Hardy Herons and Cheesy Europeans

EDIT: so uh, when I said Gutsy Gibbon, I meant Hardy Heron. I even corrected myself in a draft of this post that subsequently got eaten, and then forgot again when I rewrote it. Oops.

I upgraded to Ubuntu Gutsy Gibbon Hardy Heron a couple of weeks ago, and I keep meaning to write something reasonably substantial about it. I don’t know that I’d consider myself qualified enough to give an authoritative review of it, but I could record my experiences for the sake of posterity. Not sure I’m there yet, but I do want to say that the one really noticeable problem I’ve had is that, between firefox 3 beta 5 and rhythmbox, only one seems to be able to handle audio at a time, and it’s whichever one I opened first. So if I’ve been listening to music and want to watch a youtube video, I have to close firefox and rhythmbox, and open up firefox again. This is…annoying.

I haven’t tried yet with any other music players–my search for something that could successfully communicate with my ipod was traumatic, and I’m still a bit gun-shy. I did have the pre-release of Songbird for awhile, but it just wasn’t stable enough for me. Every so often after I’d had it open for awhile I’d lose sound altogether and have to reboot to get it back. I haven’t tried it on Gutsy yet, but I don’t expect that the problem was entirely on the OS end. I’ll keep a lookout for 0.6 and give it another shot. I think Songbird has a lot going for it and I am really looking forward to the first official release. Assuming they get their searching and sorting issues worked out by then…I mostly listen to my music by building playlists to fit a mood, and I do an awful lot of searching and sorting during that process, and I need them both to be fast and reliable.

Basically I still haven’t found a piece of software that lets me do exactly what I want with my music as seemlessly as iTunes. It’s pretty much the only thing I miss about Windows. Which, well, you know.

Rhythmbox does have one feature I wish iTunes had: automatically downloading lyrics. Lyrics are a lot of what I respond to in songs, and I like being able to see them and follow along, and refer to them for quoting and such. The downloading means I spend a lot less time on those evil lyrics sites. Speaking of which, Lyrics Directory is the best at being not evil. I wish there were some way for individuals to contribute lyrics, since they definitely don’t have as much as some of the big spammy sites. On the other hand, if I want to correct something or paste in my own lyrics, I have to click some “edit” button. This is dumb. There’s no reason for the program to get in my way like this. It’s even dumber that there’s no real visual clues to it. The lyrics display looks just like a text entry box, and in fact it looks exactly the same once I click edit (and again, when I’m done and click save). if I can’t just edit whenever I want, make the display clearly different from editable text entry!

But rhythmbox has bigger UI problems, like the fact that the play button turns into a pause button during playback, without any visual feedback. It still says play, the icon is still a little triangle. You just have to infer from the complete lack of any pause or stop button that you click on it again to stop the music. It’s especially annoying when things are getting slightly buggy, and I can’t tell whether no music is happening because the song is quiet at the beginning, Rhythmbox is trying to play the song but is just taking its sweet time about it, or something really is wrong and playback is just not happening.

Always give visual feedback. Obvious visual feedback. And always test to make sure it’s obvious to people who know nothing of your design, because you know way too much to be able to evaluate it yourself.

Anyway, time to restart firefox so I can listen to the 2008 Eurovision entries.

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.

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?

misc thoughts

I finally found the “preview” function I have been really wishing WordPress had. Turns out it only shows up when you’ve saved a post but not published it. Since I tend to just hit publish (and check the published post for formatting and errors, irritated by the lack of a preview), that was not helping me.

-2 for usability on that one, wordpress.

I also meant to tag that last post, but I can’t decide what to tag it. I also haven’t defined any categories yet. I ought to take some time to decide what kind of organizing principle I want. If I’m going to use both tags and categories, I ought to use them for reasonably distinct purposes.

wildebeest cash

The days when I have to deal with the Real World are fast approaching (though I do hope I’ll get into graduate school), so it seems like maybe time to start getting myself a little more together. This mostly means learning to manage my absent-mindedness so my life doesn’t dissolve into chaos. I like to remind myself that I have been taking baby steps for some time now–like discovering that I get a lot of benefit out of using a planner. So for most of college I’ve used a simple paper planner to keep track of my schedule and deadlines and such. But every so often I’ll lose my planner, and it doesn’t help me see where I’ve scheduled conflicts (an ever-present danger), so I’ve also started using google calendar too. Aside from some bugs and odd little quirks, I quite like it. Presumably those will be ironed out by the time it’s no longer beta, but then gmail is still listed as “beta” after 4 years, so maybe that will be a long time coming.

Another step towards being independent is that I’ve been making a list of things I’ll need to have to care for myself when I’m not living in a dorm, as they occur to me. Currently the list includes quality knives, a dustpan, and “cute tableware.” I’m thinking of collecting vintage pyrex and corelle in this pattern. I just ordered a set of teacups, after cracking my last mug. Probably I should also start a list of things it won’t be worth it to keep once I’m not living in a dorm, though I right now I can’t think of anything other than the little shelving unit I found on the side of the road and some cheap Wal-Mart rag rugs (what can I say? I have a glamorous lifestyle). Well, and I’m hoping this will be my last Midwest winter for a long time, so maybe I could get rid of some of these gigantic coats and sweaters. And my sheets! If there’s anything I won’t need again, it’s twin XL bedding. Hey, I’ll go add these to the list! Thanks blog!

Anyway, today I started using GnuCash. My dad recommended it to me because it uses a double entry system, where all transactions are coming from one place and going to another. I’ve been resisting setting up anything to track my finances for some time now, since I am kind of terrified of growing up. But I’ve also been wary of GnuCash because, well, accounting software + open-source Linux application kinda sounds like a usability nightmare to me. I love using ubuntu, but let’s face it, your average app is not a paragon of good interface design.

But overall, I found it simple. The hardest part was figuring out what different accounts I would need to create, and there was a “druid” (cute, linux) to get some common ones set up and then as I entered transactions I realized I wanted to track some more subcategories of things. The only real interface problem I encountered was trying to add opening balances. The druid gave me instructions, but they didn’t seem to work the first time. Hard to know if it was a design problem or an outright bug. But once I got it straightened out, entering my transactions for January went smoothly. And it’s actually sort of exciting to be able to immediately see how much money I have, and how much I’ve spent in the last month on various things. Since my tuition payment was in January, nearly all of that was “college expenses,” of course. Real world, here I come!