My first job was at one of the main data centres at Australia's phone company, providing support for the operating systems on their ginormous mainframes. Thankfully, most of our work was with people who were technically savvy but every now and then, we would get someone who didn't really know much about computers and had to be walked through every key-press. Trouble-shooting problems is hard enough at the best of times but having to do it over the phone or email made a difficult job even more challenging.
Fast-forward to today and nothing much has changed. Awasu users tend to be more technically capable than average but there are still a lot of people who need help opening a command prompt or Explorer window. Taking care of them is definitely something of an art since they often don't have the technical knowledge nor vocabulary to even explain what the problem is beyond "it's not working" Being psychic definitely helps in these situations
Paul Graham posted his foreward to a new book called Founders at Work and as always, it's a struggle figuring out which bit to quote without just copying and pasting the whole thing
The striking thing about [the startup phase] is that it's completely different from most people's idea of what business is like. If you looked in people's heads (or stock photo collections) for images representing "business," you'd get images of people dressed up in suits, groups sitting around conference tables looking serious, Powerpoint presentations, people producing thick reports for one another to read. Early stage startups are the exact opposite of this. And yet they're probably the most productive part of the whole economy.
Why the disconnect? I think there's a general principle at work here: the less energy people expend on performance, the more they expend on appearances to compensate. More often than not the energy they expend on seeming impressive makes their actual performance worse.
People sometimes ask me why I always send out my emails as plain text rather than a more "professional" looking HTML message. I guess I could spend more time laying out pretty tables and funky hyperlinks only to have the email program at the other end strip it all out (or worse, dump it in a junk mail folder) because it's possibly unsafe. Or I could just say that the content is more important and as long as the information's all there, it gets through and it's in a format the recipient knows is safe, that's the most important thing.
Nowhere is this more true than in the field of RSS. Content is king and while we put a lot of effort into making sure the bits of the company you guys see, the website, the forums, the software itself, look good, below deck where the real work happens, we get down and dirty and worry less about what it looks like.
I wrote a while back of the value having a touch of what some might describe as "unprofessionalism" and I'm sure any self-respecting CEO would have a coronary if someone in his PR team wrote on the public website about pulling chicks and, um, pulling chicks so I guess it's a good thing self-respect was never one of my strong points
There is one thing I draw the line at, though. The image of Paul Graham sitting at his computer, churning out code wearing nothing more than a towel is one that I'm still having trouble purging from my mind I can assure you all that I make the effort to pull on at least a pair of pants when I'm posting here or in the forums or sending email. Of course, what I wear (or not) when I'm offline and cutting code is nobody's business 'cept my own
While I posted yesterday about college students pretending to be in a startup to impress girls instead of the older, more traditional route of pretending to be in a band, I usually don't have to pretend since I really am a musician (or at least, I can make a reasonable impression of one). When people ask me what instrument they should start with, I tell them that if they're really serious about the whole thing, saxophone is by far the best tool for pulling chicks with. Guitarists and keyboard players are a dime a dozen but the ladies always dig a guy with a horn. It's particularly cool in my case since I play with a wireless mike so I can go into the crowd and dance with the prettiest ones
Now, maybe it's just because I'm a saxophonist but I found this video of a robot playing John Coltrane's Giant Steps strangely hypnotic. A lot of people have had their jobs taken over by machines but musicians have been immune from that to a certain degree, even with the advent of sequencers and other electronic gizmos, but I'm not sure how much longer this is going to last I can play better than this box of bits but I'm sure they're working on that. I'm also better looking, although not by much. That definitely won't last for long
Some of you will know of Nick Bradbury as the author of another feed reader (almost as good as Awasu :wink:) who, like myself, often writes about non-RSS stuff , such as the time he got roped into playing piano in a church service because he wanted to score points with his girlfriend. He only knew a few songs and ended up playing Closer to the Heart by Rush, although his girlfriend handled it admirably and helped him pull it off
Now, it's not widely known but trying to impress chicks has been the driving force behind most of the significant advances in human history. Isaac Newton was hoping to dazzle the girl down the road when he formulated his Laws of Motion and all that e=mc2 stuff, well, big Al was just looking to score with that cute secretary on the second floor. Lord knows, the only reason I'm working on Awasu is to impress the ladies at the pub
I asked this guy (let's call him J) why he was so interested in startups. "The chicks," he said, without missing a beat. I laughed. "Sure," I said. "Women your age love workaholics with no money, no stability, and an uncertain future." He spent a few seconds talking about how he liked building things, and how entrepreneurship seemed like a good fit for that. Then said that he and his college roommates had used a startup to meet girls. I didn't believe him, and had to hear the story for myself.
Not only that, these guys would go down to the pub and hand out business cards to the prettiest girls, saying that they were looking for, um, testers
BP expresses some skepticism about whether such a thing could be the start of a trend but it doesn't surprise me at all. Kids are very familiar with MySpace and FaceBook and instantly grok what you're talking about if you say you're in the process of building the next one. Creating a SAP-killer just doesn't have that same street-cred. And knowing that there are mega-sites out there that were also built by college dropouts working from their bedroom at their parents' house makes it actually plausible
One of the comments to BP's post really made me smile:
Entrepreneurs are hot. Seriously: my husband is starting up a business making cases for wind instruments. So it's not exactly YouTube; we're probably not gonna get rich. But it's been years since I've seen him so excited. Let's face it--women are wired to respond to driven men.
Awasu now strips potentially dangerous content from your feeds and combined with the new enhanced Internet Explorer security introduced in the last release it ensures that Awasu is resistant to any Bad Stuff(TM) hackers might try to deliver to your computer via a feed. Improved password security rounds out a much more secure Awasu
Together with the usual slew of other smaller improvements and bug fixes, we're well on the way to a rockin' 2.3. Woo hoo!
I've written a few times before about my long interest in how people learn, especially young kids, and came across a crackerjack story today about exactly this. Sugata Mitra set up the Hole in the Wall project where he goes into slum areas and rural villages in India, bungs an internet-connected computer into a hole in the wall and then comes back a few weeks later to see what happened.
The whole thing is intended to study whether young children are able to self-organize and teach themselves stuff and that's exactly what happened. The first kid figured out how to use the mouse within minutes and by the end of the first day, they had taught themselves how to use the machine and surf the net, and then propogated that knowledge within the group. Not only that, Mitra has tried the experiment elsewhere with an emphasis on getting girls involved and once they realized that they were actually allowed to use it, they loved it. In a place where only one in three females can read, this is huge.
Kids are smart, there's no doubt about that, and usually far smarter than we ever give them credit for. It drives me nuts when I see adults talking down to young children in an inane, cutesy-wootsey voice and things like this show how insanely condescending things like that are . I did a lot of work writing computer programs for the educational market many years ago and quickly realized that the best thing about using computers was that they let you make mistakes. Kids are fearless when it comes to using computers and will press and prod and poke anything and everything they see and if it doesn't work, no problems, you just reload your saved game and try something else . Adults are terrified of "breaking" something and are incredibly more cautious. Trying to teach Big People how to use computers is extraordinarily frustrating since they often won't want to do anything unless they're absolutely sure of it.
Dr. Mitra likes the way in which Indian children reinvent computer terms and icons in their own language. "They don't call a cursor a cursor, they call it a sui, which is Hindi for needle. And they don't call the hourglass symbol the hourglass because they've never seen an hourglass before. They call it the damru, which is Shiva's drum, and it does look a bit like that."
Much the same way the job of a good corporate manager is to stay the hell out the way of his staff and let them do their work, we should take the leashes off our kids and let them run. Some might argue that this kind of thing, inventing their own words for things, is counter-productive. "What will happen when it comes time for them to work in the real world and they have to use the proper names for things?", they might bleat. But bilingual children (or even better, monolingual children that have been moved to another country) show how easily they can map one set of symbols to another on the fly. Let them invent their own words, I say. Those words will become theirs and they're the best kind. They can always translate them into the "correct" terminology when talking to us monolingual old fogies Teaching isn't about ramming "knowledge" into peoples' brains via their throats, it's about, or should be about, facilitating the learning process, guiding students as they make their way down a path the teacher has already gone himself.
But the best thing about the whole experiment? At one place, not only did they end up teaching themselves English because "[Mitra] left this machine that only speaks English" but the first thing they said when he came back several weeks later was "we need a faster processor and a better mouse"
Some things are just universal
 And by association, education although, as I often say, what happens in our schools bears about as much relationship to learning as McDonalds does to fine dining If you think what goes on in most businesses around the world is stupid, inane and counter-productive, what goes on in our schools is far worse and should make you weep since it, unlike the majority of what happens in the corporate world, actually matters  And when you see those same adults try to learn how to use computers themselves, it's downright hilarious  As science teachers are fond of saying, there ain't no such thing as a failed experiment
You could certainly be forgiven if you didn't notice that Windows Vista was released the other day and perhaps appropriately by complete coincidence, there's been a bit of discussion in the tech community recently about why software continues to suck so much (and yes, that is the technical term we use :roll:).
Actually, not so much why software sucks in itself but more what's wrong with the way we develop software that we end up with incredibly late and/or underwhelming pieces of software like Vista, or Chandler. For those of you who don't know, Chandler is a personal information manager project started a few years ago by Mitch Kapor (the guy who brought us Lotus 1-2-3) that is currently spinning its wheels, trying to get out from under the weight of its wildly ambitious goals. Scott Rosenberg was asked to join the team and chronicle their journey and has recently published a book describing how they went. It has been described as a successor to Tracy Kidder's The Soul of a New Machine, itself a fantastic read, that describes the harrowing saga of the development of a new mini-computer in the 70's, done under enormous pressure. Scott talks about the book in an interesting podcast here.
More amusing is David Platt's discussion about why software sucks and what users can do about it. He argues that a lot of the problem can be explained by poor design, often due to a lack of understanding by programmers of what users actually need and how they work. I can certainly agree with that since I've been doing a lot of work recently with normal (i.e. non-technical) people and young kids and believe me, it's been a real eye-opener to see how they use computers. A classic example of the difference between how techies and non-techies use computers is shown in the story behind why "Yahoo" is the most searched-for word in Google: people often don't understand the difference between a URL box and a search box. They just type in what they're looking for and a link auto-magically appears that they can click on. Indeed, it actually goes further than that: people often don't understand the difference between a browser, Windows, a search engine or the internet. There's a funny E thingy on their desktop that is the internet that they double-click on which takes them to some place (google.com, because someone has set that as their home page) where they type "yahoo" (or even "yahoo.com"! :-D) in the white box in the middle and click on the first link that comes up. Easy!
And while it's true that there is a huge divide between good and bad programmers, let alone the great and the truly terrible, a lot of it, IMO, can be explained by attitude. The best developers got that way because they gave a damn. It's not enough for a piece of software to just work, it has to work well, and on many levels: the way the code was designed, the way the code was written, they way the user interacts with the software (or not :-D), how it was documented (yes, really! Good documentation is part of it!). And the best developers are always looking for better ways to do things, honing their existing skills and picking up new ones. The worst ones are happy just to shove something out the door, even if it's built like jello.
But it's not always down to the programmers, sometimes you're left scratching your head as to just what the hell your users are thinking. Maybe we should just have a Check computer light on our PC's, the same way many cars have a Check engine light although that, of course, begs the question: how many people will ignore the Check computer light, the same way they do the Check engine light on their cars? And that's not even considering some of the other things people have been reported to do. You can say that users shouldn't have to worry about these kind of things and you'd be right, but that only takes you so far. Sometimes people really do extraordinarily stupid things!
This post has rambled on a bit and to be honest, I can't quite remember what the original point was but I guess it must've been that software development is hard. If you don't believe me, try explaining some time to someone how to hang up a picture on the wall. It's not as easy as you might think And when we hit a bump in the road to the next release of Awasu, please forgive us, we're doing our best!
Oh, hang on, I've just remembered why I started writing this. I hate it when people just throw a bunch of links together and call it a blog post. Lazy. I have to write a story (of sorts) around them.
I guess I just can't stop myself from giving a damn. Sigh...
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