Give Your Mouse A Bath

Those who got excited about the idea of a washable keyboard (which I wrote about in a WSJ.com column a few weeks back — sorry, subscription only; a version appeared on the BBC World Service, and is available as a podcast) can now get excited about Washable Computer Mice, from Unotron:

Unotron’s pioneering mice design configurations and materials allow these patented products to be easily washed, immersed and disinfected by commercial-grade detergents and anti-bacterial agents while providing users with comfort, control and reliability. SpillSeal washable mice are manufactured and assembled to support restrictive cleaning/disinfection procedures without any detrimental effect to the exterior or the products’ internal components.

Makes sense, actually. As I realised when I was doing the keyboard column, we spend an inordinate amount of time with our fingers on these things, and while we may not spend quite as much time using the mouse, there’s still enough gunky activity going on for us to pay the same attention to keeping the little rodents clean. Sadly no pictures or details of mice having a bath are available on Unotron’s website yet, so here’s a picture of a keyboard getting washed instead:

Wash

NewsIsFree’s NewsMap

Another cool NewsMap, this one in the form of a treemap from NewsIsFree:

NewsKnowledge and The Hive Group have joined forces to bring you News Maps, visual maps of the NewsIsFree headline database. News Maps allow you to quickly scan dozens of news articles and instantly understand what’s being reported all over the world.

Each square in the News Map is an article. You can obtain additional detail on each article by moving your mouse over it. You can read an article by clicking on it.

The Hive Group’s Honeycomb algorithm organizes news headlines by source. Size and Color information indicate article age and popularity (described below). You can easily filter and rearrange you results to view articles that meet certain criteria, or that contain certain text.

We hope you enjoy our News Maps and encourage you to explore these new tools. We hope that News Maps will allow you to access news more quickly and comprehensively than you ever thought possible.

Not the most beautiful example of the genre (my own favourite is still newsmap) but still good to see people experimenting with different representations of news. 

A Short Essay From Jef Raskin

Further to the previous post, honouring the fact that Jef Raskin passed away last month, I thought I would post a little essay he sent me a year ago to illustrate some of his thinking in his last year:

Genesis and Goals of The Humane Environment

Our increasing knowledge about human behavior and mental processes, as applied to interaction with our artifacts — knowledge based on observation, on testing, and on empirical results in cognitive psychology — leads to the conclusion that the human/machine interfaces of current computers, cell phones, PDAs, automobiles, and much more are often flawed. Their interfaces features often derive from faulty precedents, and on inadequate models of and incorrect informal guesses about human performance. In particular, GUIs (such as Windows) used by hundreds of millions of people reflect these problems in abundance.

A more accurate external model of human mental processing leads to quite different interfaces than those we now have. One approach to applying this knowledge has resulted in “The Humane Environment” project. There is no reason to believe that it is the only approach or the optimal one, I do claim that it is considerably better than current practice or alternatives of which I am aware in terms of speed of learning, productivity, and the feeling of trustworthiness. Not only applications, but programming languages and software development systems are also human-machine interfaces and their design can benefit from developments in cognetics. (Cognetics is the engineering of products to accommodate human mental abilities and limitations; an analog of the better known ergonomics, which guides the design of products to match human physical attributes.)

My background has biased me toward that which is quantitative, deductive, empirical, practical, and humanitarian. Applying these criteria reveals that only a small fraction of books and articles on interface design are applicable to development in any rigorous sense; most are hortatory, few get beyond offering heuristics, many are irrelevant or simply wrong. The quantitative tools that are available in this field are unknown to a majority of practitioners, as I discover nearly every time I give a lecture to audiences of professional or academic HCI practitioners — a situation that I find deplorable. (My evidence comes from asking people at my talks whether they know this or that quantitative method. Usually only a few hands are raised). The HCI research literature is often pathetic, with poor experimental design and overblown conclusions. Very common are studies that compare a particular instance of technique A that is superior to an instance of technique B. They then conclude that technique A is superior to B; ignoring that it may have been a great example of A and a very poorly implemented B: Conclusions that go beyond the premises is a common error in the field.

The weak research and the widespread belief that the way computers are is how computers must be, coupled with the bias toward standard the GUIs built into current operating systems and development environments, has stymied progress. The importance of habituation and of our single locus of attention, for example, have not been widely recognized.

The theoretical reasons for believing that THE is an improvement over current designs are very strong, and equally strong is our experience with the SwyftWare and Canon Cat products that embodied the principles and some of the technology of the text portion of THE (which is inherently usable by the blind). The zooming interface implemented at Apricus Inc. showed the effectiveness of the graphical portion. When theory and user testing meet in this way, and a refactoring of how computers should be used yields a much more compact design while offering users and programmers greater power than present systems, I have considerable confidence in the work. Many people are also intimidated by their fear that any change from the Microsoft Windows way is doomed to failure because of its large installed base. Perhaps they have never heard of Linux, they are not entrepreneurial, they are doomed to nebishhood. Sufficiently better products can penetrate the marketplace.

Considering the millions of person-hours that can be saved, the mental toll of frustration that can be eased, and the physical pain that can be prevented by putting THE into the world, I feel compelled to work on and promote it — and to try to motivate those who can help to do so.

Publishers Upset By Google Initiative

Did Google check first with publishers before announcing its digital library initiative. Nature reports that publishers are irritated  because they weren’t:

Late last year, Google, based in Mountain View, California, announced a decade-long project to scan millions of volumes at the universities of Harvard, Stanford, Michigan and Oxford, as well as the New York Public Library. The resulting archive would allow computer users worldwide to search the texts online. But some publishers complain that they weren’t consulted by Google, and that scanning library collections could be illegal.

Not everyone agrees: The story quotes Peter Kosewski, director of publications and communications at Harvard University Library, as saying the library believes that the way Google intends to handle copyright works is consistent with the law. Harvard is carrying out a pilot with Google on 40,000 titles before making a decision on digitizing its entire 15-million-volume collection. “We have a number of questions that will be answered by the pilot project, and that includes copyright issues,” he says. “We think it is a great programme Google has put together.”

Forget Journalists’ Ethics, How About Scientists’?

Just in case we journalists get too depressed about recent cases of invention and plagiarism, consider scientists.

Nature’s website quotes the annual report of the Committee on Publishing Ethics, which it says details misdemeanours that “cover a wide range of unethical activity, from attempted bribery to potential medical malpractice.” Two complaints concern cases where researchers were accused of copying someone else’s work. When editors investigated, they agreed that the papers were almost identical versions of previously published material, and that plagiarism was the most likely explanation.

“Duplicate publication, where the same paper is printed twice in different journals to boost publication records, is the most common offence, accounting for seven of 29 cases,” Nature says. Other cases involve conflicts of interest: One journal “ran a paper on passive smoking from authors who omitted to mention that they had received funding from the tobacco industry”.

The editors of the report also cite studies where medical procedures were run by researchers who did not have proper ethical clearance.  Another incident involved “a bid to persuade an editor to accept a manuscript, in which an anonymous caller offered to buy 1000 reprints of the published paper.” The caller also offered to buy dinner. Now that sounds like journalism.

Voice Commands, Singapore Style

Here’s more on voice recognition replacing touch-tone menus. Is it a good thing?

ScanSoft have teamed up today with Unified Communications –  ’the leading provider of proprietary telecommunication solutions in Asia’ — to launch OneVoice, a ‘voice portal application’ for Singapore Telecommunications Limited (SingTel). OneVoice is a speech-activated service that uses ScanSoft’s SpeechWorks speech recognition and text-to-speech software to allow SingTel subscribers to ‘dial their personal contacts or public establishments, access useful information and carry out their personal information management’.

What does this mean exactly? By dialing *988 or *6988, SingTel customers can access stuff using simple speech commands. Speaking a name already stored in their personal address book would enable them to reach that person. They could also ‘request sports and lottery results, download ringtones, picture messages and logos, utilize location-based services to find the nearest amenities and recommended food outlets’.

The basic idea seems to be to replace navigating a touch-tone menu of options or scrolling through an address book on a cell phone. Not a bad idea, and you’re not replacing real people here but actually adding another layer of usability. (Of course Nokia and several other makes of handphone have the speech option already, where you just speak a name and the phone will dial, but that requires setting up, and I’ve seen more people get embarrassed when it dials by mistake than I have folk getting some serious use from it.)

The downsides I can think of are limited to the idea of storing all your data on a central server. But then again, the cellphone company is going to know all that stuff anyway, so who cares? The only other thing I can think of is the annoying problem of your voice not being recognised.

Which brings me to my only question, a cultural one: Is ScanSoft’s voice recognition software geared towards Singaporean-style English, or a more generic one? Or both? Watch this space.

News: Shredded Stasi Documents To Be Pieced Back Together

 The kind of story I love: technology used to bring the oppressor to book. The Register reports that documents of the East German State Security Service (Stasi), torn into shreds and stored in 16,000 brown sacks, may soon be pieced together by a software program developed by the Fraunhofer Institute.
 
On Monday, the Institute said it would take five years to solve the world’s biggest jigsaw puzzle electronically. If done by hand, the operation would take several hundred years.
 

News: Six Degrees Reborn

 I think Friendster is probably a more dynamic version of this experiment, but it’s interesting anyway. Duncan J. Watts, author and Associate Professor of Sociology at Columbia, has launched an experiment to update the 1967 findings of social psychologist Stanley Milgram who coined the phrase ‘six degrees of separation’ by testing the hypothesis that members of any large social network would be connected to each other through short chains of intermediate acquaintances.
 
 
The test is basically to give folk a package and ask them to pass it onto someone who could deliver it by hand to the addressee. They then hand it onto someone they know who may be more likely to know that person, or someone who knows that person, etc etc. As Watts points out, Milgram’s experiment was flawed, and didn’t really prove the hypothesis. So it could be interesting. Sign up if you want to participate.
 
My tupennies worth: As Malcom Gladwell’s excellent “The Tipping Point” points out not all people are equal. Some folk know no-one (me) and some know everybody (my friends Grainne and Ditta) so in my case I’d just give the package to them.

News: You’re a Bad, Bad Owner

 From the This Gadget May Well Tell More Than I Really Want To Know About My Pet Dept, a Japanese company that produced the world’s first dog translator is working on a similar device for cats. An article at ComputerWorld’s website says that Japan’s Takara Co. Ltd. is working on a the Meowlingual, that “will have some of the same functions as the company’s Bowlingual translator including the ability to “translate” cat calls into one of around 200 phrases that are displayed on a built-in LCD”.
 
 
There will also be body-language analysis and medical-analysis functions, a new feline fortune telling function and other features that are still under development, said Takara on Wednesday. It is due to go on sale in November this year and will cost ¥8,800 (US$75). Bowlingual, which went on sale in Japan in September 2002, has sold around 300,000 units and an English version is due out in the U.S. in August. Here’s a company that’s already selling it.

Column: the paper mountain

Loose Wire — Conquer That Paper Mountain: It’s time to get organized; Here’s some software to help you scan and locate photos and documents; But perhaps you shouldn’t ditch the filing cabinet just yet

By Jeremy Wagstaff
 
from the 29 May 2003 edition of the Far Eastern Economic Review, (c) 2003, Dow Jones & Company, Inc.
I’m a little suspicious of programs that, adorned with images of bits of paper and photos disappearing into a smiling computer monitor, promise to give order to the junk that is my life. The paperless office never happened — we still make printouts because it’s so easy — and while everyone seems to be photographing digitally these days, that doesn’t sort out our cupboards full of snaps. And even if this stuff does find its way onto your computer, chances are it’s all over the place, in subfolders with obscure names. A sort of digital chaos, really.

I don’t promise an end to all that. And the programs I’m about to tout are not really a new idea, but they both do a better job than their predecessors of helping you to get organized, whether you’re trying to sift through documents already on your computer, or get a handle on your photos.

First off, Scansoft’s PaperPort (deluxe version, $100 from www.scansoft.com/paperport/). Into its ninth version, it’s a lot more sophisticated than its forbears. PaperPort and its competitors allow you to scan documents into the computer, and then let you organize and view those documents into folders of your choosing. You can then convert them to digital text, a process called OCR or Optical Character Recognition, which in turn allows you to move chunks of the original document into a word-processing file. In theory it’s a great way to get rid of paper clutter on your desk, helping you to find those documents — or parts of them — easily, or to convert them to something you can use in your spreadsheet, document or whatever. In practice, it’s too much of a fiddle. Most folk find it easier to locate the hard copy of a document (behind the bookcase, next to the dead cockroach) than the soft one (What name did I give it? What keyword should I use to find it?), so they just buy another filing cabinet.

PaperPort hasn’t resolved the riddle of why we can always locate something under a messy pile of papers, but never after we’ve cleaned up, but it’s a few steps closer to making it easier to handle documents on your PC. First, you can scan them in a format called PDF, short for Adobe’s Portable Document Format, a widely used standard for viewing documents. By working within this standard — rather than PaperPort’s proprietary standard — everything you scan in PaperPort can be accessed and handled by other programs, or by folk who don’t use PaperPort. Common sense, I know, and they’ve got there at last. Another common-sense feature is a search function that allows you to search through an index of documents, whatever format they’re in, within PaperPort.

For a long time I’ve used PaperMaster, now owned by J2Global, the Internet-faxing company, which promises to have an updated version available later this year. PaperMaster does pretty much what PaperPort does, but it’s been doing it a lot longer and it actually looks like a filing cabinet, which I find reassuring. But it doesn’t work well with Windows XP, and is looking somewhat dated. Most importantly, it won’t save your scans in a file format recognized by anyone else on this planet. What’s more, it sometimes loses whole drawers of documents, which kind of defeats the object of the exercise.

So check out PaperPort. It will handle photos too, but if you’ve got a lot of them, I’d suggest Adobe’s new Photoshop Album ($50 from www.adobe.com/products/photoshopalbum/). Album is elbowing for space among a lot of similar products vying for the burgeoning home-photo market, but it has features and a very intuitive interface that I suspect will put it ahead of the pack.

Basically, it can collate pictures from more or less any source — scanning, digital images on your hard drive, on a digital camera, on a CD-ROM — and give you the tools to touch them up, label them, order them around and generally beat them into submission. You can create the usual things with them — albums, video disks, printouts, slide shows and whatnot — all in as tasteful a way as you can expect from a homespun photo album. I particularly liked the way you could tag photos more than once so, say, a picture of your Uncle Charlie doing the gardening in his pantomime costume could be categorized both under Family and Environmental Pollution Hazard. All in all, a smart program, and not badly priced.

Gripes? They’re a bit stingy on the tools they provide to touch up photos, so all the facial blemishes of my adolescent years are still there if you look closely.

These programs won’t change our lives. They may only make a dent in a filing cabinet and photo drawer. But they’re good enough for what they try to do, which is to lend a little order to our pre-paperless lives.