Bratislava World Usability Day 2016 and government IT

I wrote about sustainability and design takeaways from Bratislava World Usability Day 2016 in my previous post. World Usability Day (WUD) 2016 was organized on November 10th, 2016 in many places around the world. Theme for this year was Sustainability, but for us, working with and for the public sector, it was even more attractive thanks to the guest from UK and Estonia government agencies that implement or oversee the government services – services for real people, citizens. Services that should serve – just like the state itself should. And that is very touchy topic here in Slovakia.

Videos from Bratislava event can be found here, the page is in Slovak, but videos are easy to find and are in English.

Estonia: pathfinder or e-Narnia?

Risto Hinno came to us from Estonia, the state renown for it’s level of e-government. But if you imagined their world as a perfect place with flawless services you’d be wrong. Risto came to talk about their approach to the services and the problems they had to overcome and are overcoming.

Estonia and Slovakia are both countries from the Eastern Bloc, Slovakia is the successor of Czechoslovakia, while Estonia is one of the post-Soviet states. Both states are in NATO and EU and both use Euro, but there are also some important differences. I may not be historically accurate, but while in Slovakia we still have plenty of “old guard” people in their posts (like judges) and plenty of old-thinking politicians, many of them previously members of Communist party, now often using the sticker saying “social democrat”. In Estonia most of these were Russians and they simply were gone after Estonia became independent. And that allowed for deeper change, change that is much needed here in Slovakia but haven’t happened. Some ask: “Will it ever?”

But back to the services. As Risto put it, what we (citizens) want is value, but what we typically get is bureaucracy. The answer to this problem is to make everything smaller and simpler and really focus on the value.

Problems small and big

But just as with value-vs-bureaucracy problem there are opposite forces in play here. Even when the stakeholders agree on delivering maximum value for the money they often don’t agree on how to do it.

Very often the expectations are big and the budget follows them. Very often we don’t respect the systems our users already work with. And very often we deliver little value for a lot of money afterwards. Or worse, we often make the life of our users harder and they simply can’t understand what are the new system advantages we are talking about.

It is very important to understand that we need to deliver value in small chunks. Many times in my career I’ve heard: “…but we can’t deliver this useful system in small!” Really? How do you know you can deliver it on a bigger scale then? History shows us time after time that megalomaniac plans crumble. And, to make matters worse, they crumble often over many, many years.

Managers often expect that developers can plan their work while the developers have trouble to account for all the complexity in advance – often the accidental (that is “not essential”) complexity. And the accidental complexity always gets higher with bigger system, there is simply no remedy for that. Analyse as much as you want, you find out something unexpected the minute you start coding. Or when you meet with a customer. These are truths known for decades now, but still they seemingly make no sense to many managers and other key decision makers.

And so far we’ve only talked about mismatch in beliefs how to build complex systems. What does it matter whether you want to “build it” or “let it grow”, whether you are forced to “fixed time, fixed price” contract or you can do it really incrementally using whatever agile is currently chic – this all is not important at all when the true reason to spend the money is… well, to spend the money!

Yes, public money, aka nobody’s money – who cares? People care, of course, people who are in the chain somewhere. People who decide who should participate and have some piece from that big cake – competent or not, doesn’t matter. There are always subcontractor that will do it in the end. Money talks. And value is just standing aside. Just as users and their needs do.

It can be scaled down

Of course, it can, the question is whether we dare to be accountable and flexible to deliver clear value for the money. Value that is easy to see and evaluate whether it’s worth it or not. In Estonia they are also far from perfect, but they try hard to keep it small and simple (KISS principle). They limit their evaluation/analysis projects to 50k Euro and implementation projects to 500k.

I saw people laugh at this but 500k in these countries is a reasonable cost for 8-10 person team for a year. Yes, you have to mix juniors and seniors, which is pretty normal – and no, you can’t pay for 3 more levels of management above the team. Get out of their way and they will likely deliver more value than a similar team in a typical corporate environment that has to spend 20% of their time with reporting and other overhead (and that’s a low estimate).

If the cost calculation doesn’t work for you, take less people and make the project last half a year, not full. I’m not to be convinced that there is no way to deliver visible value within 500k Euro.

Risto Hinno also mentioned another very interesting thing. They decide how many services – or how much work if you will – they want implemented at a time. This way they prevent IT market in Estonia from heating up too much because that leads to very low quality. Companies start hiring everyone and anyone, a lot of code is written by external workers who often don’t care and everything is also done at way too high pace. These are all recipes for disaster. Things they seem to know in Estonia, but not here in Slovakia.

Problems with services

Risto talked also about typical problems they faced. The learned the hard way that services must have an owner. He also presented the maturity model of the services. Using my notes and not necessarily exactly his words the levels are:

  1. ad hoc services,
  2. simple list of services is managed,
  3. services have their owners,
  4. services are measured (including their value),
  5. service management is a daily routine.

He talked about building measurement in the services. This part of the talk rang a lot of devops/continuous delivery bells. And he also talked about the future visions they have:

  • Base future services on life events. This makes them more obvious to their consumers, that is citizens.
  • Aggregated services – many simple services can collaborate to achieve more complex scenarios. Risto actually mentioned some crazy number of services they have, but also noted that many of them are really simple. Still – it’s easier to put together simple blocks than to cut and slice big blocks.
  • Link between public and IT services.

So Estonia seems to have started well and they keep improving. I wish they keep on track because I loved the ideas presented – and many of them were familiar to me. I just needed to hear that it actually somewhere works. And now it’s time to get to the next level.

Designing the next generation of government services around user needs

That was the title of the presentation by Ciara Green who came to tell us how they do it in the United Kingdom. She works for GDS, Government Digital Service and she talked about the transformation of government services that, if we simplify it, started around 2010 with quite a short letter (11 pages) by Martha Lane Fox after she was asked to oversee a review of the state of the government services at the time. Sure, 11 pages seems long for a letter, but it was short in a world where you likely get hundred(s) pages of analysis that is not to the point in the end. The letter was.

After this government services all came under a single domain and many other good things happen. UK is way ahead of Slovakia, historically, mentally of course (despite the Brexit and all the lies leading to it) – so it doesn’t come as a surprise that they decided to focus on value and they also used current agile methodologies.

They knew what happens if you deliver over many years and then surprise your customer or users – invariably not a good surprise. So they started to deliver fast and often, tested a lot, tested with real users including seniors, focused on UX. Just as Risto, Ciara too argued for making things simple. It is very easy to do things complex and longer and we should do the opposite. We should start with needs, real world needs, remind us these often. And we should do less    (reminds me the powerful “less but better” mantra).

Another interesting point was Good services are Verbs. Bad services are names. Of course there are also other components, various registers, but in the end the focus should be on services and on the activities (e.g. life situations) they cover. Sure, the verbs are a bit unusual sometimes. One very important service is called Verify and it verifies the identity of the user with various partners (banks, Royal Mail, and more) because in UK there is no central register of citizens. So they can do this without keeping personal data (I don’t know the details) and here in Slovakia we build various registers for years and they often add more problems than they solve.

Funny enough, when she talked about some services and the name was used, it still functioned as a noun in the sentence – quite naturally. So I believe the word class used for names may not be the most important thing but using verbs may remind us what we try to solve.

Back to Slovak reality

Ciara’s talk was pure sci-fi for us. She works for government agency where they develop services in an agile way. How crazy is that? Pretty much, if you say it in Slovakia. Slovak services are portioned between many companies, most of them with political background (not official, of course), and we spent around 800 million Euro for government IT that looks like a very bad joke. Each ministry takes care of its own sandbox and if there is some initiative to unify how IT is done it is executed extremely bad.

For example, there is some central portal for public services that acts as a hub and connects various parties in government IT. However, this “service” is good mostly for the provider of the service, not for its users. The protocols are crazy complicated, if you need to connect to it (you want to or is forced to, which is more likely) you need to conform to some strict plan for testing, etc. There is no way to do it agile, it only separates you from the service you want to talk to. It adds another barrier between you and the other party, not only technically but also organizationally.

It is said that one minister mentioned to a young woman working at the ministry, horrified how the state works, that she should not be naive, that sometimes things are as they are and we have to be realistic. He, reportedly, pointed at government IT and the bad companies who suck money out of it. Now this is all a matter of speculation, but the words could have been said. The tragedy is twofold.

First: The companies do what they are allowed to do. It is not that bad companies do whatever they want, they do it with connections to the officials of the government and various bureaus. As crazy as it sounds, stories that someone who worked for some company now works for the state and manages projects his previous employer delivers. Stories like this are uncovered on virtually a daily basis now.

Second: Even if it was true and the bad companies did whatever they wanted… then the state totally failed to do its basic job. It actually did fail in the first case too, but here it seems to be a very weak state, not the state our officials depict to us.

Final words

While the Slovak reality is pretty bleak, it was very refreshing to see that it can be done and how it’s done somewhere else. It’s nice to see that agile can work, even more – it can work in a state agency. And that state agencies can deliver true value, when they really focus on it. We have also learned that state can regulate how much he wants at once. This can – and should – be done in IT, but also in infrastructure projects like motorways (another anti-example from Slovakia). It gives you better quality for lower price and surprisingly it still gets done sooner in the end!

In any case, there is a long way for Slovakia and Slovaks to get to the point when we can focus on value and don’t have to fight with elemental lack of political culture (to which I include wasting/misusing/frauding public money as well).

Neither Risto nor Ciara brought any political topics in, but some of the Slovak political “folklore” obviously affected the questions that were asked afterwards. Corruption was mentioned not once. But these were areas where our speakers couldn’t help us (oh, how I envy them).

The presented topics were so interesting for us that UX parts were often left aside a bit – although focusing on value and user from the start is pretty useful recommendation. But as with anything simple, it is much harder to do it than to do something complicated and big.

Bratislava World Usability Day 2016 and the future of design

By a lucky coincidence I visited the World Usability Day (WUD) event here in Bratislava. It was November 10th, 2016 – as any other event of the same name around the world. Theme for this year was Sustainability, but for us, working with and for the public sector, it was even more attractive thanks to the guest from UK and Estonia government agencies that implement or oversee the government services – services for real people, citizens.

I will talk about government services in the followup post. This one will be more about design and how I feel about it. Mind you, I’m a software developer with some experiences with real users – I always prefer to hear from them although listening blindly to your users is also not a recipe for success. I’m not a designer. But I’m also a user of many things – and not only modern technology gadgets. Maybe I have some twisted programmer’s perspective but that doesn’t make me less a user.

Design of everyday things

Before going on, let me divert to a book I’m just reading – The Design of Everyday Things. I’ll probably never be a great designer but there are many basic aspects of design we can learn about and use them every day in software development. In the book I also found many funny examples of frustrating experiences – experiences we all have to go through sometimes.

I’m personally torn between the progress and stability. I understand the progress is inevitable – and in many cases it doesn’t affect the design. Technology performance and capacities get higher and it all gets smaller at the same time – this doesn’t mean we have to change how we interact with computers or computer-based devices like smartphones. On the other hand we can – and we even should because previous UIs were insufficient and current performance allows us to do so much better. Are we doing better?

Everybody now experiments with design but I doubt they test it properly. I wonder how Google – that definitely has facilities and resources – tested when they changed “add document” button to the bottom-right corner. Anyone I met who used computers and not tiny screens couldn’t find that button. Then you have products developed by a single developer – how should they experiment in design? How much should then learn before? How much of they learn can inhibit their creativity?

One of the ideas of the book is that the importance of the design will only grow. I have to agree. How is it possible that you need to set the current time on your oven to be able to bake a cake (not just one brand)? If we screw ovens after decades they worked already how can we design revolutionary devices? But maybe we can – perhaps the problem is not with designing new types of devices where we expect some searching. Perhaps we’re just too meddlesome and can’t resist redesigning what doesn’t need redesign anymore.

Role of Sustainability or Sustainability of Roles

Back to the WUD 2016 and the presentation that had the designated theme in its title, presented by Lukáš “Bob” Mrvan (with Avast). Videos from Bratislava event can be found here – and while the page is in Slovak, it is easy to find the videos there – and most of them are in English (all I mentioned are at least). Pity they are not made as a split screen between the slides and the presenter or that they don’t take the slide more often.

Sustainability definitely resonated throughout the presentation. This may seem annoying to some but not to me as I’m convinced our current lifestyle is unsustainable.

Another interesting idea was that too often we focus on technical part of the design and not on the whole experience. E.g. Bob was talking about their call centre – they needed to replace their insufficient application, but the most important change might have been designing their call scripts properly. Of course this wasn’t the first time I’d heard about this more holistic approach. So, just as the book says the importance of the design will grow, Bob claims the role of designer will change. And I agree.

But this all raises more questions, obviously. Maybe we need dedicated design experts on big projects, but what about small ones? How much of the design essentials must we take in to deliver useful software? How much an analyst and developer and tester should know about the design? And how to keep track of it when it develops like crazy nowadays? How to distinguish lasting advices from fashion trends?

Focus on people…

Part of the presentation discussed the speed of progress and its acceleration, talking about exponential Moore’s law vs our slow linear improvements in IQ. I take these only as visualization aids for the idea that the change is indeed inevitable. But when someone puts exponential curve on a linear scale and says “look at the pace of change since 2000” then I can move myself to 2000 and say “look at the crazy pace of change since 1985”. The rate is still the same it just affects more and more of our lives, that’s all.

Yes, society changes, design of things should get better and easier. The exponential curve doesn’t tell us anything different now than any time before. But right now it governs lives of virtually everyone (or soon it will). What to do with that is beyond the discussion about design, but the design is affected too.

…not just users, but workers as well

But there is one positive about these facts. Knowing that people evolve slower than technology we can focus on them – learn how we work, something about psychology (and psychopathology) of design, how we interact with things. This knowledge will last, it’s much better investment than learning something about the newest framework. Learning the technology is also necessary, of course, but we should find time for learning more important bigger ideas as well.

Bob mentioned it can be difficult to persuade our managers to give us time for learning and added a chart of performance of the top organizations vs average. The top organizations have also higher levels of employee satisfaction and learning culture is part of it. These are all known facts documented in many books, some of them decades old.

Some believe that in our line of work we should educate in our free time – and while I agree with this to a degree I refuse the idea that we should just be prepared anytime for anything at work. If organization doesn’t want us to practice at work at all, it can’t expect we will do it home, especially later in our lives with families. It’s also different to have a solo practice and a team practice.

To wrap it up

Bob’s presentation was much more cultural than technical. This seems to be the trend at the conferences nowadays. This is a good shift in overall although not all presentations are quality. This one was one of the better ones, definitely on the inspiring side of a spectrum. Bob also organized an exhibition about design, he is active in the community – so he’s got experiences of his own to present on the topic.

One of the questions about the design is – do we need revolutionary changes or will evolutionary suffice? Bob was more on the revolutionary side, it seemed to me. I understand the need for these in new areas. But revolutionary changes make me personally tired in many existing devices – especially the phones and web applications.

Productivity is directly tied to the design of things. If we need to relearn how to work with a phone every other year I don’t call that good progress. Like switching back and menu buttons? I have two phones with each of the buttons on the opposite sides!

Applications come and go and nothing is developed for reasonable time. Smart TVs are called a failure because people refused them, but producers refuse the idea that their Smart hubs (or whatever they call it) suck. They don’t improve the applications there. It’s been reported years ago that YouTube on Samsung smart TV does not use external keyboard – and it still doesn’t. If we don’t care about improving applications evolutionary as well, revolution will not bring anything good.

With this I’ll finish this post – mostly about design – and in the next one I’ll talk about government services. Those should also be about the design but are much more about politics, especially here in Slovakia.

Believe in build automation

I was probably lucky having a great colleague who changed our installation/upgrade process into a single script. The script contained uuencoded ZIP as well, it unzipped the content (couple of Java EARs), checked the application server if all the resources are set up and then deployed these EARs. Having this experience probably around 2005 I got totally hooked to the whole idea of automation.

2005? Wasn’t it late already?

I don’t remember exactly, maybe it was even 2006. In any case, it wasn’t late for me. It was the next step in my personal development and I was able to fully embrace it. It may sound foolish, but we did not measure saved hours vs those we spent to get to this single command upgrade of our system. We didn’t have many other automation experiences. We had no integration server (not sure we knew what it was) and we struggled with automated testing. Even if we had wanted to measure we would have failed probably, because we simply were not there yet.

There is this idea of a maturity model – that when there are multiple levels of knowledge or understanding or skill or whatever, you simply can’t just learn the highest one, or even skip over any to get higher. Because without living the steps one by one there is no solid foundation for the next one. You don’t need formalized maturity model, very often there simply is one, call it natural progress.

Of course, I don’t mean to bring in a “maturity model” model to hold you back. Aim high, but definitely reinforce your foundations when you feel they don’t work. Not all models are prescribed, sometimes it’s more an exploration. But talking about build automation, you can find some maturity models for it too. (Funny enough, it mentions Vagrant/Packer on the top of the pyramid, because these two tools and last two weeks with them made me write this post. :-))

Personal and team maturity

We were a small team, far from the best in the business, but we were quite far ahead in our neighbourhood. We were following trends, not blindly, but there was no approval process to stop us trying out interesting thing. By 2010 we had had our integration server (continuous build), managed to write automated tests for newly developed features and even created some for critical older parts.

Then I changed my job and went to kind of established software house and I was shocked how desperate the state of automation was there. Some bosses thought we have something like integration server, but nobody really knew about one. What?! And of course, testing takes time, especially automated, and so on and so forth… There was no way how I could just push them. I gave some talks about it, some people were on the same page, some tried to catch up.

We got Jenkins/Sonar up and running, but automated testing were lagging behind. We had really important system that should have had some – but there were none. People tried, but failed. But they did not pursue the goal, they saw only the problems (it takes time and adds code you have to maintain) but did not see the benefits. There are cases when doing more of the wrong thing does not make it any better (“let’s do even more detailed specification, so that coding can be done by cheaper people”), but there are other cases when doing the right things the wrong way requires different approach. It requires learning (reading, courses) and practice. There is no magic that will get you from zero to fourth maturity level in any discipline.

You can have mature individuals, but the team (or division, or even company) can still be immature in what you pursue. And it strongly depends on the company culture how it turns out. Other way around is much easier – coming into more matured team means you can quickly get up and running on the level, although it is still important to catch up with those foundations, unless you want to do what you do just superficially. This may be acceptable for some areas, it may even be really efficient as not everybody can know everything in all the depth.

Proof vs belief

I really believe, I got lucky to get hooked. You can throw books at them, you can argue and show them success stories. Just as with anything that is based on “levels of maturity” you can’t simply show them the result. They don’t see it with your eyes. It never “just works” and there are many agile/lean failures showing it – mostly based on following the practices only, forgetting values and principles (which is an analogy of a maturity model too).

I got my share of evidence, I saw the shell script allowing us those “one-click” updates. But for some this would not be enough. I was always inclined to learning and self-improvement. Sure there are days when I feel I do the repetitive work “manually”, I guess it’s because I was out of mental fuel. But in most cases I was trying to “program” my problems.

I rather messed around with vim macros for a while, even if it didn’t pay off the moment I needed to change 20 lines. Next time when I needed to tweak 2000 lines, I was ready. I never thought about kata, but now I know that was what I was doing. I was absolutely sure about why I do it. I didn’t see the lost time, what I imagined was my neurons bending around the problem first, just to bend later around the whole class of problems, around the pattern. I didn’t care about proof, I believed.

I see the proof now, some 15 years down the path. I see where believing got me and where many other programmers are stuck. I see how easily now I write a test that would be mind-blowing mission impossible just a couple of years ago. And I know that the path ahead is a long one still. I’m definitely much closer to the top of the trends than anytime before.

Final thoughts

I don’t think it was that script alone that brought the power of automation to my attention. I believe it was one of defining moments, my favourite one when I try to convince people with a personal story. It saves us incredible time. It was kind of documentation, the best one, because it was actually running. I would understand a lot of this much later and it’s crystal clear to me now.

But it was belief in the first place. That made it easier for me. When I met a culture that didn’t support these ideas (at least not in practice) I was already strong enough to do it my way anyway. And I saw it was paying off over and over and over again. While my colleagues declared “no time for testing”, I was in fact saving time with testing. People are so busy to write lines of code, maybe if they thought more or started with a test they would get to the result faster – with the benefit of higher quality packed in too.

How can we hope for continuous integration when we don’t start small with tests and other scripted tools? There are so many automation tools out there and the concepts are well understood already that staying stuck in 2000’s is just pure laziness. The bad kind of it. Doesn’t matter if it’s a single person or the whole company.

From HTC Wildfly to Samsung Galaxy S3 Mini

I bought my first smartphone (HTC Wildfire) in Dec 2010 and my second (Samsung Galaxy S3 Mini) in Jan 2015. So it’s roughly 4 years difference. The latter is a tad bigger (didn’t want too big anyway), display is much better (height from 320px to 800px), is significantly faster (HTC Wildfire was a sloth really :-)), is driven by newer Android (4.x compared to 2.x on HTC)… but I expected more. And as always – God/Devil is in the detail(s).

What does not work on new mobiles?

So what was wrong when I got together with my new Samsung pet? Many more things than I expected actually – and many of them would not come to me in the worst dreams:

  • No notification LED! Seriously. If you miss the call you find out only when you check it. It may vibrate when you pick it up, but no way to look at it and spot that something is missing. The same goes for weak battery or any other event that made HTC Wildfire blink its diode. Shame, really.
  • Funny ringtone starting quiet – reportedly this can be disabled on Galaxies with pocket ring option turned off, but this one is not available on my phone at all. Or you can get some app that resolves this, but only on rooted devices. Thank you…
  • Default Clock/Weather widget? Big and always goes to Weather. Every single person I asked would expect to go to alarm/stopwatch/timer application after touching time (EZ Weather widgets are nice replacement). After all these Android years maybe producers should do the things in similar fashion. This limited offering is a big (or rather large, with size 4×2) letdown rendering Samsung’s widget useless.
  • Lock button on the side is exposed a bit more than necessary – but if you accidently restart the phone in your pocket, you’ll get gentle vibration as a reminder. 🙂
  • Samsung Kies! Are you kidding me? Where is USB mass storage? At least for flash card. Later I found out that while phone does not appear as a drive on my Windows 8.1, it can be browsed from This PC. (Sometimes I think Samsung should really stop trying to develop any software. Smart TV? People don’t want them? Not because they wouldn’t like the features, but they don’t like the actual execution! Sadly, this is probably rather management/strategic flaw than incapable developers. Waste of money in any case.)
  • Lastly the minor point – compared to HTC it takes more touches to start a call. Gesture starting a call when you are on a contact is helping a bit. But on HTC I got my history right on the first screen of phone application and it was one more touch to repeat a recent call.

After all this time I’d expect general Android environments being a bit further. Sure HTC has good clock+weather widget – is it patented or what? Is it so difficult to copy the good ideas? Or is being “different” so important even when it means being plain stupid?

Good things

Power compared to old HTC. Here it’s not only about 4 years younger device, it is about HTC Wildfire being too limited even for 2.x Android. Galaxy S3 Mini is adequate and usable. It plays videos from youtube, no problem (not to mention the resolution).

Let’s do some bullets again (in no particular order):

  • I like widget to turn on/off led lamp (torch)! 🙂
  • I like options to use home key to answer the call and lock button to end it. Easy to set up and feels more natural than display touching.
  • Notification area and all the icons easily accessible (drag notification panel down, then click to the upper right corner). And battery status widget. I used some Settings application on HTC (from store) that worked after holding Home button for a while and also offered me all the options at a glance. This is here out of the box.
  • Compared to HTC you really can browse the internet here. Wildfire’s display was really coarse (320px high). I don’t use it that much because whatever I want to do on the internet I rather do on PC, but it is handy here and there.
  • The battery can still keep the phone alive for 6 days! (I was used to 7 with HTC.) Of course this is probably just me – other people who actually use their phone report 2 days top. I’m on 2G (GSM), wifi scheduled only for short times to sync with my account (Wifi Scheduler is cool app!) and I just call here and there. And no, I don’t turn it off for nights.

Well, and that’s all! 🙂 I didn’t get so many nice surprises, but I didn’t expect to anyway. Mobile works, sound is reasonably good, no quiet earpiece (HTC One V) or “can’t answer the call after pulling phone from pocket” (HTC Wildfire). I’m in no mood to return the Galaxy S3 Mini. Not that I love it – but hey, it’s just a phone. 😉

Losing control

The first negative surprise with Samsung came actually soon after it booted the very first time. It asked for Wifi connection in the process and even though I provided it (and it worked) Galaxy decided to use mobile data without bothering to ask (HTC Wildfire was much better behaved in this aspect and asked kindly first and I could suppress mobile data). My provider sent me SMS informing me that I’ll be charged for one day of internet (up to some limit) 50 eurocents. This was actually pretty good because I could act – god knows when I would realize that Samsung uses mobile data otherwise. Very bad default indeed – especially for people who are not used to mobile data and turn them off once and for all.

This is my general observation lately – things get simplified (let’s face it, often plain dumbed down), streamlined – in any way (good or bad). Many products are now offered for free, but they push forward things we’re not interested in. Sometimes “we” may be minority, maybe even just “me”, but I’m pretty sure in many cases it is majority of people who don’t like the change (unless they don’t care at all of course). I don’t want to talk about some human freedoms here, how we yield our control to bad corporations or what… but I really don’t understand why we can’t turn off many services we don’t want in our mobile phones. HTC always restarted some Stock service I never wanted so it always ate memory where RAM was just 384 MiB. Samsung is no better obviously.

So better or worse?

Obviously, newer Samsung is better. It’s cheaper and gives me more than HTC 4 years ago. HTC Wildfire felt more solid in hand, also its surface was nicer than plastic Galaxy S3 Mini, but these are minor things. I’ve been excited about technology for many years actually – we take it for granted now, but these are all small miracles. I just wish software was better, maybe more evolutionary than revolutionary, because it’s mostly more buggy and unfinished than new.

Would I recommend Samsung S3 Mini? No. 🙂 It’s not sold anymore anyway so it seems.

I generally like Samsung, their design, menu on their TVs feels always familiar… But next time I’ll try some China mobile with better parameters (on paper) and even lower price. I’m no newest/hottest freak and just as I decided not to try HTC anymore, I’ll probably skip Samsung as well. If I’m surprised by omission of totally expected features (notification LED?!) then let it not bear name Samsung.

Crippling IT revolutions

Long time ago computers were slow, UI was primitive (say Windows) and there was a lot to learn. Now all is about the end of PC era, tablets and absolute disregard for the voice of users. And still you have to learn a lot as a user. What I miss quite a lot in technology is evolutionary design, something getting just better and better. Refined. I’m not a Mac user, maybe the situation there is different… I don’t know. Maybe it’s market pressure.

It’s not all bad. I’m personally done with HTC Android phones (because of revolutionary bugs), but my wife’s Samsung (cheaper than both HTCs) seems OK. And Nexus tablet isn’t bad either. But then there are simple things I believe should work and they don’t.

Online too many times at once

For instance, you log in to your Google account on the tablet, then your wife uses it with her account and week later a friend of yours asks you why you never answer him on Skype even though you are green all the time. Skype? Online all the time?! No way… and then you get it. Skype installed on Android tablet where you are not actually active for a week. Where are any reasonable defaults? Where are all the years of experience with these communication programs, chats and all?

You may argue I should set it all properly – but… It’s extremely complicated to manage various communication accounts. Their settings and policies change all the time, UI even more so. Something is in the cloud, something in your local settings. Different on each computer. And something is somehow combined. Products come and go. Some communication options are out of your control – on my HTC Wildfire I cannot disable Google Talk when I want to use Google account (there are actually way too many things that can’t be disabled for such a slow phone). But I never want to chat on a phone!

Remember me… really!

Talking about Google – I’m logged in all the time, yet it forgets my prefered language every couple of weeks, or days even (forces me to use my native Slovak, while I prefer English for professional reasons). Every time I set it properly in their settings and after a while it’s gone. How can we set things properly with products like this? Every second day (or more often) they ask me about Cookies. I’m OK with Cookies on trusted services (well… trusted… I just feel unimportant enough not to care about NSA’s knowledge about me :-)). Why I have to confirm this more than once in a… week? Month would be OK, a year ideal.

Keyboard innovations?

And then there are new notebook trends, so let’s skip to HW for a while. I bought Lenovo G500 for my wife. It seemed OK. But then you learn things you’d never expect – like that F1-12 keys must be pressed with Fn key, because their default functions are inverted (Fn actions instead of F1-12) without any option to flip this stupid idea off! The same happened even on ThinkPad S531, but there you have an option to lock Fn key (press Fn+Esc). So you can use ThinkPad professionally, but G500 is just a silly toy really! Try to use IntelliJ IDEA or any IDE for that matter. Try to press Ctrl+Alt+Shift+F7… and add Fn to it. Not impossible, but really silly. Luckily external keyboard works just fine.

Let’s talk about ThinkPad S531 a bit more. It could have been great computer actually. I don’t like Fn in the corner, but hey – it’s ThinkPad, IBM started it, get used to it. But why I have to get used to the new touchpad without physical buttons? Maybe it would work with Mac, but on PC where you need even three buttons sometimes…? Most of the time I indeed use external mouse, but when I’m on the move, I still want to have reasonably good experience using the notebook as is. Here it is very limited. I’m more often than not unable to press right “button” without accidentally moving the cursor. This is no revolution or evolution – it’s plain step backwards.

Ergonomy of other keys could also be questioned. Actually I was extremely pleased with layout of PgUp/Dn, End, Home and the rest on HP ProBooks. And I’m far from HP lover. But having Page Up/Down in the upper right corner was easy to find and very easy to use. Lenovo put quite useless Explorer key there and Home/End are buried in the upper row. Talking about these keys… most of them can be redefined, but Lenovo put Screen Lock key just above numpad as well. Just in case you are dumb or what… what is wrong with Win+L? This can’t be redefined, because – so it seems – it is hardwired to Win+L! Bravo…

Rather delete me as you can’t really disable me

And then there is Windows 8. Point one actually. Screw Metro, we’ve all heard tons about it already. But then there are those small things. Try Narrator for instance! Just press Win+Enter out of curiosity. I felt like disabled (no offence) immediately – because I was not able to turn it off. I had to Google it. Mute shortcut came handy in the meantime. Many people obviously want to disable these accessibility features – but there is no easy way. No single switch. Microsoft! Hear us! (Maybe they need Narrator for our complaints too.) Solutions? Delete narrator.exe for instance. Or disable its executable in Registry. (All provided by StackOverflow, Microsoft offers no definitive solution.) You gotta be kidding me, right?

Get dumb with me

Everything seems to be dumbed-down lately – but in the most wrong way. More features that are hardly understood by my mum anyway – and too few options for professionals. Not talking only about programmers here, this must annoy most of power users of any kind. And then there are other Google searches I went through during my first two days with Windows 8. And many of them were very close at the top of the suggested list before I even started writing last words! Like “windows 8 touch keyboard” finished with “keeps coming back”, or “windows 8 wifi” with “forgets password” (suggested on 6th place). Why do we have to keep solving annoying stuff instead of doing our job?

Sure, some things may be caused by Lenovo drivers… so what?

Any positives compared to Windows 7? Maybe under cover (which is expected), but UI goes in the wrong way. Ugly, thick window borders that can’t be easily customized. And when you get happy that you can easily set the background for the welcome screen, you find out that there is also this uber-ugly login screen with the most ugly metro violet ever (Sun’s enterprise violet was so nice compared to this. :-))

Well, rant over, next time I’ll try to solve something with Docker and Wildfly – and that seems to be much more promising direction of evolution.

ZSE Ponuka E.Zľava?

This time in Slovak about how I was awarded 0% discount from my electricity retailer. Sorry for being silent lately, I have a lot of work and no steam to write here right now.

S neodolateľnou ponukou E.Zľava od svojho seriózneho dodávateľa ZSE (člen skupiny e-on) som sa prvýkrát stretol, keď nám ju poslali poštou. Keďže v nej išlo aj o nejaké asistenčné služby a navyše viazanosť, nebol som si istý, či ju chcem – takže som ju jednoducho neriešil.

Lenže potom som raz dostal návštevu, ktorá mi to všetko vysvetlila. Asistenčné služby sme nechceli, ale zľavu za viazanosť… povedal som si, keď už je chlapík tu, prečo nie. Veci mi boli vysvetlené, ale z mojej strany išlo aj o istú mieru dôvery, keďže som jednal so spoločnosťou, ktorej zákazník som už nejaký čas, bla, bla, bla.

Chlapík odišiel, ja som vyrazil na web – a ľaľa ho, aj takéto články som našiel:

Tak som sa podujal, že im napíšem, a tentoraz to bolo od srdca. Odpoveď som od 5. januára nedostal.

Vážená ZSE

Elektrinu od Vás odoberáme už vyše 6 rokov a nemal som v úmysle na tejto skutočnosti nič meniť. To sa všetko zmenilo počas uplynulej hodiny.

Dnes sa u mňa zastavil zástupca vašej spoločnosti, pán G. (Gxxx? Gxxxx? ťažko to rozlúštiť) ohľadom E.Zľavy. Ja som hovoril, že sme neporozumeli celej ponuke na asistenčné služby, ktorá nám už skôr prišla – bola pre nás krajne neprehľadná. Váš zástupca túto vec neriešil, išlo len o ponuku zľavy. Celú dobu sa hovorilo o 4%, chvíľu som to študoval, ale zase som nechcel veľmi zdržiavať.

Myslel som si, že ZSE je totiž seriózna spoločnosť. Váš zástupca o.i. povedal aj to, že ak by som aj prestúpil inam (čo som neplánoval), tak by som prišiel len o zľavu. Toto neviem potvrdiť, keďže dodatkom sa upravuje doba platnosti pôvodnej zmluvy na dobu určitú a musel by som zrejme podrobne študovať aj tú, čo by skoršie ukončenie znamenalo.

Vrcholom všetkého je, že sme rodina s dvomi deťmi v 4-izbovom byte, varíme na elektrike takmer každý deň (malé deti) a naša spotreba je pod 3MWh, čo znamená (ako asi viete) 0% zľavu. Aj pri 4% by som ušetril možno 3 eurá, keďže ide o 3 mesiace (čo zástupca zabudol pripomenúť), aj to nie z celej sumy (na to našťastie upozornil).

Takže kvôli možno 3 eurám (v mojom prípade 0) ma zástupca “serióznej” spoločnosti musí otravovať osobne doma, vysvetlenie dopadov zmluvy zďaleka nedostahuje kvality podpriemerného poisťovacieho agenta a navyše mám teraz zmluvu na dobu určitú, pričom predtým som sa o ňu nemusel a NECHCEL starať.

Reči o tom, že “asi len zisťujú, aký kmeň im ostal”, alebo odpoveď na otázku, prečo nemôžu zľavu prosto len tak priznať v zmysle “obchodníci nemajú prístup k osobným údajom”… už tu som mal začať tušiť problémy. Len kvôli značke ZSE som to podpísal, alternatívneho operátora by som vyhodil dávno, alebo by som si pred ním išiel na Internet vyhľadať názorové články o jeho serióznosti.

Takto si dávam do kalendára na december poznámku, že sa treba poobzerať po inom dodávateľovi elektrickej energie. Možno by som si to rozmyslel, keby ste mi originál môjho dodatku doručili späť a najbližšie ma otravovali s niečím, čo mi naozaj ušetrí peniaze. Takto totiž naopak iba plytváte mojím časom, o trpezlivosti nehovoriac.

S pozdravom

Richard Richter

zák.č. xxxx

Trochu ma to celé prekvapilo, keďže – hoci na Slovensku – na mňa ako už existujúceho zákazníka podobné finty zatiaľ neskúšal ani žiadny operátor internetu či telefónie, ani moja banka, proste nikto.

Mimochodom, dnes už ponúkajú 4% od 2MWh ročne, čo by sa nás už týkalo. Ale nič to nemení na fakte, že ide o jednotky Eur. Takže nechtiac, ale predsa, budem musiet koncom roka riešiť nejakú zmluvu na energiu. A nevidím dôvod, prečo ju zase riešiť so ZSE.

Happy New Year 2013!

Happy New year, of course! My last year was a bit poorer blog-wise. For some reasons I was more lazy to write about things. Heck, sometimes I think that I was less lucky with new technology in overall. I achieved some nice results with testing in our company during the previous year. This year I wanted to push Continuous Integration, testing a bit further, maybe Gradle – but results in CI area are mixed and the rest brought no real results at all.

On the brighter side, I managed to finish my quest for system time shifter on JVM that would be usable for testing purposes – all documented in my post. Blogging is not all of course and I am quite happy how topics around Clean Code got some attention around me. We pushed Java Simon project a bit further too, I learned a few interesting things around Spring, MVC and jQuery… Add this beautiful Scala class on Coursera and this year was more than fun after all.

Still I’d like to make some resolutions. I discovered QueryDSL (thanks to a colleague of mine) and this seems to be answer to readable and compile time safe Criteria – because those shipped with JPA2 are simply horrible to read. It works well with IDEA’s annotation processor, Maven and it should be no problem with Gradle either. Ah, Gradle! For around two years I’m watching this guy but for whatever reason I was not able to use it for anything more than a few tests – but that is not Gradle’s fault. I like it, I like the idea, I like the language – and I think this year is time to switch Java Simon from Maven to Gradle. And after that I’ll go on with projects in our company, although the battle there will be more difficult I guess.

Out of technology, I managed to put together a few songs with my colleagues and it was fun – the first time I played in something close to a band. We played only on our company party but it doesn’t change anything… it was a real fun. We didn’t have a drummer so I used my Native Instruments Maschine Mikro and pre-programmed our songs – and I was really happy with the results. I’ll probably dedicate a post to Maschine Mikro, because it is one really interesting controller (and software too!).

Maschine Mikro controller

Talking about music, I managed to upload two full-blown tracks to my Soundcloud and later added two simple guitar+voice tracks. While mixing/mastering is still my weakness, I’m happy that I was able to pull through this recording-wise. And just how I imagined – my songs composed with paper, pen and acoustic guitar many years ago can really work as rock recording too.

So what about this year and those resolutions? Gradle – sure. More testing methodology on our projects – maybe I’ll even manage to document it here on the blog. Pushing Continuous delivery just a bit further again. Scala or other JVM language? I don’t know. Maybe, maybe for tests. And a bit of my music – I need to practice more with keyboard, guitar and bass guitar (yeah, I bought lovely Yamaha bass too).

Bass guitar Yamaha RBX375

Last resolution is no resolution at all – we have to survive somehow “socialistic” experiments of our government here in Slovakia (although there is nothing social about them). Europe has its own deal of problems – and USA? Well they saved themselves from falling down that fiscal cliff or what – just a few hours ago. And it probably means to make the cliff a bit higher for the next time. So we might have escaped one Doom’s day lately at the end of 2012, but who knows how our civilization will fare in the future.

Then I remember those really poor and I know we have nothing really horrible to complain about. So once again – Happy New year – and whole year of 2013!