Saturday, September 30, 2006

there's nothing quite like paper

i've been watching battlestar galactica lately and i love it. it's so much better than star trek. besides the obvious benefit to having a long storyline (as opposed to one-off episodes which certainly get tiring), i really enjoy how the portrayal is not so super hitech to the point of stupidity.

for instance, they use paper. this might not seem like much, but think back to any star trek tv show or movie you have ever seen -- did you ever see paper anywhere? highly unlikely. it did crop up, very rarely, and probably with the clear hint that the people using the paper were archaic, or the paper was super old.

now think about how useful paper is -- you can scrunch it up, it can be folded, you can drop your coffee on it, you can shove it in your pocket, it's super-high resolution, marking it is really easy...

what did they use on star trek? those clunky looking pads. and did you ever see anyone tuck that pad away in their pocket? no, they didn't have pockets, and even if they did, where would it fit?

i assure you the future will have paper.

Friday, September 22, 2006

the design of everyday things

i recently purchased the design of everyday things by don norman. norman is a cognitive scientist who has thought a lot about design of everyday things. before i tell my own frustrating story of a poorly designed everyday thing, here are some quotes:

The book begins with one of don's amusing experiences:
"You would need an engineering degree from MIT to work this," someone once told me, shaking his head in puzzlement over his brand new digital watch. Well, I have an engineering degree from MIT... Give me a few hours and I can figure out the watch. But why should it take hours?
norman then nicely generalizes to exactly what i'm feeling:
Why do we put up with the frustrations of everyday objects, with objects that we can't figure out how to use, with those neat plastic wrapped packages that seem impossible to open, with doors that trap people, with washing machines and dryers that have become too confusing to use...
and he gives this simple rule which i like:
1. It's not your fault: If there is anything that has caught the popular fancy, it is this simple idea: when people have trouble with something, it isn't their fault -- it's the fault of the design. Every week brings yet another letter or e-mail from someone thanking me for delivering them from their feeling of incompetence.
now my story. my roommate has this great can opener: it cuts the can just below the top, and you just pull off the top. no jagged metal, no problems. well, almost, when you know how to use it.

anyway, i had been shown how to work it 1 or 2 times, and i needed to open some soup. no one was around, i couldn't ask questions. well, i tried every which way to get this can opener on with no success. i'm not sure how i opened that can, but i remember there being jagged edges and me just having a very frustrating experience with the whole thing. i remember wanting to throw the can and shout very loudly after that experience. opening a can should not be this hard.

i concluded that this can opener was very poorly designed because if you were a new user, you wouldn't be able to just pick it up and use it. you'd be lucky if you could. finally, on the 3rd or 4th time of seeing it function, i saw the key ingredient that showed me how to line everything up. now using the can opener is great, but what a ridiculous learning experience.

on the flip side, i came across another can opener months later, and i opened a can with it almost immediately. no one had to show me anything, and yet this wasn't your standard can opener: it also cut in a different way, and left no sharp edges. it was effortless. this second can opener was well-designed. no everyday thing should be very difficult to use for the typical consumer.

follow this link to find out more about norman and his design philosophy.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

biking: be visible and predictable

this past weekend i went to a free, 4 hour classroom course on bike safety. i want to get into biking and want to do it safely here in san francisco, so i thought a class on safety would be a good start. the class was offered by the san francisco bicycle coalition, and it was fantastic.

this article from 2005 in the sf chronicle gives a good overview of what i learned (in fact, my instructor is quoted in the article). i want to emphasize one quote, because when i rode a bike in palo alto for a summer i did not do this at all, and neither did many bikers on the road:
Ride like a car: A baseline concept is taken from an old manual, "Cyclists fare best when they act and are treated as drivers of vehicles." This creates visibility and predictability for cyclists. They signal, obey traffic laws, and when they need to do so, take over a lane.
the key point here is being visible and predictable. i was always afraid to drive out in the car lane, or two close to moving cars but in fact most bicycle accidents happen when the cyclist is too close to parked cars, or moves in an erratic manner. moving cars will avoid cyclists and do a good job of it if the cyclist is acting predictably.

this saturday i have the second day of my course, which is out on the road. i'm afraid, because it's one thing to say this and listen to it, it's another thing to implement it on the road. i'm in a state of intimidation right now, which hopefully i can overcome:

"An urban cyclist goes through three stages," says Bert Hill, who teaches clinics for the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition at police stations around the city.

"First, you're intimidated. You try to find out rules and follow them," Hill said. "The second occurs when you gain some mastery, and discover freedom of movement. But that can grow a little too heady, and lead to mistakes. The third follows all that, after you realize you are an ambassador for cycling. What you do changes the world where you ride."

Thursday, September 14, 2006

User Control and Facebook

recently seen after logging into my facebook:

"X joined the group Nobody Cares That You Want the Old Facebook Back."

and so begins our stroll into hard-to-control presentation of your life on facebook. i had been thinking about this a lot, and we had a facebook discussion in my computer-mediated communication class, which grant and i followed-up on after class. i've put together my thoughts below.


for those of you not in the know: facebook launched a feature which automatically publishes to your friends a news feed of the things you've been up to on facebook (and conversely, you also have this feed of what your friends are up to). for instance, you learn when your friends add new friends, join groups, change their profile, change their relationship status, etc..

but hold on, you say... "change their relationship status!" yes! "X is now single."

sort of freaky eh?

well, maybe you feel this is somewhat less freaky when you learn that facebook updated the feature to include an opt-out policy? i don't think it should be less freaky. in fact, maybe it should be more disconcerting if you care about control of your data and privacy.


an issue for me is that the "resolution" was to add opt-out ability, and make opt-in the default. i think the way facebook did this falls into the collection of actions by large companies that make your data functionally less private, without adequately conveying that to the user. it also shifts the norm of online interactions and our expectations of the servers we interact with (ie this feed stuff will become the norm on facebook, just as gmail contextual ads became the accepted gmail thing).

facebook is about broadcasting yourself to your friends and people in your network, but not in this uncontrollable way. sure, in the "Old Facebook" people could scrape your page and determine when and what things were changing. but by and large people interacted with tailored presentations. now, with these feeds, a user's presentation on facebook is at least partially out of their control.

wait, you say, that user who misses their control can change their options and opt-out. of course they can, but how many will? and how many will get burned because they didn't (i already know stories of people who have been burned)? and when will we consider that we're making friendly surveillance the norm?

frankly i feel weird seeing this feed because i don't know if this is what my friend intended. did they want me to know that they recently added "candy" to their favorite activities?

facebook could have introduced this feature differently. the way they introduced this feature (no options) and then their resolution (opt-out) goes to show how little respect is afforded to users when it comes to who controls the use of their personal information.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

the dentist

i was at my dentist the other day. they checked my gums and teeth and recommended that i brush and floss more. however, there were no problems, just a more thorough cleaning on their part which they attributed to my lack of flossing everyday.

now, i find that flossing and brushing take up a lot of time, so i don't want to do it more than is required to be clean and healthy. i always feel like my dentist is making unreasonable demands on my time -- if there were no problems, then why are you continuing to pester me about my irregular flossing habits?

i should've had a heart-to-heart with my dentist. essentially i want a dental sin chart: if i visit you every 6 months, then what can i get away with? can i eat more candy and floss less? what are the 6 month impacts of decreased vs increased flossing? what if i visit you every year? every four months? of course, all the possibilities are best guesses, since my mouth is a complex system.

this would have to be tailored to my teeth, as i know that some people are just more susceptible to problems, whereas others never, ever get cavities or gum problems.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

My Stuff and BillMonk

i found billmonk today and i'm loving it. it seems to be mostly advertised as a way to share bills, but in fact you can upload info about your collection of stuff, and make it accessible publicly or to your friends.

anyway, i just entered in a bunch of ISBNs, UPCs and titles, and now i have a portion of my library listed online. you'll see an image of some of my stuff on the right. personally, i love been able to track my stuff, and show what i have to my friends. now my books aren't just collecting dust on the shelf (well, that is, they have *potential*).

for those of you in the bay area, if you see something you want to borrow, let me know and the next time i see you i'll hand it over. :)

Saturday, September 09, 2006

Wolf Parade I'll Believe in Anything

another wolf parade song that i like. and in the video, i love the wigs!

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Wolf Parade: Shine a Light

i've been listening to wolf parade (wikipedia)lately and they've got some fantastic stuff. i keep playing shine a light over and over. as usual with my blog, i can't post the song, but here's the video from youtube. actually, the video is so bad it's funny. floating heads, no matter what you're trying to say, is a bad call... and they start to glow! anyway just watch, but more important, listen ;)

the first link above has more videos (it's their myspace page).

The New Yorker Festival

i'm going to be in nyc from october 6-8 at the new yorker festival. it'll be a lot of fun and it's a good excuse to go to nyc and see family and friends. here's a blurb from the website:
The seventh annual New Yorker Festival, a weekend celebration of arts and ideas, runs from October 6th through October 8th this year, bringing together some of the most gifted artists and original minds of the day—a chess grandmaster who has launched a political movement; a physicist who envisions mining platinum from asteroids; a classical-music composer who moonlights as a d.j.; explorers who have gone to the ends of the earth, from the deep sea to the highest peaks.
i bought tickets for the following shows. if you're in town, you'll notice i have two tickets for some of the things, so if you're interested let me know. you can also see if tickets are still available by going to ticketmaster.


2 tickets
Yiyun Li and Edwige Danticat
Friday 7pm 308 Bowery

1 ticket
Roz Chast and Steve Martin
10am Supper Club, 240 West 47th st

1 ticket
Tom Stoppard W/John Lahr In Conversation
1pm Directors Guild of America

2 tickets (conflicts with tom stoppard)
Garry Kasparov interviewed by David Remnick
1 p.m. 37 Arts

2 tickets
The New Pornographers talk with James Surowiecki:
A Conversation with Music
10 P.M. Newspace, 530 West 21st Street


2 tickets
Malcolm Gladwell:
The Case Against Secrets
1 P.M. 37 Arts

Tuesday, September 05, 2006