Define “User Friendly”

This evening I stumbled into a question thread on Quora about Linux and why it’s so user unfriendly. I thought this was funny because yesterday I decided I wanted to switch my Ubuntu install to use the command key (ergonomically located under my thumb, next to the spacebar) as the primary modifier key, instead of control (awkwardly down in the corners of the keyboard where you basically have to use your pinky finger). A single Google search turned up 3 different ways to do it, 2 of which were pretty easy (edit a clearly-identified line of a clearly-identified config file probably being the easiest). Another 10 minutes of reading those pages and some of the alternate answers, and another Google search later, and I found a little application I could install directly from the App Center in Ubuntu that gives a nice GUI interface to swapping keys around. Voila!

For the past few years, I’ve been trying to figure out how to do the equivalent with Windows 7 and 10. The short answer is: you can’t, without administrative access. With administrative access, it’s a royal pain in the butt, and might require registry hacking, and I have yet to find a step-by-step guide to the exact edits to the registry I’d need to make. (Might be mostly-possible with some commercial macro software, but I don’t use MSWindows at home enough to spend money on it, and can’t install software at work.)

Then I wanted to disable the numlock key (or, more specifically, permanently enable it, so that no matter what I do, I get numbers on the number pad). Again, a quick Google search turned up at least 4 ways to do it, each cleverer than the last. More importantly, that same software I installed a few minutes earlier? It simply has a setting for “numlock always on”.

Again, I’ve been looking for a way to do that with MSWindows for years. I figured out how to have it default to on, which is a huge improvement, but if I accidentally hit the button, it still goes off. There might be commercial macro software that can do the trick, and if I had one of a select set of Microsoft-manufactured keyboards, there’s some configuration software that I could probably do it with, but I haven’t otherwise figured out how to do it.

So, what is “user friendly”? I’d say the friendliest system works the way you would like without you having to do anything. But we have varying tastes, so that can’t always be true. Next best would be learning what you want—OS X used to learn a spelling if you typed the same word a certain number of times, so you didn’t have to explicitly tell it “yes, I mean it, and this is a word, so please learn it and stop trying to turn it into something else”. If that’s not possible—or it fails—easy configurability seems like it would be the next best thing.

(BTW, some of those methods I found for Linux would work on OS X, too. But it’s a moot point because it already disables the stupid numlock key, and has built-in GUI tools for swapping around the modifier keys. I’m genuinely surprised that MS hasn’t added that capability yet, given the number of people who prefer MSWindows for its configurability.)

So, is Windows 10 more user-friendly than Ubuntu? I suppose if you want to do everything the way it defaults, then, yes. But if you don’t…

Defaults tend to run the world and choosing how to set things up from scratch is hard, so it’s worth spending a little extra time to set the defaults in the best possible way. If people are used to something that is awkward, I really don’t know whether the “best possible way” would be to continue that bad design, or to choose the better but unfamiliar design. I’m an Apple user, so I’m used to the notion of throwing out the old way for something new (even if I don’t always agree with Apple on which changes are actually improvements—is there really some reason that going from iOS 8 to iOS 9 they had to reverse the direction you swipe to get to the home screen while within the app switcher?). But maybe if you’re used to having the primary modifier key under your pinky finger, switching it to under your thumb isn’t worth the re-learning unless tendonitis forces you.


Lego Work in Progress

For entirely too long now, I’ve been working on a big Lego project—school and other things keep getting in the way. For me, Lego creation is an iterative process: have an inspiration, build it, look at the result, make it better. Sometimes “make it better” involves entirely too much disassembly—it seems like the part I need to change is almost inevitably deep in the heart of the structure. Since the whole project isn’t done, I thought I’d share a piece of it that is almost done.


This little ship is still a work in progress, about 90% of the way through the iterative process, so it’s a good example of how things happen. The gross asymmetries are experiments—both sides will match once I’m done. (The small asymmetries are intentional.) It started out with the following parameters/inspirations:

  • Use the yellow cockpit canopy
  • Make it as small as possible. It needs to fit on the science crawler’s landing platform with enough space that the pilot can at least get in and out.
  • I want a more “stubby” than “sleek” look.
  • It should “transform” so that it can carry the remote lab, without being particularly big when not carrying it.
  • Modern building techniques, but clearly Classic Space heritage.

For the longest time, what stymied me was the rear engines. I knew what I wanted them to do, but couldn’t come up with linkages that would move them in the way I wanted without bulk where I didn’t want it. Finally, I settled on a basic parallelogram linkage, and just accepted that the anchor points would have to be towards the outside, rather than the center, of the ship. Once I’d settled on that, the rest came together very quickly—just a couple afternoons to work through several minor variations.

The basic design cues are meant to echo the original 3 Classic Space ships: 497487, and 918. In particular, my goal was something smaller than the Space Cruiser, but not quite so small as set 918. With that huge canopy, I figured it should sit 2 or even 3.


Other than the engine mechanism, the biggest challenge was the body shaping. I started out with an even narrower version of the classic delta-wing design, using the 12×3 wings, but that didn’t really give me the look I wanted (and never made it far enough for even a WIP picture). Going with the classic 8×4 wing was perfect, except that I had to do something else for the nose. As is usual in my experience, it’s all about choosing the compromises you want. I’d’ve preferred to use the classic 4×4 wings for the nose so there wouldn’t be a notch in the transition, but that would’ve made the ship either longer or wider or both—or required I not use the Classic Space-logoed slope at the front.

Anyway, without going into too much detail on part choices, the fundamental problem I often run into is the tension between something “clever” and something that better fits my vision for the end result. I want to push myself, and to show off—but I also want something that I like the look and function of. For example, the back end of this is currently multiple options at once, as I try out every idea to see which one I like.


In the end, while I’m really proud of figuring out the geometry that makes the little winglet float with the engine while still lining up with the general wingline, I think it makes it look too much like a Star Wars A-wing when collapsed, rather than a Lego Classic Space ship. But I’ll take feedback and suggestions on what it should look like. (Click on any image to go to my Flickr gallery for more pics. I tend to over-document because this is also my personal record so that I can remember or even reconstruct something in the future.)

Other than that, I’m happy with having lived up to my goals pretty well, I think. And it lands reasonably on the intended landing platform, though not with much room to spare.


Is reuse really a new thing?

I was reading this and thinking “I was never particularly into Jonny Quest, but the premise is solid, and if they do something about Hadji it could be a pretty good movie”.

But why  all the remakes? Why does everything have to be a rehash of something from a few decades ago?

The obvious answer is because of ever-lengthening copyright.

But then I thought about how characters and stories have been reused for centuries—millennia, even. From reusing Osiris’ story for both Moses and Jesus, through the endless retellings of Cinderella, to the many adaptations of Robin Hood and Sherlock Holmes.

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Commuting Gear

There’s no one right way, but I can tell you what my experiences have been, and why I’ve ended up where I am, in terms of gear.

Bicycle commuting is easy when you have a short commute and the weather is moderate (dry, neither too warm nor too cold). Some people do it with nothing more than an elastic to keep their pants out of the bike chain. Personally, I recommend against that, because cycling is really hard on dress clothes, particularly the seat/crotch. When I worked somewhere I could wear what I wanted, I was wearing much heavier & tougher pants in winter, and I’d still wear through the seats in just a few years (even while the rest of the pants were just fine).

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RNC vs Apple

Oh, look, Fox News thinks supporting the status quo is apolitical, at least when it’s a status quo they like.

Co-host Steve Doocy noted that Apple had dropped its support of the Republican National Convention in Cleveland to protest some of Trump’s comments on the campaign trail. “But should the company be getting political?” Doocy asked.

Got it: not supporting the RNC is “political”; supporting the RNC is “not political”.

Root — the author of The Power of Relentless, a book which unironically uses the word “mega-success” in its subtitle — said that the company is making “a very, very big mistake, tragic, and I think [Apple CEO] Tim Cook is going to regret this.”

Yeah, I’m pretty sure the guy who felt a social responsibility to come out as gay is going to regret not supporting Trump’s and/or the GOP’s hate-mongering and bigotry.

“I think Apple has a big problem now,” he said, “because there are what? Sixty million-odd Republican voters? If every one of us pulls our support of Apple products or sells our Apple stock, I think the board will quickly make the decision to fire Tim Cook.”

“I think a boycott is a good move now,” Root continued. “I think all Republicans should boycott Apple products and pull their support of Apple stock until the decision to is made to fire the biased, prejudiced Tim Cook.”

Doocy said that “while we love the design and everything else — whether it’s the iPod or iPad or whatever else — it’s made in China! Isn’t this just what Donald Trump’s been saying about the jobs?”

Yep, because you’re all going to switch to using smartphones and laptops made in…oh, wait, China. So that doesn’t work.

So you’re all going to stop using smartphones and laptops and make do with a dumbphone…which is made in China.

It really doesn’t matter what brand, if you want to stick to US manufacturing, that pretty much means no computing devices, and very few consumer electronics. Though the Mac Pro is “manufactured” (I think actually assembled) in the US, so you can still buy that.

Oh, except you’re boycotting Apple because they manufacture things in China.

That is, if the whole political/apolitical distinction they’re making weren’t bullshit to begin with.

Default-Male in Movies

A couple weeks ago, Polygraph released a massive study of dialogue in films, broken down by gender, and compared in various genres and other categories.

What I find most striking about this is that a lot of the skew comes simply from the number of male/female characters in the main cast. Sarah Connor has roughly as many lines as John Connor in Terminator 2, but she’s basically the only female character, so the film as a whole is 3/4-male dialogue.

But why is this? Why is it not at all unusual to have a movie that has an entirely male cast, or just a token female, but even movies whose premise could justify an all-female cast have several men? Sister Act, a movie about a woman hiding in a convent, has fully a quarter of the dialogue given to men. There’s no particular reason for the men to have that much of the dialogue, and other than the mobsters (who need to be men so they can’t easily infiltrate the convent), there’s no reason all the other character couldn’t be female.

The male equivalent of a movie like Bridesmaids could well have no significant speaking parts for women, and it wouldn’t stand out at all. Bridesmaids has six female leads, and still gives 18% of the dialogue to men; The Hangover has only 3 male leads, each of which has a female significant other, and yet women only get 11% of the dialogue. So it’s in part a matter of choice. Writers and directors are choosing to give all the dialogue to the leads in male-lead movies, and choosing to include significant male characters in female-lead movies. Similarly, there’s a general trend that when the lead character is a woman, the sidekick is a man; when the lead character is a man, the sidekick is a man. Why is this?

Why is it so hard to say “all characters are female, unless there’s a reason to be male”, but very common to start from the premise that all characters are male until proven otherwise? Why don’t movies start from the assumption that the lead cast (and the supporting cast, separately considered, for that matter) will be 50/50, roughly reflecting the populace, and only shift from that when story needs or exceptional actors dictate?

And, no, “that would be unrealistic” isn’t an argument. I mean, sure, for certain historical stories, gender skew reflects the times. But look what Outlander has been able to do in 18th-century Scotland and France: there were a lot of women in those places at that time, and it’s not that hard to include them in your story. And, ok, so you’re telling a real story—I get it, Woodward and Bernstein were, in fact, men, as were most (all?) of their sources and all of the people they were investigating. But that’s not most movies. Even most movies “based on a true story” are at least as far removed from the source as The Hobbit: the Battle of Five Armies is from The Hobbit. Why not, while making those changes, insert some women if there weren’t many?

(But please, do it well! Adding a character just so you can say there’s a female character, but not really integrating the character into the story, making them a love interest for no real reason, and then killing them off so that a male character whom you also added and wasn’t part of the original story can be the badass that kills the male villain whom you also added and wasn’t part of the original story is not really helping things. I’m pretty sure making a couple of the dwarves female would’ve been less jarring.)

And when you’re making up your story? well, you see, that’s the nature of fiction: you can decide the genders of the characters. It can be aspirational or inspirational, instead of “realistic”. You can make half the cops in your fictional police department in your fictional city women—so long as they act like cops, it shouldn’t really matter.

It’s not a perfect analysis, of course—sometimes the lead character is relatively taciturn. But looking at movies I’m familiar with, I think it’s safe to say the aggregate is pretty representative. Plus, they’ve got a detailed explanation of their methodology, a FAQ, and access to most of the data. And it’s sad.

It’s a truism that little boys aren’t interested in movies with female leads, while little girls are perfectly capable of identifying with male leads. I don’t know to what degree this is actually true, or if anyone has even researched it seriously, but how much of this is due to exposure? If boys and men can avoid movies with female leads and still have tons of choice, that makes it easy to be persnickety. Whereas if girls and women basically have the choices of “empathize with male leads”, “watch a very tiny subset of dramas and romcoms”, or “don’t see movies”—well of course they develop the ability to relate to movies that have male leads. Maybe if rejecting female action figures meant rejecting half the set (instead of just one token character), little boys would get over this.

Why Are We Afraid of ex-Felons Voting?

Opponents of enfranchising probationers and parolees have several rationales of their own. One is that people who have committed serious crimes aren’t people we want influencing our elections, because they’ll vote for candidates who are soft on crime: lenient prosecutors, lenient judges. —“Why Can’t Ex-Cons Vote?”

So, here’s a thought: if such a large percent of our populace is ex-felons that they could have a significant political impact on how we deal with crime and punishment, then we probably *should* be hearing from them. I mean, at the point where 10% of your population is ex-felons, it seems to me that something is wrong, and we *need* some changes in crime and punishment. Maybe those ex-felons have more, not less, legitimacy in weighing in on changes to the criminal justice system.

Heck, isn’t regulatory capture what conservatives are all for, when they can’t just eliminate government?

I’m not even convinced that people currently serving time should be barred from voting. Again, if you have a plurality of the populace in jail, something has gone wrong. If there are enough jailbirds that they can outvote the rest of the populace and set themselves free, maybe they should.

That is the real fear here, right? That they’ll just vote themselves out of jail through reduced sentencing or legalizing their formerly criminal actions or changing parole laws, right? Or, more generally, we’re afraid that if felons can vote, we won’t like what they “say”. Right now, they are voiceless—we don’t have to worry that our punishments are too harsh, or care what it’s like to try to get by in society with a felony conviction, because we do our best to make sure those people don’t have a say.

And I can certainly understand that. Because you know what we’d hear? That people are being made felons for voting. I mean, what better way to keep people disenfranchised than have convoluted rules that can be easily violated, and with no way for someone to fix it if they make a mistake? I would guess that there are more people who have become felons or been deported for the simple act of voting, than there are people who have actually committed intentional vote fraud. We’d probably also hear about how our criminal justice system is doing neither society nor criminals much good, and how recidivism, while certainly the fault of the recidivist, is fed by the many things we don’t let ex-felons do. Like hold a decent job. Or vote to change things so that they can hold a decent job.

Do there need to be consequences for breaking the law? Of course. But how many crimes should really carry with them the consequence of never again having any say in society, for the rest of your life? We’ll let you live here, and pay taxes, and maybe even have a job—but not participate in our democracy? What crime is severe enough to merit that, and yet not severe enough to keep the offender in prison?