S h o r t S t o r i e s

// Tales from software development

Archive for February 2009

Alan Cooper is an idiot

leave a comment »

Alan Cooper is an idiot.

Yes, that Alan Cooper, ‘About Face’, ‘The Inmates are Running the Asylum’, etc.

Ten years ago a friend and colleague recommended About Face to me. I didn’t buy it. To be honest, I was put off by his rants in the interviews that he did at the time. However, the following year I was in a bookshop in the US looking through a bin of discounted books and I found a hardback copy of The Inmates are Running the Asylum. It was reduced from $24 to $12.50 and I should have realised that there was a good reason for that but, based on my friend’s recommendation, I decided to give Cooper a chance and read at least one of his books. Big mistake.

But that was ten years ago and I’d happily forgotten Cooper and his dreadful book until I was having a clear out last weekend and found it at the back of a cupboard. I picked it up and opened it at random. Page 94 has a section titled, “The Psychology of Computer Programmers”. Over several pages Cooper explains that programmers are hung up on handling edge cases that most users of their software will only occasionally encounter. His view is that programmers spend too much time worrying about stuff that will only rarely happen. Without actually stating it explicitly, he’s saying that most users would prefer to have cheaper or more functional programs that occasionally crash than expensive robust programs. He’s saying that, for example, people would be happy to lose several hours work when their word processor crashes because they mistakenly tried to save a document to a read-only CD-ROM drive (and the programmer hadn’t allowed for this possibility) because the program was a few dollars cheaper than a competitor product. Idiot.

Let’s try another random selection: page 214. There’s a screen shot showing the UI of what looks like a telephony application. It looks like an integrated telephone and answering machine. That’s because that’s what it is. At a superficial level at least, this makes sense. If it’s a telephony program that mimics a telephone and answering machine then it’s reasonable that the developer should use a UI that’s familiar to anyone who’s used the real thing. But according to Cooper: “The interface is undeniably beautiful, particularly if you’re a gadget-loving technophile, but its use is inscrutable.” What ? Has Cooper not used a telephone before ? It has a telephone keypad and some buttons that you’d expect to see on a telephone/answering machine like Screen, Mute, Hold, etc. It’s not that hard Cooper. What’s wrong with you ?

Again, I don’t doubt that if the developer had devised a completely new and innovative UI for a telephone answering application, it’d be Cooper screaming the loudest that the developer had ignored a common and familiar real-world interface and invented a poorly designed and unintuitive UI. You can’t have it both ways Cooper.

I know I’m being more than a little unfair and the bombast is ‘Cooper-style’ to give him some of his own medicine but if this book is typical then he’s very arbitrary and inconsistent in his criticisms. Which is exactly why I consigned his book to a dark cupboard and forgot about it for ten years.

Advertisements

Written by Sea Monkey

February 20, 2009 at 2:00 pm

Posted in Books

Tagged with

Netgear DG834G: Groundhog day

with one comment

I’ve been using the Netgear DG834G for the past five years. In fact, I’m on my third one: I’ve had a v1 and a v2, and I’m currently using a v3. Each one has had problems but repeated firmware upgrades have largely resolved these. It’s a capable piece of hardware at a very modest price and I’ve been happy to stick with it despite the problems.

The v3 I’ve been using for the past couple of years or so has been the best but there were a couple of issues that I was experiencing that I thought might be down to the v3. The first is that I suspect my broadband connection is underperforming. There is a known issue with the chipset in the DG834 and DG834G v1, v2, and v3 models that can result in the modem and BT’s IPMAX service negotiating lower connection speeds than the optimum. The second is that I’ve always had occasional dropouts with my WiFi connected Squeezebox. I’ve tried everything I can think of on the server and the Squeezebox to remedy this but after a year the problem still remains. The most obvious thing that remains to try changing is the wireless access point, i.e. the DG834G.

So, a couple of weeks ago I ordered a DG834G v4. It arrived a couple of days later and after checking that it had the latest firmware installed, I spent an evening configuring it so that it was identical in every respect to my existing DG834G v3. The following morning I swapped the v4 for the v3 and there appeared to be some immediate improvements. The downstream signal/noise ratio jumped by 5db and the wireless dropouts on the Squeezebox seemed to have gone away.

After a few days it was apparent that I still had a problem with the Squeezebox. In fact, at times it appeared to be unable to connect to the WiFi network at all. I also noticed that my 802.11b enabled PDA couldn’t connect to the WiFi network. The PDA could see the network but repeated attempts to connect to it always failed. Then things got a lot worse very quickly…

There are four laptops in use in my house and all of them were suddenly unable to maintain a WiFi connection for more than a few minutes at a time. Then the bandwidth seemed to diminish to almost nothing. I was using a WiFi connected laptop with a remote desktop connection to a local server and each keypress took several seconds to register on the server. The problem got worse and worse to the point where a keypress might take up to a minute to register. I connected the laptop to the network using a cable to prove that the problem was with the WiFi network. The next thing I noticed was that the signal strength in the upstairs rooms was very poor whereas it had always been excellent with the DG834G v3.

I rebooted the DG834G v4 by powering it off and on and the problem went away for a day and then it started all over again. This time I tried logging into the management UI to see if I could diagnose what the problem was. It rejected my login attempts even though I was sure that I was using the correct username and password. I cycled the power on it again and logged in successfully a few minutes later.

Another day passed and the whole thing repeated: WiFi connections dropping out every few minutes, WiFi throughput grinding to a halt, and unable to access the management UI. I gave up. I pulled the power on the v4 and plugged in my old v3 again. Within a few minutes order was restored and two days later remains that way.

There’s no excuse for Netgear screwing up like this. If this was a brand new product there might be some justification for not getting the firmware right first time but this is the fourth version of the hardware and I’m pretty sure that everyone’s lost count of how many firmware versions have been released over the past six or seven years.

Written by Sea Monkey

February 15, 2009 at 8:00 pm

Posted in Hardware

Tagged with