Archive for the 'Rants' category

 | February 6, 2012 5:18 pm

This past week, my grandfather passed away, and I’ve been asked to write a speech for his funeral. It is the strangest thing, this being asked to distill eighty-seven years into twenty minutes. What do you include? What do you say? Do you tell the story about grandpa as reluctant mouse-hunter (it ends badly)? Or the one where his hip went out at the lake and his friends decided to take him to the emergency room, boat and all? Do you talk about the distressed husband, at the bedside of his dying wife, realizing that there might have been a lost opportunity to express just how much he loved her?

Human lives are complicated things. When well lived, they encompasses moments of beauty, love, friendship, and happiness in addition to tragedy, lost opportunity, and regret. (And my grandfather’s life was well-live.) What’s more, we human beings are embodiments of paradox: a man may be both a great philanthropist and a brutal monopolist, who built his fortune upon the shattered careers of others. Or he may be a vicious murderer and anarchist who “loved sunflowers, eating yogurt with honey; who took his children to the beach, and let them sleep under the stars.” How do you capture all of it: the good, the bad, the ugly, the contemplative, the tragic, and the hilarious?

The only answer I have been able to find to that question was given by Neil Gaiman, while being interviewed by a reporter about someone still very much alive:

I spent half an hour yesterday talking to a reporter who was working on the obituary of someone who is currently very much alive, even in good health, and it was … well … very odd. I’d always known that obituaries aren’t just knocked up (or perhaps tossed off. Look, neither phrase sounds particularly wholesome) on the spur of the moment by some dusty, but hard working, obituarist whenever someone kicks the bucket, but they are written ahead of time, often rewritten many times over the years. The Daily Telegraphs are the best, I don’t why this is, but it’s true. Here is my favourite Telegraph obituary ever, because it contains:

Despite a brisk code of discipline, Singleton took a laissez faire approach out of the classroom. Every November 5, the smallest boy in the school was sent down a tunnel to light the very core of the bonfire. None, so far as anyone can recall, was ever lost.

Good obituaries (and by extension, eulogies), it appears, is much like any other sort of writing: a careful product of thought, time, review, and attention.

That is, perhaps, why they are such an art-form. Unlike other types of communication, they have to be composed in moments of pandemonium, distress, and chaos; at a time when it’s essential to find precisely the right words under conditions which make it all but impossible.

Manifestly unfair, if you want my opinion.

 | November 16, 2011 5:59 pm

For the past several months, I’ve found myself teaching technology courses. (Which is strange, since I’m not really a technologist.) To date, I’ve taught courses about Web Development, Programming, Networking, and (most recently) … Microsoft Office. I hope that you can appreciate the irony in this.

While I don’t have anything against Microsoft [1], I have a grudge against Office. This isn’t because it’s unstable, that it often makes easy things impossible, or that it has mangled and masticated my work. No, my single biggest complaint against Microsoft Office is that it contributes to an uglier world.

Don’t believe me? Consider the default typefaces: Times New Roman and Arial [2].

There is a reason that Times New Roman (as used by Word) and Arial are reviled. The one is a knock-off of a newspaper font meant for narrow columns, and the other is a Helvetica copy. In Word, they are used for the body and headings, respectively, and that is wrong. Using Times New Roman for body text results in way too many characters per line and makes the text more difficult to read. Using Arial with Times New Roman leads to a font-mismatch of epic proportions. Fonts have histories, personalities, and contexts and Arial and Times New Roman just don’t fit.

And I’ve said nothing about Word’s notoriously poor type-handling and typographical quality [3]. Whether it’s optical margins, font kerning, ligatures, or numerals; it’s all consistently wrong. Microsoft is a big company, if they wanted to get things right, they could.

But, they don’t.

For that reason, I spend most of my time convincing people not to use Word. I steer them toward writing tools like Scrivener, which provides a lovely way to capture ideas and create drafts; page layout tools like Scribus and InDesign, where they can exert fine-toothed control over the appearance of their document; or (best of all), technologies like LaTeX and LyX, which combine the best of both worlds.

Unfortunately, though, Microsoft Office is one of those pieces of software that everyone needs a familiarity with. It’s in every industry, and many companies, universities, and organizations mandate its use. For this reason, I’ve kept most of my venomous opinions to myself. (Moreover, it would be bad form — crass, even — to directly slander the Office Suite to students taking an introductory course in Microsoft Office.)

* * *

Instead, I’ve decided to take a different tack. Rather than directly attack Word as the embodiment of “good enough,” [5] I’ve been trying to cultivate an awareness of beautiful communication.

We’ve had class discussions about what it means to communicate responsibly, looked at why an author [4] has a special accountability to her audience to facilitate understanding, and I’m planning a discussion about how beauty influences understanding. And while I’d prefer to be teaching LaTeX, LyX, Scribus, and the related technologies, these conversations have made the course extremely enjoyable; insightful, even. What’s more, I’ve been tremendously impressed at the depth that many of the students have shown.

For the most parts, these aren’t graphic design students or art connoisseurs. Yet, they know what beautiful communication looks like. They recognize carefully crafted writing, differentiate between effective and distracting illustration, can filter out chart-junk, and appreciate beautiful design. Nothing needed to be taught, they just knew. Certainly, they might not have the vocabulary to express the technical details, or the knowledge to produce similar work on their own, but the apps students know what good is when they see it.

I’ve been so impressed in the comments and insights, that I’ve found myself wanting to repeat the conversations with a slightly different audience: the readers of this website. You, dear readers, are an interesting group. Some of you are coders, designers, and artists. Others are scientists, engineers, and technologists. Still others are horse people. But despite the diverse backgrounds, many of the people I’ve met through the postings here have greatly impressed me with their knowledge of writing, typography, art, and design.

For that reason (and if you will indulge me), I’d like to pose a few of the same questions that we’ve been discussing in my apps class and to hear your thoughts [6].  Here is the first:

While the soul of a message lies in what you have to say, there are other aspects of creating a presentation, numerical report, or written draft that are important as well. One of these is how beautiful the final product appears.

Whether we like it or not, Western culture has a bias for beautiful things. We like slick electronics, nicely designed clothes, and carefully typeset literature. Indeed, in many cases, it is expected.

Companies like Apple, IKEA, the Gap, and others spend millions of dollars each year making sure that the materials their customers come into contact with – literature, advertisements, signage, etc – are beautiful. In the advertising world, such branding and impression management offer lucrative opportunities.

But how important are such considerations for individuals? Should a teacher judge the contents of your final report based on the font you choose to use? Should an employer reject an applicant because they used Comic Sans when composing their resume?

For that matter, what makes for a beautiful report, poster, paper, or flyer? How can you strike the balance between what you have to say, how you have to say it, and the impression that the final product gives to others?

Please let me know what you think in the comments.

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[1] Indeed, unlike many open source people, I have a great deal of respect for the people at Redmond. They’ve created some very nice technology. Their developer tools, for example are superb (though costly) and their expression design tools are handy (once you get the hang of them).

[2] I will concede that more recent versions of Word have gotten much better in the default fonts department. The default font in Word 2007 and 2010, Calibri (for body texts) and Cambria (for Headings) are nice fonts, but … the default document settings are still lackluster. And when you start considering the default color palettes … well … we’re back to ghastly.

[3] Yes, I know that Word 2010 supports advanced OpenType features. But it is inconsistent and requires quite a bit of work to get right. As far as I’m concerned, another example of actively making the world an uglier place.

[4] I’m using the terms “author” and “audience” very broadly. In addition to those who string words together, I’m also including those who speak, present, and use numbers to communicate larger truths about the world.

[5] I’ve got a serious peeve about “good enough.” The enough is a qualifier. Good enough prevents people from striving for excellence. Instead of making the additional refinements which would transform the draft, picture, service, or product into something truly outstanding, people stop at “good enough.”

[6] In full disclosure, I also have a somewhat selfish rationale. I am currently workshopping the last few chapters of Open Source Writing and I’ve found these conversations help to inform the information found in the book.

 | April 11, 2011 6:55 pm

Note: Still working desperately hard to finish the book. It is nearly done, mostly just tying up loose ends (like getting permission to use all of the pretty pictures). With that said, I’m not going to taunt anyone (especially me) with dates or tentative delivery schedules. It will be done when it’s done. The only thing I’m going to say on the timing is that it will be soon.

I had the strangest experience the other day, and for that reason, I’ve decided to write a strange essay. Here’s what happened.

I was talking with a friend (let’s call him Sam) about recent trends in technology. In the course of the conversation, we found ourselves discussing the finer points of American history. (It then devolved into the anthropology of mushrooms, but, the train of logic made perfect sense at the time. Really.)

Most of the conversation was wonderful. We cracked jokes, exchanged similar views, and generally agreed about everything. I did my usual Steve Jobs shtick, talked up open technologies, and generally babbled about my favorite things. It was a highly enjoyable exchange. Well … right up till we started talking about history, that is. That was when the strangeness happened. As soon as I said, “history,” we found ourselves in disagreement.

Not hostile disagreement or murder your neighbor contention. But it was definitely uncomfortable, and we found ourselves indisputably at odds. No one had said anything of consequence, yet, we were both prepared for a fight over a topic as mundane as “history.” In fact, now that I think on it, the whole thing was really quite distressing.

Not just a little distressing, but the crawl “under your skin and keep you up late at night” type of distressing. And all of this from a single, slightly belligerent comment (made by Sam, of course):

I hate history. Why should I care about things that happened thousands of years ago? I’m too busy trying to live in the present.

At first glance, this might seem a strange thing to get bothered about. After all, what Sam thinks about history has no effect on my life or how I live. It doesn’t impact the type of people I choose as friends or the activities I pursue in my spare time. For that matter, it’s powerless to effect the way I see or interact with the world.

On another level, though, it’s deeply irksome. This is because history is awesome, of course. But it’s also more than that. History isn’t just awesome, it’s also central to nearly everything we do. The way you understand the stories of the past influence how you interpret the future, your politics, and even how you name your children.1

This is why I had such a reaction to Sam’s comment. It denotes a willingness to disengage from the past in favor of a present without context. It also puts you at odds with reality, all 13.7 billion years of it.

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That’s really dangerous. It leaves you adrift in a complex and stormy world without the benefit of maps, charts, or even horizon to guide you. When history is left behind, it means that you leave everything behind: science, mathematics, literature, anthropology, psychology, medicine … the whole lot. A willful ignorance of the past is also an ignorance of its many gifts. I can’t imagine hating history, it would be like hating … everything.

After I explained this idea, Sam seemed to get it. (At least he said he did. That might have just been to get me to shut up, though.) But Sam couldn’t quite let it be, he had to explain the rationale behind his comment. This is what he said:

When I said I hate history, I wasn’t referring about the sum of human experience. Rather, I was talking about the very narrow way that history is presented in schools. I hate history as a table of dates, irrelevant names, and uninteresting successions of kings.

At which point, I said, “Oh. Yeah, I hate that too.”

Which raises an important point. Why is that we teach something so vitally important to our children in such a bland form? It’s not how history is studied by the “professionals” nor is it representative of how most think about reality. Yet, it’s what we force feed our children.

Neither one of us could come up with a good answer to that question.

Luckily, it seems like the status quo might be set to change. Over the weekend, I came across the following video by David Christian (and the related project of the same name). From the video and available course materials, it looks like they aim to do something audacious: place the subject of “history” within its proper context, as the story of universal existence.

As far as I’m concerned, that is a good thing. Perhaps it might even result in a little less hate for history.

1 As a case of how history can impact child names, consider the case of Chastity. (A story which I heard over the weekend.) She was given the name by her parents, after a great aunt, in the hopes that it would inspire her to a life of service and devotion. There was even some talk of Chastity taking religious vows. None of that happened, of course, because Chastity ran away with an older man to have a family.

 | January 28, 2011 4:36 pm

Challenger Explosion - January 28, 1986Today was the 25th anniversary of the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster.

Considering that it is a major anniversary of a catastrophic event, I’ve been somewhat surprised at the response. Or, I guess I should clarify, the lack of one.

A quick search on Google News shows that it is being covered, but the world seems far more focused on the happenings in Egypt and the upcoming launch of Verizon’s iPhone. While the norm for most sites was thundering silence, I found one major exception in my RSS feed this morning, a photo essay posted on the Fox is Black.

Compiled by Alex Dent, it includes the footage of the explosion and is accompanied by a haunting model of the smoke plume. In closing Dent says, “Today is the 25th anniversary of the Challenger disaster. There are no words.”

When I first saw the images, I wasn’t quite sure what to make of them. I wasn’t sure what they were and I was puzzled. Then, after I reviewed a few more in the series, I recognized what they depicted, which triggered a reaction very similar to the first time I saw footage of the Challenger disaster.

Show me more… »

 | December 22, 2010 7:11 pm

The last couple of days have been rather difficult.  Not that anything major is amiss, but it seems like the trivial and mundane minutiae of daily life have conspired to be as difficult as possible.  (I hate it when that happens.)

Sometimes, words  simply fail to describe the of failure, dismay, or despair.  For that, there is the face palm.

To all those suffering in misery and confusion … I hope that these make you feel better.

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 | October 19, 2010 8:24 pm

Confusion-Keeyna-WoodsNote: The regular programming of this website has been interrupted due to a need to finish the Open Source Writing book.  It has been in production for nearly a year, and is just about finished.   But to keep it from going over a year, it requires a great deal of love and attention.  Once a copy has been sent to the editor and publisher, I intend to pick up where I left off with posts about Open Source culture, important updates to LyX-Outline, and samples from the aforementioned book.

For the past several weeks, I’ve tried to summarize my thoughts and feelings regarding the current debate on the definition of marriage.  Once in a great while, we are forced to consider questions and propositions that can alter the direction of human history.  The basic definition and understanding of marriage is one such time.  There has been a lot said that is profound, inflammatory and divisive.  Often a single article may be all three.

And, even though I’ve picked up the virtual pen many times, I’ve found that I can’t coherently summarize my feelings or opinion.  I believe a number of things, and some of them are quite contradictory to others.  For that reason, I think that I will just keep them to myself.  If you do not completely know your own mind, there is no adequate way to speak it.

With that said, there is one sentiment that I wished to share.

For a subject that is decidedly heterochromatic, there is a ridiculous amount of black and white thinking going on.  Simplistic rumination about a complicated subject is very dangerous.  It lays the roots of conflict that may require centuries to sort out, if it ever is.

Just look at the question of slavery.  After nearly two hundred and fifty years, we’re still trying to deal with the many stupidities and simplistic notions that the founding fathers left us.  Nor do I have much hope that questions of equality will be answered in my lifetime.

But just because stupidity is dangerous doesn’t mean that we aren’t drawn to it. In this most recent debate, there are many examples of the destructive work of simplicity, but one example in particular caught my attention.  Namely, in the way that the suicides of gay teenagers are being placed at the feet of religion and cultural biases.

In this particular slug-fest, there have been accusations, name calling, and threats.  Members of both sides have said that there will be “consequences” for the words and actions of the others. (Which is just a polite way of saying, “I’m going to get you.”)

What there has not been, at least to my knowledge, is any serious acknowledgement of an important point.  Religion, bias and even bullying are not killing American youth.  That isn’t how suicide works.

Suicide is a tremendously complex problem.  It is a manifestation of mental illness, and for that reason, it makes little logical sense.  Good people kill themselves, bad people kill themselves, successful people kill themselves, as do those lost to obscurity.  Trying to understand “Why?” is a dangerous folly founded upon fallacy.

The horrid taunting that many gay teenagers endure certainly contributes to the epidemic , but then, many other things do as well.  This even includes such “trivialities” as news coverage and publicity.  Like murder, prominent coverage of suicides has been known to result in periodic spikes.  In some cases, the coverage of a single suicide may precipitate hundreds of “copy-cats”.  It’s thought that after Marilyn Monroe died, as many as 300 others committed suicide in the same way [1].  For this reason, it is very dangerous to think that if we somehow “solve” the problem of homophobia that gay youth will refrain from blowing their brains out or hanging themselves.  The problem is so much more complex than that.

Trying to point to a single contributor and shouting “Cause!” is like blaming the destruction of African American families on the Civil Rights movement.  There might be a relationship (doubt it), but the question of “cause and effect” is still a long ways from being sorted.

So it is with suicide, religion and cultural bias.  Consider: the levels of mental illness and other destructive behavior associated with homosexuality – major depression, alcoholism, substance abuse, suicide – is elevated amongst all peoples and populations, even in countries such as the Netherlands, which has enjoyed relatively wide acceptance of homosexuality in general [2].  In fact, the gay suicide rate in the Netherlands is very, very high.  I’d even go so far as to say that it is comparable to that of gay men in the United States, even though the overall suicide rate is lower [3].  Hardly a clear case of causality.

(The rate varies wildly between different studies, and gay suicide is not separately tallied in official statistics.  I will, thus, concede that I am comparing apples to oranges.  But I was unable to find any good comparison between gay suicide rates amongst countries.  Neither Google or PubMed were of much help.  So, apples to oranges it is.)

The cynic, pessimist and misanthrope in me says that significantly alleviating the burdens of the haunted or the torture of the tormented might not have any significant effect at all.  Both of my family members who killed themselves this year, for example, were actively undergoing treatment for mental illness.  Ultimately, it made little difference.  They’re still dead.

Nor have public advocacy programs resulted in any real decline in the suicide rate.  Utah, for example, spends millions on counseling and support infrastructure, and our suicide rate is going up, not down.  As I said before, suicide is a manifestation of mental illness, and we don’t understand it.

For that matter, our understanding of mental illness in general is about as complex as 15th century knowledge of the heart.  It’s a tremendously hard nut to crack, and we’re a long ways from understanding.  Suicide is a big complicated mess of contributors, mental illness and susceptibility.  We need to appreciate that.

But this doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t try to make the world a better place, or that providing gay youth with a better childhood isn’t important.  Because, frankly, this world is a bitch, as Matthew Gallaway explains in this brilliantly written piece.

Yet, as I read Gallaway’s words, I see no pain or disillusionment that is specific to one group of people.  No one has a monopoly on being ”a ‘broken” human being … oddly incapable of love or friendship or hope or many of the things ‘normal’ people take for granted because we feel soulless and empty as we look back on our younger, popular selves … with nothing but sadness and dismay.”  I’d even say, that for most of us, that description sums up the human condition. And I’m not sure there is a good way to fix the problem.

Which is probably where I should stop.

Okay … maybe one more thing.  Many of the comments regarding suicide can also be applied toward our understanding of sexuality in all its forms: heterosexual, homosexual, transgender and questioning.  To those who say that homosexual attraction is a personal “choice”, I think you need to do some reading.  But to those who claim that it is an “inborn and innate component of identity”, so do you.  In both cases, there is a tremendous gulf between what you think Science says and what evidence is actually available.

And that is where I will definitely stop.  From this point onward, my thinking has little in the form of coherence or cohesion and I don’t even know how I feel.  To try and express it would therefore be futile.

References

  1. S. Stack, “Media coverage as a risk factor in suicide,” Journal of Epidemiology and Community health 57, no. 4 (2003): 238.
  2. T G Sandfort et al., “Same-sex sexual behavior and psychiatric disorders: findings from the Netherlands Mental Health Survey and Incidence Study (NEMESIS),” Archives of General Psychiatry 58, no. 1 (January 2001): 85-91.
  3. 1. “WHO | Country reports and charts available,” n.d., http://www.who.int/mental_health/prevention/suicide/country_reports/en/index.html.
 | October 4, 2010 4:09 pm

complexity1Note: The regular programming of this website has been interrupted due to a need to finish the Open Source Writing book.  It will resume once I have sent a draft off to my editor/publisher.  They have been very patient and I have been irresponsible. Though a month of hard work has left me in better shape than I thought I would be in at this time.

While I am supposed to be working on the Open Source Writing book, I read a very interesting piece on ZdNet this morning that I wanted to respond.  Entitled, “The new reality: Technology must be self-evident,” the piece caused two simultaneous reactions.

First, I agreed with the spirit of the message.  For new technology products to be successful, they must be “self-evident”, which means they must be intuitive.  You must be able to understand their fundamentals by sitting down and starting to explore.

But even though I understand and appreciate the big message, I couldn’t disagree more with the way that Jason Hiner (the piece’s author) says we need to get there:

The new way of building tech products is about less rather than more. It’s about removing (or never implementing) rarely-used features rather than piling on as many as you can cram into a product. It’s about not being hyper-reactive to a handful of user requests that may not reflect the larger user base. Most of all, it’s about discipline — the discipline to stick to a product’s core functionality and avoid the temptation of product creep.

The end game of this disciplined approach is building products that have a user experience (UX) that is almost completely self-evident. That’s why products with stripped-down GUIs and feature sets like the iPad, Android, Gmail, and Salesforce.com have become meteoric success stories.

and then he offers a few concrete examples of “poorly designed products”:

Let’s pick on Microsoft Word as an example of the old way. Although it is far from alone in this phenomenon, it is one of the most popular software applications of all time. The product started out great. It was one of the first word processors to offer WYSIWYG and introduce a toolbar. It quickly conquered text-based Word Perfect by the mid-1990s.

But, then lots of different Windows and Mac users told Microsoft all of the things they wished the product could do or ways that they wished it would work and Microsoft took the best suggestions and kept adding on .more and more features and options to the point that today’s Word is so bloated, over-complicated, and bogged down with options that it’s often difficult to figure out how to do basic tasks. In fact, it often requires a bunch of documentation and training to figure out how to use it.

Simplicity is the Realm of the Stupid

I’m sorry, but this where I have to start “kicking against the pricks”.  Less is not more.  Usually, it’s just less.

It may be tempting to say that hammers/nails and screwdrivers/screws accomplish the same purpose (fastening materials together), and for that reason we should eliminate one of the options.  We may say to ourselves “Let’s get rid of screwdrivers/screws, since they are more complicated.  It will result in a cleaner and more productive workspace.”

But before doing that, let’s step back and ask an important question: What purpose does this action serve?

Yes, we free up space in the workshop and reduce confusion.  It’s no longer necessary to teach people how to twist screws.  A cleaner workspace is a bonus.  But we take the action at the expense of a well-designed and elegant option.  Because of their larger surface area and manner of installation, screws can be used in instances  where nails are less useful.  They result in a better join.  Thus, trying to get rid of a well-designed option in the name of “simplicity” or “choice abundance” is actually harmful.  It results in the proliferation of an inferior option because the superior choice is “more complex” or might require that we seek out a bit of training and learn when to use one tool over the other..

But the insanity doesn’t stop there.  In an attempt to simplify, a product designer invariably indulges in the stupidity of Average Joe User.  She attempts to craft a generic human being that is meant to stand in for you, your mom and anyone else who will make use of the product.  She then meets Average Joe’s needs, or what she thinks are average Joe’s needs.

But of course, there’s just one problem.  There is no such thing as Average Joe User.  He. Does. Not. Exist.  I don’t use a computer in the same way as my mom.  Or my grandparents.  There is no average of our activities that will somehow make all of us happy.  This is why people submit feature requests and lobby for new options.

Yet, Microsoft Word does an admirable job of meeting our respective needs because people like me, my mom and my grandfather have requested certain capabilities.  My mom (who is a school teacher) can sit down and write a lesson plan, my grandfather (who is a businessman) can write a letter, and I can use it to write a scientific report.  If some product manager tried to start removing arbitrary features that my mom (who probably best reflects Average Joe) doesn’t need, it would negatively affect both my grandfather and I.

Rather than improve the quality of the product, it would castrate it into uselessness.  All in the name of simplicity and “confusion avoidance.”

Aim for Elegance

Which really brings me to my main point.  In software engineering, what we are aiming for isn’t simplicity.  Rather, it’s the intersection of good engineering and smart design, which I’ll refer to as “elegance.”  Edward Tufte has a quote that sums it up my feelings nicely [paraphrased]:

Confusion isn’t the result of complexity, but of poor design.

An elegant product is self-evident and clear, but still retains its power and functionality.  And it’s infinitely preferable to a “simple product.”  As an example, let’s return to analyzing Microsoft Word.

If Word is so confusing or undesirable, I’d really like to know, where is the Word processor or document writing system that challenges its hegemony? Who is advocating that we drop Word in favor of other tools? Where is the simple piece of software software that accomplishes everything we “need” and nothing we don’t?

Can it be found in Google Docs or OpenOffice (which is just as complicated as Word, if not more so)?  What about an alternative system like LaTeX or a LaTeX front-end like LyX (my own personal choice)?

While the alternatives are compelling and work tremendously well, they haven’t stolen any significant market share from Word. Microsoft Word enjoys dominance because it is a capable Word processor for most people. Full stop. All of the other products taken together probably don’t even amount to more than 5% of Word’s user base.  This is because Word is an elegant tool.  It’s not often the best tool for the job, but it is usually adequate and often good.  Nor would I call it “complex” or alienating.  As I said earlier, it works for the majority of people most of the time.

Or perhaps someone could show me the army of ignorance that struggles to do simple things in Word?

Yes, people often struggle to do hard things (mail merge, query databases, build interactive forms, etc). But they this is true of hard things in other programs as well and in simple programs, the options aren’t available.  Which is like comparing a duck to a cow.

From within Word to do simple things is straightforward. You open the program and start typing. You click on the bold button, or on an appropriate style.  It’s all self-evident and available. The UI is clear.  There is no significant learning curve. I’m not sure that there is a learning curve at all for basic tasks.  You simply start writing and place one word after another.  Billions of people are able to do this without any significant difficulty, including people with physical disabilities. While I might like to knock it, Microsoft Word is a piece of Very Good Software.

So what does stripping features accomplish?  It doesn’t make the use of basic features more obvious.  Nor does it enable the use of advanced options (since they are simply removed).  For that matter, it might not even influence the speed of the program (the so-called bloat), since that is more of a question of program optimization than number of raw features.

In the case of Word, simplicity isn’t a virtue.  But elegance is.  Instead of removing the features, the goal should be to integrate them into the program in a better manner and to make their function more obvious.  It is, in effect, a design challenge.  Word 2010 is a better program than Word 2003 because it allows you to both do more and makes the tools more available.

Sometimes Complexity Is Important

Which raises another relevant point.  Sometimes a tool needs to be sophisticated and specialized.  For example, where is the serious contender to Photoshop?

Maybe someone can point me at a few consumer level photo tools that are meeting the needs of mom and dad, but there is no “simple” piece of software that is threatening Adobe’s flagship product.  Nor do the alternatives address a wider variety of needs.  Photoshop is used by graphic designers, illustrators, artists, scientists and engineers.  Yes, it’s complicated and requires instruction, but after you’ve mounted the learning curve, the UI and palette design is also highly logical, consistent and useful.  In this case, sophisticated is better than simple.

And it’s obvious.  If you look at the world of digital art, Photoshop (and other specialized tools) are the choice for content creation.  Certainly, some stuff has come off of “simple” tools, like the iPad, but these these are akin to a symphony played on a collection of iPhones. They are novelties, and interesting for that reason. iPad is simply not the equal of a computer + Photoshop + Wacom.  I would even go so far as to say that the “simplicity” is a handicap, as It is much harder to create something of quality.

(Please no videos of sketch artists using iPad.  I’ve seen them, they’re utterly inferior.  Wacom can interpret pitch, pressure and different types of point.  It comes very close to the subtlety of real artistic tools.  It’s like comparing 5 year old soccer to the world cup.  There is no comparison and anyone who seriously advocates such an option is simply not worth my time.  Go spend some time around working artists, or better yet, take a few classes and try and use an iPad.  Then we can talk.)

iPad is an interesting machine, and Salesforce.com is tremendously cool. But they both serve niche markets and since they are so targeted, they don’t really fall into the inanities of “Average Joe.” In fact, I would even go so far as to say that their success has little to do with “simplicity” and much more to do with elegance.  They meet specific needs very well.

The iPad is a companion device optimized for consumption: reading, email, websurfing.  These are major activities for many users, and for that reason, it’s enjoyed success.  Salesforce.com also nicely meets a very specific targeted need.  It helps find contacts and push products/services.  Again, a very narrow niche that is targeted well.  But even there, it has hardly replaced Outlook. It’s much more a complement than a “simple replacement.” A case of “More is more.”

Conclusion

So while I agree with the Hiner’s tagline, “Technology must be self-evident”, I disagree with the prescription on how to get there. Rather than aim for simplicity, tech needs to aim for elegance. In the physical sciences, we use Maxwell’s equations because they elegantly summarize many phenomenon, not because they are simple.

Ditto for good software. If the features are present and elegantly incorporated into the UI, they will be discoverable and that brings value to a product.  Which is why people stay with Word and MS Office. Yes, they could switch to “simpler” alternatives, but in many cases those options are the bad “simple”. They’re crippled, which makes them worthless.

Give me elegance any day.  An elegant product meets the needs of its users.  It incorporates features, good engineering and smart design.  It makes hard things easy and enables the impossible.  It is, simply, superior in every way.

 | October 1, 2010 5:00 pm

imageNote: The regular programming of this website has been interrupted to complete due to the need to complete the Open Source Writing book.  I fully intend to pick things up, but I must first send a finished draft to my editor/publisher.  Though I have been more responsible in the past month, meeting the deadline is going to be very rough.

I haven’t wanted to do this, but I’ve decided that I need to implement a commenting policy.

In the past few months, I’ve noticed a significant uptick in the amount of spam that I’m getting on this website.  In and of itself, this isn’t a terrible thing. When a website gets a lot of traffic, it tends to get more spam and I’ve had more traffic of late.  Plus, Akismetdoes a very good job of getting most of it.

There is a category of spam, however, that is driving me nuts.  It’s the spam that appears to be written by a person, but is actually deposited by a spam bot.  These types of comments are generic, usually complimentary, and appear generally human.

But even though they appear plausible, such comments cause problems.  About a month ago, I got fooled by one (which linked to a Russian porn site) and didn’t delete for several days (yes, I’m in a deep period of self-loathing).  That particular post now gets between two and three spam comments a day.  Worse, many of those comments get through Akismet, which means that they end up in the comments RSS feed.  This annoys me at a very deep level.

No, really.

The presence of spam on a personal website is like finding cigarette ashes on your couch.  It’s unsightly, violating and sends the wrong message to visitors and guests.  (I don’t smoke.  If I did, maybe I’d feel different about it.)

For that reason, I’m just going to start deleting any comments that look like spam.  Or comments that I find annoying, unseemly or derogatory.  (For that matter, if I don’t like you, I’ll probably delete your comments too. It’s my house, and I can be as capricious and arbitrary as I want.  If you want a right to express yourself, get your own blog.  There’s a lot of providers and most of them are free.)

With all that said, I’d like to clarify something.  I don’t like deleting comments written by people.  Some of the best stuff on this website came in response to a comment (or an email).  And I like interacting with like-minded individuals.  It’s actually why I continue to play and experiment with things and to post ramblings here.

Nor am I opposed to the idea of self-promotion.  If you have a blog post, piece of content, or product that is relevant to something I’ve written about, please say so.  I just re-discovered Dropbox because of a virtual friend who gave it a plug.  Sharing stuff is what the Interwebs are all about.

For that matter, insults and flamefests can be fun, too.  Just because something is derogatory isn’t a guarantee that it will be deleted.  Scathing takedowns delivered with wit and poise are very welcome.  Hell, they’re positively encouraged.  If you detest the sight of me, or the sound of my voice makes you nauseous, please share.  Bonus points if you use obscenities from more than one culture.  Just be sure to use periods and paragraphs.  Calumny without style will be deleted, or mocked.

And if I know you in real life, I’m not above sending your stupidity to friends and family.  With commentary.

But I digress.

Here’s my policy:

If a comment looks like it was written by a machine, it will be deleted.  If you write to me and can satisfactorily prove you are not a machine, I might restate the comment.  In such cases, though, you really should answer an important question:

Why do you write like a machine?

That is all.

 | September 2, 2010 5:34 pm

Fire DanceI’ve always been amazed that In the wilds of the Internet, fires can be ignited, extinguished and forgotten at terrifying speed.  Certainly, we say that the Internet has a long memory; we even occasionally visit Google to demonstrate it.  (Usually by uncovering the evidence of past drunken exploits.)

And such sayings may be true.  But they’re true in the way that libraries archive knowledge or that history never forgets.  The information is accessible and available, but to find it requires work.  (Sometimes a lot of work.)

The meme does not apply to the living memory of the Internet, that body of knowledge that the denizens (and it’s most important search engines) have within easy recall.  The living memory, like the Internet’s attention span, is extremely short.  Non-existent, even.

This means that if you wish to contribute to a particular discussion or flame-fest, you had better do so quickly and concisely.  Otherwise, the opportunity may pass you by forever.

In many respects, this is a good thing.  It’s an important reminder that most of our concerns are temporary and that most debates have about as much importance as that of metaphorical angels dancing on the heads of imagined pins.

In other ways, though, it is a true shame.  If you’re trying to respond quickly, it’s not always possible to say something insightful or profound.  You may not even address the points of the original article because you are too busy formulating a comeback.

(Maybe this is why virtual fisticuffs so often resemble the dynamics of sibling squabbles?)

One such article appeared on the Interwebs nearly a month ago, written by the emerging polemicist Benjamin Humphrey.  Entitled “Dude, you’re a 35 year old with a neck beard”, the thing set off what can only be described as a forest fire.  It brought up Linux ideology, geek stereotypes and religion within the same posting.  It even had the audacity to suggest that, at least as far as technology goes, ideology should serve progress and not the other way round.  (Very brave positions, all.)

Predictably, people jumped all over it.  There were hundreds of angry comments, email flame wars and even a few scattered blog responses.

Note: I sincerely hope that Humphrey doesn’t become too gun shy with his writing.  He’s a fantastic contrarian and has a knack for making me think.  This article will be the third response I’ve written to his work, and that says something.  The world needs more provocative opinions and controversial ideas.  And even though discussions of such material may occasionally – or even frequently – explode doesn’t mean that they should be avoided.  Humphrey is very good at bringing these such topics to the attention of the open source community.  It would be a pity if he stopped simply because he’s occasionally gotten himself burned (even if they were third degree and required skin grafts).

I think Humphrey’s article prompted such an explosion because the points he proffers are interesting, important and timely.  They highlight changes that are happening in the open source community and demonstrate that, though Open Source may have started as an ideological movement (complete with its own priesthood), it’s not going to stay that way forever.  Humphrey also offered the opinion that this is a good thing, and that the purity police (in his language, the “beardies”) needn’t destroy their own legacy to prevent it from changing.

I largely agree with this message, but being the longwinded and engaged sort of fellow I am, I had a few points that I wanted to add.  More logs on the fire, if you will.

However, real life and other responsibilities got in the way.  I wasn’t able to sit, formulate my thoughts and respond in a timely manner.  For that reason, I’ve arrived late to the conflict.  And though I bring material, explosives and (most importantly) fuel, I’ve found an otherwise spectacular disaster reduced to barely smoking embers.

But since I’ve written the damn thing and I’m infatuated with the sound of my own voice, I’m going to breathe some life back into this flame.  Over the next few days, I’d like to take Humphrey’s argument and extend it to a logical conclusion.  Specifically, there are three points I’d like to explore:

  1. Humphrey is correct, the open source worlds are changing and Purity of Thought is taking a back seat to innovation and progress.  This is a scary, although not a bad, thing.
  2. The shifts are happening because the open source tent is expanding.  This is a necessary step to eventual world domination, or as Mark Shuttleworth, to “crossing of the chasm.”
  3. Ultimately, these changes will be a Good Thing.  Even though new people are entering the community and they’re kind of strange, that does not mean that there should be battles to the death.  Both the interests of the beardies and those of the new denizens can align and influence one another.  Open Source if a process, not a product, and works best by combining the interests of many.

The Italians have saying:

Since the house is on fire, let us warm ourselves.

Thanks to Humphrey, the house has already burned down (in addition to sizable parts of the garden and grounds).   But that does not mean I can’t make use of his magnificent ruin, or its smoldering remains.  I intend not only to warm myself, but to dance amidst its flames.  I sincerely hope that you’ll join in and help raise a mere blaze to a proper firestorm.

 | September 1, 2010 9:45 pm

Guy Kawasaki - Twitter InundationI know that you’re not supposed to talk about why you stopped following someone on Twitter.  It violates all kinds of codes, memes and principles, both written and unwritten.  Moreover, it’s annoying and petty.

With that said, I’m going to explain why I stopped following @GuyKawasaki.

It had little to do with what he said, or the type of content that he was sharing.  If anything, I found both to be very interesting and valuable.

The reason I stopped listening was due to the volume of stuff that Mr. Kawasaki was posting.  Or, perhaps I should clarify.  It was the amount of stuff that Mr. Kawasaki and the other authors of his website (AllTop.com) were posting.  As you can see from the Twitter feed at left, it’s not uncommon for @GuyKawasaki’s tweets to outnumber everyone else in my list by a significant margin.

It simply got to be too much, and I would skip nearly all of it.  Especially since @GuyKawasaki often repeats himself.

(In the feed at left, the”Tea Party” tweet appears twice within a minute.  I was able to find it a couple of additional times as well.)

But because I would skip @GuyKawasaki’s posts, I would also find myself skipping the notes of other people as well.  They would get lost in the smiling sea of orange.  This has resulted in lost articles and other content that I wanted to review.

So, I’ve decided to drop him, which I consider a shame.  He writes interesting stuff and has an engaging personality.  He’s done awesome shit and is generally the sort of person I’d like to have at a dinner party (my litmus test for whether I follow someone).

But even so, the volume of tweets has started to detract from the human aspect of Twitter.  One of the things that I really like about the service is the knowledge (or at least the belief) that there is a real person on the other end of the keyboard.  In the case of @GuyKawasaki, I no longer feel that way.

In many ways, I’m starting to feel like I’m hooked up to a spam generator (albeit a particularly intelligent one).  As a result, I’ve decided to unplug.