July 17, 2011
Browser whose usability does not suck more with each release. Can offer part exchange on an arthritic cat.
July 13, 2011
Keeping up with the parking meters
In the annals of bad install screens, the latest Java update deserves a special mention.
The message appears to be, “Parking meters and public transportation passes run Java. You should too!” Apparently Oracle doesn’t understand that the software that runs on parking meters is completely irrelevant to whether Java is any use to me on my PC. It’s not as if I need my PC to double as a parking meter, or that there are applications built for parking meters that I’d like to run. And it’s not like having Java on my PC will equip me with skills that will save my bacon next time I need to use a parking meter.
Of the ugly design, the “I found this great 1000 Free and Shareware Fonts CD from 1994” text quality and the fact that this sales pitch appears after I have already agreed to install the product, it is not necessary to speak. The parking meters have it.
October 13, 2010
My desktop, not yours
January 22, 2010
Designed by programmers
(Via Nathan Li.)
October 01, 2009
Crushing souls for fun and profit
The BBC commemorates – I won’t say ‘celebrates’ – 25 years of PowerPoint. And the statistics are alarming.
The average PowerPoint session, apparently, runs for 250 minutes. More than four hours! I still feel bad about a presentation that overran to an hour and a half. I’d like to say I can’t imagine what it would be like to sit through an “average” 4-hour PowerPoint session, but I can. All too clearly.
And the average PowerPoint slide shows 40 words. Admittedly this figure is distorted by a former colleague, the splendid Jane Smith, whose average PowerPoint slide showed 265.4 words, but surely even Jane’s prodigious output can’t account for more than 0.07 of that average.
Anyway, the article does also offer a few basic tips on the dangers of PowerPoint and how to avoid them (plus, from the comments, the delightful coinage “PowerPoint karaoke,” which I am officially adding to my vocabulary), and I’ll throw in one anecdote of my own.
A few years back I did a “training the trainers” course. Although this was well into the PowerPoint era, the lady who ran the course did all her slides on printed transparencies on an old-skool overhead projector, and made us do the same. How strange, we thought: if you were projecting off a laptop you wouldn’t need to faff around taking one slide off, putting it carefully down, transferring the protective tissue paper to the other side and placing and adjusting the new slide on the projector. You could get straight onto the next slide and completely avoid all that delay. Ah, she explained, but the time between slides was an open space. You, and your trainees, could and should use it to invite questions, discussion or just reflection. The slow turnaround between slides wasn’t a bug. It was a feature.
In that moment, I became enlightened.
August 30, 2009
Those years in marketing taught me nothing
Darryl is running a competition: “If you were talking to an Oracle DBA what would be the top five features of SQL Server that you’d point out to them that makes SQL Server compelling?”
This was my reaction:
If I were talking to an Oracle DBA, the five compelling features I would point out would be ease of use, ease of use, ease of use, ease of use and ease of use.
The Oracle DBA would then roll his eyes, sigh condescendingly and reply, “You see, what you don’t understand is that Oracle isn’t a toy database.”
I would then punch him in the mouth, yell “Not so fucking smug now, are you, you fucker?” and then run away.
This is why I will never win any of Darryl’s competitions.
(In the interests of fairness I should note that this is exactly how Access users perceive software developers, so we have a few planks to take out of our own eyes too.)
July 11, 2008
MONIAC: adventures in analogue computing
Thanks to the wily Kirk Jackson and the, er, New Zealand Association of Economists, I had the pleasure this afternoon of seeing an unusual piece of computing history in action. MONIAC, the Monetary National Income Analogue Computer, also known as the Phillips Machine, was an analogue computer invented by Bill Phillips (he of curve fame) to model and simulate the relationships between various economic factors. Nothing unusual about that, except that it was invented in the 1940s... and instead of processing 0s and 1s, it processed water. The Reserve Bank of New Zealand has one of the few Phillips Machines still around and in working order, and as part of a lunchtime session for the NZAE conference they had cranked it up and were demonstrating it.
The machine works by circulating water around a network of tanks, taps, pumps and pipes. Values are represented by the levels of water in various tanks, parameters by opening and closing taps or moving valves up and down, and the key readouts of income and interest rates are recorded by pens moving against graph paper. Water, of course, represents money, though demonstrator Geoff Bertram was careful to refer to it at all times as "the circulating medium." I have to be a bit vague about what sort of things the various tanks and taps and throttles represented: explanations of the various bits in terms of private sector liquidity requirements and endogenous money supply undoubtedly made sense to the mainly economist audience but I'm afraid I struggled. Still, I gathered it was a pretty accurate simulation of the economic theories of the 1940s and 1950s; according to the demonstrator it effectively shut down a major debate of the time by convincing both sides that their arguments were actually compatible.
Of course, not being programmable, MONIAC can't be updated to reflect new factors and new economic conditions (such as globalisation). The demonstrator did, however, relate how one lecturer used to set up two MONIACs, one representing the US economy and one representing the UK, hook up the relevant bits of piping between the two machines, and challenge two sets of students to do the best for "their" economy, so within the constraints of the model there was a certain amount of flexibility.
On the other hand, MONIAC's analogue approach still rivals the digital approach in some ways. "It's solving nine simultaneous differential equations," noted the demonstrator. Given the sophistication of modern numerical techniques, and the effort that has undoubtedly been poured into economic simulation and prediction, it's no surprise that the Phillips Machine has been superseded, but I suspect that ultimately the digital equivalents are just badly simulating water flow, only more flexibly and a lot faster. One member of the audience, noting that the Phillips Machines had been used largely for educational purposes, asked Dr Bertram how he would present the same ideas now. "I'd draw a hydraulic diagram," he replied.
This being a computer demo, of course, things did not go quite to plan; but this being an analogue computer demo, they went not to plan not through the usual syntax errors and unhandled exceptions, but instead because the bit of plastic representing the level of imports had fallen off and had to be stuck back on with blu-tack, and the export doohickey had become stuck against its housing. Kernel fans will also be pleased to know that the Phillips Machine's ultimate failure mode is also described as "dumping," except in this case you end up with wet shoes and a massive carpet cleaning bill instead of just a nice convenient file. "Now it sits in this bath here, and we've fitted a drain through to the outside," noted Dr Bertram ruefully.
(Incidentally, Bill Phillips was a New Zealander: connoisseurs of Kiwiana will therefore note that the use of blu-tack to hold the level of imports steady counts as Kiwi ingenuity, while the failure mode of spewing the "circulating medium," i.e. the national economy, all over the floor represents classic Kiwi ingenuity, or possibly Rogernomics.)
This highlights another interesting feature of the analogue approach: its unpredictability. When the demonstrator was showing us "fiscal shocks" and "monetary shocks," he commented on how long the simulated economy took to react to stimuli such as suddenly injecting government investment or restricting lending. "Sometimes they take 30 seconds, sometimes they take five minutes," depending on the mood of the machine. Given the unpredictability of real economies, this in some ways seems like an attraction of the analogue approach. The downside? "Sometimes you'll be standing there talking about how things eventually come back to equilibrium, and everything's crashing and burning behind you." At least when my demos tank they don't take national economies with them.
Due to short notice, I don't have any pictures, but Wikipedia does (as does NZIER at the link above), and if you're in Australia or the UK, I gather there are also kinda-maybe-working machines at Melbourne University and at the Science Museum. There is also apparently one lost in Guatemalan jungle, so any budding Indiana Joneses of computing, now's your chance.
December 05, 2007
Five steps to WPF data visualisation
I've posted a breakdown of my "Quake" WPF data binding demo over at MindBlog. This illustrates, step by step, how to evolve a user interface from a plain and traditional textual presentation to a basic but effective graphical design, paying only for what you use at each step.
Also, for mainlanders and Wellingtonians looking for slides and demos from the WPF talk, see immediately below.
November 16, 2007
Usability and the early typewriters
Riveting article about typewriters, the usability issues and trade-offs of the early designs, and how manufacturers used usability as a competitive edge.
On an unrelated note, "riveting article about typewriters" joins my list of Things I Would Have Bet Money I Would Never Say, hard on the heels of "life-changing book about town planning" and "turn left just after the emu farm."
July 24, 2007
RFID cat flaps
I'm about to move house and would like to fit a cat flap in my new place, but I'd prefer not to have an "always open" one, and I definitely don't want the cats to have to wear collars.
Since the cats are already chipped, it struck me that the obvious solution was a cat flap with a RFID scanner.
Unfortunately, the only reference I've found to such a thing says they only sell within Europe. Does anybody know whether anyone imports them in New Zealand?