Designed in 2 Minutes?

Tuesday, November 30, 2004

In floppies we trust

I work on the computing helpdesk in the Learning Centre out-of-hours and one of the most common, but heartbreaking, pleas for help come from students who have put too much trust in their floppy discs (seriously, some of them leave the helpdesk crying).

"Hi, I'm wondering if you can help me. I've spent the last 72 hours without sleep or food doing my dissertation and saving it only to this flimsy piece of magnetised plastic, and when I took it home with me I accidentally dropped it in a puddle of acid and stamped on it repeatedly before my pet goat chewed it to pieces. Is there any way I can get my work back?".

Well that's not quite how it goes, but the sentiment is real enough. Why oh why do students save all their work on floppy discs and take no backups? Especially considering there's a perfectly good 10MB of securely backed-up, campus-wide online storage under the name 'My Documents'.

Aside from poor education in why floppies started going out of fashion around a decade ago, I think I have some idea of why students so often don't make use of the secure online storage, preferring to save everything to floppy instead (or USB flash memory stick, where the dangers of corruption are lower but risk of loss or theft is higher).

I think it's all a matter of trust. Students can envisage their document being phsyically written to the disc, they can pick it up and hold it, they can carry it around, they can put it under their pillow at night (not a good idea as the dust will soon kill the disc surface). It's tangible. It's real.

Online storage is nameless, faceless, abstract... how can a student understand that there is a rather large computer a few hundred metres away which now stores their files when they can't see it or touch it or take it home to put under their pillow? To them clicking the 'save' button seems like it could mean the last they ever see of their precious work, as there's no comforting flashing light or whirring 'burrr-dzzz' sound as the file is written, and often no concept that 'My Documents' is not local to only that machine, but is available from any computer they're logged into.

People don't trust things they can't see or touch (or kick) which is why there is still such a huge reliance on physical storage media they can carry around with them. Sure, these devices are great for backups. But the trouble is, too many people still use them as primary storage.

Strangely these people have no problem allowing their employer to put numbers representing virtual money into a bank account which they can't see, when there's no physical cash involved... I suppose people have come to learn to trust in the banking system. If only they could learn to trust in online storage too.

Access to information in airplanes

I recently was travelling from Birmingham to Brussels via Amsterdam with the Dutch company ‘KLM’ and was sat near an honourable gentleman who happened to be deaf. We try our best to entertain each other during the journey, communicating with signs and writing. What came out of our encounter is the fact that there are many things that we take for granted and when designing things we sometimes do it without fully considering the need of all the potential users. For example during the journey he obviously couldn’t heard the information given by the pilot such as the weather condition and some other details about the flight. It struck me for the first time as I have been travelling by plane for very long but I never really thought about that.

There are signs demonstrations to explain some safety issues, symbols to show where the buttons for lightning, calling a hostess and other, but there are no display for what is being said in the pilot’s cockpit for the passenger’s attention.

The tram between Birmingham and Wolverhampton is a good example that explains my point. In the tram there is a screen that displays information such as the station you are in and the next station; as well as displaying those information there is a vocal expression of the same information. If you are blind then you can heard them, and if you are deaf then you can read them.

People (disables) in some airplanes don’t enjoy all these privileges (access to all the information) offer during the flight and therefore do not fully benefit from their investment (price paid for the journey).

Monday, November 29, 2004

Ok I have serious unability issues with this site! I think for user-freiendlyness it scores about a 2 maybe not even! I have done modules on web site design which has made me more picky when it comes to websites! But i think i have a valid point! Firstly you come to your blog page and want to post a comment...where is the log in button that would come in handy well its not there! Even if it was within your profile again its not there! You have to go to the home page to login! When it comes to website user friendlyness ease of navigation through the web pages is important and I dont think this site offers that!

Secondly you have to be invited to contribute to the blog using an email etc. Which at first seems fine but if you and a team mate have been sent the same invite and one of you uses it, it expires! Which means you have to be sent another invite by email! This is a long and drawn out process I feel! A simplified approach would be for the creator to list the contributors and them to then register when they visit the site!

Websites like this cause a digital divide as people without confidence in their computer skills would be put off and give up after five minutes which is why user-friendlyness and HCI are so important!

Sunday, November 28, 2004

Free wireless access for all. Is it desirable?

The city of Philadelphia in the USA has announced ambitious plans to cover the entire of the city with Wi-Fi wireless network access.

The rationale is that "for a city to succeed in the future, it must be a digital city", according to Dianah Neff, the city's Chief Information Officer. This presents quite a stark contrast to what many people in other big cities would consider as what their city needs to be successful. Surely good economic stability, low crime rates, and a first-class transport system rate higher? Or perhaps the Philadelphians believe that universal network access for all will help to facilitate this utopia.

Whatever the reason, it has to be said that free Wi-Fi access for an entire city is quite high on the 'cool things for a city to have' list, along with giant ferris wheels and enormous multi-million-pound marquees, and I can see that it would bring benefits to business and home users living in the area.

Communications companies in the city, on the other hand, aren't so happy. They're worried about losing potential revenue and are currently threatening to block the entire project from going ahead. The project planners argue that the project will be a benefit to all, and will help to bridge the digital divide as residents can get access to the internet using just a standard computer and Wi-Fi card, without any need to set up costly broadband lines with telcos. Give your great-aunt a laptop and web browser, and she can sit at her desk and keep in touch without having to sign any contracts or plug in any cables.

But my concern is that, as other rich cities (this is a $10m project which will cost a further $1.5m/yr to maintain!) follow suit, poorer cities which can't justify this expenditure will be perceived as under-developed, and a new crack will appear in the digital divide.

Saturday, November 27, 2004

Critical vulnerability in Winamp media player

We are living in a time where the Internet is gradually and rapidly playing an important role in people’s life. In fact people use internet for pretty much everything and one of the most increasing activities over the internet is the transfer of music and video. To support such activities, users need specialised software (media players) to play songs and videos downloaded from servers or other users’ computers and therefore can act as gateways between computers. Because of that very critical role, some may assume that very deep thoughts and efforts are put into their development. This is certainly true for many of them. However it has been proved that they can be used to compromise users’ system by creating a major breach in security.

The security expert Brett Moore from the found that there is a critical vulnerability in the popular ‘Winamp’ media player (version 5.05, 5.06, and prior versions), caused due to a boundary error in the ‘IN_CDDA.dll’ file.

The error is exploited in various ways to cause a stack-based buffer overflow, e.g. by tricking a user into visiting a malicious website containing a specially crafted ‘.m3u’ playlist, and if successful it allows execution of arbitrary code.

With the hundred of thousands or maybe millions of users out there, we expect better from developers than those types of vulnerabilities, which just show that not enough tests and validations have been conducted with the most serious consequence that they leave the users at the mercy of the hackers who will not hesitate to dispossess them with whatever they can put the hands on from their system.

Are we completely moving into an era where digital technology is the main weapon for robbery?

Friday, November 26, 2004

Nokia voice dialling

When Nokia first introduced voice-activated dialling on their phones they had clearly thought long and hard about how to make the system as usable as possible. In fact they got it so near to perfect that they've left the interface pretty much unchanged since it was first introduced; the latest models still voice-dial in the same way.

The reason the design is so good is that it provides clear user feedback in all the important areas of exactly what the phone is doing, without being over-intrusive, and which can all be controlled from a handsfree headset with just one button.

Although voice dialling can be initiated by holding down (usually) the Names key of the phone, it can also be initiated by pressing the headset button. Doing this also bypasses the keypad lock if it's currently switched on, as the whole point of a hands-free kit is that you don't have to get the phone out to unlock its keypad first... From here on, the system works in the same way whether the headset is attached or not.

The phone beeps to let you know it's waiting for input (essential if the device is in your pocket as the headset has no other way of displaying anything the phone might be trying to tell you). If you just say nothing within a few seconds, it will beep again in a slightly more depressed tone to let you know it's giving up.

If you do say something after the first beep the phone will wait for approximately half a second of silence to indicate that you've finished speaking. If you speak again (or something else makes a noise) within this half second then it will keep listening...

Once the phone is sure you've finished inputting it will process the input and play back the user-inputted recording which it thinks matches closest to what you just said. This will have been prerecorded by the user and 'attached' to an entry in the phone book.

This step is one of the most important as it provides the user with the clearest possible indication of who the phone is now about to call. It uses the user's own recording (which the user must recognise - it's their own voice!) to confirm the action.

If no match was found then the phone just beeps again in its depressed way and goes back to sleep.

All of this makes for a system with a supremely good concept of cognitive processes, which tells the user unobtrusively when to input data, tells the user in the clearest possible way what the output is, and informs the user of a successful or unsuccessful input.

It's just a shame that the voice dialling feature is limited to (usually) only 10 entries from the phone book :-(

How many ways?!

Now that I'm getting into the swing of ranting about Windows' windows, here's a short post regarding cognitive processes.

As you should be aware, having one clear way of performing an action (such as initiating a phone call from a mobile phone) with possibly a backup shortcut action for 'expert' users (eg. speed-dialling keys) is beneficial to the user as it reduces the amount of thought necessary to complete the action. Rather than thinking about which method will be quickest or most convenient to get the job done, the user can just get on and do it.

So why, then, are there so many ways of doing something as supposedly simple as closing a window in Windows?!

Let's count them:

  1. Click on the window's close icon
  2. Press Alt-F4
    (these two actions on their own should be sufficient!)
  3. Locate the window's icon on the taskbar, right-click, and click on 'Close'
  4. Locate the window's icon on the taskbar, right-click, and press Alt-F4
  5. Locate the window's icon on the taskbar, right-click, and press C
  6. Locate the window's icon on the taskbar, right-click, press the up cursor key, and press Return
  7. Click on the window's program icon (top-left of the window) and click on 'Close'
  8. Click on the window's program icon and press C
    note you can't use Alt-F4 on this menu as Alt closes the menu)
  9. Click on the window's program icon, press the up cursor key, and press Return
  10. Press Ctrl-Alt-Del to fire up the task manager, find the program, select it, and click 'End Program'
  11. Right click on the taskbar and fire up the task manager, find the program, select it, and click 'End Program'

Prizes for anyone who can extend my list to 15+ items - I'm sure I've missed at least some ;-)

[7:30pm - the prize goes to Andrew Oakley of Middlesex University who offered the following:]

  1. Press Alt-Space to open the window's control menu and click on 'Close'
  2. Press Alt-Space to open the window's control menu and press C
  3. Press Alt-Space to open the window's control menu, press the up cursor key, and press Return
  4. Select the File menu and click on Close/Exit
  5. Select the File menu and press C or X (depending on application)
  6. Select the File menu and scroll to Close/Exit using the cursor keys, then press Return
  7. Press Alt-F to open the File menu and click on Close/Exit
  8. Press Alt-F to open the File menu and press C or X (depending on application)
  9. Press Alt-F to open the File menu and scroll to Close/Exit using the cursor keys , then press Return
  10. Press Alt and use the cursor keys (across then down) to open the File menu and click on Close/Exit
  11. Press Alt and use the cursor keys to open the File menu and press C or X (depending on application)
  12. Press Alt and use the cursor keys to open the File menu and scroll to Close/Exit using the cursor keys , then press Return

Surely that's an exhaustive list now?

For your next assignment, try to find all the possible ways of saving a file in Windows :-)

Bad window furniture positioning in Windows

Still on the topic of Windows' windows close icons (is anyone else beginning to see why I dislike the use of the generic term Windows as a name for an operating system?!) I often find myself getting frustrated at how close the potentially destructive close icon is to the relatively harmless maximise icon.

One pixel's grace on the close icon's left hand side (Windows XP 'classic' mode) is not enough, Microsoft designers!

Whilst it could be perceived as useful or neat to have all the window furniture grouped into one part of the window's title area, I favour the arrangment of some alternative OS desktops' window furniture.

On RISC OS there is a close icon and a 'back' icon (which sends the window to the back of the window stack - very useful when you come to think about it) on the left hand side of the title bar. Both of these are potentially destructive actions, as you lose the window you were working on, although obviously sending a window to the back of the stack just hides it from view rather than actually deleting it.

On the opposite side of the window's title bar are the iconise (minimise to an icon on the desktop) and toggle size (full height/user-defined window size) buttons. Both of these are non-destructive, non-intrusive actions as they can easily be reversed by clicking on the icon again as they're toggles.

This organisation allows the user to separate dangerous destructive tasks mentally and spatially from less dangerous tasks so there's less chance of an accident happening if a user was reaching for 'maximise' and hit 'close' instead.

Closing windows quickly in Windows

The 'active area' furniture in Windows' windows actually extends beyond the physical size of the button. This leads to a very useful feature of the way the window works.

When a window is maximised, as it often will be when working under MS Windows, the user is able to close a window simply by moving the mouse swiftly to the extreme top and right edges of the screen and then clicking. The button's active area extends to the most extreme pixel on the top-right of the screen when the window is maximised, therefore the user can use the top and right edges of the screen to decelerate the mouse cursor for them rather than having to hunt around for the button.

Thursday, November 25, 2004

The scissors paradox

A friend of mine recently tried to buy some scissors for the start of his university course, having none in the house at the time.

He soon found a pair in the local shop but very unhelpfully the scissors were fixed to the packaging with a plastic cable and, presumably as a safety measure, kept firmly shut.

As he pointed out to me, how are you supposed to open the packaging and get to your nice new scissors when they're firmly attached to the packaging and require a pair of scissors to be removed! Surely you're only buying scissors because you don't have any in the first place!

Thankfully for him the shop assistant was more than willing to lend him the store scissors before he went home so he could remove the packaging. The mind does boggle though.

GPRS on Nokia phones

I have a Nokia 6100 - a good all-round phone with lots of features such as the ability to run Java programs and connect to the internet via GPRS.

GPRS, for those who don't know, stands for General Packet Radio Service and provides a way for wireless devices such as phones to transfer packets of data to and from a base station network. GPRS is analogous to broadband DSL which a home user might use to connect to the Internet, as it's always-on and works over a digital system rather than the older analogue WAP protocol. It's also quite a bit faster than WAP.

Currently most mobile service providers charge per MB for GPRS data access. Prices are extortionate (in the region of ukp4 per MB) and so I don't usually access the internet from my mobile unless I absolutely have to.

But this presents a problem to phone designers. Sometimes I'll have been trying to accses my saved bookmarks, or check some GPRS settings for a friend, for example, when I'll accidentally select a URL to visit. Before I have the chance to cancel, the page has loaded, appeared on my screen, and cost me on my next bill.

The problem is this: how do you confirm that a user really wants to initiate a data transfer when the connection is always-on? Imagine if every time you clicked on a link in your web browser your computer asked "Are you sure?"!

Perhaps you could have some sort of inactivity timeout so that if the user hasn't made a data transfer in over 30 minutes then the phone assumes the current session has finished and will then ask again the next time they try to access data.

However Nokia seemed to pull a cop-out and just not confirm it at all. Much to my phone bill's dismay...

Bad microphone positioning

Recently I was chatting with my friend on Skype, the free internet phone network, and I noticed a rather loud and strange sound coming intermittently from his end of the line.

Eventually we traced the problem - at the time he was using his laptop's built-in microphone and speakers to make the call to me. However his microphone was mounted in the computer's case just next to the CD drive and not far from the fan. So every time his laptop's fan switched on or he accessed the CD drive I was bombarded with a very irritating loud noise.

Why on earth did the laptop makers decide to put the microphone there, embedded in the case next to the CD drive and fan? It would be totally useless for recording anything important as it made even a casual phone conversation difficult.

Needless to say, my friend's now invested in a proper microphone headset :-)

Wednesday, November 24, 2004

A digital sub-divide?

With Francis' and Natalie's excellent introductions to the subject of the digital divide, it's clear that two distinct 'qualities' of life are percieved to exist, one for those who have access to computers and networking for example, and one for those who absatain from all such technology.

Yet even we, the digitally-enabled, in our own niche world - where it's so easy to forget that we are in fact the global minority - are subject to sub-divisions where quality of digital life is concerned.

Here in the UK we get excited about 512Kb/s broadband services. We positively drool over 1Mbit lines, and 2MBit lines are but a fantasy for most users. Yet looking to other European countries or indeed countries in the Far East such as Japan, it's common to have broadband connections at true LAN speeds - anything from 10-14Mb/s is common.

Whilst on the outset it may seem that we in the UK (with our wonderfully dilapitated century-old telephone and railway infrastructures) are simply missing out on faster access to all that porn, the reality is that the enormous extra speed afforded by modern internet connections opens the door to a whole new lifestyle of digital video streaming on-demand to your home, or being able to truly work from home with no crippling bandwidth issues.

It's clear that the UK, with its ancient copper-based communications network, is lagging behind these other countries which laid down fibre optic connections from the very beginning. And therefore, we have a digital sub-divide where part of the digital world is more developed and can provide much higher quality of service than other parts.

Enter UKOnline with their announcement of a staggering 8Mb/s broadband package. The price is very expensive (ukp40/month) when compared to foreign offerings, but that's because UKOnline have had to foot part of the bill for persuading BT to be more lenient with what companies can do with their exchanges.

Currently this service is strictly limited to metropolitan areas, large cities such as Birmingham, London, Liverpool and Manchester. And even then it's only available to residents living within a paltry 2km of the high-speed-enabled exchange.

"UK Online is looking at the possibility of bundling services such as cheap net telephone calls, video-on-demand and TV by 2005 if the service proves popular", reports BBC News Online.

So once again the UK experiences split in the digital world. The rich and the lucky who live near enough to the centres of big British cities can experience the same sort of digital quality of life as the Japanese, Koreans, and French. Meanwhile the rest of the UK is left lagging behind.

Only when the price of 'high'-speed internet access falls to a reasonable level (this coming from a country where the cheapest broadband is still kept above ukp15 because otherwise it would 'make dialup commerically unviable'?!) and is available as widely as standard 0.5Mbit broadband, will the whole of the UK move into the upper class of the digital society. Until then, we must consider ourselves digitally poor on the world stage.

Tuesday, November 23, 2004

Draw Functions in Open Office Word Processor

I was recently faced with the task of writing a report for a programming assignment and it had to be in a particular type (for example with .pdf, .srx extensions) and none of the file extension required were supported by Microsoft Office Word Processing that I use pretty well. The report was the documentation of a program written in Java and should include diagrams such as flow-charts, which are made of several different shaped objects linked by arrows and each shape usually correspond to a specific type of operation performed by the program. For example a diamond (decision box) usually expresses a condition and an ellipse the start or the end of the program etc...

Because Open Office can save file with the .srx extension as well as offering a fairly useful graphical user interface, I thought it will be a good idea to use it. Well I was wrong and that choice cost me marks because despite all my skills in the use of other word processors (Microsoft Word for example), what was supposed to be a simple and very quick task turned to be a big challenge and I didn’t manage to finish my report in the time scale that I set thinking it was safe and more than enough before the deadline.

The task I wanted to perform and which caused the problem sounds easy and involves making use of the drawing tools to draw the diagrams, something I’ve done numerous times in other packages. Under pressure it took me ages to find out how to get the draw functions toolbar, which is not accessible from any main menu option. After navigating throughout the package, I found that it was accessible from a very tiny button on the side of the editor, with a caption that does not suggest at all a drawing tool. As if it wasn’t enough, there was another gymnastic exercise to make in order to use the mini toolbar and it was after pressing the button many times that I realized that it had to be hold down and the cursor drag across the bar in order to select an object. To add insults to injury only ellipse and rectangle amongst all the objects offered could have been useful and therefore no way to draw a complete flow-chart that uses conventional shapes to represent the decision box, the input and output box, a major process box, etc…

So if after loosing all that time and even with my background and resilience still couldn’t make a good use of the draw functions in the Open word processor, I wonder what will feel somebody who is just beginning to use such packages? I am also concerned with the lack of consistencies in some features with other software packages that perform similar tasks and are already widely used.

Monday, November 22, 2004

Digital (IT) Divide

Digital Divide:

The development in the world is a multiple speed process. Whether it is economical, political, technological, socio-cultural or even religious, development has never had a uniform pattern of growth across the surface of the earth. Individuals, communities or countries axe their development around personal circumstances (beliefs, financial situations, technological capabilities, geographic position, etc…) and because those circumstances are not the same for all categories, appears a distance between those who can really take advantage of some given area of development or modernisation whatever you want to call it and others who for numerous reasons cannot enjoy such “privileges” if they can be called so. In the world of technology and Digital technology in particular, Digital Divide is the name given to that phenomenon and as explained on the ‘Digital Divide Network’ web site ( ) is used to refer talking mainly about the use of information technology to the gap that exist between those who can effectively use new information and communication tools, such as the internet for example and those who cannot.

Talking about the internet if we just consider that example, some interesting facts taken from the site show that:

  • Only 6% (429 million people) of the world’s entire population are online
  • Amongst those online a breaking down of the figure shows that a vast majority of them live in so called “developed countries” or “rich countries” (north America, western Europe, north Asia, Oceania) with nearly half of them (41%) just in the United States & Canada

The facts also tell us that even in those developed countries the gap is still very wide between those labelled ‘highly developed’ and others and in a given country between those with good or big incomes and the rest.

Considering all the figures, we can safely draw the conclusion that people or communities or countries that make the most of the internet are those who created it at the first place and also have the means to develop such technologies.
We can extend our judgement on all the other sectors of technology and deduce that in the world, a very tiny minority of the world population really benefits from digital technology and most users from that minority reside in the so called “develop countries”.

Everyday we hear talks about sharing the wealth across the world but nothing seems to ever happen and even worse, a report of the UNDP (United Nations Development Programme) from 1999 shows that the aid for development was about 29 billions dollars and beneficiary countries returned to those development countries the same year 120 billions dollars, no wonder why those countries are lacking behind because not finally really able to finance and sustain a consistent politic of development. This prompts a question as to know who is helping who? And the following one: with such attitude will we ever witness a world with any sort of decent representation from all parts in the use of digital or any form of new technologies altogether?

The Digital Divide

Mobile phones, the internet, email and wireless networking you either have it or you don't... the digital divide! Thinking back now probably 1997 the internet was something available in school's and libraries and the odd student had it at home and mobile phones were even more scarce among fifteen year old highschool students. Eight years on and I find myself completely dependent on my mobile phone and the internet for communication and information. Without text messages, e-mail and msn I find myself feeling naked and out of the loop after a weekend and thats with my mobile phone that I couldn't imagine being without. Then I go to my mums and she doesnt own a mobile phone and cannot use the computer let alone the Internet.

When I talk to her about the fact the she is missing out she looks at me blankly. After talking to her about it further and trying to talk her round, I realised the reason she didn't understand. The reason is she doesn't know what she is missing as i do because i have built up a dependancy on these electronic devices like an addiction. She doesn't feel out of the loop due to her never being in it.

Therefore I came to the conclusion is there a digital divide or do us that are in the digital era that create a digital divide in our own heads. The digital club. I know feel I should look into this further...

Monday, November 15, 2004

Gearboxes for manual vehicles

Automobiles play a very important part in our life, such a very important role that it is quite impossible to imagine our lives nowadays without them. Like any man made product, the automobile is developed around several issues amongst which the ‘Health and Safety’. In fact all the parts of an automobile are or should be constructed in such a way that they reduced the risk of damage on users’ health in case of an accident or any other incident or even the risk of accidents altogether.

The way the vehicles are used is left to users but some guidelines can be applied in their construction in order to reduce the possibility of erroneous use and avoid some mistakes that could damage the car and possibly its user and also damage others and the environment (the use of airbags, seat belts, etc…).

The “gearbox” is a very important part in the working of vehicle and can play a vital role in the safety. How many times did we see people inadvertently reversing into other people’s vehicles thinking they were in first gear and wanting to move forward? Or a gearbox being damage or completely broken down and therefore the vehicle not been able to be driven because a user entered the wrong gear (for example from 1st to 4th gear).

Constructors recognised that these where real issues and modified their design to add some constraints that will force the user to go through specific processes in order to ensure that the action to be taken is safe. Examples can be taken from Audi cars, where like in must cars to enter the reverse gear the vehicle must be stopped before the operation can be carried through, but unlikely many cars when entering the reverse gear you must first press the gear stick down before following into the appropriate location (this makes that you will be fully aware of the action being taken at the time and it is intended); and when the car is going forward and you are still on 1st gear for example, the engine will not let you entered the 2nd gear when the vehicle is not ready i.e. when the correct speed is reached by the engine. This has been made utterly seamless and jolt free in the Audi TT.

Having owned an Audi 90 myself, I can tell that lots of “accidents” could be definitely avoided if all gearbox constructors lift their standard to the Audis and other well known brands that implement the guidelines above mentioned. Or maybe the ‘Automatic gearbox’ is the best way forward towards fewer accidents caused by an erroneous use of gearboxes.

The wireless mouse

Can anyone tell me the point! Im used to using my laptop touch pad which is annoying enough so sometimes I get fed up and plug in the mouse when i recently went to a friends i used a wireless mouse and found it such a hinderance to use! It cuts out constanly it the laser is slightly off of the desk, it doesnt move as easily it jams trying to actually get the curser over the icon was just stupid! So i thought well maybe i can try using it on this table about 30 cm from the computer and nope it didnt work! So it even has to sit in the same position as a normal mouse! In the end i just had to say what is the need for this mouse! & my friend repiled i broke the mouse socket on the pc so i cant plug in a mouse! Which was a valid reason but apart from that i really can not see the point in the wireless mouse.

Thursday, November 11, 2004

Firefox UI

In the news recently has been coverage of the release of version 1.0 of the Mozilla Firefox browser. This free, open source browser has been in development since early this year and is set to rival Microsoft's dominant Intenet Explorer browser.

But why is Firefox likely to become so popular, especially when the vast majority of Windows users aren't even aware of the existence of browsers other than IE? To them, the 'little blue e is the internet' and it came with their computer so why should they consider changing it? - "If it ain't broke, don't fix it".

Well the truth is, IE is very much broke and certainly needs fixing. USA today says "Beware of spyware. If you can, use the Firefox browser.” But in the absence of Microsoft producing any further development to IE since they laid claim to winning the browser wars, spyware and trojans are rife amongst Windows users.

Firefox not only combats these threats (simply by not being brain-dead by design, on the whole) but it enhances the user experience immensely. Some of the most obvious UI enhancements are the tabbed browsing and the built-in search.

Tabbed browsing descibes how a user can open multiple web pages inside one Firefox browser window. On windowing systems such as MS Windows or KDE each and every on-screen window needs an icon on the taskbar to allow the user to access it. Thus with 10 or 20 web pages open in Internet Explorer, each open window takes up valuable taskbar space and quite usually the whole idea becomes cumbersome and unusable as all you can see of each taskbar icon is the IE logo and '...' to indicate that the all-important website title doesn't fit into the icon - thus making it much harder to find any given web page from the stack.

With tabbed browsing you can keep your taskbar relatively clear as the main Firefox window contains tabs which pull a given website to the front of the stack inside the window.

Another seemingly very trivial feature of Firefox is the built-in search. In the URL bar, instead of typing a proper URL the user can enter a search keyword or string of keywords. Firefox recognises this and passes the search to Google, which returns the first site matching the keywords. Thus to get to a known website such as you can enter simply 'skype' and the browser will take you to the correct site (not always guaranteed though, as it depends on where Google ranks the site you're aiming for in its search results).

To find 'school of computer science, birmingham' that's all you need to enter into Firefox's URL bar. This is superior to the IE way of searching which uses Microsoft's own inferior MSN search engine to generate some useful and some not-so-useful results.

But this feature in IE can lead to mis-typed URLs such as being redirected to the MSN search page. So instead of pressing the left arrow key a few times to correct your typo you now have a huge MSN search URL to edit - or you can search the page trying to find out if they managed to find your desired site. Firefox gets around this problem by recognising the difference between a URL and a search term, and returning a simple 'page not found' error if your typo doesn't redirect you to a porn site.

Monday, November 08, 2004

Cash Registers

On friday as I was queuing to purchase a sandwich from the new 'GO' cafe in the biosciences undercroft I realised how poorly designed it was. The cash register is in the furthest point of the small area and after you have paid you then have to wrestle your way back through the queue to get out. Surely the optimal position for the cash register of such as small shop would be by the door to prevent this fom happening!! The other thing is out of sheer habit the last thing I usually do after paying is to pick up sugar for my coffe only to find that sugar was at the other end of the queue. Sugar should always be by the till because it is everywhere else and people are dont want to have to hunt for sugar after they have already purchased their coffee. People don't like change they find it unsettling some things just arent supposed to change as some methods are already tried and tested and are already the most effficient like having sugar next to the cash register.

Sunday, November 07, 2004


How often do we find ourselves in buses, trains, airplanes, tubes, theatres and other public places near somebody using an appliance that produces sound (walkman, portable DVD player, laptop, etc…), and how annoying it is to be forced to listen to what that person is listening, which in many cases is a shocker for your system? The answer is very often and even though such people are using earphones we can still listen clearly and loudly to what they are listening. This suggests that the earphones in those instances do not play fully their role, which is not only to enable to listen to the sound produce but also to confine it in the location where the earphones are attached doesn’t matter what the level of the volume is.

At to what shall be done, some might argue that it is up to users to be sensible and use their appliance in a responsible way but should we rely too much on and trust people’s good will, specially in societies where people are loosing every day a little bit more of what is called in French “Savoir-Vivre”, relating to the way people live together in the best possible way. Yes! What good behaviour(s) can we expect from people who cannot even do something as simple yet very important and significant as giving sits to elderly, or pregnant women, or disables, or in general to people that are ‘more needy’ in public transport or any public place? The conclusion is no; in such issues we should not put our faith in people who do not know how to recognise other people’s need and right because of their selfishness. Therefore it is let to manufacturers to make sure their product(s) is/are not source of discord in societies.

There are many manufacturers out there who by lack of good expertise (requirement definition, design, implementation), or good quality raw material, or just hunger for the profit produce goods that do not meet the criteria for a good earpiece. Such earphone although cheep for most of them produce a very poor quality of sound, their life expectancy is very short and they operate as is they were normal speakers intended for a large audience hence the public disturbance.

Since I use earphone, I have to recognise that most earphones from the ‘AIWA’ amongst the popular Brands are the ones that I came across and which truly gave entire satisfaction. Although SONY, PHILIP, and other famous brands can be very good, they sometimes fail to lift up to their standards with some of their products.

However we praise and encourage all those companies that work very hard to come up with goods that are intended to make our life easier and taste a bit better. What would we have done without them?

Friday, November 05, 2004

The mybham web portal

The university have increased the services they provided over the internet. Although resources previously were linked through their website the my bham portal aims to bring all resources together under a passworded area which can ‘make your own’. Although I am set in my old ways of going to the library website for the catalogue it is much more useful to have the catalogue as a tab within the mybham area and also a link to the university email account without having to navigate to different sites.

A new feature is the ‘groups’ area. This enables you to set up a group which has it own homepage and message boards etc. For example I am the group leader for the womens football group and we are currently helping to test the groups area. There are two things which have particularly aggravated me about the groups. Firstly is that about 1 in 3 times that I try to enter the groups section it logs me out of the mybham portal. It can definitely be said that the portal is suffering from teething problems. secondly as a user of yahoo groups I have become accustomed to having a direct link to the group that I belong to once having logged in whereas with the mybham site I have to go through about three different links every time to reach the womens football group.

The mybham portal is generally a good idea but could do with some tweaking to become more user friendly.

Thursday, November 04, 2004

emergency exits

  I was in a lecture today and looking around me, I saw an awful lot of students slowly making their way towards the exit. Now, assume for a moment that the building were on fire, or that there were some similar catastrophe, and the room had to be evacuated quickly. There would in all likelihood be a stampede, or at least a rush. That many people simply could not fit through the main entrance as quickly as necessary. Now the emergency doors are strategically placed near the front, where most students would quite likely head. Not only that, but assume that someone was crushed against the emergency door itself: The door not only opens outwards, but simply crashing into the door will push the bar in, opening the door. This is quite a well thought out system. People can't get crushed, and it's more likely that everyone will get out safely. I'll feel safer when I'm next in a burning building...

Wednesday, November 03, 2004

photo booth

  I was in the Birmingham University Guild of Students (BUGS) today and, remembering that I needed to renew my passport, decided to pay a visit to the photo booth for some photos. I sat down, and a loud voice declared to the whole corridoor that I could now select the language I prefered. Feeling a little unhappy at the privacy of the curtain being so starkly contrasted by the boisterous american voice declaring my presence to random passers by, I decided to select French as my language of choice, as I am bilingual, and less people walking by are likely to understand French than English. I felt uneasy at this point, and wanting to get the experience over with as soon as possible, I didn't think carefully enough at the selection screen. Wanting to bypass the option to have wonderful borders on my photos, I pressed a plain photo. Three photos were taken, and I chose my favourite. It didn't give me any kind of preview of what the print would look like; it simply told me to wait outside, which I did. The result was one large photo of me. Knowing all too well that this was not what was required for a passport renewal, I not only had to pay another £3, but had to go through the whole experience again, this time spending more time ignoring the horrible voice whist looking for the correct option. I admit that this was quite largely user fault, although what caused my lack of attention to the instructions is quite apparent. My question is why oh why was there no preview of what it was about to print? It would not have cost them anything to bring a sample up on the screen, or even to make the whole selection process come after the photos have been taken so that you can see more tagibly what will come out. And where an earth was the mute button?

wireless input devices

  Right now, I'm using a wireless keyboard and mouse. Now, I have a small desk, and there's barely enough room for my CRT monitor (unsurprisingly) and speakers, never mind the keyboard and mouse! The monitor is actually rotated, and the keyboard and mouse are to the left of it, instead of directly in front. This means that I don't adopt the best of postures when working at my computer. However, since the keyboard is wireless, I can easily bring it down on to my lap, turn my chair to face the screen, and touchtype happily away on the wonderful Dvorak keyboard layout, just as I am right now. This would not be possible with a wired keyboard, or at least it would be very difficult. Also, when I need to do work with real paper and pen on my desk (*GASP* It happens! It's rare, but it happens!), I can just move the keyboard and mouse on to the bed behind me and get on with my work. I don't have to worry about unplugging or how far wires will reach. In fact, if I need to type something in, I can swivel round and type it on my bed, and it'll come up beautifully on the screen. It's so natural that I very rarely think about the fact that there are no wires any more. Well done to whoever came up with the idea. However, I am a little worried about the security issue, since everything I'm typing is essencially being broadcast quite a number of metres. Encryption would be nice, but would add quite significantly to the price, I'm sure. Let's see - 256-bit AES/Rijndael-encrypted keyboard scancodes would be nice! Hehe.

alarm clocks

  Life isn't too difficult for the average alarm clock. Their job description is pretty simple - make a loud noise when you asked them to. You would have thought that, given that telling them when to make that noise is rather important, there would be an easy way to do it, but no. My alarm clock requires you to hold down a button for two seconds, and press the "hour" and "minute" buttons to cycle forward around the clock. If you overshoot by one minute, you have to press the minute button 59 times to get to the desired time, or hold down the button and wait for the minutes to slowly cycle on their own. Most of the time it's actually quicker to jab wildly and repeatedly at the button. Why is there no way of cycling backwards? A "backwards" modifier button would have been acceptable, although not the best option. Also, if you think too long about the time you want to set it to, it leaves the alarm set mode, meaning you have to hold the button down for another two seconds. Minor annoyance, but an annoyance, and an avoidable one at that.

  Having said all of this, I have seen some nice designs - rotating knobs instead of buttons to set the time gets a thumbs up from me. You have control over both the direction and the speed of advance (or retreat, if such a word can be used for time). I quite like the clocks where you hold down the "set" button to set the alarm, as well. There is no waiting around, and you can't accidentally leave it on the alarm set mode, because once you remove your finger, it goes back to the current time display.

  There are some nice clocks out there. I don't think mine is one of them. Having said that, it doubles as a radio, and a pretty nice one at that, and it's nice and loud, so I think I'll let it off.

adjustable bridges

  Why don't acoustic guitars have adjustable bridges? All 'leccies have 'em. Look at any electric guitar and you'll see it has a bar to hold the strings away from the body where they are attached at the non-tuning end. It has adjustable height, and the length of each string is adjustable at this bridge. On acoustics, you have to use bits of folded paper to get your strings heigher off the neck, and cut groves into the bridge to lower them. Even worse, there is absolutely no way to shorten or lengther strings, which means that your strings may be out of tune higher up the neck. How silly.

focus theft

  Internet Explorer is the most annoying program. I use Firefox now, but every time I start IE on someone else's comuter, I start typing in the URL, and it steals the focus away to some text box. This happens especially when Google is the home page. You get to the end of the address, press enter, and end up with search results far half of a URL. It's so frustrating!

  In fact, It's not just IE that does it; it's a general Windows thing. As I was writing this just now, Skype popped up with a message from Mark (wishing me goodnight after a conversation about blogging, resulting in the clothes peg post). It stole the focus away from Firefox and I had typed a couple of words in the Skype message box before I could stop myself. Gah!

Clothes pegs

One of modern man's greatest achievements to date has to be the humble clothes peg.

The design is incredibly simple and the item is very cheap to manufacture - just two pieces of wood or moulded plastic held together with a metal spring. To operate the peg, simply squeeze the top parts together and the bottom part pivots and opens.

The plastic/wood parts of the peg are the most ingenious parts - each part is covered with notches which serve to grip the clothes tightly onto the clothes line. There are also one or two holes in the peg which clamp onto the line. Pegs with two holes usually have different sized holes to allow for lines of different thicknesses.

The spring has been designed such that it's simple and effective; just a length of metal wire wrapped around the bottom part of the peg just below the pivot which closes the peg when relaxed. It's also strong enough to hold most clothing onto the line without it falling off and blowing away in the wind.

All in all an ingenious design.

Nice rice

One of my housemates has a rice cooker he brought over from Sri Lanka (he's a bit of a rice fan). The design is relatively simple - a metal bowl stood on top of an electric conductive heating element.

However the bowl sits on top of a weakly-sprung platform which raises it above the level of the heating element. When the bowl is empty the spring can push it upwards. Once the bowl is full of water the spring can't hold it up any more so it makes contact with the element and a switch inside the heater is tripped.

This simple mechanism prevents the heater from switching on whilst the bowl is empty, which would most likely damage the heater. As soon as sufficient water is put into the bowl to remove this danger, the heater's simple sprung switch trips allowing the water to be heated.

Brilliant! (And tasty).

Tuesday, November 02, 2004

The File Transfer in Skype

The File Transfer in Skype:

The new Internet Telephony system ‘Skype’ is a truly amazing peace of work that arrives at a moment that the principle of voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) started about 10 years ago and foreseen by many experts at the time as the ‘next big thing’ but for some obscure reasons never really took off and was starting to fade away.

The application arrives as a fabulous gift from God to relieve those people who like me were spending far too much on the telephone. In case you haven’t understood, yes it is free and you can contact any Skype user anytime in the day for as long as you wish and in perfect quietude of mind because the communication is encrypted, the object of your discussion cannot be intercepted by a third party. In addition, you can host a conference call, send instant messages, transfer files, etc… and all you need is a microphone and/or a headset.

The technology despite its very young age is spreading as wild mushrooms i.e. very quickly. More than 700 thousands people across the world sign on every second and about 950 thousands in average are online every second (982,214 users online at 19:47 on the 2nd of November 2004). There is unfortunately a slight downside in the system as far as I am concerned and it is the speed of the file transmission. In fact it takes sometimes about 5 minutes to send a very small size file (200 kb). However it has to be stressed that the transfer doesn’t affect the quality of the sound. Also it will be a very accomplish product when users will be able to see each other during the communication via web cams for example but first of all we believe that the already existing system although brilliant can be improved, talking about the file transfer feature which also lacks of clarity in the use of buttons during the process.

Labels on buttons

Skype, from is a fantastic piece of technology. Free peer-to-peer internet telephony with high call completion and excellent audio quality. The application also features instant messaging and file transfer capabilities.

When transferring a file across Skype from one client to another, a pane is displayed on the screen to tell the user what is happening. The user accepts or denies the incoming file, and selects a point to save the file to if desired.

Once the file has finished transferring two buttons appear at the bottom of the pane - one labelled 'Open' and the other labelled 'Close'.

Any guesses as to what these buttons do?

It turns out that the 'Open' button does the equivalent of double-clicking the file to display it on screen or load it into an editor etc. By that reasoning, 'Close' should surely close the file?

No, instead the 'Close' button closes the file transfer window.

A simple example but one that needs to be made - careful labelling of buttons is of paramount importance. It would cost nothing to rename the buttons as 'Open File' and 'Close Window'.

Then again, why is a button for 'Close window' needed at all when the window has a perfectly good close icon in the window furniture?

Monday, November 01, 2004

Usable menus

In most GUIs I've seen menus are not persistent, although in some X-based GUIs such as KDE they can be made to stay on screen once clicked on by selecting a reserved menu option for this task which converts the menu into a fully-flegded window.

This really irritates me sometimes when I want to perform repeated tasks from a menu, such as loading several programs at once or deleting several bookmarks from a list.

Under these GUIs I have to keep re-opening the menu and navigating to the required submenu as every time I perform an action by clicking on it, the menu closes. What a waste of time! It's certainly not an efficient, usable method of working.

Time for another RISC OS reference. RISC OS makes use of a three-button mouse in the GUI. Clicking on a menu item with the left button closes the menu, the same way as in Windows or MacOS etc. But should you want the menu to remain open between operations, in order to tick several options or load several programs, then simply click on the options with the right mouse button.

So long as you click on a menu item with the right mouse button rather than the left, the menu will remain open ready and waiting for you to do the next operation.

Now that's usable!

Ball Breaker

Ball Breaker!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

There is no such mean of transport as bicycles, they are widely used and for different reasons. Some people use them as a way to improve their fitness or simply to enjoy a ride, and other because it is the quickest yet affordable way to get to their destinations (students for example)… with such a wide range of users, there is what we consider as a flaw in the design of bicycles or at the least in its gender specification. There are so called “men” and “women” bicycles, the only difference between them being the ‘crossing bar’ characteristic of “men” bicycles that is lowered on “women” bicycles because of the dressing code (dresses, skirts, etc…), making it difficult for women to remain cover while riding. However the designers seem to have ignored that men had more to loose because of that bar than women. In fact since its invention, we have certainly had millions of men who had their “family jewelleries” i.e. testicles hurt by that part of the bicycle and in some instances they even lost their manhood hence the nickname ‘Ball Breaker’ from the French ‘Casse-Couilles’. While riding if a man breaks suddenly, or fall into a hole, or drive through an obstacle or make any reckless move on the bicycle, which happen very often he lands almost certainly on the bar with his balls first and this is very painful and in life in general there are very few physical pains that are stronger (take my word for it).

Since most women nowadays preferred wearing trousers especially amongst the bicycle users, that argument therefore appears less justifiable and men are still hurting and breaking their ball. To add insult to injury the sits are very small, and very hard and uncomfortable, making it mpossible to remain sited for a consirable amount of time while riding...

It is time to rethink the bicycle's design so that men are able to really enjoy riding and take full advantage of all the benefits offer by the bicycle. Shall we scrap the bar completely? and what can we do about the seats so that people who don't have enough meat on their ass feel comfortable on them?

Call Security!

On University campus there is a staffed security centre which can be reached in an emergency 24 hours a day by dialling 4444 from any campus phone extension.

In the University-owned halls the phone and internet network is supported by a helpdesk which can be reached by dialling 4444 from any hall phone extension.

Now why didn't anyone stop to think when assigning these numbers? The last thing a confused fresher needs when trying to contact the helpdesk from campus is to have to stop to think about whether it's the helpdesk or the emergency security centre they're calling, particularly when both networks are University-related.

To make things even more confusing for those poor freshers, the phone number for security as dialled in halls (which routes to the same seurity centre no less) is 3333! Why oh why didn't the network engineers standardise 4444 as the security access number across campus and accommodation?

The Societies Locker Room

  The Birmingham University Guild of Students (BUGS) has a societies locker room. BUECU, one of the christian societies at the uni, has a cupboard in that room. I know this because I help carry equipment to and from the room every Thursday evening. The problem with this is that, in order to get to the locker room, I must go through a door that is clearly labeled "Female Toilets". The locker room is on your left as you enter through this door. The girls' loos are straight on, through a second door. Both the society locker room and the actual door to the girls' loos are clearly signed themselves. Why oh why did the first door not say "...and society locker room"? The number of strange looks and confused girls I've seen when walking in and out of that locker room carrying equipment is quite astounding!

The Common British Power Socket

  Everyone uses them, but few people think about them. The wonderful old british power socket is actually rather well designed. The french have several variations on the theme of their socket - some without earth, some with - freaky! They're all compatible, mind, but still a little bizarre. The british plug and socket has been a standard for quite some time. There's only one type. You don't have to think about whether or not to get a plug with an earth.

  Take a look at a british power plug. Do you notice how the earth pin (the top one) is slightly longer than the others? Why do you think this is? Find a long, pointy insulator probe and a power socket. Make sure the latter is switched off (a feature that is not all that common in other countries, by the way), and insert the probe into the live or neutral sockets. Do you notice anything? There is a pice of plastic blocking the entrance. Now, insert your probe into the earth socket. The blocking plastic should lift from the earth and neutral sockets. It is only possible for electricity to enter a british appliance once the earth has already been connected. How cool is that!