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.

Zoomfly Test: Capitalist Monkey

I frequently want to post images that don’t make a lot of sense to post in smaller format. I’ve been meaning to build a custom zoomer similar to Zoomfly, but gave up and just installed an off-the shelf module.

Here’s a sample file – a scan from a Soviet “Youth Technology” magazine circa 1961. A bought a couple of these on eBay – and I got to tell you, they really took me back… While growing up I was constantly reading back issues of these magazines, and now, in these few random issues that I purchased I found a few illustrations that I remembered, like the one that is at the end of this post. It’s a very strange feeling – remembering a picture last seen 20 years ago.

Another very strange feeling is noticing the lack of ads and Photoshoppery – all illustrations are either photographs or drawings, and they look so much better than what you’ll find in most todays magazines.

The article that accompanied this full page illustration was titled “Bourgeois Ideologists on the Future of Mankind” and was about doom and gloom that proliferated amongst western philosophers. In the illustration robots are going Abu Gharib on their creator’s ass, Martians are running for cover from Pentagon’s missiles, labour bosses are exploiting monkeys, dour looking generals are growing artificial goose-stepping soldiers, hippies are going back to stone age, and Malthusians are working on biological warfare. The top hat wearing capitalist monkey in the background is just darling.

Meanwhile, on the next page simple Soviet people are partying in the light of aurora Borealis.

Space Bling

If you are a constant reader of this journal, you might have noticed that I am highly interested in unobtanium — various exotic materials. This post will depart from my usual blabbering about titanium.

Many years ago I got my first glimpse of aventurine – a form of quartz with suspended flecks of other minerals. The name itself sounded absolutely exotic and appropriate for a mineral that looks like a piece of solidified star field. It comes from Italian “a ventura” – meaning “by chance”. It refers to the fact that Italian glass makers learned to make glass that looks like aventurine by chance through mixing in flecks of copper. But in Russian “avantura” is a word that does not carry the same meaning. It can be best translated as “a risky and/or shady venture”.

Aventurine is usually green or orange, and I am not sure if the black version that I like so much is really aventurine at all. Recently I came by an ad in Russian Forbes magazine for a very expensive watch made by Bernhard Lederer Universe called blu-Planet. It has an internal dial made of aventurine which the ad claimed was of meteoritic origin.

My research shows that aventurine has a terrestrial origin, but while looking at meteorites I found a most interesting fact. It turns out that many metallic meteorites when polished and dipped in a dilute acid bath, show the most amazing patterns reminiscent of microchip’s silicone surface. These are called “Widmanstatten patterns” (after the name of a scientist who discovered them) and are a result of nickel and iron cores of asteroids slowly crystallizing for millions of years in the void of space.

Pieces of space rock are desirable. Apollo space program brought back a limited amount of Moon specimens and it was waaay expensive. Then it turned out that some meteorites found on Earth have the same chemical composition. So basically, you can get pieces of asteroids, the Moon, Mars and hell knows what else without leaving the planet. In fact you don’t need to leave your chair — eBay has loads and loads of meteorites for sale.

Space stones do not come cheap — they sell for about a dollar per gram, which is significantly more than the price of silver, and might go for much more than the price of gold. No wonder that a former truck driver from whose website I took these amazing photos of meteorites has been able to support his family through meteorite hunting. Overall, it looks to me like the cost effectiveness of a truck driver with an ATV and a metal detector is pretty good compared to the cost of our space program.


News in Underpeople Research

CNN : “In January, an informal ethics committee at Stanford University endorsed a proposal to create mice with brains nearly completely made of human brain cells.

Just in case, Greely said, the committee recommended closely monitoring the mice’s behavior and immediately killing any that display human-like behavior.”

Colonel P.M.A Linebarger might have been a little bit off with predicting the timing of Underpeople creation.

(part of the cover design for “Best of Cordwainer Smith” by Darrell Sweet)

To quote professor Farnsworth: “You were all for preserving Hitler’s brain, but putting it inside a shark’s body – all of a sudden that’s going too far!!”

Personhole Covers

Forgetting for a second about my gender neutral language skills  let’s talk a bit about manhole covers.

In case you haven’t noticed, they come in an amazing variety of shapes, sizes and designs. The designs are often amazingly elaborate and beautiful. Just like I am not the first programmer to be asked “why manholes are round and not square” in an interview, I am not the first person to notice and write about the designs.

Probably the most popular photography book about manhole covers is Manhole Covers by Mimi and Robert  Melnick. I have it, and it’s outstanding. This time when I checked at Amazon, there was also Quilting With Manhole Covers – A Treasure Trove of Unique Designs from the Streets of Japan  as well as copycats Designs Underfoot and Treasures Underfoot.

Amazon also has these kick ass fake covers for hanging on the wall (as it’s nearly impossible to hang a real 600 lb manhole cover and rim on a wall ).

Just like there’s no shortage of books, there’s no shortage of websites as well. Staring into the hypnotic designs can be very relaxing.

Why did I decide to write about manhole covers today? Simply because New York Post recently ran a story about a somewhat fleshy skateboarder who fell backwards onto an electrified Con Ed manhole cover.  That resulted in her getting literally branded with a design on her back. Even a few letters of “Con Edison” are visible:

The girl is lucky – manhole covers are known to shoot high up in the air due to steam buildup– and a flying 600 lb cover could  leave a stronger impression.

Also  it could be  “Made in India” instead of “Con Ed” as most of the new manhole covers are produced there for 25 cent a pound these days. There’s an excellent article about it from which I just have to pull a few choice quotes :

“In India, the making of manhole covers is vastly man’s work – and it has been for generations. “They say the skill can only be done by a man,” Agarwal said. “The molding can never be done by a female.” “

“The progressive nature of an otherwise primitive workplace exhibits itself in other ways. Inspirational sayings written in English are hung throughout the foundry, such as “Quality is free, but it is not a gift.”

Ironically, few workers can read the sign, let alone the names of the cities on the covers they create.”

Now, unless you are a programmer who’s encountered the ubiquitous manhole question, you must be wondering, what’s the right answer to the question? Why aren’t they square? Let me give you a geek’s answer.

First of all they are not all round – there are square, rectangular, hexagonal and other ones. Here’s an  example a of a square manhole cover (Note “India” on the bottom). This is a small one, but much bigger ones exist as well, I just can’t find a good example that’s both square and says “India” right now.

The answer they are expecting is that it is impossible to drop a round disk into a round hole of the same size. But there’s also a shape called the Reuleaux triangle that has the same property:

With the help of a Reuleaux triangle shaped bit and a template  it’s possible to drill square holes. Unfortunately I can’t seem to find any of these drill bits for sale.

Also, a round manhole cover is easier to roll. Duh. You might also  tell the interviewer about my fishing buddy Michael Prior’s and ‘s

Taking it to a higher level

Mysterious Microsoft level system – somewhat demystified.

You could say I am obsessed with hierarchies. Well, I am not. But hierarchies and lists are pretty common themes in my journal.

One hierarchy I don’t understand very well is the Microsoft system or levels. In the book “Barbarians Led By Gates” the system is partially explained. They say that developers are rated on a scale from 10 to 15, 13 being a group lead and 15 being an equivalent of a VP. It seems to have changed since the book was written, because is level 62.

Hmm, can’t find any info on that online. Maybe other books about Microsoft will have a better explanation.