in which I talk about wands

Been on the road a lot the past few days, visiting Carnegie Mellon and the University of Michigan. Still don’t know how I will choose a grad school.

I did have a kind of interesting usability experience while driving my father’s Prius. In all the cars I can remember using the windshield wipers, in order to turn them on you either push upward on a little wand next to your steering wheel, or you rotate something upward. Further movement upward increases the speed. In the Prius, however, you move the wand downward to turn the wipers on. And for the intermittent setting, there is a little tube on the wand to rotate and adjust the speed. This is labeled with the word “interval,” and little vertical bar that is wide at the top and narrow at the bottom.

Now, when I first started using the wipers, I assumed that rotating the tube upwards would increase the speed of the wipers. Actually, the opposite is true. I realized that, aside from being used to “up = more,” I’d looked at the little bar and assumed the wider the bar, the higher the speed. But really what it meant was, the wider the bar the longer the interval.

This makes a certain amount of sense, and was easy to remember once I realized it, but I’m not sure it is the design decision I would make. I think that typically, such markers are used as indicators of intensity–higher volume, more brightness, more speed.

For example, I’ve been staying in cheap hotels, so I’ve been using those air conditioning units built into the wall with a thermostat and controls built in. Typically the thermostat is not very sophisticated, you turn it one way for warmer air and the other way for cooler air and you hope you get it somewhere comfortable. And the way they mark this is not by having one bar that widens the whole way, to indicate low temperature at one end and high temperature at the other, but to have one red bar the widens at the hot side, and one blue bar that widens at the cold side: indicating the relative intensity of heating or cooling, not the overall temperature of the room.

This is how you know you are destined for a career in usability: you read one little book by Donald Norman and the next thing you know, you try to turn on you windshield wipers and start musing about the meaning of the marking on the wiper control.

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This is just to say

I’m sorry it’s been so long, blog! I have been busy with this whole graduating from college nonsense. And I got accepted to the other three grad schools I applied to, so I’ll be off in a bit to visit a couple of those and try not to be too terrified of the future.

I’ve spent the last week working on finding an internship for the summer and also bumming around Seattle, WA, visiting a friend. I like it a lot here. I’m not sure how I’d handle the gray and rainy winters, but the occasional vacation is fun, and I hear the summers are pretty nice The pacific northwest is beautiful, and two of my favorite writers, Octavia E. Butler and Ursula K. Le Guin, clearly both love(d) their respective parts of it. So it comes highly recommended.

Because I feel like I ought to have some content related to my “topic,” I thought I’d talk about some programs I’ve been enjoying lately.

There are a couple of little websites I’m more or less responsible for, and I’ve been working on those with bluefish. I cannot say enough good things about bluefish. I’ve done most of my HTML/CSS work in straight-up notepad, until I discovered notepad++ has some nice syntax highlighting. Gedit would do me for Linux, but after I did all this reading for my research last summer on the importance of usable IDEs I thought maybe I should find out what is available.

Perhaps because of my years of notepad, perhaps because I tend towards perfectionist control freak when it comes creating things, I like to stay close to my code. I’ve yet to find a WYSIWYG editor that I didn’t end up fighting at every turn. After reading this long list of features for bluefish, I was worried it would try to do my thinking for me. But it doesn’t, at all. If I want to ignore every feature other than syntax highlighting, that is a-ok. But I would be an idiot to do so, because bluefish does some incredibly useful things. For example, I’m not good at things like memorizing a list of tag names or CSS properties (instead I remember high-level things about what is possible with those tools), so I spend a notable amount of time looking up such info. Bluefish already knows about all those things, and makes the lookup much faster. My latest discovery is that bluefish has a color picker if you tell it you’re about to set a CSS color property. And this discovery came literally minutes after I was wishing for a color picker in bluefish so I didn’t have to wait for the GIMP to load up and then sit around wasting resources. And right now I’m just creating static pages. I suspect there is a whole lot more it can do for complex web programming. It’s really too bad it’s not available for Windows.

The other program I’m using and liking is DrPython. I’ve been learning GTK+, and I found that pyGTK is much easier for me to work with. “Normal” GTK is C-based, and C and my brain are not the best of friends. Higher-level languages fit much better with how I approach programming. Anyhow, so, python is pretty great, and again, after all those research papers, I figured I should at least look for an alternative to a command-line interpreter. So I googled…I don’t even remember what I googled, but DrPython turned up and the fact that the name is a tribute to DrScheme, (the aforementioned research involved digging around in DrScheme’s guts), caught my eye. So I’ve been writing pyGTK in DrPython, and while it is not the most immediately transparent interface–I think it could stand to take a few more hints from DrScheme–it seems to be stable and does what I want, and what more you could want for the price?