Smart tools, dumb craft

I have a new microwave, or rather I have an old microwave that is new to me. I don’t like it. It is bigger and more powerful than my old microwave. I didn’t need a bigger and more powerful microwave, but I don’t object to the size or the power. Actually I wasn’t entirely convinced I needed a microwave at all; I use it for very few things. Mainly I defrost meat, because I am good at putting together dinner on the fly but bad about planning ahead; and soften butter, because my daughter likes to bake, but, well, ditto.

I don’t like this microwave because it has too many single-use buttons and multi-step programmed procedures and not enough basic flexible options. I don’t mean that it is too complicated as such, because some tools have a lot of functions and thus need complicated means of interaction. The problem is that its interface is far more complicated than it needs to be, and sufficiently complicated that its design actually interferes with intelligent use.

Here’s an example. If I wanted, with my old microwave, to soften a stick of butter to cool room temperature, I could simply “defrost” it for about 20 seconds. I had only to lower the power and set a time. On the new one, there isn’t a simple way to lower the power; there are only options for various specific foods and purposes. So I have to press “soften/melt,” then watch a scrolling digital readout asking me to press a number for whether I’m softening or melting, and then another number for what sort of food item I have, and then a third for how many sticks of butter. The old process required me to press four easily readable buttons (defrost, 2, 0, start) and worked perfectly, because I’d experimented a bit to see how long it took to soften a stick of butter. The new process takes a good ten seconds to get started and halfway melts the butter, so that I have to stand and watch it through the (typically streaked and greasy) glass. And if I want to soften half a stick, I’m out of luck. Same for defrosting less than a pound of meat. It simply isn’t an option. And while there may be some way to make the machine do what I want, I’ll have to find a manual somewhere online to figure out how, because the “custom” settings aren’t.

I was thinking, yesterday, about how I would solve this problem. One way would be to plan ahead and/or just use the gas stove, but that’s not really in keeping with the spirit of the age, so take it as a design problem. Here are some observations: Continue reading “Smart tools, dumb craft”

Public space and ignorance

This story seems, at first, like a classic tale of the little guy fighting the big mean corporation. A group of Korean seniors was tossed out of a New York City McDonald’s they had turned into a hangout:

Mr. Lee said the officers had been called because he and his friends — a revolving group who shuffle into the McDonald’s on the corner of Parsons and Northern Boulevards on walkers, or with canes, in wheelchairs or with infirm steps, as early as 5 a.m. and often linger until well after dark — had, as they seem to do every day, long overstayed their welcome.

The men had, by their admission, “treated the corner restaurant as their own personal meeting place for more than five years,” and management and other patrons claim that they’re interfering with business. There are several senior centers and civic centers in the neighborhood, but the men seem uninterested in going to any of them.

If I were their age, I wouldn’t want to be cordoned off with a bunch of old people, either, any more than I want to be cordoned off with a bunch of forty-somethings now. Nothing against people in their forties, but I like a little variety. The presence of children and young adults lightens things up a bit, and I appreciate the proximity of people of people considerably older than I am. –On the other hand, taking up valuable real estate in a busy restaurant at lunchtime is at a minimum inconsiderate; the people who own these restaurants — franchisees, in this case, not the global corporation — have to make money, and the business model imposed on them isn’t such that they have a lot of wiggle room.

The problem here is not what the owner of a fast-food restaurant ought or ought not to do but that the choice has arisen in the first place, because we simply don’t have enough genuine public space — spaces where people can meet, talk, catch up, get to know one another, even just sit and rest or think without being cut off from the rest of humanity, and without their actions being watched over and prescribed by well-meaning volunteers and civil servants. Continue reading “Public space and ignorance”

The insignificance of man in the face of modern magazine publishing

Nothing demonstrates to a man his ultimate insignificance in the Great Economy like his inability to unsubscribe from a magazine.

(All right, fine: Lots of things demonstrate to a man his ultimate insignificance in the Great Economy. But this one is particularly stupid, and sufficiently banal that I can laugh at it, unlike, say, losing my job, which was less obviously humorous.)

Here’s what happened. I used to subscribe to a hipstery sort of design and decorating magazine called ReadyMade, full of the sort of things I’d have wanted to make and do in my impoverished twenties. I read it in my late thirties out of ironic nostalgia for my own youthful irony. That magazine went out of business with six months left on my subscription, which I had been unlikely to renew anyway, and the parent company (Globo-Zines Inc.) sent me Better Homes and Gardens instead, a thoroughly un-hipsterish and unironic publication and one whose design notions I had even less desire to emulate. I see that the two magazines have ostensibly the same purpose, but the demographics are completely different. The one ran ads for new releases by twee little indy bands; the other shills Campbell’s soup. And where ReadyMade at least pretended that you were actually going to do some of the projects described in its pages, Better Homes and Gardens doesn’t seem to. It seems designed solely to sell paint.

I usually ignore it until my daughter spots it and unsheaths it from its plastic wrapper. (ReadyMade didn’t come wrapped in plastic, but arrived with its cover charmingly, insouciantly crinkled.) She’s a junior art director, so she finds this kind of thing fascinating. Her contribution to Sunday dinner is folding the napkins into boots and butterflies. But even she can’t get anything out of BHG, except for one article in the December issue on tying bows from ribbon. Being homeschooled, and raised in part by me, she makes fun of it mercilessly. Continue reading “The insignificance of man in the face of modern magazine publishing”