#using technology mindfully

The Experience of Reading Ebooks – Where it’s Missing

on Sep 16, 2010

It’s about time – the book publishing industry is finally going digital and the dream of carrying a library in our hands is becoming reality. Except, that there seems to be some compromises – dampening the experience of reading ebooks over dead tree books.

Don’t get me wrong; current designs already do much to make for a familiar experience. Many ebook readers, like Amazon’s Kindle, use e-ink – which allows for a display that looks like paper. Likewise, other devices, such as Apple’s iPhone and iPad, have page turning gestures and animations. Electronic reading devices also have features to improve the reading experience over dead-tree books. They allow one to change the font, text size, and even “paper” hue.

But other things are missing, unnecessarily so. Consider the different formats of the book Rework, which is geared towards tech-savvy folks likely to be ebook users. In the dead-tree version, it’s clear that a lot of effort went into the presentation. This “atmosphere” adds a lot to the experience of reading the book. And going from paper to electronic form takes away from the experience in significant ways.

For example, the dead tree version of the book is filled with many images that span to the edges of the page – as if they engulf the entire book. Contrast this to the electronic versions. Margins are added to the images. Maybe I’m nitpicking, but it does make a difference in the experience.

The dead tree version's image spans to the edges of the page.The impact is less strong in the electronic versions which create margins.

Speaking of margins, the paper version of Rework has very large margins and generous line-spacing. This was deliberate to give a relaxed, open feel (honestly, it’s something difficult to put into words). And there’s the font choice; again, more deliberate design. Text uses a serif font while headings use a sans-serif font.

The dead tree version has a distinctive heading - size, boldness, and font are all carefully selected.Also note the large margins and generous spacing.

There’s still more, the design choices in the headings next to the page numbers (although not visible in the images, the headings run on every other odd and even pages and have subtle differences in color tone). Even little things like custom chapter title artwork is lost in the electronic version (though this isn’t the case in all books).

While the content remains the same, the unique presentation is lost.

Some of these deficiencies are tradeoffs in design choices. An e-ink display may simply be incapable of displaying images well. Or a display may not be large enough to present everything as intended. Conversely, allowing users to change fonts and sizing would conflict the with the presentation selected by the author.

Still, many of these issues can be overcome. In the case of webpages, devices such as the iPad and Android phones already reflow text to fit the screen when you zoom in, allowing the experience to remain mostly the same while providing larger, more readable text. There’s no reason why this can’t be applied to ebooks.

What really boggles me is that this ideal electronic presentation has already existed for years. Amazon.com’s “Look Inside” feature shows a limited set of pages presented exactly as it looks in the dead-tree version. Why does this not exist for e-readers? Devices like the iPad and PCs (running Kindle software) can easily make for a fantastic experience as intended by the authors.

Why can't we have this on our iPads, Kindles, or PC readers?

I have a feeling that publishers have a role in stagnating the advancement of experience. I reply with a stern warning – they’re making the same mistake that the music industry made. They’re providing an inferior experience to the very people that support them. I love to read and I’m sure that the many others that do will resort to alternative methods, if need be, to assure a good experience. Pirated books already exist in pdf form. They maintain the presentation of physical books, yet are usable on devices like iPads, PCs, and app phones.

There is a huge opportunity here for publishers. They can engage their audience with the convenience of ebooks while offering a proper presentation as meant by the authors. After all, the experience truly does matter.

Special thanks to James for providing pics from the Kindle and iPhone

Unleash the Remarkable Technology of Your Feet

on Aug 20, 2010

There’s been a lot of discussion lately about Vibram Five Fingers (VFFs), shoes that emulate being barefoot. They’re actually selling so well that they’re hard to find. Even celebrities are wearing them, garnering more attention. Yes, I wear them too. Actually, I’ve been wearing them for over two years. Before the popularity and trendiness. I jumped on these weird pieces of footwear because I sensed that there was something humanly important about being barefoot. For example, in martial arts training, we were always barefoot (and in the very rare instances we weren’t, things were just very off). Still, I didn’t understand what the real significance of this was.

That is, until I read this article about 16 months ago. It discussed how increasingly “advanced” running shoes were doing nothing to help runners prevent injuries; that humans have evolved incredible foot mechanics and are better off barefoot. The author’s book on the subject, Born to Run, (released soon after and which later became a best seller) shared inspiring real-life stories of amazing runners, many of them running in a barefoot manner, as well as the research and history behind running barefoot (and not running barefoot). I share a few very important points mentioned along with my own experiences:

First, that our feet have undergone a great deal of improvement through over four million years of evolution. They contain a large number of muscles and ligaments (I believe the number is somewhere around thirty, if not more). Our feet also contain a large number of nerve endings – as many as our hands – so they provide a great deal of sensory feedback to deal with balance and mobility. Wearing padded shoes, like most sneakers, undoes much of the evolutionary benefits. Shoes are too cushioned to give feet the beating they like and hence the muscles and ligaments in the feet atrophy. Likewise, the thick sole of a sneaker deprives us of all the nerve feedback that tell us so much about what we’re walking on.

Second, shoes actually negate the most important of the evolutionary features – the arch of the foot. Any person with a hint of engineering knowledge knows that an arch is fantastic at bearing load. So it makes a great deal of sense for humans to evolve a load bearing mechanism on their feet to support all the force from walking, running, jumping, and whatnot. The scary part is that many shoes “support” the arch; an arch does not need support and giving it “support” causes it to cease function. This means that since it’s no longer dissipating the load, some other body parts must step up. Force from the foot hitting the ground, no longer absorbed by the arch, travels up to the knee and the lower back. Enter injuries to these regions.

So what if you have flat feet? Does all this still apply? Yes, because flat feet are often caused my atrophied muscles. I myself have flat feet from decades of wearing sneakers on a daily basis. However, I’ve made noticeable improvement to my arches by regularly wearing non-padded footwear, including VFFs and flip flops, to slowly build up the muscles in my feet. Another interesting argument lies at the crux of the sneaker industry: shouldn’t the padding provided by shoes be adequate? It seems not – more padding means more sensory deprivation which means the foot must strike the ground harder to know what’s going on. Any benefit is cancelled out, if not making things worse.

Third, there seems to be discrepancy about form and it often centers around heel-striking – that is, landing on the heel of the foot when running. Sneaker companies have a huge hand in this mess. Forty years ago, they came up with the idea to pad the heel of the shoe. They claimed that this would improve runner performance by allowing longer strides from heel striking, made possible by the padding. One consequence was an unnatural running form, which exacerbated the problem of shock traveling to the knees and back. With heel striking, there’s no possibility of the arch absorbing shock. This makes it a very dangerous practice. It’s pretty frightening since this is the way most people walk and run, as afforded by their shoes. It seems the proper way to land is to do so on the mid-foot, maybe even landing on outside and rotating it in as so to compress the arch. I’ve found this to work best from my own experiences. I’ve also noticed that this is the natural way people run barefoot, by secretly observing my karate students, kids and adults alike, run. Note that for walking, you pretty much have to land on your heel, but you can do so gently and then let the mid-foot take over (and hence make use of the arch).

The problem of heel striking may come as a surprise to many people; it certainly did for me. In fact, when I first had my VFFs, I was heel striking on them when merely walking, simply because I had a habit from wearing sneakers my whole life. Needless to say it was a very painful experience to walk on pavement with VFFs and I avoided doing so for nearly a year. It was after I’d read Born to Run that I understood that the problem was in technique. After correcting for this (as in, I stopped heel striking when walking) the VFF barefoot experience became very enjoyable, even on concrete sidewalks. I should note that I had to “break in” my feet and have them get used to walking “barefoot”. The muscles in my feet needed to be rebuilt and the process took at least several months.

It’s interesting that running has gotten such a bad rap – how it’s hard on the knees. I guess it shouldn’t be surprising that when you undo four million years of evolution, there’ll be problems. We have an incredible amount of technology built into our very bodies. Be mindful of it. Watch the way you walk and run and jump. Note what you’re putting around your feet. Feel all the sensations from beneath your feet and what it means to be connected to the world.

Fluorescent Lights and Nighttime, a Bad Mix?

on Aug 19, 2010

Is fluorescent lighting messing up your sleep cycle? The bright white glow, not unlike daylight may cause our bodies to interpret that night has not fallen. Think about it: for nearly all of human history, access to light at night has been limited. For the most part it’s been moonlight and fire. The former isn’t particularly bright and latter produces a gentle hue of colors (often called a warm color temperature). Both contrast starkly with bright, harsh fluorescent lighting. Even lighting directly prior to fluorescents, including incandescent bulbs, was generally warm in color.

Our evolutionary history clearly suggests that our bodies are adapted to gentle, warm colored light at night. So does exposure to fluorescent lights at night cause our internal clocks to become screwy as our circadian rhythms are unable to tell day and light apart? I’m very inclined to say it does and I received some news recently that further supports this: a friend of mine had informed me that upon running into sleep problems, his sleep doctor suggested that he wear glasses, at nighttime, that filter out blue colors (a.k.a cool color temperature light). Clearly the purpose of this was to keep the body exposed to more natural nighttime lighting.

As the ongoing green trend progresses, people are pretty much forced to switch to fluorescent bulbs. This has me concerned and I’m not the only one. Many people simply don’t like the light “quality” from fluorescent bulbs (it’s quite probable that the unnatural effect plays a role in this). Others are sensitive to the flickering nature of fluorescents. Most people simply don’t know why they don’t like them, they just don’t (I was in this category for a long time). In the U.K., there’s actually a thriving black market for incandescent bulbs since they were banned.

So are we at a total loss? I wouldn’t say so. I’ve noticed that many of the newer fluorescent bulbs are not white in color, but rather have a warmer color temperature. It seems manufacturers are aware that many people prefer warmer tones for home lighting. I’m sure the technology will mature over time as well. Color spectrums will improve. And eventually fluorescents will be phased out by something else. There’s already one candidate: LED lighting. While LEDs are very pricey, the cost will drop as companies invest more in the technology. I’ve already made my own investment by purchasing a powerful LED flashlight with a special coating that gives warm colored light output. Combined with a light diffuser, it makes for a great reading light (on low mode, nonetheless).

But until technology catches up, just be aware of the tradeoffs in switching to fluorescent lights. I’m all for being more environmentally friendly, but damage to sleep cycles can be more costly overall.

Being ‘Mindful’ with Technology

on May 21, 2010

A central theme of this blog is on using technology mindfully. But what does it mean to be mindful? is there a concrete process to this? In fact, there is: it’s the scientific process – the act of questioning things, in this case: technology. We should ask the following questions with any new technology, be it a gadget, a piece of software, or a technique.

What do we gain from using this technology?
Is it something that makes getting things done easier? Does it bring enjoyment? Is it a precursor to something bigger and better? We should be careful not to dismiss technology simply because it seems useless or trivial. Or, if anything, does it serve as a mental training exercise to a new way to think? Most of the time, technology does bring advancement, but this isn’t always the case.

What are the potential pitfalls of using this technology?
Does it make things more complicated? Does it damage social relationships? Can it be dangerous? Does it just push evolutionary buttons. Is it used to mislead? Is it expensive? It’s often difficult to see problems right off the bat. And sometimes even “obvious” problems are of little significance.

Do we, as a society, come off better off as a whole?
Who benefits from using the technology? Who has something to lose? Who’s pushing forward the technology? Who’s trying to dismiss it? We can discern much about the consequences by noting whose interests are at stake.

Still, things aren’t always black and white. A technology might bring great efficiency in some applications but cause problems in other situations, as noted in the case of processing food or with mobile phones. So it’s especially important that we continue to apply the scientific process, as technology emerges and as we use it. A last point is to never accept new things blindly.

When Processed Food is a Good Thing (Really)

on May 21, 2010

In so many of my posts, I go on about all the evils of processed food and of all the terrible things it does to us. Today I’d like to discuss actual sound uses for processed food. Now before I go on, we should understand that the ability to process food is a technology, and one our society uses heavily. Processing often strips food of much of its nutritional quality. In doing this, the food’s shelf life and stability increase dramatically (interestingly though logically enough, this happens because the nutritionally deficient food doesn’t attract the bacteria and fungi that would otherwise cause it to go bad). This quality of “not going bad” is actually pretty handy in, let’s say, bringing food to unfortunate groups of people that would otherwise starve. In the choice between eating processed food, and eating nothing, one is clearly better off with the former from a health standpoint.

I’m not entirely sure on the history of this but I believe processed food started out this way (do correct me if I’m wrong). It was used to reach people that were hungry and starving. Somewhere along the way, food manufacturers realized that they could cut their own costs by processing foods. Longer shelf life and less spoilage permitted a lot more leeway in the process of selling food and also in creating “new and exciting” products. Of course food companies passed on some of the savings to consumers and we took the bait. Cheaper food meant we could have more. In the US we went from spending 40% of our income on food to under 10% within the last century. Is the savings in money really worth the price in health?

As with any technology, we should consider the situations we use it in. Processing food is a great tool in reaching those that may not have anything otherwise. But it’s also a curse upon those who could be eating better and have to pay consequences in health instead.

Mobile Phones and Social Etiquette

on May 19, 2010

In discussing the benefits and pitfalls of adopting technology, one solid example is the mobile phone. These devices have become an essential part of our lives and just about everyone in modern society has one, including kids. Yet the social etiquette has been slow to follow.

All too often we see two people having a face-to-face conversation only to be interrupted by a ringing phone and the subsequent answer. How is it that someone calling the phone, potentially many miles away, has precedent over someone a few feet away? Well the calling individual doesn’t know this and that’s a big factor cause she may get offended if left unanswered. (Another factor involves our desire for social connection.) The social etiquette has been catching up though. It’s not uncommon for people to just silence the phone, or quickly answer to say “I’m busy now, I’ll call you back later”, or at the very least apologize to the live conversation partner: “I’m really sorry, this is an important call”. Social etiquette has also improved in callers understanding that people might be busy.

At the same time, newer technology has aided in improving social etiquette. Texting is [fundamentally] less intrusive than a voice call since it’s passive. It’s easier to check on a text later than to check on a voicemail [that was hopefully left] or end up playing phone tag. Still, texting brings about its own set of social etiquette issues. Over time, the etiquette will catch up, assuming texting isn’t replaced by another technology before then.

Yet another technology is reducing the need for calls or texts – location reporting services. Consider Google Latitude, which informs a set of your friends of where you are at all times. Since I began using Latitude, phone calls and instant messages (which I receive on my phone (I skipped over texting entirely)) from certain friends have dropped to half. Why? Because half the calls have to do with where I am and if I can hang out. Now, friends just use Latitude to see where I am and know if I’m off somewhere far away or busy at martial arts class.

As this technology gets adopted (and I assure you that it will), we’ll face more social etiquette issues. People don’t like being tracked and are reluctant to give up privacy. All sorts of social strains will crop up. But over time, people will adjust, and perhaps even newer technologies will come to the rescue!

Bonus Observation:
People have become more respectful in silencing their phones at proper times. If you recall the earlier part of the decade, whenever a phone would ring and cause a disturbance at some event (like a meeting), the speaker would stop to announce “please remember to silence your phones” as if people needed to be informed of what the social etiquette is. Nowadays, this intrusion is less common, and when it does happen, the speaker and pretty much everyone else ignore it.

Technology for the Masses

on May 18, 2010

There’s much flaming between fans of Apple products and fans of other systems, such as those running Windows or Linux/Android. It’s important to note that each system has its advantages and disadvantages. There are always tradeoffs. But depending on who you are, the tradeoffs tip to one side or another.

The Apple product offers:

  • A beautiful and seamless experience that’s easy to use but you’re locked in to a system that isn’t very customizable
  • Strong support but it comes at a price (see note on the Apple Tax at the bottom)

Other electronics and software offer:

  • A more open and customizable experience but with a greater likelihood that stuff will break or is unintuitive
  • More bang for your buck (in terms of features and power) but you’ll have to support yourself

So basically, if you’re one to really make use of those extra features and customability and able and willing to put up with stuff that’s more complicated to use and to deal with instability, then buying Apple seems absurd. But this kind of technologically savvy user is likely 10% of the population, if not less. Most of the other 90% are just folks that want technology that just works and is easy to use. And if things do break, they need help and are willing to pay for it.

Imagine if a hard drive failed. A tech savvy user would probably just swap it out himself while the general user pays for the repair (including beforehand in something like The Apple Tax). The tech savvy user pays as well, with opportunity cost. At some point, he had to spend time to learn how to do a hard drive. Also imagine some application that has a hundred buttons for all its features. The savvy user works to sort through them to make use of everything available. But the general user is flummoxed at the sight.

There’s another category of users: power users that prefer Apple products. They understand the tradeoff and are willing to sacrifice features and price for just having something that’s easier to use. There’s also folks that go one way with some products and another way with others. I have some good friends that use Linux machines for their home setups, but carry around iPhones.

Still, there’s much polarization on the issue. NYT Tech Writer David Pogue, who falls into the above category, wrote two separate reviews for the iPad. The one targeted to tech savvy folks slammed it for a lack of features and customability. The other, poised for general users, praised the iPad for being an incredibly fun to use device. When it comes down to it, there will be tradeoffs and we should be mindful of what we get and what we lose with each system. And more importantly, we should understand that others may have different needs, especially when it comes to technology (more on that in a future post).

Special thanks to Stephen Komae on helping me see beyond my “narrow tech-savvy perspective” to understand the magic of Apple-like products

A note on the Apple Tax. It’s true, there is a “tax” on Apple products. But as with how taxes are supposed to work, they’re for a service. This means that if something goes wrong, you can bring it to an Apple Store where people (that actually know what they’re doing) will help you out in a considerate manner. That peace of mind is invaluable to a general user, but not worth it to many tech savvy users.

Are You In Control of Your Actions?

on May 7, 2010

We like to think that we have free will – that we’re not like other animals which are governed by their biology. But if you think this, you’re gravely mistaken. We humans, as biological creatures, are under its rules. Our decisions are fueled by dopamine on rules built through evolution. You have two choices: refuse to acknowledge this and be a slave to your desires, or accept your underlying biology and learn to become wary of its unconscious influence. If you choose the latter, continue reading below.

Our psychological mechanisms often hide their purposes from consciousness and have strong influences on our behavior. We share many of these mechanisms with other animals. The feeling of hunger causes cravings, and of course there’s the sex drive. Some are pretty helpful, like the fight or flight response while others appear to do more harm than good, like in the case of nervousness.

There are uniquely human unconscious forces as well. As social creatures, we feel all sorts of social forces, such as morality (we know when things are right and wrong) or in-group/out-group forces (the need to fit in somewhere, or to despise outsiders). We literally feel these forces and they, without a doubt, affect and sometimes dominate our behaviors. Love (often characterized as a mental disease) and its less potent variants (such as lust) certainly affect our behavior beyond normal conscious will.

Our brains are incredible pieces of technology shaped by evolution. But are we using our built-in technology as it was optimized for? The world today is very different than what many mechanisms evolved for. Also, we have access to ways to abuse our technologies, such as drugs. Cigarettes work on the level of brain chemistry, as do most other drugs, including alcohol. Processed food is chock full of sugar and fat targeting evolved mechanisms to help us in times of starvation.

We should be mindful in how we use any technology, especially that which is built into us. Do you understand why you desire something? Are you responding in positive ways to unconscious mechanisms? Or are you merely pressing evolutionary buttons (or letting others do so for their gain)?

How Being Nervous Messes You Up

on Apr 20, 2010

So perhaps you’re giving some sort of presentation. People are watching you. And all you can think about is how you’re doing and what these people think. And of course, how you can avoid messing up. But it happens, inevitably. Then you get more nervous. And then you make even more mistakes.

It’s all about brain resources – something always in limited supply. Toss in the gas-guzzling behemoth of managing social interaction, and you’ve got very little left to work with. So if your focus is on what others are thinking, then you’re sabotaging yourself. You’re throwing away important brain cycles to monitor social information when you really need to put everything into the task at hand.

An interesting reversed condition also occurs – where social processing is sacrificed for something more taxing, like intense spacial processing. This is something I experience regularly when inline skating at a decent speed, and I’ve heard many cyclists express experiencing the same phenomenon. Essentially, we fail to recognize people we know when moving fast. It isn’t so much the moving fast part that does it. It’s more that we’re trying to process every potential obstacle to avoid disaster. So we see people as objects. Moving objects with trajectories that we must calculate to proceed safely. At that level, recognizing objects as friends is not worth the brain resources.

So the next time you’re feeling nervous under the sight of others, put that thought away (I know, easier said than done) and just focus solely on what you’re doing. And if that friend on wheels whizzes by without saying hi, don’t be offended because his brain is just automatically preoccupied with cruising safely. Keep in mind that our brains and minds are very sophisticated technologies that do have limits. Understanding those limits will let us best use your heads.

Constraints Can Make You More Productive

on Apr 19, 2010

Having a seemingly less than optimal environment can actually boost your productivity. I recently had this experience firsthand when my desktop programming setup fell apart. Two of my three screens malfunctioned over the period of 2 months and I went from something like a 2x 1080p setup to a 1x 720p setup in terms of real estate. So when faced with a programming project, I had to minimize the clutter. Chat clients were kept hidden or off. The music player was left hidden with a playlist running. Browser tabs were kept to a minimal. And strangely enough, I got things done cause I had no other choice. Being in the middle of a project, I couldn’t close any part of it. And in having project stuff open, I couldn’t really open up anything else. POOF! Potential for distractions went down. Tremendously!

Another case: I composed this post on my laptop, in my parked car. With limited battery life and no power sources nearby, I was forced to make the most of whatever time I had with a usable machine. I found it easier to get more words out with the time pressure on (or maybe it was the sunny sky and cool breeze).

This phenomenon, triggered by a sense of urgency, also appears in procrastination. Productivity appears to increase exponentially as the deadline nears. It’s the constraint that forces us to focus and really get done what needs to be done. And at least from my own experiences, I tend to be more productive per task when I have a lot of things to take care of than only one thing to do. The knowledge that I only have a certain amount of time to get something done forces me to crank out work without getting distracted. Perhaps this could be a way to optimize efficiency (in ironic fashion). Suppose some task is dragging along slowly. Then maybe a good way to speed things up is to take on more things. New constraints will be present and then the original task may move to a cruising speed.

I realize there’s much potential for disaster in going about things this way. But it often helps to turn a problem upside down and approach it in the completely opposite way. The laptop composing environment is quite relaxing in its way. As for my desktop programming environment, I’m not sure yet. It’s still a huge nuisance to be without screen real estate and have to jump around between windows. But I’m certainly reconsidering how much I really need to be optimally productive since any extra space gets cluttered with unnecessary distractions. Perhaps less is more.