Sunday, 9 December 2012

More Informed Choices Around Tax Avoidance

How about....

The tax authorities (i.e. HMRC) compiles and publishes data for every company which shows the revenue received by a company and the proportion of tax paid on that revenue. This could be supplemented by legislation whereby at every transaction point a company is required by law to show the published 'tax ratio'. This could even be presented as a handy infographic that shows a target point for what should be typical corporation tax. There could be a very limited number of additional information points, such as whether the company is a charity. The tax indicator on the infographic could potentially have top ups for things like charitable given.

It would also be handy if the infographic showed the ratio of salaries (well, total reward..) within the company (including holding/owning companies/all companies within a group) between the top earners versus the bottom earners.

Though perhaps overly heavy handed the infographic could display some helpful stats to help understand the implications of the numbers, e.g. what the impact is on school funding etc. Where applicable government procurement might stipulate a minimum percentage of taxation paid by a company. Individuals might choose to opt into a system whereby their payment cards will not accept an authorisation with a company that pays tax below a certain threshold.

This system would help everyone in society to make a more informed choice in how they direct their money. If people are content or supportive of a companies taxation level, or perhaps think that the product or service on offer is so superior that the lower rate of taxation paid is a worthwhile trade-off  Alternatively, people may choose to take their custom to another business on the basis that the transaction will be more supportive of public programmes such as infrastructure building, education, etc.

The market is often considered by many to be 'right', and should that it should be left unguided in order to produce better outcomes. Two problems with market forces however, and I don't mean to imply there are only two, is that an aggregate of individual choices does not represent the collective will, and that a lack of information distorts market activity. Providing consumers with greater information will allow them to make more informed choices with regards to how they wish to direct the flow of capital.

Friday, 16 November 2012

Of Drones, ethics, and remote working

A recent topic of ethical debate relates to the use of military drones. As well as the current issues we should consider what the future might have in store for us, and I have outlined below a couple of potential ethical issues relating to the remote operation of drones.

Blurring Training and Operations
We are nearing a point where the experience of a training simulation will be more or less indistinguishable to an actual operation. Because operation of a drone is mediated via a software interface it should soon be possible to have the fidelity of the training software to match that of an effective operational human-drone interface. This could be achieved by increases in the fidelity of the training simulation to match the operational experience, or via lowering the fidelity of the operational experience to match the training experience. 'Real life' fidelity and information feeds are not required to effectively pilot a drone, and indeed abstracted interface elements may even be beneficial. At this point, due to the remote nature of operating drones, it may be possible to insert real operations into a series of training runs without the operator even knowing. As far as the operator is concerned they could be practicing a scenario, and not realise they have been swapped over to the real thing.

Outsourced Warriors
Once the scenario outlined above becomes possible, we could potentially see outsourced warfighting to gamers. I mean this in two senses. The first that suitable games available to the general public could be used to train relevant warfighting skills into to the general populace. In the second sense actual operations could be outsourced into gaming networks, such that players are usually playing a simulated game but every so often (knowingly or unknowingly) they are performing actual missions.

By the time we get to the point where the scenarios outlined above could be reality it may be a moot point anyway; the machines might be better off executing missions without us.

Friday, 9 November 2012

Products that I want #5: my train detector

An app that works out what train you are on and tells you its ETA for each stop.

This of course highlights an item of information poverty related to train journeys.

Thursday, 18 October 2012

Websites for locations should provide postcodes/zip codes

It has been the case since online maps have existed; if a website relates to a physical location it should give, and make it very easy to find, the postcode or zip code. Yes directions, local maps, and direct links to your chosen map application can be helpful. But, the postcode should always be there. A UI should not force a perceived optimal strategy on uses. Proving the postcode supports flexibility, allowing users to use different tools and techniques, or to get different information to what the website is providing. As an example if someone is trying to use their sat nav to find your hotel in the middle of the night and are lost, all they will want us your postcode, not bespoke directions from the nearest airport.

Friday, 14 September 2012

On Patriarchy

"Patriarchy, the most fundamental form of human domination, begins with the fact that men can beat women up, and that women are double vulnerable when pregnant."

- Hughes, J. (2004) Citizen Cyborg p196

Wednesday, 11 July 2012

Diskpart: UI aaargh

Following an Ars Technica guide to create a Windows to Go USB stick I used diskpart for the first time today. Diskpart is a command line tool used to meddle with your with partitions and the MBR and such on your drives. If you don't know what this means the short of it is that it is a set of handy functions that can totally trash your computer if you do the wrong thing. It's a command line tool, so hopefully nobody is going to stumble over it by accident (command lines not being all that supportive of exploration, or provide much information 'scent').

Have a look at this screenshot:

There are two main problems here, one with a lack of system status information, the other a lack of a confirmation prompt before you wipe your drive clean (or do something over fairly difficult to recover from). The former issue means that you might get muddled or lose track of the drive you've selected, or accidently select the wrong drive and not notice. On the plus side there is a feedback message, and it does persist on the screen. Even so you that text could have scrolled off-screen by the time you get around to doing something terminal. It's also an important design principle to provide a confirmation prompt prior to doing something irreversible, or something generally not abortable (even just things that could tie up your computer resources for a long while).

One quick fix here is when you select a disk to include that information in the command line prefix. So once you select 'Disk 2' the command line prefix goes from:

A nice handy reminder and indication of what drive you're currently meddling with. Even better if the utility could make use of the drive labels and/or give some indication of the drive type.

Tuesday, 10 July 2012

iPhone niggles

Several years on and several niggles remain (sample size: 1) in the user interaction design:

  1. Access to quick radio (Bluetooth, Wi-Fi) toggles. The desire for this functionality should drop off as the battery life improves
  2. No option to mark emails you've just read as 'unread' to assist with email and task management. Or some other functionality to remind you and help you return to certain emails at a later time.
  3. A conceptual problem here: when wanting to switch to another website I'm forever hitting the home button as though I'm about to switch to another app. Some form of over training or conceptual spillover here.
  4. I frequently hit previous/next track on the lock screen rather than pause. The touch targets need to be further separated to cope with this. The recovery strategy from this error is there, which is good. I should probably check that out systematically as it doesn't always work out for me, but then I'm normally busy going "arrrgh" and frantically stabbing at the screen.
  5. I can see the reasoning behind splitting out iTunesU, though as I'm not interested in anything but the audio material it doesn't really benefit me. Some strange inconsistencies for the behaviour of the play controls (or perhaps which app is hooked up to them) between iTunesU and classic iTunes. Plus I have no idea at times what it is doing with an audio lecture, occasionally behaving as though I'm streaming with a poor connection when the media should all be present and synced already.

  6. Lack of functionality to subscribe to podcasts

Not intended to be exhaustive!

Sunday, 8 July 2012

Products that I want #4: Universal remote on my Smart Phone

Why on earth several years on doesn't the iPhone have an IR output to control TVs and such, and to be able to use the touchscreen as a configurable universal remote?

Situation Awareness, Workload, and asking the right question

Sometimes it is important to challenge questions, and explicitly or implicitly point out that the question being asked is wrong.

Once upon a time, on a project far far away....

Measuring Situation Awareness (SA) and Mental Workload (MW) are important ways of gaining insight into how an integrated system (in this sense people using technology to deliver a capability) will perform. Understanding the troughs and peaks of SA and MW is important in evaluating and designing a system in terms of automation and decision support, task and role design, manning levels, and so on. If at a critical point in a task MW is high and SA is low, then clearly this suggests that there may be problem with the capability delivery, and this is a point in the taskflow that is a strong candidate to have some form of intervention. Similarly identifying areas of low MW and high SA might be a candidate of rebalancing workload.

When measuring SA and MW, you want to have representative users, carrying out representative tasks, in a representative environment. The closer you can get to the true system operation, the closer your results will be to the real system operation.

On the aforementioned entirely mythical project one of my colleagues pointed out that it was standard practice to measure the SA and MW of typical/representative end users. The question then asked was to provide a reference to what standard this was stated in.

To ask this question is to misunderstand what the point of measuring SA and MW is. It is a wrong question. If one were evaluating a new Space Shuttle, then one would be interested in understanding the SA and MW of the likely pilots flying the new Space Shuttle, with all their relevant skills, training, experience, and so forth. The SA of Bob in the accounts department is not going to give you insight into how your target user population will actually perform when flying the Space Shuttle mk2.

This is somewhat like being really keen to make sure that people take driving tests, but not being concerned whether the person you are giving a licence to is one of the people who has taken the test.

Sometimes it is better to give people the information they need, rather than the information they want.

Mac Boot Camp Oddity: How to close the window

An oddity with Boot Camp on the Mac: it doesn't have the close window button on the window frame, you have to go into the menu bar to quit. Apple seems a little keen to encourage you to go through with putting Windows on your machine!

Tuesday, 8 May 2012

Chief Executive Pay - An Athenian Solution

In the court system of ancient Athens the accuser and the accused would each propose the punishment if the accused was found guilty. The jury would then vote to decide between the two proposed punishments. The effect, and perhaps the idea, of the system was to generally moderate punishments. The accuser wouldn't propose an overly harsh penalty that seemed unwarranted, because the jury would go with the penalty put forward by the accused. Likewise, the accused couldn't suggest an overly lenient penalty because the jury wouldn't support it.

One of the hot topics of our politics at the moment is how to moderate high level pay. Whilst the economy stutters and many are losing their jobs, the income gap is widening with those at the top of the corporate food chain receiving ever increasing rewards in comparison to those at the bottom. The Athenian approach may suggest a remedy.

If the Chief Executive and his cohorts were to propose the value of their own reward, and the regular employees were to put forward a counter proposal, which the company shareholders would then cast votes as to which reward package would be awarded. This would have a moderating effect, dampening reward growth and reducing the income gap. It seems reasonable that it could also lead to an improvement in employee reward and working conditions; happy workers that are well treated are likely to feel more magnanimous towards the Chief Executive when reward setting time comes around. What clearer message of employee satisfaction and sentiment towards their Managers then indicating what pay they should receive? Such a system would not entail Chief Executives having to be populists to appease their workforce, because if the employees suggestion for the reward package was overly mean the shareholders wouldn't be inclined to support it.

As detailed this system isn't without its problems. I'm sure that various corporate structures could be implemented so as to decouple Chief Executives from the workforce, but I'm also sure that appropriate oversight could enforce the association. Likewise there could be situations where the workforce isn't a moderating influence on determining reward; the ancient Athenian system worked because it was adversarial, which despite widespread sentiment shouldn't be how our companies work. So, we need a consistently moderating force, perhaps something like a legal alternative of X times the minimum wage of a nation.

And why we're at it when are we going to have fines that are based on a percentage of wealth rather than a fixed sum?

Wednesday, 2 May 2012


Shopping recommendations are a great mechanism to drive revenue for retailers and to provide guided exploration of product to consumers. I buy a lot of stuff from Amazon, and one of the ways I explore what they have to offer and make additional purchases is via their recommendations section. It's generally quite good, but it can also be a bit of a blunt instrument. Here is a case in point:

Because I purchased an anthology collection of graphic novels (that's comics to the uninitiated/uninterested) about Transformers, yes robots that turn into cars and planes, I have been recommended a memory card. Not just any memory card, but one that appears to be a surprisingly over priced single-system media card for a system (a PS Vita) that I do not own, and for which Amazon has no indication that I may own one. This is a lost opportunity and diminishes the real and perceived value of the recommendation service. It is difficult, though of course not impossible, to imagine that there is a significant statistical trend behind this recommendation.

Here are some helpful handy tips for building a better recommendation system and user experience:
  • Focus on quality. A bad suggestion is probably worse than no suggestion. You devalue your service and lower the trust and positive perception of your service, and possibly your expertise and good standing. Similarly, recommendation offerings based purely on revenue (e.g. suggesting accessories with the highest profit margin) may increase your revenue, but may also drive customers away.
  • Make sure your recommendations are based on a significant sample and effect size, if you do not you're offering poor quality recommendations. If your recommendations are provided by human experts, then make sure they are experts and are providing useful recommendations.
  • Recommendations should be targeted, relevant where possible, and within the buying/consideration/interest scope of the user.
  • Factor in customer ratings and feedback into your recommendation system; it provides reassurance and supports social confirmation.
  • In general consider avoiding recommending low rated product to consumers. It won't do your brand image any good.
  • Allow feedback on recommendations (as Amazon does, as shown in the screenshot) and apply it widely; your customers are telling you what they like and don't like, so stop offering them things that are similar to lots of other things that they don't like.
  • Support customisation for recommendations, for example allow users to add additional weighting to some categories or to exclude certain types of product and media. For example, I have an XBox 360 but not a Playstation and no intention to buy one. Companies like Amazon would be better served in providing game recommendations to me in a relevant format (i.e. the XBox version rather than the Playstation version), or to provide recommendations for different items altogether.
A good recommendation system is a win-win, it's good for the retailer and the consumer.

Monday, 9 April 2012

Transhumanism is...

"Transhumanists extend the liberal democratic humanist tradition to a defense of our right to control our own bodies and minds, even if our choices make us something other than 'human'." - James Hughes, Citizen Cyborg (intro xv).

Sunday, 8 April 2012

The Subject and Purpose of Education

We should be mindful of policies and debates around our education system. For schools in particular we should assess each change and ask whether it serves the purpose of nurturing future citizens or is producing workers.

Our society needs productive citizens, but they should be that: citizens that are productive, not educated to be part of industry.

The Main Idea of the Theory of Justice

A summary of and some thoughts on my reading of John Rawl's A Theory of Justice (revised edition) (1999) section 3 "The Main Idea of a Theory of Justice":

Traditional social contract theories are a set of rules for those entering a given society, or under a given governance structure. John Rawls abstracts this idea and considers social contract theory from a pre-societal position, which he calls the Original Position. Starting the construction of our social contracts from the Original Position allows us to engineer a society that has justice built in to its structure, rather than trying to make the most of an existing structure which may have injustice and inequities built in to it. From the Original Position we are to develop principles that " and rational persons concerned to further their own interests would accept in an initial position of equality as defining the fundamental terms of their association".

Social contract theory is by its own terms social in nature. It relates to how we govern and interact as a society. The rights that we accord to each other relate to how we treat each other, both directly and in terms of access to and use of the technosocial system which we inhabit. Our interests are shaped by our psychology and our physiology; the architecture of our personhood and its embodiment. Rights relating to these are (relatively) fixed to that embodiment, but rights relating to the society that we inhabit are relative to what is available.

Rawls points out that the Original Position is not intended to be a historical state, it is a hypothetical state. By starting from the Original Position we consider how things should be. Rawl's hypothetical starting point includes a 'veil of ignorance'. In constructing a society and rights we should do unknowing of our particular circumstances and interests. In this way we can create for all, not just for ourselves or our own world view. A simple analogy is of cake cutting; if one cuts a cake into portions without knowing (or being able to influence) which portion they will receive, then they will be best served by cutting the cake into equal portions or at least with no portion smaller than the minimum acceptable size. In this way looking after your own interests also looks after the interests of others.

Although those born into a society have not explicitly agreed to the social contract, but in a justly organised society its citizens should be able to reflect and recognise that even if their personal circumstances are not to their liking that the societal structures are just and fair (assuming of course that they are!). Recognition from citizens of what makes for a just society, and assuming these are (largely) realised, and that it "...meets the principles which free and equal persons would assent to under circumstances that are fair" provides implicit consent.

Rawls argues that in the Original Position people are likely to adopt some mix of two strategies; the first is "equality in the assignment of basic rights and duties" and the second is the 'minmax' strategy which accepts inequalities providing they bring around "...benefits for everyone, and in particular for the least advantaged of society".

Saturday, 7 April 2012

Lifespans and Divorce

Via Gray's Cyborg Citizen p144:
Stephanie Coontz, in The Way We Never Were, notes that increased longevity created the potential for marriage to last longer and therefore more marriages to end in divorces. In the nineteenth century the average length of a marriage was 10 years, mainly due to the high mortality rate. Today divorce rates compensate for life expectancies that produce, on the average, 40-year marriages. In essence, divorce has replaced death in terminating many unions.
Changes to humans and the overall techno-social spaces (what Gray would refer to as cyborgian) have consequences that we may not anticipate. They will shake our unconsidered faith in age old foundationals, and open up new horizons, both good and bad. 

Saturday, 31 March 2012

Arguing for and against the status quo

Here is a useful test to help reason about an issue. It comes from Nick Bostrom and Toby Ord's The Reversal Test: Eliminating Status Quo Bias in Applied Ethics, published in Etthics 116 (2006). It comes to me via Nicholas Agar's Humanity's End: Why We Should Reject Radical Enhancement.

Reversal Test: When a proposal to change a certain parameter is thought to have bad overall consequences, consider a change to the same parameter in the opposite direction. If this is also thought to have bad overall consequences then the onus is on those who reach these conclusions to explain why our position cannot be improved through changes to this parameter. If they are unable to do so, then we have reason to suspect that they suffer from status quo bias.
This is a useful way to approach status quo conservatism or bias. If a group are resistant to a certain change, e.g. human intelligence enhancement, then the parameter should be flipped. Is the group resistant to change in the opposite direction, e.g. human intelligence degradation? This teases out if the opposition to the proposal are against the direction of change, or change itself. If they appear to be against any sort of change, then they need to be able to advance a case as to why the current value of the parameter is considered to be good/ideal and should not be changed.

I think it can also be used as a useful defence against charges that a group is being resistant to change. In these instances the parameter should be flipped. Is movement in the opposite direction desirable? If so, then the group aren't resistant to change, they're resistant to a specific (perceived) undesirable change that degrades the situation.

The Dangers of Choice

Choice is generally accepted as a good thing. We value our free will and autonomy, and being able to make decisions and influence the course of our lives is important to us. Choice isn't always positive however. Choices can be misleading, they can distract from worthwhile options, and they can be a shield or be a distraction from what matters. Sometimes it is better to omit choice, and provide a good approach or value as the default. This needs to be balanced against providing flexibility, utility, and personalisation.

In this list below, which is by no means exhaustive, I have outlined some of the problems with choices and some strategies relating to using choice in design. These issues and approaches should apply across many contexts where choice is an issue, from user interfaces, to business design, and even how we build the basic institutions of our society.

Choices can be intimidating

Choices can be intimidating. A user interface that has too many options can deter people from using the product or service, especially if they need or want something quick and straight forward. You should not want to scare away your users or customers. A search interface that explicitly provides every possible option is overwhelming. It will take time for users to grapple with the interface and figure out what needs to be done.

Provide guidance and a safe environment. Signal and signpost the option that will be the most suitable for the majority of cases. Keep things simple and easy to understand; more advanced options can be provided, but tuck them away.

In one sense this is a curse of a graphical interface. The command line is unlikely to overwhelm users with options, but it can be just as intimidating in its blinking mystery and lack of guidance. A good example of an interface with progressive choice would be a search engine that allows modifiers and additional commands to be entered into the search box. These options are available to users, and the fact of their existence could be signposted, but they are not visually apparent on the initial screen so do not overwhelm a user. Yet advanced users can make use of them immediately.

Choices can give too much choice

Choices, like design, need constraints. Constraints provide context and direction, as well as narrowing the field of potential options. Too much choice can be daunting, and it may be impractical or too difficult to meaningfully compare or understand them all.

You should design with focus. Provide meaningful choices that support the user. Provide 'one step wizards' that will handle a task for a user, and also provide small steps and functions that are easy to understand and can be chained together to perform larger actions and tasks. The available choices can be designed and presented such that they impart meaning to the application or service, and help the user understand what is available to them.

Choices can be unhelpful

You are in charge of a nuclear power station. There is an emergency, and the reactor needs to be shut down. As a user you are only interested in safely shutting down the reactor. You want clear, identifiable and easily understood routes to shutting down the reactor. You do not want to be presented with superfluous options, nor do you want the option of omitting things such as raising an alarm.

Likewise rather than being presented with the choice of a range of differently performing schools, it is far better for the users of the service that the standards of schools are raised. In this example choice is masking the failure to provide an adequate level of service.

Within the concept of freedom there is a distinction between formal freedoms and real freedoms. Although formally a freedom may be accorded to you (you are free to do X), in practice you may be subject to constraints that limit or remove your ability to freely make a choice. Give people real choices, don't give the impression of choice where in practice there is no choice.

Choices should be meaningful, relevant, and supportive. Don't provide the choice to do things badly, or to offer a poorer level of service, or if you do provide the best choice by default; require the users to actively choose a poorer (e.g. less safe or less desirable state).

Choices can be presented poorly

The more differences there are between choices the harder they are to evaluate. In the market place there is a proliferation of choice (or at least the proliferation of the perception of choice). On the one hand this provides a greater diversity of products and services, but it also adds unnecessary choices and makes selection more difficult. As choice proliferates the effort and knowledge required to make an effective choice expands, ultimately harming the end user.

Support users in making choices. Provide meaningful comparisons. Indicate the costs and consequences of choices. Keep the field of choice small but useful.

Choice can be bad for your health

Choices are not always good. Who wants to choose between good healthcare or poor healthcare? A fulfilling life or a miserable life? Choice is generally considered to be a positive thing, but you should be cautious and carefully consider whether the choices being offered are beneficial to the other party.

A useful example comes via Brian Barry's Why Social Justice Matters. Imagine a system for health care, much like the American one, where your employer supplies health insurance as part of your reward package. Ideally for those who are the beneficiaries, this should provide for all of their health care needs. If this isn't possible then it should provide for the most likely and the most pressing health care needs. The example that Barry gives is that some companies start to provide a choice of health insurance packages. On the face of it, this seems positive because choice is considered to be good and empowering. In practice it becomes difficult for individuals to pick between the choices, and requires an investment of time and effort to fully understand all of the options and their ramifications. Additional issues include that: not everyone will be as well equipped to make the choice and so the less educated and those with less time will make poorer decisions; human beings are notoriously bad at assessing risk and so this is something better worked out objectively by experts; the choices may not be as good as the original comprehensive option and worse still employees may be asked to sacrifice more to select certain choices, and; rather than have a small number of people examining the available options the result is that now everyone has to carry out the effort. Pushing choice out to individuals, rather than having experts make choices, multiplies the overall work and effort required to make the choice. Once such a system is in place it has further ramifications: the stratified choices will create an administrative burden that has to be met by someone; it breaks people into groups which allows for treating them differently, and; it shifts responsibility, or the perception of responsibility, onto the employee. Where before there may have been a single fit-for-purpose system, there is now a series of options that are difficult to choose from, are not as comprehensive, cost more to make use of, take more individual and overall effort to asses, and if something goes wrong the perception is that the employee chose the wrong package rather than that the employer failed to provide adequate cover.

When considering and implementing choice we should always consider who benefits, and if we would be better off without a choice. Choosing between a poor transcoding algorithm and a good one is not a worthwhile choice, and nor is choosing between a poor reward package and a good one.

Provide a good level of basic service. Choice should be made available to personalise or adapt a system, not to diminish the experience of users. Clearly signpost risky or irreversible changes. Provide safety nets and recovery routes  (e.g. undo and/or a recycle bin).

On Engineering Organisations and Teams

Via Brian Barry's Why Social Justice Matters:

"Any dictatorship takes a psychological toll on its subjects. If you are treated as an untrustworthy person — a potential slacker, drug addict, or thief — you may begin to feel less trustworthy yourself. If you are constantly reminded of your lowly position in the social hierarchy, whether by individual managers or be a plethora of impersonal rules, you being to accept that unfortunate status." - Barbara Ehrenreich (2001) Nickel and Dimed: On (not) Getting By in America

"The re-engineering of corporations may sound progressive, especially to shareholders, but the apparent price workers pay is an undercurrent of anxiety and diminished loyalty and commitment, their morale eroded by a chaotic and dysfunctional work environment in which individuals are discounted or devalued altogether... A recent study showed that workers who kept their jobs during a major downsizing were twice as likely to die from cardiovascular disease, perhaps triggered by work stress" - Cited in Stefan Fern, Let's Give Change a Rest, Guardian 21 May 2004.
If the latter is true, then providing suitable fit-for-purpose working environments that treats people as autonomous agents worthy of respect may be just as effective as some health programmes and interventions.

Monday, 26 March 2012

Products that I want #3: Network port blank-plugs

Many work in environments where there are network connections that shouldn't be plugged into certain bits of hardware. There are also situations where a bit of hardware should not ever be plugged into a network. Human behaviour and automation of tasks (habit) being what it is, if you plug a network cable into a bit of kit (e.g. a laptop) day in day out, then you pick up another bit of kit that is roughly the same, in the same location... then sooner or later accidents will happen and things will get plugged in where they should not be. Some solutions spring to mind:

  • Colour coding network cables for different networks
  • Designing the working environment to encourage certain things to happen and others not to happen, through either positive reinforcement of behaviours or placing active barriers (like the cable not reaching)
  • Easy-fit different plug-socket interfaces. Add on a star, square, circle, whatever connector to the end of your network cable, uncover the fixing end (sticky bit or something) plug it in, and then snap the plug-socket interface so that you have one bit on the cable and one bit on the computer. The result is network ports intended for network X you have these little circular (or whatever) additions to the network port, which means you have to use the network cable with the circular interface to actually make a connection. This makes it hard to impossible to accidently plug in the cable to the wrong network, and also makes it harder for people to try and connect their kit to your network; they need the right shape interface. This could be taken a step further for those who want more security, the connections could more permanently fixed and be unique, making the physical connector like a key. Only those computers with the right physical key can have a physical connection to the network. Of course you could do things like cut the cable and remount a standard plug on the end and so forth, but any secure system needs a) defence in depth and b) defence that influences human behaviour and flags up inappropriate behaviour, which this offers.
  • And.. network port blanks. I want a little shaped bit of plastic that I can pop into the network port that stops me from accidently plugging in a network cable. More 'seat of the pants' solutions include using sticky tape or tac, but these look tacky and don't last well and muck up the connection.

Friday, 23 March 2012

War Room

Releasing soon is Privateer Press' War Room, an application that helps with army construction and game management for their table top game Warmachine and Hordes. One interesting feature it has is that you can purchase the 'cards' for factions in the game, and have access to them electronically along with automatic updates when new units are released. As a Privateer Press customer with a number of obsolete books and game cards this is very welcome, though I do wonder what the update lag will be. War Room should be coming out for iOS and Android platforms.

A preview video has been released of War Room, and while these show the application while it is still in development it is clear that the User Interface (UI) isn't yet mature. Below is a screenshot of the application from the preview video.

Image of the War Room application

A number of things spring immediately to mind just from the screenshot, namely:
  • The information box is a modal lightbox containing text, so nothing else on the screen should be all that relevant to the user. Why then is it a relatively small box that the user needs to scroll through the text? I would like to see:
    • A larger content area.
    • An option to have the text read aloud.
    • An easy way to resize the text.
    • Hyperlinks to other relevant rules, and to have glossary terms.
    • Contextual additions to the text, e.g. rather than just referring to STR (strength) in the text it could also include the STR of the unit currently being viewed.
    • Diagrams and examples, which could include animations, movie clips, and 3D models that can be rotated.
  • There is no clear difference between Cancel and Back buttons on the information box, and it is likely that one of them (at least) is redundant.
  • No use of icons or iconic shapes/buttons. The back button doesn't have an arrow indicator.
  • The display looks to be mainly a direct replication of the game cards, but the information design for the cards is just that; the information design for cards. While directly copying/reusing in this way is consistent, and likely a time saver, it doesn't fully exploit the medium. Changes could be introduced that improve the software, whilst staying consistent in style and spirit. For example, why are the damage boxes so small? On the cards they're small because there isn't much space. On a mobile device you might have more space (e.g. on a tablet), but crucially the display is dynamic and reconfigurable, so you can easily have a larger damage grid. It's going to be a complete pain if it is tricky to tick off the right damage boxes (or will there be a damage roller?).
  • Will the artwork etc scale up to larger resolutions, e.g the new iPad3's retina display?
  • Is the information on screen context-aware? Some abilities will be lost, and others brought into play, as damage is taken and these could be highlighted on the display.
  • Will you be able to add identifying markers (name changes, labels, icons, photos of your model, etc) to a card in your list so that you can easily distinguish between models and units of the same type?
  • Cool: being able to tap a quote box and get a voice acted quotation.
  • For larger displays: various tile arrangements to see some units at the same time.
  • Swipe scrolling to navigate through your units (if the image is an in-game shot, it suggests you have to go up a level with the 'back' and then pick a unit, quickly swiping back and forth would be easier). There could be a grid structure for your units, with a default something like Warcaster up top, below that a row for their battlegroup of warjacks, below that a column of units, etc.
  • I hope to see unit cards show changes caused by other units, e.g. if you have Trollkin Longriders and Horthol in the same game, then the extra rules that Horthol brings to the Longriders should be displayed on their card.
Of course this is an early screenshot while the application is in development, I have no idea about the behaviour of the app or its task flow, nor am I aware of various drivers and priorities (e.g. reuse of art materials), so most of my comments may be totally moot and void. The preview does look like an application made for a pointer rather than a touch driven interface, but I can't see this remaining the case by the time it is released.

I'm excited.

Tuesday, 20 March 2012

Against convention... conflicting associations

Which is salt and which is pepper?

Associations for salt shakers:
  • white/light
  • single hole
Associations for pepper shakers:
  • colours are generally the same as the salt shaker or darker
  • more than one hole
Which is the stronger association? Which would you go for?

Mass Effect 3: Bringing me up to speed

It is a good thing that Mass Effect 3 builds on what you've done in the previous instalments of the trilogy. It is also a good thing that you get a little overview when importing your previous game. However, I can't quite shake off a sneaky feeling that the main focus of this is to help people pick the right save game that they want to make use of. It did serve as a good reminder for me, but with a bit more effort it would have been even better. Here is the overview from my Mass Effect 2 game:

Sounds good right? Except.... I don't remember most of it. Apparently I sacrificed the Council. That seems a little extreme. I'm sure I must have had a good reason, but what was it?

This area of the software would have greatly benefited from more detail. Ideally little videos styled as documentaries or flashbacks, but I would have been happy with a little pop up box that filled in a few details (a few pictures would go a long way though... I did eventually recollect Wrex and Miranda, but an image would have helped me to make a quicker connection). The clue here is the last played date. Yes Bioware, your game was great, and I really enjoyed it. And of course I don't saving the galaxy every day, but y'know...I do that kind of stuff fairly often. 20 months is a long time to remember all the details of your game.  I also didn't have a clue what all my powers and stuff was when the bullets started flying.

Still, I survived a suicide mission with eight of my squadmates. We must have been pretty baddass eh? If only I could remember, or have a little video nudge to remind me of my glory...

Tuesday, 13 March 2012

Installing Mass Effect 3

  1. DVD goes in drive
  2. Installer for Origin comes up
  3. What is this? Check install instructions.
  4. Origin is some digital download malarkey. Apparently there is an install route for disc users and an install route for Origin users. I have a disc, I am a disc user. The instructions are very brief which is normally a good thing, but here it doesn't tell me how to install without this Origin thing.
  5. There doesn't seem to be anything else to install. Okay, I'll install this Origin thing.
  6. While I wait...
    1. I've got some code thing for extra equipment. Why do I have to put the code in? Why can't I just get it with the game? Product differentiation rubbish. More choice for consumers blah blah blah resulting in a worse product/experience.
    2. Much head scratching and trying to remember my username and password to log on to the Bioware thing. Look I have an (empty) profile. Why do I want to Social Network? I don't, I want to save the universe whilst flying around in my cool looking spaceship. This is a bigger thing to ask for than not to have to sign up to lots of rubbish, so why can I have a thing that lets me save the universe and not have a thing that stops me having to sign up to junk?
    3. Code redeemed. Hurrah. I have some N7 kit. Hurrah?
    4. More info... I need to login to Origin (aha! just as well that is installing then) and then.. .download stuff. It isn't on the CD. Did they not get around to finishing it in time so had to do it afterwards or something? It's two DVDs, you'd think they could squeeze it on somewhere. Possibly too many human-alien sex scenes taking up all the space. Hmmm. Hurry up and install.
  7. Hurrah Origin installed.
  8. Do I want you to tie into my Facebook and have a profile where random strangers can find me? No, no, no.
  9. And now Origin is updating.
  10. I waited a couple of days for this to come in the post and now I have to wait for stuff to download, sheesh.
  11. Why is it cheaper to buy the physical thing anyway?
  12. I'm still not clear whether I need Origin or why I would want it. What is it anyway?
  13. Apparently Origin is  "The EA Store is now Origin, powered by EAOrigin is your new digital playground. It's where you go to find the best that EA has to offer." Right, they want to sell me stuff. I don't want this.
  14. Origin Beta. I've paid good money for this! Why am I having a beta product foisted on me? Will they pay me for taking part in their testing and evaluation?
  15. A window to enter a product code! Right... N7 swag code go!
  16. Hmm. Enter code, click Next, get told about the N7 gear that the code is for, click Next, get told the code isn't valid. Stupid beta product. With your unclear purpose and utility.
  17. There is an FAQ!
  18. As predicted it didn't help. And despite giving me a specific error/exception, the link to the FAQ took me to a set of questions to find my specific issue. Hmm.
  19. Whatever, close that window.
  20. Right, I can redeem a product code. Not sure why... go go DVD installer! Pah. Okay, I'll try my serial number.
  21. It says it is for a digital download or in-game content. It's neither, but I don't seem to have any other options to pursue.
  22. Apparently it was a digital download or in-game content, because it likes the code and is showing me Mass Effect 3. Well, it is showing me a picture just like the DVD box I've already got.
  23. I have successfully redeemed my product code! Please oh please just install now.
  24. I have no option to install, only to download. Why why why? I have a DVD!
  25. Apparently my N7 warfare gear is already installed however, I'm not sure that is true. Am I wrong? Is it lying to me? Do they really mean it is unlocked?
  26. Trying DVD 2...
  27. Look at you Origin store with your annoying advert transitions and you're not being Steam. Ha! Stupid divergent platforms.
  28. Right, just a 2 GB zip file that won't open. *sigh*
  29. Maybe if I click on download it'll give me an option to use my DVD that I have. It is crazy, but it might just work.
  30. DVD back in drive..
  31. A thought occurs to me: I'm now an Origin user. Granted, I'm a user against my will. But I'm still a user. Maybe the Origin user instructions are now relevant to me. Maybe they should have been clearer, something like this:
    1. Disc user? Soon you will be converted to an Origin user! Read on to find out how this will be done to you.
    2. A thought occurs: I wonder if 'they' will claim usage statistics in a people-use-our-service way when really it is ha-we-tricked-people-into-our-store (you know how people just love being tricked into stores)
  32. Go go installer!
  33. Yes, the Mass Effect 3 installer again. Install!
  34. It appears to have opened Origin (well, brought it to the foreground)
  35. I've clicked download. It really seems to want to download! Arrgh. I HAVE A DVD! TWO! TWO DVDs!
  36. Maybe the kids today don't think they've got a finished product until they've downloaded lots of add ons and patches etc? Darn kids.
  37. No of course I have not read the EULA.
  38. It really is downloading. Arrgh.
  39. Now watching videos on YouTube on how to install Mass Effect 3. Comedy.
  40. Read some support Forum post about how you need to quit Origins and try again. AKA you have to install something you don't want and then stop using it so you can install the game.
  41. My DVD drive appears to be choking on the DVD.
  42. About 34 minutes into the install so far.
  43. Some guy on the forum is pointing out that it might have been easier to get a pirate copy. Sad but possibly true.
  44. Right, click Install! (third time lucky?)
  45. Arrgh Origin has launched
  46. Hmm, but it seems to be doing something with the installation. Now... is it downloading or coming off the DVD? It doesn't say. Poor feedback.
  47. Click on an up arrow and get more info. It is downloading. Arrrgh. Cancel that download.
  48. Close Origin
  49. Damn, it is tucked away in the system tray. How rude.
  50. Get annoyed, rather than close it from the system tray I'm gonna jab it good via Task Manager. Blimey, 90 MB of RAM for a glorified shop and installer thingy?
  51. Process Tree Ended! That felt therapeutic.
  52. Install! (4th time)
  53. Origin launching...
  54. Hurrah! A proper install dialog!
  55. I don't really want it to create an Origin Games folder, but it seems pretty flaky so I don't want to mess with it. Why is the installation software a beta product? And wasn't Origin a publisher of games back in the day? Vague recollection of something to do with Wing Commander.
  56. Yes yes yes of course I have read the EULA, I mean everyone does right?
  57. It is installing. There is still no feedback from EA's software as to where it is getting the files, fortunately (!) I can tell by the DVD whirring noises.
  58. Ah, 49 minutes and counting and it is at 4%
  59. Tum tee tum....
  60. Right, it has wanted the 2nd DVD for a little while but the dialog window telling me so is a) separate from the main install window with no prompts/info on the main window and b) appeared on the other monitor. It also didn't show up on the highest level, instead it hid behind Chrome though I'm not sure if I just missed it and brought Chrome forward by mistake. Not even some sort of signifier in the task tray. Tsk.
  61. 1 hour 4 minutes. Second DVD in.
  62. I'm hoping it isn't going to do that stupid/annoying thing where a) it requires you to have media in the drive to play and b) requires a different disc to the last one you used to install the software and never tells you. Wouldn't it be a little ridiculous if I have to use the DVD for a game that I can legitimately download?
  63. It is finished and has told me it is ready to play, but now it is doing something else.
  64. And now it has stopped. I don't know what it was installing.
  65. 1 hour 10 minutes.
  66. Fingers crossed to play...

I miss my Sega Megadrive. Open box. Take out cartridge. Stick in machine. Switch machine on. Play!

Tuesday, 28 February 2012

Soluto's paper metaphor to show what is running underneath

I like this:

Screenshot of a computer desktop with Soluto running

The image shows my desktop running Soluto, which (so far) seems to be a pretty handy tool to help you to manage your computer and other people's computers. It's friendly and has a fun style which makes it unintimidating for computer users who aren't comfortable tinkering around 'under the hood'.

Soluto monitors your boot and gives you options on how to manage your boot items, giving you a description of each item, a recommendation, and an indication what most other Soluto users do. It is handy.

The image above shows Soluto monitoring my boot. I like the metaphors and symbolism used here. My desktop is peeled back to show what is going on underneath, and looks clear and uncluttered. This follows a similar 'peek' approach to that used in Apple's iBooks and the Google Maps application on iDevices. The differences here are that it isn't user initiated, and is a notification rather than a peek or a preview, and of course it isn't on a touch-based device.

I wouldn't want every application to use this approach; the novelty would wear off and the desktop would soon get cluttered with page curls. I do like it for this use though and would like to see it built into the OS as a way of accessing the 'under the hood' features and settings. I was excited for a little while thinking about having a fullscreen desktop and applications, and being able to carry out a page curl to access the start menu and taskbar, but then I realised I was thinking of a more visual and metaphor driven auto-hide task bar. So, less excited but still liking the idea.

Another image of Soluto, this one showing part of the boot management interface:

Screenshot of part of the Soluto computer boot management interface

Flexible working

When designing systems you need to be aware of the unintended consequences. As an example flexible working arrangements (e.g. flexitime) allow people to access social capital more readily. If parents have a choice of schools and consider the more distant school to be better, they will more readily be able to send their child to it if they have flexible working arrangements. Similarly, flexible working arrangements allow people to more easily access medical care and attend doctor's appointments both in terms of actually being able to attend, and not having a large impact on their finances. Of course this is a greater boon for those who are less able to afford to take unpaid time off of work.

Tuesday, 21 February 2012

Android mobile dockable computer

Now this is cool:

An Android phone that can dock to computer peripherals and a monitor, and can be used as an Ubuntu computer. This is one of those ideas that seem overwhelmingly obvious once you know about them, which is usually a sign that it is a very good idea.

A couple of potential issues spring to mind:

  • handling incoming/outgoing calls when the phone is docked;
  • using it as a phone whilst wanting to look on your computer (e.g. looking something up, talking through what you're doing on the computer);
  • while it looks like a lot of ground has been covered it isn't a seamless switch of the same stuff using different input and output devices, and;
  • probably little to no support for using multiple desktop monitors (yet).
Bluetooth headsets will go some way to alleviating these problems (but bring their own issues). What I want to see? Wireless connections to the peripherals and displays.

I've got a prediction going that traditional desktop computers will become a rarity outside of geek enclaves by 2015. Well, for new purchases that is, I'm sure many a 'puter will hang on for many years. A typical person has little need for a 'proper' computer, and tinkering around with your hardware will decline much in the way it has for tinkering with car engines. It won't be needed so much, it'll get harder to actually do, the required skills may become more specialised, and there will be new and more interesting things to play with.

Tablets, smartphones, smart TVs/appliances, and game consoles are eating eroding the need for a traditional computer. This is an evolutionary step for smartphones that has the attractive feature of making use of integrating with the existing computer infrastructure and devices. It represents a move towards ubiquitous personal devices that will interact with our environment, rather than having devices for different environments.

I'm not so much looking forward to having smartphones that wirelessly integrate with my computer peripherals and TV, so much as I'm looking forward to a unified, deep and personalised and consistent interaction experience with the environment. I want my stuff, my information, my entertainments everywhere. The more I can walk out of the house and feel the only thing I'm leaving behind is a comfortable place to sleep the better. Well, metaphorically speaking anyway; I'd rather be in a comfy chair reading.

In the short term.. this is a good development. Hurry up Apple and give me something similar. Canonical is knocking at the gate of your walled garden waving candy at me, and I want some of that candy.

Friday, 17 February 2012

Adversarial views

The BBC News website has an article about the political divide in America. Not particularly upbeat the article indicates that the divide has become so adversarial that "There is a grave danger for American democracy that the two parties not only can't agree, they can't even discuss".

The comments section is the usual mishmash of quality and adherence to the topic. It is very amusing and worrying that so many posts just reinforce the point of the article. Here's one example:
"This issue is not about "people being unwilling to listen to alternative arguments" - The issue is about whether the government should have unlimited power, or whether government power should be severely/strictly limited by the US constitution. Liberals want the former and Conservatives want the latter. Fundamentally this is a choice between communism and capitalism; between tyranny and freedom."
Oh dear...

Wednesday, 15 February 2012

Secularism is not anti-religious

A continual theme in much discussion about religion and its role in public life seems to be a misunderstanding of secularism. To many secular seems to mean anti-religion. This is simply not the case, and indeed (liberal) secularism can be a strong guarantor of religious freedom. To help communicate what secularism is and what it is not I have constructed the diagram shown below.

You will note the following (potentially) surprising aspects of what is and is not secularism:
  • not all atheists are secularists;
  • being secular does not mean being against religion;
  • those who are anti-religion aren't secularists, though they may be strategically supporting secularism;
  • secularists also include religious people.
What is secularism? Imagine a society with two religious groups. Group Hats have a strong religious based belief that hats should be worn inside public buildings. Group Heads have a strong religious based belief that hats should not be worn inside public buildings. Both groups feel very strongly about their views, and want it to be universally complied with. There is no middle ground. There is no recourse to reason to decide between the two sides. What is a society to do? The society could abolish public buildings and conduct all public business outside. This isn't very practical in this instance. What could happen is the society comes down on one side or another, perhaps going with the majority of people or with the cultural convention of that society. However if the society rules for hats in public buildings, this suppresses the religious activities of Group Heads (no hats). It may even drive them away from full participation in society, because for them the harm of wearing a hat in a public building outweighs the good from going into public buildings and using the services there. There appears to be little justice and fairness in this situation.

The liberal/secular response to this situation is to rule that there shall be no rules about head-wear in public buildings. To rule one way or another would restrict the religious expression of one set of believers in favour of another. In other scenarios there may be a sound objective response, or reasoned debate, but here there is no middle ground. So, the secular response would be that people can choose to wear hats or not based on their religious conscience. Group Hat can wear hats in public buildings, and Group Heads can go bare headed in public buildings. This does not support religious groups in having their beliefs be universally applied (if this is something they want), but it does protect all religious groups.

There is an important distinction here between having your rights respected, and seeking to impose on others. State neutrality on the question of hats in public buildings respects the rights of both groups.

Historically the rise of secularism can be seen in Europe with the strife and civil war between Catholics and Protestants. In some nations (e.g. the pre-German states and England) the official religion was that of the sovereign. If the religion of the sovereign changed (e.g. someone new takes the throne), then the official religion changed. As a consequence people were persecuted, executed, and tortured for following the 'wrong' religion (e.g. being slow to convert to their new ruler's preferred religion). Clearly this was a ghastly situation, and the ultimate resolution was secularism. Citizens are free to follow the religion of their choice, without fear of persecution from the state. In any state with more than one religious view there will be losers if the state enforces a particular religious view. Secularism is therefore the best protection for the religious (and non religious). If you are in the religious majority, if you have a moral consideration for other people when considering policies that favour your religious beliefs you must also consider whether equivalent state religious policy was being enacted in support of religious views in opposition to your own would be fair and equitable.

Not all atheists are secularists. For a start there are some atheists, presumably mainly those in more liberal societies, who simply don't care about secularism. And then there are those atheists who may be in favour of religious dominance in the public sphere, a classic example being the following quote by Gibbon about the Roman world:
"The various modes of worship, which prevailed in the Roman world, were all considered by the people, as equally true; by the philosopher, as equally false; and by the magistrate, as equally useful."
Being secular does not mean being against religion. Imagine you are in the UK and are free to practice your religion more or less how you want. Now consider those states around the world where blasphemy and apostasy (leaving a religion / converting to another) are crimes, and may even be capital crimes. Of the two examples the UK is the most secular, and thus the most tolerant of religions. Secular states do not privilege any one religion or view on religion (e.g. including non-believers), but by doing so it protects religions. Secular liberal states are a guarantor of religious freedom, and a fair way of handling a population with more than one religious view.

Secularism gets a bad reputation because it diminishes the privilege of a particular religion over people who do not belong to it. Secularism oppresses religion in the same way that giving the vote to women oppresses men, and the end of slavery oppressed slave owners.

Those who are anti-religion are not secularists. This one is a bit more tricky. Here by anti-religion I mean those who wish to abolish it, rather than those who simply disagree with it. In a world with multiple religious beliefs those with a different world view are bound to have opposing views, but this doesn't mean that they are antagonistic. Secularism, particularly in a liberal society, protects religion. A state that tries to be neutral on the matter of religious belief protects the believer from being oppressed by the non-believer just as it protects the non-believer from being oppressed by the believer. Those who are anti-religion may in the short term ally themselves with secularism to remove religious privilege, but their long term goals and world view isn't compatible with (liberal) secularism.

Secularists also include religious people. Secularism protects the beliefs of the religious (and non-religious). This surely isn't incompatible with being religious. Many religious people are in favour of secularism because they recognise that it is important to respect the rights of others. Others may be more pragmatic, for example if they are in a minority religion they may recognise or wish for the protection that secularism offers.

Monday, 13 February 2012

The Importance of Getting Specialist Advice Early

In the development of a system (or product, process, service..) getting relevant specialist advice early on in a project will help to get a better system, and avoid potentially expensive—in terms of money and time—rework.

The image below is a rough visualisation of the “hill climbing problem”. Imagine the wiggly line as being a range of hills on the horizon. The horizon represents the problem space for your system. Each hill is a potential solution; a different way of meeting the requirement or need. Different hills have different properties and advantages, but generally you want to be as high as you can be. Or at least as high as your requirement and contract demands.

Systems can be complex beasts and require input from a variety of disciplines. Without support from appropriate specialists the project team may be picking the wrong hill to climb. Your new software application, command and control system, service, gadget or gizmo will likely benefit from, or need, input from a variety of experts. Does the system need to be safe? Does it need to conform to particular legislation? Will the human component of the system have an impact on its performance? Does it need a long battery life? Will it need to be maintained? What is the potential logistical impact? Without appropriate input the team may not know that other hills even exist, let alone that they need to be aiming for a different one (i.e. their product may not be designed with certain safety legislation in mind).

Design decisions represent selecting a hill in the hill climbing metaphor. Once a hill has been selected effort is expended to scale the slope of the hill; meetings, decisions, analysis, design work, prototyping, and so on. Money, time, reputation, and careers can be invested in the chosen design.

Unfortunately, the team might be scaling the wrong hill, or at least not the best hill. If a team isn’t aware of all of the factors—all of the requirements and considerations—that will have an influence on the design they are making, then they are making uninformed decisions. If relevant experts are involved early on, in the design or ideally the concept phase, then the team will have a better understanding of what hills they should be aiming for; they will be making more informed decisions. This reduces risk and will contribute to a better design, more or less for free compared to the costs of having to rework a design.

The alternative, and is a situation often faced in the case of Human Factors, looks like the diagram below. When a team discovers they have a problem (i.e. problems with legislation, discovering that the workload is too high for the number of operators, etc), or there is a need for improvement it may be too late to implement transformational change. In this situation the team has been making great progress towards a local maximum. They’re doing great things, but they’re not going to go get to the top of a really big hill because the hill they’re climbing (the solution they’re building) isn’t the best hill, or might not get them as high as they need to be.

Faced with this situation a Human Factors practitioner (or Safety Specialist, etc) has two options in providing support to the project; helping the team get to the top of their local maximum, or shifting them to a better hill. In many cases it isn’t realistic to get a change of hill. Time, cost, effort, careers, and reputations may have been heavily invested in the current approach. Aside from the effort to get the system to its current state there will be a wealth of documentation and design decisions behind it, hard fought negotiations and compromises, and a great deal of work to establish a common understanding of the current design amongst the team members and stakeholders. On top of these issues there are reputational and career issues to consider. For example, if there is a lot invested in a project it may prove unlikely that senior figures (or the organisation as a whole) will admit that mistakes have been made and there needs to be a change of direction. In an ideal world this will not be the case, but realistically while transformational change may be desirable and achievable in terms of resources it may not be a pragmatic option to pursue. The appetite and capacity for change may simply not be present.

Getting specialist advice early on in a project, before design decisions have been made, can help to direct a project and result in a better solution whilst avoiding the need for expensive rework or adaptation. It also makes better use of specialist staff; they’ll be influencing the design based on fundamental considerations that improve the system, rather than coming up with patches and fixes.

Saturday, 28 January 2012


Substance Sortals - a persisting entity whenever it exists.

Phase Sortals - an entity when it has certain properties, e.g. a caterpillar and a teenager are phases for a particular entity.

Via: Partfit, D. (2012). We Are Not Human Beings. Philosophy, the Journal of the Royal Institute of Philosophy, volume 87, number 339, January 2012

We Are Not Human Beings

What follows is a brief discussion about Parfit's We Are Not Human Beings, and my thinking on the topic. As per other such discussions on this blog, it isn't necessarily intended to be a robust interpretation or set of arguments, rather a handy overview and part set of handy notes primarily for my benefit, but also hopefully for the benefit of others.

Partfit, D. (2012). We Are Not Human Beings. Philosophy, the Journal of the Royal Institute of Philosophy, volume 87, number 339, January 2012.

Parfit discusses personal identity; what it is that is us, how it can be distinguished from things that are not us, and how we should think about ourselves. There are numerically identical things; my keyboard has been the same keyboard for several years. Here by same I mean it is the same object, and a spatial-temporal path could be traced for it, and we could be confident that when viewed in the past it is identical in the sense that it is the same object. Things can also be considered qualitatively identical. My preferred design of trackball sadly only lasts a few years before wearing out, so over the years I have had several objects that share a whole host of properties (they are the same model, colour, etc.) but are different objects. The trackball that I have now is the same sort of trackball that I had ten years ago, and aside from the serial number it is indistinguishable to me, but it isn't the same object. The numerical identity of my trackball is of no concern of me, I only care if I have a qualitatively identical trackball.

People are different. We are concerned with numerical identity as well as qualitative identity. Substituting my beloved with her twin simply wouldn't do.

Or would it?

What we are interested in with regards to personal identity is the thinking bit of a person. If we swapped two people's brains over we would consider it a body transplant rather than a brain transplant. We would follow the brain if we were concerned with things like responsibilities, promises, guilt, and friendship.

Parfit covers three concepts of personal identity; the soul view (which he promptly sets aside), the Animalist View, and the Lockean View. The Animalist View is rooted in our identity as animals, it is biological continuity that is of interest to us. This certainly seems to be the face value working rule that we use; we identify persons based on their bodies. The Lockean View is focused on psychological continuity, and Parfit gives us his definition:

The Narrow, Brain-Based Criterion:  If some future person would be uniquely psychologically continuous with me as I am now, and this continuity would have its normal cause, enough of the same brain, this person would be me. If some future person would neither be uniquely psychologically continuous with me as I am now, nor have enough of the same brain, this person would not be me. In all other cases, there would be no answer to the question whether some future person would be me. But there would be nothing that we did not know.
Parfit presents a continuum of thought experiments to draw out the distinction between the Animalist and Lockean views, moving along the scale; Transplanted Head, Surviving Head, Surviving Cerebellum.

Parfit refers to McMahan's Embodied Part View. Under this view we are the thinking part of the Human Animal.  Parfit extends this view with the Embodied Person View; human animals think by having a concious thinking part which is a person in a Lockean sense.

Parfit covers a number of potential and actual objections, but ends with the conclusion that we can be best described as Embodied Persons; "Since the animal thinks only by having a part that thinks, there are not too many thinkers here [the Too Many Thinkers objection]. And since the animal is a person only in the derivative sense of having a Lockean person as a part, there are not too many persons here [the Too Many Persons objection]".

It would seem to me that there is another distinction here. The thinking parts in our brains is the embodied part of us, the apparatus and substrate of thinking, of our identity. Our identity however is the brain-state. Admittedly our identity, our thinking, is tightly coupled with the physical mechanisms of the thinking which are in turn tightly coupled with wider aspects of our bodies. If my brain was reset to a blank state, then there would be a break in the psychologically continuity. It may be that the brain state left is the closest to generating my identity of any brain in existence, but if we were to say it is still me we would merely be making the best of a bad situation.

  1. If my brain state was destroyed/reset, would we still claim identity? Possibly, but only in so far as we conflate personal identity with our physical shells.
  2. If 100 people had their brain state reset, and their physical appearance altered so that they all appeared the same... would we consider there to be anything of personal identity left to trace? No.
  3. If my brain state was destructively copied (i.e. moved) into a replicant of me, we would consider my identity to be in the replicant.
  4. If my brain state was destructively copied into a computer that functionally simulated my brain for me, and then moved back into my original body we consider the human-body-brain-state-copy to be me.
Our personal identity is the thinking itself, the representation stored and manipulated in the brain. The apparatus for personal identity that we have available to us is the parts of the brain that do the thinking, which are embodied in the human animal. In computer terms we aren't even the software, we're the current state of the software at a moment in time.

Numerical identity isn't important. Qualitative identity is what matters; we're interested in the properties of a thinking animal/other. In a not quite fleshed out analogy, in the arrangement of physical things so that the rainbow twinkles just so, we are the rainbow.

The Cogito—I think, therefore I am—becomes:

Thinking occurs, I am the thinking.

Tuesday, 24 January 2012

Epistemic and Pragmatic Actions

A handy terminological distinction...

Epistemic Actions alter the world so as to aid and augment cognitive processes such as recognition and search. Examples include leaving things by your door that you want to remember to take with you, entering information into a calendar, and tagging blog posts.

Pragmatic Actions are those actions that alter the world because some physical change is desirable for its own sake. Examples include turning the heating on because it is cold, and shutting the door to enclose a space.

This came to me via Clark and Chalmers (1998) The Extended Mind. They got it via Kirsh and Maglio (1994) On Distinguishing Epistemic from Pragmatic Action (which I've not yet read).

Products that I want #2: human food with dog food properties

Human food, that works like dog food.

According to television adverts over the years it is possible to produce a tin of delicious meaty chunks in a rich gravy, that contains all the nutrients and goodness that a dog needs and helps them to maintain a glossy coat.

Why can't 'they' do that for human food? The target of five a day frequently feels like an unobtainable goal for me. I'd be much happier with a tin of gravied (is that a word?) meat that met all of my dietary needs and helps me to maintain a glossy coat.

Sunday, 22 January 2012


Limbo is a game that shows what can be done with restriction of design elements. With simple game mechanics, and only a grey-scale colour palette the developers have created a compelling game. Limbo shows that great design can come from simple elements. I particularly like the poignant pause when your avatar dies (though this can get frustrating if death occurs too often).

Minor annoyances include a complete lack of mouse support without any visual indications that mice aren't supported. If the mouse isn't going to be used in a game that's fine, but put some kind of sign or instruction on the menu, introduction, or similar. Likewise a user shouldn't have to go into the options and settings to find out what the controls are, a simple on-screen icon on the menu screen would have been sufficient. This is particularly problematic with the action button because there is no visual feedback of a successful button push unless if your avatar is in a certain set of contexts. This was caused frustration for me as I started out trying to play on the Mac using a Windows keyboard, and I wasn't sure which button actually worked as an ALT key. Strangely missing is the use of WASD for up-down-left-right movement, which is a standard gaming control scheme.

Anyway, many small niggles but a beautiful, mildly quirky game, that is a good example of a great design driven by self-constraint.

I've not finished the game yet. I'm hoping that the end seamlessly loops back to the start, to provide a never ending futile and never explained journey. Perhaps that's just me though.

Book recommendations from 2011

Last year's highlights in books:
  • On the Philosophy front is Brian Barry's Culture and Equality. Well written, clear, and compelling.
  • On the Human-Computer Interaction front is Universal Principles for Design by Lidwell, Holden, and Butler. I've not managed to give this book the attention it deserves yet as it is sitting on my desk at work, and I've been working elsewhere for a couple of months. Good examples, a clear layout, and overall good design principles for interaction design.
  • On the Fiction front my highlight was the Malazan Book of the Fallen, which starts with Gardens of the Moon and culminates in The Crippled God. Sitting on my desk screaming out to be read is Orb Sceptre Throne by Esslemont, who is writing within the Malazan setting.
  • Honourable mention must be given to Christopher Hitchen's final work Arguably.

Products that I want #1: a solar powered/charged Kindle

A solar powered/charged Kindle.

Think of the opportunity to provide access to education materials in the developing world. Think of their usefulness in rebuilding civilisation after an apocalypse.

Want I also want is a one off reasonable fee (free is a bit too hopefully) to have every book I own (okay I'll settle for every book purchased on Amazon) provided to me in an electronic format. I'd also like to get an electronic copy of every physical book I buy in future, again for free but I'll settle for a 50p option.

And why I'm at it..... hurry up and ditch VAT on ebooks.

Wednesday, 4 January 2012

Why is Genius under Store in iTunes?

The option to turn Genius on is under the 'Store' menu heading in iTunes. Why? Presumably because Genius is used to recommend songs with the desired goal being that you purchase them, hence it being a store-related activity. This categorisation seems to be based on an Apple related goal/concept of Genius, rather than a user goal/concept. Having Genius under Store makes little sense when one is thinking about Genius mixes and playlists.

I love my iPhone. iTunes? Not so much...