{Epecho } spacer

[Friday, January 17, 2003]


Two, you bait the line

Recently I read Cory Doctorow's online short stories, '0wnzored' and 'Liberation Spectrum'. I seem to know any number of people who know Cory Doctorow, but our paths have never crossed. Also, I notice he's a driving force behind the current incarnation of bOing bOing. I have tremendously fond memories of bOing bOing the print magazine, and of the first place I bought it, the Binary Café and Hexadecimal Emporium in Toronto.

I wasn't living in Toronto at the time, so the Binary Café was never a hangout. Once or twice only, on visits, I ascended to the tiny second-floor space on Yonge Street, and it was like a window on the kind of world I wanted to live in back then: caffeinated, clattering with industrial and trance, technical, bohemian; but clean, bright, with coffee and sugar as social lubricants instead of messy, smelly alcohol, tobacco and THC; a place where you can read, or dance, or code, or share information. A Nerdvana. And bOing bOing belonged to that world too: smartassed, retro-cartoonish, but on-the-button geekish: full of fun stuff like the Ribofunk Manifesto, interviews with Front 242, down-to-earth howtos on mailing lists (my copy of that issue still has the address to the Smothered-Hope mailing list scrawled across it)

Anyway, enough of that, on to the stories.

'0wnz0red' was a fairly fun read. I found myself enjoying it despite an increasing determination not to. Why didn't I want to like it? Well.. its reveling in the minutiae of code-monkey culture struck me as unseemly, and, worse, uninteresting. Did we really need to know that the protagonist was barred from checking files into CVS? Also, I have my doubts about whether prose like this accurately conveys the experience of programming; it doesn't speak to my experience, but perhaps it either (a) conveys it adequately to non-programmers, or (b) conveys the experience of being a first-rate programmer, which I certainly am not.

At any rate, the story was dominated by the now-classic Everything Is Code ubermetaphor. I'm as prone to stretching computer science metaphors to fit any situation as anyone you'll find, but it can't make a whole story. Unfortunately, I didn't, on a first reading, see anything else here: no more aboutness, no resonance. Lurking somewhere are some interesting thoughts about technology and control over the body, but they just seem to be lying about, not picked up. A lot is sacrificed to the relentless pace, which makes it a fun first read but doesn't provoke much thought or invite a second reading.

'Liberation Spectrum' exhibits the same assets and deficits: swift pace and wit on the plus side, and on the minus side, too much discussion of and exposition of technology, too many witty exchanges that don't develop character (or simply bang you over the head with a stereotype: the protagonist's lone-wolf shtick is Exhibit A), too little substance. Full disclosure: I like hard SF. I'm willing to give up some quality of plot, dialogue, and character for an author to play with ideas. But all I found here were notions.

So: am I going to invest the time to read Doctorow's novel, Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom? I don't know yet. These two stories entertained me, but they didn't quite manage to intrigue me; but on the other hand, at novel length he might have time and space to slow down and be more thoughtful, explore the consequences of his assumptions a little.

posted 5:24 PM |

[Monday, January 13, 2003]

"All things were new; and all the creation gave unto me another smell than before, beyond what words can utter."

-George Fox, commemorated today

posted 2:50 PM |

Design Observations 1

Today's Theme: telephony, and limits of number of hands

The talk buttons on cordless phones make it far too easy to hang up the rotten thing by accident. If you are in the standard "holding phone to head with non-dominant hand" mode, then it's not much of a problem, but as soon as you wedge the phone between ear and shoulder to use both hands, it becomes absurdly easy to accidentally hang up by hitting the talk button. This happens to me constantly.

Really, who is an a hurry to hang up? It would be simple to have a recessed hang-up button that's hard to press by accident. Or put it down just above the microphone with the other function buttons.

Anyway, onto Thing Two. For Christmas, I got a little device that I've tentatively called a Thumb Pilot: it looks like a palmtop which has gone through the washing machine. It has a touch screen, with a little stylus attached, and it functions, by default, as a watch/calendar. Its other modes are:

  • Multiple time zone watch. You scroll through time-zones, which are identified by major city, and it displays the time there. Kvetch 1: Newfoundland is not included. Kvetch 2: you can't rename the zones. Fifteen years ago I had a watch with a time-zone mode, and you could not only rename the zones, but it had a map that you paged through. (Don't recall about Newfoundland, though.)

  • Alarms.

  • Telephone numbers. Herein lies my most serious usability complaint. The display for numbers is only eight digits! Not only do many of my friends live in other places, but my own city has three area codes. And if you are at a payphone - which I generally am when I use the thing, because at home I have a big list of phone numbers on my computer - then it's colossally inconvenient to page through the numbers with the stylus, phone held between shoulder and ear, and that voice demanding that you enter the number now, not later, now. As a hack, you can include the area code in the key to the entry, but that reduces your space for the name.

  • Email address directory. Cute application, and no serious complaints about the interface, but: what earthly use is this? If you're at home using a standard client, then you have an address book, and even Web mail systems have space for lots of addresses still. What I really need are street addresses, for discharging postcard obligations.

  • Calculator. Now, this by itself pretty much justifies the thing: it's pocketable, and avoids the tinge of geekiness that a calculator watch inevitably conveys. Kvetch: wot, no square root?

  • Currency converter. Actually, this is just a special calculator mode, allowing you to multiply by a constant, and see both the factor and the product onscreen at the same time. Kvetch: as a frequent traveller to the United States, I could really use a Fahrenheit-Celsius converter, and you can't use this mode for that. Maybe I'll put the equation on a little sticker on the back of the thing, but this is hardly optimal.

All that being said, I recognize that they had to make a lot of display compromises, because they use a telephone-style letter-entry system, and this takes up about half the display. A sizable line is also taken up by the little icons representing the modes, and this I think could have been slimmed down. However, that would probably mean that the touch-screen would have to have finer resolution, and that would drive up cost and make it frustrating to use. It requires fairly fine motor control as it stands.

Anyway, it's a neat little gadget, and the calculator is handy, but in general I have to say that it Needs Work. Or more to the point, it Needs Thought.

posted 11:30 AM |