Archive for June, 2007

why are we all wearing suits?

June 30th, 2007

The suit is, with astonishing regularity and unbridled universality, the mode of attire for "significant" social occasions. Sorry, for males. Dare I ask what merit has granted this style of clothing the unquestioned acceptance and unique adoption? Is it the aesthetic quality? Is it the economic feasibility of acquisition compared to richer local traditions which value craft and ornamentation? Is it some kind of great compromise where disputes over our regional values have produced a lowest common denominator?

brad_pitt_suit.jpgSignificantly, Hollywood has given the suit an image outside weddings and funerals that represents top class fashion and coolness. More so than anything, it suggests to us that given the choice, Hollywood characters would choose to wear a suit. Why would suave characters whose plot does not dictate unto them a dress code choose to wear a suit, a style of clothing associated with private family occasions and tedious business meetings? Exactly, it doesn't fit. And I think Hollywood, not necessarily by itself, but certainly as a medium, has helped create that image of the suit as desirable clothing. It's mythological. Most people don't look anything like Brad Pitt in a suit.

Why do we wear a suit? It's not the least bit comfortable. It's not cheap. It doesn't make you feel liberated in any way (despite James Bond running around roof tops in it). It's a huge hassle to clean, because you can't just wash it. And it's the world's least customizable bit of clothing: every suit looks exactly the same. It leaves zero room for individuality. And we don't even look good in it. Unless you have a tailored suit, most people look rather awkward in a suit, and far removed from their normal style of clothing and their natural unrestrained motion. Like these guys...


What about women? They are doing much better. They don't have this narrow mindset of one outfit that must be worn. Ask yourself this, in any formal social context, who is more interesting to look at, with respect to dress, the men? Who all look the same? Or the women?

what it is to be a geek

June 28th, 2007

The word geek gets thrown around a lot, with a slightly negative connotation. Actually the degree to which it is a negative term is determined by the social circle in which it is uttered. To some it is an insult, to others it's just a fairly neutral classification.

In any event, the term geek (as with many such labels) is a very bland and generic thing to call someone. What it means is a person who enjoys doing something on their own. Not a terribly discriminating term, is it? So if you're a person who can't stand to be alone for even a minute and possesses no creativity as to what you can do when people aren't available to spend time with you, then you are not a geek.

The geek classification often is linked to excellence in some field. If you spend a lot of time on something, which makes you a geek, you inevitably get quite good at it, which again cements your legacy of a geek. Of course, there's no other way to achieve the same thing, so if you want to excel at something, you have to spend a lot of time on it, and that amounts to an achievement.

For example, if you spend a lot of time learning a foreign language, then you're a language geek. If you spend a lot of time ice skating, that makes you an ice skating geek. So whatever you do to a certain level, you're a geek for doing it. And if you don't do anything to the extent that it establishes a pattern for which people call you a geek, then you won't be a geek. For instance, if you do *a lot* of different things for short periods of time, but never do anything for a long time, then won't be a geek. But, of course, you never do anything long enough to be good at it, so you don't accomplish anything.

If you think about when it is that people get assigned this label, it is precisely when they are engaged in doing something that doesn't involve the person announcing this fact. As such, it is perfectly possible to be a geek for doing something *with* people, just as long as it doesn't involve *everyone*. For instance, role playing geeks play in groups, and crackers (no, not white people called "crackers" by black people, I'm talking about the kind of crackers who break into computer systems) also associate with other crackers, because otherwise they would have no recognition for what they do. This is only a manifestation of the fact that people who are interested in something naturally seek out other people who are also into the same thing, to exchange information. It makes sense. So my first definition is actually too narrow, being a geek is *me* doing something that doesn't involve *you*.

So was the term geek originally a protest against exclusion? Was it a term that means why-can't-I-be-in-your-club? It might have been. Of course, not necessarily the word geek itself, words often originate in unexpected and random ways, but there are many words in many languages that mean roughly the same thing as geek.

hierarchy of scrolling

June 25th, 2007

7. The arrows
scrolling_arrow.pngChances are that the first experience you had with a user interface, might have been your first experience with a computer altogether, someone told you that to scroll down the page, you use these arrows strategically positioned that scroll the page. This is officially the worst way to scroll, it's incredibly slow, and you have point your mouse at the tiny buttons each time.

Corollary: Some ui technologies emulate this button (certain flash sites) and instead of making you click it, they scroll when you hover over it. This is an improvement, albeit a small one. Most importantly, you still can't control the rate of scrolling.

6. Dragging the bar
scrolling_tab.pngNow you're one step up from clicking on the arrow. You realize it's too slow, so you grab the bar and drag it. This is a very imprecise scrolling method, but a much faster and empowering one. The problem is that you still have to use the mouse button for this, and since scrolling is something you do all day everyday, this is way too much mouse dependency.

5. Clicking the meter
scrolling_click.pngClicking is an improvement on dragging, so your hand will prefer this. You click the gray area where the bar is absent and it scrolls page-by-page. You also don't have to position the pointer as exactly, just as long as it's somewhere on the long gray bar, much better. Here uis differ, some stop scrolling once the bar reaches the position where you hold your pointer, which is logical, others don't.

4. The arrow keys
scrolling_arrowkeys.jpgWhat if you didn't have to use the mouse at all? Face it, the keyboard is a much faster control device, and before you had windowing applications with hundreds of pixels to traverse, you didn't need a mouse at all. And it's a much more pleasant control too: I don't know about you, but I find pressing a key much smoother than clicking the mouse button. Maybe you have a fantastic mouse. So yes, you can use the arrow keys. But the rate of scrolling is the same as that of the arrow buttons, so you trade in control for ergonomics.

3. The mouse wheel

Back to the mouse, hah, bet you didn't see that coming! Oddly enough, you might say, the mouse wheel didn't enter the mainstream until a few years ago. It's true, if you go to a museum that has computers from 10 years back, the mice don't have wheels. The mouse wheel is a big improvement, because it doesn't divert your mouse movement to that damn scroll bar on the right side. When you click around, you can just keep your pointer exactly where it is and scroll with the wheel, it's fantastic. But again, the scroll rate is limiting (but it's more than the arrow buttons). If you need to scroll a big amount, the mouse wheel is out.

2. Good ole spacebar

Who'd a thought, after all these years, eh? The spacebar is positioned optimally. If you're right handed, your right hand will cycle between the keyboard and the mouse, but the left hand will be on the keyboard. And vice versa. The spacebar is right underneath your thumb, it's the quickest way to scroll. And you scroll page-by-page, which is efficient too. But it only scrolls down.

1. PageUp/PageDown
scrolling_pageupdown.gifThis is just like the linux programs more and less. The former only scrolls down, the latter scrolls up *and* down. The location of these keys isn't as good as spacebar, but they are still nearby for the right hand (even better if you're left handed and operate the mouse with it). The keys are at the end of a row, so it's easy to find them without looking. They (obviously) scroll page-by-page and so you have full flexibility. If you're only reading something and you keep scrolling down, you can do with spacebar, otherwise you go to PageUp/PageDown. And if you desperately need granularity, you can grudgingly go to the mouse wheel.

Corollary: One quirk with the keyboad methods is that the content pane must be in focus, which doesn't happen by default on page load in Firefox, so I first have to click inside the content to get this activated. A pet peeve.

resisting standards

June 24th, 2007

There is a time to embrace individuality, and there's a time not to. If a hardware manufacturer decided he would only produce screwdrivers for screws 3*pi/7 cm in diameter, because that's the "ideal size", noone would buy them, because there aren't any screws that size. If an airline pilot decided to land in a non standard location, because the airport is "too far away from the city", he wouldn't be applauded.

It important not to be a robot, but there are times when doing things in a standard way is important. Especially when *not* doing things to standard is based on whim (sometimes known as "historical reasons"). We all think the Yanks extremely silly for not using the metric system, as one of three countries worldwide (of course, the scientific community *obviously* does use the metric system, and able to communicate smoothly with the rest of the world, it's just the rest of the population that is apparently incapable of understanding a far simpler system). Similarly, the Brits still drive on the left. This insistence is actually even more stupid, because unlike a system of measurement, it is only one single rule to be changed. In this they are admittedly not alone, but only because of those, yes, historical reasons going back to the old Empire that is no more.

But in both cases it is fighting a long lost battle. It is a lot like France trying to pretend that English is just any other foreign language by suppressing English content and culture. Well, guess what, English is the cultural language of the world. France and Britain both tried their luck at the whole colonize-the-world and Britain won. Just accept it already. France with their highly rated school system would be much wiser to shoot for bilingualism rather than censor English language movies from their cinemas. If French people were just as fluent in English as the Brits (or the Dutch, to give a practical example), don't you think that would be a huge advantage?

I know it's hard to believe, but it is in fact fully possible to preserve the valuable parts of your culture while changing the system of measurement (Britain), or which side of the road to drive on (Canada, Spain), or adopting a second language (Netherlands, tons of other countries).

That reminds me. Germany, German is *not* the "language of science/business/whatever crap". Get on the ball already and stop pretending you're unable to master English, everyone else in the world can do it just fine.

The God Delusion

June 11th, 2007

If you're at all interested in theology and religious questions, this will probably be an interesting book to you. Richard Dawkins is a crusader for atheism and what he essentially sets out to do in The God Delusion is to encourage people to embrace atheism, chiefly those who either aren't quite sure about it, and those who feel atheist but fear admit to it.

I should say from the beginning that if you are religious, you should read this book with an open mind. Dawkins is aggressive, and at times arrogant. He basically calls out agnostics as a pathetic fence sitting bunch that should just get with the program already. And he doesn't stop there, with phrases like "an imaginary God" he is sure to ruffle feathers. I can't say I enjoy this type of expression, it is divisive and negative. But he certainly is a lot more than a troll. And that's why you shouldn't let this aspect of the book deter you. His approach as a scientist is still for the most part completely scientific, quoting results of studies on the various topics that are being discussed.

However, his belligerence towards religion does raise one (of many) very important point. As it is, religion lives a very sheltered life in our society. You can criticize and condemn just about anything you please, but you may not say a bad word about religion. This is such an ingrained part of our culture, and no one will think to question this. I think Dawkins is absolutely right in saying that religion should face the same scrutiny as everything else, and precisely because it is so important to people. Why *should* religion be the sacred cow?

What I see as the main value of the book, however, is that many claims that are made about religion in general and specific religions as well. For example, religions like to claim morality. Religious leaders like to say that it is through religion that people are moral and that without religious rules we wouldn't know how to establish our ethics. Dawkins disputes this violently, by saying that scripture is extremely ambiguous on morals and that studies have shown that people with no exposure to religion whatsoever have the same values as religious people do. This to me is perhaps the single most interesting point made.

Another fascinating point is a theory about where religion actually comes from. In terms of evolution, Dawkins suggests that religion is a cultural artifact, a byproduct of our evolutionary process, that has proven sufficiently attractive for us to cultivate it.

In what goes more towards advocacy, in his quest to promote atheism, he is eager to show how religion is destructive in all sorts of way. This too may be instructive, as it brings out how there are a lot of things about religion that we do not notice very much. In particular, Dawkins makes a point of saying that moderate religion is indeed dangerous, because it fosters an environment in which extremist religion is possible.

One final issue that makes Dawkins's blood boil is the indoctrination of children into religion by their parents. This is essentially how religion is perpetuated, and it's a pretty thought provoking issue when you think about it.