Desert of My Real Life

If you’ve read this blog before, you know that I’m interested in (and amazed by) the security theater that pervades our airport experiences.  I’m in Washington, DC as I write this, ready to review proposals submitted to the Broadening Participation in Computing CFP.  That means I experienced our airports today.  And once again, experienced amazing theater.  I decided not to check any bags today, partially because US Airways charges for each checked bag.  Which makes no sense to me, but more about that in another post.  This means that I needed to pack all of my liquids in a quart bag in quantities of 3.4 ounces or less.  This rule is in place, of course, because some whacko tried to combine some liquids into an explosive at some point in the past.  That’s the same reason that I have to take my shoes off as I pass through security.  But again, that’s another story.  So I DID pack my liquids in quantities of 3 ounces or less.  One of my items, my toothpaste, was in a tube that I had purchased in England, a tube that looks different than US tubes of toothpaste but which, nonetheless, was 3 ounces, which, if you’re a math genius, you know is 0.4 ounces less than the requirement.  I had, after all, brought this tube from England in to the US with no problems.  But the guy at the security check point in Manchester decided that this tube was too big, that it contained more than the limit of 3.4 ounces.  So he stopped me at the check point and said that I would have to throw it away.  I protested and asked him to check the tube.  Oh, yes, he said, it is 3 ounces which is less than the maximum of 3.4 ounces.  Be on your way, he said.  And so I was.

Why do I complain about this incident?   Because clearly there is no logical reason for a 3.4 ounce limit on liquids.  My tube of toothpaste looked unusual to this guy’s eyes and so he flagged it.  But as soon as the weight was determined to be within the limit, as soon as I complained, he let it pass.  Either there’s something of concern with the tube or there isn’t.  The limit of 3.4 ounces is arbitrary and my unusual tube proved that.  Are we safer because this guy wanted to throw my tube out?  Are we safer because I protested and he double-checked and let it through?  No.  It’s about the appearance of security rather than actual security.  And that’s no security at all.

The other incident that concerned me about this trip was my neighbor on the flight from LaGuardia to Washington National who constantly checked his Blackberry throughout the time that all such electronic devices were supposed to be turned off.  Why did they need to be turned off?  And what was it that this middle-aged man couldn’t wait five minutes to check?  Each time the stewardess came through the cabin, he had it turned off.  But he looked at his messages on this device over and over when the device was supposed to be turned off.  The risk, I thought, was that the plane would crash because of the … signals … electric waves … something from this device.  And yet, he didn’t care.  And you know what?  Our plane DID NOT CRASH!  I promise that I will not complain about my students checking their cell phones in class being an indication that this newer generation is disrespectful.  What’s disrespect compared to the prospect of the plane crashing?  We need to keep things in perspective.  And if the lure of texts is so great that this guy risks a plane crash, how can the risk of “disrespect” stand up to that?

{July 15, 2010}   New Ways of Thinking

A year or two ago, in one of my classes at the InterLakes Senior Center, a man asked me how he could get a copy of the information he finds on web sites.  I explained to him how to add the site to his list of favorites so that he could come back to it later.  When I finished with this explanation, he asked me how to put that in his file cabinet.  Only at this point did I realize that he was asking me how to print the contents of a web site so that he could put a piece of paper in his physical file cabinet.  I tried to explain why people don’t do that but instead just save electronic links to electronic material.  He remained unconvinced so I explained to him how to print a web page.  I suspect he now has a file cabinet full of paper taken from the web, badly formatted and rarely read.

I guess I thought that because I’ve been involved in software development and online culture for as long as I can remember, I would be immune to the difficulty that one encounters when faced with new technology and the new ways in which it sometimes requires you to think.  I’ve adopted and adapted to all kinds of new technology in my many years of studying, creating and working with various types of software and hardware systems. 

And yet today I found myself in conflict with Flickr and the way it presents information.  I went to England and France for a few weeks and now wanted to share photos from the trip with my friends and family.  I’ve done this before and struggled with Flickr but figured that it’s two years later so surely the problems I had must be fixed by now.  But they aren’t.  They’re still there.  A huge part of me thinks the problem is with Flickr, that the creators and managers of Flickr are wrong in the way they’re thinking about things.  But then I remembered the guy from my class and thought that maybe the problem is me and my thinking.  Maybe I’m just wanting to create a file cabinet full of paper in a world where file cabinets full of paper are unnecessary.

I think the problem, where I come into conflict with Flickr, is the “photostream.”  This is the main page where my photos will be displayed.  The underlying notion of the photostream is that immediacy is of the utmost importance.  That is, whatever has happened most recently is what is most important.  So when I upload my photos, the ones taken most recently are displayed first by default.  This means that if I upload the images from a trip, those from the end of the trip appear first.  Of course, when I upload images from a trip, I want to tell a story to my viewers, the story of my trip.  This means that I want the images to be displayed in the reverse order from the default in the photostream.  But there is no way to change the order of the images in the photostream. 

The solution appears to be in Flickr’s use of “sets.”  I can put the photos into a set and then order the pictures so that they tell the story of my trip.  This is easy to do and works very well.  The problem is that there is no way to get the sets displayed in place of my photostream.  Instead, the set sits off to the side and the visitor has to click on it to view it.  But when the visitor clicks on the set, the images are displayed as thumbnails by default and the visitor must then click a tab called “detail” in order to see the images in a size that can be easily viewed.  Most people don’t know this and so even if I give them a link directly to the set, they will not be able to easily view the images.  Another problem I have with Flickr is that when I look at full size images, there is no easy way to go to the next full size image.  There is no “next” button.  All of these problems lead me to believe that the folks at Flickr do not think of viewing photos as a linear, possibly narrative, process.  Instead, like much of Web 2.0, whatever has happened most recently is most important.  And whatever has happened most recently is unconnected (narratively) to whatever happened right before that.

My first thought is that this is a mistake on Flickr’s part.  But perhaps I’m the one who is mistaken?  Maybe I’m thinking of time-based linearity in a world that has moved past such ways to organize experience?  Is linear narrative akin to the file cabinet?  From my perspective, it’s difficult to believe this is true.  It seems illogical.  But my student in the senior citizen class thought his way of thinking about things was perfectly logical too.  How can I tell?  I can rationalize the need for linear narrative but is it just a rationalization that I use to try to preserve a way of thinking that is no longer necessary?

{July 14, 2010}   Technology in our Lives

On a flight back from England recently, two college-aged women sat in front of me.  I overheard one of the women say to the other that she doesn’t like technology.  This seemed to me to be quite an ironic statement as we sped above the earth at an altitude of 40,000 feet and a ground speed of 450 miles per hour using technology that has changed the way humans live on the planet.

I’m pretty sure she meant that she doesn’t like information technology, not technology in general.  Pretty sure.  In any case, I think it’s become fashionable to dislike “technology.”  I think that when someone claims to not like technology, they actually mean that they dislike certain activities related to technology, rather than the technology itself.  Checking and sending email, for example, can be a tedious process, especially if you don’t really understand what you’re doing so that you’re kind of lost if things don’t work as expected.  In fact, I’d bet that much of the dislike of technology use has to do with situations when the technology gets in the way of what you’re trying to do. 

This has long been a pet peeve of mine, actually.  Technology should be a tool to help people accomplish tasks.  It should be intuitive to use and allow people to work in the way that makes the most sense to accomplish their tasks.  Too often, however, the technology drives people to complete tasks in ways that are counter-intuitive or difficult to remember.  For example, I have recently been trying to change my address for my bank.  It has taken me over a year, many phone calls and several visits to the bank.  The problem has been the software system that the bank uses.  There are several addresses stored for each customer, requiring duplication of information in a variety of places.  This kind of redundancy is a huge no-no in software design.  And yet, over and over again, we see it.  So when the manager of the bank changed my address in one place, she forgot to change it in several others and in fact, didn’t even know one of those other places existed.  On my third visit to the bank, another manager happened to know about this last place where my address was stored.  So I hope it’s now changed.  It shouldn’t have been as difficult as it was to make the change.  It’s stuff like this that makes people claim that they hate technology.

et cetera