This is Don Lennox, with the…

Tuesday, July 22nd, 2008

Sometimes, I just look at an ancient piece of TV I did with 25-year-old technology, and I say to myself, wow, if I could redo all of that in crisp, clean high-res vectors now…


Brap-brap-brap! Kiribati! Islamabad! Nashville! Decatur! The earth! The universe! The news channel. Oh by the way, the original kinda survives on this fine YouTube video.

Rooting for cane sugar.

Thursday, July 17th, 2008

Growing up in a sixties Ohio white bread environment doesn’t do a lot to provide you with an understanding of what food is good for you (after all, they test-marketed Pringles where I lived) and, well, besides, good information on nutrition seems to have evolved at about the same rate as the commercial food industry has taken mass-market food down a path toward high-fructose artificiality.

But after reading Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma a couple of years ago, my growing concerns about the evils of high fructose corn syrup—in terms of what it does nutritionally, what it does ecologically, and well, it just doesn’t taste that good—reached enough of a threat level that I steer clear of it as much as possible…in everything.

So even my longtime favorites like Heinz Ketchup (for example) have given way to Trader Joe’s Organic Ketchup—not for any huge desire for organicness as much as to get back to a better-tasting cane sugar flavored product.

And the last time a huge tree hit the house, I was regularly buying IBC Root Beer—but I now try and make sure any rooty goodness is sweetened the old fashioned way. Yeah, internally, I know it is better for me…but I think I’m really doing it for the taste. Last summer, I enjoyed an old central Ohio favorite, Frostop Root Beer, while in upper Michigan…but it has that HFCS stuff, but I’m not so much of an absolutist that I didn’t give it a try—and I enjoyed it. So I drink it up there, but I deduct points.

You know, those mythical “points.”

So I was delighted today to see a six-pack of Abita Root Beer at a grocery store down off of Caroline Street, and I’m here to tell you, it is darned tasty on a summer’s morning. In a recent New York Times piece rating root beers, it came in third…right behind my old favorite IBC and its HFCS sweetening. Would IBC and Frostop taste better if they switched (or switched back to) to cane sugar? I sure think so. Will they do it just because I ask politely? Mmm, probably not.

We shall simply explain.

Wednesday, July 16th, 2008

From time to time I get asked to beta-test new versions of software, and of course there’s just the common experience of taking a new online service out for a spin. That’s when I’ll discover something, not necessarily something you’d label a “bug,” not really a “feature,” but a way the thing works that just doesn’t work for me, the real-world user.

I figure if I mention it to the developer, and explain what I was trying to do and why this is frustrating to me, I not only help myself to get an application or web service that works better down the road, but I’m making the lives of everyone else who uses the software easier as well. This might not always be the case—I’m not always Joe Everyman when it comes to how I use my computer—but I try to raise my hand and point out what I see as a problem, as opposed to grumbling to myself or to folks who have no influence on how the product actually works.

It’s amazing how many times in the Mac community this really works well…they appreciate the observation, they’re motivated to make stuff that sets new standards in user interface, they get it.

But lately, I’ve come up a bit against an attitude from software developers that calls to mind an experience when I was doing graphic design for a new twenty-four hour news channel in Austin…which was using some custom software for newsroom automation that was so unfinished at the point of purchase that it required a large team of developers from Germany to come out and live onsite for what seemed like weeks, months.

And at one point as we were trying to make this software work, we came up against a huge slowdown at the very start of the process…when a user dashing to a workstation in a newsroom, under deadline pressure, would log in and enter his or her password, the system would seemingly stop and wait upwards of 30 seconds until the login was accepted.

30 seconds is an eternity in newsroom terms. When this fact was presented to the developers (“hey, this might be a concern”), the unconcerned development lead said officiously—a quote I will always remember—”well, we shall simply explain [to everyone] why it must be this way.”

Um, yeah, that will help.

After the head of the local news group simply explained how quickly they could be sent packing, the software guys tackled the bug with extreme priority, and darned if they didn’t get the login time down to one second.

But that “we shall simply explain” attitude, well, I’m butting up against it in a couple of places lately. (And there’s its governmental cousin, popular in the Bush administration: “People just have to understand that…” —but that’s another story, another annoyance.)

There’s an otherwise great FTP/SFTP client—Cyberduck—which came out with a major revision that took away a key piece of functionality—having all the sites available in a drawer off to the side of the window, always there with one click. When I (and a handful of others) pointed out that this effectively hobbled our workflow, requiring multiple clicks to get where we used to take one. The change also eliminated the ability to just glance off to the side—no clicks, just eye movement—and get valuable information.

Well, the developer wanted to simply explain why it must be that way. Since the initial posting on the forum that tracks bugs and development changes, dozens of people have chimed in to say “we like the old version better.”

This is also the case in the latest release of the otherwise amazing and wonderful Google Earth. They’ve changed the way the navigation works “for the better,” according to all their PR online. According to post after post in the Google support groups, it’s not better, it’s more cumbersome for most users. And the Google Earth support folk “simply explained” that much of the old functionality is there if you hold down the shift key when you click. OK, fine, but that means you can’t just fly it with the have to grab the keyboard (if, like me, you’re leaning back in your chair) for one keystroke in a sea of mouse-manipulation. Why!? Why??? Well, they simply explained it was “better” this way.

There’s an even more egregious example—actually several of them—on a product I am under an NDA not to discuss, so I won’t, except to say that like the first example, users who upgrade will find fundamental components of their workflow hobbled in the name of progress. And this app has a LOT of users, cross-platform. It’s big. Huge. Uh-oh.

I think there’s one basic precept all developers should hold dear. If they make a change “for the better,” and they immediately get even a dozen complaints saying “the old way was better,” they are obligated to step out of their own reality distortion field (because, of course, if you’re a developer, you can’t help but be excited by the new features you’ve labored to produce) and see what all the grumbling is about. And then, if there’s a glimmer that they might have broken more than they may have “fixed,” have the courage to roll the behavior back, or provide (at the very least) an option for longtime users to customize back to the old behavior.

Hey, I’m simply explaining.

Carefully framed optimism.

Sunday, July 13th, 2008

Okay, so, yeah, we’ve been busy, what with dealing with insurance people and contractors and so on, but on a muggy Atlanta July Sunday morning, I find myself tilting toward optimism.

We have a roofline again. We have a ceiling (well, we have a subfloor) over our dining room again. We have had entertaining framers come early to work (to beat the midafternoon heat) and we (and our house) are standing up to a line of Georgia thunderstorms whipping through town with something just slightly more substantial than tarps propped up on scrap lumber.

We’ve made yet another trip north (in our tree-damage-repaired car). For this up-and-back, we had certain large-ish items on our to-do list mixed in with sociality and conviviality and we managed to check all those to-dos off with a smile…and with new knowledge! Sammy and I now know that if the guy at the hardware store didn’t cut the replacement window glass exactly square, you can sand it down enough to make it fit. It’s easier to buy new toggle bolts than to go up into the attic and try to fish out the old toggles.

These insights don’t have a widespread practical utility, but they do give us a sense that we can push ahead and accomplish a, followed by b, followed by c. Well, sometimes we skip b and go back to it, but it gets done.

It all gets done.