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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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