Thursday, October 09, 2014

Programmer, heal thyself

The New York Times recently had a link to the Wired story, “Why the New Obamacare Website is Going to Work This Time” by Steven Levy, originally published in the June issue of Wired.  Levy almost gushes how the Ad Hoc team, a small group of young programmers from Silicon Valley and President Obama’s election campaign, greatly simplified the Website.  “[T]hey worked 80-hour weeks to salvage the botched creation of thousands of technocrats employed by 55 different contractors,”

Duh!  A small team can make breakthroughs that a large group cannot.  Think of the original Macintosh team, much smaller and squirreled away in a small building away from all those working on Apple II software.

IBM trumpeted it had a thousand programmers in seven cities on OS 360.  We in Univac smirked that we had less than 40 programmers working in one city on EXEC I.  Even then a contractor built a leaner OS (EXEC II) to build and test the FORTRAN and COBOL compilers they had contracted to build.  EXEC II was much more popular among customers than EXEC I and even its successor EXEC 8.

Making deadlines?  Hah!  We were always shifting ship dates later.

What I wonder is if these same programmers from private industry are so great, why are software “user community” boards so filled with questions, often unanswered?  If these programmers are so great, why are reviews often mixed, some love the program, others hate it.

Way back in the 80s when the Macintosh was the latest “hot thing”, I was eager to get the latest version of the software and found the enhancements great.  Thirty years later, I am reluctant to move up to a major new release.  To often things that worked fine are changed to something that is more difficult to use or doesn’t even work anymore.

With each generation it seems that programs run slower and slower.  Maybe it’s because I’m using a three-year-old Mac with one-year-old software.  I have found suggestions for “cleaning up the system”, but they involve a whole day of backing up data and then another day of creating a “clean install” disc and actually running it.

Consistency of design often seems to be lacking.  If my iPhone is asleep and I get a call, the screen only gives me the option of swiping to accept the call.  However, if my iPhone is active, the screen gives me the choice of accepting or rejecting the call.  Buried in the instruction manual, or was it in the “user community”, in the first case I can reject the call by holding the sleep button and the home button at the same time.  Only a bureaucracy would allow different actions for the same result.

In one of the recent releases, certain buttons may or may not appear for starting and stopping a podcast.  The intent is to have a right-pointing triangle to start or resume a podcast and a double bar to momentarily stop it.  When these symbols suddenly started disappearing, I was glad that I knew where they were supposed to be.  And I have no idea why these buttons sometime appear and sometime don’t.

I have a new problem to research: why does the return button no longer work on my Logitech Solar Keyboard folio for my iPad?  I’ll have to set aside some time to check out the Logitech community about this.

I love all this technology because of all it does for me.  I can write this column on my laptop and email it to the Reader.  I can keep notes and to-do lists on my laptop, phone, and iPad and keep them synched.  I can call my wife from the grocery store to remind me what it was she wanted.  I can use my iPhone as a hot spot at our cabin to write and email this column.

BTW, I’m not writing this at our cabin as planned because another simple technology became an irritation.  Our smoke alarm started going off randomly.  Sometimes it would beep and beep, sometimes it would only give off one set of beeps.  I had a lousy night Saturday night!  Could it be too much moisture in the small tight cabin?  Well, I brought the alarm home, closed the battery compartment, and put it on the bed.  Within twenty minutes it gave off a single set of beeps.  We bought the seven-year warranty alarm in March!

Much is made about about government bureaucracy and corporate efficiency, but corporate bureaucracy in GM led to many deaths because of faulty ignition switches.

To err is human, but to really screw up it takes a computer.  Humans and computers are both in corporations and governments.

Mel considers himself perfect; he never makes mistakes.  Oops, the computer won’t let him misspell mistakes as “misteaks!

Also published in the Reader Weekly, 2014-10-09 at