DISCLAIMER: This site is a mirror of original one that was once available at http://iki.fi/~tuomov/b/
1. I've recently done some redesigning and culling on this site to give it a focus: usable environments. This non-blog is now, for the most part, a collection of postings of disparate quality – some of the newer ones perhaps a bit better than the older ones – about the usability of computer software, as well as other environments encountered in daily life. The urban environment is one such example, while other somewhat tangential postings consider such things as the unnecessary complexity of Daylight Saving Time, as well as the FOSS licensing environment.
My definition of usability is a relative one: an environment (or an interface) is the more usable, the less unwanted effort it demands from me, the user. I am the only one who can judge usability of a system for myself; statistical conception of usability is mere tyranny. Few men are the mean (but every man can be mean).
2. So let us consider how these ideas are realised in the environments that we encounter daily. With regard to computer user interfaces, while there are some nice small and specific new inventions/approaches, there isn't much good to be said about recent general trends, as many of the postings in this non-blog discuss. The popular WIMP and WYSIWYG approaches are, for the most part, rather unusable from my point of view. But so is the trendy monoculture-supporting approach of having to write complex programs for what should be the simplest of configuration tasks.
For most “serious” work, I rather use higher-level concepts than fiddle with low-level knobs. This not only applies to user interfaces, but computing architectures in general. Mathematics and consequently computer technology would have got nowhere without high level concepts – without unifying abstraction. But software engineering practise seems at many points to be stuck on huge bureaucratic structures of the specific: on ever growing piles of ad hoc, that it can be difficult to change later on. The Web forum with an unusable site-specific interface, as opposed to user-specific interfaces to a general architecture as in the old NNTP, is an excellent example of ad hoc computing trends.
A high penetration of such a specific ad hoc architecture represents itself as a lack of choice or a monoculture. A more abstract approach could be more supportive of end user choice, without necessarily restricting what the developer can achieve, as long as this is not to impose interface policy on the user. In many cases the abstract approach could be liberating for the developer as well.
3. Things are much the same in case of urban environments. There's of course talk about the relation to climate change of sparse modernist cities designed to (unsuccessfully) funnel cars fast from one place to the other, with little regard for nature and other forms of movement. But there's little real action, just a few small bits sprinkled over the globe. Where I live, they just keep on building ever bigger out-of-town shopping centres and motorway-side office ghettoes, poorly accessible by means other than the automotive cage.
It's also a shame that most of the talk on the ill-effects of cars centres around CO2 and not the inherent anti-usability and anti-livability effects: noise, huge space demands (and consequent distances and too low densities for decent public transport), as well as the blocking of lighter forms of movement; turning them into “driving without a car” on linear predictable paths. The environmental movement has been largely hijacked to sell cars with lesser tailpipe emissions. Car-free cities remain, for the most part, a faraway dream.
As for the car itself, it is likewise unusable. With good public transport I just need to know where I want to go, hop on, and bury my head in a book or so if the journey is long enough. Along the journey, I may have to make a few route adjustments. As a cager, I'd have to do much more micromanagement, concentrate on the traffic, and be unable to spend the time doing other things.
Of course, one has to concentrate a bit on walking and bicycling as well. Both of these forms of transportation however fulfil the function of exercise, and can be pleasant activities as such in a usable environment (not hindered by cars or otherwise excessive traffic controls and regulations). The distances covered are also typically not that long, and while one may not be able to read while walking, it is an excellent activity for thinking random thoughts – in a usable environment, where the noise from cars doesn't drown your thoughts, and where you don't have to be constantly dodging these bullets.
4. Finally, readers may have noticed that the frequency of new postings in this repository isn't what it once used to be. That's because I've been concentrating my time on other things, which it will likely remain the case. But let quantity perish in face of quality… which few of the articles found here actually possess, but anyway…