Tuesday, February 17, 2009

The virtues of Vista and the bounds of Smart Computing

I've been meaning to write an entry extolling the virtues of Windows Vista. On the whole, it is not especially whelming, though I do think that the degree of disdain it has received has been wholly unfair. I have two vista computers (clean installs) and neither has ever crashed. Whereas my iPhone crashes about once a week.

The main benefit is that it incorporates indexing into its directory system, so that searching files is fast. This has allowed me to adopt the google philosophy of "search, don't sort" which has saved me tons of time. Of course google desktop allowed you to do that in Windows XP, but this is just neater. After years of developing careful file saving habits (starting with our first DOS based x286 back when I was 10 or so), it is still nice to not have to worry so much any more. (I still am nostalgic sometimes for the abbreviations I developed back when file names were limited to 8 letters)

The other neat thing I discovered recently is that they now seem to incorporate some kind of "smart sorting" algorithm when you alphabetize a directory's contents. If you look at the picture, the files are sorted as:

While this is not strictly alphabetical (lecture10 should come after lecture1 and before lecture2) it is far more useful.

I used to be more diligent in naming things lecture01 and lecture02 to avoid this problem.

I used to worry when software tries to be "smart" and try to do things for me, because when software is smart, it makes it harder for me to be smart, and forces me to be lazy and stupid and just accept what it is doing for me. In this case, when I ask it to alphabetize, it doesn't really alphabetize, but instead tries to guess what I intend. But in this subtle way, I am quite pleased.

Google, too. I used to appreciate the elegance of google's original pagerank where sites were ranked based on how many other sites linked to it. It wasn't the perfect algorithm, but if you understood how it ranked pages, you could know its weaknesses, and could think for yourself how to be smart enough to circumvent them. Since it came out, google's search has adopted lots of proprietary algorithms that it hides from me, but on the whole, that's ok, because it works, so I don't mind being lazy.

Apple, though, goes too far in being "smart." It frustrates me that it thinks features like copy and paste and customization of just about anything on the iphone would be too confusing for me, and so it just decides what it think is best for me, instead of giving me a choice.

I guess it depends on personal preference. Hopefully there will always be room in the market for both.


James Lin said...

Intuitive filename sorting got added in XP, not in Vista. I actually turn it off because I've run into some cases where it doesn't do what I want (although I'm hard-pressed to remember what cases those were).

I'm not sure what you mean by Vista incorporating indexing into its directory system. Does it have a background process to index files? I think XP has that too if you feel like enabling it (or maybe it comes with Office; don't remember). Also, if you want to search just filenames and not file contents, I highly recommend Search Everything, which is crazy fast.

Bah, no link to my weblog post on "smart software"? =P

HoBs said...

somehow I missed that post in my rss feed. You actually put it much better than I did: programs that try to make too many decisions on their own become more mysterious.

Yeah, i was wondering when the smart sorting was introduced. I was going to try it on an xp system, but my internet connection to use remote desktop at the cafe was too slow, so I gave up. and tried googling to find out. but not extensively.

yeah, by indexing, I meant indexing the contents of the files. This way, I don't need to worry about how I name files.

it's nice that there is a search bar built into the folder windows. which xp definitely didn't have.