Friday, July 30, 2004

Navigating the digital spaceA whole number of us are concerned with finding ways through the digital space, including the title stuff, Ed Takema's entries, and the efforts of things like tikiwiki and webcaching software.

The notions of applying human memory models of recognition, retrieval, and integrating current disparate tools is an appealing one, and one that we're currently working up into a grant proposal - if successful, I'll keep information flowing on here. We need to understand that there is a variety of flows of information into and out of the web via differnt bandwidths and for more or less limited audiences (e.g. this blog is for all, my collaborative wiki is for a select few, and my personal wiki is for me) - but why should they all be seperate for me as well as for the different audiences?

Password chaos

It's finally happened.  All the passwords, usernames, and security questions that I have tried to keep manageable have all merged into one big Login in my head.  I'm trying to get into my T-Mobile email account, which is a different login to my T-Mobile phone account (why, T-Mobile?).  I think the username is my mobile number, but I can't remember my password.  it's not any of my standard ones, which means they probably forced to have another one.  so I clicked on "I forgot my password", and I'm told that I have set-up a security password that will allow them to email my details to me.  did I?  now, if I can't remember my original password, what's the chances I'll remember this special one?  why can't it be a nice security question like "what's the name of your cat?"  I think I can just about remember that one.

And while I'm moaning, let's hope that when I finally get my password from them they don't email it to me in plain text, which has happened 4 times in the past 2 weeks.  when I sign up for something I try to choose a reasonably decent password which they then send straight back to in unencrypted format.  fantastic.  some places warn that this will happen, most don't.

all these passwords and usernames are a real pain.  what happens is that everyone uses the same passwords for everything, and the sites that demand different ones or impose their own usernames become unusable.  there's got to be a better system, and if I could devise it then I would be very happy (and rich, hopefully).  Apple's KeyChain is nice, but oddly enough not available under XP, and it doesn't work on basic web form logins...

Thursday, July 29, 2004

Mobile evolution?

"Public information" is the name for special cues that animals exhibit when engaged in certain activities that other animals pick up on and imitate.  This is a form of learning by imitation.  This story is about a finding that animals can culturally evolve behaviours in this way - previously it has been thought that only humans developed like this.

What this made me wonder was whether mobile technologies might be used to enhance our displays and perceptions of this "public information".  I've already read about PDAs being useful in learning scenarios because, unlike desktop PCs, learners can see what other people are physically doing with the devices, eg taking readings, taking a picture etc.  But I'm thinking  in more general terms today: could mobiles help us culturally evolve?

Windows, Linux grapple in Great Gadget Smack-Down!
For all those religious zealots out there who think that their operating system is king, this is the page of the year - judgement day has arrived! Who will go to heaven and who will be damned for all eternity is to be seen, but I'm sure you'll have your own views on who is right and who is wrong.....

What they didn't teach me in Design & Usability school
Scott Berkun's piece is one that many HCI educators can learn from - though to be fair, many point out to their students things like 'get out more'. I do like the leadership quote though:
To be important you must lead…To lead see beyond your job title: Leaders cross boundaries, but rarely get fired upon. Get involved in how things fit together, not just how your piece is built. That’s who has impact, that’s who gets promoted, and that’s who earns the authority to make decisions.

Wednesday, July 28, 2004

Wikipedia Founder Jimmy Wales interviewed
Jimmy Wales, the founder of the free web-based encyclopedia Wikipedia (similar to h2g2, for those Douglas Adam's fans, though slightly more down to earth), replies to a dozen interesting questions about his baby.

See the full slashdot article for all the 12 questions, but these are some of the more interesting ones.

Was wondering if you view the Wikipedia as a competitor or an additional tool compared to a World Book or an Encyclopedia Britannica?

Jimmy Wales:
I would view them as a competitor, except that I think they will be crushed out of existence within 5 years.

Software is unique in that there are network externalities and various other mechanisms of "lock in" that make it hard for us to get people to switch to free alternatives. People are very comfortable with Microsoft products, and they fear that if they switch, they'll give up all the skills that they've learned (ctrl-alt-del!) and won't be able to share files with others.

But the things our community is producing are different. There's no cost to switching from an outdated old encyclopedia to Wikipedia -- just click and learn, and there you go. You can switch before your friends switch, but the knowledge you learn will be perfectly compatible.

Quality Control -
First of all, the concept of a community-built encyclopedia, open to submissions and revisions from users, is wonderful. It's much like open-source, in fact, and Wikipedia certainly exemplifies how to reapply the OS model to other contexts.

However, the contexts of encyclopedias and software are different. Significantly so. I'm interested specifically in quality control- you know when code doesn't work when it doesn't compile or results in unexpected behavior.

In what ways can a Wiki article be bad, and how can one tell? Do you think QC is a large issue for Wikipedia, and do you have any plans to further integrate the community in the QC process (perhaps akin to the slashdot moderation/metamoderation system)?

Jimmy Wales:
Well, encyclopedia articles can be bad in a lot of obvious ways, and some subtle ways. Obvious ways include simply incorrect information, or grammatical errors, or strong bias. Subtle ways can include milder forms of bias, dull writing, etc.

Quality control is what a lot of our internal processes are all about. Every page on the site shows up on Special:Recentchanges, and individuals have 'watchlists' that they can (and do) use to keep an eye on particular articles.

I am currently working on a first draft proposal to the community for our "next phase" of review, which will involve getting serious about producing a "1.0 stable" release. The concept here is very analagous to that in the software world -- the existing site is always the cutting edge nightly build, which rocks of course, but we also need a stable release that's been reviewed and tested and found good.

I'll put out that draft in a couple of weeks, and get feedback and revisions from the community, and then we will hold a project-wide vote.

That process might involve some bits that are like the slashdot moderation/metamoderation system, but it's likely to be much more of an editing-oriented process than voting-oriented process.

How to balance coverage? - Is there an effort to get articles written on specific missing topics? If one looks at a commercial encyclopedia, the full range of human knowledege is covered. On Wikipedia, OTOH, one finds several articles about slashdot trolls, for instance, while other (important) fields are still unwritten.

Jimmy Wales:
This is increasingly a solved problem. It is true that we have quite a bit of pertinent information about slashdot trolls, but we also have just about every important topic as well. Of course some areas are in greater need than others, and finding them and resolving them is an ongoing effort in the community.

I think you'd be pretty hard pressed anymore to find topics that are in Britannica that we don't cover at all. It's still not that hard, if you look around a bit, to find rare articles in Britannica that are better than our article on the same topic. But it's getting harder all the time.

So to answer your question directly, yes, there are constant efforts to get articles written on specific topics, and to flesh out areas that we haven't yet covered as well as we should.

Building a TiVo, a Step at a Time
How to build a personal digital video recorder, courtest of Wired and its sources - but do it soon, as if you wait too long then you'll have to abide by the digitial rights management being broadcast in the digital t.v. signal and won't be able to have half as much functionality as you may want. Cutting back on functionality is not going to make things more popular, and has the potential to undermine DRM completely. Certainly it will erode customer confidence in DRM - though there are thoughts that companies such as Apple are not as sold on it as a technology as they may want you to currently think - it could be argued it is merely a marketing ploy, something that you have to pay lip service to, in order to shift your products ("Neither device manufacturers nor carriers see DRM as a viable long-term solution").

iPod Mini Color Popularity Rankings
In fashion, colour is key - and so with fashionable technology. The new iPod mini, in silver, gold, blie, green and pink is clearly aimed at the fashion market, with slightly different marketing being used for each colour (click on the 'precious moment' parts for each colour to see what I mean) and these are reflected in consistently popular colours - the results of which suggest that men buy more iPod mini's than women (a bit of a leap, but plausible). The devil is in the details, as ever.

A terminal on every corner

The age of network-enabled street terminals may not be so far away. NCR have announced plans to roll-out 'personalised' cash machines here in the UK, and apparently these machines have already proved popular in the states. They greet you by name and remind you of your partner's birthday. The next step is the button for "Click here to buy your partner flowers". Some banks already offer mobile top-ups via their cash machines, and with the modern machines being driven by Windows PCs it wouildn't take much to get them offering a whole range of services, such as buying tickets, booking events etc. NCR has several forward-looking articles on the future of ATMs here. Worth a read, and this would make a great case study for a HCI course.

Tuesday, July 27, 2004

Texting into hot water
Ever sent a message and relied too much on the T9 predictive dictionary to get it right?  Ever been embarassed by the results?  I sent 'sew my cut' to a medic colleague as part of a longer message - I didn't check it and it turned up on their screen as 'sex my but' which led to an interesting exchange.....

There must be lots of possibilities with 'no' and 'on' being confused - and I'm trying to collect examples and the stories that surround them.  If you have any examples, please email them to me at the usual address, or to sms at

Monday, July 26, 2004

MyDoom variant takes down Google
the trouble with ubiquitous systems is that when they're down, the world appears to have collapsed too. I've been unable to do much work this evening cos the latest version of MyDoom uses Google to search for valid email addresses from any domain names it can find on your hard disk - and this has taken Google down. And receiving a 'service not available' message from Google was a big shock, but it not coming back up quickly was a bigger one, and I was left staring at my screen for a whileuntil some higher cognitive functions managed to kick in and suggest to me that there were, in fact, other search engines out there I could use.....

Work done, and those higher functions have left me - I'm off to get some KFC for dinner.....

Orange have had this phone announced for some time, (it's the C500 SPV smartphone, in case you didn't guess) but I rang them yesterday to chase up on when it would actually be released.  "We don't know yet" said their helpline - so why announce it so early?  I'm keen to change my phone, and may give this beastie a try since my ipaqs, great as they are, simply do not stand up to the rigours of life in my pocket, and the pile of dead ones with craked screens and broken cases is growing ever higher.  This may well do the business for both mobile web access, wap and email, with reasonable mp3 playing built in (it should last longer than the 4 hours for an iPod, for example).  But if they don't get it out soon, we'll all get bored and buy something else.

Motorola have just announced their v3 Razor - and this looks seriously, wayout, groovily-cool - makes the Orange phone seem so outdated, really..... I want I want I want.....

Virtual Keyboard from Internity
Takes the strain out of typing on your PDA - this device uses a laser to project avirtual keyboard onto any flat surface, and you can type on it..... Cool, probably useless, but it has to be worth trying.....

Saturday, July 24, 2004

Batteries are included...

...but they're flat!  argh, modern consumer technology has again thwarted my need for instant gratification.  having spent weeks agonising about what kind of cordless phone to buy (DECT, non-DECT, answer machine/no answer machine, 1/2 handsets, cheap/expensive) I decided to finally buy one today only to find that although they provide batteries for both handsets, they need to charge for 16 hours before I can play with it!  at least with a new mobile you can plug it in and fiddle while it's filling up.  ok, so there's not much to do with a cordless phone, but I think I've learned a lesson here: it's no longer enough to make sure you have enough batteries in for the new toys, make sure you allow time to charge them up too.  I have a very vivid image in my head of a really boring Christmas in a few years' time where it's just us and the kids sitting around a charger because I forgot to plug everything in the day before.

unless of course there's a radical change in battery technology in the next 12 months or so.  I've been reading recently that despite rapid advances in hard drives, memory, screens, processors etc, the power to drive all these things still comes from batteries built to well-established and, some would argue, well-dated designs.  the problem is there's just no other way of doing it, without a major change of direction.  Tiny fuel cells that need topping up with methanol are one solution, but I don't fancy coming home to find that the kids have topped up their portable PlayStation 5 with my best single malt.  Another radical idea is to actually try and build things that use less power, and also to educate users about the best uses of their batteries.  Following some problems with their iPod, Apple are doing both these things.  Power on the go might not always be an abundant commodity we perceive it to be now.  Just a thought, but we have watches that power themselves from movement - why not laptops too?  it might need a quick jog around the block to get in going in the morning but that's good for us users as well.

Sexy phones: Nokia gets back in the game

a few months ago, I drowned my phone and needed a new one.  at the time there wasn't anything that could persuade me to trade-up from my trusty 6310i.  but looking at the Nokia site today it looks like they really have responded to a downbeat market with some tasty kit - there are at least 5 phones that I would really like to have a play with, especially the stainless steel clamshell design... 

but looks aside, there are some very specific features I look for that have previously steered me away from the funkier consumer models and more towards the business side of the range (hence the 6310).  what I'm seeing now is that it's difficult to buy a phone that doesn't have data connectivity over over at least GSM (basic WAP dial-up) and many now have GPRS, EDGE, and there is even a sleek 3G model.

now, what I'm waiting for is a phone that lets me leave the Bluetooth switched on without fear of running down the battery, or being sent random messages by strangers (yes, I have been Bluejacked).  why do I want to leave it switched on?  because I want my PC and phone to synchronise automatically without me having to make it happen.  it turns out my 6310 will synchronise quite happily with my PC but getting the process started is a pain.  There's a real opportunity here for these new connected devices to be the ubiquitous computers we're been dreaming about for years - but there's work to be done yet on getting them talking to the rest of computers we use everyday.

Thursday, July 22, 2004

Bye bye PowerPoint - looking for ways to give flexible presentations

apparently PowerPoint makes us all stupid, and we should be using something else to give presentations.  here's a novel idea: use the MacOS Finder instead.  not so easy if you're on a PC, but the principle's a good one.  I also recently saw a presentation given using Apple's HyperCard...  it's a real shame they don't make it anymore.

what are the advantages?  well, for a start you have to think on your feet, which means your presentation will benefit from you being  more alert than if you're running through familiar slides.  there is also a 'live' feeling to your talk, which will engage your audience.  and because you're not using static content, you can tailor your presentation to suit yout audience both before and during your session.

Allergy detector
Thanks to Sandra Woolley for this suggestion.
There is a disturbing increase in allergies in young children.  20% of children are now estimated to suffer from at least one allergy to food or environmental allergens, and the incidence of children with life-threatening allergies has doubled in the last five years. This could be a real application for smartphones or wearables, to give children and their carers advice in context. As well as guidance on what to do in an emergency, a PDA with a barcode reader might scan supermarket food items to see if they have a specific allergen, or a restaurant menu could have an RFID tag that sounds an alarm if it matches a reader carried by the wearer.

Tuesday, July 20, 2004

Back from sailing
I've now returned to the blogging world having had a week of sailing, racing at Cork week, and a few days either end to deliver the boat to Ireland and back. Slightly gritty eyes after the 54 hour non-stop trip back, with some great Altantic rollers to begin with, but will be commenting on some of the technologies and uses they are put to in this blog over the next few weeks.

Thursday, July 15, 2004

Necessity is the mother of invention: Re-publishing the web

Many web sites, despite their good intentions, remain difficult to use, and are sometimes even completely inaccessible, especially if you happen to be using a non-Microsoft browser, or if you don't like to have cookies turned on, or whatever.

I'm impressed to see that some people out there have taken it upon themselves to address the problems with some of these sites by re-publishing them in more accessible forms. Matthew Somerville is one such person, offering accessible versions of the Odeon and National Rail sites. note that National Rail have promised that their own site will soon be updated to address the problems that Matthew has fixed, whilst Odeon have taken legal action. is this kind of re-publishing really breaking copyright, or is it simply an advanced version of linking to a site? I'd argue for the latter, and encourage any company that finds enhanced versions of its website not to take legal action, but to take note, and update its own site accordingly.

Tuesday, July 13, 2004

The darker side of SMS

It's sad to see that technology is not always put to the benevolent uses that are envisaged for it. This week's reminder of this comes from a report in The Times on the spread of bullying by text message. The reach of this new medium, which ordinarily makes it a powerful, enabling, and inclusive form of communication, is being abused by a minority who have found it the perfect way for them to spread their harmful messages.

Something I learned from this report is that it is possible to spoof text messages (ie make it look as though a message has come from somewhere it hasn't) using easily accessible web sites. I'm not surprised that this is possible - SMS is hardly the most secure technology around - but I am surprised to find that it is quite so easy to do. The most harrowing story was of a girl ostracised by her friends who were convinced she had been sending nasty texts to one of the group, when in fact the messages were being spoofed by someone else.

So, a cautionary note today: new technology = new forms of communicating, but that doesn't mean the communication will always be pleasant.

Monday, July 05, 2004

New approaches to social networks

Google has a couple of tricks up it's sleeve - link: and related:

Now, I'm sure you all know about these - link shows which pages link to a particular page, and related shows pages that are 'similar' (whatever that actually means). However, what should happen is that we combine these implicit social links with the explicit ones we already have (links on the website, people in the blogroll, perhaps even those sites in the favourites), assess them to see how many refer to each other, cluster them and then display them as a proper 'neighbourhood'. It's a neat idea, huh? Bits have been done - there's a Python script out there that does the related parts - but all really need to be in there, and a decent representation used, and then it could be a very nice way of illustrating what and where I look, and who looks at me - it maps out my interests and so on. If anyone writes it in php or Java, please let me know.....

Saturday, July 03, 2004

Nooface: In Search of the Post-PC Interface
Interesting reading, but oh so hard to do so! Black background, white italics, green links. Acid would help, I think. But some neat ideas here, and fuel for the mind. Just not for the eyes!

Friday, July 02, 2004

Furl - Your web page filing cabinet
It's interesting what you can find in general surfing. Went to a blog site, looked at an article on how to make wiki's effective (make them easy to use and unconstrained) and I came across Furl. It archives anything you want from the web, and allows you to search it later. Accessible from anywhere, it allows you to indicate what you find useful and want to record, and keeps it handy for you. Cool!

You can also share your entries, or post them in your blog (not entirely certain why I'd want to do that, I am not that egoscentric to thing that others will want to look at the headlines and other web pages I've looked at - but I suppose it's a good way of sharing your interests especially with a smaller group of friends). In this sense, it's a little like the collaborative browsing exploits of a few years ago, but with a little visibility and usefulness to individuals.....

I like the fact that this is another example of a one-man band doing something relatively simple, but doing it well, and doing something that none of the major players have done yet either. In a paper earlier this year, I talked about the supportive browsing system we'd developed here that guided you though pages based on a model of what interested you, and discussed the searching that we could do that biased results with a recency figure - pages you'd seen more recently were considered to be more likely to be the ones you wanted on a common subject.....

The biggest problem I can see is that to be properly useful, anything you think you may want to look up needs to go into furl - and the effort of deciding, and of clicking so often, may be a bit pointless. Why not simply archive everything? (Yes, I know, all that porn/viagra/mistyped urls/90% rubbish sites that are out there - but still.....)

I've signed up for a beta account and will let you know how I get on (in a few weeks, anyway - I can't remember all my accounts and passwords when I'm away from my desk. How do I remember them when I'm at my desk, you ask? Well, there aren't quite post-its stuck everywhere but I have secret pieces of paper with odd scribbles on them, enough to remind me.....) It may be that this takes over from the 'Fragments' folder in my favourites - but I still want more..... but one of the great joys of this job is that I'm paid to think of the 'more' and to do it - so watch this space.....


I'll probably not be writing too much for the blog in the next couple of weeks, because firstly I'm off to MLearn to present a couple of papers on Situated Interaction and Shared Spaces - both social message/group learning systems.

After that I'm off sailing in the Cork week regatta; a week of close racing may not be everyone's idea of fun, but it is mine :-)

Peter will be writing on, I'm sure - and if I can get GPRS access to work, I'll make the odd comment now and again, I'm sure.

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