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Fair warning: this is a blog post about automated cat feeders. Sort of. But bear with me, because I'm also trying to make a point about software. If you have a sudden urge to click the back button on your browser now, I don't blame you. I don't often talk about cats, but when I do, I make it count.

We've used automated cat feeders since 2007 with great success. (My apologies for the picture quality, but it was 2007, and camera phones were awful.)

Old-petmate-feeders

Feeding your pets using robots might sound impersonal and uncaring. Perhaps it is. But I can't emphasize enough how much of a daily lifestyle improvement it really is to have your pets stop associating you with ritualized, timed feedings. As my wife so aptly explained:

I do not miss the days when the cats would come and sit on our heads at 5 AM, wanting their breakfast.

Me neither. I haven't stopped loving our fuzzy buddies, but this was also before we had onetwothree children. We don't have a lot of time for random cat hijinks these days. Anyway, once we set up the automated feeders in 2007, it was a huge relief to outsource pet food obsessions to machines. They reliably delivered a timed feeding at 8am and 8pm like clockwork for the last five years. No issues whatsoever, other than changing the three D batteries about once a year, filling the hopper with kibble about once a month, and an occasional cleaning.

Although they worked, there were still many details of the automated feeders' design that were downright terrible. I put up with these problems because I was so happy to have automatic feeders that worked at all. So when I noticed that the 2012 version of these feeders appeared to be considerably updated, I went ahead and upgraded immediately on faith alone. After all, it had been nearly five years! Surely the company had improved their product a bit since then … right? Well, a man can dream, can't he?

New-petmate-feeders

When I ordered the new feeders, I assumed they would be a little better than what I had before.

Petmate-lebistro-old-and-new

The two feeders don't look so radically different, do they? But pay attention to the details.

  • The food bowl is removable. It drove me crazy that the food bowl in the old version was permanently attached, and tough to clean as a result.
  • The food bowl has rounded interior edges. As if cleaning the non-removable bowl of our old version wasn't annoying enough, it also had sharp interior edges, which tended to accrete a bunch of powdered food gunk in there over time. Very difficult to clean properly.
  • The programming buttons are large and easy to press. In the old version, the buttons were small watch-style soft rubber buttons that protruded from the surface. The tactile feedback was terrible, and they were easy to mis-press because of their size and mushiness.
  • The programming buttons are directly accessible on the face of the device. For no discernable reason whatsoever, the programming buttons in the old version were under a little plastic clear protective "sneeze guard" flap, which you had to pinch up and unlock with your thumb before you could do any programming at all. I guess the theory was that a pet could somehow accidentally brush against the buttons and do … something … but that seems incredibly unlikely. But most of all, unnecessary.
  • The programming is easier. We never changed the actual feed schedule, but just changing the time for daylight savings was so incredibly awkward and contorted we had to summarize the steps from the manual on a separate piece of paper as a "cheat sheet". The new version, in contrast, makes changing the time almost as simple as it should be. Almost.
  • There is an outflow cover flap. By far the number one physical flaw of the old feeder: the feed slot invites curious paws, and makes it all too easy to fish out kibble on demand. You can see in my original photo that we had to mod the feed slot to tape (and eventually bolt) a wire soap dish cover over it so the cats wouldn't be able to manual feed. The new feeder has a perfectly aligned outflow flap that I couldn't even dislodge with my finger. And it works; even our curious-est cat wasn't able to get past it.
  • The top cover rotates to lock. On the old feeder, the top cover to the clear kibble storage was a simple friction fit; dislodging it wasn't difficult, and the cats did manage to do this early on with some experimentation. On the new feeder, the cover is slotted, and rotates to lock against the kibble storage securely. This is the same way the kibble feeder body locks on the base (on both old and new feeders), so it's logical to use this same "rotate to lock into or out of position" design in both places.
  • The feed hopper is funnel shaped. The old feed hopper was a simple cylinder, and holds less in the same space as a result. When I transferred the feed over from the old full models (we had literally just filled them the day before) to the updated ones, I was able to add about 15-20 percent more kibble despite the device being roughly the same size in terms of floor space.
  • The base is flared. Stability is critical; depending how adventurous your cats are, they may physically attack the feeders and try to push them over, or hit them hard enough to trigger a trickle of food dispensing. A flared base isn't the final solution, but it's a big step in the right direction. It's a heck of a lot tougher to knock over a feeder with a bigger "foot" on the ground.
  • It's off-white. The old feeder, like the Ford Model T, was available in any color customers wanted, so long as it was black. Which meant it did a great job of not blending in with almost any decor, and also showed off its dust collection like a champ. Thank goodness the new model comes in "linen".

These are, to be sure, a bunch of dumb, nitpicky details. Did the old version feed our cats reliably? Yes, it did. But it was also a pain to clean and maintain, a sort of pain that I endured weekly, for reasons that made no sense to me other than arbitrarily poor design choices. But when I bought the new version of the automated feeder, I was shocked to discover that nearly every single problem I had with the previous generation was addressed. I felt as if the Petmate Corporation™ was actually listening to all the feedback from the people who used their product, and actively refined the product to address our complaints and suggestions.

My point, and I do have one, is that details matter. Details matter, in fact, a hell of a lot. Whether in automatic cat feeders, or software. As my friend Wil Shipley once said:

This is all your app is: a collection of tiny details.

This is still one of my favorite quotes about software. It's something we internalized heavily when building Stack Overflow. Getting the details right is the difference between something that delights, and something customers tolerate.

Your software, your product, is nothing more than a collection of tiny details. If you don't obsess over all those details, if you think it's OK to concentrate on the "important" parts and continue to ignore the other umpteen dozen tiny little ways your product annoys the people who use it on a daily basis – you're not creating great software. Someone else is. I hope for your sake they aren't your competitor.

The details are hard. Everyone screws up the details at first, just like Petmate did with the first version of this automatic feeder. And it's OK to screw up the details initially, provided …

  • you're getting the primary function more or less right.
  • you're listening to feedback from the people who use your product, and actively refining the details of your product based on their feedback every day.

We were maniacal about listening to feedback from avid Stack Overflow users from the earliest days of Stack Overflow in August 2008. Did you know that we didn't even have comments in the first version of Stack Overflow? But it was obvious, based on user feedback and observed usage, that we desperately needed them. There are now, at the time I am writing this, 1,569 completed feature requests; that's more than one per day on average.

Imagine that. Someone who cares about the details just as much as you do.

[advertisement] Stack Overflow Careers matches the best developers (you!) with the best employers. You can search our job listings or create a profile and even let employers find you.

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One of the most horrific terms in history was used by Nazi Germany to designate human beings whose lives were unimportant, or those who should be killed outright: Lebensunwertes Leben, or "life unworthy of life". First applied to the mentally impaired, later to the "racially inferior", or "sexually deviant", or merely "enemies of the state" both internal and external. From very early in the war, part of Nazi policy was to murder civilians en masse, especially targeting Jews -- which later in the war became Hitler's "final solution", the complete extermination of the Jews. Beginning with Einsatzgruppen death squads in the East, killing some 1,000,000 people in numerous massacres, later in concentration camps where prisoners were actively denied proper food and health care, and ending with the construction of extermination camps -- government facilities whose entire purpose was the systematic murder and disposal of massive numbers of people. In 1945, as advancing Allied troops began discovering many camps, they found the results of these policies: hundreds of thousands of starving and sick prisoners locked in with more thousands of dead bodies. Evidence of gas chambers, high-volume crematoriums, thousands of mass graves, documentation of awful medical experimentation, and much more. The Nazis killed more than 10 million people in this manner, including 6 million Jews. (This entry is Part 18 of a weekly 20-part retrospective of World War II) [45 photos]

Warning: All images in this entry are shown in full, not screened out for graphic content. There are many dead bodies. The photographs are graphic and stark. This is the reality of genocide, and of an important part of World War II and human history.

An emaciated 18-year-old Russian girl looks into the camera lens during the liberation of Dachau concentration camp in 1945. Dachau was the first German concentration camp, opened in 1933. More than 200,000 people were detained between 1933 and 1945, and 31,591 deaths were declared, most from disease, malnutrition and suicide. Unlike Auschwitz, Dachau was not explicitly an extermination camp, but conditions were so horrific that hundreds died every week. (Eric Schwab/AFP/Getty Images)

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4954100106_c1afdb2c35_z

For some Auslanders who are struggling to adopt to the elite German lifestyle, the day might arrive to pack up and say goodbye. Could be you were asked by your boss to move to another city, and you, being the brain dead, anti-intellectual, zero-creative-potential corporate automaton you always were, blindly obeyed.

Regardless of whatever reason has come up in your life that makes it necessary to leave Berlin, it positively means you have failed miserably at blending in wiz ze Germans — because if you had succeeded, you simply would have no life, and certainly no exciting things happening in it that necessitate moving away. Berlin would have been that “final solution” to all your ambitions and dreams, as it is for most elite German people, and you would spend your life irately defending its alleged coolness on sad internet comment threads.

Yet, since you gave up on blending in wiz ze Germans, at the very least, you need to confirm to a few basic guidelines and rules on how to quit ruleless, nonconformist Berlin in the universally accepted way. The timespan between the day of your announcement and your actual departure marks a phase of high emotional involvement for your elite German acquaintances. No, not because they are sad to lose a friend, but because it challenges that precious, set-in-stone consensus they once reached with themselves about Berlin being the cultural pinnacle of humankind, which nobody interesting, important, or perpetually adolescent would ever want to abandon.

You will soon learn that there is an easy way, and a hard way to leave Berlin. What’s that about, you ask? It is a distinction made on the place you move to next. Time to share a little secret:  Elite Germans are at all times painfully aware Berlin is actually not the most interesting place in the world.  Shhh! You’ve got to keep that voice down, Auslander! You are not supposed to know about the fundamental hurt from which the never ending, passive-aggressive pissing contest better known to its purveyors as “cool young Berlin” has arisen. Elite German people would rather drink a Müller Milch than ever admit this to anybody, including themselves. 

The easy way to leave Berlin is to move to any one of the three places the elite German population of Berlin has sound reason to feel superior to, which are: Wiedenborstel, Kleinbockedra, and Bebra. If you happen to move to one of these three, you can stop reading after this paragraph. Simply tell your friends you’re moving to a rural shithole, and enjoy the many beer-spilling dive bar binges you will get invited to out of pity.

However, it is more likely that you won’t be allowed to leave Berlin the easy way, because you just had to act like a total dick again and choose one of the many cities which make elite German people twitch nervously with population envy.

Just a passing mention of a city with 10 million people will involuntarily trigger a built-in, natural defence mechanism, quite similar to that Malaysian ant which, when attacked, explodes into a venomous fountain of guts: They will explode in a sudden rage at the fact you finally managed to rise above them in that devious little hierarchy they so desperately deny to exist.

Do you even realise what you impose on them? While you are getting ready to leave it all behind, enjoying your last few days in Berlin, wasting not a single electron of brain activity on organising the transport of 15000 rare Detroit-techno vinyls, because, like, you knew better than to get into that sad, phlegmatic hobby of collecting records, they are forced into another episode of DIY trauma therapy, brooding in dimly lit rooms to come up with a line of reasoning that will re-inject sense back into that fragile inner microcosm of unwarranted superiority your announcement so viciously shattered.

Once the cat is out the jute bag about your impending departure, elite German people, even those you barely ever met, are allowed to stop you on the street for a session of authoritative questioning. Your emigration interrogation will always start with an encouraging “I heard you’ll be leaving us...that’s so greeeeat for you”, which is meant to make them appear well-meaning and “on your side”, like psychologically trained detectives questioning a suspect in another lame episode of Tatort. 

Never take them at face value. Because they love little more than gossip, they probably already know the answer to their next question: “Where are you going?”. Answer by stating your destination in a calm and non-threatening way, like so: “I am going to New York”.

Now, let’s take a close look what this sentence triggers in an elite German person. Because this really is a life-or-social-death situation for their self-image, their brain, in the split of a millisecond, switches into survival mode. They are now in a state of elevated cognitive abilities. Their breath quickens. Their rhetorical skills slightly improve. Their memory backlog is extended by at least one decade. It’s like that overdose of Ketamine back in 2008 never happened. An elaborate program, like a piece of software code, is set in motion. 

The objective of this program is to neutralise as much as possible of the agonising grandeur that, in their spoiled minds, is awarded to anyone leaving Berlin for a bigger city. A grandeur whose existence you weren’t aware of, and never meant to exude, but is very real and very challenging to every elite German person. It is driving them mad with furious envy, which of course they can’t admit to in public, so they try their hardest to candy-coat it with pushy, dishonest empathy.

“Ohh, Neeeew Yooork...!” they’ll say, “we have a lot of friends there!” Don’t be surprised by this. No matter what city you go to, you can count on your elite German acquaintances to already have an extensive network of uberinteresting people in place. The subtext of course being that they are absolutely unimpressed by you moving there as well, and that any claim of individuality enhancement on your part (which you were never going to make) would be absolutely ridiculous to them. Never ask for details about those friends they are talking about. They’ll lecture you anyway. Better prepare for their next move:

“So, where exactly in New York will you be living?” Because you are probably 8000% less sentimental than the average elite German person about what neighbourhood and type of building you live in, you probably don’t know yet or can’t care enough to remember. Elite German people feel tremendous pressure to cover their conventional upbringing with a fabricated cosmopolitan veneer, and therefore maintain a roughly ten-years-obsolete concept about the cool neighbourhoods of the world’s cities. 

This is their chance to catch you off-guard. If you don’t want to open a shallow side argument about what parts of what cities are cool today, just think back 10 years and say “Williamsburg.”

“Ohh, Williamsbuuurg...!” they’ll say, “didn’t Finn, Leni, and Hartmut recently move there, too? We should totally give you their number, so they can show the new guy around.” Likely, a major part of your motivation for going abroad is to get away from elite Germans as far as possible, so you should answer in a non-committing way, like “oh, I will be very busy in my new job so I probably won’t have any free time in the next few...years”

Sensing that they won’t gain much ground in their struggle to make you feel small by pointing out how mainstream your oh-so-special destination really is, they’ll quickly change their focus to the nature of your new occupation:

“A new job? That’s soo great for you! What is it?” If you’re a straightforward person who’s thinking along the lines of “a job is just a job”, “it pays the bills”, “can’t be choosy in this economy”, you might be just naïve enough to say truth, for example “I’ll work at an internet company.”

Notice how your interrogators are becoming more excited now,   sensing a chance to gain the upper hand: “An internet company! Good for you! Well, I guess you won’t click with Hartmut, Leni, and Finn then, because they all work in creative professions!”

For old times sake, you could just engage in one last round of elite German combative communication, and say “Well, my job could be characterised as creative as well, it has to do with photography...”

“Photography! What a coincidence! Leni, Finn, and Hartmut are  photographers! In fact, they are assistants to Ellen von Unwerth, where they meet really exciting and famous people every day! I guess having a connection to Hartmut would be quite exciting for your little, what was it again, web design company? Jürgen, can we give out Hartmuts private number? We just have to bring you two together so he can show you all the cool places in New York, you know!”

At which point you might just stop caring and start to fuck around with them: “Oh, did I say web design company? Sorry, must be the tough weekend in Berghain. Actually, I meant to say I will be the new Director of Art Buying at MoMA, with a side job as Terry Richardson’s new muse, in the case I ever get some time off my frequent mid-day outdoor threesomes with my two new girlfriends Zooey Deschanel and Chloë Sevigny, of course...”, which will make your elite German stare at you in disbelief and finally say in a notably less excited tone: “That’s so...great for you...”

P.S. It is an unwritten, yet absolute certainty that if you ever run into Hartmut, Leni, Finn, or any other elite German person who was described to you as a hip expat god breaking new ground abroad, in the bleak light of day-to-day reality, things look a little less glorious. They might just have planned to go, but never actually left home, or they might have visited the city on vacation, but never lived there, or they did in fact live there for a few months, but only found bar jobs and ran out of money, or they actually were photography interns, but not for Ellen von Unwerth, but Ellen Krapszinsky, alcoholic wedding photographer. Don’t bother to report back to Germany about such tiny, irrelevant particularities, though — you´d look awfully nit-picky and uptight.

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