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.
Freddie Gray's death on April 19 leaves many unanswered questions. But it is clear that when Gray was arrested in West Baltimore on the morning of April 12, he was struggling to walk. By the time he arrived at the police station a half hour later, he was unable to breathe or talk, suffering from wounds that would kill him.*
Gray died Sunday from spinal injuries. Baltimore authorities say they're investigating how the 25-year-old was hurt—a somewhat perverse notion, given that it was while he was in police custody, and hidden from public view, that he apparently suffered injury. How it happened remains unknown. It's even difficult to understand why officers arrested Gray in the first place. But with protestors taking to the streets of Baltimore since Gray's death on Sunday, the incident falls into a line of highly publicized, fatal encounters between black men and the police. Meanwhile, on Tuesday, a reserve sheriff's deputy in Tulsa, Oklahoma, pleaded not guilty to a second-degree manslaughter charge in the death of a man he shot. The deputy says the shooting happened while he was trying to tase the man. Black men dying at the hands of the police is of course nothing new, but the nation is now paying attention and getting outraged.
A magnitude 7.8 earthquake struck Nepal early on Saturday, centered 10 miles below the surface, less than 50 miles from the capital of Kathmandu. At least 1,100 are already reported to have been killed by the quake and subsequent avalanches triggered in the Himalayas. Historic buildings and temples were destroyed, leaving massive piles of debris in streets as rescue workers and neighbors work to find and help those still trapped beneath rubble. Below are images from the region of the immediate aftermath of one of the most powerful earthquakes to strike Nepal in decades. (Editor's note, some of the images are graphic in nature.)
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.
In her new book No One Understands You and What To Do About It, Heidi Grant Halvorson tells readers a story about her friend, Tim. When Tim started a new job as a manager, one of his top priorities was communicating to his team that he valued each member’s input. So at team meetings, as each member spoke up about whatever project they were working on, Tim made sure he put on his “active-listening face” to signal that he cared about what each person was saying.
But after meeting with him a few times, Tim’s team got a very different message from the one he intended to send. “After a few weeks of meetings,” Halvorson explains, “one team member finally summoned up the courage to ask him the question that had been on everyone’s mind.” That question was: “Tim, are you angry with us right now?” When Tim explained that he wasn’t at all angry—that he was just putting on his “active-listening face”—his colleague gently explained that his active-listening face looked a lot like his angry face.
After more than a year of rumors and speculation, Bruce Jenner publicly came out as transgender with four simple words: “I am a woman.”
“My brain is much more female than male,” he explained to Diane Sawyer, who conducted a prime-time interview with Jenner on ABC Friday night. (Jenner indicated he prefers to be addressed with male pronouns at this time.) During the two-hour program, Jenner discussed his personal struggle with gender dysphoria and personal identity, how they shaped his past and current relationships and marriages, and how he finally told his family about his gender identity.
During the interview, Sawyer made a conspicuous point of discussing broadly unfamiliar ideas about gender and sexuality to its audience. It didn't always go smoothly; her questions occasionally came off as awkward and tone-deaf. But she showed no lack of empathy.
Four hours after learning about Saturday's devastating earthquake in Nepal, I received a Facebook notification I had never seen before: Sonia, a journalist friend based in northern India, was "marked safe." An hour later, the same notification about a different friend popped up. Then another. Soon, several of my friends wrote that they, too, had learned via this strange new notification that their friends in Nepal were okay.
A few hours later, the mystery was solved. On Saturday afternoon, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced on his timeline that the notifications came from Safety Check, a service the company launched last fall. "When disasters happen, people need to know their loved ones are safe," he wrote, "It's moments like this that being able to connect really matters."
Lots of conservatives talk a good game about how citizens should resist federal control and devolve power to local governments. Few of them are willing to put their convictions into action in quite the same way that Sheriff Joe Arpaio is.
The man who calls himself "America's toughest sheriff" was already in trouble with Uncle Sam, on trial for contempt of court in a U.S. district court. It was only once that was under way that Arpaio and his lawyer apparently had the idea to sic a private investigator on the wife of the federal judge hearing his case. That shows toughness. It shows a willingness to use unorthodox tactics to resist federal interference. It's also not especially bright.
Reporters in the courtroom describe a somewhat shocking scene. Lawyers had completed their questioning when Judge Murray Snow announced he had some questions for Arpaio. After a series of queries, Snow asked: "Are you aware that I've been investigated by anyone?"
Our patient—we’ll call him W.B.—is a 56-year-old father of three who, until last year, had always been healthy. He had worked his entire life, in jobs ranging from automotive repair to sales, taking great pride in providing for his family, even though doing so had recently meant combining three part-time positions. All of that ended in February 2014, when he was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. A neurodegenerative disease characterized by progressive muscle weakness, ALS leads to the loss of all voluntary movement, difficulty breathing, and, in the end, death.
W.B.’s life was turned upside down by the diagnosis. But once the initial shock passed, he began researching his condition intensively. He learned that he was unlikely to survive five years, and that in the meantime his quality of life would diminish dramatically. With limited options, many patients retreat. But, quite bravely, W.B. had other ideas. After much consideration, he decided that if he was going to die, he would like to try to save another person’s life in the process, even if that person was a stranger. And so last May he approached the University of Wisconsin’s transplant program, where we are surgeons, as a prospective organ donor.
Today was the latest installment of the never-ending Clinton scandal saga, but it won’t be the last. Yet in some ways, the specifics are a distraction. The sale of access was designed into the post-2001 Clinton family finances from the start. Probably nobody will ever prove that this quid led to that quo … but there’s about a quarter-billion-dollar of quid heaped in plain sight and an equally impressive pile of quo, and it’s all been visible for years to anyone who cared to notice. As Jonathan Chait, who is no right-wing noise-machine operator, complained: “The Clintons have been disorganized and greedy.”
“All of this amounts to diddly-squat,” pronounced long-time Clinton associate James Carville when news broke that Hillary Clinton had erased huge numbers of emails. That may not be true: If any of the conduct in question proves illegal, destroying relevant records may also have run afoul of the law.
Somehow after enough yoga, sitting perfectly erect and also appearing at ease become no longer mutually exclusive. That’s how instructors Elizabeth Glover and Lara Atella sat in the foyer of their studio on H Street in Washington, D.C. this week, where they explained to me the draw of very hot yoga, as a group of soaking wet, barely clad people poured out of their 105-degree Fahrenheit noon Bikram class. Posture is contagious, like yawning or hepatitis, but with your spine. I tried to nonchalantly pull my shoulders back and stick out my chest as we talked.
If these two yoga instructors seemed especially erect and at ease, it may be because the yoga they practice is an especially intense and especially hot form of yoga. Actually, the neon sign on the brick facade still says “Bikram Yoga Capitol Hill,” but the studio is now called Hot Yoga Capitol Hill. Glover, the founder and director, declines to comment on whether the name change is a position statement—but it’s at least coincidental that, in the wake of multiple recent rape allegations against the guru who created the Bikram yoga method, Bikram Choudhury, some studios are distancing themselves from his name.