Category: How stuff works (page 1 of 2)

Craig Mod’s subtle redesign of the hardware Kindle

I like Craig Mod’s writing. He’s the guy that’s written on his need to walk, drawing his own calendar, and getting his attention back.

This article is hardware Kindle devices — the  distinction being important given that you can read your books via the Kindle Cloud Reader or, indeed, via an app on pretty much any platform.

As he points out, the user interface remains sub-optimal:

Tap most of the screen to go forward a page. Tap the left edge to go back. Tap the top-ish area to open the menu. Tap yet another secret top-right area to bookmark. This model co-opts the physical space of the page to do too much.

The problem is that the text is also an interface element. But it’s a lower-level element. Activated through a longer tap. In essence, the Kindle hardware and software team has decided to “function stack” multiple layers of interface onto the same plane.

And so this model has never felt right.

He suggests an alternative to this which involves physical buttons on the device itself:

Hardware buttons:

  • Page forward
  • Page back
  • Menu
  • (Power/Sleep)

What does this get us?

It means we can now assume that — when inside of a book — any tap on the screen is explicitly to interact with content: text or images within the text. This makes the content a first-class object in the interaction model. Right now it’s secondary, engaged only if you tap and hold long enough on the screen. Otherwise, page turn and menu invocations take precedence.

I can see why he proposes this, but I’m not so sure about the physical buttons for page turns. The reason I’d say that, is that although I now use a Linux-based bq Cervantes e-reader, before 2015 I had almost every iteration of the hardware Kindle. There’s a reason Amazon removed hardware buttons for page turns.

I read in lots of places, but I read in bed with my wife every day and if there’s one thing she couldn’t stand, it was the clicking noise of me turning the page on my Kindle. Even if I tried to press it quietly, it annoyed her. Touchscreen page turns are much better.

The e-reader I use has a similar touch interaction to the Kindle, so I see where Craig Mod is coming from when he says:

When content becomes the first-class object, every interaction is suddenly bounded and clear. Want the menu? Press the (currently non-existent) menu button towards the top of the Kindle. Want to turn the page? Press the page turn button. Want to interact with the text? Touch it. Nothing is “hidden.” There is no need to discover interactions. And because each interaction is clear, it invites more exploration and play without worrying about losing your place.

This, if you haven’t come across it before, is user interface design, or UI design for short. It’s important stuff, for as Steve Jobs famously said: “Everything in this world… was created by people no smarter than you” — and that’s particularly true in tech.

Source: Craig Mod

The death of the newsfeed (is much exaggerated)

Benedict Evans is a venture capitalist who focuses on technology companies. He’s a smart guy with some important insights, and I thought his recent post about the ‘death of the newsfeed’ on social networks was particularly useful.

He points out that it’s pretty inevitable that the average person will, over the course of a few years, add a few hundred ‘friends’ to their connections on any given social network. Let’s say you’re connected with 300 people, and they all share five things each day. That’s 1,500 things you’ll be bombarded with, unless the social network does something about it.

This overload means it now makes little sense to ask for the ‘chronological feed’ back. If you have 1,500 or 3,000 items a day, then the chronological feed is actually just the items you can be bothered to scroll through before giving up, which can only be 10% or 20% of what’s actually there. This will be sorted by no logical order at all except whether your friends happened to post them within the last hour. It’s not so much chronological in any useful sense as a random sample, where the randomizer is simply whatever time you yourself happen to open the app. ’What did any of the 300 people that I friended in the last 5 years post between 16:32 and 17:03?’ Meanwhile, giving us detailed manual controls and filters makes little more sense – the entire history of the tech industry tells us that actual normal people would never use them, even if they worked. People don’t file.

So we end up with algorithmic feeds, which is an attempt by social networks to ensure that you see the stuff that you deem important. It is, of course, an almost impossible mission.

[T]here are a bunch of problems around getting the algorithmic newsfeed sample ‘right’, most of which have been discussed at length in the last few years. There are lots of incentives for people (Russians, game developers) to try to manipulate the feed. Using signals of what people seem to want to see risks over-fitting, circularity and filter bubbles. People’s desires change, and they get bored of things, so Facebook has to keep changing the mix to try to reflect that, and this has made it an unreliable partner for everyone from Zynga to newspapers. Facebook has to make subjective judgements about what it seems that people want, and about what metrics seem to capture that, and none of this is static or even in in principle perfectible. Facebook surfs user behaviour.

Evans then goes on to raise the problem of what you want to see may be different from what your friends want you to see. So people solve the problem of algorithmic feeds not showing them what they really want by using messaging apps such as WhatsApp and Telegram to interact individually with people or small groups.

The problem with that, though?

The catch is that though these systems look like they reduce sharing overload, you really want group chats. And lots of groups. And when you have 10 WhatsApp groups with 50 people in each, then people will share to them pretty freely. And then you think ‘maybe there should be a screen with a feed of the new posts in all of my groups. You could call it a ‘news feed’. And maybe it should get some intelligence, to show the posts you care about most…

So, to Evans mind (and I’m tempted to agree with him) we’re in a never-ending spiral. The only way I can see out of it is user education, particularly around owning one’s own data and IndieWeb approaches.

Source: Benedict Evans

How to get hired

A great short post from Seth Godin, who explains how things work in the real world when you’re looking for a job or your next gig:

You meet someone. You do a small project. You write an article. It leads to another meeting. You do a slightly bigger project for someone else. You make a short film. That leads to a speaking gig. Which leads to an consulting contract. And then you get the gig.

These ‘hops’ as he calls them are important as they affect the mindset we should adopt:

If you’re walking around with a quid pro quo mindset, giving only enough to get what you need right now, and walking away from anyone or anything that isn’t the destination—not only are you eliminating all the possible multi-hop options, you’re probably not having as much as fun or contributing as much as you could either.

Amen to that.

Source: Seth Godin

Bridging technologies

When you go deep enough into philosophy or religion one of the key insights is that everything is temporary. Success is temporary. Suffering is temporary. Your time on earth is temporary.

One way of thinking about this one a day-to-day basis is that everything is a bridge to something else. So that technology that I’ve been excited about since 2011? Yep, it’s a bridge (or perhaps a raft) to get to something else.

Benedict Evans, who works for the VC firm Andreessen Horowitz, sends out a great, short newsletter every week to around 95,000 people. I’m one of them. In this week’s missive, he linked to a blog post he wrote about bridging technologies.

A bridge product says ‘of course x is the right way to do this, but the technology or market environment to deliver x is not available yet, or is too expensive, and so here is something that gives some of the same benefits but works now.’

As with anything, there are good and bad bridging technologies. At the time, it can be hard to spot the difference:

In hindsight, though, not just WAP but the entire feature-phone mobile internet prior to 2007, including i-mode, with cut-down pages and cut-down browsers and nav keys to scroll from link to link, was a bridge. The ‘right’ way was a real computer with a real operating system and the real internet. But we couldn’t build phones that could do that in 1999, even in Japan, and i-mode worked really well in Japan for a decade.

It’s all obvious in retrospect, as with the example of Firefox OS, which was developed at the same time I was at Mozilla:

[T]he problem with the Firefox phone project was that even if you liked the experience proposition – ‘almost as good as Android but works on much cheaper phones’ – the window of time before low-end Android phones closed the price gap was too short.

Usually, cheap things add more features until people just ‘make do’ with 80-90% of the full feature set. However, that’s not always the case:

Sometimes the ‘right’ way to do it just doesn’t exist yet, but often it does exist but is very expensive. So, the question is whether the ‘cheap, bad’ solution gets better faster than the ‘expensive, good’ solution gets cheap. In the broader tech industry (as described in the ‘disruption’ concept), generally the cheap product gets good. The way that the PC grew and killed specialized professional hardware vendors like Sun and SGi is a good example. However, in mobile it has tended to be the other way around – the expensive good product gets cheaper faster than the cheap bad product can get good.

Evans goes on to talk about autonomous vehicles, something that he’s heavily invested in (financially and intellectually) with his VC firm.

In the world of open source, however, it’s a slightly different process. Instead of thinking about the ‘runway’ of capital that you’ve got before you have to give up and go home, it’s about deciding when it no longer makes sense to maintain the project you’re working on. In some cases, the answer to that is ‘never’ which means that the project keeps going and going and going.

It can be good to have a forcing function to focus people’s minds. I’m thinking, for example, of Steve Jobs declaring war on Flash. The reasons he gives are disingenuous (accusing Adobe of not being ‘open’!) but the upshot of Apple declaring Flash as dead to them caused the entire industry to turn upside down. In effect, Flash was a ‘bridge’ to the full web on mobile devices.

Using the idea of technology ‘bridges’ in my own work can lead to some interesting conclusions. For example, the Project MoodleNet work that I’m beginning will ultimately be a bridge to something else for Moodle. Thinking about my own career, each step has been a bridge to something else; the most interesting bridges have been those where I haven’t been quite sure what was one the other side. Or, indeed, if there even was an other side…

Source: Benedict Evans

Geek social fallacies

I came across this via a chain of links that took me down a rabbithole. I’m pretty sure it started with an article referenced on Hacker News, but I’m not sure.

In any case, I thought it was pretty interesting. Basically someone who self-identifies as a geek giving other geeks some advice. Having said that, it’s probably applicable more widely than that, particularly among men.

Here’s a taste:

Within the constellation of allied hobbies and subcultures collectively known as geekdom, one finds many social groups bent under a crushing burden of dysfunction, social drama, and general interpersonal wack-ness. It is my opinion that many of these never-ending crises are sparked off by an assortment of pernicious social fallacies — ideas about human interaction which spur their holders to do terrible and stupid things to themselves and to each other.

There’s a list of five such fallacies, my favourite being:

Geek Social Fallacy #4: Friendship Is Transitive

Every carrier of GSF4 has, at some point, said:

“Wouldn’t it be great to get all my groups of friends into one place for one big happy party?!”

If you groaned at that last paragraph, you may be a recovering GSF4 carrier.

GSF4 is the belief that any two of your friends ought to be friends with each other, and if they’re not, something is Very Wrong.

The milder form of GSF4 merely prevents the carrier from perceiving evidence to contradict it; a carrier will refuse to comprehend that two of their friends (or two groups of friends) don’t much care for each other, and will continue to try to bring them together at social events. They may even maintain that a full-scale vendetta is just a misunderstanding between friends that could easily be resolved if the principals would just sit down to talk it out.

A more serious form of GSF4 becomes another “friendship test” fallacy: if you have a friend A, and a friend B, but A & B are not friends, then one of them must not really be your friend at all. It is surprisingly common for a carrier, when faced with two friends who don’t get along, to simply drop one of them.

On the other side of the equation, a carrier who doesn’t like a friend of a friend will often get very passive-aggressive and covertly hostile to the friend of a friend, while vigorously maintaining that we’re one big happy family and everyone is friends.

GSF4 can also lead carriers to make inappropriate requests of people they barely know — asking a friend’s roommate’s ex if they can crash on their couch, asking a college acquaintance from eight years ago for a letter of recommendation at their workplace, and so on. If something is appropriate to ask of a friend, it’s appropriate to ask of a friend of a friend.

Arguably, Friendster was designed by a GSF4 carrier.

Hilarious and insightful at the same time.

Source: Plausibly Deniable

Different sorts of time

Growing up, I always thought I’d write for a living. Initially, I wanted to be a journalist, but as it turns out, thinking and writing is about 75% of what I do on a weekly basis.

I’m always interested in how people who write full-time structure the process. This, from Jon McGregor, struck a chord with me:

There are other sorts of time, besides the writing time. There is thinking time, reading time, research time and sketching out ideas time. There is working on the first page over and over again until you find the tone you’re looking for time. There is spending just five minutes catching up on email time. There is spending five minutes more on Twitter because, in a way, that is part of the research process time. There is writing time, somewhere in there. There is making the coffee and clearing away the coffee and thinking about lunch and making the lunch and clearing away the lunch time. There is stretching the legs time. There is going for a long walk because all the great writers always talk about walking time being the best thinking time, and then there is getting back from that walk and realising what the hell the time is now time. There’s looking back over what you’ve written so far and deciding it is all a load of awkwardly phrased bobbins time; there is wondering what kind of a way this is to make a living at all time. There is finding the tail-end of an idea that might just work and trying to get that down on the page before you run out of time time. There is answering emails that just can’t be put off any longer time. There is moving to another table and setting a timer and refusing to look up from the page until you’ve written for 40 minutes solid time. There is reading that back and crossing it out time. And then there is running out of the door and trying to get to the school gates at anything like a decent time time.

I’ve written before, elsewhere, about how difficult it is for knowledge workers such as writers to quantify what counts as ‘work’. Does a walk in the park while thinking about what you’re going to write count? What about when you’re in the shower planning something out?

It’s complicated.

Source: The Guardian

In a dark place

Last year, I remember being amazed by how black a new substance was that’s been created by scientists. Called Vantablack, it’s like a black hole for light:

Vantablack is genuinely amazing: It’s so good at absorbing light that if you move a laser onto it, the red dot disappears.

However, it turns out that Mother Nature already had that trick up her sleeve. Birds of Paradise have a similar ability:

A typical bird feather has a central shaft called a rachis. Thin branches, or barbs, sprout from the rachis, and even thinner branches—barbules—sprout from the barbs. The whole arrangement is flat, with the rachis, barbs, and barbules all lying on the same plane. The super-black feathers of birds of paradise, meanwhile, look very different. Their barbules, instead of lying flat, curve upward. And instead of being smooth cylinders, they are studded in minuscule spikes. “It’s hard to describe,” says McCoy. “It’s like a little bottle brush or a piece of coral.”

These unique structures excel at capturing light. When light hits a normal feather, it finds a series of horizontal surfaces, and can easily bounce off. But when light hits a super-black feather, it finds a tangled mess of mostly vertical surfaces. Instead of being reflected away, it bounces repeatedly between the barbules and their spikes. With each bounce, a little more of it gets absorbed. Light loses itself within the feathers.

Incredible.

Source: The Atlantic

You get paid what other people think you’re worth

Great post by Seth Godin:

Yes, we frequently sell ourselves too short. We don’t ask for compensation commensurate with the value we create. It’s a form of hiding. But the most common form of this hiding is not merely lowering the price. No, the mistake we make is in not telling stories that create more value, in not doing the hard work of building something unique and worth seeking out.

Create stuff that people value and that is in scarce supply. Focus on leaving the world a better place than you found it.

Source: Seth’s blog

Is that you, Mother?

Umm…

Several studies have found that, on average, there’s some physical similarity between one’s parent and one’s partner. That is, your girlfriend might well look a little bit like your mother. This physical similarity is apparent whether you ask strangers to compare facial photos of partners and parents, or whether you assess things such as parent and partner height, hair or eye colour, ethnicity, or even body hair.

Perhaps it’s an evolutionary thing?

A wonderful study of all known couples in Iceland across a 165-year period found that those with the most grandchildren were related at about the level of third or fourth cousin – no more, no less. So it seems there is some evolutionary advantage to finding traces of parental features attractive.

Source: Aeon

Your brain is not a computer

I finally got around to reading this article after it was shared in so many places I frequent over the last couple of days. As someone who has studied Philosophy, History, and Education, I find it well-written but unremarkable. Surely we all know this… right?

Misleading headlines notwithstanding, no one really has the slightest idea how the brain changes after we have learned to sing a song or recite a poem. But neither the song nor the poem has been ‘stored’ in it. The brain has simply changed in an orderly way that now allows us to sing the song or recite the poem under certain conditions. When called on to perform, neither the song nor the poem is in any sense ‘retrieved’ from anywhere in the brain, any more than my finger movements are ‘retrieved’ when I tap my finger on my desk. We simply sing or recite – no retrieval necessary.

Source: Aeon