Thursday, 21 June 2012

replicating iDoneThis

iDonethis is one of these head slappingly simple ideas - automatically send out a an email every so often to your team to find out what they've done - incredibly useful if you're across timezones, and that way you get your information back.

Now of course it's much much better to talk to people, but sometimes that's difficult to do on a regular basis especially if we're dealing with people whose office times only just overlap with your times.

iDonethis provides a simple way to prompt people to tell you what they've done and keeps you on top of things. It's not a panacea, and you still won't know of problems if they don't tell you, but it at least gives you a chance.

The one problem (especially if you're working on limited funds) with iDoneThis is that  it costs money.

However you can fake it up quite easily using Evernote, an old  PC running the linux distro of your choice and some basic scripting.

Basically the recipe goes as follows:

  • put a list of your team's email addresses into a file, one address per line
  • create your canned email message
  • write a script like this

while read line
mailx -s "what did you do today" $line  -r  < canned message
done < file_team_email_addresses 

  • and then wrap this up in a cron job.

This will then mail them and when they reply, the messages will end up in an evernote notebook for reading and neatly builds up a log of reports.

One can imagine a host of variants on this, like randomly changing the canned message and subject line.

I was fortunate in that I had an old sun server with mailx to do this on - you could equally well use another mail application such as mutt to do this equally effectively. Obviously your server needs access to sendmail, procmail or similar and there are some security implications to having a private mail install.

You don't need to use evernote either - if you simply want them to go a standard mail box substitute that address for the dummy notebook address. If you want to send out a digest, you can of course install the mailman email list management software on your linux box and have the replies go to one of the list mailboxes ...

5520 already!

Today is the shortest day in the Southern Hemisphere, an as such is the Inca new year.

As I've written before I always feel its a shame we don't have a decent midwinter festival in Australia and somehow the Queen's birthday long weekend doesn't quite cut it.

To try and remedy this J and I try and do something special every year on or about the solstice. This year we had our celebration a little early with a hunk of roast organic lamb with potatoes, pumpkin and sprouts on Saturday, all washed down with a decent Sticks Pinot Noir.

I'm not advocating mass celebrations, but if you're in the mood raise a glass to the warming rays of the sun this evening.

Happy 5520!

Wednesday, 20 June 2012

the move to digital newspapers

I had a slightly flippant conversation with J yesterday about the implications of newspapers moving to a digital only format.

To put this in context we are both tablet users, and ebook readers and serious users of tech.  We're both used to using computing devices on the kitchen bench, outside, in bed etc.

The first objection is that if the paper is digital you can't drop yoghurt on it at breakfast in the morning. This is a variation of the old ebook argument that you can't really read an ebook in the bath. This never had much weight for us as we never read paper books in the bath, much preferring Classic FM or Radio National.

Unlike the ebook and bath argument this does have legs as breakfast usually involves jam, yoghurt, crumbs and other thing that are bad for computers. On the other hand we've never had that many disasters with the physical paper. The obvious answer would be to buy a cheap second user device and leave it in the kitchen. This of course would lead to the 'who forgot to charge the xxx scenario?'

Sharing subscriptions, newspaper subscriptions are per household, not per user, meaning we either read the digital paper on a shared device or need to be able to access it from a small number of devices.

Splogging. At the weekends we pull the paper apart, read random bits in random order leaving bits scattered around the house. While you can splog with digital - random web surfing is a good example - you need to accept its non linearity - any digital version of the weekend papers would need to take this into account. (The Australian does a weekday digital/weekend print subscription package which is most probably an attempt to deal with weekend sploggers).

So digital papers are fine for linear reading, just as are ebooks. The trouble is a the locations in which they will be read and the (potential) loss of happenstance and randomness.

If I regularly rode the bus to work I'd probably have a different view and read the paper on the bus, just as I might listen to podcasts. This wouldn't replicate the subscription sharing problemas the same would apply if I took the print paper to work.

Tuesday, 19 June 2012

The slow death of the newspaper

I'm been periodically boring people with my view that newspapers are slowly dying, and that those that survive will only live on as content providers.

We can see the latest iteration of this trend with yesterday's announcement that Fairfax - who publish the two big 'serious' east coast metro papers  - the SMH in Sydney and The Age in Melbourne - is to sack staff, close printing plants and take the newspapers tabloid.

Taking the newspapers tabloid is nothing special. Le Monde, the Times in London, or the Guardian are in no way diminished by being published in a smaller format. In fact being easier to manage may even be a plus.

Some newspapers have collapsed around the time they went tabloid - eg the Scotsman in Edinburgh, but that is more a coincidence of management and ownership changes, and the collapse in reader numbers that all papers have suffered.

Sacking staff is more serious. Newspapers like the Times in London and the Guardian are hanging on due to their commitment to good journalism. Now it is perfectly possible to produce a serious newspaper similar to the Bangkok Post by taking syndicated quality journalism from overseas and adding local content, but the point is quality.

In the case of the Bangkok Post its value is providing local English language reportage to the local English speaking community. In the case of the Age and the SMH it's exactly the same - whatever is brought in from overseas has to be complimented with Australian journalism of the same quality if for no other reason than the need to provide context.

The most serious is the closure of printing plants. Fairfax really is saying 'game over'. They have obviously made the call that they no longer can justify the cost of these expensive state of the art facilities purely because the print volume is no longer there to support them. And of course once print is outsourced its easier to reduce and eventually close the print edition.

And in the meantime print has just becomes another format generated out of the content management system, just as the newspapers Facebook page, web site, app content and so on is ...

And here's the rub. As the iPad has between 65% and 70% of the tablet market and due to Apple's provision of a subscription and payment management service paid for digital content is almost exclusively on the iPad.

There are apps on Android - for example the Irish Times and the Guardian, and I am more than happy to admit to using them, but what they don't give is the richer experience some of the iPad apps give with full content

I don't have a problem with newspapers being digital first. I don't have a problem with subscribing to them. I do have a problem with their being on the iPad exclusively, if for no other reason that I don't own such a device.

This isn't luddism on my part - my having evernote on my no name Chinese tablet has freed me from carrying stacks of papers to meetings and scads of documentation. I do object however to having to spend six hundred bucks to buy a device to read a newspaper that costs me nine bucks a week as a subscriber to have delivered ...

Wednesday, 13 June 2012

Abiword and the precise pangolin

A few weeks ago I blogged about the problems I was having with Abiword and precise pangolin - to wit unexplained sudden program terminations.

I've recently run the latest set of updates to my Ubuntu box and I'm pleased to report that Abiword now seems more reliable.

It now looks like you can happily work on a document and the program is perfectly stable until you select text, eg with ctrl-A and then try and copy it.

The program then exits.

Hunting round the Ubuntu bug site it looks to be basically the same bug as #953502 which is currently unassigned.

However, this isn't as bad an problem as it seems given that I use AbiWord for drafting and note taking. Save often and remember to export as a text file into Kate for final editing before posting and it seems to work well, while delivering the advantages of a lightweight document editor and retaining the convenience of being able to save the file to dropbox for opening on another computer running a different operating system ...

Telling stories

While I was away in South Australia, I read Lindsey Davis’s rather sprawling novel of the English Civil War, ‘Rebels and Traitors’.

This isn’t a review of the novel itself but I was impressed by the level of historical detail and by implication what it told us of how the lives of people changed through the impact of events such as the Putney debates, the religious freedoms allowing more radical sects express themselves openly, and the consequent changes in how events such as marriages were celebrated and formalised.

The Commonwealth is a period of which I know little. But I actually learned more about the changes from Davis’s novel than I did from Diane Purkiss’s  monumental history of the English Civil War, even though it covers much the same material. Moreover I now understand how 1689 was, with its restoration of parliamentary rights, in some ways a restoration of commonwealth-lite rather than a major and dramatic change.

But enough of historical speculation - I have a much more important point. Telling stories is how we build understanding.

When in a project we build use cases and scenarios to understand how people might use software we are in a very real case telling a story, and then when we carry out user experience testing we are in fact validating our stories - seeing how well or closely we match reality.

Stories are complex things. At their simplest they amuse, but to hold a users interest they have to be anchored in reality and make a point - they are key to communicating understanding.

For example Emma Larkin’s book on Finding Orwell is a quasi story. It incorporates a large number of journalistic elements but they are woven together in a narrative to make a story.

Stories are not simply something made up. Iranian folk tales about Alexander, the Iliad, the Odyssey, the Tain, the early Welsh epics, all have elements of fantasy and embroidery but at their heart they have a factual nugget, a retelling of historical events.

Soap operas do much the same thing, they may not teach people history but, exaggerated and fantastical though they are, they show people how they might deal with socially stressful events in their own lives, be it unemployment, bereavement, unexpected pregnancy or whatever. The same could be said of various bible stories - they explain and show what is the 'right' thing to do.

Soap operas are particularly interesting. To tell stories you need life experience - anyone can create a fantasy, but to be believable and tenable they need to be grounded in, or in someway related to reality.

When you look at any number of use case scenarios a vast number of them seem thin and unconvincing - rather more justifications for product X rather than explaining how one might actually use it.

Part of this is due to the dead hand of marketing, but it is in part also due to people who have no experience of a range of products and techniques. In other words knowing a little about a lot makes it easier to tell a story about how a particular product might be used and compare it sensibly to other products - in other words tell better stories and in consequence explain things better.

Tuesday, 12 June 2012

Going Bush

As I've said elsewhere, we're just back from two weeks away in South Australia in the Flinders Ranges and Kangaroo Island.

In both locations we were blissfully out of internet and mobile phone range (not quite true - in the Flinders some very slow expensive satellite internet was available via a public wifi service in some places).

However this was a fact of geography rather than a desire to embrace a new trend of a digital detox, although I do feel that unplugging now and again is very good for the soul and frees one from the illusion of doing something productive, when in fact ne would be better off reading a book.

It is however also a fact that these days one does need internet access away from home and work, if only to do these pesky things like check bank balances and confirm hotel reservations, so this time instead of the linux netbook we've used on previous jaunts we took along a windows netbook and a 3G modem in part because we knew we would have difficulty finding any kind of public wifi, free or otherwise, where we were going.

The reasons for taking a windows netbook as opposed tour our trusty linux netbook were purely pragmatic - the 3G modem had windows drivers but no linux drivers.

Things of course worked - 3G connectivity was available almost everywhere the service availability maps said it would be - the revelation was just how well they worked out in the bush. In Mildura, performance was reasonable, in Burra, better than some ADSL connections - perhaps because no one else was using it. Performance was similarly good in Hahndorf and Mornington. The only time it was distinctly poor was in the centre of Adelaide, and again one could write that off to be being in a hotel close to the university and all these smartphone and 3G iPad toting students.

I've previously wondered why half of all internet subscriptions in Australia are for 3G connections, but now the reasons are fairly clear - if you only use a single computer and don't download scads of stuff the service is perfectly usable. In fact one of my family does exactly that moving between a one bed studio apartment in the city during the week  and a house out in the bush at the weekend.

This usability while great (bye bye crappy hotel wifi) is dangerous. It can give people the impression we don't need an expensive fibre optic national broadband network but that 3G can do it all.

The problem is how people use the internet - a lot of people are quite light users and 3G works for them - the problems come when they want to share a network link between several devices, download movies or listen to internet radio. And this is a hard point to get across when something else appears to work really well ...