Random Thought

Why is it that software developers, in the GUIs of common software, particularly blogging tools, put rarely used and dangerous functions (“Delete this [post/database/blog]”) immediately next to frequently used functions (“Save this [post/database/whatever]”)? This is stupid, yet one sees it not infrequently, and not only in version 1.0.

Not-so early versions of Movable Type actually had a “delete this blog” button. What was the purpose of such a function? Was it to let you destroy the evidence if the blog police were at your door? I don’t get it. It’s easy enough to delete your blog inadvertently using an FTP program; the developers shouldn’t do anything to make inadvertent deletion even easier. I always edited the MT scripts to remove that stupid button and the function it triggered.

WordPress, supposedly the latest and greatest, has a “Delete post” link next to the “Save” and “Publish” buttons. Why couldn’t they put the delete button somewhere else — say, at the bottom of the page? For every post that I’ve deleted intentionally I have come close to deleting several more posts accidentally, merely because the delete link is in a dumb place. For all of its brilliance, WordPress has the feel of a vanity project managed by a few clever developers who ignore the marketing guy who suggests that maybe it’s not such a great idea to put the delete button next to the save button.

But of course there is no marketing guy, because WordPress is an open-source project managed by a few clever developers. Maybe that’s the problem. If WP were being sold for real money, the developers might have no choice but to put more care into GUI design. And they might be able to afford to hire specialists to do it. But since it’s open-source, and users are members of a “community” rather than paying customers, what’s the incentive to spiff up the GUI? OTOH, given the competition from other (free) blogging packages, it might not be possible to sell WP.

It’s interesting that some basic GUI issues are not given much weight in the race to add software features. I don’t know if there’s a remedy for this situation.

Want to Buy a Bookstore Chain?

The Borders Group is not doing very well, and may offer itself for sale.

In previous posts, I’ve asked the questions What would you do if you were running General Motors? and What would you do it you were running Sears Holdings? (have to note Ralf’s classic comment about the GM question: “I would stop running the company and start just plain running.”)

So, just for fun, today’s discussion question is: If you were the new owner of Borders, what would you do?

As a thought-starter, here’s a WSJ article (registration required) about the chain’s attempt to increase sales by changing the way books are displayed–with the covers face-out. This is less space-efficient, of course, and reduces the number of titles a store can stock. Borders is also planning to locate digital centers in the stores–these are for downloading books and music, printing digital photos, etc. They are also terminating their relationship with Amazon, choosing instead to operate their own online ordering system.

Disclosure: I’m a current Barnes & Noble shareholder–I was once a BGP holder, but fortunately got out at about $19.


The Automotive Century and Mass Production

On March 19, 1908, the Ford Model T was announced. Although the car would not begin shipping until September of that year, the response to the announcement was enthusiastic. One agent wrote, “we have rubbed our eyes several times to make sure we were not dreaming,” and another exclaimed, “It is without doubt the greatest creation in automobiles ever placed before a people, and it means that this circular alone will flood your factory with orders.”

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Stupidity–Communist-Style and Capitalist-Style

There’s an old story about a Soviet-era factory that made bathtubs. Plant management was measured on the total tonnage of output produced–and valves & faucets don’t add much to the weight, certainly not compared with the difficulty of manufacturing them. So the factory simply made and shipped thousands of bathtubs, without valves or faucets.

The above story may be apocryphal, but the writer “Viktor Suvorov” tells an even worse one, based on his personal experience. At the time, he was working on a communal farm in Russia:

The General Secretary of the Party set a task: there must be a sharp rise in agricultural output. So the whole country reflected on how best to achieve this magnificent aim.

The fertilizer plant serving the communes in Suvorov’s area resolved to do its part:

A vast meeting, thousands strong, complete with brass bands, speeches, placards, and banners, was urgently called at the local Chemical Combine. To a man, they shouted slogans, applauded, chanted patriotic songs. After that meeting, a competitive economy drive was launched at the Chemical Combine to harvest raw materials and energy resources.

The drive lasted all winter, and in the spring, on Lenin’s birthday, all the workers came in and worked without pay, making extra fertilizer from the materials that had been saved…several thousand tons of liquid nitrogen fertilizer, which they patriotically decided to hand over, free of charge, to the Region’s collective farms.

The local communes were told that all fertilizer must be picked up in 24 hours–the factory’s product tanks were full, and if the bonus fertilizer was not removed, production would come to a standstill. Suvorov was the truck driver for his collective, and it was his task to go to the plant and pick up the farm’s allocation. Problem: the truck could only carry 1.5 tons at a time, and a round-trip to the plant would take about 10 hours. The commune’s allocation was 150 tons. There was also a shortage of fuel for the truck. And Suvorov knew that if he didn’t complete his mission, the director of the commune would be replaced. While the man was not to everybody’s liking, his expected replacement was much worse.

What to do?

When Suvorov arrived at the plant with his truck, he saw that the other communal farms had faced the same problem, and had hit on a solution.

There was a long queue of trucks of different makes, dimensions, and colours standing outside the Chemical Combine. But the queue was moving fast. I soon discovered that lorries, which had only a moment before been loaded, were already returning and taking up new places in the queue. Every one of these lorries ostensibly needed many hours to deliver its valuable load to its destination and then to return. But they rejoined the queue in a matter of minutes. Then came my turn. My tanks were rapidly filled with the foul-smelling liquid, and the man in charge marked down on his list that my native kolkhoz had just received the first one and a half tons of fertilizer. I drove my lorry out through the Combine’s gates and followed the group of lorries which had loaded up before mine. All of them, as if at a word of command, turned off the road and descended a steep slope toward the river Dneiper. I did the same. In no time at all, they had emptied their tanks. I did the same. Over the smotth surface of the great river, the cradle of Russian civiliztion, slowly spread a huge poisonous, yellow, stinking stain.

The great fertilizer production drive was undoubtedly marked down in government records as a tremendous success.

Don’t be too smug, though, fellow capitalists. My next example of institutional stupidity comes from the American private sector.

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Turning the Sow’s Ear into a Silk Purse

Lately I’ve been struggling with the concept of “educated beyond one’s intelligence”. Testing and education is supposed to separate the meritorious from the masses. Unfortunately, education serves only to cut off the very bottom, obviously inept cohort, but seems to have less ability to separate truly good people from mediocre intellects and fakers. This has direct implications beyond Academia, as David Foster pointed out when he noted the reliance of businesses on paper trail rather than accomplishments as a means of filtering potential new hires.

I’m now starting to construct a mental model for why education seems to be failing at this central task, and a few terms spring immediately to mind.

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