Chad Perrin: SOB

30 April 2009

Ribbons

Filed under: Geek — apotheon @ 11:18
I tried to tell her
About Marx and Engels, God and Angels
I don’t really know what for
But she looked good in ribbons

– Sisters of Mercy, Ribbons

The Microsoft Office 2010 preview screenshots at Neowin look awful. Seriously, it’s ugly and cumbersome as hell. It’s the kind of thing that makes me wonder why anyone uses software like this, even pays money for software like this. It’s a study in poor interface design. It looks like hell.

Of course, in some respects, this is actually an improvement over earlier versions of MS Office. The interface of OpenOffice.org is no peach, either.

The key characteristic of the MS Office 2010 preview interface is the Ribbon — something that’s not exactly new to the 2010 version. It is, at the same time, both a great idea and a terrible travesty of interface design.

Over the years, office suites have gotten more and more complex. Feature creep has loaded office application suites with so many buttons and menu items and so on that eventually something had to be done to avoid making the application start looking like Internet Explorer circa 1999 with half a dozen malware toolbar add-ons. Over years of evolution, “clutter” had become the defining characteristic of office suite interface design, because there was simply no way to show everything software vendors wanted to show without ending up with a cluttered interface.

MS Office Excel Ribbon

Two major “innovations” — radical changes in office suite interface design philosophy — have been developed to deal with the problem. One of them is a context-dependent dynamic interface design incorporated into new versions of Microsoft Office called the “Ribbon”. The other is the Google Docs approach.

MS Office’s Ribbon is actually a pretty smart answer to the problem of making an interface navigable when you have hundreds of features you want to make available when needed at the user’s fingertips. For every change of interface context, a different set of features is made available. Similar approaches to menu design for complex Website design have been around for years, but they tend to be more simply and directly hierarchically constructed, which doesn’t scale well to hundreds of options, even though they’re nothing more than menus. The Ribbon scales much better to that level of interface complexity.

Actually, the Ribbon scales much better to an even greater level of interface complexity. Because what the Ribbon provides isn’t a hierarchical file structure — because it’s a set of features that are not so easily categorized — the complexity of the task of organizing them is considerably greater. Despite this, the Ribbon does a better job of providing a usable interface than Websites with context-dependent menus that have cluttered collections of documents often do.

That doesn’t make it a good interface, though. Ribbon interface designers talk about how they have done usability testing and determined that people visually scan differentiated icon blocks better than uniformly organized blocks and achieved all kinds of great advances in interface design for the purpose of managing gigantic collections of clickable features in a sustainable, usable manner. They’re right, too — they’ve done great work on mitigating the problem of cluttered application design. The problem, though, is that all they can do is mitigate it as long as good interface design isn’t allowed to take precedence over feature creep in application design. Sometimes, you run across the price that has been paid for that mitigation, such as when you want to lock a document and discover that the feature is effectively inaccessible when you need it.

No matter how inventive you get with your interface design philosophy, a cluttered feature set in an application will create problems for the design of its interface — either features will be essentially hidden away where you can’t easily get at them (or even find them), or the application will take on a cluttered look. Unfortunately, the very idea of an office application suite is itself the genesis of office suite clutter, because too many separate types of applications are being integrated into a singular whole — and design considerations for each separate application type in the suite will affect the design of the other application types, cluttering them up. The Ribbon is just the most recent delaying tactic in the battle against intolerable clutter.

For a less cluttered application, the Ribbon would be a terrible interface design feature. The only reason it has any value to speak of at all is that, while it’s awful at the low end of the application complexity scale, as application complexity grows, its own awfulness grows much more slowly than previous interface design philosophies. Past a certain point of complexity, which was passed by the major office suites’ infectious featuritis years ago, something like the Ribbon becomes the better alternative.

Google Docs Icon Bar The Google Docs approach to office suite design produces something much better approximating actually good interface design, and that approach is simple: eliminate features until you get things under control again, and can make the interface more elegant, simple, and clear. When you reduce the complexity of the application’s feature set itself, you get an application whose interface can be actually improved, rather than merely having its awfulness mitigated somewhat.

If Google wants Google Docs to eventually achieve the kind of perfection to which Antoine de Sanit-Exupery refers in his famous quote about simplicity of design, it still has a ways to go. In contrast to MS Office development over the last couple decades, though, it is at least moving in the right direction.

A designer knows he has achieved
perfection not when there is
nothing left to add, but when
there is nothing left to take away.

– Antoine de Saint-Exupery

29 April 2009

PPR: Harry Potter

Filed under: inanity,Review — apotheon @ 03:20

Book Review from the Pocket Pistol: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone and Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets by J. K. Rowling (Roughly 300 and 350 Pages, Respectively)

I’ve only read the first two books of the Harry Potter series, and I’m unlikely to read any more of them.

They were certainly easy reads. The narrative voice is clear and uncluttered, and the pacing of the books was reasonably good. They’re really remarkably well written for something aimed at children, without a lot of talking down to them or absurd catering to misconceived adult notions of what can or should be read by children. That probably accounts for the series’ popularity with adults as well as the younger demographic toward which the things have been marketed. I’m quite pleased as well with the fact that children have apparently been induced to start reading in large numbers by the popularity of this series, and I’m highly amused by the knee-jerk religious fundamentalist reactions to the books.

That’s about where the positive characteristics end, though.

They are completely vapid books, and in some respects they glorify the venal, spiteful attitudes of their central characters. Being focused primarily on the children in the books, it might not be surprising from a certain perspective that the only difference between the “good” guys and the “bad” guys is apparently that the “good” guys are the perspective characters of the book, or perhaps that they’re portrayed a trifle more sympathetically. All of them seem equally driven by the most base and corrupt motivations. I guess that’s a pretty realistic portrayal of children in general, no matter what rose-colored lenses many adults like to use to view the “innocence” of childhood.

The real problem with the spitefulness of the characters is that it’s not only not ever pointed out as being an unworthy motivation in and of itself, but occasionally even treated as though it’s a good thing. In the midst of all the stuff and nonsense about the “satanic” themes in the books (which are, in my opinion, entirely imagined by paranoid whack-jobs whose confirmation bias is more to blame for the appearance of “satanic” themes in the books than the author’s writing), nobody seems to be taking note of the fact that Harry Potter’s main motivation for opposing evil little snots like Draco Malfoy is his own evil, snotty little desire to hurt others. That’s especially troubling considering that Harry’s presented as kind of a Mary Sue for little boys.

None of the major characters are ever likable, with the possible exception of Ron Weasely, and even in his case only occasionally when he makes a remark about how damned stupid the others are behaving. Of course, he then tends to turn around and go along with it as though there’s nothing wrong, so I’m not terribly impressed.

Thank goodness the movies, at least, gentle the unlikability of the characters a bit. If it weren’t for that, I wouldn’t have gotten past the first movie. As it is, I’m likely to end up watching them all.

Too bad I can’t say the same about the books, which are utterly vapid fluff, featuring characters who have little or no redeeming qualities at all (and that’s jsut the good guys). Hagrid’s a bumbling idiot with a penchant for negligently endangering the lives of others and Dumbledore is either a cardboard cutout or a child molestor (depending on your interpretation). Snape is just as spiteful and petty as the children in the first two books. Only McGonagall acts with any kind of integrity, and whatever sympathy I might have developed for her as a result is ruined by her inability or unwillingness to note what’s going on around her sufficiently to do anything about most of the injustices the various characters perpetrate against one another.

I guess, if you don’t have anything else around to read, it’s an easy way to fill your time with a little literary distraction. I wouldn’t recommend seeking it out, though — read it only if it falls in your lap and you don’t have anything better to do.

I give it two bullets out of five.

gun control arguments aren’t exactly “rigorous”

Filed under: Cognition,Liberty — apotheon @ 11:04

I’ve seen many, many arguments advanced by gun control advocates over the years. Most of them suffer from some rather extreme failings. Among them:

  1. People will argue that guns are too dangerous because of the number of gun-related deaths. They almost never compare those numbers with the number of deaths by other means, or differentiate between different types of gun-related deaths (e.g., separating self-defense from murder).

  2. They’ll also argue that guns are too dangerous because of the number of gun-related crimes. These crimes may just be any other crime, but with the perpetrator carrying a gun, under some laws where carrying a gun is in and of itself a criminal act when done while committing another crime. Other such crimes may just be a case of someone keeping and bearing arms in violation of local ordinances, regardless of whether the act in question actually exposes anyone to any danger. Aside from those little statistic inflators, they almost never compare those numbers with the number of crimes committed without guns.

  3. They’ll compare crime statistics between two locations, one of which has had guns in wide circulation for a long time and the other of which has not had guns in wide circulation for a long time, that are separated by thousands of miles and significant variations in cultural characteristics. What they should be comparing, if they want to come up with an indicator of whether a change in the law will result in higher or lower crime rates, is before-and-after statistics in areas where gun laws have changed significantly. This eliminates the problem of differing cultures, and focuses on the real point of interest: changing gun laws.

What I have discovered by paying attention to such key factors is:

  1. Where gun control laws have been relaxed, the number of gun-related deaths by murder and accident tend to decrease.

  2. Where gun control laws get stricter, sometimes gun-related crime rates go down, but sometimes they go up. Overall violent crime rates tend to remain constant or increase.

  3. Where gun control laws change drastically, the stricter gun control laws tend to correlate with higher violent crime rates, and the more relaxed gun control laws tend to correlate with lower violent crime rates.

When Florida became the first state to adopt a shall-issue policy for concealed carry permits in a long time, violent crime rates plummeted.

When Kennesaw, GA passed a law making it an official requirement for heads of household to keep and maintain firearms (yes, you can opt out), violent crime rates dropped and remained absurdly low for decades afterward, despite being a rapidly growing “suburb” of Atlanta that has been absorbed by the urban sprawl of Atlanta itself.

If you want to argue for the efficacy of strict gun-control laws in reducing violent crime rates, please focus on the important statistics: before and after numbers for violent crime rates in places where similar laws have been passed, in close chronological proximity to the passage of the law. The less your statistics conform to those requirements, the more likely they are to be skewed by other factors.

Regardless of all that, though, outlawing the ownership of small, inanimate objects in the name of eliminating violent crime is tantamount to imposing a policy of guilt by assumption, where people must prove themselves innocent to be treated as such. There’s simply no ethical justification for outlawing guns while still claiming to adhere to a Western liberal legal ethic, wherein one is presumed innocent until proven guilty.

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