Football: The New Kremlinology

Following football these days feels more like Kremlinology — trying to read into the minds of managers, players defecting like scientists and ‘agents’ cutting deals in exotic locales via dead letter boxes. As usual, in such games, information is power, which is why I liked this throwaway line from a Guardian report about this weekend’s Chelsea v Bolton game: Chelsea needed a win to realistically stay in the title race and hoped for rivals Manchester United to be held to a draw at Everton. Things looked good with Chelsea in the lead at one point and Everton’s two goal lead against ManU prominently displayed on the Chelsea scoreboard. But as Chelsea lapsed and ManU fought back at Everton the scoreboard seemed to get stuck, those operating it presumably hoping that players and supporters alike would perform better if kept in the dark. ManU scored four, eventually, though only those in the ground with radios, phones or TVs would have known:

Incidentally, the Chelsea thought police declined to update the running scoreline from Goodison Park when United went in front. At Everton 2 Manchester United 2, it mysteriously disappeared.

Moleskinedrive

Lifehacker points to how to turn your old Moleskine into a hard drive casing. Not only cool, but useful for hiding your back up in a bookcase.

clipped from lifehacker.com
moleskine-external-hd.png

The Limits of the Ribbon Revolution

Ribbon1

The Microsoft Office Ribbon is really starting to take off. I’ve seen it in three applications in the past two days: a mindmapping program (I’m under embargo so can’t say which one), SmartDraw 2007, and even something like Mindomo (tenminut.es review here), an online mindmapping program. Here is a bunch of other programs using the Ribbon: Essential Studio, Radius, SandRibbon, etc.

I was positive about the ribbon in a recent WSJ.com column (subscription only) which has led to death threats and old friends no longer talking to me. But I felt, and still feel, the ribbon is a big step forward in interface design. But I’m not sure that it will last. Here’s why.

Visio1Limits: The ribbon only makes sense for some programs. But which? The obvious distinction is between navigation and creativity/productivity. A browser doesn’t make sense, for example. But why not something like Visio? I have to assume it’s not laziness or lack of time that has meant that quite a few programs in the Office 2007 stable don’t actually use the ribbon (besides Visio, Outlook and Publisher don’t) so presumably it was decided the ribbon didn’t suit those programs. So we’re stuck now with two competing interface approaches — menus and ribbons. Is that making things simpler?

Licensing: Microsoft will only license it to non-competing programs. So, don’t expect to see it in all programs that might most benefit from it. Instead, expect to see OpenOffice et al develop something like a ribbon which is similar enough to look, well, similar, but not similar enough to flatten the learning curve. It may already have happened, since one or two of the ribbons I’ve seen don’t exactly feel very similar to Microsoft’s design. (How many of these Ribbon look alikes are actually licensees?)

Smartdraw1Poor design: The ribbon is designed, among other things, to increase the amount of space available for you to do stuff. Some programmers don’t seem to get this: the new SmartDraw, for example, has no way I can see of minimizing the Ribbon, severely reducing the amount of space to actually draw in. Ditto with Mindomo. (And as several readers of the column pointed out, why can’t we move the Ribbon around the screen or customize it? What is this? 1992?)

Mindomo4

Standards: The ribbon is supposed to be intuitive, and it is. Once you get it, there are very few commands that are elusive. The commands are grouped together well — more intuitively than the old menu system. But inevitably, as more programs adopt the ribbon approach users will get confused and mis-remember placement of functions. Mindomo, for example, doesn’t really follow the logic of other ribbon interfaces (‘Topic’ is the second ribbon name, and ‘Task Info’ the third. No logic for me there, and I’m a seasoned mindmapper.) SmartDraw has just one main ribbon and then smaller sub-ribbons on the right which makes some sense but requires a whole new attitude, not to mention weird mouse movements to get there:

Smartdraw2

Opting out: The big complaint about the Ribbon Revolution is that there’s no opting out of it. In none of the programs I have looked at is there a way to say “Ribbon? No thanks, give me back my menus. It took me 15 years to learn them and I want to stick with them.” I think this is a mistake not to give people that option.

I’m not saying the Ribbon is a bad idea. I think it’s great in Word and Excel. But it’s already beginning to feel that it should have been more flexible in its design. If Microsoft is serious about making this the new user interface, then it needs to take a long hard look at how it’s used beyond the narrow Office cubicle cluster.

How To Remember Stuff

I long suspected this was the case, and now we’ve proof: Try too hard to remember something and you can almost feel yourself forgetting it. Stop trying to remember and it will come back. Of course, this could be extended to other mental activity: Your brain can only cope with so much stuff, so better to let it float and do what it wants to do. If it’s a good brain and has plenty to feed on, it should give you what you want in its own sweet time. Hey, a slacker’s manifesto.

clipped from scienceblogs.com

One explanation for this fascinating failure of memory is retrieval-induced forgetting, in which the retrieval of closely related concepts and words actually competes with the word or concept you intended to retrieve (discussed previously). The intended item becomes available only after the residual activity among the incorrectly retrieved items has decayed.

How Couriers Help Scammers

Bruce Schneier talks about how to get around blocks on U.S. eretailers refusing to ship to Russia: put the correct address but the wrong country (in this case Canada.)

Indonesian credit card fraudsters have long been doing this, usually putting the country as Singapore. I suspect they still do it.

Of course it’s a reflection of both the professionalism and the lack of thought of couriers. On the one hand they try to serve the customer; on the other hand they fail to recognise the scam that’ they’re unwittingly aiding. I was always amazed at how little they seem to consider their customer’s interests in this.

clipped from www.schneier.com

What happens next? The parcel travels to Canada, to the area to which the specified ZIP code belongs and there postal workers just see it’s not a Canadian address but Russian. They consider it to be some sort of mistake and forward it further, to Russia.

How Couriers Help Scammers

Bruce Schneier talks about how to get around blocks on U.S. eretailers refusing to ship to Russia: put the correct address but the wrong country (in this case Canada.)

Indonesian credit card fraudsters have long been doing this, usually putting the country as Singapore. I suspect they still do it.

Of course it’s a reflection of both the professionalism and the lack of thought of couriers. On the one hand they try to serve the customer; on the other hand they fail to recognise the scam that’ they’re unwittingly aiding. I was always amazed at how little they seem to consider their customer’s interests in this.

clipped from www.schneier.com

What happens next? The parcel travels to Canada, to the area to which the specified ZIP code belongs and there postal workers just see it’s not a Canadian address but Russian. They consider it to be some sort of mistake and forward it further, to Russia.

How to Play Football With Nails and Popsicle Sticks

Well, actually if you do that you’ll be infringing a patent. I love reading patents, but I rarely understand them. This one I do, since it uses words I understand, like ‘roofing nails’ and ‘elastic bands’:

clipped from patft.uspto.gov

A board game for at least two individuals to play. The board game is a modified form of soccer that uses roofing nails pounded into a flat surface as “players,” a marble as a soccer ball, and a pair of Popsicle sticks as shooters. In addition, an elastic band is wrapped around into a rectangular fashion to have a rectangular-shaped playing field.

How to Really Read Blogs

People often ask me what blogs to read. So I thought I’d put together some thoughts on why some blogs are better than others, and how to get the most out of the blogs that you do read. There are five basic rules:

Rule #1: A blog isn’t a publication. It’s a person

Joi1The thing about blogs is that the most interesting ones are interesting because of the people who write them and the people who read them. You’ll find that while you’re drawn to a writer because of his/her interest in a particular subject, quite often they’ll write about something else which you’re also interested in. Take a guy called Joi Ito, for example, who is a Japan-based entrepreneur and investor in tech companies. Joi is a fascinating guy and his blog makes for great reading. But it’s not always about tech stuff. One post I read recently was about his reading a book by a woman called Betty Edwards about learning to draw. Joi is no artist, but this book was recommended to him as a way of relaxing. Now I know the book, and I know what he’s talking about. And because I like what he has to say about technology, I’m happy to read about his thoughts on meditation and drawing.

Rule #2: Never read someone who is “excited” about everything

Blogs don’t have to be brutally honest, but they can’t be fake. What makes Joi’s comments about drawing interesting is not just the fact that he has credibility in a field I care about (tech) but because what he writes is frank and, well, real. He’s not your average CEO type talking about how much money he’s invested in stuff and how excited he is by everything. We all have our ups and downs and they should be reflected in our blogs (I don’t do enough of this, to be honest. There, I’m being frank about not being frank enough.) The point is this: If we’re interested in reading someone’s thoughts on a subject, chances are we’re interested in their more life-oriented thoughts and experiences too. Without overdoing, it of course: I am very interested in Joi’s musings, but if he starts cutting his toe nails on his blog, even metaphorically speaking, I might not stick around.

Rule #3: Let a million flowers bloom, and then read them

Blogs thrive on the ability for readers to add comments. A great blog will have great, thoughtful readers, who add their comments on each article, or post. These comments will appear one after the other at the bottom of each post. Sometimes the comments are more interesting than the original article. Sometimes they’re not. But they’re definitely worth reading if you found the original article interesting. Joi’s post on drawing elicited a handful of comments which really added to the topic, especially after Joi added his comments to the comments. This is what the techie world calls a conversation. It’s not unlike a real conversation, actually, so it’s a good term.

Rule #4: Come in, the water’s lovely

If you’re reading blogs that interest you then you will quickly feel that you have some opinion to share. Share it. Still a startlingly small number of people comment on blogs but you really should. Chances are other people will love what you have to say, especially if you express it in a neutral way, as if you were joining a group of friendly looking people at a party. Of course, you have the advantage of knowing what they were already talking about before you sidled up, so be sure to read the original article and comments before throwing in your tupennies’ worth.

Rule #5: Follow the trail

Chances are if you like one person’s blog, you’ll like the blogs they read and the blogs they link to. Experiment. Try adding more blogs to your list of favorites and see whether you like them. If a couple of boring or off-color posts appear, you can always remove the feed from your list.

Remember: with blogs it’s not so much what you read, as who you read, and how you read ‘em.

Tags:  ,

Do You Read Before You Comment?

Over at the always enlightening Charles on… blog, a good point is made about the limits of having amateurs do the reporting/answering/research. The short answer: Journalists do this better because it’s our job. Not sure I agree with that 100% — I think there’s a certain kind of person, a maven, if you will, who knows the answers, and then another kind of person — a journalist-type person — who is good at gathering it all together.

But Charles in passing hints at another, more worrying point: the kind of people who blog, and comment on blogs, and answer questions on things like Yahoo! Answers, may not be the kind of people who are real mavens. Or who have even read the original article they’re commenting on. What scares me most about the Internet today is how many people feel entitled to comment on stuff that they haven’t even read, let alone researched a little. When ignorance sits on ignorance, we’re all in trouble.

At least I think that’s what Charles is saying. I didn’t read the whole thing.

Journalists do that: they do check, they do ask, they do look for inconsistencies, things left out, things unsaid. They do ask what procedures are, they do go looking for notes on what those procedures are, they ask people who’ve been captured what it was like, if they can tell them what they’ve been told.

ScaMS

F-Secure are calling these things SMS phishing (sometimes called smishing, unfortunately), but really they are more like Nigerian email scams delivered via SMS, which isn’t quite the same. The scam is basically this: send an SMS saying the recipient has won the lottery, have them call the scammer, and the scammer tricks them into giving their account details — or persuading the victim to transfer money to another account.

These things have been going on for a while in Indonesia (which is where F-Secure’s originated.) What’s interesting about F-Secure’s is that it’s targetted at Malaysians, indicating that some Indonesians are beginning to use their shared language to export their scamming skills.

clipped from www.f-secure.com

From the phone numbers that we got from the SMS, we know that they belong to the Indonesian mobile network Indosat and therefore the phisher is located somewhere in Indonesia. This was further confirmed when the phisher spoke to us in Malay with a clearly Indonesian accent.