Tuesday, 23 December 2008

hmong in french guiana

Almost exactly three years ago we went to Laos and northern Thailand, one of our most fascinating trips ever. Certainly as fascinating as byzantine and hellenistic period ruins in Turkey, and that's saying something.

Desperately poor, and utterly deeply fascinating the history of that area got well under my skin and I've maintained an interest in the area ever since, including the various hill tribes of the area, including the Hmong.

The Hmong basically backed the wrong side. Some stayed, a lot left. While I knew that many had relocated to Nebraska, not always happily, what I didn't know was that some were happily farming vegetables in French Guiana, and generally making a go of it ...

Monday, 22 December 2008

metaphors, not interfaces

fluxbox screenshot
- icewm -- fluxbox -

a few weeks ago I blogged about how interfaces had to look real - and I'd still stand by that but I've been thinking some more about this.

When we talk about interfaces for computer operating systems we really mean the desktop/window manager, and what we're really talking about is a set of expectations, which are to large expect governed by XP.

Everyone has used XP, everyone knows how to find their way around XP via the start menu. Other well known interfaces work the same way, KDE has a start menu, gnome as pull downs as does OS X.

Interestingly, though apocraphally, apparently it's easier to move first year information sciences students across to kubuntu than straight ubuntu, for the simple reason it's more XP like in appearance, and XP is what they overwhelmingly use in school.

So we could say we have two common metaphors, the XP metaphor and the gnome/OS X metaphor. Makes one wonder how quite a different minamalist desktop, eg icewm, would fair in usability testing - given that it breaks the set of expectations, the metaphor, that makes something intuitive.

Same goes for browsers. Same goes for word processors. People could move to Open office easier than Word 2007 purely because it was closer to their expectations as to how menus were structured. Even mobile phones are prone to the same problem - most people know how to find their way round a nokia - give them a samsung and they're stumped.

So metphors are like memes, the collection of ideas that people have about how things are going to work and how things are going to be structured. Step away from the metaphor and people perceive it as difficult, need extra training etc, and hence the cost goes up, etc etc.

And this need for metaphor conformance means that everything ends up being the same - great for transition, poor for innovation, and makes radical change difficult, which goes back to my remarks about the linpus interface - they could have used the native xfce and probably got away with it. They could have customised it to make it look like XP, They didn't, they made something simple and self evident. What they didn't do was use a lightweight manager such as fluxbox or icewm.

Obviously I'm not privy to why, but I'm guessing metaphors had something to do with it ...

Saturday, 20 December 2008

austlang ...

Austlang, the online database of Australian indigenous language resources is finally live, thanks to sterling work by Kazuko Obata.

Good to see a project that you were in at the beginning of finally ship.

Wednesday, 3 December 2008

Tom Graham

Tom Graham, the university librarian at Newcastle and previously York, has died.

Tom was a decent man, a confirmed cyclist and most of all, an old school librarian, but one who understood fully the implications of digital media. I didn't know him particularly well, nor did our paths cross that often, but when they did he was always fair and never took himself too seriously. Famous, or perhaps infamous for once puzzledly asking 'what is telnet?' in the middle of a university computing committee meeting, Tom championed the use of digital resources in libraries and helped push the adoption of digital media.

And, underneath it all Tom was still a country boy. I'll always remember the summer morning when I turned up for work to find an escaped herd of cows blocking University Road and Tom is his suit enthusiastically shooing them off the road and onto some open grass beside the library.

Memories like that making working at a university utterly unique ...