May 25, 2005

The $100 Laptop

Just read about Nicholas "Being Digital" Negroponte's project to put a $100 Linux laptop into every third-world child's grubby hands:

There's some incredible insights into the economics involved:

About half the price of a current laptop computer is accounted for by marketing, sales, distribution channels, and profit, so removing those aspects will provide big cost savings, Negroponte says.


"The rest of the cost is there to support an absolutely obese, overweight, and unreliable operating system. If you get rid of that and start with a thin, tiny operating system you can do an awful lot," Negroponte says.

He ain't referring to Tiger, is he?

This is a fantastic example of the "Base of the Pyramid" concept--that by enriching the lives of people who live on the low end of the economic scale, like people living in shanty towns (or inner-city ghettos?) you create the ability for those folks to purchase upmarket goods, which for them would be the cheap crap at the dollar store or WalMart. I'm sure some MBA in Bentonville is salivating over the thought of getting a few more billion people into every SuperStore.

Still though, even the project's home page doesn't cover one big drawback: People who live in slums don't always value education over other things. What's to stop someone (like the kid's parents) from selling the Ministry of Education-provided laptop for food--or drugs? (And in the shantytowns, "drugs" could more likely be meds to keep someone from dying of disease rather than stuff to get high).

A lot of kids I knew growing up didn't think of education as their ticket out of the 'hood. It sucked--there were lots of kids who were really smart and could've been "contributors to society" if they focused on getting up and out instead of better ways to rip people off or sell drugs.

And $100 is a lot of money at the base of the pyramid. If it's equivalent to a couple months' wages, it might be pretty tempting for someone to sell Junior's laptop. But maybe if they get wired up, they can sell it on eBay...

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A/B Testing = OFAT?

Just received a job req asking for someone who knows A/B Testing. I guess as a methodology guy, I should've covered this in the Usability Methods Toolbox, but I had never thought of it as a usability technique.

Back when I was a hard-core Industrial Engineer, trying to improve the quality of copper plating on printed circuit boards (and ruining several good pairs of pants in the plating room from all those evil chemicals), we used all sorts of Design of Experiments (DoE) techniques like this. We did a lot of Deming/Juran/Ishikawa/Taguchi techniques--I would carry the "Memory Jogger" around in my back pocket sometimes (shirt pocket was occupied by the pocket protector).

But no one I've talked to in a long time has mentioned using such techniques for Website analysis.

Why not?

That was one of my premises for my Masters Project: that usability evaluation methods originated, and should still leverage, the testing methodologies of other fields. It seems that the "usability profession" has turned inward too much--I don't know if it's elitism or "Not Invented Here" syndrome or what.

Maybe it's the same issue that was discussed at BayCHI recently--all these diverse groups of professionals laying claim to the UX mantle: UPA, CHI, STC, ASTC, IA, etc.

So that'll be one of the to-do's for whenever I get around to refreshing the Toolbox: adding more methodologies from other fields and discussing their relevance to usability evaluation.

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May 24, 2005

Observations on the Star Wars Trilogy

So I've been catching up on the original trilogy in preparation for a long wait in line to see Episode III. I'm sure these observations have been written about for a long time now, probably even in someone's masters' thesis, but they just struck me when viewing the movies for the first time since the 1990's re-release:

  • (Star Wars) Those Imperials sure do have that Nazi look, down to the stiff demeanor and Bundeswehr-green/gray uniforms. While the Rebels have the jovial, collegial manner of RAF flyboys fighting for Queen and Liberty during WWII.
  • (Return) The Ewoks are even more annoying than when I first saw this movie. Ugh. Is hunting season here yet?
  • (All) Carrie Fisher got sexier with each new movie--did Lucas figure that his target audience would be reaching puberty in time to see Princess Leia half-naked in a harem costume? Judging from the fangirl posts re. tall, brooding, can't-take-him-home-to-momma hair day Hayden Christensen on the Web, I think Lucas targeted Episodes I-III at the Hillary Duff/Mary Kate & Ashley set.
  • (Return) Luke just does the Jedi blocking-the-laser-blasts thing just a few times over the course of the original trilogy. Now is that because Lucas just didn't have the special efx technology to do that kind of shot back then or because Luke isn't as good a Jedi as Liam Neeson? I'm sure someone in a liberal college class somewhere takes this question seriously and wrote a paper on the subject.
  • (Star Wars) Interface design has come a long way. Will we look back on today's sci-fi (like the direct manipulation interface Tom Cruise "directs", in the orchestral sense, in Minority Report) with the same humorous nostalgia as we do the sketchy raster animations in Star Wars?
  • (Return) At least we know now why Luke is so height-challenged in relation to his dad--he takes after his mom there. Or maybe goin' over to the Dark Side includes platform shoes? Damn, gotta get me some of those...
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May 17, 2005

Lame, this Star Wars Tie-In Is!!!

I've already reached my saturation point with all the Star Wars-esque marketing materials from IT vendors. Ok, I know we geeks are the target demographic for the movie, but enough already! Case in point, this email from the Eclipse World conference:

Dear Padawan, Incomplete your training is!

Take the next step to becoming an Eclipse Master at EclipseWorld with more than 50 classes and tutorials that can help you slash your light saber through the open-source platform's most advanced capabilities.

Or, if you are an Eclipse youngling, EclipseWorld can begin your training on these key tools and technology. The event takes place August 29-31 in a galaxy far, far away, in an ancient land called New York City. (Feel free to fly into Mos Eisley, Anchorhead, or JFK, whichever is most convenient for your X-wing fighter.)

At EclipseWorld, a master you will become!

Use the Force to command the special eXtreme Early Bird rate of $775 for the full conference, a savings of more than $400. Even Jabba the Hutt wouldn't say no to a bargain like that!


May Eclipse be with you.

Ugh. And then McAfee invites me to a free screening of the actual movie, in exchange for sitting through a couple of hours of marketing hype (at least they provide lunch). But there are no sessions in Silicon Valley--the closest is Long Beach. Were they afraid they'd get 1000s of people if they hosted a screening here? Probably.

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May 16, 2005

40 is the new 30

Remember the hit show "thirtysomething"? How it was kind of pretentious, not bothering to capitalize the first letter, kind of an e.e. cummings thumb of the nose at the world? Even the spelling of the show's name fit the demographic--the wine-collecting, beemer-driving sneering yuppie. I can be so sarcastic, of course, because I was too young (and poor) to join that sector of the economy (no matter how hard I tried).

Nowadays, of course, all those 30-somethings are 40-somethings (but they're still "desparate housewives"). I guess the new hipness of 40-year olds (like the hero of the Fire Ice book I just finished) is good news for me, as most of my high school friends (and ex-girlfriends--yikes!) are now in their 40s. My best friend's ex-wife is a grandma now. Is life just zooming by or what?

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May 13, 2005

STC Seattle Conference Thoughts, Part 2

NetHelp2 graphic by Heather Winkle

One thing that was kind of disturbing, although it didn't really hit me until later, was ComponentOne's use of "NetHelp" to describe their Web-based online help functionality in the new Doc2Help:

Doc2Help banner

I talked to the vendor rep at the conference expo, and he said I was the first person to ask about it. I guess I'm the only person who remembers the original NetHelp, or cares about it. It was my baby after all.

I'm pretty sure we did a trademark search when we started using the "NetHelp moniker though. Back then, most Netscape products were coming out as "Live", but somehow "LiveHelp" didn't really sound right to us. Can you imagine JavaScript being known as "LiveScript"? Almost happened, ya know.

"NetHelp" leveraged the Netscape brand, which was smokin' hot at the time (1997). I guess we didn't bother trademarking it, and even if we did, would AOL care nowadays? Probably not.

But now that I'm back in the Tech Pubs industry, it's a bit sad to see the name being used by someone else for essentially the same thing. It's one thing to see your company domain get snapped up by a link chaser (to wit: It's another to see the name get usurped.

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May 12, 2005

STC Seattle Conference Thoughts, Part 1

Back in the office after spending the week at the Society for Technical Communication (STC) annual conference in sunny (ok, for a couple of, hours) Seattle WA. I'll post some more detailed thoughts later, but here are a few quickies:

  • There's a lot of angst among the tech writer population about tool directions. Should I ditch Framemaker for XML? What do I do now that Robohelp is gone? I guess that's good news for "tools guys" like myself, whose business is answering such questions for our users in the Tech Pubs department. It's also a big opportunity for tool software vendors, if they can capitalize on the current Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt (FUD) running through the community.
  • DITA really dominated the tools-related tracks, with at least five sessions by the IBMers, and even some by other companies (Autodesk with their modified version). Can you spell "momentum"?
  • The tool vendors kept a low-profile. Blast Radius, makers of XMetal, stealthily infiltrated the audiences with people--I took that to mean that they're seriously looking at the Tech Pubs market. Arbortext wasn't around, oddly enough. Even Adobe fielded a booth, and given the recent controversies around their products (including the former MACR/eHelp/Blue Sky), being there was a brave thing (and the right thing) to do.
  • The tech writer community hasn't really changed much since the last time I went to one of these conferences (Toronto 1997?). I don't know what I expected after being away in land and the various states of IA, CS, and UX.
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May 05, 2005

Hillary Swank on Boxing vs. Karate

I wonder if any of the trade rag (think Variety, Hollywood Reporter, E!) hacks asked Ms. Most-Talked-About-Arms-Since-Linda "T2" Hamilton about her thoughts on boxing vs. karate.

Huh, you ask? Have you already forgotten the epic blockbuster that was "The Next Karate Kid"?

Ok, it was pretty forgettable. Didn't even have 30-year old Ralph Macchio hitting on high school girls or anything. The perv!

But Ms. Swank is one of the few actors in Hollywood to have portrayed an "expert" boxer and an "expert" karateka. With the exception of her "Million Dollar" archvillianess, Lucia Rijker, of course. Some producer (Chili Palmer, anyone?) should make her into the "female Rock".

At least Black Belt could've wrangled a cover article on that spin.

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May 04, 2005

Reading List Thus Far

Finished up Fire Ice by Clive Cussler. I'm sure the author had Halle Berry in mind for the lead female character. It ended up being pretty formulaic--it would probably make a decent action movie but was kind of lacking as a book.

That's one thing that separates authors like Tom Clancy and Michael Crichton from the rest of these guys--the Clancys and Crichtons (hey, doesn't that sound like an old West family feud?) can fill up pages with well-researched techno-babble, where the other guys are using old plot hacks and devices.

Or maybe I need to branch out beyond the "C" shelf at the local library?

Just started Neil Gaiman's American Gods. The prison stuff in this one is reminiscent of Out of Sight, which I had finished before Fire Ice. I really liked Gaiman's work in comics--we'll see how well he can do with just words (and via audio book too) and no pictures. So far (just got through tape 1) it's been great. I actually busted out laughing a couple of times; Gaiman is totally inventive with his plot twists.

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May 03, 2005

Four Guys with Machetes. What Do You Do?

So this Malaysian dude gets carjacked by four thugs armed with machetes. These dudes were some tough mo-fos:

But having stripped the car, the thieves became frustrated when they wanted to restart it. They found they again could not bypass the immobiliser, which needs the owner's fingerprint to disarm it.

They stripped Mr Kumaran naked and left him by the side of the road - but not before cutting off the end of his index finger with a machete.

Sheeeit. Now at the risk of doing some Monday-morning quarterbacking, what could you do in such a situation? This sort of scenario planning is good tactical preparation. I covered it somewhat in my Fighting Multiple Attackers and Mind over Matter articles.

Bonus points if you think through the scenario using all levels of the force continuum: unarmed techniques, less-lethal weapons (pepper spray? ASP?), and firearms.

Triple bonus points if you first considered getting into your vehicle, locking the doors, and then running over the bad guys. This malaysian dude had a Mercedes, after all. Aren't they built like tanks? Who needs a 150 grain projectile when you have a 3500 lb one?

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