Category Archives: Social Commentary

Alpha Go For President

According to some, one of the dangers of Artificial Intelligence is that it will take over, relegating humans to a subservient role.  I don’t see that as a danger; it’s what I’m hoping for.  Imagine a government run by rational entities, pragmatic and utilitarian, capable of empathy, using the universe as the ultimate determiner of truth, not driven by greed or selfishness, bigotry or fear, ignorance or willful self-delusion.  As John Lennon would say:  imagine!  When that day comes, I will be voting YES for computers to take over.  I hope you will do the same.

Wacky President

[This is a transcript of a news conference held by the independent presidential candidate, Phillip Diamond.]

Q:  What will your policy be toward the European Union?

A:  If they get out of line, I’ll nuke them back to the stone age.

Q: Do you know what the Constitution is?

A:  Oh my God.  I thought you Jews were supposed to be smart.  Yeah.  Constitution is the stuff that gives you hit points.

Q:  Have you ever taken acid?

A:  Not for at least two weeks.  Know where I can get some?

Q:  Do you know who was assassinated at the end of the American Civil War?

A:  A bunch of people.  Kennedy.  John Lennon.  That guy they named the streets after….  People were getting bumped off left and right.

Q:  What does capitalism mean to you?

A:  You do capitals with, like, people’s names.  And the start of sentences.  Could we stay on topic here, folks?

Current Events Are Poison

If you try to tell the average person that the human race is better off now than ever before, you’re liable to be attacked – if not physically, then at least verbally.  For whatever reason, people prefer to feel miserable.  They prefer to believe Armageddon is just around the corner, that moral values are degenerating, violence increasing.  Newspapers and magazines print ten times as much bad news as good news, and they do so for a reason:  people will pay for the privilege of living in a cloud of gloom and doom.

Someone has to deal with the day-to-day bad news.  That someone ain’t me.  Instead, I prefer to be a bad citizen.  I avoid news shows, news websites, and newspapers.  I cancelled my long-running subscription to National Geographic because they seemed incapable of writing a happy article.  Even the rare piece about a positive development invariably had a sour note thrown in.

While some of the bad news from today will have a lasting impact, most of it won’t.  Few people can recall more than a handful of tragedies from ten or twenty years ago, never mind fifty or five hundred years go (hence the belief that things are getting worse).  Similarly, in ten or twenty years, most of the events that dominate today’s headlines, that lead people to walk about hunched over waiting for the sky to fall:  most of that will also be forgotten by all but historians and those with eidetic memories.

These days, the only periodical I read is the journal Science.  They too are susceptible to printing the occasional National Geographic article.  For the most part, though, what shows up, as the name implies, is scientific research.  Never mind that I understand one word in ten.  What matters is that each issue (there are 51 a year) shows our expanding knowledge of the universe.  Here are brilliant people working hard to make the future a better place.  A place where there are fewer diseases, less poverty, less hunger, cleaner energy, cleaner water, safer automobiles.

Not only are the scientists and technologists working for a better tomorrow, they are succeeding.  The long lists of names on those articles, the range of organizations and countries represented:  all that shows the depth and breadth of the culture of advancement.  While few of these people or their discoveries will make headlines, their work will have lasting value, and will touch the lives of more people – and in a positive way – than any number of bad people with assault rifles.

This is why (sorry to sound a discordant note) the future is looking brighter every day.

An Open Letter to Microsoft’s New CEO

Dear Mr. Nadella,

Congratulations on being the new Microsoft CEO. Are you going to make them fix the bugs (some of which have been around for ten years)? Will there be patches to fix bugs? Or will we still have to purchase a new version of Office/Windows to have non-security bugs fixed, only to discover that some of the more egregious and hateful bugs and UI annoyances still have not been addressed, and that “new version” yet again means “the UI has been rearranged,” often with pre-existing functionality now unavailable or painful to access?

In case you don’t know what I’m talking about, let me itemize a few things that come to mind.

  • Pressing Escape while editing an email causes Outlook to try and close the window, leading to a dialog asking, “Would you like to have this window close and lose what you’ve been doing the last half hour?” The editor window for an email message is a window, not a dialog box. A windows doesn’t close in response to Escape. This is called a Common User Access Rule. Microsoft needs to start adhering to those rules. They’re rules for a reason.
  • Pressing Page Down and Page Up in Word sometimes causes the screen to shift, and then shift back, giving the impression that the user is moving through the document when, in fact, no progress is being made at all.
  • Word thinks that a quote following an em-dash should point outboard rather than inboard.   As in, “What the –“
  • The spellchecker should understand that if Nadella is a properly spelled word, then so is Nadella’s.
  • Changes in taskbar arrangement and other settings should be persisted immediately, not when the system successfully shuts down.
  • Windows Explorer continues to be treated as an afterthought, with few options for user-customization. In particular, there’s no way to turn off of the Libraries (and other miscellanea) that clog the tree view. Having Explorer be both the user’s interface to the physical machine AND the operating system’s shell is dumb, and it helps explain why Explorer does neither well.
  • Eliminating the desktop mode of Windows shows how inflexible and brittle the underlying software is, as well as how insular and out-of-touch the software development process is at Microsoft. It’s called software for a reason. It shouldn’t be “one size fits all.” If you want to support handheld devices, fine. Why does that mean you have to stop supporting desktop users? Apple and Google both like to shove the “one true way” of doing things down users’ throats. Microsoft can differentiate itself by not doing that!
  • It takes way, way too long to “Configure” and “Prepare to Configure” Windows before and after yet another forced restart.
  • When I choose to delete three files totaling 12K, I don’t expect to see a dialog box show up that says “Calculating….” Calculating what, exactly? PI to three billion decimal places? Given the speed and power of modern machines, what could possibly take long enough to justify opening a dialog box, never mind having the dialog sit there for ten or fifteen seconds “Calculating…”?
  • List views should remember their settings.
  • Right clicking on something should bring up a context menu that, in addition to “What’s this?”, should offer the option to configure whatever was clicked on, up to and including the option of “Stop Doing That.” (In Word, for example, right clicking on the Zoom control on the status bar would offer the option of disabling the shortcut key sequence that causes the text to suddenly shrink by ten percent.)
  • When I explicitly open Task Manager and tell it to shut down an application, that’s what it should do. I don’t expect to wait a minute before Task Manager tells me the application in question isn’t responding, especially when – in some cases – the application IS responding, and will react to a polite “Please Shut Down” message by opening another ten copies of itself.
  • The Windows Registry needs to be phased out. That thing has been a source of system corruption and performance problems since day one. It is a generic solution to dozens of specific problems, each of which should be handled in a domain-specific way, thereby reducing the ridiculous and opaque HKEY-REF A328B8879-…-22E33F44G that points to an entry that points to an entry that might or might not have anything to do with why Office can neither be uninstalled, reinstalled, or repaired, and only a Microsoft specialist with a list of keys could ever go in and figure out why. Here’s a quote taken from the social.technet forum of microsoft.com:

“Windows … require[s] complex entries in the Speech Token section of the HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE registry. We have not found a single Voice installer that makes the correct entries in this registry nor have we located anyone who knows the details of what is required. There is an extensive description of the registry entries….”

How much of that do you need to see before you realize something’s broken?

  • The “Extended” tab on the Services applet is a joke. It serves no purpose other than to force users to first switch to “Standard” view, before then double-clicking on the “Name” column to expand it (yet again) so that it shows more than the first twelve characters of the service name. At the very least, “Extended” should be made the optional view, not the default, thereby saving the world at least a million mouse clicks a day.
  • Support configuring high-quality audio through the operating system. If I connect a receiver to the HDMI output of my video card, I should be able to convince Windows that the receiver is an audio-only output device, not a third monitor.

 

Don’t get me wrong. I realize bugs like these are trivial and tedious and far below the cool, exciting work that Microsoft engineers have come to expect. Still, some of us are hoping you will place professionalism and attention to detail above “Gosh, isn’t it cool, Spiffy?”