Today marks the third day of not writing anything about the war. The shakes have subsided; I think I’ll be fine.

Maybe one little remark; I can quit anytime -


Well -

No. This is not an attempt to win back the folks I alienated after 9/11; they’re long gone. (I don’t do this for hits, anyway. I still have no idea how many visitors I get.) I just lost my need to write about IT every day when the statue fell. I know nothing’s over, much work remains, etc. But there was something about seeing that flag pasted on the statue’s head that bookended 9/11. All of a sudden my basement box of emergency food looked like rations in a Civilian Defense fallout shelter. My need for news evaporated. I turned off the TV, put down the magazines, weaned myself off the tour de blog, picked up a book.

You get used to anything; the abnormal becomes the new normal, and you forget how you used to think before things changed. For some peculiar reason last weekend felt like the old definition of normal, when your kid could build two towers out of alphabet blocks and it didn't make you think of planes and falling people. I’ve no basis for trusting the emotion, but it seemed churlish to fight it. Bottom line: spring’s here, and we’re two for two. If I’d known that on 9/12/01, I’d have been relieved beyond description.

Had a small well-duh moment today while reading Entertainment Weekly; the cover story concerned the next Matrix movie, and had a nice picture of Agent Smith, Monica Belucci and Jada Pinkett. (Note to Medical Science: please give Oriana Fallaci another ten hale years, but should she pass anytime soon, put her brain in Ms. Belucci’s skull. Entire religions would arise to worship such a being.) The interview with Agent Smith noted that he had roles in the two big geek movies of our times - the Matrix and LOTR. Of course! He was the head elf, the father of Liv Tyler. Never made the connection, but I never really liked the guy. Now I know why. Subconsciously I heard him say, through clenched teeth: Well Mr. Aragon, you will not marry . . . my daughter. The time . . . of men . . . is over.

David Gelertner had a piece in the WSJ today. I read anything he writes with interest, since he wrote one of my favorite books: 1939 / The Year of the Fair. It’s a quasi-factual account of the World’s Fair, told through interviews with a fictional subject. It inhabits the era in a way neither straight fiction or nonfiction could really do; its tone shifts from anecdotal to personal to historical and never loses the melody. A remarkable work. (Click the "buy the book" link below, enter 1939 in the search box. Buy it!) He’s also an artist, computer theoretician and a Unabomber target: an impressive vitae for a remarkable man. On the matter of computer interfaces, though, I can’t agree. The article talks about the need to abandon the desktop metaphor for something else - and he suggests a temporal metaphor, where data is arranged according to - well, time, I gather. When you last used it, when you marked it to be used for future reference. This quote describes how it would look:

On-screen, the information system looks like column of index cards seen from above and in front. The future on your right, marching towards you; the past on your left, moving away. the future holds appointments and reminders, plus copies of any mail or documents you’ve kicked forward to deal with later. To cope with the ever-increasing info onslaught, you must be able to position documents in your own future as deliberately as you move chessmen forward.

Well, no. This is my nightmare: data moving towards me, data moving away - I’d feel like a kid trying to time his jump off the escalator lest the teeth in the floor swallow his Keds. The temporal metaphor seems utterly wrong for a computer filing system. For example - I’m working on a site about 1970s Ice Capades brochures. (Don’t ask.) One brochure was scanned two weeks ago. The other was scanned a year ago. The pictures rest in separate folders in one general Works in Progress folder. By the temporal scheme, one folder is fresh as this morning’s pancakes, and the other is cold bacon from the Clinton years. But they have equal weight - which is why they’re both tucked in the same project folder. Last week I got some tax stuff out of a physical drawer that hadn’t been touched in months. The fact that I hadn’t needed it didn’t mean I didn’t want it close and instantly accessible.

The desktop, it seems, is a perfect metaphor. After all, I haven’t really abandoned my real desk for a newfangled invention where my 1989 wedding photos are buried in favor of a picture of a new car I considered buying last week. Ah, but the computer is a different thing; the very incorporeality of the data demands that we seek new metaphors, right?

This seems to be a solution looking for a problem. I have no problem finding data I used yesterday. I have no problem finding data from 1997 with a few taps of an arrow key. He writes of the need for a master program that can handle all this data without resorting to individual applications - well, I have such a device. It’s called the Mac OS. Every file path deadends in a pane that shows a preview of the picture or a snippet of the text. If it’s a sound file, I can play the tune right there in the Finder. If it’s a movie, I can watch the movie without opening the app that created it or the all-purpose app that runs movies. This preview function lets me study files without doing anything to them. Gelertner seems to think the future rests with a master app that slice & dice any sort of media, and in a sense I agree - it would be nice. But look at my kitchen. The freezer stores, the microwave defrosts, the processor chops, the stove cooks. Is anyone talking about the need to combine these appliances into one device that accepts protein and spits out lasagna? Even when food replicators are invented, the culinary artists will still require knives and flame.

The spiffiest non-desktop interface I’ve ever seen was the big glass wall in “Minority Report” - you could navigate with gestures, thanks to special smart gloves. That’s one route, but it would make for a comical office; imagine everyone in their veal pens gesturing at their screens like Stokowski. I have a shuttle I use for video editing that also works in other programs, and I find my left hand now does the up-down-all-around navigating while the right handles pointing and clicking. It’s just like the wireless gesturing interface, except I have frame-by-frame control, and I can type at any time. And we will always need to type.

The best interface improvement would be voice command - and we’re we supposed to have this already? I had it years ago on my Mac; I could ask it to open files, close files, tell me the time, and it would - if I leaned forward and spoke clearly into a mike on top of the monitor. It was cool, but limited, and those limitations made it useless on a daily basis. But the idea is still potent. Imagine if you could assign attributes to any file by speech. I just scanned 40 matchbooks; I wish I could have selected ten, said “matchbook comma 40s comma restaurant stop.” And then, months later, when I wanted the requisite file, I’d just say “computer, get all 40s restaurant matchbooks.” Voila.

And there would be a hack available that made your computer issue the clacking sound of a Star Trek duotronic computer, complete with robotic voice that said WORKING.

It’s not when your data was created that counts, it’s what the data is. If you opened your desk drawer and saw a floating maelstrom of recent bank statements and insurance bills, it wouldn’t help you find a receipt from 2001. You’d want to say the name of the paper you requested and have it pop out of whatever folder you’d put it in.

So either we breed supersmart hamsters that can throw up the relevant piece of paper on demand, or we work on voice recognition, or we learn to parse marching index cards.

I’ll chose the middle option. I love my computer. I already talk to it. How sweet will be the day when it listens, and replies.


Note: in an effort to improve my email karma: here’s another address. I have five email accounts - work, work Backfence, public, personal, national column. And I am behind on all of them. But the public box has gotten out of hand, and I’m ready to start fresh with a new one. I hereby promise to read lileks at mac dot com daily. Remove the at and the dot, of course, and thanks for your infinite patience.
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