Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Artistic Proof 1.1: Maxims

There's nothing like leather.

Paying so much attention to the role of tools in getting work done, I'm especially interested in sayings about tool use. This one's a bit older, but speaks to the tendency to derive one's nostrums from one's (usually limited) experience. It's a lot like a saying by Abraham "hierarchy of needs" Maslow, which is almost annoyingly popular today, especially among programmers:

If all you've got is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

It's true we get overly reliant on the tools we know how to use, especially when the learning curve for such specialized tools as software is so steep and their proliferation so tremendous that it's hard to keep learning new tools.

Oh, and this tidbit from Hal Fulton at Rubyhacker is just too good to leave out.
I don't mean to sound like a spammer,
But Ruby has such a neat grammar —
When a task I assail
Starts to look like a nail
Then my code starts to look like a hammer!
One last one:

He that would perfect his work must first sharpen his tools. ~ Confucius

To me, it speaks to both the role of tools in getting things done and our tendency to futz about a good bit before settling in to get work done. ("Hmm... gotta mow the lawn... Wait! I think this mower blade needs sharpening!" Yep, that's me alright.)

Saturday, November 26, 2005

Leapfrog Fly Pen/Computer: Friend or Foe?

One of the most-touted kid-gifts this holiday season is Leapfrog’s FLY Pentop Computer (warning: slow, flash-heavy, chatty, youth-oriented website). In short, it’s a pen-based PDA with standard functionality (music, calendar, calculator, notepad, etc.), geared toward tweens, as opposed to Logitech’s io2 Digital Writing System (designtechnica review).

The FLY pen allows you to interact with your writing… you can draw a calculator, drum pad, date & time, etc. on special paper and interact with it. Actually, the concept is pretty cool – being able to draw a calculator and then use it – but I’m not convinced how useful it is to have to draw one’s tools every time one wants to use them.

Fly’s functionality is well described in this article from BusinessWeek Online. And it’s been featured in The New York Times [subscription required] and Gizmodo (twice). But the most interesting critique has come from Kristen Kidder of Bitch Magazine (“feminist response to pop culture” and a damn good read) about a functionality I’m particularly interested in: computerized interlocutor as aid to invention. To prompt journal-writing, the pen has pre-recorded questions it can ask. In theory, this is an excellent idea. Conversation (even in the form of leading questions) is a good way to prompt writing. It’s why all grade-school reading is followed by “discussion questions”. But the questions that are posed and how they are phrased can speak volumes, as Kidder reveals:

LeapFrog Enterprises, leading U.S, manufacturer of educational toys and longtime enthusiast of gender stereotypes, is poised to extend their reign this fall with the launch of Fly... Fly's accessories fall sharply along the boy/girl divide. The most notable program is the female-oriented Dear Me Diary (recently renamed the Fly journal), an interactive notebook full of more than 600 writing prompts designed to excite girls about writing and self-expression. The concept is simple: With just a touch of the pen, preteens suffering from writer's block can trigger questions designed to stimulate their creative impulses. A good idea, no? Sure, but there's a catch: A good portion of the topic suggestions reinforce the misconception that all middle-¬school-age female friendships are cemented through the sharing of petty gossip. “Ooh—dish alert! What's going on?” and “What are you so jealous about?” are just two examples of the questions designed to get Fly girls thinking.

I'm all for promoting female self-expression (and what writer doesn’t need a little inspiration from time to time?). I just wish LeapFrog was able to deliver it without aggressively channeling their inner mean girl. – Kristen Kidder
[“Poison Pen” November, p. 21]

I’ve come to see that one potential benefit of technology is using it to prompt social interaction. For example, what if, when creating a resume in MS Word, the task pane included a link, “Chat about this document with a buddy”? As a writing teacher, I’d be pleased as punch if technology suggested social interaction that should happen to improve the document or writing process, but when enacted in the social-norming ways Kidder describes, maybe those girls would be better off with traditional paper and pen and a real friend.

[Image from NY Times]

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Magazine Usability 2.0

ReadyMade is another magazine that understands how its readers use it. Primarily a how-to mag for hip, young DIYers, much of ReadyMade's contents are instructions for household projects. But they seem to know how people make decisions about what projects to do and how they use instructions.

For each project, they include this handy Project Card that outlines time, cost, difficulty, and materials in addition to the instructions. The card makes it easy to compare projects and to decide which to take on and which are beyond my skill-level (most). The evolutionary scale chart for project difficulty is clever an intuitive. The stopwatch, however, requires that you read the Project Card description at the front of each issue which explains:
Completion times range from one hour to two days depending on how many minutes have elapsed on the stopwatch. At the 5 minute mark, you'll spend less than an hour; at the 55 minute mark, you're skipping Reno 911.
The convention is consistent across issues, but they could just as easily write "3 hours". (Imagine if the cost were depicted as dollar bills where each bill represented $5.00.)

[Project Card from ReadyMade, 17, May/June 2005, p.78]

Saturday, November 19, 2005

Usability Frogs

Two frogs critique websites. What more can I say about that?

[Thanks Boing Boing!]

Friday, November 18, 2005

Projector fetish

Farewell to overhead -- a tribute in lyric, image, and song to the lowly overhead projector.

As a writing teacher and research of writing technologies, I have a special place in my heart for the overhead projector. There's something about the flexibility of the overhead projector that PowerPoint, digital projectors, and whiteboards don't quite capture. It was crucial for one teaching stunt I pulled spontaneously one class period a few years ago.

I was trying to get my students to really understand the flexibility of language. They often know when they'd written something that doesn't sound right, but don't have revision strategies. I find it helpful to rewrite a bad sentence or phrase several times and pick the best version. I stole this method from Desiderius Erasmus who, in his Copia, wrote hundreds of versions of sentences such as "Your letter pleased me greatly." I had a picture of him on an overhead and, while we were trying a similar exercise, it occurred to me to turn the projector 90 degrees and project his picture on a blank wall to our side. At that distance, his bust covered the entire wall and there he stayed, looking over us, like the patron saint of linguistic flexibility. It really created a moment.

Nostalgia aside, I didn't have a projector in my class this quarter and seemed to get along fine without it, from a pragmatic standpoint.

[Ode link via Boing Boing]

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Someone keeps moving my tools!

Previews of the new Office 12 interface are available [see here and here] as is C-net's video review. While I understand this process is how we got from here to here, I still get tired of having to learn where particular functionality has been moved. Can you imagine typing if, every few years, the keyboard developers decided to swap and add new keys? How's a guy supposed to develop operational fluency?

Anyway, here's the new "ribbon" interface.

[via Digg,
image from xBetas@PDC05, oh and title adapted from "Someone keeps stealing my letters..."]

Monday, November 14, 2005

Magazine Usability

Cargo is a great example of the new magazine usability. Two innovative, non-content features reveal that the editors understand how people use magazines. First, as a "shopping" magazine, Cargo understands that its readers might want to flag a featured item for purchase, so they include stickers (little Post-it type affairs first used by their sister magazine, Lucky).

Next, knowing that readers might use product reviews to make purchasing decisions, they created little wallet-sized summaries of their reviews that bullet-point the products, pros, and cons (ooh! their website facilitates downloading the same info to a PDA!).


Thursday, November 10, 2005

Text. Coord. in popular fiction

Just finished reading, and enjoying, Erik Larson's Devil in the White City -- mandatory reading on Chicago's El (I see at least one person a week with it on the train). Besides being interesting historical non-fiction covering the drama of architects preparing for the 1893 World's Fair and a Category 5 mad-doctor/serial killer, there were two fun examples of textual coordination that caught my eye...

1) A wonderful example of textual intervention -- the strategic placement of text for changing action -- by the Fair's chief architect:
As a reminder to himself and anyone who visited his office in the shanty, Burnham posted a sign over his desk bearing a single word: RUSH. (121)
I know just how that feels.

2) In describing his research process in the book's notes, the author writes:
I do not employ researchers, nor did I conduct any primary research using the Internet. I need physical contact with my sources, and there's only one way to get it. To me every trip to a library or archive is like a small detective story. There are always little moments on such trips when the past flares to life, like a match in the darkness. On one visit to the Chicago Historical Society, I found the actual notes that Prendergast sent to Alfred Trude. I saw how deeply the pencil dug into the paper. (396)
Larson includes this finding in the book itself -- a kind of detail made impossible through Internet research. But Larson seems to pooh pooh an increasingly valuable resource (Google Print post coming soon). While I will be the first to agree with the limits of any particular technology, I get a little annoyed when technologies are written off uncritically and wholesale.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Typewriter Fetish

The Classic Typewriter Page is a vast storehouse of information about early versions of a breakthrough writing technology. The site includes a brief illustrated history of typewriters, "typewriter collecting and care", and huge lists of early models complete with pictures.

The most interesting aspect of the site, from my perspective, is the glimpses it affords into the development of the technology. A variety of unusual arrangements can be seen, helping us to imagine what might have been had qwerty not become the standard.

[Image from The Classic Typewriter Page]

Monday, November 07, 2005

When not to automate

One value of IT is that it can automate the more mundane, operational-level tasks of textual coordination. Where would I be without Copy/Paste? But there are occasions when it is beneficial to do things “by hand”.

Case in point -- this anecdote from today's 43 Folders post, “Productivity for the Practicing Musician”.
Personally, I don’t like automatic syncing between devices — it’s brain-dead. Manually transferring the information at least once allows it to tickle my brain a bit and stimulate new ideas. It’s sync with a built-in review.

Not only do I like the pithy descriptor “brain dead” but the awareness the writer has for the effect of the choice of processes on the activity. This is what I hope to teach my students.

Sunday, November 06, 2005

PowerPoint Presenting Redux (Reduced...)

Nevermind the Lessig, Kawasaki, or Takahashi methods, here's Lowtax. Richard "Lowtax" Kyanka, owner and operator of (a humor site of questionable taste) recently "presented" at an ACM seminar. His style is yet another alternative for using PowerPoint in ways that overcome its weaknesses -- mostly by grossly overusing its weaknesses, to humorous effect. The result? A weird combination of cleverly lampooning the genre of conference talks and generally bad public speaking. Somethingawful hosts the talk (warning: not exactly "work-appropriate").

Friday, November 04, 2005

Pencil Revolution

Our love of the tools of literacy... Where does it stem from? In some cases, it's nostalgia -- the deep-rooted connection we made to the smell of pencil shavings beginning at age 5, the intense relationship we had with paper ruled with pink & blue, solid & dashed lines and the struggle to get our wobbly letters to adhere to those lines.

In other cases, it's techno-philia in its true geek-guise. The rabid appreciation for the latest, sexiest technology. In both cases, it stems from the time we spend alone with these tools as we work with our ideas. It's why Ray Bradbury named characters Faber and Montag (a paper manufacturer) in what I consider to be his greatest work.

With this relationship in mind, I begin an ongoing series of entries entitled Writing Technologies Fetish. Today's installment -- Pencil Revolution, a blog/manifesto devoted to our little leaden friends (sorry, "graphite" didn't have the alliterative zing). There's a companions site in the form of the Pencil Revolution Flickr Group. [Image from Pencil Revolution]

[Update: Pencil Revolution brings us this piece of web-based zen: images and sounds of pencil writing.]

Thursday, November 03, 2005

Happy World Usability Day!

From BBC:
It's World Usability Day, the chance to celebrate the products and services that make our daily lives easier and more efficient.
Learn more!