Webtorque

Jonathan Baker-Bates, UX and design

A Problem With Search Forms

by JBB on September 9, 2006, no comments

Golly – it’s about time I wrote down something about user experience design, seeing as this is what this blog is suppose to be about.

I’ve been doing some work for a site re-design, starting with user testing 24 people over two weeks. We asked them (a wide demographic) to use some currently live sites to see how they got on with them. Some people tested the client’s current site, others one of their competitors. There was only one task in the half hour or so we gave them to do this: order a product. We also showed them a couple of Web 2.0-style funky Ajax interfaces to see how they got on with things like dynamic search and asynchronous interactions – for that is what is what we are planning to do for the redesign.
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Proof, If Proof Be Needed

by JBB on September 9, 2006, 2 comments

Microsoft’s “fastest patch ever” is interesting:

If you really want to see Microsoft scramble to patch a hole in its software, don’t look to vulnerabilities that impact countless Internet Explorer users or give intruders control of thousands of Windows machines. Just crack Redmond’s DRM.

One of the more stunning conversations I’ve ever had with a work colleague about the software we use went along the following lines once:

Me: “Aaargh! Word’s so buggy, either that or so complex, this feels like a bug…! I hate Microsoft software!”

Them:  “Well, if they weren’t the best, they wouldn’t be top of the heap, now would they?”

Me: “What? Are you nuts??”

Them: “No – I’m serious. Microsoft make the best software because that’s what everyone uses.”

Me: “Aaargh!”

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It’s The Spammers – They’re In It With The Aliens!

by JBB on September 8, 2006, one comment

The recent Sunday Times report(s) on keylogging got me thinking about why journos never examine the other dimension of the problem of keyloggers and security compromise: spam.

The Times basically took the start of the problem to be a mysterious process of “inadvertently downloading a Trojan” which then installs a keylogger, which then reports all your passwords and other interesting data to black hats in some faraway exotic place (like Swindon). After that, all hell breaks loose, and the journos in question (notably one Jonathan Ungoed-Thomas, more about whom later) had obviously had great fun finding numerous stories of innocent victims (including – shock – “IT professionals” who had taken “all precautions” to prevent it) having their savings stolen, computers crashed, etc. etc, ohmylordthisisterrible! You got the idea after about paragraph three of five thousand. The message was clear: we are all sitting ducks – you heard it here first!

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Goodbye Drupal – Hello WordPress

by JBB on September 2, 2006, 3 comments

Welcome to a new Webtorque – now running WordPress. Drupal had fallen victim to the vagaries of software versions. For the geeks: I was running Webtorque on Drupal 4.4.2 (the current version is 4.7.3). This web server runs Red Hat Enterprse v3.2, which has PHP 4.2.2. Red Hat will not move RHEL 3 to a higher version of PHP, and versions of Drupal later than 4.5.8 won’t run on anything lower than PHP 4.2.3. So – clang! I’d hit the upgrade buffers. Drupal had to go.

I must say WordPress is – so far – much, much easier to configure than Drupal. It’s been a couple of years since I looked at blogging software, so things have progressed a bit, obviously.

Anyway, I need to remove lots of comment spam that got exported over into the database, and I’ll be sending people their new logins shortly.

Holiday Shorts & Godlike Pyjamas

by on August 29, 2006, no comments

We’ve been on holiday in Scotland for a bit of Edinburgh Festival, visiting relatives and – amazingly – very good weather while it threw it down in London.

I’ve had a cold, but am now better, and am thinking seriously about buying some Armor of God Pyjamas – not that the two are connected. Or are they? As an aside, there can’t be many ecommerce sites “salvation” as a link on the main navigation, and while greed is sin there seems to be nothing wrong with attempting to spamdex your title tags.

OpenOffice – Wasted Opportunity

by on July 22, 2006, no comments

One of Microsoft Word’s biggest time-wasting functions is auto-numbering. This feature is actually an option which (of course!) is turned on by default. Hardly anyone knows this though, so most people struggle needlessly as auto-numbering rudely kicks in when they start a paragraph with “1.” It then usually refuses to actually number the other lines properly according to what the user wants, or to stop numbering when they want it to; or re-starts not from 1, but from 5 next time, or whatever. The behaviour of auto-numbering is not in fact the bugfest that it appears to be. It’s just follows a logic too complex to actually understand.

So you’d think that the OpenOffice developers would see this, laugh, and either avoid it or implement something better. But no. This is a visual bug report (3.1Mb MPEG) of why the OpenOffice designers should not attempt to follow Microsoft’s “lead” here.

Weird World of Appraisals

by JBB on July 19, 2006, 2 comments

One of the less wonderful things about working as a permanent employee for a company larger than a certain size, is that you have appraisals every six months. And every six months both you, your line manager, and anyone you care to talk to about the appraisal system agree wholeheartedly that the experience is awful. Having passed through several companies, each with their own interpretation of what makes a good appraisal, I have the somewhat dubious pleasure of being able to compare and contrast different systems. Having had my first appraisal at my new company today, here are my findings.

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Technorati

by on July 8, 2006, no comments

After years of trying to remember to give Technorati a go, I’ve finally now remembered. They make you put a link to them on your blog in order to get your blog listed. And so, while trying to ignore the snobbishness of all this, I hereby post my Technorati Profile.

Question 1: A Search Engine Is…?

by JBB on July 5, 2006, one comment

I’ve been attending a few of the many think-ins that the publishing industry, pressure groups and various other institutions have been having recently around the subject of The Internet and What Is Means For Us.

Sadly, these have been largely unnoteworthy, although my attendance at the IPPR event last night “The Long Tail: Opportunities in a New Marketplace?” threw up an example of what I hope is not a very wide misconception about Google and search engines in general.

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‘Blogging “Pointless” Shocker

by on July 2, 2006, one comment

I don’t think I’ve ranted here about what a pointless occupation ‘blogging is, nor why all ‘bloggers should be shot through the back of the head with a small bore rifle.

And so it is with rich irony and customary pointlessness, on a blog that nobody reads (and I have the Google Analytics stats to prove it!), that I link to the indefatigable Richard Lockwood’s, er, ‘blog!

And thanks for the abbreviating apostrophe, if that’s what it is.

Stovepiping The Future

by JBB on June 24, 2006, no comments

Any normal person will of course have heard nothing about the recent merger between LBIcon (business consulting, branding, communication and technology services) with Framfab (web marketing, design and production) into the largest digital design, marcomms, branding and technology firm in Europe. Indeed, the newly-merged entity will rival that of the super giants of Digitas, Omincom and others that currently graze among the lush forests of digital media in the States and Asia. This is surely a tectonic event.
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What Price Pop (and classical)?

by on June 4, 2006, no comments

I made some online music purchases today from AllofMP3.com. This was mainly because if the USA has its way, then the site may be taken down in preparation for Russia’s entry into the WTO. If you’ve not been there before, AllofMP3 is everything you ever wanted from Internet age commerce: dirt cheap goods sold legally (according to Russian jurisdiction), massive choice and as a finishing touch, stunning typos. Not surprisingly, a whole album for a dollar (or any combination of tracks you like) has been making the RIAA and its international puppet organisation the IFPI see red. Ha!

Like The War On Terror, the copyfight claims the vast majority of its victims innocently, and those victims are predominantly overseas. Last week, it was the turn of a large number of perfectly legitimate Swedish small businesses to be taken off line in the name of copyright as the Pirate Bay‘s servers were confiscated along with a number of totally unrelated ones. The site’s back up now (well, the tracker at least, the website seems to been somewhat patchy since) but the damage has been done – to the publishing industry. Even if the raid turns out not to have been illegal, which it seems to have been, then the number of registered users of the Bay are going to go through the roof as the oxygen of publicity fills its sails even more. We could be seeing the resignation of a Swedish minister or two perhaps.

Bush of Ghosts CC Reprise

by on May 24, 2006, no comments

As previously observed here, David Byrne and Brian Eno have not only recently re-released their My Life In the Bush of Ghosts album, but have also made all of the multitracks of two of the songs on the album free for re-mixing under a Creative Commons licence.

Things are getting really interesting in this area. Eno and Byrne are the first artists of significant stature to do this as far as I know. This is what I think it might lead to at some point.

Adminstrivia

by on May 24, 2006, one comment

An announcement from the management: I’m getting so much comment spam now I’m going to have to turn off the anonymous posting or I’ll start missing the real posts. If you want to post, please create an account.

I’m pretty sure this won’t matter since so few people read this blog anyway, and for those lovely people who have accounts – let me take this opportunity to say thanks.

AJAX and Use

by JBB on May 24, 2006, one comment

No blog is complete without some stultifying post about AJAX or some other generally asynchronous thing. As a user of the damn stuff it’s beginning to get me riled, but at the risk of adding more guff to the pile, two points occurred to me with some clarity the other day. Firstly, that whenever somebody mentions AJAX out of any context not bound strictly to discussions of the DOM and that godforsaken XMLHttpRequest object etc. etc. they are really talking about rich Internet applications. Secondly, geeks like me that talk from either side of the end-user divide have their glasses steamed up too much to notice that what I think I’d like to call “non-paged interaction” has in fact been known and loved on the web for years.
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Even in Texas

by JBB on May 11, 2006, no comments

I was in Dallas last week. It’s a big place – it has the second largest airport in the world in terms of square mileage. Even the city is so big it gives you a feeling that hardly anyone’s there. We went there to observe some user testing of a prototype I’d created, and to conduct some marathon meetings with the client. We discussed, amongst other things, the juicy subject of how we’re to engage with the build team, etc.
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When the Internet is Gone

by JBB on April 12, 2006, no comments

Recent events toward something collectively dubbed the “two-tier Internet” by journos have got me thinking about the future of the Internet again. Bear in mind Clay Shirky’s adage that whenever he thinks about what should happen, it prevents him from thinking about what will. The following is therefore not particularly considered against anything and is doubtless rooted in too many pre-conceptions, but what the hell. See what you think.

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Thirst for Truth in Card Sorting

by JBB on April 8, 2006, no comments

I know the phrase “card sorting” either baffles, bores or does something else beginning with ‘b’ to almost everyone that hears it. Perhaps the most vocal source of information and critique of card sorting techniques recently has been the force that is Maadmob’s Donna Maurer. I recently caught her attention on this subject via comments on the blog of another Australian IA, Leisa Reichelt.

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Moving On

by on April 8, 2006, 2 comments

After two years at Framfab UK, my clutch engages on another gear shift in the cross-contry rally of life on Monday, when I start work at Wheel.

A few months ago, I decided I needed a change from Framfab, the company I joined (then called Oyster Partners) in 2004. This decision coincided with a phone call which led to a meeting, which led to a “dentist appointment” and then a job offer. Such is the pattern when you’re under permanent contract.

And so, after working a somewhat hectic notice period, I had a very nice sendoff last Friday. I was touched by the turnout for my little leaving do, my present and my very thoughtful card (masterminded by Miles Sampson, I’ve just found out) complete with ASCII art photo of myself, grinning. My boss, Vanessa Wolfe-Coote, had the great idea of asking everyone to send in a word or phrase they thought summed me up, which I’ve arranged as a spoof tag cloud for posterity and ego-massage (the text sizes are based on actual frequencies, and are not my own!)

Thanks again all, particularly those who have supported me in my work and my time at Framfab – it’s been very much appreciated. I’m sad to be leaving, but I needed a shake-up. Let’s just hope it doesn’t shake me down.

The Pleasure Principle

by JBB on March 24, 2006, 2 comments

Music is like drugs – if you have a relationship with it at all it tends to be at its most intense when you’re young. But in common with most people of my age, I suppose I’ve drifted away from music as a passion to it being merely an occasional pastime. A CD on a Sunday afternoon, some backing music to a kids party… I feel this does most of what I like a huge injustice (and Axel’s friends must be amongst very few toddlers who have played pass the parcel to Killing Joke’s Democracy). I certainly don’t play music any more (well, I was a drummer that couldn’t drive and didn’t own a van – my days in bands were numbered). And in the past five years, it’s all fallen victim to the Three Hour Tyranny.
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Now That’s What I Call Art

by on March 18, 2006, no comments

I have a rather sixth-form attitude to art. Something is art if a) I could not have thought of it myself (a standard that gets lower as I get older) b) it works on numerous levels and c) it says something to me or asks me questions I can’t answer, but I try to anyway, and fail. Crucifix NG gets a perfect ten on those things. If I had to pick out one aspect of this that fascinates me most: it’s made by a faith-based based organisation, yet has clearly aethiest implications. Like John Peel used to say – I’m glad I lived long enough to have seen it.

UK Government Copyright Must End

by on March 11, 2006, no comments

The absurdity of UK government agencies having to sell data back the very tax payers that paid for it has been going on ever since I was a lad. I’ve always regarded it as another one of the breathtakingly stupid things the Thatcher government did that, once done, could not be un-done. Like football hooliganism, chaotic public transport and the poll (now council) tax.

But the Grauniad’s now come up with an interesting angle – and a campaign no less – that holds out the possibility of change.

(By the way, I love that Guardian Technology masthead with the picture of Admiral Tojo wearing 3D glasses on it. It’s a classic.)

Social Software, Politics and Getting it Right

by JBB on March 8, 2006, no comments

About once every six months or so, somebody on the otherwise excellent SIGIA mailing list posts to say they think there are too many “off topic” posts. This is invariably couched in some painfully lame justification – in this case appealing to us to “respect others” – but more usually assuming the mantle of “the silent majority” or some other hogwash. Naturally, I reminded them in my customarily restrained manner that they were idiots. Nobody took any notice.

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Vanity Tracking

by on March 7, 2006, no comments

Somebody must be reading this blog. At least, I’ve now had postings and email on subjects as diverse as copyright, software and public speaking. I’ve even had to remove a posting after somebody complained! Surely it can’t get much better than that.

I’m also particularly impressed that not one but two staggeringly famous multi-millionaire media and marketing liminaries have swung in from the ether in the last few months to ask my opinion on things (OK that’s not exactly true, but I’ve been flattered that I caught their attention). Hooray for the Internet! It does wonders for the ego.

But how much traffic am I actually getting? The fact that after well over a year on line, Webtorque has yet to receive its first Adsense cheque leads me to suspect not much. So it’s time to deploy Google Analytics I think. In fact, why didn’t I think of that in the first place?

Seth Godin to Google

by on March 5, 2006, no comments

I don’t write much about marketing, because I usually regard myself as somebody who designs systems for people, not profit. But lately I’ve been re-examining this because it’s hard to ignore Seth Godin.

I watched Godin’s talk to Google this evening. In the past I’ve always regarded him as a bit of a marketing smoothie: how can the writer of Permission Marketing be anything else? But his talk has me thinking about that in a different way.

You probably won’t have the time to watch it. He’s an average speaker; par for the course in an age of lacklustre oratory, but he puts his points well.

Bearing in mind he’s talking about Google, the main thing that struck me was his propostion that Google’s morass of “beta” ideas can be knitted together by obtaining permission from users already familiar with the brand to seek out and market those ideas to others as long as they solve somebody’s problem. It’s not a new idea per se (and I note he makes no use of the word “viral”), but put it into the context of a large and creatively explosive corporation like Google and it takes on a different hue. Port that to Apple (yes, that works too…), then why not IBM, or even (gasp) Microsoft?

Certainly harder to work out off line, which makes me glad I’ve never been interested in DM…

i-mode in the UK?

by on March 5, 2006, 2 comments

I suddenly recalled some billboard ads for O2′s i-mode launch last year and wondered: where’s the beef? I’ve been shopping around for a new handset and contract recently and don’t recall a single mention of i-mode on any of the spec sheets I’ve been reading. Maybe I’m not looking in the right price-bracket?

i-mode has been massive in Japan, thanks largely to the near monopoly that NTT DoCoMo enjoys out there. Coincidentally, as I write this I read that Vodafone has decided to pull out of Japan completely – although it’s no surprise after reports of them apparently just importing their European approach unmodified.

i-mode has also been a flexible enough platform to accomodate some pretty amazing social trends in mobile comms use out there. Examples of this being nearly ubiquitous email and personal i-Mode sites, the latter next to impossible here with WAP and most networks’ stupid walled garden policies. The former is crippled by per-kilobyte charging. So it’s not surprising that somebody has tried to push i-mode here in little ol’ Europe. But you’d think they would have tried a little harder. A prize to the first person to spot significant upsell on i-Mode in a CarPhone Warehouse near you.

Slightly Ironic Burroughs Quotation Farce

by JBB on March 1, 2006, no comments

At the beginning of the month, I posted a comment on one of Framfab’s public blog postings. It was, as usual, rather spur of the moment, in between coffee and the next round of application testing we’re doing. In it, I clipped some text I found around a quote from Naked Lunch that I was looking for. I originally just wanted the quote, but the text I found around it served my point rather well. I should have attributed it, but what happened next was interesting.

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Barnes Tilney

by on February 27, 2006, 9 comments

I heard today that somebody I knew at Oyster Partners died a couple of weeks ago. I didn’t really know him, but I’d like to write something about him. I don’t know if this is the done thing or not – I hope his family and friends will excuse me. His name was Barnes Tilney.


I spoke to Barns a number of times, and was present when he spoke to others. He struck me as an amusing, sharp and thoughtful person. I don’t know how long he had had lukemia, but you wouldn’t have noticed that anything was wrong before he went on extended leave early last year to do battle with the disease that defeated him.

After he left, I inherited his documentation for the first iteration of the project I am now working. It may sound somewhat odd, but when you read detailed documentation on something in order fully to understand it, you also come to understand something about the writer’s mind. It’s not as rich as a novel, or a poem, but it has elements of those. You come to know what they think is important, and how they choose to express things. I was impressed by Barnes’s expressive ability, and his courage in taking approaches that I would have shrunk from.

I don’t want this to read like an obituary, because it can’t be one. I hope that somebody who knew him will write that. But death reminds me that I have yet to accept death for myself, and that, selfishly, is why I want to remember him because I hope others might remember me in a similar way.

Barnes did a good job. I hope I will too.

The Biggest Threat is Obscurity

by JBB on February 23, 2006, 3 comments

I went to see Cory Doctorow and others on a panel organised by Free Culture UK last night. The subject was “Open Content” – a moniker given to the concept of digitisable works of either art or craft distributed under an alternative copyright licence (such as Creative Commons). Inevitably, a lot of ground was covered by the speakers, and one of the hottest topics of the evening was the recently-launched BBC’s Open Archive project. I wasn’t actually aware that they’d launched, but it sounds evil.

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6 Seconds in 1969

by on February 21, 2006, no comments

I’d been only dimly aware of the “Amen Break” drum sample until now, although the sound, if not the rhythm itself is instantly recognisable. However, this video (34Mb MOV) puts the use of the sample into its fascinating social context. Anyone interested in music, popular culture and particularly the effects of recent copyright legislation, should see this. I get spammed by Zero-G every now and again as well. Bastards. Makes me want to download some Squarepusher to up the ante.

Shamisen Trouble

by JBB on February 19, 2006, one comment

Somebody at work was asking what they might be able to buy in Japan for £100-200 as a birthday gift. Gagetry of various types was suggested, but I chipped in the idea that for that money they could get a reasonable shamisen. At least, that’s what some friends bought me for my birthday once and I’ve always counted it as one of my prized possessions. It’s a wonder of wooden engineering: collapsible into a small case a bit bigger than a shoebox, and wonderfully made. Kumi doesn’t like Japanese stuff lying about, so the days when it was propped up casually next to the Bang & Olufsen are long gone.

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A Month is a Long Time

by on February 15, 2006, no comments

Blimey. You take your eye of your blog and what happens? More than a month goes by and you’ve not done a thing with it. I had an excuse: a pathetic new year’s resolution to only blog about positive things. And lo, I could think of nothing.

But I’m not going to completely throw that out with the Christmas tree, because one of the undoubtedly good things that’s happend recently is Framfab’s blog.

Framfab, you may recall, is the company I work for. Yes, they have a stupid name. Their new site (launched at the same time as the blog) is, er, framfabulous, but their decision to incorporate an employee blog is outstanding.

Just in case you’re thinking “well heavily censored, obviously,” I can tell you that it isn’t. While employees have to ask for a login to post (but not comment – that’s completely open), anyone can get one. Once you’re in, you can post anything you want – there is no editorial process, and best of all, you can decide to make the post appear on the public web site if you want. There’s currently about a 5:1 ratio of public to private posts but I expect that to get better. While comments from outside are also turned on, I don’t think we’ve had any yet. Things are going to get interesting if punters start getting in on the act. Hell, we might even get Tom Cruise!

There have been some calls to impose an editorial gateway, if only for client confidentiality and the “Chinese wall” policy we have to adopt sometimes, but it looks like we’ll cross that bride when it comes to it. There’s also the knowledge that only a hard core of employees will post, while the rest will lurk and feel it’s not for them. Online “communities” are strange beasts, not much has changed since the days of Wildcat, fido and usenet on that score.

But for now though, I’m positive! The Cluetrain‘s a-coming to Framfab!

2006 – A New Leaf, etc.

by on January 6, 2006, no comments

The holidays now over, and even the first week at work done, I can now return to some good ol’ blogging now that we’ve bought a new car, almost tidied up our files (well, my files anyway – Kumi still just chucks all her papers under her desk and mumbles shoganai…) and packed up the plastic Xmas tree.

My new year’s resolution (on my blog at any rate) is to think about more positive things. Too many of last year’s posts were cynical, negative rants. Writing about happy, nice things sure is going to be as dull as ditchwater but I’m going to make a fist of it. I’ve got a backlog of blog posts from the holidays, but they’ll almost all negative: AOL’s new ad campaign, the EU data retention directive, etc. etc. It’s going to be hard for me to resist writing about them at some point. But in a nice way. With an upbeat ending or something.

Impulse Blog!

by on December 20, 2005, 2 comments

It’s the new football! It’s the new rock and roll! It’s impulse blogging!

Impulse blogging (my italics, to increase the hype) is the new craze coming straight out of North Finchley’s finest blog. Like all great ideas, it starts off all complicated and difficult to grasp, then suddenly reveals itself to be so simple that even a five-year-old could blah blah blah, and probably has. Here’s how impulse blogging works:

I sit down at my computer with an intention to blog about something, but without any idea of what it’s actually going to be about. I fire up my trusty blog form, and purposefully ignore all the metadata fields that appear below the title (I don’t yet know what it’s going to be about, see). As the i-beam winks invitingly at row 0 col 0, I then go into a sort of new-media induced trance where the experience of the net wafts through my mind in a William Gibson-esque sort of way until something bumps into conciousness. In fact it’s a lot like being a Guild Navigator I suspect: looking for paths into and though the blogosphere, only in my case it’s fuelled by a combination of coffee and lack of proper sleep.

So what gems has this technique produced? Well, er, none so far, but I’m sure you’ll know when it does.

Ubuntu Linux for Me

by JBB on December 13, 2005, no comments

Well I finally did it. I had no particular stimulus other than me being on holiday and saw a Slashdot post about a recent review of Linux distros for the desktop. They’d rated Ubuntu highest, so I went along to distrowatch.com and did some reading up. After downloading and burning the (single) ISO, I’m now running it. I always find descriptions of Windows to Linux migrations pretty boring, so I’ll lay off the details about how I got my printer working, etc. but after about 48 hours hacking about, I’ve now got almost everything I need and Windows seems long gone.

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fool.co.uk

by JBB on December 5, 2005, no comments

I’ve just posted a rant on www.fool.co.uk about their awful site design. Hm. Feel a bit guilty. A bit soiled to be honest… I actually think the site’s content is fantastic. But the form of that content really, really stinks. The last straw was their announcement of some forthcoming “layout changes” which (I assume) have now gone live. In classic 1995 style, they’ve just made things worse. The site needs major surgery.

I can imagine what it must be to work on the design of TMF though – assuming somebody does design it. Getting second-class treatment from their parent company in the States, probably. Lumbered with godawful in-house development (the site search! the forums!); tied up in knots by internal fiefdoms and big advertisers calling the shots – it’s all so obvious when you look at it. Poor bastards.

Still, I’ve got some great info there, and even bought some of the products their advertisers are selling (although I transferred my L&G ISA to Fidelity today). Let’s hope thing get better on the usability side. Getting much worse would be pretty much impossible. Hey – maybe they’ll gizzajob?

Words and Pictures

by JBB on November 24, 2005, one comment

I just spend my life specifying stuff. There’s just no time for anything else. Creativity, research, even design (always an afterthought…) is pretty much a covert activity when you’ve got the offshore crews to keep happy. But once in a while I feel I’ve made some headway somewhere, however microscopic.

When it comes to specifications, the adage that “a picture is worth a thousand words” will pretty much lead you to failure. For a long time I thought that wasn’t the case. Perhaps, I thought, the confusion that arises in creating and interpreting graphic “deliverables” is due to my inexperience. But after I while I began to suspect something was up…

On my current project I’m over that hill – indeed I’ve probably swung right over the top and down the other side, which will be just as bad. But while I’m in my fool’s paradise, here’s a couple of tales from my current coalface (screenshots cropped for confidentiality):

We’ve been worrying about workflow recently. What will the user be able to do when, and how do things get shunted back and forth within the system and by what rules? So we convene a workshop with the client. I spend some time (rather a lot of time) drawing a nice-looking “content lifecycle” wheel. A thing of beauty: the content starts in one state, then moves around the wheel as various events take place to change its state. I draw some arrows in one direction. I draw some others in another (to balance them out). What could be simpler? Some other arrows come in to the wheel… some others go out. We book our tech lead in on the workshop just to be safe though.

To cut a long story short, “the wheel” ends up crippling our analysis of the system. The tech lead half-seriously complains that it’s not a state-transition diagram, but we shout him down – the boring bastard. Four hours later, we all think we’ve thrashed out the details. A week later, we realise we haven’t. Had the wheel been a state-transition we might have got to that point sooner as it would have forced us to think straight rather than being distracted by geometric eye-candy. One of the guys in Poland freely admits he did not understand the wheel “at all.” A bit extreme, but I think he really meant it.

Then another reminder. The Mumbai Massive (never the most explicit communicators on the project) have been having problems with the specs we dusted off from last year regarding the way some tools in the application are supposed to work. The approach my predecessor took was rather graphically inclined. It seems, however, that this (in hindsight) grossly over-specified minute interactions at the expense of the stuff they really wanted to know. Worse, because it was 80% pictorial, there were no words or annotations to latch on to until I added some. No “… on line three it says…” hooks, or “… chapter 12 mentions…” starters. Just mute diagrams that I’d attempted to “fix” by slapping some apologetic text around them.

So I decided to turn it inside out. Relegate the graphics to a token, then write it down in words. Bingo, they go away and build it.

I’m not saying this was the best spec in the world (in fact all my specs are pretty awful), but it was better for the purpose to which it needed to be put. And it took me about ten minutes, which is about six times less then I think anyone armed with Freehand and a head full of pictures would have taken.

My moral for this is “When in doubt, use words.”

AIMBots to Miss

by on November 22, 2005, no comments

When you consider that IRC, chatbots, and whole instant messaging thing is now ten years old or more, then you’d think that AOL would at least get their new “AIMbot” adbot system out of the door without it being so utterly useless. But no.

Who am I kidding? AOL, the worst ISP that has ever been, and will ever be, in the history of the world: purveyors of the most frantically confusing user experiences I have ever had, on line or off (yes, worse than Compuserve before AOL bought them) – why would I even give them the time of day? I suppose it’s because they are inexplicably huge and for whatever reason, people I know use AIM. So I use Trillian.

So I, and presumably millions of others, got a little message up on my AIM channel inviting me add one of their AIMbots to my “buddy list” (shudder) the other day. Well, hey, I thought, it might be worth investigating. Well, in comically bad style – it wasn’t.

Getting Users to Complain

by on November 4, 2005, no comments

As luck would have it, my Internet connection went down yesterday. That’s not exactly a disaster because the only thing I could muster for World Usability Day (yesterday) was this:

This is the password input screen for my online SIPP account. Part of me is glad it looks cheap, because it confirms that I’m not paying them to pay someone like me to design a fancy system. That said, I thought it was sufficiently novel example of a usecrime in progress to warrant a blog note.

I get my password wrong, and after the customary blurb, it then says:

To hide these error messages, click on the Hide Errors button.

This is an interesting innovation in forms design. Firstly, WHY would you want to hide the error messages (“these errors”)? If I click on the button to hide them, and get my password wrong again, does it mean that I won’t see any more errors? In fact, clicking the button does exactly what it says. It makes the error message (and the button) go away and nothing else is affected. I can then put my password in again as if nothing had happened. But what possible value is there is being able to hide the message first?

This goes to the heart of the whole “value in IA” debate. The user can’t do anything else on this screen apart from close the window or get the password wrong again, neither of which is catastrophic. So who cares about some weird thing about dismissing error messages?

The answer of course is that non-sensical, non-standard behaviour, no matter how easy it is for the user to recover afterwards, has a cumulatively negative effect. It sows the seeds of doubt: if they get this wrong, what else is going wrong that I *can’t* see? It frustrates: maybe it’s me getting it wrong, maybe it’s them, how do I know if this is significant? The cumulative effect of all this mental noise corrodes the experience of using the system (which in this case is depressingly clunky after you log in as well).

I wonder if the directors or shareholders of this company have ever used this system? If they have, they probably shrugged off the “hide error message” button as just some web flotsam. A bit like the “mono” button on an amplifier perhaps, or the “scroll lock” key on their keyboard. In any case, the problem is for users to recognise bad usability for what it is. Being confused by an interface, or worried about what to do with one, should be worth complaining about.

So it occurs to me that the organisers of World Usability Day have missed a trick. What we need is a campaign aimed at encouraging users to complain about bad usability. Make people confident enough to recognise it as being something they need to complain about – like potholes in the road, bad smells, or noisy neighbours.

The Pen Is Mightier Than The Mouse

by JBB on October 22, 2005, no comments

I’ve always thought that everyone should nurse at least one heresy, and mine is that visual communications of complex ideas are almost always a load of cock. In the field of IA, this is most noticeable in the production of sitemaps, but it can be just as bankrupt for other artefacts as well.

Here’s an example that flashed by me on my current project recently. Part of the design of an application called for the description of a “select tool” – much the same as the tool you have in most graphics packages. The designer had chosen to communicate the tool’s behaviour graphically. Like this:

xxx

I could tell by the sheer amount of cognitive noise that page generated in my head that this was going to be a pretty confusing communication for the off-shore developers. Sure, they’d get it eventually, I thought, but it was hardly going to be easy.

In order not to offend the creator of the diagram, I let it pass. A few weeks later, when we saw the first release of the software, it was apparent they’d not got the whole message. So for the next iteration, I removed the offending page and replaced it with this:

xxx

This took me about ten minutes and in my opinion is pretty much unambiguous. The software works as intended as well. Which is nice.

FireWord!

by on October 22, 2005, no comments

For as long as I can remember, I’ve been trying to find a better way of documenting designs. I’ve posted about this before, and I still think that Axure looks promising, but most of my IA life’s been based around Visio, some occasional PowerPoint – and on joining Oyster/Framfab – FreehandMX. None of these tools has really baked my cake when it comes to combining text with annotated graphics though. This is a shame because that’s what I’ve been doing a hell of a lot of in the last couple of years. However, after a chance realisation abut MS Word a couple of months ago, the arrival of a Fireworks guru on my project and some good teamwork, things are looking up and I want to tell you about it.

Word can display PNGs. Fireworks’s native file format is PNG. This means that two great tastes can taste great together: use Fireworks to create your wireframes and other graphics (and turn ‘em into symbols and do other wonderful things); use Word to link to the Fireworks PNGs. Annotate them, cross-references them, index them, paginate them to your heart’s content – print them out as booklets and navigate around them with the document map (if you have Office XP). Your documents are instantly more usable, less error-prone and generally work better for both readers and writers.

How We Did It

Having inherited a bunch of Freehand wireframes for the first iteration of my current project, we had to convert the files to Fireworks first. Somewhat cheekily, we enlisted the help of a couple of interns for most of this while we worked on producing a Word template to wrap the resulting PNGs. Each Freehand page was converted to a single PNG file and named according to its wireframe reference. We also created another couple of files to store symbols to link to (for re-usable objects – one of the many things that Fireworks does so much better than Freehand).

After some experimentation with the Word template, we were keen to keep it as simple as possible. No larding up with tables, sectional formatting or auto-numbering. If you don’t play Word’s little games, it will complain.

Then we began, and it was good. The initial copy/paste fest from the annotations in Freehand was a pain, but gradually the daylight dawned. Putting each wireframe image in a table on a single page means we have plenty of room to design large pages (printing on A3 if needed). Numbered call-outs on the linked image are slightly klunky to position, but you get used to it. We then have the text for the annotations on the next page. Simple and easy. One of us said they thought Word’s “document map” feature alone was worth the price of conversion from Freehand. No more scroll/zoom hell to find the page you want! No more fretting about text positioning or annotations running over pages; you can re-order sections with a flip of the outliner… the list of joy compared to Freehand (or Visio for that matter) seems endless. ALT+Tab-ing between Fireworks and Word makes it feel almost like one application. An “update links” button the menu bar gives you the latest versions of your graphics to play with.

Fireworks, meanwhile, is better than Freehand for wireframe graphics in many ways. Better symbol handling, better control over things, pretty much better everything. Our only concern was that it being web-orientated, its 72dpi graphics look a bit fuzzy on the printed page. But that’s not turned out to be problem.

Problems So Far

  • For a 30-year old piece of software, you’d think Word would have a lot fewer bugs than it has. Thank the flatulent monopoly that is Microsoft for that I suppose. As long as we eschew the more exotic features of Word, we should be OK. One of these bugs is that the links to the images (kept in subdirectories beneath the Word doc) sometimes mysteriously change their paths, but it’s not a big issue as they can be re-made quite easily.
  • Making PDFs (with Acrobat 7) sometimes takes a couple of goes before all the images turn up. Not sure why. PDF Maker preserves the clickable cross-references (and table of contents links) though, which makes up for this.
  • It’s tempting to break up the document into pieces (using Word’s “master document” feature) so as to make them more multi-user, but we’ve been warned that this will almost certainly lead to corruption. We’re using SourceSafe to keep things ship shape with three of us maintaining two Word documents which currently link to about sixty images between them.
  • With wireframes on one page, and annotations on the other, the documents are getting rather long.

Despite these issues, I for one am hooked. There is no way I am going to go back to using Visio, let alone Freehand. Long live FireWord! Well, until Axure gets serious, anyway.

Business Methods Patents

by on October 21, 2005, no comments

Incredible, amazing and funny as hell! US business-methods patents (and the people who pay money to bring them to the USTPO) just took another leap further into surreality – with Cereality!

Cereality has patents pending to give them an exclusive right to six business methods,
including "displaying and mixing competitively branded food products" and adding
"a third portion of liquid." If these patents are approved by the U.S. Patent Office,
Cereality would have a complete monopoly on cereal bar business.

Meanwhile, and playing for somewhat higher stakes, NTP and RIM are still slugging it out. I don’t know who’s the slimier, but I do know that if suits can’t use their Blackberries, things are gonna get ugly.

Licence Agreement Analyser!

by on October 17, 2005, 2 comments

When I was doing some user testing for A Very Large Company That Shall Remain Nameless, one of the questions we were asked to ask of the users was what, if anything, they thought about the fact that there was not one, but three terms of use links on the sign-up page to their service. Not surprisingly, just about all users said they wouldn’t even click on the links, let alone read the contents of them. One user was honest enough to say that even if they did try to read them, they would have neither the stamina nor the capacity to understand them.

End user licence agreements are one of the great blots on web and software user experience. They erode trust, engender suspicion and generally fart in the face of a good time. What’s even worse is that contrary to what most people hope is the case, most of these EULAs in fact completely unfair, and usually a lot worse than you might think. It’s only because nobody reads them that this isn’t commonly understood.

Hooray, then for the EULAlyzer, free software that auto-magically highlights the fine print that will get you in trouble. Here it is giving me the low-down on Sony Picture’s privacy policy.

The Twenty-Five Million Dollar Man

by on October 14, 2005, no comments

Having spent three days writing one of the most rigorous and boring five-page documents of my life this week (a “Summary of Business Rules”), I decided that nobody was going to read the thing unless I could promise it to contain hidden Jane Austen references. This, I thought, would endear me to my classically-minded colleagues while turning them on to the finest points of whether hiding a shared Page transfers medico-legal responsibility to the Pathway. So I spent another few hours working in references to Sense and Sensibility while pretending to work on wireframes.

Flush with having achieved my aim, but exhausted at all the covert effort, I sent out a triumphant email to the said colleagues before leaving my desk and walking into the night – only to realise I’d spelt the name of the most famous female English novelist “Jane Austin.”

So perhaps I meant a sister of Steve, the Six Million Dollar Man.

If I had, then it’s interesting to note that when the first episode of that TV series was broadcast in 1973, $6,000,000 was worth the following in 2003:

$24,865,988.70 using the Consumer Price Index
$20,026,833.11 using the GDP deflator
$24,171,043.39 using the unskilled wage
$34,768,273.33 using the GDP per capita
$47,607,724.02 using the relative share of GDP

(Source www.eh.net/hmit/compare)

This I think gives a better idea of the impact of the title at the time, and lends more weight my earlier point about the meaning of words.

“In spite of the answer, therefore, she ordered the carriage, and drove to Mrs Bates’s, in the hope that Jane would be induced to join her — but it would not do; — Miss Bates came to the carriage door, all gratitude, and agreeing with her most earnestly in thinking an airing might be of the greatest service — and every thing that message could do was tried — but all in vain.

Men In Black – The Conspiracy

by JBB on October 13, 2005, 2 comments

Coming home from work seems to be a time when I can think slightly creatively. This is a pity, since I’m paid to do that while I’m at work, but the sheer cacophony and chaos of the office I work in kills that stone dead about 20 mins after the morning coffee. Today, for instance, somebody’s PC fan started running in emergency cooling mode. This, combined with the telephones, keyboard tapping, seemingly constant car alarms and the (yes) children’s’ playground outside, made it feel like we were all riding a Boeing 747 to hell. None of us did anything about it of course, and least of all IT. If I were managing a company that supposedly traded on creative thinking, I’d… oh, never mind.

Now I’ve got the griping over with, my theme today is conspiracy cookery. All good conspiracies have to start somewhere then obtain a life of their own. So, let’s get cracking.

It occurs to me that there is something strange surrounding the Hollywood blockbuster “The Men In Black.” As far back as 1947, a phenomenon known as the “men in black” has been reported as collateral evidence around UFO sightings, and in particular, landings and abductions. One of the most interesting accounts of these men is given in 1976 by Dr Herbert Hopkins, an American psychiatrist. Hokpins had no previous link with this field, except that he had been treating a youth who claimed to have been abducted by aliens.

I was alone in the house. The telephone rang and the voice on the other end identified itself
as a member of a New Jersey UFO research organization. I agreed that he could talk with me about
the abduction case. He said that he would be right over. I walked from the telephone in the hallway
to turn on a light and the man was already coming up the stairs. If he was as close as across the
street, or even next door, he couldn’t have possibly gotten here so soon. His attire struck me as
a little odd. He wore a neatly tailored black suit, black shoes, black socks, and a black tie.
He also wore a black Derby. I thought, ‘God, this man looks like an undertaker.’ We sat down and
I said to myself, ‘This character is as bald as an egg.’ He didn’t have any eyebrows or eyelashes
and his skin was a dead white colour. His nose was very small and it came down to just above the
upper lip. His lips were ruby red. He had the appearance of a clothing store dummy. His sump
looked as if it had never been worn before. … I got a little uneasy when he ordered me to destroy
the tapes and any other correspondence and anything to do with UFOs. He said that if I didn’t
do so I would suffer the same fate as Barney Hill” [a renowned 'contactee' who had died under
mysterious circumstances].

The Sony Pictures film is a trashy comedy that became very popular. But what better way to bury the truth about the Men than by getting Hollywood to make a comedy about them? Any subsequent reference to the real men in black will now only be met with laughter, and even serious examination will be tainted by the suspicion that the reporter is merely “projecting” ideas in the film. Has this particularly Orwellian technique been successfully applied?

Link Candy Mountain

by on October 1, 2005, no comments

In an effort to make a visual change around here, I thought I’d start a collection of links to stuff in my new “Links” section on the right hand side. In true 1995 style, I’ve just saved the images out of a couple of sites. So say konnichiwa to Magnatune (and while you’re at it Brad Sucks), as well as the blog of my mate Kaoru – without whom none of this would be possible (probably).

Update: I’m now being a little more sophisticated, having just discovered www.bannerart.org.

19 Professors and the Music Business

by on September 30, 2005, no comments

Canadian law professors have produced a 600-page book that is being made freely available under a creative commons license in which they make the point that “The public’s interest in copyright, something inconceivable even a few years ago, is the result of the remarkable confluence of computing power, the Internet, and a plethora of new software programs, all of which has not only enabled millions to create their own songs, movies, photos, art, and software but has also allowed them to efficiently distribute their creations electronically without the need for traditional distribution systems”

Apart from the use of the word “plethora” (can we stop using that word now, please?), that sums up the present situation nicely. A couple of weeks ago I posted on Slashdot about this. The “music business” today puts the publisher first before the producer. I’d like to see the musicians having the upper hand, and the listeners literally calling the tunes.

With the Internet performing the role of publisher via search, collaborative filtering and other mechanisms, close to 100% of the money from the purchase of music can go to the artist. Right now, the mechanisms for this (PayPal and, er, PayPal) are in their infancy, but when they mature, musicians will be able to pay accountants, employees, PR, caterers, drug dealers, etc. in the same way as other businesses pay their service providers (accountants, employees, PR, caterers, drug dealers, etc.). They might even like to try some DRM if they want, and see what that’s like ;-)

The record companies aren’t going to go without a fight, but the vast majority of artists earn tiny amounts from their contacts with publishers. How long now until the big flip? I think it’s pretty clear which way the wind’s blowing. Britney Spears: your days are numbered.

But just in case you thought this was a typically misty-eyed Webtorque post, I’m worried about the future after that. With the invisible hand in charge, what will happen? We’ve almost no historical precedent to go on, but what we have looks ominous
:

The one incoherent view is the belief that a free and diverse media will naturally 
tend towards equality. The development of weblogs in their first five years demonstrates 
that is not always true, and gives us reason to suspect it may never be true. Equality 
can only be guaranteed by limiting either diversity or freedom.

Running Vista

by on September 20, 2005, no comments

OK, slightly misleading title: I’m not actually running Vista, I’m thinking whether I’ll ever run it. The other day I tried to think of one thing that WindowsXP Home Edition (the on that came with my new Dell) gives me that Windows98 didn’t have. I don’t consider myself a computer geek, just an interested party – but I could not think of a single thing.


When I got my new Dell, I booted it up and winced at the slew of AOL, Tiscali Broadband, and other intrusive icons all over the desktop. After furiously clicking “no” to various half-understood exhortations to come and find out about Windows Media Player 10, and confronted by simply baffling system tray jostling between Norton Anti-Virus and XP’s built-in security gubbins, even I recognised it was all a ploy to get me to buy something. So I decided to re-install XP from scratch. This was in the hope I’d regain some control over the configuration, and it pretty much worked. Well, I had to download a clean install image from Dell to do it (no disks provided these days, you see) but I got there in the end: just the software I want on it, and with all the defaults ready for me, and me alone, to change.

I’m probably going to have this machine for about 4 or 5 years I would think. It’s a 2.6Ghz Pentium 4 with 2Gig RAM a 70Gig hard disk. Vista, it seems, will demand most of that straight away, and will probably stub its toe on my puny IntelExpress graphics card. It’ll be grateful for the CPU’s dual core though I suppose.

But the thing that really makes me wonder if I’ll ever run it is the news from Neil Page, a strategist with Microsoft Australia, that:

"The industry needed something much better to deal with the piracy problem. Studios said
in a high-def world, we're going to have to have a very different way of viewing content.
...
"The downside is that all your existing flat panel monitors and projectors 
aren't going to work with high-def videos in Vista. Bad news."

All this is beginning to sound distinctly like a sales pitch for Linux to me.

Visual Media “Not That Bad” Revelation

by on September 14, 2005, no comments

“Death to the fascist insect that preys upon the life of the people!”

Right on! I have a gun, I’m wearing a beret, and my daddy’s the richest man in America!

After having a dig at crap on TV in my last blog post, I found myself watching the box for “Guerrilla: The Taking of Patty Hearst” on Monday night. I’d been vaguely aware of the Patty Hearst story, but this documentary really pulled me in close to the details and I found it fascinating. It was a bit Michael Moore at times, but was an amazing documentary of an amazing episode in history. I didn’t know that it’s now acknowledged to have been the origin of the “media circus” phenomenon. Seeing live broadcasts of spokespeople feeding the circus the increasingly odd-ball demands of the SLA as well as Hurst’s sometimes hilarious public statements was wonderful. “I thought, is everyone stoned?” recalls one gang member of his recollection of the media’s behaviour at the time. It was intensely American in so many ways. Only, only in the USA.

Guardian ’94 Tabloid Irony Mashup!

by on September 11, 2005, no comments

“At The Guardian,” writes today’s Sunday Times, “…they claim that they came up with the idea of a compact newspaper long before The Independent.” Well, I can confirm that it’s not just a claim, it’s a fact. What’s more, they even put out a prototype in 1994.

Went to tea yesterday with Ben House, a friend of mine from way back; the power behind The Wire magazine and an astute observer of popular culture. He’d been going through some old papers which included a prototype “personal newspaper” printed by TheGuardian MediaLaboratories {sic} in 1994. The Guardian of 11:31: Thursday December 1, 2004 (large scans) was a tongue-in-cheek bit of futurology as to how some dead-tree media might look a decade in the future. Perhaps it was the Y2K bug messing with their Apple Newtons, but that date was in fact a Wednesday.

With reasonably accurate prescience, it was a fold-out half-A4 sized sheet. Proof that even back then, mavericks within the empire were worrying about what the Indie eventually did something about in 2003. The rest is a fascinating mix of some good guesses, near misses and the utterly wrong, even allowing for the fact that it was supposed to be a bit of fun. Other than the ironic timing of Ben’s discovery with the launch of tomorrow’s full-colour “Berliner” edition, some rather eye-popping highlights include:

- A front page story about a devastating Los Angeles earthquake, after which appeals for calm are issued by “Governor Schwarzenegger” (counterbalanced by an outside bet on Newt Gingrich as president). “Although more than 1,500 square kilometres are little more than a ruined concrete jungle of looting, murder and terrorism, some communications are now getting through.”

- 2002 referenced as the year of “the third Gulf conflict” in which “Iraqi forces surrendered on live TV after being precision bombed from orbiting weapons platforms.”

- A rather quaint obsession with TV listings, which despite heavy references to “the net” and “email” pretty much proves that print journos have always been several steps behind the fact that British TV is awful, even as the online media revolution that allows me to type this was exploding in their custard. And now we know where Charlie Booker got his idea for TVGohome!

I’ve not had time to digest it all, it’s just too fascinating. I just want to blog it before Monday – but hope to dig out some more gems later.

Trying Tor Again

by on September 10, 2005, no comments

Earlier this year I took down the Tor server I was running, mainly because it was hoovering up rather a lot of bandwidth and throttling it down to the trickle that would have been necessary to keep under my bandwidth cap seemed a bit silly. I’ve now set it up again (nickname “Doormouse”) on one of our Hatters servers for the continuing good of all mankind (huzzah!). Wonder at the graph and bask in the glow of pure freedom – or something.

Windows Presentation Foundation: It’s Not Flash

by JBB on September 6, 2005, no comments

I went to the Microsoft Campus yesterday to have an informal preview of some of the new Windows UI things to be announced next week (technically under NDA – so sue me).

In the lead-up to Longhorn (now “Vista” – the next version of Windows), one of Microsoft’s aims is to make the role of UI/UX design as important as that of coding in the overall development process. This will be done by the introduction of the “Windows Presentation Foundation” underpinned by XAML (pronounced “zamel”): a declarative language a bit like SVG or ActionScript. The capabilities of the Foundation are much like Flash (complete with animation, embedded video, 3D, alpha channel stuff, etc.). The similarity with Flash ends there though as it’s part of the underlying OS (via .NET) and not just a wimpy sandboxed runtime. Nobody asked The Security Question though…

While aspects of the Foundation will better under Vista, some of it will run under XP with .NET 2 when that ships later this/next year. A beta version of their vector/bitmap editor which runs XP SP2 will be called Microsoft Expression Designer is also available right now.

I was a little unclear what the future of this tool is (Photoshop competitor or just a replacement for MS Paint in Vista?), since they will also eventually ship Expression Interactive Designer and Expression Web Designer. We saw a quick demo of an application being built with the Interactive Designer and it was very Flash-like to look at. Data binding and other interesting stuff came out of the box as did time-lines and a nice zooming interface for the whole tool (which itself is written in XAML). The zooming will be a new feature in for Vista overall.

The idea they were pushing was that munchkins will be able to use the Expression tools to create XAML UI/applications and give them to developers running Visual Studio to integrate into proper apps. This in turn will mean applications can eschew boring old menus and dialogues for full-motion video wrapped around spinning bananas. The UX possibilities will explode: Expression will take over where Flash leaves off, websites will be gagging to develop Expression versions of their sites (Amazon, and, erm, Amazon). Oh, and accessibility is “built-in” (no demo of this yesterday though) and web deployment of the applications will assume clients run .NET (ie it’s Windows only).

Whether all this will be good for the actual user experience in the final analysis is an open question. What it means for the UX professionals of the future is also anyone’s guess, but having a UI development tool on a par with Visual Studio does sound rather nice.

As a final tidbit, a hot tip next week is to look out for an announcement from MS that has a drink in it’s name (but somehow I don’t think it’s going to be WINE) which will answer some possible questions around interoperability…

Her Heart’s In the Right Place

by JBB on September 6, 2005, no comments

This blog post shows how chaotic the discipline of IA is (see the comments in particular). There’s not even a pretense of union, agreement or even polite tolerance of divergent views amongst the practitioners. I look at designs by other people and I feel almost bound by duty to pepper them with criticism. I even expect it in others: a senior colleague recently reviewed some work I’d done and drew large rings around some elements, writing the words “awful” in large red ink next to them. Two months later, and after much fruitless experiment, the same interaction he so abhorred has now been deployed. The belief that there’s a mythical “true way” promotes the idea that the one who puts their idea across with enough force wins. We’re no worse than cowboy builders or politicians. Oh, and Euro IA rejected my application to give a presentation. Bastards.

Britt Allcroft: I Am Angry

by JBB on September 2, 2005, 3 comments

Laurence Lessig’s written a great short piece (I didn’t know Americans could do that!) for Foreign Policy on the death of the public domain. He’s great at hitting the nail on the head.

“There is no doubt that piracy is an important problem — it’s just not the only problem. Our leaders have lost this sense of balance. They have been seduced by a vision of culture that measures beauty in ticket sales. They are apparently untroubled by a world where cultivating the past requires the permission of the past. They can’t imagine that freedom could produce anything worthwhile at all.”

Proof, if it be needed of this, was given to me last weekend when we visited the Northampton & Lamport Railway on one of their Thomas The Tank Engine events. It was pretty much heaving with kiddies and other Thomas fans and was a good (half) day out. But it could have been better were it not for the state of copyright law.

As part of his banter while we rode the short distance of the restored track, Sir Toppham Hat (pictured in the above) went into some rather interesting detail about how much of the proceeds from our ticket prices, tea and Thomas merchandise went to the current copyright holders of Thomas The Thank Engine (and Friends): Britt Allcroft. It seemed to be a pretty large chunk.

I looked around me and saw the place in a new light. The railway is maintained by volunteers: rail enthusiasts who dedicate their spare time to keeping the rather rusty engines and dilapidated carriages working. We watched some of them working on rolling stock in the sidings, seemingly oblivious to the Thomas event around them. There’s been an immense amount of effort to restore the track and re-build a bride across the River Nene (which is barely more than a stream) with help from Leicester and Northampton councils. But in terms of return on this investment of labour and love, The Thomas The Thank Engine event instead gives a hugely disproportionate benefit to Britt Allcroft.

The writer of the Thomas The Thank Engine stories is dead. His work should be in the public domain. Instead, copyright holders are allowed to skim off profits from events like this at the Lamport Railway and give me and my kids a bum deal. In Thomas’s case, this may be the situation perhaps for another fifty years (if current EC legislation allows it). Our ticket money could have gone towards shiny brasswork, perhaps a restored ticket office and waiting room and many other things that needed care. Instead we had to ignore the fact that the waiting room is a portable home; the cafe is a carriage literally falling apart, and the Fat Controller’s spats are falling off his feet.

All this left me angry. The two councils and the volunteers at the railway have done a wonderful job and the place is truly magical because of it, but Britt Allcroft and HIT Entertainment are a blight. How many people at the event realised this I don’t know. Maybe it was just me and Sir Toppham.

Again, Lessig:

“And the cultivation of culture and creativity will then be dictated by those who claim to own it.”

A possibly ironic footnote, but I think it rather noble that the content of the Northampton and Lamport Railway’s website is licensed under a Creative Commons Licence.

It’s Difficult – So Let’s Leave the User Out of It.

by JBB on August 29, 2005, 2 comments

For too long, login, registration and online point of sale processes have been designed either by IT business analysts who see users as UML symbols, or worse, by developers who don’t want to think about users at all. More often than not, information architects get frozen out. I’ve worked on loads of sites that had ecommerce or registration processes that for some reason were deemed out of  scope for us. So we deliver a great experience up until the point the customer actually wants to engage with the site, whereupon it’s all “enter your 15 digit user name with no spaces or diacritical marks” in amongst idiotic placement of buttons, inappropriate use of screen elements, and various other usecrime.

Now, I know there are factors to consider here, like security policies and system limitations, but that doesn’t mean things shouldn’t start from a point of best user experience and go from there. When so many shopping carts and registration systems are confusing and broken, should it not be time for something to change?

To back up my thoughts on this a bit, here’s a real-world example. It’s not the worst I’ve seen, but certainly a mess. It’s for setting up a PAYG account with Orange. The diligent among you will know that yes, I work for a company that works for Orange, and no, we didn’t design the following and yes, I’m offering constructive criticism here, in case you’re confused.

(Note, the following may not be 100% correct as I was only making rough notes as I went along and relying on some memory)

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

Ring up, give name address, etc. and am asked to supply a 4-digit “security code” (no explanation given, but I just go with the flow). I decline the option to nominate a credit card as I’ve not got my wallet to hand.

Next I’m told I will get “a series” of SMS messages (they’re very explicit about the “series” bit for some reason) to activate the phone and that I should read, then delete them, then turn off the phone for a ten seconds.

I get one. So I do what I’m told. Now I’m just waiting for my old number to be ported over from BT Mobile – hooray. That’ll take a few days, apparently.

So later in the day I go to www.orange.co.uk as I have a vague notion that I can top up my phone on line or something. I see a “log in” button,

I enter my mobile number and “password” which I assume is my “security code” that I got when I called.

No dice (“not recognised” error). So I try the little “New users click here to register” link.

This starts off with “Before you begin the process of registering your mobile number…” hmm. I thought I did that on the phone just now, no?

Never mind – I may was well give it a go. I check the PAYG box and the “I know my 4-digit identity code” – sounds better.

Hit continue…. wait for ages (about 5mins?).

Agree to T&Cs, enter phone number, and get an SMS, which has my “Orange services security code” in it.

I use that to log in with. It doesn’t work (another “not recognised” error).

I try the process again. Get a second code, this time it works.

I choose a password and submit the form. I wait for ages (another 5 mins? I leave the room to make a coffee)

I am then told the account is ready and that I can log in. So I navigate to the home page and log in.

It takes ages, then I get “Sorry, the server is currently busy. Please try again later.”

So I try later. But it seems like I am logged in after all (I can see “your account” and various things like setting up email on the nav bar). But what’s this? I need to enter my phone number again. So I do and I get an error. “The mobile number should be in the standard UK format with no spaces” – I had a space.

Delete space, try again, success! Now I get “enter your 4-digit security code” and an “identity code.” I’m just about to put the number in that I was sent earlier when – ping – another SMS arrives with my “identity code” in it again. It’s the same one as before, so I enter that.

Success!

“Thank you for registering your phone. To start managing your account please click ‘ok’.”

So I do. But then I need to “add a new account” before I can see my balance, etc. Dear god! Did I not do that before? So I enter my phone number and it set it up.

Time to completion: almost three hours.

Nice. And now I’m done but I can’t be arsed to explore the may other links on the nav bar.

SphereXP

by JBB on August 18, 2005, no comments

I bumped into SphereXP yesterday, which is one of the experiments in desktop management that’s been going on for a while (well, ever since Xerox PARC I suppose). Here it is running on my machine.

If you have an interest in this sort of thing, I can reccommend you have a look. Whether it’s the future of OS interfaces I doubt, but it does give you the illusion of a larger monitor, and in the process shows you that perhaps trackerballs are the way ahead after all. It’s just very hard to get past the novelty factor, which is always a problem with these things.

I’m also having a look at this as well

Life is What Happens…

by on August 14, 2005, no comments

There is a (possibly apocriphal – I’ve not checked it) John Lennon quotation: “Life is what happens when you’re making plans for other things” which is rather apt for me recently. For instance, I noticed that I’ve been blogging for more than a year now and that the anniversary (July 11th) completely passed me by. Not that this is in itself a wonderfully interesting event, but I did imagine I would be marking the date with a fantastic post on world peace, the copyfight, or at least something on site maps. But no. Instead I’m worrying about my pension.

Pensions are scary things, to be sure, and particularly so if you think you might not have enough to see you through your old age. But then Axel had his 5th birthday last week and I’ve not written his birthday saga yet… An old friend from school days got in touch and I forgot to get back to him, and countless other little events that I should have been paying more attention to.

So to commemorate the event of me not writing anything of even the remotest interest, I have created a new meta data type for this blog called “Weak Filler,” evoking as it does some rather badly-mixed powdery grouting, or lame content. Enjoy.

Head-Smacker

by on August 3, 2005, one comment

Once in a while you get “one of those moments” on a project. This time, it was courtesy of the off-shore developers we’re working with. I’ve inherited the acceptance phase from the first iteration of an application that was specced up before I got on the project (I’m picking it up on the second iteration).

The requirements for iteration one are pretty simple, so I found it odd that while some aspects of the application were fine (the layout, menus etc.) others were just utterly wrong. It was almost as if they’d not even read the specs there were given.

And today it turns out I was right. After pressing the point about the non-implementation of some things that are pretty clear in the documents that I’ve been working from, their lead developer mentions in an email that they have not seen any documentation for those aspects of the application.

Smack! So all this time they’ve just been imagining how large parts of the application should behave? These things were referred to in the document they had, but expanded in the one that they didn’t have. But did they not think to ask us where the missing specs were before they started coding?

I know life is a crisis of communication, and specs and documentation is traditionally rather thin, but to regard no documentation as being acceptable certainly says something about the state of things.

Moat Construction Problem

by on August 1, 2005, one comment

WHY do I do it? Perhaps I’m being governed by the GIFT, but for no apparent reason this evening I posted the following to uk.d-i-y. Readers may recall my equally inexplicable posting on uk.legal a few months ago that produced a very witty set of responses far funnier than my original post. This is one is equally weak, but I hope it’ll both fish in some suckers and spark some funny replies. Lets see if it works…

For the past three years I have been building an Anglo-Saxon castle in the garden of my house, 
using only traditional tools and materials.

Having laid the foundations and dug the moat, I would like to fill the moat so as to test its 
integrity (both of itself and against invaders) before progressing to erecting the walls.

I understand the traditional way of doing this is to tap a river or a stream, and supplement 
this with ox-drawn carts filled with barrels of fresh water. However, being in Brockley, I'm 
too far from the Thames to do this (a distance of about 2 miles as the crow flies). There are
also no tube stations near enough for me to tunnel the water from there. While I think I could
construct the necessary carts, I would not have the space in the remainder of my garden to rear
the oxen to draw them. My neighbours have made some comments on the fact that I have begun 
rearing goats and some chickens to produce the considerable tonnage of dung for wattle daub 
I will need later on in the construction.

So I am considering using a Chinese technique from about the same historical era of using 
giant kites to lift Thames water into place above the moat and pour it in from there.

Does anyone have any experience with this particular technique (which, I understand, will 
require considerable resources and manpower to implement), or indeed defensive Angle-Saxon 
moat building in general?

Any advice much appreciated. And if you also have any tips for laying long-and-short 
quoins I would also be grateful as my initial attempts at this were not successful.

Jonathan 

Who Creates Music?

by on July 27, 2005, no comments

We had an email from HR on the company “fun” list today seemingly inviting all employees to listen to a popular music number called “Running Away’ by Roy Ayers.” Why, I don’t know. Out of lunchtime interest though, I was curious to find out whether we’d need a license to distribute music to employees. So I Googled about and got to PPL. Looks like we’d need to get one. Hmm. The phrase “screw you” came to mind.

But even more surprising was the home page blurb – rather revealing of their attitude I thought:

The license fees that PPL collects are then distributed to the rightful owner ... 
usually the record company responsible for creating the track - and also the performers
who played that track.

If I were a musician, I’d like to associate the word “creating” somewhat closer to the phrase “rightful owner” there! I was actually rather shocked.

Reminds me of the Simpsons line:

I worked damn hard for this, and I'm not going to let you, or them, or the rightful owner take it away from me!

Going Postal

by JBB on July 25, 2005, no comments

I’m selling a shower rail on eBay, and a bidder has asked me how much it might be send to Germany. That should be easy to find out (indeed, why don’t they look it up themselves the lazy buggers?) I’ve got a vision of a nice form to fill out: dimensions, weight, destination, insurance, etc. And with this in mind I go to the Royal Mail. I go to City Link. I Google.

The Royal Mail. One of those “stick a million links on every page” site. But “Send and Receive Mail” on the main nav looks promising. Click on “Sending mail overseas” … “Surface Mail” sounds good for starters (“Perfect for heavy and bulky items”). Click. Blah blah “Easy and affordable way to send anything around the world” … “Up to half the price of standard Airmail” Blah blah. What is this? A press release? What about the f*****g RATES?? “Pricing…click here” (so no accessibility audit then, best practice freaks). The pricing only goes up to 2Kg and seems limited to just “Small packets and printed papers.” Not exactly living up to that “heavy and bulky items” billing.

So I try again. This time with their “Postal calculator” (dunno where I found it – some link buried in a bunch of blah). No branding (apart from Sun Microsystems logo in TLHC, which means “Geeks Have Designed This”), no nav… sinking feeling… click on “sending mail overseas” and fill in *almost* the form I envisaged being on the home page before I started this journey almost 10mins ago. This time, it reveals that I can send it surface mail at that weight. But then I can’t get any confirmation as to whether it’ll be too big or what. No further information on the service. Dead end.

Next I Google and find www.parcelflight.co.uk. Looks good! Looks perfect, although the form on the home page (they’ve got the right idea!) assumes you’re sending to UK only. Never mind, click on the image next to it that says “Europe from £19.99″ – this’ll do me! They’ve got my money already! Yes? No. It takes me to another form. Another form that also assumes I’m sending to the UK.

But something in the back of my mind tells me they can’t be THAT stupid. After all, their graphic designers are streets ahead of the Royal Mail’s. No. Let’s just try… I thought so! It’s Internet Explorer they want, not Firefox! With MSIE I can see the “destination” drop-down.

So I close the loop and send them a link to this page.

Another Tack on the Docs

by on July 19, 2005, 2 comments

There’s been a great thread on SIGIA this last week or so on the good old subject of documentation. It’s incredible how diverse the approaches are. Some people are plugging away with ye olde Visio, while others are pioneering with things like Dreamweaver and even Together.

I, meanwhile, am in the midst of picking up some previous documentation done by somebody else (in fact two people, with two different approaches) and attempting to wrestle that down to meet some newer, and fortunately simpler, requirements, while preparing to allow the documents to get more complex with subsequent iterations. This has meant I’m thinking as much about how I’m doing things as what I’m doing.

Currently, the documents are mainly in Freehand for wireframes and other UI bits, and there’s a modules catalogue in Powerpoint. Of course, as the thread on SIGIA proves (if proof is even needed) – there are no good tools for doing what IAs need to do yet (but cue my now ritual keep-an-eye-on-this-one aside). Even so, I still think Freehand is an utter pain. And Powerpoint hardly seems a step forward.

Apropos of all this, I was introduced to Fireworks last week. It’s obviously trying to be a sort of webby Photoshop, not being page-based, but allowing you to create widgets with behaviours, etc. It can also do shared modules, and do them properly (not like Freehand – which can’t, and I don’t care what you say). And Fireworks’s native file format is layered PNGs.

Hmm. PNGs. Properly shared library elements (and localisable with it). What if I did my graphics in Fireworks, and linked them to an MS Word doc for the annotations? Seems to work nicely. I can also create clickable prototypes from the Freehand files on the side, without having to bother Word about it or re-create stuff.

An initial play about seems promising for this as an approach. With a quick Alt+TAB and a keystroke to refresh the links, it’s almost like using one application. I’m a bit suspicious of the layers in the PNG files though, and what Word might or might not do with them if I try sly things like adding layers that I don’t want to show with the annotations. Need to experiment more when I have some time (hopefully tomorrow) and get up to some kind of speed with Fireworks.

One day though, all this will seem like ludicrously clueless babbling. Actually, it is even now fairly ludicrous in the sense that there’s a whole industry out there that can’t even decide the basics of how to create their own paydirt. But that’s a good thing, and I’m glad I’m part of it just so I can tell my grandchildren that we once tried speccing websites with Powerpoint. “But that’s like trying to catch a rabbit with a broom!”

Couldn’t have put it better myself.

Video, Computers and Shocking Interaction Design

by on July 18, 2005, no comments

I’ve been fiddling with computers recently. It all started when my wife bought a video camera (Sony PC-110) with a DV output. Then I got a Firewire card. Then I tried to burn DVDs of my sister’s wedding. Then I f****ing tore my hair out and gave up.

That was over a year ago, but time heals all things, and I returned to the quest to burn a DVD that could play on our DVD player in the living room. This time with film of my sister’s daughter’s christening. After waiting for 48 hours for my old Dell P600 to render the AVI file, I concluded I needed a new machine. So I bought another one.

SWPAT Victory

by on July 8, 2005, no comments

I feel relieved that the European Parliament voted by 648 votes to 18 to reject the proposed directive on computer-implemented inventions this week. There was a heck of a lot of activity on both sides, and I did a bit with some letter and postcard writing, and trying (unsuccessfully) to ring MEPs in Strasbourg last week. It was also good to meet the goons from the DTI on the issue, even if there wasn’t enough time to table my question about interface development.

This is my favourite picture from the days leading up to the vote, and a BoingBoing post that talks about it.

The fact remains, however, that software patent legislation is still in the hands of individual EU countries. It just won’t be Europe wide. The UKPTO has the hots for patents. I’m not expecting this all to end very soon…

Why Are They Bombing London?

by on July 7, 2005, no comments

This post is political – no apologies. Look away now.

All my life the forces of evil have been embodied by “terrorists.” The IRA, Abu Nidal, Tigers, FARC, Al Quaida, the list is endless. All my life, the foreign policy of governments have been ranged around the war against terror, supported by the war against drugs and “organised crime.” It just goes round and round and round. It’s reached the status of a culture of our times and it’s making me sick.

Consuming the mainstream media to find answers to why people are committing acts of terror is a bit like trying to get a hearty meal out of candyfloss. The “analysis”, “commentary” and sheer weight of verbiage that pours forth about “policy” and “countermeasures” is completely disorientating. You can’t look into it for more than a few hours before you keel over with media-induced vertigo.

Like the BBC weather forecasts that tell you everything but the one thing you want to know (WILL IT RAIN!?), the subject of WHY terrorism is happening is mystifyingly avoided. Sometimes, as in the case of the IRA, it’s fairly well known, but that’s a rarity. Why are Al Quaida and large sections of the Middle East so angry?

So I looked around for some clues. After much searching, I found the answers I was looking for, and like some mystic revelation, I found I’d known them all along. They were in the words of a lecture given by Noam Chomsky at The Technology & Culture Forum at MIT 24th Oct 2001. In it, he describes the historical events and political mechanisms by which the current situation has been constructed, and that’s a good term for it: “constructed.” Not by some shadowy elite with it’s hand on the tiller, but by all of us and our willingness not to understand.

We certainly want to reduce the level of terror, certainly not escalate it.  There is one easy 
way to do that and therefore it is never discussed. Namely stop participating in it. That would 
automatically reduce the level of terror enormously. But that you can’t discuss. Well, we ought 
to make it possible to discuss it. So that’s one easy way to reduce the level of terror.

Beyond that, we should rethink the kinds of policies, and Afghanistan is not the only one, 
in which we organize and train terrorist armies. That has effects. We’re seeing some of these 
effects now. September 11th is one. Rethink it.

Rethink the policies that are creating a reservoir of support. Exactly what the bankers, 
lawyers and so on are saying in places like Saudi Arabia. On the streets it’s much more bitter, 
as you can imagine. That’s possible. You know, those policies aren’t graven in stone. 

Functional Specifications

by JBB on July 6, 2005, no comments

I’m three weeks into a brand new project, and my mind is on requirements and specifications. Like every project I’ve ever worked on, this is unique. This time, it’s unique because it was half documented and thought about, and was then mothballed. Now it’s back from the dead a year later, and I’m on the case trying to make sense of what was done. There’s one person in my department who worked on it before it was frozen, but the others (who wrote most of the docs) have gone.

The project is a complex one in terms of function. One half of it involves designing a fat client interface (a .NET application) that talks to a proprietary CMS to allow the editing of very specialised content types. The other half is a web-based management interface to the CMS for use mainly by reviewers and approvers of that content. After almost three solid weeks of reading, talking to people and firing off emails with questions, I still feel pretty shaky on the details, and even some of the broader concepts. The feeling of not knowing what I don’t know is also rather annoying.

So the one thing that I really, really wanted to find in all the proposals, presentations, use cases, wireframes, process flows, action matrices, prototypes and other wonderful artefacts that have been produced on the project over the past few years, was something that just gave me a general overview. This would preferably be in writing, describing what the system currently does. No such luck. The collective knowledge of the team is the best I can hope to fall back on.

I know that this issue of “the big picture” on projects has been taxing the minds of the great and the good, and I’ve been comparing two approaches on the last couple of days: that of the famous Joel Spolsky, and the less thorough, but admirable opinions of Jason Fried the head honcho of 37 Signals.

Both make good points. I tend to feel that Fried is playing to the gallery a bit in the sense that interaction designers and other “experience architect” types dislike words and prefer pictures to communicate things. That’s fair enough – pictures can and do convey a lot of stuff on most projects. But without some underpinning of clear context, and cross-reference to detail, it all falls apart as surely as 500 pages of dense Times Roman. It just does it in a different way. This issue came to me unvarnished when, after being assured by the handover document that wireframes had been “completed” for one half of the project, I opened the relevant file only to find 85 pages of expertly crafted pages almost completely unannotated. Just pictures of pages in space. At that point, I knew I had my work cut out.

The 37 Signals position is also coloured by the the fact they’re consultants, and don’t have to deal with history, politics or even much economics. Reading many case studies in which they and people like Adaptive Path have been involved, you can’t help thinking they just make up their own rules, go in, do a spectacular job, and leave. Spolsky’s view is more pragmatic. He insists on writing at least some things down because he comes from an in-house tradition of dealing with the political backdrop to software development. Written documents can have a certain corporate symbolism that commands respect. That can of course be used to hide behind (and lord knows the “use cases” I’ve been reading today – written by a third party in this case – are utter sand bags). But their main utility is positively to deal with a set of problems. some of which might not have anything to do with the project directly.

When I suggest I write a short functional spec to “set up” the other artefacts (primarily wireframes, process flows and things like data dictionaries) along the lines of a Spolskly example, the first reaction is that nobody will read it, and the implication is that we don’t need to do it as long as our other artefacts are detailed enough. That may be true, and in this case I’m a latecomer to the project willing to take a back seat unless things get really messy. But what’s interesting is that conversations about terminology and vocabulary come around regularly on the project, and this usually ends with somebody wishing we had a “project glossary” to pin down the definition of something. Yet I know from experience that if you attempt to write such a document, you realise that in fact you need to write a spec because once you’re on that path, you can see the light that a little context provides. No matter how detailed a wireframe or a site map or a business rules document is – if the reader doesn’t understand the context, it’s pretty much worthless. There is no substitute for words when supplying that context. It just takes a bit of faith.

Science Does Not Remove the Terror of the Gods

by on July 1, 2005, one comment

StumbleUpon is a nice idea and I’ve been using it a bit recently. Its categorisations are a bit too broad to be really useful, but if they hooked it up with some sort of folksonomy system that you could use to refine your profile, then it might get really interesting. Like del.icio.us/ only less… flat.

I was impressed when the “random stumble” button took me to one of my favourite pages on the web, hence the title of this post.

Should I Blog It?

by on July 1, 2005, one comment

I’ve been having to edit my urges recently. There have been various little things happening to which my almost instant (and in my view unhealthy) reaction is that “I should blog that.”

For instance, I was returning home after work last night, and as I waited at the lights at the crossing of Pentonville Road and Amwell Street, who should wonder across but Gilbert and George! It’s the second time I’ve seen them out on the streets of London. Last time I spotted them in Soho and my wife and I followed them at a discreet distance to see where they were going (they went into a side street and were let in to a small door and disappeared). But this time, to my surprise, almost my first reaction was that this was great blog material and that because they were walking along my route, I should stop, get out my phone and snap a few pics.

But why? Isn’t just being able to tell your friends enough? I’m no great afficionado of their work: I just had a scaled-down reproduction of “Winter Pissing” on my wall when I was a student once. Something about their lives as “living art works” makes them more interesting than, say, Tracy Emin the Chapman Brothers though.

The more I think about it, the more I should have taken that bloody picture.

A Trouble with Folksonomies

by JBB on June 29, 2005, one comment

Had an informal presentation today about folksonomies. A lot has been said about them recently, and I don’t think anyone’s thinking of them as really serious tools to rival more traditional systems or techniques, but some things that came to mind about the long term future started with that Killing Joke track.

“Requiem” contains the following lyric:*

And the meaning of words;
When they cease to function;
When there's nothing to say;
When will it start worrying you?

I’ve always played the banjo, and would class my picking style as “frailing”, but many others would call it “clawhammer.” There’s no clear definition of either, and some think they are in fact the same thing, but there’s often disagreement.

It strikes me that that the utility of folksonomies depends a lot on the “received meaning” of terms, but it’s always been a mystery to me as to how we as humans actually come to that meaning individually. I can’t remember how or when I first learnt what “probity” meant, or what the difference is between the meaning of “accuracy” and “precision.” My grandfather understood the word “gay” as having a completely different meaning to what it does now. Indeed, it current has at least three separate meanings to my knowledge (“happy,” “homosexual,” and “disagreeable”).

To me, this is another reason why folksonomies as truly useful tools in their own right are doomed unless they act as supplements to existing classification systems.

Hmmm.

* Ironically, these lyrics are disputed, since Jaz Coleman usually just made up stuff on the fly during takes, and often quite radically changed the meaning of songs live or in later recordings.

The Grokster Ruling: Life, Death and the Bay City Rollers

by JBB on June 27, 2005, one comment

The US Supreme Court’s ruling against Grokster came in today:

"We hold that one who distributes a device with the object of promoting 
its use to infringe copyright, as shown by clear expression or other 
affirmative steps taken to foster infringement, is liable for the resulting
acts of infringement by third parties"


So, to quote a Slashdot poster on the subject this afternoon:

In the United States, it's legal to sell armour-piercing ammunition: 
bullets whose sole purpose is to go through bulletproof vests; 
obviously a device designed to kill or maim human beings. The 
manufacturers to do not even make the pretense of proposing other 
uses for said ammunition. This activity is all fine and legal.

By comparison, a device that may or may not be designed for, but 
is certainly capable of, infringing copyright is deemed illegal. 
The manufacturers at least attempt the pretense of proposing legal
uses for the technology and make a somewhat-better-than-marginal 
case for its legit use. This is not fine or legal.

Question for the supreme court: do you really believe the copyright
of the Bay City Rollers first album is more deserving of legal 
protection than a human life?

Video

by on June 26, 2005, no comments

I spent most of this afternoon (almost five hours, actually) trying to get 25mins of video footage from my Sony DCR-PC110 DV camera onto a DVD. What a palava. Nero is a sorry mess of an application – so bad you don’t even know what program to launch, let alone how to use what you think you need to use.

Do the manufacturers seriously expect me to understand their program menu items? Here’s what I’ve got:

Nero
    Nero OEM
       Nero Cover Designer
       Nero Express
    Nero Toolkit
       Nero CD-DVD Speed
       Nero DriveSpeed
       
    User's Guides
    Nero Smartstart
    Nero Digital

When I eventually got it on a DVD, I triumphantly went downstairs to play it on the TV, but the player said “Cannot read disk.” Bugger. Something in the back of my mind said something about “book type,” but by then I couldn’t be arsed. I can play it on my PC, but that’s not the point.

I suppose getting video to DVD just has to be incredibly complicated (after all, just burning CDs can be hard) but I can’t help feeling that having a supposedly mainstream piece of software that’s so obvioulsy created by geeks for geeks doesn’t help.

One good thing that did come out of this was that it was that it finally convinced me that my 5-year-old P600 really is too old now. The Dell website beckons…

MIT Weblog Survey

by on June 26, 2005, no comments

Take the MIT Weblog Survey

This is apparently helping to finish somebody’s PhD, but it was mainly out of curiosity that I filled it in. He doesn’t give you the option of listing Trillian as your IM client, so he’s obviously a bit stuck up in his ivory tower. The results page is down at the time of writing, but it promises to be quite interesting.

More Greasemonkey Mayhem

by on June 25, 2005, no comments

Just as I’ve found a Greasemonkey script that fixes up Odeon’s site and provides a link to IMDB for all their films, I’ve now found a script that puts a link to a torrent for films listed in IMDB! So now I can see what’s on at the Odeon, and if I don’t think it’s worth the money to go and see after reading IMBD, I have the option to burn it to DVD and watch it the next evening.

Sure, this is piracy, but at least it’s discriminating.

Odeon website accessibility now a reality

by on June 20, 2005, 3 comments

You may or may not have been following the Odeon cinema website usability/accessibility saga over the last year or so.

I installed a Greasemonkey script written to improve the site, and it’s pretty interesting. It completely changes the interaction design of the site, and throws in a new feature – a link to the IMDB page for each film – which the original site doesn’t have! This is all completely without the say-so of the site designers. Of course, you can probably count the number of people using this script on the fingers of one hand, but the principle is interesting nonetheless.

Where has all the speed lust gone?

by on June 17, 2005, no comments

When I was in Japan, I set my father-in-law up with an Internet connection. He’d been given some brochures about NTT broadband from his local electrical store. The pricing was just jaw-dropping: a 100Mbit (yes, one hundred megabit) connection, with no usage capping, is £24 a month. Holy cow!

This got me thinking. Here in the UK, ADSL users have been getting letters from their ISPs to tell them that they’ll be getting a free (or free-with-string-attached) speed hike following BT’s announcement of capacity upgrades earlier this year. In about 10-12 months time, most users will be on 2Mbit connections or more, up to a maximum of 8Mbit on the newer exchanges. It also seems that most ISP’s will be doing capping deals rather than throttling, so in effect you can “burst” up to the maximum of your exchange capacity no matter what your cap is. At least I think that’s right, unless you’re with AOL, in which case… You’re just stupid.

So what’s missing here is the speed lust. A few years ago, hardly a day went by without somebody predicting a multi-media revolution just as soon as we all got out of the 14.4K (or 28.8K or 64K or 512K…) straightjacket. But I’ve not seen any pundits come out on this one yet, despite 2Mb being the generally-accepted point at which decent video is possible.

So wither the multi-media future? Maybe it’ll really happen this time now that nobody’s bothered?

Pirate Spotting

by on June 13, 2005, no comments

Avast! Brian Appleyaaard! The hammy Bible-bashing tech/culture journo we all love to hate came out on Sunday as a shameless raider of intellectual property in his article on the death of TV last weekend:

"...the internet has begun to work as it should. Thanks to broadband, students now routinely download 
the best television shows — at the moment, that means the US hospital comedy Scrubs — over the net and, 
happily, pass them on to me. Video is now at the same stage as audio was when Napster first started. 
Just as MP3 chipped away at the foundations of the record industry, so video downloading is subverting 
television and film.


In fact there are two things in the above quote that are notable as indicative of the state of the copyfight to date: the first is the fact that a mainstream hack writing for none other than the Sunday Times can happily admit to consuming bootleg TV shows (although oddly, not actually downloading them – a bit like not inhaling, eh Brian?). The second is the bald assumption that such activity undermines the visual media industry. This is pure Chomsky: repeat something often enough (“home taping is killing music, MP3 is killing music, BitTorrent is killing video…”) and it becomes an accepted fact.

My opinion of Appleyard has always been a pretty low one, but I’m glad he’s written this article as some of the wider issues are pretty well observed. I wonder how BT and the rest will fare? Personally, I think Appleyard is probably right about the fate of TV as we know it, but wrong in his assumption that it will be relegated to a media backwater. He’s really just attacking the schedules. The programme quality factor is irrelevant. Who cares what he thinks about Scrubs?

Japan Retro Blog

by on June 12, 2005, no comments

Ah, Japan: land of individually-wrapped bananas and toilets that squirt warm water up your bum.

Ten days in Nagano (Ena City) with the in-laws followed by visits to other relatives and friends. The food! The technology! Even the interminable shopping trips for kids clothes were interesting. Japan qualified for the world cup against North Korea in a match that nobody could attend (so they did the whole thing on video screens by proxy), Takanohana died (at 55) and there was some really weird stuff in the news for ages about roadside guard rails and the mysterious vicious spikes attached to them.

But first some listings:

- Best Janglish t-shirt spotted: “Trying to forget falling off that ladder” (as worn by chubby middle-aged man at flower festival). Although this made me chuckle for hours, I suspect it may not qualify as true Janglish as it’s both grammatically correct and shows signs of pre-meditated humour.

- Most innovative tech idea: Pedestrian crossing “count down” lights. As well as the standard green/red man thing, main zebra crossings have lights that tell you how soon you’ll be able to cross so you don’t have that “should I risk it?” feeling. Nice.

- Best meal: Kaiseki (by mistake in a hotel – 10,000 yen!) with umpteen courses including transcendental shabu shabu with soy milk, and zaru soba with flecks of gold leaf in the soba. I was too full by the end to appreciate the kama meshi though.

- Best fun tech: 3D sat nav with near photo-realistic imagery, voice control and insane local detail (“Nearest dry cleaners?” “Turn left at crossing in 700 metres, parking available at 800 yen per hour”).

I wish I’d had a laptop to blog stuff at the time as there’s too much to remember now. We did actually bring Kumi’s sub-A4 Loox T7 but for some reason her keyboard mapping was all screwy (we didn’t bring the external keyboard she normally uses with it). Amongst other notable things was the fact that 100Mbit broadband connections are now about £25 a month (with a setup cost of over £200 to get the fibre from the exchange into your house). Despite this, I found myself setting up Kumi’s 80-year old dad with an analogue dial-up on his Windows Me box, which crashed and crashed and crashed. Having to explain (well, failing to explain) what the hell was happening, and spending about 4 hours downloading as much as I could from Windows Update in an attempt to stabilise the damn thing, was to say that least a challenge. Nobody should run Windows Me Japanese if they can possible help it, least of all an 80 year-old man, but hey.

The jet lag hasn’t quite worn off yet, so I’m not thinking very clearly about it all yet, but hope to expand on a few things later.

Japan!

by on May 24, 2005, 3 comments

A holiday for three weeks in Japan, starting tomorrow! It’s been a while since I last went – the sushi, the traffic, the in-laws and the partial lack of understanding of what’s going on. I’m looking forward to all these things and more, starting with airline food (Korean Airlines! A kimchi wagon in the sky!).

The First Thing To Go Under Pressure

by on May 17, 2005, no comments

Observers of the date stamp will note that I’ve not posted for… weeks!

This is not for lack of subject matter, of which I hope to expand at some point, but due to the fact that I’ve been working on a project with deadlines which anyone would be excused for thinking were some kind of Guinness Book attempt: two people writing a 200-page specification in three days and nine (nine!) other deliverables over three further, not to mention numerous updates of issue logs and all the attendant noise around that has left little room for sleep, let along blogging.

Hope to provide something worth reading soon, but we’re off to Japan for three weeks come the 25th May, so it might have to wait a bit.

Experience Design Chapter 2: Paradise Lost

by on April 26, 2005, no comments

Our weekly Monday-9am-with-buns department meetings usually consists of discussions about projects people are working on, techniques we have applied or are thinking of applying, department housekeeping issues etc. All good inward-looking stuff. But last week was a little different.

We had a presentation by the head of the new Client Services division. For me this was a reminder that for an agency such as ours, no matter how far we get into information foraging theory, contextual inquiry, Fitts’s Law or UCD, it will always be marketing in some form or other that keeps the paychecks rolling in. Until now, working at Oyster has been luxuriously free of planners and account managers, but that is to change. As if to emphasise the point, we were also introduced to a new member of our department, described as a “marketing experience designer.” Perhaps the term “account exec” would have been a little too alien for us. Hmm.

We started with a summary of recent trends in the online universe. Advertising spend is now on a level with that of radio in the UK, and it’s growing at a much faster rate than other media; online revenues are getting serious and SEO specialists are worth their weight in gold (so Mike Rogers will now be putting down payments on a yacht pretty soon I should think), etc. It’s all deja vue of course, but this time I feel it’s got its reality goggles tied on. I admit that sometimes dead-tree media can be good, and this article in The Sunday Murdoch is a decent summary of what’s going on right now.

The reason why I love the Internet (and spend roughly 10-12 hours a day consuming it) is that it’s nothing if not a boiling cauldron of possibilities. Now some of those seem to be turning into what might be certainties, and in some ways I feel vindication coming on. Time to digress into a self-serving anecdote…

In 1997, shortly after I joined IPC Magazines to work on their yachting and boating web properties, I attended one of the then IT director’s quarterly company presentations. This was traditionally populated by loyal geeks and IS&T beanpole climbers while being utterly ignored by the rest of the organisation who were mainly journalists or graphic designers by trade. IPC was (and still is?) the largest Quark site in Europe and the largest single AppleTalk network. It was also a famously early adopter of desktop publishing at the expense of typesetting jobs in the 1980′s. So it was for exactly this reason that I was quite giddy with excitement about the company’s future and the Internet. IPC had content – mountains of it, and content was king. IPC was therefore the sleeping giant of the UK new media revolution and I was perched on its shoulders ready to fly to the moooon!

So it was with utter disappointment that Il Duce made no significant mention of the Internet or the company’s plans in that area. If you’ve ever attended a talk by the head of the Global Leadership Village you’ll know that he leaves little room for questions from the floor. Nevertheless I broke with tradition and put my hand up to tell him that I’d just joined to ride the rocket to the stars and what did he think about that. I don’t recall his exact response but it started with the words “Well I’m sorry to disappoint you…” and went downhill from there. IPC wasn’t a software house; Argos’s website had sold nothing; the net was a probably just a fad and while IPC did have websites it was a purely defensive measure against teenagers, the house bound and their modems.

Two years later, the dot.com boom was in full swing, IPC had bought out from Reed Elsevier and the company was up for sale. Websites were all the IT department could talk about. But by that time I had them down as the muppets they turned out to be. And particularly after they axed Melody Maker.

Whu? Sorry… where was I? Oh yes, marketing.

So now I feel it’s going full circle. The end of the dot.com era seems to have given us time to get back to first principles of web user experience as the broadband connections stepped up and our parents got their email accounts. We were designing websites for users not consumers, and didn’t have to worry any more about the damn banner ads, targets, measurements and KPIs. But that was on time borrowed from disappointed VCs. Today I read about Marc Andreessen’s latest wheeze. Two weeks ago I would have treated this with the unvarnished enthusiasm it deserves were it not that Marc was Netscape, Netscape was IPO, and the web was born to us from the fires of public offerings. That history is repeating itself but in slow motion, at a deeper level, and now experience design is going to change.

Language, Chiasmus and Communication

by on April 24, 2005, no comments

It’s been a while since I had a foray in the genre that I call “half-formed ideas,” but here’s a good one that I’ve been brewing for a while.

For no good reason I can recall, I was reading this essay about spontaneous use of chiasmus in contemporary English and it got me thinking. Not so much about chiasmus, which is of course fascinating in its own right, but about language and communication in general.

Life has always been a crisis of communication. But I get the impression it’s becoming more of a problem. Language seems to be increasingly incapable of communicating ideas we have, and this seems to show quite dramatic evidence at times. Whether this is because concepts are becoming harder to describe, or language itself becoming more diversified and so less able to cope with particular concepts for many people, I’m not sure. It does seem that in the far future we may need to use some other form of communication. The trouble is that I can’t imagine what that might be. It would need to be a system of communication that had less ambiguity, more accuracy and more standardisation than that currently employed. Hmmm.

Letter Writing

by on April 19, 2005, no comments

My uncle Julian, Bagpipe Maker to the Stars (Warning: sound samples are not work safe) wrote me a letter the other day. It struck me that people writing to me by hand is now an immensely rare event, and that I myself have not written a letter to anyone in about fifteen years. The last may have been during my gap year in Japan.

So, I’ve decided to write back to him. I have an old letter pad I found in the attic (“Elco of Switzerland”, green, 50 sheets, A5) and will use the envelopes and stamps usually reserved for communication with government departments, insurance companies or life insurers.

This will be a great event. Now I just have to think of what to write, although my biggest fear will be the lack of a backspace key and spellcheck.

Stultifying

by JBB on April 13, 2005, 4 comments

The content mapping monster has started its onslaught, and mother I can feel the soil falling over my head.

This week, I have been doing what must rank as (I hope) the most uninteresting task of my career ever. Well, there have been others like it but I’ve erased them from memory leaving only some familiar brain patterns behind: an urge to read Das Kapital, clock watching, tea-making fixations and suicidal thoughts. For almost three days solid, save for a meeting to review the results of user testing today, this is what my screen has looked like. Like a slow train wreak, we saw it coming, but were powerless to stop it. What’s worse, despite the fact that it’s only due to last until Friday, I fear The Monster will return at regular intervals during the rest of the project to satisfy its lust for power. May the Lord have mercy on our souls.

Surely, what is a “content management system” if wretches like me have to do this work? One day, people will see that they’ve been duped and rise up against the perpetrators of such systems who will rightly burn in hell for all eternity.

Exploding Cow Problem

by on April 7, 2005, no comments

For some reason last night I decided to post a rather late April fool to uk.legal. It was a bit rough around the edges, but only took about fifteen minutes to do (and spookily time-stamped at exactly 00:00hrs). I’m quite proud that it seems to have at least partially hooked one person in, while producing some pretty good replies from others. Nobody picked up on the the first line about “giving me a steer” though. (The better replies are on the “next 10″ page at the bottom of the listing).

Enough of the April Fools!

by on April 2, 2005, no comments

It’s obviously a by-product of collaborative websites like Slashdot and Kuro5hin that April 1st generates so many fake stories. One or two might be funny, but there were about ten on Slashdot yesterday: EU to ban Macs, UN to outlaw Internet, Opera inventing a new P2P system called “SoundWave” etc. etc.

The best one this year for my money was BoingBoing’s. It got me fished in for a while… but I got it in the end. I’m still not sure if this is a fool or not though.

Amateur Support – The Only Kind There Is

by on March 28, 2005, no comments

I was reading this article on the BBC about people providing IT support on the side and it struck me that there’s a bigger thing going on here than simply offering a bit of help to a clueless neighbour.

I have a love/hate relationship with helping people with their computers. I imagine that in the same way as specialists in fields of medicine (neuroscience, or plastic surgery, say) probably get pestered by friends asking them what to do about their piles and whatnot, so I get regular requests to mend desktop PCs. I’m neither qualified, nor even very able to do this, but most times I lend a hand. True, my time as a sysadmin was fairly close to IT support, but setting up slapd or editing zone files is rather different from working out how to get Word to stop crashing.

What I found interesting about the BBC article was that the writer made a point of putting his actions in the context of a lack of manufacturer support for home, and even business, computing. When I look back on how I found out (and still find out) about things, I’m struck by how infrequently I’ve relied on commercial support for products. In fact, I’m also struck by the fact that when I have relied on commercial support, it’s been really awfully bad, or simply non-existent.

The vast majority of my education about computing in the general has been from loose online support communities: bulletin boards, websites and Usenet. When I was doing sysadmin stuff, and much to my surprise a the time, the efficacy of big, expensive helpdesks for systems like iPlanet Server, Oracle and WebLogic (for which we had big, expensive “support contracts” to access) were usually slower and less helpful for most things than a simple couple of posts on Usenet.

So when I read the article about “unofficial” support, it struck a chord. If effective support for commercial software cannot be sold to consumers then that’s yet another good reason to use FLOSS. What a pity the writer missed that angle. And what a pity we can’t point that out.

Back On Line

by on March 20, 2005, no comments

After almost two days off line while we made the changeover from Plusnet, we’re now with Homechoice. It’s TV, phone and broadband down your phone line, so no dishes or cable laying. You get a nice brushed aluminum STB which looks very much like a Mac Mini only it has a large soft blue light on the front – very large. A bit too large. There’s also a disconcerting lag between hitting a button on the remote and the interface responding, which makes you unconsciously puuush the buttons really hard. I find it remarkably difficult to stop doing that as well.

Otherwise, it’s nice. Well, nice and cheap at £35 a month and has so far done what it was intended to do: give us a decent TV picture while not making us pay lots more for the privilege.We just don’t watch enough telly for Sky. The TV signal is about DivX quality. The STB has crashed once (something about not being able to find the file system) and the EPG takes a bit of getting used to.

Broadband works fine with my IPCop router, but not having a static IP address means I’ve had to say goodbye to my Tor server. Having a 2Mbit connection is a bit of an anti-climax though. Large files take less time to download, but (unsurprisingly) the experience of email and web surfing is indistinguishable from that of the 512K we had with Plusnet. Not only that, but there’s some strange psychological effect taking place: I see higher download rates on files, but I somehow don’t perceive this as bing any faster – the difference between waiting five minutes and two minutes is, well, the length of a grey bar. And that grey bar’s in the background most times. I might even consider downgrading to their 1Mbit service and save a fiver a month…

Content Mapping

by JBB on March 8, 2005, no comments

Sometimes I think I’m the only person who lies awake at night worrying about content. Well, I don’t literally do that, but it feels like I might be sometimes. I’m certainly gaining broken record status on the issue and thinking crying-in-the-wilderness thoughts at times.

Part of the problem is that it’s hard to articulate what the problem exactly is (well, I find it hard at least). It’s certainly made harder by the fact that according to the content management software industry it’s not a problem that exists if you use a CMS. How could it, since such software “manages” content! And who indeed could possibly have a problem with managing content after they’d spent half a million bucks on the latest enterprise XML format-agnostic end-to-end solution?


Not surprisingly, the project I’m on has just such a “solution” in place and it’s bringing the subject I love to hate back on the map for me again. To save me the bother of explaining why this is, read this piece on the subject (WARNING: shield your eyes from the photo). It hits the nail(s) on the head pretty much perfectly as far as I’m concerned.

But some problems on my current project are only indirectly related to a CMS. In the recent past I’ve been involved in some reasonably good solutions (up to a point) for getting around the more basic issues of dealing with “modular” builds, but that’s not going to be an option here. So we’re up against it again. The brief is to construct a better IA for the site, and migrate the existing content to that, culling, merging and re-writing as we go. An initial card sort has given us a good candidate structure that the client seems to be running with, even though it’s radically different from the current one. An initial audit indicates the site may have about 10,000 items of content, most of which is highly technical or at least assumes industry knowledge that we don’t have. It would be a big job even if we understood it all, but we’re going to have read, understand, and if we don’t understand, ask specialists about it. We have, erm, one day of two IAs in the project plan for this. Can you guess I wasn’t involved when they put that plan together? Moan, moan, moan (there, got that off my chest).

Let’s assume for a moment that we can get a better structure. That’s not hard – just time consuming. The problem we then have is how we communicate that new structure to a) those responsible for the content re-work, and b) those responsible for the content load using the CMS. The more gung-ho among you may say “Tough – it’s their site, they just asked you to re-design it.” But if the client can’t actually deploy the work you’ve done for them, who they gonna call? The gas board?

My first thought was to construct a huge spreadsheet. Each row is a “page” on the new (re-designed) site. I can then group existing content with each row (using Excel outlines) a bit like this:

Page Name X
     Intro text (to be written)
     Document 1
     Document 2
           Page Name Y
                Intro text
                Body text (to be written)
                Other text
Page Name Z
     Summary (to be shortened)
     Document 3

That would then be the “bible” when it comes to the new architecture. But how do I make sure that when I say “Page Name X” it’s the page to do with X on the current site? I could use its URL, but that’s very long (I note it’s even too long to be rendered by Excel as a clickable link) and they don’t all relate to the content in a one-to-one manner (long story, half understood). This is a CMS, remember?

So how can I expect somebody who doesn’t know the content intimately, nor much about my new architecture, to migrate the current stuff from one structure to another? Bear in mind the current structure is a really, really big mess as well, so it’s not the case that we can do things in chunks either. I’m currently looking at a unique “node ID” that the CMS generates for each content type, so that may help. But boy is it laborious to track down each existing node ID and associate it with a row in the above sheet. This is going to take weeks.

Perhaps I should just accept that just as in ten tousand projects before, it will all come down to the clipboard and a thousand monkeys. As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, CTRL+V without end. Amen.

Moving to Homechoice

by on March 6, 2005, 4 comments

We’ve decided to move from our current ADSL provider (PlusNet) to Homechoice, the London-only provider of broadband, TV and telephone packages. They do all this via the little copper wire that runs from the BT telephone exchange to your house – impressive.

The main reason for switching to them is not the tech though (oh no, read on about that), but the fact that out TV reception has been awful since the Arts Depot was built up the road from us. Thanks to the precedent set by Hunter v. Canary Wharf in 1996, you can’t complain about TV signal disruption if a building project causes it, so we needed to look for alternatives. Satellite or cable would be the obvious choice, but we just don’t watch that much TV these days to justify the cost. The basic Homechoice package would give us what we wanted, give or take about a fiver per month, based on our current phone usage.

So, we’re due for installation on the 17th March. It poses a couple of annoying issues though. The first is that the Internet connection, like cable, will emerge from the set top box, which is in our living room. The computers, however, are two floors above that. So, I’ve had to lay a cable from the top of the house to the bottom – which has been an adventure in Ethernet (I can now wire a CAT6 terminal…). The second issue is that the STB will have a plain RJ11 socket to attach the home network to. That’s fine, but it means the ADSL router we have will be redundant. We’ll need a router/firewall, but since I’m determined to get this done on the cheap, I’m attempting to make one out of an old computer using IPCop.

Several nights into the small hours later, and my “spare” PC appears to work OK, but it’s so old it’s not Y2K compliant and keeps thinking the year is 2001. This means that every time I boot it up, the firewall goes nuts thinking it’s five years out of date, etc.

So, like any tight-fisted geek, I went to eBay. Last week I took delivery of what was described as a 650MHz machine with no hard disk and 32Mb RAM. It was £15.00 including postage. However, it turns out to be 90MHz with a hard disk, a SCSI CDROM that doesn’t work, and 64Mb RAM. Hmm. Never mind, at least I can install IPCop with floppies. Now, however, the box mysteriously hangs at random intervals. The installation date is approaching, and I’m thinking the fates are against me…

End of an Era

by on March 1, 2005, no comments

I sold my old bike on eBay this evening – £320. That’s more than I thought I’d get. I can’t help feeling a little sad to see it go. 45 people had it in their watch lists, which was a bit like having a crowd of anonymous mourners at a funeral: a mark of some respect I hope. It’s been a part of me for almost a third of my life; longer than I’ve known my wife and many of my friends, and I’ve ridden every single one of those 30,619 miles. It may have only been a CB250, but for me it always flies sideways through time.

Thanks.

Sunday Observer Goes Collaborative

by on February 27, 2005, no comments

Having worked for a print publisher for two years and developed a negative impression of that industry (and journalists) when it comes to all things on line, imagine my surprise when I saw the Sunday Observer Blog this morning! I can honestly say that if I were in charge of a serious redesign of any newspaper’s online presence this would be it, and more.

I saw a link to it on BoingBoing: “The weekend paper is now supplemented by a daily blog, with podcasts and moblogs. The RSS is fulltext. Trackbacks and comments are on and unmoderated. Keywords are tracked and displayed in a “folksonomic zeitgeist.” Headlines from competing papers and Technorati link cosmoses are pulled in and displayed on the front page. No paywall. No adwall. No wall.”

This is definitely one for my bookmarks. Just as I’d given up any real hope of a significant dead tree publication doing it “right” – this happens! Well done The Observer! Now BBC – get your finger out and justify my license fee!

Remote Card Sorting

by JBB on February 24, 2005, one comment

Back at the grindstone this week with an interesting foray into card sorting, but this time using a web application while facilitating users (one to one) over conference calls. It’s thrown up some issues, and almost fallen apart at the seams at one point, but I think it’s going to be helpful in the next stage of working out the site’s taxonomy.

It seems that IAs are beginning to polarise on the merits of card sorting. Right now it seems to be a reasonably mainstream technique, but we’re beginning to find flaws in it along the way. Best practice is that if you’re going to do it, it’s the qualitative aspect of what goes on that’s most important during the sort (although the stats analysis is fun).

However, we’re having a really hard time getting users to research on this project, and when only one (one!) actual customer turned up to our first group card sorting session a couple of weeks ago, we had to think of a new direction. So it was that we decided to try remote sessions. After some quick research into online card sorting systems we narrowed down the options to three:

WebCAT: a free web application written mainly in PHP, but it didn’t work on my WinXP machine (didn’t seem to save the results of the sorts) so we had to pass on that. I’d like to try it on a *NIX box at some point though.

WebSort: a commercial, hosted Flash application. The best UI of the ones we found.

CardSword: a free Java application – nice if rather clunky (and very “beta”).

We decided on WebSort ($99 for a one study license), using IBM’s eZCalc to do the cluster analysis from the data it spits out via email after each session. I’d used the latter tool before and am fairly familiar with it now. We then used CardSword as a fall-back in case WebSort went down. Lucky we did, since that’s exactly what WebSort did 48 hours after we paid our money. The fall-back worked using NetMeeting – I shared the application running on my workstation with the participant on each call – but it was only just fast enough for users to operate. Three days into the testing, WebSort came back on line (they’d been hacked).

In retrospect, it was good that we used two systems since each have their strengths and weaknesses. CardSword over NetMeeting had the distinct advantage of me being able to see what the user was doing. Once the user’s session has been saved, however, you can’t go back to see what they’ve done. The data can also only be analysed by CardSword’s analysis, so I had to screen-scrape each session into a spreadsheet for conversion to eZCalc format later (at the time, we assumed NetSort was dead). NetMeeting also caused the usual ActiveX permissions problems, etc. for some users, and was generally slow and flaky – putting an extra 15 minutes onto what were otherwise 45-min sessions for most people using NetSort. In one case we had a user with a Linux desktop (“It says it doesn’t support my browser.” “What browser do you have?” “I’m using Konquerer…”). Apart from some slowness to send us the data for each session, NetSort worked fine for the most part once it was running for us.

At first, we decided that the best way to run the sessions was to stay on the line with the user. While this was feasible with the NetMeeting method as we could watch the session progress, it wasn’t with WebSort, and in any case it was clear that most users wanted to be left alone for a while once they understood what to do. We typically gave them 20 mins in solitude, then came back in to finish up and handle any problems and probe a bit about the groups they’d made. Qualitative data was pretty hard to pick though and we didn’t get much of it.

Some things I’d do differently if we did it again:

- Don’t use conference calling. It’s over complicated for a one to one session.
- Leave a clear hour between sessions to wrap up, take notes and prep for the next one. We had back-to-back clumps one day, and they threatened to overlap leaving no time of any downtime. Booking spare conferences (and NetMeeting sessions!) for overflow is also hard to juggle.
- Assume users won’t read any introductory literature you give them beforehand, however brief, and include a full verbal introduction into the session. Not a single user had read the preparation document we sent them properly, so I had to put them in the picture from scratch each time.
- Turn off your screensaver while sharing apps under NetMeeting! My screensaver locks my workstation, which then also stops the NetMeeting session. We lost one user that way.
- Construct a custom application for ourselves. WebSort is nice, but it’s not reliable. I’d not want to use them again if I didn’t have to.

Protect The Rights of Bloggers

by on February 21, 2005, no comments

As a blogger, I call on the Iranian government to free Arash Sigarchi and Mojtaba Saminejad, both in prison in Iran for expressing opinions on their blogs about the government. February 22nd, 2005 is Free Mojtaba and Arash Day – this blog is dedicated to them and their protection.

Away with it!

by on February 19, 2005, no comments

At last I’ve got round to doing something about that lame home page with the spinning pipes on it. It is now no more – and the blog page is king of the castle. Well, as far as I can tell, anyway. It was actually quite tricky to do in the end (I had to learn what ^ and $ mean) and pedants will note that things that link to “home” now link here. Hmm.

Fans!

by on February 13, 2005, no comments

I’ve just looked at my Slashdot profile and I have three fans! Maybe I should move my blog there. Better for the ego at least.

Now I’m Really Wearing My Tin Foil Hat

by on February 9, 2005, no comments

Just when it looked like things had got back to reality….

I’m getting sick of this, and worried too. Here’s a letter I’ve just penned to Robert Evans
MEP:

Dear Robert Evans,

I read today that the European Patent Directive is not likely to return to the first reading 
as previously demanded by Parliament, and that the Commission may ignore the Parliament's vote 
on restarting the legislative process for this bill.

While in the past I have contacted my parliamentary and other representatives about software 
patents, and concentrated on the fact that software patents cannot be anything other than 
deeply corrosive to innovation, consumer choice and the health of the UK software industry, 
I want now to turn to something that has made me even more worried: the overwhelming evidence
I am starting to see of democracy being simply ignored in Europe.

How can it be that obviously bad legislation is being railroaded through by the Commission 
when nobody other than corporate lobbyists support it? 

- The elected European Parliament are 100% AGAINST (this version of directive)
- The majority of the The European Council of Ministers are AGAINST (with new 
countries joining the against all the time)
- European citizens/software users (who know about it) are all AGAINST
- European software-industry alliances/coalitions are all AGAINST
- European software companies are nearly all AGAINST
- European programmers are (probably) all AGAINST

Who does this leave in favour?

- The UK & European Patent Offices
- A small number of very rich companies
- UNELECTED civil servants

What is going on? Where is the democratic process here?

I am very, very concerned at the events that have taken place in the last 
12 months on this issue.

Yours sincerely,


Jonathan Baker-Bates

“Fascism should more appropriately be called corporatism because it is a merger of state
and corporate power.”

- Benito Mussolini, Encyclopedia Italiana.

Swpat: Define them Out of Existence

by on February 8, 2005, no comments

Now that software patents in Europe have gone back to the drawing board, both sides will now doubtless regroup. I feel that we have a head start though, if for no better reason than the FFII looked like it was fighting an uphill struggle most of the time until the eleventh hour, when at last MEPs saw their point and showed their displeasure at the Commission’s railroading of the issues.

Meanwhile, one of Lord Sainsbury’s invites for another session with the Patent Office landed on my doormat last week, this time to discuss what people want the words “technical contribution” to mean. This is something that’s incredibly difficult to define, according to the UKPTO, but it seems pretty easy to me:

First, no patentablity for ideas. Patents are about material inventions, plain and simple. You design it, build it and make it work first – then let’s talk about patents.

Second, no patentabilty of systems or techniques defined as a protocol, standard, or mechanism of interoperability. You want to pass data into, through, or talk to another system? Let’s be grown up about this: we’re all open now. It’s just a means to an end, after all.

Third, effort should be respected. Demonstrate you have taken an abnormal amount of effort to create something, and that gets you on first base. You have to get off your arse to contribute.

Fourth, nothing gets a patent until it’s been decided by peer review. But who would vote to give a competitor a patent for their software? If you meet the above two criteria, then anyone who understands that tomorrow, they might be the ones applying for that protection, that’s who.

There, that should keep the patent lawyers in a job, while making sure that nothing much gets a patent.

Still Waiting….

by on February 1, 2005, one comment

"It is impossible that old prejudices and hostilities should longer exist, while such
an instrument has been created for the exchange of thought between all nations of the
earth."

The Times, about the invention of the telegraph, 1858.

Axure/Ubiquity

by on January 24, 2005, 6 comments

I find myself doing what I think might be an unhealthy amount of thinking about the tools I use to do stuff, and regular readers of this blog will know that one of my ambitions is to discover – or better still help to make – an Information Architecture IDE. So one of the things I’ve been meaning to blog about is the latest release of what was called Ubiquity RP, now Axure RP, by a company called Axure. Peter van Dijck published an interview on his blog with the creator, Victor Hsu, when the first version went golden. I had a look at that and corresponded with the creators about a few things. My verdict at that point was that it wasn’t ready for industrial use, and sure enough, the IA world hasn’t exactly buzzing about it. But version 3.0 shipped a couple of months ago – so is it a quantum leap or an incremental change?


In case you’ve not read my musings on this “perfect tool” business before, very broadly-speaking there are four areas of work that have to be done to design a site: the underlying IA (the big picture: personas, navigation, taxonomy, etc.); interaction design/page layout; content integration, and documentation. There are of course numerous other things that take place during a project but they break down in to roughly those four areas. And the really annoying thing about those areas is that they are all linked at various conceptual levels, and need to have ways of cross-referencing each other, but somehow never get linked in the way that they need to be. They therefore fragment, become outdated, or become too much work to maintain over time.

The fact that web development is so new also means that is there are still many ways to achieve the same ends and there are no generally accepted tools of the trade. In terms of tools for the job, there are some things (like Visio) that seem to get a look-in on most projects, but that’s about it. Contrast this to other industries like print publishing or television, where tools are not only much more mature but so are the environments they get used in. The occasional tectonic shift and passing fad stir things up from time to time, but they’re pretty stable otherwise.

Enter Axure, which the creators are positioning it as a prototyping tool. This means it lets you swiftly create HTML prototypes of your designs by using a nice template n’ modules system. You create what it calls “references” (but which I’ll call “modules” because that’s what I’m used to) which can be built out of “widgets” (what I call “elements” – links, checkboxes, form fields, etc.) and then applied to templates, which you can then apply to pages. You can also apply modules and elements directly to pages as well. Once you’ve done all that, you can get it to create an HTML prototype out of that and amaze your friends.

Big wow. I can name about 10 tools that do that. But wait…

Axure lets you annotate your references and pages. Not only that, it can spit out a Word document with those annotations neatly arranged below images of your pages and modules. You can get it to use a Word template to format this, and can choose your attributes for annotation. This is the germ of something really interesting and raises Axure above the general throng of RAD-style tools for the web. This interest is elevated further still when one considers that if you can create modules and pages underpinned by structured documentation, then it would be a small step to producing that as XML, and thence to data structures that could be used for providing an answer to the Second Great Problem: how to tie content to design. I have alluded somewhat vaguely in the past to this issue, and ways in which we have been approaching it, but it seems that if the makers of Axure realise that perhaps by accident they are sitting on the discovery I think they are, then they could easily beef up the tool for this purpose.

But it seems for the time being they are concentrating mostly on the prototyping aspect of things. This is fine to an extent, but they’ll get nowhere while they hide their structured metadata capabilities under the table. If we look at what they’ve got right now, there are several things for the next version that would be good to have:

  • Modules cannot be annotated at page level or have things inside them that work only at page level. This means you can’t create a “related links” module and show it with different links on page X and page Y (well, not that I could work out – maybe putting an element over the module?) Perhaps the introduction of the concept of a “dynamic” of “page level” layer on modules would be good.
  • The interface doesn’t scale very well for some things. For instance, modules need to be groupable – it’s common on some of our projects to have perhaps 50 or more modules. Managing them in one big list isn’t very easy.
  • Need to be able to annotate the component parts of modules separately. This is pretty important – the bits that make up a module need to be annotated, probably using an independent set of annotation fields from the module itself. Perhaps the introduction of a special “label element” would do this. It would be a numbered arrow that you could point to the relevant part and then fill out the desired annotations for.
  • Would be good to have some simple painting/drawing tools to use (lines, boxes, etc.)
  • Need the ability to create custom widgets (e.g. dividing lines, arrows, icons, etc.)
  • I wish “references” were called “modules” instead :-)

The next release promises group working capabilities and the ability to share modules between Axure project files. If that means that we can have centrally-maintained module libraries and more than one person working on the same project file than then things will really be hotting up.

I’ll be keeping an eye on Axure, and I think others should too.

Blood, Sweat and Nothing

by on January 22, 2005, no comments

Amazing. I get in to work on Friday, and the senior PM comes in to say that the client has decided to go for an ecommerce deployment so that £250,000 they’ve just given us to redesign their site along non-ecommerce lines (because originally they weren’t up for that) is canned. Well, maybe about 20% of it can be salvaged for re-use, but all the work I’ve been doing for the last three months (along with two other IA’s, some graphic designers and a PM) is definitely never going to see the light of day.

Well such is life. Good for our balance sheet, crap for job satisfaction. It’s the off-shore developers I feel sorry for though. We only handed them our designs at Christmas!

I’d Rather Stick a Drill in My Thumb

by on January 15, 2005, one comment

Standard & Poor’s site is larded up to the eyeballs with JavaScript and Flash, and (surprise!) is a broken wreak of a site because of it. Firefox users can’t sign up for one thing. I mailed them about that, naturally, while the chances of them replying properly are of course zero. At least they show you a warning – and a picture of somebody attacking their thumb with a dentist’s drill. Are their designers trying to tell you something?

Friends Provident’s Customer Registration

by JBB on January 15, 2005, no comments

When I started this blog I told myself it would be a good place to critique online experiences of various kinds. I’ve actually done very little of this, mainly because it’s unexpectedly difficult: you only realise you’ve got a badly designed experience on your hands when you’re some way into the journey, and back-tracking to record the process is usually not possible. I’ve half caputured this mess of a customer registration journey though – it’s really terrible though.

Login and signup journeys are hard to critique because you can usually only do them once, or incompletely a second time while you concentrate on the details. The Friends Provident customer registration journey is convoluted, broken and incredibly slow.

Clipboard Thoughts

by on January 5, 2005, one comment

I’ve been too busy with things over the past month to blog much, but I thought I’d make some time to get some (typically) half-formed thoughts down about the clipboard. There are a number of things about the clipboard that I’m interested in, both in terms of HCI, historical influence on things like content management, and various other aspects of this incredibly influential invention (no, really).

My use of computers has always involved the clipboard. I’m not old enough to have done a significant amount of work on machines that didn’t have it in some form (can’t remember if it was there on the Amstrad PCW) but it’s always struck me as intriguing because it’s the only part of most WIMP interfaces that gets heavily used yet doesn’t feed back at all. It’s invisible, and the experience of using it is more like using a CLUI, where commands only feed back when something goes wrong. That’s the first thing I like about it. It’s just there and it works silently (well, with some notable exceptions, more on those later).

When I use the clipboard, a special part of my brain starts working with the system. When I hit CTRL+C I remember not only the fact that there is something in the clipboard, but that it’s relevant to the task I’m performing. Once that task has finished, or my use of the UI moves to something else, my mind marks the clipboard as “stale.” Sometimes I suddenly recall that the thing I’ve currently got in the clipboard will help me. That same part of my mind marks it as “fresh” even if I didn’t predict that it would when I made the clip. This is real “usability verses learnability” territory. But there’s more.

That we owe a huge debt to the clipboard is apparent when you consider that just about all major content management projects depend on it. Despite the marketing mumbo about automating imports from “legacy formats,” at some point in such projects a team of people will sit down with content in one format and copy/paste all or part of it into the format desired by the new CMS. I’ve been involved in too many CMS builds to think this doesn’t happen. That it is usually cheaper to use a team of copy/paste monkeys than to design and test a transformation and load routine means that the practice isn’t going to die out very soon. By that indication alone, the clipboard is probably the single most important piece of software for our information age.

But there are problems. The clipboard would be top of my list of perfect utilities along with drag-and-drop and ALT+TAB. If only it wasn’t for one thing: text formatting inheritance.

Perhaps my acute sensitivity to the utility of the clipboard has made me hyper-sensitive to the abomnible pain in the arse that is text formatting inheritance. Take a common example. I have a Word document in which there is a paragraph I want to copy to a PowerPoint slide I am writing. My Word document’s text is in Arial Bold 12-point. I want to paste it into my PPT, which just happens to be using Futura Light 18-point in the place I want to insert the text. So I copy the text to the clipboard from Word, and paste it in where the cursor is. Only it goes in AS ARIAL BOLD 12-POINT.

Who in their right mind would want this to happen by default? I have yet to find anyone who actually prefers this behaviour. Not only can you not turn this behaviours off in most applications, but there’s not even a keystroke for “paste special” either. As an extra turn of the screw, if you copy from a web browser into Word or another MS app, it’ll attempt to paste it in as some godforsaken HTML table! I find myself then having to seek out “paste special” on the menu bar (no keystroke, remember) or using the formatting clone tool or something. So that’s suddenly about five mouse gestures when it could have been two keystrokes. And it’s not just limited to MS applications either. It happens to varying degrees with others as well.

What have we done to deserve such as carbuncle on the otherwise perfect face of the clipboard? It’s as if somebody (well, Microsoft mostly) have it in for the thing. The difficulty with text formatting inheritance is compounded by the strange and inexplicable existence of the “multiple clipboard” in, of all applications, Outlook (and some others I’ve encountered). You can’t tell me they got that out of user testing: “You know, I’ve often wished I had the ability to put lots of things in my clipboard, but I’m not interested in being able to tell the difference between each clip – just give me an application icon for each. Oh, and when its full, ask me a difficult question about what to do so as to utterly break my concentration. And I don’t want the ability to turn this behaviour off either.”

Hmmm. Maybe I’ll update that Wikipeodia entry later.

Onion Routing

by on January 2, 2005, one comment

From time to time I get a reminder that the future isn’t somewhere you travel to, it’s something you create. As a teenager, my grandfather made a crystal radio set and let people listen to broadcasts from Paris at church fetes (this was before the BBC existed). He must have felt good about that. I feel the same sort of thing about onion routing.

After reading a post the other day on BoingBoing about how the EFF is doing development for Tor, I decided to set up a server of my own on my little DSL line (I have a fixed IP with Plusnet). It’s sitting their right now, anonimising connections from CIA whistle blowers and Tibetan exiles, or so I like to think. If you want to know more about Tor, it’s all explained there, but it just goes to show that the Internet isn’t all about sending email and using the latest P2P things. “What did you do in the great information revolution, Daddy?”

Mince Pies and Annihilation!

by on December 25, 2004, no comments

Just thought I’d check Slashdot after one last brandy and a mince pie (made by me: Ainsly Harriot BBC Top 100 recipe, the one with the grated orange peel in the pastry). I love Slashdot. Not that I understand half of what gets talked about there, but the responses to this Christmas day story are wonderfully heart-warming.

From my RSS feed:

phreakuencies writes "Worried since the recent post about the MN4 2004 
asteroid, I added a bookmark to it's "impact risk" section at NASA. The 
asteroid started as having a 1/233 probability of hitting earth. Later it 
raised to 1/63. Daily computations made on 25 Dec raised it's chances up to 
1/45. Optimists can now say it has a 97.8% probability of missing earth." 
And Veteran writes " NeoDys offers the 'Orbfit' software package (source 
code released under the GPL) which can be used to get a pre-release view of
 the situation with Asteroid 2004MN4."

The feeling I had on reading, on this of all days, a less than comforting update on the MN4 asteriod trajectory melts on seeing this:

Merry Christmas Everyone!

Software Patents – Some Progress

by on December 22, 2004, no comments

It’s not over yet, but it looks like our protests to MPs, the government, my postcard to Theresa Villiers, and then that confab with Lord Sainsbury may have done something. It seems that the Poles have put a spanner in the works for us, and the final decision on patents has been delayed for more thinking.

It’s good that we’ve got some more time, but we have to keep the pressure up. I’m increasingly thinking that this really is an us-and-them situation. The Poles obviously agree, and even Lord Sainsbury seemed to think that maybe the government has it wrong, or has at least been ill-advised by the UKTPO. Some very large interests will be served if the Council of Ministers has their way. Things smell distinctly fishy.

“Not a chain e-mail, but almost as bad…”

by on December 21, 2004, no comments

I got one of those actually rather nice “pass-this-round” emails from a friend the other day. I thought I’d blog it. In fact in one of those “when-I-ever-get-the-time” thoughts, a little web app to do this would be an interesting project…


> 
> WHAT BOOK ARE YOU READING?
I don't read books. I read one a few months ago but it was geeky and too
embarrassing to mention in public ("The Humane Interface" by Jef
Raskin - see?)

> 
> WHAT'S ON YOUR MOUSE PAD?
It's a scale replica of a native-American rug complete with fuzzy
"rug-like" surface and little tassels. My sister bought it in Milwaukee or somewhere like that.

> 
> WHAT'S YOUR FAVOURITE BOARD GAME? 
I used to play Lotto. But then that was hijacked by Camelot.

> 
> FAVOURITE MAGAZINES?
Ah, dead tree media. Select closed down, so did Melody Maker. Now it's The Wire and 
What Bike? (once a quarter maybe).

> 
> FAVOURITE SOUNDS? (OR SMELL)  
I am really liking Julian Cope at the moment.


> WORST FEELING IN THE WORLD?  
The one you get just after you realise you have hit that car, and just
before you hit the ground.

> 
> FIRST THING YOU THINK OF IN THE MORNING?  
Why does a four-year-old boy want to jump on my head?

> 
> FUTURE CHILD'S NAME?
If Axel had been a girl, she would have been called Ariel. I think I've got the spelling right.

> WHAT IS MOST IMPORTANT IN LIFE?
Getting Americans to understand that they must outlaw Fox News, *then*
shoot George Bush. Doing it the other way around will ultimately achieve nothing.

> 
> FAVOURITE FOOD? 
There's a Japanese gourd pickled in the sludge that floats to the bottom
 of sake barrels. That and molasses. And saag aloo. And pecan nuts.

> 
> DO YOU LIKE TO DRIVE FAST?
No. See "Worst Feeling" above.

> 
> STORMS - COOL OR SCARY?
Cool.

> 
> WHAT TYPE WAS YOUR FIRST CAR?
Suzuki Swift. An automatic for the people.

> 
> FAVOURITE ALCOHOLIC DRINK?

http://www.bisonbrandvodka.net/

> 
> DO YOU EAT THE STEMS OF BROCCOLI?  
Yes. Raw is best.

> IF YOU COULD HAVE ANY JOB YOU WANTED WHAT WOULD IT BE? 
A&R man for Warp Records. Which is odd considering I hate the music
publishing industry so much.

> 
> IF YOU COULD DYE YOUR HAIR ANY COLOUR WHAT WOULD IT BE?
I've tried blonde (well, "ivory") and black. I once had both. I'd like a
tasteful shade of very dark purple I think. Grecian 2000 is beginning to sound
like a sensible option though.

> FAVOURITE MOVIE? 
Eraserhead - because of the Radiator Woman.

> 
> DO YOU TYPE WITH CORRECT FINGERS ON THE RIGHT KEYS 
Yes. It's important that people feel subjugated by machines in order to
understand how they can be liberated from them. It's a perverted Marxist 
thing I know, but I believe it's the only way.

> 
> WHAT'S UNDER YOUR BED?  
Dust - much of it. And hair with the dust.

> 
> WHAT IS YOUR FAVOURITE SPORT TO WATCH? 
I don't watch sport, or play it. It's fun in small doses but after a
while I get bored. Noam Chomsky says sports exist in society to instill patterns 
of obedience in people and act as mechanisms of oppression. I wouldn't go that far though.

> 
> AT LEAST ONE NICE THING ABOUT THE PERSON WHO SENT THIS TO YOU?  
The ability to make you feel that while he hates you you're in fact a good friend. 
A very good Japanese linguist.

> 
> WHICH IS THE PERSON YOU SEND THIS TO WHO IS MOST LIKELY TO 
> RESPOND?    
I've not decided who the BCC will contain yet. (It got blogged in the end - Ed.)

> WHICH PERSON YOU SEND THIS TO WHO IS LEAST LIKELY TO RESPOND?  
No idea.

> 
> HORROR OR COMEDY? 
Comedy. There's enough to be scared of in daily life.

> FAVOURITE TIME OF DAY.
Evenings by the light of the CRT.

> 
> PET HATE?  
Faxes. The way Michael Buerk winks when he reads the news. The fact that 
people (including myself) seem afraid of clarity in life and prefer to 
hide inside needless complexity in things.

> 
> IS THERE ANYONE YOU HAVE NEVER FORGIVEN,
> EVER?  
What kind of question is that? Really - what is it?

> 
> WHAT TYPE OF MILK DO YOU DRINK?         
Drinking milk - yuk. It's for tea and lasagna.

> 
> DID YOU MAKE YOUR BED THIS MORNING? 
No. We are duvet divas.

> 
> HOW MANY TVs IN YOUR HOUSEHOLD?  
One.

> 
> WHO PUTS THE BIN OUT?  
Me. But nobody would admit to not doing it, surely?

> 
> WHAT IS YOUR EARLIEST CHILDHOOD MEMORY? 
I think it was seeing my sister for the first time in a translucent pink
plastic box after she was born. I also have some recollection of smearing 
poo on the bars of my cot. Well you did ask for honesty - didn't you? 
No? Oh. Sorry.

Thunderbird for Me, Firefox for the Family

by on December 16, 2004, no comments

One of the things I did on my holidays was to re-install my computer and get rid of all that junk on it. After about 18 months and it accumulated all manner of cruft and things were crashing. I took the opportunity not only to go to Firefox 1.0 (I’d been using 0.9 before) but to ditch Outlook as well for Thunderbird 1.0, released on the day I re-installed.

Kumi and I have been using Firefox for a while now, and apart from the odd site site that doesn’t support things (like the shopping cart at www.diy.com) it’s golden. You can always invoke IE with the “IEview” extention if you’re really stuck. After that, I love the tabs, playing with mouse gestures, looking for extentions and stuff. So much more fun than boring old IE. And spyware doesn’t get a look in.

So now it’s undergoing The Ultimate Test. I’ve installed it on may parents’ machines, deleted all mention of IE and made Firefox the default browser. After a week, I’ve heard not a peep about it. So far, so good.

Thunderbird isn’t quite as slick as Firefox, but it’s nearly there. The only thing I miss from Outlook is dragging-and-dropping file attachments to message windows. It’s rather slow at times, but it’s rock solid. Spam filtering is great (I now see about one a day if that). Not sure I’d unleash it on Kumi yet though.

Will Darkness Cover the Face of the Earth?

by on December 14, 2004, no comments

After managing to wangle an extra day’s holiday from work after I mixed my dates up, I attended the meeting today on the European Computer Implemented Inventions Directive today at the DTI. Lord Sainsbury of Turville had generously invited all those who had written to their MPs (well, some of them at least) to explain the government’s position on software patents and to allay fears of impending doom.

It’s certainly a bit of a complex area, and it was clear that much was unclear on both sides of the argument. But some of my worst fears were confirmed. But the gist of the debate went as follows:

The primary issue of “technical contribution” as a hurdle that must be cleared for software to be considered patentable seems to be too low. The UKPTO also isn’t properly equipped to judge what is and what is not sufficiently “technical” in most applications and this is really ringing the alarm bells (while arguing a point, one of the UKPTO officials clearly confused a file system with a file format and didn’t seem to understand some of the points being put from the floor). Not only that, but the wording of the proposed legislation on this point is just too broad. The patent office has framed too many of the principles around hardware and not software, and there is a lack of provision for the underlying nature of software development as a whole. In short, things are pretty grim.

Less pointedly debated was whether the actions of the Council of Ministers in not implementing the amendments reccommended by the EU parliament (which, while not wonderful, were at least OK) is a symptom of gross corporate lobbying. In their defence, the UKTPO said that this is down to them wishing to frame the legislation so as not to disadvantage technological industries other than that of software. Therefore, they want to keep the definitions such that they should be interpreted by the courts, and not so detailed as to be restrictive or have undesirable, knock-on effects.

That’s all very well, but we came back to the fact that the clauses as they stand seem to define just about anything as “technical” – the majority of EU software patents granted to date are simply re-writes of US and Japanese patents with token “technical contribution” clauses added.

From my own point of view, if the Council of Ministers gets it way, working in the software industry (and that includes UI design) is going to become either more complex or more dangerous, or both. While there were many at the meeting that expressed more concern about this than I did, I am starting to wonder if we are not in fact on the edge of a precipice. The UK government seems to think it’s doing the right thing in attempting to clarify and stabilise the current situation by pushing this legislation forward, yet the current situation itself is unacceptable. Preserving it will mean monopolists will have the legal platform from which to launch the proper destruction of fair competition and innovation in software. Anti-competition law is going to prevent the worst abuses, but the speed and rate of change involved in the software business will run rings around any attempt to keep a lid on things using that part of the law.

So what now? I’m going to read up on what my mates at the FFII have said once their account of the meeting comes out.

Ridiculous Ideas Dept.

by on November 30, 2004, no comments

I was playing with Axel this afternoon while we listened to what I used to think was a rather boring album that seems to have grown on me even though I’ve not listened to it for about three years: The Orb’s Adventures Beyond The Ultraworld. I was surprised by how many “rather British” samples there are in it. Churchbells, leather on willow, lawnmowers, that kind of thing. But for some reason I got thinking about what to do with that dusty old PC I have.

How about I turn it into a net radio? Take one old P166 with 64Mb of RAM and a 1Gig hard drive. Fit it with a sound card and a wireless NIC. Install Linux on it. Then install a streaming media client, and maybe that RealMedia open source client. Connect the sound output to hi-fi amp.

Then log in to it over the network with a terminal of your choice (for me that would have to be my PC as I’ve not got a network-capable handheld) and connect the client to a net radio station.

Of course, the chances of me actually doing this are slim, and until I get a 2Mb connection it might be a bit of a bandwidth hog, but I like the idea of it.

Holidays!

by on November 29, 2004, one comment

I’m off! Two weeks of something-we’ve-yet-to-decide lies ahead. Motorbike meddling and shower rail fitting beckon, as does some time at last to play with Axel after spending night after night doing all that Freehand malarkey over the last month. I’ve not looked forward to a holiday this long in ages.

Oh – and it was my birthday today as well. The company intranet’s birthday script did it’s job (scroll down to bottom), even if the other content was rather, er, stale. Not that a single person noticed the news and wished me any happy returns mind you, but then what are intranets if not to be utterly ignored by everyone? After all, being a busy digital solutions development agency, paying attention to web-based systems is hardly… wait, no, something wrong there.

The eBay Phenomenon Continues

by on November 28, 2004, no comments

In my continuing adventures through the looking glass that is eBay, I have made a profit on a mobile phone sale. This is getting pretty weird. Who are these eBay buyers who are willing to pay so much?

Kumi wanted a new phone to replace her really old one. “Get one of them 3Pay ones – they look like a good deal” I said. So we did.

Brought it home, put the SIM in, put it on charge, then looked at the 3Pay tariff sheet. The minimum credit you can buy is £15. She uses about £10 a month maximum but they expire any unused credit at the end of the month. Doh! So – it was obviously for eBay. We bought it in Woolies for £39.99. I put it on with no reserve for a starting bid of £20.00.

Seven days and 17 bids later, it’s just gone for £52.00 plus £5.00 postage.

What is the world coming to?? Surely this is a sign that the forces of eBay are eroding the fundamental laws of economics?

Now I’m hoping the winning bidder will come to their senses; will refuse to pay and normality will be restored. But with similar listings looking like they’ll be closing for almost double the Woolies purchase price, I’m not holding out much hope on that.

eBay Madness Part II

by on November 28, 2004, no comments

Well, I bought a Yamaha YP125 Majesty on eBay, picked it up in a van, got it serviced and am now waiting for the insurance to come through on it. I still can’t quite work out if I did the right thing or not, but it was fun. You only live once, etc. etc. For those interested in the details, read on.

After a 10-day listing, I put an £813 proxy on it. The bidding closed at £561.00.

The following weekend, I hired a van for the weekend. The plan was to pick up the bike on the Saturday, then I could take it in to the bike shop for a seeing to on the Monday morning. Turned out the man at the hire place was a scooter freak, and he lent me his loading ramp – I felt luck was surely on my side when that happened. We wouldn’t have been able to get it into the van otherwise!

So we packed some sandwiches and piled in for a nice drive around the M25 and M11 to Epping. Axel was squeezing his mum’s hand the whole way as I ground the gears of the cheapest Transit in London. When we got there about an hour and a half later, Lee, the seller, turns out to be a nice bloke (I’d spoken to him a couple of time on the phone during the week). He buys bikes from salvage shops and sells them on. He said he a was a police officer, and I think I believe him.

I have to admit I didn’t do anything that would have stopped him from ripping me off, but the bike looked OK, the engine started, and apart from the clunk on the side, all seemed well. I chatted to his wife about the pets (three boxers and two cats) as I sat in her living room while Lee made out the invoice and counted my money out on the rhubarb-coloured shag pile carpet.

These scooters are all curved edges and slippery plastic so lashing it down in the back of the van wasn’t easy. Our first attempt ended in it toppling over as we went round the block for a shake-down (I remembered that from the army – pack up, shake down…). So we re-lashed and got back on the M11.

After a rather frantic Monday morning drive to the bike shop, the prognosis looked good: the frame didn’t seem bent, but it did lean to the left slightly, which could mean twisted forks. But they didn’t seem too concerned. I decided not to ask for a ball-park figure. What if they said it was going to be a thousand quid? What if they found it had some irreparable damage? All I could do was hope.

Despite saying they’d ring once they had a good idea of how much it would cost, I got a call on Tuesday afternoon saying that it was ready for collection. The frame was sound, it had needed a service (very low oil, and the tires were half flat, which would explain the leaning). The damage to the side was not, however, not something they could do much about. I took that to mean it was more trouble than they were willing to spend on it. So the bill for the service and a couple of replacement bits came to £123.68.

I agreed to pick it up Saturday morning. I’ve never ridden a twist-and-go before. It’s like a dodgem. Your legs just sit there motionless with no gears or breaks to worry about. The first thing I noticed was the acceleration though – or lack of it. After twelve years on a 250, a 125 is a lot less punchy. But I’m not into bikes, I keep telling myself.

I stopped by the BP station on way back to fill her up. Unlike my Honda, this machine as a fuel gage. Posh! Five litres later (I thought What Bike? magazine said it took ten?) I paid and tried to leave.

I say tried, because when I twisted the key, and pressed the nice red ignition button, nothing happened. I tried again. I checked the kick stand. Nothing. The garage attendant was staring at me from behind a pile of Bounty Bars. What was he thinking as I pushed the machine to the side of the forecourt and walked towards him?

Taking my helmet off, I mumbled about having just bought the bike and could I borrow a pen. I phoned Kumi to get the bike shop number.

“Hello, I’ve just picked up my Majesty 125 and am at the petrol station and I can’t get it started.”

“Did you engage the break?”

“No, do I have to?”

“It won’t start unless you have the break on.”

“Ah, OK. Thanks.”

As embarrassing conversations go, I suppose it wasn’t too bad. I continued on my way back home. I think I need a copy of the owners manual.

Now the machine is sitting chained to my old one outside under a tarp, I feel a bit tired, but relieved the main job of getting the bike is over. Now I just need to sell the old on (eBaaaay!) and look for somebody who’s willing to repair the cosmetic damage to the side.

The figures for a one-owner, 2003 registered, Yamaha Majesty 125 with 2,500 miles on the clock:

eBay Purchase        £540.00 (less £20 from auction price for lack of a log book)
Van Hire	      £90.00
Service	             £123.68
Log Book	      £19.00
Lock & Tarp	      £86.49
Tax	              £15.00
Datatag	              £15.50

TOTAL:               £889.67

Insurance (annual)   £147.25

More Research to Boggle Over

by JBB on November 26, 2004, no comments

Although I yield to no man in my respect for the rigour that David Danielson brings to IA research, at times I can’t help wondering if either I’ve got the wrong end of the stick, or he’s up his own a*se.

This time, I’ve been reading Web navigation and the behavioral effects of constantly visible site maps:

This study examines user movement through hierarchically structured Web sites
and the behavioral effects of a constantly visible, textual contents list... 
Users ... dig deeper into the site structure, make less use of the browser’s Back 
button, and frequently make navigational movements of great hierarchical 
distances.

When I read that, is sounds like this to me:

This study examines the effect of giving people a fast car to get to 
where they want to go, as compared to a slow one. Users... when given a 
1990 Porsche 911 Turbo, the majority of those tested could get to Birmingham 
from London in under 68 minutes and had reportedly more fun, and broke down 
significantly less on the way compared to those that were given a 
1978 Hillman Avenger for the same journey."

eBay Madness

by on November 14, 2004, no comments

That bike crash has shaken me up. I’ve been riding my trusty Honda CB250N for over 12 years and it failed the MOT last year, and it’s going to have to have some repairs as well this time. So, I getting new wheels.

This time I’m going scooter. Bought my copy of What Bike? on Saturday morning, shortlisted a few, then hit eBay. By Sunday morning I’d taken a £500 punt on a 2003 Yamaha Majesty 125. It’s only got 2,500mi on the clock, but it’s had some damage that’ll need a couple of hundred to repair (I hope!). At least that’s the theory… I’m picking it up next weekend after I’ve run a check on it so fingers crossed I have a bargain. If not I can lambaste the seller on my blog!

Eleven hours later I’m on eBay again (this is how the dark forces of eBay work) and this time it’s shower rails. I’ve been looking for a good solid brass Victorian job to go with the posh fittings we inherited in our bathroom. All the new ones I’ve seen have been crazy prices – our local plumber’s merchant told us a ceiling-mounted one would be £490, and I’ve not seen anything less than £95 even for a nasty chrome wall-mounting hoop. So, I’m hoping the £118 I got it for is going to be worth it. It didn’t *look* bent in the photograph.

Right, that’s my impulse buying done for the month. I need to have some sugary tea now…

Bike Crash

by on November 14, 2004, no comments

I fell off my motorbike last week going in to work. I’ve done it before: pottering along at about 30mph you come up behind some stationary traffic. If you then use the bus lane, you stay relatively safe but run the gauntlet of the cameras (I’ve had two fines for that in the last five years), so I usually try to squeeze down the outside against the oncoming traffic and risk it. And no, you can’t stay in lane and wait with the cars. On a motorbike that’s morally wrong.

This time the gamble didn’t pay off. For no apparent reason, a stationary car about five or six metres ahead of me in the traffic suddenly turned out to its right, and partially into my path, taking me by surprise. I thought it was a nutter doing those sudden u-turns (there was a break in the oncoming traffic at the time) so I slammed one the breaks. That’s when I realised the between-lane debris (where does that gravel come from?) was worse than I thought.

I fish-tailed and hit the road right knee first, skidding onto my shoulder. Front forks a bit twisted, but otherwise the bike was ridable, so I continued on my way. Falling off is a strange experience. Wearing a full-face helmet with the visor down, you are acutely aware of yourself shouting “Oooh shiiiiii….” before the sound of gravel, metal and plastic sound off around you. My right front brake light simply atomised, but I was OK. Boy was I glad of my Judge Dredd trousers. I wonder how fast I’d need to be going before the abrasion went through?

How To Be An Artist – part II

by on November 12, 2004, no comments

The performance of Bill Drummond’s “Seventeen” went flawlessly last night. Although Kumi and Axel couldn’t stay for my actual performance (way past bedtime), the place was standing room only as we mooed and whooped our way through the “score.” Mercifully, it was only a few minutes this time, although I could see one woman’s toes visibly curling as we sang.

The Seventeen sang about an hour and a half into Drummond’s thing, and I’d almost forgotten we were going to be called to the front to do ours. He’s a pretty fascinating man. Obsessed with numbers and in particular the value of money and artistic works, yet wonderfully dismissive of the wealth he made in the 1980′s with the KLF and other pop music projects. At one point he described his various projects since then as being plans to get rid of money, “some being more successful than others.”

And so it is with his latest project – to dispose of the $20,000 he paid for Richard Long’s “A Smell of Sulphur in the Wind” by cutting it up into tiny pieces, selling each for $1, then taking the money made to the place in Iceland depicted in the work, and burying it. He will then take a similar picture to the one Long took for the original work, and call it “A Smell of Money Underground.”

All this is intertwined with his guilt at accepting a lift from a passing Icelandic vehicle while attempting to walk across the island with his sister in 1972 (while Long completed the same walk 20 years later); his general obsession with maps; love of places (like the M62), and his love/hate relationship with the work of Richard Long, the music business and the value of money. He’s a man with a lot going on in his head, and that’s for sure.

So – I ended up buy a piece of the Richard Long picture. The proceedings took on a somewhat ritualistic tone as we stood in line in the first stage of the purchase (rather drunk by that time on the free beer and wine he provided – “The prices at the bar are fucking ridiculous so we brought our own supply”).

Choosing two numbers at random from a “down” and “across” bag, we handed over 75p, and got a “warrantee” and a dollar bill to take to Drummond, who duly stood over the picture with a Stanley knife.

Once he had handed over the piece, signed and sealed the warrantee (with his Penkiln Burn stamp), shaken our hands (with genuine affection), and sent us on our way, we then lined up by another large canvass to paint in a square according to the co-ordinates of the piece we had just bought. When finished, the canvass will read “sold” in large yellow letters on a black background.

It was at that point that a glitch appeared in the plan: either Bill had given me a piece from the wrong part of the picture, or somebody had filled in the wrong part of the canvass before me. Either way, my allotted slot had been filled in already. After some consultation, he agreed to amend the warrantee to read “this may not be correct.” I was satisfied, and we arranged to paint my square on the side the of canvass as a “rounding error.”

After signing the registry with my name and email address, I went on my way into the night and back into the real world.

An invite from the DTI

by on November 9, 2004, one comment

My banging on about software patents to sundry MPs and ministers has borne fruit in the shape of an invite from the DTI to attend an event organised by them and the Patent Office to present the arguments in favour of proposed EU software patent legislation. The Register has some more details on it.

I’ll see if I can digest the brochure they sent with it, but on first sight, I’m confused about how the “technical effect” will be determined. Better start RSVP-ing as places seem limited.

Illuminated Scrolls

by JBB on November 8, 2004, no comments

Busy this last week doing “pixel-perfect wireframes” (don’t ask). I dunno. With seemingly the whole world going with Jakob on this one: low-fidelity, fast iteration prototyping with rapid whatnots; we’re plodding away with Freehand documents and hardly even a whiteboard sketch between them and the A3 colour printer that lovingly prints them out. All this after Visio purgatory and the dreaded “user journeys” as well (the latter not done by me, luckily). All we need now is some site map psychosis and the madness will be complete. Still – if the client’s paying, I’m all for it. And I’m sure it’s good for me to do this… somehow (grits teeth…).

Charlie Brooker and the Media

by on October 29, 2004, no comments

I tell myself I look down on blog posts that simply link to other things, but it’s Friday and I’m feeling lazy. The Charlie Brooker incident is (I’m gonna say it) significant, but not because he’s called for the assassination the US head of state, or that he’s annoyed so many Americans, but for what it says about the state of the “media.”

And this time, NTK have put it best:

Brooker may write in a paper, but he still posts
like he was on a newsgroup. You do know what they're saying 
on IRC, right? Do you read what the little green forums of 
the world spit out on a daily basis? Have you seen the
Indymediots, the Freepers, the lists, the feeds, the
unmoderated masses? Do you remember what you yourself wrote
*last night*? You've heard the Bush jokes, the Kerry jokes,
the Blair jokes: are we supposed to take all of those
seriously, too?
www.arbitary.i12.com
- we wish to complain about the portrayal of Micro Machines V3

We can only wait until the penny drops. (Big intake of breath). DEATH TO THE COMMUNICAT…!

John Peel

by on October 28, 2004, one comment

My dad went to school with him and remembers him as a bit of a loner. I didn’t like all of the music he played, and I can’t really say he changed my life as others have claimed he changed theirs, but he sure did have a hell of an influence on my musical taste. Listening to his shows was like panning for gold – you found wonderful nuggets, but you had to work hard. It was fun, but it was hard fun.

About ten years ago, I faxed him asking if he wanted help sorting out his record collection at Peel Acres, and he rang me back to discuss it after a show. In fact he wanted to talk about Japan more than my proposal (I’d mentioned I was translating the language). It came to nothing but we had a nice chat – I remember his voice the most and that odd mix of clear diction and half-mumbled remarks. “Every man has a price, and mine is a trip to Japan”, he said. I think he made it out there a couple of times after that. To die in Peru was a nice touch.

There’s been a lot about how we’ll not see his like again, and how influential he was, and this got me thinking about the Internet again. The clutural gap he has left will, I hope, be filled by the net for the coming generations of teens. They’ll get their kicks from discovering the wilder shores of music on line. John Peel’s passing coincides with the start of a new era, so again I repeat the motto of this blog in the spirit of respect for the man who did it best:

Death to the communications monopolies! May ten thousand autonomous systems bloom!

Flow Diagrams

by JBB on October 25, 2004, one comment

For the past couple of weeks, I have been doing flow diagrams in Visio. These are supposed to describe the “flow” of pages that a user goes through when ordering certain things on our client’s site. They are exhaustive representations of every permutation of that journey, showing the exceptions, error screens, diversions, etc. that are encountered. And sweet Jesus are they boring to do. Not only that, but they’re frustrating, confusing, relentless and needlessly time-consuming. Let me count the ways…

I don’t hate flow diagrams – I just think they’re not a good use of time. They also fail the clarity test (the user has to work out what “language” they are in before they can “read” them in order to understand what they say). This is pretty similar to my dislike of site maps, actually.

The main problem in constructing them is that you have to apply ridiculous amounts of brain power to get them laid out on the page – even to express the simplest of things. Not only that, but when you need to accommodate a change (since we’re both discovering how things work as well as recommending changes here) you have to throw it all up in the air and re-jig the thing.

They also make it too easy to be vague. For example, we had a review meeting for some diagrams today, and somebody asked about a step marked with an arrow going into it, but with no arrow coming back to the previous step (which they expected). The box in questions was a pop-up window to a third party site, from where there is no explicit link back to the main journey. So what do the arrows mean, exactly? I dunno – that you go there, and er, then maybe come back. Well, they said, I should annotate that then. Yeah, I thought, well I want to write it all down, actually, and then we wouldn’t be having this stupid conversation about what arrows mean….

I did at first suggest that we simply do them as text and maybe produce flow diagrams once the text descriptions were stable, but it seems the client’s used to diagrams. I would have been able to produce clearer, more accurate (and certainly far easier to read) descriptions of the flows in text in literally half the time it’s taken me to wrestle them to the ground with Visio. And this is on a project where everyone’s complaining about lack of time.

The only thing about flow diagrams that might be better than text is that you can jump in to part of the flow and start looking at it from there without having to read the preceding text to get to that point. But you can do that too with proper use of text formatting (highlighting names of pages, for example). And compare that to the many, many advantages of text and, well, I’ve made my point.

But I will stick with it for now so as not to rock the boat. I’m gonna try harder to get people to see the value of text next time though, and that’s for sure. If I get time, I’ll post some examples by way of a comparison to show you what I mean.

— some days later —

Here’s an A/B comparison. It’s not a very good example since both are pretty ropey. They’re not my work (I’m to busy to think up examples, dammit!), but if I’d written the textual example I’d have done it differently. It’s in the right ball park though. Similarly with the flow diagram. They both say roughly the same thing (the text has more business logic in it – Hmm, funny that), so compare one and contrast the other.

The text version would take next to no time to type up and would be a synch to edit, leaving you more time to think about the logic. Meanwhile, the flow diagram would sap your will to live and leave you no time to think about whether it was complete, would be understood, or even made sense.

Open Money

by on October 24, 2004, no comments

The Open Money Project looks interesting (although I wish they’d sort out their navigation). I can’t decide whether they are the seed of a revolution that will tear apart the rules of commerce as we know it, or just a geeky fad.

Still, I’ve promoted it to my “stop” button above as it’s potentially a Rather Big Thing.

Where did my Google ads go?

by on October 24, 2004, no comments

“Banner blindness” notwithstanding, I seem to have lost my Google ads from this blog. Not that I can be bothered to find out why (no messages on the Adsense account pages that I can see that might explain). I was earning about 10p a month off them.

The Developer’s Lot

by on October 20, 2004, no comments

I’ve been reading some technical specifications for parts of a client’s web site that we are re-designing. I’ve read (and probably written) some really dire specifications in my time, but these are worse than even I’m used to seeing. Have a read of this clip, randomly sliced to my email this afternoon (specifics removed to protect the guilty):

The criteria that (accessory a) can be ordered only when atleast (product a), (product b)
would remain the same with the (accessory b) being added into it. So now, the 
(accessory a) option should be shown only if atleast the (product a), (product b)
or (accessory b) is to be shown and is in stock.

If this is the logic (and the command of English) that the hapless developers had to deal with then it’s perhaps not surprising that the website is chaotic, slow and variously broken in parts. But weigh that up against the fact that the client has also been spending £50,000 a week just to keep the site running, fix bugs and generally maintain it, and things really start going through the looking glass. Of course, they had the misfortune to be conned into deploying the site on BroadVision, which can hardly help matters.

Systems Administrators: Architects of the Apocalypse

by on October 18, 2004, one comment

Our network went down today. Consequently, I didn’t get much done until about lunchtime. It was a router misconfiguration, apparently. But the paralysis I suffered (in common with all my colleagues) got me thinking.

Just about every significant business operation in the developed world now has an IT infrastructure of some kind. This in turn means that there is also a person (or several persons) who holds the administrative privileges to that infrastructure. That person pretty much has the successful operation of the business in the palm of their hand. Often literally.

Yet sysadmins are typically poorly paid and relatively junior. In smaller companies the role is often given to people as an extension of their normal job description, which might be working in accounts, office services or such like. Yet management seems not to be aware, or perhaps simply accepts, that these people could cause havoc far out of proportion to their seniority if they wanted to. Sack a sysadmin, and your main file server could mysteriously appear blank one day, as could all the backups, perhaps months or even years after they’ve left. It would be a simple matter to email the contents of the business development folder every Sunday to a list of rivals and the management would never know. Pitch proposals could end up on websites; employee salary details emailed to other employees… The list of possible shenanigans is endless. With sufficient planning, none of these things would require the culprit to be in the building, or even logged into the network at the time.

I suppose the fact that this hasn’t really happened much in the past is some sort of comfort, but I’m glad I’m not asked to interview prospective sysadmins. Personally, I’d feel I’d need to give them a lot more than a cursory look at their MCSE certifications.

Spam Report

by on October 14, 2004, no comments

Just run another spam report. Things are about the same as they were three months ago. Odd how the two addresses get quite different amounts and show such separate patterns. Not sure what to make of that.

Numbers of spam caught by my filter

iPod Mini Out-of-Box Experience

by on October 12, 2004, 2 comments

We took a test at school once to find our what kind of career we might be suited for. When my results came through I went to the careers advisor’s office to be told that he thought “printing and packaging” would be my best bet. At the age of seventeen, I thought that sounded suicidally boring and swore I would never show any interest in such things ever. And so it has been until yesterday, when a colleague had a new iPod mini delivered to work.

The iPod (and indeed all Apple products) are supposed to be meticulously well designed, even down to the packaging, so we reverently performed the unpacking. A sleek, white box emerged from its cardboard housing and unfolded to reveal a silver iPod gleaming like a stone in a freshly cleaved peach. The power supply, leads and accessories then fairly melted out onto the table before us.

Such a pity then that written on the plastic screen guard on the device were the words “Don’t steal music” in large, unfriendly type. Hard to think how they could have wreaked the preceding experience any better than that.

Ditched Internet Explorer, Outlook is Next

by on October 7, 2004, no comments

Despite being keen on free software, I’ve been using Microsoft Internet Explorer for years out of sheer laziness. But about six months ago, the weight of evidence against using this flabbergastingly insecure web browser drove me to install Firefox, and I’ve been using that fine ever since.

The only significant web site I’ve found that doesn’t work with it is B&Q’s shopping cart and Trend Micro’s Housecall anti-virus scanner. But you can always invoke MSIE for short periods if necessary.

Having to use MSIE at work means that I can compare and contrast, and I now think Firefox is a better browser than MSIE. I love all the free extensions and themes you can get for it. I’ve even disabled MSIE (as far as one can) so that it can’t be invoked by other programs like Outlook.

Up until now though, I’ve been reluctant to try Thunderbird, the Mozilla mail client, simply because I’ve not been able to manage all my mail accounts in one inbox like I do with Outlook. But with Thunderbird 0.8, you can. So I’m revving up to switch to that too soon I think.

I think it’s now just a matter of time before Windows get the elbow too.

How To Be An Artist

by on October 7, 2004, no comments

Well that was interesting. Last night I became one of North Finchley’s “Seventeen” at the soon-to-open Arts Depot. This is part of Bill Drummond’s latest project entitled “How To Be An Artist” and involved seventeen men (well, it was actually fourteen I think) recording an improvised vocal performance accompanied by the sound of Bill’s Land Rover engine and a C minor chord.

Bill Drummond doesn’t come across as the scary maverick I was expecting – more like a aging painter/decorator on holiday. The people who turned up were a mixed bunch, and most had never met each other before. I wondered how many knew who he was.

Bill explains the deal.

After an initial talk about the proposed work, and an introduction to the ‘score‘ (PDF download) we had a brief rehearsal and level check then went for it. The lights went down and we embarked on fourteen minutes of anything-goes “singing.”

About half way through I was reminded of the essay in The Doors of Perception in which Huxley says that chanting and singing are among the various techniques for humans to glimpse the “mind at large” and thereby attain religious or shamanic states of mind. I was certainly beginning to feel light-headed, and the free beer, together the odd mix of lads largin’ it with serious-minded types like me made me think things might start to get a bit psychedelic.

But I managed to stay on track and despite the potential for anarchy, there was some surprising continuity in what we were doing. When I was in bands I remember experiencing the same things: co-ordinated tempo-changes with no apparent leader; loud and soft passages arising without any prompting. Was this the “mind at large”? I don’t know if Bill had thought of that or not.

After declaring the recording a success, we were invited to perform the work live one night at the forthcoming exhibition of How To Be An Artist on the 11th November.

So perhaps I should become an artist and ditch this information architecture crap?

Drupal is beginning to lose its shine

by on October 4, 2004, one comment

I’m getting itchy to try out another blogging system. Drupal is really more of a content management system than a blog, and I’m not using even half of the bells and whistles at all. It’s also quite – urgh – difficult in places but it’s been fun to explore it. Maybe something like Blosxom would be better? But will I ever find the time to do a move? Perhaps I should concentrate on migrating bakerbates.com to CSS instead…

Bill Drummond’s Seventeen

by on October 3, 2004, no comments

I’ve just got a mail from Bill Drummond. He’s doing an installation of some kind (details rather sketchy) in the soon-to-be-opened Arts Depot, which is just round the corner from my house.

The installation/project/work will be called “How To Be An Artist” and he needs male voice “singers” (in my case that term is applied loosely) to record something as part of that.

I’ve always thought of him as rather scary ever since he left a dead sheep in the foyer of the Brit Awards, and the fact that he and Jimi Cauty burnt a million pounds adds to that.

So, I’m a bit apprehensive of what I might have to do next week (the timestamp is in the future – these artists, I dunno…):

----------
From: bill drummond 
Date: Sun, 03 Oct 2004 00:08:29 -0700


Dear member of The Seventeen,

Your Services are required at 7pm on 6 October 2004 at the new (but
unfinished) Artsdepot building at the Tally-Ho, North Finchley. Look for the
door with The Seventeen on it.
Your services will be required for up to two hours, in which time you will
be required to use your voice creatively in a lateral way. You will not be
paid for your services but refreshments will be provided and each member
will be given a pair of tickets for How To Be An Artist.

Yours

Bill Drummond.

Why does fruit….?

by on October 2, 2004, 2 comments

This has been worrying me for a while: why does fruit get juicer as it ripens? If it’s off the tree, then it’s not got any source of water, so why doesn’t it just dry up? Why does it appear to have less water in when it’s not ripe?

Hmmm. Ahmmmmm.

Spaceship Design Masterclass

by on September 29, 2004, no comments

Axel’s been showing quite an aptitude for making cubic structures. While most of his peers are content to pile up bricks repetitively, perhaps with the occasional asymmetric flourish, he prefers to create a base, then build Guadi-like cathedrals using the properties and shapes of the materials rather architecturally. Last week Kumi showed me something he’d made that was actually a little spooky in its complexity (remember, Axel is only just four).

He has been doing regular re-designs of a spaceship in Lego, and frankly, I’d be quite proud if it was my own work. Have a look at the following sequence of design iterations over a period of some days we monitored:

Day 1:

Note the delta-wing base, instrument control panel and underslung cockpit with yellow windshield.

Day 2:

A new treatment based on the same delta wing (in mid-iteration), but with detachable “rocket” capsule and engines at rear. Note the aesthetic experiment with the replacement of the blue windhsield for red in the second photo.

Day 3/4:

Back to enhance the original design concept using the underslung cockpit again, but this time combining the “rocket” launch pad idea (here seen empty, but sometimes loaded with non-Lego ordinance) and with engines positioned further back with winglets introduced.

Comparing the design from day 1 with day 4, there are some very clever and subtly balanced changes taking place using only about 10 to 14 pieces in all. The design has since gone through several more iterations, but it’s often too fast to take photos of them before he re-factors. This is an approach he takes quite regularly – choosing designs he likes and then re-working, often returning to older themes but building in ideas from previous iterations. Oddly though, he has no interest in 2D design or drawing and isn’t yet writing his name.

Managing Content Another Way

by on September 28, 2004, 3 comments

Lawd – I is churnin’ it out today!

Why is content not treated in the same way as page designs and HTML?

On most projects, one of the primary deliverables is a set of HTML “templates” to be integrated at some point into a CMS. The CMS then uses these templates to render content loaded into it. This represents a transition from an initial set of page designs (usually developed with a graphics package) into a format (HTML) generally suitable for “decomposition” in some way.

So why doesn’t that happen for the content that those HTML templates display via the CMS? The content is, after all, dependent on the page designs. Whether a news article has a title and a sub-title on some pages, or an image and a box-out on other pages are all consequences of the design of those pages. For that matter, whether text is too long for a particular part of the page, or an image is inappropriate for that part of the user journey, are similarly determined by that design.

On every project I’ve worked on (or heard about), the job of managing the content in any detail has to wait until almost the very end of the build, when it can be “loaded” into the CMS. At that point, all sorts of things come out of the woodwork: missing content, unsuitable style, too many words, and other issues. All these things, if not corrected, will impact on the experience of the web site as surely as broken images or script errors. Yet it’s always a mad copy-paste rush followed by a mad QA scramble and much post-launch fixing. The pressue is even more acute when final sign-off for copy has to wait until that copy is in situ in finalised page designs.

It doesn’t have to be like this. What if content was treated in the same way as other build artefacts? What if a framework for the content of a site was constructed at the same time as things like the HTML or wireframes?

Well, it can. Bwhahaha!

Stand by for either a cracking follow-up post on this some time, or deafening silence.

Experience and Graphic Design Process – Unformed Thoughts

by on September 28, 2004, no comments

As part of some recently expansive thinking, I’ve been jamming on the following theme recently as follows. So far, I’ve got some thoughts, but no good solutions, on streamlining the experience and graphic design process overall.

I was thinking about one of our projects (referred to here as “Project X”) in which we delivered HTML and flat graphic “prototypes” for the purposes of user testing, client approval, etc. during the design phase.

Ideally, the prototyping work would be kept in synch with the functional design in a similarly programmatic way as the content requirements were to the experience design (i.e. translating the page layouts to standard modules via an XML schema). In practice, this was achieved through verbal communication between the EAs and the graphic design/HTML team, without any formal link between the assets used by each group (either module layouts or even page templates). This somewhat haphazard system worked to an extent, but there were misunderstandings between those constructing the “look and feel” and those specifying the functional design that would eventually define the actual user experience. Feedback from the results of prototyping was also difficult since there was no common vocabulary either to define or describe page elements.

A partial solution to this is being used on the XYZ project. A Freehand “asset library” has been created by the graphic design team that allows EAs to build page layouts on a set of pre-defined templates to create near pixel-perfect “wireframes” which are very close to what will be rendered into HTML. These are complete with graphics (either final versions or placeholders) and indicative content. The graphic design team can update these assets as part of their work, with any changes automatically reflected in the Freehand pages. These “wireframes” are therefore actually design prototypes made in a joint effort between EAs and designers, and presented to the client as such (as PDFs). The primary advantage of this process is that the experience design cannot significantly diverge from the graphic design.

However, this is really only a graphic design solution. Freehand does not allow the attachment of documentation to the assets in the library, nor does it talk to the outside world. Business rules, functional requirements and any other necessary description of the modules and templates will therefore have to be done separately by annotating the modules and providing the necessary documentation against those annotations by hand in the traditional way. There will therefore be problems such as incorrect element numbering, document management and other housekeeping issues that were experienced on Project X and will need to be overcome in the same way on XYZ. It is also unclear how the documentation of the modules will affect the graphic design process, since annotations placed into the Freehand pages will “corrupt” the graphical page designs. Depending on the number of subsequent iterations, it may be that the graphic design will then start to diverge from the specification work, and the same problems that existed with Project X will return. Freehand also does not allow good interaction prototyping, and there are also problems with using Freehand documents in a shared environment; managing the asset library and with the weak document housekeeping functions (no paragraph or page numbering, for example). On PCs, there are significant performance and stability issues.

Unlike software development, TV and film production, or many other fields of activity such as architecture or industrial design, new media development lacks an “IDE” (integrated development environment). This, combined with the above problems, is why I became interested in Ubiquity RP, which seems to be a contender for the position of New Media IDE. Not only does it work by the same “asset library” principle, but also supports the detailed documentation of the assets created. The resulting pages built from the assets can be exported as an HTML prototype (optionally annotated with JavaScript tool tips) to demonstrate clickable interactions from page to page (via links, drop-downs, form submissions, etc.) at the same time as graphical layouts. It can also export a “documentation view” of the modules as a Word file, a feature which in future versions may be enhanced to include spreadsheets and/or XML.

Unfortunately, Ubiquity is not yet mature or flexible enough for serious use. While it doesn’t need to be a graphic design tool or replacement for Freehand (which would still need to be used to create and update graphical assets before loading these into Ubiquity’s library), it does need to provide more functionality than it currently has in order to be valuable enough to consider using on a live project. I have been in correspondence with the authors, and have suggested improvements, some of which they appear keen to implement, but others less so. In general, however, they are very much on the right lines and may provide a means in the future to allow the synchronisation of experience and graphic design, documentation, prototyping and (via integration with the Project X design artefacts) content collation and the programmatic creation of a solid basis for the build phase. It would be difficult to underestimate the positive impact of that on most projects.

IA Research Shorts

by JBB on September 28, 2004, no comments

There’s some interesting stuff here, including summary of some research showing that changing navigation in subtle ways actually helps users navigate (and aids their understanding of the depth of the site), thereby seeming to contradict the standard guideline that navigation should be kept consistent. Also talks about other things such as classifying information toward the end of the process, not the beginning. It’s a presentation but has some citations worth following.

Then there’s some page-scrolling stuff that’s good to counter the nay-sayers.

Polemic

by JBB on September 28, 2004, no comments

There’s been an upsurge in deep thinking about development process at work over the last few days, and I’ve been in somewhat expansive mood.

With apologies to Martin Luther King:

“I have a dream that one day the web development community will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that technology serves the user experience.” I have a dream that one day in the cafes of Hoxton, project managers, experience architects, web developers and the clients that pay for all their work will be able to sit down together at a table of brotherhood. I have a dream that one day even AKQA, an agency sweltering in the heat of Flash animations, proprietary browser scripting and user oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of best practice. I have a dream that my children will one day use web sites that lead them to information they want, that benefit business and society in equal measure. I have a dream today.”

Some mobile photography

by on September 25, 2004, no comments

Now that Bluetooth can liberate my lo-res snaps from the confines of my phone to the wasteland of my blog, I thought I’d celebrate by puttin’ some up:

Mobile technology good, network and accessories bad

by on September 25, 2004, no comments

Having recently bought a Sony Ericsson T610 on a deal from BT Mobile (and no, that’s not O2), I’ve been reflecting on the fact that while the phone itself is pretty good (if seemingly designed by somebody left-handed), the peripheral stuff like support, billing, accessories and general “off-handset” features, are appallingly bad.

WARNING: The following post is probably very, very tedious.

Take the route to purchase from e2save.com. After trying to work out why the deal has to be structured as “cash back” and not a normal discount, I paid for it online. Three days later I get a mail from their system saying the application has been rejected. Why, it doesn’t say. So I call them. They tell me BT have informed them that I already have a BT Mobile product, and the small print forbids more than one handset per BT landline customer. After about an hour of ding-donging between e2save, BT and Vodafone (my previous network) it turns out a munchkin at e2save.com processed my order twice. The rejection was for the second attempt. But since it didn’t quote an order number, I couldn’t have known and neither did they.

Two days later the phone arrives. All is sweet, but I need to get my number ported over. We go on holiday. A week later it still hasn’t gone over to the new phone. I ring BT – a minimum 25 minute wait on hold. After three calls, each lasting about 30 minutes over three days, it turns out I had some call redirection feature turned on, and that I should have asked for this to be turned off while requesting my PAC code. The number goes across three days later.

I then notice that while the GPRS indicator on the handset looks healthy, the phone is set up to use GSM for data/WAP access. So I switch it over to using GPRS (and do the same for SMS/MMS). This is only after about two days of solid Googling and usenet posting to work out how to do it. There is no info on BT’s site, nor e2save.com. I then mail BT to ask what their rates for data are (since again, no info on the site). Three days later they mail back saying I will only be able to use “WAP” and not GPRS (they mean GSM, but hey, they’re only the UK’s largest telco – what do they know?). Well, since my phone tells me my data connections are now using GPRS (and the browser connects immediately once it’s loaded) I take that to mean they don’t know how to bill me for data. Hmmmm. Chaos.

So then I buy a Bluetooth dongle for the PC. I’d like to be able to back up my contacts and stuff off the phone. £16.00 on eBay later, all seems to be working fine. Then I install Sony Ericsson’s synchronisation software on my PC. It doesn’t work, and errors of various types fly around – one of which is from an incorrect path for a shortcut that the installer puts in the Start menu. How shoddy is that!? More chaos…

The T610 is hardly an obscure phone. I can only assume that 99% of people that have one use it just make calls. But it’s 2004 for gawd’s sake! Can’t I expect a couple of clicks up on the feature scale from five years ago? The fact that I have to do some serious guerrilla activity to configure my phone to use GPRS on BT Mobile is a complete joke. Mobile telecomms revolution? Don’t make me laugh.

And all this before I even start laying into how ridiculously bad the Java “games” are…

Kaze no tani no Naushika

by on September 25, 2004, no comments

I watched the DVD of Hayao Miyazaki’s anime epic today with Axel, who was (almost) glued to it throughout. It’s a spooky film, and I was worried he’d get nightmares, but he seems OK.

I didn’t realise the film was made twenty years ago. The first thing that struck me was how much The Matrix (and in particular Reloaded) plundered it for ideas: the sentinels are in it (well, as huge insects) and some scenes are extremely similar. There’s even a bit where Naushika is wrapped up in tendrils just like Neo is for the big showdown.

Actually, if I’m honest, the first thing I actually noticed was the fact that Naushika wears a very short skirt and apparently no knickers through most of the film – a point sagely debated at IMDB. I was in two minds about whether she was “going Scotch” until the shot in which Naushika has her back to us and a gust of wind blows her skirt up to reveal, well, her arse. Either that or transparent skin-tight underwear. And all this was discernable without recourse to the pause button.

Soapbox on Software Patents

by on September 19, 2004, no comments

"If Haydn had patented 'a symphony, characterised by that sound is 
produced { in extended sonata form },' Mozart would have been in trouble."

Since I am involved in software design, I feel I should oppose any move by the European Union to allow the patenting of software. Software patents threaten to stifle innovation in software design and given even more monopolistic power to existing software corporations to the detriment of smaller companies and fair competition. In my own case, they could lead to a nightmare situation in which ideas in the experience design of websites would have to be checked by slow and expensive patent lawyers before they could be deployed by the clients I work for.

The European Union is considering introducing legislation that would allow patenting of software. If you make a living from software development in any way, then I think you should be similarly opposed.

For more information see this website


The Mystery of Chip and PIN

by on September 19, 2004, no comments

The fact that millions of pounds a year are lost to credit card fraud makes the whole “chip and PIN” thing more mysterious by the day. When’s it happening? Why did it happen years ago? How will it be introduced? There seems to be a veil of confusion over it all, but most people seem either not to know nor care about it. Hmm. Well, maybe it’ll all be OK.

But I began to worry when I got a flyer from Barclaycard entitled “Answering your questions about chip and PIN.” It must rank as the single most confusing and self-contradictory piece of customer communication I have ever received.

It starts off oddly:

Q. Can I use my current Barclaycard in the new PIN pads?
A. Yes. However, instead of being asked to key in your PIN you will be asked to 
sign the receipt as you do now.

So, er, is that using the “new PIN pads” or not?

We will be sending you a new chip and PIN Barclaycard within 18 months...

Why? You just said I could use my current card!

Q. When I receive my new chip and PIN Barclaycard, can I use it straight away?
A. Yes - as soon as you've called us to activate it. 

So you mean I can’t use it immediately. And you just said that I can use my current Barclaycard in the new PIN pads…

Aaargh!

Firefox: you learn a new thing every day

by on September 13, 2004, no comments

I just had one of those Really Nice User Interface moments.

I’ve been getting into tabbed browsing with Firefox, usually right-clicking links and choosing “Open Link In New Tab.” But after a while you want to re-cycle tabs as it gets a bit cluttered spawning new ones, and shutting down old ones can be a pain.

So I thought, “Wouldn’t it be nice if I could just drag the link to the tab I want it to load it in?”

And guess what? You can! Ahh, it’s sooo nice when that sort of thing happens.

CSS – nice!

by on September 13, 2004, no comments

So far, I’ve managed to avoid being paid to do HTML – and I count that as a Very Good Thing. To date, the pinnacle of my achievement in creating an entire site from scratch is www.bakerbates.com. Which is crap, obviously.

In my defence, however, it was done in about 1998 before I knew much about anything in particular, and as I started to feel the blast wave of CSS about to make obsolete any HTML skills I had anyway.

But for ages I’ve been meaning to a) do something about that site, and b) construct something with CSS to see what the big deal is. What better to do both with bakerbates.com? It’s a pitifully simple design, so I decided to cut my CSS teeth last night on the home page, and try to make it all XHTML valid as well (although on this latter standard, I’m even more sketchy).

And hey wow it’s quite easy! Not only that, it’s really, really nice not having to bother with those blasted tables and nested stuff. Want to position that block just there? You can! It’ll stay there, and even overlap another area of screen if you get it wrong. Hooray!

CSS is what HTML should always have been. Sure, it doesn’t completely separate presentation from content, but it does the next best thing. I’m a bit unclear as to how the finer principles work, but I think I’m getting there. After half an hour I had a pure CSS version of the home page just working by example from www.csszengarden.com, a site a very beautiful person at work told me about.

Not long perhaps before the trough of disillusionment, but so far, it’s fun!

Is that a chip your shoulder?

by on September 11, 2004, one comment

I remember 1995. One of the things I particularly remember was having a conversation with a journalist who really, really hated the idea of the Internet. What the hell would happen to quality journalism if any old Joe could set up a website and start ranting?

Now, after stumbling across Predicting the Internet’s Catastrophic Collapse by a bloke called Bob Metcalfe, it seems he wasn’t the only Internet Luddi^H^H^H hater wishing the blasted web away.

Of course hindsight is 20-20, but Metcalf would have seemed pretty pessimistic even in 1995. His comment on digital money is half right (it’s a stupid idea), but the consensus is strong against the idea of micro payments now. The rest of his points seem oddly naive in various ways, but maybe that’s from this distance.

Still time for it all to happen, eh Bob?

If You Leave An Idea Hanging Around…

by on September 8, 2004, no comments

True story: somebody told me once they’d been looking at a site called “Flash Your Rack.” They said it was a bit like “Hot Or Not” but “raunchier.” I thought they meant effects (or perhaps server) racks. After all, I’ve seen some really impressive racks in Telehouse: twenty Enterprise 450′s divided by blue routers look cool, particularly if they have well-managed cable tidies with them and lots of flashing lights.

But no. He meant tits.

Nevertheless, I thought it might be a goer creating a site like that. And now I see somebody has!

Let’s Make It Illegal: That’ll Stop It!

by on September 8, 2004, no comments

I am not, and never have been, a smoker, but sometimes I find myself thinking things are far worse than I thought. This week was one of those times.

In an echo of a flabbergasting report frome the BMA that tobacco should be made illegal, there comes a survey that shows that a large proportion of people in Britain think it should be banned as well. This opinion says more about misplaced belief in the rule of law than it does attitudes to smoking, and it illustrates why I’m convinced that in hundreds of years time people will look back on The War On Drugs (and perhaps the War on Smoking?) as baffling as the obsession with witchcraft, alchemy or religious schism in ages past.

No British goverment would ever legislate to make tobacco illegal, for much the same reasons as they’ll never honestly make “drugs” legal. Making tobacco illegal would unleash huge negative consequences on society, while making drugs legal would do pretty much the positve oppposite. The goverment and the economies it supports relies upon the

One from the logs

by on September 2, 2004, no comments

I was going through my chat logs this evening looking for something. It’s only the second time I’ve ever done it I think, but I must do it more often – you find all sorts of interesting stuff. Anyway, I spotted this amusing account of an exchange I’d had (edited to protect the innocent and to correct my howling typos):

I had a wonderful argument/conversation with one of the client-side developers today. 
Went something like this:
He: We have a problem because section XYZ of the site isn't accessibility compliant.
Me: That's OK, 'cos neither is much else on the site.
He: What do you mean? I've taken great pains to make it compliant!
Me: Well, if  I turn off Javascript and go to the site with Firefox, various
things don't work. I'm cool with that though 'cos we've not told the client it 
would be completely up to snuff.
He: Rubbish - Firefox must have bugs! When I turn off Active Scripting in IE
all is well.
Me: Well, I suppose maybe. It was only a quick test I did. 
He: Anyway, I'm not interested in Firefox, not a target browser, I'd be
surprised if more than 0.1% of {company name} customers us it. And they'd be geeks.
Me: I'd be surprised if more than 0.1% of {company name} customers use screen
readers, text browsers or are classified disabled. You were pointing out an
accessibility issue, remember?
He: Hrmph. It's a fair cop. 

Funny how people are about this stuff.

(BTW, if anyone at work is reading this, I turn my chat logs at work off!)

Popping my Paper-Prototyping Cherry

by JBB on September 2, 2004, no comments

We did a paper-prototyping dry run the other day in preparation for some similar sessions for a client (not involving me, unfortunately). It was the first time I’d done it hands-on, having only read about the theory before. Here we were basically evaluating the technique.

We played the roles of “stakeholders” from diverse parts of the business (the real thing will be properly diverse: marketing, management, legal, or whatever) and collaboratively designed an interface for a particular set of tasks by scribbling on bits of paper and pasting these to a cardboard “terminal.”

Interestingly, we had a brief to make the user experience “pleasing.” In fact, that was more than interesting in my opinion – it was pretty radical. At first I simply took that to mean being “easy to use” or “efficient,” but the more I thought about this the more interesting it became. The exercise was like writing a haiku: the constraints were tough (we were only designing a small part of the system, with main navigation already decided), but somehow that made it easy to get the main job done because. But to make it “pleasing” was a pretty lofty challenge. In the end, the best we could do was to make the language used polite, but friendly.

Then we got our “test participant” in, sat them down and asked them to perform the task that we’d designed the interface for. They didn’t accomplish the task as well as we’d hoped. But no matter – we could adjust the prototype instantly if we wanted. We then asked if they could guess the “design principle” we’d been set. They didn’t really guess it, but they did notice the language, so thought it might be “simple” or some such.

Overall though, it’s clear that paper-prototyping has a number of advantages over the standard scribble-then-Visio/Freehand route. The main one is the fact that with such little invested effort in putting screens together, you can work on the higher-level stuff much faster (“Hang on, does that step even need to be there?” and other things that might take a while to shake out otherwise). So it gets my vote for lowing the effort threshold at least.

One area I did think might be problem: trying a quick series of iterations on successive test subjects is very easy. But this might mean that you’re simply designing the interface for the last person to test it. You have to keep your user testing quite firmly fixed on; taking suggestions for new features, etc. with a pinch of salt rather than diving in and implementing changes immediately.

Hope to be able to post more about this if I get the chance. I know it’s not exactly cutting-edge, but real-world reports of the use of paper-prototyping in an agency/client context is something that I think some people might find useful.

Contributory and vicarious copyright infringement

by on August 20, 2004, no comments

It’s a landmark ruling! The decision of the US 9th Court to find Grokster not guilty to the charge of “contributory and vicarious copyright infringement” is the first sign that corporate manipulation of IP rights legislation is at last being reined in. It’s all on the Register today.

It is incredibly important that we understand the current war going on in the IP arena, with P2P, open source, copyleft, creative commons, et. al. on the one side, and the frankly evil forces of utter greed and cultural distortion of the Disney Corporation, the RIAA, MPAA and others. Particularly worrying are the moves to extend patents to software in the EU, and in the UK the movement to use “crown copyright” to bury bad news and prevent access to information.

I’m thinking about how best I can do something, however insignificant, about this, because even thought the 9th may have struck back, there’s a hell of a lot to do yet if our children are not to inherit a cultural wasteland controlled by corporate greed. Perhaps a cup of sugary tea would be a start.

Creative Good: Bad Bad Bad!

by on August 19, 2004, one comment

Just read Creative Good’s paper on Managing Incoming E-mail. There is so much wrong with it that I don’t know where to start.

Am I alone in feeling that this didactic crap based around the notion that you should delete everything in your inbox is deeply, deeply bad advice, and patronising with it? I rely on my inbox (and the sub-folders in it) as raw material for future work; an archive to be consulted; ammunition to protect me, etc. Pull it out of the inbox and file it elsewhere perhaps (although sacrificing the ability to subsequently search the contents is a bit worrying), but deleting it? WTF?

The information it gives on how to set up Outlook filters to delete spam is next to useless. Anyone who gets even a small amount of spam these days knows that the spammers defeated Outlook’s puny defences years ago. As to the “advice” on how to read email, and the whole chapter on “How to delete spam” – flabbergasting, patronising, crass, aaargh!

The only good thing about the paper is in the discussion of the state of email clients at the end, and the screenshot of that utterly opaque Outlook dialogue asking whether you want to turn the journal on. I’m glad somebody thinks that’s as nuts as I do.

uk-design List On a Roll

by on August 18, 2004, one comment

There have been some cracking threads on the Chinwag uk-design list over the last couple of weeks. I say that because not only am I participating in my usual “you’re all stupid” kinda way, but there are some really excellent people coming out of the woodwork. For example, the celebrated Nico Macdonald, who (I like to think) I have been putting on the spot in a gentlemanly fashion about his spatial interface musings, etc. Here’s peek:

> -----Original Message-----
> From: Nico Macdonald [mailto:nicolist@spy.co.uk]
> Sent: 18 August 2004 13:24
> To: Jonathan
> Subject: Re: [uk-design] GUI innovation (was Trademarking)
> 

>
> As I note in a forthcoming Guardian Online article:
> 
> "There is little serious or practical discussion in the IT 
> industry about the future of the GUI, and how we might move on. 
> We have few grand visions, and even fewer leaders capable of 
> implementing them. Instead we are fiddling with and tweaking a 
> late-70s legacy.
> 

How about this for an alternative interpretation: What is so wrong with a late-70's legacy, 
and could the basic ideas you seem to be fighting against simply be "good enough" to remain 
fundamentally unchanged? The Stephenson rail gauge, the QUERTY keyboard, 240 volts, VHS tapes... 
None of them were the best at the time, and none are the best now, but their continued use 
shows that they meet - and now feed in to - the requirements placed on them. The arguments 
around them at their inception have moved on to higher things, and there's nothing to say the 
same thing can't happen with the way we interact with computers. We can't really afford to keep 
ploughing up and re-seeding something as important as the interface to the personal computer, can we? 
Well, as long as that computer has a screen to look at, anyway.

As for things that are not documents, and the need to deal with large numbers of objects perhaps
 visually or semantically - there is still a chance you may be missing the point if the *need*
to do so never truly materialises. User testing of radial menus, for instance, has shown them to 
be inferior in terms of learnabilty compared to more traditional methods (I'll drag up the 
reference for that if you want). That doesn't make them bad, it means that they may be good for 
specialist use by trained operators. That's par for the course in other fields: court stenographers 
use those weird little piano keyboards to type at massive speeds using syllabic chords, but it 
takes them years to learn how. Similarly with claims by HCI academics that businesses would benefit 
from being able to visualise their MIS data. The idea's been around for about 30 years, but spatial 
interfaces aren't exactly the first thing Sir John Harvey-Jones recommends to struggling firms. 

Don't get me wrong, I'm not trying to belittle your ability to identify or theorise about different 
ways of doing things in HCI (which would appear to be far superior to my own), just that you seem 
to be missing some wider aspects of things like the social or historical context for these things. 
Like Clay Shirky says, whenever you think about what *should* happen, it distracts you from 
thinking about what will.

> I guess you are referring to the lack of a desktop trash in MacOS 

Ah, no. I was referring to Job's supposed quote about getting rid of the spatial Finder in favour
 the more "Explorer" like file manger in OSX. "Spatial" here simply means file organisation 
"in space," as in a desktop with folders scattered across it, or sub-folders with files arbitrarily
 grouped together by the user, given colours, etc. He is said to have retorted that the old finder 
"forced users to be janitors," which he thought was a bad thing. 

Last I looked, there was a trash can on the desktop of OSX. Was there not one at some point? 

Jonathan

Lord, I hope Dr. Mischa Weiss-Lijn isn’t reading this! Let’s see how he replies.

Shorts

by on August 16, 2004, no comments

I note that Google indexes Flash (I’m probably the last to know this), which is interesting. I wonder how long it will take Googlerank to treat Flash movies in the same way as text, PDF and those other formats it indexes as well?

Just re-read Clay Shirky’s demolition of the semantic web. This has got to be one of the best critiques of anything that’s come out in the last couple of years on the subject.

Wonderful teenage philosophising on Slashdot (can’t link to posts…) yesterday about how a computer monitor could, in theory, show every possible event in the history of the universe, including events that never happened (Germans winning WWII, etc.), if its pixels were randomly stimulated for long enough. Like maybe 10^10,000 years long enough…

South Park meets Rathergood.com in an unusually amusing loop.

Always Outnumbered, Never Outgunned

by on August 14, 2004, no comments

A lazy afternoon this Saturday, playing with Axel and listening The Prodigy’s new album “Always Outnumbered, Never Outgunned.”

The Prodge are sounding simpler in their old age I think, and some rather obvious similarities with other stuff is showing through too much for my liking. Liam Howlett’s been going all Jah Wobble and listening to Middle Eastern music, which is nice, but one track (The Way It) has the bass sound off Michael Jackson’s “Thriller,” and feels not a million miles from being a remix of that disco hit as well. Odd.

The other thing that struck me was that it all felt quite like something Consolidated might have made. If you’ve not listened to Consolidated at all I can highly recommend them as one of the most under-rated industrial bands of the last twenty years. Give their album “Play More Music” a go and you’ll see what I mean.

Otherwise though, it’s a nice noise. Axel likes it.

Networks, Economics and Culture

by on August 14, 2004, no comments

Being in an expansive mood this Saturday morning, and having received the latest from Clay Shirky on his “Networks, Economics and Culture” (NEC) mailing list, I’m trying to gather my thoughts around what’s going on (from as high a level as my little mind can get).

I’m a big fan of Mr Shirky. I once had the good fortune to talk to him while we were in (of all places) Rupert Murdoch’s “Fortress Wapping” several years ago. He was consulting for CurrentBun.com and the other News International websites, and I wasa lowly producer working for a Times Literary Supplement educational site that soon after went West. He has this amazing gift of being able to cut through the crap and see things straight. Something that I find incredibly hard to do.

Anyway, I think he said he was convinced that we are in a golden age of experiementation with the network, communication and ways of allowing humans to exchange information. It certainly seems that way to me.

Happy Birthday Axel – Wilkommen til Year Five!

by JBB on August 12, 2004, no comments

Axel James Andoh Baker-Bates was four years old today. This post is a copy of the mail sent to all the noble subscribers to the Net Parent News mailing list, and for the edification of my blog. Selfish as his father is.

Whether or not Axel fully understood the significance of the occasion today is hard to say, as he wasn’t letting much conversation get in the way of him and his Thunderbirds Tracy Island present. Zwoosh! Ba bada baa!

But looking back on the last 365 days (and he was born at 6:43pm my notes remind me, so that’s not going to be an exact figure), and the Net Parent Newsletter we sent out on his third birthday in which we so accurately predicted so much difficultly, we hope, as no doubt all parents do, that this year will be remembered for being placid. Certainly, there is school ahead in January, and thank f**k for that.

So which highlights can we recall to warm the heart and raise a smile from the lips of our dear readers? How about the time we spent about three hours trying to get him interested in the bouncy castle at Willow Farm? Or the fact that he won’t go in the swimming pool at Archway Leisure Centre because “it’s wet”? That’s right – he’s not the most adventurous type. And yes, the running about when he should be in bed, the inexplicable preferences for certain items of clothing and not others, the awesomely effective demands for treats – all this, and a dose of fifth disease too, have come our way. But at least we expected most of it.

So perhaps this year we will be marked by the unexpected. School… the English language; other kids, trouble, swearing and the influences of the outside world will produce chaotic episodes we can only guess at. This is going to get interesting.

But until then, we leave you with some photographs (see URL below, maybe not all there at time of writing, check back next week) and the now customary lame excuses for not being in touch. Having a kid is distracting, really, but in a good way we hope. So if we sometimes appear distant, or reluctant to go to clubbing on Sunday nights, gatecrash toga parties or organise as many pub-crawls in the way we used to when you knew us without a child – give us time. This is only a phase.

Happy Fourth Birthday Axel – adventurer on planet earth, with all of us.

www.bakerbates.com

Autumn 2003, in family shorts

FOOTNOTE

Reading this after I sent it out, it comes across as rather negative, and I now wish I’d re-done it. It’s not often I write something that goes off the rails like that, but I think what I was expressing was a defence mechanism: we don’t want him to grow up and go to school, and really would prefer him to be like this forever. But he’ll grow up and leave us. And part of us wants to resent that.

It’s hard being a parent.

MSP and Project Management

by on August 6, 2004, no comments

It’s been nose-to-the-grindstone this last week working towards an insane deadline to write up the findings (and think up some suggestions going forward) from a large card-sort being done while I was in Milan the week before. Planning and analysing the results of a 30-user card sort is actually rather fun. It’s rare you get the chance to do one – I only regret not having the time to facilitate more than a couple of sessions. And of course it’s more than just a pity it ended up crashing into such a short deadline, but such is life. At least, I say it’s just life. But I have a sneaking suspicion it’s something else as well.

Firstly, a disclaimer: I am not a project manager, although I have been responsible for managing projects in the past, I’ve been lucky enough only to have been in charge of small-scale ones of comparatively short durations. I respect anyone who can manage large projects over time – possibly the most difficult job in web development that there is right now.

This healthy respect for the ability to manage projects was driven home to me the hard way several year ago. I was put on a project that I single-handedly screwed up beyond redemption simply through lack of knowledge. I didn’t know the basics, and boy did we all suffer. The project got delivered, but so far over time and budget that the site only survived for a few months, and the sheer hatred that flew about in the process was scorching. I offered to resign – the client offered to kill me.

The experience naturally made me resolve never to let it happen again, so I started find out how. Much of what I learnt got me interested in the new media development process in general, but along the way I found Microsoft Project. I’d spoken to a few people about MSP in the past, and they said it was usually too complex to bother with. But I persisted, went on a course, experimented, and found out that MSP is without a doubt the most useful, yet criminally mis-used, software of all time.

MSP has one very strange quality. Or at least, it’s use has a quality that’s strange: just about every project manager I’ve ever met cannot, or will not, use it properly. Even those who otherwise exhibit fantastic PM skills produce sorry excuses for Gantt charts.

I’ll concede – it is hard to produce and maintain a good Gantt chart with MSP. But Excel is hard, and Photoshop is hard, but that doesn’t stop accountants and designers using them as their tools of the trade. What is it about project managers and MSP?

Most times I see a Gantt chart, it’s dead. By this I mean you can’t expect it to reflect reality, or ask it questions like “What if I went on holiday next month?” or “What if that task slipped three days?” and hope it’ll give you a answer. There are a variety of reasons I usually see that kill them:

1. Tasks lacking dependencies

Everything in a Gantt chart needs to have a dependency. Without a dependency, tasks won’t shift if their dependency shifts, so by definition they should not be on the Gantt because they’re not part of the project. Yet I see tasks floating in mid-air so often it’s comical. Mid-air tasks say “The creator of this plan doesn’t know what they are doing.”

2. Fixed-date tasks

Look on the far left of a Gantt, and if you see a little calendar icon next to most tasks (in the “Indicators” column), you’ll know: the Gantt is dead. This is because those tasks has been given date constraints. The PM has manually overridden the start or end date of that task. So the Gantt will never be allowed to tell the PM when a task will actually happen. Finito.

3. Short tasks

For all but the shortest projects, having lots of short tasks (less than about three days) is a sign that the Gantt will cease to be managed pretty soon. You can’t keep on top of a swarm of tiny tasks, people taking days off, acts of God, etc. and hope to keep it all up to date.

4. No resource pool

It’s not always a sign of failure, but if the PM is juggling resources around more than one project at a time, they’ll need a resource pool. Not having one means they’re assuming all tasks will somehow get the resources they need, when they need them. Bang bang – you’re dead.

5. Irregular task granularity

Gantts that reflect power politics usually corpse. You can tell if a phase dominated by one department has twice as many tasks allocated to it, it means that department has bullied the PM to put them there – usually at the expense of all the others. I’ve seen hugely detailed Gantts for tasks relating to marketing that then just have one long task called “build website” at the end.

6. Lack of debate about the tasks

This is more of a general PM failing, but it manifests itself in the Gantt: the uncanny ability of tasks to appear there without any consultation with the people then have to do them. Usually this means that most of the tasks that need to be there, aren’t. See also point 5 above…

There are other symptoms of dead Gantts, but no doubt by now any PM reading this will have something to say. So, let’s hear you. Why is MSP so neglected, and why do we so often have to suffer for it?

Usability and Understanding

by JBB on July 31, 2004, no comments

User testing in London and Milan last week. The scripts we’re using for this are pretty complicated, and the client wants us to cover off a lot of very specific questions about the system, which was pretty tough to do while making sure the user was relaxed enough to give us reasonably truthful answers.

This has led to some complaints from the client that I’ve been asking users the dreaded “leading questions.” On at least one of the sessions, I did find myself lapsing into instructional mode – a bit of a basic mistake for a test facilitator – but that was more to do with the fact that the prototype we were using was so tricky: you have to make sure the user does the “right” things to get into the “right” situation in order to ask some of the questions. For some reason I found myself explaining to the user what I was explaining to myself about how to use the system.

But my failings as a test facilitator aside, it was clear that after a point, if you need to establish whether a user really, truly understands the finer points of what’s going on, there is only so much probing you can do before the poor bugger begins to think that they’re stupid. I’ve been very careful to tell users it’s not a test of them, etc. but more than two or three rounds of “what do you think about…” and “I see, but what if you did …” probing around the same area, and it begins to feel a bit chilly in that camera-infested studio with its large on-way mirror and “relaxing” potted plant.

Perhaps more rehearsing would have allowed me to come up with some lines of questioning to winkle out the coveted understanding. Or maybe it’s just more experience I need. But I get the impression that understanding a system isn’t necessarily a prerequisite for usability. It’s really just about satisficing. For example, when I save an Excel document as CSV, I “understand” that Excel flips up a dialogue with three choices about something. I’ve never bothered to actually read that dialogue properly and work out why it’s asking me that – I just know to press OK and things work out fine. The other choices are probably to cover off edge cases like saving as CSV by mistake and losing formatting etc. but I don’t know. If you asked me if I thought the process of saving as CSV was easy, I’d say it was. There’s obviously something I don’t understand about it, but that doesn’t bother me. Similarly, I suspect my mother doesn’t really understand the file system on her computer – she just saves everything in My Documents* and that’s it. I doubt she would either know nor care how to navigate to the Desktop to save or open something. For that matter, I don’t understand how the NTFS file allocation table works, but I know how to manage files on it using both GUI and CLUI. How far do you have to understand a system before you can use it?

So it is with user testing. Our client is very concerned that we make sure we know whether users fully understand the system and is frustrated I can’t deliver the answer to that question. I wish I had the guts to ask them why they want to know that, but I’m taking their money, so I won’t. I am the Gutless Wonder of the web.

————–

* I wish Microsoft had come up with a better name though. Phone calls after my mum got her new computer went something like: “Just save it in My Documents”, “Your documents, darling?” “No, My Documents… er. No, the place that’s called My Documents, but is in fact yours.”

Milano!

by on July 30, 2004, no comments

Blogging from abroad is sooo trendy. But I forgot to pack my camera so no piccies I’m afraid. We’re doing user testing (I facilitated the sessions in London, and sitting in on the ones in Milan – more about that later).

It’s hot, but the testing suite is air-conditoned. Funny how net access is like drugs – we all have to fight for it as there’s no wi-fi here and some people’s GPRS is patchy. We found an ethernet cable and have been were passing it around like a crack pipe.

Last time I was here I was playing a banjo on an Interail ticket before going to uni and stayed in a youth hostel. This time, my hotel is just behind the Duomo. Had a lovely pizza, beer, chat and a book last night at a cafe in the huge plaza (marred only by the bloody McDonalds in the middle – albeit suitably toned down in black and gold rather than the usual red and yellow). If I’d been in any British city after 11:00pm I’d have been surrounded by drunks throwing up.

Back to Blighty tonight.

Spam Report

by on July 24, 2004, no comments

I’ve been totting up the amount of spam I get per day on my two email addresses over the last few months.

It’s pretty depressing really. An average of about 120 a day on each address. Odd how one address gets quite different numbers from the other one. Luckily, I only ever see about three or four a day, as I’m using Spamassassin, but the thought of all the junk pinging around the email system…

A cheap shot at Nicholas

by on July 23, 2004, 4 comments

I was waiting for Axel to have a pee yesterday before he went to bed, and was idly thumbing through my standard-issue-for-new media-nutters copy of Nicholas Negroponte’s Being Digital.

It’s been a while since I read the book, but I remember it being thin on actual predictions (and therefore slightly disappointing), but I suddenly saw one, on page 173. He must have been pretty confident about it too, since he (almost) names a date:

“I think videocassette rental stores will go out of business in less than ten years.”

The book was published in 1995. In 2004, the home rental market is as far as I know about as buoyant as it was then. I see Viacom’s looking to sell Blockbuster, but it doesn’t appear it’s because they think the market’s about to plop.

Still, every guru has to get it really wrong at least once. Not heard much from Nicholas recently though.

Maybe I should ask if he wants some help on his rather 1995 website?

The future of the music distribution

by on July 21, 2004, no comments

This is hardly an original subject to blog on, but it interests me nonetheless. I was at a new year’s party this year and discovered that I’d been to school with one of the guests. After chatting a while about jolly japes (slightly embarrassing as you’re aware it’s boring the crap out of the people around you…) we got round to asking what each other did. He told me he was as surprised as anyone to have become the MD of Sony Music Publishing UK. I felt like I’d just discovered Rudolf Hess hand landed in my allotment.

Oh my god. What, I asked, did he think about P2P, the recent legal shifts brought on by MPAA and RIAA lobbying in the US, and, and oh, that whole copyright thing and music and all? But either he wasn’t giving anything away, or he genuinely knew nothing. He certainly expressed no significant opinion about it. I was left spouting gibberish about tectonic shifts in copyright law, and he probably thinks I’m a nutter now. Oh well.

But I wonder if his lack of reaction is typical of people at that level of the music biz, because if it is then I think they’re going to get a wakeup call rather more jolting than I thought. There’s much pontificating about this stuff, and nobody really knows how it will pan out, but here’s an interestingly apocalyptic, if rather scattershot, set of predictions about music publishing (scroll down to the bottom) that I think might have a good chance of being true one day – although not as soon as he predicts.

Usecrime in progress: the Sunday Times

by JBB on July 20, 2004, no comments

Two blog posts in one day. A record!

In what I think may become a bit of a regular feature of this blog, here’s a site that in my opinion has awful usability. Well, it pops up windows like they were going out of fashion. Try this:

1. Go to www.timesonline.co.uk and search for something in the search box in TLHC.

2. First you get a popup asking if you want to search the whole net (using eSpotting – eurgh) or the site.

3. Then you get ANOTHER popup with the results in.

4. Then you get YET ANOTHER popup with the article in.

5. And when you try to scroll down through the article in that popup… you can’t. It’s fixed height.

My lord. How many accessibility cock-ups can you have in one operation? Having non-resizable popups for arbitrary-length content is the mark of the complete amateur idiot. How the hell did that get past the QA? Assuming they *have* QA.

Here. Have a screenshot.

Intelligence Amplification

by on July 20, 2004, no comments

I’ve been thinking about Vernor Vinge’s 1993 essay The Coming Technological Singularity.

It’s a good read if you’ve not seen it, but in it Vinge says that he thinks one of the paths to super-human intelligence could be “intelligence amplification.” In particular, he says:

“[Intelligence amplification] is something
that is proceeding very naturally, in most cases not even recognized
by its developers for what it is. But every time our ability to access
information and to communicate it to others is improved, in some sense
we have achieved an increase over natural intelligence. Even now, the
team of a PhD human and good computer workstation (even an off-net
workstation!) could probably max any written intelligence test in
existence.”

I’m certainly noticing this effect increasingly now in my everyday life. The Sunday Times last weekend reported that a new SMS service has started that will attempt to answer any question you have (I’d link to it but I can’t) – from chatup lines to whether God exists. The article is pretty jokey, but I think this could be part of a much more significant pattern of information on demand with very low barriers for access. I find I’m regularly wondering stuff and just typing queries into Google. Most of the time I get an answer and some of the time I get a very good answer. Rarely do I turn up nothing of value. Of course, it might not be accurate information, and whether simply “knowing more stuff” is intelligence is of course hugely debatable, but I think Vinge could be on to something.

After all, I’ve always wondered this about anti-AI arguments based on issues of “humanity”: do you care whether the person that sells you a newspaper knows who wrote Paradise Lost? For that matter, do you care if the judge that’s hearing your court case does? What matters most is what they know about those things that affect you. That may be a horribly inhuman persepective, but I think it shows that “humanity” isn’t simply a box you check to work out whether something is artificial any more.

Useless Fact

by on July 19, 2004, 2 comments

Guinea pigs are highly allergic to egg white.

How I bumped into this is a complete mystery, but it’s one of those things I like about the web – bumping into things.

Why Doesn’t BBC News Online Understand?

by JBB on July 17, 2004, 4 comments

One thing that gets me irrational about BBC News Online is the glaring lack of any proper back channel. People want to talk, and I for one resent only having half a chance to do so. The “Have your say” links at the bottom of some (but not all) stories, accompanied by the pretty contemptuous small print: “The BBC may edit your comments and cannot guarantee that all e-mails will be published,” works me up even more.

How long is it going to be before this kind of thing becomes unacceptable on the net? If you’re going to invite comments, then get your editorial team the hell out of the way and your systems capable of doing the invitation justice. It’s not as if this is a revolutionary idea, or that doing so will automatically mean that lunatics will swarm in and hijack the sacred “airwaves.” The quality and depth of debate about current affairs on a site like kuro5hin shows what happens when you do collaborative filtering properly.

But here am I wanting the Beeb to understand the medium its in. Perhaps I’ve got the wrong end of the stick – the Beeb isn’t going to become a two-way channel any more than magic lanterns became television. And most of all I’m forgetting the slogan of all netizens interested in this stuff:

Death to the communications monopolies! May ten thousand autonomous systems bloom!

(…ahem)

(Hmm. I’m coming accross like Victor Meldrew meets Citizen Smith here. Note to self: tone down the ranting in future.)

I bumped into nanotech the other day

by on July 15, 2004, no comments

I’ve been hearing about nanotechnology for a while, but for some reason was never motivated enough to find out much about it. Far future stuff… solution looking for problem… blah blah.

But a random post on Slashdot the other day caught my eye. The poster was saying that once molecular nanotechnology and “nanoengineering” take off, then the nature of matter as we know it will fundamentally change – with massive socio-economic consequences. The details were sketchy, So I did a bit of Googling.

And I was shocked. Nanotech isn’t some dry theoretical domain of research scientists playing about. It’s a real gosh-darn industry! Have a look at foresight.org for instance.* After a while reading up on some of the basics, the Slashdot post made sense. There is no reason that’s yet been discovered to prevent us from building “nano factories” that can create anything physical by building it from the molecular level up. Just like factories and assembly-lines today make bricks, cars and cans of cola, so might nano factories do the same – but for literally anything out of re-cycled atoms.

So imagine a world where physical matter can be produced, sold and otherwise dealt with in the same way as software. Want some orange juice? Go to the nano factory that sits in the kitchen and enter the details to produce it. Need a new set of razor blades? Same deal. The retailers of the future may not need to produce anything other than the “plans” for nano factories. Buy a plan for Coke, a plan for Gillette razor blades, for a music CD, and produce them all at home.

I’m really struggling to understand the sheer tectonic effect of this on economics and society. For example, nano engineering could REALLY screw primary producers. Why would any country buy physical goods from another?

But the thing that perhaps intrigues me most is whether in the we are currently seeing in techniques of copyleft, open source and other developments in “intellectual property,” the foundations for something truly amazing: a split between closed and open “plans” for matter. Do you want to buy the Gillette razor plan or a freely-available plan for razors (“GNU Razor 0.7″)? And how would the auto industry feel about a Napster for Ferraris?

Now *that* made me think…

* See also evidenttech.com “Do you have an opto-electronic material problem? Need semiconductors with tunable properties to remove nature-imposed limits?” This is like Blade Runner!

First post!

by on July 10, 2004, 3 comments

Standard issue first blog post:

It’s taken me about six months longer than I thought – but I’ve finally got this site up and running. I had some rather grander plans for it before, but after much reflection, I’ve decided to start small and just blog. Thanks Kaoru – you gave me that advice, so I took it.

I’ll be expanding Webtorque according to my Secret Master Plan… later.

Meanwhile, have a look at the Articles link.

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