How to replace 30 laptops (and $10,000) with 150 sheets of paper
June 12, 2011 10:27 PM   Subscribe

How to replace 30 laptops (and $10,000) with 150 sheets of paper. A great little anecdote about why it’s important to think about how much computerization is needed to solve a problem. The comments on this story at Hacker News are interesting too.
posted by Jasper Friendly Bear (38 comments total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
All the BC polls I've been at have been paper based.
posted by five fresh fish at 10:39 PM on June 12, 2011

This kind of situation is everywhere. I'm a software developer, but I often advocate for the simpler, paper-or-whiteboard based solutions. The thinking is something like this: "Can we solve this with paper? If not, can we solve with a whiteboard and magnets? If not, can we solve it with a wiki, simple web app or Excel sheet? If not, can we whip up a set of macros in Office? Ok, then, I'll start on the specifications for a dedicated SW system, but it will be expensive."
posted by Harald74 at 10:40 PM on June 12, 2011 [7 favorites]

Why use a small word when a diminutive one will do?
posted by hypersloth at 11:19 PM on June 12, 2011 [15 favorites]

I don't understand. Will this allow us to sell per-CPU licenses for our custom workflow middleware solution?
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 11:50 PM on June 12, 2011 [19 favorites]

Yes, the paper solution seems better. The difference in cost is overstated, though. It's not as though the laptops would become worthless once they were used once for polling. And some laptops could potentially be borrowed from a poll volunteer or repurposed from elsewhere ion the government for the day.
posted by parrot_person at 12:36 AM on June 13, 2011 [1 favorite]

Those comments are great beanplates, btw - I like the bit about the crushed ice on the deer.
posted by hypersloth at 1:17 AM on June 13, 2011

Love that toothpaste factory story. Lateral Thinking fail ;)
posted by Dillonlikescookies at 1:28 AM on June 13, 2011

It's not as though the laptops would become worthless once they were used once for polling

It'd be worse than if they were worthless. They'd start draining money: they'd need to be imaged, stored, kept up to date, tracked, insured...
posted by obiwanwasabi at 1:41 AM on June 13, 2011 [4 favorites]

It's not as though the laptops would become worthless once they were used once for polling

that all depends - I've worked in organisations where those 30 laptops would have been packed away in a storeroom afterwards to gather dust...
posted by russm at 1:45 AM on June 13, 2011

From the Hacker News link:

If you think the moral of the story is that $8M were wasted due to bad management or whatever you'd be wrong. The scales were a success because they enabled the desk fan solution.

posted by obiwanwasabi at 1:47 AM on June 13, 2011

obiwanwasabi: " *facepalm*"

Actually, I think it's a good insight. Yes, $8M is a huge amount of money to spend on "enabling" a $20 solution. But it's important to remember that the people who can solve a problem the best sometimes aren't contractors, they're the people who are the closest to the problem. But in the case you're referring to (empty toothpaste boxes), the line workers weren't aware (or just weren't aware enough) of the problem. Once it became a pain -- alarms, etc -- their brains kicked in, and the simple solution jumped out.

The moral isn't that the $8M was necessarily worth it. The moral is that when you have a problem that is causing pain in a different place than its origin, start by pushing incentive backwards.
posted by Plutor at 2:25 AM on June 13, 2011 [1 favorite]

Yes, the toothpaste story and the sticky labels story are easily as good as the polling division story and the labels story is probably even true.
posted by Busy Old Fool at 3:25 AM on June 13, 2011 [3 favorites]

Oh man, I see *so many* over-complicated solutions *everywhere*. And that's usually just within a computer (i.e. software). Java, especially when combined with XML, seems especially prone to this.

One project has a vast object hierarchy that no one person can understand. On the days this project works, it moves files from point A to point B.

As simple as possible (but no simpler). Spend the bulk of your time *removing* code. Keep it simple, stupid.
posted by DU at 4:31 AM on June 13, 2011 [1 favorite]

doublehappy: "And don't even start me on laptops."

Or the return key, amirite?

posted by oxford blue at 4:31 AM on June 13, 2011

But in the case you're referring to (empty toothpaste boxes), the line workers weren't aware (or just weren't aware enough) of the problem.

No, they just weren't asked:

"... the CEO of the toothpaste factory got the top people in the company together and they decided to start a new project, in which they would hire an external engineering company to solve their empty boxes problem..."

$8m to have a problem solved by the people closest to the problem - and still nobody asked them, or even told them it was a problem? That's not enabling anything. That's...look, I'm bordering on using a word I promised I wouldn't use ever again.

The story might well be fake. The 'oh, but you see, it really was all worth it in the end' attitude? That's real, and it''s very, very...bad.
posted by obiwanwasabi at 4:40 AM on June 13, 2011 [4 favorites]

In New Brunswick, both for the advance polls and on election day, they use laptops loaded up with an address database for this task

At least in the federal election in NB, this wasn't true. It was definitely paper-based.
posted by Lemurrhea at 4:44 AM on June 13, 2011

The moral isn't that the $8M was necessarily worth it.

Forgot to add - that's pretty much exactly what the clown I quoted said the moral was.

The moral is that when you have a problem that is causing pain in a different place than its origin, start by pushing incentive backwards.

As opposed to, say, walking downstairs and having a look for yourself, and maybe asking the blokes on the floor if they've got any ideas? No no, that's free advice. Keep your $8m.
posted by obiwanwasabi at 4:45 AM on June 13, 2011

But I could waste time at work so much better with 30 laptops. Think of staff morale just once, wouldja?
posted by jfuller at 5:59 AM on June 13, 2011

I'm a middle-aged software engineer. So though I live and breath computers, I also spent many of my formative years without them. When I went to school, we wrote everything down.

I basically can't think without paper. My thought process involves making lots of diagrams, often with three pieces of paper laid next to each other or taped together. And it's never just text. There are big arrows pointing from some item on the first page to an item on the third. I circle stuff and cross stuff out. I tape little scraps of paper over parts of the original diagram to update it -- allowing me to just flip up the new piece and see the old version.

And I continually need to go back and forth between seeing a little detail and looking at the whole thing. Computers suck at that. Due to screen real-estate, I either need to page through my diagram or zoom out to a point where everything is too small for my middle-aged eyes.

Also, the tools are two slow to switch between. If I want to write and then draw a circle, I need to switch from a type tool to a shape tool. Fuck that. I just want a pen. It both writes AND draws circles.

When I'm robbed of paper, I sometimes find it really, really hard to work through ideas. Which is why I find it continually frustrating at these software companies -- the many I've worked at in NYC -- that do not provide paper.

The one I'm currently at -- a MAJOR web company -- has no office-supply stands at all. None. (Once's, I spent an hour, going from floor-to-floor, trying to find a stapler.) The ONLY way I can find paper is by raiding the photo-copier tray. The lack of paper doesn't seem to bother anyone (all these 20-somethings who work around me) except me and the only other older guy who works on my team.

I asked for a notepad, and was told I'd have to put in a purchase order. Screw that. I decided to just go to Staples a couple of times a month and buy a big stack of notebooks and a bunch of pens. My goal is to never have to worry, even for a second, about pens and paper. I basically want a pen to appear in my hand if I need one. I spent about five minutes grumbling that I shouldn't have to pay for this stuff myself. Then I got over it. I'm so happy when I have the tools I need at hand. The point of tools is to allow me to forget I need tools.

I'm thinking about buying a bunch of white boards and sticking them up on all sides of my cubicle. I almost have an orgasm when I think about it!
posted by grumblebee at 6:17 AM on June 13, 2011 [8 favorites]

What kind of white boards are you buying, and where can I get them?
posted by codacorolla at 6:52 AM on June 13, 2011 [1 favorite]

I worked for a while on a software system that would model the agile/scrum sprint team board.

On bad days, I felt we were modeling a system that was specifically designed to be lightweight enough that you could accomplish it with a bulletin board, note cards and push pins.

On good days, I acknowledged that part of our goal was to enable things that the original process didn't address (such as management oversight).

On other bad days, I realized that we were enabling things that the original process did not accommodate specifically because they are considered bad practices (e.g., allowing remote team members to use the team board).
posted by tippiedog at 7:30 AM on June 13, 2011

I am a pollworker and I know these systems inside and out. There is only one flaw in his argument. Most of these paper polling systems are "operated" by 80+ year old retirees who have extreme difficulty following even the simplest procedures. Some of them actually violate the procedures deliberately, thinking they know the law better than the Elections Office, this opens up the election to fraud and millions of dollars spent on recounts.
There is nothing novel about precinct atlases and poll books on paper. We still use them as backups in case our precinct atlas computers go down. But the computers are vastly superior because they prevent errors, and are dumbed down so even an elderly technophobe can operate them without error (and without the ability to override and do illegal things).
posted by charlie don't surf at 8:02 AM on June 13, 2011

codacorolla: "What kind of white boards are you buying, and where can I get them"

Judging by the last line of Grumblebee's rant, I'd say they're extra-white! Almost.
posted by notsnot at 8:27 AM on June 13, 2011

I'm super skeptical of the toothpaste story.
posted by empath at 8:35 AM on June 13, 2011

This must be the thread in which I can post that the majority of problems out there which are solved with databases would be better in most respects had they just used sequential search.
posted by Obscure Reference at 8:49 AM on June 13, 2011

Have you ever noticed how so many fake stories are written with a certain style? That toothpaste box story is dripping with it. It's kind of hard to believe.

Anyway. The problem here is one of scale. Sure, right now for 30 people, a sheet of paper makes sense. But, first of all the paper was printed off from a computer in the first place, so it's not like the solution is non-technical. Rather it's an example of technology being re-used.

There's also a question of scale. If you had to do this across an entire country, one sheet of paper wouldn't work. You could do something like have software spit out the correct sheet for a given person's route at the beginning of the day, but it's possible that the costs of that might be greater then simply having a big database and having users query it with cheap software.

Rather then a laptop, you could write a mobile website and require employees to use their own phones if you really want to be cheap. Otherwise you could probably get out of date smartphones or PDAs pretty cheaply. You can buy palm pilots on Amazon for about $25 a pop. You'd then need to write software specifically for the palm, though.
I'm a software developer, but I often advocate for the simpler, paper-or-whiteboard based solutions. The thinking is something like this: "Can we solve this with paper? If not, can we solve with a whiteboard and magnets?
The problem with this is system maintenance though. What happens when a business is run with hundreds of whiteboard processes rather then push-button software? And even if using the whiteboard/paper only takes twice as long as the software solution, it's still going to be a pain.

Also, being an office worker who's job is just to run a bunch of scripts, update some standard excel spreadsheets and perform a bunch of tiny ops over and over again is a pain. It's much nicer just to push buttons and only worry about entering in the data that doesn't already exist somewhere else in the system.
posted by delmoi at 9:11 AM on June 13, 2011

When I went to school, we wrote everything down. I basically can't think without paper.

I'm a middle-aged software developer as well, and I fucking hate paper.

Whiteboards, on the other hand… I need something that I can quickly jot down ideas and just as quickly erase them and start over again. Paper sucks for this. No, that's not enough emphasis. Paper SUCKS for this. "Oh, just cross it out!" "Oh, just throw it away and get a new sheet of paper!" Why? We have better technology now, it's called the whiteboard.

And when something is "finished" enough to actually justify saving or archiving for future folk, that's when it goes into the computer (where it's automatically backed up, automatically available to other people across the world, etc., etc., etc.)

Have you ever had a paper-user call you and ask for you to look on their desk for something? "It's on a Post-It! I think it's yellow. Or… no, now that I think of it I think I used the pink Post-It because it was an important note. Oh, but I think I remember that I couldn't find pink Post-It's, so it's yellow. Probably yellow, anyway. So, possibly yellow Post-It, and I think it's on my keyboard. No? Under my keyboard. No? Oh, it's on the monitor. What? There are a hundred Post-It's on the monitor? Well, it's one of them. [much later] Maybe it fell off the monitor. Have you looked on the desk? Maybe in the stack of paper. WHAT stack of paper? The stack next to the keyboard. No, the one next to that. Under that. Above that."

A million paper cuts to the nipples of paper users.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 9:18 AM on June 13, 2011 [1 favorite]

I don't mind using paper to jot down ideas. Typically they'll just be temporary ideas that you could use a whiteboard for, and then they get put into a stack and never looked at again. But I also like doodling, and whiteboards completly suck for that. There's no way to get halftones, for example, you can't even do a decent fill.
posted by delmoi at 9:48 AM on June 13, 2011

Have you ever had a computer-user call you and ask for you to look on their desktop for something? "It's in a PowerPoint file I think it's PowerPoint Or… no, now that I think of it I think I used the Word document because it was an important note. Oh, but I think I remember that I couldn't use Word because a macro virus corrupted all my Word docs, so it's a spreadsheet. Probably Excel, anyway. So, possibly Excel, and I think it's on my Desktop. No? In Downloads. No? Oh, it's in the Start Menu. What? There are a hundred files under Recent Documents? Well, it's one of them. [much later] Maybe I haven't opened it recently enough to show up under Recent Documents. Have you looked under My Documents? Maybe in the folder. WHAT folder? The folder marked Important. No, the one inside of that. In that folder. Up one folder."
posted by Celsius1414 at 10:17 AM on June 13, 2011

Civel_Disobedient, I agree that whiteboards are better than paper. But I've never worked anywhere that has enough of them.

Of course, enough of them, as far as I'm concerned, would be two huge wall-sized ones just for me, one for temporary stuff and another for stuff I need to leave up for a while. And, of course, some other ones for my coworkers.

Paper is generally better when I'm sitting at my desk, coding, I reach an point of confusion, and I have to draw a quick chart or make a quick calculation to figure something out. I'll probably never think refer to that paper again. It serves as my temporary memory, since my real one is so dysfunctional, and since I am so bad at mentally visualizing things.

I sketch it out, go "oh, okay, I get it," and then finish coding the routine. Then I throw the paper away.

Except there's never any paper. We don't even have post-its where I work. A couple of times I ran into the mens room and grabbed som paper towels to write on. Then I spent ten minutes trying to find a pen.
posted by grumblebee at 10:20 AM on June 13, 2011

When I'm designing a new database, paper is the first step. There's no point in using a whiteboard (for me), because that means the side of my hand is black (or whatever color ink I used) and I have a big, smeary mess. With paper, I don't have that problem and I can draw blobs, boxes, lines, and arrows without changing tools or stride, and I can scribble, scratch out, add underneath, put little notes to myself ("check input file definition"), etc., until I'm happy with a draft, which I can then turn into something for other people's consumption using a computer. It takes much less time for me to do it on paper the first time around. Sometimes technology is overkill.
posted by notashroom at 10:52 AM on June 13, 2011

I go through bunches and bunches of legal pads, for each and every project I do. Flow. Venn diagrams, carefully shaded with different-colored markers. Lists of "oh, and the software must do this" on each sheet of paper with the name of the procedure up at top. Lines about documentation. This stuff comes reeling out of me faster than I can program. It appears during meetings where I have nothing else to do. Post-Its with reminders, square sheets with hypothetical situations which must be answered with code. Database design. Drawings of directory structures. Paper paper paper, often redundant.

I know when a project is winding up because I begin crumpling up that paper, having carefully marked through each thing I've done with the Red Ballpoint Pen of Completion. "Yeah, did that. Did that. Hah, that was nice."

Paper rocks.
posted by adipocere at 11:15 AM on June 13, 2011

> I'm a middle-aged software engineer. So though I live and breath computers, I also spent
> many of my formative years without them. When I went to school, we wrote everything
> down.

Similar (got my first little computer in 1978, but by then I was already in grad school.) Then or now, what I use for a given project is always conditioned by the fact that computer displays suck. They sucked bigtime in 1978, when I was using a color TV (40 columns of fuzzyfuzzyfuzzy text); they sucked in 1978 and a half, when I switched to a 6" re-purposed security cam monitor; and they suck only a little bit less today--compared to what they need to be. Several hobbyist mags reporting from the 1980 Comdex claimed there would be affordable five-foot flat monitors that you hang on your wall like a poster "within the next few months." There should have been. By now we should have pop-up holographic displays that appear wherever you want, any size you need.

I work in a hospital running the system that handles all the digital xrays. I'm about to make the mother of all flowcharts, to diagram both the data flow and the human workflow associated with my system and all the other systems that it touches and that touch it and that shows downtime procedures for all the systems when any of them is MIA.

I want to be able to see all of this, all at once. I need the biggest display I can rig up. I have a wall, and a pad of those ENORMOUS sticky notes which are about 2' by 3'. My drawing area will be three ENORMOUS sticky notes high by six ENORMOUS sticky notes wide. 9 feet by 12 feet. I agree that a 9' x 12' eraseable whiteboard would be better, but I sho'nuff don't have one that size and have never even seen one. As for the notion of doing the work on a computer monitor, queue They're Coming To Take Me Away Ha Ha maniacal laughter.

But a computer plus a good sized graphics tablet plus an any-size-you-want holo projection that pops up out of nowhere? I'd love it! Why don't we have those?
posted by jfuller at 11:26 AM on June 13, 2011

Maybe it's because I've always had a computer (was a small child when my parents got a TI/99), but I despise paper and writing. And now that we have touchscreens, drawings/diagrams are much easier too (I agree that doing those with a mouse sucked, and they were my primary reason for still having paper around).

Whiteboards are great for when in front of other people, although a Giant Touchscreen would be even better (just really expensive -- someday, though...).

Nice thing about doing these things on computers is I can throw it away/erase or keep as desired with no real issues. And finding things is easy, because thats what search is for (yes, it used to suck when you had to remember what folder something was in, but thats irrelevant now. You just search, it doesnt matter where its located in the folder structure or whatever).
posted by wildcrdj at 3:33 PM on June 13, 2011

wildcrdj, I am seriously interested in how your thinking (and the thinking of others who grew up with screens) differ from mine and people like me. How do you manage when you're designing or trying to understand some huge system -- one of with many, many interconnected parts? Let's assume that the system is too big to fit on one screen at a size where you could see it all at once.

Do you just feel no need to see it all at once?

Can you hold "the big picture" in your head?

Do you sort of get a sense of the big picture by examining lots of little parts of it?

What if you're drawing, say, a diagram of the USA, and it can't all fit on your screen. Which is okay, because you're generally only looking at a state or two at a time. But then you realize that you need a big line connecting Alaska with Washington DC. How do you deal with that?

I'm wondering if younger people than me just don't think certain thoughts that I think (and, no doubt, replace them with others that I don't think) or whether they think them -- but in totally different ways.

I guess, for me, I'm often working on system that are only clear to me if I can see the whole thing and the details at the same time. I don't want to have to zoom in to see the details, because then will I lose the big picture. Is that just not important for you, or do you bave some special way of dealing with it?
posted by grumblebee at 7:24 PM on June 13, 2011

I'm not clear how that is different from paper. In both cases you have a fixed size canvas (a sheet/doc/whatever).

I'm guessing you're referring to taking several of those sheets and laying them out on a table, in the paper case. Well, on a computer you've got a couple options -- rapidly flip between tabs, or tile them out. Keep in mind I'm usually on a 30" monitor, and at home I have a 30" and a 24" (next to each other as one desktop). So I have a _lot_ of desktop real estate on my screen. If I'm working with pure text, I usually have an emacs window split into 3 or 4 sub windows, in which I can flip back and forth between buffers quickly. And then on the other screen I have a browser with a bunch of tabs. Or something like that.

So in your specific case (map/diagram of US), I'd say it's two things -- one, yes I would zoom in and out, but secondly I'd question how big this paper you're using is. Bigger than a 30" monitor? Because if not, then it's the same thing, right? Except that I _can_ zoom and you can't.

In a more realistic case for me, if I'm designing a large piece of software, I'd have docs that describe high level elements, and different pages/docs/whatever that describe the details of those components. Or I'd have some sort of tree structure that allowed me to collapse elements (like a typical tree representation of a filesystem).

Of course if I'm on the go I'm using a tablet or a laptop, but the same idea would apply -- the paper analogue would be a notebook, on which I could see at most one or two pages at a time as well.

What I do still want is to have tables and whiteboards that are massive touchscreens (like Microsoft Surface, etc). They exist but are very expensive right now, as those come down in price it will solve remaining size issues (and allow me to either use a keyboard or draw). Until more recently I did typically use paper when doing quick drawings/sketches because it was much easier than the alternatives (Wacom style tablets arent the sam e-- the disconnect between hand and eye doesn't work for me).
posted by wildcrdj at 7:36 PM on June 13, 2011

Dear whiteboard fans:

Whiteboards have smelly petroleum-based chemicals. The markers are much more expensive than chalk. They are always running out. You can't tell, just by looking at a marker, whether it's going to be out. Whiteboards wear out with age. Also, chalkboards are often more visible, as well.

What ever happened to them?
posted by Galaxor Nebulon at 9:49 AM on June 14, 2011 [1 favorite]

It'd be worse than if they were worthless. They'd start draining money: they'd need to be imaged, stored, kept up to date, tracked, insured...
posted by obiwanwasabi at 1:41 AM on June 13 [4 favorites +] [!]

Are you proposing that the laptops could be used for something other than their original purpose? If so, that use itself is valuable and counterbalances the costs at least to some degree. If not, then there is no reason the laptops would need to be imaged, kept up to date, or insured. Stored, yes. And pulled out once a year or however often, loaded with addresses and used for polling.

Have you ever worked for government? Appropriation and re-appropriation of goods is a time consuming task because there are so many channels to go through in order to do anything. It's not like you throw up a card table and have a yard sale the day after; it generally takes 4-6 months to catalogue, inventory, grab any data off the machines and wipe them clean, at which point, you flood the local market (there are 35,000 people in Charlottetown, where Peter lives...and I used to) with Netbooks and drive the price of a used netbook down considerably.

It's safe to say you'll not get a lot of your initial investment back.

First of all, I'm not a fan of questions that aren't really questions but just seek to prove a point. But I'll "answer" anyway. Yes, I have worked for the government, specifically as a web developer for NASA OIG. My job had nothing to do with buying, maintaining, or selling computer equipment, but I saw it done often enough. It seemed like a pain, but not as much of a pain as you're making it out to be.

Second, the idea that one would have to sell the laptops to the local market is just patently silly. In a previous job I had just out of college, I was responsible for selling off some computer equipment, and in that case, it was easy enough to auction it off online, where the market is not limited to the local area.

Third, I don't see why the laptops would need to be sold in the first place, at least not all of them. In fact I find the original scenario, that the government would need to purchase entirely new laptops, and that it doesn't already own at least a few which could be used for this limited purpose, very unlikely.
posted by parrot_person at 8:50 PM on June 14, 2011

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