Usability

July 14th, 2003

Prompted by a Sunday Times article suggesting that women and men think differently about how they want their gadgets and software to work, Dan Hon has written a first rate explanation of exactly why it's a mistake to assume that a program's user interface is complicated for no better reason that that it's had too many features bolted on. (I'm afraid that brief description doesn't do the post justice at all. Let's just say that if you're at all interested in the relationship between the usability and complexity of software, just go and read it.)

Talking of software and user interfaces, Danny O'Brien is very excited about dashboard, which is essentially a "remembrance agent" for Linux. A remembrance agent watches what you're doing with your computer and unobtrusively offers related information from other programs. For example, if you're reading an email from a friend, dashboard might display a link to the friend's web page, to your recent IM conversations, and the friend's address book entry.

Danny O'Brien comments that the user interface and functionality of most of Microsoft's software aims squarely at the US corporate market, with personal users an afterthought. Sure, they'll throw in the odd template for a birthday card, but ultimately they make their money selling software that meets the needs of businesses. He thinks this leaves an opportunity for Open Source software – and possibly Apple – to fill that gap in the market. I certainly hope so: I'd dearly love to see an OS X port of dashboard some time soon.

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League of Ordinary Gentlemen

July 14th, 2003

Judging by the reviews, the film of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen is as disastrous as expected. Douglas Wolk has written a decent analysis (NB: New York Times article – free registration required) of the yawning gap between Alan Moore's version of the characters and Stephen Norrington's:

When we first see Mr. Moore's version of Allan Quatermain, the explorer who searched for King Solomon's mines has become a helpless addict in a Cairo opium den, his spirit devoured by the temptations of the Empire. The comic's Captain Nemo is, as Jules Verne described him in "The Mysterious Island," an Indian prince who had rebelled against the British occupation; Count Dracula's victim Mina has been "ravished by a foreigner and all that," and flouts social codes shockingly — she even smokes. The threats the League faces are the deep anxieties of Victorian England that bubbled up through the technophilia and xenophobia of its pulp fiction: aerial bombardment, terrible scientific weaponry, uprisings by "Johnny Chinaman" and "Mohammedan rabble."

In the movie, which opened Friday, all of that delicious subtext is gone, replaced by blockbuster-standard clichés. Mina, for instance, is a terror not because she's a "fallen woman" who doesn't know her place, but because she's a vampire who rips her enemies' throats out with her fangs. And Allan Quatermain — played by Sean Connery, who is also one of the film's executive producers — is not just unambiguously heroic, he is annoyingly perfect.

He first appears rising out of an easy chair in a Nairobi gentlemen's club to slaughter a roomful of gun-toting attackers without breaking a sweat. When a British flag falls on one bad guy's impaled corpse, Mr. Connery mutters "Rule Britannia," perhaps momentarily forgetting that he is not playing his most familiar role.

I just hope nobody ever gets round to putting Moore's Watchmen on the big screen: I just couldn't take the pain.

[Via Lots of Co.]

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Biotech humour

July 14th, 2003

I couldn't resist stealing this joke from Betsy Devine:

If you pushed your naked clone off the top of a tall building, would it be:

A) murder?

B) suicide?

C) merely making an obscene clone fall?

You may groan now…

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Hug-A-Pillow

July 14th, 2003

Who needs a partner to snuggle with when you can have a weblog > Monday, July 14, 2003" href="http://www.brainsluice.com/weblog/2003_07_01_expired.html#105818203879525946">Hug-A-Pillow?

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Ouch!

July 13th, 2003

This BBC News headline says it all, really: Lightning strikes woman's tongue stud.

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Crime and Punishment

July 12th, 2003

Nick Davies has written a tremendously depressing article for the Guardian, charting in excruciating detail how an attempt to get different agencies within and without the criminal justice system to pool information, set priorities in each area according to the community's needs and come up with innovative approaches to tackling the causes of crime got bogged down in a never-ending stream of departmental reorganisations, budgetary hassles, top-down target-setting and short-termism.

There is a perfect glimpse of partnership life on the ground in a recent report by the inspector of probation, Rod Morgan, who looked at what happened when the government told the probation service to run the new drug treatment and testing orders (DTTOs), which allowed courts to order drug users to accept treatment. The order came through in June 2000. Probation set off in October without any infrastructure to run the scheme. By that time it was halfway into reorganising itself for April 2001 into 42 new areas, eight of which were amalgamations needing new budgets and plans. By December, the DATs, who were its key partners in the exercise, were also being reorganised – new teams, new boundaries, more new plans. In April 2001 probation was given £36m to run the scheme. Weeks later half of it was taken away from it and given to the new national treatment agency (NTA) which was to run the DATs. More new plans – but not until the NTA agreed who was going to spend what, and it didn't start work until the autumn. That dispute was still running in early 2002 when the entire national health service, which was delivering the key treatment for the drug users, was reorganised – more new boundaries and plans.

What comes across most strongly is the government's addiction to management-by-reorganisation. After all the restructurings described in Davies' article, perhaps a five-year moratorium on redrawing departmental boundaries would be in order.

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The Wire

July 12th, 2003

I do wish one of the terrestrial TV channels would pick up the rights to David Simon's The Wire. Every time I read a glowing review like this one from Heather Havrilesky (NB/: Salon article – non-subscribers are required to view a 15-second advert before accessing the article) I'm reminded of how much I miss Homicide: Life on the Street.

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Giving a new meaning to the term "Open Government"

July 12th, 2003

Bob Cringely is not at all convinced that it's a good idea for governments to keep building ever larger repositories of surveillance and intelligence data about their own citizens. Quite apart from the question of whether we want governments to have all that data about us, there's the question of who else could be misusing it.

Consider this anecdote about CALEA, the system the US government has required telecoms companies to install since 1995 to facilitate surveillance of telecommunications data:

The typical CALEA installation on a Siemens ESWD or a Lucent 5E or a Nortel DMS 500 runs on a Sun workstation sitting in the machine room down at the phone company. The workstation is password protected, but it typically doesn't run Secure Solaris. It often does not lie behind a firewall. Heck, it usually doesn't even lie behind a door. It has a direct connection to the Internet because, believe it or not, that is how the wiretap data is collected and transmitted. And by just about any measure, that workstation doesn't meet federal standards for evidence integrity.

And it can be hacked.

And it has been.

Israeli companies, spies, and gangsters have hacked CALEA for fun and profit, as have the Russians and probably others, too. They have used our own system of electronic wiretaps to wiretap US, because you see that's the problem: CALEA works for anyone who knows how to run it. Not all smart programmers are Americans or wear white hats. We should know that by now. CALEA has probably given up as much information as it has gathered. Part of this is attributable to poor design and execution, part to pure laziness, part to the impossibility of keeping such a complex yet accessible system totally secure, and part because hey, they're cops, they're good guys. Give 'em a break. Have a donut.

This vulnerability is never discussed in public because it is an embarrassment to law enforcement and because the agencies that pay for CALEA don't want its vulnerability to be known. That might compromise national security. Alas, national security is already compromised by the system itself, and the people who might take advantage of the vulnerability have known about it for years. Only we are kept in the dark.

Perhaps the masterminds who implemented CALEA should move into the electronic voting systems market: they'd fit right in.

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The Natural World

July 12th, 2003

This week's MSNBC The Week in Pictures contains two really striking images. Fighting the foam depicts a bridge spanning what looks to be an alien landscape but is in fact a horribly polluted river in Brazil. By way of a contrast, Daisy chain presents a very much more pleasing image of a daisy, seen from an unusual angle.

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Parenting

July 12th, 2003

Jeff Vogel has posted another volume in The Story About the Toddler. He's an evil, evil man:

The Little Pleasures That Make Life Worthwhile

I was taking Cordelia out of her car seat and she hit me. So I said, "No." And then she hit me again. And I said, "No!" And she swung at me again, missed, and smacked herself in the nose.

I suppose it is wrong for a parent to ever delight in the tears of their child. However, on occasion, I think it is all right to silently enjoy it when providence provides a little bit of unexpected justice.

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Ewwwwww!!

July 11th, 2003

I'm not going to sleep well tonight for thinking about this poor kid.

[Via MetaFilter]

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I feel dizzy…

July 11th, 2003

If you can look at this photograph without feeling a touch of vertigo then you're a better man than I…

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Adam Roberts on The Matrix Reloaded

July 11th, 2003

Adam Roberts has written a rather fine critical review of The Matrix Reloaded. He's particularly good on the differences between the original film and Reloaded:

[The Matrix Reloaded…] dramatises precisely the melancholia that first attends the realisation of the illusion of Free Will and the inevitability of Eternal Return. This explains not only the pervasive mood of anti-climax (and how could the film possibly have built on or extended the supreme climactic excitement of its predecessor?); it also explains the sense of deja-vu with which we, as audience, witness yet another brilliantly choreographed kung-fu display, yet another team blowing up a city building, yet another attack upon a Zion ship by the arachnoid Sentinels. This is not a failing in the Wachowski brothers' abilities as film-makers: this is an inevitable and central aspect of the whole project. And it suggests ways of appreciating the movie in ways that move beyond first disappointment: to – for instance – dwell on the present beauties of motion and grace in every moment of the burly brawl rather than asking vulgarly 'but who will win this fight?' (you always already know how this fight will end). The specificity of this film is extraordinary: the attention to detail minute and appealing, the design and form harmonious and beautiful. Watching the film a second time, and watching it again and again, means we can see these beauties as if for the first time.

Having seen Reloaded three times now I'm inclined to agree with Roberts: it's unquestionably a film which rewards a second look, and not just to make sure the Architect was saying what you thought he was first time round. Another shoot-em-up would have been boring, but there's enough going on in the middle film to suggest that the ending will be worth the wait. I could be wrong – we could end up with a 'turtles all the way down' ending – but I'm willing to bet that's not the direction the story will take.

The current trailer for Revolutions emphasises the action elements of the story, but then the trailers for Reloaded didn't hint at Neo's meeting with the Architect or the Merovingian so the absence of any hint of depth in the trailer probably doesn't tell us anything significant about the direction the film will take. The bottom line is that every time I see the trailer for Revolutions I find myself grinning from ear to ear, just as I did every time I saw the trailer for Reloaded. After two such entertaining films (plus Bound, which was a lot of fun) I'm prepared to trust the Wachowskis to give us something special in November.

(Having mentioned the Reloaded trailer, I have to ask: does anyone else find the creepy close-up of Agent Smith laughing demonically in the Revolutions trailer oddly reminiscent of a gone-to-the-bad David Fisher from Six Feet Under?)

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Synonyms: airs, aloofness, audacity, bluster, braggadocio, brass, cheek, chutzpah, conceit, conceitedness, contemptuousness, crust, disdain, disdainfulness, ego, egotism, gall […]

July 10th, 2003

This story should be getting much wider coverage.

In 1999 the Guardian asked the government for details of any conflicts of interest which had faced ministers, and what steps had been taken to avoid any problems which might have arisen. Seems like a fairly innocent question, and certainly something it's in the public interest that people should know about their elected representatives. But then the government refused to answer, leading to a complaint to the parliamentary ombudsman. Let the Guardian explain what finally happened when the ombudsman pressed for disclosure of the information:

Lord Falconer and Douglas Alexander, the minister of state at the Cabinet Office, signed a certificate saying any disclosure of information about such conflicts would be "prejudicial to the safety of the state or otherwise contrary to the public interest".

No such certificate has been issued in living memory and Whitehall sources said they believed the ministers had issued it after direct pressure from Downing Street.

Incredible! The word "arrogant" just doesn't seem strong enough.

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Internet Amish

July 10th, 2003

Cory Doctorow has just realised that he's Amish – at any rate, when it comes to the user interfaces of the devices he writes with. He just can't get over QWERTY:

People think the Amish are technophobes. Far from it. They're ideologues. They have a concept of what right-living consists of, and they'll use any technology that serves that ideal — and mercilessly eschew any technology that would subvert it. There's nothing wrong with driving the wagon to the next farm when you want to hear from your son, so there's no need to put a phone in the kitchen. On the other hand, there's nothing right about your livestock dying for lack of care, so a cellphone that can call the veterinarian can certainly find a home in the horse barn.

For me, right-living is the 101-key, QWERTY, computer-centric mediated lifestyle. It's having a bulky laptop in my bag, crouching by the toilets at a strange airport with my AC adapter plugged into the always-awkwardly-placed power source, running software that I chose and installed, communicating over the wireless network. I use a network that has no incremental cost for communication, and a device that lets me install any software without permission from anyone else. Right-living is the highly mutated, commodity-hardware-based, public and free Internet. I'm QWERTY-Amish, in other words.

I too used to think that QWERTY was the Only Way, which was one reason so many of the portable computing devices I bought over the last couple of decades – from an old Sharp pocket computer with a two-line LCD display and a BASIC interpreter to a Cambridge Computers Z88 to a Psion Series 3a to a Psion Series 5 – were endowed with a QWERTY key layout, as $DEITY intended. But then I realised that in truth I was mostly using my Series 5 to update my address book, to-do list and diary, and to read HTML and ASCII documents I'd downloaded. I defected to the Palm camp some three years ago, seeking portability and ease of use above all else, and it's been a revelation. Having got past a steep initial learning curve as I figured out Grafitti, it's been plain sailing ever since. It's been at least six months since I last needed to take my Series 5 out of the house in order to do some serious typing on the move. At home I use QWERTY, but I've adapted to using my Palm elsewhere. Perhaps Cory needs to stop thinking of his cellphone as a device for writing his next short story and use it for what it's really good at. :-)

On the wider issue of the gulf between the flat-fee, install-what-you-like, all-you-can-eat internet mindset and the centralised, billed-by-the-byte telco model which dominates the mobile phone world, I'm entirely Amish right alongside Cory. I doubt I'll seriously consider buying a mobile phone as long as the telco model persists. It might be that there's never a large enough market of Internet Amish to tempt a telco or ISP to try to cater for it, but it's worth a try.

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Nice weather they're having

July 10th, 2003

The weather on Pluto is unseasonably warm at the moment. Fascinating news, not least because until recently it wasn't at all clear that the most distant planet in the solar system actually had any noticeable weather.

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Older, Slower, Plasticky-er

July 10th, 2003

Fametracker brings us ten rejected subtitles for Terminator 3.

I especially liked Terminator 3: Since When Did They Start Making Leather Pants So Hard to Fit Into?

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Making Votes Count?

July 9th, 2003

Electronic voting is a good idea in principle, provided it's done right. That means providing the voter with a paper copy of their vote so that they can verify how they cast their vote, and it means using software which is open source: not for ideological reasons, but because if you can't have an expert go through the source code line-by-line to verify that the voting software does what it says it does and no more.

For a lesson in how not to do it, take a look at this analysis by Bev Harris at Scoop of the GEMS system, produced by a company called Diebold Election Systems, which is already in use in the United States. The first problem is that the GEMS program which receives votes from the local polling stations by modem stores copies of the votes received in three different ledgers. The problem is, if the data in one ledger is corrupted or tampered with you'd never know it because the reports the program produces – which list minor details such as, say, the number of votes cast for each candidate – you know, nothing really important – are generated based on data held in just one of the ledgers.

Now you could argue that keeping three sets of ledgers is a good idea, in that it allows for comparisons of the data in the different ledgers which might reveal tampering. Trouble is, the three ledgers are stored in the same data file, so anyone who gains access to one ledger will in principle have the opportunity to tamper with the other two. This is Not Clever. Furthermore, it's even possible to add passwords and user names to the system, and to edit the audit trail GEMS generates showing who accessed the ledgers. Secure computing is hard enough to get right at the best of times, but this is just making it all too easy.

One point which is getting far more attention than it deserves is the notion that the GEMS system uses Microsoft's Access database management system, which isn't exactly known as a highly secure system. In fact, it's not clear from the article that the GEMS system is using Access at all: all the report confirms is that GEMS stores its data in a format which can be used by Access, which isn't the same thing at all. In the run-up to the 1997 General Election I spent some time looking after a database of canvass returns for my local Labour Party, doing data entry and a little bit of database administration work – which amounted mainly to exporting the data to a bunch of floppy disks to send to Labour's national campaigns team. The program used to enter data was a custom-written DOS program, but it stored the data we were inputting in tables which could be opened in Access. It's entirely possible that Diebold simply use the Access data format – most likely because there's a wealth of add-in software which understands the format and can produce reports, charts and so on, and it makes little sense to reinvent the wheel.

It's true that at the end of the story Harris reports that "[…] we interviewed election officials and also the technicians who set up the Diebold system in Georgia, and they confirmed that the GEMS system does use Microsoft Access […]", but without seeing the precise wording of the question and the answer I'm just not convinced that an election official or even a technician whose job may have simply been to hook up a PC with GEMS installed to a phone line, would have made the fine distinction between storing data in the MS Access file format and running the MS Access executable file. I could be wrong, but the body of the story just doesn't convince me that GEMS uses Microsoft Access.

This doesn't invalidate the arguments against GEMS storing multiple copies of the votes cast in one location and failing to cross-check them, or against the voting machines failing to provide the voter with a hard copy, but it should be understood that the GEMS program isn't Access – or at least, the Scoop report doesn't prove that it is – and therefore the kneejerk 'Microsoft products are crap' reaction may not be appropriate this time round. There are plenty of other reasons to be unhappy at the idea that this system is both secure enough to avoid tampering and sufficiently transparent to be seen to be trustworthy.

[Via The Sideshow]

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Scene: University of Helsinki, 1991

July 8th, 2003

User Friendly suggests a plot for Terminator 4.

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ID Card Charging

July 8th, 2003

Not only does it sound as if David Blunkett is determined to push through a compulsory ID card, but now he's going to make most of us pay £39 for the privilege. Not that my objection is primarily to the cost of the cards, but it's a bit rich to introduce them on the cheap like this.

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