discarded lies: thursday, march 23, 2017 6:13 am zst
everybody needs a hug
daily archive: 03/29/2007
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evariste in Discarded Lies:
Programmers Are Knobs
A Public Service Announcement

I like how people always insult themselves when they’re asking me questions about computer stuff. “I’m so bad at this.” “I’m such an idiot with computers”. It gets even better when the computer is misbehaving and needs to be spanked—people think they need the spanking. “I screwed everything up!” And then they come up with a voodoo explanation for why they broke it. Well, yes, sometimes you really did screw up and it really was your fault, but most of the time, I’m putting my money on lousy software as the problem.

The voodoo people come up with is great. You know how some folks with OCD might wash their hands 90 times an hour, and they won’t step on the sidewalk cracks? I observe people who are perfectly well-adjusted using their computers, and they have all these habits that are like reaching around the back of your head to rub your left ear with your right hand. If I point out that they aren’t necessary, they’ll have one of two responses. Either they’ll swear by it and justify it based on one flukey thing that happened that one time because it REALLY screwed things up, and now that they do it the roundabout way the computer behaves, or they’ll be embarrassed and refrain from doing it as long as I’m looking. When I’m not looking they’ll go right back to it. It makes no sense, but if I’ve tried to help and they’re happy doing it that way, who am I to keep harping on it? Let it be.

My favorite voodoo is deleting cookies. There’s not much point in deleting all your cookies, but people love deleting their cookies because they feel like they accomplished something. Cookies have an accessible name. Cookies! By God, I’m terrified of touching the Registry, and I’ve learned by hard experience that I shouldn’t delete .dll files because I double clicked on them, they didn’t do anything, and they were taking up space, but how can I resist deleting something called “cookies”? Maybe the cookie-deleters think it speeds their browser up, or they think they’re freeing up a significant amount of disk space, or maybe they think the website they’re trolling can’t see them if they delete their cookies, or maybe they think the IT department can’t tell they’ve been on MySpace because they so cunningly deleted their cookies. Cookies don’t slow browsers down; they don’t take up any space worth worrying about; websites can track you by looking at their server logs, which don’t even use cookies; the IT department knows what you’ve been doing on the internet, they’re either just not looking at their firewall/proxy logs or they’re probably letting you slide because you aren’t the most egregious offender and they don’t really care that much.

One mildly interesting phenomenon is that a misbehaving computer will fix itself when I’m watching. Someone will tell me that whenever they try to do X, their address book is deleted or their computer goes up in flames or something. So I’ll come over to watch them doing X, so I can see it for myself. It won’t happen. And they’ll tell me my presence must have scared the computer straight, and they’ll swear that they’re doing exactly the way they always do it. They’ll try it again a few times and it’ll work flawlessly every time. They’re embarrassed and apologize for bothering me about nothing. The minute I leave, it starts happening again. Go figure, right? The reason for that is that people are suddenly very self-conscious when they’re performing for me, so they’ll do it differentlywithout even knowing that they are.

Back to the ritual self-flagellation: it really cracks me up. I mean, I’m a twerpysomething who has basically accomplished nothing important in life. I write desktop and web-based software, and I blogtend. Previously I waited tables, made espresso drinks, washed dishes…you name it, I probably did it for a while as I drifted through my early adulthood. There’s nothing wrong with any of those jobs, don’t get me wrong. There’s nothing wrong with honest work, period. I’m proud of myself and I loved the things I did and gave them my all. But it just doesn’t measure up to what some of the people I support accomplish. I’ve never saved a life, healed a disease, killed a bad guy, or educated a child. And yet—when they need help with their computers, medical doctors and investment bankers, accomplished professionals in their fields, highly educated and skilled human beings who have titles and degrees are respected by their peers, mothers and fathers, professors and judges, grown men and women—all of them are cussing themselves out, humbling themselves, and confiding in me in frustration that “I’m such a moron.”

It’s not like any of this crap really makes sense. User interface decisions are usually arbitrary. They could just as easily have made it behave some completely different way, and no one would have challenged the decision much. Not only are they arbitrary, but given a set of arbitrary choices, programmers usually decide to implement the worst one possible. We love complexity for its own sake. Seriously, there’s no there there. The metaphors we make you learn are mostly moronic and derivative. We do it because we look down on you and think you’re too stupid and easily intimidated by what’s going on. And then our shabby metaphors break, and it becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy, because none of this makes any sense, and therefore you, the user, feel stupid and helpless. Well, I would feel stupid and helpless too if reality was less like itself, and more like Microsoft Windows.

A couple of days ago a friend from bloggie emailed me in a panic, because she had accidentally moved her Windows taskbar to the left side of the screen. That strip across the bottom that has the Start button, Quick Launch bar, buttons representing application windows that you are running, the notification area/system tray, and so forth? That whole thing is the taskbar. She was trying to highlight some text in her browser or something, and inadvertently dragged it off to the left. This is something that happens to Windows users a lot, and the fix is easy: just drag it back, and to stop it from happening again, you just right click the taskbar and lock it. But! If you didn’t know that you can move it back: result PANIC. Why is it even possible to drag the dang thing in the first place? I’ll tell you why: because some control freak of a programmer on that particular team didn’t agree with the decision to put it at the bottom. He wanted it at the top or on the side or something. To end the argument, everyone agreed to make it configurable, so the user could decide where to put it. This is how a lot of user interface decisions get made. A prima donna won’t go along with a completely trivial and useless decision, so in order to move forward, they make it configurable. In order to avoid being unpopular with Prissy Programmer Pete, his manager inflicts a needless choice on everyone who uses the program for all eternity. God help us. That’s atrocious enough, considering the location of the taskbar doesn’t affect anyone’s productivity. But the truly unforgivable decision was to leave it unlocked by default. So that someone who didn’t know it could be dragged could, 3 years into using the same computer every day with the taskbar at the bottom, can completely panic when it suddenly moves over to the left. Nice trap-door. Thanks a lot, jerks.

The most irritating thing to me is $12/hr tech support people who snicker about their clueless users. Who make ten times as much money as they do, and have a life outside of computers, and are accomplished and worthy of social respect. To a certain kind of weenie, you are a worthless human being if you don’t understand every persnickety thing about your computer. I guess what I’m trying to say is, people who use computers use them to help them get their job done. They’re good at whatever it is they do, and the computer isn’t the whole world to them. It’s just a tool. Meanwhile, the computer is the whole world to many technology professionals. So don’t whip yourself when the computer does something inexplicable and you have to ask someone like me to help you. If the computer is mumbling and incoherent, and drooling into its shirt, that doesn’t mean you should apologize to it for being so deaf.

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