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: http://www.ubuntu.com/devices/android

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.