Joel Spolsky’s book on designing computer interfaces is good reading, but this part made me pay attention:

And this is, fundamentally, the reason why command line interfaces are just not better than GUI interfaces, no matter what your UNIX friends tell you. Using a command line interface is like having to learn Korean to order food in a Seoul branch of McDonalds. Using a menu based interface is like being able to point to the food you want and nod your head vigorously: it conveys the same information with no learning curve.

I’m the kind of person who likes using a command-line interface.

I’m also the person who went to Seoul and ordered food in Korean. It wasn’t McDonalds, though. Maybe that’s the point: speaking even pidgin Korean can get you a better culinary experience than visiting McDonalds and pointing and grunting. To miss out on Korean food would be a cultural crime of the highest order!

On a related note, I decided last week that it was time to stop worrying about when the incompetent bureaucracy was going to get around to delivering my tax return form, the one that is due by the end of this month. (Answer: never.) I therefore walked into the town hall, and asked them in my broken Dutch. I can’t speak a whole lot of Dutch, but I can understand it pretty well; understanding German and English gives a pretty good basis for working out most of the language. Living in a place where about a third of the population is foreign and mostly-French-speaking Brussels is right next door, language politics play a big rôle. And while I may think it’s a bit petty at times (such as the bilingual tram timetable, with all the French officially bowdlerised out with a black marker pen), I have found that it is often useful to respect their delicate sensibilities.

At the town hall, they understood my problem, and sent me to the tax office—but not before first spending several minutes looking up the precise street number in a directory, which I took as a good sign.

The tax office I found very confusing. The front door spews the visitor right into the belly of the bureaucratic beast, into a corridor flanked by offices infested with filing cabinets. After a confused trip upstairs to an enquiry desk where they sent me back downstairs again, I buttonholed the first official-looking person I could find. After listening to my brief (and obviously mostly coherent) explanation, he introduced me to a man who could help me.

Five minutes later, I walked away with the relevant documents, happy that I wouldn’t be fined for non-compliance, and self-satisfied at having done it in a language that probably ranks about sixth in terms of my competence (below Spanish, but above Korean).

On the walk home, the heavens opened and I was soaked through, but that’s another story...