Saturday, December 17, 2011

Take the stairs, and other impossible health advice

A fire alarm rings at work. You leave your desk and properly evacuate to the parking garage. It turns out to be a drill, and 10 minutes later you are allowed back. You get a brilliant idea: you'll use this disruption to do something good for you health. You'll take the stairs up to the third floor where your office is. And maybe you should try walking up and down the stairs a few times during the day, so your butt won't meld with the chair. You don't quite remember where the stairs are in this building -- you only took them once -- but a building deputy showed them to you.

You go up to the third floor. The stairwell door won't open. It's locked. You swear the last time you tried it, it was unlocked.

You go up to the 4th (top) floor, then to the 2nd floor, and all the stairwell doors are locked. You get down to the first floor, and the door is unlocked, but it opens into a small dead-end hallway with several other nondescript, identical, unlabeled doors. You try one after another, until you find one that opens into a longer hallway, which leads you to the elevators... just in time before your claustrophobia flares up.

This is what happens in corporate America when you try to do something good for your health. It's like that in pretty much any office building. In some buildings, I heard, people are so discouraged from using the stairs, that an alarm would go off if you open the stairwell door! The stairs are to be used strictly as a fire exit.

And yet there is no shortage of health experts who tell us to incorporate small acts of fitness into our daily life, first and foremost by taking the stairs. Also, ride your bicycle to work. Uh-huh. And play Russian roulette with the cars whizzing by, and arrive to your cubicle sweaty, and delight coworkers with your post-workout aroma. None of those experts must have ever worked in corporate America, or lived in a suburb. Next thing they'll tell us to eat cake. :-)

Sunday, December 11, 2011

How come xkcd hasn't addressed this?

I often hear that engineers are literal. This typically includes software developers. I hear this even from people who work with engineers all the time -- you'd think they would take a more nuanced view. But perhaps not many people understand what "literal" means. I'm not even talking about the common, oft-ridiculed use of "literally" to mean "figuratively" -- as when somebody tells you "I literally died laughing" (and they don't have chunks of rotten flesh falling off, so they're not Undead).

Figurative, after all, is the opposite of literal. You can also say that the opposite of literal thinking is metaphorical thinking. Apparently most people don't understand how much certain intellectual activity, such as science and engineering, relies on metaphor. As an example, read this article in Wikipedia about Aspect-oriented programming, and show me even one paragraph in it that does NOT contain a metaphor.

The point is: software design, like any design, models real world problems in some kind of abstract conceptual framework. This is only possible if you think in metaphors.

I really think there should be an xkcd cartoon on this.

Saturday, December 03, 2011

When a children's store practices tough love

Some stores must be really, really sick of people stealing their shopping carts. So sick that they put the cart before the horse's customer's safety... or maybe just don't think how anti-theft devices can put customers at risk.

A case in point is an incident my significant other, Ray, termed "The Great Magnetic Shopping Cart Caper". It occurred in Babies'R'Us parking lot in Austin. Here is the email he sent to Babies-R-Us Management.

I would like to humbly express my intense displeasure at the experience of "discovery" I had with the "new" shopping cart system you have deployed at store # 7047, on November 25, 2011 at 2:35 in the afternoon. I began by having a pleasant shopping experience. On this day (the day after Thanksgiving) I parked my car right next to the Babies-R-Us, in the giant, parking area shared with Babies'R-Us's neighbor "Bed Bath and Beyond". I bought $164.51 worth of merchandise in the store, one of the items being a heavy metal "superyard" play-yard enclosure for my 5 month old son. I was able to fit this box perfectly fine in the shopping cart. The shopping cart rolled fine and smooth with my happily purchased merchandise in the store and out the door.

I was happily pushing along my Babies-R-Us shopping cart (full of merchandise) out into the beginning of the parking lot, weaving through the busy high traffic area, where there are cars moving in both directions. You have to get through this narrow car path to get to the parking rows on the other side.

To my sudden and almost fatal surprise, halfway there my cart suddenly locked up, and due to my decent momentum (I'm a man) and being caught off-guard I almost turned over the whole shopping cart and its entire contents on to the pavement.

Very luckily for me, the cars in front and behind me were paying attention and not fiddling with their cell phones, because they screeched their brakes and avoided running into me.

Aerial photograph of Babies'R'Us and Bed, Bath & Beyond parking lot Aerial photograph of Babies'R'Us and Bed, Bath & Beyond parking lot where the incident occurred. Click for a bigger version.

Embarrassingly, I tried moving the cart back-and-forth, side-to-side to get it to move again. Nothing budged. I tried looking down into the wheels, thinking that possibly a rock/piece-of-tape/etc got caught up in the wheel or something.... I found nothing that would explain the wheels not moving.

Since I realized I was blocking all the traffic of the other customers in their cars trying to get my Babies-R-Us cart to move, I resorted to picking up all of my merchandise, including the heavy metal-based item (again, I'm a strong man) and put them down on the nearest curb.

I tried one last time to move the cart - seeing no motion, I drug the empty cart (leaving a big black skid mark from the locked wheel) over to the Babies-R-Us storefront sidewalk.

AND THEN I NOTICED a small sign INSIDE the cart (which was blocked from my reading from the merchandise I purchased), which states that the cart has a new "feature" that will lock the wheel up when trying to go beyond certain lines on the sides of the Babies-R-Us building.

(1) That would have been good to know BEFORE I parked my car, especially since after realizing the smaller area WITHIN the "painted cart-stop lines" out of the whole shopping center's shared parking area was totally full of cars, I would have not shopped at Babies-R-Us that day, and driven on.

(2) Imagine if I wasn't just "some guy" alone with a bunch of paid-for merchandise, trying to push it to my car? Imagine I was instead a mom, cart loaded full of merchandise AND a kid or baby, and the wheel unexpectedly locked on her while she was moving along? Imagine her cart falling over with a baby in it. Imagine a nearby car preoccupied on their phone while a family pushing a Babies-R-Us cart suddenly locked up in front of the car?

I THINK YOU'LL AGREE that the SAFETY of your customers is MORE IMPORTANT than the "prevention of shopping carts moving off too far".

The store immediately neighboring the Babies-R-Us, "Bed Bath and Beyond" had one of their store associates retrieving their carts. He saw my dilemma unfold, and he was so kind as to bring me a "Bed Bath and Beyond" shopping cart in which I put my Babies-R-Us merchandise, an "old-fashioned" cart that pushed... all the way to my car in the parking lot.

After I got the stuff in my car, I walked back into the Babies-R-Us store, and I went to the Customer Service desk.

I tried asking if I could speak with the store manager to explain my experience, but I was told by the associates there that the store manager wasn't available. I told the experience to them. They suggested I describe the complaint online.

I hope my time and effort in trying to help you listen to the safety of your customers does get read, and this letter is not in vain,


Hoping to remain a happy Babies-R-Us customer

So there you are. I guess the children's store is showing by example how to practice "tough love". After all, setting consequences is a common parenting advice. Only in this case it is, step outside the line, get a jolt of reality. No matter if it sends you under the wheels of oncoming car.


UPDATE: A few days after submitting his feedback via Babies'R'Us website, Ray got a canned response from Babies'R'Us customer service, saying that to get help with his problem, he has to write a (paper) letter and mail it to corporate headquarters. The customer service representative did not acknowledge his problem, and did not forward it to supervisors, or to anyone who could have done anything about it.