venomous porridge
I’m Dan Wineman and sometimes I post things here.
You could follow @dwineman on Twitter or App.net, or email me.
Jun
19th
2013
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Look, and Feel

This is a sentiment I’ve heard repeatedly over the past week or so, most recently in a quote from Justin Rhoades:

It’s like a pendulum swinging from obvious visual affordances to engaging kinetic ones. The parallax effect, the physics of the messages bubbles and I’m sure many other ‘kinetic’ behaviors are new to devs in iOS7. Apple wants apps to use more motion and less visual design.

Let’s talk about what an affordance actually is. Here are some examples:

The moment you see this object, you have a sense not just of how to use it, but of what it would feel like. You can feel your palm on the lever, your knuckles firm on the grip, separated slightly by those bumps. You’re anticipating having to choke down somewhat for leverage, clued in by the ridges toward the end of the handle. You may already be planning to pop off the cap by thumbing its little tab, and you’re aware you may need to work the plastic retainer a bit to counter its natural bend and keep it from springing back into the line of fire — or, as a last resort, perhaps sacrifice some grip strength by looping your index finger around it. You might not be certain what the metal knob is for, but you know from the knurled edge that you can turn it and that there will be some resistance. Shape, material, and texture combine with your experience to yield intuition, which lets you capture all of these details instantly given nothing but a glance at a photograph.

That’s what affordances do. They operate on the boundary between sight and touch. You see a thing, often from a distance, and its affordances give you enough information to simulate, in your mind, the sensation of manipulating it. Unconsciously, you configure your fine motor system in advance, so that by the time you get to the door handle, your hand is already forming the right shape to grasp it and pull the door open.

When affordances are misused, it’s more than a little frustrating:

And when they’re entirely absent, it can even be dangerous:

(Trapped in a burning building? Hope you can read English.)

iOS 7 may be “trading” affordances for kinetics, but only in the sense that it’s losing the former and arbitrarily gaining the latter. They are not interchangeable. Kinetics, or UI Dynamics in Apple’s parlance, are visual effects that occur while you interact with an object, or afterward. (You pull up on the camera icon and let go, and the lock screen falls back down with a realistic bounce; you scroll quickly in Messages and the word bubbles act like they’re mounted on springs.) But affordances can only help if they appear before you interact. You need to see the handle to mentally feel how to open the door, or even to know that it’s a door in the first place, regardless of how smoothly it’s going to swing open. In user interfaces we call this trait “discoverability.” (“Intuitiveness” is another good word for it. So is “joy.”) In the real world we don’t call it anything because it’s a basic operating principle that keeps us from walking into walls.

Affordances are the baby to skeuomorphism’s bathwater. When they engage our instincts just right, they create an emotional bond, and the unfamiliar becomes inviting. Without them, it’s just pictures under glass. It makes no difference how flat, how deep, how minimal, or how ornate the look-and-feel is if it can’t show us, when we look, how to feel.

May
24th
2013
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Last night during my regular 4 a.m. bout of insomnia I decided to look up where the Skagit River Bridge was. Turns out it spans the Skagit River — or used to span, anyway, from 1955 until about nine hours prior — between Mount Vernon and the tiny town of Burlington, WA.

When I searched for “Burlington, WA,” Apple Maps gave me a random address fifteen miles away from me on NW Burlington Drive, Portland, OR. Not even the right state. I had to pan and zoom manually to find the crossing, which was tricky because in Apple Maps the entire Skagit River is unlabeled.

Google Maps just rolled its eyes, reached out with white-gloved hands to catch its top hat and cane, and found the spot instantly, already showing the missing section of I-5.

I don’t expect Apple to finish first in the maps race, but goddamn it, I wish they’d at least jog.

May
20th
2013
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I still don’t quite know what to think about the Tumblr acquisition. It seems an enormous gamble on both sides. Like a smart, hip young woman who, after a few indelicate stumbles, had finally started making her way in the world only to elope with a desperate, aging serial wife murderer. Maybe they can save each other. Maybe.

But this oddly chaste robo-truncated CEO tumbltweet is a perfect piece of poetry.

I still don’t quite know what to think about the Tumblr acquisition. It seems an enormous gamble on both sides. Like a smart, hip young woman who, after a few indelicate stumbles, had finally started making her way in the world only to elope with a desperate, aging serial wife murderer. Maybe they can save each other. Maybe.

But this oddly chaste robo-truncated CEO tumbltweet is a perfect piece of poetry.

Apr
29th
2013
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Tell you what: while you’re at it, compose a 750-word essay on why you’re not quite ready to make payments online and include it on a 3-by-5 card (write legibly).
Be sure to write your 16-digit account number on the 3-by-5 card.
Still not quite ready to make payments online? How about now?
Oh, actually we’re gonna need that 16-digit account number on the outside of the envelope too.
Got any cute photos of your kids? We like to hang them up around the office. Glossy finish, 11x17 or larger recommended (do not fold). Having insufficiently cute kids could delay processing.
Be sure to write your 16-digit account number on the front of each child before taking photos.
Last but not least, could you throw in some of those crackers you bought at SAFEWAY INC on 2013 APR 05 (reference no. 55432863L00RY5BZB)? The chicken-flavored ones? Yeah, those.
Don’t staple or paper clip crackers to the payment slip.
Maximum check payment amount is $10.00. Excess funds will be applied to a future Not Quite Ready To Make Payments Online Fee in the amount of your check minus ten dollars.
Be sure to include an audio recording of yourself rapping your 16-digit account number to one or more def beats.
I mean they taste just like chicken, it’s so weird.
How about now?
  • Tell you what: while you’re at it, compose a 750-word essay on why you’re not quite ready to make payments online and include it on a 3-by-5 card (write legibly).
  • Be sure to write your 16-digit account number on the 3-by-5 card.
  • Still not quite ready to make payments online? How about now?
  • Oh, actually we’re gonna need that 16-digit account number on the outside of the envelope too.
  • Got any cute photos of your kids? We like to hang them up around the office. Glossy finish, 11x17 or larger recommended (do not fold). Having insufficiently cute kids could delay processing.
  • Be sure to write your 16-digit account number on the front of each child before taking photos.
  • Last but not least, could you throw in some of those crackers you bought at SAFEWAY INC on 2013 APR 05 (reference no. 55432863L00RY5BZB)? The chicken-flavored ones? Yeah, those.
  • Don’t staple or paper clip crackers to the payment slip.
  • Maximum check payment amount is $10.00. Excess funds will be applied to a future Not Quite Ready To Make Payments Online Fee in the amount of your check minus ten dollars.
  • Be sure to include an audio recording of yourself rapping your 16-digit account number to one or more def beats.
  • I mean they taste just like chicken, it’s so weird.
  • How about now?
Feb
28th
2013
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Plotnitsky goes on, however, to agree with Sokal and Bricmont that the ‘square root of –1’ which Lacan discusses (and for which Plotnitsky introduces the symbol (L)√-1) is not, in spite of its identical name, ‘identical, directly linked, or even metaphorized via the mathematical square root of –1,’ and that the latter ‘is not the erectile organ.’
Feb
7th
2013
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Useless Statements Found in Yelp Reviews, Vol. 2

"Speaking of the bathooms, they have an option to use regular soap or a powdered version." — Rebecca R.

"They didn’t have pomegranate juice for my standard pomegranate martini." — Allie S.

"Why a 4 star?? The wait was over an hour long!! …Next time- will just keep it simple and come with no more than 4 people" — C T.

"I have garlic coming out of every pore, which doesn’t bode well for any hot, or even lukewarm, marital action tonight." — Rebecca H.

"[photo of a glass of ice water]" — Jando S.

"Here’s a tip if you’re homeless folks, don’t give your girlfriend money to paint on her eyebrows if you’re starving." — Larry H.

"My husband is not feminine looking, and had a beard at the time." — Bree C.

"Don’t ask me what style food it is, sheshwan neshwan, I have no clue." — Linda A.

"Thus begins my fascination with the pluralization of the names of small sea creatures." — Leisa H.

"Schweppe’s Tonic is so much better than the Coke product Tonic, which is bitter!" — Myra F.

"Fortunately the wait staff vibed these unchill folks out; where they were casted out to the wastelands of Matador with the rest of the mainstreamers." — Papi C.

AND TODAY’S WINNER:

"If you’re going here, arrive at least an hour before they open, or suffer a 45 minute to 1 hour wait." — Mark S.

(Previously: Vol. 1)

Feb
4th
2013
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Still got it.

Still got it.

Jan
19th
2013
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Absolutely, utterly fantastic video explaining how NASA couldn’t have faked the moon landings, because it was impossible to.

That’s right: it was harder to produce a convincing bogus moon landing for television than it was to actually land on the moon. What a bizarre saddle point in the evolution of technology 1969 must have been.

Nov
27th
2012
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Aug
23rd
2012
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Is a federated Twitter even possible?

Toward the end of my last post, I mentioned that I’d like to see App.net move toward a federated architecture. Broadly, what that means is that instead of being a central service that each client connects to directly, it would become a loosely organized mesh of independently controlled nodes. Users and devices would connect to whatever node they liked best — you can run your own if you want — and the nodes would talk to each other in some clever way to collectively maintain the appearance of a single unified social network.

The advantages are numerous and comparable to those of the web itself: no single point of failure, no concentration of power, no risk that the entire network will be sold to Facebook.

But does this work for a service like Twitter? Can the behavior we’ve come to expect from social networks be reproduced in this model?

Let’s find out. Since every good blog post needs a list of three things, here’s a list of three constraints we’ve come to expect of our social timelines:

  • Immediacy: if a post has been made by someone I follow, I can see it in my timeline right away (or close enough that I don’t notice the difference).
  • Chronology: posts always appear in order by time posted.
  • Monotonicity: timelines grow only from the top; older posts are never retroactively inserted.

The problem appears to be that no federated architecture can simultaneously satisfy all three of these conditions. You can have any two: for example, if you let go of immediacy, your node can just wait until it’s received the latest content from every other node before displaying anything. But that’s not very scalable, and it makes real-time conversation impossible, so let’s keep immediacy. Now we have to decide what to do when content from a far-away node arrives late: if we’ve already displayed newer posts, we have to violate either chronology (by posting the older content above the newer) or monotonicity (by inserting it chronologically into the timeline).

Violating chronology is bad because it turns conversations into nonsense, but violating monotonicity means you can’t assume you’ve seen everything once you’ve read to the top of your timeline. Your client will have to maintain read/unread status for every item, and you’ll have to keep winding back in time to pick up things you missed. Which might be fine, but now we’re talking about something less like Twitter and more like email or RSS.

OK, so all of those options suck for conversations. But chronology is really only important within a conversation. So what if instead of replicating Twitter exactly, we shoot for a hierarchical, threaded model? The timeline would be a list of threads, and chronological order is preserved within each thread, but the threads themselves show up in arbitrary order. Oh, and you see a thread if you’re following the person who started it, I guess? Never mind, at least we’re getting somewhere! We’ve invented Usenet.

Oh.

The moral of the story is that the qualities that make Twitter interesting — its mix of conversation, discovery, and one-to-many communication — are direct consequences of its centralized architecture. Without the centralization you can still have something interesting, but it’s a different thing.

I’d love to be proven wrong.