Deadprogrammer’s Hierarchy of Web Needs

I recently received a phone call from a recruiter. He wanted to lure me away to some “big company” that still had “small company feel” to participate in a “redesign of a major website”. He felt like all of these things, as well as “a well stocked kitchen” were big selling points.

I am a veteran of many website redesigns, major and minor. I’ve come to dread the word “redesign” because very frequently it meant taking a perfectly good website and making it significantly worse, and then through major struggles making it marginally beter. In the past I wrote a rather bloated article titled “The Russian Tea Room Syndrome” about this. Today I would like to write a bit more about this, as this topic rarely leaves my mind and my life.

Earlier in my career, I had very little influence over the redesign process, but this is changing. This is the primary reason why my job title has the shameful word “Architect” in it: I write code and configure servers, but I want my say in strategery as well.

So, Michael, you might ask, what is the problem with redesigns? Aren’t redesigns about making websites better? Well, many redesigns suffer from not following IBM’s famous motto.

IBM has one of the best corporate mottos ever: CRUSH and DESTROY. Uh, I mean THINK. They even give out props with the word “THINK” on it and publish THINK magazine.

Many redesigns happen simply as a knee jerk reaction: oh, look company X is doing Y and using Z. When you sit in a meeting and somebody is describing a redesign purely in terms of things other people do, you are likely in trouble. No thinking is involved at all.

But sometimes it’s the type of thinking that is going on that is the problem. You have to think about the relative importance of things.

I have a picture by famous graffitti artist Banksy hanging on my wall. It is a metaphor about true and false importance.

In 1943 a Brooklyn College professor Abraham Maslow outlined what is now known as Maslow’s Hierarchy: a pyramid that ranks human needs. It looks like prior to him nobody really gave a lot of thought to relative importance of pooping and morality. Well, maybe a little – there’s a Russian idiom for a person of untrustworthy nature that originated during WWI when soldiers relieved themselves in rows, next to specially dug trenches: “I would not take a dump next to this person”. Also see “I hope they serve beer in hell

Here’s Maslow’s pyramid in all of its glory:

I decided I’d come up with the hierarchy of web needs:

standard adherence: strict XHTML, CSS, etc

choice of technology: language, CMS, OS, cloud/servers, etc

other features: widgets, games, microformats

multimedia: video, podcasts, interactive flash

design: graphical elements, typography, pleasing layout

semantic web: metadata, tagging

usability: text size, image size, logical layout, uncluttered interface, site name/urls, browser support

community features: comments, ratings, feeds

googliness: search, speed, security

content qualities: usefulness, interest, freshness, uniqueness

content: text, images, links

In my opinion unsuccesful redesigns happen when people start from the wrong end of the pyramid (always skipping the first step: I’m yet to meet anybody with power who thinks about these things are important).

I will expand on this in my next post.

Being Dead Wrong

I like to think that I have a great intuition and am very good at predicting things. I also sometimes feel that I suffer from the Cassandra syndrome, as people don’t listen to my prediction as much as I would like them to.

This made me think about the times when I made ridiculously bad predictions. Here’s a list of what comes to mind off the bat:

1. When I was young I thought that programmers will soon write a computer program for writing computer programs, and that computer programming as a profession does not have much of a future.

2. I thought that architectural drawings will always have to be done by hand, as you can’t print out plans on dot matrix printers (the only printers I’ve seen at the time). I thought, sure, you can program some straight lines and such, but you’ll never get beautiful detailed drawings with all kinds of details.

3. I thought that Handspring would become the dominant player on the handheld market the same way that IBM did: by opening up the peripheral standards.

4. I thought that Diamond Rio would be huuuge and that Diamond Multimedia would become the hottest company ever because they were first on the market with an mp3 player.

5. I thought that Apple would just shrivel up and die, and if not, that I would certainly never completely switch to Macs.

Whewww, man. Those are some doozies. How about you, my readers?

How to Design Logos, Symbols and Icons: 24 Internationally Renowned Studios Reveal How They Develop Trademarks for Print and

This book steps into the studios of top designers as their ideas happen. Case studies trace the evolution of great logos, symbols and icons, illustrating the process with initial roughs and intermediary sketches that lead up to the final designs for companies including Nike and IBM. In addition, this book expands its boundaries to include symbols and icons, two rarely covered yet increasingly vital areas of design. Gregory Thomas is the owner and principal of Gregory Thomas Associates, a Santa Monica-based design consultancy. The award-winning company boosts an international client list that includes CBS, IBM, Levi Strauss & Company, Yale University, and MCA/Universal Pictures.

Victory Day

Time is slowly erasing the traumatic memory of the two world wars. That is to say that the people who fought in it are dying out, and the younger generations do not like to think of the horrors that the two great wars brought.

When I was growing up, World War II did not seem very exciting to me, from the infantile militarism standpoint. Bootleg American movies, like Rambo and Star Wars seemed oh so much cooler. WWII killing machines seemed outdated and andand reminiscences of veterans who were invited into Soviet classrooms prior to every May 9th – boring.

I did like the Polish movie serial about WWII, called “Four tankers and dog” (“Четыре танкиста и собака” in Russian and “Czterej pancerni i pies” in Polish). It was an awesome, awesome serial about a Polish tank’s crew in WWII. Recently I purchased it on DVD from a Russian movie store as a present for my childhood friend. We watched it a bit, and I’ve got to tell you, it held up amazingly well.

Later, I realized that “Star Wars” technology was based on WWII, down to space battles mimicking real aerial dogfights. The rest of ideas Lucas lifted from Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress. That was probably one of the reasons why the original 3 episodes were so much cooler then the new ones.

WWII is all the rage these days. You can’t swing a dead cat without hitting an awesome WWII game. Mike Mingola brought back WWII chic in his Hellboy comics, Nazi mad scientist and all.

I particularly like WWII-style superheroes, without overabundance of superpowers and in baggy costumes with many gear pockets and bandoliers. In Hellboy’s origin story, there’s a panel where a group of Allied soldiers poses for a picture with Hellboy and Liberty Torch, a wartime superhero, that appeals to me a lot. I also liked how in Batman: Year One Batman uses thermite as a weapon that he gets from his military-looking bandolier belt.

For the firts time since Augusta Ada King, Countess of Lovelace and Charles Babbage, computer programmers became active, this time being driven not by intellectual curiosity, but by a dire need to break Nazi codes. If not for the Polish scientists who created the first Enigma-breaking mechanical “bombes”, Alan Turing and the rest of the computer pioneers, me and my dad not only wouldn’t be computer programmers, but probably would not have been born.

That reminded of an echo of WWII that I once encountered. I used to work as a doorman, porter and elevator operator in an Upper West Side residential building where Robert Oppenheimer was born. There was a very nice old man who lived alone in a huge pre-war apartment. Every year he asked one of the staff to help him set all the clocks in the apartment during the daylight savings switch. It remains one of the more memorable experiences for me from my employment there. I remember a huge apartment with many clocks. The old guy seemed to be very anxious to have all of them set, and all of them set correctly, asking me several times to check and doublecheck. Must have taken me half an hour to get them all. Once I set all the clocks he became very relieved.

I guess the guy had a very special relationship with time. My boss told me he saw a number tattoo on the old man’s arm. That most likely means that he had a “user id” for an IBM punchcard machine in Auschwitz.

The Microsoft Movie Conspiracy

Robert Scoble is the most powerful Microsoft blogger. One word from him and hordes of bloggers start typing gibberish, hoping to make it into the A-list. Must there be anything he can’t do? Yep. Apparently there is a building at the Microsoft campus where his badge does not work.

That top secret facility produces the best Microsofts products I’ve ever seen. They make (amongst other things) short movies shown to attendees at shows like PDC and CES. Sadly, once shown, those movies do not make it onto Microsoft’s website or into the bundles of MSDN subscription cds (I’ve checked). They get suppressed for some reason.

I believe there’s a conspiracy to hide the fact that Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer left the company a long time ago. I mean think about it, would you continue to work if you had that kind of money? My theory is that they were replaced by two top notch actors. The actors must get bored from time to time, so they are given a high quality production crew and a possibility to create short movies from time to time.

I can’t find the link now, but IMDB listed Steve Ballmer cast as a possible villain in Batman: Year One movie that never got filmed.

In any case, the convention shown movies sometimes leak out. Matrix spoof, the latest one, for instance is partially available at this website (if you scroll down there are screenshots from the full version). In it Linux agents are interrogating hacker known as Steve-O.

In previous years there was the Volkswagen commercial spoof, where Gates and Ballmer are cruising around the neighbourhood in a Jetta, pick up a discarded Sun server from the curb, but then, after a few blocks and a few whiffs of something stinky inside the server, they deposit it back on the side of the road. I saw that one at a PDC event, and it was preceded by a never aired IBM commercial in which Mike the Lawyer and friends are cramming a huge server in a small elevator.

There were also the Napoleon Dynamite spoof and the Austin Powers spoof which I can’t find anywhere for some reason. Are there any others that I’m missing?

By the way, impersonating Austin Powers seems to be a favorite pastime of gazillionairs.

Amdahl : Business in the Front, Party in the Back

A few years ago I purchased a strange piece of computing history on eBay. Some guy in Canada was selling what he described as a “model” of an Amdahl processor. He did not include a picture with his listing, and because of that I was able to snap it up for about 30 wing-wangs.

When the package arrived, it turned out to be a real 42 (!) processor board from an old Amdahl mainframe that was “presented to T. Eaton Company for its purchase of Amdahl 5995-3550M processor in June 1992” as the plaque said. T. Eaton Company no longer exists, it was swallowed by Sears. Neither does Amdahl – it is a part of Fujitsu now.

The little cooling towers made it possible to air cool the chips.

The back of the board was very strange though. All the wiring seemed to be done “point-to-point” by hand. Overall, thinking about how many work-hours went into designing and making that board made me shudder.

[update] Thanks to the Boing Boing liks this seems to have become the second popular post on my site – first one being the Revelation post which gained popularity thanks to being the only google result for “omnioum finis imminet” for a while. I’ve got some great information from former Amdahl employees:

Tom: ”
The item is an MCC (multi-chip carrier) from an Amdahl V8, V7 or V6. Many were plugged into either side of a large frame which connected the MCCs to each other and to power, the console, memory, and the IO cables.

The finned gizmos are cooling towers glued to the top of the individual chips. A plastic cover directed cool air over the towers and fans exhausted it out the top of the frame
hese were used in the 470 series computers. The follow on computer, the 580 used much larger boards about the size of a pizza box. They were inserted into a plenum (which became known as the pizza oven) with ZIF connectors on the side. They had black instead of gold cooling towers with more fins.

The board is circa 1980. The back wiring was done in Japan because they couldn’t find enough people in the US who could do it well. I believe the chips were laser bonded on the front with the hand wiring on the back. Note that the circut boards were multi-layer and the back wiring was only used where they couldn’t get enough paths from the circut boards and for engineering changes after production.

NoOneAtAll : “Amdahl used to give out dead hardware and out-of-date engineering samples to their sales guys made into lots of different things. I’ve seen coasters made out of unusable processors, an Amdahl sales binder made from a set of bad carrier boards, a couple of plaques like this one made from DOA MCC modules, pen holders made out of ribbon cable, etc.

An IBM reseller I worked at spent Amdahl’s entire corporate lifetime telling them no. By the time the sales guy gave up, pretty much everyone at the company had been hit up by the guy as a possible lead, and pound for pound there was more dead Amdahl hardware repackaged as kitsch on the desks in sales than we had actually moved in Amdahl equipment. ”

[update] Two similar processors just came up on eBay. The picture quality is ghastly, but they seem like a bigger version of the one that I have, with even more complicated back wiring.

P.S. Don’t forget to take a look at the rest of my blog, or if you are interested in Amdahl, at the rest of my Amdahl-related posts.

Web Archeology.

While looking for some hardware in my junk pile I unearthed a stack of Zip disks with old backups. On them was a reasonably complete copy of the long lost “Dead Programmer’s Cafe” circa 1996-1997.

I think this was the first version of the logo, back when I hosted my site at silly.com, my first Internet provider. My High School buddy helped me get an account there for which I am forever grateful. Believe it or not, but a shell account cost about 4-5 bucks a month and you could even do web browsing with Slipknot. Far out.

The logo represents an alpinist scaling a Cray machine.

This is a later version of the splash page when the site was hosted at akula.com . All the cool pages back then had black backgrounds and neon or chrome Photoshop effects.



Later an espresso cup made an appearance on the coffee page and on the splash page together with an IBM card punch.

These webpages served me well. A girl who lived in my neighborhood found my first homepage and sent me an email. We got married a few years later. Her friend learned that I knew minimal HTML and helped me get my first web job. Information Superhighway is great and the future seems to be indeed bright enough to require sunglasses. Thank you, Eugene, Julie and Senator Gore!

FUD You

A common IT worker in computer related conversation spews more acronyms than a Soviet Commissar, but chances are he or she won’t be able to decipher half of them. Managers often don’t even know the meaning of the concepts that the acronyms represent.

Some acronyms are meaningless by design and recursive to boot. GNU? GNU’s Not Unix!

Others seem like acronyms, but aren’t. I always thought that TWAIN stood for “Technology Without An Interesting Name”, but it turns out it originates from “The Ballad of East and West” – “and never the twain shall meet”. Sometimes when I try to reinstall my scanner for the hundred’s time it seems to be very appropriate.

Some apparently stood for something at some point in time, but then lost their meaning. People understood COM to stand for “Common Object Model”, then “Component Object Model” and now it stands for that old difficult technology that only Don Box used to completely understand. You need to use .NET instead, which is an acronym looking non-acronym which stands for whatever Microsoft wants it to stand for. Now Expect Trouble. Never Edit Text. Next Exciting Technology. What is the dot for? Come on, every developer knows that dots make your code more powerful.

An acronym that is often used in conversations about Microsoft is “FUD”. It always made me think of Elmer Fudd (because people using it often sounded like him), but it’s actually a term coined by a computing pioneer, Dr. Gene Amdahl.

It stands for “Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt” – tactics that IBM salesmen used against Dr. Amdahl’s company. Amdahl made mainframes that were fully compatible with IBM’s, but cheaper and faster. It’s easy to use FUD on managers that were in charge of purchasing those multimillion dollar big irons. “Nobody was ever fired for going with IBM”, right?

The sheer existence of Amdahl was a huge boon to mainframe purchasing customers. The rumor was that if you placed an Amdahl mug on your table, IBM salespeople were gonna give you million dollar discounts.

Let me present an artifact from my collection: the famous “Million Dollar Mug”:

Armonk Blue

Speaking of the color. Here’s a magazine that was thrown out by some professor at my college:

IBM Systems Journal Volume 21 #4 1982:
“With the use of the computer as the art tool, our cover symbolizes the interaction between man and machine. Two of the papers in this issue discuss usability considerations for the design and development of interactive systems”.

There is no credit for the cover art, but my guess that it would be attributed to J.F. Musgrave who is listed as Art Director.

Screen closeup:

I like a lot of things about this picture. The sleeveless white shirt, the ugly tie, the beer gut, the coffee mug, the expression on the headcount’s face. The ASCII art on the screen. The eery transition effect in the background.

Don’t you think that “Armonk Blue” would be a good name for a Benjamin Moore paint?