How bad decisions get made

Here's a little anecdote from personal experience about why bad decisions sometimes end up happening, then staying around. I'm not quite sure how big companies can institutionally resolve this kind of problem.

Those of you who know me well know that I'm opinionated. I don't mind telling people that something is shit if that's what I believe. I carry a lot of this into my work, and I think it's why I'm good at what I do. I care about my work, passionately, which means I'll defend my corner of an argument. Not to say I can't change my mind, but you've got to convince me.

Much of my most recent project has involved wrangling copy into shape to go online, checking it sticks to the company's style guide and professed commitment to staightforward communication. This can be difficult when you're dealing with people who are used to a certain, legalistic style of language.

There's nothing about legally-correct text that requires it to be convoluted and difficult for the ordinary human being to understand, but that seems to be the default setting for lawyers. They have their own set of very precise linguistic tools to say exactly what they mean in a minimum of words. You can translate this into very clear, very accurate language that is parseable by mere mortals, but it takes time and energy.

This has been my job for the last while. It can be exhausting work, but it's also quite rewarding when you've managed to wrangle a site into something that contains no sneaky weasel words, no sneaky "conditions apply", excising all asterisks and other symbols pointing to impenetrable fine print, in an industry that is more confuspoly than anything else.

So anyway, on to my point. At one stage we were working on system requirements copy for the broadband products. These specify the usual things that are actually requirements to run Internet Explorer, nothing really to do with the hardware and service we supply. As some kind of concession to a small minority of the marketplace, we seem to also list versions of Mac operating systems.

I went to the product manager involved and suggested we change it from requirements to just saying what we support. I suggested some copy along the lines of "if you know what you're doing, you'll have no trouble connecting with other operating systems but please understand we can't support you with these operating systems". After all, it's just TCP/IP and the hardware we supply has ethernet coming out. I pointed out the very enlightened approach used by Internode.

Now this is an issue I care about a lot. There's really no reason this company couldn't support other operating systems, at least for knowledgable users. What's more, there's no reason other operating systems can't use the service, so limiting the "system requirements" is actually incorrect.

But in the end, the product manager won the argument, because it was the end of a very long cycle of "discussions", and I was worn down. We needed to get things moving, and all parties were pretty over the process. So the site still says something incorrect, misleading even. We might even be losing some customers, though I guess Linux and BSD users are used this and ignore it routinely anyway.

It's not something I'm happy about, but it's also not something I'm willing to revisit. I'd have to use up some of my reputation in the company, throwing my weight around on what really isn't an earth shattering issue. It still bugs me, but the idea of going back to it makes me feel world weary.

This is how the world can grind you down.

MTB training

Yesterday I went up to Gosford with Majella (Marion's sister) for a mountain bike ride with Ben (Holly's brother) and his mate Warren. We're all in the same team for the Scott 24 Hour Mountain Bike Championship so we figured some training would be in order. Had a rather good ride around Kincumber Mountain, though we're all pretty out of shape -- especially me. We'll need a few more rides like this, and probably some distance rides too, before the race in October.

I borrowed one of Graeme's bikes, as I don't currently own a mountain bike. Considering it's his "spare banger" it's a bloody nice bike! Holly and I have agreed I can buy a bike, but I'm gonna end up in the budget end of the range -- if I'm still riding a lot in a year, I'll think about getting something quite a bit better.

After the ride, we went back to Ben's place for a BBQ. Of course it started raining, and we ran out of gas, soon after starting it all up. Regardless it was a great lunch, and we were all pretty hungry after the ride. Thanks Ben!

Then came a real highlight: we played a few rounds of Guitar Hero. I've never played it before but man it's so much fun! Might have to see if there's a cheap PS2 on eBay...

Chutzpah is...

Second in my series of posts about the great word chutzpah.

sponsors Live Earth

Chutzpah is... running a series of concerts highlighting global warming and having one your sponsors be... well, a a manufacturer of cars that isn't exactly reknowned for its stellar fuel efficiency. For those of you who aren't Australian, Holden is Australia's brand owned by General Motors.

Update I see the American coverage is also sponsored by General Motors.

sponsors Live Earth

I wonder if they approached Exxon?

Estate agent idiots

This one is the most creative I've seen in a while. "Aura of St Peters/Newtown". That's just brilliant!

Now if only they applied some of their creativity to filing their ads in the appropriate category. Flats are not houses.

Tufte goodness

Page from Beautiful Evidence by Edward R Tufte

Being the end of the tax year, I ordered a full set of the books by Edward R Tufte last week. I've owned The Visual Display of Quantitative Information before, but it went walkabout somewhere. Now I have the full set again, including his latest.

If you're wondering what the hell I'm talking about, Tufte is the guru of information display. His books are beautiful, inspirational works of art that also come in handy day-to-day. I'd recommend anyone who has to present complex information at least flip through these books. Developers in particular could learn a lot from these books, and the thought processes they kick into action.

example from Wikipedia page, incorporating graphics by Kmf165

One of Tufte's ideas, Sparklines, a method of graphically displaying time-series data in an incredibly small space. This method has been cropping up in more and more places. The following example is from Google Analytics, plotting data about visitors to my web site. (Yes, I won't be retiring to live off my site just yet.)

Usage stats sparkline example from Google Analytics

So I'm rather looking forward to getting to know Tufte's ideas again. Quite exciting!

The wit of The Economist

I'm a big fan of The Economist as a foil to the hopelessly biased, provincial papers in Australia. Their clipped, accurate prose and quality proofreading make it a joy to read.

They're also not above slipping in the odd pointed barb, in their dry style of humour. I particularly like this one:
The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, a Paris-based think-tank for rich countries

Pointed barbs like that would have bigwigs at a stuffy organisation like the OECD spluttering into their brandies. Subtle and understated. I love it!

Nice printer

I picked up an old HP laser printer a while back and got it running. Problem was, it just kept jamming and driving me nuts. I'm sure if I wanted to spend a few hours with some cotton buds and metho I could clean the rollers and have it going again, but life's too short and printers too cheap. It's going to freecycle for someone who wants to spend that time.

Instead, I bought a lovely HP Laserjet 2200D. The "D" means it does duplexing: it can print on both sides. It's got two trays for a total of 350 pages of hopper. Sweet! Set me back fifty clams, which is next to nothing. Best of all, it plugs into the same JetDirect so I can connect it straight to the network for no-fuss printing. Brilliant!

And it works. Nicely. Double-sided even! Holly will be happy. The last one was driving us both nuts.

Great educational products

For some reason the old "SRA cards" we used to do in primary school, reading comprehension tasks, came up in conversation. So I looked online for them. And found this page. Those of you who've done proof reading for a living will see the hilarious bit immediately. Otherwise, look closely at the main heading. Mwahahaha!

Cynicism is the default when talking about transport in NSW

Ben Fowler is right to be cynical about the NSW government's planned metro railway. After all, Action for Transport 2010, launched in 1998, was supposed to see us have a railway line from Chatswood to Parramatta, a North West Rail Link, 7 rapid bus transitways and an extensive bicycle network. Also started by 2010 was to be a new line linking Strathfield to Hurstville, a link to allow trains to run from Fairfield to Hurstville, a railway to Bondi Beach, and a pony for every child in NSW. Instead the only parts that were implemented as publicised were the roads projects. This is precisely what transport activists lobbying for public transport predicted at the time.

The problem we have is that roads can be started and completed within an election cycle. Heavy rail and the like takes much more time. So our gormless politicans have every incentive to talk about public transport while doing nothing.

What's more, our government is still working to the 1945 County of Cumberland Main Road Development Plan, Sydney's answer to Los Angeles, where freeways have been such a success. Just have a look and see how much of it they've managed to build. Notice how the next links in the motorway network are still those from this 1945 planning document?

Now if you were serious about new rail in Sydney, there are two areas that urgently need attention.

The big bottleneck is Central station going into the City Circle. At this point you have seven lines reduced to two, which causes obvious problems. My solution to this would be to install a very fast, very regular metro-style line underneath the platforms at Central and connecting to the city. All the suburban trains then stop at Central (except the through trains to North Shore and Eastern Suburbs) and passengers change to the metro for the final part of the journey. This system, of course, requires that the metro be incredibly regular, every five minutes as a minimum for peak hour, and the interchange be cleverly thought out. It's basically the same system used in Paris (RER and metro) and Tokyo (JR and subway).

The second big thing that's required is a vast new network of suburban lines. There are huge swathes of Sydney that don't have railways, with the city expanding in all directions even further out of the reach of public transport. A massive programme building lines to these areas will improve many social indicators for these areas by improving transport. After all, what do you think 12-17 year olds do when they can't get our of their suburban hell because there's no public transport? That's right, they fuck, commit crimes, take smack. Here's my prediction: Castle Hill will experience a crime wave in the next ten years or so, precisely because of this factor. Rouse Hill will be a bit later.