Archive for the 'Improvement' Category

That’s progress for you!

Check out this humble black marker pen.

Marker pen

What about it, you ask? Well, look at the close up: this marker marks most surfaces, is waterproof, practically odorless, safe… and has a cap off time of up to two weeks without drying up.

Marker pen

What about it, you ask? Just think of the hi-tech perfection that this list describes. What more could anyone ask for in a marker? Not long ago, you couldn’t get this for money or love. In particular, consider the 2-week cap off time. That was the one shortcoming of felt tip markers: they’d dry out if you forgot to cap them. Not any more, it seems – those boffins at the marker factory have figured a way to make ink that doesn’t dry until you actually mark with it.

That’s progress for you!

Eyjafjallajökull and preventive maintenance

I never dreamed I’d be blogging a post with the word Eyjafjallajökull in its title…

Anyway, this volcano is belching again, and airports are closing again – and one can’t help but wonder at the shoddy maintenance practices of these Icelanders. I mean, it’s not like they don’t know a volcano needs to be properly maintained; it’s well documented in the literature:

The Little Prince cleaning his volcano“He carefully cleaned out his active volcanoes. He possessed two active volcanoes; and they were very convenient for heating his breakfast in the morning. He also had one volcano that was extinct. But, as he said, “One never knows!” So he cleaned out the extinct volcano, too. If they are well cleaned out, volcanoes burn slowly and steadily, without any eruptions. Volcanic eruptions are like fires in a chimney.”

The little prince, ch. 9.

From what we hear Iceland uses its geothermal energy extensively, whether or not they use it for heating breakfast… you’d think they could do the preventive maintenance part too!

When will they ever learn?…

The demise of Tinkering, Take 2

I’ve lamented before the disappearance in our time of the Tinkerer, that fix-everything general technology expert of ages past. I ran into a demonstration of how far he’s gone the other day when shopping online for a new bluetooth hands-free cellphone car kit (my old one conked out, and fixing it would of course have cost more than buying new – another sign of our times).

I found on Amazon the Motorola T305 Bluetooth Speaker, and dug into its customer reviews. Turns out it has excellent audio quality, but there was a recurring complaint: people hated its big, intense blue light, which at night would blink very distractingly at the edge of the driver’s field of vision. Motorola Bluetooth Handsfree speaker model T305

The discussion among reviewers was about whether the blue light was terribly distracting, mildly distracting, or maybe you could get used to it after a while. What amazed me is that none of the reviewers I read (admittedly, only a sample of almost 300 of them) had done the obvious thing – solve the problem by tinkering with the device. This could be done in two minutes, tops: all you’d need is to cover the light with a sticker, which can be cut to measure from paper, or some masking tape, or – if you’re so inclined – a thin gold foil with inlaid silver patterns. Anything opaque to light would do. Or if you still want to see the light, but at lower intensity, you could punch a small hole in the sticker, or use a semi-transparent dark material instead of tape. Once you did that you’d have the great sound quality and none of the annoyance.

The fact that this obvious idea never occurred to anyone is disturbing indeed. We’ve become so accustomed to ready made products that the notion of improving them to serve us better is entirely gone! 🙁

Let’s add Interrupt capability to customer support systems

I’m sure this happened to you: you call the support number of your bank/phone company/whatever, go patiently through all the Interactive Voice Response (IVR) menus, get shunted to an “all agents are currently busy” music, waste long minutes listening, and finally get a human to talk to. You explain your request, and the agent politely says “Let me put you on hold while I find out the information”. Before you can protest, you’re back on the music!

Which goes on and on, and you have no idea whether the agent is really digging up the information, or he had a heart attack, or he simply forgot about you… the music just drones on. Doubt starts gnawing: should you hang up and start over? Maybe he’s just seconds from picking the line again? Anguish, anger, and unhappiness fill you. And if you’re in the middle of some bank transaction you don’t want to abort, and you have a meeting starting in 3 minutes, you really need to ask the agent what’s going on – but he’s just out of your reach. This is definitely not a good customer experience.

So, what can we do about this? What is needed is a protocol we used to have when I was an amateur radio operator. Back then, people would speak in turn on the radio waves: …AB1CC, this is XY7ZZ, over! Roger XY7ZZ, this is AB1CC… But we had a mechanism for getting a word in sideways if something urgent came up, say another ham with an emergency communication: you could wait for a pause between words and say “Break-break!” and the talking party would shut up and listen. We had an Interrupt capability.

This capability is what we need in those service desks: a mechanism – say, some key sequence on the phone – that would cause the line to go back from hold to the agent that parked it there. Even the knowledge that you could, if you wanted to, get the agent back and ask how much longer is he going to take – would make you feel a lot better, much less helpless and frustrated.

Take note, my dear bank – give us back some control!

Google Mail attachment guidelines: tell it like it is!

I sent a friend an email with an attached Zip file. It bounced, with a message from “System Administrator” that read

Your message did not reach some or all of the intended recipients.

Subject: xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx
The following recipient(s) could not be reached: xxxxxxxxxxxxxxx …

552 5.7.0 review our attachment guidelines. u14sm9443132gvf.20

I figured maybe the note is from my friend’s system – maybe the file was too large? So I resent it to him to another mail address, with the same outcome. Then it occurred to me to mail the file to myself… long story short, eventually I went to the source of all wisdom – ironically, Google – and discovered that Google Mail, through which I was sending, has a policy forbidding any zip file that contains an executable (which my attachment, quite lawfully, did).

So I sent the file via yousendit, and that was that. But it did occur to me that I would’ve saved a lot of time had Google Mail elected to phrase their bounce message in human-friendly informative terms, such as:

Your message did not reach some or all of the intended recipients.
– – –

It was blocked by GMail’l outgoing mail server, because it has a zip attachment containing an executable file. GMail does not allow this. For more info, see http://…..

Not as succinct as u14sm9443132gvf.20, but rather more useful, don’t you think?

Help is also about what can’t be done

Working in Adobe Photoshop CS4, and I just bumped into a menu item I needed that is grayed out. This does happen: Photoshop has a huge wealth of commands and capabilities, and many depend on the context – for example there are things you can only do in RGB color mode and not in Indexed color mode, and so on.

However, because things are so rich and full of complex dependencies, it is sometimes impossible to figure out WHY a given command is unavailable. It can get quite maddening, in fact. So, here is an idea for the folks at Adobe to consider:

When there is a grayed out menu item, please add a tooltip or status line tip or some such that says “This command is unavailable because…”

This would make life so much easier for us. You’ve put considerable effort into providing help for things that we can do, so also give us some advice when we can’t do what we’d like. Of course this is very context-sensitive – the command may be unavailable for a variety of reasons, and the program knows, internally, what the current reason it.

I can think of one software product that does this, though not on a computer: the TV PVR box we have, provided by Hot cable company, announces every now and then that you can’t preset a recording because there are already two others overlapping the same time slot. But it doesn’t just refuse to record; it announces on screen “to record program X you must cancel one of the following two programs [Y and Z]… please select which one to cancel, or ESC to exit”. It explains the issue and it immediately allows you to fix it.

The same advice applies to a variety of products, not just Adobe’s, of course!

Car LED signs and the brotherhood of drivers

Driving on today’s highways can be an aggravating (and dangerous) experience, and it doesn’t help that you can only communicate with the other drivers around you by honking your horn – not exactly a medium conducive to feelings of brotherly love.

So one day, while wishing I could yell at the driver of the truck in front of me to please move a bit to the right so I might overtake it safely, it occurred to me that we badly need a means of car-to-car communication. One idea I had was to install a loudspeaker on every car like police cars have – so we could say “the yellow truck, please move to the right!”, or “Green Toyota, your back wheel is wobbling, better check it before it falls off!” or simply “Thanks!” when someone had slowed down to let us merge.

It then occurred to me that this could lead to a real cacophony on the road, so I had a better idea – why not simply add a LED marquee at the back of the car that would allow the driver to broadcast short messages to the car behind – say, “Sorry about that!” or “Keep a safe distance!” or even “You idiot, who taught you to drive?”…

Car LED Sign from Iwoot.comThis would be easy to do at the factory, but when I checked it out today I discovered that it exists as a retrofit: the charmingly named web company (the name stands for I Want One Of Those) sells a “LED Car Sign” that fits in the rear window and has an ingeniously simple controller allowing the driver to change the short messages displayed.

Great minds think alike… 🙂

My blogging passes the immersion test!

A few days ago I was at the IEC history of computing museum where they also exhibited their progress in map making – from old blueprints and paper maps to modern CAD and GIS software. They had there an old 1960’s map that caught my eye – a 1:50,000 topographic map by the Israel Survey Department. These were the best you could get when I was a kid hiking around the country; every house was correctly shown as a black dot of the exact right shape, and every hill and gully were visible in the contour lines.

I looked at the map and it struck me how much maps’ visual quality has progressed since then, with modern printing techniques. The stark colors used in the 60’s are replaced today with delicate pastels; the topography is enhanced by fine shading; the important details are not drowned out by the density of equally strong contour lines. The information of the old maps was perhaps perfect, but to the modern eye they look, well… old. Unfortunately, as far as I know the maps you can buy today at such a detailed scale use the same old techniques.

Then the next day I came to see a new Israel Survey Department map that was wondrous fine to behold, done in pastel shades and fine shading gradations, reminiscent of what you see in Google Maps but with all the detail of the maps of my youth. And my friend Gadi happened by, and I said unto him, lo, see this map, for it is very finely done, and only the other day had I wished such were made; and he looked upon the map and found it good. And I said to him, surely I should blog about this map and compare it to the older ones, and he said, verily thou shouldst. And I resolved to make it so. And then the matter passed from my mind until my alarm clock went off to wake me for my day’s labors.

The bad news is, evidently the Israel Survey Dept. has yet to produce the fine map I saw in my dream. The good news is, looks like my blogging has reached the point where it passes the immersion test. I’ve found long ago that when I really immerse myself in some practice or task, it makes its way into my dreams. As a forensic scientist, I would dream of Gunshot Residue Particles; as a Thin Films VLSI engineer I would examine LTO defects in dreamland; and when I took to developing software, I would dream at times of bugs – I remember once actually solving a particularly stubborn one in my sleep, a solution that turned out to be valid in real life. So now I dream of searching for stuff to blog about!

Topographic Maps

As for my resolution, I can’t show you the nonexistent topographic map, but I can and hereby do show you a comparison of an old ISD map and a detail of the same area from Google Maps (Terrain option) that illustrates the visual qualities I was dreaming of merging with it.

Sygnet handsfree design flaws, part 2: Control overloading

Sygnet Handsfree with stickersBack to my Sygnet Bluetooth Handsfree Carkit model BTS600. We saw its problem with cloaking the controls and indicator lamps… but on top of that, the people at Sygnet played a trick that is becoming very common in this digital era: they overloaded the controls and the lamps.

I use Overloaded in the Object Oriented Programming sense: the use of one operator or function name to perform several different functions depending on context.

The Sygnet device has three operating buttons and more than a dozen actions; so each button can do many different things. For example, the “-” button rejects a call if pressed for 3 seconds while the phone is ringing; it initiates voice recognition dialing if pressed for 3 seconds when the phone isn’t ringing; it cancels the voice recognition if pressed until a beep is heard; it cancels bluetooth device recognition if pressed for 6 seconds; it reduces audio volume; it mutes/unmutes a call when pressed concurrently with the “+” button; and it starts a conference call if pressed for 3 seconds while one call is active and another waiting. The other buttons likewise do a great many things; it’s so complicated that I carry the instructions in the glove compartment at all times! Needless to say, the captions on the device merely identify the buttons, not their functions.

The two indicator lamps, meanwhile, are similarly overused: The blue lamp blinks 3 times every 2 seconds to indicate an active Bluetooth link; it blinks rapidly together with the red lamp when the device recognizes the cellphone; it blinks every 2 seconds when bluetooth is inactive; it stays lit with the red lamp during charging, and without it when charging is completed. So now you need a stopwatch to figure out what it means…

To illustrate how excellent this human engineering is, consider its application in a ballistic missile situation: “Hey, Joe, does two blue blinks followed by a long beep mean a 3 second push on button D launches the missiles unless you first tap on button A, or does it mean the Mr. Coffee needs maintenance?”

So, what can we do about this? Well, by now you know my style. At least I could make the cloaked buttons eminently visible…

Sygnet Handsfree with stickers

No, I don’t know anyone in the Ashmore Islands!

Two of the least pleasant-to-use GUI controls are the scrollable list box and its cousin the drop-down list, especially when they have many items listed. Of course, that’s exactly when they are indispensable… you can’t use radio buttons for 50 choices, so if you need to let the user choose a state of the union, a drop down list is inevitable. Likewise for countries of the world, or for their currencies.

But the way these geographic-oriented controls are implemented in software and web sites is really annoying.

Drop-down List of countriesTake the image at right, the list you have to go through to select a country for a new contact in Outlook and other applications: it opens on a list of ten countries, of which one – Argentina – may be even remotely likely to be inhabited by business contacts of yours. You can scroll down, of course… and in the next ten you find even greater concentrations of business partners, like the entry for the Ashmore and Cartier Islands, which are a group of small uninhabited tropical islands in the Indian Ocean!

Not that I have anything against the inhabitants of Ocean islands, or of Angola, Antigua, or Anguilla, but given the statistics, why should I have to scroll past them – and past Cook Islands, and Namibia, and Nauru, and Palmyra Atoll, for that matter – on my way to find the US, or the UK, where I really have many more contacts and affairs?

Or look at the next screen grab, from a web site for computing currency exchange rates. Do I really need to have Equatorial Guinea’s CFA Franc, the Eritrean Nakfa, and the Ethiopian Birr pushing down the Euro and the US Dollar farther away from the British Pound, just because of the accident of alphabetic order?

List Box of currencies

Obviously, the people of Estonia do care about the Kroon (and I care about the Israeli Shekel, also far from the heart of global finances). But what is needed is a list that gives the most common choices – the Dollar, the Pound, the Euro – by default at the top of the list, where 99% of users will benefit. And then we need personalization, so each of us in the rest of the world can put their country, or those they deal with, at the very top.

This can be done in many ways. One’s home country can be extracted from Windows Regional settings and put up front. Web sites may use cookies to remember which currencies you converted last time. Local software tools can keep my choices in the Windows registry. Smarter tools may learn from your past choices and bump them up the list in future. The techniques exist; it’s just that someone should step out of the silly box and dump the alphabetic order in favor of what makes users more productive and less annoyed!