Windows 10, in real-life use

My desktop, five minutes ago.

Windows 10 being used for actual notes, featuring Mail, OneNote and Cortana.
Windows 10 being used for actual notes, featuring Mail, OneNote and Cortana. Cortana was triggered with the voice command “Hey Cortana, 3570 divided by 3” but I had to apply a slight American accent to get it to accurately recognize the number (it returned 2517 when I used my Singaporean accent).

Bugs and rough edges (of which there are still many! remember to run Windows Update!) aside, I’m very impressed. It just feels nice to use. It definitely doesn’t hurt that I’m running this OS on the hardware it was designed for – I’m on a Surface 3 with full pressure sensitive pen, keyboard, mic, webcam and touch support in a really really neat little package. (I’ve had the machine for a few weeks now and love it.)

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Oh, the places I went

Edit 25/2/15: Fixed the location history link.

Did you know that if you opt into Google location services on your Android phone (I’m sure Apple/iOS do something similar) you can view a map of all the places you – or rather, your phone – has been using the Google Location History tool? Since a smartphone loses a great deal of its utility without your agreeing to location sharing, chances are if you use an Android you’ll have a map of your own to look at. I guess this is cause for alarm but it’s nice to know that I have the ability to at least view – and manage – the information I hand over.

You can only view up to 30 days of history at a time, so I used my data from June to August last year to construct a composite map of my brief travels in Europe. Everything is there: New Haven to JFK, JFK-FRA, FRA-LHR, LHR-EDI, the train back down to London; FRA-TXL, then meandering slowly down to Mannheim with a stop in Prague to visit my friend; after setting up in Mannheim, weekend visits to cities in Baden-Württemberg, and one logistically challenging but very successful trip to Denmark; finally, the flight back to the US and bus back to New Haven. This map reminded me of little details I’d already forgotten about – not a good sign for my memory, I guess…

travelmap_s14

I thought this was a very fun data set to look at, although it’s obviously also another instance of the weird narcissism that quantified-self movement leads to when taken to an extreme. My movements during the academic year are less interesting, reflecting the small Yale bubble I live within, with an occasional trip to Boston or New York for choral performances, as well as cycling to neighboring towns down my bike trail of choice.

I thought briefly about how this related to infosec and privacy, but because I’m not European, I wasn’t particularly bothered by the location tracking: it was something I’d consented to, after all. (I do remember being initially annoyed at how Google was strong-arming me into giving up data.) If anything, seeing this map was reassuring: it lulled me into believing that my data was only being put to benign uses like helping me relive my tourist memories. I’d definitely like to discuss these issues more, though, which is why I was saddened today to find out that a class I didn’t sign up for (because I thought it was a really intense crypto course that required background) is a really fun discussion-based course that debates these exact issues.

Discussion-based computer science course sounds like an oxymoron and also the sort of thing I’d love to take. On Thursday I’ll be attending a talk by Peter Swire on why computer scientists need to play a larger role in public policy. It’s supposed to be very good – I’m looking forward to it.

In other academic news, I’m taking a class on medieval manuscripts this semester, and it’s been pretty fun so far. It’s my first “real” humanities course; I considered a military history course last semester, but it was too intense and required an intimate familiarity with the history of Europe despite being billed as an introductory class. Look at this cool manuscript I briefly examined on Monday! It’s a really narrow and long (1.73m) scroll – that’s my hand in the picture.

IMG_20150223_144545004

Last Friday I finished writing my first humanities paper for this class’midterm evaluation, and it was much more difficult than I expected – even after two discussions with the teaching fellow to get an idea of the arguments I’d be advancing. I’ve always known in the abstract that I’m not yet as well-rounded as I’d like, but only while struggling to say interesting things about a seemingly boring old book did it really strike me how little I know about thinking and argumentation in this manner. I pointed out my discomfort with the vague and subjective nature of my argument to the teaching fellow, who responded (misrepresenting the nature of science I thought) that English [scholarship] is about thinking, not finding the right answers.

If all goes well, I’ll be done with my computer science major next semester, and I’m hoping to use a good chunk of the remaining credits on more humanities classes, as well as bringing back cognition and linguistics, which have fallen slightly by the wayside this past year.

Link Roundup #2 (and a German preposition tip)

The flat upstairs has been rented or sold to someone new, and renovation work will be going on for a month. Since Monday I have woken up to 100-decibel jackhammer noise from 9am till 5pm (hour-long break for lunch) and this will be going on for at least a week, if not longer. It is positively impossible to get anything done at home and I might resort to haunting a coffee shop tomorrow. I feel bad for the contractors too.

Programming

Design

Tech support

  • Looking forward to seeing more articles on this site. http://www.decentsecurity.com/#/holiday-tasks/

German

So simple, yet so constantly confusing! Emphasis mine:

man sagt “an der Uni“, wenn man von der Universität als Instituion spricht, also “ich studiere an der Uni/an der Fachhochschule”, etc. Man würde hier nicht sagen “ich studiere in der Uni”. Aber den Mann hast Du IN der Uni gesehen, also in dem Universitätsgebäude.

(Source)

A trip down memory lane with Creative Technology

One of my friends shared this on Facebook yesterday. A genial middle-aged man in a dress shirt and slacks seems to be giving a standard product demonstration of a drum keyboard, but somehow it becomes this crazy drum solo, before ending as a standard presentation again. I probably find it particularly amusing because it starts with the stereotypical boring conservative Singaporean but gives you a glimpse of the underlying lightheartedness that I like to think runs through many of my countrymen.

This “Asian equipment demonstrator” is a Singaporean (probably) who is showcasing a product from Creative Technology, a Singaporean company that in the 90s made the Sound Blaster sound cards that pretty much had a monopoly on the PC market. They also had a line of MP3 players which were very feature-rich, and hold the patent for the invention of a user interface for portable media players. I owned one and was a big fan, happily filling it with anime soundtracks and Canadian pop-rock-punk. The media players, like everything else, died as the iPod ascended, something I watched with sadness while realizing that technical superiority was not enough: you had to make people feel good about your product.

I’m suddenly realizing this is probably the true origin of my interest in product design and usability. I actually got asked something similar the other day – which stumped me, I mean, I’m just…it’s interesting? I’ve always liked it? I’ve always been an artist something something something? Eventually I dashed off something lame about getting frustrated having to use US-centric resources as a non-US person. (“Enter your five-digit zipcode to view this information” – god! I still get riled up.)

When I was eight-ish I read Creative cofounder Sim Wong Hoo’s autobiography, which described No U-turn Syndrome and a lot of other stuff I didn’t fully understand. I am only now suddenly remembering that he had a chapter about taking computing exams in school and leaving answers dramatically unfinished to impress the grader with his integrity at stopping precisely when “pens down” was announced by the proctor. I know I definitely copied that behavior during later exams.

It’s funny I remember the book so vividly. It had spiral binding, “hyperlinks” by means of page number, and an awfully designed cover.

Bookmark management

Trying out the Post Formats in WordPress – this is an Aside, for short snippets that don’t really need a title. Or something. No one really knows what they are: try searching for “wordpress asides” to see what I mean.

My ideal way of building curated repositories of links would be through a place like delicious; however that never quite managed to take off (high barriers to entry, ease of use was always somewhat lacking. I used it the most between 2007 and 2009; since then I’ve tried a few times every year to go back, but the idea of having to properly retag my old bookmarks is daunting; the bookmarking process is still a bit too slow and clunky, and (to me) it is harder to access your bookmarks than to create them. I’ve since amassed a huge library of browser bookmarks, an uncategorized mess that I rarely wade into anyway.

I do think that if a big effort were made to reintroduce it today, it might really get somewhere, because we’re now so completely used to #tagging #everything and the idea of #socialmedia – something that the web in 2005-2010 wasn’t quite ready for yet.

I think the hypervisual bookmarking trend (see: Stars/Chrome Bookmark Manager) is a little silly. On Pinterest it works because I don’t think the site is a social bookmarking service, no matter what it and tech journos like to call it: it’s a social mood board site. Otherwise for users with thousands of bookmarks – who imo are most likely to desperately need bookmark managers – it’s a waste of space. Screen real estate is precious.

That the bookmark management problem is still exists is clear, at least.

Link Roundup #1

It’s the day before my birthday, and I’m taking a break from an afternoon of working in a coffee shop with my (Windows, at least) laptop before me like the hipster I thought I would never be. First time for everything, I suppose, including a new feature (?) on this blog – link roundups.

Back when I read blogs more religiously than I do now, I used to follow a few that would regularly post collections of interesting links, helping alleviate the eternal problem of the internet: separating the wheat from the chaff.

I don’t post on a schedule (yet!) over here, so this isn’t going to be a “Weekly Link Roundup” or anything – just “Link Roundup #42”. The minimum number of links I need to collect before posting is five. No news/current events unless it’s particularly interesting, because there’s lots of that already. I’ll try to categorize them somewhat if there are a lot of links. Here we go!

Design and User Experience

Code

  • Beej’s Guide to Network Programming – apparently good. Haven’t read yet. A “little how-to guide on network programming using Internet sockets, or ‘sockets programming’, for those of you who prefer it.”

Cool

  • Gwern.net – some neat ways of adding further subtlety to blog posts/essays and representing the interconnected nature of knowledge; I’m definitely borrowing ideas from this in the future.
  • A Brief Guide to Pipe Organs – I sneakily watched an organist rehearse the Bach Fantasia et Fuga in one of the campus chapels a few weeks ago. It caused me to decide to start playing baroque and classical piano again, and made me message a friend with “listening to organ always makes me feel like if one could hear god this is the closest thing to it”, the most unabashedly spiritual comment this spiritual atheist.
  • Here’s the Bach piece:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pkDyRCr_RQ0

Beliefs

Panem et circenses et infantes

Making a company more family-friendly doesn’t happen by telling your employees that having children is less of a priority.

A friend showed me this article today: Apple and Facebook are covering up to $20k for “fertility and surrogacy” costs, including egg-freezing procedures.

Apple and Facebook are adding this perk to their arsenal in an escalating battle to recruit and retain technical talent, especially female workers. […] While still uncommon, egg-freezing allows women to remove and store eggs when they are in their prime fertility window, which often overlaps with prime career-advancement years. The quality of a woman’s eggs declines as she gets older, putting many women in a bind about whether to have children in their 20s and 30s. Egg freezing allows women to stockpile healthy eggs while advancing their careers or waiting to meet a partner with whom they’d like to start a family.

One one hand, it’s nice that these are covered in employee perks now, I guess? I see company help with fertility and surrogacy as being particularly beneficial to same-sex or infertile couples who want to have children. Really, any help with fertility-related costs is always welcome: these procedures are not cheap. Who knows, I might have to use them one day.

On the other hand, that this is being presented as some sort of feminist move by some quarters (not least the companies themselves) leaves a bad taste in my mouth. A large company isn’t thinking about feminism. It’s thinking about talent retention and pleasing the board and making money, and anyone who believes otherwise is even more idealistic than I am (which is really saying something). Apple says, “we want to empower women at Apple to do the best work of their lives as they care for loved ones and raise their families.” I’m sorry, did you mean, “we want to empower women at Apple to do the best work of their lives as they delay starting families, because now they have no reason not to?”

I’m all for expanding people’s access to the option of having children later. But this move is obviously going to create the expectation that they should have children later. Telling employees “hey, egg-freezing is now on the company dime” also inadvertently (?) sends the message that “now you really have no excuse to be taking maternity leave before your forties” – by which point you’ve probably dropped out of the tech industry for other reasons. If, as a young parent, you come back to workplace problems, hey, it’s your fault for stubbornly running off to pop a baby out when we offered you the chance to do it later.

I’m honestly a little astounded that this passive-aggressive move is actually a solution two of our tech giants have come up with to alleviate the maternity-dropout problem. Apple’s statement is telling: the focus is on getting women to “do the best work of their lives” instead of, I don’t know, being good parents, and it reinforces the unhealthy tech-industry obsession with a warped definition of “passion”*. Instead of making difficult institutional changes that support effectively starting a family and having a stellar career at the same time, let’s delay the childbearing window of our employees instead so that they can work harder for us before they burn out or leave to have their (delayed) kids at last.

Of course, it’s a hard problem to face. Important employees making significant lifestyle changes is tough for any business; in the ultra-competitive, sped-up, hyper-capitalist environment of high technology, it can be crippling. It’s far easier to distract from the root problem with false feminism.

But here’s the real problem. Why are those of us with wombs even “in a bind about whether to have children in their 20s and 30s”? Because they’re afraid of what might happen after that decision. Because “successful early career” and “children” are still widely incompatible, for some reason. Look on parenting forums and see the collective hand-wringing of ten thousand expectant parents. Ask your mothers, sisters, aunts, nieces. This isn’t something you need polls and statisticians to understand. (Numbers, anyway: 43% of UK mums on maternity leave will re-enter the workforce earlier than they would like; 47% of them cite job security as a reason.)

The tech industry is snapping up the best and brightest of our generation, right? They do it so that they can solve hard problems. How to support gazillions of complex queries for over a billion people with subsecond speed is a hard problem. So is this. Tech is one of the best ways of enacting positive social change today, but helping employees freeze their eggs isn’t the way to do it. Sponsoring egg-freezing is part of a family-friendly solution, and helping people have more options with regards to their personal fertility is always good. But fixing gender inequality in the workplace due to parental needs doesn’t start from giving ambitious employees the ability to start a family later** instead of never. Making a company more family-friendly doesn’t happen by telling your employees that having children is less of a priority.


 

* I’ve been doing some research lately, and startlingly few companies talk about their employees like they’re people, not factories.

** As if children were expensive toys, to be postponed indefinitely and acquired at a later date, once enough money had been saved. That’s a huge factor that goes into family planning, obviously, but it’s really not that simple.

Noticing when the glasses fall off

User-centred design is a lens through which we can see the world, but it can sometimes feel like a new pair of glasses that you carry around and sometimes forget to wear.

Although I am now a user experience designer with the Yale Student Developers, and have always seen myself as a very user-centred person – whether I’m programming or drawing a magazine cover – I haven’t been doing this quite long enough that this way of thinking is completely internalized. If you’ll forgive the somewhat contrived analogy, user-centred design is a lens through which we can see the world, but to me it still feels like a new pair of glasses that I carry around but sometimes forget to wear.

Today I had to borrow a laptop from a friend to record a short video for German class. (I actually had to try three friends and three laptops, and none of them worked properly, so I’m going to give the speech in person after class tomorrow. Yay, “technology-enabled learning” done wrong!) While trying to get to the webpage that would let me submit my homework, I couldn’t help noticing that this friend’s laptop was horribly slow. Tabs in Chrome were all unresponsive. It took me 20 seconds just to application-switch.

Curious, I looked at what was running in the background and the first signs of the problem became evident: he somehow had four antivirus suites (two expired, one semi-functional, one apparently working) and five file-syncing/cloud backup services all running at the same time. Despite the presence of the file-syncing clients, he also wasn’t keeping backups of any of his data. The applications running might not have been the source of the slowness, but that the machine (and his data) was in this state gave a good hint as to what the problem might be.

When I returned his laptop to him I asked if he was aware of this situation. “Uh, yeah,” he told me, sounding unsure. “I think I installed all those programs by accident? I can’t find the uninstallers. And I don’t back up my data, yeah, I know I should, but…”

This is a facepalm moment, isn’t it? This is the kind of story that you tell back at the tech support office, to collective head-shakes and horrified looks. “Oh my god,” we go. “Why are users so inept?” And then we exchange smug looks. Users, man.

This is the moment you have to catch yourself. Is it really the user who is at fault? Or is it because the uninstallation process** isn’t intuitive? Why isn’t he backing up his data despite having multiple user-friendly cloud backup services at his disposal? Does he think it’s too difficult? Does he not realize that these programs offer him a way to back up his data? Could it be that these aren’t as easy-to-understand as we think they are? (You’d be surprised at how hard it is to explain the concept of file syncing to people, even college undergraduates who have spent at least half their lives online.)

I certainly didn’t realize what I was doing at first – after all, poking fun at the less tech-savvy is a comfortable and familiar hobby for most of us. I was telling a programmer friend about what had happened, and we were expressing amazement at how widespread bad computing habits were when he remarked, “people need to take better care of their computers” – and I suddenly became very aware of how we were pinning all the blame on this guy who had lent me his laptop so I could do my homework.***

As UX and product management people in the tech world, it’s only natural that the user-centric glasses we try our best to wear still fall off our nosebridges sometimes. After all, we’re mostly in this industry because we care about the people using our products, yes, but also because we love technology. We think the stuff engineers can come up with is awesome, and we want to make it even better. We’re all geeks. (Some more than others.) There will always be times when we forget that not everyone is the same way, when we’re baffled by another person’s unfamiliarity with something we work with every day, when we’re tempted to roll our eyes and declare the the problem exists between the chair and the keyboard.

What’s important is realizing when that happens, taking stock of the situation, putting the glasses back on, and looking again.


* I considered adding the sentence “my goal is to have the mental equivalent of laser surgery”, but after thinking about it for a little while, I decided that this isn’t really something I want. Although great in theory, I suspect that would tip me too far into the other direction, and cause me to lose touch with engineers instead. I need to be able to see how others see – not fully become others and lose the ability to view things from multiple perspectives.

** Mobile is one place that really gets this right. Uninstalling apps on smartphones is almost universally painless – perform the action that brings up a context menu, then select “remove” or tap a cross or drag it to a trash bin. Macs come a close second, except that the drag-to-Trash gesture doesn’t work for every type of application. The desktop environment is so wide open and subject to developer whims that the same kind of standardization is hard to achieve.

*** The way we instinctively shift responsibility off our products onto users reminds me a little of the language used in contemporary misogyny, actually: “women need to be less aggressive”, “women need to wear less revealing clothes”, “women need to sacrifice their careers to focus on their families”. If we can put so many resources into hiring UX people and good PMs to change the dialogue surrounding our products from “users need to X if they don’t want broken computers” to “computers should make it easy or needless for users to X”, we can definitely put the same amount of effort into changing the power dynamics and dialogue surrounding non-males in the tech