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.
The plight of non-tenured professors is widely known, but what about the impact they have on the students they’re hired to instruct?
Imagine meeting your English professor by the trunk of her car for office hours, where she doles out information like a taco vendor in a food truck. Or getting an e-mail error message when you write your former biology professor asking for a recommendation because she is no longer employed at the same college. Or attending an afternoon lecture in which your anthropology professor seems a little distracted because he doesn’t have enough money for bus fare. This is an increasingly widespread reality of college education.
Many students—and parents who foot the bills—may assume that all college professors are adequately compensated professionals with a distinct arrangement in which they have a job for life. In actuality those are just tenured professors, who represent less than a quarter of all college faculty. Odds are that students will be taught by professors with less job security and lower pay than those tenured employees, which research shows results in diminished services for students.
In any case, people have probably heard the phrase in reference to something gone awry at work or in life. In either setting, when the shit does hit the fan, people will tend to look to the most competent person in the room to take over.
And too bad for that person. A new paper by a team of researchers from Duke University, University of Georgia, and University of Colorado looks at not only how extremely competent people are treated by their co-workers and peers, but how those people feel when, at crucial moments, everyone turns to them. They find that responsible employees are not terribly pleased about this dynamic either.
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?
Science: Humblebragging doesn’t work. If you want to brag, just brag. Even better, just complain.
"Nothing is more deceitful," said Darcy, "than the appearance of humility. It is often only carelessness of opinion, and sometimes an indirect boast." - Jane Austen
Praise and sympathy: They are two of life’s essentials, the oxygen and carbon dioxide of social interaction. The first is most directly elicited by bragging, and the second, by complaining. The humblebrag—e.g. I’m exhausted from Memorial Day weekend; it’s soooo hard to get out of Nantucket—sits at the center of these competing needs. It is a boast in sheepish clothing, kvelling dressed in kvetch. And, like nearly all forms of multi-tasking, the drive to satisfy two goals at once typically results in double-failure.
Orr: “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Your Grace. My name is Tyrion Lannister.”
At last! I know I speak for quite a few book readers when I say that pretty much the only thing that kept me going through the eleventy thousand discursive, digressive pages of George R. R. Martin’s fifth tome, A Dance With Dragons, was the promise of Tyrion finally meeting up with Daenerys Targaryen. And, of course, after eleventy thousand pages, it never happened. So on behalf of myself and everyone else who sacrificed sleep, work, family, and friends waiting for this moment, let me say thank you, David Benioff and D. B. Weiss. Bonus points for what seemed to be a cameo by Strong Belwas (a book character who was written out of the show) as the nameless fighter who freed Tyrion from his chains.
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.
With Ben & Jerry’s ice cream and a Cajun concert, the Democratic socialist from Vermont formally kicks off his presidential campaign in typically atypical fashion.
Updated May 26, 2015, 6:35 p.m.
Bernie Sanders is an unconventional candidate, and he’s launching his presidential campaign in a typically unorthodox fashion. Sanders held his “kickoff” event Tuesday in his hometown of Burlington, Vermont. It was a rally, but it was pitched more like a festival, complete with free ice cream from Ben & Jerry’s and a performance by “Mango Jam”—a Vermont-based, six-piece dance band that plays a combination of Zydeco, Cajun, and Caribbean music.
The lure of live music, Phish Food, and a beautiful setting on the banks of Lake Champlain drew a crowd that appeared to number in the thousands, but there was a larger point to this political theater. Like other underdogs before him, Sanders is trying to demonstrate he can mount a plausible campaign for the presidency without wooing the billionaires upon which most of the leading contenders will be dependent. He didn’t bring in Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield only to serve their iconic ice cream—the two have long advocated on behalf of liberal causes, including campaign-finance reform (or as they call it, “Get the Dough Out of Politics!”). Sanders needs to motivate activists and small-dollar donors, and he’s hoping this kind of alternative kickoff can set the tone.
Formalwear elicits feelings of power, which change some mental processes.
Some psychology research in recent years is making an old aphorism look like an incomplete thought: Clothes make the man… Yes? Go on?
Clothes, it appears, make the man perceive the world differently.
A new study looks specifically at how formal attire changes people's thought processes. “Putting on formal clothes makes us feel powerful, and that changes the basic way we see the world,” says Abraham Rutchick, an author of the study and a professor of psychology at California State University, Northridge. Rutchick and his co-authors found that wearing clothing that’s more formal than usual makes people think more broadly and holistically, rather than narrowly and about fine-grained details. In psychological parlance, wearing a suit encourages people to use abstract processing more readily than concrete processing.
For many intellectually disabled people, large campuses or farmsteads may be better options than small group homes. But new state laws could make it hard for big facilities to survive.
In December 2014, I watched 24-year-old Andrew Parles fit wood shapes into a simple puzzle in the new vocational building at the Bancroft Lakeside Campus, a residential program in New Jersey that serves 47 adults with autism and intellectual disabilities. The task wasn’t challenging for Andrew, but his team was taking it slow: Andrew was still recovering from surgery after detaching his own retinas through years of self-injurious behavior. A staff member stood nearby—not hovering, exactly, but close enough to intervene if Andrew suddenly started to hit himself in the head. His mother, Lisa, was hopeful that he’d soon able to participate in the programs he had enjoyed before his surgery: working in Lakeside’s greenhouse, painting in the art studio, delivering food for Meals on Wheels.
Bernie Sanders announces his run on May 26, and he’ll be closely followed by Republican George Pataki and Democrat Martin O’Malley.
In Burlington on Tuesday, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders kicks off his presidential campaign in style. Specifically, Bernie style: There will be free Ben & Jerry’s ice cream and a Vermont zydeco band.
Technically speaking, this is just a ceremonial event. But a lot has changed since Sanders made the formal announcement that he was running, during a hasty April 30 press conference outside the press conference. Though the press has tended to present Sanders as essentially a loveable crank, he’s gained impressive momentum since then. His share of polls, while still some 50 points behind Hillary Clinton, has risen sharply. (Indeed, he has more support than Republicans Lindsey Graham, Bobby Jindal, Carly Fiorina, and John Kasich combined.)