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Letters from our readers

Evolving Interfaces
A decade of computer interface research has come up with “sort by date?” This isn’t a revolution at all. In fact, as far as I can tell, none of the interfaces mentioned in Claire Tristram’s article (“The Next Computer Interface,” TR December 2001) offer me anything that I can’t do today. We can already find files by textual content or date. There are plenty of picture browsers that show thumbnails of directories to make choosing and organizing graphics easier. The so-called next-generation interfaces described in your article are still limited by their physical interface-keyboard and mouse. Because the keyboard and mouse coevolved with the desktop metaphor, it’s no surprise that the desktop is still the most efficient way to manage computer files. Once we develop new physical interfaces to communicate with computers, we will start to see better on-screen interfaces.

Rob Tapella
Redwood City, CA

The desktop metaphor helped make the transition from the familiar office with files and folders to the unfamiliar cyberspace. But the concepts of hyperlinks and interactive documents don’t fit with the desktop metaphor, and  researchers looking for new metaphors are on the wrong track. As history has taught us, the proper way to make an airplane wasn’t to use a bird metaphor with flapping wings but rather to strap an engine to a barn door. Likewise, for managing life in cyberspace, we need some truly new breakthrough in thinking to create a system for organizing information and communications.

Eric Shank
Sebastopol, CA

The American consumer has grown tired of obviously self-serving pronouncements from computer scientists like those mentioned in Claire Tristram’s article. The last thing we need to do is throw out the desktop metaphor, which is proven to be simple, serviceable and logical, for some untried contrivance of a sequestered academic. Better to evolve, refine and expand the existing paradigm.

Alex Cichy
San Rafael, CA

Spy Games
In Kevin Hogan’s article “Will Spyware Work?” (TR December 2001), the author states that Echelon technology could monitor domestic communications, “though that is prohibited under U.S. law.” But Echelon is a cooperative project of the United States, Britain, Australia, Canada and New Zealand; while it is illegal for these governments to spy on their own citizens, each country claims the right to spy on every other country. Therefore, the British and Aussies, for example, could use Echelon to spy on private communications in the United States, and then share their data with the U.S. government.

Richard Burmeister
Fairfield, IA

Tools of Desperation
Simson Garfinkel comes to the somewhat paranoid conclusion that the rationale behind the government’s actions to curb future terrorist attacks is to limit civil liberties (“How Not to Fight Terror,” TR December 2001). I see something very different. I see a government that is desperately choosing among a short list of existing but often inadequate technologies, such as wiretapping, to combat terrorism and calm the legitimate fears of the American public. It is incumbent upon individuals with a public forum to spark active discussion and development of new technologies that are not fraught with the overtones of infringement on civil liberties rather than criticize the desperate use of our only existing tools.

Anthony J. Dennis
Portland, OR

Faces in the Crowd
After reading Alexandra Stikeman’s article “Recognizing the Enemy” in your December issue, I question the feasibility of face recognition. Do we want airport security to grab everyone whose visa has expired before boarding a plane and deport them on the spot? If you look like a famous terrorist, will your life be a living hell? Everywhere you go, cameras will call out to the cops. Remember the words of Benjamin Franklin: “They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.”

Steve Guenther
Tampa, FL

Correction: In David H. Freedman’s article “Fuel Cells vs. the Grid” (TR January/February 2002), the proportion of hydrogen atoms that constitute Earth was misstated. Hydrogen is Earth’s third most abundant element and accounts for about three-quarters of the mass of the universe.

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