A lot conventional wisdom about software is mistaken. It's probably a mistake to try to tackle these misconceptions in too much detail in a blog post, but my time here is limited and perhaps a short catalog of common mistakes might help some of you think more critically about the programs you use every day.
Results are what matter We all know that small computers have transformed the workplace. The world of The Apartment and Mad Men has vanished. Companies know that they wouldn't be more profitable if they discarded their PCs and hired lots of secretaries and typists. Yet the productivity gains from using computers have been remarkably hard to identify.
It turns out that lot of the work we do with business computers involves dressing up our ideas to impress managers and clients. Where a typed page was once sufficient, we now dispatch an elegantly typeset document and a deck of presentation slides. This might not help the company serve customers, but it helps individuals impress their managers.
Much of the real contribution that software makes to your thinking happens in the course of the work. What may matter most in the long run are the ideas you discover while preparing a management report or a client presentation. Process matters.
Software should be polished We spend too much time perfecting the way our programs look, just as in the previous century we spent far too much time perfecting our books. We are accustomed to a very high standard of editing and typesetting in publishing, a standard that originally was possible only because a vast number of educated women were for the first time entering the work force and were, for a time, willing to accept very low wages. Today, we look for the same sort of surface polish in our software.
All this polish comes with substantial costs. Some costs are evident because they appear in the price. Others are hidden. How do you measure the cost of terrific software that never gets written, or that remains locked in a laboratory?
Software developers have long struggled to reduce the riskiness of development, its delays and failures, by working to build a software factory that would make software construction more systematic. This hasn't worked well. "We software creators woke up one day," I wrote in 2007, "to find ourselves living in the software factory. The floor is hard, from time to time it gets very cold at night, and they say the factory is going to close and move somewhere else. We are unhappy with our modern computing and alienated from our work, we experience constant, inexorable guilt."
We've been here before. In 1853, John Ruskin inserted a long aside in The Stones Of Venice to advise to the Victorian consumer and art buyer. What sort of things should one buy? Ruskin suggests the following:
1. Never encourage the manufacture of any article not absolutely necessary, in the production of which Invention has no share.
2. Never demand an exact finish for its own sake, but only for some practical or noble end.
3. Never encourage imitation or copying of any kind, except for the sake of preserving record of great works.
Brush marks are not signs of sloth, and pixel misalignments are not an indicator of moral laxity. The software creator should make intention clear, but excessive polish is slave's work unredeem'd.
Software should be friendly
The program is not your friend. It does not understand you, or care about you.
Computers should be intuitive
We are often told that computers should be information appliances, that you don't need to know about anything under the hood. Many things we want to do, however, are far from simple; the real work of real people is surprisingly complex. Learning to use tools well sometimes takes times, but you are only a beginner once and you may use your tools every day.
Programs should never crash, hang, or do surprising things
Homer nods, and most of us aren't Homer. Human collaborators sometimes make mistakes, lose things, or drop them on the floor. With computers as well as people, take sensible precautions and hope for the best.
On her first trip to New Mexico, Linda was astonished to find that National Park trails frequently ran close beside spectacular cliffs, with no guard rails in sight. Back east, you'd put up a guard rail and spoil the view -- or you might close the trail because it might be dangerous. If we do not trust users, we deprive people of abilities they need.
No one wants to read on screens
People still say this, even though we spend our days reading and writing on the screen. It is now clear that the future of serious reading and writing lies on screens and on the displays that will replace them.
Hypertext is distracting; the Internet is ruining kids today
Life is distracting. Ideas are complicated and densely interconnected. There is too much to do and we have too little time. Kids know this, too, and make choices accordingly.
Computers don't wear out
Computers you depend on last three years, laptops a bit less. A three-year-old computer, even if in pristine condition, is sufficiently obsolete that replacing it is nearly mandatory. If you don't use your computer much, or you want to use an old computer for an occasional chore, you can keep it for a few years more.
Web pages should (or can) say one thing, and should mean what they say
Dreams of the semantic Web often rest on the assumption that we can (and will) express the meaning of a Web page in a simple and concise format. Everything we know about writing, everything we know about meaning, suggests this is a fantasy.
In despair over their perception of the intellectual dishonesty of the Bush administration and the epistemic closure of the American Right, Jed Buchwald and Diane Greco Josefowicz wrote The Zodiac of Paris. It's describes once-famous controversies in the early 19th century over some Egyptian inscription that suggested the world was older than Genesis allows.
The book is, in a very real sense, about the lies Curveball told Colin Powell, but that meaning is not on the page.
Steve Jobs matters
The American business press is obsessed with CEOs. If a stock increases, the firm's leaders are brilliant fellows. If shares plummet, the CEO must be a buffoon. Steve Jobs, once regarded as a fool, is now hailed as the one true software visionary, the indispensible force.
Jobs is, in fact, a good software critic and an executive who is willing to trust his judgment and endure the consequences.
The customer, the usability lab, or the marketplace will tell you what is good; crowds are wise
From the user-generated content of Wikipedia to mass recommendation systems and user-written product reviews, my colleagues assume that crowds are wise and that, on average, sensible opinions prevail. That this is often true is fortunate, but crowds can be wildly wrong..
Almost all software designers believe that customers, clinical studies, or the marketplace will reveal what works and what doesn't, but everything we know about art (and software is an art form) argues this cannot be right. Best-seller lists sometimes contain good books, but they list bad books aplenty. Popular movies are not always great.
We know that an intelligent critic can sometimes recognize a great work when she sees it. No individual's taste or judgment is infallible, but the marketplace is often wrong, too.
James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne.
New research confirms what they say about nice guys.
Smile at the customer. Bake cookies for your colleagues. Sing your subordinates’ praises. Share credit. Listen. Empathize. Don’t drive the last dollar out of a deal. Leave the last doughnut for someone else.
Sneer at the customer. Keep your colleagues on edge. Claim credit. Speak first. Put your feet on the table. Withhold approval. Instill fear. Interrupt. Ask for more. And by all means, take that last doughnut. You deserve it.
Follow one of those paths, the success literature tells us, and you’ll go far. Follow the other, and you’ll die powerless and broke. The only question is, which is which?
Of all the issues that preoccupy the modern mind—Nature or nurture? Is there life in outer space? Why can’t America field a decent soccer team?—it’s hard to think of one that has attracted so much water-cooler philosophizing yet so little scientific inquiry. Does it pay to be nice? Or is there an advantage to being a jerk?
19 Kids and Counting built its reputation on preaching family values, but the mass-media platforms that made the family famous might also be their undoing.
On Thursday, news broke that Josh Duggar, the oldest son of the Duggar family's 19 children, had, as a teenager, allegedly molested five underage girls. Four of them, allegedly, were his sisters.
The information came to light because, in 2006—two years before 17 Kids and Counting first aired on TLC, and thus two years before the Duggars became reality-TV celebrities—the family recorded an appearance on TheOprah Winfrey Show. Before the taping, an anonymous source sent an email to Harpo warning the production company Josh’s alleged molestation. Harpo forwarded the email to authorities, triggering a police investigation (the Oprah appearance never aired). The news was reported this week by In Touch Weekly—after the magazine filed a Freedom of Information Act request to see the police report on the case—and then confirmed by the Duggars in a statement posted on Facebook.
The mock metropolis is meant to have everything but people who live there.
Grigory Potemkin, the 18th-century war hero and nobleman, was also Catherine the Great’s lover and military advisor. According to ubiquitous legend, Potemkin fabricated villages along the banks of the Dnieper River in a bid to impress her. Historians aren’t convinced that Potemkin really constructed entire fake villages, their facades illuminated by enormous bonfires—but the concept may not be so far-fetched.
These days, when people talk about a Potemkin village, they’re usually referring to a ruse to make something appear better than it actually is. It’s a useful metaphor, but also a reflection of people’s fascination with fake cities and questions about the line between authenticity and artificiality in man-made environments.
The Islamic State is no mere collection of psychopaths. It is a religious group with carefully considered beliefs, among them that it is a key agent of the coming apocalypse. Here’s what that means for its strategy—and for how to stop it.
What is the Islamic State?
Where did it come from, and what are its intentions? The simplicity of these questions can be deceiving, and few Western leaders seem to know the answers. In December, The New York Times published confidential comments by Major General Michael K. Nagata, the Special Operations commander for the United States in the Middle East, admitting that he had hardly begun figuring out the Islamic State’s appeal. “We have not defeated the idea,” he said. “We do not even understand the idea.” In the past year, President Obama has referred to the Islamic State, variously, as “not Islamic” and as al-Qaeda’s “jayvee team,” statements that reflected confusion about the group, and may have contributed to significant strategic errors.
Advocates say that a guaranteed basic income can lead to more creative, fulfilling work. The question is how to fund it.
Scott Santens has been thinking a lot about fish lately. Specifically, he’s been reflecting on the aphorism, “If you give a man a fish, he eats for a day. If you teach a man to fish, he eats for life.” What Santens wants to know is this: “If you build a robot to fish, do all men starve, or do all men eat?”
Santens is 37 years old, and he’s a leader in the basic income movement—a worldwide network of thousands of advocates (26,000 on Reddit alone) who believe that governments should provide every citizen with a monthly stipend big enough to cover life’s basic necessities. The idea of a basic income has been around for decades, and it once drew support from leaders as different as Martin Luther King Jr. and Richard Nixon. But rather than waiting for governments to act, Santens has started crowdfunding his own basic income of $1,000 per month. He’s nearly halfway to his his goal.
In an interview, the U.S. president ties his legacy to a pact with Tehran, argues ISIS is not winning, warns Saudi Arabia not to pursue a nuclear-weapons program, and anguishes about Israel.
On Tuesday afternoon, as President Obama was bringing an occasionally contentious but often illuminating hour-long conversation about the Middle East to an end, I brought up a persistent worry. “A majority of American Jews want to support the Iran deal,” I said, “but a lot of people are anxiety-ridden about this, as am I.” Like many Jews—and also, by the way, many non-Jews—I believe that it is prudent to keep nuclear weapons out of the hands of anti-Semitic regimes. Obama, who earlier in the discussion had explicitly labeled the supreme leader of Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, an anti-Semite, responded with an argument I had not heard him make before.
“Look, 20 years from now, I’m still going to be around, God willing. If Iran has a nuclear weapon, it’s my name on this,” he said, referring to the apparently almost-finished nuclear agreement between Iran and a group of world powers led by the United States. “I think it’s fair to say that in addition to our profound national-security interests, I have a personal interest in locking this down.”
A majority of Senators wanted to stop a spy program that they never approved. They failed despite having more votes. And it only gets more bizarre from there.
In the wee hours of Saturday morning, the U.S. Senate played host to a moment that took mass surveillance on the phone records of Americans from outrage to farce.
The NSA’s phone dragnet had already been declared illegal.
Earlier this month, a federal appeals court ruled that while the surveillance agency has long claimed to be acting in accordance with Section 215 of the Patriot Act, the text of that law in fact authorizes no such program. The Obama Administration has been executing a policy that the legislature never passed into being.
But the law that doesn’t even authorize the program is set to expire at the end of the month. And so the court reasoned that Congress could let it expire or vote to change it. For this reason, the court declined to issue an order shutting the program down.
Why it’s so hard to defeat an enemy that won’t fight you, and what this means for U.S. strategy on everything from the Islamic State to China
The Scythians were nomadic horsemen who dominated a vast realm of the Pontic steppe north of the Black Sea, in present-day Ukraine and southern Russia, from the seventh century to the third century b.c. Unlike other ancient peoples who left not a trace, the Scythians continued to haunt and terrify long after they were gone. Herodotus recorded that they “ravaged the whole of Asia. They not only took tribute from each people, but also made raids and pillaged everything these peoples had.” Napoleon, on witnessing the Russians’ willingness to burn down their own capital rather than hand it over to his army, reputedly said: “They are Scythians!”
The more chilling moral for modern audiences involves not the Scythians’ cruelty, but rather their tactics against the invading Persian army of Darius, early in the sixth century b.c. As Darius’s infantry marched east near the Sea of Azov, hoping to meet the Scythian war bands in a decisive battle, the Scythians kept withdrawing into the immense reaches of their territory. Darius was perplexed, and sent the Scythian king, Idanthyrsus, a challenge: If you think yourself stronger, stand and fight; if not, submit.
A major innovator in 1999’s money-transfer landscape was PayPal, which started its money transfer service that year (Back then, websites looked like this.) Currently, PayPal reports that it has 165 million users around the world, and that it moved $46 billion in 2014. PayPal, once a small arm of its parent company, eBay, is soon going to be spun off, after which it plans to go public on Nasdaq.