Archive

Posts Tagged ‘Apple’

Thoughts on bloated web sites, complex software

July 21, 2015 Leave a comment

With my wife at the wheel, we swing off Route 21 in New Jersey onto E 46. The GPS in the dash of our new Subaru is guiding us to Saratoga Springs, NY for the weekend. Kitty-corner from the exit is a big bilboard that reads, “WHO IS JESUS? CALL 855-FOR-TRUTH. Nice and succinct. I admired the certitude, but didn’t try the number.

The car is filled with slightly more mystifying tech. Somewhere I read the average modern car has 200 microprocessors. How many lines of code do they run, I wonder? No matter, the car does what it’s supposed to. Anyone who ever dealt with distributor caps, points and engine timing lights appreciates the way today’s cars work.

The GPS-bluetooth-navigation complex in the dash is another matter. It’s a mishmash of hard-to-follow menus. No matter what we do, every time we turn on the car, the podcasts on my wife’s phone starts up. As for navigation, no two systems I’ve ever seen work quite the same way, at least their user interfaces don’t. Voice commands can be ambiguous, and if occasionally directs you off the highway only to direct you right back on again.

This same overload is ruining many web sites, as it has many once-simple applications. No wonder people love apps, in the sense of applications designed or adapted to work easily and quickly on the small touch screens of mobile devices. Standards like Word, Outlook, iTunes and many other have become so choked with features and choices, I’ve practically given up on them. I can figure out what they do, but it’s all too much, too fussy and time-consuming to manage.

The major media sites are so choked with links — most of them for ads, sponsor content, and unrelated junk such as 24 celebrity face-lifts gone horribly wrong — that you can barely navigate them with out constant, unwanted and frustrating detours.

The drive to make software more and more functional may be behind what seems to be a disturbing trend towards failures in critical systems. They’ve happened a lot lately. In fact, it happened first rather close to home. Literally a minute before going on the air one recent morning, the system that delivers scripts and audio segments failed. A Federal News Radio, we’d gone paperless for a year, reading scripts online and saving a package of printing paper every day. Talking, trying to sound calm, ad-libbing while gesticulating wildly to my producer — that’s what a software crash causes. Controlled panic. Panic, anyhow. It took the engineers an hour to fix. It turned out, a buffer overflow crashed the Active Directory on which the broadcast content environment depends for user privileges. So down it went with the ship.

It was the same day United Airlines passenger boarding system failed, apparently the result of lingering incompatibility from the merger with Continental. And the same day that the New York Stock Exchange famously experienced an hours-long crash, reportedly because of network connectivity issue. Earlier in the month, a hardware-software interaction interrupted for two weeks the State Department’s globally-distributed system for issuing visas.

Successive program managers for the F-35 fighters have all complained they can’t get the software development for this fussy and delicate airplane in any sort of predictable schedule. Yet the plane is unflyable and unmaintainable without its software.

In short, two problems linger with software controlled systems. They can be difficult to interact with. And in their complexity they produce effects even expert operators can’t foresee. I believe this is the basis for the spreading appeal of agile development. It forces people to develop in pieces small enough that people can keep track of what is going on. And in ways that the users can assimilate easily.

Complexity, or the desire to avoid it, is why people like apps on mobile devices. I confess to checking Buzzfeed on my phone when I’m bored. The content is inane, but it’s such a fast, simple app, like eating gumdrops. I recently checked out the regular Web site of Buzzfeed, and sure enough, it’s a confusing kaleidoscope. Although, an ice cream cone swaddled in Cocoa Krispies does sound good.

Advertisements

Numbers can tell the whole story, or miss it entirely

June 2, 2015 Leave a comment

Several of the Defense Department’s top brass have said it in recent speeches. With the cash it has on hand, Apple could acquire the stock in Lockheed-Martin, Raytheon, Northrop Grumman and General Dynamics outright. I checked the numbers myself. It’s true. This week, the market cap of the four defense contractors was roughly $170 billion. Apple’s cash hoard was just shy of $200 billion. Apple’s own market capitalization is somewhere in the $772 billion range.

Almost in the same  breath, military leaders note that with a market capitalization of around $225 billion, Facebook is more valuable than the same four companies combined.

Air Force chief of staff Gen. Mark Welsh III and former Defense Deputy Secretary Bill Lynn both cited them within the last few weeks because of the scale of research and development going on in consumer and commercial electronics and computer science, versus R&D investments benefitting the defense sector. Unsaid is how surprising hard-headed military leaders must find it, that something as seemingly trivial as Facebook could command such value in comparison to companies that make sophisticated hardware like Patriot Missiles or F-35 fighters or nuclear submarines. The comparisons come in the context of the DOD wanting to re-establish the technology offset that produced so much U.S. military superiority in recent decades.

Numbers startle. They provoke thought. But they only tell part of the story. Apple may be worth three quarters of a trillion dollars, but it can’t build bombers or ships or submarines. It’s entirely capable of building sensor networks and software underpinnings for weapons, but it won’t.  Numbers don’t tell what’s in a company’s DNA.  SpaceX, essentially a start-up with 3,000 employees but no public shares or even statement of revenue, snared $1 billion in private financing in January. And now it’s on the very short list of exactly two companies certified by the Air Force to launch rockets putting military satellites into space. It competes with a partnership of giants Boeing and Lockheed. Boeing built the first modern airliner — in 1933.

Few remember the mini-computer wars of the 1970s and 1980s. But like the PC business in the 90s, the minicomputer business had a large number of fierce competitors — Apollo, Digital Equipment Corp, Data General, Hewlett-Packard, Honeywell, IBM, Nixdorf, Prime, Wang. So fierce was the competition, it spawned the 1981 Pulitzer Prize-winning non-fiction account by Tracy Kidder. Soul of a New Machine chronicled the late Tom West, an engineer at Data General, as he coaxed out an inexperienced team a new 32-bit processor to compete with the mighty DEC.

Nearly all of the companies and people involved in the minicomputer wars are gone, but the title of that book persists. One reason is that so often, objects defined by numbers do take on a sort of soul or presence, because people made them. “Soul” might be a troubling word to some people, connected as it may be to something the deity conferred only on human beings. But the idea that numbers add up to more than numbers — that’s universally valid.

Over the recent Memorial Day weekend the Rolling Thunder rumbled through Washington for its annual Memorial Day observance. My wife was bicycling right by where the motorcyclists were rolling onto the course. She stopped and took a 90-second video of the endlessly varied bikes and riders chugging past. Most rode Harley-Davidson machines. We watched the video over and over. What is a motorcycle but a chassis, a pair of wheels, a V-twin engine, and tear-drop shaped gas tank? (Gold Wing riders, spare me.) Ah, but of course a Harley-Davidson or any motorcycle is more, much more, than the sum of its parts. Gear heads know the meaning of the stoke-bore ratio, horsepower, torque, and the myriad other numerically-expressed specifications that describe motors. But they don’t explain that sound.

Computers, motorcycles, musical instruments, whatever your passion, are more than the sum of their parts and specifications. That’s why automobile junk yards and airplane boneyards look so sad. Or reading about a theatre or defunct church junking its pipe organ.

But what about human endeavors? They, too, are more than the sum of their parts. This came to mind recently when reading an analysis of federal inspectors general based on research at the Brookings Center for Effective Public Management. I also interviewed John Hudak, one of the study’s co-authors along with Grace Wallack. Their research quantifies the work of IGs using a return-on-investment metric. It proceeds from the postulate, correct I believe, that in general IGs return many dollars to the government for every dollar spent operating the IG office, and that this is quantifiable. The authors acknowledge that the pure dollar ROI metric is less useful in agencies where the mission isn’t primarily disbursement of money. So, for example, the IG with the highest ROI is that of the Social Security Administration, where the return is $43.60 for every dollar the office costs. The lowest financial return belongs to the Justice Department, where the IG produces a net cost. It’s ROI is about 43 cents for every dollar spent on the IG operation.

As Hudak points out in the interview, that the ROI looks weak is not a reflection on the Justice IG operation, just that the particular ROI number doesn’t really capture the essence of the office and how it goes about its work. The Justice IG shop is looking at programs mostly. The department doesn’t exist to disburse hundreds of billions of dollars, as Social Security expressly does.

No metric can really capture the essence of any object or program, or the people’s dedication to it.

Fixing BlackBerry sync issue Only cost $1,700

May 6, 2011 Leave a comment

I’ve always wondered why technology refreshes and upgrades in federal agencies take so much time and money. I shouldn’t have wondered, though.

Here’s my one-user tale. I tugged on a thread that started with my BlackBerry. By the time I was done I’d lifted my own wallet.

It all started because the BlackBerry refused to sync on my Mac using BlackBerry Desktop 2.0. Hours and hours with Research in Motion tech support. Vows to get an iPhone. E-mailing log file after log file. Forced to enter all my data in two places, machine and handheld, I was ready to go back to my old Palm Centro.  Then I took the Mac itself, a Mini just three months beyond the extended warranty, to the local reseller. Turns out, a balky motherboard that had the habit of disowning its own USB connections.  Apple hardware may look great, but it’s still hardware,  assembled in the same Chinese factories as everybody else’s gear.

For me, a computer is an economic tool. I can earn more money using it than I save by not replacing it and fiddling endlessly with the old one. Anyhow, a new main board is about half the cost of new machine.  So I bought a whole new Mini. By the time I was done adding the 3-year extended warranty, doubling the memory and having them load the 2011 version of Microsoft Office, the $699 Mini bulked up to  a $1,200 purchase.

Of course, I had to buy a new backup drive. You can get a T-byte drive for a hundred bucks. Ka-ching.

The I discovered my Matrox DualHead2Go Digital monitor doubler wasn’t compatible with the new Mini, which has a mini DP monitor port, instead of a DVI port like the old Mini. Ooooookay. So back to CDW for the DP edition of the DualHead2Go. That set me back another $231 plus shipping. Plus another $150 or so for a 22″ LG monitor for the old Mini, since it otherwise still works fine.

Dumb me, when the Matrox device arrived, I realized all I have are two VGA cables for my twin monitors. The new DualHead has only DP ports, no VGA. And why convert only to get a lower resolution?

Matrox said get male DVI-to-female DP converters, then buy two regular DP cables. But they were out of stock on the converters. (Luckily my monitors have both VGA and DVI ports.) Then I figured, why not simply get male-DVI-to-male-DP cables and skip the converters. So back again to CDW for another $100 for two cables plus shipping. I’m waiting for them to arrive to I can test the new set-up.

So what started as an irritating sync issue and a radio shift’s worth of time on the phone with RIM turned into a $1,700 spending spree that left me with a near-perfect surplus computer.

One piece of good news is that OS-X Snow Leopard likes my five-year-old Dell color laser printer, with drivers that not only recognizes it but also supports duplex printing.

Categories: Uncategorized Tags: , ,