Follow-up: Portsmouth Spinnaker Tower now open, but maybe you should take the stairs

Portsmouth's ever-delayed Millennium Tower (since renamed Spinnaker Tower) has finally been completed, five years late and £11 million over budget. But even opening day couldn't escape without its own glitches, for the project manager was trapped in a glass-walled lift for over an hour, requiring abseiling engineers to come and rescue him.

There's something about Rat Poker

When performing usability tests, one of the standard tasks we give people is to install a game, and the game we usually use is The Puzzle Collection. (Yes, it's an old game, but continually updating the game makes it less valid to compare results from one year to the next.)

One of the things that the game's Setup does that always confuses people is that it asks you where you want to install it and suggests a directory. If you accept the default, a warning box appears that reads, "The directory C:\Program Files\Microsoft Puzzle Collection does not exist. Do you wish to create it?"

People see this dialog box and panic.


Because it's an unexpected dialog, and unexpected dialogs create confusion and frustration. From a programming perspective, this is a stupid dialog, because of course the directory doesn't exist. You're installing a new program! From a usability point of view, this is a stupid dialog, because it makes users second-guess themselves. "Gosh, did I do something wrong? The computer is asking me if I'm sure. It only does that when I'm about to do something really stupid." They then click "No" (it's always safest to say No), which returns them to the dialog asking them to specify an installation directory, and they'll poke around trying to find a directory that won't generate an "error message". I've seen users install the Puzzle Collection into their Windows directory because that was the first directory they could think of that didn't generate the "error message".

Anyway, after the program is installed (one way or another), we tell them to relax and play a game. We say it as if we're giving them a reward for a job well done, but it's actually still part of the test. We want to see how easily users can find whatever it is they just installed.

One thing you can count on is that when faced with the collection of games available, for some reason, they always pick Rat Poker.


Each of us has our own pet theory why people always pick Rat Poker. Personally, I think it's that the Rat Poker icon is the most friendly-looking of the bunch. Many of them are abstract, or they depict scary creatures, but awww look at that cute rat with the big nose. He looks so cheerful!

Click. Another vote for Rat Poker.

Answering the phone, a classic rookie mistake

I had taken yesterday off from work just to take a breather, but I stopped by the office in the morning to pick up my bicycle helmet. (How I managed to leave my bicycle helmet at the office is not important.) My office telephone rang and I answered it.

As my colleague Ken described it later, "Ah, classic rookie mistake."

The call was from an emergency meeting in another group. They called to put me on the hook for a problem with Windows Vista Setup because they believed that my group was responsible, being among those that recently RI'd. I ended up staying until 4pm, then resuming the investigation at home for another few hours until the problem was identified. (The problem was introduced by another group, but they want my group to change its code to work around the problem.)

Now I need to take a day off from my day off.

Be careful what you name your product group

They thought they were so clever when they named the Desktop Applications Division. "And the abbreviation is 'DAD', isn't that cute? Complements the Microsoft Office Manager toolbar (MOM)."

And then the troubles started.

Shortly after the new product group was formed, everybody in the product group started getting email talking about strange non-business things. How's the garden doing? Did you get my letter? When will the twins be coming home from college?

The reason is that the email address for sending mail to the entire division was—naturally—"DAD". But it so happens that many people have a nickname for their father in their address book, named—of course—"dad". People thought they were sending email to their dad, when in fact it was going to DAD.

The email address for sending mail to the entire division was quickly changed to something like "deskapps" or "dappdiv".

The undeletable Outlook folder

For a while, I've had a few "undeletable Outlook folders". Even after deleting all the messages from them, Outlook just complains when I try to delete them. There was some sort of error message, but of course I didn't read it. The only option was OK, so I clicked it. As I recall, the message said something about "Can't delete because blah blah pending synchronization blah blah." I don't know what "pending synchronization" is, but it must be important if Outlook won't let me delete a folder because of it.

Meanwhile, I also noticed that my Sync Issues folder grew by about a dozen error messages every day, and I had to go clean them out every so often. The messages looked something like this:

9:26:59 Synchronizer Version 11.0.6352
9:26:59 Synchronizing Mailbox 'Raymond Chen'
9:26:59 Synchronizing local changes in folder '0618'
9:26:59 Error synchronizing folder
9:26:59		 [80004005-501-4B9-0]
9:26:59		 The client operation failed.
9:26:59		 Microsoft Exchange Server Information Store
9:26:59		 For more information on this failure, click the URL below:
9:27:00 Synchronizing local changes in folder '0611'
9:27:00 Error synchronizing folder
9:27:00		 [80004005-501-4B9-0]
9:27:00		 The client operation failed.
9:27:00		 Microsoft Exchange Server Information Store
9:27:00		 For more information on this failure, click the URL below:
9:27:01 Done

I clicked the link to obtain further information, but the instructions there didn't solve my problem. I just chalked this up to "Outlook gets that way sometimes," and ignored the messages, since they didn't seem to be hurting me. I had almost resigned myself to carrying these two undeletable folders with me until I die.

Then today I randomly stumbled across the solution.

I right-clicked one of the "stuck" folders and selected "Clear Offline Items", even though there were no offline items in the folder. (I deleted all the messages from it; the folder was empty. How do you clear something that is empty?) I got a warning dialog that said something like, "Hey, there's some unfinished synchronization here, do you want to clear the items anyway?" I said, "Go for it."

And then Outlook let me delete the folder.

My guess is that Outlook's synchronization engine got wedged up on these two folders because there was some unfinished business that it just couldn't reconcile, and it said, "Eh, maybe it'll work tomorrow, but in the meantime, don't delete it yet. I'm still working on it." Repeat for several months, because tomorrow never comes. By telling Outlook, "Oh just give up already, trust me, I don't care any more," the synchronization engine released its objections to deleting the folder and let me finally wipe it out.

If you have a mysteriously undeletable folder, you could try this, see if it helps.

Update: I just hit the problem again. The error message is

Outlook hat die Synchronisierung der lokalen Änderungen an Elementen in diesem Ordner noch nicht abgeschlossen. Der Order kann erst nach Abschluss der Synchronisierung mit dem Server gelöscht werden.

Yes, I run Outlook in German. This translates to "Outlook has not yet completed the synchronization of local changes to items in this folder. The folder can only be deleted after completion of the synchronization with the server."

This time, deleting the offline items wasn't good enough. Even though the Properties dialog says "Server folder contains: 0 items" and "Offline folder contains: 0 items", I nevertheless had to trigger a manual synchronization to reconfirm that zero equals zero before it would let me delete the folder.

(Watch, people are now going to start sending me Outlook product support questions. Hey, I don't work on Outlook. I'm a hapless victim like you!)

The history of the path separator in Japanese and Korean Windows

Why is the path separator on Japanese Windows the ¥ character? And why is it the ₩ character on Korean Windows? I've been prodding Michael Kaplan to delve into the history of this quirk, and he finally gave in to my repeated badgering. (Additional discussion on the Korean Won sign, the Japanese Yen sign, and currency symbols in general.)

Thread affinity of user interface objects, part 5: Object clean-up

The window manager and GDI objects as a general rule will automatically destroy objects created by a process when that process terminates. (The window manager also destroys windows when their owner threads exit.) Note, however, that this is a safety net and not an excuse for you to leak resources in your own program with the attitude of "Oh, it doesn't matter, the window manager will clean it up for me eventually." Since it's a safety net, you shouldn't use it as your primary means of protection.

For one thing, leaving junk behind to be cleaned up is just plain sloppy. It suggests that your program is too lazy (or stupid) to keep track of its own resources and has abdicated this to the safety net. It's like throwing your clothes on the floor because you know your mother will eventually come by to pick it up and put it away.

For another thing, this clean-up happens inside the window manager and no other window manager activity will occur until the clean-up is complete. If you leaked hundreds or thousands of objects, the system will seem visually unresponsive because the window manager is busy. (The system is still running, though. Operations that do not rely on the user interface, such as computation-intensive operations or network activity will still proceed normally while the window manager is cleaning up.)

Why didn't the window manager optimize the "massive clean-up" scenario? Because when you design a system, you focus on optimizing the case where people are using your system responsibly and in the manner intended. You don't want to reward the people who are abusing you. Imagine what kind of message you'd be sending if you designed the system so that people who abuse the system get better performance than people who follow the rules!

Thread affinity of user interface objects, part 4: GDI objects and other notes on affinity

GDI objects are much simpler. As a general rule, they all have process affinity: They can be used by any thread in the process that created them. If you use a GDI object from multiple threads, it is your responsibility to coordinate the object's use.

Note that the window manager and GDI as a general rule keep their respective objects thread-safe. When I say that it is your responsibility to coordinate an object's use from multiple threads, I mean that you have to coordinate among your own threads if you're going to modify the object from one thread and read from it on another or modify it from two threads. For example, if one thread enumerates a menu while another is modifying it, the one doing the enumeration will get inconsistent results. Similarly, if two threads both try to change a menu item at the same time, the last writer will win.

Next time, we wrap up with a discussion of clean-up.

Newark Liberty International Airport Terminal A travel tips

The line for going through the security checkpoint at Terminal A of Newark Liberty International Airport splits into three lines after you get through the ID check. When you get to the decision point, they all look the same, but don't be fooled.

             ID  / 3 ----------------------------------X
>>>-----------|--  2 ------------------------X
           check \ 1 -------------X

Take line 1. As you can see, it is a much shorter wait than the others.

If you observe carefully as you get into line, you'll see that all the people in business suits are in line 1. That's because the business travelers know this secret and the tourists don't.

The lines are uneven due to space constraints. In reality, the corridor looks more like this:

             ID  / 3 -----------------------------------XXXXXXXXX---
>>>-----------|--  2 ------------------------XXXXXXXXX  XXXXXXXXX 
           check \ 1 -------------XXXXXXXXX  XXXXXXXXX--------------

(I still call it Newark International Airport, since that's the name it had when I lived in New Jersey.)