August 2010 Archives

Scattered ideas about wayfinding and habit

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When I first moved to Toronto, I had some serious trouble figuring out the subway system. The wayfinding in it seemed pretty nonsensical and opaque. As I got used to it, though, it got easier. Which tends to be the case as people get used to new things. We adjust, we acclimatize, we forget about the problems we experienced as newcomers. As a result of this, I've been thinking about the question of stakeholders in cities. Who are the stakeholders in a city? There are a number of different ones: residents, businesses, tourists and so on. And in many large cities, tourists are an important element of the urban makeup, given the revenue that they bring in. That's group one: tourists, newcomers, occasional users of cities.

So what's a local? A local is someone who lives there, who fits in, who has a habitual view of a city. And that's the trick. it's the word habitual. In fact, a commuter might even be a local, at least in the area that she frequents. Someone from Oshawa who works in one of the tall towers on University Ave. is a local to University Ave., even if she isn't a local to the rest of Toronto. She's a local to the bit of the subway between Union Station and her office tower. She's a local to the restaurants in the area. She's a local to her habits in the space.

That's something I'm profoundly interested in: spatially situated habits. Because we are such creatures of habit. And it's not necessarily an innate understanding of a space that makes us able to use it effectively, it's a habitual relationship with that space. It's the idea that a commuter or local has habits built up around the spaces that are local to her. A tourist or traveller or newcomer has no habits built up around the space. Someone who is new to interacting with the space lacks the habits that serve as coping mechanisms. Which means that they have a completely different conception of what the space is and how it works. They must actually see the space.

The local ceases to have the need to see the space after a while. She doesn't need to really interface with the space because she already has her route through it. I think that's the crux of the issue. It's the idea of habit. With habit, maps and wayfinding systems cease to be necessary. It's not the habitual users, the denizens, who require wayfinding systems. It's the newcomers.

So that's the next question: how much of an understanding of the space do you actually need in order to design a wayfinding system? Is it better to be a habitual user who knows the ins and outs but forgets what the space actually is, or is it better to be a newcomer, looking at the space with fresh eyes? Is an outsider perspective more useful in wayfinding design? In short, do you need to be other in order to properly design an effective wayfinding system?

Look at what I've done to my website

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Screenshot-ad.apt is ginger coons - Mozilla Firefox.pngAn aside: a couple days ago, I redid my main website,, of which this blog is a subset. The redesign keeps the spirit of the design intact, but makes the whole thing easier to navigate and easier for me to update. Also, less clutter makes it look much cooler.

JabRef: an answer to a question in a coffee shop

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The other day, I found myself having one of those nice coffee shop chats that just don't happen often enough. I was in Waterloo, having walked the four km that separate the University of Waterloo Research and Technology park from downtown (are all tech workers meant to have cars?). After that walk, a coffee shop seemed like a good place to set down for a while and get some work done. I asked the man at the next table to watch my computer for a moment. This led, when I got back to my table, to a discussion about computers, the danger of losing them and, more importantly, the danger of losing the data stored on them, which is often so much more valuable than the machine.

Data loss is the main theme here. The gentleman at the next table explained that for his work, he relies heavily on reference management software, being engaged in research. That reliance, among research types, is unremarkable. Reference management software is a pretty common thing to use. I'll somewhat bashfully say that in my own research-y work, I don't use it. I just build reference lists in OpenOffice. It's not a particularly tidy or clever way of doing things, and it probably slows me down, given that, when I need to find something I've cited before, I find myself combing through piles of old files, looking for the right entry.

Given that we were discussing F/LOSS (I take every opportunity to show just how un-scary Linux and other F/LOSS are), the question of F/LOSS reference management software came up. Not being a user of such software, I didn't have any good suggestions about an alternative to the dominant applications like Refworks and Endnote. However, in an example of proper esprit d'escalier, I now have such a suggestion.

Yesterday, in an attempt to avoid writing an abstract while still pretending to get things done, I spent some time fiddling around with JabRef. And it's quite nice. It imports from a variety of sources (JStor, Endnote and annotated PDFs, to name a few) and exports a variety of suitable formats (including BibTeXML, HTML, plain text, RTF and a few different flavours of OpenOffice formatting). And, the quite nice thing, it's painless and organized. Adding a source (with any number of different fields) is simple. Searching those sources is simple, making subsets of the database is simple. I'll be the first to admit that I have no idea how it stacks up against the competition, but on its own merits, I quite like it. In fact, I think I'll be fiddling with it quite a bit in the next few months, as I try to keep my giant reference list better organized.

JabRef v. my current non-system system. It's tidy, it's centralized and it works beautifully, not to mention easily. Score one for JabRef. Added bonus: no install needed. It can be run just by clicking the "Run JabRef" button on the JabRef website

Screenshot-thesisproposal.odt - Writer.png
Having found JabRef and enjoying my explorations with it, I'm pleased to have yet another nice little bit of software in my arsenal, for the next time someone asks if there's an alternative to their favourite proprietary program. Once again (as previously posited in Banff), chatting with strangers proves to be both useful and illuminating.

A brief grumble about homogeneity

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While meditating on the idea of standards and how they make our worlds work (prepare to be inundated in coming months by more on this topic), something occurred to me. It occurred that while similar knowledge makes groups cohesive and feel like clubs, it also serves to make them homogeneous and boring. Maybe I don't know everything other F/LOSS geeks know, maybe I'm not actually very good at partitioning hard drives myself, but I know a hell of a lot about intermodal transport. Different skill and knowledge sets are important. I know how to mould plastic of many different kinds. I know what the numbers on the bottoms of bottles mean. I know about wood working and welding. Who gives a damn if I need a step by step guide to partitioning a hard drive? There are loads of other people who know how to do that, and when I need to, I can ask them for help. Having different skills gives both of us value. And when they need something built, or want to know what the difference between a raglan and an inset sleeve are, or how to work a vacuum forming machine, I can help right back. Homogeneity bites. The point of having other people around is learning from them. Maybe my credibility gets a little shot when I don't know something that others perceive to be basic, but hell, there's loads of stuff I consider basic that they don't even approach knowing. Of course variety is the spice of life. It's a cliche for a reason.

The standards dress is wired

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Non-Standard Bodies, a mechanical dress/art thing/critical making experiment that I've mentioned before (without wires, and in prototype form) is progressing nicely. My most excellent and talented colleague, Mike, has attached some servos, arduinos and servo control boards to the frame that I built last week. We're using small yo-yos as winding mechanisms, as seen in the second and fourth pictures. Picture three shows the servo control board.



Daily vanity (great glasses)

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See that picture up there? See those glasses? They're good glasses, or so I've been told. Repeatedly. I got them mid May, traded in the old square ones and decided to go wild, with granny glasses. It's been a little over three months. They've ceased to be a novelty for me. For the outside world, on the other hand, they continue to provoke remark. This interests me. In the last three months, not a week has passed in which I've received fewer than five compliments. To be honest, it's been more like a daily occurrence. The number has just been a little thrown by days when I haven't had interaction with anyone outside the immediate circle of people who are also used to the glasses. Largely, though, it's been a daily thing. From the two middle aged ladies in Brussels who literally pulled me over on the street to pass comment back at the end of May to today's Starbucks barista and my fellow pharmacy customer a couple hours later. And I'm not even counting the people who just ask whether or not they're real (mostly men, incidentally).

As I said, this inundation of compliments interests me. Have I spent so much time surrounded by art students that my measure of normality has skewed drastically away from reality? Or are giant yellow glasses with little metal accents just really great? I've considered cataloguing the compliments, just to better examine the trend. But that seems needlessly self involved. If I were to keep track, I'd mark today with the barista and the well dressed Francophone lady in Jean Coutu (in Westmount, no less). I think, though, that one post about the phenomenon may be enough.

Boxers and boxers

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Below: An illustration of two boxers, boxing. The old-school moustaches were part of the brief. I'm still torn about them. Below that, a different kind of boxer. The cute kind,

EDIT: It's been brought to my attention by my eagle eyed and keen of brain colleague Brad that the illustration of two boxers, having been drawn to the specifications and for the benefit of someone other than myself, is the result of a boxer brief. That's kind of awesome.

For now, no wire

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Below, progress shots of a rebuild of a mechanical dress. The dress, called Non-Standard Bodies, used to have structural elements made of chicken wire, which was causing shorts. Today, I built a new frame for it, out of Sintra. Built using only a utility knife, heat gun and plastic that softens at a low temperature. The electronics are getting added back in later, once some smaller elements are added to the frame.


Some wires of various sorts

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Below, some pictures of what I'm working on today. A PVC pipe full of wires and potentiometers, a crinoline made of chicken wire and a whole pile of servos. All of which, in a complicated way, makes up a dress. Pictures of that later.


Progressing lime

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Below, an illustration of a lime, as it progresses from green circle to circle with different shades of green.


Coffee illustrations

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Below, a variation on the coffee cup from yesterday, as well as a macchinetta, in shades of grey, brown and green.

Coffee wastage

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Today, while lingering over an expensive but consistent tea, I got to thinking about those little drains in the service area at Starbucks, next to where they keep the lids and sugar. The drains exist to drink up unwanted coffee, when someone gets a full cup but wants to add milk. Pour out a couple centimetres of your coffee, replace from the insulted milk or sugar jug. I'm wondering, given that these things are a standard feature, just how much wasted coffee they absorb, globally, on a daily basis. It must be loads.
I know this to be true (more or less): no tool is neutral. Scratch that. a tool need not be neutral. It may have assumptions built into it. But its full potential is not realized until it is actually used. In passiveness and inactivity, it is largely harmless. In use, it ceases to be neutral. A hammer may be for building a house, for tenderizing meat, or for bludgeoning someone. Or, as the old saying goes: guns don't kill people, people kill people. The utility of the tool is literally in the hands and thoughts of its holder. The tool is nothing until it is used. I know this.

So, tools are not political. But there may be political assumptions built into tools, into their structure, into the way we talk about them. And the way we talk about them, that politicization of talk, is why we argue about F/LOSS. The words we use to describe tools matter. Maybe not as much as the use of the tools, maybe more. We argue about words and we become alarmed over potential. I was once told, when I was and overwhelmed undergraduate, that anxiety was the result of looking at future possibilities, extrapolating and finding the negatives. That anxiety stemmed from looking at possible futures and not liking them.

We're so often anxious about tools. We look at their vast potential, extrapolate their futures from their presents, and don't like what we see in those extrapolations. Someone forges a hammer, maybe with the intention of driving nails. Someone else looks at the hammer and sees a blunt instrument, packing the potential to kill. The hammer is dangerous in a potential future. But at the same time, there's intentionality in the past of the hammer. If the hammer was intended for driving nails, that implies values on the part of its maker. The maker had a view about the potential of the hammer. The view is, by necessity, political. The view about the potential of the hammer betrays values, world view, desire. It illustrates what the maker wants. The maker, in selling the hammer, in demonstrating it, in naming and marketing it, attempts to communicate his view of what the hammer is for. The maker attempts to sell his view of the hammer, to influence how the end user of the hammer will employ it.

But then the hammer sits in a drawer. When the hammer is not in use, it is simply potential. It could build a house, tenderize meat, hold down papers or damage something. It could do any number of things. But it doesn't do those things on its own. On its own, it sits in a drawer doing nothing. It needs a user in order to realize any of its potential. When the user comes to the drawer and picks up the hammer, he comes with his own set of values and motivations. He may know what the hammer is meant to be for, as dictated by its maker, or he may not. He may know but not care. Either way, the user dictates what the hammer will do. The user decides whether it will build a house or break a window. The user is god to the hammer, deciding its fate and purpose.

Thus, the tool is both neutral and not neutral. When alone, passive, not in use, the tool is simply potential, waiting for a user to make it meaningful. But at the same time, no tool is neutral. Every thing, every value, every feature packed into the tool is an expression of the politics of the maker. The shape that the tool takes is an expression of its intended use and its implicit values. Tools are both neutral and political. They embody the values of their makers, but they remain passive and full of potential until used. The hammer may have values built into it, like versatility and economy (it has two ends, one for driving nails and one for pulling them out) or assumptions about use (the weight of the hammer determines which sort of nails it will be most useful for driving and into which materials those nails will be driven), but it remains full of potential, ready for anything, until a user picks it up and uses it. Guns may not kill people, but they are designed to fire small projectiles, accurately, towards specific targets, at great speed.

How does this relate to the issue of Free v. Libre v. Open in software and culture? If everything is both neutral and imbued with values at the same time, how can we separate instrumentality from ideology? This is essentially what I take the distinction between Free and Open to be about. Free is an ideological standpoint, the idea that users of software should have the right to look under the hood, to know exactly what their software is doing and to make changes to it, should they so choose. Free is about freedom, which is an admirable thing. Free takes on the idea that freedom can be built into code and its licensing schemes. Open, on the other hand, speaks to the instrumental. It speaks to the idea that companies don't want to put the word Free on their products, for fear that people will fail to make the distinction between freedom and monetary freeness, as they do. Open sells the idea of viewable, modifiable code as a useful thing, handy for the propagation of software, for its growth and for the growth of its user community, for reasons of security and for reasons of utility. Open is open for business, with a ready stash of sensible, instrumental reasons why it should be adopted. Open doesn't talk politics or rights. Open talks about deliverables and advantages. And Libre, Libre is Free without the ambiguity. Libre avoids the un-clarity of the English Free. Libre is the French Freedom, without the baggage of having a double meaning (the task of discussing monetary freeness in French is given over to gratuit). So Libre is Free without the problems that English hands down.

Here's the thing: my position has changed over the years. I got into F/LOSS because of my father, because when when I was little, he tinkered with Linux, installing it on the family computers. And so I became exposed to it. And I was exposed to it as Open Source, because that was the term he used. I don't actually know where he fits on the ideological side of things, although I suspect his values are more towards the Free. Regardless, when I was little, having my first experiences with F/LOSS, I always heard it called Open Source. And when I was young, I used it in an instrumental way. Despite the fact that for as long as I can remember, I've been on the side of the activist and advocate, I never really thought of the Free side. I was introduced through Open Source, and through instrumentality. And I never looked under the hood. I'm not a coder. That freedom didn't have proper resonance for me because I didn't exercise it. I'm in what I think is the fairly unique position of being in this community just because it's what I'm used to, what I've been raised on, what I was taught to do. For years, I never questioned any of it. I never questioned that if Linux could do what I wanted, I should use it. I never questioned that if there were F/LOSS tools available, they should be my default. The convenience was a big sell for me. Software that quietly updates itself seemed much more sensible to me than software that needs to be bought at great expense and then installed. F/LOSS was just more convenient for me, which is not something I've often heard said. For these reasons, I became a user at a young age. I've not really known much else. As a designer, I never bothered to properly learn Adobe Creative Suite, because I already had tools that I liked and knew how to use. I've never suffered from the trauma that most designers have, attempting to switch from CS and braving the learning curve and missing features in F/LOSS.

That's where I started. As I aged, went to design school, became confronted by alternate realities, I started reading about the history of F/LOSS and realizing what the differences between camps were. So I adopted the catch-all term, F/LOSS. But the word Open has been with me by default for so long that it's hard to kick. It's awkward, but I feel that I'm like my father: I believe in the politics of Free, but still use the word Open, maybe because it's advantageous, because people know it, because it makes sense to a larger camp and requires less explaining. I believe that, while the term Free better lines up with my view of F/LOSS, I have difficulty with it. I have difficulty with it because much of my work involves explaining to other people just what it is that I do. Many people have heard of Open Source. Even those who haven't heard of it do have an implicit understanding of the idea of openness. And it's that pesky double meaning that holds Free back. Sure, Free is the older term, the term with the longer history. But those early days were more rarefied days. They were days before the general public paid much attention to F/LOSS. But they're paying attention now. I think that, if I had to choose one word, without the catch-all provided by F/LOSS, I'd call myself Libre. It has all the connotations of freedom buried so deeply in the make up of Free, but without the ambiguity. It hasn't yet been overused or co-opted to the extent that Open has. It has the proper resonance. And for those who only speak English and don't really want to grasp the basic French of Libre, it still links nicely to that popular English word, liberty. It is political, as any word is (for words are tools, too). It packs the punch it needs, with markedly less ambiguity, and still sounds good. For all of these reasons I think, at this point in my evolution, that I'll call myself Libre. But only when I'm not skewing towards the ur-name and calling it all F/LOSS.