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Fixed Versus Floating Positions In Software And Our Brains

by Mike Levin SEO & Datamaster, 11/26/2013

This article addresses an old favorite issue of mine: fixed-positions versus floating positions for user interface elements, and in a broader sense, for tools in general. My go-to example is always the master violinist. The design of a violin isn’t going to change much during your journey towards mastering playing it. Likewise, the location of keys on computer keyboards doesn’t change (much). But that reliability pretty much totally collapses as soon as you look at the software tools and apps running on those computers.

That makes things pretty tough for someone who has to treat tech like his violin. How does one forever move closer towards mastery when everything underneath you is a moving target? This was pulled into sharp focus again for me recently, as I was called upon to communicate a product specification with a diagram. What tool do I pull out of my toolbox? Illustrator would have been my choice years ago, dusting off my old CS2 install-CDs and doing yet another dubious software install. And what for? To run old software with an annoying activation process that might not work? Should I hunt for a new license or get permission to get in on one of my employer’s “seats”? So I can re-learn everything that’s changed since my many versions ago—more frustration!

It’s a challenge with things like Adobe Illustrator to achieve total oneness with your software when you’re not actually an active graphics professional going along on the upgrade ride. It’s just another giant “reset button” that gets pressed on your skills every once in awhile. Must one be a full-time professional in the subject-matter to master the tools of its trade? NO! I want to be a master craftsman in my, and a few other tangentially related fields—WITHOUT having to pay the guild fee of every field. But how? This article dives into what really fixed-location versus floating location means, in terms of muscle memory and skill mastery—and the role that free and open source software can play in… uh… shall we say, violin-ifying your software toolbox.

What’s going on in your brain that makes one work so much faster when positions are fixed? Well, it’s obvious: you’re learning and committing things that are never different to memory and making it habit. Keyboard shortcuts frequently work this way, and that’s one of the saving graces of Illustrator. One of the worst things a software company can do to you is change keyboard shortcuts on you. When they do, you’re almost knocked back to square one, and you might as well go learn new software.


Things get mapped in our brain. It’s all about the location of thing one to the location of thing two. This is particularly true for the sense of sight and hearing. Sight establishes location and sound is the thing to associate. That’s why you recall what you were listening to the last time you walk or ride past a particular location. There a strong argument that the entire human experience is a hierarchical conglomerate of such links being formed over time. This is an argument Ray Kurzweil makes in his recent book.

Now, we all march relentlessly forward through time, giving us plenty of opportunity to reinforce these associations, and provide a broad assortment of variations on the theme. Whether or not this is from where consciousness arises as Ray implies, the “shape” of things happening in our brain is pretty hard for me to deny. Learning isn’t precise. But when it is, you’ve got a fixed position, and the ability to master things quickly. When it’s not, you’ve got floating positions, and a constant impediment to mastery.

In your brain, somewhat-similar experiences start to cluster up in the same location and start creating a fuzzy-edged templates for recognizing other similar things that come in through sensory input. It’s a sort of fuzzy-index against all prior experiences. Floating locations and the dockable, hide-able, collapsable, arrangeable panels of Adobe software relies heavily on this fuzzy template thinking. You arrange your panels the way you like—customizing Photshop (or whatever), such as it were, and never change them again. You simulate fixed position to get faster. Sit down at someone else’s Photoshop installation or a new install, and you’re lost again until you arrange things just-so and settle in.

But more rigidly fixed locations are so powerful. Like your oven. Your oven is in a fixed position. As a kid, if you touched a hot oven, where is that mapped to in your brain? That location in the kitchen. Imagine how horrific it would be to have a hot oven walking around your house. Touch that hot oven, pull hand away. Okay, got it! Fixed position, fast learning! Linkages are strongest when emotions run high and sensory input is intense.

However, when we bring this sharp, clear, emotional learning process to bear on software, it would seem we are at a disadvantage. Our memories are not like video recorders. Our experiences are a never ending flow of varying intensity residual impressions—abstract shapes and forms that are our brain’s impressions of sensory input. This stuff gets fractal-compressed and melded and linked with other similar experiences, and then is only accessible through those linkages.

So, imagine how hard it is to remember clicking what icons have what results, if you’re not somehow instantly delighted or horrified at the consequence? Just sort of poking aimlessly around and trying to map everything in an analytical, searching way has got to be just about the worst way to learn. Layer on top of this the fact that the very location of those buttons is likely to keep moving on you… well, you get the idea.

Without those strong linkages, a thought can rapidly become orphaned and forgotten. This orphaning and sometimes even deliberate filtering out of experiences gets worse as we get older. My child just recently turned three, and the amount of learning in these three years is astounding. A few lines on a blank slate is much more striking than the millionth re-crisscross passing over that same location. If we could just roll back our mental state to what it was like when we were children, we could learn so much faster. Everything is new, therefore either intense, surprising, or emotional. As adults, everything is just sort of blah.

It’s s good thing our memory is partitioned into short term and long term storage, or we’d never have that blank-slate feeling like we do in the morning. I think waking up each morning helps us recapture a little bit of that child-like state. Sleeping and dreaming allows portions of our brain that we’re reluctant to hand over control to in our conscious waking hours to have free reign for at least a few hours. Sleep shuffles these linkages around, commits a few to long-term memory (or at least the processed results), and takes a giant eraser to the blackboard of our short-term memory. Hopefully, the important stuff made the leap over to long-term, and the right associations have been made that your conscious mind couldn’t see the day before. It’s called “sleeping on it”.

Another interesting fact I learned over an NPR program this year is that chemically in our brains, remembering an experience is indistinguishable from having the experience in the first place. That seems to make perfect intuitive sense, since the original experience is only any different from recall by virtue of the fact that you were receiving sensory input from your body at the time. During recall, you are playing back your recollection of that sensory input. But the “experience” can be indistinguishable in your brain processes.

Each time you re-live something in your mind, you quite literally do re-live it—and your imagination can insert and fill-in information that wasn’t really there in the first place. I’m pretty sure this is why people are convinced they saw UFOs. Ever see a B1 stealth bomber fly over? It is unearthly, and touches something primal in us the way poisonous snakes just look evil. This is tied to learning, of course. We know certain things merely by being human.

How? It is likely that those visual cues of what represents critically important information eventually get coded into us. Those who can recognize a snake with a diamond-shaped head as harboring venom pouches, live to tell the tale and pass on their genes. Rinse and repeat this survival trait for a few million years, and you’ve got genetically encoded knowledge. Linkages are pre-made. Certain visual patterns are linked to survival instincts.

Hear that rattle sound? Get out of there! Animals that boldly announce their presence are usually best avoided. We just know that. The same goes for the smell of rancid food or the feeling of being left alone far from camp. These are universals, where learning is easiest. It’s already in us, and just needs a little reinforcement or affirmation to permanently guide our behavior—usually for the better.

Learning gets harder as the material isn’t so obviously connected to our survival—or alternatively, our prospect to procreate. The nature of the thing you’re trying to learn makes a lot of difference. Is it going to impact your life? How far off is the reward? Will it help you earn more in your next job or impress the girl? If yes, you will probably have more chance of learning. The direct emotional component or intensity of experience is replaced by a more abstract far-off reward—but near enough to overcome our natural attention deficit for things that don’t matter.

Putting away your toys is the quintessential example. Or in adult-terms: staying organized and not procrastinating. The more organized you are, the more prepared you are for any eventuality. Your resources are indexed in your mind to a fixed location, and the small investment of putting things away after you used them ensures rapid readiness when next you need it. Think Batman’s utility belt or a master carpenter’s tending to the tools in his toolbox. What if he could never remember where his hammer was?

This draws images of a Felix Unger anal retentive spending so much time cleaning and organizing, that he misses the point of living. If you don’t know the reference, Google The Odd Couple. And yes, the rapid readiness of extreme organization can be taken too far.

You don’t need to be utterly organized in all things—only in the things that matter. Once again, it’s the Pareto Principle. Organize yourself in the 20% of stuff that makes all the difference, and let the rest take care of itself. And preferably, only in a small set of things so that you can travel light. That is, a small set of tools that can apply to a wide variety of problems. Batman has tons of stuff in his utility belt, but he uses his Batmobile and Bat-a-rang most. And one could imagine he could be stripped of all his gadgets and still pull through, because his most organized tool is his mind.

And despite the fanciful Batman example, so it is with our lives, and particularly our professional tools. And it all goes back to our brain-mapped patterns that I started this article out with. Precise tools that have fixed locations—both for where the tools themselves are located, and then again where the parts and controls WITHIN the tool can be found can be mastered in a way that their tough-to-find and internally fluid part positions can’t.

So again, think about software. Apps with keyboard shortcuts have fixed positions. Apps with arrangeable docks have floating positions. The former lends itself to mastery. The other does not. Of course, a program with dockable panels can also have keyboard shortcuts, and you will notice people who have really mastered Photoshop make heavy use of those shortcuts. Imagine a policeman having to figure out where the trigger on his gun moved to every time he has to use it.

The same fixed-location of tools applies with martial artists, master musicians, and master craftsmen of almost every sort. A perfect tool that has been refined and perfected over time reaches an apex. Everything extraneous or a distraction from its main use, or easily accomplished some other way gets stripped away until only the pure core tool remains. Almost every variation off of that core simple design are short-lived novelties—things that end up on holiday gift items, but never get used.

So, of course a hammer itself is of very limited use, so we’re talking about tool boxes. And in some cases, we’re talking about Swiss Army Knives, depending on exactly how small and portable you’re really truing to get. But the idea is that a professional will spend the extra effort to carry around a toolbox. And so it is with professional tools too. What happens when a junior designer loses his job, or is working freelance? They have to still pay that $49/mo guild fee to Adobe, or the toolbox just disappears. Wow!

I am striving for a sort of fixed-location in my tools, yet having those tools exist on just about any hardware I sit down on. The Unix command-set (that is also present in Linux) has been a welcome discovery, as has the vim text editor. To a somewhat lesser degree, but also a valid fixed-lcoation discovery is the git and Mercurial distributed revision control systems, and to an even lesser degree (because they’re not afraid to obsolete old features), the Python programming language.

Now, my attention goes back out to visual software like Adobe Illustrator. Is there anything with keyboard shortcuts “in all cases?” Just about the only credible attempt that I’ve seen has been the Ubuntu Unity HUD innovation. It basically makes all the items on the drop down menu searchable by taping the Alt-key once and starting to type. Usually, the Alt-key is used as a modifier key, never used on its own. So even items nested inside menus become accessible with a few (fixed-location) keystrokes on the keyboard.

But this article isn’t really just building up to how one OS is tackling the problem, because this is not something that should be handled at the OS-level. As great and wonderful Linux may be, I want to use all my apps on any OS, getting whatever advantage for that particular platform that the OS du jour may offer. And THAT is a remarkably big challenge.

Thus-far, my investigations to a replacement to Photoshop and Illustrator has led me down the path to Gimp and Inkscape, respectively. And that’s where I am today—investing the time and energy re-learning what I have been having to re-learn over and over over the past 25 years. Hopefully, these will be the last bitmap and vector programs I will ever have to learn—in a good way! Because I intend to master them.