excerpted from caro's journal: topic: design

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2001_08_29:17: Minor Adjustments

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The Everyday Living Can Opener
In 1989, my roommate introduced me to a can opener that cut the can on the side, rather than on the top. The main benefits are that the top of the can doesn't fall down into the food, and the cut edge is very smooth and dull. I wanted to own one myself. So ever since then, I've been on the look-out. Apparently, not many other people thought this was a good design, because I couldn't find one. Even can openers that were advertised as "safety can openers" were only "safe" because of the way the opener itself was shaped, not because it cut the can in a safe way.

I found something similar, but better, in the supermarket a couple of weeks ago. This one doesn't cut the can at all. It's absolutely beautiful. As near as I can tell, it grips the rim of the can and squeezes it; as you twist the handle, breaks the seal all the way around the lid. The lid just sits there on top of the can until you twist it a little, at which point it pops off with little sucking sound. The food never touches the can opener itself!

From the user's point of view, it works exactly the same way: it clamps on to the top of the can, you twist the handle, and then you get to eat the food.

Why has this not been the standard way that can openers are made? Is it just me? If you can seal a piece of metal onto a can, shouldn't you know how to unseal it? Shouldn't the inventor of the Tin Can have been the one who thought of this? And if the inventor did, did we just forget? Was it "impracticable" until stronger steel was invented?

Anyway, these are the questions that bug me. It seems like a fairly obvious design--even more obvious than a cutting can opener that cuts the side instead of the top. Why have the lids of cans been falling into food for 100 years? Why have we all been satisfied with this state of affairs? (And by 'we' I mean 'that part of the market that doesn't include me'.)

If you want one, you should probably hurry. Fate is always such that, whenever I find a product I love, they stop making it the next month. It took me almost 12 years to find a non-standard can opener, so I wouldn't bet that it will be remain in production unless lots of other design fanatics buy themselves one right away. In fact, there's a good chance that, when you call tomorrow, either the phone number will have been disconnected, or the company will deny ever having made such a product. But try it anyway. Price: Approximately $7.00 U.S. Here's the contact information from the package, which I got at Food-4-Less in Clairemont Mesa, just East of La Jolla, CA:

Safe Cut Can Opener
Everyday Living TM
Distributed by Inter-American Products
Cincinnati, OH 45202
Bar Code Number: 1110 79017
Phone: 1-800-697-2448
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2015_06_28:13: hide search box in google maps

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Recently, Google made the decision to plant giant floating search boxes on Google maps, obscuring huge portions of the map. The box can be made a little smaller, but not small enough, and it never goes away completely. This was a very bad design decision.

A good design decision would have given the user the option to show or hide that box by a simple button press. Instead, the box is not optional at all. As of the writing of this entry, June 2015, Google does not even offer a complex, round-about solution buried deep within its settings. No official browser add-on is supplied for any browser.

But Alex Chan came to our rescue, http://alexwlchan.net/2013/08/google-maps/ with a simple solution: a toggle button for the bookmarks bar. It is a javascript bookmarklet. Go to the page and drag the button to your bookmarks bar.

When you need to look at the unobstructed map with your eyes, you can press the toggle button to hide the search box. When you need to do a search, you can press the button to show the search box.

Elegantly executed. Instantly and easily installed. Instantly and easily removable. Unobtrusive. And it works.

I have tested the toggle in Chrome 43.0.2357.130 m, Firefox 38.0.5, and Internet Explorer 11.0.9600.17842, all on a Windows 8.1 machine.

The name of the toggle, "Toggle Google Maps," takes up a lot of room on your bookmarks bar, which is bad if the bar is as packed as mine is. No problem. It's just a piece of user-editable text, not a graphic. Right click the bookmarklet, select "Properties/Name" for Firefox (or "Edit" for Chrome or, or "Rename" for IE) and enter a shorter name.
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2001_04_10:18: Irrational Man

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Sometimes I'd just like to smash this damned Sony Vaio F430. I don't think I've ever experienced a more aggravatingly noisy machine. If the fan would just stay on, it wouldn't be so bad. It's the ppssswwhhhirRRRRRRR of the fan turning on, and the PJSHrrnnngg of the fan turning off. Amazingly, the fan comes on [just timed it] every seven seconds, whirrs for about 10 seconds in the normal case, then cuts off, only to come back on seven seconds later. It is like Spanish water torture. And the sound of the whirr changes irregularly, to make sure that I can never get used to it. Once in a while, it makes a sudden jump in pitch (just when I thought it was going to cut off), whining for 20 seconds instead of 10. I could deal with constant whining, if it were constant; my air cleaner whirrs loudly all night--at one pitch and without pause. But the Vaio fan is like an annoying person who I'm trying to ignore but who insists on my paying attention, tapping me on the forehead and occasionally hitting me with a brick.

Heat seems to have nothing to do with whether the fan comes on. It is not the presence of heat but rather the prediction that heat will be present, that makes the fan start up. I could work in the sun with 20 programs open, doing resource-intensive things, for hours, and it wouldn't make a sound other than the occasionaly squelching sound from the harddisk. But the very second (no exaggeration) I connect to the internet, suddenly it's "hot" and needs to start sporadically fanning itself. And the second I disconnect, the fan goes off and never comes on again. Either there simply isn't a thermostat in the machine, or else the thermostat is not linked up to the fan.

It's not connected to power-saving devices either. It does this in every power profile, on AC or battery. THERE'S NO WAY TO STOP IT!

Maybe the constantly-changing frequency is an attempt to protect the machine from destruction by constantly-adapting Borg weaponry.

Sometimes, late at night, when everything is quiet except for the shrill on-off on-off of the Vaio fan, I fantasize about meeting the people who thought that this would be a good design idea--or who, more likely, thought it would be too much trouble to do it properly and figured they could get away with doing it wrong. I'd lock them in a very quiet room with the Vaio going wwwwwWWWWWWooooOOOOOooooOOOooooo wwwwWWWOOOooooOOOOoooOOoooOOOOO00000OOOoooo and every once in a while, when they least expect it, yelling over a loud speaker, "WHAT WERE YOU THINKING!!???"

I wish I'd bought a Dell.
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2003_08_22:18:0Spam Dies, Tech Lives

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Praise and thanks for excellent program design, to Catherine Hampton for her SpamBouncer. If you get your mail through a UNIX server, this is the spam filter you should be using. The death of spam will be due in large part to Hampton.

If all the program did was delete the multiple emails I get everyday offering to assist me with enlarging my penis, I would be endlessly grateful. But it catches 99% of the spam I get, using all sorts of exotic rules. I sent so many enthusiastic notes about it to Tom that he was inspired to write this poem:

How do I bounce thee?
Let me count the ways
I bounce thee for being Russian
And for porno, straight or gay

I bounce thee for enlargement
Of an organ not my sex
I bounce thee for stupidity
And too many blanks in text

I bounce thee for addresses
Unknown to all my friends
I bounce thee for the virus
Or executable you sends

For reasons thus and more besides
I bounce thee, spammer-fool
Your missives pipe to dev/nul
Where my filters rule!
--Tom Radcliffe
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2001_09_09:23: Unnamed

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  1. Never make the word 'here' or the phrase 'click here' a clickable link. Whatever word is made the link is highlighted. The automatic highlighting effect of the HTML linking mechanism should be used to highlight the important words in a document. You get the highlighting for free; you don't even have to change the colors manually. So you may as well take advantage of it.

    Here's why:

    1. The reader's eye is drawn to (listen up, objecti-types) that which is distinguishable from its background. Observe:


    Click here to see a great web site about men's emotional inadequacies.


    I found a great web site about men's emotional inadequacies.

    2. Most pages have more than one link. If the "Click here" highlighting strategy is used, a glance over the whole page shows two or three or 30 highlighted 'here's. Since every instance of 'here' looks just like every other, the reader has to look past the eye-catching, highlighted text to read the normal text that explains what this particular 'here' points to. This process becomes particularly tedious when a single paragraph (or sentence!) contains several clickable 'here's, thus:
    To get a copy of my essay click here and to hear the mp3 click here. And here is my latest work on propositions.
    The problem is that it's not easily discernible which 'here' belongs to which description. See?

    I thought this was an obvious feature of html, but I feel as though I'm seeing increasing numbers of professionally and casually designed web pages with the words 'click here' highlighted. (The one linked to above does this, which is why I was reminded to make a note of the problem.)

    The principle may be summed up like this: The highlight itself should tell the reader why it is highlighted, and why she should click it.

  2. Put the link where the directions for the link are.
    The following paragraph is from the First USA site:
    Add/Cancel Access Your cards that are currently accessible via Cardmember Services Online are listed below. To add a card, click on
    the Enter A Card That is Not Listed link. This will take you to a new page where you must enter the required information to add a card for online access. To remove, simply click on the Remove button. To add or update a nickname for the card (e.g., "Bill's Visa."), enter the nickname in the field next to the card number. When you have finished entering nicknames for all your cards, click on the Update Profile button.
    The names of the links are in bold face, but they aren't links. The actual link is inexplicably at the bottom of the page, underneath a whole bunch of other information. Since they have a big menu on the left side, and fancy imitation manilla folder tabs all over the place, I had to look for the link for 5 minutes. I presume I don't need to explain why that's a bad thing.
The second kind of mistake is different than the first one, although they both result in user frustration. The first one is probably due to a failure to consider the user's point of view. The second one is most likely due to the failure of the web site builders to make the transition from paper documents to hypertext.
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2011_10_23:14: open letter to google

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Open letter to google.

Dear Google:

What on earth are you thinking?

I know a lot of people are fine with your taking over the world. When you were just doing search and email, that didn't seem like a terrible idea either.

But with great power comes great responsibility.

Great responsibility involves having a great deal of perspective.

You have lost perspective.

If you are going to take over Motorola and the Android Market, then it is your responsibility to make sure that these things are still usable. Do you know what makes these things unusable? Captchas.

Get some perspective. I know it's important to you to keep 'bots from loggin in wherever they roam and posting nonsense. I know it's important to you to keep message boards clean. I share your sense of urgency to prevent hacks and attacks to my personal system. But get some perspective. If you make me sign into my google account every time I, say, look at facebook on my desktop, or try to download a free app from the Android market, then you need to find a way to distinguish between human beings and bots.

That's right. The Mighty and All-Powerful Google CANNOT DISTINGUISH A HUMAN BEING FROM A BOT.

When you create captchas that are unreadable by human beings, you are no longer using the captchas for their intended purpose.

I suspect that you'd also like to check in with me occasionally. I'm not sure why, but somehow it probably makes it easier to take over the world. But if my friends don't hear from me for two or three weeks at a time, who are you to demand my attention every day, sometimes two or three times a day, just because I got a new phone and made the mistake of getting it from your empire?

There are SOOOO MANY solutions to the bot problem. Sending endless captchas that are too hard for humans to read is, like, the absolute dumbest solution that I can think of. But, I'm actually kind of smart, so I'm often surprised at just how god-awful dumb some people can be.

I don't know, Google, I somehow expected better from you. I think about your nice clean search-box page and its brilliant simplicity, and it almost seems like there is, indeed, someone out there who is Like Me. But you're not like me, are you? You're just another big, dumb, rich corporation that sometimes gets things right by accident, and the rest of the time just makes a mess of things.

Is this how you take over the world? Is this the right way to behave, with such power?
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2001_05_22:20: What You Make Of It

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How To Make A Sink

That's right: a sink. What are sinks used for? Getting water into the house in a neat, convenient, and contained manner, and getting dirty water back out of the house. 'Water' is the key word here. Water needs to drain. It tends to be attracted to the earth. You can use this fairly reliable fact to design the sink. There should be a deep pit in which the bulk of the splashing is done. Most modern sinks have this feature. The drain should be at the bottom of this pit, to allow maximum disposal of water with the least amount of effort. Again, modern sinks do adhere to this principle.

The splashboard--where all the water that doesn't go into the pit will end up--should drain freely into the deep pit. Once upon a time, sinks were designed this way. Not just some, but all. There was drain board that was at just the slightest angle, enough of one to let the water slide in accordance with gravity toward the drain. And the splashboard should surround the whole sink, since the splashes surely will. This feature is no longer included with the modern sink. Why?
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2011_05_29:18: Dead weight

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The Paper Dictionary

This isn't so much a story about why printed dictionaries are better than electronic ones, but rather it is a story about why I have always loved dictionaries. It is a story inspired by what was lost in the translation to electronic form.

It is not a prediction or a speculation about the state of the world or the minds of the people in it. I speak from my own experience and interest. Electronic dictionaries are fine as they are, but every one I've ever seen fails to fulfill my needs as a long-time printed dictionary user, lover of all things linguistic, and a reader and a scholar. I'm pretty sure that the way that electronic dictionaries are produced now is due to the fact that their designers lack either the imagination or the skill to do a better job.

I use electronic dictionaries especially when I am sitting at my computer. In part, this is because it's quicker than getting up to find the printed dictionary. And in part it is because I've moved my residence a lot, and have gradually gotten rid of the dead weight of printed volumes. I used to keep a dictionary in every room, sometimes more than one in a room if there is more than one table or chair where I might sit. That's a luxury to be repeated at some future period.

Of course I want to understand the sentence or paragraph I'm reading or hearing, so I need to know what all the words in it mean. But I like to know what words mean, just to know what they mean. I just enjoy it. I also like to know the original language and form from which a word has descended. I like to see all the nuances of different meanings that it has in different contexts. I like to have the opposites, and the apposites, pointed out to me in case I'm interested (yes, thank you). It's interesting to look at adjacent entries to see other forms of the word, and how those are used and nuanced, and whether the next apparently-different word is actually related but not connected, by me, before. Oh, and look at that next word, I've heard that before but never remembered to look it up--it means THAT? Hunh! Interesting. And look at the next one, that's a weird one, I can't even pronounce that one...oh, I see, I've actually heard that one but never read it before, it sure isn't spelled the way it sounds, must be French or something...no, Danish! Well, then. And off I wander, "inefficiently," down this page and possibly the next, having fun and learning new things.

And everything I just said except for the first sentence, is something that is not available in electronic dictionaries. Not yet, anyway (she added hopefully).

Designers of electronic dictionaries think that all I want or need to know is the absolute most common definition of a word. I don't even need to see what else is next to that entry, and certainly not several entries down on the page or on the next page. Or, maybe they don't really think that, but instead they have their own motives: they want to show me as many ads as possible, so they show me one word on a page full of ads; they don't need me looking at a single page for an hour while I peruse all the variations that catch my eye. They want my eye caught by an ad, which they hope I am stupid enough to click on so they can get ad revenue. But I digress. The point is, when I go to the paper dictionary, my eye and my curious mind rove all over the page on which the word occurs. I learn a lot. I am stimulated. I am fascinated. I am happy.

By contrast, electronic dictionaries prevent me from learning anything but one answer to the specific question that I thought to ask. They don't stimulate me, they frustrate me. They don't fascinate me, they make me wonder why I am being thwarted. They certainly don't answer questions that I haven't thought of yet, or teach me to ask new questions or consider new avenues of exploration. It is an empty, dry, dead-end experience, and I am unhappy and dissatisfied.

There are problems with supplying more than a single word at a time, of course. For example, if you go to the Gutenberg Project and download the Webster's Unabridged Dictionary, it takes a while because it is huge. It comes in a batch of files, each pertaining to words beginning with one letter. The files are big, and unless you have them all open on your computer at once, it's a little bit of chore to go and find the "H" file and open it so you can look up 'heliobacter'. So, yes, doing a *search* for a word electronically, given optimal conditions, is faster than opening to the correct page in a paper dictionary. But the process that I just described is common but not optimal, and it is slower than using a paper dictionary, and it's a lot less...um...natural than thumbing through some pages physically. That's how it feels to me, anyway. So I can see one motivation for not supplying the entire page: the files are too big and you have to find each one and open it yourself, and the dream of electronic media is to not have to ever get anything off a shelf, even an electronic shelf, so just supply that one word as fast as possible. But it's a thoughtless, uncreative motivation for a poor solution. Another solution is to have the search for 'heliobacter' actually open the entire 'H' file and spill it--the whole damned file--in front of the user, who can then spend a luxurious hour delighting in the subtleties of language if she feels like it. The user's next search for 'subterranean' can either close the 'H' file, or leave it open, just as the user pleases. But this doesn't look very fancy or sophisticated to some people, and so no one seems to want to do it that way. Which is too bad.

You're expecting me to say how stupid and illiterate this is making everyone. You know what? I don't care about that. If they don't need anything more that that out of their word lookup experience, fine, whatever. People are stupid, yet they think they know what's best for me as a user, and they think it's better that I see the one word I requested and then get the hell out of the dictionary, and there is nothing I can do about that, no point in fretting. All I care about is what I have loved, and what I have lost in this alleged advance in technology. And I care about reaching out to you, you strange person, who bothered to finish reading this piece, because I know you are out there, somewhere, holding on to your paper dictionary just like me. Hi.
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2001_07_06:15: Sundry Aversions

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next in thread: tom2001_07_06:16:09
The human immune system is poorly designed, as are the defense systems of poisonous plants. Poison ivy and related plants cause allergic skin reactions. They are painful, itchy, and impossible to ignore. However, the skin reaction doesn't occur in the presence of the plant, but several hours to days after exposure, once the animal has surely forgotten what it touched. I'm not sure how this is supposed to protect the plant, but a simpler solution would be thorns, which many a better-designed plant employs.

The allergic reaction in humans is an even sillier design. A poisonout plant such as poison ivy causes hives to develop on the skin. The reaction does not occur immediately, so that an association is created in the animal's mind. But even worse than that is the histamine response. First, histamines are produced, causing the animal to itch. Second, the reaction to itching is scratching, which doesn't do anything to remove the poison. Third, scratching causes the production of more histamines, which, forth, causes even worse itching, which causes more vigorous scratching, which causes intense histamine production. The process easily and quickly leads to open, bleeding sores, which exposes the animal to infection which, in an unwashed, unscientific society, will lead to death. Death due to an ineffective response to an essentially harmless chemical found in nature.

Although this kind of vicious cycle occurs more frequently and in response to a greater variety of plants and substances in the individual whose immune system is "malfunctioning," poison ivy will cause this cycle to occur in every human being.

The question immediately arises, Where does the allergic reaction fit into God's plan for us?