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I fear another myth is in the offing: that Burma’s brief uprising last month was a tipping point in citizen journalism. Take this from Seth Mydans’ (an excellent journalist, by the way; I’m just choosing his piece because it’s in front of me) article in today’s IHT:
“For those of us who study the history of communication technology, this is of equal importance to the telegraph, which was the first medium that separated communications and transportation,” said Frank Moretti, executive director of the Center for New Media Teaching and Learning at Columbia University.
or this, from Xiao Qiang, director of the China Internet Project and an adjunct professor at the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California at Berkeley, quoted in the same piece:
“By shutting down the Internet they show themselves to be in the wrong, that they have something to hide,” he said. “On this front, even a closed-down blog is a powerful blog. Even silence on the Internet is a powerful message.”
There are a couple of things here. None convinces me either of the above is true.
First off, the first Burma uprising, back in 1988, was not conducted or repressed in a media blackout. Journalists were able to get in, and get out extraordinary, iconic images. One still sticks in my mind, and I wish I could find it: a photo splashed across the cover of Newsweek of an impossibly beautiful female demonstrator, blood soaking her longyi and her face a mask, as she was carried by comrades through the wet streets of Rangoon. The junta took its time in closing down the media, but 1988 was no different to 2007: when they did pull down the shutters, they did it completely.
It’s true that there have been a lot of images, videos and information finding its way out via both the Internet and sympathetic agencies and embassies. This is not greatly different to 1988. People had cameras back then, and were extremely inventive in how they got information out. I would get calls all the time in Bangkok from people smuggling out cassettes, photos and other material. When I visited Rangoon in 1990 the NLD headquarters was a mine of printed and other information of strikingly high quality.
Burma’s generals are cleverer than the image they portray. Back in 1988 they bided their time, allowing all those who opposed them to show themselves, from students and monks to government departments and even soldiers. Their parading in the streets, watched by spies and plain clothes officers, made it easy for them to purged later. The same thing, it seems, is happening today: As another story in the IHT on the same day by Thomas Fuller wrote, loudspeakers on trucks and helicopters are telling terrified citizens
“We have your pictures. We’re going to come and get you.”
They may lack the sophistication of a more civilized form of repression, but Burmese leaders understand the importance of photographs and videos as evidence, and I fear all those pictures posted on blogs, on YouTube, on television, in emails sent out of the country, will all resurface in show trials in months to come.
Xiao Qiang’s point about the blackout showing the world who these generals really are is to me naive. No one, I believe, was under any illusion about what these people were like, or the lengths they were prepared to go to preserve their position. The ‘democratic’ process that was underway was a fig-leaf as old as 1990, when the NLD won the election I witnessed. In other words, 17 years old.
More importantly, as far as technology is concerned, I don’t think that silence on the Internet is any different to a news blackout. It’s the most effective way for people to stop paying attention. Initially there’s outrage, then people shrug and move on. Soon Burma will be back to what it has been for the past 19 years — a peripheral story, a sad but forgotten piece of living history. Soon the Facebook groups and red-shirt days will fade.
I would love to think it was and will be different. I would love to think that technology could somehow pry open a regime whether it pulls the plug or not. But Burma has, in recent weeks and in recent years, actually shown the opposite: that it’s quite possible to seal a country off and to commit whatever atrocities you like and no amount of technology can prevent it.
By holding the recent uprising as an example of citizen journalism and a turning point in the age of telecommunications we not only risk misunderstanding its true lesson, but we also risk playing down the real story here: the individual bravery and longtime suffering of the Burmese people who had, for a few heady days, a flickering of hope that their nightmare was over.
Business writer and entrepreneur Seth Godin throws out product ideas like other people throw out orange juice cartons:
For twenty cents or so, alarm clock manufacturers can add a chip that not only knows the time (via a radio signal) but knows what day it is too. Which means that they can add a switch that says “weekends.” Which means that the 98% of the population that doesn’t want to wake up on the same time on weekends as they do on weekdays will be happier (and better rested.)
But he’s not touting a new alarm clock, he’s making a point: “So why doesn’t every alarm clock have this feature?” he asks. “Because most people in that business are busy doing their jobs (distribution, promotion, pricing, etc.), not busy making products that people actually want to buy–and talk about.”
Indeed, companies are always far too busy doing what they’re doing to think about what they’re doing and wonder whether they can do it better. And, as Seth points out, this is because companies are compartmentalized into responsibilities, and brave is the person who tries to straddle departments.
The weekend alarm clock won’t be made by a big alarm clock company, it’ll be designed by someone like Gauri Nanda, who I mentioned a few weeks back as the inventor of Clocky, the alarm clock that goes walkabout. Gauri, needless to say, was working on her own.
Actually what I suspect happens in companies is that they just ignore the user entirely. This is partly because technical products are built (and much of them designed) by programmers and engineers. I hate to generalize, but these people thrive on complexity, not on usability. For them creating and mastering the opaque is an achievement, not a symptom of failure.
What usually happens is that there are two sides to product development: the people in the company who think it’s a good idea and the people who have to build it. But in my limited experience there’s no one in between who speaks both languages, and, most importantly, can see what the customer might expect and want.
This is the hardest bit: it’s called usability and it seems to be the last thing people think about. If you’ve ever grappled with an alarm clock, to continue Seth’s example, you’ll know what I mean.
My favorite is the alarm clock that makes a beep every time you press a button: not so useful if you’re trying to quietly set the alarm but not wake your loved one. One clock I have, despite being sophisticated enough to tell me the temperature, the time in Lima and how many thous in a furlong, even makes a beep when I hit the backlight button. And no, it can’t be switched off without a PhD in molecular biophysics.
I wish I could say that this is confined to alarm clocks, but it’s not. Nearly every device or program is dumb in its own way. But there are bright spots. One of the things I love about Web 2.0 is that the people designing the tools really seem to understand usability.
Of course, given the fact that Web 2.0 is one big feedback loop, where new versions pop up like mushroom after rain, it’s inevitable. But the result is websites that are easy to navigate and to figure out.
Apple, of course, figured this out long ago, But everyone else seems to be having problems understanding it. I tried out a website the other day which was supposed to help me find the best form of transportation between two places. The search engine was not smart enough to know a building’s earlier name, or even to recommend alternatives if I got the name slightly wrong.
The internal calculator was not smart enough to get the distances right (one walk I was asked to make between bus-stops would have taken me into the sea and halfway to the next country); neither was it smart enough to realize that was an error. All should have been spotted by any usability tests. All undermine the whole point of the website, which is to make it easy to figure out a way to get from A to B.
I won’t bore you with more examples: You are users, and you come across this stuff all the time. What worries me more is that we’re not listened to, at least in a way in that makes sense.
I was sitting in a seminar the other day listening to an employee of a global cellphone operator talking about she and her colleagues have been canvassing opinions about how consumers use cellphones. This is good, and what should be done, but I was surprised by how she went about it: Getting users together and asking them to make collages about how they use technology.
Frankly, I don’t think making collages is the right way to go about things. We need to get out on the streets, into the offices, bars and clubs, into the villages and factories, and observe how people actually use technology. Don’t expect people to fill in forms or do collages for you: Follow them around. Spy on them. I do.
One of the side-effects of the cellphone revolution is that it’s taken technology out of the usual places (office, den) and into every other room in the house (texting in the bath, watching mobile TV in bed) and beyond, into the bus stops, the subways, the village gazebo. Technology is now a seamless part of our lives. Researchers need to get out more.
The sad truth is that we’ve moved on and the geeks need to catch up. Because, lame as the alarm clock that beeps all the time and doesn’t know it’s the weekend is, nearly all our devices are no better: They’re too smart in the sense of feature density and too stupid in the interface that lets us use those features.
So, companies: Hire a usability consultant to tell you about your products and how they might be better. Or just try your own products: sleep in on a weekend or let your spouse try to find the alarm light button in the middle of the night and see how you like being woken up.
Then rub your eyes, get out of bed and head for the design table.
The difference between a developed metropolis and a developing one isn’t transportation — it’s the rules and discipline about how that transportation is used. A city like Hong Kong flows because everyone follows the rules. A city like Jakarta doesn’t because people don’t. It’s not about building more roads, or more subways, or more bus lanes, but about developing rules that ensure existing transportation is used as it should be. Cars, people, trains and buses flow because they each agree to a set of rules that ensure that flow. In effect it’s like one big sliding puzzle. The bits move around because there’s space for them to move around.
It doesn’t matter whether it’s just people stopping at red lights, or people allowing passengers to alight before they try to embark. The rules can be sophisticated or basic, but they only work if they’re followed: In Hong Kong a taxi driver won’t cross a thick white line even if there’s no traffic around; in Jakarta there are several red lights around the city that cars don’t bother to even stop at. In one city nothing is negotiable; in another everything is. A new buslane in Jakarta that’s officially off limits to all vehicles except buses and emergency vehicles is already awash with ordinary traffic.
Somehow in Hong Kong the rules have become the norm, and no one needs to be around to enforce them. Everyone keeps everyone else in line. In Jakarta, the rules are seen as an obstacle, something to be overcome. It’s not as if drivers in Hong Kong are somehow collaborating in a fit of consideration, but there is a tacit recognition that by following the rules, everyone will benefit. Even in pedestrian overpasses, somehow a rule establishes itself — everyone walks on the left, say, and the two-way flow is optimized. It doesn’t seem hard and fast; the next day everyone seems to be walking on the right. But it works. A self-organizing system.
Jakarta is not. It’s a free-for-all. Or actually, it’s has its own rules. It’s just they’re not optimized for the situation. The bigger the vehicle, for example, the more it will take precedence over other vehicles. And a car in Hong Kong won’t pull into traffic if by doing so it will slow down that traffic. This is what the Stop/Give way/Yield sign is for. A car in Jakarta will do the opposite: It will pull out slowly, inching into the road until the traffic is forced to slow down to accommodate it. In fact the dominance of unwritten traffic rules in a city like Jakarta ensure that traffic will never work efficiently.
Until those rules are replaced with rules that work and the discipline to ensure they’re followed, developing cities will never become developed ones. It’s not about the infrastructure. It’s about the way it’s used.
For those of you following the Kryptonite – Bic Pen story (where customers found their supposedly impregnable bike lock could be opened with a cheap plastic pen, and quickly told the world about it via their blogs, while the company pretended it wasn’t happening) — it seems the company’s return program is getting into swing.
A message on its website on Friday says “thousands of replacement locks have been sent out to customers in the last few weeks. Kryptonite continues to manufacture and ship new products to consumers on a weekly basis. The whole process of the Lock Exchange Program is a complex one with manufacturing and transportation all coming into play. We are building and air shipping the new locks to get them out to our customers as fast as possible.” You can’t help feeling sorry for them, although, as plenty of folk have pointed out, their slow response only made it worse.
One thing that deserves a closer look are reports that the Bic pen information was not new — it was just better disseminated. The problem, some websites have said, was first highlighted by British freelance journalist and cartoonist John Stuart Clark in 1992. His methods — collaborating with a ‘professional villain’ undermined his story and the vulnerability was largely forgotten (except by the professional villain community, presumably). The original article is worth a read (PDF only).
In fact, although he mentions Bic pens, nowhere in the article can I find specific mention of its usage in opening locks (I’ve read mention of other British media picking up the Bic Pen issue at the time, but haven’t found any exact evidence of this yet). What does come across, however, is that there is really no such thing as a secure lock. If you know your Bruce Schneier, this is not surprising. A lock is simply a deterrent which the user hopes would keep the bad guy busy long enough for it not to be worth his while. Most locks, the article points out, can be broken within a minute or two, so the calculation for the owner should be: Is my bike in a place where a thief could not afford to take that long to break the lock?
If this Kryptonite case is a Cluetrain ‘markets are conversations’ moment, maybe that is the lesson we should all be taking away, not just that some locks are hopeless? After all, other manufacturers and vendors are being quick to claim their products are Bic-pen safe…
For anyone who is a SimCity addict, looking for an alternative, check out Mobility 2.
It looks a lot like SimCity, without some of the bells and whistles of later versions, but it focuses on public transportation, and was, until recently, available for free. Now it’s into version 2.11, includes a land editor and available as shareware for the princely sum of $14.
Another alternative, also European in origin, design, and feel: TrafficGiant, from JoWood Productions. In TrafficGiant (yes, dreadful name, I know, “you control an entire fleet of buses, trams and much more. You experience realistically functioning town traffic with thousands of vehicles and pedestrians. You can ask each inhabitant what he thinks and feels” (er, only about transportation, of course).
This follows on the heels of an announcement yesterday that said Electronic Arts plans to release this October The Sims Makin’ Magic, a new expansion pack to The Sims, where “Sims are granted magical powers with the ability to cast spells that are playful or deviant”. Oh my God. And if that’s not enough: The Sims Makin’ Magic will be the final edition to The Sims original series and prelude to the highly anticipated launch of The Sims 2. The expansion pack will be available for the Halloween season and has a suggested retail price of US$29.95.