Blog Archive — Page 16

This is part of my blog, which I have long since stopped maintaining. The page has been preserved in case its content is of any interest. Please go back to the homepage to see the current contents of this site.

  • Cultural Travesty Pizza

    Over the past couple of hours, I’ve been encouraging the people of Twitter and Facebook to help me create the world’s greatest culinary cultural travesty. Starting with a pizza base, as probably the easiest thing to hold all the other stuff, I intend to pick one of the suggested foodstuffs for each country or region, and add some to the pizza.

    Then cook and eat it, for great internet lulz.

    There’s still plenty of time for you to suggest more foods from more places! The table below lists everything suggested so far, which I will try to keep up-to-date.

    Country Food Suggesting Person

    Austria

    Schnitzel

    Eric

    England

    Fish and Chips
    Jelly & Ice Cream
    Rainbow Drops

    Lewis Reading
    Frankie
    Alex

    France

    Baguettes
    Escargot
    Frog’s legs

    Tom Hudson
    Kirsty March
    Eric

    Galicia

    Octopus

    Eric

    Germany

    Bratwurst

    Miri & Richard Kille

    Israel

    Hummus

    Miri

    Italy

    Pizza (ya rly)
    Panna Cotta
    Pasta

    Stephen Jenkins
    Isa Santana
    Richard Kille

    Japan

    Mochi
    Fugu
    Daikon

    Isa Santana
    Kieran Martin
    Alex

    Malaysia

    Laksa Johor

    Ali

    Mexico

    Guacamole

    Isa Santana

    Norway

    Lutefisk

    Esqui

    Oman

    Halwa
    Maqdeed

    Mark Pickering
    Mark Pickering

    Russia

    Varenyky

    Miri

    Sardinia

    Casu Marzu

    Frankie

    Scotland

    Haggis
    Cock-a-leekie Soup

    Cap’n Andy
    Frankie

    Spain

    Torrijas
    Paella
    Navajas
    Tortilla

    Isa Santana
    Eric
    Eric
    Eric

    Sweden

    Meatballs

    Alex

    USA

    Baked Alaska

    Richard Kille

  • The UI of Least Resistance

    I was working up to a blog post on Ubuntu’s new “Unity” interface a couple of days ago, but repeatedly stalled when it came to making a point. The only point I could come up with was essentially just “I don’t like this”, which isn’t the greatest of subjects for a blog post – to say nothing of the hundreds who have trodden that territory before me.

    It’s a fairly bold new direction for Ubuntu’s UI, and the first time their default interface has really diverged from what the upstream GNOME project provides. Now I don’t like it for a number of reasons: it’s slow, it doesn’t provide some basic functionality, other functionality is really well hidden (Go on, re-order your icons. Try it.) and it’s got an “our way or nothing” approach to handling workspaces.

    On one hand, as a software guy whose main specialisation is user interface design, I understand the urge to try new UI paradigms as often as possible, on the grounds that sooner or later you’ll discover something that really is better than what you currently have. On the other hand, I quietly despair at how far off that “something better” seems.

    Take, for example, me. I’m a UX person, and a perfectionist when it comes to interfaces. I’m irritated by slightly-wrong fonts and icons a couple of pixels out of alignment. I love new things, new ways of organising and displaying data. I’m big on augmented reality. And my desktop looks like this:

    Bare XFCE Desktop

    Now I think that’s aesthetically pleasing, but in terms of functionality, it resembles nothing quite so much as:

    Windows 95 desktop

    Yeah, that.

    The only notable exception is GNOME-Do (think Launchy on Windows or Quicksilver on OS X), which I use exclusively for launching apps. The main menu, lower left, only gets used if I forget the name of something. Aside from that, I’m using my computer in exactly the same way I was 16 years ago.

    The reason for that, as far as I can tell, is that it is the UI of least resistance. In sixteen years, probably 99% of my computer-using time has involved an interface that’s very similar to that one. Sure, there are certainly better UIs out there. Maybe from an objective point of view, Unity is one of them. But for more than half of my life, my brain has been slowly optimising itself for the Windows 95 style interface.

    To become the “next big thing” in desktop UI, a new paradigm must not only be better than what came before, it must be so much better that our brains don’t mind losing half a lifetime’s worth of learning.

    That’s a milestone I haven’t seen reached lately on the desktop, and a fear we may not see it reached before “the desktop” stops being a thing.

  • In Search of Document Control's Holy Grail

    Just over a year ago, our site was sold by its owners to another parent company. In the run-up to the sale, we had been slowly making ourselves a new intranet based around Microsoft SharePoint. After the event, SharePoint kicked off in a big way, with more and more projects and teams starting to use it for their file storage.

    Fast forward to today, and our critical business data is split about half-and-half between SharePoint and the older “file store” (simply a Windows Server box with a giant, shared partition). The Powers that Be have decided that now is the time to do something about it, and standardise on one solution. What that solution is, however, is proving difficult to grasp.

    SharePoint is now, in my opinion, past critical mass. The majority of Engineering use it for all their filing and often other activities. The rest of the company is split – maybe 50% use it, 50% don’t, and of those that don’t, half are distrusting or actively hostile.  The IT team have been enthusiastic adopters, but a number of technical issues remain unsolved, which has set them looking at alternatives.

    As I see it:

    • SharePoint, first and foremost, features configuration control and revision history for documents. This is the stuff that software projects live by and die without, yet there are areas of the business that just don’t see the advantage. The ability to view the same data in many different ways by use of metadata means that every part of the business can have the view they want. It also offers a host of other features such as calendars and task lists that a number of projects are actively using, and full-text search takes milliseconds rather than days for a data set in the hundreds of gigabytes.

    • Network Shares are simple, and have essentially no learning curve. They’re also not as affected by proprietary software ‘lock-in’ – it’s far easier to get your data out of a network share than out of SharePoint should you need to. They also support larger files, and in our experience provide a faster access speed.

    • Subversion is most of our software teams’ source code management software. I once ran a project entirely out of Subversion – users liked the ability to merge Word document versions using Track Changes, but by and large the non-technical staff found it too complicated and difficult to use.

    • Alfresco and KnowledgeTree have been suggested as possible SharePoint equivalents that could be cheaper if we used their open source versions, but could also introduce a host of other problems.

    • Clearcase was suggested by a friend via Twitter, but it seems likely that as a primarily source code-oriented tool, the learning curve may be too steep for many users.

    I’m interested to know how other companies solve the problem of document control (primarily of MS Office documents), and what tools they use. If you haven’t already waded in on Twitter or Facebook, feel free to do so here!

    I’d like to believe that this is such a common problem that there is an existing, widely-used solution – but the more I talk to people about it, the less I am convinced that such a thing exists. Even if it doesn’t, what do you think is the least bad of all the options? Is there anything we haven’t considered?

  • Promises Fallen by the Wayside

    Nearly six months ago, I sketched out some ideas for a site then called “healthi.ly”, since renamed to Daily Promise. In time I coded it up, made it public, and made the same commitment I have to other sites in the past – 20 active users gets it its own domain and investment of time and effort. Less than that, and it goes how it goes.

    It never did make it to 20 users. Its height was around 10, and has since fallen to just two. Today, it falls to one.

    Leaving Daily Promise reminder tweet

    I am leaving Daily Promise.

    It remains where it is, costing me nothing, ready for use by anyone should they so wish. Its source code is still public, for anyone to grab and build upon.

    I’m leaving simply because it doesn’t, after all, help me keep my promises – it merely helps me monitor them. I never found myself striving to beat my record, never felt a pang of guilt as I ticked a row of “no” boxes. I merely carried on as normal, not changing my lifestyle, just monitoring my behaviour as a set of green and red boxes that were at first fun, then over time became a chore.

    Snapshot of Daily Promise chart

    Two apologies are due before I lay it finally to rest:

    • Firstly to @HolyHaddock, who submitted a patch that would allow Daily Promise to allow “do this x times per week” promises – a requirement for his use case. Unfortunately it broke the way I used it, and I never worked up the enthusiasm to merge the two properly. So my apologies for your wasted effort.
    • Secondly to @telli_vision, who outlasts me as the only remaining user of Daily Promise. My apologies for leaving you on your own, and I hope that the site remains useful for you.

    And of course, thank you to all the users, everyone who offered their comments during the design phase and everyone who submitted bug reports since.

    Daily Promise belongs to the world’s ever-increasing body of free software. If you like it, use it. If you don’t like something about it, take it, build on it, and make it yours. I’d love to hear from you.

  • On Game Design: DJ Rivals

    There’s a formula common to many of today’s popular “casual” games. If you’ve played a bunch of Facebook games recently, you’ll probably recognise it. It goes a bit like this:

    You have a pool called something like “Stamina” or “Action Points”, which refills slowly in real-time. Once you’re out of Stamina, you have to wait for it to refill over minutes or hours. Stamina allows you to complete various actions, quests etc., each of which consume varying amounts of Stamina, and reward you with some combination of money and experience points. Money buys you equipment that lets you do better quests. XP gains you levels, which also let you do better quests. This process continues until…

    …nothing.

    I’ve played a few of these – the formula is very good at getting you hooked, getting you invested in the game. It feels like you’re losing a lot of work when you discover that it’s just a level treadmill with no real game, and decide to quit. Which is why, naturally, you can pay real money for in-game advancement. By paying the developer, you can avoid the tedious questing and levelling – except that what you’re circumventing is the game itself, so at best what you’re doing is paying real money to fool your friends into thinking that you sink more time into a game than you really do.

    I swore off these games a year or so back, as every single example I’d tried was as I’ve described, a game devoid of gameplay. I may have ranted about this at length.

    It would be remiss of me, then, to fail to point out that I am playing such a game again, in the form of DJ Rivals (Apple App Store, Android Market). Its difference to others I’ve tried is that it includes elements from other, more game-like things, which add to the experience immensely.

    What’s weird is that those other things are Beatmania and Foursquare.

    Rythm Game elements in DJ Rivals

    At worst, these “Stamina-based” games are a simple button-click to perform a quest; here there is a basic attempt at turn-based combat, where each attack requires you to play a 10 second clip of rhythm game. Better moves use more complex rhythms, and the hardest moves are on a level that Tap Tap Revenge would consider medium, and IIDX would consider easy. Not especially challenging then, but fun – orders of magnitude more fun than simply clicking a button.

    PvP battles are implemented as poorly as in any of these games – they’re identical to PvE battles. But DJ Rivals also introduces a location-based element to play, where players compete to become “House DJ” (Mayor, in Foursquare terms) of real-life locations that are detected by the game’s use of your phone’s GPS. Although fighting over real-world bars and restaurants is fun, a high location-to-player ratio – and the ability to set your location manually – mean that it’s easy to become House DJ of places far from any other players and thus reap the rewards without any risk.

    Real world locations in DJ Rivals

    I should point out a couple of negatives, too. Levelling up unlocks more powerful attacks and equipment, but the power curve is not smooth and gradual. It suffers from the same issue as did Terranigma’s last boss – at a certain level it is all but impossible, but one level-up makes it trivially easy. At level 10 in DJ rivals I could do around 600 damage a turn to my enemies’ 800, and I had to return to a previous “Chapter” to find some lower-level enemies to beat. Once I hit level 11, I could immediately buy a move that did around 2000 damage, killing everything – including the next sub-boss – in a single hit.

    Also annoying is that it doesn’t tell you that you can only set your character’s name after finishing Chapter 1 – I had to delve into the forums to figure that out.

    But on the whole, DJ Rivals is a good and enjoyable game. The “freemium” model that all similar games thrive on is present, but so far I have felt no need to pay real money to speed up my progression, as that progression is itself fun.

    I’ve no idea who originally thought that Beatmania and Foursquare was a good combination, but I’m thankful to them for demonstrating that “Stamina-based” games can actually be games and not just money-seeking level treadmills.

  • An Ending in Darkness

    I lie unmoving on the floor of Joseph’s bedroom, stretching my back into shape as I listen to the splattering of raindrops against his window. A cold north wind blows them on, a rare wind in these parts. So rare is this wind, and so sheltered is our flat from all other directions, that the sound of rain against glass seems alien for a moment.

    Seven hours we spent on the patio today, eating and drinking and being merry, happy for our extra holiday and not giving a damn as to the reasons why. My feet ache, my back aches, and I’ve been through about half a bottle of Pimm’s since lunchtime.

    It’s half past nine, but it feels like it could be midnight.

    This morning, the world full of light and caffeine and promise, I had a thoughtful post in my head. It was about royalty, and what purpose they served, and it was about smiling couples and flags waved in the streets while NHS bad news is buried and Stoke’s Croft burns.

    But this evening, the world is full of darkness and alcohol and rain beating against windows. I’m starting to feel detached again – unconcerned with human things like weddings and internets and eating and sleeping. Thoughts are difficult and half-formed; better save that thoughtful post for another day.

    EDIT: Thanks Newsweek, for negating the need for my blog post with just four words: http://yfrog.com/gz7batfj

  • Summer Calling

    It is past midnight here, and a warm onshore breeze is just beginning to slacken. I stand barefoot between the blinking lights of the town and the endless beaches that sweep up the sea, whole again.

    There’s sand in my shoes, sand in my bag and sand strewn across the carpeted floor, but it’s matched by the sand in my heart and soul that I can never leave behind.

    image

    Home is here, beneath the blazing sun, ankle deep in salty water. Home is here, amongst the lobster-red tourists and dripping ice creams. Home is here, where barbecues cloud the sky and stars reflect upwards from the open sea.

    Home is here, between a glorious Spring and the beckoning arms of a long, hot summer.

  • Why I'm Voting "Yes" to AV

    A while ago, I blogged my indifference to the Alternative Vote system, and politics in general at that point, in a post entitled “Meh” to AV.  My main objection was that AV would increase the likelihood of the country being governed by bland centrist coalitions.  However, now hopefully somewhat more educated about the subject, I am now given to understand that AV would in fact reduce the likelihood of coalition governments – and given how well our current coalition is working out for all concerned, I suspect that a greater chance of outright majority governments may be a good thing for Britain.

    Over and above this, the biggest advantage of AV in my opinion is that it removes the desire to vote tactically.  Thus far in my adult life I have resolutely voted Lib Dem in my constituency, where they trail the Conservatives with about 30% of the vote compared to 40% – not exactly close, but not far off.  As I find my inclinations swinging toward Labour (15%), the existing First Past the Post system means I now have a choice: support Labour by voting for them, or oppose the Tories by voting Lib Dem.  (Not that that’s working too well at the moment.)  The AV system gives me the ability to properly express my opinions: I’d like Labour first, the Lib Dems second, and the others not at all.

    But in case none of that was convincing, I suggest you attempt the following procedure, which has thus far done me no harm in life:

    1. Figure out what a bunch of stuffy old-Etonian toffs and/or bigoted racist dicks want you to do

    2. Figure out what the opposite is

    3. Do that.

    Whether it’s for fairer representation, for better allowing you to express your opinion, to Stick it to the Forehead Man, or just for the lulz – please join me in voting “Yes” to the Alternative Vote system on May 5th.

  • Easter's Approach

    Not too many years ago, Easter fell early in the month of April. I spent it camping in a blizzard somewhere near Birmingham, packing in as many people as our tent would hold so that we wouldn’t freeze overnight. My choice to spend the daylight hours running around a frozen muddy field in a hakama was also, with hindsight, not the best of all possible choices.

    Years have passed, and this time around, Easter falls late. The lilac trees are already in bloom, while cherry blossoms and dandelion seeds tumble in the wind.

    image

    Even at eight in the morning, the sun is high in the sky and the mist is boiling away. Blue skies overhead promise a beautiful day, hot and cloudless, just like dozens more to come.

    image

    It’s April, then it will be May. The holidays are here, the tourists are here to pack the beaches. Slowly but surely, Spring is becoming Summer once more.

  • Of Abandonment and Starlight

    Winfrith’s “Starlight” children’s nursery has always struggled to stay open despite a lack of demand for its services.  After one of many closures, it opened again late last year – only to close again in February after one of its staff was arrested (though never charged).  Now it is abandoned again, closed for the forseeable future, its licence revoked.

    Since the police investigation, I’ve not seen anyone there – not even someone simply returning to clear up.

    Abandoned Nursery

    Never the prettiest of places, the former nursery is a squat grey portacabin locked away behind razor-wire and rusting iron gates.  But its abandonment lends it an almost sinister edge.  Children’s toys litter the ground outside, left there at the end of a day, not knowing that they might never be moved again.

    In one corner of its surroundings, fading police tape cordons off an area between trees. Three bright plastic spades hang from the tape, yearning to be used by children that will never come.

    It belongs to the crows, now, who sit atop the roof and the fences and caw loudly at passers-by.  They understand, I think, that it is not a place for humans anymore.