Monday, October 31, 2005

The Current Dear Abby, comment #1:

I enjoy reading advice columns, and I particularly enjoyed the original Dear Abby. I'm often less satisfied with the advice given by her daughter Jeanne Phillips. Take the first letter in this column, for example. Don't you wish she had added a sentence like this to her answer: Oh, and by the way, just how did you happen to find out your wife had posted a profile in a chat room on a public Web site?

Sunday, October 30, 2005

Shave and an Earphone - two bits:

I was listening to a podcast on my mp3 player, but it was time to shave. I went into the bathroom, paused my mp3 player, picked up my electric razor and began to shave. My earphones remained on my ears.

Now - this is definitely a generational thing - I KNEW there was something wrong about shaving while wearing earphones. I couldn't quite put my finger on it, but my parents would have known exactly why it was wrong, and I could feel it was wrong. Shaving has got to be one of the most boring regular activities in the world, so as I shaved I tried to figure out exactly what social convention I was breaking. But note: I did not remove those earphones ...

After awhile I figured it out. The earphones, by partially blocking my ears, were preventing me from hearing some of the nasty noise produced by my razor. By protecting my ears, they were actually good for me! (I doubt I'll shave like that regularly though.)

Friday, October 28, 2005

A non-psychotropic vulnerability to addiction (?)

Clive Thompson recently published a column in Wired about a fascinating phenomenon: It’s quite common, after getting addicted to a computer game, to suddenly break free of that addiction, go cold turkey and stop playing. Thompson (whose Blog is here) speculates about what makes it possible for game addiction to release its hold so quickly and easily.

I wonder, when scientists understand how games can release their hold on us, whether they might figure out how to place seriously addicted people in a similar artificial framework, enabling them to intensively experience and then genuinely escape their addiction sickness.

Thompson and I corresponded briefly, and he asked a related question: Are any games considered "good" that are not *also* "addictive"? I.e. do we ever play a game, think it's really superb and amazing, but without getting sucked into the "need to play" mindset? Or is good play so inherently seductive that it always has this addictive property?

Now most people do not become addicted to most games, so the question here is whether there are good games that practically never addict people. I thought about this, and I have – I believe – a painful insight to share with you: People will become addicted to any activity that differs from the real world the way games do, to the slightest degree. Games set up artificial rules, esthetics and/or goals. Here are some other examples of non-game activities that fit my suggested similarity to games. You can think of hundreds of others, and we know people get addicted them:

  • playing music
  • chopping wood
  • being absolutely correct about good manners
  • buying shoes
  • ballroom dancing
  • collecting comic books
  • walking or running for long distance or speed goals
  • modeling large chunks of the real world with Lego pieces
  • correcting other people's grammatical mistakes
  • writing letters.

Perhaps the simple decision to abide by rules of behavior or evaluation that differ in an abstract way from the natural world places us at some risk of addiction.

Thursday, October 27, 2005

It would have been a Strange Recital:

If you take lessons to learn classical singing technique, you study a number of ways to make your voice resonate more clearly and pleasantly. One thing you learn is to relax and open the back of your throat. Your uvula rises slightly and your larynx drops a little. Teachers demonstrate to their pupils the value of this relaxation - and the fact that they're not doing it - by pressing down gently on the pupil's larynx. It's often amazing how much this pressure improves the student's vocal sound.

My father imagined giving a serious recital in New York City, at Carnegie Hall perhaps, maybe a Schubert song cycle. He would sing, standing in front of the piano while his accompanist sat on the inevitable piano bench, page-turner on his left. Throughout the recital, my father's singing teacher would be right next to him, pressing gently down on his larynx...

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Dissing the “Desktop Metaphor”:

I think we’d all be better off if we stopped taking the “Desktop Metaphor” for granted.

Virtually all GUI computers display a “desktop” of choices, and when you hunt for your icons and windows, you're expected to think of them as lying on your desk. Who has ever justified this metaphor? In real life, desktops tend to be a mess. Computer desktops emulate that mess. In 1978, one Jerry Beckman suggested that your main computer screen should look like an office. You would furnish this office with a desk, table, cabinets (with labeled drawers), a closet, whatever suited you; and then you would file data and applications in sensible places. This metaphor would probably make it a lot easier to remember where you put things on your computer. You could go further and design a “home” with separate rooms for each different activity you bring to your computer.

Can't a few experiemntal psychologists find a more natural and productive metaphor for software to embrace? Probably they've done that already, and we computer desginers just won't listen. (See my post yesterday for a similar idea applied to documents.)

Monday, October 24, 2005

A new Shape for Documents:

I read on Slashdot that a certain Barry Norton has proposed we free documents "from the traditions of hierarchy and paper." Norton believes we would be able to write documents that are "far more powerful, with deep and rich new interconnections and properties - able to quote dynamically from other documents and buckle sideways to other documents, such as comments or successive versions; able to present third-party links; and much more."

One of Norton's ideas, clearly, is to let documents take on special structure appropriate to what they're about, but here's another way to apply the idea: documents could be modeled on familiar buildings, even clusters of buildings. Since we understand the structure of common types of buildings, we would know at once where to look in a building-shaped document for specific parts of it. Footnotes and references might be in closets. A novel might use the house model and place some of its parts in the living room, bedrooms, etc. A research paper might be structured like a library or museum. A muck-racking journalistic report might connect the threads of its investigation through sewers to interconnected buildings.

There's a lot to say in favor of using the structure of familiar buildings to make structured information more memorable. Many years ago I came across a similar concept that applies to our computer screens. I'll describe that in my next posting, on Wednesday night or Thursday this week.

Sunday, October 23, 2005

If they answer the phone, what can I say?

Have you ever called a store to find out if they're open? When they pick up the phone and say Hello, it's hard to ask "Are you open?" since it's now SO likely that they are. So here's what to say when they answer the phone:
"How late will you be open?"
That's the no-embarrassment question. And it even allows them to say, "Actually, we're closed," if they're just there to do inventory.

Friday, October 21, 2005

From Desk top to Mountain top:

One of the biggest revolutions in computers that I can imagine would be: genuine three-dimensional displays. Replace that flat LCD screen with a projected, realistic reality, and everything we know about computers communicating with users would change.

Of course we're not just talking about change for the better. Imagine an error message box that seems to fly right at you, stopping just in front of your face, to get your attention. Or the first lawsuit by someone with a fear of heights, who almost fell into their computer when an enormous pit opened in front of them onscreen.

Thursday, October 20, 2005

Important, if you drive with a manual clutch:

Does your car have a manual clutch? Mine does, and I've alwys started the car by pressing the clutch pedal down and then turning the key.

But now I know something important: if your clutch is entirely broken, pressing the pedal may not get you out of gear. Unknown to me, my clutch had stopped working. When I turned the key, the car moved forward towards the cement wall in the parking garage, two feet away. (I hit the brake in time.) Now, I'm careful to shift into neutral before starting the car.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Tip your gas jockey:

Those trips to the gas station have never been more painful, have they? I remember the good old days when I knew that if I handed over a twenty after filling up, I was sure to get change. Well now's the time to tip your gas station attendant. Hand over an extra dollar bill after you pay for your gas. You'll make some people who are used to dealing with angry and upset customers remarkably happy.

Monday, October 17, 2005

About a small object:

People at the summer camp I attended played the following game: Someone gave you an object that you hung around your neck until you figured out what it was. It might take you minutes, hours or days. This game gave me a special appreciation for small special-purpose objects, whether obvious or abstruse.
I'm fascinated by the little round stainless steel seived basket that holds coffee grounds in a fancy espresso machine. I've blogged before about the curse of every coffee machine, that coffee stains everything and it's worthwhile to hunt down and clean off every bit of stain to make the best coffee.

The little stainless steel basket is easy to clean and does not get coffee-stained. It has to be the most lovable part of any coffee-maker.

Sunday, October 16, 2005

Harriet Miers - it's obvious...

I generally stay away from politics, but havng figured out this Harriet Miers thing I feel I ought to explain it to you. The Bush camp obviously figured it would be poor form to try to succeed with two Supreme Court nominations in a row, so they have to lose one or two before presenting their real next candidate. This current nomination is so perfectly in character for our president that it's not totally, immediately obvious that he's trying to lose it.

There was an alternative way to lose a nomination: Our President could have nominated a fine centrist sort of judge eminently qualified for the job and then relaxed while an awesome cohort of special interest groups shot him down. But of course there was that risk - you know - that another fine, qualified judge might actually get onto the court.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

Supersizing versus the old-fashioned way:

In these days of supersized meals and snacks, I remember a different sort of restaurant meal. My father complained unhappily, long ago, about a restaurant he visited on vacation. It had been recommended by several friends. Yes, the food was excellent, but it was pricey and the portions were very small. After returning home he learned that he could have asked for seconds (and even thirds) of everything, at no additional cost.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Only decency in reading:

From an associated new release:
Rep. Jonsemil Barkentof of TexArkana introduced a bill today to apply
sensible standards of decency to all printed material. "Let's get this
law passed," he says, "and then let's see what we can do about all those

The new law would require all printed matter to avoid prurient and
indecent words according to local community standards. Authors,
book-owners and publishers would be fined $500,000 for a first offense,
and also forced to erase all the offending words from every available
copy. Asked whether digital words should be counted as printed material,
Rep. Barkentof said "We'll get to that next!" Experts estimate that a
typical local library might be fined upwards of $680 million as
soon as the law passes.

This reporter asked the Representative for a list of words likely to be ruled
offensive. Remarkably almost all of them have appeared in this newspaper. We would list those words here, but the newspaper seems to
have adopted a new policy today...

I'm being ridiculous of course, but not as ridiculous as I'd like.

Monday, October 10, 2005

Only skin deep. Only skin deep!

Real Tech News has picked up the story of stars whose careers will be RUINED by HDTV because they'll look bad in the extra clear closeups. I know HDTV will end a few careers, but I'm highly skeptical of this general concern. Here are three alternatives; I like the first two better, the third not at all:
  1. Acting! Stars who can act don't have to look perfect. Not in 2005.
  2. At last, we'll admit what people naturally look like. For years, we've been trying to look as good as a carefully airbrushed photograph. HDTV may usher in a decade of honesty about how people look.
  3. What an opportunity for the cosmetic industry to invent new kinds of coverup products!

Sunday, October 09, 2005

We like you just the way HE was:

It’s looking more likely that a human will be cloned someday. Suppose that as you grew up, you discovered that you were a clone. What would you do? (I would sue. Somehow. Somebody!)

Friday, October 07, 2005

The Curse of the Futile Web Search:

The web is wonderful when ye search and ye find. It's beyond awful when your attempts to search are drowned in heaps of distracting garbage that conceal the scraps of info you desire. I'm venting...

I joined the NationalGeographic/IBM genographic Project. They've analyzed my cheek swab and given me some information about my deep ancestry. In order to understand what they've told me, to be able to assess whether there's any validity to it, and to be able to trace my ancestor's travels, I've got to bone up on a bunch of biological/heredity/DNA terminology and analysis procedures. So I tried some web searches.

Here's the painful part: all of the hits that looked promising pointed right back to the basic information I got from National Geographic. I've seen the same travel map and the same too brief explanation a dozen times. The people who've already received THEIR analyses from N.G. have utterly polluted the web space writing about their results. I can't get past them to any find real source material.

Oh well. There's always the library and the university...

Thursday, October 06, 2005

Coffee Loves Crevices:

I have one of these simple, inexpensive Italian coffeemakers. I put it away when I got rather snobby about coffee, but recently I took it out and used it a few times. Like the very expensive espresso machines, it forces steam through grounds to make coffee. The water starts in the bottom. The coffee grounds go into a basket in the middle. You set it on the stove and boil the water. Steam passes upwards and collects in the top as coffee. Then it starts to boil and ruin its taste unless you’re really on the ball. But if you catch the coffee as soon as it rises to the top, you’ve got decent espresso.

In one way, this appliance did better than my more expensive espresso machine. I’ve been flavoring my coffee (as I grind it) with cardamom pods or anise seeds. This little coffeemaker brings out the aroma of the seeds wonderfully, a great drinking pleasure. But then it’s time to clean the pot.

You may know this already: ANY kind of coffeemaker works better if it’s really clean. Old bits of coffee degrade the flavor. And coffee collects EVERYWHERE when you make it. If you clicked on the URL above, you may have noticed the octagonal shape. Well that shape produces many crevices and hard to reach surfaces, and coffee collects in them all. It’s a tough, tough, clean, and I think I’ll be happy to go back to my more cleanable expensive espresso machine.

You know what? Those things don’t have to be octagonal. I’ll keep looking, but I want this gadget to be round and inexpensive.

Edited to add: Surprise, this coffee-maker was made hard-to-clean on purpose. read about it here.

Monday, October 03, 2005

Universally misplaced cursor keys:

I learned in the early 1980’s that actual experiments had determined an ideal layout for cursor keys, and boy does this make sense: three keys in a line, with the fourth key placed BELOW (not above, as is nearly universal) the other three. That lower key is handy for your thumb, and if you try it, you'll find your fingers are more relaxed than in the up-arrow-above-the-others layout. Just try to buy a keyboard built that way.

Sunday, October 02, 2005

When you reply to an email, do you edit the quoted part of the message?

Sometimes an email becomes a “thread”, sent back and forth and commented on by several people, while all the previous exchanges become "quotes" at the end (or worse, the beginning) of each new email. The quotes are handy if you forget what it was all about, but usually no one reads them ever, they just multiply. So, do you ever decide to edit them for succinctness?

A little voice may tell you not to change what someone else wrote, but you can make nice “…” marks to be honest about your surgery. Of course, when you notice that one of the quotes of your OWN text says something really stupid, you’ll just fix that without any edit marks, right?
And, I confess, I often fix other people’s spelling and grammar when I quote them.