Keyboard shortcuts in Thunderbird, and the failures of visual metaphors

This is so great, I’m feeling all bouncy! There is a Thunderbird extension, Nostalgy, for using keyboard shortcuts to do everything. I was just feeling super pissy that this didn’t exist, and wishing someone would write it, because I hate mousing or trackpadding: it slows me down. If I’m just using typing shortcuts, then I can get the feel of the commands in my fingers, like playing piano or Nethack, and I don’t have to think about what to do. So, now I’m super happy that it *does* exist (thanks to Oblomovka for the link). You can get the latest version here and in fact there are instructions on how to update directly from svn for the latest bug fixes.

Meanwhile, I’m really enjoying yubnub and its keystroke commands. I don’t have to do any slow mousing that requires hand-eye coordination, or extra shoulder/wrist movements that flare up old RSI problems. Instead I am training my fingers to go “apple-K wp” if I want to search Wikipedia. It becomes automatic, and I don’t have to think about it. I can do it with my eyes closed, lightning fast.

I look forward to getting back into that mode for email! I like Thunderbird, but I miss Pine because of the speed and efficiency of keyboard shortcuts.

This was something we talked about during She’s Geeky, at Beth Kanter and Elizabeth Perry‘s session on non-profits. Someone mentioned that very small technological interventions can make huge changes in a whole organization.

I found this to be true at the businesses, schools, and universities where I did tech support and training. Training classes were useful, but the best way to help a person work with their computer was to watch them work for even a few minutes, and then teach them at least one way to improve their basic workflow. A few simple tricks made people more confident and productive and happy. Those tricks would then spread throughout an organization. Sometimes, this is as simple as teaching a person that in menus, the underlined letter or the keys next to the command are keyboard shortcuts that they can learn. Or, a small trick like using tabs in a web browser can help people enormously. Many people, especially baby boomers, don’t feel comfortable with basic navigation on a computer desktop, no matter what system they’re on. The concepts that go along with productivity tricks can also help people’s understanding of what they’re doing on a computer, so they feel less like they’re flailing and instead, have constructed a mental map or geography of what’s happening.

It is amazing, but most people who use computers every day at work and at home still don’t have basic concepts down. It is like they have their eyes shut, and are trying to walk around their house by counting the number of steps to go in each direction, and they’re never sure which direction they’re pointing until they hit a wall. But most computer classes are procedural. You end up with a step by step list of what to do to produce a result, but with no understanding of what just happened.

Do you need to know those basic concepts? Or is it like driving a car — you can be a good driver, without knowing what a carburetor is? To some extent, it is more and more like driving a car. We don’t need to know anything about bits and bytes and how computers work at a low level. But we *do* need to know what wheels and brakes are. The mental model that we hold is in our physical memory. We turn the steering wheel, the wheels shift, we can picture the wheels shifting, and then the car physically turns. To be a good end user of computer applications, I think that people need to create a similar mental geography. Maps and diagrams and metaphors can really help with that.

So here is my list of things to teach people who use computers a lot, but who are flailing.

Keyboard shortcuts:

– open, close, minimize a window or tab
– open, close, minimize an application
– find, select, copy, paste
– my tabs, let me show you them
– switch between applications or windows
– search (a folder or hard drive)


– The difference between closing and minimizing.
– Noticing, or how to tell, if an application is already open
– You can keep many applications open at once
– Recent history, recently opened documents or apps


– where is stuff on your hard drive
– what is a hard drive? what servers are you using? what does that mean?
– files and folders and network places; draw diagrams

Often, I’d start out trying to help someone with a complex issue, like teaching them how to do a mail merge, or fiddle around with a FoxPro or Filemaker database, and I’d end up going back to square one to teach them some of these concepts.

As I ponder this I think of a counterexample to the “mental map / diagram” idea I’m suggesting. Years ago, my otherwise pretty awesome boss at a K-12 school wanted me to create a particular thing that I loathed on instinct. Any of you who have been web developers will know what I mean! The year, 1996; the thing, a web site that was all a visual metaphor. The home page for the school web site would be a picture of a classroom-ish-office, or an office-ish-classroom, and all the things you might want to do on the website would link from pictures, like if you wanted to send email there would be a little mailbox, or to look at the cafeteria menu, click on the apple on the teacher’s desk. If you wanted to look up some document or form, click on the filing cabinet.

Number one, this would have been dog slow in the early web, on the LC-II Macs we had in most classrooms, and for people at home who only had dialup. Number two, the idea that the happy shiny pictures would not scare off the little kids who couldn’t read yet was just dumb, because one layer past the main page and you’d get to text. It is no good to click a 10-pixel-wide image of a phone book, if what you get is then… a phone book! Which if you’re 5, you probably can’t read and don’t want to use anyway. But number three, the whole idea of this visual metaphor sucked. We have invented words, and language, for a good goddamned reason and that is because it rocks! It’s efficient and powerful. If I want to look up what an apple is, in an encyclopedia, I don’t want to be floating in cyberspace and vaguely “clicking” through a 3-D taxonomy of shapes until I narrow it down to red round-ish blobs. We have words, and indexes, and alphabetical order, and search algorithms, and the convention of hierarchical menus of things-one-can-do-on-web-sites, to help us. We have the ability to group words tightly, to cluster them, in ways that makes sense for words but not for images. I don’t want to have to click on visual images one by one to figure out where to find the staff directory. I can scan a page of text very quickly to find that. Even much the most basic international symbols meant to bridge across cultures and languages are not obvious, and must be learned in context!

Possibly this is a bad story to tell because the end of the story is that when they did not listen to my objections, I mulishly ignored and resisted the Classroom Visual Home Page and instead just went off and made a plain, kick-ass, really slick and clean, page that did everything they really wanted and not what was coming out of their mouths, and that fit the specifications for dialup and legacy computers. And they used it for the next eight years. Which, while I am proud of it, maybe shows a bit too much about what it is like to have me work for you. You can’t always get what you want, but you get what you need.

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Deep, then flippant, thoughts on SXSWi

I’m getting ready to fly out to Austin for SXSWi, where I’m going to talk at a session on Sunday afternoon, “Fictional Blogging”. Marrit Ingman at the Austin Chronicle interviewed me here: Where the Wild Things Blog. For once, I’m not talking about myself or making anyone’s eyes glaze over with my wild Theories About Twitter:

Liz Henry, who will present the Fictional Bloggers panel with blog-novelist Odin Soli of Plain Layne fame, emphasizes the importance of disclosure. “We want lying we can trust, lying that’s transparent,” she explains. “We don’t want to feel stupid and be tricked by hoaxes. But some lying, the lying of fiction, is good and ethical. It creates distance between a person and the world, and in this distance we can explore crazy, fascinating ideas.”

Henry adds, “If corporations used fictional blogs seamlessly and with artistry, a lot of people wouldn’t mind the fakitude. They’d be entertained. We could potentially love the PSP2 fake bloggers just as we love Chaucer Hath a Blog if the PSP2 blog was any good.”

Instead of being good, the ad company responsible for Sony’s viral campaign, Zipatoni, drew the ire of consumers with the blog’s lack of corporate disclosure, ostensibly teenage pidgin, and blatantly fake “flogging.” (“so we started clowning with sum not-so-subtle hints to j’s parents that a psp would be teh perfect gift,” read the first entry on, itself shut down last December.)

“Companies who want to build out a fictional character should hire novelists and playwrights, role-playing gamers and LARPers, bloggers and social media people – creative world-builders who understand how to bring life to an online presence. Blog readers and Web-entertainment consumers are sophisticated. They want depth to a character,” Henry says.

Odin is an awesome geek and all-around internetty consultant sort of person as well as a novelist. I like how he includes his old .plan files as part of his web site. I always thought of them as old school blogging… And I wish I still had mine!

I’m working now for Socialtext now, as their open source community manager, but my panel has nothing to do with that and everything to do with my history as a bookish and writerly and bloggity person.

But because I’m being soaked up to my eyebrows in wikis right now, I talked about them with Marrit too, so bear with me while I write that up and quote myself at enormous unquotable length:

I’d love to see companies blog creatively from the points of view of minor characters in a novel or other fictional series. I don’t want Harry Potter’s blog; I want Dobby’s blog or Neville’s or Pansy Parkinson’s. Or better yet, a network of interlinked fictional blogs and worlds. In the imaginary world, we aren’t limited by truth, reality, history, or time. We can have Genghis Khan blogging in dialogue with Caroline Ingalls and Picard and two hundred different Harry Potters, with real people thrown in the mix. A smart company would interlock its fictional worlds and information and allow participation from everyone in the building of alternate fictional realities. There’s a lot of energy in fanfiction, for example. This energy should be welcomed by media owners and publishers, who need radical change in their approach to intellectual property.

Book publishers aren’t getting wikis either – or not enough of them are getting it. Every book needs a wiki. Every book needs a blog, but I’d push it further and say that they need wikis too, or blikis.

Wikis have enormous creative potential. Socialtext uses wikis and blikis to increase collaboration and speed up communication in big corporations. Corporate wikis change the ways people talk with each other at work, or how they approach the definition of a project. But novelists and creative writers need to play with wikis in many other areas. Wikis are clearly useful for worldbuilding in science fiction and fantasy. But let’s push it further. We could write a novel as a wiki. Someone should do that for Nanorimo! Maybe they already have. It’s a scary thought, isn’t it, if you’re a writer? It challenges the idea of authorship, authority, style, and the singular voice of the genius artist. That’s a fine challenge with a ton of potential. When we get our first excellent bestselling novel written by a wiki collective — better yet by an open collective — we’ll know that our society’s approach to the generation of knowledge has evolved. Fans groups of particular wikinovel hive minds will spring up. Literary criticism will change as well, and academia’s resistance to collaboration will have to evolve to change with the times.

Book publishers aren’t getting how to make a blog into a book. What is the value of the book? Besides editing the blog and making it portable, a book should annotate. The book of Riverbend’s blog, for example, could have been a fantastic book rather than just a nicely bound bundle of printouts. Add information, indexes, annotation, glossaries, diagrams, geneologies. Enrich a blog; don’t just print it. Publishers think people don’t want footnotes. They’re wrong. When people love a world, a character, or a subject — or a blog — they want to know everything, on different levels. A generation that grew up listening to DVD commentary tracks and writing complex Wikipedia articles about Pokemon characters does, indeed, love footnotes, and the option for depth of information they provide.


The conference was great last year. It was supposedly the year of everyone marveling at OMG there are girls and brown people here OMG OMG there is a line for the women’s room at a tech conference! Diversity was nice, I think it will continue, and I hope it has positive and tangible results for the “diversity-providers” as well as making everyone else feel all warm and fuzzy. The conference itself benefitted, if you think of their increase in attendees as being correlated with the array of speakers from different backgrounds – and I do think that’s true. I had to laugh a bit at the SXSW magazine that came in the mail last month, and its article on the British Invasion. What a spin. “Last year we had women! This year omg white guys are invading our conference! It’s so radical!” Every cliche was invoked. It was sweet, really! I’m not complaining — British geek guys are super sexy, they dress nicer than American white guys, they don’t make the bathroom lines longer for all the women (that’s important!) and I think they grace any conference with their cute accents and snarky comments and the way they act sort of uptight and then get drunk and let it all hang out. Kind of like Spock. The invasion’s fine with me!

In fact, right after I talked with Marrit about collaboration, world building, and wikis, I had lunch with Paul Youlten from Yellowiki, a very fascinating multi-tentacled person who is now building a collaborative fictional Latin American geographical space, Batán. I did not quiz him too deeply on the imperialist implications of his Bruce-Chatwin-esque wiki thing because I think it’s a fine cultural experiment, and if English-speaking people are going to construct a fake Latin America, they might as well make it overtly fake rather than constructing it on real cities where people actually live. (I realize that only about 3 people will get this or laugh at it, but it’s worth it to make them laugh really hard. This means you, Brian, Prentiss, and Gabby!)

(Meanwhile, as I’m blogging this in a cafe, there’s a guy across from me with a big Daviswiki sticker on his laptop. Wiki Everywhere!)

Back to the conference!

I’m looking forward to seeing some people I don’t see that often – to the rush of intense conversations – to eating breakfast at my favorite breakfast place ever which I shall not name because I don’t want you all to go there and make it too crowded – And to picking up some more Turitella fossils from the limestone bed of Shoal Creek, because I gave all the ones I picked up last year to little kids. And to going to all the wiki panels and open source panels and doing more soaking-stuff-up.

Also notable in my pre-conference rush: I got very excited at getting my cute little MOO cards. I have two kinds – one for my real name stuff and one for the main pseudonymous-me.

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