World Usability Day

Visit the World Usability Day site and take in the world-wide activities that are happening today. This one sounded entertaining (in Auckland, New Zealand)

A hiliarious remote control shootout! Eight attendees vied for the title of “Owner of the most unusable remote control”.

The winner wasn’t actually the most number of buttons, or the least amount of buttons actually used – but the one that managed to switch off all the electrical equipment in the room through the accidental push of a random button!

Another good resource is Jakob Nielson’s site useit that focuses primarily on web usability. The remarkable thing about this site is that inspite of the fact that web development has been going on for around 10 years, the same mistakes keep getting made over and over again.

If today’s activities inspire you, you might consider joining the Usability Professionals Association.

The State of Public Web Services

A Snapshot of Public Web Services” (warning PDF) appeared in the March 2005 issue of the SIGMOD Record. It discusses how many of the publicly available ‘web services’ are really just data retrieval services or search services. Available services also tend to be fairly poorly documented (fewer than 10 words) and in more cases than not, contain malformed WSDL. In fact, many of the services reported on tend to be more at the ‘Hello, World’ end of the spectrum — their existence in the directory more out of experimentation than utility.

It should be noted that the services in question were trawled out of xmethods.com and the like, so they don’t represent the services or APIs that sites like Flickr, Google, Amazon or others expose.

I believe that it would be very valuable to have an inventory/registry of proper/richer services that are available on the Internet. This would certainly facilitate the growing trend of people wiring up one sites functionality with another sites services to create something altogether different. Such a site could enforce some level of validation and even provide semantic web capabilities such as OWL-S description and composition facitlities to aid the systematic discovery and usage of said services.

Facilitating Innovation

The FastCompany review of the new book The Ten Faces of Innovation sounds like an interesting read. I personally find dealing with people who are always trying to find a reason to say ‘no’ rather than understanding the strengths and weaknesses of a thought, idea or approach somewhat tedious and backward. They don’t seem to understand that doing the same old thing is not what positions you or your customers for a better future. Perhaps this book will give some additional insight into guiding people to thinking ‘not “no”, but “how”‘.

Innovation is all about people. It is about the roles people can play, the hats they can put on, the personas they can adopt. It is not just about the luminaries of innovation like Thomas Edison, or celebrity CEOs like Steve Jobs and Jeff Immelt. It is about the unsung heroes who work on the front lines of entrepreneurship in action, the countless people and teams who make innovation happen day in and day out.

And by adopting some of these innovation personas, you’ll have a chance to put the devil’s advocate in his place. So when someone says, “Let me play devil’s advocate for a minute” and starts to smother a fragile new idea, someone else in the room may be emboldened to speak up and say, “Let me be an anthropologist for a moment, because I personally have watched our customers suffering silently with this issue for months, and this new idea just might help them.” And if that one voice gives courage to others, maybe someone else will add, “Let’s think like an experimenter for a moment. We could prototype this idea in a week and get a sense of whether we’re onto something good.” The devil’s advocate may never go away, but on a good day, the 10 personas can keep him in his place. Or tell him to go to hell.

Sorting through the hype 2.0

The hype-laden rollout of Flock has got me thinking about all of the stuff that is being rolled up and paraded about under the umbrella of the what’s-cool-now ‘Web 2.0’ moniker. Having lived (and worked) through this the first Internet gold rush, it’s a bit puzzling as to what is at the heart of this and if it is really paying attention to other dynamics in the web-space.

There certainly have been some improvements in the end user experience through the evolution of CSS and the ramp up of AJAX interfaces, but this, in and of itself, hardly seems a revolution (sort of reminds me of when web design evolved from frames, to tables, to CSS with a brief detour through detestable flash-only site interfaces).

In addition to more dynamic interfaces, another attribute that most of these new apps share is some sort of an API which allows them to be extended, mixed and aggregated in ways that the original developers never intended or imagined (think google maps). This appears to be another expression of the growing traction of web services and it’s underlying emphasis on interoperability. Besides, once I have my information on the wire, I want to be able to selectively share it at other venues as well. Not that I make use of APIs explicitly to do so, but one of the driving reasons for creating this site was to have a place to link in all of the ‘stuff’ that I have on the web (aka my InfoCloud).

Being able to share and replicate ‘my stuff’ is one of the things that was initially attractive about Apple’s .Mac offering. I could keep bookmarks, calendars, etc in synch between various systems and have them available via the web. To do so, I also need to have my data bottled up in and dependent upon .Mac (and pay an annual fee). Now that reasonable substitutes are appearing, I can see making more use of them and becoming less reliant on the .Mac offerings.

Many of these ‘2.0’ apps seem to be simple-minded extensions of the web-based email systems that have been around for years — except now with a focus on news feeds. How many newsreader applications do we need? It seems that every week a new one is being announced. Thus far, the only newsreader that I have seen that makes a difference is searchfox. Searchfox pays attention to what I pay attention to and presents my feeds based upon what I really want to read. With close to 200 feeds, that is a big value add for me. The relevance seems to be a bit more intelligent than the amazon.com recommendations wherein you buy one CD by, say, David Sylvian and it recommends you all of his CDs rather than artists that are similar to or related to him (as if you couldn’t find all of his CDs by searching by name for them). The creator of searchfox, Esteban Kozak is also genuinely interested in feedback (and very responsive in implementing the best suggestions). I like this app enough that I am in the process of going ‘cold turkey’ with NetNewsWire lite on my Mac at home and Sharpreader at work by converging all of my feeds into searchfox.

Following in the parade after news readers are calendar, events and to-do apps. The best one of these that I have come across is rememberthemilk (which I have commented on previously). I find this app to be truly useful and elegant in its design and execution. The ability to share the lists via the web is of great value. One of the things that the site needs is an API to make it easy to integrate its functionality with other apps (as mentioned above).

Unfortunately, what most ‘web 2.0’ developers seem to miss is the ever growing mobile population in the world. Just try accessing one of the sites on a mobile phone. Prepare yourself for a ugly and frustrating experience. It seems obvious to me that one of the reasons for web-based tools is that I can have access to my information just about anywhere via a browser. The next (obvious) step is to make it available to me anywhere I have my mobile phone/device. Having the functionality of a site available through an API creates an opportunity to create a mobile version (or mashup) of the site.

Another apparent mis-step is around ignoring the aging of the population. I wonder what effect this new style of development will have on accessibility, particularly those who are blind or have low sight that might need a machine reader to be able to take advantage of the Internet at all. Is this, perhaps, where microformats and other tagging technologies take a role in providing a richer experience for those with sight impairment?

In a cynical moment, I could believe that this is just the same greed and me-to attitude ten years on, with developers trying to create something/anything and flip it for a profit. For the time being, I plan on seeing how it evolves and figure out how to apply the best of it.

Patent on XML?

Cnet has a story about how a small company is claiming via US patents 5,842,213 and 6,393,426 filed in 1997 that they own the rights to XML and intend to ‘monetize’ it.

How did this ever get approved? Did no one in the US Patent Office know of SGML? When I was working at the Environmental Protection Agency in the late 80’s there was a fair amount of EPS-generated documentation that existed in SGML. This definately can’t stand up to the ‘prior art’ challenge.

The Art Of Camera Tossing

Join in the fun: Take your (somewhat expendable) digital camera, turn off the flash, lock the shutter open, take it out at night near some light sources and toss it up in the air, hopefully catch it and marvel at the results.

Some results can be seen in the camera toss Flickr group and in other Flickr photosets here, here, and here.

About Camera Toss
This is a “technique” group, and the technique here is regarded by some as insanity. For we are the reckless folks on flickr that enjoy the abstract, chance, generative, physical photography that results from throwing our cameras into the air (most often at night in front of varied light sources).

It is about trading risk for reward in the pursuit of art. It is not about being a photographer, it is about enabling the photography that happens naturally when you let go of the process, give up control, and add a hell of alot more variables. It is about physics, gravity, angular momentum, acceleration, direction, chaos, and timing… most of which you have tenuous control of at best!

via HipTop Nation

A Mobile Phone That Knows You

Perhaps inspired by the James Bond sniper rifle that can only be fired by Bond, researchers in Finland have created a method for you mobile device (a phone most likely) to ‘recognize’ you by the way that you walk.

In the method, sensors measure certain features in the person’s walk and these are compared to values stored in the memory of the device. If the values differ, the device requests an access code. In trials, the method has achieved a success rate of 90%. VTT is applying for a patent for the solution.

Freaking the Tipping Point

I recently finished reading Blink, The Tipping Point and Freakonomics. I would highly recommend any/all of these books. One curious tension that comes from having read these recently is that the ‘Broken Window’ policing strategy that is extolled in The Tipping Point is rigorously discounted as having no effect on crime in Freakonomics. Curious. How did Malcolm Gladwell get this so wrong?

The other theme that hit me was how several of the topics covered in Blink and The Tipping Point start to sound like what gets discounted (and in some cases disproven) as ‘conventional wisdom’ in by Levitt in Freakonomics. Makes me curious that if Levitt were to write a book examining each of the assertions in Gladwell’s works, how many of them would stand up to the economists vetting? No matter the outcome, the result would be an interesting read.

One topic that I would love to see Levitt cover is this: does the increased level of violence in movies and video games desensitise people to violence or does it desensitise people to violence in movies and video games?

Katrina Aftermath Anger

After a week of listening to the coverage of Katrina (and the aftermath) there are some things that I just need to get off my chest:

As bad as it is, stop calling it ‘our tsunami’. There is a big difference between something that happen with little or no warning and something that happened with several days warning that some people either didn’t react to or couldn’t react to. Why does there have to be competition over whose natural disaster was worse? They are all horrible and provide an opportunity to see the best (and worst) in people.

In New Orleans, the situation rapidly turned into a Y2K-esque worst case scenario: no power, no water, no communications, armed mobs looting and pillaging with the government unable to respond. Except in this real life scenario, this was not the result of some errant computer software. This was a fatal combination of natural disaster and the worst side of humankind.

Before Katrina hit, it seems that there were those who couldn’t move because they didn’t have cars or some other means of getting around or out of the city because they are poor. This might have something to do with the fact that the poverty rate in the US has grown to 12.5% under the current administration. Apparently the poor are good enough to fight wars, but not worth rescuing or looking out for properly — sickening.

Another point that I am struggling with regarding the slow federal response is ‘because it is a very complicated situation that no one could have foreseen’. Then how do we account for the Hurricane Pam simulations that showed almost exactly what was going to happen? You might ask yourself how can the international press get camera crews, helicopters, ground transport, etc to freely go in to areas to broadcast (some might say, exploit) those impacted by this disaster, but the government doesn’t seem to be as resourceful. Nor does it seem that the press has enough integrity to try to bring in whatever aid they can while covering the events.

The National Guard, who typically play a crucial role in providing swift and effective assistance during natural disasters are hobbled by the fact that 40% of Mississippi’s and 35% of Louisiana’s National Guard are in Iraq.

This event seems to me to be an example of the current administrations domestic policy writ large: if you have money, you’re ok, you can evacuate (you can basically do whatever you want); if you don’t, then they really don’t give a damn about what happens to you. So you have a situation were the administration cut funding for levee enhancements/maintenance because of ‘the war’, but then turned around and provided a 31 billion USD handout to oil companies that are already making multi-billion dollar profits quarterly. Then you have gun toating idiots wrecking havoc, because we need more guns in this country, right NRA? I can already hear their twisted response, ‘well, if everyone had a gun, they could defend themselves against the bandits’ Right, we all know that the solution to cleaning up an oil slick is to pour more oil on it…

Thankfully, the situation seems to be improving. I just hope that this country learns a lesson from this disaster and is able to grow in a more positive direction.

One final note: it seems ironic to me that the Administration has been on TV and radio telling those who have Labor Day plans (which in the US is ‘a yearly national tribute to the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity, and well-being of our country.’) to stay home, and not have any inessential travel.

Smells Like Dot-Bomb Pixie Dust

I sure hope that this new service works better than their bloated, pointless flash interface. The fact that they are using flash makes one question just how tuned in they really are.

Even the Wired write up on the company reminds me of what would get VC cash in the 90s: “we’re going to make this awesome product that does, er, something, um, everything and people are going to love it…”

I am curious to see what actually materializes “in the fall”.

Electronic Enhancements

I predict that this sort of thing (Wired: Hearing Aids for the unimpaired) will get increasingly popular as people run out of cosmetic surgery options in their quest to be (at least superficially) ‘different’ from others (which paradoxically tends to make them gravitate toward some homogeneous ideal).

Perhaps wearable mods are a step along the path to what William Gibson described in Burning Chrome where electronic mods to the human body become commonplace.

Professional Photographer Uses ‘Point and Shoot’ Camera

It’s always been my contention that the gear you have doesn’t matter, its what you can do with it that does. This article about an award winning professional photographer who uses so called point and shoot cameras for his pictures rather than a ‘big, fast, bulletproof pro SLR’ really makes the point.

I get a certain satisfaction out of his current choice of camera, the Olympus c-8080, the same camera that I have (though the results I get are not in the same league as this guy).

Cellphones and Driving Don’t Mix

No surprises in this article on Wired. Driving while talking on a mobile phone is unsafe whether you are using a headset or not.

It is my firm belief that accidents caused while someone is talking on a cellphone should be treated as other driving impairments (DUI). Do it more that a few times and you lose your license.

In Case of Emergency

This is a simple but very effective way of helping yourself if you are in a bad state. The jist of the article is to add an entry (or entries) into your mobile phone contacts list under ICE (In Case of Emergency). That way a paramedic or hospital attendant would have a good chance of getting ahold of someone on your behalf if you were incapacitated. Multiple entries could be added for ICE2, ICE3, etc.

Newton, Palm and PSP

As an Apple Newton user from back in the day I was always amazed at the amount of sniping over the Newton when there was no clear, better alternative at the time. I wasn’t even a big Apple fan, but could recognize that the Newton provided the functionality that I wanted. Granted the much derided handwriting recognition took a bit of ‘training’ for the Newt to become more consistent, but for me that was time well spent. Within a few months, I could take meeting notes directly on the Newt with something close to 100% recognition. The ability to draw on the screen along with the text was handy as techies are famous for their napkin-back design sketches.

Supposedly, one of the cures for the ‘poor’ Newton recognition was to use an add in product called Grafitti. This was met with a great deal of hue and cry as the Apple bashers when on about ‘having to learn a new way of writing’ and ‘it should recognize my handwritting — I shouldn’t have to change’. That was all well and good until the first Palm came out and required the use of Graffiti, then suddenly the (not-from-Apple) Palm product was proclaimed the best thing since fish grew legs. Another popular criticism at the time was the the Newton was ‘the wrong form factor’ and that Palm had it all right. I disagree, and feel a bit vidicated with the release of the Sony Playstation Portable (which has nearly the same form factor as the final Newton) and it being hailed as the ‘perfect size’ for a portable unit. Hell, the Newton even had many of the same capabilities, albeit with a monochrome screen.

Around four years ago, I finally gave up and bought a Palm device (m505) to be able to synch up my growing and changing Outlook calendar and not have to carry around marked up printouts of my calendar. I find Graffiti to be a pain, but have forced myself to bend to its requirements. Then I bought a Tungsten T5 because I very much needed the extra storage and wanted to have some wi-fi capability only to find that some genius at Palm had ‘improved’ the handwriting recognition by changing it. Now I find myself writing ‘L’ when I want an ‘I’ and getting some random character when I try to do the old stroke for a ‘T’. Sigh. I just wish that Palm would come out with a patch to keep the T5 from randomly rebooting, locking up and crashing after synching.

In the end, I think that I am going to start exploring a Symbian OS based device, probably a Nokia smart phone. The most promising device (that I have found in my limited research) is the (as yet unreleased in the USA) Nokia 6682.

The Scourge of Subdivisions

Why does everyone who lives around here assume that everybody else lives in a subdivision?

This question comes from people stopping over for Nicola’s birthday party. In spite of clear directions, all of the moms who had not been here before drove past the road we live on and went straight to the sub-division about a quarter of a mile up the road. They then called on their mobile phones complaining that they cannot find our street. Martina patiently explained that they drove past it and they needed to backtrack to find it. Within a few minutes everyone arrived.

I have a theory: there has been so much growth in this area, coupled with everyone wanting to have some Mc Mansion on a postage stamp lot that I’d guess that the majority of the population of this area lives in a sub-division (ergo everyone else does). One of the attendees expressed surprise that we were not among the short timers who moved to the area in the last 2-3 years when it became trendy (I have lived here for 14 years; Mart for about 7).

I also detect a bit of snobbery when you ask someone where they live — rarely do they tell you what city they live in or proximity to some landmark, they tell you what sub-division they live in as if it conveyed their perceived status in the world. Hell, when people ask where I live, I tell them ‘near Kings Island’ and they either know where that is or not.