It's Alive

Oh my god, I think I've done it. After consulting with Matt Felten over TWO years ago, I've switched my blog away from squarespace, and onto my own server. Not that I use this blog for much (looks at the entire history of two posts), but it was a fun challenge.

Truth be told, most of the work was done two years ago. It's only taken me until now to bring the rest of the pieces together, and get something that actually runs.

The new and improved is run on Jekyll, the static HTML generator. No more cruft from squarespace or wordpress, now it's just flat HTML files. I realized I didn't use pretty much any of the squarespace features except for the site editor, and after a lot of tinkering, I could just do what I wanted with very simple CSS. Drag-and-drop was nice, but wholly unnecessary for this simple site.

I've been reading a lot and thinking a lot about the "Indie Web" and what that means for me and the internet in general. I put so much time and content into twitter, but I'd at least like to have my own slice of homestead somewhere. And that's here I guess.

Am I going to publicize my new creation? Nah. This post is merely intended to stick another flag in the ground I've tread over and over.

Even now, there's still work to be done, new things to learn. How do I post from the road? How do I find motivation to write more than one blog post every four years? Am I happy with this design?

The Comfort of Familiarity

My buddy Alex has taken issue with the skeuomorphic design that Apple is presenting in its apps these days, and I think the crux of his argument is completely off base. (He has since clarified his opinions over Twitter, saying he finds the designs lazy and uninspiring, but I’m arguing against this blog post). In the past he’s complained about the cold, rigid aluminum and glass design of their hardware, and also that everything they make is too similar. So why get offended when Apple does something unique with the software of their machines in an attempt to make their users more comfortable? He thinks they’re clinging to outdated metaphors in an attempt to bring us a false sense of familiarity.

Alex’s main argument seems to be that all of these accoutrements are weighing down the usability of the OSes, but I simply don’t find that to be the case. It’s just window dressing. Fashion. Just like brushed metal was all the rage within Apple 6 years ago, mimicking real life counterparts is all the rage now, but the usability tradeoffs that Alex complains about haven’t materialized. iCal took a step back in Lion when it went to the new design, but Apple saw that they overreached and brought the things that make sense back into Mountain Lion.

He goes on to say:

Now, within Apple’s own software, intuitive gestures are being replaced with static buttons that reference outdated technology

but offers no examples, because there aren’t any to offer. In fact, the opposite is true. As the years have gone on, Apple has only added more gestures to their OSes. Every kind of 2-4 finger swipe you can imagine on OS X, 4-finger swipes on the iPad, and even adding pull-to-refresh in Mail while getting rid of the static, outdated refresh button.

I think what Apple is doing here isn’t just merely making people comfortable. They’re trying to inject these cold black slabs of glass with some heart. Without the software an iPhone is boring, lifeless, and unfeeling. Stuffing the thing with rich corinthian leather and stitching brings with it a little bit of familiarity that we otherwise wouldn’t have. They’re trying to put a little delight into their software. In the end, I think that’s what it’s all about. Delight. People simply aren’t delighted by monolithic industrial design.

Is there something more intuitive and personal about a reel-to-reel machine that the iPhone’s super versatile touch display is missing?

Intuitive, no, but I’d definitely argue that there’s something more personal about it. The pull of nostalgia can be a powerful thing. There’s a reason why we put these objects in museums and make documentaries about them. Just because has the design of a Braun reel-to-reel tape deck doesn’t mean it acts like one. You don’t have to wind up a new spool of tape to listen to a podcast, or fear demagnetizing what you want to hear. They hide the reels behind the artwork and you don’t interact with them in any way. But I was delighted when I saw those little reels spinning, far more than the first time I started a podcast in Instacast. And all it is, is ornamentation.

I also don’t think Apple is in this game to constantly make innovative new UI’s that blow us away. They’ve already done the hard work; creating an entirely touch-driven experience that was unlike any that came before it, and got people to actually want to use it. Now Apple needs to make products that are familiar and consistent, not reinvent the wheel just because a designer gets bored. The App Store (and other platforms) are doing great with experimentation in this space.

I know Alex is excited to live in his THX 1138 future where real-life objects are tossed away never to be looked at again, but I enjoy having a modicum of familiarity when using stuff. No one is making him pull out a quill pen to write into his desk blotter, or having him pull out a drawer of files to interact with his desktop, and that’s not where Apple is headed. If he wants to make the argument that these things are unfashionable or ugly, well that’s an opinion I can understand, but saying they’re unusable is one I can’t. I think Alex is just getting distracted by the curtains around the window.

God Damn Stop Signs

I loathe stop signs.

On the path to my favorite greasy spoon there are at least 4 of the ubiquitous, red, hexagonal sheets of metal. As I was ambling home the other day I watched someone break the law at every sign on the route. At the first a guy lurched into the middle of the intersection instead of waiting at his line for me to walk across the street, preventing anyone else from getting by. Why he did this, I have no idea. But it was scary. I wasn't sure if he saw me or if he was going to go right through me.

A little further down the road, there are a few three-way stops that no one even pauses at. People slow down a bit, then roll right on by. They're less stop signs, and more "slow down" signs.

Ignoring the signs is considered totally acceptable behavior. Almost everyone does it, and no one I know feels bad about it. This usually gets brought up as a knock against cyclists and bikes, but it's not. It's a social problem that we all participate in. There are laws that we feel don't apply to us at all times, because no one is there to see us commit the act. And it doesn't matter what form of transportation you take, no one wants to stop at stop signs. People in cars, on bikes, skateboards—everyone hates them.

In a car, stop signs can be downright confusing. Who stopped first? When all four people come to a stop at the exact same time, who goes first? If you're going straight and I'm turning left, but the timing has worked out so that both parallel lanes are going at the same time, do I wait out in the intersection for you to go by, or do I sit at the sign hoping nobody takes my turn? There's too much social calculus required.

On a bike, things get worse. When I'm on my bike and I stop, I often get waved through by cars. I cringe when this happens, I just want to take my turn. It feels awkward. If there's a glare over your window, I can't tell what you're doing. Or if there are multiple cars, do you speak for all of them?

Roundabouts are a wonderful alternative to stop signs. Where stop signs add unnecessary complexity, roundabouts are all about simplicity. Traffic only moves one direction, you're not required to stop if no one is there, and the physical barrier in the middle of the road means you have to slow down to take the turn.

In Europe, they have roundabouts everywhere. Sometimes they can get confusing, like when they have 7 exits off of the same roundabout, but as I've pointed out, so can stop signs. If you get confused by the roundabout, you just go around again. Roundabouts effectively slow down people on the road, but only require a full stop when there's traffic, which is exactly how people treat stop signs now.

Some might think roundabouts are weird, but they're more in line with how we actually behave. There are lots of laws we break because they don't fit our behavior patterns. Going five over the speed-limit, sipping on beer from a red cup in the park, walking when the little hand is flashing. All innocuous illegal activities, but still illegal.

In the future, we need to design our laws and cities to help promote better outcomes that fit in with our perceptions and behaviors, otherwise we undermine the authority of all laws. Why should bigger laws matter when we don't care about the small, easy ones?

We can start by ripping out those god damned stop signs.