An Unexpected Error has Occurred

There are a number of web services I use on casual basis. These are services that I find interesting and somewhat useful, even fun. Every now and then I learn interesting things from them and they don’t require me to devote large amounts of time or energy to them. At the same time, they’re not services I depend on and I wouldn’t be disappointed if I lost them.

I was using one such service the other day, in the form of a Chrome plugin, when I got an error: “An unexpected error has occurred. Please try again”. For a number of reasons, I think that is a particularly bad way to handle an error. I was not told what the error was or why it occurred. I wasn’t told if it was an error on my part, or if something was wrong with the service. I didn’t know if I could do anything to fix it (other than to try again, which didn’t work). There didn’t seem to be any way for me to report this error and I didn’t know if the developers were aware of the error.

Now, I don’t pay for this service and like I said, I probably wouldn’t miss it if the service ended. This is definitely a first-world netizen problem. That being said, I’m assuming that the people running the service want it to grow and prosper (and maybe someday make them money). But I can’t help but wander: how are they dealing with user-end errors? Looking at their website it looks like they’re a pretty small team. Maybe they don’t have the manpower to track down and solve each and every error. As a user (and early adopter) I understand they’ll have growing pains and rough edges, that things won’t work perfectly every time. I’m not very disappointed by the fact that there was an error, but I am annoyed that there was absolutely nothing I could do about it.

I like this service, I think they’re doing a good job. If I could, I would help them by reporting errors. I’ve filed bug reports in the past and I would do it again for a service I like. But I simply have no way of doing it. Almost anything would be a better error message than “An unexpected error has occurred”. Perhaps they don’t want to scare away users by dumping error codes or long error messages, but in that case let me know that the error has been logged. The way things stood, I didn’t know what the error was or that the developers were aware it had occurred.

So here’s the message I would like to give to this startup (and others like it): your users are smart and some of them want to help you. Especially if you’re a new webservice, many of your early adopters may be technically adept people who can file good bug reports and diagnose errors. But they can only help you if you let them. If you don’t want your users seeing long error messages, at least let them know that you’re aware of the error (you are logging errors, right?).

I ended up not using the service for several days because I didn’t care enough to track down the error. I later realized that the error could have been because I wasn’t in logged in to the service in Chrome. This is really something they should have just told me (or even not let me use the plugin till I was logged in). As a final word of advice: don’t be afraid to tell the user when they’re doing something wrong (but do be polite about it).

Postscript I tried to email the startup telling them about this issue, but I couldn’t find an email address either on their website on their blog. Their About page only has Twitter handles for the people that work there. Another note for startups: make it easy for your users to get in touch with you. I’m starting to reconsider the original goodwill I had towards this company.

Sunday Selection 2012-06-17

Around the Web

The Essential Psychopathology of Creativity

Andrea Kuszewski is one of my favorite writers on creativity, in large part because she references actual scientific research as opposed to blog posts and random opinions on the Internet. In this article she looks at the link between creativity and apparently detrimental psychological traits.

The care and feeding of software engineers

It’s a bit disappointing that despite how much of modern society and businesses depend on software engineers managers still need articles like this to tell them how to manage engineers. The only company I worked for did not have non-technical managers so I haven’t seen this firsthand but I’m guessing I might be the exception.

How Yahoo killed Flickr and lost the Internet

The computer industry has seen more than its fair share of companies rise and fall. While Yahoo is certainly not dead yet, it’s definitely not in its heyday. I’ve never been a big Yahoo or Flickr user, but there are lessons worth learning in this story.


No videos this week because I’ve been trying to avoid videos and TV and focus on reading more books.


I first read Accelerando a few months and I’ve been re-reading it over the last few days. It paints an interesting view of the evolution of the human race in an era of intelligent machines and accelerating technological change. While the future it shows can be terrifyingly alien, I personally also find it very interesting and hopeful.

Sunday Selection 2011-09-25

Unfortunately work-related activities having been taking up a lot of my time and energy over the past couple of weeks. On the good side I’m gradually making progress towards figuring out this grad school thing. While work on a funny and insightful blog post to blow you all away I leave with you a brief tour of the Intertubes.


It’s not gender warfare, it’s math Being a computer science graduate student I’m regularly confronted by the fact that there are not enough women in our field (and that doesn’t seem to be changing any time soon). Here’s a look at why and that needs to change and some work in the right direction.

The Fraying of a Nation’s Decency Sometimes we just need a reminder that we’re all human after all.

Web Technology

10 best @font-face fonts I think embeddable web fonts are one of the best things to have happened to the web in recent years. Think of this article as a good “getting started” guide if you’re trying to figure out what fonts to use for your own projects.

How to make a simple HTML5 Canvas game The canvas element is an even bigger improvement than web fonts. Like the name suggests, it gives you a general purpose drawing element on a web page. Combine that with fast JavaScript engines and you have a pretty decent game engine on your hands.


QuakeCon 2011 John Carmack keynote If you’re interested in gaming engines or high-performance, down-and-dirty programming then you should take the hour and half to listen to John Carmack — the brains behind the Doom and Quake game engines.

An ebook dilemma

As much as I love the idea of a digital book and the implementation of the Kindle, I can’t quite convince myself to go all ebook for future purchases. There is the DRM question, but that’s not the main issue. I suppose in the future Amazon could go the way of the dinosaur leaving all my precious Kindle books to bitrot. But I’m pretty confident that someone will find a way to break the DRM before that happens.

No, my current dilemma is far less technical. There are two books I really want to buy right now: Seth Godin’s Poke the Box and the just-released Anything You
by Derek Sivers. Both of them are available on Amazon in Kindle and hardcover, dead-tree form. The problem is that for both of them the ebook version is just about a dollar less than the hardcover version. For the Poke the Box, it’s just 30c.

From an author’s or publisher’s perspective I can understand why you’d want that kind of pricing. Perhaps you don’t want readers to feel like either version is a
second-class citizen. Perhaps you don’t want readers without a Kindle to be put off buying. Perhaps you want to tell your readers that either choice is fine and you, as publisher, are ambivalent on the subject of print versus digital. I think all of them are perfectly valid decisions. But as someone who isn’t pre-decided one way or the other, it makes the decision harder, not easier.

Here’s a (probably incomplete list) of all the things that I’ve been thinking about over the past few days regarding my choices, not in strict order: Oooh.. look Kindle versions! Now I can take them with wherever I go. But wait, the hardcover is less than a dollar more. If I get the hardcover I’ll have something nice and physical and DRM-free to keep on my bookshelf. And I don’t randomly start reading on my Kindle so I could probably just plan ahead and carry the book when I think I’ll read it. But the hardcover is probably going to be heavy and I have to move on a fairly regular basis. I don’t want to move too much heavy stuff, but then again I move once a year at most. The rest of the time it’ll sit on my bookshelf and I do like the look of a well-filled bookshelf. And if it’s in plain view instead of tucked inside the Kindle I’ll
probably reread it again at some point. But paper books are so last century and the Kindle is just gorgeous.

So on and so forth. You get the point.

In general I agree with Craig Mod: the future of books is digital and paper books will move closer and closer towards Collectors Item status. Instead of being cheap, mass produced blocks of paper, they’ll become careful, hand-crafted works of art. And I for one am quite happy with that. The problem is that there is this awkward growing-up phase as digital book technology matures. That phase is now. One of the results of that awkwardness is the indecision I’m currently facing. If these were mass market paperbacks that I’m going to read on a plane flight and never again I would get the Kindle versions in a heartback. But they’re not. They’re both books I think I’ll like, would want to keep and can see myself rereading. If the reading experience on the Kindle wasn’t as top-notch as it is, I would get the hardcovers. But the argument in favor of ebooks and ereaders has gotten good enough that the choice between the two is not an easy one by any measure.

For me the idea of books is intimately connected with the idea of libraries. I don’t just want to read the books and absorb them, I want to have a growing library of my reading as well. And though I could make some kind of digital “have read” list, there is something about a physical library that tugs at my heartstrings. It’s the idea of having a set of books that in some way is a reflection of myself. They contain words and ideas that are now a part of me. Not all books I read would go into this library (most textbooks would not make the cut), but hopefully anything that I willimingly buy would. In an ideal world I’d be able to “rent” the ebook version for an absurdly low price (say 50c a day). Then I could read it and if I decided it was a “keeper” I would buy the dead-tree version for my library.

At this point I officially hand this question to the wisdom of the Internets. For a $1 difference, which version would you buy and why?

(And no, I am not going to scrounge around for a “free” PDF copy. That defeats the point of everything I just said. I want to give the authors my money, but I want to make a good investment myself as well. The two purposes can be aligned, I’m just not sure how.)

Sunday Selection 2011-04-03

Happy April everyone! I hope you all had a fun April Fools and that you took any jokes at your expense in good spirit. Laughter is the best medicine and all that. Without further ado, here’s this weeks Selection.

Around the Internet

Why I Chose Typekit Businesses, business models and the psychology and ethics behind it all continue to interest me. This is one designer’s description of why he chooses Typekit over the other web-based type delivery services. There aren’t any long charts or big numbers, it’s more personal and honest.

The Holy Trinity In the process of making plans for actually going to graduate school, I’ve been spending some thinking about what I want to research and what motivations and goals are. Apart from the technical things I’m interested in, I’m starting to believe that what we need more than ever is a “philosophy of computation” — ideas and concepts that define computation and our relationship to it at a higher level. Robert Harper’s recent blog post is a milestone on that journey.

This Hack was Not Planned Another gem from the man, the legend, the hacker _why the luck stiff. Not matter how much we talk about agile processes and software development methodologies, sometimes we just need to sit down and churn out a neat hack. This one is for the knife-edge hacker in all of us.

From the Bookshelf

Rework When I read and reviewed this book almost exactly a year I was perhaps less than charitable. I stick by my point that it is largely the best material pulled from their blog, but after a year I’m seeing it from the eyes of someone who hasn’t recently been drinking the 37signals kool-aid non-stop. There are powerful and useful ideas distilled into a very potent form. If you’re looking to start a business (or even just a new project) but are unsure how set yourself apart from the Jones’ this book should give you some really good ideas.

Software My reading has gone up a lot in the last few months and I’ve been making a conscious effort to track everything I read. Since most of my reading is online, I’ve been using an excellent bookmarking service called Pinboard. It’s not free and it’s not overflowing with social features, but it stores and organizes your bookmarks and does it well. If you’re someone who reads a lot online and you want to keep track of what you’re reading, the $9.29 signup fee is a small fee to pay. (The price goes up based on the number of people who sign up, so hurry. It was a bit over $6 when I joined.)