April 21, 2009

What is Web Science? No really, What is the CORE of Web Science? the Web Self

Ok What IS Web Science?

This question was posed at the recent web science conference by some wild and crazy researchers from that wild and crazy town, Paris. The resulting video features Tim Berners-Lee speaking French, among others. french words french words french words french words linked-data french wordsf rench words...200904220929.jpg

Last year for the Web science workshop at the WWW conference, a few of us also sent in a video asking the question "what is web science" (that alas we had to agree never to show again -something about TBL in the WSRI space station, i think). It featured a series of long pauses and laughter from researchers working in the very area in response to the question. Including with Tim. Now there's this new video. And no pauses, but with long and divergent replies. Except from Wendy Hall with her concise " it's the intersection of these disciplines but more than that. it's everything really" We'll come back to this.

But the Paris Video goes beyond this fundamental What is It question and asks: "what is the core of Web Science" with answers from its four experts supplied in due form.

That's the question that got me thinking. what's the core of web science?

my first thought that 'it's an egg' - i don't know where that came from, but setting that aside, the core of web science now it seems is a leap of faith, a trusting of instinct, and a large excavation project.

It reminds me of the way stephen king describes writing a story - as archaeology - that one is brushing and trowling away the bones in situ - to say "gosh what is that?"

To rif past where King stops, to talk a little more about archaeology, the practice is, as we excavate, we apply theories to what we see. Even if there's only a piece of it. Even when we have the whole thing we don't always know what it is or how it works. we're still making up stories to understand it. we seek models we can test against the discovery.

There's the old story in 200904220937.jpg archaeology that when you don't know what something is, call it a religious artefact. My favorite application of this theory has been to what will happen centuries from now when aliens dig up the 6 ring pop can holders? religious artefact of some dualistic trinity: it's a ubiquitous symbol, it's made of stuff that lasts eternally so must have high value, it's also cheap and portable so used cross culutrally, etc etc etc.

In the case of even defining web science, it strikes me again as this kind of excavation at the present (or perhaps it's like how cosmologists detect a new star). We know something's there, and it's big. We know it's exerting an effect and we know that it operates in several disciplinary dimensions. Part of the challenge at the heart of web science is how do we combine these lenses into an Uber Lens to enable us to see this thing better?

And why would we want to do that anyway?

More than because it's there, it's something new to do, or any other cynical codswallop (there's a word you don't get to use every day), but more i think because, this is something WE made - we contribute to it and use it daily. Tim may be the Big Bang but we're all engaging in the expanding universe's cosmology. There, i have shifted metaphors from archaeology to Big Science. Yodelayheehoo as Laurie Anderson once said.

Big Science?

But it's in that yodel where those of us thinking about the Web and it's effect - and the web and models for webliness may be drawn. Tim has compared the number of web connections with the numbers of neurons in the brain "there the comparison kind of stops" he says, but it's still something of a gee whiz. does that mean something?

It's kind of interesting that we actually struggle to find a succinct definition of what it is we're trying to do. Did computer science have this hard a time when it was breaking away from Math to call itself a Thing? Did the Defense Department? Several Scientific Board meetings have been given over to asking this question "what is web science" - and coming at a reply rather obliquely in "the overlap of a bunch of disciplines" Somehow that just seems dissatisfying.

So we come at it by questions where we don't have answers: what's the predictive model for the web, for instance? but that doesn't really set anyone's hair on fire, does it?

More i think it's that there's a gal who got a bee in her bonnet to trust her gut that there's something there, and then fired up a bunch of other people [ insert link to future novel, large historical archive of letters, photos, etc here] to say "yes, we could do something with this."

Which comes back to the core, and the excavation, and the need to do this.

There was a book in the 80's with the unfortunately gender specific title of Grammatical Man. The argument was very interesting though: that all the things we build are in some ways (if i remember this right) examples of us trying to rebuild ourselves to understand ourselves. Rockets and machines and all such things were part of this case. But these are the products of specialists that are largely only consumed by us (the products, not the specialists). this is the one where we all kick at it - it's such a cool platform; we're working to make it even more malleable.

With the web, we are all webbed up. Increasing numbers of us are adding to it. There have been world wide networks before, and continue to be the same for telecommunications, learning, etc. But they are also service oriented, infrastructure oriented, rather than something whose strings we keep tugging at, keep from going transparent. And while there is great interest to include the social side of the Web in any discussion of Web Science (pdf), what does the fact that that is such a part of this thing mean? Here, with the great ability to post our thoughts for the world to see, and exchange micro bits of information with each other, mediated via this massive IT that is THE WEB we have something we haven't had before in terms of record (though that too is reshaping since pages change so frequently - stability and its value are being replaced with currency perhaps?).

Mirror Mirror

There is something so narcissistic about the web too. In Wim Wender's Until the End of the World,

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participants became lost in being able to rewatch recordings of their own dreams. Now, we can rewatch our blog posts, or social network status, or "ego check" our "selves" on google. We are our own favorite commodity. There's nothing new there, but that we have this super new mirror, this social grooming, this status in multiple new dimensions.

What is this? No wonder there's a group of people asking this question. That the first organized cadre happens to be mainly engineers and social scientists is perhaps no surprise. How do we build it? Where are we going with it? What have we done? what are we doing?

Some other questions that may be related - i mean, you have to ask - is, especially with the brain parallel, will it (whatever the web is/has evolved/evolving into) become aware? evolve its own kind of intelligence (it certainly seems to know a lot about us) - with Web Science, will we become aware of it first? and then what?

Even that's a question in the web science agenda: once we get to grips with this discovery of the web's 'ness, what will that let us do that we couldn't do before? predict the next phenomenon before it emerges so we can all develop great IPO's? That's more codswallop, of course. But perhaps, perhaps being able to get a sense of immanent emergence is a good thing. Are there any examples in science fiction where that's the case?

What are we making here in our own image? Consider the early days of the web. People's photos of their cats, and a huge drive to produce credit card security for buying porn. There are anthropologists on the WSRI board? Is the Web our mirror? or just a mirror for some of us? If it reflects all our basic desires (and why wouldn't it), we see there are healers and healing across the web. Has there been the opposite too? It's roots in Arpanet.

And if this web thing is us - our wiring and desires all exposed and writ so vast we need a new science to understand it, will we find ourselves looking back up the microscope, and find we're not at all really who we thought we were? Do we ever transcend our expectations of ourselves?

So what is the core of Web Science? well it's us, isn't it? it is the archaeology and cosmology and engineering of a question that has bridged, it seems, who am i, to who are we? That in itself seems a profound evolution of our identity from i to we. or perhaps its not us that's evolved, but this thing outside us, that is so much about and for us, but may end up not being and being us all at once.

Oh yes, web science, go go go. Lay down, web scientists wanna be's or already are's, the requirements to say "this is what web science is; here's our 20 page manifesto" and hire up some medievalists to go with the anthropologists to help tell the story that web science is about discovery. IT's the tale of the green knight. It's not a quest, but it's the inescapable pull of self, isn't it: there's an entity Out There - that we seem to have created - that escapes our ken, and we want to ken it; we need to ken it. There's really no option: we're gonna ken it, or give it a dam good go. It's too fort - da compelling.   

Yes, it seems so clear and inevitable now: of course there's a web science. somehow we'll get what that learning may be. We may even get to that uber lens of disciplines to uncover this thing, if we realize, despite all the talk of big machines, huge scale and everything else, we are looking for while trying to develop another, a new, model of ourselves, and we are all pouring into that those grains of ourselves we wish others to know, love, desire of ourselves. Including successful research careers. But perhaps something gestaltier, too?

And one more thought - in our projects to enhance the web, if we ask ourselves if they reflect our better selves, our best selves, is this what we'd be doing first?

thanks for reading.

mc

wsri

research "fellow"

Posted by mc at 5:27 PM | Comments (0)

November 24, 2008

Building Knowledge: What's Beyond Keyword Search?

The success of the Web as the main provender of information is indisputable. If a company or government is not on the web, it effectively does not exist. A key to the Web's phenomenal success, intriguingly, is in some respects less the information on it, than in our ability to find the information it references. Indeed, the main way we access the Web is via that wee box that from a few words seems to read our mind and return a list of links to resources we want. So successful has this approach to finding information become that on the one hand it is difficult to remember how we managed to find any information at all prior to web based keyword search, and on the other, it's difficult to envision needing or wanting any other tool for information discovery. If we can find it with Google, what more do we need?


Successful paradigms can sometimes constrain our ability to imagine other ways to ask questions that may open up new and more powerful possibilities. The Newtonian model of the universe-as-clockworks, for instance, is still a sound paradigm to explain a great deal of physical phenomena. Indeed, one may say it was only some niggling phenomena that were not well described by that model already that begged the question might their be a better model, a different paradigm? Relativity, a very different way to imagine the behaviours in the manifest world, opened up whole new ways of understanding our universe.

The success of the Google paradigm may be our Newtonian paradigm for the Web. It enables us to do so much information discovery that it is difficult to imagine what we cannot do with the paradigm of continually refining search terms to get to The Result. The approach Google has made ubiquitous, however, does assume that there is An Answer Out There; if we can just specify the query correctly, we can find It.

But how does the Google paradigm help a busy mom find a better job quickly, effectively, that is a match for her passion and skills. And if that mom could use some extra training to support that skill to get that better job, how would the Google paradigm bring in that highly relevant information that is outside the constraints of the keyword search?

In the Information Retrieval and Information Seeking literature, these kinds of more complex, rich information discovery and knolwedge building tasks have been modelled in terms of Search strategies and tactics (Think bates and belkin). In the relatively recent work classed as Exploratory search (see Special Issue, CACM April 2006)., the emphasis has been on harmonizing human computer Interaction design approaches with models of information seeking to develop new tools that will support these alternative kinds of search and knowledge building.

Examples of such approaches include:

  • knowledge building by association: being able to explore the scope of a domain to create new knowledge through building associations between one domain/concept with another (HT paper 07), rather than by seeing "an answer" in any one item.
  • wanting to explore a domain without sufficient knowledge of the domain. Someone who is not an expert may look for one piece of information without realizing that another component, not matched by a keyword search, is highly relevant.
  • annotations and notes. A well known way of supporting knowledge building is to be able to annotate information for a specific context. For instance, "The socket described worked well for this project but was miserable for this other - despite what the authors claim here" Similarly being able to create notes ABOUT something and add references easily from related sources is another powerful knowledge building technique
  • Collections. Pulling together information resources as they are discovered for future knowledge building, as part of information triage (Marshall and Shipman) is another approach for developing knowledge
  • History Review. Interrogating both previously looked for information as well working back through the paths taken to that information.
  • Collaborative knowledge building. A common feature of (non-digital) knowledge building activity is collaborative contribution to knowledge building, from brain storming to shared component development.

Each of these approaches to knowledge building involve exploration of information that yes, pull together a wide array of information resources, but that have less to do with specific iterative searches for a particular pre-existing answer, than support for the development of a New Answer through the interrogation and association of these sources. To support these different kinds of knowledge building goals, we need to develop the tools that will support these kinds of approaches to exploration. The goal of this article is to consider some of the nascent efforts that have been developed around these non-keyword search paradigms.

Exploratory Search Tools to Date

The pre-history of Exploratory Search can be seen in the raison d'etre of hypertext: to support human made associations through knowledge spaces. Nelson, who coined the term "hypertext" in 1965 was inspired by Vanevar Bush's close of WWII vision of the Memex. The goal of the Memex was to support better knowledge management of a post war Science Explosion by helping scientists build, maintain and share their own paths through the document space. Bush called these paths Trails. He postulated that these human made Trails of associations would be more meaningful for scientific discovery than having to track up and down through library taxonomies of texts. Nelson took Trails and imagined what was to become the key component of the Web: the Link, the ability to "transclude" or connect by reference into a new document both one's own thoughts with others' work to develop a perpetual exchange of ideas. A key attribute of the hypertext link was to support non-linear exploration of information for free form association building. Nelson, an Arts graduate, imagined "A File Structure for the Complex, the Changing, and the Indeterminate" a few years before computer scientist Doug Engelbart first presented the NLS, including the debut of the Mouse for navigating a dynamic file linking system, shared screen collaboration, and hypertext. A critical component of the NLS demo was providing multiple visualizations for the ways files and their associated categorization/hierarchies could be represented or resorted.

15 years later, prior to the networked web, Trigg's Notecards system (1984), put NLS on steroids via somewhat richer visualizations of the types of linking functions already described in NLS. While most hypertext researchers point to Triggs formalization of link types as his key contribution, from an HCI perspective that he chose the note card as the metaphor for his system is for our purposes significant. The card paradigm would later be developed into spatial hypertext (Marshall and Shipmen; Bernstein) to support not just a temporal model of seeing one card at a time (a limit of 1984 display systems) but of being able to support the cognitive model of presenting information akin to the layout and re-organization of cards in a physical world in order to build new knowledge through the association of this information. Bernstein's Tinderbox is a commercial application that leverages this visualizaiton for information sense making and for building new knowledge as associations emerge. A data mining engine in the software also exposes potential associations on a topic to surface further information possibilities. It is only recently, in research projects like VIKI by Dontecheva and Drucker that have begun to bring spatial hypertext metaphors to the web, via Web 2.0 protocols. It's early days yet for these projects, but it will be interesting to see how this approach may be used to build, organize and share new knowledge, and what the translation will be between cards-as-notes and documents.

Another related exploratory search thread in the pre web research space that has been Hypertext is adaptive/adaptable hypermedia. Summarized by Brusilovsky, Adaptive Hypermedia sought to blend context awareness with hypertext to deliver the appropriate set of links and trails through a document space. The main scenarios for adaptive hypermedia have been context-aware tour systems and learning programs. The goal of adaptive hypermedia has been, through a user-model, to anticipate the best delivery of material to best support what a person needs to achieve a particular goal, whether that's to get a customized tour of a museum based on one's cultural preferences, or to get the best learning package based on one's current knowledge of a domain. If successful evaluation of these systems has been relatively thin on the ground, they expose the challenge, desire and potential to try to refine a search space based on a person's needs and interests, rather than keyword searches alone.

Some take-aways from these preweb representations of knowledge building across automated resources (both real and imagined) is that Search as keyword search has been largely absent from the main visions of these systems. Perhaps it was simply assumed as a rudimentary tool/strategy such as rooting through the various categorizations of a card catalogue, but it seems important to realize that strategies such as recovering the path through a document space from start to goal (Trails) were seen as critical. Likewise visualizations that privileged non-linear, non-temporally restricted representations of information such operations that can be carried out with notecards - stacking, sorting, selectively displaying, sharing, tagging - were also seen as key parts of information building and communication of that information. And then the Web happened.

This pre-history of current Web-based exploratory search approaches is likewise important because it motivates a kind of recherche du temps perdu - we have been here before, asking how to best enable knowledge discovery - not as fact retrieval but in terms of how to support and enhance that retrieval for building new knowledge. With the astounding success of the Googleverse, however, we occasionally demonstrate a kind of amnesia about what we once sought to achieve. Part of this amnesia may be driven by a similar kind of Newtonian Model success: we've gotten so much out of this approach so far, why not keep digging away at it, push *its* limits? Google demonstrated such envelop pushing by showing how search term patterns correlate to the movement of the flu in the USA.

Early Web Serendipity and Serendipity Redux

One of the celebrated features in the early days of the web - something we have heard less about in the past few years - is the ability to explore a domain. To "surf" the web was a common expression: it meant that we navigated from linked page to linked page - pre the power of search engines - to come upon information serendipitously. The power of the hypertext link was ascendant. this surfing as sense making was something that was not as readily possible in the physical world: books or documents do not have ready links to other documents. While references may be embedded in documents, and one could go from one physical reference, and physically track through a library to another, this took considerable time. The more or less immediate ability to decide to follow one link rather than another and have that linked document returned and displayed caused the notion of serendipitous discovery to be foregrounded as a key value of the web. It made serious and valuable the hours spend surfing that might otherwise be seen as a non-productive use of time. The lack of a powerful search engine made this navigational hit and miss, buggy approach to information finding on the the web a feature rather than a bug. in its early days Indeed, the acceleration of the serendipitous discovery from the rare to the frequent demonstrated another power of the web: acceleration of an analogue process once it goes digital begins to change that practice and our expectations from it. We'll come back to the role of acceleration.

So what has happened to web surfing? The scale of the web has grown so profoundly that surfing has been largely replaced by searching interspersed with select sources of mediation, such as blogs, rss feeds and social networks: we leverage each other's serendipity. We serendip within a smaller set of known resources and search with intent for particular answers. We google so much that it has become a verb that presidential candidates must know to be seen as au fait with the cultural memes about "the internets" and "the google;" those who would serve and who are not current with what is perceived as such basic literacy may be the recipient/victim of "google bombs." These bombs are only so effective because this kind of search has become the key way by which we find information.

The Web as such a networked model of documents misses some of the key features of document exploration we have had in the physical world. Artefacts like library shelves let someone get a sense of the scale of a domain by looking at the space taken up by a topic. Classification systems meant that related topics could be clustered in physical space and located. Some argue that it's impossible to put shelves/categorization systems on the web. Indeed, early ways of exploring the web were through categorization systems like Yahoo and the Internet Directory Project that seemed to fail at scale. The categories, it seemed, became to brittle for the fluid growth of the Web. One of the early Exploratory Search paradigms has been to revisit the notion of categories valuable ways to make sense of a domain and see if there mayn't be a role for such an approach within the web. These models have become known as Facetted Search.

Facetted Search: the Metadata is the Message

Whereas a keyword search brings together a list of ranked documents that match those search terms, the goal of a facetted search is to enable a person to explore a domain via its attributes. One of the most well known examples of such a browser is Apple's iTunes application which is an interface to access and playback tracks or sets of tracks from a collection of music files.


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The browser to the collection presents three columns, representing three facets of the Music domain: genre, artist, album. Attributes matching these facets are populated into the columns.A selection in any column acts as a filter on the column to its right. Once a selection is made, and the right column(s) filtered, a list of individual tracks matching those selected is presented in the lower most browser pane. Keyword search is integrated into iTunes such that the list of data matching the search terms populates the facets in the columns as well as returns a list of individual track results. This layout means that even after the keyword search results are returned, the facets can be operated upon to further explore the collection. If results returned cover multiple genres it is easy to highlight those instances that are associated with a given artist, genre or album.

Exploration by facet enables one to make new connections about a domain or its attributes within a domain. One might, for instance discover that someone perceived to be a Jazz artist has also recorded Country music, which may lead one to explore Country music - something previously thought to be of no interest. This same ability to reconsider a domain via attributes also supports creating new knowledge about the domain: a person may not know that these attributes are a way of interpreting a domain. In online shopping sites it is increasingly common when looking for an item to be presented with facets as a way of refining a query by seeing visually, what ways that query can be narrowed . For instance, after doing a search for "sweater" a range of categories to choose from are presented: Category: men's, women's, snow boarding, kids. Feature: on sale, colour, brand or price.

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Enriched Facets. Another attribute of note in this small commercial example that goes beyond even iTunes is quantity. The facets not only provide the categories of sweater possible, but how many of each there are. In a sense this is reminiscent of seeing the number of books on a shelf for a particular topic: we immediately get a greater sense of the domain from this simple cue.

A facetted browser that has made particular use of representing quantity is the RB++ browser.


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Here, several types of information are visually communicated. First, histogram bars against each attribute in a facet show how many documents are associated with that facet. Hovering over a facet reduces the histograms accordingly to show clearly which attributes are included in the remaining set if that attribute is selected.


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selecting mathematics (above)


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then selecting Asia after mathematics (above).

Again, it is informative in an of itself to be able to see that in an education curriculum space regarding mathematics that about 25% of the associated information is about Asian curriculum performance, that the documents are mainly in the k-12 space and available as web pages. In this respect the RB++ browser persistently presents the total documents associated with the space, as well as the effect of selection on the space. These light weight information markers provide additional attributes on a space that are not available from keyword search alone.

Backwards Highlighting (UIST08) in the mSpace browser is a similar way of showing effects of selection across facets in what is otherwise known as a directional browser like iTunes. In iTunes, a selection in the middle or left column only filters to the right; it does not populate back to the columns to the left of that selection. Picking the artist "radiohead" in other words does not show with what Genres that band is associated. Backwards highlighting shows both the filter to the right as well as the possible paths that could be associated with that selection from the left. In the example of a newsfilm space below, where the facets are decade, year, theme, subject and story, a person has picked the 1940's in the leftmost column. The columns to the right are all filtered by that choice. They next choose a Theme in the third column. The effect of this selection is both to filter the remaining columns to the right, but also to highlight two items in the Year column to the left from which the selected third column item is related. The intensity of the highlights also shows a person which attributes were deliberately selected (the bright highlight) and which were calculated (the duller highlight). These simple information guides have been shown to assist both recall and descriptions of information in a domain.


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Making Sense of the Facets themselves. Another sense making attribute that can be associated with an individual item in a facet is a Preview Cue. Preview cues were designed to help users unfamiliar with a domain and its attributes which may still be presented at a level of expertise outside the ken of the explorer. For instance, someone unfamiliar with classical music may not find much exploratory help in a list of types like Sonata or Symphony or periods like Classical or Baroque. They can make a judgement about the actual music represented by an attribute and whether or not they like that sound. The preview cue, in the classical music example, associates a set of music samples with that attribute. Once the samples are triggered the person can either step through those samples, or based on the first one played decide if they wish to explore that area of the domain further, or move on.


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In the image above, hovering over the Speaker icon has triggered a preview cue for the Baroque Composer Reneau. 3 selections by the artist are also cued up in the preview cue. Note also that where Baroque in Period has been selected, a description of the selected facet is presented. Likewise, to help develop an understanding of the domain, when an item associate with a facet is selected, information about that facet is presented.

So far we have seen how small cues associated with static facets can enrich their value for users exploring a domain. mSpace has focused on supporting manipulations of the facets to be presented. mSpace refers to the presentation of facets as a "slice" through a domain space, and enables the facets in the slice to be reordered, as well as enabling other facets to be added or removed to a slice.


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This ability to reorganize a slice according to a person's interests was motivated by the desire to enable a person to explore a domain by what is relevant or known to them: to enable them to have more facility to make sense of a domain in ways that are meaningful to them. In the newsfilm world for instance, one may be more interested to organize a space around the work of a particular reporter than around a particular topic.

Visualizations to Enhance Representations for Knowledge Building

While the above discussion has highlighted the simple ways in which information facets can be decorated to enable rich exploration of a domain, mash ups have also shown us the value of re-presenting those attributes across a variety of visualizations. Exhibit is an example of a tool that provides facetted exploration of data along with visualizing that data against maps and timelines


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The value of these representations is in the questions they foreground that can be asked. The Presidents facets makes it easy to see at a glance that most Presidents were born on the eastern side of the US. That Cleveland was the last president to hold office completely inside the 19th Century (MacKinley bridges 19th and 20th C).

Projects like LifeLinesII have taken larger sets of data such as patient's health records and medical test results, mashed them up, in order to enable medical professionals to align rank and sort them according to the attributes available on the data. This visualized and parameterized mash up readily facilitates seeing whether and where there might be correlations across populations of timing of a drug, for instance, with respsonses to it when other conditions are present. While IBM's manyEyes shows the value of being able to share visualizations of data quickly for powerful analysis, by adding manipulatable facets onto the visualization, LifelinesII enables dynamic exploration of many "what if" scenarios to be explored and new discoveries through correlations to be made.


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Moving from Data Manipulations to Tracking New Ideas

Facetted browsers and tunable visualizations as we have seen make it possible to ask questions either not easily expressed in a keyword search, but also facilitate rapid refinement of queries with real time direct manipulation. Spatial layout of the data's attributes for manipulation allows relationships within the data to remain available for rapid comparison. Likewise mapping data against different kinds of coordinates like quantity, temporal and spatial qualities enables additional information to be communicated without actively seeking for it, enabling the information implicitly to inform query manipulation.

Related to actual data manipulation for exploring data and generating new insights is the question of what to do with the information while moving through it - information we may want to return to later, but not now; thoughts we have mid stream that we'd like to capture without leaving our current focus. All these types of interactions are components of enhancing our information seeking and knowledge building practice.

Currently, we have seen the use of tags-as-annotation as one strategy to enhance the personal or social network value of found things: a tag helps gather that artefact into many potentially relevant contexts. Indeed, the popularity of online photo tagging has rather destroyed the credibility of the oft expressed sentiment that people won't add metadata to their data. Indeed the social sharing value that tags enables, such as a social network being given a set of artefacts from a space tagged specifically for a collaborative project has high value: someone on the team found this thing relevant to our work. Projects like Folksonomies are considering how more strcutured taxonomies may emerge from these flat spaces in order to add the value of categories for exploration to these annotations.

Beyond tags (single words) to strings, or data that's more recognizable as a note or comment on a document, SparTag.us enables not only notes to be associated with a Web page and shared, but these notes can automatically show up anywhere online the document may be cloned. The authors of the technique make the compelling case that much of the Web's available content, from news articles to blog posts, is frequently reprinted verbatim. But what do we do with something we find interesting in the middle of a search? The most common approach is to bookmark or otherwise record the URL for a given post. As work in Hunter Gatherer showed (2002) however, sometimes we don't want the whole document. We want a piece of a document. In Hunter Gatherer, components of Web pages could be captured by highlighted text and hitting a control key. The text was titled and the URL automatically associated with it, and was captured in a linear list called a "collection. " As mentioned previously, drawing on earlier hypertext ideas and modern graphics processing, work by Donetcheva and Drucker on VIKI takes the collection notion and enables each component captured to be laid out as an individual card (2006). LiveLabs recent version of this project adds machine learning processes so that extracted addresses from a collection can be automatically mapped; books can be explored via extracted author or genre information, and cars by price, engine size, model and so on.

Right now, each of these categories of information extraction - books, cars, addresses, people - have been handwrapped widgets matched with the machine learning, and deployed at personal scale. It will be interesting to see how the benefits of formally facetted data can be brought to wilder data collections where machine learning techniques can extract these values for richer re-presentations.

Whither the Note Book , History and what i don't know i need to know?

At a recent NSF workshop on Information Seeking, two of the components that the discussants kept resurfacing as critical tools for exploratory search were History and Note Keeping. An expressed desire was for tools that would help surface things we should know about if and when we're looking at a given topic.

For history currently, we have the History list of our browsers, it's true. But show me someone who has tried to refind something based on History alone and i'll show you a frustrated person. In mSpace, when someone shares an article with another person, they also share the state of the facets to get to that artefact so a larger context of discovery is available. Going outside the context of a single application, the Jourknow project (UIST07) proposes being able to use local computer context to associate and recover information across personal facets like location (from wireless mapping and calendar information), date, and applications to support questions like "what pages was i looking at when i was in the cafe last sunday?" This kind of approach to information seeking does not discriminate between possible search contexts like public, social, private, or application-specific data. The philosophy beyond journknow is that any process might inform any other process of interrogation and discovery: how can we make them available to each other for exploration? Will this ability to blend personal, social and public data itself surface new knowledge/discoveries?

Such questions lead us to come back to questions around how do we capture and reflect upon the knowledge building we are doing? Right now, the main paradigm for exploration is to "go to the web" - via a browser - to trawl for information. Is this the optimal interaction? It seems there are at least two challenges for knowledge building via information seeking while we are working on our own thoughts, or bluntly, when we are taking notes. We may wish to take notes about something while we're reading it - hence being able to select and annotate web documents, as imagined by Nelson decades ago, is as yet uncommon, and still very much in the research wood shed. But likewise we write notes on our own thoughts. Blogging is a popular demonstration of how well writing notes, thoughts or articles is supported - where we can effortlessly add in links to other information. Indeed, with trackbacks, we can also inform those to whom we've linked that a conversation involving their work is underway. Comments on blogs set up meta conversations around the initial seed of a discussion. Fabulous. But blogging is still largely text based. Sure we can link in photos and YouTube videos, but there is many other kinds of data that we might want to reflect upon and share with others.

For instance, consider a scientist who wants to gather up scientific data generated from an experiment, add some notes, tie in some data about the apparatus, along with several quotations about the informing theory, all to give as a blog to a colleague to ask "why aren't my results what the theory predicted? On a more casual note, someone has used VIKI thoughtfully to gather considerable data about various digital cameras. In the mix is the camera they've selected to purchase. How would that annotation be captured to be shared? or the features that were important easily selected for persistent views? And as the data rapidly goes out of date, how might the person share the attributes of their choice to act as a template for a friend's future choice? Backstory (Venolia 08) is a search tool that has been developed to look at some of these issues within a software developer support group works. Gathering up web based sources with local resources and notes on contexts of use, Backstory makes it possible to share local knowledge within a team across data object types. Backstory is a start to taking collections and making the rationale for those collections easier to share, but we are still very light on such wrapping for reuse tools. Right now, wrapping knowledge about gathered artefacts for reuse is what Dan Olson would call a highly "viscous" process: the cost of carrying out the process of gathering organizing annotating and managing the data may be higher than the perceived benefit, and a knowledge building opportunity is postponed or lo

If these kinds of data gathering and sharing tasks for enhanced knowledge building were better supported, we can readily imagine that the process of discovery and innovation would accelerate. As we have seen with Google, when a process accelerates, such as finding a phone number or a paper or the answer to a "what is it" question, the activities supported by those processes change. If we can do something quickly, trivially now that used to take days or hours, we can move on more rapidly from information seeking to knowledge building.

Related to this kind of human enhanced annotated and gathered set of data for another's engagement is what the machine may be able to bring to the table. A repeated demand at the NSF workshop was, "tell me what i don't know i need to know." Such a challenge goes beyond related recommendations of people who read this also bought that. Recently we looked at search behaviours of 2000 users looking for information on diets. We saw that people who also found diet forums came to a decision about what diet they wanted to pursue in about half the time of others who did not. We also saw that the forum users' queries were quite distinct from those who had not found the forums. We know from related research that social support for dieting is a signficant benefit. This preliiminary study seems to indicate that seeing someone search for diet information, and hooking them up with forums where diet support is the topic of the space would be one of the good things to know that a neophyte would not know they need to know. The design challenges here are significant: how can we surface this kind of valuable associated knowledge that would not show up in a keyword search? how do we reflect back why information of this type was being surfaced? Are there ethical issues around how information is selected to be associated? eg, people who are interested in explosives might also want to know about off shore suppliers of hydrogen peroxide?

These kinds of challenges are exciting to contemplate. They suggest that there are many more ways in which we already want to be able to find, manipulate, ponder, share and reflect upon information - all with the facility of keyword search, but none of which keyword search addresses. All which are part of the larger space of "information seeking" beyond simple "search"

So while Google can certainly find data with an increasingly freaky extrasensory like ability, there are so many other aspects to our information seeking and knowledge building practices that, if they too were on Google like steroids, we could return to that initial scenario of a busy mom being able to come to the computer and say "i want a better job" and see a result set perhaps that shows

Your Interests matched with Current Skills Needed Additional Skills Where to Get Training Where to Apply for Positions Now, here's a package to send - would you like to amend any details? would you like me to dial the number for you?

Posted by mc at 3:53 PM | Comments (0)

November 17, 2008

Compostable Cups & Cuttlery? Cool, but...

I was at Microsoft Research in Redmond, USA recently and found that their new building's caffeteria has recently switched to what i was told was "biodegradable cutlery" made from corn.

Apparently there are a number of manufacturers going into this space offering a variety of types of heat resistance and other properties.
Now that's kinda nifty. I'm not sure what the impact on the environment is on growing corn/spuds specifically to make utensils (there's a compelling overview of these questions here. can you say "cargill" anyone?) or why this is more environmentally sound than having a dishwasher to wash stainless steal stuff on site, or just what the tradeoffs are between compostable flatware production but surely it's better than plastic? It certainly *feels* nicer than plastic.
Of course this whole notion of convenience is a bit wiffy, isn't it? There's no signs up at most institutions that say "think about bringing in your own cutlery and reusing it." or "Why not wash off your cutlery and reuse it?" - probably fears around law suits for self-poisoning from cootie build up on less well washed utensils.
But seriously, this approach to turning disposable into compostable seems like a good one. Apparently it also takes 65% less energy to make a one of these kinds of compostable cups than a plastic (oil based, that is) cup. How much more energy would it take for us to take the next step to add reduce and reuse into that cycle before that final recycle phase?
Posted by mc at 7:51 PM | Comments (0)

June 25, 2008

Utilikilts Review: Un-bifrucated Quality & Service

KiltI've said it before: the things that make a product great are not just the excellence of the product but also the information and engagement around the product while considering a purchase and then the support of the product after a sale is complete - especially if/when something goes pear shaped. Utilikilts, an American company that makes "American Made Utility Kilts for Everyday Wear" definitely stands in the company of Great Company because of its entire kilt culture experience.

The following post is a review of Utilikilts: it tells the story of why from the in-store experience (and ya gotta get the in-store experience especially for the utilikilt-as-changing room effect), support and post sales problem resolution is rock solid.

So if you're a guy and haven't considered a kilt before, why the heck not? Are you a sissy? If you're a gal, these put the fun into funky - far more fun/funk than jeans, worn low as hipsters.

Utilikilts makes the kilt experience a cultural phenomenon that is explorable, affordable and perhaps best of all usable. The following illustrates how and why that is so.

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"Welcome Home"
200806211630 was the way i was greeted as i walked into the Utilikilt flagship store in Seattle. This from a200806211632 staff member whom i'd not met before. I had on a Utilikilt Workman's kilt (the model displayed in the Victoria and Albert museum (pdf) in London), a brown leather jacket and my hair down. Each point was commented upon as a totally righteous way for a gal to "crossdress" with a utilikilt ("cross-dressing" is what utilikilt calls gals who wear their gear). Not used to this kind of enthusiastic greeting from sales staff, i was both flumoxed and delighted - did this person know that i was coming into the store because there'd been a size issue with another kilt i'd ordered? No, it turns out, he did not. This is just the Way of the Kilted Men of Utilikilt greet members (of either gender) of the Clan.

So that was nice. And leads me to wax on a bit about the
In Store Experience of Utilikilt

It may be important to make clear that Utilikilts are designed for Guys, for those Manly Men secure enough in their masculinity to enjoy the freedom of going unbifrucated. Consequently they spend considerable time in their promotional literature to assert the Grr-ness of kilt wearing. To this end they have a suite of Mock-u-mercials made by Utilikiltarians protesting the manliness (and robust functionality) of their Kilt. This award winner, for instance, blends a sub plot of getting an upper chest tattoo with a main plot of carrying out metal work and welding while donning a skull-painted welder's mask (really nice paint job), and of course, wearing a utilikilt.

Howiekilt2

While in the FAQ they are quick to point out that "women look hot" in their kilts, this intense masculine vibe may suggest an atmosphere unwelcoming to those willing to "cross-dress." I was willing to risk at least crossing the threshold of the store for two reasons: i work out with guys who are nail bending bad ass Big Men, and they are some of the nicest kindest folks i know. So my guess was behind the Grr were sweet people. Likewise, i am passionate in my love of kilts. And pockets. My main kilt lust has thus far been sufficed by Howie Nicholsby's excellent custom made-to-measure 21st Century Kilts from Edinburgh - that have great pockets (shown left in blue pinstripe denim with Howie's custom Juggling Rooster Seat Belt belt).

Much to my delight, when i arrived at the store there were two really geeky guys trying on kilts (not quite the heavy metal rock poster children of many in the utilikilt photo gallery site). Right on. Kilts for All Men (and gals who love unbifrucated pocketed garments)

The customer base exemplified at that moment was not threatening. Indeed, the kind of clean grunge feel of the store itself was funky and inviting.

Kiltguys

Blended with the atmosphere comes the in-store sales experience. I was immediately impressed by the fact that there was one sales person in the store, Andrew, and he managed several customers (including me) at once - and effectively so - balancing the awareness of when one of us had a question and needed attention, and when one us needed to mull . Impressive.

Waiting Room. My sense from the next experience in the shop is that this multitasking brilliance may be Andrew's forté. I would therefore encourage anyone planning to visit the shop to make sure you have time to browse, since having the full attention of people on the floor can be a bit of a wait. On this account it would be nice if there were a few more surfaces for sitting, rather than making do with various edges or tool boxes.
Once attention is had, however, it is full on YOU, and care of your sizing and specific kilt interests (utilikilt makes a number of models).

This attention is critical - perhaps especially when fitting women since, as the web site FAQ says, fitting a utilikilt for gals is different than fitting guys. As my hand went to grabbing a kilt close to my waist size, Andrew's hand was there to go further up the rack to larger sizes "these fit on the hips for women" and he was so right. They are hipsters.

And how does one try on a utilikilt?
"So, where is the changing room"
"The Utilikilt is its own changing room," states Andrew, opening out a kilt to walk into, have wrapped around one, and therefrom to drop one's drawers beneath. Goodness. What fun. When was the last time trying something on in a store was so risky (not riskee) - or that a guy helped you robe in such an intimate, if seemingly semi-public way.

After a couple of iterations, an OK fit in one kilt went to a SUPER oh ya that *works* fit version of the kilt. This is why buying online may be a *wee bit* problematic for gals - and why the web site also recommends "go to where the kilts are" for women trying them out.

Which brings us to the next story: the Incorrect Order : even when you THINK from having been in the store that you know your size, the material of the kilt *may well* have a significant impact on the actual size you (a gal) might get for your hipster, cross-dressing utilikilt.

This was an error: in my enthusiasm for these groovy garments, i ordered another model in the same size. The tricky bits were (a) i didn't realize that all sales were final and (b) i was rushed at the time (c) and was trying to avoid the cost/time of a cab ride from Bellevue into Seattle. My previous sale made me think that oh i must know my sizing.

Perhaps the wonderful Johnny with whom i placed this order might have interrogated me to find out either how i had arrived at my sizing or what kind of kilt i had purchased, since the materials may cause a slightly different fit. But perhaps this is an issue that had not actually come up before for fitting a gal (maybe few women buy multiple instances of these things?)

But then, something else that would have been useful to hear on the phone as well was "just a reminder: all sales are final." When i had been in the shop, the kilt i got was a special sale item and Andrew stated clearly "you realize this is a sale item: all sales final; no refunds or exchanges" - No problem: i had the kilt on and was wearing it out of the store. So realize this: all sales are final; only in store credits.

As said, when i ordered this kilt i was dealing with Shipping Jedi (their nomenclature) Johnny at the 800 number for the store. Why did i have more than one chat with Johnny other than to order the item? Because i wanted to arrange to have the kilt picked up by courier in Seattle and delivered to me in Bellevue - apparently this had never happened before. But they were up for it. I treasure the intrigued directions on how to get the courier to the right part of the correct alley to make the pick up. Johnny emailed me to confirm that it had been picked up, and the kilt arrived without incident. Shout out to FleetFoot Couriers in Seattle for their excellent service.

Arriving at the hotel, unpacking the kilt, this is when the concern started: was the kilt just too big, and thus too long from hanging too low on the hips? After a tough evening hemming and hawing about does it fit, does it not? oh gee i think it's too big...what am i gonna do, will i have to return it, i read the fine print on the sales slip: no refunds. And so i had to call Johnny again to say why does this kilt fit so differently? is there a solution? what might it be? If there isn't another right fitting, right colour kilt in stock, am i stuck with this gorgeous but not particularly usable kilt?

Here's where customer service goes to the Right Next Level. Johnny immediately recognized that the usual In Store Credit offered to someone from another country who might never be back in the state to claim it might not be the best customer experience. So "while we are confident that we can get you fitted into the right fit, i've talked with Ben, my manager, who's said yes, in these unique and extraordinary circumstances we'll drop the kilt if we can't get a fit for you." That's cool. So, transport arrangements made, the clock ticking (i had a flight to catch), i head down to the store being assured that the replacement color at the replacement size would be waiting for me.

Jasonbrett-Utili-Sm Amazingly, when i got to the store late that afternoon, it seemed that the replacement kilt of the right size and color had gone walk about. Brett, the staffer who had greeted me with "welcome home" spent considerable cycles on attempting to locate that kilt that Johnny had previously asked Andrew who'd had to go home sick early to pull and set aside. I tired on a longer one with the right waist that they could "chop" - but then i had a plane to catch and their sowers had all gone home for the day. But they'd been willing to find a solution that way if it had been available. Andrew was even called at home, and pulled out of his sick bed to be queried on where he had put the pulled kilt. It just wasn't there.

In a proactive fit of excellence, Brett went down the road to the warehouse himself to go look for the wrap in question. Rather than come back empty handed, Brett came back with a kilt of the right waist and length - though not the color i had picked, but what the heck? Tried it on. Loved how it felt.

Fitting again: Here's an interesting thing: this right size/length but different color model i left with felt *better* in fit than the long version that was supposedly the same waist, just longer. Once again, this reinforces the point on their site: go to where the kilts are. I don't know why the difference - maybe it's cuz on a longer kilt, the pockets are lower down; maybe it's because each of these is hand machine sewn, so there's slight differences. Maybe it's because different dies create different textures. But in each case of each kilt i tried on, each felt unique unto itself.

Fitting Note 2: Women's Tanks. If you're interested in one of the few made-for-women items in the shop, like the hot ribbed tank, gals may find they wish to go up one size. These American Apparel made tanks fit *tight* - even when going one up from your typical, anticipated snug fit shirt. Likewise, go in with a bra/top cover you're happy to wear in public: this is one area where a utilikilt may not be its own changing room.

And, with the kilts exchanged, that was pretty much it. One might stomp and spit a bit: how, after all these conversations and assurances, could the bloody kilt have gone walk about? It was no small deal to come down from Bellevue to Seattle, etc etc. You know, i don't know. Stuff happens. In the worst case, my worst fear was addressed anyway: that if no kilt available, then i could just return this one for a full refund, which was totally off the song sheet of the shop in anycase, so really, no harm no foul, and these guys were working it. Honour and all that satisfied. In future they may keep their pulls better labelled and stashed, but as said, in this case, it worked out: there was a well agreed Plan B in place and for that i thank Utilikilt.

Wrapping Up. Brett also resolved the sale well, and just as we were packing up, even Johnny called over to see if all had been settled out ok, while Jason went on a mission back to the warehouse to get me a not-for-sale Utilikilt mug as a gesture to say thanks for the patience; sorry for the mix up.

The staff at Utilikilt have plainly drunk the Kool Aid, which lends to a super experience. These guys seem to live the product. Andrew had had utilikilts for 7 years; Brett had plainly gone through a suite of them, recounting various experiences with different models at different points in time. It's a strong testament to a retail store that it can hold staff for a long enough period that they know the stock so well and how to fit people and keep up excellent customer service, from phone orders to in store experience. It is a kind of culture thing, and that's cool, too.

So kudos to Andrew, Johnny, Brett for sales handling, Jason for backing up Brett in the store, Sam for connecting the calls and Ben for supporting Johnny on Plan B. Despite the bumps, a super customer experience.

Epilogue: Walking down the Street
The Utilikilt culture is in evidence around the store. As i was walking towards it, about a block away, another kilted person was coming out of it - same kilt model even. There seemed to be an initial disconnect on the gender: am i seeing what i'm seeing - a gal in a kilt? Is that ok? Then, the quiet nod of the head to each other in passing, acknowledging. It reminded me of how in Canada, where motorcycles are far less common than they are in europe, folks on motorbikes tend to nod at each other: we know we're a wee bit off the norm in this pursuit, the nod admits, and we support each other in that. The Utilikiltarian nod felt similar.

Also, the number of times while in the Seattle/Tacoma region someone said to me "Is that a Utilikilt?" or "I love your utilikilt" has grown more than i can count. Brand awareness of this local product seems pretty good. I learned that at Microsoft and Boeing, Utilikilts have the status of "authorized wear." Even at the airport going through security, one of the personnel asked the Is that a... question. I'm ready for it now, as it's kept happening well outside the Home State. Indeed, it's become clear to me why Utilikilt pads a pocket of a new kilt with their business cards: they're to handle the number of times a person gets asked about the garment. So now i just say "Yes it is. Here's a card for the site and how to order"

Some folks aren't ready to make the leap to unbifrucatedness. Some folks chat a bit. Others break out in a big smile, and say thanks, staring at that card like it's magic. It's interesting to see the array of guys who comment, and talk about wanting to take the plunge.

I'm running out of cards.

Posted by mc at 7:20 PM

June 8, 2008

Delight: what if we were to design for it deliberately?

The following is a meditation on design, and what might happen if enticing delight were a deliberate goal rather than a rare accident of our software and systems designs.

I recently had the pleasure of setting a man's watch for him.

Watch
The man was delighted by this act, expressing a joy that might have seemed out of proportion with the result. He told his friends throughout that day that his watch was now fixed and running with the correct time. Each time he retold the story, it was accompanied with this same animated delight.

The watch was only off by four minutes, so not hugely wrong. Apparently, however, it had been wrong for three years. And for three years this man had shared the story of his chronographic offset with colleagues and friends alike. Many, the story went, had tried to fix this watch and reclaim the lost four minutes. The record of hopes raised only once again to be dashed had grown long. But amazingly, this man had not abandoned hope: he kept *wearing* this watch despite the fact that each time he glanced it he had to be mentally adjusted by four. It was not as if he could not afford a replacement. It was almost as if it had become more important to continue to believe in the possibility that one day someone would fix this watch than to find its replacement. Until that day he would continue to offer the watch to anyone who would have a go, just so that *if* that person did succeed, he would be there to savour the delight in having it work again.

Now, since it has been reset, each time he looks at this watch he can re-animate that delight for himself by remembering how long he had carried it with this offset and how happiness could now be felt in such a simple thing as accurate time-keeping. He can also tell his friends his problem has been solved, and they too will share the joy of their good friend's relief. After all, some of them had been there to experience this regular tiny desolation in their colleague's life.

So the delight has not simply been in a watch running with the correct time - that is common - but that *this* watch now runs on time. The surprise and delight tied within the satisfaction that the man's hope or belief in the possibility of restoration of that which was lost was not misplaced all contribute to the delight in the re-set time piece. Such is perhaps the nature of delight: an internal state that is ready to be surprised by the unexpected becoming possible.

The trouble is, that with digital systems it seems that the unexpected is usually to do what should be normal.

Why is being able to set a watch to run on time (what one would hope to be normal) experienced here as extraordinary? What would happen, therefore, if we designed with delight as deliberate goal rather than if we experienced it as a side effect?

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Consider the parable of the watch: the repetition of the mistimed watch left open the possibility of delight and surprise should what was accepted as "normal" - the wrong time - become the very simple "right."

Computing is filled with examples of coping with the wrong time all too often being the normal.

Imagine the delight in changing that normal-ness of the wrong thing to the right thing. For instance, how frustrating it normally is when trying to get shipping information from an online store, where one has to add the thing to one's cart, register on the site, even provide payment information etc etc all just to find out shipping costs and times - something that will determine whether or not we wish to purchase from that site. Imagine how *delighted* a potential customer would be if the shipping quote was simply available at any point the person wished to know it? Changing the normal expectation of the online store hassle to the right action of giving the customer what they want when they want it may lead to delight and loyalty. They, like the man with the watch, may tell all their friends about their terrific experience with this store, this digital system.

In work we've been doing between MIT and Southampton in projects like Jourknow, we've been looking at imagining a world where one doesn't have to fill in a form to create a note about a phone call or a meeting or the name of a friend or any other kind of information. They simply jot it down, however they like to jot "meeting @ 3 c mc" or "3pm remember to get to meeting with mc" - the note is there; it's also now in the calendar. No forms with clicking and tabbing through 16 fields just to record one event.

It may be that as this potentially delightful way of doing things becomes the new norm, the delight may diminish. For those who would know no other way of interacting with a computer (once we get there) such natural interaction may not invoke delight - it will only be retrospective for those of us who have suffered with previous wrong time "normal."

So, are there attributes where delight may not be dependent on challenging normal so that a design might delight constantly? When was the last time a computer delighted you? Did it keep delighting you? or did what was once delightful become mundane? or did it continue to fold between the mundane and the delightful? I imagine that there will be times when the man looks at his watch and sees the time; at others remembers how it used to be and how it is, and re-kindles that delight for himself - hence a folding between the mundane of a proper normal and the delightful.

For me, my most profound and enduring moment of computer delight was witnessing the Flying Toasters screen saver. Toasters. With wings. Wings that flapped. And made thwap thwap thwap thwap thwap wing flapping sounds against the Ride of the Valkyrie as sountrack. Utterly absurdly gratuitous graphics and absolutely delightful. I remember about five of us huddled around a prof's computer just starring and laughing and poking each other watching the infinite progression of flying toasters across a computer screen.

Toasttoast

The normal of the computer was work-based applications; the occasional game. This screen saver used the computer in a completely non-utilitarian, or non-computer or non-normal way. It turned a several thousand dollar piece of hardware into something whimsical. So even when flying toasters were no longer new - we had our own copies of the software - they did not lose their capacity to delight. At any point in the day, if things got a little too intense, well, there was always always flying toasters. There was always this reminder of the difference between the mundane and the unordinary as possible.

Flying toaster moments are all too rare with digital systems.

Why is that?

What would it be like to design deliberately to achieve delight? At least some of the components of delight are afforded by contrast between the expected and the actual; between the normal and the other. Delight takes the expected out of context. The watch that never tells the correct time, tells the correct time. The computer that's meant to be serious does whimsy. Delight is also pleasurable.

With these traits of difference from the expected, the norm, can we use them as motivators for design? Can we construct reverie? It seems that while the perhaps purer delight of flying toasters may be the harder kind of delight to design deliberately, that of addressing the more all-too-common wrong-normals are legion enough to provide an ecstatic revery of delight if only a few of them were tackled with intent. Let us not forget the classic example of the frustration of machines: setting of the VCR to record a program. Was not the delight of the first TIVO not only that commercials could be skipped but that what once was an horrendous process of setting the time on a vcr and then setting the parameters for recording a show became absolutely trivial: here's a program guide; click the show you want right in that guide. Voila - recorded. One may argue that well, we had to arrive at a place where we could get online program guides to be able to click them and send the correct info to a system to translate that into recording information. Right. So what. There are squillions of opportunities for better design where we do indeed have all the technology we could want to make effective systems possible, and just don't do it. It's easier to fill in a form than eliminate it.

Indeed, it's rather sad that there are SO MANY opportunities for this kind of delight in our regular daily interactions in our world. Why, after all, was the man's watch such a gordian knot to those who attempted to fix it? It's just a WATCH. Like filling in forms are what make things simple for computers, crappy watch setting design is what makes setting the time simple for the digital device, not the person using the device.

This is not to say that everything has to be simple. As designer and ACM CHI Fellow Bill Buxton has said, the piano has a very simple interface but it is not "easy" to master. The cost/benefit relationship of learning to master the device can be great, however. But a watch is a watch. The result is simply that it tells the time; it is not a direct intermediary to the muses. It should be simpler to set a digital watch than learning to play a Prokofiev symphony, no?

The moral of the story seems to be that the source of our delight around are devices is all to often when the wrong normal for a fleeting moment behaves as we would hope and expect such a device to behave. And while in part when such behaviour results we have a story of hope fulfilled, as in the man and his watch, that same story is also one of failure: failure of design, of imagination to produce technology that supports us rather than requires us to support it.

Perhaps if we designed with delight as a goal, we would be more likely to achieve something as simple as a digital watch that a human could set without having to be a phd in computer science.

Posted by mc at 5:41 AM

December 19, 2007

Temporal Mapping in Arts and Humanities Data: Where and When's Waldo?

The most popular current Web 2.0 representation is geography: putting everything on a map. It's a powerful thing to do: when we can SEE how close registered sex offenders are to schools and day cares, we have certain reactions about where our psychic sense of "too near" or "too far" meets the legal/phyiscal interpretation of "appropriate distance." A little bit of information, as has been said many times, can be a dangerous thing. This particular offender/schools mash up does not provide a brushing interface that, say, relates re-offender statistics based on various distances from schools to help confirm whether our sense of dread is well-founded our not.

It is with this caveat in mind that, our group has been thinking about how adding not just mapping but temporal mapping might be for a project we have called musicSpace to integrate a variety of musicology sources for easy exploration. More recently in a project called continuum we'd been looking at how to map rich data sets like classical music onto timelines so that the visualization doesn't implode. That is, if there's lots of stuff going on at the same time in a time line, all the info looks like a big blob, or if you zoom out, you lose the surrounding context. Our challenge was to solve the "too much info=blob; too little=not enough information" dilemma. Inspired by that work, we'd like to take what we learned there and think map thoughts.

Mapping Time

What we are calling Temporal Mapping is not unknown but it's not common. to be clear, temporal mapping has one meaning in discussions of disease tracking for instance that doesn't involve visualizations; spatio-temporal mapping has another meaning in computing. The kind of temporal mapping we're considering is more akin to an example from the Land Cover Institute which on a map over a relatively stable geography shows how population density has grown and spread over 200 years. Other work shows how the geography of a place itself (such as a river valley) changes over time.

'Istanbul was Constantinople now its Istanbul" - They Might Be Giants

Our sense of temporal mapping it turns out is more complex than these example because it turns out we are looking at a variety or parameters that change: in terms of locations, borders change; names change and even the geography can change. One way to reflect this change is to use maps that can present borders/locations that are accurate for a given period - this assumes that various places recognize the same borders/place names. Consider the mapping of Taiwan as a political representation issue. To use the music examples, if a composer created something in the 1700s, the borders of the domains were different and the place names may be too, so we need to have maps with borders and place names that are accurate for that time. As we discuss below, there are other issues that come into play when, to coin a phrase, wanting to co-map points that cross times, and thus cross representations of locations.

Even if we don't want to co-map, but restrict ourselves to single maps, there are some challenges: if we know where a piece was composed we map that; if we know where a composer was born we map that, if we know where a composer first performed a piece we map that.

There are a few data subtleties there: do all objects in a classical music repository now need Lat/Long data associated with them, as well as a date? Even there the temporal bit is not so obvious: there are kinds of dates and kinds of locations: how tease these out so they are clear in the UI? so it's clear a person is choosing to see performance dates/locations rather than composition dates/locations. What happens if a work was known to have been taken out and put away over a range of places and times? How is that stored in an object in order to be represented?

If we put aside that question of the back end data representations and UI finesse for the moment, let's assume whatever it is we want to map in music we can map, the more glaring, basic challenges are how both borders and place names have changed not just over the centuries but even within decades. Maps that only map against geography lat/long have it somewhat easier than mapping against historically/politically accurate representations.

And as always, the question of how to represent the information is non-obvious. For instance, how handle multiple names or boundaries for a place? Only show the appropriate name for the specific time? Show all versions to provide context not only of place but between times? These kinds of decisions become critical when crossing domain representations. For example, what happens when looking for a location in europe that produced the most major compositions of the Romantic Era relative to location(s) in Europe of most significant performances in early 20thC. The borders and place names from the 1700s and indeed even between 1914 and 1920 change several times.

So Temporal Mapping is?
Perhaps a fast way to begin to think about temporal mapping in arts and humanities data that involves people, places and times is to be able to accurately reflect these places as they were interpreted both in their times, and in ours, and to be able view these comparisons from any variety of perspectives - comparatively, relatively.

Animation and Insight
A potential benefit of developing temporal mapping approaches for arts/humanities data is in meaning that is communicated through animation: if we can step through the various places by time of where Beethoven worked - see who else was in the neighborhoods at various points, and correlate that with specific works, and perhaps specific historical events and their key locations, can we begin, almost at a glance, to get a new appreciation of a domain space? Do seeing these patterns animated over time and space and politics and whatever else let us ask new kinds of questions - questions that would have been potentially intractable to ask before?

These are early days for our investigations, but from early scenarios domain experts have given us, the ability to step through time, and to see events of interest comparatively across time and space, is a thing devoutly to be wished. These representational desires are driving our current UI research efforts.

Posted by mc at 7:22 PM

August 6, 2007

Etymotic and What makes a company greater than its product alone: after sales service doesn't hurt.

I am a fan of Etymotic's ipod ear cannel headphones, the Etymotic ER6i's. I've reviewed them as great, affordable entry level higher end headphones that can really change your ipod listening experience. They are also great noise eliminators with no need for a battery to get that noise cancellation to work.

Recently, i've also learned that Etymotic provides exceptional, beyond the call of duty, customer support. If you're weighing up options of a company to get your next phones from, besides thinking about quality of product, this tale of after sales support may encourage you to look at this specialist group for their excellent work and quality of support.

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Here's the story. I bought a pair of ER6i's about 18months ago that went flakey on me about 9 months ago. By flakey i mean that one side was cutting in and out, and finally, pretty much just out. I thought well, that's me: i've just treated them too unkindly and maybe that's why they've turned south. When i can i'll get a new pair. In the interim, the price on these phones has come down almost 50%! making them an even better deal than when i first reviewed them. So i got another set 4 months ago. Truth to tell, i used them rarely as my listening habits in the past four months have changed somewhat. They spent most of their time safely in their case (an excellent redesign of the previous pouch - so an even better value than the earlier phones yet again). I was therefore hugely surprised to find that one day, on plugging them in, the left channel was dead.

I thought oh dang, now i have to deal with customer support and warranties - where's the bill where's the bill. I looked at the warranty page on the web site (they actually make it easy to access right from the main page of the web site) and learned that there was a 12 month warranty on these puppies.

That's when i felt like a fool: when my first set died, they were under warranty; now they weren't. But at least the current set were. I wrote customer support whom it turns out i'd written about a year before to ask about filters for the original phones and they'd been great then. This time i was writing though to ask about two things:

First, i was asking how do i proceed to do a warranty claim on the new headphones.
Second, i asked if there was any chance they'd look at the old headphones, even though they were now 6 months out of warranty and it's my fault for not thinking of that sooner.

The response and subsequent interaction was amazing. The customer support person - it turns out the same person i'd dealt with previously, said yes send them both along! That's the first great thing. The second is that i said i'd be in the states for a bit and perhaps if they were able to turn around checking them out, they'd be able to send them to me in the US, rather than back to the UK where it would take me awhile to catch up with them. Yes again - please give us both addresses and we'll do what we can.

And they did. Within a week they were out of my hands, in their shop, and then back to me.

The third great thing, that just blew me away is that in the return box, there was only one pair of headphones. The second had not made it. When i asked about this via email, they were extremely apologetic and said they'd send out that replacement pair via UPS red and that i'd have them the NEXT morning. Now, my email asking about the missing pair went to them late that afternoon. UPS red is not cheap, but they opted to use this service so i'd have both pairs before i left the country. I wrote back to say it's ok; please just send them to the UK by whatever means: i have the one pair now i can use; the other can follow. But no, there they were the next morning. There was even an extra couple sets of ear tips - i'd asked why the tips were now grey rather than white on the replacement pair. Apparently they're all going to this better grade grey tip, but since i expressed a preference for white, the extras were included with this next set.

Now, every step of that experience, from looking after an out of warranty repair, to facilitating a particular shipping request, to recovering from the smallest of errors with the greatest of grace, every step here was a demonstration of a company going above and beyond the written letter of their warranty, beyond customer satisfaction, and getting to customer delight.

It's experiences like this, along with great product to start with, that build customer loyalty for sure.

Here's a shout out to Maureen Defoort of Etymotic Customer Service and to a company that supports this kind of care.

Yet another reason to recommend these excellent headphones.

Posted by mc at 9:45 PM

May 3, 2007

action figures as design inspiration for engineers.

Personas are often used in design to help inspire team members with an understanding of the stakeholders - the folks who have a stake in a thing - for whom they're develeping and designing their stuff.

Personas are amalgams of attributes for a particular set of traits that make up a Type of User (or stakeholder) who has to carry out a task. These personas are also known as stereotypes. These stereotypes are really rich: they have names, ages, economic backgrounds, their likes/displikes; their jobs and other information about where the process of interest intersects with their lives.

Eg, Tony is a 34 year old white sales rep. He likes to dress up funky. He wears a shirt and tie, but uses a messenger bag rather than a brief case. He likes his double shot cap first thing in the morning. He's been in sales for 6 years and has been with his current team for 8 months.He has to make 2 sales a day to keep his job, so he's on the phone all the time. He does not have a lot of time to learn about new specs for the products he has to promote. He usually gets this information from links in emails to web pages about new products he'll be asked to promote to clients. His main clients are mid size firms. He makes site visits in his territory once a month (and so on...)

Actionfigures
These stereotypes are built up usually by talking with a range of people in these positions, analyzing the data, and creating the composites. The challenge has been: how communicate these rich personas to the people who need to know about them - people like software engineers. The folks at CISCO found a surprising (and surprisingly effective) method: action figures.

Their approach was described in a session at CHI2007 called "Making Personas Memorable" (pdf).

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Millie
The User Experience Design Group at CISCO trialed several approaches to presenting personas: stock photos of real people AS personas, realistic sketch versions of the photos, and finally, dolls. While initially the use of dolls was thought to be simply not credible, ultimately they became THE mode for communicating stakeholder needs in a way in which team members could empathize with, and be interested in.

The persona figures were photographed, and then photoshopped into "day in the life" stories to provide context for the personas. Stand up cardboard cards of the personas were distributed in the CHI2007 conference packs - these same cards now populate engineers' desks. Apparently at design meetings, these personas are referenced regularly to validate claims about an idea for a process "No, Millie wouldn't do that because..." and so on. (There's a figure called Vincent that they don't talk about too much: i think he looks like Christopher Walkin).

While the CISCO UXD team is interested in investigating more about how/why these figures are seemingly more effective than photos of characters, the appeal of the approach seems immediate. If the cost of the dolls manufacture weren't quite so prohibitive for the academic space (2000 originally; now CISCO pays 600 per), this seems like an incredible tool to help keep user needs in front of developer teams in an enjoyable and effective way. Use of second life avatars was discussed as a possible alternative route - but i wonder if the physical-ness of the dolls isn't an important factor for take up? The team speculated that the fact that these dolls were obviously professionally created - weren't just photoshopped up in a way that "anyone could do it" - also had a role in the takeup of the dolls.

No matter whether real or memorex or second life, these kinds of action figure personas (apparently they fit right in with the spider man action figures in some engineers' cubicles) seems well worth taking up.

Posted by mc at 2:31 AM | Comments (0)

April 28, 2007

Hydrate or Die - trying to find a sustainable waterbottle (review of klean kanteen and camelbak water bottles)

I had recently read an article in "best life" about plastics and their nastiness - a nastiness even so called recycling of plastic could not tame.
In the lab where i'd been working water bottles are ubiquitous - everyone, it seems, has the stay hydrated mantra. My main use of waterbottles had been for workouts - chuck some recovery drink in 'em, shake, suck back on the ride.

My two big-mouth Specialized plastic bike bottles - ancient by plastic standards - had just about reached the point of no return. I really like the Specialized design: the bottles are large - near 24oz. The cap is wide enough easily to get in ice cubes or scoops of powder, and the thing you bite down on is both easy to chomp down on to pull out while riding, and is likewise soft enough not to knock your teeth out if you hit a bump will chugging along. Mine were also clear but slightly frosted - easy to see how much water is in 'em. But alas, these bottles were of the plastic variety. Was my only choice for a replacement another non-recyclable, relatively short term material?

27oz Klean Kantean 757320

Enter the Klean Kanteen - stainless steal, lean and robust vessel. But enter also Camelbak's new polycarbonate water bottle,

The following overviews the pros and cons of each bottle, and why a plastic one, sadly, in certain key circumstance, may still be the only option.

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Klean Kanteen
The Klean Kanteen is a simple concept - a stainless steal flask that is for a 24% bottle, a smaller than usual circumference, so it appears tall and narrow. It is robust - preferable to the SIGG brand of thicker, wider, less abuse resilient Swiss (aluminum, coated) bottle. The Kanteen also comes with several choices of top: a child style spout, a flat canteen type top, and what is advertised as a "sport top." Herein lies the promise and the problem of the Klean Kanteen as a multi-purpose water-bottle. The top is styled like a sports bike bottle top where one bites down on the pipet and sucks back.

The bottle is a great idea - it's light, slim design and stainless steal finish is highly attractive. Unlike plastic it is possible to wash thoroughly AND get out any grunge that can accumulate in plastic - with an aftertaste even after soap that never quite seems to leave entirely. It's rugged, and has a wider mouth than most of its competitors - more the size of a classic military canteen - so getting ice or sports drink powder into it is no problem.

There are two issues with the KK, however, though they have nothing to do with the bottle. Its all in the Sports top. The first is that the top has an aerator - a wee plastic knob that is designed to release a bit of air while sucking on the drink so that the drink flows properly. It's a potentially good idea. It's just like sticking an extra hole in a tetrapak milk container to help the milk flow evenly out of that little spout. The problem with the aerator in the KK sport top is that it really does suck air. I've gone through three tops, and each one of them makes an audible sucking sound as soon as the top is put to use. A side effect of this noisy bladder is that even with the cap closed, if the bottle goes towards horizontal in your bag, pack or other, count on it leaking. Bummer.

The second issue with the sports cap is that the plastic is too hard to use while active - even with the bike up on a trainer (ie for all intents and purposes, stationary), pedaling made it impossible to use safely. A treadmill was even worse. This bottle is dandy for one sitting down at their desk, or stopping on a hike for a water break; it is sadly currently simply not usable in motion. Likewise if traveling with a full bottle in a bag or pack, the flat top will be needed to ensure that the contents of the bottle don't start hydrating the contents of the bag.

Because of these issues with the top, i mainly keep my KK's at work. Having the Kanteen there is still a great reminder (a) to go get water and (B) make sure i polish one off before lunch and another one afterwards. Their size also makes them easy to cart to meetings. The noise of the top, however, makes them occasionally just too conspicuous.

So a bottle that is otherwise an ecofriendly and well designed for abuse either from hitting the deck of getting jammed around in a pack is made less than useful for those "sport" (and not so sport) encounters for which it would otherwise be ideal.

I contacted Klean Kanteen about the cap, and they have said that they're aware of the too tough for teeth issue, and are working to design a new top. The quick response of the company to this query was very much appreciated. If you don't need a sports top - you use canteens now, then the Klean Kanteen single wall stainless steel canteen is well worth consideration: it's just a better bottle design for its weight to durability ratio than anything else.

Polycarbonate Non-recyclable Blues (greens, yellows, greys....)

But in the meantime of Klean Kanteen getting its sport top worked out, i need a decent sports bottle that has some of the environmental affordances of a steal bottle with the functionality of a sports-usable water bottle. Enter the Camelbak Waterbottle.

At about the same time i was looking for the non-plastic water bottle, Camelbak came out with its first model. Camelbak pionered the "hydration pack" concept - the plastic water bladder with tubbing that could be fed into a pack's pocket. The tube hangs of the pack strap, over one's shoulder. Biting on the tube end and sucking starts a highly respectable flow of water. These bladders are considerably larger than waterbottles, and so let people go for longer outings and still have confidence in not bonking from dehydration (or sun stroke).

It comes as some surprise then that the anti-bottle company would launch a line of bottles. But they have: they come in three sizes, the most common of which seems to be the medium at 27oz. Just about right for a hard one hour pound. The bottles are fitted with a large mouth top and their signature Camelbak bite valve. The top can connect to a straw (included) which means that the bottle does not have to be tipped up to get water flowing: just bite down and suck it up. The top also has an aerator in the top, but it is blissfully silent - as it should be. Also, the top is advertised as "drip proof" and it is: the bite valve folds down into the top when not in use, and even with violent shaking, it doesn't leak (i've tried). - little detail, the top's area where it is grabbed to be tightened or loosened has a rubberized effect, rather than plain plastic, making it easier to grab even if wet.

On the compromise side, the bottle is a transparent, coloured plastic.The plastic is polycarbonate. This is the same material used instead of glass for sun glasses and reading glasses, so it is a highly scratch resistant, durable material - even it it's still plastic. This means, although the thing is plastic, at least the material has the resilience to last years and years. At $12USD - about 4 times the price my old faithful Specialized big mouth - that's a good thing. If you still have a wide mouth sports bottle or Naglen to which you're attached and still want to try out the top, camelbak's web store sells these separately (including straw) for $6USD.

The camelbak is a great gym bottle. It fits nicely into those holders on the treadmills, and is just as comfy on the floor by the weights. And i also really do like being able to see the water level in the bottle - if i'm doing a run, it lets me know clearly how much water i have left, and so i can pace myself accordingly if a fountain isn't in clear sight. The lid also has a loop built into the area where the valve folds down, making it easy to hook through a finger for carrying, or hanging off a carabiner or whatever.

This is, sadly however, not a particularly great bike bottle - it doesn't fit well into the typical cage, whereas the Klean Kanteen does - KK also makes cages specifically for their bottles. One might argue that with the camelbak, if you want that system on your bike, use one of their bladders. But this does seem to be an odd shortcoming - those bladders while great are also a timely pain in the ass - if you do like to use a recovery drink for long rides, you spend considerable time cleaning out the bladder and hanging it out to try. The benefit is worth the maintenance cost for big rides or looong runs - but less so for a 27oz - sized outing.

Nothing, it seems is perfect. Klean Kanteen said they had considered a similar type bite valve as the camelbak, among other ideas which just weren't ready and reliable before they went to market. Their idea was to get customer feedback on the current sport top and make changes if and as necessary. They're currently looking at a pour design "so no sucking involved" - not quite sure how that will work on the move, and that's the critical issue: bouncing up and down on the trail or on the trainer. i'll look forward to updating this blog as soon as those new designs are available.

On the other hand, the type of plastic the camelbak uses is utterly evil. Even if it stays useful for a long time, it'll be around a lot longer as utterly un-useful. (the Camelbak is a dreaded "no.7" plastic) DAM! Now, that said, Camelbak claims that their bottle is recyclable " however some municipal recyclers do not have the capability to recycle the polycarbonate in our bottles. " - that from the downloadable FAQ on their website - sorry i can't give you a direct link - the site uses flash so getting at that link is not readily tractable.

What to choose in the interim of a decent Sport Top on a Metal Bottle?
If you're mainly interested in keeping hydrated at work, the klean kanteen is not only robust, it's rather elegant. If however, you're looking for a water bottle to use for both your workouts AND your work, right now the camelbak waterbottle would be the more appropriate all-rounder - except for the plastic issue.

A more sustainable solution might be to get the Camelbak top/straw combo, and get a bottle that's actually made from recyclable plastic. The ever popular Nalgene actually makes a bunch. The camelbak tops are currently available only on their website, but they say in their FAQ they'll be available at stores that sell the bottles "later this year".

Each of these bottles can be found in the US for a wee range of prices. The best price on the Kanteen is 13.50 USD (at greenfeet.com) - you can get the bottle even cheaper if you opt for the Greenfeet branded version of the bottle. Same product; different logo. With the Camelbak, the best price is around 12bucks, so these bottles are comparable. Some online stores will sell cheaper by a quarter or so, but beware postage and handling fees.

One further note on "recyclable plastic" that i learned from that Plastic Ocean BestLife article: no plastic is 100% recyclable/reusable. To make new plastic stuff (whether fleece jackets or new bottles), new plastic needs to be added. The metal in a Klean Kanteen is 100% reusable.

Happy hydrating.

Posted by mc at 8:48 PM

February 17, 2007

What does the semantic web look like? What's the model to describe it easily?

I've been pondering what the paradigm for the Semantic Web is:

if the Web is like a page + links, what's the analogue for the semantic web?

Where i've come to recently after thinking "star trek next generation's computer in conversation with Geordi LaForge" is a researcher's notebook + memex: a place that blends work in progress with internal and external associations/contexts that become explorable for building new knowledge. The key to the analogy of the notebook is the notion of work in progress, where notes include scattered fragments of information where context/structure is often implicit, and can reach out to external sources, knowledge, references.

I've discussed this analogue in more detail (with pictures) in a blog piece called
"What is the Analogue for the Semantic Web? If the Web is like a Page+Links, the SW is like a..."

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Posted by mc at 11:45 AM

Pedestrians and Austin (Texas)

Texas has a rep for being a wild place of the righteous cowboy way.

Austin has a reputation for being (a) weird (with a desire to keep it that way) and more recently (b) wired - and wired with intent, as exemplified by the SXSW music, film and tech conference mix

The whole state is also the place for cars - of all sizes (mainly big). Wide open highways and big wide roadways. I can't speak for the rest of the state, but in Austin at least, despite the CAR as the core means of individual transportation, drivers seem to be super pedestrian sensitive. Cars easily give peds the right of way at intersections. Interestingly, walkers also tend to wait for the lights at intersections, too. Jay walking seems the exception not the rule. And it seems to work. There seems to be an easy ebb and flow between cars and pedestrians that is rare. Now, maybe that's all just perception and not what a local Austonian (?) would tell you, but from the touristo/visitor perspective, Austin is a joy to walk.

One other thing? they have some interesting concepts with public transportation: core areas are seviced by something called the Dillo - a free bus service that takes care of the core area - about 5 miles square. It's free. But get this: public buses are 50c for adults. 50c for public transport!! AND Anyone with a university ID card can ride these buses FREE. Staff and students. The bus site has an effective route planner as well.

Austin is the third fastest growing city in the USA right now. It seems somehow incongruous that it would also have such a seemingly progressive stance on transportation. What a joy! visit austin: all the places you'd want to hit are available via bus or by walking - transportation is cheap and walkers are not treated as fair game for target practice.

Bliss.
(oh wow! and there's even wireless past every busstop! i'm posting this from a BUS coming down Congress AND THE CONNECTIONS coming out of shops and restaurants ARE FREE TOO!!!)

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Posted by mc at 11:17 AM

January 9, 2007

Pro Tools LE mbox 2 mini: expensive dongle?

pro tools MBox 2 mini
Recently, avid's digidesign group released Pro Tools LE MBox 2 mini: a wee (6" * 1.75 * 5 inch, 1.1 lb) usb 1.1 based audio only interface (no midi and again no firewire or "pro" version as there is with the regular Mbox 2's) that includes Pro Tools LE audio/midi recording and editing software that, at 300 USD, promises to put the Pro Tools experience into even more musician's hands. For those who already use existing protools systems, the Mini promises to be an expensive dongle that will finally enable access to Pro Tools LE software while working on the go. Whether it's a price current LE owners will be willing to swallow is another matter.

Pro Tools systems are the industry standard for recording. It is the Microsoft Office of the digital audio studio domain. The LE line of Pro Tools products has let home and indie studio musicians/engineers access the (near) same features as the Pro Tools HD systems found in many professional studios - at a fraction of their professional price. The advantage of using the LE software is that one can easily take audio files made at home into an HD studio for the full bore studio treatment. File exchange is also facilitated: just like word and power point files can be easily swapped. Read any of the discussions on product sites about software musicians or dj's use, and you'll see most of the time in the discussions on technology, pro tools is the final audio mix system of choice - Logic, Digital Performer or Live for sequencing, but ProTools for the final audio mix.

The Pro Tools LE systems come in a variety of configurations, from the $2500 digi002 8 channel audio/midi mixers/control surfaces to the variety of mobile MBox (usb) and MBox pro (firewire) systems, and now the $300 MBox 2 mini. With Avid's acquisition of M-Audio, Digidesign also recently released a special version of the software, M-powered Pro Tools, specially designed to work with certain M-Audio devices with audio/midi interfaces. So, for 279 on top of your instrument purchase you can use Pro Tools software with these interfaces.

The disappointing disadvantage to these systems is that use of the software requires that one of the specified interfaces be attached to the computer when using the software. Forget about whipping out your laptop to edit your work while you're on a train/plane somewhere: unless you have that hardware plugged in, the software won't start. And if you already have a protools system and then get an m-audio, m-powered aware device, can you use that m-audio device to boot up your protools LE software? No. You have to buy the m-powered pro tools version of le to use directly with those devices. Of course you can use those devices with pro tools - when your pro tools hardware is attached.

Think of the hardware interfaces as giant iLoks, or dongles that won't let you access the software without some hardware authorization device attached. At least, i'm guessing this is digidesign's rationale for not allowing paid and licensed users to access the software without the hardware attached. Hence begins the rant.

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Audio is one of the last holdouts for arcane protection mechanisms. While many companies like Ableton and Native Instruments have moved to online registration systems for their software, there are still several key Old School manufacturers that rely on some form of crippling physical authentication. While some companies (apple with Logic Pro is an example) use their own proprietary format USB dongles, ILok's are the major dongle of choice for many in the audio world - and they have a lovely insurance policy if something happens to your iLok - you can pay $30 a year for "zero downtime" to get *temporary* licenses back should your lok be lost or stolen, and then one gets the permanent licenses from the software vendor - somehow - but that only works if the company using the iLok system agrees to that replacement policy.

One of the biggest audio effects makers, WAVES, does not support ANY recovery of license authorizations if your iLok is lost or stolen. Instead, they say "Waves does not offer replacement keys for lost or stolen iLok keys or authorizations. We suggest insuring your iLok key to cover the possibility of such misfortune happening." Does that mean they expect license holders to have to repurchase the software? YES! that's what the insurance is for, stupid: buy new software. This i fail to understand - what i fail to understand is WHY NOT just work like a credit card when it's reported lost or stolen: with a credit card, as soon as you report it lost or stolen, the issuer kills the numbers and issues new ones on new cards. Surely the same could happen with these plugins? Authorization is validated at each use on any machine: if the numbers have been cancelled, the dongle no longer functions.

Plainly there's a business model that says NOT supporting something this straightforward with zeros and ones is in the company's interest, and since Waves has the lion's share of the effects market in big production work, what motivation is there to change? As many many posters on many audio forums note, all waves plugins have been hacked and work flawlessly on the PC (too bad for mac users!) so once again, the only group this copy protection strategy hurts are legitimate users.

But i digress. This is about Pro Tools. As for Pro Tools, their hardware acts like such an authorization dongle, and is equally if not more exasperatingly irritating than a dongle because usually their physical dongle hardware has some heft to it. The MBox 2 Mini is small, but it's not tiny. On the plus side, it has a kensignton lock port on it (try that with an iLok! ha!). And it does offer what's reputed to be a good headphone jack which is nice for editing on the go. So a dongle with some features that may actually be useful when NOT RECORDING just editing.

Don't get me wrong: for someone looking for a decent audio interface that will let them into a Pro Tools space, this could be just great. For those who want midi and more than two tracks on a portalbe interface, there's other MBox's. For those already there with pro Tools who have been wanting a way to edit their sessions on the go, the MBox 2 Mini may just be the dongle to set one free - relatively speaking.

It will be interesting to see how many people who already have digi002's for instance add the Mbox 2 Mini to their gear finally just to get on the go with their session editing - of course, carrying their usb hub, too, so that they can plug in all those platform specific dongles.

Posted by mc at 4:59 PM

August 3, 2006

Why Graphs Suck for Exploring RDF (ie The Semantic Web)

The most popular mechanism for visualizing RDF - the underlying language to represent the Semantic Web - is a Great Big Graph. Take a look at any model you wish: rdf-gravity is a Big Fat Graph; frodo is a UML-like connected flow chart thing; there's RDF Graphs with GSS; and there's a suite of redeployed classic Node style visualizers that have been modeled and applied anew on rdf (pdf). And that's just a light sampling.

What is this obsession with using graphs to represent RDF?

At first i thought it was because Java, a tool frequently used to create these visualizations, comes default with a Touchgraph component, and its bouncy connected parts have a certain "gee whiz-ness" to them - at least the first time one sees them.

Now it seems, the use of graphs has become a (bad) habit, an overused trope, representing what David Karger calls the "pathetic fallacy" of using graphs to represent the Semantic Web ( a quiet exchange in a paper review that we're now teasing out into a Position you're reading here...).

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So what's wrong with Great Big Graphs? After all, RDF is a graph. Ya well, as Karger's comments continued, so's the Web (ps), but we don't see people exploring the Web via it's bowtie shaped nodes (pdf), do we? Indeed, Kager takes this assertion further to state that "everything" can be represented by a graph, and yet we do not use graphs to represent "everything." Why not?

Great Big Graphs are known to address two things that we rarely want to do on the Web: show the Shape and Density of some collection of things so that we can say things like "Oh that's really big" or "there's a lot of activity going on down there in that part of the graph, but not much up here." The classic issue with a graph, however is that to get the overview, detail gets lost. Conversely, as we zoom in, the context gets lost. This loss of context is particularly irritating in touch graphs where zooming in on a component apparently breaks it off from the rest of its graph. This focus vs context issue of any graphical representation of information where the goal is to someone show the whole thing and yet also provide detail is a classic problem in Human Computer Interaction, and the subject of considerable research {refs to follow, but in the interim, take a look at the topic "focus + context" in the ACM digital library's search box}.

At the heart of the problem is that at scale (when there is considerable data to represent), or as soon as what a system is trying to model as a complete entity takes up more than one page/screen, the detail/overview compromise kicks in. Whether the graphs are UML diagrams, flow charts, clustering graphs, maps of geographical areas or maps of streets or networks, scale forces a compromise between focus and context, but if the interest IS in exposing an entire domain at once graphs and the techniques for balancing focus+context can be extremely effective (consider the micro map of either a 3D gaming environment that shows where one is in a world from an overview perspective relative to one's first person perspective; or the similar technique used in a Photoshop document where when zoomed in to work on a small section of image a map tool shows where one is working relative to the rest of the image. This map tile outline can also be used to navigate and reposition one's work area in the image). A question emerges here, however: if graphs are typically deployed to show the WHOLE of whatever is graphed, why is that an appropriate model for providing access to the Semantic Web? And if it isn't (a) why are we using it or (b) what alternatives are there for considering how to wrap up RDF data for effective use?

A fundamental question from the HCI perspective related to the above would be: what question/task/need is a given graph or other visualization answering? or perhaps, to put the question another way, what visualizations/representations/interactions would best support the specified tasks? And to push that question one further, what is particular about the semantic web such that new types of interaction designs may be required to support the types of tasks that are semantic web specific? Indeed this last question is the subject of a workshop on the Semantic Web and User Interaction. The challenge becomes: what, if anything, is special about what the Semantic Web enables such that existing UI paradigms don't suffice?

We've suggested that Great Big Graphs (GBG) are not appropriate as a de facto way of presenting the Semantic Web because the tasks it supports are limited. This limitation is not in itself a bad thing, but that we'd suggest that there is not a strong match between what a GBG provides and the kinds of information support people who use the Web have come to expect (try doing email or buying a book with a GBG).

Part of the problem, one may assert, is that SW data is delivered with more in common with a database and its schema than a Web Page - but even that argument doesn't wash, since most commercial web sites are delivered with a database back end now - and they look like web pages. So, the question, to repurpose Freud somewhat may be not why do graphs suck for the Semantic Web, but "what does a (SW) user want?"

Another way of putting the question of what do we as SW users want may be: "what are we trying to do?" Ben Shneiderman, HCI Guru at the U of Maryland, and his student Bill Kules, have more recently been framing the question as "what do you want to know?" effectively, Shneiderman has said forget trying to show everything since we can never see everything at once anyway, and focus on the kinds of things that are of interest to the explorer. Much of shneiderman's work, from spotfire to the more current hierarchical clustering, has indeed focused on enabling researchers to focus on the kinds of questions of interest to them - such as being able to look at the results of a variety of functions when applied to sets of datas - thus being able to see for instance in what conditions are their outliers.

The advantage of keeping the question as "what do we want to do" rather than "what do we want to know" may more explicitly capture one particular attribute of the Semantic Web which it has in common with many Web 2.0 applications: the desire to DO something on the Web with the data itself. To tag it; to edit it; to share it; to push it into new and or other representations.

These attributes of edit/tag/share are possible with Web2 aps, which break one part of pre Web 2 models, where the web is interactively read only. However, the specific affordances and constraints, to use Don Norman's terms, of the Semantic Web may take us beyond even these relatively new ways of interacting with information on the Web.

Difference at Source leading Difference at Interface
One of the interesting features of the semantic web that is not harnessed by simple Great Big Graphs of RDF is the fact that it is increasingly possible to break the paradigm of the page (called for in You've Got Hyperext) and actually enable people to choose a variety of representations for the information out there, depending again on what they want to do with it. Likewise, the immediate possibilities of how one set of data might be repurposed with another set of data automatically is also a remarkable and still largely untapped affordance of the Semantic web.

This capacity is enabled by that same RDF that wraps up and makes communicatable the semantics of the data in relation to itself and to other data. Just as the schema of a database makes visualizations like Spotfire possible, the RDF of the semantic web will make richer mechanisms for engaging with data possible.

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We see some of this page-breaking, cross-web, context sensitive flexible repurposing of data in Semantic Web Applications like Haystack, piggy bank, AKTive Futures and /facet (pronounced "slash facet"), and from Semantic Web/Web 2.0 hybrid applications like mSpace and mSpace mobile

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AKTive Futures, for instance, uses a cartesian graph as one facet of its interface presentation. The core interaction of the UI is to select countries for one axis and ranges of years for the other to look at trends in oil production in those places and times. By clicking on a spot on a line on the graph, the stories that are associated with those confluences are presented in a secondary window. In this case, the use of a particular kind of graph is appropriate for the task the designers of the application wish to support. Date and output data from MULTIPLE resources, (not just one database), are, as numeric data, represented in a numerically relevant fashion - not as static tables but on a graph where, in Shneiderman's parlance, the person using the service is not presented with all data for all time, but is enabled to select the ranges of interest and focus on them with an appropriate format.

For this site, data is coming from all over the Web and converted where it doesn't already exist in SW format into SW format (ie rdf most usually) so that it can be rendered appropriately for this kind of explorable user interface (UI). Indeed, the graph is used to help find trends of interest (not unlike Spotfire) and to use those relations of interest as the way to find the richly associated information to tease out what may have caused that particular moment.

Pre-existing Sites with a Purpose - Predefined Semantic Web UI aps
The above sites are examples of what happens when a site with A Purpose already exists. Haystack's exemplar is the "universal information client" which integrates calendar information with other associated tasks like hotel and flight booking along with finding relevant and related email to support tasks in process. In this case, Haystack is showing the way of using the Semantic Web to do old tasks better, using familiar UI paradigms in new contexts to make it easier to do related tasks that typically draw down on information from a variety of applications: checking email for when a conference is in order to get the dates into the calendar and check out flights for those times.

mSpace's is making classical music discoverable for people who know nothing about classical music. This discoverability is enabled by adding Preview Cues, or the ability to check out not just a piece, but the sound of an area of music, like sonatas or baroque, quickly and easily. This feature in itself is not driven by the semantic web, but it is powerfully supported by it. For instance, there are other affordances that the interface provides that go beyond online music explorers and into what makes the Semantic Web interesting: the browser automatically associates information from different sources about the music in the explorer with the music - choosing "period: baroque" yields a description of that content. This ap is another case of taking familiar and largely effective models for music library exploration and play back, and enhancing them to enable either improvement of previously doable but difficult or cumbersome tasks.

These sites suck in and make shapable information related to sepecific predefined domains. They use specific graphs to present the data in the domain (calendars, maps, timelines) but these are supplemented with or are supplemental to serving other activities, based on interaction models designed specifically to support certain kinds of information exploration and discovery tasks that are well-enabled by the Semantic Web.

For instance, with mSpace, new dimensions can be added to the domain as they become known; musicological data may be supplemented with technical recording data or historical data. The UI makes it possible (to use spreadsheet language) to pivot from one domain to another on a related term - so one moves from beethoven in the context of music to beethoven in the context of history. Sure yes one can do these pivots with databases and spreadsheets. Indeed, George Roberston's Polyarchy work called "Visual Pivot" (pdf) in fact has shown exactly such pivoting in very interesting ways from one database table to another. One may suggest, however, that the Semantic Web has the potential to break from database scale to greater, messier, heterogeneous Web scale.

Dynamic, Free Form Semantic Web UI aps
One of the challenges of the Semantic Web however is to enable us to just get at that rich data via our own dynamic contexts. For instance, suppose there's an interest in finding Jazz music that may be of interest and there's no pre-made mSpace Jazz explorer? or more intrigued yet, someone is interested in not only exploring the sounds of jazz but of seeing what is happening historically both politically and in architecture at the same time as different trends in music are occurring in order to explore the question what was influencing what when?

The above kind of questions means that a person may wish to be able to start exploring from a particular seed or set of seeds from which to start building and exploring relations (though even how to express these seeds may be challenging - another matter for interaction research innovation (ever know what you want but not the terms to express it so that you can find it on google?)). The above mix query means that samples of music need to be available so someone can audition the songs (we do not assume the Questor is a jazz expert) to see what's of interest; engage historical political period data from different regions; enable this data to be contextualized not only by location but by time, and readily explorable by time and by location visualizations. What's the ideal representation for this information as it is assembled? It is NOT a Great Big Graph (alone or primarily).

Web Founder and Semantic Web co-Founder Tim Berners-Lee has been developing an idea called the Tabulator (which i can never seem to find working), Conceptually, one starts with a specific known source of semantic web data, and then rather than in a graph, one selects cells in a tabular representation of the rdf, which expand into fresh tables, etc (go see the site for an image of this - maybe you can even get the demo to work). The data collected in these expansions can then be re-visioned into either a map, a calendar or a timeline (note the term "or"). There's considerable potential here - currently the source of the data is very geeky and not that non-geek friendly - data is expressed in rdf-ease triples like "colorPicture is mentioned in TAGmobile road trip BOS-> Amerst:photo" Qu'est-ce que se?

The tabulator also seems currently to be informed by the old-school Web-as-Read-Only, where as the impetus of Web 2 (and the semantic web) is towards read/write/re-write - a very much more Ted Nelson-ish hypertext vision ( a good thing) than pre Web2 vision.

Mix and Match on the Fly
So, some of the challenges for Semantic Web UI services besides de-geeking things like Tabulator will be to support data in formats so that the application has information that is relevant to what display options may be appropriate for it (dates, map coordinates, contacts). It's not clear what the solution is: micro formats is one approach; fresnel, defined as "a generic ontology for describing how to render RDF in a human-friendly manner" - where the style sheet for a data chunk effectively travels with that data offers another. It will be interesting to see how these approaches work across heterogeneous data sources and distinct contexts. It will also mean being able to add new data/links/tags(?).

That latter observation of the context in which the data is discovered leads back to the earlier observation that UI's for semantic web data, like all other human-usable systems, need to respect and support what the human wants to do with that data. Being able to establish context for multiple intersecting data domains and data types may be as critical as being able to take advantage of a pre-asserted format for a particular data chunk.

The bottom line is that Great Big Graphs have their place, but overall, it's a pretty limited place. Great Big Graphs are generally also pretty easy. The algorithms for pumping data into many graphs are well known. As Karger says, it's a pathetic fallacy to assert that because the data model is a graph the data should therefore be displayed as a graph. It's also, let's face it, a cop out in usability terms, unless all one wants to see is how big is the data set, where are the dense bits etc. The harder question is "how might this data be used? how will we support those heterogeneous requirements - and do so dynamically, elegantly"

People at the coal face of RDF and Ontology development mayn't see it as their mission to consider that more human-oriented approach to representing information spaces for human usable, human-useful exploration. But why not? The result may well be the generation of a generic Semantic Web browser - a tool that would enable people both to explore and contribute to the rich associations possible in the ((increasingly Social and) Semantic) Web.

[update Aug 17 '06 : the version of this blog entry David and i submitted to SWUI06 is available (in html) at http://eprints.ecs.soton.ac.uk/12911/]

Posted by mc at 10:43 PM | Comments (0)

The mystery of single temperature faucets

200608031049Occasionally, i see things and think now that's a cultural difference that would cause a north american a double take. Seeing cars parked facing either direction on a street. That's a weird one (yes in north america cars are parked facing one way only - no just sliding over to the other side of the street and pulling up onto a curb and parking. You turn your vehicle around and parallel park the sucker into the spot).

Then there's power outlets with individual switches on them. Or windows with little wind powered fans. Or the making of tea in a cup rather than a pot, or the fact that instant coffee is on many restaurants' menus.

But one thing that constantly surprises me is the pervasiveness even in "new builds" of individual hot and cold water taps. It's not that "mixer" taps (hot and cold going into one pipe) are unknown, but that anyone would want a single tap per temperature in either a bathroom or kitchen sink, or even a bathtub is beyond me. And it's not like they're cheaper: the price of two individual the taps is either the same or more as their integrated cousins.
It's a mystery.

Posted by mc at 6:06 PM | Comments (0)

June 11, 2006

Audiophile by Headphone: nice ways to listen to music in small spaces

When working in a lab or open office environment one gets used to the idea of listening to music with headphones. Anyone walking around with an ipod or other portable audio player also knows the charms of auditioning music in our own little worlds. But there's something else that can happen with headphones, especially if one enjoys music: one can get closer to an audiophile experience.

By audiophile experience i mean the audio experience one has when listening to awesome loudspeakers powered by awesomely clear amps in a space that can show them off (a colleague of mine in Music said that one of the best investments people could make in their stereo system is double glazing).

No but really, what *is* an audiophile experience? It's hard to describe unless you've experienced it. Or actually lots of people spend lots of cycles describing audiophile experiences (it is an industry afterall), but words like soundstage, air, black backgrounds, noise floor, etc etc mean little without some audio point of reference for them.

I had what i would call my first near-audiophile experience a few months back. I went into my favorite audio shop, Phase3 HiFi where i'd been getting stuff like rca connectors and bits and pieces, talked with Sam Lowe, a super friendly and knowledgeable sales person who i've watched give equivalent time and help to somebody asking about a £3 cable as to someone about to drop £3.5k on a cd player.
And that's part of what makes a store like Phase3 worth one's custom: every customer is important; the atmosphere is friendly, knowledgeable and not pretentious. And most especially folks are both keen about what they do as well as helpful. They convey a sense of passion, without ever feeling like you've walked into a scene from High Fidelity where you're made to feel like an idiot becuase (a) you don't know the difference between tubes and solid state or (b) you're not A Rich Audiophile Geek. An example of this kind of passion and easygoingness lead to this story:

I asked Sam if i could have a listen to the components he'd been saying were just oh so fantastic. So that's what we did. We went to their listening room (which looks like a normal living room - very sensible) and Sam sets up the £3K (in GBPs) preamp and £4.5k amp ("This is the set up the Royal Opera House uses") and that £3.5k cd player and the £3k speakers AND the £300 worth of cables to connect the amp, pre and cd player, and the £1000 worth of speaker cable.. (at one point Sam swapped out the £170 speaker cable he'd used for this £1000 Chord Signature UK cable. Don't let anyone tell you wire is wire: another myth shattered: there is a difference. and it's not subtle. Noise i didn't notice before was just gone. The effect that let the music stand out against a "black" background was jaw dropping in contrast. The effect of this absence was stunning).

When everything was set up just so, i was asked if i wanted a coffee while invited to sit on the couch and listen . We'd been benchmarking everything against the eric clapton's live and unplugged cd they had which was a revelation in itself. With this, Sam swapped around a variety of types of speakers and amps, too, just to show what effect each part had on the sound. And then he made one small adjustment (swapped one preamp for another) and my god (really) it was a religious experience. It was just so locked in, the combination. Then, going to another level, i popped in one of my fave instrumental tracks, and ok, i wept. It was piercing, the experience.

Now, i'm a musician and a music lover, and once upon a time i used to both gig live events and record music in actual real studios. I thought i knew what recorded music on a "good" system sounds like. I was SO WRONG. I had no idea that this sound experience of getting this close to (recorded) music was possible. You may be in the same position: you're heard the term audiophile, may have an idea that that means people with more money than sense, but perhaps you've not HEARD what a truly high end system can do to those bits on a cd (or to waves from vinyl for that matter). If you care about music at all, i am sure you will not walk away unchanged from the experience. It's an experience i'd pay for: to be able to use that room, that set up, say for an afternoon, just to listen to music like that.

Rent the audiophile experience rather than purchase it. Why not? Especially since not a lot of people i know are at a place either where they can or would think of heading into that heady space of forking out 7-10k for the "entry level" system above just to have that rush of an audio experience in their homes. They have kids to put through college; car payments, mortgages, student loans to pay off. And, just in passing, yes, £7-10k, the cost of a small automobile, is entry level. What would be "high end"? Consider something like the 75kUS/pair for british made Chord Electronics monoblock power amps and you go from price of car to substantial down payment on a house.

There is another way to get close to that heady audio experience: try headphones. Wiith a little help from some good headphone gear, which is about a tenth the cost for an equivalent speaker-based experience it's possible to get that kind of hi end audio experience. It's also potentially easier to check out this version of audiophile nirvana than requesting some private time in the room upstairs. Indeed, if you have a portable digital music player, there are some free ways to improve what you're hearing right now, too.

The following describes some approaches to audiophile headphone happiness - a word though, before continuing. Some engineers accuse "audiophiles" of being people who just get intrigued by the gear, not the music. That may be for true for some folks - like sports fans who care perhaps more about the player stats than about the joy of the game (and so what if they do!) What follows is not about gear intrigue: it's about getting closer to that ecstatic experience, the joy of hearing music. The french have a word for such folks - it's mélomanes: music lovers (thanks to Sam Tellig's Stereophile July 06 review of Quads for this term). The following story of headphones is offered up for les mélomanes.

Headphones can offer a potential audio experience that is earth shakingly good, and possibly better than what many of us would be able to or want to invest to replicate in a freestanding loudspeaker system - especially if your accommodation won't let you let those speakers rip. There are several stages to this: data source, player source, amplification source, digital to analog conversion, and of course, headphones.

Improvement One is Free. The Data Source.
Most folks listen to data now either off a cd or off an mp3 file. Bit rate can and does make a difference, and you don't have to have the golden ears of a 22year old (you're golden ears are over the hill after 25) to appreciate the differences. There are encodings like FLAC or Apple Lossless that really do replicate what's on the cd, but at half or less than the size of the original recording. Try playing back a lossless file against a 128bit mpg out loud over typical external computer speakers and you'll hear a difference on these very not audiophile components. So that's a for-free audio improvement - or largely for free - larger files take up more space, but that space becomes less of an issue as larger and larger drives become common - why not try Apple Lossless or FLAC with some of your fave CD's and see what you think.

Alternately, there is a school of thought that says 128 AAC Variable Bit Rate (aac, not mp3 and VBR on) on itunes, combined with great headphones (discussed below) yields results that are indistinguishable from CD's - and that's the opinion of a recording engineer - who also councils to be SURE to turn on ERROR CORRECTION in the prefs/advanced/importing if you rip your cd's with iTunes. Truly, it's great to have smaller file sizes for one's ipod - smaller file sizes means less harddrive spin up to access all the data and therefore better battery performance, but try it yourself: put a 128 AAC VBR, error corrected file you know really well next to an Apple Lossless or FLAC encoding or your system of choice and see what works for you.

An advantage of Apple Lossless is that you have all the data and can later encode down from there to 128 or whatever AAC you want at some future point - that's thinking archivally.

Improvement Two - Headphones.

The next part of the experience of course is a good set of headphones. What are good headphones? That question is the subject of endless discussion at head-fi Let's just say that Sony rarely gets mentioned, but German companies are very well represented (Beyer Dynamics, AKG, Sennheiser, Ultrasone...), with each flavour of headphone presentation having their partisans. Discussions range around qualities like sibilance, sound stage, color, neutrality, micro and macro dynamics, harmonics - all to do with how much of the recorded experience your headphones replicate and how.

You can find many comparative reviews of various "cans" online. One exemple is the sennheiser HD 650 which does very well in

non-comparitive reviews likethis by Wes Philips of Stereophile, or this interesting one on CameraHobby, but throw them in with others, and the flavours in the review space show up. A great source for such reviews that's free is Stereophile , but again a keyword search on your fave search engine for "review headphone x" will pull up a plethora of information.

>Will that be Closed, Open or In Your Ear?
There is also the issue of whether you want in ear phones or closed back or semi closed back or open. There are excellent versions of each, and reasons for choosing one form or another. Closed cell headphones like the Ultrasone Pro 750 review pdf ) for instance are not by default better than in-ear (canal) phones like the very decent Etymotic 6i , or open phones like the Sennheiser HD580 . Hi Impedance headphones like AKGs (600 Ohms) are not always better than low impedance phones (Ultrasones at 75 Ohms). They do have different qualities tho. What to do? try great versions of each kind. Understand the pros and cons of any form and make your decision.

The point is, good headphones (usually in the 75£ plus zone, tho price is not always indicative) will let you hear MORE of the audio signal coming from your system.

Headroom has a list of their 10 top fave headphones of various stripes. I don't agree with all their findings, but it's a great way to get a sense of the ranges of types. With these definitions in hand, why not hit an audio shop and head for the pricier models (just as a first pass indicator) and experience the difference between say the Apple default ear buds, and some really good cans - just so you can gage the degree of difference - and if that difference is meaningful to you.

Improvement Three: Plugging them In - to what?

When you try different kinds of headphones, make sure you have an appropriate source driving them: an ipod on its own will not show off a 300ohm headphone like Senheisser HD600's - it just doesn't have the power to drive these things, as explained very well at Dan's Data. A 600ohm AKG will struggle with the ipod cranked to full. An ipod will be adequate for canal phones: they're low impedance devices. A good audio shop will make sure you're hooked up to an appropriate source to drive the phones you try. But don't think the fact that an ipod can't easily drive hi impedance phones means you can't use them with your ipods - we'll come back to that in just a moment. in the meantime...

Let's assume you've picked something you enjoy in the headphone space. Let's also assume you have an ok stereo - or at least an ok cd player (one that has a digital out of some kind will come in handy later in this discussion) but it doesn't have a headphone jack (most stereo components increasingly do NOT come with headphone out jacks) or you do want to use those high impedance phones with your ipod or your computer. What to do?

Enter the headphone amp.
A headphone amp is a dedicated box (read: with its own power supply) that amplifies the music signal from whatever source, and sends it directly to its headphone jack. There are many kinds of headphone amps: some have tubes in them; some are

solid state, like UK's Musical Fidelity X-Can-v3 (fantastic review by Edwin Leong). Some are hybrids of solid state and tubes.

Some amps are built for living within a stereo system, like those just listed, but there's a whole breed of portable headphone amps, too, built to go with portable players. Some of them are designed to reuse candy/coughdrop tins as the casing! As Dan's Data says, every geek needs a tin with a light on it.

One of my faves in this space is made by Robert Gehrke in Germany, taking up the Amp in A Tin concept, but taking the circuit design further, cleaner ( see description ). So far Gehrke has been selling these fine designs on EBay for both US and UK/EU customers in your choice of penguin tin design (he also sells the caffeinated mints that come in the tins, too, at penguinenergy ). As said, the design fundamentally lets you drive higher impedance headphones on an ipod (or from a laptop). They can also have some nice effects for even very low impedance cans sold specifically for ipods and similar devices. They can help open up the bass, eliminate audio clipping down there, especially on less well encoded tracks. Mainly, you notice that you can drive the headphones louder while maintaining very good clarity, without the amp coloring what you're hearing.

Depending when you find this page, he may not have many on offer, since he's hard at work on a Next Level design that will be similar to the

Total BitHead amp , with USB in, excellent DAC (see below), crossfeed, and digital optical out (very hard to get in the UK/EU). Can hardly wait. But i'm getting ahead of myself. And just to mention one more portable (tho slightly larger) amp that has lead to incensed debate among those who care is the Ray Samuels Emmerline SR-71 ( 6moons review ; stereophile review ).

The main thing about a headphone amp, whether a stereo/stationary one, or a portable, is what it does for listening via headphones. Using a headphone amp means that a dedicated amplifier is handling the volume of the signal, and can, especially in the ipod case, do so more efficiently than the ipod - can drive more demanding loads than phones designed for portable players. easier drive is smoother sound. Now a lot of audio geeks can tell you why this is the case, suffice it to say, it really is.

You may wonder about sound. A good headphone amp will help the audio "breath" so that your high quality headphones can get all those nuances out of the audio that's in that stream but which a less effective amp mayn't be able to deliver. Again, this is something to try out at your favorite audio shop - maybe when you try out the headphones.

Bottom line: with excellent headphones and a good source to drive them, along with well-encoded tracks, you are now in a position to experience that audiophile's experience of "wow, i heard *new* things in that recording i thought i knew - that's stuff i've never heard before; it sounded like they were playing with new instruments, in a better room, right beside me. "

And you could easily stop there. But in case you were wondering if that's it, it's not. You can also do things to squeeze those 0's and 1's better so that you get even better sound. Enter the role of the DAC.

Making it Better - External DAC for the computer or home stereo (or yes, your ipod, too).dac

So you've got a good audio source, you have found the headphones you enjoy, you've found some way to plug them in, and now you'd like to go to the next level into your ears. We now circle back towards the data source. If it's digital, the DAC or digital audio convertor of either your computer or your cd player is the thing that turns the zeros and ones into audio signal. The circuits used to do that conversion do make a difference to the sound you hear. If you want to check this out, head to your favorite audio shop and ask them to set up an ok (100-200£) cd player, and have a listen on their sweet stereo system. Then ask them to hook up a dedicated DAC to their system using a good coax cable between the cd and the DAC. The Musical Fidelity X-DAC v3 is one well-regarded example of such a beast. On the somewhat portable side, there's the mainly USA-only Headroom Micro DAC . On the USB silly money side, there's The Brick . There's also chord electronics DAC 64 (review). Now listen to that set up. Take in your headphones and listen to that cd player with and without the external DAC. See what you think. Take in your own cd player for the comparison - that will show you, too, how to get better value out of your current cd player, using it as a transport only. Hell, take in your computer or laptop if it has an optical out, and do this comparison!

Why should you care about an external DAC? your CD player has a DAC as does your computer anyway! Yes it does, but as with anything, there's more than one way to skin a dac. Different quality parts make a difference. One issue addressed in translating zeros and ones into analog audio signal is "jitter" ( see this 1990 article for a clear discussion of info on a cd, how it's pulled off, and the jitter effect on the waveforms that make sound ; or here's a less intrigued discussion of what happens inside a cd player to create jitter ) - jitter is about timing of the read of the signal on a disc. If the timing is a wee bit out for whatever reason, it effects the sound. Timing of what? when a sample of the music represented by those zeros and ones gets played. Imagine a fence with pickets. The pickets get nailed against a fence rail at exactly the same distance apart. Now imagine someone marked the rail where each picket is supposed to go, and occaisionally gets bumped when measuring so the pencil mark gets pushed ahead. The spacing of the pickets is no longer regular. Rather than being regularly spaced, some are further apart; some a bunched up. The visual effect is that the pattern of the pickets gets changed. That's what can happen with digital audio: samples of sound are supposed to be exactly and regularly spaced. a clock is used to synch the samples up so that they'll be regularly spaced, like the pickets. Various things can happen, however, that the clock gets slightly out of synch (and there's not just one clock involved). The result on the wave pattern of the music is like the picket fence: the pattern changes, and consequently so does the sound or fidelity of the music.

Most systems have robust measures in place to address jitter and keep timing errors to a minimum (some are better than others). So, after timing, the next part of the process is translating the zero's and one's into electrical pulses to create the sound. There are different qualities of digital audio converters that do different things to make the 16bit audio of a cd sound richer, fuller. Remember that digital audio is composed by taking samples of the frequencies in an audio stream - it's not continuous like analog recordings. So, even though it is taking samples very rapidly within very short periods, there are still gaps between those samples. The size of the sample also effects how much information it can hold about that sample. The CD is 16 bit. Interestingly, most high level recording systems record in 20 or 24 bit, and audio is downsampled to fit the CD format.

Just to put 16 vs 24 bit audio in perspective, on a computer screen, once upon a time they were only black and white (or orange and black, or black and green...) That was what two bit color could do. Early color monitors were 8bit, giving 256 (2*2*2*2*2*2*2*2) colors. 16bit color came next, giving thousands of colors. The difference between 8 bit and 16 bit color can be seen when looking at color gradients (one color fading into another): the more bits, the smoother, and less noticeable the transitions from one color to another. Now, 24bit color (millions of colors) is common. The transitions are even more seamless. Same in audio: the higher the sample depth, the richer the information about the audio that can be stored in that sample. So, some of the newest DACs take that 16bit audio from a CD and up-sample it to 24bit sample depth and 192 khz samples a second - calculating/simulating richer information both in the sample and filling in the holes between the samples. Indeed, upsampling can help address jitter errors introduced by the sampling process itself.

It wouldn't be fair to say that there isn't debate in the engineering vs audio community about the role of such technologies , whether up sampling or oversampling in dealing with audio signals. But no matter what the magic is in the box, the only thing that matters is whether or not you hear a richer audio presence: does it sound like the musicians you love are playing better? suddenly have even nicer instruments? If you can't hear a difference, there isn't much point. I tried a DAC recently that didn't seem to sound any better hooked into the CD player than without it. I was using the CD players optical out. Someone suggested i try the coax out from the cd. WOW! that made a difference. The optical out (toslink) on the player was shite. Glad there was the coax. Suddenly a cheap-ish cd player was competing with players hundreds of pounds more expensive than it.

DACs aren't just for CD players - they can be applied to any digital audio source that has a digital output (toslink or coax). If you have iTunes coming out of a mac with a digital audio out (new macs, including the laptops, do; g5's also have optical out), you can feed that optical out right into something like the X-DAC. Indeed, because of the way the x-dac works, you can hook up a toslink from your computer (monster makes the appropriate cable as part of the airport express cable pack) into the optical port on the x-dac, and have a coax connection going from the cd to the dac as well. The box detects which machine is on and locks onto that source. Magic. But again, hear it for yourself (or read the pdfs of copious reviews but much better to hear it).

Review: putting it all together.
Audio recordings played through really good stereo equipment does make a difference to the audio experience. It improves the audio experience on so many levels - whether it's the clarity of bass as it becomes distinct notes rather than a low thump, or the real silence of the spaces between notes, or the presence of the scratching of bow against string.

Hi Fi audio experience is possible in the headphone space at a fraction of the cost it would take to create a similar stereo system. There are four parts to consider, particularly for the ipod/computer based source to move closer to music nirvana.

And yes sure you don't NEED any of this to be moved by music (just like a photographer doesn't need the most expensive digital camera on the planet to take great pictures) . Some of my best memories of music have been of cheap nearly worn cassettes played during long roadtrips on gnarly car stereos with one speaker bust, BUT it can be emotionally very satisfying as well, moving even, to really hear something the way some better gear can bring out that experience.

Indeed, being able to hear a recording on good gear can make you appreciate stuff you may otherwise have brushed aside. This has certainly been the case for me with brahms string sextets . I'd passed it over. even said "yuck" and then i accidently heard it with a headphone amp plugged into the cd player and it was a revelation. It's since become a favorite recording.

So, yes, two main things, then two bonus bits:
(1) decently encoded data - whether AAC 128 Variable Bit Rate, or, my preference, Apple Lossless
(2) great headphones - closed, open, canal; high or low impedance
(3) a good source to drive and open up whatever cans you're using - headphone amp!
(4) and finally, if you're getting really into this, a dedicated DAC to squeeze the most from your digital source.

Lest you think this is the end, it's not: there's external power supplies to drive the devices better; there's the quality of the cables connecting the bits (don't let an engineer tell you cable is cable: it's not - you can hear the difference. It doesn't mean the most expensive stuff is the best, but you can hear the differences between cables - try a blindfold test with different ones. For example, with an x-can v3 hooked up directly to your fave store's cd player, and your headphones on, ask to hook up that cd player to an x-dac using, for instance, UK made

Chord Electronic 's CoDac cable then try the same set up with their prodac cable - just don't let them tell you which is which, and see what you think. And that's not all: there are a myriad of aftermarket headphone cable upgrades that tune the sound of the headphones themselves for AKG and Sennheissers - see groups like Cardas or Stefan Audio Art for examples).

But before getting super intrigued about the path towards perpetual upgrades, the simple truth is, a really good pair of headphones can go a long way to openning up music in ways that you may not have experienced before, and in a way that only could be approximated for 10x's the cash to set up an equivalent speaker-based system.

Headphones to try for starters?
- Sennheiser HD 600's or 650's - open cans
- Beyer Dynamics 770's - closed cans
- Etymotics Research 4s - canal phones

There are all sorts of others in here - AKG, Grados, Ultrasone and more

The thing is, this is also a relatively cheap proposition to test: first, improve the encodings for your own current portable digital music set up; next, take a few cd's to a good local audio shop (someplace not pretentious, but knowledgeable, helpful - you'll get the vibe as soon as you go through the door) and give it a whirl. If nothing else, you'll have a grand audio experience, so not a waste of time. If music is important to you, you'll be glad you tried - it may be a revelation.

Many thanks to Sam Lowe of the most excellent

Phase3hifi
for his time in walking through the differences between cables, dacs, headphone amps and other components, and letting me experiment with different combinations.

Posted by mc at 7:48 PM | Comments (0)

May 24, 2006

Apple's Special Special battery math

So how long does an apple laptop battery really last?

I've got a brand new battery that apple says is supposed to last 4.5 hours with small print that says of course that depends on use, with a link to preserving battery life which as far as i can tell basically says just don'y use it if you want decent performance - just go plug into the wall.

Right now, while i do have optimal battery use turned on, and the screen turned down low, and wireless off, i'm still not even seeing two hours available. What gives? Is sleep mode suddenly sucking the life out of my laptop, even with the airport /wireless turned off? Apple's note doesn't say.

So in what ideal universe does this battery get 4.5 hours usable time from it? in sleep mode? when the computer is on, but no applications are loaded, no internet activity is taking place and no typing is occurring?

A colleague has just informed me, looking at the spec for the 17" macbook pro (mbp), that while you can order a 7200 drive, the bottleneck of the processor won't let it actually access data at that speed - so its spin is just eating battery life compared to the 5400 which the MBP can actually use.

swell.

What kinda battery life are you getting from your macbook pro?

UPDATES:

hours of battery life Update 1: According to Apple's Discussion Forum, others are having similar problems with mpb battery life (while there's also those precious few who are getting just super duper times).

UPDATE 2: Since taking my macbook pro in to get repaired (it was burning up!) my battery life has somewhat improved, as the image on the left shows.

UPDATE 3: (Early Aug 06). Well shiver me timbers but it appears Apple's actually noticed that there's a REAL discrepancy between performance and spec on its 15" macbook pro batteries, and has initiated a worldwide exchange programme. Writes apple 200608071708

The affected batteries have model number A1175 and a 12-digit serial number that ends with U7SA, U7SB or U7SC. To view the model and serial numbers located on the bottom of the battery, you must remove the battery from the computer. The battery serial number is located above the barcode. Only batteries within the noted serial number ranges need to be exchanged.

I've ordered mine. Will be keen to see what the New and Improved performance will be.

Posted by mc at 6:48 PM | Comments (2)

January 17, 2006

ID Cards - Will This Be the UK Government's Next - if Biggest - IT Failure?

The UK Government wants to push through ID Cards to use biometric data to connect the card, its data ("basic personal information") and its owner. Uh huh. While one can theoretically imagine how such a scheme would work (and the govn't is dealing in theory since its own site says it doesn't know yet what the cards will actually be like), you would be hard pressed to find any technologist (not funded by a biometrics company) who would say that such a scheme is practical at scale. Indeed, the summary of the consultation exercise on ID cards, which found largely against the practicality or efficacy of such a scheme is - no longer to be found on the Govn't web site. You can still find news articles quoting various computer science experts who spoke to the committee on the multiple problems with ID cards.

And you'd think that such concerns might be part of why the house of lords chucked out the ID Card Bill yesterday. Apparently, though, they were worried about costs - the fact that they weren't well enough defined by the government. Who knows, maybe that's a really good first act rejection: because if the government comes back with a better cost breakdown, perhaps the House will get to the gnarly question of "how can we trust those figures."

Why would they ask such a question? Because the Government has a lousy track record when it comes to specifying and delivering - no matter what the budget - national IT systems. And if they can't get a national database right on the smaller scale of specialist IT systems like the Magistrates court, Ambulance Services [additional research paper pdf], doctor's surgery systems, the police's IMPACT program or Tax Credits, how on earth can they be trusted to get an even more complex system like an ID registry with databases, specialized hardware for collection of biometric data, specialized hardware and software for matching biometric data, specialized training, and specialized secure documents delivered?

So the question is pretty simple the next time the house of lords gets the ID Card Bill back: even if delivering an excellent ID Card system were possible, and even if there were no questions about the technology, about the biometrics, the database security, the security layers between the system itself and humans accessing it, the hackability of the cards, and never mind the social, moral, or economic issues, or for that matter the political ones about whether or not such a system could even stop a terrorist [look here for a list of all these issues and the organizations that query them], disregarding all that and cutting to the chase, would the UK Government simply have the wherewithall to deliver it?

Posted by mc at 9:47 PM

January 4, 2006

Etymotic Research ER-6i in ear canal phones review: super sound to enhance your ipod

Two things can immediately improve the sounds coming from your ipod:

  • - higher bit rates for the mp3's or aac's (ripping at 160 rather than 128 AAC for example)
  • - better head phones.

Indeed the better the headphones that you have, the more you'll hear the artefacts of lower bit rate encodings. So, suppose you have some nicely encoded, or indeed entirely lossless tracks on your ipod (try putting your fave album or set of tracks on your ipod imported direct from the CD rather than encoded. Play them up against encoded mp3's or aac's and see what you hear) and you'd like to hear as much of what's there as possible: what headphone style do you choose?

You can choose traditional cans (regular over the ear headphones) - Aside: Next time you're thinking about sony or seinheisser, give Ultrasone HIFI or DJ phones a try - hit "test reports" to read reviews - they're designed to preserve your hearing, too). These types of headphones are dandy for certain kinds of situations - long listening sessions; editing - but for being on the go, they're bulky to say the least, and not great if you want to fall asleep with your tunes.

Another style is the popular earbud phone that comes with most digital audio players like ipods. These sit levered in the ear. In ear phones, like apple's in ear ipod headphones, point more directly into the ear canal, and thus cut out more of the noise from the outside, improving perceptions of things like bass in particular.

Er6I-Top

Etymotic ER-6i

The next level up (or in) is full into-the-ear-canal phones. When you see musicians on stage at live events and see the lines leading up around their ears, you're seeing custom made in-ear monitors (iem's) where the earpieces fit into the ear canals . The custom fit isolates external sounds and directs sound from the monitors into the ears.

And this is how good headphones can save your hearing: by having the 'phones cut off outside noise by over 20db, you can turn the volume DOWN on the listening device. Add to the isolation effect great transducers to translate the impulses coming from the source (like an ipod) into great sound, and you have a super combination.

The etymotic 6i's, as reviewed by the formerly named "ipod lounge" represent an affordable combination (approx 140 USD/75GBP) of great (hearing-saving) isolation and super sound, designed specifically with digital audio players like ipods in mind. What does that mean?

Etymotics makes a number of great in-ear sound-isolating phones: the 4 as flagship, the 6 as more affordable but still cool cousin and the 6i for ipods. The main thing about the 6i over the 6 is that it provides some much appreciated bass boost, as shown in the chart comparing the 6 and the 6i. This boost is subtle - you won't experience it as the bass pumped up, but as an overall richer sound, where you can better pick out the distinct bass and drums textures from a track.

What sets these headphones apart from other "in ear" phones, however, is the kind of audio detail available across the spectrum, not just the bass. You may hear instruments and touches that you hadn't heard before. In vocals, i've found that i'm hearing much more of the expression of a phrase or a note than with standard earbud or apple's in ear phones or sony's in ear phones (any model) or many traditional cans.

Moving in the world with 6i's on: Isolation of in-ear phones like these means that you do not hear things outside yourself - if you're running or just walking down the street, you may want to think about not putting these in so they're fully seated - that will let you use these more like ear buds where you can still hear the traffic.

Getting used to Canal Phones. Some people do not like the idea of sticking something deep into their ears. If you're one of these folks, these headphones mayn't be for you. One way to check your tolerance is to try out a set of disposable ear plugs: how do you feel about putting these into your ears? If you're ok with that, you can be ok with the ety 6i's

Er6I-14Er22-13E
The 6i's come with one set of flanged ear pieces and one set of "memory foam" ear pieces (same stuff used for ear plugs). Each fit slightly differently. Other sizes of foam or flanges are available and etymotic will send you a sample pair different size if you think you need it. You can then get sets of the sizes you want. The degree of isolation is also different: 22db with the flanges; up to 30db with the memory foam. I've found i like the feel of the flange better than the foam, and for the environments i work in, including planes, the 22db is more than adequate.

Er6I-13DFit is critical to the sound experience of these headphones. Some people have said they've made their own modification to the 6i's flanged ear pieces cutting off the top flange so the larger two are left (scroll down this review on ilounge to see comments by people of their pre and post mod experience of the phones - all post mods are "wow these ARE awesome." - perception of the bass is particularly noted.)

Isolation vs Noise Canceling/Noise Reduction. Another attribute of the 6i's or indeed any good isolating phone is that it is better at reducing plane/train noise than "noise cancelation" headphones like the popular bose model - which also require batteries.

Now, a lot of people are happy with their £275 Quiet Comfort bose phones even though their web site does not say how many db's of sound are cancelled, whereas Sony's 99USD fontopia earbud noise cancelling headphones make clear they offer only 10dbs (70% of noise); etymotic's foam ear plugs are 30dbs; their 6i flanges are 22db.

For £80, with etymotic ER-6i's, you'll get both a better sound floor and better sound isolation in a lighter package than either Sony or Bose and one that doesn't require batteries. If you don't believe that, try this simple test: go somewhere where you can try a pair of the bose quiet comforts. Try them on, turned on. Then, remove headphones and stick in a pair of memory foam disposable type ear plugs (you don't squish in these: you roll them first to kinda compress them, then insert into the ear and hold for 5 secs: they expand to fit the ear canal shape). Which produces better noise reduction? If it's the ear plugs, imagine great sound coming through those plugs...

Aside: If you want to spend £275 on in-ear/isolation headphones, though, you can, and you can do much better in terms of both sound and isolation with that cash. See the Next Level section further down for how-to's. For about half that price, you can get some awesome professional level audio headsets, too!

Any Negatives? Hate the case. Ok, hate is a strong negative, but really. Er4-6-65V-1Etymotics provides a wee neoprene pouch for the phones with a mesh divider. This means stuffing the cables and earpieces into the thing. It's a mess and timely. ( See update bottom: the case has been changed and is a much better zip case)

Er6I-88An alternative device for storing 6i's is the earPod - a generic earphone case. Not quite as cools as sony's winding cases that come with their own headphones, but more durable, and will definitely fit the etymotic 6is as shown in this review at ipoditude.

Overall. The 6i's are a very good set of headphones. Whether you're listening to classical or house, the degree of detail in sound is impressive. The better the encoding the better the sound, of course, but even with lower bitrate encodings, these phones improve the experience.

The isolation is a boon for being able to turn the sound down and still hear an impressive and enjoyable level of detail. The isolation is also great for cutting out travel noise of the train/plane.

They take a bit to get used to in terms of learning how to put them in and get them out; and as other reviewers have noted, the difference between great and crap sound experience is all in the fit. Taking the time to get that fit right, though, pays off.

If you are looking for
- an improvement in audio experience on your ipod
- an improvement in your travel-with-audio commute experience
- a way to ensure the ongoing protection of your hearing

then these phones are a great option.


The Next Level: "Pro" IEMs

At the start of this article, i claimed these 6i's are an "affordable" package worth the price. Well, at around 150USD, "affordable" may be eye popping for folks used to thinking in terms of 20 bucks for earbuds. But that price is only the beginning.

You can take your ER-6i's to the next level by getting ear molds done at an audiologist and having custom silicon sleeves made for them. True, at £88 pounds, they're more expensive than the monitors themselves, but if you enjoy the sound and just want more comfort in ear, that's an option.
If you have money you want to burn to optimize your audio experience - an experience you may enjoy every day for hours at a time after all - you can

Soft2X-Big

take your in ear experience to the next level from off the shelf in-ear models to custom built jobs made from molds of your ears, the latter being the most unobtrusive and comfortable. I won't go through a comparison hear, but if you'd like to explore those heady spheres of audio possibilities, below are links discussing and comparing four of the most common high end in ear monitor models discussed: Etymotics ER-4, Shure E5c, Sensaphonic ProSonic 2x-S, Ultimate Ears UE-10pro.

A note about pro IEMs original design motivation: In the case of the custom made IEM's the motivation for the initial design has not been listening to ipods - or stereo systems. It's been largely to support stage musicians (a) to provide a good on-stage mix for the performer and (b) to protect the musician's hearing from the decibels coming off huge speakers in live events, whether pubs, clubs or arenas. Musicians who can't afford a full in ear monitoring solution and rely on house monitors at clubs will often have custom earplugs made just to cut that on stage while performing. Effectively, IEM's are adding decent sound mixes into those custom earplugs. Companies like Sesnaphonics and Etymotics make their bread and butter from such custom "sound attenuators"

Off the shelf Pro IEM's (in ear monitors)
  • Etymotics flag ship single driver EP-4's are $330 (all prices here USD)
  • Shure's top end "in ear monitors" dual driver EC5's are $499
Custom Made IEM's

Compare and Contrast.
Amazingly, there are people on the planet who have both the above top end phones (UE-10's and Prosonic 2X-S) and have written comparisons between the ety's, shures, UE's and sensa's (yes at that price range, the community gives these products abbreviated names). If you're interested, see this now classic reference piece comparing sensa's shures and etys. The same person does a comparison of Sensa's and UE-10s. UE-10's and Ety's, a UE-10 and UE-5c review and this one on the UE-10's AND getting UE-10's if you live in the UK and a

big review of the ACS T2's.
etc etc.

Good Luck

All said, the etymotics ER-6i's at once 150USD are still GREAT (and now you can see why they might be called "affordable" ) canalphones for your ipod.
UPDATE
Posted by mc at 11:00 PM | Comments (0)

November 15, 2005

new iPod - is Less More?

pic of apple video ipod
Apple's zippy new iPod will play itty bitty videos, as well as music. Even Steve Job's is dubious about whether or not little video will fly, but boy this new 60gig thing in thin. a bid wide, in an almost high definition kind of way, but thin.

In fact, this new ipod is so thin, it only supports one connector type: usb2. No more firewire. But everyone has USB2, right? everyone has a new computer? right? (lest we forget apple did not add USB2 to its powerbooks until mid 2003 - that's what? two years and a bit ago? hell, who keeps a laptop for that long!)

The ipod itself is also so thin it seems there's no room for that extra bit around the earphone jack to support a remote control dongle.
Want to turn the volume down or change track? be prepared to pull the ipod out of your jacket, pack, bag, wherever to make this simple adjustment that just about every other mp3 player - including the previous ipod - supports.

Ipodsock 125400USD for no charger, no docking stand, and now, featuring no remote control - not even the option of one. But heh, you can still buy ipod Sox. That's great, eh?

I was thinking of bagging my old 2nd gen, not quite three year old iPod since it holds oh, about, 5 mins of charge now. But instead, i think i'll just get the battery replaced. It may not be anorexic, heroin super model thin, but it uses a regular firewire cable to hook up to a computer to get charged and transfer tunes, and even tho it came in a much bigger box that box accommodated an external power supply and remote control.

Posted by mc at 3:28 PM

August 15, 2005

Epson Perfection 4180: A great scanner, Pt 1

Have you had the experience of trying to purge old documents, photos, photo albums? Has Digitization been part of that picture? consider the Epson Perfection 4180 photo, flat bed scanner.

In this review, i'm focussing on the image capture attributes of the scanner; i haven't done enough with the document capture - that''ll be part II.

There are stacks of boxes with old papers, documents, photos, photo albums taking up way too much space. And this is after i've purged a ton. Digitization seems like a compromise: get rid of it, but not really.

My friends in archaeology are still dubious about digitization as a strategy: what happens when the power fails or the format changes? there are horror stories to be sure of data being locked on disk formats for which players are rare, and even if they can be found, bit rot is no doubt a possibility. Paper, they claim, requires no power supply. Hieroglyphics can still be seen and read today.

And maybe that's true. Certainly all the folks involved in JISC's digitization program, to get content in their archives digitized for greater access, are concerned with changing formats for information. And maybe, if, as mentioned in a previous post, as per the interview with James Howard Kunstler, the oil disappears and power sources are limited, digital devices will go social rather than personal, and the convenience / availability of the digital will disappear.

But maybe if that comes to pass, there'll be
some warning, and at that point i'll get to think more judiciously about which are the precious things to be printed out to whatever passes for paper, and which are the things that can sink into bit rot? Maybe that won't be so bad, either.

In the meantime, i'm going with digitization. To that end, i've wanted a fast, good quality scanner. And after trying a bunch, i think i've found a solution adequate to my requirements/budget:
the epson perfection 4180 photo, flatbed scanner.

Great Color; Very Fast Scans
The scanner works over usb2, and it's fast. That's the main thing: deep image resolution, great color matching and FAST. I've tried a number of the siblings to this unit (in the 2XXX zone) that have half the color resolution, and seemingly half the speed, despite all being USB2 machines.

I also prefer this to the canons i've used in a similar range: espon has TWAIN drivers; canon seems not.

Another nice thing: I'm connecting this scanner to a final generation titanium powerbook that does not have usb2 on board, so i use a PC Card with usb2 on it and it works just fine - this cannot be said for all devices requiring a usb2 hub and run off a pc card rather than on-board ports.

Software - Only So-So

The software takes a bit to get used to but has some nice features for bulk-ish image capture.

The Scan and Save - nice for archiving - lets you choose Full Auto, Home or Professional Modes. Before hitting the scan mode, however, you can set a path and a prefix and suffix for each of the images about to be scanned. This is great if you have a series like "GradPhotos" or whatever. After making these choices, you get to scanning mode: each mode, as you can imagine, gives you more levels of detailed control over the scan. If you're just whacking in your snaps, full auto mode is great: you can put a bunch of photos on the glass, and the software will detect and scan in each photo as an individual image. The color matching is great, so it's not necessary to pre-tweak 99% of the photos in this category you might scan. It's impressive.

Batch Image Scanning and Image Detection. Weird but Cool
Here's what's taking some getting used to: when a file is scanned, it's not "saved" - it is stored in a tmp directory, but if you close the ap without saving, those tmps will be lost. Here's what happens:

From Scan and Save, in Full Auto mode, once the images are scanned, a window comes up that shows you what has been captured. Several options are available: at this point you can rename any of the files created, rotate the images, choose which scans you want to save, and, most excellent, decide if you want to scan more into this tmp set. This means that you can use the same labelling for as many scans as you want, and save them all in one go.

There's a trade off: i don't know (yet) what happens to those temps if the software crashes, so saving each set is not a bad idea. I've gone 3 sets of scans (4-5 images each scan) without incident.

By being able to name files while scanning, you can put enough of a cue into the images to be able to search on them later, or extend their file names later - the number of charcters in the Smart Panel name field is restricted.

The Save mechanism is dandy while using Full Auto mode for bulk scanning. For one offs in pro-mode, it becomes bizare. Once the image has been previewed for scanning, and is then scanned, i'm used to seeing the scanned image show up so that it can be assessed: does it need to be scanned again?

Here, in order to bring up the scanned image view, you need to close the pro panel. This causes that scrap-booky image viewer to show up. While you can enlarge the view, it's really pretty small.

Would prefer a way to view each scan in pro mode one off, rather than having to shut the mode and look in the scan and save viewer, and restart scan and save, which means restarting its preferences (naming files etc).

So that's two negatives: having to close off the "scan" control in order to bring up the scanned image; having no way of getting a large/zoomable image view. There is a scan and send to application, but i haven't been able to get it to work.

Bizare Software Update Instal Behaviour
And one truly bizare thing: in trying to get the sent to application feature to work, i downloaded and installed the latest driver from the epson site (2.6). That caused the scanner to no longer be recognized by the computer. Uninstalling 2.6 and reinstalling 2.5 from cd did not help: after multiple attempts it seemed the only thing that worked was to manually remove anything labelled "epson" from all over the disk, and reinstall from scratch. I'm still using the 2.5 driver. Don't really want to go through that again.

Apparently there are also a number of very good third party scanner software packages. If i get fed up with Epson's i'll be looking into those. But i didn't buy the scanner for the software - tho it wouldn't have been hard for Epson to make this package more usable! Who tests this stuff?

Documents and OCR...not tried yet - next report
I haven't tried the document scanning in detail yet, where getting quality text is critical. However, one of the reasons i got this scanner is that it also supports a document feeder.

For my stuff, scanning in a lot of hand written material is the main thing, so OCR isn't a biggie (it comes with both lightweight ocr and business card reading software), but being able to set up a bunch of pages to run at a clip could be awesome.

Image Format: TIF
the folks at the BOPCRIS digitization project, among other Digitization partners, are all using TIF for their archival scans. It's lossless, and also perhaps holds the best hope as a result for surviving file format changes. So i'm using TIF now, too. With harddrives being bigger and cheaper, and DVDs rather than CDs becoming more common for scans, bigger data files for images are less of an issue than they have been in the not too distant past.

Overview
The images are fab, the speed is wonderful, full auto mode is great for more or less batch scanning. The software is otherwise lame, but the hardware is grand for someone archiving their memories for life.

Posted by mc at 5:05 PM | Comments (0)

August 7, 2005

8x doesn't always mean 8x: dvd writers - stand alone and in powerbooks

Simple observation - the latest rev of the apple powerbook line sports Superdrives which burn DVDs at 8X speed.

8X it seems is relative.

A stand alone LaCie 8X DVD burner - DVD - 12 mins

New Powerbook Superdrive -DVD - 24 mins

Both were burning the same amount of data. The LaCie external was driven by a 1ghz powerbook over firewire. The internal powerbook was a 1.5ghz machine.

Offered without comment.

Posted by mc at 12:11 PM | Comments (0)

June 25, 2005

The Apple Store London Experience

My one previous experience of an apple store had been in a boston shopping center last summer when i watched in amazement as people came into the store, went straight to the cashier, pulled out a wad of hundreds, and requested an ipod. "Windows or Mac?" was the only question. More often than not, the answer was, interestingly, Windows. The cashier would turn to a wheeled cart, loaded with nothing but ipods, ask next "20 or 40" hand poised. The size was given and the exchange made. It mayn't have been a rush on the till, but it was a persistent and steady stream. And at least a transaction was taking place.

In London at least on this day, the grand Apple Regent Street Store was useless, unless of course your idea of a great store is something that disguises itself as an internet cafe - albeit one with some massive screens and the occasional ipod or digital camera attached. Maybe it's sale by virus? It was a pain in the ass. But since i seemed to be the only one in there interested in purchasing anything other than an iPod, maybe it's no big deal. Who am i to argue with a company that holds 2% of the PC market?

If you haven't been, the London Regent Street store is all open plan, pale wood floors, aluminum trim and glass panels, two floors. The crowd on the day i was there was largely 20-somethings taking over all the computer demo stations - to do email on a web browser or to configure IM to do fast chats. It was amazing. MSN messenger is certainly THE IM client - not ichat. There was a lot of IM'ing in spanish going on. Had word gone out to the backpack tourist crowd that this was the place to connect up with home? Something in the casual sashay of the staff suggested, however, that this was par for the course.

I had gone in to check out a new midi keyboard Apple was vending: it was attached to a 12"powerbook on a very short leash - and the guy "looking" at said power book was also just running a chat. When i asked about it wanting to check it out, the black shirted, black trousered "apple genius" was not particularly helpful: i wanted to try it. Like maybe to buy it. Oh well, too bad. Someone doing their email was using the space, so the customer can stuff it. Excuse me? i mean it must be a business plan right? Let people come in and use all this techno as a free internet cafe and that'll build brand loyalty. Don't ask them to move over because an actual customer might want to buy something or look at something. email/websurfing access is too important to the culture.

Two glorious 30" monitors set up side by side running off a g5 were not showing the marvels of final cut pro (aside: surely one 30" would do? have you seen these things? it's like swimming in a screen - just one - two is a jaw dropper. Who has a desk this wide? an office this wide??). No, these beauties were occupied by another person checking their mail. And that seemed to be just fine with all the staff.

And i mean all the staff. No shortage of the lads (i didn't see any women employed there: maybe they were all in the bathroom) who could point over the shoulders of the internet cafe-ers to try to paint a verbal picture of what the system would be like if you could actually get close to seeing it.

There were what appeared to be queues in front of many of the machines, but when i asked someone if they were in line (to try out the machine?) they said no. What they were doing, standing, staring, is still a mystery to me.

On the second floor is the theater. Some poor soul was giving a tutorial on the image editing software photo elements and doing some cool stuff. No one seemed to be watching - or listening; they were im'ing on their own laptops. Maybe the apple store is an open wifi point? so why not on a hot day come into the Xanadu of computer design, sit in a comfy chair, in a semi-darkened area, headphones on, and surf? Perhaps that's another subliminal message: Apple is so cool it provides free wifi; it is the internet cafe location (though there's no coffee on site) of choice. You don't need to come here to shop; just to absorb.

I'm trying to think of any other store where people could just come in an use the stuff for nothing to do with the store, actually stand in the way of potentially paying customers. Does this actually add, not lose sales?

Upstairs there was a line up not for the till, (like boston, ringing up ipods only there) but for the "genius bar" People with laptops, with questions, earnestly pouring out their hearts to another load of lads in a row, asking for healing, for vision, for confirmation that this was the end of their personal techno hell, the summit of wisdom had been reached.

At another round version of same, people sat in a circle looking earnestly at digital video cameras as the geniuses there walked the inner circle, helping decisions to be made.

While the first floor was the land of the internet cafe twenty-somethings, the info bars were the realm of people who looked like they already had substantial mortgages. Who might actually buy something - a digital camera not made by apple at the round bar - or who had actually bought something - at the line dance on the other side of the glass stares.

At uni i recall the rationalization for either selling software cheap at education rates was to build brand loyalty. Similarly, the looking the other way if someone had "illegal" software on their deck was rationalized as "heh, when i get a job and i can afford it, i'll buy it" - that's generally held true.

Maybe Apple's store is trying to build this kind of deferred product lust. Maybe that's a bigger market than the too few of us who might actually walk in to try something specifically with an eye to buy. Maybe it's working for apple. And the value of the many in the future exceeds the possible purchase at that moment by the one? Does this work? Or was this just a blip in the day of the life of a "flagship" Apple Store?

From a cultural perspective London Regent St Apple Store was an interesting experience, but as an individual consumer, it was a turn off. And if i wasn't already a long term apple customer, i could say one of those kinds of turn offs that make you feel you won't be back.

Posted by mc at 7:31 PM | Comments (0)

May 19, 2005

What happens When the Energy's Gone?

What happens when technologies go transparent? when they become so common that we no longer think about them? What's happening with mobile phones in some countries is a case in point: the techno has gotten to a place when it's only noticed when someone doesn't have it: "What do you mean you don't have a cell phone?" This is an example of a technology in the process of going transparent.

One technology that is pretty much transparent in most of the "first" world is oil - and its derivatives. Oil based products, whether energy, plastic or synthetic materials, have gone effectively transparent. We rarely see these technologies any more: we take synthetics for granted; although the price of gas has goes up, we don't think that the gas will run out.

But what happens when it does? or as it does - run out, that is. Because it will - and according to at least one expert, it will run out a lot sooner than most of us would care to believe.

Salon recently published an interview with James Howard Kunstler author of "The Long Emergency" to discuss his predictions/scenarios of what life will be like when the "oil fiesta" is over - in 15 years.

Try to imagine all the things we do - including looking at this Web page - that presume abundant energy. The plastic in the computer you're using; the milk jug in your fridge; the clothes in your closet; the shoes on your feet; the cheap flight you took on holiday; the food in your grocery, trucked in from god knows where, but not your back yard, the dvd you rented.

Now imagine it gone.

Kunstler suggests that people at least in the States are too overwhelmed when presented with a scenario postulating the immanent demise of a way of life that they are in a state of denial. They won't consider it. And consequently the opportunity of a "smooth transition" from the Way It Is Now to the Way It (Soon) Will Be has been effectively lost.

Thus the question may worth be considering, what would we need to rebuild, reknow, relearn, regenerate, to get along in a world that may be more like the Victorians (or at least Neal Stephanson's digital version of that era [see the Diamond Age]) than the Space Family Robinson. Danger danger, Will Robinson: you're running out of oil.

What would we hate to lose most? how would we keep it?
What would it mean to become again far more locally/community oriented?
What would it be like not to be able to travel at the drop of a hat? or if Pirates once again became a formidable thread to global exchange of goods?
What would it mean if the suburbs collapsed?

These are hard things to imagine. Or not - there are periods of history that reflect these ways of being; there are parts of the globe today that live in this disconnected (but highly impacted) way. But we like to think of them as a part of the past, not our future.

How do we psychically and practically prepare for such a transition?

Posted by mc at 1:46 PM

March 31, 2005

The Equilibrium of Tea meets
the Light Speed of English Kettles

In his novel Pattern Recognition, William Gibson describes his American heroine's experience of visiting the UK, staying at a friends apartment, as a trip into "mirror world:"

Mirror-world. The plugs on appliances are huge, triple-pronged, for a species of current that only powers electric chairs, in America. Cars are reversed, left to right, inside; telephone handsets have a different weight, a different balance; the covers of paperbacks look like Australian money.

For someone coming from (anglo-english Toronto) Canada, still acclimatizing to (southern) England, this is an apt description of the dissonance experienced - the slight offset of one English speaking region next to another: the expectation of similarity against the twilight zone oddness of same, but somehow, not the same. Caesura. or hiatus. or dissonance. Enter, the Tea Kettle, restorer of equilibrium.

Equinox Small

Equinox Dt1 SmallOne of the most amazing, awful (in the awe-full sense of the word) differences, of that "current that only powers electric chairs in America" is its manifestation in the EU Made Tea Kettle. No where, it seems, is that difference more sublimely embodied than in the model pictured here: the three THOUSAND watt Rowenta Equinox Uber Kettle which proves Einstein's theory of relativity by boiling water so fast, it's happened in the past [1] [2] before you even get up to fill it up. It is a beautiful thing. Stout but streamlined. Elegant in brushed steel. 1.5 liter capacity, easy to read water level, and scary scary fast at bringing water to a boil. It is, to use the British expression, "brilliant." It enables the making of that soul-restoring to a culure-shocked cannuck beverage, Real Tea.

Some time ago, not long after i'd arrived, i was amazed to find myself engaged in a discussion with two English colleagues who knew their kettles. They even knew what the usual amperage of kettles is without looking it up in google (half the Rowenta). When i exclaimed that the Rowenta was DOUBLE this state at 3000watts, they did a fast calculation on how long it would take a liter of water to boil and even they were impressed (i was impressed by their ready calculation of same, but then these were the guys who were behind the "spud server" [bbc][exn][register]). Initially disbelieving that such a marvel existed with such amperage until pointed to on the Web, they concurred, that this is quite a thing.

Tea time of the soul. One of the profound links between (a good chunk of anglo) Canada and the UK (or at least a good chunk of England) is an understanding of what constitutes real tea. The fact that there is an understanding about what "real" tea is also implicitly demonstrates the great impact of America on the Rest of Us. In my limited experience, if you get anglo-Canadians together with English sorts in some country where either is not a citizen, one can generally be counted on to establish immediate rapport in the glorious and shared generalization that "americans don't know how to make tea."

Brisktea

Tales of terrible tea in restaurants emerge that regularly share the same core elements:

Roundbag

The true commiserators remark that they travel with their own tea bags and secret them into the uncontaminated-by-tea hot water pots when the server isn't looking.

The truly desperate traveler in the US will reflect on how they will beg hotel managers to send up a tea kettle in order to make hot water for tea. "But you have a coffee maker in your room!" Exactly. The water tastes like coffee.The results of the tea kettle request in America have met with mixed results: carafes (last used for, yes, coffee) of hot water may be brought up; another "newer" coffee maker may be produced, and sometimes, a tea kettle of a certain age may be found. An English colleague has mentioned that the notion of the tea kettle itself does not appear to be well understood in the States. He tells the tale of looking for a kettle in a shopping center and only able to find the stove top variety. In the UK, the tea kettle is the default hotel beverage accouterment, no matter the hotel grade.

The default coffee, by the way, in a British hotel is a cylindrical packet of Nescafe. You can order Nescafe Instant Coffee in restaurants, too, and you'll also find it as a common (if not prefered) domestic means of making coffee. Perhaps this explains why the Senseo is making such a splash now that its broken past the Netherlands's borders. Instant. Singular. But tastes, heh, like, i dunno, coffee?

To be fair, Americans i've met who like "hot" tea certainly know how to make a proper cuppa, from heating up the pot first, to stirring, etc. And some of the stories i've heard from Irish colleagues of their relatives making tea by leaving a pot on the stove with tea bags left in for an indeterminate amount of time have left me sure that generalizations are of course generally apt to fail. Weirdest tea experience: Palo Alto, ordering a pot of tea, where the cafe seemed to make a fetish of selecting leaves, placing them in carefully selected squares of material, tying the baggie and then reverntially placing the baggie in the pot. I was too stunned by the production to really note whether or not they put water in the pot first or after the bag. My mind seems to think after all that, they'd delicately dipped the bag into the hot water rather than scalding it. sigh. When one is dying for a cup, taking such time to produce what was, alas, actually only an ok brew, really does seem too much.

But to the kettle, perhaps i generalize too much to suggest that the accelerated speed at which a UK kettle boils water could have such a stabilizing effect on the Newly Landed. But in the UK in particular, where, as Gibson's narrative so aptly captures, things do initially seem slightly off kilter (electrical switches that should turn things on turn them off, for instance), the fact that, while much around you feels a little weird, tea, that calming centering beverage, is not only possible but stirringly ready at mind bendingly fast speeds, means that all can still be well in the world, reflected, refracted or otherwise.

Posted by mc at 12:16 PM

March 29, 2005

The Brighter Glory of an Energy Saving Lightbulb

Tn Ambiance Bc 169 "If every UK household installed just one [energy-efficient] bulb we'd save over £80 million per year![ref]"

Recently, on yet another grey rainy day in England (how else does it get verdant, eh?), i was looking into the promised properties of full spectrum lights to see if they helped break the monotony even if you don't have seasonal affective disorder.

This lead to a site which sells such things. (Aside: one of the great things about the UK is the number of sites online that ship goods, from weigh scales (at scales-r-us (not kidding)) to, well, light bulbs. Just about anything that can be put in a box can be put in the post and will be there in a day. maybe two. amazing. Just in case you're wondering, this is not how it works in Canada. Even if you're putting something in the mail for delivery in the same city. no. no no no no). Which lead to the discovery of an "energy saver" version of full spectrum lights. Which in turn leads to all sorts of energy saver bulbs - at the time, on sale, even.

Turns out that changing light bulbs from regular wattage to energy saver can do more to fight the later winter/early spring blahs better than a whole box of full spectrum homeotherapy -- really...please, read on

If you don't have experience of Compact Fluorescent Lights (CFLs), they come in a variety of shapes,(and explanations for why they're so efficient and exceed their stated life expectancy [1] [2] [3]) from regular looking bulbs (shown above), to tubes looped over each other. They take a moment to warm up and come to full illumination. This is a bit disconcerting at first, but one acclimatizes quickly. And the light color is not bluey fluorescent but the same as regular bulbs. that's a happy surprise.

The energy reasons for using these bulbs are two fold: they cut electricity bills, and, especially, they save energy resources. Here's a great factoid: "If every UK household installed just one bulb we'd save over £80 million per year!"
(point 7, of http://www.est.org.uk/myhome/whatcan/energyplan/)

Did you know:

Replacing a 75 Watt incandescent fixture with a 20 Watt CFL fixture that is in use for 10 hours a day will pay for itself in just over a year in terms of saved power. That light will then continue to work for upwards of 10 years after, each year saving you more and more money. [http://www.energyalternatives.ca/conservation.asp]

or

Each Energy Efficiency Recommended bulb can reduce your lighting costs by up to £7 a year. That's just one light bulb - imagine how much you would save if you replaced them all! Because energy efficient bulbs use only a fraction of the energy needed to light a traditional bulb, they also help the environment by demanding less energy from the power stations which means fewer climate-changing gases being released. [http://www.est.co.uk/myhome/efficientproducts/lighting/]

There's another reason for using them, too: more light,

Sockets that have a max wattage of say 60 watts can now have bulbs that are a third of the wattage and give near twice the light. This is a great cheap way to improve the light in an area and save energy and electricity costs at the same time. This is awesome if you're somewhere where there's a fixed lamp (like a kitchen or bathroom) and it's a bit on the dull side. Going from 60w to 100w in an energy saver is an incredible difference.

It's just great having a brighter environment, and yet knowing that you've actually achieved it by using less energy. Having just replaced four regular sixties (240 watts) with two 12s and two 20s for the equivalent of two 75s and two 100s, that's an energy savings of 176 watts; the 64 watts give 350 watts effect of illumination.

The hard part if you're on limited income is making the hurdle to spend the denaros (or pounds) on the light to begin with. In my case, i was lucky and caught a sale. That said, there are power companies that apparently give discounts on CFLs. In the UK, their Energy Saving Trust site has links to these kinds of schemes. But heh, even one bulb makes a difference - a collective 80million£ difference.

I still can't get over this notion of getting more - more light - for less energy resource, less energy cost. It really does feel pretty good - especially on these grey days when a person wants/needs the lights on, full spectrum or otherwise.

Posted by mc at 2:21 PM

March 21, 2005

File Names and Evil Attachments: We must Shake off the File System Chains

Like most folks, i get a ton of email. I get a ton of attachments with email. And those attachments are evil. For the most parts they have only generic names like "my assignment" or "Job Application" or "invoice". The mail client will add a number to the name so that one file doesn't overwrite another, but that's for the file system's benefit, not mine, the human being trying to make sense of these files without having to come through associated emails.

So whose problem is this? people's for not using more descriptive name identifiers?

I blame the System.

But to be proactive, we suggest alternatives...

It's not right to ask people to who have some kind of file template to come up with nice rich file names - especially when some folks are still getting over the legacy of 8char file names plus three character extensions.

But those days of short file names are G O N E.

So we need file systems to step up to the plate and help name these suckers in meaningful ways. There's lots of simple stuff a file system could do: it could automatically prepend all files with a user id; it could develop a bunch of project codes/names that a person could use (like course numbers or business names) for specific files, and have defaults set up which a person only changes as they need - if the system can't determine the context from other cues in the data itself.

With more operating systems deploying technologies for rapid content indexing, such reading of documents for labeling cues isn't that unlikely.

Simple selections with well chosen defaults could take a load of effort of people for creating reasonable labels for files both for their own later retrieval and for sharing. These same file names could be decoded on the recipient end for multiple categorization of these resources, too. So i could say for instance "show me all the files associated with comp6012 from Alistair" without having to reef through file folders.

I know this kind of listing is just what Apple's Spotlight is aiming at in OSX Tiger due out April 15, but index retrievals alone are not enough. we still like to be able to look at where things are in relation to other things, so we need to make these labels apparent to us, not just derivable by the system.

In the myTea project, we're looking at this kind of approach of assistive file naming for bioinformaticians (see the short paper on this), whose biggest challenge it turns out is not coming up with new insights into genes, but is managing the hundreds of files they get on their desktop which are generated by the various Web processes they run.

We can do this. And more than just improve personal data, we can get that data into sharable forms which makes it feasible for people to share the parts of their work they wish to share with the world or subsets of the world, where this information is meaningful. Community. We can do this. It's time to be liberated from the file systems and provide interaction that frees us from naming files and lets us get on with what we want to do: have fun, create knowledge, share.

Posted by mc at 1:52 PM

March 19, 2005

mSpace: Becoming an Example

Mspace logo
mSpace more than anything is an idea about access and exploration: improving access to information; helping people make connexions from one idea to another.

mSpace has been expressed as an interaction model (ah03 paper; ht04 paper): the idea of an interaction model is to look at what attributes you want to support for an interaction, and see how they can be formalized. From the formalism, it becomes possible to see how it can be applied to situations in general that may wish to use the model.

More recently, mSpace has been deployed as an evolving software framework based on Semantic Web technologies ( demo, software download, framework docs(pdf, 1.6m)), which embodies many attributes from the interaction model. The mission with the framework is to enable folks interested in this open standards approach to making connexions among data to do so - to at least try one way of exploring data that can be hooked up in such an associative way.

And just yesterday, mSpace became an example.

In this case, an example "for someone trying to make use of data on the web, the web is one huge heterogenous data integration problem."

The great thing is that the person who turned to the project is Mike Linksvayer, CTO of the Creative Commons project, looking at getting more information to more people in less entangled ways.

Of course the other happy thing is that none of our team knows Mike personally, so it's nice to see that mSpace is moving out beyond the shores of its home in ECS at the U of Southampton.

And one more great thing is that mSpace was used as an example in the context of a talk given on a panel called "“The Semantic Web: Promising Future or Utter Failure”" at SXSW; it was placed on the side of Promising Future - perhaps in no small part because, as Linksvayer put it, "it won’t be obvious to an end user that they’re [using] a semantic web technologies application, and that’s as it should be." Here here!

Future Note: While we've put up an mspace browser for classical music, the model can be applied to any domain. If IMDB used Mike's Creative Commons licensing, we'd be able to put out an mSpace of movies (it's built, but we can't show it to you, since that would cost us 10k). But other mSpaces are sprouting up (one in the Sculpteur project is to use the model rather than the framework as a java applet-based ontology browser in a museums context). We'll link to these mspaces as they become available.

Among other things, we're also working on supporting the intersection of multiple mSpace domains (via a meta-mSpace), so that people can move as easily to tangents among domains, as they do now within domains.

Geek Note: you don't have to have a formal ontology to build an mSpace. If you have one, that's nice, and you get the added benefits of inferencing and connection which an ontology makes possible, but if you want to start light, you only need to define what we've been calling a "domain model" for your info. It's what might be seen as an implicit schema. We're working on a tool set to make constructing a model file dead simple. In the meantime, instructions are in the software docs on sourceforge included in the download.

If you want to see a full bore semantic web ap on steroids which uses an ontology, and is a precursor in its implementation to mSpace (it doesn't have all the sorting/swapping/slicing features of an mSpace), take a look at CS AKTive Space (CAS), an ap for exploring who's doing what research in computer science in the UK (described in the paper "CS AKTive Space or how we stopped worrying and learned to love the Semantic Web").

CAS won the Semantic Web Challenge of 2003 in part because it: got data from a host of heterogeneous sources, used them in ways for which the data's initial deployment was not presented, demonstrated the power of an ontology for doing inference over data (like who collaborates with who which is not in any of the data explicitly; what other stuff not already known about have these people done), it could scale (this thing handles tens of millions of triples - the manner of storing data in rdf for SW deployment) - and it lets folks explore complex queries in simple direct manipulation kinds of ways.

We took the lessons learned from deploying CAS in order to make a first pass at (a) implementing the richer set of interactions we wanted to support, like picking what things you want to explore, and being able to reorganize these on the fly, and (b) making it easier to sling an mSpace across RDF data without requiring all the heavy lifting of an ontology, but letting designers use and benefit from it when they had one.

In the meanwhile, thank you for using mSpace as an example. We're developing new ways to keep it light: to make it easy for folks to use the advantages of the semantic web without them (you and me) having to know that they're/we're using it.

Posted by mc at 1:12 PM

March 12, 2005

If we were inventing email today


What if starting with technologies currently available, we were to rethink how to support mail electronically? would we end up with email?

What if, instead of taking a purely functional, or task oriented view to email, that of getting a note from here to there, we were to think about the affective properties of mail, and of letters in particular? What if our design goals were to incorporate both the functional and the affective into this new digital mode of communication? what would this new digitized form of communication be like?

These are the questions the Masters students in COMP6012 are considering in order to think new thoughts about existing technologies that are based on 30+ year old, command line systems. Sure the GUI has brought new features to email: multiple concurrent open windows, embedded HTML, graphical icons to

apple's Tiger Email client

replace text typed smileys, new ways of connecting contact and date information from email into contact managers. great.

And, to be sure, email is not physical mail. It's become a whole other communication medium.

But these are just the differences that the group is looking to tease out. What has been lost in comparison to physical mail? what's been gained? do we want to reconsider whether what's been lost needs to stay gone? are other modes of communication taking up the parts missing from email that were once a part of physical mail, of letters or cards in particular?

The question makes me think about blogs again. As i wrote recently, my casual survey of blogging in our group suggested that blogging has two core purposes: journaling, and letting family and friends know what one's up to.

There's something letter-ish, to be sure, about those kinds of blogs: extended entries, the possibility of multiple people looking at the same arifact. But why not email the thing to everyone with a cc to all? Perception? In email, one looks at their own copy of a cc'd missive. In a blog, despite the technical reality of one downloading a local copy of a web page (similar to email), there's the affect of sharing the same artifact: everyone goes to the same URL. Is that a similar experience to passing around the same letter? that social experience then enforced by the medium (paper) replicated in the sharing of the URL?

I still think there's something voyeuristic/exhibitionist about exposing communication supposedly primarily intended for oneself or one's friends to the world (and why help identity thieves?) but there is something undeniably social here that does seem to be both missing in email and present in physical letters.

Other attributes do not seem to be echoed in any other digital manifestation right now, though perhaps new IM client features are moving towards them. If a letter pisses one off, it can be returned, torn to shreds. If it is treasured, it can be carried in a special place, saved in a favorite book, close to hand, secret. Where's the digital equivalent here? Where's the social equivalent of everyone seeing that you remembered to send the birthday card that is happily displayed on the wall, or kept on the fridge? How emulate any of these effects? Do we need new hardware to support such display or effect- like the digital picture frames now available for displaying changing favorite photos? How emulate texture, beauty of hand crafter paper, fountain pen scrawl? the suspense of the envelop, waiting for discovery.

There's another side to the consideration of the reinvention of digital letters: is their anything new the computer can bring to textual communication besides what it already has (filters, search, indexing - effectively archiving and file management)? To answer this question, do we need to think not about mail, but about what we cherish in asynchronous exchanges?

There's a scene in Minority report the main character obsessively watches a 3d video of his son on the beach. The video is shot from the father's perspective. We can hear his voice off camera as he asks his son questions. In the now of the film, the son is dead and the father, in his darkened appartment, steps into the position off himself then so he can seemingly look into his son's digitized eyes, and mouth the same questions along with the video. This is a human moment (a pain cry for therapy to be sure but poignant nonetheless), enhanced, enabled by the lifelikeness of the digitally captured, infinitely repeatably copy of the moment.

It is a precious digital artifact, kept (referenced) on a special lucite-clear disk. The disk is inserted into a player to initiate playback. A techno geek may scoff, oh come on, all that would be on a server: no need for the plastic disks. And yet, and yet. From an interaction point of view, that marker, that disk (perhaps only a URI pointing to an associated file on a server?) gets at some of the preciousness of the physical, tangible, of older familiar beloved, personal atifacts, like letters, and blends them with the potential evocativeness of the pure(ly) digital replication.

Projected video, however, is an easier mapping here to tearing off a moment of real life to replay. Letters are abstract, textual, imaginative. What is the role of the medium for something abstract, always translated from signs?

Which comes back to the question: what do you treasure of physical letters? what do you wish you could do with email that you can't?

Posted by mc at 5:34 PM

February 25, 2005

corsair flash usb drives: recommended

Have been looking for a fast, robust usb2 flash drive. Reviews seem to point to Corsair's Flash Voyager drives.

They're cool. They're fast. They bounce. They can handle getting caught in the washing machine, or being dropped in a mug of ale.

The pictures on the web site don't do them justice: they are small, thin, and the rubberized coating is besides functional, just neat, if not unique in the flash market. They're also thin, which makes carrying them in you jean's coin pocket doable. Various reviews have pointed to the bounceableness of the drives as well as their leak-proofness (they survived bear dunking and washing machine full cycles)

And yes, they are fast. The reviews (many now linked to Corsair's site) show that they do manage their claimed throughput speeds.

A couple of design points: (1)no physical lock to make the device read only, but since the point of these is mainly to enable fast shared writes, that's not a major issue. (2) there's nowhere to put the cap: it does not stick on the end of the drive so you need to (a) put the cap somewhere safe and (b) remember where you put it. Not optimal.

Finally, Corsair also offers downloadable security software for locking out a partiction on the drive from access. They do not have a mac version, but their tech support (Ram Guy) suggests that such a product may be in the works.

In the meantime, i'm using a password protected disk image, created with osx's disk utility. Another colleague, Mauricio Varea, suggests that you can also partition the drive on a windows box, and then on the mac, reformat one of those partitions as an HFS+ (mac) formatted drive. Cool.

In the UK, these are available at scan.co.uk and dabs.com

Posted by mc at 2:34 PM