Saturday, November 24, 2018

User Interface

I finally bit the bullet and used my oven yesterday.

I actually have used this oven before, but it must have been ten years ago. It intimidates and frustrates me because a) the oven's conceptual categories don't match mine and b) the crucial feedback mechanism -- the little register that tells you the "phase" and reports the temperature setting -- is so dim that it can only be read -- if it's nighttime -- by switching off all the lights in the house and crouching down close to it. In daytime it can't be read at all.

So Martha and I sat down and read the owner's manual, the other day. We searched for a way to embrighten the register, but no luck. But at least I got over the conceptual stumbling blocks. It had seemed to me that, having set a "preheat" temperature and attained it, you should then proceed to set the baking time, using the "bake" button. Because now you're going on to the "bake" phase, capiche? That's what we're doing here, we're baking something. But the oven doesn't think that way. There is a "preheat" button. What it does is bring the oven up to a certain temperature, 350 degrees by default, and it leaves it there. Fair enough. Then there is a "bake" button. What this does -- so far as I can tell -- is go straight to whatever behavior will maintain the oven indefinitely at the set temperature. "I'm now baking at 350," the oven says to itself, even though it's sitting there at 70 degrees. After a while it will get there, but it won't ever engage the upper element to do so. And once it achieves 350, it will stay there forever. So it's very, very like the "preheat" button, and I'm at a loss to understand why anyone would ever use it. "Heat up to 350, but be slow about it!" Whatever.

So my first real conceptual difficulty was my conviction that, since I was setting out to bake something, I should at some point press the "bake" button. I have cleared that away. In the ordinary course of things I will never touch the "bake" button at all, unless what I want to do is reduce the heat. (I suspect I could use the "preheat" button for that as well, though I haven't run the experiment.)

My second conceptual difficulty was my naive belief that the oven would not let me turn it on for perpetuity. Surely it would turn itself off, by default, after a day, or three days, or something? Not a bit of it. Here we probably run into Things That People Do With Ovens that are beyond my ken: food drying maybe? Anyway, it ain't so. Once it achieves its heat, it will stay there forever, until the stars burn out. If you want to limit the time it will stay on, you use the "bake time" button, and then set the time using the up and down arrow buttons. The time set will appear in the amber lights that cannot be read in daytime, just as the temperature does. It goes up or down in 5 minute increments. To turn off the oven -- which seems to me to be a pretty fundamental oven command -- you push the "cancel" button. Cancel? Really? In what world does "cancel" mean "off"?

I write this all out -- recognizing that it must be tedious reading -- in order to fully wrap my mind around it. It's deeply counterintuitive, to me. And it makes me grateful for the innumerable good user interfaces I use every day. I don't often encounter an interface, any more, that isn't immediately understandable. It also drives home how bad it is, for the user, to not have an immediate response to every command, a way to know it was received and understood. In theory, knowing that every press of the "up" button increases the heat by five degrees, or the time by five minutes, should suffice. In practice, not being able to see the temperature or time induces real anxiety, anxiety strong enough to have kept me from using the thing for years. 

Anyway. I baked some chicken thighs and potatoes, and they were good. A great leap forward. From the stovetop to the profundities beneath. New worlds.

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Crowding; Revelation

It's odd that practically no one ever talks about the centrality of invisibility, in The Lord of the Rings.

In Tolkien's world, to claim power and to disappear are often one and the same act. Or (to say the same thing, but reversing the poles) you can appear, or you can wield power, but you can't do both. (This is something somebody should probably have explained to President Trump: it would have saved many tears.) Those who choose power become invisible, and ultimately nameless. It's a disquieting idea, but I think it's one that bears a lot of rumination.

(The exception to the power/visibility trade-off is Aragorn-as-King-Elessar, and it's precisely Aragorn's oddly repeated revelation-of-majesty scenes that were most stirring to me, in my youth, and are now least convincing to me, in my maturity. When Tolkien tries even to approach power that is visible, everything starts to wobble, and his language gets ever more archaic and grandiose. I loved it, as a teenager, but as an adult I know the signs all too well: he's trying too hard.)

I've played for fifteen years, here, with the gratifications and drawbacks of being visible. The yen to disappear has never been absent, but lately -- lately it has crowded in on me. Visibility makes it difficult or imprudent, sometimes, to say exactly what I mean: one of my most characteristic things to do these days is to write out a paragraph or a couple pages in response to something... and to think: no. Not here, not now, not in this persona anyway. And {delete}.

I was reading the Wikipedia article on the pseudonymous Elena Ferrante, and found the longing overwhelming. Oh, to be invisible, and to say exactly what I mean!

On the other hand: "He did not feel invisible at all, but horribly and uniquely visible..." There's that, too.

Sunday, November 11, 2018


A sunny morning in late Fall, a quiet Sunday morning. A scrub jay complaining somewhere offstage. Shadows of leaves. Reflections from the birdbath making wavery lines on the hedge, as if the whole world were lightly underwater. Beyond, through the thin spots of the hedge, the sun wavers on the neighbor's lawn and chicken run as well, and slantwise to that a few yellow bamboo leaves drift down.

There's a huge sadness behind me. I'm curled like a cat in its lap, feeling the rise and fall of its breath. Who knew it would take so long? How many corners would be turned, to reveal further corners in the far distance?

But. To practical things. Start the chili, get a shower, go into work and get a few processes underway. I'm getting better at inhabiting my life, at bringing my attention to what's actually under my hands. Thinking about shopping and cooking and cleaning, deploying my resources of time and attention as if I actually meant to have the life that I have. I have camped in my life too much, spent too much time in it as if it was a hotel room rather than a house. I've indulged myself too much, ordering stuff in and leaving it to the staff to clean up: that's one way to look at it. Or you could say, I have indulged myself too little: I've never bothered to make myself really at home. I'm trying to do that now. 

But today I'm wistful, and full of regrets and second thoughts. Other half-lived lives move away, out of my range of vision. If I try to look straight at them they disappear.

A book I read recently suggested that I write about what my life will be like ten years from now, when all my dreams have come true and all my projects are accomplished. The exercise was so foreign to me -- entailed thinking so differently than I usually think -- that I resolved to do it. But I've failed so far to get started. Ten years, who knows if I even have ten years? What should I be hoping for? What might I be trying to do, in that time scale? I think in the main it's a good thing not to be obsess on the future, not to make life something that's going to happen later when I've achieved X or obtained Y. But drawing a complete blank on one's future is maybe taking it too far. And surely how I order my life implies its ten-year goals, for better or worse? My habits and daily activities point to some ten-year conclusion: is it one I want?