Aegirscopic

Identifying a book

Tuesday 17th May 2011

Many years ago I read a particular sci-fi book, and I’m trying to remember what it was called. Here’s what I can remember of the plot, and apologies if it sounds bizarre.

So. Most people on earth are in computer cities buried underground. They’re in digital form of course, and live at a different rate from normal people. There are some normal humans, clinging to a primitive life. Other people are in artificial bodies and live on the moon. This last lot look at the stars. They notice two neutron stars about to collide and warn people on earth. So it turns out th earth gets fried, there’s a daring rescue of the normal people by the digital ones and then they find that the stars collided because if gravity leaking through from another universe and this means th galaxy is about to go, so they fly off in a spaceship to somewhere they can transmit themselves through into another universe.

So that’s what I remember. Might have been a particularly vivid dream after eating cheese late at night, but I don’t think so. I hv an idea it was Greg Bear but I don’t recognise it in th Wikipedia list of his books.oh, and one of the main characters might have been called Orlando. Not sure.

Update: Identified! It’s Diaspora by Greg Egan.

Barriers within barriers

Saturday 26th Mar 2011

Continuing to think about privacy and how software treats your data, I was wondering about things like Gmail and Dropbox, and how ‘your stuff’ is managed on the iPad and similar, and how software takes an apparently militant binary view of what is public and what is private.

I use Dropbox and Gmail all the time, and both contain a mass of data that comes from different aspects of my life. Gmail contains both some of the first messages I exchanged with my partner, some deeply personal conversations with family members, but also a load of business correspondence, receipts, order acknowledgements and many conversations with friends. Similarly, Dropbox contains the working copies of several projects, stuff for my sites, shared files on various projects with colleagues, a load of personal scribblings, sketches, family photos, found images and books, PDFs and saved pages. Neither service gives me any option to separate those collections, those facets of my life, from each other, and I think they should.

The need for some kind of extra ‘barrier’ becomes more apparent on something like the iPad, where there’s a crossover between the private and the shared. It is (as many have noted) a personal computer, but one you’re likely to hand to someone else to play with an app or read something. If they opened up the Photo app they could see all your images, if they open up Email, they’d see all your emails, if they open up Dropbox… you get the idea. As a default, it’s certainly not a bad one, but I’d like for all these things just to specify that, say, emails tagged with ‘Bank’ or pictures in the ‘Family’ album have some kind of restriction, anything from a simple warning to full-on password protection.

Of course, adding something like this would also be useful if you’ve a load of porn stashed on your iPad, Dropbox or laptop, which in any discussion of privacy is the elephant in the room everyone is apparently too damn coy to point out. Perhaps that’s because it doesn’t (and shouldn’t) matter. I’m pretty damn sure that for each and every individual there are things they want to keep somewhere accessible but don’t want to share, regardless of whether it’s eyewateringly hardcore pornography or a fondness for the music of Justin Bieber. Not every part of our lives is equally public or equally private, and software, for crying out loud, should accept and support that.

* I should point out I have nothing against Mr Bieber, or his eyewateringly hardcore pornography.

Privacy from a previous Me

Saturday 26th Mar 2011

New shiny SSD in computer, fresh install of the OS, gradually reinstalling apps as I remember I need them, and encountering the old yawn of setting things up as they were before; and I’m reminded that browsers want to push your browsing history in your face these days.

I would have restored from a backup, but my last setup had a few problems, so I’ve started from scratch. It’s all nice. The thing is, this browser history thing that browsers do is really quite intrusive. I’m following a path of enquiry, open a new tab and boom, there’s a load of thumbnails of stuff I’ve visited ‘most often’ or ‘recently’. Like I give a toss. Why would I want to see that in the middle of… what was I doing again? See, I’m easily distracted. I imagine I’m not alone in that either. It feels like a feature for feature’s sake, something Apple did to show their fancy schmancy graphics capabilities in the browser, and other browsers have to copy. I can imagine the rather edge-like use-case that led to it: someone wants to visit That Site They Visit Often, they open a tab, and woo there it is, click, and load. How convenient for them. But who would do that? Perhaps I’m assuming a hell of a lot but if you’ve the nous to open a new tab (and anecdotal evidence shows this might be something relatively ‘power user’ types would do) then you’ve probably the nous to bookmark your favourite sites as well. Maybe not.

Besides, since browser makers assume you share your user account and browser with your entire family (what else would the justification for ‘private browsing’ be?) as soon as anyone else has been on it then your ‘frequently visited sites’ will most likely change quite a bit. What would be the use in that? The list will become dominated by the browsing habits of the more obsessive and relentless internet users in the household, and if they forget to turn on private browsing, who knows what new and unexpected insights you’ll gain into their character?

Magnetic

Wednesday 23rd Mar 2011

I was setting up this morning and dropped the little power connector thing for my Macbook. It bounced on the desk and, good heavens, it snapped into place on the side of the laptop. After getting over the ‘cool!’ moment I got to thinking about that whole magnetic connector idea, and then onto the ‘Smart Cover’ for the iPad 2, and the way it snaps into place, and wondered about a laptop with no openings in it at all.

The ports and whatnot in the side of a laptop collect a lot of dust, which bothers me in a vague sort of way. I doubt it does much damage at all, but I don’t really like it in there, as it were, and it just seems inelegant to have these gaping holes in the side of my oh-so-strokable sleekness of a laptop. Even if we went all-out for induction charging, what about USB, headphones and the like? Can’t we do something about them?

The only reason you need to stick any plug into a socket is to hold it in place. There’s nothing to stop you poking your finger in there (apart from the size of your fingers) so there’s no problem with touching the connectors, so why not have them smoothly flush with the side of the laptop, with magnets to hold connectors in place? You’d have an odd-looking pattern there for sure, what with the connectors and whatever insulation they need from each other, but it’d be smooth, clean and sealed.

You could (please) make the pattern symmetric and nicely avoid the ‘which way up?’ irritation with existing connectors (looking at you, USB), and I guess you’d need some kind of protection from idiots who would force the connector on sideways and try and fry their equipment to prove a point (and a lawsuit).

The big problem would be the ‘legacy issue’, with so many cables and connectors out there, but that’s the sort of problem that (however wastefully) tends to go away fairly quickly. Besides, adaptors would be fairly easy to make.

Anyway, just a thought.

By Invitation Only

Saturday 19th Feb 2011

We know spam. It’s everywhere. It’s miserable, nasty, shitty stuff. All sorts of filters and active processes are in use to get rid of it, but still it grows. Email is pretty much a joke now, looking at the messages I get to one of my oldest addresses, about 5% of them are real emails to me. The rest, a horror show of appalling grammar, worse spelling and the kind of offers that could only seem plausible to the criminally gullible or politicians. And just lately there’s a rash of it on Twitter — it seems every tweet I write (quite a lot I admit) seems to garner at least two spam @-replies. It boils my blood.

But I have an idea. It might work on more public networks, but mainly I’m thinking about it for the kind of private services like Twitter, i.e., the ones that aren’t utilities, with their public service obligations. It’s simple enough. Go invitation-only.

But aren’t there invitation-only sites out there already? And don’t they have spam? Yes, yes there are, and they do. That’s why my idea has a something else, a little thing that exists in real-world social networks, but is apparently absent in online ones, for various reasons:

Responsibility.

Yup. When you invite someone to a service, you’re responsible for them, and to a lesser extent for those that they invite, and so on. You can invite more people as long as the people you’ve invited aren’t spammers. So say we’re dealing with a Twitter-style service. Imagine you’re an utter bastard and you’ve invited all your Charlene449 and your HotChick9221 types and they’re busily pumping out messages about Great Deals On iPads and Super Low Pharma Prices and inviting yet more spam accounts themselves and soon you’ve got a bloody great outbreak of spam. Oh dear. But some of those accounts are going to get reported for spam. Soon, there’ll be enough reports for automated systems to take action (or maybe you’d have human intervention, I don’t know). So far, so normal. But this is where my idea comes in.

If you invited a spammer, you don’t get any more invitations to give out for a while. If you invited more than one spammer, you don’t get any more invitations forever. What’s more, if you invited more than one spammer, none of your invitees get to invite anyone. If more than some proportion of your invitees are spammers, your account is closed, as are all those you invited. If you’re a spammer, your account is closed, as is that of everyone you invited.

And there’s more! I was thinking of strategies to get around it and get outbreaks of spam from time to time, and that would be to create accounts that themselves don’t spam or invite spammers, but invite accounts that do invite spammers — so you have your little node of disruption in your network, staying just far enough away from the damage to presumably stay undetected. Well, I’m thinking that would also be fairly easy to detect over time, if a branch of the network is persistently affected by spam, you’re going to look at ancestors of that branch, and check their behaviour. This would probably require some human intervention (but the alerts could be automated) but would work.

Now, ideas are cheap and implementations aren’t. Balancing the rules to get a system up and running would be quite a challenge, but this is something that game designers do for a living — this is effectively a combat system. Could something like this be imposed on an existing system? Would you want to? Something like this might be very good at keeping spam down, but it might also be prone to DOS attacks on other users. That’d would require human intervention to detect, arbitrate and resolve (which could get expensive), but for specific social networks, like Ffffound, Dribbble and the like, it might just work.

So, community types, would it work?

52 Books, 365 Photos

Friday 11th Feb 2011

At the beginning of the year I decided to follow a couple of resolutions, of sorts. I’m not the kind of person that does resolutions, but projects, they’re different. So I started two fairly easy-to-do personal projects, a 365 photo project and a 52 books reading project.

They’re both pretty simple to explain — I’ll take a photo every day for the whole year (and post it to Flickr) and read one book a week for the whole year. The photo one isn’t a problem, I can take loads of pictures — I kept a photoblog going for 5 years after all — and having to take one everyday adds a documentary necessity to the whole thing. Basically it doesn’t matter so much if you post shitty pics now and again (or the whole time, I hear you critics snipe!) because it’s just whatever camera you have wherever you are.

The books thing is a bit trickier. Books aren’t all the same length, or written to be read at the same speed, so sticking to a strict schedule might not do the books justice. I decided to keep to an average rate instead of strictly one a week. So, this is the list so far, which I’ll happily admit does include a couple of re-reads (hey, good books deserve it):

  1. Anathem, by Neal Stephenson
  2. Ubik, by Philip K. Dick
  3. The Drowned World, by J. G. Ballard
  4. The Player of Games, by Iain M. Banks
  5. The Bridge, by Iain Banks
  6. Currently reading: The City and The City, by China Mieville

Ubik and the Drowned World I read in about a few hours each, they’re pretty thin in terms of pages and plot (insightful review, huh?) but the Stephenson book was a good (enjoyable) week-and-a-half job. The City and The City is pretty damn good, even though as an ebook it’s a little disappointing — whichever software they used to put it together didn’t understand the ź character, and given that the book is mostly set in a city called Besźel, this can get pretty fucking annoying, as you can see on these screenshots:

All those extra line breaks ruining the flow of text? Yup, those are because the ź characters are all oversized, blurry, crappy images. I am firmly in the pro-ebook camp, but crap like this is just insulting. I like the idea that ebooks could replace the cheaply-produced books — the novels, biographies, whatever — leaving my limited amount of shelf space free for the quality books, reference materials, beautiful editions, graphic novels and the like, the kind of book where the physical artefact is as much a part of the pleasure of it as the content. But I think the publishers and Amazon (and other vendors) need to make sure that the typography is at least up to a decent, error-free standard. We shouldn’t still be seeing character encoding issue on the open web, let alone copyrighted, (supposedly) professionally produced books from major publishers.

Anyway, this wasn’t meant to be a sodding great rant. I’ve got a list of books waiting, so I’d better get The City and The City finished this weekend, you know to keep up to my schedule. Kinda. Now, if I decide to add War and Peace into the list, I’ll be doing some schedule juggling then, I’m sure.

Farewell to Mews

Monday 26th Apr 2010

It’s finally happened. I’ve moved. I’ve lived in this flat for eight and a half years, nearly a quarter of my life, and only a couple of months short of my all-time record — the nine years in the house I grew up in. It feels strange to know I’ve no longer got the keys to the place, that it’s no longer my home. The thing that I wonder about is, will I miss it?

My immediate reaction is ‘No! I’m glad to be out of there!’ but I had many happy times there and there are so many memories attached to it, so yes, there will be some things I miss. But what?


I used to live here.

Certainly not the light. That flat was really fucking dingy — magnolia paint, small windows and dark beige carpets all over. It even had carpet in the bathroom. Yes. In the bathroom. What kind of utterly insane idea is that? No shower either. Just a crappy too-small-for-anything bath. The landlord’s idea of getting yourself clean was clearly sitting in a glorified trough of water tainted with your own dirt in a dingy windowless room with a carpet to absorb any splashes and provide ideal festering territory for any fucking bacterial or fungal infestation you care to imagine. Yeah, sounds great doesn’t it? Really fucking homely. Get me World of Interiors on the line, they’ll want this for their fucking cover article. Did I mention that there were no windows? Yes, it had this extractor fan in the ceiling that would come on with the light, never really actually doing anything other than providing a check in a box on some regulatory form and making a fuck of a lot of noise. Turns out it vented into the loft anyway, so it’s probably a good job it didn’t work properly. It was shit. I won’t miss the bathroom.

And let’s not forget the kitchen. Cupboards so shallow that the doors wouldn’t shut if you dared to put anything as enormously huge as a dinner plate in them. A dinner plate! Fancy that, people wanting to eat off plates designed to be eaten off! Even then, the cupboards on the wall were put in so that you couldn’t actually open the window properly. In a kitchen. You can’t open your kitchen window. Woo-fucking-hoo. Oh and of course despite the kitchen being microscopic the landlord had decided to install a full size massive stainless steel behemoth of a kitchen sink, right in the middle of what would have been a useful counter. No thoughts of, “Oh, if I put this sink in the corner, there’d be room for a dishwasher, or a freezer, or anything”. No, instead they’d made sure the only space left for a washing machine was right next to every single fucking copper pipe that came out of the boiler. Yes, in our flat the spin cycle was a fucking symphony, with the roar of the damn thing blasting out of every radiator in the damn flat. Really good planning that. I won’t miss the kitchen.

Is there anything I do actually miss? It’s hard to tell. I don’t think I could miss anything if I was to compare it to the new flat, but there are a few things I did quite like at the old place — the view was often interesting, I could hear the sea some nights, and the place did look rather fancy from the outside. But the new place has so many things to recommend it — it’s bigger, lighter, airier, easier to clean (wooden floors!), it has a proper shower, it has a balcony, it’s right in the centre of town and is really, really near the pub I was already thinking of as my local. Now it really is my local. I hear the landlord has added an extra crate of my favourite beer to his order. Bliss.

And in case I ever want to see the old place again, I have thousands of photos featuring it in various ways. Thousands. And just before we moved, I took some more and made a panorama.


This was the view from my desk.

It is quite an interesting view. It was always nice when the starlings came over, they’d cover the rooves opposite and fill the air with their noise, then fwoosh they’d be gone. I never did get around to filming them.

Maybe that’s what I’ll miss.

Makers and tinkerers

Tuesday 6th Apr 2010

There’s a thing you can buy. It’s a popular thing (as far as we can tell) and it’s made by people who make other popular, shiny things. It seems everyone is talking about it and everyone is saying the same set of things about it. Either they like it and it’s the best thing evah, or they don’t like the company that made it so therefore the thing is a heap of crap and will destroy humanity and turn us into mindless consumerist drones. There’s also been a lot of heat over how open it is to people tinkering with it. (You know what it is. I’m not going to type that keyword).

You know the kind of thing, the web is full of these little homilies about how little Johnny played with the family computer and learned to program on it and wow look at him now, he’s a big strong programmer! The assumption seems to be that unless you’ve got a computer to fiddle about with as a child you’ll never grow up to be creative with computers, or be creative at all.

Well, you know, I call bullshit on this. I didn’t have a computer until I was 17, and I still consider myself pretty damn privileged to have got that. There were computers at school that I played around with, but when something belongs to someone else (and has to be used by classes) you tend to be limited in your tinkering — i.e. you don’t want to break it. So we didn’t have a computer. We didn’t have much that would class as ‘consumer electronics’ anyway — my Dad is an engineer and I now wonder whether he didn’t want any of this stuff in the house because it would (inevitably) go wrong and he’d have to fix it.

Still, it all seemed perfectly normal. I had lots of paper — Dad brought home these stacks of z-fold computer paper covered in numbers, leftovers from some monthly reports they had to run at work — and I’d spend hours drawing on the blank reverse side. I had Lego, boy did I have Lego. Most of my childhood and a big chunk of my teens was dominated by the stuff — I had whole systems devoted to building things just right. Then the rest of the time was spent outside, building things with mud and sticks, splashing around in streams or running around in the woods looking for caves. I found a good one once, and then could never find it again. I still wonder where it was.

I grew up in a world where there were plenty of ‘open systems’ and I made lots of things and imagined lots of things. There were plenty of closed systems too, like the class computer, but they didn’t get in the way, instead they offered an insight into what could be possible, given access to the right things. Finding and securing that access in itself is a problem to be solved, and however much you insist it will, the Apple EULAs and the like making it illegal to ‘tinker’ won’t be much of a barrier to anyone determined enough. Phone phreaking was and is illegal, but I bet a load of people working in modern telecoms have done it and learned a lot from it.

My point is this. If your creativity, your ability to make something, to play and tinker, is dependent on a specific device or on having permission, then you’re not a maker or a tinkerer. You’re already a drone. None of these things held me back when I was a kid, and yes, I got into trouble for it from time to time (my Mom’s flowerbeds were never the same after I built that ace canal system through them) but they taught me a hell of a lot. To argue that one class of consumer devices will stifle creativity is nonsense. To argue that the costs of getting setup to build apps for the thing is too high is to ignore how expensive the equivalent gadgets were in the ’80s. You don’t need money to grow up creative, you need other, more valuable things, like free time, safe environments and supportive parents, and even those things only help. The key thing is to want to make things. Some people do, and others don’t.

And I am so buying one.

The antithesis of all we hope to achieve

Saturday 13th Mar 2010

All I wanted was an aerial photo of New York for a layout idea I had. I thought, “I know! The USGS will have lots of pictures, and it’s all public domain!” So off I go, expecting to have a suitable image within a couple of minutes and I’ll be working on my design. But no, it wasn’t as simple as that.

I get the USGS website up. Scan around. Ah, “Maps, Imagery and Publications”. That looks like it’s the right one. Main nav, too. Click. Ooh, lots of options. “Get aerial photos”. That’s what I need. Click. Hmm. Now I have to choose based on a mix of bureaucratic criteria. OK, “Historical photographs” looks like what I’m after. Click. Uhh. Ah! “Search and download”. Oh, it’s a link down the page. Oh dear, something in CamelCase. EarthExplorer and something about a dataset. Sigh. OK, if you must. Click. Ooh, 4 messages! For me? Oh, you shouldn’t have. Gosh, could they have put a few more acronyms in there? Wanna see it? Cliquez ici. Though by default it looks more like this.

So, ignoring the left hand nav, I type in what I’m after, ‘New York’. OK, I’ve met this pattern before, it’s a bit clumsy, but I click the search next to that box and I get, yes, places that match. It’s pre-validation. Fine. I leave all the other options as they are, and click the big search up at the right. Click.

“You must select at least one dataset before continuing”

Huh? What? Click OK. I scan around. For the first time notice the numbers on the headings. It’s not left-hand nav on the left. It looks like it, it’s laid out like it, so I ignored it because I’d already got to the page I wanted, right? No, they must have realised it was broken and decided that sticking numbers on would solve it, which it didn’t, not one bit. People aren’t going to notice that something says “2” and look for “1” on an interface like this — there’s simply so much noise that anything that doesn’t look important and doesn’t immediately make sense will be ignored. It’s not a conscious decision, it’s just the way our eye-brain systems work. So, I get it now, you want me to pick some of these things. Where’s “Select all”? There isn’t one? OK. There are plus expandy-things. Click. Checkboxes. Click. Er, what the fuck?

In Safari and Firefox I’ve got popups set to open in a new tab so it just looks like it opens a whole new page with a big, unstyled, scary-looking form. Then it’s gone! Woah! It’s a popup that opens, gives you a glimpse of unpleasantness, then closes itself again! What is this? It’s like some diabolical taunt. It happens every, time, you, click, a, checkbox. Click. Wait. Click. Wait. Click. Wait. Click. Wait… on and on….

And what’s with those checkboxes? I neither know nor care what ASAS, DOQ, NAPP, NHAP, SLAR or the rest are. I just want an aerial photo of New York. It reminds me of trying to find images on NASA’s site, and it insists you know what shuttle mission the photo was taken on — begging the response, “Well if I knew that I probably wouldn’t even be searching for it…”. Utterly, utterly ridiculous. Still, I make sure that I click all the ones that are free. I didn’t see any that said you have to pay for them, but still, this isn’t a commercial project I’m doing, so I don’t want to fork out image library prices for it just yet.

So I’ve clicked 20. I figure that’ll be enough to get some kind of result, but that’s time I’m just not going to get back, people. It’s painful. I click the big search link again. No error this time. Woohoo. Oh. “Results summary”. It’s a table, with all those checkbox labels, and “0 of ?” next to each one. Oh, it’s going to refresh every 10 seconds and tell me how many results there are! Fancy that. I wait until it looks like it’s done. There are links at the bottom for “Results” or “Redefine criteria”. Redefine criteria? After all that? Not on your life. Click results. A couple of things, but the table shows there must be quite a few, so that “Results” link apparently only shows you the first thing in the table, not all of them. That’s annoying. Fully expecting everything to have been lost and have to start again, I click “Back” in the browser. Oh, it’s still there, phew. That’s the only nice surprise I’ve had with this dreadful system so far. Each line in the table has a link next to it, so I open each of those in new tabs. There’s a promising image! At last! Click “Show”. Oh. No, that just shows where it is on a map — surely redundant for a photo of Manhattan Island? Ah, there’s a download link. Click. Oh.

“Sign in using your USGS registered user name and password”

Well, let’s have a look at the registration form, where I will “begin by initiating the registration process”. Jeez, just try and make it sound unappealing, why don’t you? I can barely wait. Here goes. Username, password, retype password and… secret question? It’s the usual set of questions your bank might ask, mother’s maiden name, first school and all that. I’m sorry, USGS, but I’m not giving you information like that. So I pick the first and give a stock answer. Next. No, sorry, “Submit and continue”. Submit to us, worthless human! Click.

Oh. Good lord!

For crying out loud! I question why they need any of this information, even first name and surname. I haven’t bought anything yet, nor am I intending to — remember that I only selected free images? I don’t want, or need, anything shipped. I could appreciate why they’d want to know where the image will be used, but to make that compulsory? Huh? This form is a nightmare — there’s no thought put into what the user wants or needs to do, it looks like it’s driven by what some department of USGS would like to know. If any of this is needed, ask for it when it is needed, and remember who the customer is. I didn’t have to give my bank this much information!

That’s not all, either, there’s a strong implication here that this is page 1 from a lengthy and typing-filled registration process. Now I understand the use of “initiate” to link to the registration process, as the idea of completing it is a distant, forlorn hope.

I give up. I’ll find an image elsewhere.

If anyone from USGS is reading, I’m a highly experienced online designer — user experience, usability and making things easy and beautiful to use are my things. My rates are quite reasonable too. Hint, hint.

Expert mode

Sunday 28th Feb 2010

The ‘one size fits all’ approach to operating systems is an outdated idea born of economic limitations and design inexperience. It needs to go. People have wildly different capabilities and interests, and to try and design a user interface that will work well for everyone is an idea destined to failure.

Computer interfaces have come an awfully long way in the past 30 years. In fact, most of the time when we use a computer we don’t even realise we’re doing so — it’s become a cliché gotcha moment to ask a member of the public how many computers they use in a day. Often they’d mention the one at work or maybe the one they use at home to check their email, at which point our gleeful smug-faced twat of a presenter would trounce them with the fact that computers are everywhere, even in that triple-decaf skinny sub mocha dry venti soy latte they’re holding! Aha! Ahaa! Gotcha!

Tedious all round. But I’ll save my ranty tangent for another post. Computers are all over the place (though not yet in coffee) and we use them often without thinking. That’s because most of them have simple task-based user interfaces; A car may have a computer to run fuel management, aircon, ABS, amazing oh-god-is-that-true-AI traction control systems and more, but since our UI of the thing is the same as we’re used to — wheel, pedals, a couple of switches maybe — that even though it’s one of the most amazing computers we’ll ever use we just don’t notice it or realise it’s there.

Command-shift-wtf

So what about the traditional idea of a computer, the thing with the screen and the keyboard that lets you get to Facebook, online shopping and porn? That’s most definitely a computer, but the UI is anything but natural or transparent. Windows, Mac OS, Linux, whatever you choose to use, they all have roughly the same kind of interface. There is (supposedly) a desktop metaphor, a bizarre storage method — lumps of data called files and a hierarchical, often recursive, taxonomic system that apparently lives only for depth-first searches and goes by the folksy 1950s-office name of folders. Add to that the disconnected method of interacting with and changing these systems, a mouse, which translates forward and backward motion to an up-down axis on the screen, and a keyboard which, rather than for just typing words, also allows for a cryptic range of modal commands requiring the user to essentially play chords of keys to get the computer to do something with, usually, no visual feedback that it’s done anything at all. These chords are also not discoverable, meaning that there’s nothing in the interface that suggests they exist, and frankly, how would anyone guess? Command-shift-R? What? I press three keys?

Still, there are a fair few people who’ve been using these computers a while, and all these systems seem, if not natural, then at least familiar. I’m one of these people. I’ve used computers of various sorts since I was about 14 and despite all the screeching bores going on about how one system is so much better than the other, there’s not much to choose between them. In fact, most people find them equally difficult, unpleasant and confusing; they’re made to feel pretty fucking stupid when trying to use a traditional computer to do even the most basic things. This is not a good thing.

Non-expert users aren’t always stupid

I’ve always worked for companies that make websites or online tools that the ‘general population’ are going to be using — people who aren’t trained in the ways of traditional computers, and frequently have little interest in learning more about them. These are people who have other things going on in their lives and (one assumes) have a high degree of competency in whatever it is they do. Indeed, for some of our projects, we knew for damn sure that the target audience were highly intelligent and capable people, leaders in their fields and often internationally reknowned. Of course, we also knew that a hell of a lot of our users were stupid as hell and probably shouldn’t be trusted to tie their own shoelaces, let alone operate a cooker or drive a car. But still.

Clever or not, almost none of these people were very good when it came to computers. Designing an online application for something is a big enough task on its own, but when you’ve got the computer itself making things confusing and perhaps even preventing the user getting anywhere near your work you’ve got frustration enough to make you spit feathers. We often talked of an expert mode for computers. This was an idealised system by which the computer would start with a super basic and simplified UI: no confusing functionality, distracting icons, technical jargon or anything else, something perfect for task-orientated (or technically disinterested) users, which could open up like some glittering flower to reveal all the technical gubbins when expert mode was enabled.

It’s never happened. We’ve never had a computer like this. Thinking about it, it’s not surprising why. It’s hard enough designing one UI for a computer, but to design two? Two interfaces that have to interrelate and give access to the same systems and controls? Not only that, but one where errors, feedback and responses from the system and the broader networks have to be handled intelligently and appropriately. Also, what happens if your hapless user accidentally activates expert mode? Suddenly their world would become hideously complicated. It’s not impossible, but there’s not much of an economic incentive to make such a thing.

Security should be the easiest part

Besides, if you’re going to design a computer, you need to consider some important technical issues first, a lot of which seem to have been missed over the years. The internet is infested with virus laden PCs, connected up to and controlled by botnets organised and run by criminal gangs. These PCs don’t belong to criminals, they belong to ordinary people who don’t know there’s something wrong. If the computer is actually behaving strangely, they have no idea that it is, because, to them, computers always behave strangely — in fact, their computer could have been infested with viruses from the first moment they hooked it up to the internet with that modem PC World mis-sold them. The one with the default username and password and a stupidly opaque UI for getting into the damn thing to change it, assuming you even know there’s such a thing as a username and password and that such a thing is even important. Yes, that one. My parents have one of those. It’s shit.

An analogy

If you put an average person in a kitchen stocked with food, jars of seasoning, cooking appliances and all that, but nothing was labelled and some of the jars contained poison and a couple of the appliances could explode if you didn’t turn them on just right, would you expect a good result? No. You’d expect something bad to happen. Yet this is what we’re doing with computers. You’re giving someone access to an information device that they’re going to want to use for online banking, shopping, communication, socialising and all that, and yet quite easily it could expose all their personal information to complete strangers and make them unwitting accomplices to massive international criminal networks.

No user-serviceable parts inside

So where am I going with all this? Well, mainly I’m just ranting that computers-are-a-bit-shit-really, but a lot of these issues have come to the fore because of the iPad. OK, it’s still early days, but I think that the closed, all-in-one device with curated apps is exactly the kind of computer many people need. There was an awful lot of screeching and howling about how Apple controls what apps go onto the device, and how it’s all DRM, and this will bring about the end of technical innovation and that the youth of today will somehow be prevented from learning programming. Well that’s only so much bullshit. If it gets people online in a safe, technically mediated manner, this is a good thing. The saga with ReadWriteWeb and all the Facebook users turning up and typing in their Facebook credentials because it was the first result on Google for a search for “Facebook login” just shows that the open, normal, technically-literate assumptions of computers and the internet don’t work for most people. Just give them a Facebook App they download from the App Store — it is Facebook, it’s not going to be another site they’ve found by accident, it is safe, because it’s been vetted, and while it won’t get them Farmville (yet) it’ll get them poking-that and liking-this or whatever it is they do with a minimum of fuss, because that’s what they want to do, and they should be able to do it without getting phished.

A philosophical fear

The fears that kids won’t learn about programming or computers because they’ve only got a closed-system computer at home just aren’t valid. I grew up with no computer at home, and somehow managed it. How? Well, there’s this thing called school, and there were all sorts of different computers there, from crapola RM Nimbus machines to the latest Acorn Archimedes, which, I must point out, was in the art department and was pretty much instrumental in me becoming a digital designer. This was in the 1980s in a smalltown school in a rural area in the north of England. For any country where iPads and iPhones are popular I hardly imagine the schools are going to have fewer computers than the one I went to.

I say we need a bunch of different types of closed-system computers for people to just use and a whole load of open-system computers that people can develop on and play with. We’ve got the second thing, we just need to add the first. The iPad is the start of that, but don’t expect Apple to be the only player.