Common Sense

Give the children love, more love and still more love, and the common sense will come by itself.

Astrid Lindgren, one of my all time favorite Swedish authors.

Ode to Any.do

Oh Any.do, how I love you.
Except when servers go down. Makes me feel like a clown.

The web-app is bangin’, except when it’s hanging.
I’m in to your phone app, it syncs in a snap.

Your graphics are blurry, but not to worry;
Any.do Moment is swell, so all is well.

I’m not into Cal, but mostly I’m happy,
show it again and your rating be crappy.

You’re doing something right,
‘cos no other to-do app can put up a fight.

Penicillin

My baby has an inner ear infection. Often times these ailments disappear on their own. Other times they get real bad. Thankfully we have Penicillin, which fixes it right up.

For now.

One day in 1928 — it was a Friday — the scotsman Alexander Fleming went about his daily business at St. Mary’s Hospital in London. He was working in his laboratory when he discovered he’d forgotten to close up a petri dish of bacteria from the night before. What he noticed would change the world: a mould had grown in that petridish, and in a halo around that mould the bacteria had stopped growing. What Alexander Fleming had discovered would save tens of millions of lives in the century to come: this natural mould exuded a substance that had antibiotic properties. Not a decade later we had Penicillin, and on this Friday in 2014, Penicillin is helping cure my baby girl. Thank you, Alexander Fleming.

There’s a problem, though. Penicillin is a wonderful drug, but bacteria — just like humans —  evolve and grow stronger. Put a drop of Penicillin in a petridish of bacteria and the bacteria will die. Probably. There’s a tiny chance some of those bacteria will survive due to a random Penicillin-resistant mutation. Those lucky few survivers might reproduce and migrate. Repeat this process for a century and you’re bound to have a couple of strains of bacteria to which even the strongest of Penicillins are useless.

We knew this would happen. Yet still to this day, Penicillin is used on a grand scale in meat-production of all things. When cattle have particularly bad living conditions, when too many cows are huddled up in too little space, they’ll inflict little scratches on each other, wounds that might heal naturally on a green field of grass. But if your living quarters are also where you go to the toilet, no such luck. Hey, thought the meat industry, we can just pump the cattle full of Penicillin and no bacteria will grow in those wounds!

The way we treat our cattle is troublesome enough, but the inevitable consequences should be alarming. Those dirty farms and cattle transports are evolutionary crucibles for resistant bacteria. The strong bacteria will survive and require stronger Penicillins. It’s an evolutionary arms race and we’re losing. We always knew bacteria would evolve to be Penicillin-resistant eventually, but if we’d been smart about our Penicillin usage, we might’ve had enough time to research functional alternatives. As it stands, I’m worried about a future dad and his daughter battling an infection maybe just ten years from now. I hope she’ll be alright, man.

So I guess here’s another reason you should eat organic meat. Or no meat, that works too.

Chromecast

Ordered the Google Chromecast the other day. It’s a little HDMI dongle you put into your TV to make it smarter. Amazing gadget, I must say, it’s been a while since I was this excited about a piece of electronics. It’s not that it’s that full-featured — right now it’s only actually useful if all you need is YouTube and Netflix (which happens to be the case for me) — rather, it’s the implications of the device that excites me.

It doesn’t have a remote control, and the device does nothing on its own. The remote is your phone or your tablet or your desktop. All the device does is receive streams from the internet, and you “suggest” those streams from your handheld. In essence it downgrades your “smart-TV” (or in my case, upgrades my dumb-TV) into being simply a display capable of receiving input. It removes every single bit of UI and interaction from the television itself, and propels it onto that thing you have in your pocket regardless.

The concept alone blew my mind when the implications sank in. I doubt it’s controversial to say that television UIs have sucked for decades. Just pick up your remote control and look at it, chances are you’ll find more than twenty buttons, 90% of which you’ve used only once. Alright maybe you picked up an Apple TV remote — vast improvement over most other remotes, but why is that? Right: fewer buttons. Which is why requiring all interaction happen on your smartphone is such a novel idea: by virtue of being a sheet of capacitative glass, your television remote now has only the buttons necessary, and only when you need them. 

It’s just great.

What’s even better is not having to switch on your television and change to the “HDMI” channel. The Chromecast is always listening for input, so if you tell it to play Netflix, it’ll turn on your TV for you, on the right channel no less. When you turn off the television again (alright, I suppose you do need your remote for that — and for volume), your Netflix app will pause the show you were watching. 

This is how television is supposed to work. They’ve cracked it.

Yeah sure, it’s early. Most people will need set-top boxes for a while still. For a 1.0, however, the Chromecast is remarkable. If only Netflix would auto-play the next episode in a TV show, if only Pocket Casts was Chromecast enabled… But hey, this dongle auto-updates transparently in the background. Who knows, maybe next time I turn on the televison, there it is. It is Chrome-based, after all.

3.8

When 2013 ends in a couple of weeks, it’ll have been the year where I went from contributing only circumstantially to WordPress, to contributing quite a bit. In fact, despite having had the honor of releasing a default theme this year, it’s not until the end of 2013 — today actually — that I feel like the bulk of the work I’ve done on WordPress is actually released. For me, 2014 is when WordPress gets really exciting.

It’s with quite a bit of pride that I find my name in the release credits for the just-launched WordPress 3.8 “Parker”. This particular release was brought about in a different manner than previous releases: it was developed alongside 3.7 through “feature plugins”. Along with a group of developers and designers I worked on one such plugin called “MP6”, a nonsense-codename with a cool banner. Our true purpose was to redesign the entire WordPress admin. The ease of use of the WordPress admin has always been my favorite part of the software, but I’ve always had little niggles with it. With plugin commit access, this time I was able to put money where my mouth was. So we worked hard to bring you visually lighter and simpler design, with a bunch of usability improvements in tow such as scalable icons, larger fonts and more contrast. My good friend and creator of the initial mockup that excited us to work on this for months, Matt Thomas, details everything you’d want to know about the design.

To celebrate the occasion, I’ve made sure my green and blue Twenty Thirteen color schemes are now in the WordPress theme repository. Yep, it’s now easier than ever to dress last years theme in new clothes. Heck, you can get the default Twenty Thirteen colors without using post formats now.

I think 3.8 will be a watershed release, and I can’t wait to hear what you think of it. It’s certainly deserving of the name “Parker”, who happens to have uttered one of my favorite quotes:

Don’t play the saxophone. Let it play you.

Good Decisions, Else Options

There’s a mantra in the WordPress development community: decisions, not options. It’s meant to be a standard to which you hold any interface design decision: if you make a decision for users it’ll ultimately be better than forcing them to make decisions themselves. It’s a decent mantra — if you’re not mindful you’ll end up with feature creep and UI complexity, and it’s orders of magnitude more difficult to remove an old option than it is to add one in the first place. Adding an option instead of making a decision for the user is almost always bad UI design.

Except when it’s not.

The problem with a mantra like this is that it quickly gets elevated to almost biblical status. When used by a disgruntled developer it can be used to shoot down just about any initiative. Like Godwins law for WordPress: once you drop the “decisions not options” bomb, rational discussion comes to a halt.

The thing about open source development is that it’s much like natural evolution: it evolves and adapts to changes in the environment. Unfortunately that also means features once useful can become vestigial once the problem they used to solve becomes obsolete. Baggage like this can pile up over years, and maintaining backwards compatibility means it can be very difficult to rid of. Sure, “decisions not options” can help cauterize some future baggage from happening, but it’s also not the blanket solution to it.

The problem is: sometimes the right decision is unfeasible, therefore beckoning an option in its absence. WordPress is many things to many people. Some people use it for blogging, others use it for restaurants, portfolios, photo galleries, intranets, you name it. Every use case has its own sets of needs and workflows and it’s virtually impossible to make a stock experience that’s optimal for everyone. Most bloggers would arguably have a better experience with a slew of WordPress features hidden or removed whereas site owners might depend on those very same features for dear life. By catering to many use-cases at once, user experiences across the board are bound to be unfocused in some way or other.

The “Screen Options” tab is an example of a feature that would probably not exist were “decisions not options” taken at face value. Screen Options exists on the idea that not everyone needs to see the “Custom Fields” panel on their Add New Post page, yet acknowledges that some users will find that feature invaluable. It is an option added in absence of a strong decision, for example, to limit WordPress to be a blogging-only tool. I consider it an example of an exception to the mantra for the good of the user. Sure, the UI could use some improvement, let’s work on that, but I really appreciate the ability to hide the “Send Trackbacks” panel.

I’m a fan of WordPress. I’m a fan of good decisions, and I’m a fan of good UI design. I believe that if we relieve ourselves of arbitrary straitjackets and approach each design objective with a sense of good taste and balance, we can make excellent open source software. Cauterizing entire avenues of UI simply because it adds options, however, negates the fact that sometimes those options exist in absence of a higher-up decision that just can’t be made for whatever reason.