February 19, 2008

I knit. I have an account on Ravelry, a self-described “knit and crochet community”, and I go to a weekly stitch-n-bitch to hang out and chat knitting with other knitters. I design knitted goods and publish the patterns. I am a knitter.

Among knitting circles, a collection of yarn in one’s possession (butnot on one’s person) is known as a “stash”. Until recently, I thought of my stash as like a yarn waiting room. Yarns hang out in the stash,waiting for me to knit them into finished objects (“FOs”).

A stash begins innocently enough. You finish a hat and have a quarter ball left over. It waits in a drawer with your needles,eventually gathering friends from that sweater you bought an extra ball for, the yarn for your mom’s holiday gift, some nice yarn to add stripesto a sweater (but decided you liked better plain), some gorgeous yarn you got on megasale and think might be gloves someday, etc…

Recently, though, I’ve become aware of a more sinister side to the stash.
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Enso Beta

November 8, 2007

A while ago, in this very space, I waxed rhapsodic about Humanized Enso, a program that aims to bring computers a little closer to Jef Raskin’s ideal. I agree with a lot of things in Raskin’s book The Humane Interface, so I was happy to see his work in a form that I could use in my everyday life.

For those disinclined to read my earlier article, Enso uses a semi-modal, textual interface to perform all sorts of useful actions anywhere in Windows (there are rumors of a Mac vesion on the way).  For example, if I want to open up Word 2007, I can hold down Caps Lock and type ‘open word’ no matter what I’m doing and it’ll open up a copy of Word for me.  I can also tell Enso to learn a particular file as a command, so that I can say ‘open geek’ and it’ll open up my folder of Geek Buffet articles.  My big problem with Enso is just that there’s no way to extend the commands.  Sure, you can open new and interesting files, but you can’t do new and interesting things.

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Internet Neophobia

September 16, 2007

Neophobia is the fear of new things. For some people, this means that using the internet, which is rapidly becoming a centerpiece of many people’s lives, is a frightening experience. A recent study, carried out by British Telecom showed that some people found using the internet to be just as stressful as first-time bungee jumping. The company is now doing further research in an attempt to determine if these barriers are something that can be overcome, or if there is something more fundamental blocking novices from embracing the internet age.

Participants in the study will be closely monitored by psychologists. They will take physiological readings of the participants as they use the net, in an attempt to determine how their bodies and minds react to the experience. In the process, each participant will be given access to technology and instruction and coaching in what they can do with it. Each has been given a broadband connection, a laptop, and web-cam, and a digital camera. They will record their experiences, which will then be viewable on the project’s website.

The interesting thing to me will be to attempt to gain some level of understanding of people who have a difficult time making use of technology I take for granted. I have never found I faced any particular mental barriers to making use of new technology, but I have certainly known those who did. I hope that being able to read the results of this study will help me to understand where those people are coming from.

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Finding a better way

June 22, 2007

When I left my old job, I turned in my laptop. I’d carried it for the last several years, bringing it back and forth between home and the office every day. Because I could be confident that I’d always have it with me, it was the machine I used for most of what I did, including writing. All of my important files were backed up on my home computer every night, but I still used the work computer whenever I needed to deal with them.

With the work computer returned to the company and no longer available to me, I sat down recently to work on a document from my home PC. This machine has a slightly different version of Microsoft Word on it than the work computer did, so I was a little bit nervous about how it might work out. It turns out that I had good reason to be worried.

Word pretty much destroyed all of the formatting in my document. It mashed all of the indentation, the formatting of block quotes, punctuation, and altered all of the section and subsection headings so that the entire table of contents was useless. Then, to add insult to injury, the program repeated its “improvements” each time I tried to correct them. I hate it when software is so confident it’s smarter than I am that it refuses to let me make decisions, and even worse, when it actively thwarts me in the decisions it pretends to offer.

With my 220 page document ruined, it was suddenly very worth my time to find a better option. Being the sort of obstinate person I am, I went whole-hog, and began experimenting with not just a different word processor, but a whole new paradigm in how I am writing this particular text.

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Good Reads: “Everyware”

June 15, 2007

In the first of a series of recaps of the excellent, excellent reading material I covered in my final year at SI, I present Adam Greenfield’s Everyware: the dawning age of ubiquitous computing (New Riders, 2006).

Everyware is a multipart manifesto — brash at times with its self-assured tone, modest by intervals with its delicate forecasting of the trends it follows. The first portion of the work is given over to grappling with the intellectually thorny question of what exactly ubicomp (Ubiquitous Computing) is, precisely. While detailing the contours of this question, it also attempts to persuade the reader that regardless of your particular definition of ubicomp, it is happening. There is, insists Greenfield, some unique, powerful, and compelling at the intersection of micro-scale computing hardware, globally available high bandwidth connectivity, and multimodal interfaces that is and will continue to change the world we live in. At least in the affluent “west,” that is. The remainder of the not-enormous pagecount (268pp) is dedicated to exploring the many contours and faces of this technological revolution.

This is the heart of the matter, and Greenfield bravely plunges into discussion: “What does ubicomp/everyware mean for us? For those left behind, technologically speaking? What are the ethics?” In other words, Everyware is not just about what this technology is and what is possible to do with it, but also the critical (from this author’s perspective as an information scientist) question of what it means for society, what it affords, what it trends to, and what we can and should be thinking about as we respond to it. I thought, given the initial sections of the book, that I would absolutely hate the remainder of it, but in this I am happy to report that I did not. Greenfield’s discussion is articulate, forceful, and wise.

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An Inhumane Interface

April 26, 2007

Snake? Snake? SNAAAAAAAAKE!Our computers are inhumane. When they don’t work right, they can set us back days or weeks, cause frustration and anger, and even lose or destroy irreplaceable information. Even when they work properly, though, they don’t work well.

People just don’t naturally think in terms of programs (or even, for the Apple folks, documents). One task can easily span multiple documents and programs. Unfortunately, computers don’t work that way. Instead, they try to force you to think the way they work, which just causes the kind of grief we’re all familiar with.

If I’m writing an article and need to do some simple math (maybe I need to figure out how many pages my 1500 word article will be), I have to open up another program, wait for it to load and get the answer before I return to my original document. That kind of thing is a concentration-killer and is probably one reason why so many people are now multi-taskers. We have to be because that’s how computers allow us to perform tasks.

So what’s the alternative? Well, wouldn’t it be better if you could just type out a mathematical equation, select it, and tell the computer to find the answer? That way, you don’t have to switch contexts (concentration killer!), switch keyboard commands (why doesn’t ctrl-A work now?), or worry about which application has focus (oops, copied my document instead of the answer).

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