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Lispian
Rant: “Social” Software

Too many interruptions, that’s what seems to be my life of the past 10 years. Since 1995 I’ve definitely noticed many more interruptions to my daily routine. Email is something I’ve been using for more than 20 years and was easily manageable — until everyone else discovered it. Then came cell phones and the web, both providing countless avenues of interruption. And there are other avenues of information acquisition and interruption including classical networking (i.e., the human kind) to instant messaging. And let’s not leave out the new technologies ensuring we’re “always connected”. Sigh.

But with all these new interruption technologies I haven’t seen much in the way of providing us with the means of managing this flow of information and interruptions, although Microsoft has shown some promising prototypes lately. Sadly, most social software being built seems hell-bent on interrupting us more, not less. What I want is software that will do a lot of coordinating in the background. I’d like emails to be coordinated between my various accounts in a logical and secure fashion. I’d like to be able to easily define what information I’d like to see on a daily basis and have it provided intelligently. RSS is cool, but too time consuming to constantly fiddle with. I think it was Octopus Technologies that offered the ability to easily craft a “home page” that linked to pertinent information. Unfortunately it didn’t last, but it was a cool idea. You could define a page with useful sites you visit and it would provide that information for you when you wanted it. It would, obviously, populate the page in the background. That meant navigating to only one page. I think I remember some irritation that this type of page scraping circumvented the user’s actual visitation of a site, but to me it’s the information that’s important and not the site visit. So long as it was properly attributed I can’t see what was wrong with it. It’s like reading an Associated Press article in the Citizen vs. the Globe and Mail. Either way it’s tagged as an AP piece, the paper is just the delivery mechanism.

Someone, I can’t recall who at the moment, stated that the problem isn’t a lack of filters but an actual abundance of them, allowing more information you might like finding it’s way to you. In the past, you had to hunt down various articles, stories, etc. Now, it’s easy to be bombarded by them since it’s so easy to just send someone a link. And since even software can make a pretty good guess as to what you like — akin to what Amazon does with its recommendations — the influx of data never ceases. I kind of miss the friction that was the paper world, it meant that someone had to exert specific energy to send you something they thought you gave a shit about. Now, a click and bam in your inbox it sits.

I’m not claiming social software is useless. Instead I’d like to see software that focuses on “socializing the information”. A solution that provides the means of diminishing my constant bouncing from emails to web to emails to phone and elsewhere. Instead of everything being an island the information could be socialized based on my interests, make them automatically fall into bins/boxes that I can check when I feel like it.

For example, why do I need a mail agent like Outlook or Mail.app to read my email? Why isn’t the mail sorted into bins efficiently and displayed as, say, bubbles. Each bubble could be a different size indicating how much stuff is in it and urgency can be provided by pulsations. You could even use colour to ensure those you care most about are more visible, those you sometimes will get around to reading are less obvious. Furthermore, I should be able to just hover my mouse over a bubble and it’ll scroll pertinent portions of various emails in the bubble. Finally, why can summarization software be used on each bubble to provide a summary and link related or seemingly related topics, so that they at least fit together somehow, automatically generating metadata — or self-socializing if you will. If a topic suddenly appears more active, I can go read it. Or, if a summary looks sufficiently tantalizing, again, I can just click on it and read it and follow the links that the system has already defined ensuring I can see related articles/emails/tweets/whatever easily and quickly.

I don’t see why I have to go into Outlook or Mail.app and fiddle around. I don’t see why I have to dick around with sorting the information or using the lame “threads” features most mail applications have. Nor do I want to have to fiddle with the calendar tool if I want to set up an appointment. And why the hell can’t the calendar event be tethered to the related articles, documents and emails? I mean, really? It seems like an obvious thing for the computer to do! The way these things are done today is just stupid.

And speaking of calendar tools, for God’s sake, add travel time on either side of an event/appointment. What moron thought that a 2pm meeting requires zero travel time? It should block out a default 1/2 hour before and after the meeting for travel — unless the meeting is in the same locale, which it should be able to figure out. Furthermore, why are calendars just so stupid? I mean, they’re no better than paper calendars! I use it to track my meetings and when I go visit clients. However, it won’t let me store mileage and track the mileage. Nope. I have to do that by hand. This is all running on a computer and no-one thought of adding something that simple to the calendar program? Hell, it could do it automatically. I say I’m going to Toronto and it just knows the mileage is something like 458kms. Whew, that was hard. And then anytime it sees TO in the future it just assumes 458kms each way — cause I know some boneheaded coder would decide to only do it one way! The same bonehead that figured a 2pm meeting starts at 2pm and you magically teleport into the meeting. Too much Star Trek methinks.

Which brings me back to emails. Why can’t the stupid applications sort the incoming mail logically. It has a lot of existing information, the sender, other recipients, subject, the actual contents, time, date, corporations/institutions the sender and recipients are members of, etc. Instead of having email do more cool swooshy graphics when opening or creating an email create the damn meta-data! Come up with an intelligent “keyword” algorithm that allows you to automatically create an index based on prior emails so that you can find things easily by browsing and not having to search all the time. Allow searches to be fuzzy. If I say “car” show me emails that use the word “automobile” or Pontiac or Toyota or Chevrolet! Is that too much to ask? It seems so.

And keep track of where I’ve been with the browser. Not just in a logical backwards and forwards fashion but as a full graph. And tag it with meta data so that I can find it again based on words, times, etc. Show it to me graphically with thumbnails so I can quickly determine where I’ve been, especially as you recall something a week later and then can’t for the life of you find the site. And if a site is visited every day, like Dilbert.com then, for God’s sake, don’t list it in the history! You’d have to be daft not to know you’ve been there! Sheesh. And, yes, I know Apple keeps track of something like that with the latest Safari, but let’s be honest, it’s lame and useless. You want a graph of where you’ve been, not the places you most often frequent. That’s like providing me a reminder of where my grocery store is or where my house is. I think I know where those things are. But where I bought that cool expanding cooling rack for baked goods, that’s useful to remember!

Yeah, I do figure most software is written by inebriated chimps. It’s aggravating that software is designed and written as some type of adventure in creating the most eye orgasms. Instead of focusing on all the little things that piss everyone off they focus on making it all prettier, as if all that lipstick will make the pig better looking. As the saying goes, it’s still a pig, but now it’s irritated. Ironically, all that extra software makes these barely useful applications unstable. Joy.

Obviously I find all these little irritants piling up and pissing me off. Stupid computers are no better now, usability wise, than they were in 1995. And that, my friends, is mega sad.

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June 2012
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