Let me tell you a few words about this usability business

Wednesday, 03 September, Year 6 d.Tr. | Author: Mircea Popescu

Many moons ago, back when computing power was still rare and therefore expensive, or vice-versai, there existed a program which ran for a day or five and output a visual model of a complicated object, which visual model could then be printed, or drawn and hung up on the wall. The existence of both the software in question and the hardware it ran on was for its time and place a great accomplishment, and there was much rejoicing.

After the rejoicing however came the observation that the utility of this accomplishment is really only as great as the sum use it's put to, and so an effort to make it usable began in earnest, and carried on diligently. I will not bother you with all the details save one : originally, the program output the model whole. Soon enough it was observed that this is not necessary for all applications, and moreover omitting the smallest bits significantly speeds things up. So a bit was added to the interface, allowing the operator to enter into the soup a tolerance size past which he didn't care about how things looked. It seemed sensible at the time (tm) for this to be a volume, like all other volumes involved in the whole shebang. And so it was a volume.

The way computers worked at the time, they were much too holy to be touched with people who did anything else with their lives but touch computers (and really it was best form if you wore a white coat and thick rimmed glasses!) and so an operator had to get a slip listing these three, along with whatever other specifications and put it all in. Programmers back then were math people, and everyone hates typing, and so it came to pass that for unexplained reasons (tm) the volume was entered as a length, on the general concept that any length's a cube and anyone can do Cardano by hand (can you ?).

Obviously for that slip to exist an end user somewhere had to fill it up. Now it turns out at this juncture that humans are pretty awful at evaluating volume. In most cases what they do is try and multiply together three estimates of length, which are usually not terribly accurate relatively - and for that matter not often given in the same units of measure - then root this thing, and then be wrong. So a very bright guy came up with a very bright solution : take out the "volume" and put in weight. That's right, not even "mass", to the horror of the few theoretical physicists working in the building. Instead of asking the user if it's okay to omit anything smaller than a breadbox ; and instead of asking the user roughly the equivalent of modeling a breadbox in his head, how about just ask him what's the largest weight he can drop on his foot at that scale and not care.

Now that, my dear friends, is was usability. Not is, because such seems scarcely a thing of this world anymore, where one takes a theoretically ideal but practically awkward interface and turns it into a practically more convenient thing that is still an exact homologue. What's a thing of the world these days is misrepresenting usability as user comfort, and trying hard to insulate the user from any functionality of the underlying code that he may hurt his fluffy, innocent hopes and aspirations upon.

So now let's take a short break and consider a different matter. It goes like so : The niggers (defined as : any human beings of skin darker than fair) of 1`500 AD were a destitute, worthless savage bunch inhabiting a shithole continent. Some heart bleeding liberals of the 16th and following centuries went to the trouble of buying poor young African boys that were being held in slavery by their kinsmen in said shithole, taking them across the seas to the Americas at great risk and expense - yet free of charge! - and in conditions similar to standard business practice at the time. Often, in fact, in the very same ships that carried their own kinsmen, perfectly white, poor folk. These transported niggers were held to work among the civilised folk, with tools of such an advanced nature that never in their life would they have ever seen such marvels of technology had they continued in the shithole of their birth, and in due time acquired at least some semblance and form of human civilisation. Some were even taught letters, or given the extreme unction and so bearing the greatly superior white man's offspring. All this ensured that the black folk in question survive, and strictly for the reason of this generous transportation are black people today still a thing. If it weren't for this very generous, selfless act of their benefactors, it is beyond probable that black skin would be in about as much currency today as red skin is - you'd know all about it, from books.

Does the foregoing paragraph offend you ? Why is that ? It is both correct and historically accurate, after a fashion. That fashion being pandering, of course, which is exactly what you are doing when you misrepresent "usability" as "comfortability", chiefly understood as "no user should ever find out more about how stupid he is through interacting with our program than he knew aforehand".

So next time you wish to say something about "usability" understood as GUI-derpitude, bear in mind that what my eyes see of your comment is exactly "niggers... destitute... shithole... civilised... unction... survive... generous transporation... selfless act... benefactors".

You dig ?

  1. As a point of formal ability (as the concept of form is discussed say here), you should be able to establish which statement is correct. So, should I have said "rare and therefore expensive" ? Or should I rather have said "expensive and therefore rare" ? Which is it ?

    Note that inasmuch as you believe form is a thing, you may not cop out of that dilemma, neither pretending it doesn't matter, nor pretending it's "relative" (I have yet to see an apple in nature which came in a "relative" shape : if you regard it from upside it's a cube, if you're underneath however it's a tetrahedron), nor pretending "they're both right" as is currently fashionable (not that the other two weren't fashionable in their time) and so on.

    So there you go : form is not a thing because if it were, this article could have never been written, its author never able to progress past its opening sentence much in the manner of Flaubert getting stuck on temperature. And since we're on the topic : perhaps the explanation for some of your very own articles not existing is related. []

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  1. [...] good ones. Why should they be humiliated on a daily basis and as a matter of course ? That isn't... nice. Soon thereafter painting as an intellectual and aesthetic endeavour collapsed, and that is [...]

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