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This is the archive for February 2008

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Some people seem to go out of their way to find things to be angsty about. Take the raging conrtoversy over whether it’s right and proper to display books you haven’t read, with the counterpoint being that it is - because the vanity is justified and important.

There’s the obvious question in response to this dilemma: where else would you put them? I can’t help but wonder about the sanity and intellect of anyone whose book collection consists of a shelf full of books they’ve read and one - the one with the bookmark still in it - that they haven’t.

I’ve got three kinds of books around, aside from the ones I’ve read, which are more likely than not in a box buried in the store room. There’s books I will read - and I really mean it, these books get consumed at my house. Trust me, you open a new six pack of beer less often than I crack one of these open - or you probably can’t keep a job. Then there’s books that I’ll read someday, if I live long enough. They often start out on the “will read” shelf, but keep being pushed back as new arrivals take precedence. Then there’s the reference books. These tend to be out and accessible, simply because I never know when I’ll need them.

It’s hardly vanity. My “display” shelves are not what anyone would call picturesque, nor something you’d enjoy browsing through unless you’re nuts like I am. They’re in dusty corners of the house wherever they’ll fit, in whatever space technically allows access, even if it requires less than comfortable posture to realize it.

I have often brought home from a yard sale so many books that it takes several trips to the car to carry them all inside. All my pocket change goes into a bucket to be converted to books later via Coinstar and Amazon. I buy about three books for every book I will ever be able to read. I’ve seen smaller collections in some small-town public libraries. And even with that, I still regularly borrow books from friends.

But that’s the joy of it. I know they’re there when some day I’ll want just that one particular book that maybe ten years prior at a yard sale I thought “One day, that’s what I’m going to want to read about more than anything in the world”. Most of them are in storage, something I really regret. In fact, my fondest wish for a dream home is one in which I can put every one of them on a proper shelf in a room that is open and airy enough to actually enjoy browsing. And even though it’d be nice to have them all in some “public” area of the house - the easier to get at them when I need to - I wouldn’t care a bit if this room was locked up inaccessible and invisible to impressionable guests. Because here’s the thing… I’ve had them all out on shelves before, when I was briefly lucky enough to have enough floor space and little enough furniture to do so, and there’s nothing in the world like being in the mood for a certain kind of book without knowing for sure which one of my forgotten purchases will satisfy that craving, and having a library of thousands to browse through, just knowing the right book is in there somewhere.

If that’s vanity, it’s one I’m perfectly happy to enjoy privately and anonymously.

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P.S, those books on the right, labelled "Currently Reading"? Well, I've been lax about keeping that up to date. Even when I'm conscientious about it, I've often finished one before I can get around to posting it there. I've probably read at least 25 books since those were put up there, and those were just the ones I read that week.

Friday, February 22, 2008

The 1860's, that is. Montana is making noises the likes of which we haven't heard in nearly a century and a half.
A collective rights decision by the court would violate the contract by which Montana entered into statehood...

They stop short of threatening secession... or do they?
Montana reserves all usual rights and remedies under historic contract law if its Compact should be violated by any "collective rights" holding in Heller;

They're at least getting right up to the line. I WILL put the house on the market and start packing the very day they go through with it, if they do.

In any case, Heller will be the story of this late summer. And right before the November dog and pony show, too. If there's a definitive ruling either way, times will get very, very interesting, and, last I checked, expectations are that the ruling will be a definitive one.

Saturday, February 09, 2008

Almost since the invention of electricity (circa 1965, as far as I know), there’s been one amazing high tech device that embodies the perfect balance of form and function. It was so simple even a young child could operate it safely, effectively, and consistently. Using precisely measured - kinda - applications of heat and other mysterious forces over time to chemically alter the appearance, texture, and even taste of whatever was put into it, it was so technically advanced that even today it’s capabilities are impressive.

It became ubiquitous throughout American households, to the extent that it helped shape the dietary habits of the whole country. Due to a technical quirk of it’s construction, two slices became the standard breakfast allotment of toast in homes, roadside diners, and even the most elegant eating establishments across the country.

You would think that such an amazing device would require a regular rocket scientist to operate. Harnessing the forces that had the power to alter bread at the molecular level, and balancing those forces so precisely that just the right shade of golden brown was achieved every time would seem to require technical prowess beyond all but the most highly trained and educated professionals.

But in fact, the entire instruction manual is as follows. 1. Put the bread in the top. 2. Push the button (there’s only one). 3. Wait for the bread to come back out and eat it (optionally adding butter or jam to taste). The initial setup of the device had one step: plug it in.

And yet it used all the most advanced technologies that are shaping our world today. It had “electronics”… well, actually a bunch of wires that got hot when the power was turned on. It had advanced mechanical engineering elements… OK, a spring pushed the bread back up when the innards got too hot to hold it back any more. It even had Fuzzy Logic… err, well, the bread wouldn’t be exactly the same shade of golden brown every time, anyway.

I don’t make toast very often. In fact, it’s been so long since I’ve made toast that I’ve only now realized how far the modern world has left me behind sunk into a hopeless pit of gadgetry for gadgetry’s sake, of complex solutions to simple problems, of limitless options applied to straightforward tasks.

I stood facing our new “toaster”. Even the name has become more complex. It’s now a “toaster oven”. There’s no slots in the top - believe me, I looked. Now there’s a door that has to be opened and the toast put in. There’s no big springy lever on the side - again, I searched in vain. Now there’s a pair of dials and a button. It used to be, “Push here for toast. For all other options, you’re SOL. I’m a toaster, dammit, you want toast or dontchya?” Now I have to spin one dial around to either “bake” or “broil”, or “defrost”. Oh, wait, there’s the “toast” setting. Then I have to set a timer.

A #%@O%ing timer!?!? How the hell do I know how long toast takes? I’ve made toast thousands of times, even if not recently, and I still have no idea how long toast takes. It takes until the bread I put in pops back out as toast, that’s how long it takes. Not one second more or less.

And now I have to open the door again to get my toast out. And I have to reach inside the hot “oven” to get it. So now I need a potholder to pull the little shelf out. Now I’m wondering if I’ll have to stop the refrigerator from flashing “12:00” if I want to get at the butter.

OK, behind all this Luddite ranting, there’s a serious point. Modern technology is great. Apparently, our new “toaster oven” has made many of the tasks involved in this mysterious process of “making breakfast” or “making dinner” much easier and more efficient. I wouldn’t know, because Sally mercifully shields me from the deep arcana of these ancient arts, but she swears by the thing.

But there’s a trend in all this technology that needs to be addressed. It is happening in everything from computer software to cars to toasters. The problem is that designers focus on capabilities rather than on interfaces. An interface is basically the control panel, and it’s core function is to hide the complexity of the device it is controlling, to translate the complex commands needed to operate it into simple commands that can be understood by a human being.

That little scroll bar to the right, that you probably had to move to read down this far in my silly little rant? That’s an interface. You’d be simply astounded at the complexity that scrollbar hides. I know, I’ve written code that makes one of those work, and it can be thousands of individual commands to different parts of the operating system and to the computer hardware. Yet the scroll bar is completely intuitive, all you know is that when you “drag” it down, the “window” you’re reading text in moves to reveal the parts that were hidden.

If you had to issue those thousands of commands individually every time you wanted to read the rest of a blog article, you’d never read blogs at all. And that doesn’t even count the hundreds of other interface elements that you’re probably not even aware of that allow these blog articles to be posted, to allow you to find them, that allow a string of ones and zeros to look like text on the little box behind your keyboard.

What I mean is that capabilities are useless without an effective interface. A long list of options is pointless if it’s more trouble to understand how to invoke them than it’s worth to have them available. And an option that is superfluous to the purpose at hand is not an option, it’s an obstacle.

Interfaces are about limiting options. The interface must match the purpose, otherwise the subset of options given will be too large or too small. No matter how you slice it, making toast requires a very small subset of whatever options might be available on the device. In fact, it requires one option: “make toast now”. Before we had the technology to cook a Thanksgiving turkey in a toaster, the interface matched the purpose perfectly because it wasn’t technically feasible, or even possible for it not to.

Cars used to have a simple interface: three pedals, a big wheel for turning, a gearshift, and an on-off switch. One of the landmark technological achievements of the twentieth century was the elimination of one of those interface elements, a reduction in the number of the options available to the driver. The automatic transmission took one of the pedals away.

The beauty of modern technology is that it allows a choice of interfaces. At the time the product is being designed, the manufacturer has many options for creating the interface they want to provide, and they can even provide the user with a choice of interfaces to use for various tasks.

The problem is that now they think that the way to make a product everyone will want is to add to it every capability imaginable, or at least technically achievable, and along with it every possible interface. The choice to do this usually means that the interface will have so many controls on it that any individual task requires the user to select his own subset of interfaces to use. This flies in the face of hiding complexity, in fact it foists a good part of the complexity back onto the user.

Some designers are starting to see this. Now that the novelty of limitless capabilities and options is wearing off, people are deciding that they just want to get some work done, and that time spent ga-ga-ing over some whiz-bang new feature set is time not spent getting work done. Apple is one. Look at the front of an iPod. You want to know why it has been so astoundingly successful? Compare it to the “advanced” control panels of all the other music players that it has left in the dust sales-wise. Hopefully, the future of technology is the quest for interfaces that match function, with no more and no less than is necessary.

So here’s my request for all you toaster-oven designers out there. I want two slots and a big springy lever, with nothing more required to make toast. You can have all the twiddly dials and buttons you want for baking apple pie and achieving nuclear fission on a kitchen countertop, but so long as I can ignore them and just use my “toast” button, we’ll all get along just fine. I can tell you when everything started to go to hell… it was the four slot-toaster. That was just uncalled-for, and you should have known better. Let that be a lesson to you.

Friday, February 01, 2008

I learned my first Japanese phrase the other day.

Kiiri na yuki, tabe na.

Don't know if that is spelled "right", I just did it phonetically.

I have a friend at work who is somewhat fluent in Japanese. We were talking about stuff, and I so asked him to translate this phrase for me. I won't tell you what it means, not directly, but it's kind of funny thing to be the only thing I can say in a language, particularly Japanese. Now, if I can figure out how to translate "Watch out where the huskies go", I've got the start of a song.