Software for Dummies

There is a great article by Thomas Sowell of It talks about the tendency of software to become more difficult as it becomes more feature rich. Its a great analysis of the problems that come with bad UI design. As I have mentioned 100x before… more features DO NOT equal an increase in complexity if (and here is the kicker) your application is designed well with intelligent defaults. Making your software less functional is not the solution, good UI design is.

Its Like I’m in College Again

Roger replied to my Media Bias post with a very interesting position. Interesting enough that my response because a post in itself that I wanted to share.

well, my position is that the media is really in the service of global capital. People may think it is unbiased, or that it is too liberal or whatever. The problem isn’t in its ideology, per se–but in the way it focuses on particular problems and elevates particular ideas to the expense of others. And almost always, this is why people don’t really see the protests happening everyday against Iraq and against the way the War on Terror is being run, this is done in the service of keeping the global media conglomerates making money. So, what we need isn’t an unbiased news source–this is absolutely impossible–what we need is to democratize news making. To make it absolutely obvious that what we see when people report the news is always seen through a particular eye. I think that projects such as–where anyone can send a report in and be shown on an international web site is probably where we need to go. Not in the direction of unbiased news, but in the direction of a news that is brought to us by people aware of and giving their positionality as limited human beings with biases.

I agree with Roger to the extent that, fundamentally the main stream press is in the business to entertain as much as they are in the business to inform. Profit seeking news outlets must attract visitors to stay in business and as such have a tendency to promote news stories that attract the most attention. Protests,foreign relations, and foreign news do not generally interest people as much as,say… how many husbands JLO has had. I don’t, however, believe there is anything wrong (or for that matter immoral) with seeking profit, attracting visitors, or being a “global media conglomerate.”

Democratizing the news making process sounds like a fairly positive way to diversify the news coverage. It can be a useful tool for expanding amount of news that people have access to. In fact, fundamentally the Internet has created this very condition. It has expanded the amount of information available to people and has give many people (who would not otherwise be able to) a vehicle for presenting their positionality as a limited human being with biases. This blog is proof of that functionality. This open, cheep, and widely available publishing agent has freed people from the condition of “having” to get their news from a few select organizations that have the financial capabilities to provide daily news from around the world. And the world is better off for this.

The downside of democratizing news (or information for that matter) is “noise.” Democracy, in any form, is inherently inefficient. There is tons of duplication, waist, and just plain bad information. While inefficiency is a small price to pay for democracy (especially in the entity that has the most power to control our everyday lives, i.e. government), it has a cost non-the-less. Most people who use the net are easily aware of the diverse and abundant amount information available to them on the Internet. The problem isn’t that the information exists but that its so difficult to get the specific information you need.

Another side effect of democratizing news is that the people presenting news have a tendency to be attracted to those “publishers” to which they have something in common with. You invariable get groups of news outlets with similar topics, opinions, and biases. This is not necessarily a bad thing but it does mean that to get a broad and balanced overview of the news you will have to use multiple sources. In this environment even mainstream news outlets have their place. They work as a kind of reference point for people’s news gathering campaign. It is my guess that even Roger visits NPR or the New York Times once in a while.

I guess my point is that the “democratize news making” process has already begun. It is not a goal for the future but a process that must be refined in the present. Its existence does not negate the usefulness of the “global media conglomerate”, but it does negate the “need” for people to depend on it. And just like democracy in our government, the responsibility of taking advantage of these alternative news sources falls on individuals.

More on the Spacial Metaphor

This is a working draft of a direct response to John Siracusa’s article about the Spacial Finder. This resource, on one of my all-time favorite tech sites ever (my forum login dates from 1999), has been used as the reference for many a spacial interface argument. I believe its an interesting article but fundamentally flawed in a couple ways.

John’s article on ARS has been used as the definitive guide to spatiality sense he wrote the darn thing over a year ago. To this day I believe that loyal ARS reading Gnome developers made the abrupt decision to ruin their UI, based almost entirely on that article.

The “Why Spatial?” section of his document attempts to argue the virtues of the Spacial Interface by providing 4 standards of usability. But a couple of the characteristics of his standard of usability are misidentified. For example:

Ease of learning: John says that the strongest characteristic of “ease of learning” comes from its adherence to physical laws, but this is obviously not the true. Swimming is something that totally adheres to physical laws, but I still had to take swimming lessons. Simplicity is what makes for “ease of learning.” Take a wall mounted type light switch for example. People who have never used one often misunderstand what it does and is for, but once they accidentally flick-the-switch; they understand its entire functionality and almost certainly never forget how to use it. They may not know what it DOES but they certainly understand how to use it. Its seem fairly obvious when you think about it, if you want something to be easy to learn; make it very simple to use. Let me give another example. Touch-less hand driers you find in U.S. bathrooms operate via motion sensors. They defy most everyday physical laws but once a person starts trying to mess with it, they very quickly figure out how to activate/use it. Again simplicity and not adherence to physical laws makes them easy to learn.

Memorability: The article goes on to say that door knobs and light switches do not move or change on their own, making their location and operation easy to remember.. This makes a lot of sense when you first hear it but the reality of memorability is much simpler. Consistency is the key here. My best friends house has all of the light switches at hip level. They did this because they wanted the light switches to be reachable by their children when they were very young. I spent years of my life in that house but I never got used to the location of the switches. Even after I got used to reaching DOWN for the switches I would still miss the switch (on the first try) because it was such a non-consistent movement when compared to every other house I had ever been it. Not only does consistency aid in memorability but it allows you to easily transfer knowledge from one learned experience to another. To take the light switch analogy again; once a person learns how to work a light switch they can work almost an light switch they will ever run into. Just as long as those light switches are fairly similar to the one they learned on. Consistency is what makes for memorability and can be achieve in many more important ways than simply physical location.

Efficiency and Satisfaction are both admirable goals of usability but are not specific traits to the realm of spatiality. In fact simplicity and consistency are not specific to the realm of spatiality. Simplicity and consistency are traits pursued in mathematics, science, engineering, philosophy, and even religion. Usability then gets advanced by following universal rules of understanding instead of some limiting subset of spacial rules. Again, this makes a great deal of sense when you consider it. Things will be most usable if they follow rules (or models if you like) that already fit into the way we are designed to do things. This is very similar to what John Spatiality is part of those rules

RPM Tools

Got a list of RPM tools I need to remember:

  • Rpmlint – Spec file validation.
  • Rust – Gui rpm builder, command line spec file generation, and build chroot enviroment.
  • RPM-Specfile – Build rpms, spec files, src.rpms from perl tarballs.
  • RPM2 – A perl module for accessing, querying, and modifying rpm packages and databases.

Get a real browser

For everyone who does not already know, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security is recommending Internet Explorer users find another browser. They specifically recommend Mozilla or a Foxfire, a Mozilla derivative. I have been trying to tell people this for a while. If you are still using IE, for the love of GOD, find yourself a real web browser. I have heard too many people say that the there is no longer any innovation in the web browser world. This opinion is absolutely true if you browser that has not been updated in almost 2 years (excluding the onslaught of bug fixes.) IE still does not properly support PNG’s, has ActiveX security holes the size of Texas, does not fully support DOM level 2, and has dozens of reported (but unfixed) rendering bugs. If you have not already done so, I recommend you try out the web browser recommended by Microsoft’s own Slate magazine.