Ten Things I learned about the Future…

at Wired’s NextFest, A funny, scathing take on Wired Magazine’s festival of tomorrow. (Which does, by the way, include a reference to flying cars. I keep being promised flying cars in the future. Dammit, I want my flying car now! Where’s my goddamn flying car?

My own favorite news from the year 2100:

The elderly Japanese people of the future will be so desperately lonely for companionship that they’ll purchase slightly creepy android replicas of the drug-addled but brilliant sci-fi author Phillip K. Dick. Why the Japanese, and why Phillip K. Dick? It’s a long story, and I’m not sure I fully understood it all when the android’s makers explained it to me. I think I probably read the wrong books growing up as a kid, or maybe I now watch the wrong TV shows.

Man, the next singularity can’t get here fast enough.

That “Advice to my 16-Year-Old Self” meme

Okay, okay, c’mon. Everyone wishes they could go back in time–“If I knew then what I know now”–except that the experiences you had because you didn’t know then are the reason you know now. Good judgement comes from experience; experience comes from bad judgement.

Which is not to say that there aren’t things I’d tell my 16-year-old self. If I could go back in time, the things I’d tell my 16-year-old self are:

– When Microsoft goes public, convince your parents to mortgage the house and spend money on stock.

– When Apple goes public, wait ’til after the release of the //c, and buy stock. Sell it just before Steve Jobs gets forced out, then buy a bunch more just before he comes back.

– All that time you spent teaching yourself everything about CP/M? Spend it learning more about Unix instead. Pay particular attention to networking. Pay extra special attention to IP networking; in a few months, the Arpanet is going to change over to TCP/IP, and the new network will be dubbed “the Internet.” It’s going to be a big deal, I promise.

– The Illinois Lotto numbers on the week of your sixteenth birthday will be 09-11-36-37-39-40. Buy more Microsoft stock.

It’s the user interface, stupid!

or, why the iPod is raking in the dough and Linux is still a non-issue on the desktop

I hate my cell phone. It’s a modern, Kyocera flip-phone with a color LCD and a camera and an Internet connection, and I hate it. But it’s a step up; I hate it less than I’ve hated any other cell phone I’ve ever owned.

The first cell phone I owned had a user interface so abysmal that in order to access the built-in contacts list, I had to press nine buttons. Considering that here in the US, a phone number is only seven digits long without the area code and ten digits long with the area code, that’s almost unbelievably lame.

For some reason, every cell phone in the world has a crap user interface. It’s a testament that I hate my new cell phone least of all, and consider it a great leap forward, because its interface is merely awful and not abysmal.

The Apple iPod is, by any measure of the word “success,” a wild success beyond what even its creators could possibly have predicted. It’s selling like mad; it’s become a cultural icon; car manufacturers are putting iPod docks in their dashboards, purse manufacturers are making purses with iPod slots. Yet for all that, it’s a simple gadget. It plays music, that’s it. It’s expensive; it llacks the fancy features (such as radio tuners) of cheaper MP3 players; what’s the big deal?

The big deal, as Apple understands and everyone else seems to have forgotten, is that user interface matters. The iPod is a runaway success because it does one thing and does it well. The user interface of the iPod is a marvel of simplicity and elegance; all the other MP3 players on the market seem awkward, clunky, and clumsy by comparison.

Nobody gets it, except for Apple. Nobody understands that the way a person interacts with a device is as important as what the device does.

Take my car stereo (please!). It’s a Pioneer model, and it’s a microcosm of bad design. I can see my car stereo being used to teach a class in “How to Fuck Up a User interface 101.”

It does two things: it plays CDs and it plays radio stations. The power button is also the button that switches between radio and CD; you want to turn it off when you’re listening to a CD, you hit POWER POWER. Intuitive, right? Uh, no. But the controls won’t tell you this; the power-cum-radio-cum-CD button is labelled “Mode.”

Not that you’ll ever be able to read it. It’s labelled “Mode” in five-point light-gray type on a dark-gray background. It’s difficult to read if you’re sitting nose to nose with the faceplate; from the driver’s seat, two and a half feet away, it might as well not be labelled at all.

It has a number of different controls and modes. Many of these are reached by pressing a “Shift” button, also labelled in five-point type; the button is tiny, about as big around as the guts of a cheap disposable pen, and you hold it down wat the same time as you press one or more other buttons to access various functions.

These people were not thinking. Not even a little bit. They clearly did not think about the fact that the operator would be sitting too far away to read microscopic print, nor about the fact that the operator would be working the device while driving a moving vehicle in traffic. And, like my cell phone, my car stereo has a user interface which is actually better than most. Shelly’s car stereo has an auxiliary input mode which you get to by pressing the power button; to turn the stereo on and off, you press the power button and hold it down for two seconds. To insert or eject a CD, you remove the stereo’s face plate. (No, it’s not a CD changer; strictly one disc at a time!)

User interface matters. User interface on an MP3 player makes a difference to the user’s experience with the gadget; user interface on a car stereo can make the difference between life and death. Yet every day, we are surrounded by devices, from stereos to cell phones to fax machines to microwave ovens, that have a crap user interface. Manufacturers think that what attracts us to their products is a long list of features–“Look! This car stereo pulls in stations from Kenya, and then translates them into English while piping them directly into the brain of the driver!” They add functions to their gadgets without ever thinking about the way people use their gadgets.

I don’t want a video game console that plays CDs. I guaranfuckingTEE you that if I’m buying a video game console, I already have a CD player. If for some reason I don’t have a CD player, I am not going to have a set of external speakers either, which means I’ll be listening to my CDs through…what, the shitty speakers in my TV set? I don’t think so. I buy a video game console to play video games. If the console plays the games I like, I buy it. If it does not play the games I like, I don’t buy it, and making it play music CDs will not make me buy it, okay?

Ditto for MP3 players. If I buy an MP3 player, it’s because I want to fill it up with songs I like. If I want to listen to the radio, which plays commercials and lots of songs I don’t like, I can do it for a whole lot less money than an MP3 player–and if I’m giving the choice between listening to songs I like and songs on the radio, I’ll take the songs I like, mkay? Every supposed new “iPod killer” that comes out, and falls flat on its face, fails for the same reason: they take an MP3 player, add something else on to it, and glue it all together with a crap user interface–all without the slightest thought to how people use the goddamn thing.

I just put the new Fedora Core on my Linux machine. Linux, once the choice only of hard-core technogeeks, really has come a long way. But it still has very serious interface problems.

Every Linux enthusiast I’ve ever spoken to raves about Linux’s functionality, its price (free), its power, its features. Why, they all lament, do people continue to use Microsoft crapware, when a better and more secure operating system is available for free?

It’s the interface, stupid. I’ve been using computers since 1976, I’ve been using Unixes of various flavors for almost as long as Unix has existed, and it’s still a pain in the royal fucking ass for me to install and configure a Linux system.

It’s worlds better than it was. Good Linux distros come with bootable CD-ROMs that take you through the installation in a graphical environment; indeed, the installer for Fedora Core is now prettier and more elegant than the installer for Windows XP.

Prettier and more elegant, but fragile, so very, very fragile.

When I ran that pretty, elegant installer, it got about a third of the way through the install, then suddenly disappeared to be replaced with several screenfuls of decidedly un-pretty and unfriendly text. Error messages, stack backtraces, exceptions…yuck.

Restarted the installer, same thing again. And again.

I finally puzzled out from the cryptic exceptions and backtraces that the installer was having a heart attack over a piece of hardware in my system; pulled the network card, and the install worked. (Strangely, when I put the card back, it was recognized and worked without a hitch.)

It’s the user interface, stupid. I don’t care how many features you have or how powerful you are; I don’t care if you’re cheaper than an iPod or cheaper than Windows. It’s the user interface, stupid! Even today, the Linux interface still feels unnecessarily clumsy and awkward compared to the Mac’s or (God forbid) even the Fisher-Price interface Windows XP offers us. For a long-term Linux user, the various awkwardnesses and clumsy design choices of the interface are not an issue, because the long-term user has learned ways to deal with, or occasionally work around, the shortcomings in Gnome and KDE, and of course he can always drop down to a terminal window (it’s the user interface, stupid!) to get things done.

Back to my cell phone. It does not do the things I think it should. It offers me call-waiting, for example. I’m on a call and another call comes in; it seems to me that pressing the “answer” button will let me talk to the new caller. But it doesn’t. It brings up a menu asking me what I want to do. Put the old caller on hold and answer the new call? Ignore the new call? (If I wanted to do that, I would not press any button, goddamnit!) Hang up the old call and take the new?

Now, when I end the new call, and want to go back to the old, I can’t press the “answer call” or “hangup” button. Instead, I press the “options” button. Do I want to hang up? Do I want to swap calls? Do I want to disconnect both calls?

Now, you might think that swapping calls would put caller #2 on hold, and give me #1, but no. It puts both calls on hold, then gives me another menu. Do I want to release #2 and pick up #1? Release #1 and pick up #2? Hang up both? No, goddamn it, I want to swap calls! You know, swap one for the other! Trying to figure all this out quickly is a pain in the ass, especially in a darkened room.

It’s the user interface, stupid. You want my money, think about how I am going to use your gadget. Don’t make me read your mind. Don’t get clever by making the Power button do a whole bunch of other stuff as well. Don’t present irreleavnt choices when it should be clear from context what I’m trying to do. Use your head. Think about the environment where your device will be used.

You want to know why Apple came in and overnight 0wnz0r3d the entire MP3 market? It’s the user interface, stupid!

Ah, the perfect evening…

Blade Runner on the TV, a wireless high-speed Net connection from the computer in my lap, and Shelly teaching herself crochet on the couch.

Next weekend is zensidhe‘s Mad Scientist Birthday Party, and Shelly and I have found the perfect gift. Or, at least, the perfect gift that doesn’t require batteries, difficult-to-obtain radioactive materials, or inconveniently large quantities of goat’s blood…but I digress.

Speaking of Blade Runner, though–when I was a kid in elementary school, they kept telling me that when I grew up, I’d have flying cars. I’m still waiting. Where the hell is my goddamn flying car??!

Some thoughts on being special

I’ve known many people in polyamorous relationships who have a need to feel special, and try to meet this need by reserving certain activities to specific partners, or by placing limits on activities which their partners are permitted to engage in with others. The feeling is that by reserving certain special activities to one relationship, that relationship has something about it which is special.

I think that’s a dangerous idea, and I think that if you’re not careful, that idea can bite you in the ass.

The fact is, every relationship is special simply by virtue of the fact that every relationship is unique. It is not possible for a relationship not to be unique; every person is unique, and the interactions between any set of two people is also unique. Even if I were to date a pair of identical twins, and do exactly the same thing with both of them, and take them both to the same restaurants, and have sex the same number of times in the same position with each, those relationships would be unique. There’s no way for them not to be! Even identical twins aren’t the same person, and the quality of my relationships arises from who my partners are, not from what we do.

Preserving some kind of unique action as a symbol of that specialness is not necessary; the relationships are special, and no two relationships are interchangeable or replaceable. The value I get from my partners has nothing to do with those things we do together; person B can not rob person A of value by doing the same things that person A does.

The danger of relying on some kind of special activity in order to make a relationship feel special comes from the fact that any sense of specialness that arises from an activity or from a symbol must always be a specialness that is fragile and unstable. If my partner feels special only because I do thus-and-such with her and her alone, then she must always know, somewhere deep down inside, that that specialness can be taken away from her; if I do that same thing with another person, then her sense of specialness is gone.

On the other hand, specialness that comes from who she is rather than from what she does can never be taken away. It’s a sense of specialness that is cast in iron; it can never be destroyed and can never be dispelled; it’s rock-solid, because it does not depend on anything outside of her. Nothng I do with her or with anyone else can shake that sense of specialness, because it does not rest on anything which depends on me.

Symbols are tricky things. People often confuse the symbol with the thing the symbol represents; look at all the people who want to pass an anti-flag-desecration amendment to the Constitution, for example. These people do not realize that a flag is only a symbol; destroying a flag does not damage or in any way harm the thing that the flag represents.

It’s the same thing with relying on unique activities and other symbols of a relationship’s specialness in order to feel that the relationship is special. If that feeling of specialness relies on some tokenor symbol of that specialness, then that feeling of specialness is vulnerable, and easily damaged; it’s not a feeling of specialness that you can ever really be secure in. On the other hand, a sense of specialness that relies on no external factor is a sense of specialness far more secure.

Now, I think this is not obvious to many people, particularly to people already struggling with security to begin with. If you have invested some specific activity with your sense of specialness, and your security relies on feeling special, then giving up that specific action seems terrifying, because you may feel that if you lose this special action, you may also lose your specialness, and with it your sense of security. It’s not intuitively obvious at all that you’ll actually be more secure, both in your sense of specialness and your relationship, if you do not rely on some external factor to make you feel special.

But there it is. Relationships aren’t always intuitively obvious.

We have the weirdest goddamn cat in the world.

So while i was in the shower this morning afternoon preparing to head over to phyrra and nihilus‘ place, the cat came into the bathroom, hopped into the shower, and started rubbing against my legs and purring, apparently completely oblivious to the fact that he was getting wet.

When we first got him, he used to meow, loudly and piteously, at three o’clock in the morning. We tried to break him of the habit with a squirt gun. It didn’t work. Water holds no fear for the little guy whatsoever.

I’m glad he outgrew the meowing thing on his own.

[Friends-only] The legal implications of virus tracking

A while ago, Shelly’s computer was hit by a nasty piece of malware, which I wrote about in great length in my LiveJournal here. I removed the malware, and wrote up an extensive report about where it came from, how it was installed, how it operates, and most important, who makes money from it. This entry received hundreds of replies, has been linked to from spamfighting and virus-fighting forums,a nd prompted me to put it up on my Web site here, where it generates tons of emails.

One of those emails was from a person claiming to have worked for a company that writes this stuff. This email fills in some of the gaps in the backtracking I did, and names names. The information in the email seems to check out–for example, the company in question is a known source of drive-by spyware and adware, as detailed by Computer Associates here, so I put it up on the VX2 site.

Imagine my surprise when I get hit by a demand letter from a Canadian attorney (note: PDF file) telling me to take the page down and release information about the person who emailed me.

Fun, fun, fun.

So I’ve spent most of the day today on the phone with lawyers. I’ve taken the email off my site, and told the lawyer I’m not giving him any more information about its source; we’ll see what happens next.

On the one hand, it’s extremely difficult and expensive for a Canadian to sue an American. On the other hand, the guys who make spyware and adware do get very, very rich from it. So we’ll see.

I think the space aliens are trying to communicate with me

I see it everywhere–little hidden messages, secrets attempts at communication which are clearly meant only for me. They’re all around me, really. Written on scraps of paper, scrawled on the sides of buildings…I mean, what else can it be?

But I can’t figure out what they’re trying to say. Take this message, for instance, which the aliens left for me on my way to a client’s site a few days back:

What does it mean? What’s the significance of the mysterious number “452,” and where do they want me to take them to? I wish space aliens were less cryptic.