23 March 2007

General Tug

I recently listened to speech given by Lance B. Wickman which he titled Seasons. In this speech he recounts a remarkable story from his life.

When I graduated from college, I was commissioned an officer in the United States Army. I was an infantryman. After completing some training, in early 1965 I was assigned-with my bride of a few months-to an infantry battalion of the 25th U.S. Infantry Division at Schofield Barracks, Hawaii. My wife and I were thrilled with this assignment and looked forward to three years of life amidst the sun and the surf and the wonderful people of Hawaii. We rented a little duplex right on the beach on the North Shore of Oahu. You could step out of our back door onto the sand; it was literally like something out of a movie.

In October of that year, our battalion received a new commander, Lt. Col. Thomas U. Greer-“Tug” Greer, as his peers called him. Tug Greer was a graduate of the United States Military Academy at West Point, Class of 1951. In 1951, the Korean War was raging. Most of the West Point class that year was assigned immediately to the combat zone. Many of Tug Greer’s classmates died on the rugged slopes of that land. But Tug had survived and remained in the army. And now, 14 years later, he was assigned to command our battalion.

No sooner did he assume command, than Col. Greer took the battalion on a week-long training exercise in the rugged Kahuku Mountains of northern Oahu. For those of you who have not been to Hawaii, let me describe these mountains. They are steep slopes of volcanic rock with little topsoil and covered with thick, green vegetation. For five days, we struggled up and down those slopes in one infantry maneuver after another. Finally, it was Saturday morning, the last day of the exercise. All of us looked forward to returning early to our battalion headquarters, turning in our equipment and hitting the beach. After all, we were young, and what was the point of being stationed in Hawaii if you could not go to the beach! I remember gazing down early that morning from my perch on the side of one of those mountains at the shimmering sand and sparkling ocean. I could hardly wait!

About that time, Col. Greer came to our rifle company’s position. To our company commander, Capt. Jim Andrus, he said, “As the last exercise of this training, I would like Charlie Company (that was us-“C” Company) to establish defensive positions. Now, among other things establishing defensive positions meant digging foxholes. You know what a foxhole is. It is a hole in the ground where a soldier can seek shelter from enemy fire. But this was volcanic rock! And we were only equipped with those little folding shovels (which the army calls “entrenching tools”)! So, as Capt. Andrus gathered us platoon leaders around to give us the orders for establishing defensive positions, he said, “Since we want to get this over with quickly, we won’t actually dig foxholes. Instead, we will simply do “simulated foxholes”-we will just mark out on the ground where we would put the foxholes.”

So, that is what we did. A little while later, Col. Greer came around to inspect our “defensive positions”. I remember it like it was yesterday! As he came to the first of these “simulated foxholes”, he asked Capt. Andrus, “What are those?” Clearing his throat a little nervously, Capt. Andrus responded, “Well, sir, those are simulated foxholes.” “Simulated foxholes!” roared Col. Greer. “I ordered this company to prepare defensive positions, and that means digging foxholes! This company is going to stay out here and dig until it learns how to dig foxholes that look like the came out of the training manual!” And so, as the rest of the battalion packed up weapons and equipment and headed back to the base and an afternoon at the beach, Charlie Company remained out on that hillside. And we dug, and we dug, and we dug. Col. Greer’s name was on every one’s lips that afternoon, and I can tell you that he was not winning any popularity contests that day! But by evening, we had foxholes that really looked just like they came out of the training manual.

But, you see, there was something that we did not know that beautiful Hawaiian Saturday. When Col. Greer had been given his orders assigning him as our battalion commander, he had also received some other orders that he could not share with us-top secret orders-sending our battalion to Vietnam. We did not know it at the time, but this would be our last training exercise. And Col. Greer, with his vivid memories of his fallen classmates on the rugged hillsides of Korea was determined to do all that he could to save the lives of those men entrusted to his care. In a manner of speaking, Hawaii was the “season” for learning those skills that would save our lives. Vietnam would be too late.

What happened next I did not personally observe, arriving in Vietnam a few days after the rest of the battalion; but it was reported to me by my comrades-in-arms. They reached the spot in the division’s defensive perimeter assigned to our battalion late in an afternoon. Col. Greer’s order went out: Establish defensive positions. Our men dug in because that is what you did in Tug Greer’s battalion. Another battalion next to ours, arriving at the same time, only scooped out some shallow cavities in the ground-not unlike our Hawaiian “simulated foxholes”-planning to dig real foxholes the next day. But that night, the Viet Cong enemy launched a ferocious mortar barrage into the green troops. Our men were safe and secure in their foxholes; but the men of that neighboring battalion were not so fortunate. I am told that the next morning Tug Greer’s name was again on everyone’s lips-but this time with reverence and respect. I still regard him as one of the great men I have known. From him I learned one of life’s most powerful lessons: There is indeed a “time for every purpose under heaven”-even a time to learn to dig foxholes.

There are probably several lessons one could learn from this story. The questions that come to my mind are these: Who are those people in the software industry that might be like General Tug? Who are the people that have "been there, done that"? Who are the folks that can point to what really matters? Where are the sages of the software industry? Where are the mentors who are renowned for having wisdom that comes with age and experience? Am I the only person that has been caught in the illusion that what we are doing today is new and special? Maybe what makes the software industry so dynamic is not the remarkable speed of new developments, but the remarkable speed at which we forget.

22 March 2007

Porting to the Mac...

One of my favorite bloggers, Scott Stevenson, recently wrote about a subject near and dear to my heart, namely, some Simple Truths About Cross-Platform Apps. Scott makes some great points:

Mac users bought the computer they did because they found the experience more appealing. Bringing an application across from Windows with minor tweaks simply won't resonate with this sort of user. ... Maybe the most important thing you will ever need to know about Mac development is this: Mac users will generally favor an app with a better experience over the one with more features.

The whole "write once, run anywhere" idea comes from and resonates with managers and engineers who are out of touch with their customers. Fundamentally, you need to decide who you are trying to help. If you are trying to help, say, Mac users be more productive and on their platform of choice, while still interoperate with the rest of the world, then that dictates certain realities. If you are expanding to the Mac platform simply to "increase your market coverage" then you might not have the right mindset needed to build something Mac users will like.

Not everyone gets this, and that's okay, the market has a way of helping folks that don't get it. I remember back when we were working on Office X, right as Apple was moving to Mac OS X. We spent some serious time and money to study and really tangibly understand who these "Mac users" were. The results were amazing and strongly pointed out how different the Mac customer was compared to the Windows customer. That has not changed. I don't think it's elitist or smug to say that Mac users value different things compared to Windows users. It's a fact. So, if you are going to try to sell software to both the Mac users and the Windows users, before you start, you better understand the differences.

21 March 2007

How to Talk to People

Don Norman has published a wonderful excerpt from his next book "The Design of Future Things" set to publish in October 2007. The excerpt is purportedly a research missive from future machines to other machines on how to deal with people. Certainly some of us lowly humans can relate to the difficulties of communicating effectively with other human beings. (We could also probably say some things about what it's like to communicate with modern-day machines.) What follows are some choice quotes from the article.

It isn't easy to communicate with them; people take suggestions as criticism and get defensive, and sometimes angry. They misinterpret our utterances, ignore us, or overreact. Sometimes we just can't win.

Five Rules of Communication From Machines to People

  1. Keep things simple.
  2. Always give people a conceptual model.
  3. Give reasons.
  4. Continually Reassure.
  5. Offer a feeling of control.

People have difficulty with anything complicated, and they don't like to listen. So make the message short. In fact, it's better not to use language at all--it takes too long and, besides, human languages is horribly ambiguous.

The best kind of communication is done subconsciously, so people don't have to interrupt their conscious thoughts to attend to them. Thus even for the most befuddled minds, we need to communicate so that the meaning is clear.

Give them something their simple minds can understand. A conceptual model is a fiction, but a useful one as it makes them think they understand.

In short, people like pictures and diagrams.

Our early 21st Century Cars had almost given up trying to explain to people that they should drive more slowly on wet roads. But then we discovered that if we made it seem as if they were in trouble by faking skids and sliding around on the road, people would beg us to slow down. Sliding and skidding fit their model of danger far better than any words could have done. So wherever possible, don't try to tell them--let them experience it.

But the bottom line is, if people haven't seen anything happening for a while, they get anxious, even jumpy. And no one wants to deal with an anxious person.

[Make] them feel as if they are in control, even when they aren't. Keep up that deception--it's very useful. People like to be in control, even if they are performing a task really poorly.

Any time you have to make recommendations, make people think the ideas are theirs. If you really have to do something fast, just don't let them know: What they don't know, doesn't bother them.

There's some wisdom hidden in these quotes. Check out the whole thing, it's a fun read.

Update: Originally, I had some snarky, toung-in-cheek comments about each of these suggestions, but it just didn't come off like I wanted it and obscured too much of the real value in Dr. Norman's suggestions, so I've removed them.

17 March 2007

Full Radio Silence on the Mac

I was just listening to the most recent Security Now Podcast episode 83 wherein Steve Gibson goes to pains to describe what it takes on Windows to turn off your wireless hardware. Here's an excerpt from the transcript:

STEVE: Believe or not, yes. We’ve basically snuck in an entire show on maintaining full radio silence on Windows WiFi.

LEO: Well, it started when we were talking about this Free Public Wi-Fi that pops up on Windows from time to time, and what it was, and how now Microsoft has offered a fix but never told anybody about it, and you have to explicitly download it. That’s what we talked about last week. And if you didn’t hear last week’s episode, you should absolutely download that update.

STEVE: Right. So that was our second mention. Then the week before, Episode 81, we talked about – we actually showed the dialogues required to turn off the functionality, just sort of this promiscuous connect-to-anything-that-I-hear, and also this idea of broadcasting the names of any networks you had connected to before, which by default Windows tries to do. It turns out that it’s trying to do that still, even after you’ve got the update, because Microsoft added a checkbox to one of the configuration dialogues which is checked by default, and you have to go turn it off. So here in our fourth serialized How to Get Wi-Fi Just to Shut Up, we have additional instructions. People can, if they go to the show notes for this Episode 83, I’ve got a link back to the new and enhanced instructions that are over now on Episode 81’s notes. So Episode 81’s show notes are enhanced with this additional information, and this episode links back to those.

LEO: So this is if you installed the patch that Microsoft offered in November to fix wireless zero config, it’s still promiscuous unless you uncheck this box.

STEVE: Yes. There’s a box which enables it to connect to networks which are not broadcasting. And so if the networks are not broadcasting, then your computer does. And it’s just like, okay...

LEO: Is this ad hoc only? Or is it infrastructure networks, as well?

STEVE: It’s both. And so anyway, the idea is – in fact, I realized, okay, I started using the term “maintaining full radio silence.”

LEO: Yeah, that’s a good way to talk about it, yeah.

STEVE: As the famous jargon. And that’s what we want. We want to be able to carry a laptop around. If we forget to disable our Wi-Fi, we don’t want it sending out stuff of any sort. We want full radio silence. And so it turns out that following the instructions that are now on the show notes for 81, with the update which we talked about in 82, which we’re all pulling together now in 83, when we first opened the topic in 80, we basically snuck in a whole Security Now! episode on maintaining full radio silence."

Here's a link instructions to the instructions from Security Now:

For details on "Maintaining Full Radio Silence" from Windows WiFi systems, please see the updated show notes for episode #81. They assume (and require) that the system has been updated with the Wireless Client Update for XP as described in episode #82 and notes.

If it's not clear, the step by step instructions for how to turn off WiFi are located at http://www.grc.com/sn/notes-081.htm

Because Steve didn't mention how to do this on the Mac, I think I'll take the liberty of providing a comprehensive guide complete with pictures, so you can follow along. This guide applies to at least the last 3 versions of Mac OS X. Here goes:

Step 1: Click the Airport Menu

Step 2: Select Turn AirPort Off

Steve was talking mostly about WiFi radio emissions, but since most Macs have Bluetooth these days, I thought I'd go a step further and document how to turn off Bluetooth radio emissions as well.

Step 1: Click the Bluetooth Menu

Step 2: Select Turn Bluetooth Off

In conclusion, if you are ever responsible for designing the "turn it off" use case, please consider the above mentioned comparison before completing your design.

Update 1: As a companion article, Joel Spolsky talks about the trials of turning off Windows Vista.

Update 2: It looks like I misunderstood what Steve was talking about. He wasn't talking about how to turn off WiFi, but how to keep the Windows WiFi system from broadcasting data about which networks you've connected to in the past. Does the Mac OS do this? I don't know.

14 March 2007

The Cool Kids

Everyone has their own favorite language. Steve Rowe just pointed me to this funny my-language-is-better-than-yours graph. I found it really funny. I think Objective-C is just above C++ but below C. Where are you? ;-)

13 March 2007


Have you ever wondered what a Microsoft MVP was? Have you considered the performance implications of getting a Wii for your work force? Have you sat at night wishing you could just find a newsgroup to monitor? Have you wished you could have some tangible impact on the next version of Mac Office? If you answered yes to any of these questions, this post is for you!

12 March 2007

Losing the Idea

Frank Shaw (who incidentally has one of the coolest named blogs ever) has a great post about how our impatience can get in the way of seeing the value of things. This is one of the reasons I'm in favor of people and processes that allow for ideas to interact. It's such a great post, I'm going to quote the whole thing here:

Here’s the question: What is more important, the idea, or the instantiation of the idea? Based on what I’ve been seeing/reading over the past year, it feels like we’re all losing the idea.

For example. Second Life – not that interesting. Not very many people, not great UI, business model challenges. Tons of hype – TONS of hype. And when SL vanishes, people will sniff and say, told you so. BUT. The idea – the idea behind SL, of a real platform for a virtual world, for robust commerce, ease of interaction, that’s interesting. It’s an idea worth pushing for, a dream worth having. Maybe the dreamers at Linden Labs will pull it off and make it real for everyone, but right now, we’ve missed the idea because of the focus on the example.

Or look at Wikipedia. Again, people are focused totally on the example, and not on the idea (Jimbo, I think, has the idea well in hand). Warts and all, Wikipedia has captured attention and created controversy. But by becoming the de facto example for all things wiki, it makes it easy for people (self included) to scoff and poke and mock when things don’t go well. If Wikipedia fades into the oblivion, people will say, well the idea was flawed. NO. The idea – harnessing the real wisdom of the crowds – remains as a beacon. When we focus too much on the company in front of us, we lose the idea.

There are tons of other examples – Digg, YouTube, Google. Each of these represents an “it” company of the moment, but behind each of them is an idea worth considering, regardless of the success or failure of the companies currently playing the lead role of the idea.

Why is it so damaging to lose the idea in the face of its current incarnation? Because some ideas take multiple instantiations to succeed, and if we summarily disregard the idea because of a flawed example, we run the risk of missing a huge opportunity.

As my dad always said, patience is a virtue. We’d all do well to be a bit more patient, and a bit more perceptive in our ability to applaud an idea and laugh at the current example.

This is why from an external perspective (investors, business managers), you need patience and internally (the people actually doing the work) you must have a steadfast determination to persist. Point me to anything that you might call innovation, and I'll point you to a version 2.0+ of an originally underdeveloped even laughable idea.

What's also interesting is that this is coming from a public relations guy! When you introduce something new, you almost always need to define it in terms of the past, in terms people already understand. (This is what makes things intuitive: they are like things you've experienced before, that you already understand.) Since folks, from CEOs to customers, are normally impatient, you need to use short words, quick explanations, simple concepts to promote a clear message, even if what's going on is much more interesting and subtle and even complex. This then, often has the very effect Frank is chafing against: It obscures the core idea while amplifying the current instantiation.

When considering a new idea, most normal people will have a "failure of imagination" that doesn't allow them to distill past the current implementation and see hidden therein a foundation for a future master work. If you find someone that can discern the core value of things and has the patience and courage to persist, hang on, because there's more than likely an explosive future just around the corner.