When you have a large amount of data to sift through, it is often good to create an ironclad framework to manage the data. This framework will include a method of inputting new data, modules for importing and cataloging old data, and an interface to wrap around the whole thing. Collectively, it is called a system.

The problem with systems it they are often created to manage a dataset that is expanding rapidly now, but will taper off quite soon. The designer of the system assumes that the expansion will continue at its present rate, so he creates the system to manage a large amount of data and he designs a thorough catalog to expedite searching. The problem is that with more items, more cataloging effort must be spent on each item so that searches can drill down the necessary data over an ever-expanding dataset. This means the cost of maintaining the system increases exponentially. If the expansion rate drops rapidly, this can be the nail in the system’s coffin, as fourteen layers of metadata provides diminishing returns when you are adding three records a day.

When you picture a “system,” think of a photography catalog. You add more photos as you take them with your camera, importing them using a memory card reader. You add tags and keywords. You sort the images into folders or (preferably) virtual folders. There is a search mechanism which lets you search by folder, date, and keyword. You can search thorough a mass of metadata that is generated by your camera automatically upon shooting each photo. If any one of these components is flawed, the whole system crumbles. Being able to find a photo in two seconds is worthless if you have to spend five minutes cataloging each one. Having a stable catalog of photos sorted with tags and keywords is no good if you have to make a separate physical copy of each file for each keyword. You need a complete and well-rounded system that is versatile and low-upkeep.

Unfortunately, you are just as likely to under-estimate the expansion of your system. What if you’re using Picasa to manage 10,000 images, but then you get a job as a professional photographer and start adding 1000 images a day? You may soon find that Picasa slows to a crawl when you get to 50,000 images. All of the sudden, your system is no better than a pile of dirt, and you’re screwed because you can’t export your database. You have to use clunky ICTP embedding to get the data out, you have to find a new system, you have to adapt to its quirks, you must compensate for its short-comings and differences compared to your current system, and you must do this all under the pressure of impending deadlines. Still think systems aren’t important? How long can you get by haphazardly managing your photographs? Amateurs can do it. Professionals, no.

The biggest problem with systems is overhead. If you keep a to-do list, how much time do you spend doing the tasks on the list? How much time do you spend working on the list, including thinking of new tasks, crossing out old ones, setting deadlines, and revising the list? The time spent on maintaining the list is the system’s overhead. If your overhead is more than 10%, you may consider scrapping or greatly simplifying the list. If procrastination is not a big problem for you, try doing things in the order you please. Instead of storing the list on paper, store it in your head.

Other systems may have overhead greatly in excess of 100%. A public library’s catalog may take more time to maintain than the shelving, sorting, and transactions for all the items in the library. New records have to be cataloged to rigid standards by trained librarians with Master’s degrees, who may be paid upwards of $70 per hour. Items must be checked in and checked out and marked as damaged or missing when problems arise. While it would be much easier to have no catalog and just place the books on the shelf by the author’s last name or the Dewey decimal system, the catalog is essential for searching records and tracking items.

A to-do list, however, should have a much smaller overhead, as it is a simple system to a simple job. Always consider the value of the system you are putting in place. If its overhead exceeds its value, scrap it.

I used to keep my mail-in rebates list on a sheet of paper on the fridge. I’d write the date I mailed the rebate, the product and amount, and the expected date. When the rebate came I’d cross it off the list. At the height of my rebate frenzy (back when EVERYTHING was free after rebate), I had to expand the list from one page to eight pages (8.5″ by 11″), covering the whole front of the fridge. This was unwieldy, so I found a program to put the rebates on my computer and I started managing them there. I got rid of the paper list and keyed everything in. It was a disaster. The whole system didn’t work; I couldn’t search by expected date or amount easily; I had to use klutzy titles that relied on alphanumeric sort. I ended up losing $100 in rebates because I was so bad at keeping track of them. Admittedly, I chose the wrong program (I think it was called Rebate Reminder), but the problem was I chose a system with too much overhead that did not provide any benefits over the previous system. In many ways it was even worse; it gave me a fragmented view of the money I had on the line, while the paper lists let me see everything at once. Instead of being in control, I had no control at all. Systems can often be more trouble than their worth. Remember KISS (keep it simple, stupid).

Perfectionists fall prey to complex and weighty systems. When I used to pirate DVDs from the library, I’d have to compress the video from 8.5GB to 4.7GB to fit on a single-layer DVD (most commercial DVDs are double-layer, but the blanks are prohibitively expensive). For some reason I wanted to save the full-quality video for future use, so I’d make a second copy of the original files onto two discs. I have a stack of 100 of these in my closet that I’ll never use. It was a horribly idiotic thing to do. The copies, compressed to 60% of the original size, do not look noticeably worse than the originals on my 19-inch television set. I’ll never have a reason to buy dual-layer blanks and remake the discs; I’m not interested in watching any of the movies again anyway. In fact, if I had to do it over again, I might have just borrowed the movies I wanted to watch, watched them, and returned them. My Dad likes to watch the same movies again and again, but I find, as with books, that one viewing is enough. However, I’ll listen to the same songs over and over again on my MP3 player, especially if I’m programming or writing.

Whenever you create a system, ask yourself: is this useful? Will the data I’m organizing be useful to me in six months? Three? Is it that much slower to have no system and let the chips fall where they may?

I used to keep a meticulously organized accordion folder of all the receipts, rebate forms, school papers, coupons, and paychecks that I’d received for the last six months. Then I’d move to a new accordion folder, keeping the old receipts indefinitely. Now I put everything in a big pile on a shelf in my bedroom. Every few months, I throw out all the old receipts and coupons. I can count on my hands the number of times I’ve had to hunt down a receipt in that pile. With the accordion folder, it took two minutes. With the big pile, it takes ten. It’s still cheaper than sorting everything, because only rarely do I need anything in the pile. The overhead of a system is simply not worth it.

I used to take thousands of photos a month. Most of them were useless. I’d document the position of all the family’s furniture and can goods each month. I thought that would be interesting later. Turns out it isn’t. I had a huge complex catalog of these photos in iMatch which I used to spend a lot of time on. I haven’t accessed the catalog in nearly a year. Now, I take just a few hundred pictures a month—good pictures, and I use a program called Downloader Pro to sort them into folders by date automatically. Since there are so few photos, I don’t need to catalog anything. I just look through each folder by date with FastStone Image Viewer (a wonderful program). Sometimes, yes, it’s hard to find a photo. Without the overhead of a system, however, I spend more time behind the camera and less time behind the computer.

This blog is a system. It took a long time to set up. The overhead was 100% in the beginning, and as high as 50% till recently. Now, I’m adding practically nothing to the system (WordPress). No new plugins, no theme changes, no design changes. The system has matured and the overhead is now about 10%. I could still be fiddling with all the details, but I’d much rather be writing than working on the system.

Use systems. Don’t let them use you.

Putting Users First

In the United Kingdom, some six million domain names are registered under the suffix. While would be preferable to, such registrations are banned.

This adds up to thousands of lost hours among computer users and much more wasted space. UK residents have to type the extra “.co” for every domain they visit, communicate, or advertise. Clearly, the UK does not put its users first, or the lengthy subdomain would not exist.

One practice common among universities is to give students second-rate email and blog addresses. My email address at Daytona State College is the ridiculous Blogs take on unwieldy addresses like Giving students first-class registrations at the second level, like or, is out of the question. Usually, administrators will have their reasons such as firewalling users, keeping the namespace open, simplifying management, or departmentalization. None of these are valid and they all put the user last, when in fact the user should be the #1 priority.

On, it would be tempting for me to place users in some God-forsaken subdirectory like, but instead I put them right up front like Sure, I might run into problems later. Sure, there might be unforseen consequences. Perhaps someone will register and then later I’ll decide I want it for a site feature? While the cautious person may say, “so that all my options are open, I should not allow direct registration of subdomains in case I want to use them later,” this is folly and treats the user as a second-rate citizen. Users make up the bulk of your community and are the only important part. This means you should give them important space. Damn the torpedoes. Whatever namespaces you are reserving are less important than you think. In fact, if they are so valuable, they will be much more valuable and attractive in the hands of the community rather than on a blacklist that goes nowhere. has so much potential.

At most businesses, employees park far away from the building to give parking spaces to the customers. Since employees are there all day, it’s no problem for them to walk a little ways. Contrastingly, customers may only be there for several minutes. However, when it comes to the public library, city hall, the DMV, or the post office, who do you see closest to the building? The employees themselves. Often a whole section right near the back door is reserved for them. Because the government has no competition, they have no reason to put their users first. Often, the users wind up dead-last. As corporations grow more bureaucratic and government-like, the same may happen to them. As soon as the user is put second, the business is one step closer to death.

Many websites you see start out with a splash page where you have to click “Enter.” This is a dumb waste of time. No one wants to “enter” your site. The very act of typing the URL into the web browser is entrance enough. Avoid time-wasters if you value your visitors.

Forums and other websites require you to register before you can read certain material or download certain files. Theoretically this will encourage you to come back later and build a spamming mailing list for the webmaster, but in fact 75% of people just stop right there and never register. Whatever they were going to download wasn’t important enough to be hassled anyway. Most people that do register never return and are actually useless users. They just clog up the database and do nothing. Furthermore, registration forms are often notoriously unintuitive and complex. What will often happen is a user will mistype a hard-to-read CAPTCHA, then return to type it again, then fail because their password was erased upon failing the initial CAPTCHA, and then have to do both over again. Many websites forget the email address too upon a reload. It can take the inexperienced web user a dozen tries to get through. Definitely not user friendly. Mandatory registration simply does not put users first.

Using target=”_blank” on links is bad bad bad. If the user wants to open the link in a new window, he’ll middle-click it. Otherwise, a left-click means he wants to open it in the same window. Don’t force preferences on your users. Your site should look good at least at 1024×768, preferably scaling to any size as web layouts are supposed to be fluid, not fixed. Many websites are entirely Adobe Flash, put mid-gray text on a light-gray background, disable right-clicking, or interfere with the browsing experience through other methods. If you think this “protects” your content or expresses your artistry, you’re completely deluded. It patronizes your users.

Microsoft Windows sucks for users. In Vista, whenever you execute a program or change a setting, you get at least three pop-up windows asking “are you sure?” Instead of blocking viruses and pop-up windows pro-actively, they’re allowed free reign on your system. You can only combat them by using kludges like anti-virus software and pop-up blockers, which only remove the material once it has already appeared on your computer. When Windows wants to install a “critical” update, it asks permission to restart. If you say no, it comes back a few minutes later. Say no again, and it starts a count-down timer. Heaven forbid you’ve left the room to burn a DVD or download a large file, because Windows will forcibly close all your programs and restart for your “protection.” So much for user friendliness. When you install or uninstall a software program, you are often stuck with a window that says “click OK to restart now.” If you don’t want to restart, you have to ignore it or drag the window to the corner of the screen. All these hurdles beg the question: who is the master of your computer? You or Microsoft? If Microsoft indeed put users first, the answer would be you and the question wouldn’t need to be asked.

When you call a support line, you’re left waiting for ten or fifteen minutes while a message repeats saying “your call is very important to us.” If your benevolent overlords had some respect for you, they’d stop insulting your intelligence.

Users don’t like being called idiots, being bamboozled, jerked around, put off, or made fools of. In fact, they may become violent and vindictive when patronized. Show some respect, give them the best namespaces, put them first on the list, and don’t boast about how much you value them.