Saturday, 14 December 2013

A turning point in consumerism?

It may just be me getting older, but Christmas seems to have lost some of its crassness this year. Perhaps the great social media amplifier has exposed it for the cliche that it is ("My friends will think I'm naff if I post another picture of the Christmas tree this year!"), or perhaps it's just social media that has tired of Christmas, and people are opting to get on with actually celebrating the holiday rather than photoing and posting about it.

Either way, it's for the better.  I've always liked the idea of the winter solstice being celebrated for just that: a party in the middle of winter to cheer us all up. You don't have to support a team with trees or candelabras, or buy a ticket, just turn up and spend time with friends & family. Preferably with silly hats, party games and plenty of food & drink. Start your own tradition, with a nod to the family traditions.

Wednesday, 21 August 2013

Business Prevention Officers

In these tough economic times, one expects some austerity: tightening of belts and loosening of standards for the sake of expediency. Focus on getting results, not sweating the petty things that waste time and effort for little reward.

Alternatively, if you are apparently relatively immune to tough economic conditions, you might take the opposite approach: sweat the details in order to justify a job whose existence, were you to work at optimum efficiency, might become questionable.  Unfortunately, this has a significantly adverse economic impact: you're effectively being subsidised at a time when nobody can afford subsidies. You are a leech, a drain on economic resources, a waste of hard working tax payers' money.

These past 2 days have revealed to me that there are several positions in Barbados government departments that are exactly the above.  People being paid to, in effect, prevent the natural course of commerce and economic efficiency.  People whose removal from those positions would actually benefit the economy, not just in salary burden on the tax payers' purse, but also by increased throughput of business: things would get done faster, the cogs of commerce would turn faster and economic throughput would improve.

It's these people who will eventually bring our economy to its knees, not government policy, or macro-economic mis-management. Just these bureaucrats who believe they are owed a living, a wage, irrespective of the value or damage they contribute to the economy. Who measures them? Who checks that they are doing their job effectively? One could argue it should be their unions: after all, they profess to protect their workers' rights, so why not make an effort to ensure them by proving that union members are useful contributors to the economy of our society? Imagine an ethically responsible union that not only ensures workers don't work late, but also that they don't finish early?

It seems that too many people want to enforce rules that they don't question (and may not even exist), and too few people want to actually compete in the game.  More refs than players would lead, ultimately, to poorer players.

Tuesday, 20 August 2013

Speculative photography

This CNET article ( about the future of smartphone photography got me thinking about the potential for abuse such features could herald.

Our sight is still, for most of us, our most trustworthy sense. Or, more accurately, the sense that we tend to put the most trust in. Modern neuroscience seems to enjoy mocking our trust in our eyes, with optical illusions and other tricks that fool the brain's amazing pattern matching systems. There's even a simple trick demonstrated by +Marcus du Sautoy where he asks people to assess the weights of  objects of various sizes and, to a person, they all believe that the largest object is the heaviest, even though it is the lightest. So our eyes are easy to deceive.

What will 50 megapixel phone cameras accomplish that 5 megapixel ones can't? Well, it's not so much the megapixels, as the processing. Making a CMOS that captures 50 megapixels of light is relatively straightforward. The tricky bit is processing that many pixels and writing them to a memory card in a reasonable length of time. That needs a lot of processing fitted into a small phone. You could then do other things with that processing, like adding and removing objects, to a much more convincing degree than ever before.

Perhaps what is currently constrained to Photoshop and other relatively inaccessible tools could become more ubiquitous and easy to use. Perhaps there's a much darker side of ubiquitous photography yet to emerge.

Some excellent maps

While these are pretty fun to explore, I couldn't help thinking, as I looked through these, that I was looking at both the future and the past. While the data is pretty cool, the presentation is so static. Why aren't these Google Maps overlays? Because splicing the two together takes programming skills. And soon either that won't be the case, or programming will be such a ubiquitous skill that such static renderings will be as anachronistic as flat HTML pages of the 1990s. 

So, this is a bookmark for the future. Lets see if its still valid in 2015. 

Friday, 28 June 2013

iPad as laptop replacement: almost, but hamstrung by closed thinking

 I had to get a shuttle to work today, after dropping my truck off at the garage and, since my new laptop is due to arrive today, I decided to just take my iPad with an Apple bluetooth keyboard and its cool Incase Origami case/stand (see pic).

So I started with the usual email sift & dispatch.  Mostly fine until I had to reformat an email  I was forwarding and could not add bullets/numbering. After foraging for a bit I ended up having to use dashes and manual numbers. Mildly irritating because it's not exactly a difficult feature to add.

Next, I was trying to upload a document to a website. While 3rd party apps typically give you a plethora of sharing options, based on whatever apps you have installed (eg. Google Drive, Dropbox, SugarSync etc.), Safari only gives you access to the camera roll. Maybe Apple designers, in their shaven-headed, dodgy facial-haired wisdom decided that we would only ever want to upload photo to a website. Or maybe that filesystems were too complicated for my childlike, enchanted brain. The only sense of wonder here is the bewilderment that such a simple utility is not included. But then these are the folks who didn't even include copy & paste until the 3rd version of the OS.

So, basically, I have no faith in the utility of an iPad as a productivity tool beyond basic text and drawing. "That's because it's designed for media consumption, Neil!" you may ejaculate, fondling your tablet distractedly. Yes, it is, but my point is that the limitations are self-imposed by iOS designers, not by any hardware limitations. So to exclude key features that would make it a useful productivity tool is design snobbery at worst and oversight at best.

While other Operating System makers try to fundamentally reconcile their desktop and mobile offerings into a seamless user experience (Google with Chrome and Android, Windows with Windows 8, Ubuntu with their upcoming mobile OS), Apple are changing the fixtures with 'flatter' UI designs and features designed to only work with other Apple products.

That's the trouble with walled gardens: you can fence your audience in, but you can also become prone to self-absorption, and you can lose sight of what the people by the walls (on either side) are saying.

Monday, 17 June 2013

Writing ... software

Recently, I've had cause to go back to writing software directly - rather than managing teams doing it. 

Aside from the struggle to readjust my concentration levels away from erratic thoughts (it's like reading a book and solving a puzzle at the same time), I've also had to adjust to the pace of this creative process. It reminds be of those Fast Show sketches parodying Nick Park and the Aardman Studios' claymation "... and then I move it... just a tiny amount... and take a picture... before... moving it just a tiny amount... and taking another picture..." and so on. 

I long for the day when I can write code as second nature, as easily as I write this blog post. It's not the language that's hard: that can be fiddley if you're unfamiliar with it, but not insurmountable. The tricky bit is the mindset: breaking down problems into actionable chunks of code that you can then build and stick together into a coherent program that does what you originally intended. I used to be able to do this easily, and I now see how rusty I've become at it. Hopefully, like riding a bike, it will come back to me, but it's a bit of a slog for now. Still, I'm enjoying the creativity again: it's hardly World of Warcraft (it's actually an appointment booking system in Google Script), but it's a good puzzle.

Anyway, enough distraction. From one creative thread to another I go...

Tuesday, 11 June 2013

Windows 8 verdict: daft UI

I've been using Windows 8 on my desktop PC at home, with a 29" HD screen, for about 3 months now. I'm sure there are tons of improvements under the bonnet, but the new user interface features have served only to get in the way. Not "proved difficult to adjust to, but eventually became great time-savers." Just got in the way. I feel like I'm constantly having to move stuff out of the way, yet also having to poke around for other stuff. Where's the control panel? I dunno, I'll just search.  Which is fine, I suppose, so why have the tiles? As well as the old desktop?

I open Windows Reader (like OSX Preview, only crappier) and it fills my widescreen, mostly with empty black space. I want to see this document in a window... but, irony of ironies, I can't.

Microsoft have done their old trick of giving us more and leaving it to us to figure out which bits are better. Remember the Office wars? Wordperfect and Lotus lost out to Microsoft Office through sheer feature power: the newest version of MS Office would have all the best features of its competitors combined.  The fact that most people didn't (and don't) use more than 10% of the features was irrelevant in the exuberance of the PC revolution. The software could do so much, and it was relatively cheap.

The web, and mobile in particular, changed consumer perceptions, though. Now we don't want more functionality, we want less. Given the abundance of technology choices in our lives, most of us simply want a consistent narrative: phone has good reception and battery life, it takes decent pictures that I can upload to all my favorite places, etc. Ubiquity and usability of software is a consumer choice, and if you mess with it you will suffer the mass wrath of consumers.

I get what Microsoft are trying to do: make an OS that is as phone/tablet/touch-friendly as it is mouse and keyboard friendly. But rather than do the difficult thing of rethinking it from the ground up (like Apple tend to do), they've stuck to their old approach of extending what they have.  Maybe I'm over-blowing it, and they'll get it right for Windows 8.1. I certainly hope so: while I love Apple interfaces, their enterprise/collaboration tools stink. Nobody knows the enterprise like Microsoft. Although Google are nibbling at their lunch...

Saturday, 23 March 2013

A reunion

Reunions are funny things... sometimes obligation, sometimes voluntary, often a mixture of the two. There's always that slight trepidation of digging up the past and perhaps finding it not as good as you remembered, or of the encounter reminding you more of the bad bits than of the good bits. Reunions are invariably bittersweet, but the degree of bitterness to sweetness is what makes each one unique. A bit like a rum sour.

Family reunions are particularly quirky. You know them so well, yet you had forgotten how well. How much you admired and enjoyed them. How much they irritated the shit out of you.

Tuesday, 22 January 2013

iTunes Match - put a match to it

I've just concluded a 2 month experiment using iTunes Match, and it is the perfect example of over-engineering.  It's the classic issue where engineer reach perfection, but stock holders and managers insist on them continuing to 'evolve' the product. Unfortunately, the only way from perfection is down, and that's where iTunes is now heading.

When you pay for iTunes Match you now relinquish control of your music collection. I say 'now' because, until the latest iOS release, it wasn't the case. You used to be able to happily download and delete single tunes to/from the cloud.  Now you can only download albums or playlists (that you can't manage), and you can't delete anything.  Senseless over-engineering.

Same with iTunes' new look.  Although that improved considerably once I figured out how to switch the sidebar back on.

Honestly, leave it alone, Apple. Are you getting so bored with world domination that all you can think of now is how to cock up the secret sauce? Or has Steve Jobs' departure really impacted you that profoundly?  Was he really the ultimate quality control at Apple, that prevented them from creating duds before?

Anyway, back to disabling iTunes Match, scrubbing down the iPhone and going back to laptop syncing.  You may get this cloud thing yet, Apple. Or it may be your undoing, just as the Internet was Microsoft's.

Thursday, 3 January 2013

A route to happiness

Got a piece of frustrating news at work today. Enough to make me leave the office and tend to my own clerical concerns: some banking, some home office tweaks and some paperwork. After thoroughly organizing myself at home, I then got stuck back into some office work (from home, mind). The mantra I adopted that affected the successful re-focusing was "I must find a route to happiness". It seems a bit too profound as I type it, but it dug me out of the hole I felt I was in.

And now, in the evening with a glass of wine, I ponder whether most bad situations are fundamentally met with a sense of disorientation, of momentarily losing sight of the route to happiness. We all deal with disorientation differently, depending on our personality and our circumstances. And perhaps the sense of disorientation manifests itself into our default behavior before we even sense it as such. We just get frustrated or depressed or angry. Or shrug it off, depending on personality and circumstance.

While the cliche of lemons and making lemonade is mildly poetic, it's hardly instructive. Perhaps a better approach is to acknowledge the disorientation, and then resolve to re-orient oneself: to find the route to happiness.

And now I imagine the sound of a slightly exasperated GPS voice saying "recalculating...!". Maybe I need to switch to port.