Month: April 2006

How not to design a bike lane

bike lane diagram

A little while ago, I was riding to a downtown destination by way of San Jacinto Blvd, and noticed that they had striped it for bike lanes. Without wading into the controversy of whether bike lanes really are good for cyclists or not, I have to say, they really blew it here. The diagram above shows the lane striping at the 10th-Street intersection on San Jacinto.

If you’re on a bike and headed straight, what do you think you ought to do here?

If you stay in the bike lane, you’ve potentially got two lanes of traffic turning across your path. In order to avoid that problem, you need to swing across a lane and a half of traffic well before you reach the intersection. Neither is a good option. The latter is less bad, but will be counter-intuitive to a naïve cyclist. While I’ll be the first to admit there are a lot of people on bikes who do dumb stuff that understandably pisses off drivers, I wonder how often drivers are getting pissed off at cyclists who are just responding sensibly to poorly designed situations like this.

Coming home by way of Trinity Street, I discovered bike lanes there as well. Although I didn’t notice any intersections that were striped as egregiously badly as the one on San Jacinto, the oddity on Trinity is that the location of the bike lane relative to the curb changes from block to block. One block there’s a dive-in parking lane between the bike lane and curb. The next it’s immediately next to the curb. After that there’s a parallel parking lane between the bike lane and the curb. Unless you know in advance where you should be aiming, you will find yourself out of the bike lane after crossing almost every intersection. And the street is just hilly enough that in many cases, the bike lane on the far side of the intersection is invisible behind the crest of a hill.

It seems impossible to me that these bike facilities were designed by anyone who rides a bike.

East Side Pies

In the perpetual search for the best pizza in Austin, I am tentatively appointing a new leader: East Side Pies, 1401 Rosewood (next door to Sold Out 4 Christ ministries, near the Carver library and Long Branch Inn). Last night was our first order from there, so they haven’t established a track record, but damn, that was a good pizza. New York style thin crust. Excellent ingredients—Gwen, who doesn’t even eat meat, agreed “that’s some damn good sausage.”

The now-dethroned Parlor still has a damn good pizza with a slightly thicker crust, not to mention an ambience with a certain je ne sais quoi.

I’m still holding out for a good Chicago-style stuffed pizza (sadly, Mangia no longer counts as “good”), but I can be quite content with East Side Pies and the Parlor.

And now that I live on the east side, where many delivery places fear to tread, I can say “suck it” to the west side, because we’ve got better pizza here anyhow.

The trouble with Mail

I’ve recently started reading Hawk Wings, a blog focused mostly on Apple’s Mail.app and other personal-information programs like iCal and Address Book. I’m always keen on ways to tweak Mail, but I was moved to actually write about it by the recent post Mail’s most annoying bug. It got me thinking about all the ways Mail could be better.

When it was released with OS X 10.0, Mail was barely usable. I had used Eudora up to that point, but when I made the switch to X, I decided to leave the old OS behind completely. While Eudora was available, it did not handle Japanese; it only handled Japanese on OS 9 thanks to a plugin that had not been ported to X (I know nothing of the state of Eudora’s i18n today). I looked at some third-party alternatives, and gladly would have paid for one that I liked, but I found nothing that I liked better than Mail, so I stuck with that.

Today, Mail is a pretty good program, but it has obvious problems, and even if those were all fixed, would be solid but not innovative.

Bad/no keyboard equivalents: Mail lets you read messages one of two ways: by splitting the window into a message-list pane and a message-viewing pane, or by showing each message in its own window. My natural inclination (probably inherited from Eudora) is to open each message in its own window, but when you do this, it is impossible to use the keyboard to navigate between messages while viewing the message. You need to close the current message window, then arrow up/down, then open that message. It’s a small thing, but multiplied out hundreds of times a day it adds up. I am dumbfounded by the lack of this, as well as some of the strange keyboard commands that are there—the commands to send and check mail, two of the most common e-mail activities, are obscure and non-mnemonic.

Bad threading: Mail tries to group messages by thread, but also groups based on subject line. I have a client that uses the subject line “request” on every message he sends me, so every time he sends me work, I need to disclose an increasingly ungainly list of messages (I keep all the old ones around just because I am that way). Another weakness in this quasi-threading is that it is “flat”–it doesn’t show which message is replying to which. This is possible. Properly threaded e-mail been possible for decades. Apple should be able to figure it out.

Inclusion of .sig in body: As far as I can tell, most civilized mail clients segregate the signature line from the body of the message when you are editing. Not Mail. This means you needs to edit around the .sig, or add it back after you’ve deleted it.

Reply format oriented towards top-posters: I’m not going to say that top-posting is wicked and only evil, stupid people do it, but I don’t do it. [Update: Holy crap, look at the passions this topic arouses.] When replying to an e-mail, I try to interleave my points with the sender’s points. Mail is set up to encourage top-posting though: it places the cursor on a blank line above the quoted text, and prefaces the quoted text not with a salutation but with a more bureaucratic “on such-and-such a date, so-and-so wrote:”. So there’s that wasted blank line, and a first line that I almost invariably wind up editing (if you get e-mail from me that has that introductory line unedited, it means either that I’m really busy, that you are bugging me, or that I don’t know how to address you). Again, customized salutation lines have been around for a very long time. Mail should solve this and not assume that everyone is a top-poster. And when I want to interleave my response into the quoted text, Mail does a lazy job. The helpful thing would be to create three blank, unquoted lines with the cursor on the middle line. Mail creates one blank unquoted line. If I’m inserting a comment between two paragraphs of quoted text, there will be one blank quoted line just hanging there—it should clean that up. I think Eudora did.

Simple filtering: I use a lot of rules in Mail to direct my mail into the appropriate slots. I know that Boolean logic can get confusing, but Mail could offer an expert mode for creating rules like “If (A or B) not C” Yes, I know that Mailsmith can do this. I also know that Mailsmith has no support for Japanese. i18n is a real bright spot in Mail: before Mail, e-mail containing Japanese was a frequent PITA. I still have occasional problems with it, but the problem is mostly solved.

No queue for outgoing mail: This is another one of those Eudora features I miss. With Eudora, it was possible to write a message and queue it for delivery later (indeed, this was the default, though it was also possible to send immediately). Not with Mail: you send it, it’s gone. A five-minute grace period would save a lot of mistakes.

So far, these complaints are just of the “this is broken” variety. There are lots of ways Mail could actually be innovative.

Presentation of threads: This is one thing where gmail is out in front: it shows “conversations,” including both messages you received and sent as part of the conversation. Even if Mail would show all the messages in a mailing-list thread in one window—ideally with proper threading indicated—I’d be very happy. If it could go a step further and strip off all the detritus of footers and excess quoting, I’d be amazed.

Mailing-list handling: As long as we’re talking about mailing lists, Mail should be smart enough to recognize “hey, you’ve subscribed to a mailing list” and offer to set up special mailboxes and filters for it. Since almost all mailing lists run on a handful of platforms (Yahoo Groups, Google Groups, Mailman, and maybe one or two others), it should be possible to create special actions for quitting a list, etc, so that newbies who subscribe to a list they then decide to leave don’t post annoyed and annoying messages to the list asking “how do I leave this list?” (actually, this suggests a whole xmlrpc mechanism for managing lists, but that’s a topic for another day).

Ad-hoc mailing lists: this could be dangerous in the wrong hands, but sometimes it is useful to have a mailing list for a short period of time and a small number of people. With the right rules and actions, a mail client could emulate a mailing list well enough. There should be a quick way to set this up.

Alternate views: It could be useful (or at least interesting) to be able to view my mail database in calendrical form. Or by person. It would be interesting, for example, to see a histogram of all the mail exchanged between me and Gwen over time.

Old blog, new domain

I’m back to using Movable Type, although I’m intrigued enough with WordPress that I may continue fidding with it behind the scenes.

One thing that really is new is my domain name—it looks as if that deal is going through. My old e-mail address should continue working for a few months, and there should be redirects for this and a few other subdirectories that should also last for that period, but now would be a good time to update your address book and bookmarks. Wherever you see “crossroads.net”, change it to “8stars.org” (or “eightstars.org” if you prefer—they both work).

Why 8stars? It’s an obscure visual pun. The Chinese character for rice, ç±³, looks like an 8-pointed star (in fact, the Japanese nickname for the asterisk is “kome-jirushi,” or “rice-mark”). You can see a stylized version of this character in the header of this blog—I’ve actually been using that mark for some time. I would have registered 8star.org, but someone else already had. So I went with the plural. 8pointedstar.org is just too damn verbose.

It is with some regret that I part with the old domain name: I’ve had it since 1994, and really thought I’d have it permanently. As silly as it may be, that domain name had become part of my self-image. There’s also a practical reason to regret it: having a durable e-mail address has allowed some people to contact me at that address even after many years of silence. The flipside, of course, is that I get an ungodly amount of spam. So there’s a silver lining. Plus, well, there’s the money. Not enough to retire on, but enough to make a significant difference in my retirement fund, buy a few toys, and go on a trip.