Artificial intelligence

Drivers Wanted

Driving home from my family's house after Easter got me to thinking about how much control we relinquish to machines and pointless man-made processes. There I was, zipping along the highway with cruise control on, to make sure I wouldn't get a ticket. At one point in my journey, I remember thinking to myself, "How did I get here?" I realized at that moment, even though I was still heading home the correct way, I couldn't really remember the interval of time since switching on "auto-pilot."

Then it dawned on me: What a great analogy for point-and-click website generator programs! Sure, you can whip up a quick website with a WYSIWYG tool, and it might even look good, on the surface. Heck, you could even make a product and name it Web Standard to try and cash in on the buzz-words.

However, if this is the only way you know how to make websites, then it is like using cruise control needlessly. It's like watching a car commercial and seeing the small text in the bottom corner that reads: "Professional driver on a closed course." Somehow I know, that no matter how savvy of a driver I am, I will probably never be as good as this nameless, faceless professional. Likewise, if you never challenge yourself to hand-code, then you will always be dependent on a crutch. Like a bowler using bumper-lanes, wouldn't you eventually want to learn how to do it correctly, and with precision?

Programmatic Tendancies

I think this is the reason that multiplayer video games tend to be much more popular, or at least have more longevity than their single player counterparts. It's not that the game itself is lacking, but it becomes too stagnant and predictable. Human players are more challenging (most of the time), because they are often illogical and come up with new and inventive ways to compete.

Another pet peeve of mine are programs that think they're so important that they always need to start up at the same time Windows does. This does not seem to be as big of a problem on a Mac, but it sure does feel insulting to your intelligence when it happens on a PC. For instance, nearly every Adobe product acts like it's doing you a favor, such as attempting to help you by quick-starting the Reader. I like PDF files just as much as the next guy, but it's rarely the first thing I want to run when booting my computer.

I think that if a program has such tendencies, it needs to be up to the user when installing the program whether or not it runs on startup. Additionally, the installation process is not the only time that the user should get to choose. I was surprised when I decided recently to not have the Gmail Notifier run automatically, but there was no way to toggle it in the options. One program that does offer this is Gizmo, a nifty little voice chat IM that I've used to do podcasts with Dustin Diaz. Check out this screenshot of user-friendliness.

Junior Varsity

Another funny thing that happened to me this week was recieving a letter via postal mail asking me to please login to the Asbury Theological Seminary website, and fill out my financial aid application for next year. This struck me as odd, because here was a printed out piece of paper, requesting that I do something online. Would not an email with a convenient link have saved both lumber and time? Anyway, I sent an email to the address listed in the letter.

I kindly informed them that I no longer require financial aid, because we are paying for the remainder of my graduate school education out-of-pocket, to avoid having to take out any more student loans. I recieved a nice personal response asking that I fill out my financial aid application regardless, simply selecting no loans for this year. Otherwise, they have no way of knowing if I just forgot, even though I had already sent that email. I told one of my friends about this, and he said something to the effect of: "So, they want you to do their book-keeping? Man, that is so Junior Varsity!"

I think that's a fair analogy. JV usually refers to a team of sincere people who, despite their best efforts, simply are not good enough to be considered world-class. Having gone to a large state school for college, seminary always felt more like being in high school again. Anyway, I logged on and filled out the application, leaving my character references blank, since they are only required if you are requesting loans. It said so right there on the form.

Wrong! I quickly learned that for the form to be valid and submit correctly, there have to be names in those fields. Shoot, that's no fun, because who wants their personal information given out needlessly? I couldn't think of anyone I wanted to list arbitrarily, so I did what any fairly cynical person would do, and used fake names. The school now has my comrades Blah1 and Blah2 on file, in the event they would need to cross-reference my blank application for zero money. Phew, glad that's over. Here's a screenshot.