May 3, 2007

the coming age of enraging technology

Lousy design and poor failure scenarios are going to be the downfall of ubicomp systems.

I've been on the verge of a screaming fit twice in the last two days, due to the wonderful digital technologies that are becoming pervasive in my life. And at least twice more, I have just shaken my head in disbelief and shame at the ignorance of certain design engineers. I'm going to tell you about these experiences.

Screaming fit #1. I go to my neighborhood gas station to fill up. Swipe the credit card, start to pump, and nothing. Wiggled stuff, pushed buttons, tried to restart the pump -- finally got 30 cents of gas to flow. The station attendant comes out, asks me to try a different pump so I do, and the same thing happens, this time 25 cents. He shrugs and says they must have run out of gas. So I go down the street to another station, swipe the credit card -- DECLINED. The Visa fraud detection algorithm detected a card theft in progress, and locked me out. Unbelievable, I'm incensed. I don't have my phone, so I steam all the way home and call Visa, where I have to endure a 5 minute automated transaction verification process before I can talk to a person. I'm sorry to say I was not very nice to her, but she cleared the lockout anyway. She offered to let me explain to their security team just how lame their algorithms are, but I couldn't see what good it would do, so I said goodbye.

Screaming fit #2. I go to the website to use online check-in for a flight. It pulls up the right records from the database, but it says it can't find a valid e-ticket for the reservation, so I can't check in. Fine, so I call the United reservation desk. Actually it's a voice response system, one of those you have to talk to. Just knowing this, my BP starts to rise. It asks for my confirmation #, but after three tries of spelling it out, it cannot figure out what I am saying. It asks for flight date, flight number, airport and last name, and finally finds the reservation, but still wants me to follow one of its preprogrammed scenarios. I ask for a human in every way I can think of, but I'm stuck in a voice-response cul-de-sac. Now I'm yelling and cursing at a digital voice synthesizer, and it's not helping anybody. Finally it gives up and transfers me to a human, promising that all the info I gave it will be transferred to the person's screen. It wasn't. I'm sorry to say, I was not very nice to that person either, nor to the next person they transferred me to. After that it got worse before it got better, but you get the picture. Oh, a possible silver lining to this story -- I was told by one of the agents that if you hit "0" or "#" 3 times, the system will send you to a human. Remember that for next time.

Head shaker #1. In our newly refurbished conference rooms, they installed automated control systems for the projector and the conference phone. In order to use these appliances, you have to get up from the table, walk over to the corner of the room, and interact with a little touchscreen panel. Turn on the projector? Walk. Dial the phone? Walk. Mute the phone? Walk. Hang up the phone? Walk. Stupid loser designers, what were you thinking?

Head shaker #2. Same newly rebuilt conference rooms. Ethernet jacks installed into the tabletop, cables carefully shrinkwrapped and routed under the floor. For a room designed to hold 12 people, there are 4 jacks. And three of them are broken in some non-obvious, non user-serviceable fashion. And we're a freakin' computer company, go figure that one out.

I hope ubicomp really does take a hundred years. That way I'll be spared the indignity of having to use it.

Posted by Gene at 11:05 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

March 1, 2007

opt out of advertising network spyware

You probably don't realize it, but advertising networks are tracking where you go on the web and customizing the ads that you see based on your behavior. A number of the more reputable(?) players in this game have formed a trade association called the Network Advertising Initiative, and one of their policies is to allow you to opt out of being tracked. I was surprised to find that I was carrying cookies from 7 of the 9 member ad networks, everywhere I went on the web. Take a look at their Consumer Opt Out page and act accordingly.

Posted by Gene at 11:22 AM | TrackBack

October 6, 2006

i'm a bit worried about this google thing

Update 2006-10-14: Looks like this post resonated with a lot of folks. Thanks Lifehacker, you guys sure do drive a lot of traffic ;-) Thanks also to Tom at HawkWings, Jamais and the many others who linked here. And many thanks to all the commenters, especially those who disagreed here and elsewhere. I've continued the discussion in the post "I want my Google Data Privacy."

Update 2006-10-15: This is worth a read: Lauren Weinstein's Open Letter to Google: Concepts for a Google Privacy Initiative from May 2006. Wonder if he has had a response?


I'm feeling increasingly uneasy about my dependence on Google services. I just moved to the new Google Reader because it blows away every other feedreader I've used. I've been a sharpreader fan for a long time, because it was simple, easy and clean, and those attributes outweighed even the huge inconvenience of having multiple unsynchronized opml lists on my various machines. Well now I'm on reader 2.0 and loving it.

So I look around my desktop and I see Google Reader, Google Mail, Google Talk, Google Toolbar, Google Maps, Google Calendar, Google News, Google Analytics, Google Earth, and of course Google Google. Google WiFi was a pleasant surprise when I was in Mt View a few weeks ago, and last night I found pizza (Goat Hill Pizza SoMA, yummy) for the geowanking gig using mobile Google on my phone. All of these things are becoming indispensable tools for me, and I really like using them because they work well and play well, and every few weeks they magically get better.

And hey, isn't it nice to have a single sign-in across all those apps? Oh wait, oops, it's almost like vendor lock-in, but with the added benefit of having my personal correspondence, my friends, family and contacts, my reading lists, my schedule, my location, and my search history all stored under one roof for easy data mining and subpoena! How, er, convenient.

I think I need a new Google product to drop into beta. That would be, let's see, Google Data Privacy. GDP would allow me to review all of the information that Google retains on me across all services, from all devices, and from all sources. GDP would allow me to determine the maximum data retention period for each of my services. GDP would allow me to selectively opt out of cross-service data mining & correlation, even if it reduced the quality of the services I receive. GDP would allow me to correct any inaccurate data in my profile. And GDP would log and alert me when my data was queried by other services.

I want my Google Data Privacy.

Posted by Gene at 4:00 PM | Comments (24) | TrackBack

April 7, 2006

stupid broken software

What the hell is ’???? Why do I have weird character sets enabled? Really sorry about that, dear reader.

UPDATE: It's because I'm composing in Word and copying stuff over here, doh. Nothing to see here, folks, just paying the Microsoft tax.

Posted by Gene at 5:59 PM | Comments (2)