Better Time-passage Indicators

An old calendar stamp.
“Calendar” by John Nuttall

One of the things you see quite a bit on the web is indicators of when something was posted, edited, recorded, etc. And they have two predominant forms:

  • Posted two hours ago
  • Posted April 1, 2014

The web could use better time indicators, though. For example, if you are looking for a bug in some software, and there was a major release in March, you probably want to only see things since then. So having time indicators that show relations like that could help. If the site you’re using is showing a time-since indicator, you have to stop: “okay, it is November and this says six months ago, so that’s around the right time.” If it said March, it would be more convenient.

But if it’s a closer-to-now time, what then? A comment posted earlier in the day might say, “posted two hours ago.” Again, you have to do a mental conversion: it’s noon, so 10am. It’s 6pm, so 4pm.

And then you have earlier-in-the-week times. Instead of “three days ago,” why not, “Wednesday?” You remember Wednesday easier than thinking, “it’s Saturday, minus three…”

What will time indicators of the future do instead?

For one, they should age. After a month has passed, it’s better to say month and year versus n months ago. The switch-to-weekday if it’s in the past week thing is probably good, too.

For another, they should eventually (as we begin tracking ourselves) learn to incorporate personal markers. Saying, “this comment was posted just after you ate lunch” might give you better mental context than saying, “four hours ago.”

Intermediate times might be harder to fix. Three weeks ago on a Tuesday? If you keep up with elections, they could say, “on the day of the recent election.” But what if there wasn’t anything significant to tie it to?

The other part of this is the potential benefit of iconic time. We have icons for all sorts of things, but not for time. What is the symbol for an hour, for example? For a day? A week, month, year?

Having icons for these units could simplify visual recognition. A day might be some sort of sunrise-sunset icon. A week might be a seven-pipped design with the pips being suns. And so on. Searching through some of the Unicode symbols, there are:

  • Non-Western symbols (nth day)
  • Alchemical symbols (hour, day, month)
  • Weather symbols (sunrise, sunset, moon phases)
  • Food symbols
  • Holiday symbols
  • Sports/activity symbols

And so on. There are analog clock faces, but they probably wouldn’t simplify much. If a sporting event has a fixed time that everyone knows, it might work. Food symbols could signify specific meals (e.g., pizza for breakfast). Weather symbols for sunrise and sunset could be used, as could holidays under some circumstances. Animal symbols might work, too. A rooster for dawn and a cow for dusk/night. The British could use a teapot for whenever it is they sing “I’m a Little Teapot” every day. A beer mug could be used for happy hour.

But it might really be better to invent new, abstract symbols for times (or at least modernize something like the alchemical symbols for hour, day, and month).

Also, it’s important to note that improving time displays only makes sense for casual viewing. If you’re working in the context of times and dates, say in a spreadsheet, it’s not needed as much. But when your main focus is not time-related, having easily digestible times can save you a few cycles here and there.


Content Programming Harms Content

Stagnant, mismanaged markets harm consumers. The broken video media market stands out as a broken marketplace. Relatively few competitors. Highly-coupled market components such as distribution with content makers make for less customer choice.

Tight-coupled markets mean decisions arise from the top or center rather than from the bottom or edges of the system. Akin to central planning, the oft-criticized anti-feature of most communist systems, decision concentration leads invariably to inefficiencies via poor decisions.

Content programming harms content. It arises from the market structure, and programming lead to poor decisions. The most criticized result of content programming comes in cable news. People lament the low quality of cable news content, while pointing to the need to fill “24 hours” as the cause (of course, it is not truly 24 hours, as the cable news networks show repeats overnight, excepting extraordinary breaking news).

But time-to-fill harm pales in comparison to the very notion of the timeslot. Timeslots arose from the radio and content programming there. A vestige of broadcasting, they filled the need to provide content over the limited resource of the airwaves. When broadcasting began on television, the limitation of the delivery medium continued to exist, as it did over cable television.

Advances mooted these limitations. Attention bottlenecks content delivery much more than distribution today. And yet content remains coupled to the timeslot, due to the broken market. So-called gluttonous viewing of content via video streaming services such as Netflix points to future erosion of the timeslot, but consumer expectations may keep it and its harm alive.

Many programs run longer than they need. This leads to filler content that weakens pacing and increases plot predictability. The occasional show runs shorter than it needs, leading to abbreviated or lost quality content (subplots and the like).

The same harms show out in the series or season model used for most television content. Shows may be cut short before their time due to the programmers’ incorrect expectations of popularity. Or they may run several years beyond their time due to the wish to reap as much profit from a once-popular, once-innovative show.

These things apply to the film industry as well. Sequels to movies that should never have been made, or shorts being turned into features when the short time serves their story better.

So-called webisodes also point to erosion of the programming norms. Free web-exclusive shows often arrive on irregular schedules and yet retain strong viewer bases. Discovering the true breadth of the actual video market will take years of erosion of the status quo. It may be that a certain amount of regular-release, traditional-length will remain, or in fifty years the only shows that come out at 22-to-30 minutes will be throwbacks and re-runs.

Just like storage media dominated by floppies helped limit the types of expressions of early computers, we’re certainly being limited by the current limits imposed by content programming.


Improved Discovery of Functions via Socialization

You have probably seen a comment on a website do something like:

Hello, world!
I am a block quote.

One common, simple styling of blockquotes is to throw a left border on them, maybe some indent, and call it a day. Even some rich-text-esque e-mail programs do that for quoting in replies.

Now you may have seen a comment on a website do something like:

| Hey, answer my question: what?

The answer is mu.

That use of the vertical bar (|; a.k.a. pipe; see Wikipedia: Vertical bar) is an example of cargo culting. People reading comments see the left-bordered replies and say, “okay, good, a distinctive way to quote exists,” but they fail to guess that the quote character is > (a.k.a. greater-than).

Still, if you see users cargo culting something, it tells you a couple of things:

  1. They think the behavior they’re trying to mimic is valuable for some reason.
  2. It isn’t easy enough for them to discover how to do it.

I nearly wrote “the right way” for [2] there, but if it were the right way, then it would be discoverable.

There are options:

  1. Adopt the cargo-cult attempt as the new way (or an alternative way).
  2. Implement a rich editor (e.g., with a shiny “quote” button).
  3. Make it easier to “view-source” of existing comments so users can see the secret sauce.

Something like [3] is the way to go in this instance. Let people learn from each other without explicitly needing to ask, “how?” If a user sees another with a fancy comment, they might dig into the source (when available) to see how it works.

This is the way we traditionally learn: observation. That’s how we learned to speak, and to a lesser extent how we learned to write and read.

In general, if you see mistakes being made with a piece of software that’s an opportunity for improved design. One source of inspiration should be video games. If you watch the commentaries from Valve Software’s games, they have a common pattern for learning game mechanics.

  1. Show the user the mechanic in action.
  2. Let them try it in a simple example.
  3. Trap them until they show they’ve got it down pat.

The games Portal and Portal 2 are chock-full of this pattern. You start out not even holding the portal gun, only learning you can move through portals. Then you only control one portal. Finally you learn to control both.

In more advanced puzzles you learn about conserving momentum to fling yourself, or in the second game how to paint with and make use of the gels.

Only after you have completed what amounts to a whole set of portal classes do you get to the part of the games where you are apparently fighting to win, but the whole experience (classes and all) are kept enjoyable.

We don’t currently approach general software in that manner. The first time you fire up Firefox, you aren’t presented with a puzzle of how to open a webpage, for example.

But maybe you should be.


Restricting Power’s Reach

Why did the Governor of New Jersey’s office have the power to retaliate for political purposes by creating a massive traffic jam? Is that the sort of government we can accept: one in which such power exists, only to be checked after-the-fact through whistleblowing and journalism?

These are the same basic question: can you give power, or to use the security term, can you give access to a capability while still restraining the capability? Or will we forever rely on having good people who cannot be corrupted, cannot have a momentary lapse of reason, in power? And given that we cannot rely on that, mainly because psychology shows that’s a fantasy, are we always one cross man away from ruin?

The founders of the U.S.A. did not believe so. They took pains in constructing the Constitution of the United States to have so-called separation of powers. Meant to give the capability to act to the three branches, but with specific limitations meant to forestall any runaway branch from sinking the ship.

Now we are faced with not the challenge of electing good men, but restraining any who sit in the seats of power from abusing their position. One of the ways to accomplish that is to fragment the power, but we can also make it mandatory that the power be used in the light of day.

If the New Jersey Port Authority had been required to publish, in real time, their reason for the closure of the lanes, would that have been sufficient? More importantly, maybe, would have been a notice requirement. “Ten days from today we will be closing these lanes…” People would have planned around it, and reporters would have preemptively asked questions.

We can all imagine emergency scenarios for breaching this sort of protocol, and we can also imagine requiring, in the aftermath, a full debriefing for emergency executions.

But we face another problem: there does not seem to be the least clamoring for actual reforms such as these. Nobody seems to think anything was wrong other than the hearts of men in this scenario. Just a few bad apples, bad actors, bad bad bad. They were bad, no dessert for them, coal in their stockings, no T.V., you’re in big trouble mister.

The nation was founded by those who saw through this sort of foolish adherence to consequentialism. Maximal liberty was promised to the citizens, not the leaders. The leaders invariably give up some liberty in assuming their positions. That is not to say that abuse of the public trust is to go unchecked when it does occur, but it is to say that we have no reason to leave the keys in the lock.

We ought to, in every area we find vulnerability, examine and apply the same basic principles that our Constitution holds up, to restrain the powerful from abusing their positions. Not just for our sakes, either. For theirs too, for the positions of power are obviously prone to abuse, and giving them the restrictions gives an excuse to a power-mad executive: “Sorry, Dave. I’m afraid I can’t do that.”


ENDS: Predictions for 2014

ENDS, or Electronic Nicotine Delivery Systems, have really broken out this year. Some predictions seem in order for next year. If only to turn out wrong, predicting the future is an enjoyable exercise, considering how large systems will proceed based on limited information.

My main thought for 2014 comes from the trends over 2013 and earlier. 2013 has seen variable airflow control. Variable wattage and voltage were earlier developments.

Some have said variable juice flow will be coming, and I think that’s a good prediction. The main hurdle there is the differences in viscosity between different juices. Different mechanisms may perform differently at different viscosities, and different viscosities may perform differently at different flow levels. As far as I know there isn’t much data on the latter, and no data on the former, at least not in this realm/for this use.

But I believe variable resistance will also become available. The ability to change resistance on the fly may seem complicated at first, but it’s actually rather simple. The device can have fixed leads that move along the resistance element, and wherever they contact, however much resistance material they cover, defines the resistance.

This may mean non-wire resistance elements (eg, preformed or molded shapes with fixed resistance-per-millimeter and surface area) or a self-coiling feed mechanism (such that wire would be shaped into a coil as fed through the device), or maybe even both.

Non-wire elements may catch on now or later. What form they take may vary. For example, they might have stamped wicking slots, or may be designed to be surrounded by wicks/wicking material. Wicking slots may double as resistance stops: places that the leads may lock onto the element.

Depending on the direction that variable juice flow takes, wickless may also be possible with channels in the resistance material (either capillary effect or gravity-fed).

Wire-feed elements seem like a strong candidate as well. Wire already exists in a variety of gauges, and there is some existing know-how for feeding wire through a system. The main obstacle here seems the wicking of the auto-coiled wire. The wick will probably need a separate, integrated feed system.

Being able to vary resistance will be useful for a few reasons:

  1. Widens the types of devices that can be “rebuildable” without meaning they have to be of footprints that make it easy to manually rebuild.
  2. Augments the benefits of variable juice flow designs, possibly with a tandem control (ie, only certain flows will be available at certain resistances).
  3. Aids in safety/compatibility (eg, some devices only accept resistances above a certain level, while certain batteries are only rated to output a certain amperage).

As all of the various factors of electronically vaporized nicotine become variable, new understandings of the entire system will develop. Once you have control over airflow, power, juice, and resistance, you can likely find certain cross-tolerances. That’s similar to the charts showing the best power levels for given resistances.

We may see a move away from heat vaporization altogether. For now, it will be interesting to see how things develop.

Of course, 2014 will almost surely finally see the F.D.A. regulations, which may change the industry considerably, so this prediction may be premature.