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Archive for the ‘Bad Product’ Category

A few years ago when I visited the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, I saw Matisse’s Tea in the Garden, which I consider a really bad painting, and I called it such in my review.

On Wednesday at the Milwaukee Museum of Art, I had a similar experience.

Here is Milton Avery’s Two Figures (1963). There are a number of Avery paintings in that museum, but this one struck me as the worst. It’s a large painting and I consider it spectacularly bad.

Look at the drawing. The pencil outlines are clearly visible. They are crude and the artist made no attempt to make them realistic or abstract. They are just sloppy and sketchy. Then he quickly colored in the main fields. He used six colors, no mixing, and no effort to cover evenly even to make it at least look clean.

I swear, I could do this painting in 20 minutes and it would look more pleasing than this does.

I have a lot of paintings that are much better than this that are stacked in my garage, never to be seen – sometimes to be painted over to at least reuse the canvas. But Milton Avery’s Two Figures in prominently displayed in the Milwaukee Art Museum.

Somebody explain that to me!

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A new headline today shows that Boeing, in an apparent effort to save money, outsourced software to HCL, an Indian company, at rates as low as $9 / hour. Other articles claim $12.80 / hour.

I happen to know HCL. About 10 years ago our company competed for a major state contract and HCL won. For price. The contract subsequently became a boondoggle, and was abandoned after a few years. HCL never delivered a working system.

I have been following the press on the Boeing software debacle. Apparently, the software that pushed the nose of the plane down was relying on a single sensor. No software in the world can be designed to make control decisions based on the output of a single sensor. That software eventually crashes the system. If the software is a flight control system for an airliner, that airliner will eventually crash.

And it did.

Twice.

I would have predicted it if you had asked me in advance and given me a chance to review the design, the approach, and the software itself. You cannot ever base software decisions of a critical nature to a single sensor. Even two sensors are marginal. Two parallel systems, both voting, both based on multiple sensors of different input dimensions are required to make positive control system responses. The default response should not have been pushing the nose down, but it should have been disengagement of the autopilot and sending alarms to the pilots.

The HCL engineers and managers should have known that. The poor programmer who implemented the code should have yanked the alarm chains. He knew what he was doing, but he was probably overruled by his superiors. The program manager should have escalated the concern to Boeing, the customer.

This is not the last time an intelligent control system kills humans. It will happen again, as more and more systems are automated.

We are subjected to automatic control systems every day, and we have come to entrust our lives to them. Smart cars and self-driving cars are the newest examples. But every automatic train at every airport is a simple example. Software moves us around at high speeds.

It’s time for Boeing to fess up to the serious mistakes in judgment it made, take full responsibility, bring its software development back into the country and pay its engineers what it needs to pay them. Saving money by outsourcing to low bidders in India has cost them very dearly, and it’s not clear at all to me if Boeing will ever recover from this.

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The Ever-Devolving Iron

Some products simply were good enough decades ago and don’t need improvement. Yet, some smart designers keep trying to make them better – and making them worse in the process.

We have an iron at home that is such an example. If I gave it to you, you would not be able to turn it on without endless fiddling with it first. How could you make a simple household device so complicated that an “untrained” user cannot figure out how to turn it on?

I stay in hotels a lot, and therefore I get to try a lot of irons, different irons every time. I must say that more than half of the irons are poorly designed at best, and sometimes utterly annoying. Yesterday, I had to use this iron:

In the picture above you can see the dial under the handle that turns the iron on and sets the temperature. However, when the iron is in your right hand, it’s impossible to see what is marked on it,  and there is no reference mark. So you have to use your left hand to blindly turn the dial, turn it all the way to the stop, and hope you’re in the on position. To test that, you have to probe the surface with your hand, and if it is getting hot, you’re on. If it’s not, you’re off, and you have to turn the dial the other way.

The picture below shows my hand holding the iron. The space is so tight, even my fairly skinny engineer’s hand hardly fits in the opening.

The whole design is ludicrous.

Doesn’t somebody actually test these as prototypes before they mass-produce such utter junk? Ironing a single shirt with one of these points out numerous design flaws that frustrate millions of users in thousands of hotels every day.

And don’t even get me started about the spring-loaded power chord with the retract button that is supposed to pull the chord back into the unit – that never quite works properly after a few uses.

Irons should be locked down with simple, easily readable controls on top, clean, well-crafted handles, and a place to wrap the chord. Then we should stop trying to make them better. We’re not succeeding.

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I am a man who flies well over 100,000 miles a year in commercial airliners. I have taken many flights in 737 Max 8 planes. I am also a software engineer who spent a significant time of his early career working on servo motor controls and control systems. So I know a think or two about software controlling machinery, overrides, safety stops, redundant sensor input and the like.

I saw an article in the current Time Magazine titled Second-Hand Safety and chose to show you this excerpt:

Enter the 737 Max. Featuring new engines and aerodynamic changes, the grownup Baby Boeing promised carriers up to 20% better fuel efficiency and lower operating costs. There were challenges in the new design. The model’s new LEAP-1B engines, for instance, are 20 in. larger than the original engines. So Boeing redesigned the 737’s pylons, which hold the engines to the wing, and moved them farther forward. But the more powerful engines in a different location could pitch the jet’s nose upward, creating conditions for a midair stall.

To prevent the stall, Boeing created an automated-flight-control feature called the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS). When MCAS sensors detected the nose of the plane pitching up, the software controlling the tail’s horizontal stabilizer would automatically push the nose back down. It was a novel fix to a nagging design problem.

But Boeing took a number of steps that blunted the scrutiny the feature could draw from safety regulators at the FAA. In an early report to the FAA that certified the plane as safe to fly, Boeing understated how much the system could move the horizontal tail, according to the Seattle Times. “When the planes later entered service, MCAS was capable of moving the tail more than four times farther than was stated in the initial safety analysis document,” the Times reported. Also, Boeing failed to account for how “the system could reset itself each time a pilot responded, thereby missing the potential impact of the system repeatedly pushing the airplane’s nose downward.” And Boeing said MCAS should not be activated if it received data gathered from just one of two sensors – “and that’s how it was designed” the Times reported.

Just as it understated the extent to which MCAS might take automated control of the plane, Boeing, with the support of regulators, decided against extensive training for pilots on the 737 Max, including in how to disable the software.

— Time Magazine, April 1, 2019, page 44 – Second-Hand Safety

This is scary. When you work on machines that can kill people when they malfunction, it brings the tension and stress to a whole other level. I have a lot of respect for the engineers who are writing the software for the SpaceX Dragon system for manned space flight. I have respect for Elon Musk who will have to watch that first launch with two astronauts on board, whose lives will be at risk. Any one software mistake can result in catastrophic failure.

I do not know the details of the Boeing 737 Max 8 problems, other than what I have read in the popular literature, like all of us. It sounds like the engineers did their jobs. Software will forever control the lives of humans, and the MCAS system is just one of those systems. But not allowing pilots to be trained properly to accelerate sales was negligent. A pilot needs to know that the horizontal stabilizers can act against the flight controls and push the nose down, and pilots need to know how they can disable this if needed. Something went wrong with the software and the pilots apparently weren’t trained to see the failure and certainly they didn’t know how to override the system before catastrophe hit.

This is not good for Boeing.

In this time when “regulations” are being rolled back everywhere, we need to remember that these regulations are there to protect us, from long-term effects of pollution, from longer-term effects of climate change, to very short-term effects of a robot failing and sending an airliner into a nosedive. It is the government’s responsibility to protect us from corporations that have a profit motive above all.

We’re now dealing with the fallout of this lack of enforcement.

I’ll be flying again soon.

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Cars and Ashtrays

I am not a smoker. I have never smoked in my life.

But I miss the ashtrays that we used to have in cars.

I always used the ashtrays to keep coins for parking meters and for the occasional pan handler by the side of the road.

Now I have no place to store my coins.

Not being a smoker, I never had any use for the cigarette lighters, either. I routinely removed those from my cars and literally threw them in the garbage. I never needed them. I used the lighter sockets for my device chargers, of course, and I still do.

But the lack of the ashtrays brings up a larger point, particularly now that we have so many wildfires in California. Even though smoking rates are way down from what they used to be, there are still smokers in the world and they drive.

Where do they put their cigarette butts with no ashtrays in cars? They have to throw them out the window. While that may not be a big deal in Ohio, it can quickly be catastrophic in California. Not to mention all the littering. Just look out your car doors at busy intersections. Cigarette butts abound. And I even understand that. Where is a smoker going to put the butts?

What were car manufacturers thinking when they started removing ashtrays from cars?

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Some cars are more user-friendly than others. I rent cars at least 30 times every year, and I have learned that when you sit down in some cars, everything is where it should be. Toyotas are like that. I don’t remember ever being in a Toyota and not being able to figure out how it works.

Not so with the VW Golf. It was dark at 11:00pm in the rental car garage. I stood behind the car and tried to open the hatch. I clicked the unlock button on the key fob, held it down, double clicked, to no avail. I tried to pull, push, nothing worked. I bent over and looked under the latch, no buttons. I was about to give up and throw my suitcase into the back seat when I accidentally touched the logo. It turned, and the hatch popped open.

Here is a picture I took the next day in the sunlight. Would you have guessed that you need to push in the logo to unlock the hatch?

Here is how it’s done:

The hairy blob is my left hand, holding the logo open – bad photograph.

Then I entered the car and got ready to start it. Here is what the key looks like. Doesn’t this look like you have to insert it somewhere?

I tried to find the key hole. It was dark in the car, but there was a plate on the steering column into which I tried to insert the key. But I couldn’t get it in. Eventually I turned on the flashlight on my phone to check. I found a non-functioning plate.

Notice all the scratch marks. This shows that I was not the first one to try to figure out how to start the car in the dark on a plastic cover plate.

Eventually, I found the starter button, nicely hidden and small next to the shift stick. Another thing impossible to find in the dark. Only with a flashlight was I able to find this. Whatever happened to lighting up critical controls?

This means that even though there is a key, the car actually does not need it. It must be just there to unlock the car from the outside.

And that brings me to the locks.

Later, at the hotel, at night, I tried to figure out how to lock the car. On the door there is a lock button. But when I pushed it, even though something clicked, the door didn’t lock. The only way I got it to lock was to dig the key fob out of my pocket and click the lock button. That did it. I am not sure what the button on the door does. Lock it did not.

And then there was the roadside assistance call that kept starting. It was dialing roadside assistance all the time, until I figured out how to turn off the screen – not a happy task while driving down the road. I still don’t know what made it think I wanted roadside assistance. I wonder how the operators like it when they get all these ghost calls from VW Golf rental cars with completely befuddled drivers. I almost had to pull over to stop my roadside assistance alarm call.

Perhaps, if I owned this car, I would get used to it. Maybe I would even like it. But I can assure you, the VW Golf it totally unsuitable for a rental car, where the user does not have the time to read the manual and get used to it. In a rental car, you have to be able to sit down and drive – and not have to fiddle with instructions and flashlights.

In the VW Golf, nothing works the way you expect it to work.

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In the last couple of months I have been asked by several sites to provide contract signatures on my computer screen.

The screen shot above shows such a screen. I was supposed to use my mouse and provide my signature.

This is so utterly foolish, I can’t believe it’s happening, and I called the company and refused. I am not able to sign my name with a mouse and make it look like anything even close to my normal signature. I can’t even properly spell my name in block letters with a mouse. The best I can do is write an X.

Go try it. Open up Microsoft Paint or any other drawing program and try to “sign” your name with your mouse. It’s impossible.

I understand using a stylus and sign on a screen. We do it all the time for delivery services like UPS. I can sign my name on a smart phone app with my fingernail – sort of.

But signing with my mouse – that is completely and utterly impossible. Anyone could do it, and I could not prove is disprove it was me.

What are these companies thinking when they ask us to sign our name using a mouse?

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Per a Reddit post, GE tries to “punish” customers that post negative reviews. So, courtesy of Reddit, here is my contribution. I have nothing to do with this washer, GE will not be happy, but customer bullying needs to be counter-acted, in my opinion.

I learned that all GE appliances since 2016 are built by the Chinese company Haier. Their reputation for quality is especially poor, even by Chinese standards.

Buy GE. Make America Great Again!

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I had to order checks that I can fill out by hand from the bank. It got to be embarrassing that I could not pay the gardener with a check. So now, we have a lifetime supply of checks. But then, I didn’t have a checkbook cover. You can’t just have a pad of checks floating around. They’ll get all dog-eared in no time. So I went on Amazon and purchased a checkbook cover. There was a surprising amount of variety available, in all price ranges. I got one of the cheapest. Vinyl.

Today it arrived. And, more prominently than anything else, inside the little Ziplock bag that the cover came in, was this label:

WARNING: This product contains chemicals known to the State of California to cause cancer and birth defects or other reproductive harm.

So what do you think I’ll do now? Not hold my checkbook close to my reproductive organs? It’s a piece of plastic! Our whole house is full of plastic. My car is practically made out of plastic. And then there is my iPhone, plastic and radiation poison of all kinds, and it’s always, always within a couple of feet of my body. Oh, the damage!

Really, seriously, is there a single person in the world who will receive this package of a checkbook cover, read this label, and change his mind and send the product back to the evil manufacturer? What else could the point of this label be?

Go to any restaurant in California, and somewhere near the entrance there will be a similar sign. “This facility is using products and chemicals known to the State of California…”

Do you want to know about really shocking labels? Go to Germany.

Recently I had visitors from Germany who – no surprise there – smoked. Comically, they found it somewhat difficult to engage in their passion, since in the hotels where they stayed they had to invariably stand at the edge of the parking lot to smoke. Many properties do not allow any smoking on the hotel grounds, even outside.

But I digress. There is a picture of a German cigarette box:

The label on the side states “Rauchen ist tödlich” or “smoking is deadly.”

Look at the top of the box where it states “Kinder von Rauchern werden oft selbst zu Rauchern.” This means “children of smokers often become smokers themselves.”

Sometimes they show pictures of horrible deformations in faces or extremities caused by smoking, right outside on the packaging. The boxes look like poison products with the name of the brand, in this case “Parisienne,” a cigarette targeted at female customers, almost seemingly an afterthought.

I can’t say I haven’t been warned. So if I ever die of cancer, I will think about that checkbook cover I bought just so I can pay the gardener in 2017.

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If you have traveled in Europe and stayed in hotels, you are probably familiar with the power interlock for hotel keys. It works this way: Inside your hotel room, near your door, there is a slot, which fits the door key card. The hotel only gives each guest one key. As you enter the room, you insert your key card into the slot, and all power in the room is enabled. Without the card in that slot, there are no lights in the room.

Then, when you leave the room, you need to bring your key, and it turns off all lights automatically. While this seems odd and inconvenient, it works quite well and I am sure it reduces unneeded power consumption in hotel rooms.

Some American hotels are now trying this concept, and it is failing ludicrously.

I am currently staying at a Hilton Garden Inn in Olympia, Washington. This hotel has such a system. You can see the slot, with a hotel business card inserted at the red arrow in the photograph above.

Since Americans are likely to never have seen such a system, the desk clerk is spending extra time with every guest explaining in advance how the system works. I am sure too many guests call down and complain that there is no power in the room. Here is the solution applied in this Hilton Garden Inn:

  1. The hotel desk clerk spends an extra minute or two with each guest explaining this feature. Guests are baffled, as I observed as I stood in line. Guests could not figure out what this was all about.
  2. The desk clerk gives every guest a hotel business card to insert into the slot so he doesn’t have to use the key.
  3. I noticed that the housekeeping service plays right along with this. When I came back to my room at night, the room had been cleaned, the business card was in the slot, and all the lights were on.

Clearly, there is a serious disconnect between this hotel’s management and its power-saving initiative, and the hotel staff that sabotages the effort.

Here in America we like our lights on – bright.

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I am staying at the Embassy Suites in Syracuse.

Check out the paint job on the bathroom door! All the doors in this room looked like this.

This is how much this hotel pays attention to detail!

It made me wonder how clean my sheets are.

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Today, as many times before, I got a notice that one of my flights was delayed, and I realized that I’d need to rebook my connection. I carry my American Airlines Platinum Card with me, which contains the phone number to call for service.

It’s on the back of a light gray card in light gray TINY font. The photograph above is actually a magnification to double the size of the card, and I can actually read the number.

In the “real world” with the card in my hand, that is impossible. My 60-year-old eyes, with bifocals, cannot possibly read anything on the back of this card. The font is too small, and then it’s gray on gray, with very little contrast.

What is American Airlines thinking?

There is so much white space on this card. They could easily double the font size. They could make it bold, dark black on white, so you can read it with ease in a poorly lit airline gate area, the card on your knee while you’re fiddling with your phone.

This is not limited to American Airlines. I just checked a few other cards, like my Hilton Hotels card, and it’s got the same problem.

American Airlines – not all your customers are young eagles or owls with night vision eyesight.

We can’t read your cards!

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[click for picture credit: Reddit]

I have recommended that people stop flying United. It’s not good for the morale. There are plenty of other airlines that beat their prices, not their customers.

But if you bought your tickets months or even weeks ago, and you can’t get a refund, I recommend that you bring a boxing helmet on board with you. Here is what it looks like on United flights these days.

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The CEO of United Airlines, Oscar Munoz, now blames the customer. He said he was belligerent and raised his voice.

No shit!

If the airline had not bumped a paying customer off a flight, I can guarantee you the customer would not have been belligerent.

So, folks, be aware, you can book a flight with United Airlines, and if for any reason they don’t want you on the plane, you’re on your own. If you insist, they have you beaten bloody by airport security. Then it’s your fault. They make you the “bad guy.”

Go ahead, book your travels on United!

Makes for exciting travels!

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a-time-before-time

This is absolutely the worst book I have ever read.

I am not sure how I even came to spend $2.99 for this book. It was listed as a science fiction and time travel novel in my Amazon feed. Once I was a couple of chapters into it, and since it was so short, I kept reading it not because it had my attention, but because it was so bad, I kept reading it just to entertain myself.

I am not sure if the author is writing in English as a second language, but he’d better be. Misspellings and grammar mistakes abound. Sometimes extra words are inserted, and other times words are missing. Nobody seems to have proofread this book, let alone edited it.

I read the entire book, and I honestly don’t know what is going on. An astronaut, who likes aviator glasses (we know this because about 5% of the book talk about his glasses) leaves on a journey. It is not clear where to and why. But he has to say good bye to his wife, who goes into cryogenic sleep while he is gone. Somehow the science goes wrong and he ends up in the 1960s somewhere in the American West, and there are some characters they interact with. The astronaut is also a gambler, and he wins some money in Las Vegas. I am telling you, it is really, really bad.

Just to give you a sense, here is the entire chapter 4, where the three astronauts wake up and discover that one of the three of them is dead. You’d think that would tragic? Check for yourself:

Chapter 4

When Liam came to, the ‘balloon’ had split, slowing the ship. He was the only one of the three that were conscious. He sent some messages back to earth. Orbits of other planets were periodically slowing the ship down. His messages were sporadic. He knew that earth would not receive them for years, now, but he sent them, anyway.

He looked up. They were headed towards a planet at full speed. It was their intended destination. The ship had been knocked off course. Liam attempted to wake up his captain. Captain Stewart woke with a start.

Keats had been thrust back in his chair too forcefully. His belt had broken. His neck had broken. He was dead.

‘Stay calm.’ The captain said. Liam was unsure of who he was talking to. ‘We’re still alive. We can make it back.’ He muttered under his breath, before calmly telling Liam some orders. He immediately obliged. The ship yawed and tilted. It was in the pull of the atmosphere, but it was enough. They orbited it and began heading back in the direction of earth.

‘Let’s sleep.’ The captain said, leaving his chair and painfully making his way back to the quarters. Liam sent one more message before following on. ‘We’re going to make it.’ The captain said before closing his pod and freezing himself.

Liam followed on. For a few years there was nothingness. It was the best he’d ever slept.

My rating scheme does not support negative numbers. If I could, I’d give this book a negative 4. But as it is, zero must suffice.

There are sequels to this book. No thank you.

Rating - Zero Stars

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