lambo ever.
So let’s have a look at the specs of the F1. The car was one of the first to use a carbon-fibre monocoque and weighed just 2513 pounds. It used a unique (as far as I know) three seat arrangement with the driver in the middle at the front and two passengers behind and to either side. The body was very streamlined, with a coefficient of drag of just 0.32 (the Veyron is 0.36). Downforce was generated by the design of the underbody, and by two electric fans, plus a dynamic spoiler at the back.
The engine was made specifically for McLaren by BMW. It was a 6.1 litre V12 producing 627 horsepower. The standard car had a top speed of 231 miles per hour (a record not beaten for 13 years) and could go a lot faster if the rev limiter was removed (243 mph and probably more if the gearing was changed). Acceleration was also impressive: 0 to 60 miles per hour in just 3.2 seconds. Few cars even today can beat that.
A basic design philosophy was that there should be no compromise on anything, and famously the engine bay was lined with gold to reflect heat. It was an incredible piece of engineering but there was still a dedication to producing a pure driver’s car so there was no power steering, ABS brakes, etc.
There’s a video on YouTube of a test drive of a McLaren F1 GTR – a race model converted back to use on the road – by British car magazine, AutoCar. The presenter is astounded by the handling and speed (claiming the throttle response superior to a Veyron) and also demonstrates its performance in comparison to a “common” fast car (a Porsche 911) where the F1 takes off as if the 911 is standing still.
But for me maybe the most awesome thing of all is the sound. As one commenter said, it’s like the devil himself is tied up in the engine bay and is being whipped! Many ex-race GTRs (where the sound deadening material has been removed to save weight) come with headphones so that the occupants can speak to each other.
The F1 is a true masterpiece and it makes it even better that it is British car (with a German engine) produced by the company which was originally formed in 1963 from the team established by New Zealander Bruce McLaren, so there is a local connection there too.
I do have to say a little bit about one of my other cars here. I have watched a couple of videos about the Huayra and I must say that the fanatical attention to detail on that car is perhaps even more over the top than that shown for the McLaren. For example, the name badge is produced from a single chunk of metal and takes a day to create, and each wheel is made the same way, taking 5 days each!
Every one of the 1400 bolts used in the car is made from titanium, and has the Pagani logo etched onto it, and together they cost (wait for it) well over US$100,000 to produce (remember that’s just the bolts). The fuel system cost a million dollars to develop and the battery is specially designed to save weight and costs US$1800. This car is pure insanity and costs well over $US one million to buy – if you can get one at all.
The Huayra is incredibly fast and has topped the Top Gear test track lap times with a time of 1:13.8 (even beating the Ariel Atom 500 V8 with 1:15.1, the Lamborghini Aventador with 1:16.5, and the “fastest car in the world”, the Bugatti Veyron Super Sport with 1:16.8). The McLaren has never been tested on this track – maybe that would be like giving Einstein an IQ test! It was beaten in straight line acceleration by the Veyron however.
It’s interesting that the Huayra’s basic specs (top speed and acceleration) are actually inferior to the McLaren’s but they are also inferior to the Veyron’s (by a fair margin) and still beat it on the Top Gear track. That track is fairly tight however, meaning top speed isn’t as useful.
The whole confusion over lap times, horsepower, acceleration figures and top speeds does show that pontification on what the best car in the world is based on numbers is generally fairly useless. And that’s one reason I gave 3 cars as my favourites. But you can probably tell that I still think the McLaren is special. If any other car is held in as much esteem and is still as relevant over 20 years after its release I will be impressed!