Surely there are many things to complain of in the world, and doing so usually accomplishes nothing. It is good to vent, though, and perhaps writing down some of these points will inspire someone involved with the products/companies/institutions mentioned to change things.

When possible, I try to include potential solutions to the problems I point out. This is in part to show how it really wouldn't be that hard to get it right.

Table of Contents

Click on one of the topics below to go directly to that particular rant.

Magazine Formats

I'm referring mainly to magazines that seem to have no self-respect.  You open them up, and find pages of ads that start off the publication.  No Table of Contents, just lots of ads.  You have to turn through multiple pages of these to even find a table of contents, and then that is often broken into pieces: regular columns, stories, and stories mentioned on the cover.  It shouldn't take that long to find out where in a magazine an article mentioned on the cover is.

Then, in a number of magazines, when you try to turn to (say) page 76, you find out that first, not all the pages have numbers on them, and second, some of the advertising pages aren't counted as regular pages (perhaps they're in a 'Special Advertising Section'), so you can only use the page number as a rough guide.

Then there are magazines that have articles that have other text set aside in boxes, perhaps offering further information about points raised in the main article.  This is fine, but I get very annoyed when a page with such a box ends in mid-sentence, as now you have to turn the page to complete the thought, then turn back to read the box contents.  It's as if the editors didn't envision anyone actually reading the article.  This is particularly bad when the article is continued on some distant page, as now you have the page search problem above, but then you have to come back to read the box, and then find the continuation page a second time.  I suspect that the mid-sentence (or even mid-word) break is deliberate, so that you don't stop reading and forgo jumping to the article's continuation.

And why continue articles at all?  Why not just have one entire article, followed by the next?  I suppose it makes it easier to quickly browse through the lead fragments of all of the articles at the front of the magazine, but I rarely do this, and certainly not with magazines that I subscribe to.  It seems the wrong fix to a problem that shouldn't be there (see my first point about having a Table of Contents easily reachable - something the National Geographic almost does on its cover).  I would think that having an article on contiguous pages would make it possible to have appropriate advertising located there too, rather than spread out throughout all of the pages.

I wonder if these problems have emerged haphazardly, or if they are the result of some misguided studies of what sells best, say at the supermarket checkout.

Cell Phone Callers

I've resisted acquiring a cell phone for some time, but I finally do have one, mainly for the convenience of reaching other people when I'm traveling.  However, even since their debut, I haven't liked them.

For me there are I suppose two reasons: the lesser one is acoustic quality, which is generally pretty poor.  It is I suppose OK for arranging a ride for my kids from school, but not much more.  Personally I wouldn't mind a larger phone that had better quality: one that I could hold in front of my mouth and at my ear at the same time, and perhaps one that did appropriate compression and error correction to provide decent audio quality.

Early on I was annoyed by people who used cell phones, whether driving, or sitting next to me in a restaurant.  I'd hear someone loudly say "Hello!", I'd turn around, and it would be a stranger on a phone.  For a short while I'd just respond to these people, rather than acknowledge the implicit "you don't exist so I can talk loudly about personal matters" attitude that seemed so prevalent.  So I'd shout "Hello!" right back, often to a startled and slightly embarrassed cell phone user.

The other reason that I don't like them struck me after a few months of having a thought nagging at me.  People would call me from cell phones while driving to the airport, or going about some other task, and begin conversations about possibly substantial matters.  At first I was just annoyed at the poor acoustic signal, as I felt that this was an unnecessary barrier to communications.  Then I realized that at some level this might have been the point: "You're not important enough for me to take the time to call you on a land line, so I figured I'd wing it while doing errands." 

Now this isn't so bad with people I know, as our relationships are established enough that I'm not worried about them trying to subtly shift our relative status, but with people I don't know it is a nagging doubt.  I have similar feelings about electronic greeting cards, which seem like very lightweight alternatives to real cards.  Though, I suppose, people felt this way about email versus letter writing, and while they were correct to an extent, the convenience and speed of email more than outweighs the negatives.  Those of us who have used email for a long time don't attribute any lack of care on the part of its senders, but maybe this is just because we're so used to the medium.  It may turn out this way with cell phones eventually - but we're not there yet.

Car Gas Tanks

Why in the world didn't auto companies standardize on which side of the car the gas tank fill point is?  It would make the traffic moving through gas stations much more uniform - now I'm often driving around people, backing in to spaces, and going nose-to-nose with other cars which have the gas caps on the opposite sides.

It's worse when you have more than one car and they differ, as you have to go through the mental exercise of figuring it out each time you fill up gas.  Ford has a little arrow on the fuel guage, with text that says something like "Fuel fill", and the arrow points to the side of the car that has the fill point; I'm surprised other companies haven't done this too.  And it's really annoying if you travel frequently and rent cars when doing so - the side seems random, and you often don't think about it until you're pulling in to the gas station. 

News Teasers

When I was growing up in the 1960's, on TV there might occasionally be a Special News Bulletin, a short spot which conveyed some important piece of information. These were usually quite brief, and packed with information, before you "went back to your regular programming". Over time, one became conditioned to listen closely to these as they had real content.  At some point, I think in the 1980's, these transitioned to advertisements for the next scheduled news broadcast. As much of the format was used as was possible, including the statement of some apparently important issue, followed not with real information but with "details at 11:00".

It's now gotten to the point where the "apparently important issue" is designed entirely to convince you that you must listen to the news, with no information content whatsoever provided by the advance notice. For example, the short spot might feature the news anchor saying "Hazardous Materials Found In Local School", or "Killers At Large In Connecticut City", or "Safety Defects Found In Children's Car Seats". Never are enough specifics given to let you decide whether this might apply to you or not - rather, since it might, you feel you must hear the full story. The whole point is of the teaser is to present stress-inducing non-information.

I don't know about you, but when I do watch the news it's for useful information. I strongly resent news people who have potentially important news and withhold it, solely to get viewers to conform to their schedule. If it really is important, I would think that they have an obligation to disseminate it as rapidly as possible. And if the information is not really important, it has no business being used as a teaser. How many times have you been tricked into staying up for the news, only to find out that, for example, the headlines above are really:

What They SayWhat It Really Is
"Hazardous Materials Found In Local School""Cans of old turpentine found in school closet"
"Poisons being spread around in civic buildings" "Municipal Pest Control expands activities"
"Safety Defects Found In Children's Car Seats""Used seats bought at tag sales fail frequently"

Either way, whether there really is critically important news or not, the data-free teaser approach is wrong.

Worse, it's noise, clutter, requiring mental cycles to disregard. If the purpose of news is to inform, this is a direct disservice, an active distraction, inserted purely for mercenary reasons (and thereby further eroding what credibility the news organizations have). It is an unfortunate use of bandwidth, potentially swamping the small amounts of real information available on TV.

Restaurant Desserts

There are a number of restaurants, loosely termed "American" restaurants, that I sometimes find myself in (usually when travelling).  These might be steak houses, major chains, or knockoffs thereof.  The glossy menus are generally pretty standard, offering steaks, burgers, perhaps barbecued ribs, some basic seafood items, with the occasional Mexican-inspired appetizer.  I've found that I can do pretty well, if I ignore the packaged decor, packaged portions, and general "chain-ness" such places exude.

But one thing that really bothers me is the dessert selection.  Let's say I've just finished a largish steak, with baked potato (usually offered with sour cream), salad, etc.; what I'd like is something like a carefully made sorbet, ideally with a bit of tartness, or some fresh fruit - anything from a homemade fruitcup to a selection of exotic and unusual tropical items.  I'd settle for some fresh pineapple.  Basically, anything with a light, clean, crisp taste, to end the meal with a bit of sweetness as well as to counterbalance the fat content of the meal.

But what choices do I get?  Mud pie - an enormous wedge of ice cream, with whipped cream on top.  Cheesecake.  A brownie with ice cream and hot fudge sauce.  The nearly inevitable and always tiresome "Death by Chocolate" or "Chocolate Sin" - while the desserts might be fine, the names long ago lost their novelty.  No, they were probably always stupid names: anyone who considers eating a lot of chocolate a sin, even in jest, has missed out on much of the modern world.  There might be an apple pie choice, but it'll be heavy, and topped with ice cream and whipped cream.  The only citrus item is usually a heavy, creamy, gelatinous Key Lime Pie, made with some form of bottled lime liquid.

Who eats this stuff?  Even if I planned to, and had only an appetizer beforehand, I think I'd end up feeling zeppelin-like, or that I'd swallowed some lead shot.  These restaurants must have picked these choices based on some sort of market analysis, but I can't help but think that this was done in isolation, e.g. through a survey that asked people what their favorite desserts are, rather than in the context of how people eat entire meals.  

Windows Software Installation Practices

Back in Windows 3.1, most software installed into one directory. Occasionally, .dll's would be copied into a system directory, but often not, as this might overwrite a different version of the file required by another application.  The great thing about this was that when you bought a new computer, it was straightforward to move your applications. Indeed, if you had a network, it was in many cases nearly trivial.

Nowadays we have the "Registry". Aside from introducing a certain unnecessary level of complexity, it's hard to see what it does other than make it difficult to move to another machine. Now, one usually has to resort to the original installation media - but then you lose any of the various customization settings that you may have made.

I have a lot of applications installed. I'm working on a machine which is several years old now - there is a newer one on the other side of my office - because I don't want to take the time to reinstall everything, and get back to where I am today. It's a lot of work, and it's essentially unproductive work. I probably purchase a new computer about half as often as I would otherwise, simply because it's too much of a hassle to move my environment.

Defenders of the current approach might say that all of this was done to protect against software piracy. While this is understandable, I find it very annoying to have to pay an ongoing personal price because someone else might be a software pirate. And there are other better ways of addressing these concerns.

(It used to be this way with hardware too; now, with USB devices, it is pretty easy to move peripherals from one machine to another.)

There are some partial solutions out there: I saw an ad recently (Gateway I think) that they'll do much of this work if you buy one of their computers. Some months ago I read about a company which provides tools for this sort of migration (apparently the tools work 95% or so of the time). While that's a start, I resent having to spend money just to keep using software I've already purchased, installed, and configured.

Possible solutions: Go back to an installation approach where software components remain as well-defined self-contained packages (including all user preference information), easy to move from machine to machine. Use machine ID data, along with a user profile (perhaps via something like LDAP), to enforce license constraints. Eventually one might imagine a situation where all software is on every machine - as a customer, you purchase the license keys to whatever you like. Yes, hackers might break those protocols, but a net-based "refresh" mechanism (which might even change the licensing algorithms) could limit the attendant damage.

This might eventually mutate into an Internet-based licensing approach, so that you could access your applications, settings, and so forth. from anywhere in the world.

Alternatively, one might allow installations on USB disks, in such a way that moving the disk moves the application. It would probably be worthwhile to build special-purpose USB disks which could interact with the installation procedure to limit the application to that disk (much as installations are now limited to one machine via all the Registry links). I'd be willing to pay a one-time cost of several hundred dollars (my 30 GB disk was under $300) for the convenience of being able to move to a newer PC easily.

The Metric System Conversion Crusade

On a campus bulletin board at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute: "As for pushy metric proponents, give'em 2.54 centimeters and they'll take 1.6093 kilometers."

My first MIT degree was in Physics, so I'm quite familiar with the metric system, and I have no problem using it. Indeed, for pretty much any technical calculation, I'd use it exclusively.  But I don't think it should be used everywhere.  Here are some reasons why it might not always be the best idea:

Practicality:  Many of the English units we use daily are related to human experience.  A "Cup" of flour makes sense - certainly not in a precise way, but rather in a practical way (the same is true of "Tablespoon" and "Teaspoon").  Using your own feet to measure a distance won't yield an accurate measurement - but at least you can do it, and come up with a rough estimate.  A Pint is a nice size, especially for those of use who like ale.  The fundamental unit sizes are based on human requirements, not on the arbitrary sizes of the metric system (I'm not here referring to the nice way the metric units interconvert - rather the fundamental sizes, e.g. the gram, the meter).     I use the English system around the kitchen and the house, and rarely calculate with it at all, beyond some simple halving or doubling.  In practice, it's less a system of units than a set of some convenient measures.

Estimation:  I haven't done any careful estimation testing, but I bet that those who use the English system are at an advantage.  The English system often divides units by successively halving them, which is possible to do visually (say when estimating a length).  The Metric system divides units by 10; I just don't think that's easy to do, and I suspect that the percentage error is larger.  Try it yourself: draw a line on a piece of paper, and then try to mark off 1/10th of the length (without drawing an entire ruler).

Aesthetics:  There is a history and quirkiness about the English system that I enjoy (how can you beat something like "horsepower"?).  This is what makes the English system impractical for technical calculations, but I think it adds a certain warmth.   As I noted above, it is a system rooted in human experience, and (like a number of social customs) shows that in its lack of clean structure.  The Metric system, on the other hand, has the aesthetics of a cold, rational design (of course this is a fine thing for a technical measurement system).  However, somewhere lurking in there I sense a whiff of the sort of arrogance that one finds in some notably less successful "rational" endeavors to engineer human behavior (Marxism, for example); and despite advocates claims, it might have been done better if some thought were given to how humans use units - for example for some metrics using base 2 (e.g. Megabyte, Kilobyte: despite the metric-sounding names, these are based on powers of 2, not 10) or base 12 for easy subdivision.  

It does make sense to carefully design a units system, and the Metric system is the best we've got.  But I don't think it makes sense to insist that that system be used anywhere and everywhere.

John Pitrelli's Comments: About metric I always say if you're going to do it, do it right. Making the unit conversion as easy as moving decimal points, and yet leaving unfixed the problem that the second-most-basic fraction in the universe, 1/3, is an infinite decimal, seems stupid. If the whole argument is that transition costs are justified by eternal gain, bite the bullet and switch to base 12 and then make a metric system around that. A 10-based metric system is like having a diet Coke with your onion rings.

One other hypocrisy; the metric system officially measures time with our current units, with ratios 60, 60, 24 and 12 which are just as arbitrary as those of the English length, volume, etc. units which metric junked as too arbitrary.

I also make my own naturalness-of-units argument, usually focusing on temperature. 100F is about as hot and 0F is about as cold as it commonly gets in many of the areas in which most of the people of the world live. This is very sensible for everyday talk about temperatures. 32 & 212 may seem random, but they only need be memorized; no math need be done with them.

Celsius places have a granularity problem (I hear Canadian radio reporting half degrees) and the ridiculousness of having negative temperatures 1/4 of the time. It also makes math errors easy to make and perception need to be sharp; quick, if today's high is 7 to 12 and tonight's low is 5 to 10 below is that a serious cold front or no? (No re-reading the sentence; you heard this on the radio weather report.)

Distance isn't so bad either way, because a mile is about how far you drive in a minute and 100 km is about how far you drive in an hour. But the motivation for a kilometer, essentially 1/10000th the distance from a pole to the equator, is highly unexciting to be worth a conversion. And I always mention the convenience of a foot, especially since mine is about one.

HP Customer Support

I've had a wonderful Hewlitt Packard printer for years (it's a Laserjet IIIP); I was so impressed with the quality, that when it came time to buy a CD writer, I bought an HP one.  I installed it on one system, and it worked most of the time: when it didn't, I called HP Technical Support, and (since I was still in warrantee) they helped me pry the thing open and get it to work.

I upgraded the system from Windows 95 to Windows 98; I mainly used the CD writer as a second CD drive, and had no problems.  Then came the day when I had to write a CD - and like many such things, I had to get it out right away.  I put the CD in, started the recording process (about 45 minutes as I recall), and continued to work on another machine.  When the contents were written, the software told me it was going to write the "Table of Contents" on the CD.  As soon as this began, the machine locked up.

I threw away the partially-recorded CD (they were about $5 apiece back then), and tried another, after a variety of self tests.  An hour or so later, the same thing happened.  I tried a number of options (e.g. turning off every possible application on the machine, defragmenting the hard disk to keep the transfer rate to the CD writer up, uninstalling and reinstalling the CD writer's software, etc.  Lots of hours in this, and lots of stress as time passed.  Also a lot of wasted $5 CD's.

I went to HP's web site http://www.hp.com:80/cpso-support/guide/psd/cscus.html, and found that it would be something like $25 to talk to tech support.  I had an urgent deadline, so I bit.

After wasting some time on the phone, I was told that "that CD Writer isn't supported under Windows 98", that "HP had no plans to support it", and that "the solution was to reinstall Windows 95" (which, aside from being absurd, would have meant that I would have to reinstall all of my software).  I won't repeat my comments here in case children might be present.  (I think this was a CD Writer model 3020, but I can't tell because I'm not sure I still have any of the pieces left from ritually hammering it into small fragments).

If you're not in the warrantee period, you'll be stuck with a charge like this (or $2.50/minute; they have a 900 number).  I think this is ridiculous, as it's then that you'll likely really need to talk to someone: system drivers will need updating, or newer hardware might be causing conflicts.  I find it disturbing that there seems to be no long-term commitment to user satisfaction; rather, the attitude is "It'll work for a while, then it's your problem".   

Why would anyone want to buy products from an outfit like this?

Other Customer Interactions

When I was working for a company in Boston, we'd had a client that we were planning to use HP equipment for (this was a substantial project, involving instrumentation for an oil rig).  In the initial phases of the contract, I had to call the sales people at the local HP office to get quotes on various options.  It was like pulling teeth.

First of all, I'd get a receptionist-like person who would ask what company I was with.  Then, my call would be vectored to whatever rep had been assigned to the company: often without a word said.  That is, I'd be talking to this woman, mention the company name, and then hear a phone ringing, even if I were in the middle of a sentence.  She wouldn't even say the name of the person who she was forwarding the phone to.  

The problem was, this guy was often out or on the phone, and I might get a call back that day, or not.

One day the client needed an answer right away - we were considering several approaches, and we needed to know availability and cost for several items.  Our contact at the client was getting ready to make an internal presentation, and required a number of details.  I called the HP office, and got the same receptionist, who, of course, asked me what company I was with.

I just couldn't bear to go through with this yet again, so I told her I had to have some information rather quickly, and could she hand off my call to whoever was available.  She asked me in a louder voice what company I was with.  I explained the situation in more detail (never mentioning the company, as I didn't want to hear that dead-end telephone ring).  She argued with me that this wasn't how they do things.  I explained again, and got an annoyed "Oh, hold on."  Then I was connected to someone, who gave me the information I needed.

We did have a technical contact at HP that was wonderful, so there are some worthwhile people there - although even this contact led to a bit of absurdity.  At one point, when we needed to really optimize some code (much of which unfortunately was in interpreted Visual Basic),so he gave us an assembler.  By hand-coding some of the more intensive sections in assembly language we could meet our timing goals.

I called up the HP office to order/buy the assembler; it was very useful software, and we had every reason to legitimately purchase it (especially as we were going to deliver the hardware and software to our client).  I was told that such a thing didn't exist.  I explained that it did, that I was using it, and that we wanted to pay for it.  "Nope; there is no such thing!"  Of course the truth is that there probably wasn't any "such thing" intended for sale - it must have been an internal utility - but we still could have put together some agreement allowing us to use it.  This was clearly too far beyond the sales rep's experience, and just as obviously he had no interest in the topic. 

ATM Behavior

I do enjoy the convenience of ATM's, and I've never felt put off by the technology the way some people seemed to be - at least when the machines were first introduced. What I object to is the beeping.

At then end of a transaction, the machine will (usually) eject your card and your receipt. I guess it's supposed to beep if you don't take your card.

However, no matter how hard I try, I can't avoid this beep. I've even gone so far as tugging my card out of the machine when it's only part way out, but still, though I'm holding the card in my hand, the machine insists on beeping.

I think it's a deliberate nag, a reminder that impersonal technology will always have the last word.


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