Saturday, December 04, 2010

What's wrong with: garlic presses?

The garlic press is a classic of redundant-from-birth gadgetry. What's wrong with it?

  1. It's pointless. I use the flat of a knife to crush cloves of garlic, followed by a quick bit of chop-chop, to produce more ready-to-cook garlic in less time than finding and fiddling with a press.
  2. It's inelegant. I loved being a French neighbour's kitchen while he cooked some supper. He happened to be a professional chef by background, and promptly demonstrated the truly minimalist approach by flattening the garlic with a quick press of his hand.
  3. It's slow and yucky. As soon as you take into account the time spent cleaning the garlic press (and the horrors of the incompletely dish-washer-cleaned press) you realise that the manufacturers of this device have stolen your time as well as your money.
I'm never going to live in a state of uncluttered minimalism, but I think I have found a use for my garlic press - as a pungent prophylactic against gadget-buyer's remorse.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Conflicts in quality for a London Man-and-Van Company website

This afternoon I moved half a garage full of books from Hampstead (in North London) to Earlsfield (in South-West London), a process that was made much simpler and less painful by using a prompt and helpful Man and Van company specialising in small moves.

Naturally I got them off the web, and since my work clients are typically rather large banks or building societies and my entrepreneurial friends tend to be in technology or information, I was delighted to find that Leonardo, the nice Brazilian driving me and my books across London, was in fact the founder of the company, and I asked him about his web site design.

From a design perspective their web site is a slightly bizarre mix of truly helpful and innovative stuff, like the fact that you simply book a 3-hour slot (for £40 - where do they get their profit?) from an online calendar, together with somewhat distracting Google-optimised content targeting the different London regions.

For me, as a budding UX designer, this was a bruising encounter with commercial realities. If they kept the site small and focussed, the usability, and indeed the whole user experience, would be improved. But their site has to appear in the first page of search results, and they pay good money to someone to ensure that it continues to do so.

I know very little about SEO, so the only suggestion I was able to make was to suggest they invite satisfied customers to review them online, in order to reduce their dependency on more artificial methods which [a] confuse the site, and [b] might be vulnerable to a Google re-interpretation.

Lesson [1] for some sites, you have to treat the Search Engine as one of your key users.
Lesson [2] even white-hat search optimisation can conflict with other UX goals.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Narrative considered dangerous

An Australian report on responsible reporting of suicides summarises two key findings as
• Reports of suicide deaths can influence copycat acts in some cases;
• The risk of copycat behaviour is increased where the story is prominent, is about a celebrity, details method and/or location or glorifies the death in some way.
Leaving aside for the moment the human implications of all this (and if you and your family have never been touched by suicide or attempted suicide, please accept my congratulations) - from a storytelling perspective, the first point confirms the power of narrative and the second point endorses the methods of narrative.

I'm currently reading Storytelling for User Experience for the London UX Bookclub, which I think is an excellent and useful book (indeed I was one of the early suggesters)

But I've also ordered Storytelling: bewitching the Modern Mind which appears to offer a counterbalance against the misuses of storytelling as a substitute for, or distraction from, concern with truth.

All of our great advances have had fatal consequences. Fire, medicine, electricity and vehicles have all left deaths in their trail as they moved us forward, and have required social and legal regulation as a result. Now, it seems, stories too can kill.

As Spiderman discovers, "With great power comes great responsibility".

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Some Reflections on the Mirror Problem

[retrieved from a long-lost backup of a 1998 proto-blog - I think it still makes sense]

Introduction: Reader, meet Problem

If you are human, there is a pretty good chance that you will at some point have looked at people or writing in a mirror and wondered why they are reversed from left to right but not from top to bottom. If you've ever discussed it with friends, you may have come up with ideas ranging from fact that our eyes are side by side to the fact that left and right are relative whereas up and down are absolute.

I recently read an explanation for this phenomenon in an otherwise excellent and best-selling maths popularisation book, and came away with my head hurting and a feeling of dissatisfaction. This wasn't, perhaps, surprising - some years ago a letter about the mirror problem provoked a extraordinary cascade of correspondence in the New Scientist  - everyone appeared to have an answer, but no one had an answer that was so obviously correct that people couldn't help but agree with it.

After reading this book I started thinking about the problem while running. I began to feel that the answer was in some senses rather simple, just terribly counter-intuitive. What a good solution would need was an excellent metaphor, so that you not only ended up knowing the explanation, but knowing that you knew the correct explanation, so clearly that you might even end up wondering why it was ever a problem. I eventually reached such a state - I now clutch the memory of the recent book, of the way-back correspondence, as proof that the problem was ever un-obvious enough to be worth solving.

Here's my solution in three simple steps, with a bit of help from some Friends. And some virtual illustrations. I hope you find it as compelling as I do.

Step 1: Twos and Threes

Width, height, depth. We live in three dimensions. And we have an orientation in each. Picture yourself standing on a giant compass symbol. Your head points up, your face looks North and, should you raise your arms, your right hand would point East and your left West. Turn around, 180 degrees. Your head still points up, but you face South instead of North and your right hand now points West instead of East. Hmmm.. so you've changed your orientation in two out of the three dimensions. OK, back to facing North. Since this is just a thought experiment, let's gently do a cartwheel next, but stop once we're upside down... well, we're still facing North,  but this time our left-right and up-down have been reversed. Back to where we were, and now a simple forward headstand. Now our left-right remains the same, but up-down and front-back have been reversed. So each of the turns involves changing your orientation in two dimensions while you spin round an axis in the third dimension.

The funny thing is, in the real world it doesn't matter how many turns you do, on which axes, in which order, you always end up reversed in exactly two of them, or back where you started and not reversed at all.
Suppose we're chatting at a party and we're standing face to face, and compare our orientation in the three dimensions. Both our bodies are head-up, but my front-back is pointing the opposite way to yours, and my left-right is also reversed compared to yours. It's the same difference as if you had simply turned round in the first of our compass manoeuvres.

In fact, think about anything with a front and a back, a top and a bottom, and a left and a right. A person, a book, even a car. If it's facing you then it will be pointing in the reverse direction to you along not one but precisely two of its dimensions. Front-back (by definition since it's facing you) and either of the two remaining dimensions, up-down or left-right.

Step 2: Ones

Picture yourself in front of a mirror. Compared to you, your image is reversed in just one dimension, front-back. The head still points up, the right hand still points to the East. Right? Mirrors reverseone dimension at a time. It doesn't have to be the front-back dimension, of course, so you can have two mirrors side by side to give an image that looks as if you had just stepped forward and turned around.Is this the answer? It seems simple enough, but why are left with this deep conviction that left and right have been reversed but up and down haven't? Is up-down in some way different from left-right, or is there another explanation?

Step 3: Planet Fussball

Do you know those table-top football (soccer) games that you get in French bars, British student unions and on the US TV series Friends (from where, I must admit, the image popped into my memory in my hour of need)? Where each player stands on one side of the machine spinning the rods with their team's model footballers to score or save goals? Look at the goalie. He is the only figure on his rod, which runs from his right (where you grasp its handle) to his left. We're going to forget about the fact that you can slide him right and left, and just note that the only spin he can do is round his left-right axis, as if he was doing forward or backward somersaults.

Right, now you are a fussball figure. Even weirder, you are in orbit around planet Fussball. (Being moulded from solid plastic, the vacuum fortunately has no ill-affects on you.) You are not alone. The planet is ringed, like Saturn or Jupiter. You are part of a ring, consisting entirely of fellow fussball figures, all of them (like you) born facing in the direction that the ring spins, with their feet towards the planet. Being fussball figures you can, naturally, spin head-over-heels around your waist. Equally naturally you can't spin from left to right, or do cartwheel type spins.

So how do you chat to your friends? You slide up to them and then spin till one of you is upside down (and back to front) relative to the other. In other words the only way you ever see another face is if it is upside-down compared to you, but with the left-right the same as you (unlike this planet where we normally see people's faces  with the top and bottom facing in the same direction as us, but the left-to-right reversed compared to us). Now someone hands you a mirror, and you look at yourself. Being a smart and inquisitive fussball figure you ask yourself "Why is this mirror image reversed top to bottom, but not left to right?". Maybe you wonder if it has anything to do with the fact that up and down are absolutes whereas left and right are relative, or to do with the fact that you have two eyes side by side...

Conclusion: tying it all up

So what does it all prove?

We've established that there's a universal law, that any time you look at something solid face to face, not only is its front-back axis pointing in the opposite direction to yours, but its orientation in one of the other dimensions, either left-right or up-down, will be reversed relative to yours too.

We've noted that on this planet almost anything that turns round, turns round its up-down axis. (Apart from fussball figures, I simply can't think of another example of something with a distinguishable top and bottom, left and right, and back and front that turns, somersault style, around its left-right axis.) So on this planet anything you look at face to face will have its left and right reversed compared to your left and right. In fact this is so common that we don't really think of them as being reversed.

We've noted that we can imagine a planet Fussball where, unlike this planet, it is more common for things and people to turn around their left-right axis than round their up-down axis. We've assumed that people there would take this up-down reversal equally for granted.

We've established that mirror images are only reversed in one dimension, front-back.
Therefore the left-right orientation of your reflection is the same as your left-right orientation, but the opposite of 99% of what you see face to face on this planet, and therefore notable. The up-down orientation is also the same as yours, but being the  same as everything else that you see, not notable.

The simple and complete answer to the mirror problem is that the mirror doesn't mysteriously reverse left and right (or up and down). We reverse left and right on almost everything we see face to face, by spinning it or ourselves round the vertical axis. That's where the mysterious difference between up-down and left-right comes in.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Appealing to my MP to oppose the DE bill

                                        Tuesday 16 March 2010

Dear Sadiq Khan,

I am a published technical author, software developer and interaction
designer with a family - my wife, a freelance accountant, and a four
year old son, Johnny.

I am deeply concerned by the disconnection provisions of the Digital
Economy Bill, which it appears is about to be waved through the house
of commons in a sadly undemocratic "washing up" process.

Both my salaried work and my writings depend critically on having a
full bandwidth internet access, for example when I remotely access my
work desktop from home.

My wife's livelihood as an accountant also depends being able to send
and receive both reports and (occasionally substantial) databases of
financial records.

As an immigrant, she would also suffer a loss of family connection if
she could no longer use video skype to talk to her elderly and
otherwise inaccessible parents.

And Johnny is an enthusiastic on-line follower of the BBC's finest
children's programmes and games, such as "AlphaBlocks" (which is
helping him learn to read) and "Relic: Guardians of the Museum" which
so interested him in the British Museum that I had to take him to see
the Egyptian galleries last Saturday.

The prospect of losing these essential services to an automated process
without judicial appeal is frankly terrifying.

As a software professional, I can tell you that my PCs at home are as
secure as I can make them while staying on-line, but even so I have no
idea if anyone has installed illegal file-sharing software, or if
anyone is making illegal use of legal file-sharing software (such as
the first version of the BBC iPlayer, which I didn't even realise at
the time was a file-sharing server as well as client).

You have a strong record of opposing terrorism. You must be aware that
bad people can be inventive and persistent. It seems to me that the
possibilities that such a process of automated disconnection can raise
are endless.

What is to stop political hackers targeting political opponents? Will
you - as an MP - have any special right to appeal against disconnection
that would be denied to others whose jobs are equally depend on

Think about the commercial world. We already have well-established
cases of click-fraud ( being
used to "to harm a competitor who advertises in the same market by
clicking on their ads. The perpetrators do not profit directly but
force the advertiser to pay for irrelevant clicks, thus weakening or
eliminating a source of competition". Will people who are willing to
commit click-fraud hesitate to target the offices of their competitors
with fraudulent copyright fraud allegations?

And finally, consider the implications of legitimising collective
punishment. Other countries believe in bulldozing the houses of people
whose family member are believed to have committed terrorist acts.
Maybe we could take the middle road, and simply disconnect the families
of licence tax dodgers from power, water and sewage?

The music business didn't die from home taping (whatever they said at
the time) and they won't die from on-line copying. Only our liberties
are at serious risk here.

Yours sincerely,

Francis Norton.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Deeply shallow - why Intelligent Design fails the test of Abraham (and Evolution passes)

I was listening to a discussion on the train last week, involving someone talking to his friends about some kind of alternatives to evolution event he'd been to. The people talking obviously had some feel, some care, for truth; and they were clearly inclining towards a view that while Creationism wasn't very convincing, Intelligent Design was at least interesting and maybe it should be given more equal status with Darwinian evolution.

While I kept my mouth shut all the way until they got off at Wimbledon (I am English, after all), I would really like to talk to people like them - reasonable people of faith, who might be considering the pros and cons of Intelligent Design, and offer them a line of argument which may in some ways make more sense to them than to the average evolutionist.

Some years back I was reading a Danish writer who was talking about God's test of Abraham, when he asks him to sacrifice his first-born son Isaac. Now, even as an occasionally resentful second son, I've never liked this episode - in fact I suspect it contributed to my departure from religion. But some - probably misunderstood - memory of his interpretation of the story as a challenge to choice or commitment stuck in my mind, to resurface from time to time.

Another idea that had stuck in my mind was a quotation that had also taken up long term residence there:
"If it could be proved that any part of the structure of any one species had been formed for the exclusive good of another species, it would annihilate my theory, for such could not have been produced through natural selection."
(Charles Darwin - The Origin of Species, 1859, Chapter 6 - Difficulties On Theory, page 201)

Think about how western culture saw nature up to the moment when Origin was published. The general approach was to seek - and find - examples of Divine Providence in the ingeniously helpful disposition of nature. As Darwin continues in the next sentence, "Although many statements may be found in works on natural history to this effect, I cannot find even one which seems to me of any weight."

A few pages earlier, he does something similar:
"If it could be demonstrated that any complex organ existed, which could not possibly have been formed by numerous, successive, slight modifications, my theory would absolutely break down"
(ibid, page 189)

This is just as challenging - an entire strand of Natural Theology had been built on the basis that this was simply not true, including William Paley's well known Watchmaker Analogy.

So Darwin is going out of his way to give opponents a chance to "annihilate" or "absolutely break down" his theory - if they cannot, the world must be very different from what they think. And this is not any old "theory", this is his life's work (it is 28 years since his voyage on the Beagle started him on this road) which, he must have realised, could more or less immortalise his family name. This theory is, almost literally, his baby.

Eventually I made a illuminating connection between these two ideas. Darwin's invitation to his readers to "annihilate" his theory takes similar courage to that of Abraham offering to sacrifice his son - each is offering the destruction of their life's greatest achievement, and of their nearest hope to immortality in this world. And each is driven by a greater love - Abraham's, of God, and Darwin's, of truth.

Now, let's look at Intelligent Design. Whereas Darwin said, in effect, that the natural world we live in is totally different from how we thought it was, proponents of Intelligent Design say that it is almost identical but somewhere, somehow, there is something that will demonstrate Irreducible Complexity or Specified Complexity - but it appears that they do not even seek proposals for actual research.

Frankly, this reminds me an ancient TV sketch where Rowan Atkinson parodies a famous science fiction theme by explaining, over a cup of tea, that he comes from a parallel Earth on precisely the other side of the sun, where everything is just like this earth - except that the gearknob of their Mini Metro has little dimples in it.

Prove me wrong - show me one sentence anywhere in Intelligent Design which shows such courageous love of truth as Darwin's clear and self-imposed tests, and I will revise my views.

But until then, I firmly believe that ID has as much relationship to a brave and beautiful scientific theory as Caligula's horse Incitatus had to democratically elected leadership.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Notes on using

I recently had to design a top-level topic structure for a company-internal wiki. This wiki is intended to replace a predecessor which by now has a poor signal-to-ratio, being cluttered with obsolete articles and hindered by the absence of any kind of lifecycle-management, tagging or rating features. (The new wiki is being implemented using KwizCom's Wiki Plus, but that's not what I'm reviewing here)

But designing a good top-level structure for the mixed bag of topics found in a typical wiki is, like "go forth and sin no more", one of those tasks easier said than done. So I decided to try my first card sort, using 90 page titles from the old wiki as input to an open sort. I initially considered printing the list out and cutting it into physical cards, but this turns out to be alarmingly hard to do productively, especially to any level of quality, so it was time to check automated options. I came to from comments on a great card sort article, and, since it was free, and looked plausibly polished and complete, decided to use it.

Creating the test was simple - I registered for an account, gave the test a name, and simply copied the list of items from a text processor and pasted them into WebSort.

Running the sort was also simple - simply send a URL to your candidate card sorters. (And, if you want to learn from my mistakes, give them a more compelling reason to perform the task than the fact that it's convenient for them and helpful to you). When your users visit the link you've sent them, they get the instructions you left (I stuck with the default wording):

Performing the card sort is slick and sweet. WebSort provides a drag-and-drop interface for sorting the cards, and randomises the card order for each sorter. Unfortunately the slick interface is provided in Flash, and there are some gaps between the safety, transparency and reversibility of direct manipulation and the overall user experience - there was no way for users to print screens, or to save and resume. These are irritations, I'd say that the primary function here has been very well delivered.

Reviewing the results is slightly less polished. You see a list of all completed sorts, keyed by the sorter's email address. You select one or more names and hit "Reload" to load that particular data set. Once loaded the data set can be downloaded as a spreadsheet or in various text formats. The default display is "Category Summaries". This, along with "Categories * Items" is of limited usefulness in an open card sort where users invent their own category names, since each user typically invents different names. WebSort have helpfully provided this view with a "Merge categories" button to merge selected categories, but with no "Undo" or "Save-and-resume" functionality, I found this phase frustrating (of course category merging is only an issue for open sorts, not for closed sorts - WebSort supports both types).

There is also the mandatory tree diagram (aka dendrogram) which I found surprisingly unhelpful - this may have been a consequence of the low number of responses I was dealing with, but I have seen similar reactions from others.

All in all, I'd say that WebSort.Net is an excellent way of conducting and capturing a cardsort, with adequate analysis, but let down by weak category merging.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Learning, understanding and storytelling

An interesting post in Zen Habits on how to ace exams without studying explains and illustrates the difference between learning by rote and learning by "making connections".

While Scott Young includes "storytelling to remember facts and numbers" as one of five connection-making techniques for non-rote learning, I'm interested in a deeper connection, partly in the hope of understanding my own strengths and weaknesses in this area. Metaphor (his first technique) has, after all, some kind of implicit narrative. There has to be some kind of context in which the "stage" and its "players" and their "entrances" and "exits" mean something, before I can add that meaning to my understanding of "men" and "women". The same is more or less obviously true of his other techniques, like "Explain it to a five year old" (how would you do that without telling stories?) - read it, you'll see.

So the way to learn something is to make sense of it, to connect it to the things in our life which already have meaning for us. That's what stories and metaphors do.

This raises an interesting question - can I do this for my life as a whole? Is there some connection between, say, my interest in Metaphors We Live By, and my activities in Impro, does it all fit together?

I don't know yet, but I'll keep wondering.

And wandering.