domingo, novembro 20, 2005

Surviving Bad Software

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Marie Antoinette has nothing whatsoever to do with this. She almost certainly never said "Let them eat cake!". She may even have been an idealist of sorts, and did not deserve the cruelty she received (no one does). But we have only to transpose the IV to connect her with another Louis, which makes it a better story so it can all fit after a fashion - since he-who-shall-not-be-named, not here at any rate, not today at least (nor shall he be pictured), is surely Sun King!

I used to think that software generally was progressing, and that in some nearby future you would need to spend less-and-less time learning to run programs and more-and-more time actually accomplishing your objectives by using them. Fourth generation programming languages (4GLs) and natural language constructs such as Structured Query Language (SQL) would expand human potential, not just for the nerds and gurus but for everyone. There was even going to be a thing called Artificial Intelligence ... blah blah blah. That was more than three decades ago. Now it looks to me as if greed, both corporate and individual, the bourgeois craving for job-security, and unconstrained bureaucracy have won the day. Object Oriented Programming Systems - and their particularly apt acronym OOPS - do not align programming syntax with reality, rather they reveal just how multifarious our realities are, how diverse, and how tremendously they can be obfuscated with arcane and arbitrary inventions.

We are more than ever at the mercy of pompous and arrogant folk whose sole claim to fame is that they have memorized yards and rods and chains and leagues of over-complicated and entirely counter-intuitive command structures - and can make some of this software "work". I say "work" because none of it really works at all - not without phalanxes of support personnel - but okokok this is good, they all have jobs right? And none of the error messages make any sense - but that is good too for the same reason. And if you are lucky you can type a letter and email it in only slightly more than twice the time it would take to do with a pen and paper, even counting the time it would take to go out and buy the pen and paper and stamps. And if you are not particularly anal and fastidious and do not make careful and regular CD backups of your correspondence then when your hard drive crashes it will all be quite ... gone. It all changes (in that twinkling instant) into nothing but survival.

Thank goodness for the American Industrial Military Complex! Along came the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and these people actually wanted to communicate with one another, so they invented the internet and email to do just that. It caught on! A counterforce! And so far, the stupidity inherent in every bureaucracy has prevented any one group from taking control.

For quite some time it has been enough to sneer condescendingly at Microsoft (m$) and wait for the competition to catch up. Of course, catching up is done at all levels and it should come as no surprise that the catcher-uppers are just as manipulative and contemptuous of mere users as m$ ever was.

That Apollo and Daphne should come to mind is not so strange I suppose, another Sun King of a sort, he kills Python the snake, falls for Daphne big time through Eros' trickery, she changes herself into a Laurel tree, and he throws himself upon the trunk - and is crucified in a way it occurs to me. Classical painters seem to have ignored this last, grant you it is far fetched.

Four examples of software to survive: Adobe, Real, Google (yes Google!), and Regional DVDs.

Adobe invented a thoroughly irritating, annoying, and slow, suite of text management software. As far as I can see it has two advantages: the little gripper that allows you to read on a screen in a manner at least vaguely reminiscent of an actual book; and the ability to prevent those pesky users from doing anything at all with documents except read them - no access, no Cut&Paste, and no modification permitted! It sells through fear of change I imagine. So far I have found only partial antidotes to Adobe. The best I know of is the add-on to the new m$ Desktop Search utility which at least indexes them.

Real came up with a program to play music and video files. At first there was nothing much to distinguish it from Windows Media Player. Neither of them is very good, maybe that was the source of the problem. In an effort (I presume) to increase market share they adopted an aggressive installation procedure which made the damned thing the default player for every sort of media file you had, including their own, and if you had the energy to tediously reset these defaults - it would reset them back again the very next time you ran it. Ai ai ai! You could un-install it at least, a step up from SONY; but when you next tried to surf a website with Real file formats in it you were diddled, and depending upon the level of your curiosity you would be tempted to re-install it! For this I have found an antidote (that's why this paragraph is in the past tense), check it out at: Real Alternative.

Google (or Googlies as I like to call them - with apologies to Edward Lear) seemed for a short while to be the good guys. An excellent search engine provided free of charge which actually found things, a tolerable email service Gmail also free, almost tolerable Google Maps with a definitely superior interface and weak coverage outside of major cities (try finding Lake Isabella just west of Bakersfield). And then came Google Desktop; ah my friends, Good from Far, but Far from Good! More on this later, suffice to say for now that for this too there is an alternative, check it out:

There is a canadian politician, Brian Mulrooney, who once said on national TV, during an election campaign if I remember aright, "we have had to adjust our perceptions". Now on the face of it I find this repugnant, changing your perceptions, aside from being difficult and possibly permanent is dishonest, but hearing him say it so blithely and openly endeared him to my heart. This may be a canadian thing. I dislike having to do it myself, hate it, but, and this is probably another canadian thing, I am willing to re-evaluate situations when it becomes obviously necessary, even if it means changing my opinions. So I am having another look at m$. It started when they announced that they would distribute a cure for the SONY virus. I have now downloaded their Desktop Search and have been playing with it for a few days. So far it looks pretty good - not to the point where I will endorse it, but pretty good. There are add-ons to index Adobe pdf files, compiled HTML files, and the hidden meta-data that sometimes travels with image files. It provides partial and wild card searches, looks like it recognizes 'camel' case, and the user interface is not bad. It does not appear to purvey any information beyond the borders of your personal computer unless you expressly say you want this to happen - it even defaults to non-purvey mode. And there are ample hooks into some kind of feedback loop, invitations to complain and suggest. Who knows if they bin the lot? - Time will tell.

('pretty good' may have been too hearty - the thing is drastically slow at times, and there is no quick way of eliminating, say, temporary internet files or backup files, so it often emerges with tooooo many hits altogether)

On the other hand, their Framework and Visual Studio and SQL Server are a nest of snakes which I (as yet) cannot penetrate - this poor little Pentium 4 with a mere 256 megabytes of memory seems not to be up for it. There is more - I admit to being overcome by the sheer fragmentation of it. Visual Basic was bad enough - a peck peck here and a peck peck there - but this Framework (if framework it is since it defies what I know about the 12 degrees of freedom) even moreso - but that is a rant for another time.

Regional DVD Coding - the people who make DVDs want their money, and twice or three times their money if possible. I stumbled into the Regional Coding imbroglio by accident - I happen to like watching brasilian DVDs with the original português subtitles, it helps me learn the language. And when I discovered that the Region 1 north american DVD re-issues of brasilian movies did not carry português subtitles, I simply found a DVD purveyor in Brasil who got me the originals, no problem - and then I found that I could not play brasilian Region 4 discs on my DVD player! I was incensed! I will spare you the details. The answer is either to buy a Universal DVD player, find a hack for your current DVD player, or use your computer to play them. I am working on the first two and have adopted the third in the meantime. This may turn out to be best since I know it is only a matter of a short time until SONY and the other greed heads come up with yet another customer degrading scheme, and it will be the computer hackers who crack it first. Keep in mind please that I am only trying to play DVDs that I have actually purchased.

There are utilities that will decode and copy DVDs to the hard drive of your computer. The files are large, on the order of 5-10 gigibytes per movie, so it is probably worthwhile getting a large external hard-drive - I got a 250 gigabyte drive and run it through one of my USB ports. I have not got this issue completely under control yet - there are a lot of decoders and players out there and it is hard to tell in advance which ones will serve well - but for rippers try: DVD Decrypter v3.5.4.0, and for players try: DVD Copy Tools. This latter does not actually copy very well (as the name might imply), but the player is adequate - I have just not had time to go looking for a better one yet.

"The art of taxation consists in so plucking the goose as to obtain the largest possible amount of feathers with the least possible amount of hissing."

Now the net is telling me this is Jean Baptiste Colbert, the tax collector on the left, when I distinctly remember reading it in a book by Francois de La Rochefoucauld, the phrase collector on the right, but I could be wrong, maybe they got it from each other, they lived at about the same time and were undoubtedly both cynics, may have known one another, probably did. In any case the advice, and it seems good advice for such silly geese such as we are continuously proven to be, would be to hiss more.

A few tangential notes on survival:

Coffee Filters: the white ones tend to stick in the machine making them hard to shake out into the garbage, especially if you are lazy as I am and pour more water through to get a quick cup when the pot is empty, the brown paper, recycled ones do not stick

Sardines: how could I have gone on for so long, loving canned sardines as I do, and not learn that you can mash them bit-by-bit in the can, thus achieving two good effects - 1. no oil or sauce left over to run through the hole in the plastic garbage bag and make a mess, attract ants etc., and 2. you get to eat all of the sauce!

and a wee 'thank God' here for the originator of pop-top sardine cans, now, when they are rattling around in the glove box during the several years before you need them, they do not have to rattle against a can opener as well, and also now that it is bad practice to carry a pocket knife, especially through an airport ...