Saturday, July 28, 2012

Quelque Chose est Différente Ici

It is healthy to periodically have your perspective altered as mine has been for the past few days here in France. When I go to sign on to this blog for example, I am asked for my "Adresse électronique" and my "Mot de passe" and depending upon whose computer I'm using I may find myself reminding my fingers that the "z" is not where I think it should be. Along with many other keys. It's not a QWERTY keyboard. Have you assumed that QWERTY is universal? Nope, it's not.

I checked out a definition on Wiktionnaire and then logged in to Facebook. "Bienvenue sur Facebook. Connectez-vous inscrive-vous ou décrouve!" Connect, write, or discover! 

Another meaning for découvrir is "to take the lid off". Now that makes me think of food. Pas problèm, as so much of it is so good here. Pqss the pqstries: qnd the cheese:  I wonder if the people at Facebook were trying some subtle way to appeal to the French palate. Not that Facebook is known for subtlety.

A French relative once told me that the best cheese is the most odiferous cheese; the way to identify the best cheeses, he said, were to sit them out and wait for a passing fly. If the fly passes above the cheese and drops dead the cheese is first rate. Yum. We immediately went cheese hunting.

A few days ago someone asked me to look over a document written in English and edit it for the grammar. They handed me a flash drive. Not any ordinary flash drive - not a bit of plastic in it. It is made of wood and remains closed by virtue of a magnet. Talk about ecologically ingenious. I've got to hand it to whoever created this device because I'd love to see us reduce the amount of environmentally toxic plastic used in our computing systems.

Electronic devices are some of the worst plastic offenders. This little flash drive is a reminder that there are alternatives to our near complete dependence on plastic if only we get creative in our thinking. Maybe a laptop made of wood isn't the solution (might it catch on fire when the drive heats up?) but surely there is something we can do about all that plastic.

You know what I haven't seen here in Paris? iPods. I can't recall having seen more than one or two people in Paris with those dangling ear cords. Smartphones are everywhere, everyone seems to have one, but there are signs in many places asking people not to use their phones and people respond by not using their phones! I think it's great. People aren't absorbed in their own isolated electronic worlds the way they often are in the US. They talk to in person to one another, to their children, to their friends. 

Bonne journée

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Photography Unites the Inner Artiste and Logician

I have the feeling that I am mentally rehashing a conversation that has been had for millenia in one form or another and for around 100 years in photography circles.

It concerns the latest step forward in technological capability. I read an article* recently about advances that permit such things as taking a picture and only deciding later where to place the focus or range of exposure. Simply put, the idea is that enormous amounts of digital data are captured and stored, including data about variables not previously captured such as angle and direction of light falling on an object all across the visual field. Later, you process the picture, picking and choosing which data to emphasize or remove entirely.

The implication is that, like cropping before it, this post-processing allows you to make an aesthetically pleasing picture out of a poorly composed snapshot. My inner artiste goes "HARUMPH".

Distracting the artiste momentarily with a new set of wallpaper choices, my inner logician takes the opportunity to jump in: "Hold on there...There are uses for this sort of approach, because not all photography is planned and carefully executed art."

For example, if, as the article states, you are a journalist and don't have time to sit around positioning everything, or the action is going by in a split second and you want to capture it live, great. Get those shots of the street war and get the heck out of the line of fire as fast as possible. Don't worry about getting back to relative safety only to discover all your shots are blurred or overexposed beyond recognition.

Or, lets' say you are a scientist looking for something and you aren't quite sure what or where it is, but it is in there somewhere... What a wonderful opportunity to dig around with the image to see what is hiding in there. My inner artiste and inner logician agree on the wonderfulness of the opportunity.

A wonderful combination of hardware and software makes it all possible. Algorithms that enable manipulation of incredibly dense numbers of pixels, working in tandem with some pretty sophisticated hardware in the "smart" lenses. Lenses that don't weigh a ton and require giant tripods or manual stabilizers that might as well be tripods. Speaking of which, "lens" singular may soon be the case - no more swapping out of lenses all the time. I'd really like to see that change in my camera pack. It would leave far more room for other things in my backpack as I trudge up the side of that mountain. Things like the rocks I like to collect.

The tradeoff is that by necessity, there will be even more people out there who miss the opportunity to really look at what is in front of them before they take a shot. The opportunity to be in the moment with your camera by virtue of having to observe, contemplate, study, see what comes to your inner self before you take that shot. The less technology there is in the camera, the more you have to pay attention to what you are looking at if you want something that is more than just not chopping off your friend's head (although we now have technology to user-proof against head chopping. It's called facial tracking software). One of the nice things about photography technology that doesn't attempt to do it all for you is that you are more likely to engage with your subject. Hopefully. Accidental decapitation existed 50 years ago, so maybe my position doesn't hold water.

I lug my camera everywhere and I suppose I will always plot plan and study what I'm shooting no matter what nifty geeky technology they come up with. And I'm no Luddite - I carry a nice (somewhat heavy) digital camera and lenses around with me. And I sometimes play with Photoshop just to see what comes of it. Just as I used to play in the darkroom. I love a good abstraction as much as a "realistic" (as much as there can be said to be realism) portrait or landscape.

When I started writing this post, I was kind of unhappy with the idea that soon cameras will allow me to blur, blunder and mess up my photographs and escape the consequences of not paying proper attention.

However, now I have come to the conclusion that the more the better because I can set everything on Manual mode if I want, I can enlist my camera ever more to the cause of investigative science and I can take that shot of the interesting passersby as well.

*"Smarter Photography" by Gary Anthes, Communications of the ACM June 2012 Vol 55, No. 6 pp 16-18

Thursday, July 12, 2012

UX To The Rescue of Healthy Eating

Driving down a San Diego freeway into the city on the eve of the opening of COMIC-CON was a challenge. Thank goodness for National Public Radio and the fact that traffic was moving so slowly I could put both arms behind my head, lean back into the headrest and coast with one foot ever so lightly on the gas pedal.

I was not attending that particular convention. Nor was I attending the San Diego Yoga Journal Conference, also in town this weekend. Everyone else on the planet seemed to be. However, luck was mine on many fronts as I managed to find a free parking spot a mere 9 blocks away from Red Door Interactive, the location of this month's UX Speakeasy meeting. (UX : User Experience)

What a view! From the 11th floor, plastered to the floor to ceiling windows, I looked straight down into Petco Park (home of the San Diego Padres baseball team) and across the Coronado Bridge all lit up in the twilight. A great backdrop for holding exciting, nerdy conversations such as the one I had with a developer about coding and the educational merits, potential and pitfalls of Khan Academy.

Defining quality in online education has more than just a little UX matter wrapped up in it, don't you think?

Before moving on to the meaty stuff, I want to provide you something in the "You heard it here first" department: Chad Martin announced to the group that UX Speakeasy will be hosting a one day Sketch Camp in the fall as a followup to the extremely well received UX Conference we held last Spring (read my conference posts starting here). Details will be forthcoming; if you are starving for information now or want to help out contact Chad at

Gema Almilli, an Interaction Designer from Red Door Interactive hosted our meeting this month and gave a very interesting talk about ways to obtain User Experience data when you don't have a huge in-house lab or bottomless resources (which is most of us). I couldn't help thinking about all the non-profits out there, the small businesses, who want UX research but think they can't afford it, or an organization of any size who doesn't "get" what UX is all about and why their business should invest in it. This talk was inspiring for any of us who work with these groups or aspire to do so.

Let's talk food. All sorts of fast food companies out there are pushing their iceberg lettuce salads and cardboard tomato slices in an effort to convince you they are healthy. However, there are other companies, sometimes known as Gourmet Fast Food companies, that take healthy choices seriously. Gema was working with one such company as they analyzed and re-designed their web presence. What this company learned was that not only were many customers going to their website and looking at the menus in search of healthy options, but customers really wanted to be able to search and filter based upon specific dietary choices.

Hmmm...I don't know how prescient the executives at that particular company were, but I certainly wouldn't have anticipated that a fast food place, even a "gourmet" fast food place, would have a dedicated audience of super healthy eaters. (Fast food? Healthy? Oxymoron?). Lo and behold, after some effective efficient and creative UX work, it turned out that gluten free  food choices were the Number 1 filter selection on the new online menu! In addition, this company learned that they could and should more actively promote the fact that the majority of their seafood comes from sustainable sources. They were doing the right thing already - they just needed to let people know more clearly. The UX data demonstrated that their customers really cared - it made good business sense to put this information front and center!

They learned, I learned, that healthy eating is on the rise in the most surprising of places! Fast food can be healthy and tasty food (bye bye iceberg lettuce) and it will sell if you make it easy for people to learn about it. Thank You UX Research!

I looked down and observed the greasy cheesy thing in one hand and the diet coke in the other hand. I could almost hear the little army of chortling fat globules making a beeline for my waistline. The miniature grease bombs had been the only vegetarian food available - not a raw carrot in sight.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Sculpting Code to Create and Retain the Art

I read in passing the comment "what if software maintenance was taught the way sculpture is taught". To my dismay nothing more was said in the article about how this might occur. I turned to my friends and colleagues and asked for memories on the pedagogy of teaching sculpture. One person responded "pedagogically? WTH?" which reminded me that not *all* of my acquaintances understand educator-speak. After rephrasing the question to let the confused know that what I wanted was recollections of teaching strategies in a sculpture class, the responses came pouring in. Unfortunately, most of them did not take this deep and meaningful question in the serious light I had in mind.

However, one person said something to this effect: 

"take a chunk of something and remove everything that doesn't look like a horse and you will have a horse".

That was enough to get me thinking about software development and maintenance in a new light. Perhaps a bit less deeply and meaningfully than originally intended. But one must work with what one has. Kind of like creating a sculpture.

Software maintenance a la sculpture would necessitate a top down approach. You have a body of code, thousands and thousands of lines of code (let's say we are working on the scale of Michelangelo's David as opposed to a Chinese tea cup). But in this case, years of helpful modifications have led to a few too many modules and unused and obscure Objects (reflecting my basic dislike of Java). Imagine David with an extra arm or long hair in a pony tail. Perhaps a pair of socks artfully turned down at the ankle. (I'm not going to photoshop this into reality but I invite you to do so and send it my way)

Removing the extra limb (unused modules) shouldn't be too hard - Delete Delete Delete. The primary tricky spot would be making sure that any dead end invocations were eliminated. We wouldn't want David to be left with an extra shoulder beckoning for that third arm to be added back on. The pony tail would be a bit trickier because we don't want to leave anyone with the aftereffects of a bad hair day, but the overall process would be the same.

Removing the socks (obscure Objects) is perhaps the biggest challenge. We don't want to render the feet unable to support the body, nor do we want to damage the elegance of David's stance. Hence, a careful examination of all the connections (direct, indirect) between Objects and identification of inheritance structures is just the beginning. Expert designers and coders with an eye for fine detail will need to be called in.

In the end: Voila! Beautiful, aesthetically pleasing code art of the highest quality. We may be on to something here.