Archive for March, 2007

Apple computer review part two: Software

March 31, 2007 40 comments

Recently one of the users I support (in an all-Windows environment) told me why he has a Macintosh at home.  He said, “I bought a Mac because I don’t have an IT department to call on when there’s a problem.  And after two years it works exactly as well as the day I bought it, which is perfectly.”

To us Windows users, that sounds like a fantasy.  But I’ve heard it from enough credible sources to believe it.  So I’ve been trying to become more familiar with Macintosh computers.  Not only because I’d like to see some Macs in our computer labs, but also so I can give some integration support to personal Mac users in our college.  Also, I wanted to give a more useful answer to people who ask “What kind of computer should I buy?”  More on that question at the end of this post.

Way back in November I visited Apple’s Chicago office, and wrote at length about the “Apple Briefing, a PC guy looks at Macs”.  That post describes the variety of applications that runs on Macintosh computers as it was presented to me, plus reposting some thoughts I’ve had about Macintosh marketing and culture over the years. Briefly, I wrote that Apple computers come with an astounding array of excellent applications, that Apple now has an outstanding server line, and that the Apple corporation has changed to become more corporate-compatible, though some Macintosh users, have not.

In last week’s post, Apple computer review part one: hardware, I looked at the physical design and function of an Apple Macbook.  Briefly, I found it to be a top-quality device with a couple ideas I really liked, but a couple features in which it seemed that ergonomics had been sacrificed to visual appeal.  I would consider owning one if they made a smaller (3 lb), enhanced-durability model with very long battery life.

In this installment, I’m following up on the November post by describing my subjective experience as a PC guy using the new Macintosh operating system, OS-X.  This is really the most important because the operating system is the personality of any computer.  I am not and do not pretend to be an expert on OS-X, which should be of interest to Windows owners considering a Macintosh purchase (because expert opinions on ease-of-use are worthless).

OS-X impression

In the past I’ve not been terribly impressed with Apple’s offerings.  OS-X changes this picture.  It is far more compatible with Windows than previous Mac OS versions. Even if you don’t like Windows, this is important unless you enjoy isolation.  OS-X is also a much heavier-duty operating system than OS-9.  It’s rock-stable and secure.  It’s fast.

If you read my other two posts, you know I think cuteness is for kittens, not for computers.  I like an interface that draws as little attention to itself as possible, so right away I found OS-X annoying.  The default Mac desktop is plagued with the same crayola-color interface that obscures so much graph data in USA Today, but don’t let that put you off.  With a little customizing you can mute those loud colors and put the focus on your content.  (Illustrations show the default colors)

But all that stuff is superficial.  What matters to me and to my users – is this a computer or an expensive paperweight?  Is it really easy to use or is that only sales hype?  Can I get my work done on it?  Can I get new kinds of work done on it?  What happens to all my files?  My email?  What if it breaks?  Us PC folk remember non-transferrable file formats, pointlessly different floppy-disk formats, and the general isolation of Mac systems that – for some reason – Mac users were smugly proud of.  Is it worth the learning curve? And why were they so damn expensive?

The file compatibility issue is pretty much solved.  There is no longer a “Macintosh” or “PC” version of a Microsoft Word file, for instance.  Graphics files adhere to a standard now.  With most popular file types you can bounce a file back and forth between your Mac and your PC with no worries.

Macintosh computers have a reputation of being only for graphics, and the one I used was exceptionally smooth at handling media files.  And by smooth, I mean a completely new experience for a Windows user.

One exception is Windows Media files.  You can still download WM9 for Mac, or use Telestream’s Flip4Mac but Microsoft “has no plans” to continue developing Windows Media for Mac.  So save your videos in Quicktime format whatever platform you use.  Another exception is using Outlook Web Access from your Mac.  The full functionality requires IE6 or higher, which Microsoft says they “have no plans” to develop for the Mac.

You can get new kinds of work done on your Mac.  OS-X comes with some wicked-cool bundled apps.  Us Windows users are used to pretty much ignoring bundled apps because, well, they’re crappy – but the ones that come with OS-X and in iLife are non-crappy.  In fact, they actually have features you need that actually work to get actual work done, and are actually easy to use, and the computer doesn’t lock up when you try to use them.  This is a bit disconcerting to an experienced Windows user; we’re used to paying top dollar for anything useful.  Keep that in mind when you think about the price. 

Just for example – suppose you’ve used Windows Movie Maker, which is cheap and clunky.  The Macintosh equivalent feels more like a piece of expensive professional software, only logical and smooth.  And the professional version is a superset of the bundled version, so if you upgrade you are ready to begin working.  Very different from the transition, say, from Movie Maker to Adobe Premiere (which is really more at home on a Mac anyway).

Or for example, the bundled photo editing software.  We Windows/Photoshop users are accustomed to a linear relationship between functionality and cost, and an inverse relationship between those things and ease-of-use.  We’re used to ads that say; “intuitive” when they really mean; “You will be lucky to ever figure out five percent of what this application can do”.  Editing a photo on the mac with the included software is a surprising experience.  (Of course Photoshop is a longtime Mac favorite and industry standard, but for most of us non-professionals…)

Both Apple and Microsoft advertise stability.  We Windows users are accustomed to being stopped cold by a misbehaving application – the computer basically locks up.  You try to close it and after a minute or so, you get; “This application is not responding.  End now?”  But “now” is a cruel joke.  For several minutes you click and argue with one dialog after another, watching CPU usage bounce between 50% and 100%, and try to stop the loop that has taken over your computer, hoping not to crash entirely and lose unsaved documents in other applications that are running.  “Multi-threaded, my ass!”, you fume.

Contrast this with what I experienced on the Mac.  One unstable application I use is Mozilla Firefox, and it’s no better on the Mac than it is on the PC.  But the first time Firefox got jammed up on the Mac, it just disappeared.  A little dialog popped up: “Firefox had to close unexpectedly.  Do you want to restore the session?”

Suspicious, I clicked “Yes”, and as if by magic, Firefox started up again and all the same websites opened up in the dozen or so tabs I’d had open.  Total interface involvement, one click.  Total time lost, twenty seconds.  Workflow interruption, nearly zero.

Miraculous.  I’ve never seen a computer recover that fast from a jammed-up application.  I had a chance to try it several more times with the same result each time.  The only time I saw an application that had to be ‘force-closed’ was Entourage, which is from Microsoft.  But after it was force-closed (which worked on the first try), the computer ran fine.  On a PC when you finally succeed in forcing a Windows application to close, you’re well-advised to restart the computer. 

Using a Mac is not without its annoyances.  Some of these derive from the fact that half of “intuitive” is simply whatever you are used to.  With continued use, the Mac will become easier.  But many derive from Apple’s attempt to be stylish and cool.  A good example is the use of terms like “Finder” which, while descriptive, is sort of dumb.  And the “Magnifier” that follows your pointer as it sweeps across the “Dock” – it’s just sort of silly.  Of course Windows is full of this sort of crap too, and worse. 

And at least one is inexplicable to me.  In Windows and Linux, I always set larger mouse pointers.  This is useful for my eyesight but also a boon to the victims of my presentations – they can see where I am clicking.  The Windows and Linux pointers look smooth and professional.  On the Mac the only control I could find for a larger mouse pointer produced a blocky, pixelated pointer of ugly.  Oh, well.  No doubt there’s a fix but it wasn’t obvious.

On balance, after many years of supporting Windows’ computer users, my intuition is that most users will find the Mac more intuitive.  This is not the only factor in deciding what to buy (you can get used to anything) but it is very important.

Wireless connection and other network issues

I have set up hundreds of laptops for wireless, and the Mac was by far the easiest. It literally took me 15 seconds to connect to the elaborate campus network, and the system’s memory for external wireless networks was uncanny.  Really, pig simple, and once it connected it held onto the signal like ductape. 

Windows laptops’ wireless spans a wide gamut of difficulty levels.  My Thinkpad is medium difficulty.  Toshiba’s gee-whiz wireless utility, amazingly difficult.  None as easy as the Mac. Linux laptops, once you get the wireless card recognized (difficulty level, seldom easy ranging up to 10+), medium difficulty to operate.

I found connecting to network resources a mixed bag.  Joining a Microsoft Active Directory1 required the assistance of a MCSE with massive cross-platform savvy – my admin status and experience wasn’t enough.  Once that was done, however, mapping network drives was easy enough, with the exception of drives on Linux servers that were joined to the domain via Samba.  Here’s a tip for connecting to Windows network resources, whether mapping to drives or getting your Exchange mail into Entourage – FQDN is your friend.  Use the Fully Qualified Domain Name when mapping to anything and you’ll be fine.  Obviously this is of little importance in the home.

Running Windows on a Mac

I did not experiment with “Parallels”, the extra-cost aftermarket program that allows you to run Windows, and Windows applications, on your Macintosh.  But I have seen it work and it is flat-out amazing.  Windows applications just float free on the Macintosh desktop.  You can cut and paste data from Win to Mac applications, open and close them at will.  They’re not speedy but if you have special Windows applications that you have to use, you can be pretty confident of running them successfully on your Mac.

OS-X and Vista, and cost-effectiveness

Having said that, excessive visual slickery does seem to be the order of the day, as evinced by Windows’ “Vista”.  If you have not used Vista, well I don’t want to ruin the surprise or anything but basically I hate it.  Someone called it “the longest suicide note ever written by a corporation” and that isn’t a bad description.  Vista tries so hard and yet fails on many levels.  To this is added the annoyance of many different flavors of Vista so that if you make a mistake and buy the wrong one, you won’t have capabilities that you wanted.

In OS-X, there’s one desktop version and it has every feature Apple makes.  You can set up more sophisticated functions and there’s very little that would have to be bought separately.  Which brings us to the issue of cost.  Macs are more expensive than PC’s to buy (though not as much more as you might think).  But once you get your PC home, the money starts flowing in the other direction. 

Need to upgrade your PC from Vista Home to Vista Media?  Shell out.  Need software to work with media?  Shell out.  Application crashed?  Get your wallet.  Virus updates?  Mo’Money.  Whoops – your hard drive is getting fragmented.  Do you know how to fix it?  Call your support guy.  Can’t figure out how to run it?  Pay for training.  Then in a couple years your system runs like crap and you need to pay someone to blow it all away and “reload everything”.

So if the most important thing about a computer is what it costs, reckon the cost of ownership, to say nothing of the value of your time and frustration.  Buy a Mac, you suffer through maybe a month of declining frustration as you climb the learning curve. (Visit Apple’s ‘Switch’ page.  Run the tutorials, and maybe read a book, for crying out loud.)  Use the Spotlight.

So why doesn’t everybody just switch over to Macintosh?

In the corporate network environment, any change to the computer platform is a huge undertaking that begins with presenting a sound business case to the pointy-haired boss, who does NOT want to re-learn how to get his email. And he has a point – he really doesn’t care about elegant design, he cares about getting his work done.  Then there’s staff training, and applications that were created at great expense for the company, and legacy data files, and support-staff expertise (not easy to acquire) – the list goes on and on.  I could definitely imagine a good business case for switching but it isn’t as easy as plunking different boxes down on desks.

Also, corporate culture and “Mac culture” tend to clash.  If you doubt this, imagine (as an extreme example) the drive-by commenter “Heath” from my Macintosh hardware post, as a consultant to a big corporation telling them that they need to switch the whole company to Macintosh right away, or they’re all a bunch of morons.  For that matter, imagine the chances of the smart-assed “Mac” guy from the “Mac vs. PC” commercials even getting hired.  (I’m a lot more like the PC guy)  Yes, it can happen, but there’s considerable resistance.  Smug and superior is not an attractive way to begin any conversation.

For individuals, the picture is a little different. 

  • If you are a gamer and want to run high-end games developed for Windows, that’s probably the way you should go.  (Check the forums because I’ve heard Vista isn’t exactly taking the gaming world by storm) 
  • If you are a tech and don’t mind taller learning curves, and you use older equipment, but still want a heavy-duty operating system, Linux is for you. 
  • But for most purposes, with Vista metastasizing all over the Windows’ world, there’s no contest.  It is true in many areas that local Macintosh support is harder to find than local PC support – but you’ll probably need less support anyway.  And though you should buy the AppleCare hardware warranty, the Mac is likely to be more cost-effective when you factor in your time and support costs.


So I am now actually recommending that most individuals buy a Mac to use at home or on the road. 

Huh.  Never thought I’d say that.


  1. July-August ‘09, we ran into a major snafu when our campus upgraded to AD08.  Somehow it knocked all the Apples off the cart, and it took Apple weeks to come up with a solution to the disaster.  The college of visual arts was hardest-hit with the most Apples, but we have some crucial Apple servers and it played havoc with essential services.  None of this showed up in the pre-testing that was done prior to the campus rollout of AD08.  It also doesn’t change my recommendation to individuals that they get a Mac for home, though I’ve been using Ubuntu Linux now and am very happy with it.  But for enterprise applications, think twice.

  2. OpenOffice is available for the Mac, and now there’s a straight port of it into OS-X; NeoOffice.  Don’t pay for an office suite!
Categories: Geeky, Software

Getting your green on, and BBC on Karl Popper

March 25, 2007 Comments off

Camden Kiwi has the current issue of ‘Carnival of the Green’ for lots of interesting articles about environmental issues.  My favorite was the one on the urban agriculture movement but there’s lots to graze from.

And check out the BBC Panel Discussion on scientific philosopher Karl Popper over on the Daily Transcript.  Popper is credited for much of the “falsifiability” quality that distinguishes science from pseudoscience, and had some great ideas on open versus closed societies.  (Audio only)

Categories: Blogging, Geeky

Apple computer review part one: hardware

March 24, 2007 18 comments

Update: My review of the operating system, OS-X, is up.

You know those magazine reviews that claim to review “Mac Vs. PC”?  The ones where they have a bunch of benchmark tests and comparable programs under “laboratory” conditions conducted by people who are stone-cold experts in both platforms?  This isn’t one of those reviews.  I’ve made my living repairing and supporting Windows™ computers for well over a decade and always hated Macintosh computers.  And I’ve struggled with Linux so the only useful thing about this review might be addressing; “Is there hope for platform migration?” (which is another way of phrasing “Can an old dog learn new tricks?”)

First I got a day-long briefing at Apple’s expense in their fabulous Chicago office on the something-somethingth floor of some big building there.  (My bad memory provides them with far more disclosure protection than the NDA I signed) They covered the basics of the OS-X interface, integration into Windows environments, and the iLife suite of goodies that comes with every Mac now.  And they promised to loan me a Mac – any model I wanted for a whole month. 

I’m a laptop person.  Sure, I have an office but I really think of my office as three pounds of carbon fibre composite and titanium that is my Thinkpad X40.  It goes everywhere I go and takes a pounding from my insane bicycle riding, when I’m not wearing the matte-finish keys to a high gloss.  So I chose the closest thing, a Macbook.

Hardware description:

Apple finally made a laptop that didn’t look like a Fisher-Price toy, and it’s about time.  The Macbook was full-sized (and about 7 lbs with the adaptor) with a big, gorgeous screen and a full-sized keyboard.  They even moved the keyboard locator dits to the same location as the PC, on the F and J keys.  (Apples used to have them on the D and K keys, I think, which drove me nuts.  Whenever I heard “Think different” I always wanted to add; “… just for the sake of being different”)

All the cable connections were on the left side of the Macbook.  This is fine unless you are left-handed or unless like me, you got used to using a mouse with your left hand when you broke your right shoulder, and never went back.  I would have appreciated at least a USB connection on the right side of the laptop. 

Farthest left in this picture is the power connector, a clever bit of which Apple makes a big deal.  It does not insert into the laptop, it just sticks onto the side with magnetic force.  That way, if someone trips on your power cord in a coffee shop, the connector just releases instead of pulling your pride and joy off onto the floor.  I like it a lot except for one thing; the magnet is so strong that I had trouble disconnecting it without pulling on the cord, which makes me uncomfortable.  I finally got to tilting the connector up or down to break the connection without damaging the cord, but most people will just yank the cord so you’ll see a lot of these break.  All because Apple didn’t put any gripping surface on the connector block.

Next is the RJ-45 Ethernet connector (gigabit speed! This puppy is future-ready.) I would have liked a little lip around the opening for tactile location. 

Then a digital video output.  This is fine, if you are one of the tiny minority of users who connect your laptop to a digital projector or monitor; the rest of us would prefer a plain old DB15 SVGA so we don’t have to carry around (and keep track of) a digital adapter dongle.  Many times I have had presenters come to our college toting a Macbook and ask; “You wouldn’t have an adapter, would you?  I left mine back at the hotel.”

Then a firewire, and a couple USB ports, and the mic and earphone ports.  Will someone please tell Steve Jobs that there’s a color-coding convention for those last two?  It’s green for earphone, red for microphone.

On the right-hand side of the Macbook is a skinny slot for CD’s and DVD’s.  Having no flimsy tray is a real plus – you just stick the disk into the slot like a car player.  Very nice, and although I wonder if it makes the drive vulnerable to dust, you can expect all laptops to start doing it this way soon.

Nowhere on the Macbook will you find a PCMCIA slot.  Apparently that’s passe’ due to accessories now coming with USB connectors.  Expect PC notebooks to stop having them soon. Rest In Peace, PCMCIA.

Nothing on the front of the Macbook but featureless plastic.  On the back is the screen hinges and speaker grilles.  That seems odd until you realize the clever engineers at Apple are bouncing the sound off the screen itself.  The sound itself is surprisingly good though obviously you’ll want to use headphones if you’re doing serious media work.

By the way, the screen won’t open all the way flat – Apple has decided for you what the maximum opening should be.  Great, unless you like to work in unconventional positions for some reason, plus it’s an invitation to a broken hinge.  Think different, Steve.

The keyboard keys are perfectly flat rectangles.  They have a fairly noticeable collapse force for tactile “make” feedback but the flat surface is annoying.  I prefer dished keys.  No doubt Apple will have some long-winded explanation of why flat keys are better but I didn’t find it suitable for long periods of typing.

The front edge of the open laptop is an uncomfortably sharp edge.  Granted my hands are a bit sensitive but I found it annoying.  If it were my laptop, I’d be rounding off the plastic with a small block plane.

There are no hardware controls for sound, and the power button is difficult to detect by touch alone. Tactile cues, Steve, tactile cues!

This is a recurring theme in all the Apple hardware I looked at; ergonomics is consistently sacrificed to visual esthetics.  I can imagine the designers at Apple standing this book up on edge like a black monolith and gathering around it holding hands and humming the theme from 2001, A Space Odyssey

As with all laptops, the built-in pointing device is pretty useless.  I tried it and my hands were in serious pain in nothing flat.  You will probably want to use an external optical mouse as I wound up doing.  (Enter tirade about Apple’s refusal to make real two-button mice here.  Yes, I know their new mouse has ESP or something but there’s no tactile feedback from spooky sensors.  Just give me a damn button I can click, OK Steve?)

The screen is just sensational.  it is bright and crisp without being garish and was a joy to use for editing photographs.  It did a great job of presenting text clearly so reading long documents was easy.

With the laptop closed, there are few clues to which long edge is the hinge, and which edge opens.  It was like an overly symmetrical door that you keep running into because there’s no push-plate.  I finally put a piece of electrical tape along the hinge side on top to provide a tactile cue.  If you turn it round so the Apple logo appears upside-down to you before opening it, that is the correct orientation.

There is no lid latch; instead the lid is held closed by a pair of strong embedded magnets.  Here you see a small pair of pliers held up on the corner of the screen by the magnetic force.  These magnets are nifty unless you work in an industrial setting where there might be iron filings; admittedly that would not be a common problem.  (I prefer the lid-lip on my X-40.  When the lid is closed, it becomes one mechanical piece with the base so external force cannot act upon the latch). 

The body of the laptop is polycarbonate plastic. This is really good stuff (think of those tumblers they use in restaurants) but not as rigid as I’d like.  Granted I’m used to one of the most durable laptops on the market but I’d like to see Apple make an enhanced-durability model.  Aside from that observation, the quality of the hardware is absolutely first-rate and that extends to all the Apple hardware I’ve looked at.  There are no accidental details on anything Apple makes, even if they didn’t have the foresight to hire me as a consultant. 

I didn’t measure the battery life but I did run it dry a few times and that almost never happens with my Thinkpad (for which I don’t even bother to carry an adapter). 

To some extent this is an operating-system observation, but speed-wise this puppy is fast on the Decrepit-speed benchmark.  Subjectively it is way ahead of the Windows-running core-duo laptops I have used.  It also boots up faster, and goes in-and-out of sleep mode, faster than any Windows laptop I have used including core-duo.  If you don’t like waiting around for your hardware, you probably will like the Macbook.

The Macbook comes with a little remote control (which closely resembles an iPod Shuffle)  for giving presentations.  Neato.

The wireless connection is also worthy of note, but again that is an operating-system thing because the most important thing about it is the interface (it’s the same protocol we all know). 

Well I’m out of time, I’ve got to go to the gym.  There’s lots of interesting stuff to say about OS-X, the new Apple operating system.  I’ll put that in my next post, which should be tomorrow evening.  Tonight it’s Monty Python and the Holy Grail at the local theater.

Categories: Geeky, hardware

Is six months long enough?

March 22, 2007 4 comments

A guy’s making some progress with a woman at a bar.  She goes to the restroom and he puts white powder in her beer.  The waitress sees him do it.  He’s obviously dropping a date-rape drug and after he’s nailed, the judge gives him a year, of which he only serves six months.  Read the whole incredible story.

From Feminist Law Professors from Pharyngula

Categories: Law, Politics

Slow decay

March 22, 2007 6 comments

Imagine the bright hope and energy that went into making this sturdy and attractive building.  Businesses thrived, people came to work there every day, customers came in and accounts receivable were generated.  But there’s a last time for everything.  It puts me in mind of that scene from The Time Machine when HG Wells saw buildings rising and decaying in a few moments.  By the way, if you liked either movie adaptation, you really might enjoy the book.

Categories: Nature, observations

Civil War: short answer, long discussion

March 22, 2007 7 comments

Why was the Civil War fought?  The usual short answer is “slavery”. But the discussion that follows the short answer is never short, thanks to people who want it to be about anything else besides slavery. Ed Brayton cuts the crap in Dispatches from the culture wars: Slavery and the Civil War.  It’s well worth the read, even though it’s up to 20 minutes worth by now.

Categories: Politics

Rep. Pete Stark is *GASP* a Unitarian?!

March 18, 2007 3 comments

The big news around the infidel blogosphere is that 35-year Kahl-ee-fornia representative Pete Stark let slip that he, uh, is a Unitarian and doesn’t actually believe in any higher power.  In his liberal district it hasn’t really cost him but the reaction nationally has been everything from ‘Finally!’ to ‘He’s the anti-Christ!’.

Well, he certainly is a non-Christ, which is very different from being an anti-Christ.  He may be a bit too liberal for my taste but I hope this is the beginning of a trend, where representatives would be free to state what they actually believe – if they feel like it – about god, instead of what their political strategists tell them will harness the largest demographic.  It would be nice to focus on things like the budget, the environment, and only getting into wars that have a real purpose for a change.

Categories: Politics

Shared experience: haulin’ ass

March 17, 2007 Comments off

It’s one thing to go 253 mph in a $1.5m street-legal car, quite another to produce a little film that conveys something of the emotional flavor of the experience. Visit KeesKennis: Bugatti Veyron at top speed.

Turn up the speakers for this one: fantastic use of editing and music.  My car could probably go about 85 mph, though I’ll never know it.

Categories: Art

Post-hospitalization phone survey

March 17, 2007 7 comments

A few weeks ago I was in the hospital for a kidney stone.  They warned me that I might receive a telephone survey from an independent company about my stay.  “Sure” I replied, under the influence of dilaudid, “that would be fine.”  And they called me this morning, reading very slowly, clearly, and professionally from a script:

“Good morning Mr. Wiman, we’re calling to ask you about your outpatient visit to BroMenn Regional Medical Center on or about blah-blah something-something-something.  Would you rate the registration process at the hospital as excellent, good, fair, or poor?”

Uh, I really wasn’t part of the registration process.

“All right Mr. Wiman.  Would you rate the staff professionalism at the hospital as excellent, good, fair, or poor?”

Um, just say ‘excellent’ – in my experience if I say anything else it only leads to a lot more annoying questions.

“Not really, Mr. Wiman.  Now would you rate the care you received there as excellent, good, fair or poor?”

Look, I’m not going to stand here saying “Excellent” over and over again.  I just hate that word “excellent” for various reasons. Everyone did a fine job, I have no complaints

“All right Mr. Wiman, we won’t bother you again.  Thank you and have a nice day.”

“Excellence” is 21st-century Taylorism for the service industry.  Once the word “Excellent” infected corporate speech, nothing was ever not-annoying again.  Everything has to be “Excellent”.  If you say anything else, they come in with “What can we do to make sure your experience with our company is Excellent?  Please explain?”  So what if you thought the service was as good as could reasonably be expected from obviously tired people who were doing the best they could?  How can we push them harder?

The purpose of such multiple-choice adjective surveys is to boil a large pot full of data down to a nice mash of statistics for a PowerPoint presentation to be given at board meetings: ”…and 84.567 percent of our patients said staff professionalism was Excellent…”  Folks, it doesn’t mean a damn thing.  When a survey-taker has you on the phone, your one goal in life is to get off the phone. 

Surveys could be used to extract confessions from suspected terrorists; “Mr. Muhommed, would you say America is unjust, evil, terrible, or the Great Satan?”

“Aaaaugh!  I confess!  I did it, whatever it is!  Just let me hang up the phone!!!”

There is a large minority of the population from whom no usable data can be collected by surveys.  Some of us will play along, just giving the one answer that we know will result in the fewest number of clarifications and follow-up questions: “Excellent”.  A few will just say; “I don’t want to take a survey”. There are a lot of reasons for this; mine is that I simply hate giving simplistic answers to complicated questions. The result is that the final mash you pour into your PowerPoint presentation is basically meaningless because it omits a lot of reality.

It is an inconvenient truth of commercial life that really good satisfaction data on complicated services isn’t a linear quantity.  If you want to know how my hospital stay was, just ask me, and try to get the sense of my reply.  This means you’ll need very experienced people making the calls or reading the letters, and yes, Virginia, experienced people cost money.  But the multiple-choice survey is dehumanizing to me, and even more so, to your long-suffering employees. 

And for what it’s worth, BroMenn Regional Medical Center, everyone did a fine job; I have no complaints.  The next time I’m in agonizing pain, I will definitely consider going to BroMenn Regional Medical Center for my mortal-agony abatement needs.

Categories: business

Torturous doubts

March 15, 2007 11 comments

According to his confession, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed beheaded Daniel Pearl “with [his] blessed right hand”.  He masterminded 9-11 “from A to Z” and many other attacks.  Really bad guy, if all this is true.

He spent six months in Guantanamo and allegedly over 3 years in a CIA-run prison before that. So at minimum, this guy has been waterboarded, subjected to heat and cold, loud sounds, various kinds of psychological strain, and who knows what else.

So how trustworthy is his confession?  You do all that stuff to me, I’ll cop to assassinating Abraham Lincoln.

If someone believes torture is OK provided we’re really scared, and yet still somehow self-identifies as a Christian, I’m not going to argue with them about morals.  But the practical problem with torture is that it undermines the credibility of any confession you get with it.  Yeah, he’s probably the right guy… isn’t he?

I mean, this confession is pretty darned convenient for the administration.  It wasn’t that “most-wanted guy” we haven’t been able to catch, no sir!  It was this guy all along!  We got him!  Mission accomplished!  We’re doing a heckuva job!

I want to believe it’s him, I really do. But…

Categories: Law, Politics