Why Things Don't Work Anymore

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For various reasons folks: It doesn't work!

Too Many Things Just Don't Work These Days

I don't know about you but I have REALLY had it buying stuff that doesn't work. Right out of the pack they SIMPLY DON'T WORK! This may be due to shoddy construction or non-existent quality control but more often it is due to BAD DESIGN. These damn things are often NEVER GOING TO WORK yet they've got the cheek to package them up and sell them!

Just in the last week I attempted to employ:

And this is just in the last week! What the blistering blue blazes has gone wrong with this world? I know that electronics and computers are complex creatures where you have to expect difficulties, but keyrings, bottles and quilt covers??? We're not talking rocket science there folks! How hard can it be to design a keyring? Bottles have been around for thousands of years and beer bottles don't drip, so why should my preserving bottle? As for square covers for rectangular doonas *shakes head*...

In the past I have suffered a VAST number of such idiot products, some of the more notable being:

No doubt you can add any number of similar experiences of your own.
Not really good enough, is it? *shakes head*

So why is it the case that our high tech society, staffed by university graduates and aided by robots and computers, can't make stuff that works?

Well there are a number of reasons for this intensely irritating and time wasting plague on modern society and in analysing it we can see in a nutshell much of what is wrong with modern society which rests on a number of flawed foundations.

Cheap Shop

Too Cheap Products

Well, we all like cheap! A bargain price may mean that we can buy something that we otherwise couldn't afford. Furthermore, less money spent on one thing means more money to spend on other things. We ARE the consumer society! We DO love to buy new things! This is all very well, but there is after all the old adage: "There's no such thing as a free lunch."

Living in a first world country as I do, I notice that we are awash with cheap products from China. Never before in human history has so much been available for so little. You can buy a modern desktop computer for example, for just half the average gross weekly wage here! You can buy a quality 42" HDTV for just one week's wage. A vacuum cleaner is less that a day's work. A touch-screen smart-phone is a day and a half. A brand new family sedan can easily be had for less than one year's net income. A digital camera can be had for just a few hours' work. If you buy unknown brands things are cheaper again. Aldi's prices just boggle the mind! Never before have products been so cheap!

So how can this be? What has changed to allow such cheap production? Well there HAVE been major changes in production technology: the use of robots and modern fabrication and production line technologies for example. The advent of digital electronics and VLSI circuitry have also massively reduced the size and cost of electronic products. In China there is also the vast cheap labour pool and laissez faire workplace regulation that have enabled managers to cut production costs to a very small bone. But costs on the cheapest items have been cut even below this low level, and the way it has been done is by producing goods that are not of merchantable quality.

Things are under designed so that they break or incorrectly designed so that they don't work from the start. Slap dash production and no quality control, mean that large numbers of defective goods are shipped out. Unsuitable or defective materials are used in production which mean the product cannot perform as expected. There is, or course, NO support, for these products, which are quickly made redundant by endless stream of new models which take their place.

In Australia, there are, at least in theory, legislative safeguards to protect the consumer from unmerchantable junk. In theory all new products must come with a repair warranty and they must be of "merchantable quality" or the retailer can find himself in hot water. Well, that's the theory... In fact, most consumers don't have the energy, knowledge or time to invoke these remedies for some cheap piece of rubbish, so they simply throw the item out and buy another. When this happens the amoral manufacturer has successfully made his money and the cycle continues.

You can argue that this is only the cheapest junk from no-name brands, and that you can simply avoid this disease by only buying name brands. Well, not entirely, the problem is that the cheap junk drags the mainstream market down with it, as the name manufacturers struggle to keep at least within touch of the cheap end of the market. Thus it is that mainstream products no longer have the build quality, thoughtful design or support they may once have boasted.

And it's not only physical products that suffer from this blight. Services too have been massively squeezed, to a point that would have been unthinkable fifty years ago. How can we accept telephone support where you are kept waiting on the line until you hang up out of frustration? Why do we accept outsourced product repair facilities of an unregulated standard, that the manufacturer has no interest in? Why, when we ring our energy retailer, do we find ourselves speaking to someone in India, who knows nothing of local conditions and whose only knowledge of the situation is what they can see on the screen?

These blights on our lives are purely because we have bought a product or service TOO CHEAP!

Spaghetti Code

Computer Complexity

For those outside the world of software engineering, little is known of the phenomenon of program complexity, and its concomitant malaise: software bugs and glitches! We all suffer from buggy programs, but only the coders amongst us understand why that is.

Anyone can write a short program, and most people can debug it. You don't need training and it doesn't matter what your code looks like, it can still function correctly. Its a bit like building a cubby house really; even a child can do it. The problem becomes serious when you attempt to build a proper house: if you don't know how to do it properly it will leak, doors and windows won't open and the whole structure may even fall down.

The larger and more complex the computer program, the more likely it is to contain bugs. Furthermore: depending on the approach of the programmer, the quantity of bugs will vary dramatically. There are certain software engineering principles such as encapsulation, abstraction and modularisation that can greatly reduce the incidence of bugs, but these require properly trained computer scientists to apply them. Even if you apply these principles, you will STILL find that some programmers are far better than others. I have worked in the industry and I can tell you that really good programmers are rare as hen's teeth, even the ones that know what they're doing still write unreadable code.

IT managers are not always ex-programmers, they may be managers pure and simple, or they may have been lousy programmers or only worked as such for a short period of time many years before. Such a manager has no way of knowing whether his programmers are any good or not. Talking to them will reveal nothing. Career programmers are well experienced in telling bosses what they want to hear and talking a lot of technical bullshit to explain why their code doesn't work and why it is somebody else's fault. The manager doesn't know what to do so he just extends the deadline.

The higher level bosses worry about the critical software that is behind schedule, but they know even less about software than the IT manager, so they have little choice but to accept the stories proffered by him and hope for the best. As the costs blow out and the deadlines pass, senior management look at the money they've already spent on the product development and are unwilling to write it off, especially as their IT manager insists that the end is just around the corner. So they tip in another bucket of money and hope like hell that this time it will work. After all, if you spend enough money you can fix anything, can't you?

Well possibly if you're building a bridge or a road, but NOT necessarily with computer software. The commercial world is littered with failed software products to the cost of billions of dollars annually, which impact significantly on the business as a whole and may occasionally destroy it. Some notable examples include:

The 1995 Chaos Report by the Standish Group found that:

More recent surveys by the same organisation show an appreciable improvement, but large scale software development remains an inherently risky business with no guarantee of success.

The recent practice of off-shoring entire IT departments to India, where the analysts and programmers may have little or no computer science training, and may or may not speak English fluently, is obviously fraught with trouble. Sure they might be cheap, but if they can't do the job it's gotta be a waste of time and effort! The National Australia Bank exhibited major symptoms of this illness in early 2011 affecting deposits and withdrawals. It doesn't take much to affect the confidence of the customers, and once you do you're in danger of losing everything! You'd think bank directors would be aware of this, and would err on the conservative side when it comes to core software, but NO! Why this might be is discussed later.

Lazy & Stupid

Lazy and Stupid Consumers

The problem with a democratic free market is that it depends on the people at the bottom (the consumers), to inform themselves properly on all things, so that they are able to choose the best product for themselves, and so that market forces can weed out the dodgy operators and the rubbish products. All hail the informed buyer! Unfortunately, the average consumer is ignorant, lazy and happy to stay that way.

If you go to an electronics store, looking for a computer or a camera, and the first thing you tell the salesman is: "I don't know anything about these things...", of course he is going to sell you the product that gives him the best margin. This unlikely to be the product that will suit you best, but truly it's your own fault for not doing your research.

If you are a serious consumer, before entering a store, you should have:

If all consumers did their research, then the second-rate and unmerchantable products would simply disappear from the shelves. Quality, usability and reliability would once again become major design drivers and we would all be happier consumers. Sadly, it seems that we are heading in the reverse direction...

It is not just that ignorant consumers allow the proliferation of junk products, more insidiously, because product design is market driven, they force even reputable manufacturers to produce second rate products against their will, thanks to consumer myths. A good example of this is the myth that when it comes to digital cameras: "The greater the megapixels, the better the camera". This belief is quite wrong, as every serious camera buff knows: "The more the megapixels, the WORSE the image!", especially in the compact section of the market. So pervasive and influential was this myth, that for years there was NO compact camera capable of quality images, even though they HAD made them before the myth took hold.

Not only is the average consumer willfully ignorant, he is also lazy, not only in his preparation, but also in his post-purchase activities. When I buy something of non-merchantable quality I TAKE IT BACK! 95% of the time they give me a refund without trouble. In the few instances where they refuse, I either negotiate a swap for another product or I create trouble for them until they back down. No store manager wants other customers to hear that his products are not merchantable, that he won't accept returns, or that a customer of his is going to take him to the Civil Administration Tribunal.

I know that it takes time and effort to take things back and front the manager, but if you don't, not only have you wasted your money, but the manufacturers and their retailers have made their money and the junk cycle will continue. It is only by the consumer standing up and demanding a quality, reliable product that you can expect to get what you pay for!

Idiot Boss

Incompetent Fools in Power

Every time I come across a glaring design fault, I wonder how such an obvious mistake could have got through to production unspotted. A simple example is my Bluetooth headphones, where the back and forward track jump buttons are set on the outer rim of the phones exactly where you pick them up. Naturally, every time you take the phones on or off your head you skip a track. Dumb! Yes, it's dumb, but it's soooo dumb that surely it would have been spotted IMMEDIATELY in preliminary testing? So if it were spotted, why wasn't it fixed, before the unit went into production? Not being a member of the design team for this product I can only speculate based on my cynical view of this society. Such speculations can be generalised to cover all product design.

It is a maxim of mine never to assign nefarious motives to explain people's activities, when simple incompetence will do. It may well have been that this design fault was brought to the attention of the head designer, but he was either:

You can find similar glaring design faults on many products from many manufacturers, which begs the question: How did such incompetent fools get to be head designers? Well I hate to be the bearer of sad tidings, but promotion in this world is not based on merit! Perhaps the idiot married the boss's daughter, perhaps he was the boss's golf partner, perhaps he flattered the boss at every opportunity, perhaps he found a way to give the boss some illegal kick back, perhaps he simply dressed well and told the boss what he wanted to hear... There are any number of ways in which incompetent, greedy fools get into power, very rarely does it have anything to do with competence.

So long as companies are run by individuals whose main goal is to look after their own interests, there is little that can be done to stop the promotion of incompetents. The consumer's best hope is to be informed by quality reviews of such product defects and refuse to buy it, preferring instead a product of better design. Unfortunately, professional reviewers are generally corrupt, since they are paid, either directly or indirectly, by the manufacturers, who view product reviews as a form of advertising. User reviews are more useful in revealing design flaws, however most users lack the technical knowledge and experience to accurately weigh the seriousness of any short comings, so they should always be read with a grain of salt.



It is a fact of human nature that a person's first loyalty is to themselves, their second to their family and friends, and their third is to their society. Just how much an individual cares about his or her society varies considerably. For the criminal and the small-minded freeloader, the resources and infrastructure of society are simply there to be plundered. If people are trusting, kind or generous to strangers, then they are fools who should be taken advantage of. Such attitudes are not the norm in the affluent West, where service to society has long been accounted part of the responsibility of any good citizen, however there has always been a minority who happily espouse such selfishness and are only too ready to enact evil for their own gain.

In certain other cultures, particularly those of great poverty, survival is all about looking after yourself and your family, and tough luck about strangers. When there isn't enough to go around, you either take someone else's or die. This awareness is ingrained in the culture of such people, where stealing from strangers is often regarded as admirable, so long as you don't get caught. Such selfishness is understandable and perhaps even excusable in the face of death, but in a wealthy society it becomes a real blight, as corruption takes hold at every level.

Corruption can cause malfunctioning in various ways:

Your Fault

What Can Be Done About It?

Looking at my list of examples at the top of this diatribe, it is clear that the greatest cause of the modern blight of "stuff that just doesn't work", is incompetence, second is the drive for excessive cheapness, and the others are important only in specific areas.

There are incompetent designers, incompetent workers, incompetent inspectors, incompetent managers, but most of all: INCOMPETENT CONSUMERS! Sad to say it folks, but it's mainly YOUR fault! How can I enlighten you all and get you to do your research? Well I'm trying, people, but I don't fancy my chances of success anytime soon.

Cheap products are often rubbish products. It's NOT always true that: "You get what you pay for.", but it's a broadly useful statement. Whose fault is it that we have Bargain Basement, Cheap As Chips and Mighty Cheap? Whose fault is it that we have no-name televisions, generic DVD players and on-sold telecommunications? Whose fault is it that sales staff in India can ring us in Australia in the middle of our dinner to tell us about some new energy deal? Sorry folks: again it's YOUR fault! If you weren't so damn cheap and greedy none of this would have happened.

The good news is that when it comes to public infrastructure that doesn't work, you can always blame the government. It may be due to incompetence or corruption, but at least it's not your fault! But then again, didn't YOU vote them in?

Similarly, when your computer crashes or your smart phone malfunctions, it is most likely due to computer complexity, and you can, quite rightly, blame the software vendor. However, blaming Microsoft, Google or Apple won't actually get the problem fixed, and I regret to inform you that this is one problem that we are just gonna have to live with. Computers will only become more reliable if they are simplified and the code is reduced. But you insist on having all those bells and whistles don't you? So, once again: It's really YOUR fault!

Warren Mars - April, 2011