Lunch links

June 10th, 2009

Straight from the p9a76588_robotperson RSS roster

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Vista explorer, how I hate thee

May 14th, 2009

Why is it that I really, really hate Windows Vista Explorer? The question has been niggling away at me since I started using Vista at work recently. I’ve noticed numerous little problems, those famous ‘thousand cuts’ to usability that kill websites, but today I think I’ve understood the big picture.

First, what’s changed?

Most obviously, there’s no ‘up’ button to get to the parent directory. I’ve been using it for 6 weeks now and I still find myself hovering over the toolbar, looking for that friendly brown manila with the green arrow. Appallingly you can’t even ‘customize’ (sic.) the toolbar to show it, and although there are third party apps that address this, I don’t think I’ll be going down that route on my property-of-HM-Gov’t machine.

Instead there’s a new file path device where the address bar used to be. Actually it’s a hybrid of the two, but you only find this out if you click on it. The trail tells you where you are in the directory structure and each node is clickable, allowing you to jump to whatever parent level you want.

In principle this sounds okay: instead of clicking the up button 4 times (presumably an unacceptably onerous chore to the Microsoft engineers) you can make a single click on the parent node you want to visit. Big. Deal. I suspect the new method presents significantly more cognitive load than simply clicking ‘up’ anyway: For starters, you have to actually read the path, which means using your brain’s text parser. Then you have to know what your target directory is called, which means employing recall. Then, since we typically read from left to right, we read from root to target node. This means the deeper your target is in the structure the longer it takes to pick it out. Surely to go up a single level is the most common task, but this takes the longest time in the new file path device, and so it is simply not optimised.

Of course, to go up a level you could just say to yourself “look for the node second from the right”, and perhaps this is how people actually behave. But this node varies its spatial position on-screen depending on how deep in the structure you are. It does not occupy a fixed position on-screen like the ‘up’ button, so you’re still stuck with most of the cognitive load I’ve talked about. And we all know the very first lesson of usability 101: Don’t Make Me Think.

Incidentally, the whole thing breaks down totally if you’re deep enough in the structure for the file path device to fill up completely. It doesn’t wrap onto two lines (a mediocre solution that websites usually employ), rather it dumps completely the root node (and whatever other oldest-ancestor nodes it needs to) and shifts everything else left. Even if you had, as a user, learned parent nodes spatially, which is how humans work (close your eyes: where is the back button on your browser?), this method capriciously moves them again. It fundamentally prevents learning by associating a spatial location with a task.

So why have they done this? I think I understand.

Explorer’s change from XP to Vista represents a fundamental shift from displaying files from a hierarchical viewpoint to a breadcrumb viewpoint. Breadcrumb, by the way, is a slightly misused Hansel and Gretel metaphor which I don’t think I need to explain.

The hierarchical viewpoint requires the user hold a reasonably accurate model of the computer’s directory structure overall. The breadcrumb viewpoint only requires the user to understand what they have just done; the path they’ve followed to get to this point.

The former assumes a lot of knowledge which new users simply don’t have. The latter, it is reasonable to assume, is better for new users: they don’t have a mental model of the file structure, and they don’t need one (nor are they likely to acquire one using Vista explorer). Anyone who’s ever had to explain the directory structure to a new windows user will attest to this. So that’s it: the new system is optimised for newbs, and if you don’t like it, tough.

As an aside, just who is their target market anyway? What fraction of people these days are computer novices? Perhaps the very large majority, if I strip away my developed-world prejudices for a moment.

Anyway, I certainly hope the problems Vista explorer supposedly solves are real for some users, since at least I could then think of my pain as a sacrifice for the greater good. But I can’t help thinking they’ve thought about it too much, a Microsoft problem which I’ve talked about before.

I won’t go into the other usability problems I’ve encountered. I won’t want to stop if I get started on the pointless filter controls (that are incomprehensible and easy to confuse with the handles when you want to widen a column); or the toolbar icons that change depending on what is selected (consistency anyone?); or the ‘favourite links’ area, which points I know not where (some contents seem to follow my login, others don’t). Gah!

They’ve come up with an overly clever solution to a problem which certainly doesn’t exist for me. And in the process they’ve introduced a hat full of usability problems. What a shame I have to fish around for alternatives to something so fundamental to using Windows when the old model was so satisfactory.

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April fool round up

April 1st, 2009

Google’s April fool today describing the launch of a “global-scale neuro-evolutionary learning cluster” got a good chuckle out of me. It’s a play on Kurzweil’s singularity, and I *love* the idea that the world’s first conscious machine would be, like, rly in2 pandas OMG so cute!

Here’s how they describe their Skynet moment!:

…tonight we’re pleased to announce that just moments ago, the world’s first Cognitive Autoheuristic Distributed-Intelligence Entity (CADIE) was switched on and began performing some initial functions.

Excellent, but Wikipedia top it with a homepage that double bluffs: after giving the initial impression that it’s normal, I realised the stories were all humorous and therefore, presumably, fictitious. But despite the humour, they’re real stories: there really is a Museum of Bad Art; Lucy in the field with flowers is really a painting. I’ve been trying not snort too loudly all lunch reading the full MOBA article. Hat’s off to Wikipedia for finding the absurd in the real.

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March 31st, 2009

Last week I bought an xbox 360. My justification, and believe me, I had to have one, was that we needed a bridge between our home network and the main TV. This has been an obvious gap in our otherwise comprehensively digital lifestyle (CDLâ„¢), and of all the options the xbox was just about the cheapest. It just so happens to be a pretty decent console as well, but I can assure you that this is a coincidence. Really though it’s win:win. Lara gets Gossip Girl; I get Halo 3; and the girls get absolutely no copyrighted intellectual property of the Disney corporation, on demand.

Setup has not been straightforward. I think this has been more to do with my veteran wireless network than any intrinsic difficulty in the process, but I spent a good chunk of the weekend climbing the 2 stories between router and desktop, tweaking and checking. It’s working now, although disconcertingly without me having changed anything since it wasn’t. Thus it threatens to drop off at any moment should I so much as think about a new router.

Anyway my real point of writing this is to relate my buying strategy, which I’m smugly pleased with: Kelkoo are currently offering cashback on certain retailers, and GAME offers a generous 5.4%. Next, a quick eBay scout of the resale value of their bundled game alternatives shows Resident Evil 5 (just out, Edge score: 7/10) fetching about £30. Ching!

Decision made: I bought the console Weds for £190. £10 and change rebate will surely take its time to arrive, but it will come. The console arrived Fri and by Sunday morning I’d sold RE5 for £33 on Amazon (my cut: approx. £27). Net outlay: just over £150 for the premium system and 2 controllers. Nice. I still have plenty to play on the Wii right now (the xbox looks amazingly clumsy and huge next to it), but in the mean time all those triple-As (Gears of War, Halo, Orange Box, Bioshock) are depreciating nicely.


March 27th, 2009

Word on the street is that Google Streetview is coming to Brighton, at least if these spyshots in Saltdene are to be believed. Oh how I would have loved to have seen it up my street: surely an opportunity to moon too good to resist. Here’s where I am right now: The Foreign and Commonwealth Office (through the arch and on the right).

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March 13th, 2009

Every so often something comes along on the web that opens it up a
little for me. Today that happened with Alibaba, a site I hadn’t heard of until last week.

Alibaba is a China based B2B directory that basically puts suppliers
in touch with businesses that need things supplying. It’s pretty
simple. Traditionally your business’s suppliers have been regarded as a valuable
trade secret, but Alibaba with it’s massive wealth of suppliers in every conceivable industry seems to make that rather irrelevant.

It’s of particular interest right now as since Lara was made redundant (that
story is another post) we’ve been trying to come up with some business ideas. With Alibaba and low production runs it now seems relatively easy to get something manufactured without exposing ourselves too much.

Like Michael Gambon’s character says in Layer Cake “The art of good
business is being a good middleman”, and this is what Alibaba appears
to do extremely well. They publish suppliers’ direct contact details
so their business model must be based on a listing fee rather than a
cut of the deal.

Incidentally, I saw Michael Gambon in a rather nice white Audi R8 on
Victoria Embankment not so long ago. Nice motor Mike.

Anyway, what I mean by the web opening up is that it’s hard not to
have your horizons broadened when you realise you have a choice of
over 2500 taffeta* suppliers. It’s a big world, but it’s getting easy to get
around it.

*That is not a clue to our idea. Nor is it anything to do with making my own line of action figures.

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Be careful what you wish for

February 12th, 2009

Lara asked me a couple of weeks ago what I wanted for Valentines day. “How about some peace?” I flippantly replied, not directed towards her but at the children, who were variously runny-nosed and petulant, runny bottomed and teething.

Today I find myself alone in an empty, quiet house. Lara is back at work (although for how long is another story), the littlies are both in nursery, and I am ‘between contracts’, a phrase uncomfortably new to me. Whilst I’m certainly enjoying the respite, the spectre of no work is, I have to say, rather spoiling the taste of my tea.

The dearth of contract IA work, I am variously told by the agents I am in daily contact with, is either completely normal for this time of year or highly unusual; and that I should either not worry myself about it or panic slash my rate in half / give up and get a permanent job. The true situation probably lies somewhere between these extremes, and I am certainly loathe to give up on the hitherto brilliantly successful freelance experiment, but either way it will soon be 3 weeks since I worked.

This time, you will be relieved to hear, has not been completely wasted. Although my delightful adventures in the outstanding Super Mario Galaxy, and valiant defence within Geometry Wars Galaxies (I only play superficially astronomical games) might suggest otherwise. Oh no, I’ve also set up my company’s web site (nothing to see yet) sorted my business cards, denuded the reading backlog, pitched to a couple of agencies in Brighton, listed a load of life-junk on Amazon and eBay, and more-or-less got over a nasty cold (the girls’ revenge for my callous remarks).

I have also, unsurprisingly, done an absolutely vast amount of surfing, the cream of which I promise to post just as soon as I can be bothered to trawl through my history folder.

So to re-specify my answer to Lara’s question, what do I want for Valentines?: How about some peace and income? No. These, surely, are mutually exclusive for all of us.


October 10th, 2008

  • Nerdbots, via Raj at R27. Very cool, and respect for finding a way to monetise their robot building. They’ve got a fold problem on their home page though (on my monitor, at least): It doesn’t invite scrolling down and I missed the robots.
  • Take on me: Aha’s famous video with the lyrics replaced by a literal interpretation of the video action. Just brilliant. Watch it twice and you’ll be humming the melody for the rest of the day.
  • More Youtube goodness: Wario Land: Shake It! ad. Watch at least halfway through.
  • The Vice magazine fashion DOs and DON’Ts are worth a check every so often.
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Holding hands

October 10th, 2008

In the last week or so Ruby has just become large enough to hold my hand properly: palm to palm, instead of gripping on to a finger or two.

I don’t know why this feels so different from the finger grip, but it is. And it’s lovely.


September 24th, 2008

  • The Guardian gives much-hyped new Star Wars game The Force Unleashed a lukewarm review. November’s Edge, which has arrived in the post today, is less circumspect and dispenses a 5:

    Lucasarts and ILM are handling the cinematic side, George Lucas himself has added his touch to the script, and when you press start for the first time the John Williams score booms out of your loudspeakers. Surely, you think, this time they’ve got it right. Wrong. But The Force Unleashed is by no means a bad game – it’s simply one that constantly makes you think of what a brilliant experience it could have been.

    I was really, really hoping that this would justify a next-gen (or rather this-gen) platform purchase. Sigh.

  • This month’s US Esquire magazine has run with an historic first commercial e-ink cover, or partially e-ink cover, anyway. Boing-boing diplomatically describe it as a pathetic disappointment. It’s not quite the future yet after all.
  • Nice piece by Suzanne Vega on the making of Tom’s Diner, its sample-friendly proliferation, and its role in the birth of mp3. I never knew that it’s about the same diner that featured in Seinfeld.
  • I’m a bit behind in Essential Mixes, but I can’t stop listening to Deadmau5’s EM from 2 months ago, especially the last hour. It’s exactly what I’m into at the moment. He’s playing Brighton next month and my tickets are in the post already.
  • I missed 808 day last month. Watch the video.
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