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Sunday, November 27, 2005

Hurricane Names, Restaurant Critics, and more...
Time is short this week, so here's a few links:
  • Hurricane Keyser Soze: What's in a name? Absolutely brilliant commentary on how the National Weather Service names their hurricanes.
    When Hurricane Isabel came ashore here a few years ago, I openly mocked it, and Isabel dropped a 250-year-old tree on my car. Now, was I aware on some level that the hurricane could do this? Sure I was. But I mocked anyway, and who could blame me? The only Isabel I ever knew was the moody, vaguely goth younger sister of a high school friend. Could she occasionally annoy? Sure. Did she prompt the odd argument? No doubt. Were there times that Isabel was irrational? Of course. But drop a tree on my car? Sorry, no sir.

    We want to fear these storms. We really do. But I'll be damned if I run from Hurricane Florence. I already have had the experience of being in a mandatory evacuation over a Hurricane named Bob. I didn't want to evacuate. I felt like a grade-A pussy running from someone named Bob. I still feel that way.

    So, is it any wonder that thousands of people stayed in harm's way, determined to ride out Katrina? Of course it isn't. ... What we need is a hurricane named, let's say, The Penetrator. You tell me that The Penetrator is coming ashore in 24 hours and I am gone like Keyser Soze. Use the names of famous human predators, like Adolph or Idi Amin or Attilla or Affleck, and people will break out in a mad dash for higher ground.
    Brilliant. [via Ministry of Minor Perfidy]
  • The Secret Life of a Restaurant Critic: The Restaurant Critic for the Boston Globe explains her job in surprisingly interesting detail.
  • Speed Demos Archive: This is why I love the internet. It's just full of people like this who have way too much time on their hands. These guys have compiled a list of their speed runs - attempts to win a game in as short a time as possible. They've got videos of each one. Just in case you wanted to watch someone defeat Metroid in 18 minutes.
That's all for now...
Posted by Mark on November 27, 2005 at 10:27 PM .: Comments (0) | link :.

Sunday, November 20, 2005

Podcast Reviews
As I've hinted at in recent entries, I've been delving a bit into podcasts. For the uninitiated, a "podcast" is just a fancy word for pre-recorded radio shows that you can subsribe to on the internet (people often download podcasts to listen to on their iPod, hence the name - though the term really is a misnomer, as you don't need an iPod to listen to a podcast, and it's not broadcast either).

In any case, my short commute actually doesn't lend itself to listening, so I haven't listened to that many podcasts and all of the ones I've listened to are at least tangentially movie-related. So here are a few short reviews of podcasts that I've listened to (again, mostly movie related):
  • The CHUD Show: A few months ago a friend of mine recommended CHUD's podcast to me. I've always been a fan of the site (which features lots of movie news, etc...), so it was the first podcast I checked out, and I was quite happy with it, though I have to admit, it's got limited appeal. Once you realize that the name of their site (Cinematic Happenings Under Development - CHUD) is partly an homage to a cheesy 80s horror flick (in which CHUD stands for "Cannibalistic Humanoid Underground Dwellers"), you get the idea. I'm a strange guy, so it doesn't bother me much, but the CHUD folks seem to have an affinity for really bad jokes and obscure movies (which most would also consider bad, but people like myself don't mind much). It's not the highest quality audio, and they appear to be released only sporadically (there's only 5 podcasts in 3-4 months), but they are extremely long (1 hour+) and for fans of cheesy horror and obscure actors, it's a real treat. If you hear the plot for the movie Castle Freak (a topic of discussion in one of their shows) and think it sounds like your type of movie, you'll probably love CHUD. I like it, but it's not for everybody...
  • Cinecast: A much more polished and slick podcast, Cinecast is also great and it has a broader appeal as well. This podcast is almost the polar opposite of CHUD. It's orderly, regularly published, and it usually features more mainstream fare. They release two 40 minute podcasts a week, and in each episode, they start with a movie review (each week they review a current release and an older film which is usually part of some genre that they're studying - they're currently watching horror films, much to my pleasure), they talk about comments they've received about previous podcasts, and they give a top 5 list (i.e. top 5 war movies, top 5 actors, etc...). It's quite entertaining, and the high frequency of new episodes helps greatly (much like a high frequency of blogging helps in that realm). Naturally, whether you'll like it or not greatly depends on if you've seen the movies they're talking about, but as podcasts go, this is probably the most professional I've heard yet.
  • Cinemaslave: I really wanted to like this one, but I just can't get into it. Reading through the topics on each podcast got me really excited to listen, but it ended up being quite disappointing. I think the biggest problem here is that it's just one guy talking the entire time (CHUD and Cinecast have at least 2 commentators) and the lack of interplay really takes its toll.
  • Bleatcast: I already wrote about this one, but it's worth mentioning again because Lileks is a fascinating fellow. If you enjoy the Bleat, chances are that you'll also enjoy the bleatcast.
So that's it for now. Do you have any podcasts that you enjoy (or that you think I'd enjoy)? Drop a comment below...
Posted by Mark on November 20, 2005 at 07:01 PM .: Comments (5) | link :.

Sunday, November 13, 2005

iPod Usability
After several weeks of using my new iPod (yes, I'm going to continue rubbing it in for those who don't have one), I've come to realize that there are a few things that are *gasp* not perfect about the iPod. A common theme on this blog has always been the tradeoffs inherent in technological advance: we don't so much solve problems as we trade one set of disadvantages for another, in the hopes that the new set is more favorable than the old.

Don't get me wrong, I love the iPod. It represents a gigantic step forward in my portable media capability, but it's not perfect. It seems that some of the iPod's greatest strengths are also it's greatest weaknesses. Let's look at some considerations:
  • The Click Wheel - Simultaneously the best and worst feature of the iPod. How can this be? Well the good things the click wheel brings to the picture far outweigh the bad. What's so bad about the click wheel? I think the worst thing about it is the lack of precision. The click wheel is very sensitive and it is thus very easy to overshoot your desired selection. If you're sitting still at a desk, this isn't that much of a problem, but if you're exercising or driving, it can be a bit touchy. It's especially tricky with volume, as I sometimes want to increase the volume just a tick, but often overshoot and need to readjust. However, Apple does attempt to mitigate some of that with the "clicks," the little sounds generated as you scroll through your menu options. As I say, the good things about the click wheel far outweigh this issue. More on the good things in a bit.
  • The "clean" design - As Gerry Gaffney observed in a recent article for The Age:
    When products are not differentiated primarily by features and prices are already competitive, factors such as ease-of-use and emotional response can provide a real edge. The Apple iPod is often cited as an example; a little gadget that combines relative ease of use with a strong emotional response. This helps separate the iPod from the swathe of other portable players that are comparable in terms of features and price.
    There are two main pieces to the design of the iPod in my mind, one is the seamless construction and the other is the simplicity of the design. The seamlessness of the device and it's simple white or black monochrome appearance defintely provides the sort of emotional response that Gaffney cites. But it might be even more than that - some people believe that the design is so universally accepted as "Clean" because the materials it uses evoke a subconscious feeling of cleanliness:
    Of course, we were aware of the obvious cues such as minimalist design; the simple, intuitive interface; the neutral white color. But these attributes alone inadequately explain this seemingly universal perception. It had to be referencing a deeper convention in the social consciousness… so, if a designer claimed that he had the answer—we were all ears.

    “So… as I was sitting on the toilet this morning” (this is of course where most good ideas come from), “I noticed the shiny white porcelain of the bathtub and the reflective chrome of the faucet on the wash basin… and then it hit me! Everybody perceives the iPod as ‘clean’ because it references bathroom materials!”
    The author also noticed that seamless design and a lack of moving parts is often used in science-fiction to indicate advanced technology (think "Monolith" from 2001). Obviously, a "Clean" design doesn't necessarily make it better or more usable, but good design often bundles clean with easy-to-use, and in the iPod, the two are inseparable. The click wheel's lack of precision notwithstanding, it's actually quite easy to use for the most common tasks. It's also ambidexterous and easy to use whether you are left or right-handed. Some devices have lots of buttons and controls, which can be useful at times, but the iPod covers the absolutely necessary features extremely well with a minimum of actual physical controls. What's more, this economy of physical buttons does not detract from the usability, it actually increases it because the controls are so simple and intuitive. In the end, it looks great and is easy to use. What more can you ask for?
  • One thing I enjoy about the iPod is using it's shuffle songs feature. Now that I've got most of my library in one device, I enjoy hearing random songs, one after the other. Sometimes it makes for great listening, sometimes appalling, but always interesting. However, there is one feature I'd like to see: if I'm listening to one song, and I want to "break out" of the shuffle (and listen to the next song on that particular album), there's no way to do so short of navigating to that album and then playing the next song manually (at least, I don't know of a way to do so - perhaps there is a not-so-intuitive way to do it, which wouldn't be surprising, as I imagine this is a somewhat obscure request). Perhaps it's just that I like to listen to albums that have tracks that seamlessly run into one another, the prototypical example being Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon - the last 4 songs have a seamless quality that I really like to listen to as a whole, but which can be jarring if I only hear one of them.
  • This usability critique of the iPod makes mention of several of the above points, as well as some other good and bad features of the iPod:
    In Rob Walker’s New York Times Magazine article, "The Guts of a New Machine", Steve Jobs stated. "Most people make the mistake of thinking design is what it looks like,...That’s not what we think design is. It’s not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works."
    He mentions the same lack of precision issue I mentioned above, and also something about the blacklight being difficult to turn on or off (which is something that I imagine is only a probem for the non-color screens).
In many ways, the iPod is very similar to it's competing players. It has comparable features and price, and I'm quite sure that, even though the iPod's usability is excellent, its competitors probably aren't that far off. But there is definitely something more to the iPod and it's design, and it's difficult to place. There seems to be a large contingency of people who are extremely hostile towards the iPod (probably for this very reason), insisting that people who like the iPod are some sort of brainwashed morons who are paying extra only for the privelege of having a player with a piece of fruit engraved on it. Perhaps, but even with the issues I cited above, the iPod has exceeded my expectations rather well.
Posted by Mark on November 13, 2005 at 07:44 PM .: Comments (4) | link :.

Sunday, November 06, 2005

Elevators & Usability
David Foster recently wrote a post about a new elevator system:
One might assume that elevator technology is fairly static, but then one would be wrong. The New York Times (11/2) has an article about significant improvements in elevator control systems. The idea is that you select your floor before you get on the elevator, rather than after, thereby allowing the system to dispatch elevators more intelligently--a 30% reduction in average trip time is claimed. ... All good stuff; shorter waiting times and presumably lower energy consumption as well.
(NYT article is here) Foster has some interesting comments on the management types who want to use this system to avoid being in an elevator with the normal folks, but the story caught my attention from a different angle.

I recently attended the World Usability Day event in Philadelphia, and the keynote speaker (Tom Tullis, of Fidelity Investments) started his presentation with a long anecdote concerning this new elevator technology. It seems that while this technology may have good intentions, it's execution could use a little work.

Elevator KeypadPerhaps it was just the particular implementation at the building he went to, but the system installed there was extremely difficult to use for a first time user. First, the new system wasn't called out very much, so Tullis had actually gotten into one of the elevators and was flummoxed at the lack of buttons inside. Eventually, after riding the elevator up and then back down to the lobby, he noticed a keypad next to the elevator he had gotten into. So he understandably assumed that he should simply enter the desired floor there, figuring that the elevator would then open and take him to that floor. He typed in his destination floor, and was greeted with a scren that had a large "E" on it (there's an image of this on the right, but the presentation has lots of images and more information on the evolution of the Elevator). Obviously an error, right? Well, no. Tullis eventually found a little sign in the lobby that had a 6 page (!) manual explaining how the elevators work, and it turns out that each elevator cab has a letter assigned to it, and when you enter your floor, it assigns you to one of the elevators. So "E" was referring to the "E" cab, not an error. Now armed with the knowledge of how the system works, Tullis was able to make it to his meeting (10 minutes late).

Naturally, I think this is a bit of an extreme case (though there were a few other bad things about his experience that I didn't even mention). The system was brand new and the building hadn't yet converted all of their elevators to the new system, so it seems obvious that the system usability would improve over time. There are several things that could make that experience easier:
  • In the image above, note the total lack of any directions whatsoever. It's especially bad because the placement of the keypad implies that it only applies to the elevator it's next to.
  • Depending on the layout of the elevator area, I think the best way to do this would be to have a choke point with a little podium that has the keypad and a concise list of instructions. This would force the user to see the system before they actually get to the elevators.
  • Once you use the system once and figure out how it works, it's probably much better, especially if all of the claimed efficiencies work out the way they sound.
  • As the NYT article notes, there are some other issues that need to be dealt with. For instance, most groups would naturally like to ride in the same elevator, but this presents a problem to this system, especially when only one person in the group actually uses the system. There's also some frustration with not being able to get on the first available elevator, though that may be mitigated by an elevator ride with less stops. You also can't change your mind once you get in the elevator...
  • It seems to me that this sort of system would be ideally suited to an extremely large skyscraper with a high volume of traffic (like a hotel). Most elevators probably wouldn't need to be converted, which means that most people wouldn't be exposed to this sort of thing until they make it to one of the larger buildings (which also means that the usability for first time users will still be quite important, even though it gets easier to use after your first time).
Posted by Mark on November 06, 2005 at 08:12 PM .: Comments (0) | link :.

Lileks Podcast
Last Friday's Bleat featured James Lileks' first (that I know of) podcast. Since I've now got an iPod, I figured I might as well download it and see what all the fuss is about. It's strange to hear the voice of someone you've previously only read. In this case, Lileks' voice is much deeper than the voice I have in my head when I read his stuff.

It's a short podcast, but the main topic is "a demonstration of the thesis that every era gets the Batman music it deserves." Pretty good, and it's about what you'd expect from Lileks. I only have one minor quibble - how can you talk about Batman music matching the time period and not actually go into detail on Prince's horrific (yet appropriate for the 80s) Batdance? (Prince's role in the 1989 soundtrack is mentioned, but no clips are played.) Oh, and 1 other minor complaint is that the podcast isn't listed in iTunes, so I can't set it to automatically update. Get with the program James! Anyway, this weeks was quite good, and I look forward to future installments...

Speaking of podcasts, does anyone have any recommendations? The only other podcast that I've gotten into is the CHUD Show (which is interesting, but probably only to movie nerds who can appreciate really bad jokes like myself).
Posted by Mark on November 06, 2005 at 07:26 PM .: Comments (2) | link :.

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