Saturday, October 06, 2007

The article they didn’t let you read

Following Father Bertie Park’s auspicious debut as a published author, I can now reveal that I myself enjoyed a brief ‘career’ as an info-tech writer in the early ’90s.

I contributed, unpaid, several articles to the Melbourne PC User Group’s organ, PC Update. Most notable among these was an article in the August 1992 edition, “Paradox 3.5 — Criticisms, Quibbles and Cautions.”

This article advanced the thesis that Borland’s relational database software product, Paradox, did indeed present, as their blurb contended, “a most ingenious paradox”: How can something so mind-bogglingly useful and powerful be such a dog to use?

The magazine ran a response from Borland International (Australia) — which, as it happens, was a patron of MPCUG — directly following my article:

Borland’s Response

Mr Stam’s feelings about the ageing Lotus-style menu system in Paradox 3.5 were shared by many users, which is why Borland replaced it in Paradox 4.0 with a new-generation TurboVision-style interface, complete with mouse control, pull-down menus, dialogue boxes, radio buttons and so on. It now shares a common look and feel to Borland DOS-based language and spreadsheet products, making it much simpler to move back and forth between applications.

His various points are well taken, and some of them have been addressed in Paradox 4.0, while others are more related to philosophical differences between users. We try to address these individual preferences where possible — for example, Paradox 4.0 allows diehard “ParaLotus” menu fans to switch back to the older menus if required.

Paradox 4.0 has been independently benchmarked as the fastest multi-user PC relational database on the planet, as PC Update readers are probably aware of by now. Melbourne has always been a hotbed of Paradox activity, and we welcome further feedback from Mr Stam or any other readers. In fact, Borland Australia selected the Melbourne leg of our recent Borland 92 technology seminar as the official launching pad of Paradox 4.0 in Australia. We look forward to having the opportunity of demonstrating Paradox 4.0, along with many other new Borland products, to a future Melb PC meeting.

Ian Robinson
Marketing Manager

Whetted with Mr Robinson’s invitation to contribute “further feedback”, I boiled down my impressions on Paradox 4.0 in a further article. PC Update said they would like to use it, but could I please cut it down to 1000 words or so?

Well, I did, but in the event the magazine did not publish. So, here, for the first time is my full, original article on Paradox 4.0 — the article they didn’t let you read!

Paradox 4.0 — Quibbler’s Response

An article of mine appeared in the August edition of PC Update which was somewhat critical of various aspects of the now superseded version 3.5 of Borland’s Paradox. Tacked to the end of it was a short item headed “Borland’s Response”, which was a rebuttal from Mr Ian Robinson, Borland’s Marketing Manager here in Australia. Mr Robinson wanted to assure readers that some of the less pleasing aspects of the program I had identified were to be addressed in Paradox 4.0, the release of which was quite imminent.

My criticism focussed in particular on what I saw as Paradox’s antiquated and cumbersome user interface. Readers may recall the example I gave of the tortuous means by which report settings are fixed in Report Mode. This type of thing, Mr Robinson suggested, was to be remedied in Paradox 4 with the introduction of mouse support and a new “Windows-like” interface.

After spending some time exploring Paradox 4, I have to say that my response is lukewarm as far as the user interface enhancements are concerned. I was disappointed to find the very same sinuous user interface, albeit smodernised with drop-down menus, pop-up windows, list-boxes, etc.

In short, the version 4 enhancements to the Paradox front-end are largely cosmetic. The main difference seems to be that, rather than having all the interaction take place on the two top lines of the screen, the user is treated to something like a pyrotechnic display as more menus, input boxes, etc., erupt all across the workspace. This may or may not be an improvement, depending on one’s aesthetic sense, but also on practical considerations such as keeping what’s on the workspace in plain view.

Although Paradox’s mouse support can sometimes be helpful, one is nevertheless stuck with that tortuous menu structure which was my chief concern in the previous article. To hark back to the example I gave there, the Report Mode menu structure must be traversed repeatedly for each and every report setting one wishes to modify. My vision, in the June article, of a “Report Settings Dialogue Box”, in which all the report settings are available for perusal and/or modification, was not to be.

Mouse support, inexplicably, is simply not there in certain situations. For instance, after selecting Field/WordWrap from the Report Mode menu, one cannot use the mouse to click-select the field one wishes to wordwrap. Paradox simply beeps stupidly, obstinately waiting for one to instead use the cursor keys to place the cursor on the desired field. One then presses the Enter key to select the field. Forget the mouse for the moment, because Paradox already has. Another disappointment was that the mouse cannot be used to “drag” a field to another location in a report spec.

The conclusion I’ve reached regarding the Paradox user interface is that it cannot be other than what it is — that is, labyrinthine and cumbersome. To change the structure of the user interface would mean making it incompatible with an established user-base whose existing Paradox Application Language (PAL) applications depend on that structure. In order not to estrange itself from its user-base, Paradox must maintain the status quo, because a PAL script is just that — a script — meaning, it simulates user interaction within a presupposed structure. The effect of this is familiar to most PAL programmers, who know what happens when a script tries to select a non-existent menu item.

The instructions in a PAL script have the character of being “interface-based”, which is in marked distinction to a truly command-based programming language such as used in dBase. Even some PAL instructions which appear to be “commands” (such as VIEW, EDIT, SORT, etc.) are really only shorthand for the corresponding menu interactions. Over the years, of course, PAL has been given extensions which obviate its more serious deficiencies, some of which are genuine “commands”. Some indeed offer functionality not available in Paradox’s Interactive Mode.

However, the fact remains that Paradox, as a development environment, is seriously hide-bound. In order to become a “true” programming language, PAL requires a ground-up overhaul, with extensions upon extensions. Only when PAL has evolved to a point where scripts can run independently of the interface structure will Borland be free to give Paradox the user interface it needs and deserves. Only then will Paradox truly be a pleasure to use interactively. And only then will Paradox truly be a pleasure to program.

A problem here is that established Paradox users are justifiably wary of changes which would nullify the considerable time and effort invested in their existing systems. Like so many aspects of technology, PAL as it exists has become — and probably will continue to be — entrenched not because it is ideal, but because users have made do with it for so long that they are accustomed to it — and dependent upon it. Many, I suspect, are even genuinely fond of it.

I mentioned in the June article my annoyance with the Paradox 3.5 feature in which the only way to save a report, form or script on which one is working is to press the Do_It! key (F2). This has the added effect of exiting back to Main Mode, and tough-luck if one wanted to continue designing one’s report. Okay, so it’s not a severe flaw, but I thought a worthwhile enhancement might be to provide an option which would allow one to save the work done so far and continue working uninterrupted. I was mildly disappointed to find that Paradox 4 has not improved upon this time-wasting “design feature”.

To take up another matter raised in my June article, I regret to report that the “CalcEdit bug” discussed therein has not been corrected in Paradox 4. It still lurks in Report Mode to “entrap the unwary”. And the fact that Borland have omitted to warn users in the documentation, even though they are aware of the problem, ensures that there will always be the odd unwary user to be entrapped.

I shouldn’t neglect to report on some of the more pleasing aspects of the Paradox 4 upgrade. Not all the enhancements to the user interface are merely cosmetic. The “window-based” interface allows easy manipulation of images on the workspace. One can move, zoom, re-size or close windows, adjust table column size and (in most circumstances) select objects with a few deft mouse actions. The look-and-feel of the interface might be familiar to some as the Turbo Vision type used extensively in other Borland, particularly language, products.

PAL programmers are at last blessed with a half-way decent script editor. The script editor is, in fact, very much like the editors of Borland’s Turbo languages, with mouse support, search and replace (exact match or pattern), block cut and paste — in short, all the basic features one would expect in a text editor from a major software company.

Of course, there are enhancements beneath the surface, too. Execution of queries is, we are assured, significantly accelerated in comparison to previous versions. Borland have also given users a way of viewing a table in an order other than that in which it is keyed, by means of secondary indexes. It is perhaps odd that it took 4 versions for what should be a rather basic feature in a major relational database package to become available for Paradox users. Well, it took Borland to do it...

By far the most exciting enhancements for many will be the PAL extensions, which number some 100 or so. These provide, among other things, event-driven programming capabilities, and generation of Windows-like user interface objects, such as windows, dialogue boxes, etc. Used skilfully, they can greatly enhance the effectiveness of user interaction within PAL applications, as well as providing a bit of pizzazz.

I suppose no software product will ever be perfect. To put that another way, no software product can ever be all things to all users. All the same, Paradox 4 is a significant and worthwhile upgrade. One might reckon the upgrade price of $295 (from v3.5) to be rather steep until one considers the amount of development work which must have gone into the product.


Anonymous Bertie said...

You didn't, perchance, pen a piece on Progress did you Jacob?

Released about the same time as I recall. Just as forgotten.

Then again, perhaps it is what Phil uses to create his opulently opaque posts?

7/10/07 7:27 PM  
Blogger Caz said...

"Melbourne has always been a hotbed of Paradox activity.

Now you tell me.

I would have thought twice about moving back here if I'd had this information at hand.

7/10/07 9:53 PM  
Anonymous Jarcob said...

Don't let it faze you, Caz, he was the marketing manager, spruiking to a Melbourne audience.

But the curse of Paradox still hangs over where I work, with a couple of legacy Paradox data applications that no-one has ever gotten around to upgrading to a 21st century platform. So several of us have to have a 10+ years old product, Paradox for Windows, on our machines. And actually occasionally use it.

Progress, Bertie? So far, my memory fails. I'll have to have a beer on that one. You'll help me, won't you?

7/10/07 10:17 PM  
Anonymous Jarcob said...

By the way, any thoughts on the 'Read More' (below-the-fold) feature I've activated on the blog?

It's another 'blogger hack' that -- like the 'Recent Comments' thingy, stage right -- doesn't work very well.

It's perfect for this kind of looong post, but unfortunately it also asks readers to 'Read More' on posts where there actually isn't anything more to read.

Good old Blogger!!

7/10/07 10:28 PM  
Blogger Caz said...

Ah, see, I've always wondered how people activate the "read more" function. I thought they must be dreadfully clever. There must be a little function of some sort?

I'm veeeerrrrrry much in two minds about it. Personally, I find it a bother, but that might be because I don't mind if someone has a "long" post, while other readers might be frightened off(?).

On your blog, I'll click the "read more", but confess that for oodles of other blogs I only read the shown text and move on. Having to click on one more link is all too much bother, and it takes me away from the primary page, so I can't glance about at other posts ... I have to "go back" to look at other posts.

So, unless it's a truly gigantic post, I guess I'm just as happy to see the whole thing without having to do the "read more" thing.

Not very helpful, am I? :-D

9/10/07 10:47 AM  
Blogger Jacob A. Stam said...

Actually you've been very helpful.

I'll keep the feature, but only use it sparingly, e.g., I don't want the Pahoff stuff casting a great pall over this blog.

I may in future also want to do some long posts on various oddities and curios, so it may be appropriate for that kind of thing.

By the way, the 'hack' is done in the Template for your blog, see here and here.

It's ridiculous, but it can only be done at html level - to the template to set it up, then to each post you want to use it on.

Good old Blogger!

9/10/07 11:19 AM  
Anonymous Dylan said...

Well you can add me to the list of recently published people, too! :)

I just got word from Oradea, Romania that they have accepted an article of mine for the forthcoming issue of their journal. The topic isn't quite as gripping as Father Park's or Jacob's, I'm afraid, but it's cause for celebration here in Villeurbanne tonight! :)

9/10/07 9:41 PM  
Blogger Jacob A. Stam said...

Always a pleasure to hear some positive news in the blogosphere, Dylan.


Is there somewhere we can go to see the summary or contents page.

Actually I thought you'd been published before, although I could be mistaken.

As for "recently published", mine was back in '92, regarding what then was supposed to be cutting edge (I guess it was), but what's now almost a historical curiosity.

Hell, I don't even much follow the software scene these days. I just use whatever's given me and carry on. Usually stoically.

9/10/07 9:59 PM  
Anonymous Dylan said...

I have been published before but I still get excited about it. It's a real 'publish or perish' attitude in my field and as I am seeking a place in Europe when I finally finish the PhD, publications matter a great deal.

Plus it's a great excuse to enjoy a glass of champagne! :)

The article is being printed in both English and Romanian and the abstract in English is:

In describing the nature of the international system contemporary international relations theorists frequently divide themselves into two groups: neorealists and neoliberalists. The neorealists emphasise an anarchical structure, drawing implications from this anarchy to explain the order and disorder that greets the analyst of international affairs. Conversely, neoliberalists favour an explanation that focuses on the interdependence of international actors.

Yet the international system of the twenty-first century is not one that can be so simply described as either ‘anarchical’ or ‘interdependent’. Instead, the features of the system can best be described in terms reminiscent of other systems from the biological and meteorological sciences.

The international system is something more complex than what the neorealists and neoliberalists suspect, sensitive to seemingly insignificant inputs and beyond discussions of order and disorder. The essence of the international system is chaos and, thus, a chaotic theory of international relations is now required.

9/10/07 10:31 PM  
Blogger Jacob A. Stam said...

Thanks, Dylan, yes very interesting.

The tendency seems always to focus on one aspect of complex phenomena. Ignoring, of course, that complex phenomena are Janus-faced (at the very least).

Are you blogging again somewhere. Would be interested to follow the response to your work, in so far as I'm able.

10/10/07 11:55 AM  
Anonymous Dylan said...

No, not blogging. That particular avenue of expression is closed for the time being.

It's hard to trace the response to my work, though the university that hosts my papers online has a tracker which lets me know how many times someone downloads each paper. I know some of the work has been cited in a Masters thesis of a student from Macedonia, some other work in the thesis of a student in The Netherlands and one article (on Australian security) is being used in tutorials by an academic at Deakin. The response - to this point, at least - is limited, though one always hopes this might change.

I actually have some hopes for an article I have out on review now about terrorism. The feedback from the conference I first presented it at was very positive and - should it be published - I think it is an interesting enough topic that I could transfrom it into a 800 word op-ed for the local press here in France. You never know your luck, right? :)

10/10/07 3:40 PM  
Anonymous Jacob said...

Well, best of luck with it, I'll look out for news of you whether here or elsewhere.

10/10/07 9:47 PM  

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