Commentary: November 2008 Archives

A Random Complicated Week

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It's Friday afternoon, so it must be time for a blog entry. But what to write? It looks like it will be a general observation that life is complex.

This week was busy and "diverse". I attended two accessibility committee meetings, a BLI review meeting, three meetings with faculty, a videot recording of Ray Kurzweil, and a session with Graham Spanier. A lot to think about...

I think Ray Kurzweil was supposed to speak about accessibility tools, but really spoke about using logarithmic curves to predict future trends. This sounds really boring, but I like numbers so much, that I was actually quite impressed. I do worry about his notion of humans speeding towards "singularity" - it makes having another "Dark Age" sound much more appealing.

The presentation from Graham Spanier was also interesting, but what struck me most was that he said end users (i.e. students/faculty/non-tech staff) are mystified by edicts which have no explanation. In truth, I think most of ITS does try to explain why they do what they do, but often the explanation is very technical.

For instance, would you predict that a programmer would be handle French ç, but have problems with œ (did you ever care before)? Or that you're better off using a point scale in an Excel gradebook rather than percentages? How about that PNG images from Powerpoint are large and "bad", but those from Illustrator are small and "OK"? I can see your eyes glazing over already.

Part of accessibility and Unicode education is explaining why you have to insert what appear to be random snippets of code in certain places (then cursing that the WYSIWYG tool doesn't do it for you already). As you can imagine it's a challenge, because most users want to push a magic "Accessify" button (we haven't built that yet). As President Spanier said, it is a challenge to communicate to users that really their life would be simpler if they took a few minutes to click a few obscure settings and lock down some items for security purposes.

And speaking of accessibility, I noticed that even accessibility experts forget about accommodations for new technologies. When figuring out how to get information to faculty, a suggestion was to videotape a series of modules. I think this is a good idea, but we will be obligated to make sure all the videos are captioned! Maybe we could supplement with alternate presentations which are much easier to accessify?

On the other hand, I heard that the next version of Dragon Speak speech recognition will be 99% accurate even with minimal training. Will this be the tool that processes a complex acoustic signal into something humans recognize. That would be so awesome!

So this week I was reminded that life was complex. This is something we all complain about, but sometimes I wonder if we make it worse by trying to "simplify" things too much. I'm not saying I'm going to ditch concepts like usability, but I wonder if we give ourselves enough time to absorb or even appreciate what complexity we do have.

When I began here, a common complaint was that Penn State was operating on three platforms instead of selecting just one. But the fact that Penn State is open to Mac/Windows/Unix is something I loved. It shows that Penn State was willing to explore the best tool for the job be that accounting, digital art or high-end scientific computing.

Although building software adapted for multiple platforms is definitely a pain, I do think the overall quality is improved in the long run. Similarly I believe that building in accessibility makes the tool better for everyone and building in Unicode awareness makes your software portable to a global audience.

But it all takes time. Not that much time, but definitely an extra five minutes. I just wonder how willing we are to find those five minutes?