Tuesday, 5 August 2008

... But is it OCD?

It all started when I read this tweet...

Then I read this blog entry...

... and started paying attention to the quirky stuff I do all the time. I will be updating this list as I notice more, but here are just a few:

  • I must check mail. All the time. Work mail, Gmail, etc. More often than not, I check my Gmail with Gmail Mobile before I get out of bed in the morning.
  • I never let anyone put sugar in my coffee. The ratios must be exactly right, and are different for every place from which I buy coffee.
  • I put peanut butter in as many things as I can.
  • I constantly click pens, or fiddle with the cap if it's not the click type.
  • I always open my cigarette pack in the same way, and always take out the middle cigarette first. Then the one to the right of the middle one. After that, the structure is lost. Needless to say, I never buy softpacks, just boxpack.
  • I always pack my backpack in exactly the same way. Laptop in a certain orientation. Charger cord rolled up and packed in the same corner.
  • Everything in my pockets are always placed in the exact same pockets, and in the same order.
  • My toothbrush must be wet before applying toothpaste, and I frequently wet it just a little during the brushing.
  • Speaking of dental hygiene, my toothpaste must always be squeezed from the back. Not with fingers either; only a flat surface and a toothbrush handle suffice to get every last bit out.
  • I take my feet off the floor when concentrating on writing. Most often I sit in half- or full lotus position, or put my feet on my computer case if I get uncomfortable later.
  • I must make my bed before getting into it, even if it's been made. That way I know it's arranged properly. Pillows all need to be fluffed, regularly and often.
  • I cannot sleep if I'm wearing anything that has a collar.
  • I cannot ignore spelling mistakes, whether in my own or others' writing. I must point it out (others' writing) or immediately correct it (my own writing), even if it breaks my concentration.
  • I hate hate hate having to use someone else's keyboard. Add a couple "hate"s if said keyboard has an inverted L-shaped enter key.
  • Breakfast Cutlery Must Either Be Plastic or Have Plastic Inlay Handles.
  • More breakfast: I eat it out of order and my day starts badly. Oats, eggs, coffee.
  • Arranging things: I arrange things in symmetrical arrangements. ALL the time.
  • Sudden loud noises near me. Take heed, thou noisy person: I have done violence upon the person of transgressors.
  • I cannot parse speech with white noise around. Deal with it.
This entry is now about two weeks old. I have discovered another behaviour: I cannot stop fiddling with the points, to get them in the right order.

I think I either need to seek professional advice about this, or make peace with my own quirks and tics. I really don't know whether any or all of the above is normal or not.

Opinions please?

Thursday, 5 June 2008

Ingrained attitudes are alive and well

While reading this article from Ramon Thomas which was written in response to this article from Mandy de Waal, I could not help noticing a something these articles have in common... the unquestioned, ingrained attitudes of the authors.

Am I the only one that finds it glaringly obvious that Mr Thomas included no women in his dream team? Congratulations! Instead of a "white boys' club" (to quote Mr Thomas' misnomer; Ms. De Waal's list contains women), you now have a non-white boys' club.

This seems to be a trade-off between an intrinsic assumption that only whites feature in the Web 2.0 world, and the fundamental assumption that only men of whichever colour can feature in the Web 2.0 world.

Honestly, though, the biggest problem I see with this "naming thy Dream Team" concept, is the platform upon which it was presented. Honestly, a more-or-less static blog entry for a list which is inherently dynamic?

Personally, I would have set up a wiki for this. Then everyone that wants to name their dream team can do so, and we can add a field for the poster's race and sex too... This way we can get nice graphs and statistics of how many white women list coloured men as good bloggers, and vice versa.

I would do it, too, if I thought it would actually make everyone happy about this subject. But then, I know that the point of all of this is not about being right or wrong... it's all about the debate.

Friday, 4 April 2008

List of Rules and Laws in Physics and Astronomy

This is just something I happened to come across on a search for something else.


Very handy for the scientists among us, and I thought some of you might find this interesting.

Tuesday, 1 April 2008

Tags as interface? Discuss.

This post started as a response to a comment made by tumbleweed to my previous blog post. A couple of hundred words later, I realised I had more to say than I had anticipated. A thousand words after that, I decided to split my thoughts into a few separate posts, lest I receive the dreaded "tl;dr" (too long; didn't read).

I have a few thoughts, as a starting point. I'm not lecturing, I'm asking... That's the beauty of being friends with people who are smarter than you; they often have better ideas.

Why not add an abstraction layer between the filesystem and the user? I know, I know, extra system load, complexity, et cetera... but think of the benefits!

I'm thinking of a couple of directions one can take with this. Maybe the abstraction layer works with tags. All you need to do in order to save the file in the correct place, would be to tag it appropriately. Let's say, tagging a file with "documents books manuscript chapter1" would file it under "~/Documents/Books/Manuscript/Chapter1.odt" or whatever. (The format is obviously contextual to the program used, but giving arbitrary extentions should be as easy as adding ODF or CONF or whatever, in the tag cloud.) Adding "done" to the tags may, in this context, move each successive chapter into a subdirectory called "Finalised".

What if your document is suddenly part of another workflow? Let's say you've been editing your manuscript, and your editor wants to see the latest chapter. Adding the tag "email" will make your email client aware of the file, and your computer can do all kinds of nice things to make the process as painless as possible: conversion to a different file format, virus scanning, archiving, perhaps even encrypt your work. All of that makes sense, contextually speaking.

Let's look at this step-by-step, from the point of view of an office worker.

You are a regional assistant sales manager. You receive a work-related spreadsheet document attached to an email. Now what? You need to edit it with the latest sales figures. So you download it to a directory (aka. a "folder", for the youngfolk among us). Now that it's downloaded, you can either (a) open your file manager, browse to the file, and double-click it to open the default application (right-clicking to open it with a different application); or (b) You fire up your word processor manually, open the File Open dialog box, browse to the correct directory, select the file, and click Open. NOW we can start working... when you're done editing, you save the document again. You need to email it back to the appropriate person. Here we go again... open email client, start new email, CC: all the usual suspects, type a subject and some body text, click Attach, browse to the directory, open the file, click OK, click Send. Someone's secretary receives your spreadsheet. Oh, and you need to make a colour print of the graph for staff motivational purposes. "File --> Print --> Choose colour laser printer --> OK".

Is all that navigating-around-the-interface really necessary? What if there's an easier way?

You receive a work-related spreadsheet document attached to an email. Your work tag is "sales manager"; your interface finds the "sales figures" tag in the document. You're given the choice to open the document. The document is tagged with "unfinished", "return urgently" and "email". As soon as you're done adding the sales figures, you add "illustrate" and "print colour" and remove the "unfinished" from the tag cloud. The spreadsheet is furnished with a lovely colour graph and emailed to whomever needs it, and your graph is printed in such large letters as they write.

Is this impossible? Of course not.

Does this support the Interface Rules? If it's done right, you won't notice an interface.

Is this a good idea? Let's discuss it.

Monday, 31 March 2008

Why does productivity software still ask us to save our own work?

In a technologically advanced world, there isn't exactly a paucity of disk space. Disk is cheap.

True, this was not always the case. Fifty years ago, hard drive storage cost around US$10,000.00 per MB. That's right, ten thousand US dollars per megabyte. (That was a lot of money in those days, what with the US kicking the crap out of the Nazis not too long before that... those war reparations went a long way, not to mention all the clever boffin Germans that the Yanks poached.) Compare that to today's prices, where you can get a 1-terabyte external hard drive for US$229. That's 22 US cents per gigabyte!

We can see that hardware is making advances in leaps and bounds. Not a day goes by that some gadget is released that's smaller, cooler, faster, and pretty much better than anything that's gone before. The changing technology is causing societal changes, in the individual and the collective... not a decade ago, disk space still cost around US$20 per gigabyte. There's no way that the majority of people could have kept more than a couple of small games and a few office documents on one of those old drives; it's just too prohibitively expensive for the average consumer.

But what do we see now? Schoolkids, students, even office ladies... pat them down and you can find between 1 gigabyte and 80 gigabytes of memory on their person at any given time. What do they use all that space for? Not just spreadsheets, baby. Movies and entire TV series. Dozens of albums worth of music.

Frankly, I see no reason to be stingy with disk space. Even the smallest cheapest laptop harddrive has a capacity 60GB or 80GB. You can store a lot of documents on that much hard drive space, even if you leave space for your operating system, a couple of TV series seasons, and your mp3s.

That's why I get irritated when a text editor in which I am editing a 5-kilobyte file asks me "Would you like to save this document?".

If I didn't want that information around for a little while, I would not have taken the time to type or paste it in a text editor, now would I? Is it worth breaking my concentration, interrupting my train of thought, for 5 kilobytes?

I say, NO. I say that that entire mode of thinking is outdated. If I close a window and my work is unsaved, then save it for me, there's a good program. If I haven't given the file a name, then by all means use the first 5 words of my document. If the same document hasn't been accessed by me or any other programs for a week, then compress and store it somewhere. Stop asking me stupid questions, I'm trying to think here. The answer should be obvious. I'm having enough trouble concentrating as it is; I don't need additional distractions from the bloody software I'm using too. We are too set in our ways; we unquestioningly accept this as the norm. The entire "conserve the scarce disk space resource" model of thinking and programming, is an anachronism.

The scarce resource in our world of today is attention. Concentration. We live in a world of distractions, with every waking moment full of things that want our attention.

The entire point of any productivity software is to make you more productive. Why, then, do I often feel like I spend more time battling with the software than concentrating on my work? I'm sure that's not the way it's supposed to be.

I want to propose a few rules for interface design:
  1. If you notice the interface, then the interface has failed in its purpose.
  2. Software should be designed to make the best possible use of these scarce resources:
    1. The Zeroth resource is Concentration.
    2. The First resource is Time.
    3. The Second resource is Memory Usage
    4. The Third resource is Hard Drive usage.
  3. Software should simplify the life of the User.
  4. Software should simplify the life of the System Administrator.
Please feel free to leave comments with rule additions. I'll write the rules up sometime soon.

Wednesday, 5 March 2008

Privacy = Civilisation?

Everything you'll read in this post is true.

Right now, the only objects that I'm aware of are my laptop, the chair I'm sitting on, and the cigarette between my lips. I'm sitting outside, naked, smoking and typing this. These facts may seem only tangentially relevant to my thoughts in this post, but bear with me.

What if you had to write your own brutally honest autobiographical Wikipedia entry? How much would you leave out? How much would you exagerrate? What would you not mention, for fear of hurting the feelings of others or for fear of not endangering your future career?

Let's postulate that you have, indeed, written your own Wikipedia entry. Let us also postulate that your article is published online. Now, the world can not only read your article, but edit it. People can remove intimate facts about themselves, add wild allegations and wild exaggerations about you and others.

Worse still, anybody can change your own (completely unselfconscious) semantic evasions of your life's truths, to reflect the hard facts.

How many of us can withstand such levels of scrutiny?

Benefit may be gained from such an approach. Seeing yourself reflected through the eyes of everyone will almost definitely help you to a greater level of understanding about yourself. People will criticise, sure... although I wonder how many compliments you will receive from totally unexpected directions.

Let me use my current situation to illustrate.

I am sitting naked in my darkened back garden. Should I suddenly be sitting here in broad daylight, still naked, would make me start looking over my shoulder to make sure the neighbour kids won't see me through the hedge. But they are strangers, and besides momentary embarassment on my part (and possibly emotional scarring on theirs) this won't change my life overmuch.

But what if everyone I knew were suddenly transported here as well? What if the encounter were mediated in such a way that they felt free to offer any criticism and compliments that they saw fit? Would I be able to continue with my day-to-day life as if nothing had happened?

What if everyone was all together, naked, in one room, discussing each other in such a way, all the time?

The knowledge that each of us are naked at some part during our day doesn't make it harder to deal with people. We take things at face value, deal with (clothed) people as we see them. But how honest and complete a picture is that of any of us?

How much of our sense of self-worth is based upon illusion, self-delusion, and outright deceit?

What is privacy, except a way for each of us to otherwise uphold the lie that is our public image? A place to be naked and alone, honest and yourself?

If your entire life was published to the Internet, all the time, that is your big room full of naked people.

So next time you think of sending me that application request, imagine being in a room with me. Naked.

I'll show you mine if you show me yours.