Saturday, January 21, 2006

Headphone rant

Why do headphones have such lousy design?

I have gone through about a half-dozen pairs of headphones in the past 8 years. They have to be replaced by equivalently lousy headphones. I'm not going to drop $200 for headphones because I know that it is just a waste of money and I don't need perfect sound.

Here's how it goes: Purchase headphones. They work fine for about a year or two. Then strange things happen. The right earpiece flickers momentarily one day. Then the left earpiece. Then it starts alternating constantly. Then one earpiece goes out permanently.

Or if there is an attached microphone, it flakes out. Or it loses its grip on the position I like it at and it I use a rubber band to hold it in place.

The "adjustable" height for headband-based headphones is always off by half-a-notch. And accidentally smacking the cord tends to throw the headband completely out of whack - taking the next 10 minutes trying to fix it up. Also, most headbands are hard plastic with minimal flex capabilities. Headbands also have the tendency to mess up hair-do's.

The earpiece is NEVER comfortable. I've managed to force myself to adjust to it, but it is obvious when I've been using headphones: My ears turn a bright red.

The connectors sometimes wear down or get junk in them or be slightly too small. This can weaken connections and create all sorts of intermittent problems that drive me nuts (pops, clicks, breaks).

I've thought about wireless headphones, but then they have to either be recharged (and rechargable battery replacements are expensive when they die) or use regular batteries (again, expensive). And I'd have to remember to turn the unit off or recharge it when I'm not using it. I've also heard wireless reduces sound quality such that most people notice.

The problems are: Weak wire design (the wires inside are fragile), poor earpiece design, lousy headband and microphone design, and connector design is weak. Wireless is out of the question. Paying $200 is out of the question.

So, what is the perfect set of headphones?

First, the wires and connectors need to be fixed. Connectors need to be a snug fit even after removing and inserting the plug a zillion times. Connectors should not be L-shaped. The wires inside need to be able to not snap even if the cord gets stepped on, tugged, and bent. Tugging is inevitable and is usually accidental and typically close to the main unit. It would be nice if someone could figure out a way to have a sharp tug disconnect the wires right at the main unit so that no damage is done to the wires or the unit.

The perfect set of headphones involves a move from just hard plastic for the headband. Actually, the headband won't exist as such. Instead, it will wrap around the back of the neck. The earpieces will have two attachments: One for those who wear glasses, the other for those who don't. These attachments and the headband could still be made of plastic, but coated with a gel-like plastic designed to "stick". However, such a design also needs to allow airflow to avoid the accumulation of sweat. The two attachments either go over the side bars on glasses or hook over the ear like a set of glasses would. Since each ear is different, the latter would have to be adjustable. The idea here is to have a "headband" that pushes the unit against/over the ear but let the base of the ear handle the issue of gravity. The gel-like plastic keeps everything in place and comfortable. Those with "hair-do's" don't have to worry - the headphones don't touch any of it.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

My goodness - what evil lurks in their minds?

I was just told a story about Lotus Notes (owned by IBM Corporation). Let's call the person who told me this 'John'.

John was having problems with Lotus Notes about once a week where it would simply crash. Well, it didn't exactly crash crash. Apparently Lotus Notes utilizes WER (Windows Error Reporting) or an equivalent:

So when the application crashes, it sends a crash dump of the program to John's IT Helpdesk (or IBM's Helpdesk - I'm not sure how the system works). John doesn't really care. Except John got curious because the application says to contact the corporate IT helpdesk about the issue. So, John calls the corporate IT helpdesk one day and describes the problem. Let's say the IT helpdesk person's name is Sue. Sue asks the following question, "Does Lotus Notes crash on Tuesdays right around lunch time?" Thinking for a moment, John says, "Not sure about the day, but that sounds like it might be the right time of day." Sue then sends John an attachment in an e-mail with a button labeled "Fix Tuesdays at noon". John clicks the button and the crashes go away. In actuality it should have said, "Fix Tuesdays at 11:45".

At this point every last programmer out there is asking, "What the..?" and "Who the..?" How do you introduce a bug into a program that causes it to crash exactly at 11:45 a.m. every Tuesday and then have a binary patch for just that bug? I can think of only one way: Hardcoding it (unless the code base for Lotus Notes is so obtuse that such things just happen). Intentionally writing crash bugs is a terrible approach to software development. Possibly criminal. I mean, what if a life support system depended on Lotus Notes. Every Tuesday at 11:45 there would be a disasterous rise in the number of fatalities.

Some people live on e-mail. Literally. Crazy people.