Modern Software is What Makes Our Lives Difficult

Everyone loves technology and it’s great… until you actually have to use it to accomplish something.

“I’ve got a 55” HD 3D TV with 350 channels of satellite, a THX certified surround sound system with 32 speakers, 3 DVRs, a Blue-Ray player, an X-box 360 and a roku.”*

“That’s awesome.”

“Now, I want to control it all with one remote.”

“HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA.  You are so cute when you’re naive.”

Why is it naive?  Because it won’t happen.  Have you seen ‘universal remotes’?  First you have to program them, with your equipment (and hope your new top-o-the-line gear is in the manufacturer database).   Then, everything is run on scripts.  You can’t just switch from satellite to BluRay, without turning the whole thing off, otherwise, the remote just gets confused.

Software is even worse.

As I sat at work recently, ruminating on why I have a dedicated application, two excel spreadsheets, an FTP client, and a couple of word docs open, I realized the problem.

None of this… umm… software can communicate with each other.  I can’t download the latest file from the FTP from Word.  I can’t instantly turn the info in Word into a spreadsheet, which I can then import into my custom application.

Even better if my custom application can go to the FTP server, get the file, and then import it… wait, then why would they need me?

Yes, I’m a highly paid, file conversion system.  I do other things sometimes, but mostly, I convert files to various formats, occasionally interpreting them in one way or another, sometimes incorrectly.

So, why can’t all these systems just talk to each other?

Well, there’s no standardized form of data.  And that’s it.  Humans are really good at looking at a string of characters and figuring out what it is:

08-21-2052 –  that is a date… in the future.

836-23-2374 – a social security number (I apologize if this is yours, laws of chance suggest that it’s somebody’s).

Here’s what a computer sees 1010101010101010111010101001001000101010101010101010100000010010101110101010

Plus, they don’t have the deep background in pattern recognition that we do.  They don’t have the cultural background to recognize how certain patterns imply that the data relates to certain information.

Personally, I blame Microsoft.  Here’s why.

Everyone thought cut and past was so damned neat that they forgot that they have to do the cut and pasting… and sometimes it just doesn’t work.

Anyway, they were so impressed with cut and paste that they just stopped thinking about how different programs define, implement, and use data storage systems.  Go ahead, create a spreadsheet in Microsoft paint, then import it into Excel.  I’ll wait.  That doesn’t work?!?!?  Well, it should.

Which is my whole point.

Humans see a spreadsheet whether it’s drawn on paper or a computer screen.  Computers see a .jpg file that is completely incompatible with a .xls file.

XML is supposed to be the cure for this.  HA!

In XML, each basic unit of data has a tag that identifies what it is.  08-21-2052 has a <date> tag.  234-89-2384 has a <social security> tag.

I’ve been working on and off with XML based systems for over a decade.  I was part of a group that was developing a common framework for sharing of college transcripts among schools.  Here’s the problem:

<social security>, <SS#>, <social>, <SS number> all mean the same thing to a human.  They don’t all mean the same thing to a computer.  So, now we have one type of data, with four different identifiers… oops.

That’s where standards come in… and there aren’t any.  I don’t know if it would even be possible for humans to develop a common data standard.  Or even a conversion table for the various data types.

It’s depressing.  Meanwhile, I got back to work, converting Word to XML and then noting that in Excel.

* Not really, this is an example.  I don’t even want most of that stuff.

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