Sunday, February 19, 2006

Technology is great, except when it isn't

1. I bought a laptop as my primary research machine when I started this job (so, 2.5 years ago). This laptop has been nothing but problematic for me almost since the beginning, and now it's looking like I'm going to have to replace it (much) sooner rather than later. My "favorite" trick is when it decides to completely freeze, and the only way I can "fix" it is to shut it down by holding down the power button (or, sometimes when that doesn't work, pull out the battery). It has now decided to do this trick almost every time I use it. And customer support? Yeah, it's been less than helpful, as in not at all helpful. The original plan was to muddle through until the summer, and then order a new laptop, but now I'm seriously considering buying one sooner. And I really don't have the time or energy to do so right now, especially since I still have to decide whether I'm going to go with a Mac or a Windows machine (the one I have right now runs Linux), and I can't make up my mind (Macs are soooo nice, but I do some Windows programming and might have to go that route). Gah.

2. Course management software. I'm beta-testing one such system right now. It sucks. Instead of making my life easier, it's been one headache after another. My old system of web pages works much more smoothly, and more importantly I don't have to spend hours figuring out how to do something using web pages, like I do with this system. Maybe I'm just too much of a power user. Maybe I'd like it better if I saw the value in giving multiple-choice tests, or not assigning partial credit. But it's totally unintuitive to both me and my students.

3. Programming environments. I use Visual Studio when I do Windows programming. It's ok, although I much prefer Eclipse. But sometimes, it will decide that it doesn't like my project settings or preferences or something, and that it won't allow me to access my current project. The only solution I've found that works? Make a new project and import all of the old files into the new one.

You know, it's so easy as a technologist to "blame the user" when things go wrong. After all, if a user can't understand how to use the software, then the problem must be with the user, right? But it's doubly frustrating when someone like me, who knows an awful lot about what's going on under the hood, who really understands the technology, still can't get it to work. And that's where we, as computer scientists, have utterly failed. If the technology doesn't work for us, then surely the problem is not with the user, but with those who develop, make, and test the technology. Shame on us, really, for not doing better.

10 comments:

post-doc said...

Typing on my exquisite little PowerBook, I'll agree that Macs are soooo nice. :)

Emily said...

Gotta love the built in unixy-ness of the Mac... and the fluent switch between that and more graphical things (Illustrator, Powerpoint, whatever)... and the fact that my powerbook is heading towards its fifth birthday and still doing fine and has never caused many any significant problems...

Could you buy a $400 windows desktop for the required windows programming and get a mac laptop for all your real work?

Astroprof said...

Your linux laptop is doing this? Hmm. That's normally a windows problem.

Personally, I've got a nice machine on campus, and I got a very inexpensive laptop for myself to do routine things with.

Sandra Porter said...

I love my Mac!!

I have a G4 Mac powerbook and a 20 inch flat-panel screen. That way, I can have lots of windows open and plenty of working space.

I don't do much programming, but I still love being able to pop up multiple terminal windows if I want to do anything with Perl or UNIX commands. I also like being able to give each terminal window a different color and being able to cut and paste text between the terminal windows and other applications. Plus, I set my Mac up to run as a web server so I can test out various things.

If I need to run a Windows application or test the way something works on Windows, I just use Virtual PC.

Jen said...

I say go for a mac. I've been very happy with mine. It's very easy to go between my mac and my Linux servers, and I've done a little development of windows programs on it as well using Metrowerks CodeWarrior. I've got a copy that runs on the mac and one that runs on the windows box.

I've heard rumors that you can run windows on the new macs (with Intel chips). It might be worth investigating. Here's one link to back up the rumor, http://www.thinksecret.com/news/0506intelmac.html

Jane said...

Thanks for the input, everyone! I never knew I had so many Mac fans as readers. :)

I am leaning towards the Mac--the big questions are (a) can I find another machine on which to do Windows development (I have a machine at school for this, but I may need something that I can keep at home when I'm on sabbatical for part of next year); and (b) can I run most/all of my Linux apps on Mac (the answer to this should be yes, but I want to make sure). What I've decided to do in the meantime is keep track of what apps I use in my research work (Matlab, Eclipse, etc.) and see how the support for these apps is on both Mac and PC platforms, and go from there.

Mr. Jane has an older powerbook, and it's still running strong too....so that's certainly another point in Mac's favor.

Liz said...

Jane, for what it's worth, I've actually seen and played with a laptop that dual-boot with Windows the new Intel-friendly Mac OS. See this Engadget story for the details:

http://www.engadget.com/2006/01/16/video-os-x-10-4-3-dual-booted-on-a-thinkpad/

(Chris is a friend, and I've actually seen this machine boot with the new Mac OS...)

Also, Eclipse runs beautifully on a Mac--I know a lot of Mac programmers who use it. And I suspect that dual-booting MacBooks aren't far away.

Jane said...

ooooh, Liz, that looks intriguing! Perhaps I have more options than I originally thought...

Liz said...

I'm about to make a hardware purchase decision, too. For gaming purposes, the PC laptop is more tempting. But from an aesthetic (not just visually, but functioinally) standpoint, I'd prefer to stick with Apple hardward. I'll probably go the MacBook route for the laptop (once they release a 17"; I've gotten spoiled by my 17" powerbook screen), and buy an inexpensive Windows box for a gaming machine at home.

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