A voyage into the unknown

There is nothing like a foreign operating system to remind you how narrow your knowledge of computers may be.  All of my professional computing days and many of my academic ones have been spent on Microsoft platforms.

Although this is not my first foray into the land of Linux, I have recently started some home development projects based on a Linux machine.  My chosen “distro” is Ubuntu Jaunty Jackalope.  I do not have a good reason for not choosing the “Karmic Koala”, I just didn’t.

Having spent many years in GUI land, there was no way known I was going to start with a “server edition” and command prompt!   I remember the basics for navigating around a Unix system, but there is only so much fun you can have changing directories and listing files found in them!  I need as much “hand-holding” as possible, thank you!
I have a number of reasons for choosing Linux over Windows this time around.

  1. I wanted to see what a modern Linux system was like.
  2. I wanted some experience at using Linux.  (Never say “never”!  It may come in handy!)
  3. It was free!  (as in “free beer”)

I have already discovered that “free” as in “free speech” is not always what you will want.  For those of you still in Microsoft land, Ubuntu features a package manager that allows you to install software through a nice GUI.  Simply search a list of applications, choose the one you want and allow the magic to happen!   (Using the power of the Internet to update this list and retrieve the packages)

This is great, but it favours installations that “do not restrict your rights”.  After using Windows and software that features the words “All Rights Reserved”, I don’t really care!  “Free beer” still means more to me than “free speech”.  Well, when it relates to software, at any rate!

I wanted to use the Eclipse IDE on this system, which meant I needed a Java Runtime Environment installed.  The package manager will default to using an Open Source version.  It turns out that this does cause Eclipse to have a few head-aches and it is better to get the “original” from Sun.  This too is possible – it is just not the default behaviour of the package manager.

For those of you contemplating trying Linux, Ubuntu does have a classy offering.  As long as you get to the point of having Internet connectivity, you should not get too stuck!  The biggest thing I have noted is how often you will turn to editing configuration files and using a “terminal window” to perform operations on the system.

The internet appears to have answers to the most commonly asked questions such as, “How do I turn off the annoying system beep?”  .  I am sure earlier versions featured a way to do this from the desktop window, but these days, it is time to modify those configuration files!  Times such as this help remind me that there is nothing like a foreign operating system to remind you how narrow your knowledge of computers may be.  Wish me luck!

Look what I made!

As I mentioned earlier,  I recently fired up the RGV for the first time in a long time.  Before starting the bike, I needed to re-fit the various electronic boxes to the wiring harness.  Specifically the SAPC unit, and the CDI unit.  The SAPC unit attaches to the sub-frame of the motorcycle, which meant I had to re-install that as well.

This was the first time I had installed these parts, since installing the rear shock absorber from the GSX-R 600.  Unlike the standard RGV shock-absorber, the remote canister “piggy-backs” on the main body of the shock-absorber.  Although it did not touch the SAPC unit, this canister was in close proximity to the expensive box of electronic trickery. 

It was not hard to imagine that a minor tumble may have flexed the swing-arm sideways enough for the canister to collide and damage the SAPC unit.  Whether or not this sort of incident could occur was irrelevant – I decided it was safest to avoid the problem altogether by relocating the unit.

Mmmm.... Muesli...I am definitely no expert when it comes to fabrication of parts, but I was enthused with the optimism gained by having the right parts and tools for the job.  First effort was to make a cardboard mock-up of the tray.  I decided not to allow too much depth in the tray, as experience has taught me that the rear wheel travels further than would otherwise seem likely.  Careful measuring allowed for a neat fit between the rails of the sub-frame.  Having gone through this process, my only recommendation is you take great care to “flex” your cardboard cut-out as little as possible when lowering in and out of position.  Parts of the final design were influenced by the need to be able to manoeuvre the tray into position without bending it.

The rest of the build process was slow and methodical.  I used 0.6mm galvanised steel sheet – as that is what I had available.  After carefully measuring out the dimensions of the tray, a pair of tin-snips cut it to approximately the right shape, and then a bench grinder and hand-file finished off the shaping.

Folding the sheet was done by hand, holding the plate in the vice, with bits of timber to add support to either side of the fold line.   Somehow, I managed to avoid any silly mistakes caused by folding the sheet the wrong way!

Another rectangular sheet was riveted to the tray, and folded in position to form the “back piece” of the tray.  This then bolts to the sub-frame where the pillion seat brace is.

At this stage, I have yet to put bolts in to secure the SAPC and CDI boxes.   Final placement of these parts is still to be determined.  If there are any readers with an RGV, they may be wondering where I am planning on putting the battery.  – On a standard bike, this tray sits where the battery recess was.  Well, rest assured that I have not forgotten about it, but that is a story for another time.
Installed with components
Shot from rear of bike.

Usability

It takes a decent amount of time and effort to design a good user-interface.  One of the problems faced when making a user-interface is that it can take an enormous increase in effort to make an ordinary interface into an extraordinary one.  You may have come across a user interface (be it for a web-site, or an application) and been absolutely flummoxed by its operation.  Unfortunately, that does not mean that a great deal of time and effort were not spent trying to simplify it.  (Of course it may mean that no time and effort were spent trying to get it right!)

There is an extra pressure on designers of external web-sites.  Get it too far wrong and your customers go off to your competitor’s web-site.  In my experience, application developers can get away with worse user-interfaces.  If the program has the features people want, people will make the effort to learn how to use the application.  This should not be seen as an excuse not to care about the user-interface.  There is a saying that if your customers are not aware a feature exists, then it doesn’t.  Unfortunately, most user interfaces end up obscuring some functionality.  In a feature-rich application it becomes increasingly difficult not to do so.

Every time I hear a person talk about “learning” software, I feel that somehow the software has failed.  I would like software to be so intuitive that using it is “natural” – rather than a learned action.  It is probably an unrealistic expectation that all software will be like this, but that does not stop it being a worthy goal to work towards.

When I talk to non-technical people about using software, the thing that becomes apparent is that they all expect to have to learn how to use it.  No-one expects to sit down in front of a new word-processor and just use it to do their job.  One disheartening example came with the release of Microsoft Office 2007.  For me, the ribbon was a huge step in usability enhancements over the traditional tool-bar and menus approach.  The one resounding criticism I hear with Office 2007 was from existing Office 2003 (and prior) users:

“I used to know where everything was and then they went and changed it all.  Now I have to re-learn where things are”

Microsoft puts a great deal of time and effort into usability.  Hopefully, this means the learning curve for Office 2007 was not as severe as with previous versions.  The ribbon was designed to be “a better way”:  Task oriented user-interface is meant to be superior to functional oriented user-interface.  People have been “brought up” thinking along the lines of functional software rather than thinking the computer will aid them in completing their task.  This mind-set will change over time and wide spread adoption of task-oriented user interfaces.

If you ever have to write a user-interface remember this:

  • You either spend your time getting it right, or ask the users to spend their time figuring it out.
  • The world does not need more software that is difficult to use.