Archive for July, 2010

Clever Machines

I’ve always found it easy to deal with machines, as I expect is true of most computer programmers. The interface to a machine is not always logical, but it is normally consistent in the sense that it always behaves the same way given the same inputs, and it is normally unambiguous in the sense that it either works or it doesn’t, and it is clear which state is which. At lest for me, dealing with machines is simpler than dealing with people when things go wrong—machines may be frustrating but at least they’re frustrating for relatively simple and ultimately comprehensible reasons.

Unfortunately, I’ve started to notice that as programs get smarter and as interface designers get more clever, machines are becoming more like people. Interfaces for web sites and phones are increasingly adjusting based on your past interactions. In many ways this is good, as over time the interaction gets smoother and easier. However, it means that there is a lack of consistency: an input today does not produce the same effect as the same input did yesterday. It also means that there is an increase in ambiguity: it’s difficult to tell the difference between working correctly and being slightly broken.

In effect, the computing world is becoming increasingly tuned for people who prefer dealing with people rather than people who prefer dealing with machines. On average this is of course a good thing, as most of the population seems to find it frustrating to deal with machines. But it’s somewhat ironic considering that the programmers doing most of the work tend to be people who prefer dealing with machines.

I don’t want to give up the advantages I get when things go well, so I guess I’m stuck in an increasingly inconsistent and ambiguous world.

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Living with the Past

I’m in Stockholm for a few weeks, which is why I haven’t been updating this blog. I’ve been in Sweden many times before, but one thing I’ve noticed particularly this time is the way that old existing buildings have been adapted for modern times. It’s quite common to see stone steps which look positively ancient with two pieces of wood, looking nearly as ancient, laid on top of them for use with strollers and/or wheelchairs.

When life changes for an existing city, you can either adapt the city or you can replace it piece by piece. The U.S. pretty reliably picks replacement. It’s interesting to see a place which tries harder to adapt, a spirit no doubt encouraged by the historical nature of the buildings.

Stockholm is also notable for how easy it is to get around on bike. The bike lanes here are serious alternatives to pedestrian or car traffic, with their own signs and traffic lights. They aren’t universal, but they seem to cover the city and the immediate suburbs pretty well. This too is of course fitted into the existing streets and bridges, somehow. Particularly impressive is a few construction sites I’ve come across where a temporary bike lane was built because the existing one was being built over.

Creating high quality bike lanes may seem like an inefficient use of public funds, but of course it’s really no less efficient than building roads. The U.S. does still mostly agree that roads are a common good, and it seems like, in cities, real bike lanes could be as well.

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