Oh gosh that rent looks expensive.
I am currently looking for recommendations about where to live in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Although I accept the fact that I might finally have to learn to drive and get a car, I am still hoping to find a place to live where I will not have to spend hours each day stuck in traffic jams on an overcrowded highway to get to work and back. That is no way for human beings to live.
Also I'm hoping not to have to live like this guy.
So I'm looking for a place where I could maybe be close to Caltrain or VTA a few stops away from Mountainview.
For those considering switching to Linux
I've been running Ubuntu (v7.10, "Gutsy Gibbon") on my Dell laptop for a month or two of regular use, and I've been keeping copious notes about what's going right and wrong. I am here neither to praise Linux or Ubuntu nor to trash-talk it, but only to provide some neutral information about what works well and what doesn't.
This post also documents the solutions I found to some odd problems, just in case they turn out to be helpful for anyone.
If you decide to try Ubuntu, you can get the install CD for free either by downloading and burning it or ordering it in the mail.
Intro for Noobs
If you've never heard of Ubuntu, here's a short introduction. Ubuntu is one of many flavors of Linux. That means it's a free operating system that you can install on a PC as an alternative to using Microsoft Windows or buying a Mac. Like all flavors of Linux, Ubuntu is free software, both in the sense of costing no money (free as in beer) and in the sense of not restricting what you're allowed to do with it (free as in speech): you can modify it, copy it, give it away, sell it, etc. Linux has traditionally been criticized as being extremely difficult to learn for those without a degree in computer science. At the same time, it has become something almost like a religion among gear-heads. Ubuntu Linux is developed and maintained by a British company called Canonical (run by South African billionaire and outer-space tourist Mark Shuttleworth) with the help of an army of volunteer nerds around the globe. The name "Ubuntu" is a word meaning "humanity" in several southern African languages. Ubuntu is distinguished from other versions of Linux by the emphasis its developers put on ease-of-use. Their slogan is "Linux for human beings". In the last few years, Ubuntu Linux has been getting a lot of press and rapidly distinguishing itself as the premeir Linux version, largely because of its efforts in usability.
So, how successful are these efforts? Here are my impressions of how hard/easy it is to do various common tasks, based on the couple of months I've been using Ubuntu.
Installation: Put the CD-ROM in the drive, boot up, and follow the instructions. It actually asks fewer annoying questions of you upon installation than Mac or Windows do. You are not asked any highly-technical configuration questions nor are you asked to choose what software you want. What you get is simply a functional set of default applications and configurations. Thumbs way up.
Wireless Networking: On my previous Linux laptop (an IBM ThinkPad with SuSE) I was never able to get the wireless card to work at all. It was annoying. My wireless networking on my Ubuntu laptop is working great, but I have had to learn a lot more about wireless networking than I ever wanted to know in order to get it to this state. I now know all about iwconfig, iwlist, and dhclient, and even how to set the precise frequency used by my network card and the hardware address of the router I want it to try to connect to. (Don't try this.)
Actually though, to be fair, parts of this were my own fault. The wireless internet worked pretty well upon install (though the GUI interface to it is still pretty clunky). I then managed to break all my network configuration by installing something called "xinetd" that I thought I needed for VMWare (see "Advanced Networking" below). After installing xinetd I had to pretty much reconfigure everything before it would work again. There was a weird period of several days where the GUI menu showing available wireless networks refused to update itself; it was still showing the network from my parents' house in La Grange at 88% even when I was in California (and happily using the Internet on a wireless network there, though the menu didn't show it!). After a restart this menu disappeared entirely, so it might be that the latest OS update simply got rid of it. After getting back to Chicago I had a very frustrating day fumbling with command-line tools trying to figure out why I couldn't get back on the Humanized wireless network, only to finally discover the next day that it was all because I had selected a "WEP" key when our network actually uses "WPA2". It would have been nice to at least have an error message or something telling me what I was doing wrong, and besides, it's not very humane to require the user to know the difference between these kinds of keys. (Mac OS handles them for you, invisibly.)
Since I figured this out I have had no problems with networking and have been able to rely on the GUI in System—>Administration—>Network to change settings whenever I travel to a new network. My conclusion is that wireless networking works great as long as you don't screw anything up. The problem is that it's too easy to screw things up. Thumbs down.
Software Updating: There is a glowing red sun icon which shows up in the menu bar whenever any part of Ubuntu or its applications detects that they can be updated. I click on the sun and follow the directions and everything pretty much just works. I don't always understand all of the things that it tells me it's updating, but I appreciate having the information there because I intend to understand it someday and it's easily ignored when I don't care about it. I always get a little suspicious when Windows tells me it's installing 27 updates but doesn't let me know what any of them are for. It's also nice to have a single unified interface for updating all my software, as opposed to Windows and Mac where any non-Microsoft or non-Apple software has to use its own mechanism so that I'm constantly getting annoyed by all of the different things begging permission to update. Thumbs Up
Software Installation: Ubuntu has a wonderful thing derived from Debian Linux called apt-get. Basically if I want a program called "foo" I just go to a command line and type "sudo apt-get install foo", and apt-get will go find the program on the internet, download it and install it, as well as automatically detecting any "dependencies", that is, other libraries and software that "foo" depends on. As long as what I want is in the system, apt-get is amazingly easy: Much easier than searching the Internet for downloadable installers and reading their prerequisites. It's especially nice for getting development tools like language libraries and so on. However, all is not golden. When I first installed Gutsy Gibbon, apt-get was configured to use only one source: the Ubuntu install CD. In other words, it was not searching for software on the Internet. This was especially silly because the CD was not in the drive and Ubuntu was not giving me an error message about it. Because of this, it was harder than it should have been to figure out why apt-get found no results when I tried to "apt-get install emacs" and "apt-get install subversion". The solution, in case you care, is in the system menu bar: Applications—>add/remove—> then click "preferences". (The button says preferences but the dialog box is oddly titled "software sources".) You can then enable all the Internet repositories you like. Thumbs way up for apt-get, Thumbs down for the confusion over its default settings.
Chat / IM: Ubuntu comes with a program called "Pidgin" which is multi-protocol; that is, it can seamlessly interoperate with the Google Talk network, the AOL Instant Messenger network, IRC, and a dozen more protocols that I don't use. In general I'm annoyed at the Balkanization of instant-messenging. I can call somebody even if we don't have the same phone company; why should I be restricted in who I can IM based on our choice of software? So the interoperability here is much appreciated. Further, Pidgin doesn't have the rude window behavior of Google Talk on Windows, and it works better than any option I've had on my Mac since Adium stopped supporting OS 10.3 (and, stupidly, auto-upgraded itself to the brand-new OS 10.3-incompatible version, thereby breaking itself). (Note: check if I can install Pidgin on my Mac.) Configuring Pidgin to use my existing Google Talk account was nearly effortless; I was impressed. I was less impressed with the way text input line vibrated on text entry. This was some minor bug related to the default text-area size being one pixel too short to properly accomodate the default font size. It is trivially fixed by slightly embiggening the window, but I can't understand why it wasn't fixed in the default config. Anyway, overall I give the chat capabilities Thumbs Up.
Web Browsing: Firefox installed by default. The only thing you might need to do is install Flash in order to watch Homestar Runner and YouTube. Thumbs Up.
Playing DVDs: I put a DVD in the drive for the first time; it made some scary noises and then a program called "Totem" started up. After crunching away for a very long time, it informed me that it needed to download some codices that couldn't be included with the distro for legal license-incompatibility reasons. I can understand what's going on here, but Normal Humans are going to be confused and annoyed. I gave my permission; after taking forever to download, it finally started playing the movie, but it was herky-jerky and without sound. My sound works for everything else, so it's not like the OS isn't talking to the sound card or anything. Thumbs down.
Power Mangement: Ubuntu seems to keep the laptop running hotter than Windows XP did, and the battery life feels slightly shorter, but I haven't measured this precisely. One thing to note is that if you simply shut the lid, it doesn't go into hibernation; in order to save battery power, I figured out that I have to choose the "power-off" icon in the upper-right of the screen and then choose "Hibernate". On the other hand, sometimes I want to close my laptop without hibernating it; Windows XP made me carry the laptop around awkwardly with the lid open to avoid accidental hibernation. So this is a fair trade, but with a learning curve. On the subject of the "power-off" icon: it's silly to have this in the upper-right corner of the screen. The four corners of the screen are four of the five easiest places to point the mouse to, and so a smart GUI design (see Mac OS 9 and before) will reserve them for Important Things. On Ubuntu they are the power button, recycle bin, "show desktop", button, and Applications menu, none of which is all that important to access quickly. Another minor nitpick about "power-off" is that it takes you to a dialog box with seven choices: Log Out, Lock Screen, Switch User, Suspend, Hibernate, Restart, Shut Down. That strikes me as excessively many (still not as many as Vista); in particular I'm not sure what the difference between Suspend and Hibernate is supposed to be. Conclusion: Thumb Slightly Down.
USB Memory: Some people call these "flash drives", or "thumb drives", or "memory sticks". They've become the de facto replacement for floppy disks when you need to backup or locally transfer files, so it's pretty important that an OS deals with them right. I was a little worried when I stuck one into my Ubuntu laptop, as I have bad memories of trying and failing to manually mount these things from the command line on Debian circa 2004. To my delight, Ubuntu immediately popped open a file-browser window displaying the drive contents. It was a lot nicer than what Windows does with that stupid "What do you want to do with these files?" dialog box, and it's even nicer than what my Mac does (it seems to have a weird bug where the icon for the USB memory drive appears on the desktop, but not in any of the Finder windows). I will say that I am very happy with how far we've come in terms of inter-operating-system file-format compatibility. File formats and disk formats are so standardized now that it's trivial to put files on a USB drive on any OS and then read them on another OS. I remember when this was completely impossible without elaborate conversion software. Back to the point of my story: now that the files are transferred, how to remove the drive safely? Hmm, I right-click on its icon and: "Unmount". That was easy. Not ideal (how many people know what "unmount" means?) but a lot easier to find than the carefully disguised Windows XP command to "safely remove hardware". Thumbs Up.
Laptop Touchpad: The touchpad on my laptop was initially set to "tap to click" which gave way too many false positives, causing me to click on things I didn't want. This was the biggenst annoyance I encountered at first. It is easily disabled with System—>Preferences—>Mouse—>Touchpad, but I don't think it should be the default. Thumb slightly down.
If you don't know or care about file servers, VPNs, or virtual machines, you can skip the next few paragraphs. But they're essential to my working environment at Humanized as well as many other office network environments, so if you're considering Ubuntu in an environment like that you might want to read them.
Connecting to a Windows File Server: Easily done, but the interface for it is somewhat misleading. From the system menu bar, go to Places—>Connect to Server—> choose 'windows share' —> browse network —> enter address 'smb://127.0.0.1' (replacing that with the IP address you want). Entering the IP address in the first dialog box without clicking "browse network" seems to result in silent failure. Also, the field in the "Browse Network" dialog box starts out prefilled with "smb:///" but the third forward slash is an error. There's no excuse for either of these things, but at least I got connected easily. Thumb slightly up.
Virtual Private Network: I installed OpenVPN no problem (it's in apt-get, so you just do "sudo apt-get install openvpn".) Configuring it was a little trickier. In case you're interested, here's how to do it.
Thumb slightly up.
- Put the .ovpn, .crt, and .key files that you get from the network administrator (who in this case was myself) into /etc/openvpn
- Rename the .ovpn file to .conf and make sure the line breaks are unix style
- Set the permissions on these files to 644
- sudo /etc/init.d/openvpn restart
- See the docs in /usr/share/docs/openvpn for more info.
Sharing a Connection through VMWare: In order to be able to run and test Enso on my laptop without dual-booting, I decided to try to set up VMWare with a Windows XP virtual machine. Installing VMWare was not so bad, but I have yet to figure out how to get it to share a network connection, even after installing xinetd; it's been a lot of wasted effort. If I ever figure this out, I'll write a HOWTO for it. For now: Thumbs Down
There are several important things that I can't report on, because I haven't tried to do them yet. Printing, for instance, is traditionally one of the things that's stupidly hard to do on Linux. I haven't tried this yet, because I rarely have a need to print anything. I haven't looked into what games are available on Linux and whether they're any good, nor have I looked into using Wine or something to run Windows games on Ubuntu. I'm just not that interested. As for what used to be called "productivity apps", there's OpenOffice and GIMP (Gnu Image Manipulation Program) pre-installed. I don't care to mess with OpenOffice, as my needs in that area are simple and are satisfied by Google Docs. Meanwhile, GIMP taunts me with an amazingly comprehensive feature-set locked behind a horrible, punishing UI. I'd love to be able to use GIMP for comics stuff, but it's not worth the pain just yet.
I'm quite familiar with the command line (I use it extensively even on my Mac), so it's sometimes hard for me to judge how easy a computer is to use for someone who has better things to do than memorize flags for tar and grep. So take it with a grain of salt when I say it seems that most things a normal user would want to do on Ubuntu can be done without touching the terminal. (Mostly.
The first time Firefox froze up on me, I alt-tabbed to a terminal window, did ps -e | grep firefox to find out the pid and then did kill -9 on it. This worked just as I expected and when I restarted Firefox everything was fine (even the unsaved text I had entered into my blog was magically restored for me, hooray!). Only later did it occur to me to wonder how someone who does not know *nix sysadmin commands would figure out how to kill a frozen app. Hmmm.)
But aside from a few quibbles, Ubuntu's GNOME-based GUI is basically good enough that you don't have to know the command line anymore to use it. I haven't felt the need to reconfigure the GUI behavior at all, either. Now, whether the reliance on doing things with a GUI is actually a good thing or not is another question altogether, as is the question of whether it's a good long-term strategy for Linux UI design to continually imitate the industry-standard GUI as defined by Mac and Windows. There are a lot of things about the standard GUI model which are pretty annoying and inefficient, and just because something has a GUI doesn't mean it's easy to learn, either. I'd like to see Ubuntu aim higher than this: Now that it's more-or-less achieved the basic level of usability of the industry-standard GUI design, where does it go from here? How does it differentiate itself?
No crashing, no viruses or spyware, not being subject to the whims of Microsoft, and a warm feeling of nerdy superiority are all advantages of Linux over Windows, but these benefits apply to the Mac as well. The fact that Linux costs no money has persuaded few people to switch in the past, but as hardware manufacturers race each other to the bottom, the cost of the operating-system license is becoming a greater and greater percentage of the cost of a PC, and retailers are starting to notice. I heard Wal-Mart is now selling a bargain-basement PC with Linux pre-installed; I haven't heard what distro.
The free software philosophy is the most attractive part of Linux for me; I just like the fact that I can read and modify source code to anything on my system, and that my software is a community-owned volunteer effort, and that in theory (in my copious free time) I can commit patches for all these little things that annoy me. It helps that the software development environment is top-notch (apt-get to install a library and all its dependencies! Boo-yah!) and that any Linux machine can easily act as a server for websites or other network services. So I'm fairly happy with Ubuntu and plan to continue using it.
However, I understand that I am not normal, and what most people want out of a computer is not what I want out of a computer. My recommendation for you normal people is that you should give Ubuntu serious consideration if you have a PC primarily for the sake of using the Internet (web, email, IM, etc). You'll find the Internet works just the way you're used to, and the rest of the operating system will pretty much leave you alone. But if you want to create artwork and consume media and you have the money to burn, get a Mac. And if you want to consume media but can't afford a Mac, and/or you have a mighty need for the latest computer games, and/or the the creepily enthusiastic, cultlike, T-shirted Apple Store minions give you the creeps, then you should probably go with Windows XP. ( Stay the hell away from Windows Vista!! It's a nightmare.) XP is a competent and servicable OS as long as you make sure to install all service packs and security updates, avoid using Internet Explorer or Outlook, run as non-administrator whenever possible, and run behind NAT with a firewall and probably some form of virus protection. (Hmm, the list of tech skills needed to run Windows safely keeps getting longer... and it's supposed to be the easy choice for non-techies?)
Jet Lag is my nemesis
Nothing like spending all day nodding off in important meetings and then all night lying awake in bed.
It's worse than usual because of the lack of sunlight. I'm in Göteborg (pronounced Yute-a-burri), Sweden. It's December and we're at north latitude 58 or something like that. This means that it's dark for 17 hours of the day and dismal cloudy grey from about 8:30 am to 3:30 pm. It's exposure to sunlight which eventually cures jetlag by resetting one's internal clock; without it, my internal clock is just staying in Chicago time. If I get up when it feels natural to do so, it's just a couple of hours before dusk.
Even though we are further north than Labrador and most of Newfoundland, there is no snow on the ground in Göteborg. It's no colder than Chicago, and much less windy. I guess we have the Gulf Stream to thank for that.
So what's Sweden like? My impression is rather poorly informed since it's based on a few days of mostly working, sleeping, not sleeping, and hanging around with my laptop in internet cafés. But sharing uninformed opinions is what blogging is for, so here goes.
My impression is that Sweden is the least-foreign foreign country I've yet visited. The food is familiar: meat-and-potatoes, fish-and-potatoes, bread-and-soup; the epitome of what Bobby used to call "Three-pile dinners". This is not surprising since all the oldest traditional parts of American cuisine were imported from Northern Europe. The decorations are familiar: Christmas trees and candles everywhere. No surprise there, since America basically imported our traditional Christmas celebrations from Northern Europe as well.
Noticing a pattern?
Additionally, Sweden is an extremely modern, liberal, globalized country which is equal (or slightly superior!) to America in economic, technological, and social development. Nearly everyone here speaks English, and most places will accept an American credit card without even the need to convert dollars to Kronors. In traveling around Asia, Latin America, and Eastern Europe, a common question to ask is "How Westernized is this country?". In Sweden this question doesn't make sense because this is the region where our concept of "Western" came from.
It's slightly disappointing for someone like me who craves the exotic, but it's quite a pleasant and comfortable place.
I'll write more (and post photos) when I get back.
Drawn-on-the-airplane comics theater presents...
Not a Yuki Hoshigawa comic; just a random thought I had on the airplane that I decided to comicify with no regard for quality.
The Naughty Librarian
Fear our big ornate letter M!
As I predicted, the Golden Compass movie was an embarrassment. I was in a mall with Andrew and Atul on our way back from the airport yesterday and we saw a poster for it and all said "Yeah, I know it's probably going to be bad, but we're here, so I wouldn't mind seeing it." Big mistake. Blah. Do not watch this movie.
They removed all reference to anything remotely religious; the bad guys are simply "The Magisterium". Not the Church. Oh, no, definitely not the Church, nothing to do with the Church, goodness me. Apparently the Magisterium likes to put big, cheesy, ornate, golden, capital letter "M"s on everything they own -- buildings, vehicles, jewelery, etc -- to identify it for the audience. It reminded me of how Dr. Wily in the Mega Man games puts his big "W" logo on all his stuff. It was very silly and cartoonish. I guess the director wanted a prominent logo which was Definitely Not A Cross.
The servants of the Church, in the book, are morally ambiguous and tormented men, wanting to protect people from the effects of sin, but trapped in a misguided ideology that makes them go too far in trying to do so. To say these nuances were lost is an understatement. The servants of the Magisterium in the movie are saturday-morning cartoon villains; they might as well be rubbing their hands together and cackling about how much they love being EVIL.
Even worse, though, was that the movie ends before the final, critical scene of the first book. It was a strange choice to say the least; I guess they didn't want to end on a cliffhanger the way the book does? Which makes no sense, because if they're intending to film the next book than a cliffhanger is exactly where they'd want to end, and if they're not intending to film the next book, then their story simply ends with most of its plot threads unresolved and its main characters riding north in Lee Scoresby's balloon. Their ending robs the story of much of its power, as the audience is allowed to walk away still thinking that [CERTAIN CHARACTER] is a good guy, and that [CERTAIN OTHER CHARACTER] is safe from harm.
Maybe they just wanted a "happy" ending, and didn't care what they had to leave out to get one? The irony is that the audience is in for Quite A Shock at the beginning of The Subtle Knife, assuming that The Subtle Knife ever gets made and that its plot is not so divergent as to be a different story entirely.
The fight between Iorek and Iofur also missed the point entirely. (Iofur is named Ragnar in the movie, and this change is one I can buy, as the original names were confusingly similar.) In the book, this duel is a fight between two ideologies for the soul and future of the bear culture. Will the bears maintain their traditions and be bears, or will they imitate human civilization and assimilate? In the movie, all that motivation was skimmed over, and it was just a brawl between two bears who want to be king.
Missing the point, missing the point, missing the point. I can accept that some things have to be changed or left out to make a movie, but geez, the movie spent like five minutes on the scene of Lyra crossing the crumbling ice bridge, which has no effect on the plot and could easily have been replaced with more character development. The fight with the Tartars dragged on and on, because the movie for some reason felt the need to show us the death of every single nameless Tartar. I started feeling bad for them, even though they were just supposed to be mooks. That's more time that should have been spent on making the bear-fight matter or making the Magisterium into better villians or showing us the proper climax of the story.
Or they could have dropped the witches. All their important lines were already cut, so the story wouldn't have lost anything further by having the witches left out entirely. I found myself wondering why they were there at all, since they added so little; they were there because they looked cool, I guess. Even Lord Asriel had his scenes cut down to the point where his reason for being in the story was unclear.
I can accept a story being changed and simplified for cross-medium translation, but what's left of it has to make sense and stand on its own. The Golden Compass movie fails, in all aspects except special effects, which seem to be the only thing that Hollywood cares enough about to put any effort into.
In conclusion: I am a grumpy old curmudgeon who hates movies and cares way too much about children's fantasy novels.
P.S. I just remembered what this movie reminded me of most:
this tongue-in-cheek article about "Hecksing".
Do you expect me to fly?
Back from my secret mission to California. The Bay Area was experiencing a cool breeze with light rain and everybody was complaining like it was the worst weather disaster in years. Since I came from a place (Chicago) which was ten degrees F before accounting for wind chill, I had little sympathy.
I did a lot of extremely cool things on this trip that I can't tell you about. I think it's probably OK if I mention that I saw a talk by Randall Munroe, the xkcd guy, at Google HQ in Mountainview.
He opened the floor for questions. First Guido von Rossum raised his hand and asked "You keep saying how things you write about in the comic come true; does that mean you expect me to fly?" in reference to this comic. Next, Donald Knuth raised his hand and asked what the O(n log(log n)) algorithm was. (Randall said "You'd have to ask Elaine.")
It was total win, and it really showed off how over the course of the last, oh, year-and-a-half or so, XKCD has gone from being an amusing stick-figure web-comic to being The Official Comic of the Hacker Culture.
Also, driving south on 101 from SFO airport, we saw a car on the highway with the license plate "HALF ELF". I was amused.
Some comics I am enjoying lately
Thanks to Jake for linking me to Breakfast of the Gods, an epic, gritty, violent, noir-ish drama about breakfast cereal mascot characters. Seriously. The main villian is Count Chocula, who has cowed the populace into submission with kidnappings and torture; opposing him are a world-weary Cap'n Crunch and a battle-scarred Tony the Tiger; the first scene opens with the funeral of the Honey-Nut-Cheerios bee. And it's mostly all played straight. I'm not sure what else to say except that you should go read it right now before the artist gets sued off of the Internet by General Mills.
In the realm of comics-in-book-form-that-cost-money, I've been getting a thrill out of Y: The Last Man. The gimmick-o-riffic premise is that a mysterious plague instantaneously kills every male human -- in fact, every male mammal, along with every sperm or fetus with a Y chromosome -- except for one loser from New York City named Yorick Brown and his pet monkey Ampersand. With a setup like that you know it's going to be either thought-provoking speculative fiction or exploitative schlock. Lucky for us it's the first thing!
It's mostly about the survivors cope with losing their sons, brothers, husbands, etc. and how they try to put society back together after the sudden death of half of the population and most of the government and industrial infrastructure. (The Secretary of Agriculture is suddenly promoted to U.S. President because everyone before her in the chain of succession was male and therefore dead.) Yorick is a walking McGuffin because whatever kept him alive might be the key to saving humanity from slow extinction. The Israeli army wants to kidnap him (Israel had the best-trained female soldiers in the world, and are now therefore a freakin' military superpower); there's a cult of feminazi bikers called the Daughters of the Amazon who want to kill him; there's geneticists who want to study him and his congresswoman mom who wants to keep him locked in a bomb shelter. All Yorick wants is to find his way back to his girlfriend, last seen in Australia.
So, yeah, it's a great book. The writing is really good, and new twists keep coming up, and it's doing exactly what good science fiction is supposed to try for. Can't wait to get the rest of the series!
Hey guys, speaking of comics, what about my comic, huh? Well, I'm halfway through penciling on the next page, and I have layout/dialogue for the page after that. It's been slow going since I've been traveling so much on top of my normal workload. It's not over yet! Tomorrow I'm flying to California again, and then from the 12th through the 21st of December I'll be in Sweden.
..maybe I can get some drawing done on the plane...
Jono's Highly Subjective Map Of Chicago
Drawn a couple months ago, from memory without looking at any reference material. Click for a larger version.
Why do people like TXT MSGing?
In light of my recent epiphany that most people don't want computers, I decided to try to understand why people like TXT MSGing. Over Thanksgiving break I spent some time with my aunt Robin, cousin Samantha, and sister Kristin. They all use text messaging on their cell phones extensively.
Up until now, the very existence of text messaging baffled and annoyed me. Why would anyone choose this obviously inferior form of communication? Entering text with a cell phone numeric keypad has to be about the worst user interface in existence. It's incredibly slow, painful, and error-prone. And if you're doing it, you're holding a TELEPHONE, which means that you have the ability to simply TALK INTO IT and have someone else hear you. Why would someone choose to mess around with those tiny buttons instead of just speaking their message?
Kristin and Robin were ready to set me straight on this point. I may have been a bit annoyed with them at the time, but I really do want to understand what's going on here rather than just being a naysayer. So, here are the key advantages that I extracted from what they said.
Advantages of TXT MSG over talking into a phone:
- Txt msg is silent, so you don't annoy others by doing it in a public place.
- Txt msg is silent, so you can send private information without worrying about being overheard.
- Txt msg is asynchronous, so the other person doesn't need to be around to answer their phone. (Voice works the same way if the recipient has an answering machine set up, but on most cell phones the interface for browsing through received txt msgs is much less annoying than the interface for listening to answering machine messages.)
- Txt msg doesn't make the recipient's phone ring, so you can do it in the middle of the night without waking someone up. (Not always true; some phones make an obnoxious noise when receiving a txt msg.)
- Txt msg does not carry the social expectation that you'll have a conversation. It would be rude to call someone, transmit a bare fact, and hang up, but you can do the equivalent of this as a txt msg in a situation where you don't have the time or inclination to chitchat.
- Txt msg is low bandwidth. It doesn't carry the extra emotional information that your tone of voice carries when talking face-to-face or over a phone. This is a counterintuitive and very subtle advantage, but there are some times when you want to be able to ask someone something without letting your voice betray your emotional state. For instance, if you're an awkard teenager asking for a date.
Advantages of TXT MSG over email:
- It's a lot easier for most people to carry a cell phone around with them than to carry a laptop around with them.
- Even if you do carry a laptop everywhere you go, a network connection is not always available.
- The recipient is also more likely to be carrying a phone than to be at a computer (especially if the people you communicate work jobs that are not desk jobs) and so you might get an answer faster.
- Txt msg does not carry the social expectation of formality or eloquence that email does. If your grammar and spelling are not so great, or you're just more comfortable communicating in a plain, direct, informal style, then you're better off with txt msging than with email, because in a txt msg it is the only style of communication possible, and you'll be judged less harshly for it.
I still prefer e-mail; I'm at a computer most of the time, so it satisfies my communication needs very well. When I need to talk to someone immediately or when I'm traveling and I've gotten into an emergency or my plans have changed, that's when I'll use my cell phone. Txt msging doesn't fill a need for me the way it obviously does for some people.
One reason I find email so much more usable than txt msg is that with email, I can type on a real keyboard with all ten of my fingers. But something I realized is that a lot of people never learned to touch-type on a QWERTY keyboard, or never learned to do it very fast; for them, learning to email efficiently will be just as hard as learning to txt msg efficiently, and getting proficient with the cell phone keypad might even be faster for them, even if the top speed is not as high as what's possible with a QWERTY keyboard.
Now that I'm a bit less antagonistic towards txg msging, I can use it as an example of a point I tried to make in my previous post. When people choose to use an inferior technology, it doesn't always mean they're stupid or crazy; sometimes they just have different priorities.
People don't want computers
It has been a hard lesson for me to learn, since I'm a computer geek, but most people don't want a computer. Most people put up with using a computer. This is a crucial thing to understand for me, for Humanized, and for anybody who does UI design. Once I got it, I realized that my job is a paradox: I'm trying to make computers easier to use, but what people really want is not to have to use a computer at all.
What do people want? At a sufficient level of generalization, I can write down a short list of nearly universal desires:
- To tell stories and listen to stories
- To play games, tell jokes, and have a good time
- To learn about the world and other people
"Money" really means "Food, shelter, clothing, warmth, comfort, survival", so let's rewrite the list that way:
- Food, comfort, survival, sex
- Love, stories, games, learning
You may notice that nothing on this list is a recent invention. They all predate agriculture, in fact. We share the first half of the list with all animals, and the second half of the list has been with us since apes started inventing language.
You can add on some more nebulous yearnings as well, like "adventure", "feeling good about oneself", "a sense of purpose in life", and so on, but I think this list covers the basics of things that are easily definable and universal across cultures. So when you look at something that people do, the question to ask is "which one of these needs is it helping them fulfill?".
Here's something which is conspicuously not on the list: tinkering with abstract symbol processing machinery.
(Because that's what computers are: they're universal Turing machines, they're circuits flexible enough to emulate arbitrary many other circuits, they're mathematical systems that take symbols in as programs and data and emit other symbols as output. This is their essential nature. Keyboards, mice, monitors, web-servers, instant-messaging protocols, Microsoft, Apple, and Amazon.com are all trifling details and historical accidents.)
See, I love tinkering with abstract symbol processing machinery. I think it's splendid fun. I'm so fascinated with it that I often prioritize it over several of the other items on the universal human desires chart. I'm not alone; most of the people I interact with in my professional life have the same attitude. We're extremely fortunate because this obsession means that, at this time in history, we can make a living doing we enjoy.
And so it's easy for people like us to look down on people who don't know the difference between "memory" and "disk space", people who just want to surf the web and send email and call us over to fix their computers when something goes wrong. It's easy for us to make fun of them because their understanding seems so shallow. "No sir, the CD-ROM drive tray is not a cupholder." It's easy, but it's not right and it's not fair.
But none of this matters to most people, because they didn't want computers in the first place. If we look at it from their point of view, we can often find the reason why the technically inferior alternative wins, and it's almost always because it did a better job of helping normal people achieve their desire to tell stories, play games, make money, find love, etc etc.
Let's break down the applications that most people use and what desires they satisfy:
1. Email. Used to to communicate business details (making money); telling friends about our lives (stories); keeping in touch with family (love); forwarding lists of stupid jokes (play); sending spam (making money), which is invariably full of offers of sex and money.
2. Games. To satisfy the need for play, obviously.
3. Office software, like word processors etc. Used to create documents needed for work; therefore, it's for making money. Can also be used for school (learning) and, I suppose, for writing letters to people (storytelling).
4. Web browser. Used for shopping (converting money to comfort), looking for porn (sex), doing research either for work (making money) or on topics of personal interest (learning), to read about what other people are doing (stories) or to share your ideas with others (stories), pointlessly surfing around (play), posting personal information on dating websites (looking for love)... and so on.
5. Instant messenger client. Basically a variant of email, in that it's used for all the same things, just faster.
6. Media player application, for playing music, movies, etc. Satisfies the need to hear stories. (One might also argue that music is a human need in its own right, as every single culture in the world has it and it seems to predate civilization.)
7. Photo editing software. Used because we want to show our photos to our family and friends and tell them about what was happening when we took the picture; in other words, it's a form of storytelling again. For a few of us, photos are involved in our work, so it's for making money.
8. Specialized applications used for work in specific fields, like CAD software for architects or page-layout software for publishers. (making money).
That's it! I bet most people would be hard-pressed to think of any application that they would be remotely interested in using that doesn't fit into one of these eight categories.
(The web browser is the one application that can potentially answer every human desire on the list, which is why it's the most often used. This trend can only increase as we figure out ways to cram all of the other categories of applications onto web pages.)
Now, looking at it from this angle, computers are pretty horrible. They're always confusing you, annoying you, wasting your time, and losing your precious data. I'm finally starting to understand that most people see computers as a neccessary evil, something that they have to put up with in order to get email, web, games, and word processing. Computers are always going "beep" and throwing up dialog boxes asking "are you sure you want to change the write permissions on that file?" when the user doesn't care about permissions or files and really just wants to communicate with another human being in another part of the world.
Computers do this because they are designed by people like me, who assume that of course everyone wants the ability to decide which directory each of their files should be located in. But moving files around does not satsify any of the basic human desires; therefore most people quite correctly consider it a waste of time.
If people can get their web, word-processing, email, instant-messages, and games -- that is to say, if they can communicate, work, communicate, play, and communicate -- without needing a computer, then they will. And they'll be a lot happier.
Therefore, I suspect that the current ubiquity of the computer, as a general-purpose device with a screen and keyboard that you sit down in front of to run various applications on, may be a historical anomaly. Computers might not be a fixture in the average household for much longer. They're not what people want. I can imagine them being replaced for most users by specialized applicances: a web-surfing appliance, a game console, wireless communications devices. As time goes on, each of these specialized devices could get better and better at satisfying whatever human desires it's used to satisfy, while being much simpler to learn and use, and never requiring the user to deal with virus protection or operating-system upgrades or any of that tech nonsense.
And the real, general-purpose, programmable computers will be left to me and the rest of us geeks to hack on all we want.
So maybe we user-interface designers are going about our jobs all wrong. Maybe the question we should be asking is not "How do we make computers easier to use?" but rather "How do we make it easier for people to tell stories, find love, make money, and play games while interacting with a computer as little as possible?"