April 26, 2007
Opening the Vista and Office PackagesSomeone created a detailed photo-essay about how to open the Vista and Office packages. I think they are only partly serious, but I agree the boxes ARE confusing to open. They have two little tabs on the side that really really look like you are supposed to squeeze them to open it, but in fact squeezing them prevents you from opening it, because there is a little plastic piece from the other part of the box that slides under the tabs, so squeezing them grips that tighter. But once you figure out it is trivial to open it, and you don't need to keep that red Post-It flag on.
April 25, 2007
Another Patent You've Never Heard OfWe recently bought a plastic mat to put on the floor under one of our kids' desk chairs. I noticed that the mat had "patented carry handles" on the edge, and to prove it the patent number was listed: 6183833.
Naturally I had to look up the patent to see what there was about the handles that were non-obvious to one skilled in the art (the art of chairmat design, that is). It turns out that there is a lot going on here.
First of all, it is hard to carry the mats because they have "short but relatively sharp spikes on the undersides thereof which hold the mats firmly in place". Carrying these can be dangerous, "often resulting in irritation if not injury to the hands. Oh the humanity! Previous attempts to solve this have been limited to making the mats foldable. Furthermore, it is hard to display the mats in a retail setting because they don't stand up on their own.
The solution is to add little plastic handles on the edges, so you can hang them up to display them, and use the handles to carry the mat around. Or, to put it more bluntly, "a desk chairmat comprising a semi-rigid substantially planar member, the member having at least four side edges; an upper side of the chairmat having a substantially smooth surface and a lower side of the chairmat having a plurality of spikes projecting therefrom; and at least one integral hang tab located along one of the side edges" (I wish I could write like that, although the use of the word "plurality" in such a context might be considered a weapon and thus banned for export from the U.S.).
But wait, you say. "If such handles were to be applied to the chairmat, one can imagine the desk chair casters or user's shoe heels becoming caught within a handle opening." Indeed, I could imagine that quite easily. So the solution is to make handles that can be removed by the owner. Not necessarily by any specific modification, instead just relying on the fact that a pair of scissors can cut plastic of this thickness.
There's more: the notion that you can add a "living hinge", which is a groove in the plastic so that it folds easily, thus bringing the handles into alignment (saying "ta-da" at this point is optional) for E-Z carrying; and various configurations of carrying handles and hanging handles, which are sometimes the same handle and sometimes not. Come to think of it, it didn't say anywhere on the actual mat that we were supposed to cut off the handles, just that they were patented; we have so far avoided the horror of caster-handle entanglement, and Microsoft has a good health plan so I think I'll keep taking my chances. After all I might want to move the mat someday, and if I cut the handles off I would lose the advantage that "the chairmat may be pulled together (by a partial rolling or folding of the chairmat with the carpet spikes facing inwardly) so that the two handles align, thereby not only reducing the profile of the chairmat, but also forming a single stronger handle enabling the user to carry the chairmat without difficulty." And THAT would be a shame.
April 23, 2007
Olympic Sculpture ParkLast weekend I went to visit the Olympic Sculpture Park, on the edge of downtown Seattle. There is a map of it available here (a PDF). The sculpture park is in a great setting, right on the water, and very interestingly arrayed across the landscape. It's an example of how Microsoft money is changing Seattle, with big donations from Bill Gates, Jon Shirley, and William Neukom funding it.
The art itself is the typical "It's good because the experts say so" sculpture, but there were a couple I liked. Walking between the pieces of Richard Serra's "Wake" is nifty, and the vivarium is interesting (but doesn't beat a walk in a real forest). My favorite by far was Beverley Pepper's "Perre's Ventaglio III". The picture here captures the effect pretty well. Because it is so reflective, and because it has the same landscaping on either side, it really does create the intended visual trick, which is that the sculpture is not there and the gaps in the sculpture are there. It rewards an extended viewing.
I was looking at Google Maps later and realized that the Michael Heizer sculpture "Adjacent, Against, Upon" is just north of the sculpture garden, in Myrtle Edwards Park; it's not officially part of it but it isn't that far to walk (I didn't realize it was that close when I was visiting the sculpture garden). You can see the Heizer sculpture quite clearly in satellite photos (the Sculpture Garden itself is too new).
Then I started following the train tracks north and realized that up towards Mukilteo you can see a freight train in the satellite photo! I tried to count the cars, I think it had about 95 total.
April 13, 2007
My Somewhat Lame New ComputerAs I have mentioned earlier, my desktop computer was older than my second-grade son. I had wanted to get a new computer for a while, but I figured I would wait until Vista shipped. That way, I could buy a computer pre-configured with Vista, where the manufacturer had done the work of making sure that the video card, network, etc. were all properly supported by Vista.
Then once Vista was available I debated for a while about whether to buy a machine locally, or order one online. Costco had some nice machines, but they tended to come with features I didn't want (like a TV tuner). Finally I decided to order from a company I'll call the Large Respected Computer Company. I logged onto lrcc.com and ordered up a nice powerful machine.
When it showed up I hooked everything together and turned it on. I set it up so the nice 19-inch monitor was showing a beautiful 1280 x 1024 background image, and prepared myself to install Office, copy files over, and all that.
Oh wait, something was requiring a reboot (the preinstalled security software needed an update). No problem, just reboot (the thing boots quickly also). Except when I rebooted, I had no video. It showed the loader splash screen when Windows was booting (which uses only VGA capabilities) but then went black. I knew the computer was working because I could make it generate Windows sounds (hitting the shift key 5 times in a row is one way to do this). But the video driver wasn't working. A little experimentation showed that it worked fine in Safe Mode, which uses VGA, so the problem was obviously the video driver.
The thing that really amazed me about this was that I was running the unmodified out-of-the-box setup of the computer. I hadn't installed anything or changed anything. So LRCC had sent me a computer that, as far as I could tell, just flat out didn't work. I mean, everybody who bought the same model with the same video card was presumably going to have the same problem. Getting this kind of problem worked out is why we shipped Vista to OEMs months before public availability, and it's why I had waited and bought a machine with Vista preinstalled. Yet, somehow I still had this POC that didn't work.
Now, when I contacted LRCC's support, they were extremely helpful, immediately realizing (from experience, I assume) which driver to download and getting me going in a reasonable amount of time.
But then, lo and behold, I plugged in a USB printer and it just didn't work (an error about USB printing support not installing properly). That one looked like Microsoft's fault: I'm not sure why it failed, or why it eventually worked when I unplugged the printer and plugged it back in, but for many people it would have been a second support call (this is an unintended consequence of our "secure by default" initiative; the reason we don't have things like USB printing enabled by default is to minimize the exploitability if a remote exploit is found in the code).
Then, the next day the computer froze and when I rebooted it said that a certain driver had been disabled due to instability. Once again, this was a driver that had shipped with the computer. WTF? So back to LRCC's support and once again they were very helpful, and in this case explained that the driver was supposed to auto-update during setup but for some reason it didn't always happen. OK, that might just be something flaky. And I'll even avoid blaming them for the fact that a Windows Update that was pushed last week broke the video driver AGAIN, which led to another call and downloading a slightly different version of the video driver, because that's probably a wierd interaction between the driver and Windows Update that couldn't have been tested ahead of time (and LRCC's support was once again extremely competent and helpful).
Still, as a supported of Wintel computers, the whole thing is just sort of depressing. Through some combination of behavior by Microsoft, LRCC, third-party hardware driver writers, Windows Update, and increased sunspot activity, the net result is that I laid out some serious money for a new computer and wound up with something that had 4 major issues in the first couple of weeks. And with me they are preaching to the choir! I can't imagine what the feeling would be if I had just been some random user.
Anyway, the computer seems to be mostly working now (although it did hang last night for no apparent reason), and it is pretty snappy and the screen looks great. And Vista, I have to say, really does look good from a design perspective. But as a shareholder, the whole thing was more than a bit worrisome.
April 11, 2007
Why I Work at MicrosoftMini-Microsoft's most recent posts asks why people stay at Microsoft. For me it is pretty simple. Yes, there are the benefits, free soda, great infrastructure, smart people, etc. But the main reason I work at Microsoft is because I think Microsoft has the opportunity to figure out the correct process for engineering large-scale software. We have the people, we have the customers, we have the technical problems.
Now, it's certainly possible that Microsoft will squander this opportunity. It's not clear that all the leadership of the company is interested in this issue, vs. the short-term issue of pushing out their next release by whatever means are necessary. Even in Engineering Excellence, we're not necessarily entirely focused on solving this problem. BUT in the industry I think Microsoft is as good as it gets in terms of being the hope for figuring it out. So here I stay.
April 08, 2007
Agile PanicOne of the courses I teach in EE is called "Scrum and Agile Project Management". The topic of doing "agile" development is something that is discussed a lot at Microsoft these days. Because I teach the course, I have looked at a lot of Microsoft teams that use agile techniques, Scrum in particular.
The topic seems to naturally inspire disagreement. Steve Yegge, a blogger at Goggle, had two somewhat rambling posts last fall entitled "Good Agile, Bad Agile" and "Egomania Itself" in which he criticized the agile movement. And recently on Mini-Microsoft, someone posted the comment"Go work in live.com or MSN, agile is everywhere. Every dev hates it, it kills productivity, it leads to endless meetings and most importantly, it absolves PMs of any up front thinking." This is concerning because I do think agile has something to offer Microsoft, and it's discouraging to here people bag on it in general, and report that it is harmful at Microsoft in particular.
First of all, it should be pointed out that "agile" is not a software development methodology; it's a branding exercise. Back in 2001 a bunch of people who were pushing what they felt were progressive techniques for software development--Extreme Programming, Scrum, Crystal, DSDM, refactoring, etc--got together to create the Agile Manifesto, in which they summarized their feelings into four main values. The same kind of meeting of the minds produced the term "open source"; creating a single brand allowed people to combine their weight. So when people talk about "agile" they could be talking about many things, and saying "my team adopted agile development" doesn't really mean anything; they have to specify exactly what they adopted.
The other thing is that proponents of agile, for whatever reason, are astonishingly easy to make fun of. The combination of earnest passion and dubious terminology makes the genre essentially self-parodying, and when someone says "the agilistas used a spike story to convince the chicken that our project velocity was impacted by the scrum smell" the temptation to stuff them into a gym locker can be overwhelming.
Furthermore, agile proponents don't help themselves when they are dogmatic about aspects of agile (which would seem, both on the surface and in the gooey interior, to be self-contradictory). For example, consider this post about how bad it is to embed a 4-week Scrum sprint inside an 8-week overall milestone, which has a followup comment "Of course, they will probably blame Scrum when it fails, even though they are not doing anything remotely related to Scrum." Embedding a 4-week sprint inside an 8-week milestone....heaven forfend! Don't they know that children might be reading this? Meanwhile nobody really explains why this is so bad. I mean, you know, it says in the book...meanwhile I actually know the team he is talking about, and they were using this process to ship live code every 8 weeks, with high quality, empowered teams, high morale, etc. and furthermore think Scrum is wonderful and credit it for all their success. It's ironic that a team using Scrum is supposed to be self-directed, yet if they do something like replace their daily meeting with a three-times-a-week meeting, they are cast as heretics who just don't "get it" when it comes to Scrum. The notion that agile has to be hard, and if you find it too easy you must be doing something wrong, leads you to wonder if the goal of agile is to ship high-quality software, or just to suffer for the process (and you wonder why people call these discussions "religious arguments").
The net net is that it is very easy for Steve Yegge to find aspects of the agile "movement", whatever that is, to pick holes in. And he can easily construct a surface-credible argument that it is an onerous methodology that detracts from writing good code (and his argument that agile is bad because "Agile Manifesto" is an anagram for "Egomania Itself" doesn't stand out as much less fact-free than a lot of other claims made in this corner of the software development world).
This is a shame, because the agile folks really have come up with some great ideas. For example Scrum is about just a few things: work off a prioritized list, don't assume you can plan too far in advance, put your code in front of the customer often, discuss progress with the team on a daily basis, and improve your process whenever possible. Is there something in there that sounds wrong? Agile is fundamentally about taking a process that has gotten too heavy and burdened, and making it simpler and more productive. When you read Steve Yegge talk about how Google works, what he describes is (modulo the free food and million-dollar bonuses) the way agile should work. So it's a bit depressing that he is able to construct a reasonable argument that agile is harmful, and to hear Microsoft people say that agile is hurting their work in MSN.
Anyway, I posted a request on Mini for more details. After some struggle I managed to excise the word "flock" from this next sentence...suffice it to say that there are some disgruntled Microsofties out there who feel agile is bad, and hopefully I can convince them it isn't all that bad.
April 01, 2007
Could a Newspaper Succeed Completely Online?Interesting article in the Seattle Times about whether their rival paper, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, might switch to being available only online. The fact that this story is in the Times gives an indication of what is going on. The two papers are linked under a Joint Operating Agreement, with the Times handling all circulation, advertising and production for both papers, but maintaining separate editorial staff. About 4 years ago the Times tried to trigger an escape clause in the JOA based on continued losses. Part of this agreement is that on Sunday the P-I does not publish, and subscribers to both papers get the Times. That's why the article is in the Times, although I will say that as far as I can tell, the coverage of the situation in both papers has been completely objective.
Anyway, one of the possibilities suggested is that the P-I might switch to being online only (one possible benefit of this for me is that it would now be a website, thus I might be spared the hassle of italicizing the name every time I mention it). Looking at the numbers, the P-I accounts for something like $7 million of the website revenue (which is also combined between the two papers) but spends about $20 million on its staff (and would have to grow that by 10 percent or more if they created their own website). BUT, there is an intriguing extra fact that if the JOA is dissolved, the P-I gets 32 percent of the Times's profit until 2083.
Thus, while an online-only newspaper (maintained to the full editorial standards of a print edition) might fail financially, in this case the e-rag would be partially supported by the 32 percent, which might allow it to succeed until they figure out how to make money with an online-only newspaper. Since the 32 percent comes from its most direct competitor, there might be a finesse possible in which the 32 percent keeps the online P-I afloat long enough to establish itself, at which point it would start to take revenue away from the Times (and thus reduce the pie that the 32 percent was carved out of), but this wouldn't matter because the online version was now established. Then again, the Times claims it is losing money right now and how much that would change if the P-I went online-only is not clear (the P-I counter-sued the Times claiming it wasn't losing money at all; this has been dragging on for four years, with an arbitrator scheduled to rule by May 31).
The article has a few quotes from people commenting on the viability, or lack thereof, of an online-only "real" newspaper. I have commented before that I find online news to be vastly inferior, in terms of the customer (me) experience, to paper. But this is the final quote in the article, from Philip Meyer, a journalism professor: "The people who run newspapers are generally very conservative. But the future is going to be invented by someone who is reckless." Although I still think it won't work, the 32 percent cushion could create the perfect testbed for measured recklessness.