I designed software and always had pride in what I created, but that doesn’t seem to be a consideration today when it comes to PCs or the Internet. There are many reasons for that, the major one being greed. The computer manufacturers – software as well as hardware – only want to make money. Who cares if the software works? The product is rushed out to beat the competitors and the bugs can be worked out later. Just think what would happen if car manufacturers used the same approach. You’d be driving on the interstate when all of a sudden the car exploded. GM, Ford or Chrysler can only hope the car wasn’t financed. For a good laugh, check out the GM / Microsoft comparison that I included in chapter 24 of This Page Intentionally Left Blank.
When a crash does occur, is it hardware or software? It could be either, maybe both. The worse part is the consumer doesn’t know who is responsible and the companies will just blame each other. I will discuss one of my experiences in this regard, later. Today’s computers have too many deficiencies and crashes should occur less frequently, if at all. You have probably heard about all the different versions of WINDOWS. They keep appearing, along with the problems that need to be ironed out. In fact, by the time you read this, the latest version will probably be replaced with another.
Wouldn’t it be better to come up with software that worked and not have to modify it, or at least keep the number of revisions to a minimum? Another suggestion is to have a version come out that doesn’t have to be debugged by the people using it. After all, if you pay for something, you shouldn’t have problems with the software. If the manufacturer didn’t rush the software out without thorough debugging, customers would be happier. A few years ago, Bill Gates was doing a demonstration of the new WINDOWS 98 product when the system crashed. I guess it was ready to be shipped to the customers! You may also have noticed that software can’t be returned for a refund. That’s really encouraging.
As far as WINDOWS goes, I don’t think the majority of people are that thrilled with the product. People buy it because it is just about the only “game in town.” It’s the best of all the rest or at least they think so, not much different from the choices that are given people when they vote. If you queried people trying to learn WINDOWS for the first time, the consensus would be that of disappointment and frustration. I have been working with that software for a few years and at first I felt just that way. Now that I have some experience with the product, I still feel that it isn’t very user-friendly.
The difficulty stems from the lack of a definite structure. There are so many different ways of doing the same thing that it really gets confusing. It’s not rigid enough and the mouse is another story. I guess WINDOWS was created by a space cadet, a nerd or possibly both. They decided to make it as flexible as possible. Anyone designing systems knows that the more flexibility there is in a system, the less chance it has of working. A system with almost no rules or too many will consequently break down. Maybe that’s why these systems seem to always have bugs. A simpler system is easier to test and debug. As you make it more complicated, you run the risk of failure.
This is not to say that you couldn’t have a successful user-friendly system with WINDOWS and the mouse. It just seems that the way it “works” today, there are many problems and a lot more frustrated users. Maybe the software today is fine for the creators and like-minded individuals. Unfortunately the majority of users are not rocket scientists nor do we ever care to be.
You might say that it doesn’t matter what kind of a product you put out since there will always be people rushing to buy it. Just consider the scene when WINDOWS 95 was introduced. Everyone and his brother wanted a copy of the software. Perhaps there will always be a demand but there will come a day when people will stop buying software that they suspect has major flaws in it. It’s a foregone conclusion. You can’t expect to sell garbage software forever. If what you’re trying to sell isn’t any good, no one will buy it. More time should be spent in development and this will eliminate problems. The customers will be happier too. I’m repeating myself, but sometimes you need to keep reminding people.
Many gadgets have helped us in our everyday endeavors. This should also be true of computers, but sometimes the effort is just not worth it. You hear advice to save your document every so often as you edit it to avoid losing your input. That is a nice thought but it shouldn’t be necessary and wouldn’t be if there weren’t so many deficiencies in the software. When something does go wrong, you have no meaningful explanation of the problem. Instead you get some completely meaningless message – in some cases you’ll see a dump – that when printed, is only good for lining the bottom of your birdcage. The end result is that a task that should have taken you five minutes results in your spending twice that much time or more because you’re using a computer.
Some time ago, I was called upon to do some editing on a grant proposal for a University at Buffalo professor. He emailed the document to me, and a few others, and told us to get on with the process. At first some of the others couldn’t read the file that he sent. Well I had no trouble reading it but I couldn’t edit it, even after he sent another version. I had a few options, but each one pointed out the burden that the computer had become in our grant process. It may have helped in some respects but in others it just became a nuisance. The problem has to do with all the different formats for documents. Just as we don’t need one hundred versions of software when one or two would do, we don’t need more different formats for files when a handful will suffice.
I believe in efficiency when it comes to work. Working smart beats working hard any day, despite what some have told you. The former method will accomplish more in less time and be better for your health. It seems that computers have caused more aggravation and require more time and effort to accomplish tasks. Even if a manual process for getting something done takes the same amount of effort as using a PC, it doesn’t justify the use of the latter. It just doesn’t make sense.
The different versions of software as well as hardware bring with them the upgrade and update, which are quite annoying. The companies that want us to buy their goods produce these endless versions that keep appearing in the marketplace. These corporations insist that we need the newest version of the PC or word processing software, even if it is inundated with bugs and problems. In turn the consumer discovers and reports them to the supplier, who then charges that individual for a solution. But there is a more serious problem that results if we buy into this plea for upgrading. What happens to the “old” machine that we will be replacing? We may be able to donate it to charity or give it away to a nephew or niece. If no one wants it and we trash it, what about the landfill that now is the new home of this computer?
Because of technology, a new type of toxic environment is being set up to house these computers, in addition to other electronic equipment. There are so many dangerous elements in these machines that I would not want to live anywhere near any of these dumps. A report in The Buffalo News of Sunday, March 24, 2002 mentions that old PCs, televisions and miscellaneous stereo parts can be tossed into a landfill. It also states,
“For now, the law would allow this to happen, despite the possibility that the toxics – the heavy metals mercury and lead chief among them – could seep into ground water and soil, or be released into the air if they’re incinerated. Twenty million personal computers become obsolete each year, but only thirteen percent of them are recycled, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.”
Some of the hazards may be known, but there are others that may not surface for years. It sounds a great deal like the landfill outside Niagara Falls, where ignorance was an excuse to not face potential problems. One thing we do not need is another Love Canal or Times Beach.
There are other unfavorable things about computers. People have gotten addicted to a variety of games, some of which are violent and degrading. Sitting in front of a PC for hours on end does nothing for family relationships. Rather it increases the divide. I also don’t believe having people glued to the terminal results in finding cures for cancer or heart disease. Getting away from the computer for a while may be the best thing you could do.
The slide rule has been made obsolete thanks to the computer but so have basic math skills for many people. There’s a joke about a teller at the bank telling a customer that he couldn’t get change for a dollar just now. It seems the computer is down. That may be funny but it is a sad commentary when it comes to declining basic skills. I applaud the idea of a hexadecimal calculator on the PC. However, if you use a calculator you should be able to do the math to verify that it was indeed done correctly, even if it involves base 16. Don’t forget it is a finite machine and it can make mistakes. Calculators and PCs are only as reliable as those who created them and don’t forget, batteries can fail.
I was at dinner when a friend of mine stated that her school district had just acquired PCs for attendance-keeping and some of the evaluation of the students. She also mentioned that this move was not done with much research and forethought as the instructors seemed to lack the knowledge to answer many of the questions of the people who would be using the computers. With school about to begin, there appeared to be much apprehension and it seemed like there would not be a smooth transition. The reason for this PC install was that some administrator stated that the district would be staying technologically up to date with everyone else. He may also have received some kind of payoff.
The only problem with this situation is that tasks that may have taken five minutes before could not only take twice as long but never be accomplished with this new tool. This then means that people would have to revert to the old way of getting things done. Time is wasted. But what about the costs of the hardware and software? Even if this was a gift, I doubt that the electricity used for this endeavor was covered, and I think you get the idea. Also the frustration for those who were supposed to take advantage of these PCs will not be relieved that easily. If this scenario sounds highly unusual, it’s more prevalent than you might guess.
Consider a small corporation that runs their operation quite well without any computer. One day some executive decides that business would improve tremendously with some new technology. The computer is purchased without any feasibility study and brought onto the premises. A consultant is then called in to “bring the company into the 21st century.” This may sound farfetched but as a consultant, I worked at corporations that did exactly this. Well, before you spend all that money, you better have a pretty good idea of what you will do with that new technology. Return on investment must also be considered. If neither of these is thought out, the small business will get smaller and eventually become extinct. If your company is running quite smoothly without a computer, why even think about buying one?
A company without a computer might feel that it’s time to invest in one in order to keep up with the Joneses. Before you go forward, do some research. First, decide for what it will be used. If there’s no use for it, why get one? Let us say that you want to use it for ordering, billing and payroll. You have to calculate what the yearly costs are for these three processes without a computer and what the costs will be with one. Also coming into consideration is the total cost of the machine: hardware, software and maintenance. If your operations are now running smoothly and you figure it will take you twenty years to recover the cost using the computer, you may want to keep things just the way they are. On the other hand, if after three years you wind up breaking even by purchasing the computer, it could be a good investment.
Any way you consider it, there are many factors to consider. In the past, big corporations invested huge sums of money in IBM mainframes and I’m sure money wasn’t a factor. The costs were part of a huge unlimited budget and no one figured out when there would be a break-even point. The money was there, but this is not the same for a small business.
To buy or not to buy a computer really gets down to the basic questions, “Will this be worth the investment?” “Will this machine make my life easier?” These same questions can be asked about many of the gizmos all around us, such as answering machines and VCRs. Go back fifteen years and you will notice that many of today’s inventions were nowhere to be seen. Some are good and others are questionable. One thing we can conclude is that all these products will eventually break down and load up the landfills.
Even if you buy a PC for your home, you should think about the same things as above. It can save you a great deal of time doing many tasks but it shouldn’t take you longer because of learning the system and recovering from problems. Don’t forget that when you get that box of equipment home, you will have to get started and set it up and this means reading instructions. Need I remind you that technology manuals may be fine for putting you to sleep but are certainly not the best teachers? Yes, some are good and your installation could be quite simple. Don’t count on it, though. One of the reasons why people don’t buy new PCs is because of the time it will take to set up the replacement for what they had. That seems to be true for many electronic products. I call this technology apprehension.
You can read more about my PC endeavors in a later chapter. These tales only point out what too many of us are forced to do with our PCs – you know what I’d like to do with mine – namely, the workaround, which I brought up earlier. It is equivalent to flying to San Francisco from Buffalo by going to Detroit and Paris first. Instead of doing a simple task, we are forced to complete four more difficult jobs. I wind up doing exactly that much too often even though the task gets accomplished. Unfortunately it takes longer and shouldn’t be necessary. I have already pointed out my mail merges earlier.
I stated it before and I will mention it again: PCs just aren’t user-friendly. If they were, people wouldn’t do so much complaining. You can ask someone how she spent her weekend and she will mention that it was three days of fixing the PC after it crashed, and she only had a two-day weekend. Too many people curse the computer and wish they could simply abandon it. On all too many occasions, I feel exactly the same way.
Menus are fine except I really prefer them in restaurants. You will see toolbars – although I never see hammers or saws – and menus all over the place with a great deal of unneeded duplication. This only tends to create confusion. Since I write, I use different fonts. However, there are way more than anyone needs, especially when they all look so much alike. Who actually uses wingdings? Maybe Congress does and that’s why they can’t accomplish anything.
My first word processor was on an IBM system while at the University at Binghamton. I had no complaints and when I bought my first word processor, it too was user-friendly until it was stolen. When I graduated to WORD, I thought things would improve but the result was more complexity and headaches. The fonts I described above are part of that software and there are so many possibilities with WORD. Unfortunately, there are too many and consequently, problems as well. I could write a book about the problems with that software, but who would buy it? To give you an idea how bad the software is – based on all those options – a typical book on WORD is 920 pages long. Now remember, our goal is to create a document. It’s not to solve the energy crisis.
A few more useless accompaniments to PCs are manuals and help. In general, manuals for computers were worthless before the invention of the PC and they only got worse when it arrived on the scene. They are written in English but anyone who tries to decipher the document will walk away in disgust. What is often provided and given the name, help, isn’t any better. Yet, every piece of software has it, or you can get it through the web. You can also call the help desk but they will either charge you or not be able to answer your question. You’ll also be put on hold for a while. Through my experience, I find that technical people who answer the phone for the most part are good candidates for my upcoming books on missing intelligence.
I’ve heard some unbelievable stories about these people. On too many occasions the tech support person told people to just do a restart – their solution to any computer problem, probably the first word they learned from their first day of training. Restart is a word that brings terror into the hearts of PC users, a dumb way to get something to work. It’s true that if your car stalls, you have to restart it or at least try. Let’s just hope your vehicle isn’t traveling at sixty miles an hour on the freeway. The whole concept of a restart only indicates that the product is truly Particularly Challenging. Corporations can save money by not having a quality assurance division. Heck, they can even be more profitable by replacing it with a help desk that charges for service.
The PC evolved from the huge mainframes of the middle of the twentieth century. IBM and Prime Computer were the leaders in this beginning of the computer age. Soon smaller devices came out, specifically the minicomputer. In most cases, these new products were created by people who had either been with IBM or worked on that mainframe. Consequently, there weren’t that many new ideas, just another computer with a different name. In a few instances, people came up with some different and promising ideas. I was fortunate to work on quite a variety of computers so I witnessed some of this innovation.
The big mainframes were huge and expensive but they worked. So did their successors. When the PC debuted, it was different and because of that, some problems resulted. Even more difficulties arose because of the “rush” mentality, that is, the product had to get out to beat the competition. Because of these problems, the alternative of thoroughly debugging before sales would have definitely beaten the other guy, even though the product appeared later. Sadly, that didn’t happen.
When I first entered the business world, I worked on an IBM mainframe. If we made changes to programs at the corporation, we used control software to do that, namely Panvalet and appropriately enough, Librarian. Thus if I had to change the accounts payable register program and Joe did also, we both couldn’t do it at the same time. Supposed I checked out the program on Monday and Joe checked it out later the same day. I then made my changes, tested them and implemented the program. A day later, Joe did the same with his program modifications, including installing the changed program. You can see what would have happened: my changes would have been lost as soon as he implemented his.
The solution is to take turns and Librarian would make sure that the scenario just described wouldn’t happen. It was just like the episode of Seinfeld when George wants to see the video, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, but someone else has it. He has to wait until the movie comes back – actually, he took another course. Another option is that Joe or I could make both changes – that would also work, but in either case we need control to avoid disaster, which Panvalet and Librarian provided. A more recent software that I used on assignments was called Changeman and it was everything I just described and more. Unfortunately, it was also complicated and so troublesome that the company had to have a full time person administering it and assisting the programmers using it. Why would any manager replace a product that worked with one with more potential but fraught with problems that only lengthened the workday for the employees? Maybe, someone bought him a new car.
This situation just described can happen on any kind of computer, large or small. It all has to do with software. Any tools that you use can create havoc. A few years ago I was working on the Y2K fiasco and we used some software to test the program changes that were made. I didn’t change the programs, but only tested the changes. One day, I was having a difficult time doing just that and eventually I discovered that the program was indeed changed properly. The software that I was using to determine the accuracy had bugs. It’s no wonder we had 2000 headaches.
Another scenario that arises has to do with software that works on Windows XP but not on Windows 98. This is quite common and frustrating. Thus your system may be fine and you buy something for your computer, but it doesn’t work. The result might be that you figure that your PC has a problem, but that’s not the case. You spend a few hours and finally realize that the solution is simple – you should never have bought a PC. Actually, it’s just a compatibility problem. I’ll talk about a scanner that I bought for my system a bit later that gets right at that issue.
As the decades passed, people felt good about designing their own systems, including interchanging parts. You could get an IBM PC, but didn’t need to use IBM software for everything you did. There were so many vendors that it seemed your choices were unlimited. Today, that is exactly what we have with all kinds of computers. We have so many problems that we really don’t know which manufacturer to blame. That is where the frustration comes in and we wind up spending time on solving problems that should never have arisen in the first place. It’s not a healthy picture.
Still, any computer you use is reliable, to some degree. The banks use them and you won’t find a problem with your checking account balance. It will be exact to the penny. The problems arise because of human intervention. That is, people will cause crashes, bugs, viruses and spyware that will frustrate the users. My highest praise goes out to the computer and those who came up with its creation. Needless to say, the bad has outweighed the good. If you disagree, let me just mention a few common phrases to convince you otherwise: just do a restart, it appears to be a disk crash, it sounds like a compatibility problem, system processing, system is unavailable and can you work this weekend?7. I’m stuck in the web and I can’t get out
Al Gore’s invention of the Internet – what did other vice-presidents come up with? – brought with it great things, such as information, sales, communication, music and pictures. It also is responsible for pornography, which had a great deal to do with its success. Thanks to the Internet we also got headaches, misinformation, viruses, spyware, long downloads, email, bug-infested software and spam – not the kind you shouldn’t eat. If you care to read a good book on the dangers of the Internet, I highly recommend the work, Silicon Snake Oil by Clifford Stoll. I agree with much of what he writes and will add my own joys of that adventure here. I am sure that many others who use the Internet have run into similar difficulties.
In the spring of 2005, I volunteered to help produce a poster for a concert. The event was called, “Looking for a Miracle.” I took the information I had and came up with a rough draft but figured I needed to add some images. I made the huge mistake of going to yahoo images for some pictures. I entered the word, miracle as well as angel. I’ll just say that the heavenly images that showed up were not fit to show my mom. It got worse as I soon started receiving vast amounts of spam, including suggestive sexual crap. This I surmised from the subject title in the email – most would not have passed any censor on TV – and I had no intention of opening. To me it was very offensive, it wound up in my bulk mail folder and it was a waste of my time. I believe in free speech but I also believe in responsibility. I solved the problem by filling my mailbox and obtaining another. That meant a great deal of effort on my behalf, which I shouldn’t have had to do. I despise unnecessary work and even wrote about it in both my books on work, Tick Tock, Don’t Stop and This Page Intentionally Left Blank.
I myself am partly to blame because I should have tried navigating on the Web to avoid this scenario. On the other hand, this junk that filled up my mailbox should never have happened and I believe there is something that can be done to stop this proliferation of crap. It’s well known that the lowlife that do this sort of thing cannot send this junk without an email address, even if they only keep it for a few minutes. They send some message to a group of people and then use another address for the next installment to annoy others, disregarding the email address they used previously. I will describe a few solutions to this dilemma in the final chapter.
A great deal of the success of the Web is due to slime. In fact, credit card security only came about because some individual wanted to buy some porn from the Internet but wanted it done so as to protect his identity. Thus was born the secure site and the Internet was beginning to flourish. Today, sales on the Web aren’t all wholesome and the buyer may not want to be caught during a transaction.
The newspapers have made their way to the Internet. You need not buy a paper as you can get articles by going to the appropriate web site. Personally, I still prefer reading the Buffalo News – as little as I currently read – or a book the same way my grandparents read them. Nonetheless, there is plenty of information online. Just as there are many inaccuracies in the press, the same can be said for the Internet. In fact, there probably are more untruths, even at a site with the word truth in its title. I did warn you earlier about labels.
Not long ago I worked with a guy whose girlfriend was a frequent user of the Internet. It turned out that she wouldn’t go anywhere unless there was a hookup to the Web. There is no doubt that she was a slave to the Internet. She is certainly not alone and I already alluded to TV addicts, but there are so many forms of technology that you can be dependent upon. I’m sure that the PC and the Internet have destroyed many relationships.
On one occasion, I tried to obtain the proper spelling of a famous Polish dish by doing a google. I have a good idea how to spell it. It was a recipe in my cookbook, so I believe I obtained the correct spelling, which a few people believe is right. Nonetheless, after the search on the Internet, I found two different spellings for golabki or stuffed cabbage, pronounced gah wum key. I could only conclude that either there were a few acceptable spellings or else Polish people aren’t that concerned about the letters in a word, just as long as the food is good.
Without the Internet, there would be no need for web design software. In chapter 13, you can read about my troubles with TopPage, the web design software I use. I really like it, but there are a few problems with web pages. To begin with, if you design a page, you can’t use any font you like because the Internet may not be able to handle it. It might appear fine on your PC while you create the page and preview it, but it could be a blank page or a big mess when you try to view it on the Web. That wouldn’t be a concern if there were only a few fonts, which I mentioned earlier.
There are other concerns about creating a web page and viewing it. As you put the page together, you get to the point where you are ready to load the page to the Internet – what you created is exactly what you wanted. You view it and it looks great. Then you load it from your PC and when you glance at it on your web site, there are a few problems. On your PC, you had about the same number of words in each line for a paragraph – that’s how you put it together. When you look at your page on the web, the first line has eight words, the second has two and so on. It looks like you need to do some more work.
Not long ago, I changed my home page. It was fine on my PC even when I previewed it. When I went to the Internet, it was missing the counter that I use to keep track of the number of visitors as well as all the information below it. When I used a different browser, there wasn’t a problem. Thus, I had work to do and eventually I solved that problem, but why did I have to go through all this trouble? If I look at my web site at home and then view it at some other PC, the appearance is changed somewhat. It won’t be the same using different computers. A different browser might get a slightly different result, including colors.
Another complaint I have about web sites is what has been transferred from the world of PCs. They are in no way user-friendly. For example, if you go to the home page, there just might be a button for “home.” This is to go to the home page. But that’s exactly where you are, so you really don’t need that. It’s worthless and only confuses people. Then you have an option to click at various places on the page and go elsewhere. You just need to know where those hot spots are, or you can try a few and hope for the best. In many cases, a field that is underlined in blue or at least underlined is a link that will transfer you somewhere. That is straightforward but some sites give you linking opportunities without the underlining.
You don’t have to be a web designer to get overwhelmed and frustrated by web sites. In March 2002, I had no clue how to create a home page. Since that time, I took a short course of six hours in web design and now have my own site, which I