Monthly Archives: August 2010

The 99% Rule (nsfw)

This is a privacy and freedom rant. You’ve been warned.

I was watching a CNN video this morning about the Feds releasing satellite time to local law enforcement. The spokesman was saying how proud we should be that we’ve spent billions on satellites to spy on foreign countries and now they’re being used on us.

Up came the dreaded 99% Rule.

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Pop Music Hacking

When Mel Brooks was preparing “The Producers”, he did a lot of humming.

His 2001 musical did very well. It won a Tony for Best Musical, Best Book of a Musical, Best Original Score, and a Grammy for Best Musical Show Album. Which is really kind of cool, if you think about it.

Because Mel Brooks doesn’t write music.

Brooks is a “hummer”. He hums up tunes and words until he likes them, and then lets somebody else do all the composition and arrangement.

In our minds we have a picture of a way music is composed. Some guy sitting over a piano sweating away, trying to find the right phrase. But it doesn’t always work that way. Music can be hacked too.

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Do we really need HTML?

I’ve been playing around with some radical minimal design ideas lately, and it occurs to me that I’m not so sure that we need HTML, at least for “normal” work.

Think about what most professionals do all day. You’re an accountant. You’re an insurance agent. You’re a policeman. You’re a manager. You’re a factory worker.

What do you need HTML for? As an accountant, say reviewing a ledger, you need to look a couple of lists of things and compare them. The idea of a displayed list certainly predates HTML. As an insurance agent, you need somebody to complete a claim. Modern voice systems can certainly interview the person, make a stab at word recognition, and you can easily outsource the quality control overseas at pennies per form. Bingo presto, not only do you have your form completed, the system is beginning to learn the spoken word of the customer, and it was a natural question-and-answer format instead of plugging through some long form on-screen.

In fact, I’ve spent the last day trying to think up some combination of activities that can’t be done with a blinking light, a pushbutton, and a list/text/image display.

I can’t, and that’s strange.

I have no idea what hyperlinks accomplish, for instance. I mean, I understand the point. And they are awesome creatures of the internet. But who’s job requires a hyperlink? Sure, things need to be linked together, but the physical construct of an underlined piece of text that, when clicked, takes you somewhere else? Nobody has a need in their normal job to go to random places depending on which text is annotated. Most jobs are not that free-form.

It sounds nutty, I know. And pay attention: I am not saying that HTML shouldn’t exist, or that things shouldn’t be linked together, or that the semantic web isn’t a good thing. What I’m asking is: simply because something makes sense in hypertext markup, should it appear on a screen somewhere?

I’m a policeman accessing a list of recent crimes. Here’s the dirty little secret from systems design — there are only a couple dozen activities for any one job that take up 99% of your time. Sometimes there is only one or two activities that you do all day long. So I push the “recent crimes” button, perhaps a physical, real button, and there’s a list of recent crimes. No links, no tables, no bold text, no flashing or jumping bunnies. No fonts. Just a list. Of stuff I need to know. mirabile dictu

How far we’ve come.

HTML was started with the idea that the display of information would be a completely different problem than the structure of it. But look what’s happened since then: it’s all about display. How big the screen size is in pixels, what kinds of fonts you have (or can install), whether or not you support flash, etc.

All of this is great from a one-system-must-conquer-the-world standpoint, but completely wrong-headed from a I-need-to-separate-different-parts-of-my-life department. We’re trying to invent sort of a universal generic display language. Wonderful concept, but that’s not where we started out going. Or if it was, I missed it. I thought the display aspect was secondary, not primary.

But then came advertising. And money. Lots of it.

My thesis is that at some point in the last 10-15 years, the HTML web has crossed the line from being an information structure and became an entertainment medium. That’s cool, and I wouldn’t want to take away the goodness of the net for anything. I’m simply asking if using an entertainment medium to do your job is such a good idea. For most of us, I don’t think so.

Of course, there will always be a place for the arts — painting, writing, movies, games, music, etc — and HTML and computers are wonderful tools for the creation and enjoyment of the arts. Most of our jobs though, however sadly, are not art.

Advertising has created wonderful general-purpose devices that can switch from balancing a checkbook to flying a F-15 in a split second. One browser page can have your investment information and the next one Facebook. And world opinion. And lolcats. Strategic investment advice. And porn. It’s all one of the same. Sometimes barriers are good things. A site that pulls you in with messages from your friends can then get you to click one link — it only takes one click — and you’ve lost 30 hours playing Farmville. These are all the benefits, and drawbacks, of hyper-text markup language the way it is being used today.

And we really don’t need it all that much.

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Markham Panels

I propose a user interface standard for an Executive Information Service (EIS) for modern humans. Let’s call them Markham Panels. The interface abides by these rules:

  • Only one screen. No setup screens, configuration
  • Only three things are allowed on the screen, indicator lights (which also function as buttons), a list/text/video view, and gauges/graphs. The gauges graphs may be of various types, but there can be only one type per panel
  • No fonts
  • No hyperlinks
  • No keyboard
  • The machine may make sounds and/or speak, but it may not alert the user on it’s on for more than .1% of the user’s time on the device
  • Likewise there will be certain rules for how often an indicator light may light/flash, and at what intensity.
  • Combining the numbers of controls with these standards of allowable interruption frequency should produce a panel complexity factor for that particular configuration
  • The list/video/view is small compared to the rest of the screen, and it is the only screen that is allowed to change. It may not change on its own
  • Interacting with other folks in the world is either done by pushing a button or speaking. The person is not allowed to create text, nor will the system try to learn speech recognition by pestering the person (That doesn’t mean that such work can’t be outsourced, though)
  • No direct interaction with the list/text/video frame is allowed aside from selecting items on the list
  • Configuration of the system is extremely flexible, but happens offline through another system which is not immediately accessible to the user

I believe such a system is capable of performing most all of the knowledge work required by modern civilization, aside from programming and other arts (writing, graphic design, painting, music composition, etc) I also believe that deploying these panels would result in tremendous gains in productivity. (Although I think that free-form exploratory computing also has a huge role, I doubt that the benefits outweigh the drawbacks, at least in many contexts)

EDIT: I initially put “Prove me wrong.” as a close, but that sounded a little too over-the-top, even for me. Perhaps a better close to this post would be “I welcome the chance to change this to add controls as needed”

The goal here is to discuss and explore extreme minimal interface standards. I’m throwing this out as a starting point.

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Retro Techno

I was watching the remastered versions of the old 1960s Star Trek TV show the other day, and while the new graphics were great, I couldn’t help but think how god-awful the instruments and displays were, compared what we are using today.

instrument panel from the old star trek show

But then — being the contrarian I am — I thought: Doesn’t this actually make a bit of sense?

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The Big Mother Honking Monster Survey of Time and Space

How much study would you do to understand a problem better in order to help solve it? Would you spend years gathering data? Is there any situation where a 3-year study of the problem would make sense?

After taking a look at my last survey about digital drugs, I’m doing a little spit-balling this afternoon on what a new survey would look like; one that would associate personality attributes and triggers with technology use.

Looks like using some kind of standard metric is called for — not just a bunch of questions I pulled out of the air.

But taking a look at the list of potential questions, it looks like there’d be a zillion questions all together. It’d be like completing a tax return. Would that work?

Geesh! Let’s take a look at the test types and the question count:

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