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Book review: Darwinia
Reviewed: Friday, August 11, 2006

Summer reading: Spin
Reviewed: Saturday, August 5, 2006

Reviewed: Tuesday, July 18, 2006

the Omnivoire's Delimma
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the Golem's Eye
Reviewed: Wednesday, May 31, 2006


User Tailorable systems: Pressing the Issues with Buttons
Allan MacLean and Kathleen Carter and Lennart Lovstrand and Thomas Moran, 1990
Sunday, October 2, 2005

Proving that a bad pun doesn't completely ruin the chance for publication is only part of what makes this a fun read. The authors tackle the steep slopes between what they can workers, tailors and programmers by introducing some simple customization technologies and working on the culture that will use them. That culture matters is so obvious that almost all technologists ignore it completely -- which explains why so many technologies fail. Most people using computers don't understand (and don't want to understand them), don't know what is easy and what is hard and feel lucky to get through their days without losing their work (I have no evidence for this but still think it's true!). Many people that know something about customization do it badly or are stymied by problems that they feel should be simple. Finally, many people that know how to use computers have forgotten what it was like when they didn't and don't know how to explain their knowledge usefully.

The buttons discussed in this paper were UI widgets that could be tailored in both the usual graphical ways (shape, color, position, etc) and in their behavior (by scripts or programs). (In part) Because this was done on a Lisp Machine, working buttons could be emailed and embedded in documents. This let users organize their buttons, tailor their buttons and share their work. Furthermore, a new position (the handyman) was created to mediate between the workers and the tinkers and programmers. Because the buttons were cultural artifacts that could be cloned (they used a prototype system instead of an inheritance system), experimentation was simple and the buttons were quickly accepted. Because the learning slope was more relaxed and because the buttons were useful, people used them and learned about them and more further up the slopes. Here is a list that shows the steps along the learning curve:

  • move around the screen
  • receive in e-mail
  • situated creation
  • copying
  • changing appearance
  • editing parameters
  • modifying Lisp
  • Using building blocks
  • Lisp programming

It's easy to see why so many people could be brought away from the flat plains and towards the hills!

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