Sunday, February 18, 2007

No good options

For most of my life, since about the age of 6, I have worn glasses. I am slightly farsighted in one eye, and somewhat nearsighted in the other. I have a lazy eye that wants to turn in a bit.

I went without glasses for a couple of years in my late 20's. My nearsighted eye was pretty close to normal, and I could compensate for my farsightedness. Reading and driving was no problem. But after a few years, it became tiring to compensate, so I got new glasses. I wore them every day for 10 years or so.

Last week, I went for a visit to the optometrist, because I had noticed my vision slipping a bit. Very much so when I work up close, which I do when I build electronics and prototypes of instruments. At least a few days a week I would be crossed and headachy after struggling to see something small.

What the doctor found was that with both eyes corrected, the two 'fight' to the point that my glasses actually make things worse. Wearing glasses makes my vision worse, by correcting the problems in each eye.

So he suggested going without, and using the farsighted eye for distance, and the nearsighted eye for close work, with a magnifier for little stuff. This works surprisingly well. I am going to wear one contact, on the nearsighted eye, to help with driving. But for now at least, there's just no point in correcting my sight.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

It's 12:00 somewhere

As products have increasingly powerful computing embedded in them, the possibility emerges that things will actually become easier to use. Fifteen or so years ago, some of us laughed at the technically-challenged, who could not program their VCR, and so forever lived with a display stupidly blinking 12:00, and who could not access the super-uber-elite timing and show-recording powers locked away for only those familiar with assembly language, calculus, and the grammatical salad common in manuals of the day (and, alas, to this day. Is it really impossible to hire an engineer with even a rudimentary ability to write? The bar is pretty low, as poorly as many manuals are written.)

Complicated tools can be perfectly appropriate for complex, demanding tasks, because there is a net improvement in productivity that pays back the effort in mastering the tools. Now that I have grown up a little, it occurs to me how stupid I was expecting anyone to struggle to master a complicated tool that was supposed to help them do something simple. A Masters degree in computer science is a little much to expect someone to undertake just to record Magnum, P.I.

Those of us who “got it” usually did so as a spillover benefit from the other technically challenging things we did- majoring in chemistry and math meant I might have a little edge in deciphering complicated things, I guess. (Taking economics had the spillover benefit of allowing me to drop fancy phrases like “spillover benefit”, so perhaps my electives were not a waste of time after all).

I have a printer for my home network that came with a poster telling how to set it up. When I upgraded to a new computer, I had long since forgotten about the poster. I just needed to plug in the USB cable and load the driver, right? How hard could it be?

Several hours hard, that's how. I thought I would lose my mind, fling the printer out the window, along with the computer, and go on a multi-state shooting spree before finally getting the damned thing to work. I'd love to send the design team responsible for that fiasco a full-sized picture of me drop-kicking their printer while giving them the finger. After a while, it dawned on me that I might need to install the drivers first. This turned out to solve my problem. The printer is great, but there is no excuse for the way it has to be set up.

Whatever point there was to making things so obtuse, it is still true that this is a stupid way to do things. Almost everything I have used that has a USB connection queries you for the driver the first time you plug it in. What did I get for all my trouble? Other than hundreds of megabytes of other software I have never used? Whatever it was, the particular manufacturer has made a believer out of me. I now believe firmly that I will never buy anything from a company that violates the rule that a customer buys a product for the benefits it confers, and is not interested in doing half of the engineering necessary for getting the benefits he or she paid for.

I help create things that will be in products that people will use, and know how hard it is. Yet I also remember that it is people not unlike me that will someday have to use what I make, so I try to remember to aim at sparing others the pain that I have endured. I want things to work for them, for my small contribution to the world to at least not add to their aggravation. If I can make something exciting, and delightful, all the better. But just not pissing them off would be a cut above much of the rest.