Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Old Videos of Early Sketch-Based Systems

Bill Buxton has a YouTube channel with some amazing videos of old sketch-based systems, it's a great resource. Thanks to Gabe Johnson for pointing me to these.


Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Larry Tesler's Six Takeaways

Larry Tesler gave a fantastic talk at CHI for his Lifetime Practice award. He presented a summary of his work in helping to develop the modern GUI, and focused specifically on modeless interactions and cut-copy-paste. It was really fascinating listening to all of the subtle issues and design challenges in something that we now take for granted.

One example that really struck home was a description of how modes worked in Engelbart's NLS system. To delete a word, first you might hit "d" to put the system into delete mode. Then you might hit "w" to put it into select word mode. Then you could use the mouse to select the text you wanted. Then you would hit an accept button on the mouse to confirm the action. Compare this verb-noun approach to the noun-verb approach we use today, where we simply move the mouse to the right place, select the text (ie the noun), and then hit delete. Much simpler, less error-prone, and fewer clicks.

I also liked Larry's takeaways, which he would briefly mention at the end of a good story. The six he had were:
  • Unless you want a career in operations, build easy-to-use, bug-free software
  • Don't be compatible with a bad UX (talking about his early work on PUB, and his mistake in making PUB compatible with a difficult-to-use markup language)
  • Never confuse busy with productive (talking about the number of steps it took to use NLS versus a modeless system)
  • You don't have all the answers. Team up.
  • If everyone else thinks something's impossible, it's a great topic for research
  • To fight an uphill battle, choose a short hill

  • Sunday, April 17, 2011

    How to Fix a Jammed Toyota Camry Trunk

    This problem needs a higher pagerank, so I figured I would post the solution here.

    If your Toyota Camry trunk won't open, one possible reason is that it is set to valet mode. Valet mode means that you cannot open the trunk using the release lever inside the car.

    To set valet mode, you put the key into the trunk lock and turn it counterclockwise. You will know that your trunk is in valet mode if the lock is horizontal rather than vertical, and if you cannot open the trunk using the lever near the driver's seat.

    Of course, a problem is that sometimes the Camry can get stuck in valet mode, such that you can't use your key to get out of it. (You can see how I spent part of my Sunday morning ...)

    The solution turns out to be WD-40. Spray some WD-40 on your key and on the lock. Put the key in, and jiggle it around, and happiness ensues.

    From an interaction design perspective, it sort of makes sense to have a valet mode. After all, the point of having a valet key is to limit the functions that an untrusted person can use. On the other hand, in the roughly 20 years I've driven a car, I pretty much never remember to bring the valet key with me, and have only valet parked at most three times. I suspect valet mode has caused more problems than actually solved.

    Monday, April 04, 2011

    Interesting Failure of Wisdom of Crowds

    Like many others, my NCAA bracket went terribly awry this year and I have no teams in the Final Four. However, it did make me think that this is a really interesting failure of wisdom of crowds. According to ESPN:

    More than 5.9 million brackets were filled out for ESPN.com's Tournament Challenge, but exactly two went 4-for-4 in picking Final Four teams.

    Only 1,093 brackets had three of the Final Four correct, while 2.1 percent had two right. A total of 27.6 percent had one Final Four team, while the vast majority of you -- 70.3 percent -- don't have a single team left.

    Thursday, March 31, 2011

    Scariest Unit of Measurement: MicroMort

    I saw this on a CMU website called Death Risk Rankings. The site "Calculates the risk of dying in the next year using MicroMorts (a one-in-a-million chance of dying)."

    Monday, March 28, 2011

    Peter Gutmann on Computer Security Mentality

    Well-known security researcher Peter Gutmann has a draft of his book on Engineering Security available on his web page. He has a lot of good commentary about challenges that the security community is facing. So far, my favorite passage challenges the common mentality that security has to be 100% or it's just not worth having.

    Engineering an effective security solution in the presence of security geeks is an extremely difficult problem... Consider as an example of this a world where no-one ever locks their front door when they leave the house, and someone suggests that fitting locks and actually using them might help in dealing with the spate of burglaries that have occurred recently. This would be totally unworkable. If you lost your key you’d be unable to get into your own house. Conversely, anyone who found it or stole it could now get in. For a house with multiple occupants you’d need to get a new key cut for everyone in the house, including any temporary guests who were staying for a few days. If a neighbour dropped by to return an item that they’d borrowed they wouldn’t be able to get in. If there was a fire then emergency services wouldn’t be able to get into the house to look for people who might be trapped there. Door locks are obviously completely unworkable, and therefore not even worth trying. Better to leave the
    burglars a free hand than to even attempt a flawed security mechanism of this type.

    Thursday, March 17, 2011

    Good Douglas Adams Quote

    Anything that is in the world when you're born is normal and ordinary and is just a natural part of the way the world works. Anything that's invented between when you're fifteen and thirty-five is new and exciting and revolutionary and you can probably get a career in it. Anything invented after you're thirty-five is against the natural order of things.

    The scary thing is that things are starting to be against the natural order for me now.

    Sunday, January 30, 2011

    Understanding the US Visa System

    I read a lot of my wife's Chemical Engineering magazines, I find it really fascinating to learn about their values, debates, methods, tools, and culture.

    I found this article especially useful, an article by someone at the US Department of State as to how the US visa system works, why people are rejected (apparently 3/4 of visa applications are approved), and how best to prepare for a visa application. Very useful.


    Friday, January 28, 2011

    Why I Don't Live in South Carolina

    My old high school, the South Carolina Governor's School for Science and Math (SCGSSM), sent out a survey to understand what it would take to get more of its alumni to live and work in the state.

    I think there are a lot of serious structural issues with SC that make it virtually impossible for me to live there. To a large extent, SCGSSM is a victim of its own success. Here, we have a fantastic, top-caliber high school that has trained scholars who can operate on the world stage. In my graduating class, there is a speechwriter for a politician, several lawyers, multiple doctors, and a large number of teachers.

    The problem is that many of these top-notch jobs simply aren't in SC. SC doesn't have a thriving high-tech, biotech, financial, or engineering base. It's simply dominated by Atlanta to the west, and North Carolina to the north. The same is true for its universities. God bless Clemson's football team, but the universities in SC can't compete at the international level, let alone the regional level. For engineering and computer science, the region is dominated by Georgia Tech, Duke, and VA Tech. These factors put SC at a tremendous competitive disadvantage.

    And then there's the issue of race. I pretty much always cringe whenever I hear SC in the news, since most often it's because some politician called the now governor of SC a "raghead", or because SC refuses to disassociate itself from the Confederate flag, or some frat boys make blatantly racist and sexist comments which appear in the Borat movie. David Beasley, a former governor of SC (who I had the honor of meeting on a plane once), even won an award for opposing having the Confederate flag on the state capitol. SC simply isn't doing itself any favors.

    While I loved growing up in Charleston, and while I fondly reminisce about my time at SCGSSM, I just don't see a good way forward for my home state. The problems it faces are ones that will take 50-100 years to fix, and that's only if there is the political willpower and vision to carry it out.