Working on the web the past few years, I've grown hyperaware of the interfaces I use everyday, and not just those limited to web sites. I'm talking about typical things like supermarket checkouts, automated telephone menu systems, and freeway on-ramps. Why are they constructed the way they are? How do they make you feel? How could they be improved?
So last week, when I had the unfortunate opportunity to go retrieve my towed vehicle, I couldn't help but notice a pattern developing throughout the day, from one interface to another.
You have to go downtown, in a part of town where no one lives, so it's automatically a different part of the city than where you normally hang out. The towing office is located in the same building as the police station, requiring you to go through a series of metal detectors and security checks, while people are being dragged in and yelling in angry outbursts. Once inside, you have to make your way down long, dark, windowless halls. The walls are black marble, and the floors are dark green. When you make it into the room where you must pay, you're met with something resembling a theater box office in prison. Workers sit behind windows of ultra-thick bulletproof glass, with small circular holes for speaking through. To top it off, the bottom four feet of walls and the entire floor is covered with a layer of textured aluminum you might see lining the back of a large truck.
By the time I got in line, I could feel the anger and rage building inside. It was going to cost me over $150, I was taking a couple hours out of my day to do this, and I was in a dark and cold place. The room drove home the point of how powerless everyone was. Even if a gun-toting maniac ripped through the assembled crowd, I could imagine the workers taking a five minute break to hose out the room before getting back to work, taking $150-300 from each and every person waiting in line. The police station was also mere footsteps away, to remind you of what happens to people that can't keep themselves together.
I also noticed that after dealing with getting there, waiting in line, and paying, I was demoralized, powerless, and still very angry, and that feeling prevented any semblance of coherent argument and ensured payment for my wrongdoing. When the room was most busy there were 3 people in front of me and four behind, and two people in line were so angry that they audibly muttered one explicative after another to themselves. These people were not in any position to make valid protests, and the likelihood of them getting the infraction overturned was close to impossible.
Now that I think about it, it's no accident that the entire process came out feeling that way. It's almost engineered for prompt, protest-free payment.

“Let me be by myself

Let me be by myself in the evenin’ breeze,
And listen to the murmur of the cottonwood trees,
Send me off forever but I ask you please,
Don’t fence me in.

I’ll be thinking of Cole Porter‘s words when we all hit Austin next week. I remember the limitless skies and limitless possibilities, and I hope we can rekindle that again this year.

Finally. Last xmas, I was

Finally. Last xmas, I was wondering why the BattleBots franchise hadn’t released some low-end remote control fighting bots. They’re not due until this summer, but I’m certain they’ll be a popular geek toy. They’ll be like an updated, tech version of rockem sockem robots, and I can almost hear the battles within the office halls now…

I got a laptop at

I got a laptop at work, and it has a trackpad. Although they work better for photoshop, I prefer eraserhead pointers on my notebooks. The reason? My hands accidentally hover over the touchpad and occasionally make phantom clicks. I’ve been looking all night for a touchpad hack, to kill the taps = clicks thing, but now that deja’s newsgroup archive is gone, I can’t find anything.

I was thinking the other day, deja missed their calling on the archive. They could have easily turned it into a money-making treasure trove of ideas. A napster of ideas, if you will, with reimbursements for authors. If there were a paypal or amazon paybox link on deja pages, I’d use them. Often. There have been times where a single newsgroup message saved me hundreds of dollars, days of time, and kept me from pulling my hair out. Most of my deja digging was for the purpose of tech support, and since it came free after some searching labor, I would have gladly kicked the author and deja five bucks for the most useful tips. Deja could have kept most of the money, and paypaled via email the author of the original usenet post. Nowhere near a perfect system, but it’s something.

Anyway, I guess I’m getting to the point of giving up. I have a Dell Inspiron 5000 with trackpad I’d like to disable tapping from producing mouse clicks in Windows 2000, and I’m willing to pay for that tip. Tell you what, I’ll paypal five bucks to the first person that can give me the correct answer. I don’t want to disable the mouse entirely (which can be done in the bios), I merely want to adjust its behavior. The OS control panel doesn’t let me do it, but I bet someone wrote a utility to allow for it. Let me know, and you’ll be five dollars richer.

update: Graham Walker came up with this utility, which I couldn’t track down yesterday. I loaded it and there was an option to kill taps as mouseclicks. See? There’s a market in information bounty hunting, someone just has to tap it.

The highlight of my daily

The highlight of my daily drive down to Menlo Park is passing by Buddy Junipero Serra. Naturally, I call him “Buddy” as an homage to Dogma‘s Buddy Christ.

It’s a great wacky statue and appears as if a committee agreed to shed the stoic, boring monk image, in favor of something more. He’s not just a priest that brought Catholicism to California, he’s dynamic, he’s your primary action item, when you enter a room he shouts your favorite catchphrases, he’s your pal, and if you were in a fight, Buddy Serra’s got your back.

“Who’s your buddy!” the statue shouts.

You are Father Serra, you are.

It’s good to be a geek

Attending the wedding required a bit more planning than we initially thought, and even for a bit part in the ceremony, there was much to do. There were the usual dress-up requirements, which neither of us had finalized completely, so extra shirts and dresses had to be remembered along with shirts, shoes, socks, jackets, and overcoats. We had the photos to do hours before the ceremony, brunch with Dad and Dusty, a small number of loose ends to tie up, and Kay had to practice her reading for the 150-something guests.
Kay was to read a passage during the ceremony, and only had a photocopied book page to go on. I awoke Saturday morning to the sound of my keyboard being mashed, as she typed it into Word, to allow reformatting and printing. I got up, and helped her print out a couple copies while she located our finest paper. I remember saving it in case later copies were needed, and a final copy was printed.
We got together all our things, took speedy showers, got out the door twenty minutes late, and under a light drizzle drove about 35 miles south. Brunch came and went, and with an hour and a half before photos, we went back to Kay's parents' hotel to change. While surveying the collected clothing, Kay ran down an internal checklist and noticed one important thing was missing from the room.
The passage to be read.
The final copy, on the fine paper, in the extra large font for easy reading, was still sitting in the printer, in our apartment, 35 miles north of where we were at that exact moment. Neither of us could recall the author, so locating a local copy quickly was impossible.
After a few seconds, something in my mind clicked. I saved the Word document that morning. It was digital bits on my computer. My computer is on a DSL line. I run file servers. My desktop is a server, and we could fetch those digital bits from any other computer on earth.
Now, I'm not a star athlete, so I'll never get to score a game winning goal as time runs out. I'm not a supreme physical specimen, so I doubt I'll ever get to save a baby from a burning building or lift beams that obstruct doorways saving all. But I am a geek, and I know how to use a computer.
The thought of rushing around, driving an hour and a half round-trip through rain-soaked, dangerous traffic, in order to fetch a single sheet of paper was ridiculous, and Kay was relieved when I explained the situation. All we had to do was locate a computer that had Word, a printer, and an internet connection.
We drove a couple miles to my new employer's offices, and I think I was gloating the whole time. I can recall being amazed, amused, and even greatly helped by the internet before, but it never saved the day until now. We arrived at KnowNow, walked to my computer, and I glanced at my watch as I launched ws_ftp, connected to my home computer, switched to the My Documents folder, grabbed the doc file, double clicked to open it, hit print in Word, and heard it coming out of the high-output printer.
It was less than a minute from the first mouse movement until the moment Kay had the passage in her hands, and we got back to the hotel with 45 minutes to spare before photographs.
(cover photo taken when I visited the IMP, the first node of the Internet)