Category Archives: General

Lizards are cool

Yesterday Janie and I spent the day in Fredricksburg, a quaint German town about an hour east of Austin. Its a great place for beer, and German food. While there we went to the National Museum of the Pacific War (the famous Admiral Nimitz was born in Fredricksburg).

While there we saw this old WWII tank:

On closer inspection, we saw something unexpected and rather cool, here it is blown up:

Its a small lizard, which had changed to be almost exactly the same color as the tank!

Once more unto the breach

Well, I decided it was time to get political again, after last Summer’s insane battle against the forces of evil and software patents in the EU (during which I spoke to almost every Scottish MEP, and many English and Irish ones too, not to mention a visit to the European Parliament in Brussels).

This time I read about some anti-DRM protests being organized by Defective By Design, which I think is affiliated with the EFF on Saturday all over the country, and I further noticed that one of them was taking place here in LA. I decided to turn up, and drag my long-suffering girlfriend Janie along for the ride.

There were only two other people there when I arrived, the LA organizer, and his (it seems equally long-suffering) mother. Undeterred by the lackluster turnout, he donned some kind of yellow hazmat suit, and I set about handing out fliers outside the Apple store…

…for about 20 seconds, until the mall security told us that we couldn’t do that and had to leave. Finally, I thought, a chance to confront authority head-on, to challenge the autocratic corporate slavemasters, etc etc. Um, ok, not really, we politely agreed to leave, although I kept handing out leaflets along the way, and my hazmat wearing comrade brandished his anti-DRM poster at the growing number of people wondering what the hell two guys are doing being escorted by store security, one of them dressed like a mild-mannered 29 year old software engineer, the other dressed in a hazmat suit looking kinda like the Unabomber.

Anyway, the experience was rather fun, and I think I will definitely take part in the next one, which I’m sure will have learned the key lessons of this event (which are: 1. plan for more than 24 hours in advance of protest and 2. protest in a public place where you can’t be kicked out by security).

Oh yes, and here is the evidence.

Usability testing in Open Source software

I was interested to learn about betterdesktop.org on /. If you have never seen usability testing before, it is well worth going and downloading the videos.

The basic idea behind usability testing is simple, without any guidance from you or anyone else, ask someone to perform a task with the software being tested, and record it on video, along with asking them to provide a running verbal commentary about what they are doing or trying to do.

Most software developers, in this situation, have a very strong urge to say “no, not like that, like this!” when watching such a test – seeing failures as the fault of the subject, rather than that of the UI design. This emphasises why it is so important that the subject receives no guidance, since typical users won’t have a developer standing over their shoulder to show them how to use the software.

Most open source software is notoriously difficult to use. Some apologists claim that it isn’t any more difficult than commercial software like Windows, its just that people are used to Windows. I am afraid that such apologists are kidding themselves.

The BetterDesktop project is a laudable effort to address this with Linux desktop software. Unfortunately it took a well funded company like Novel to pay for this, it would be nice if usability testing could be performed in the same distributed voluntary spirit as open source.

One possible solution to this would be an open source app which allowed people to easily set up usability tests remotely. This app might record a video of the user’s screen, while also recording what the user is saying. The app could support simple instant messaging functionality so that the tester could interact with the subject in a limited way. I guess I will put this on my todo list, which means I will probably implement it somewhere around 2125AD.

Letter to Home Secretary

Just wrote a letter to the UK’s Home Secretary (who is responsible for immigration):

Dear Home Secretary,

It is well known that the United Kingdom is keen to attract skilled workers to the UK, particularly those involved in the software industry.

The United States is poised to pass legislation, known as the “Induce Act”, which will dramatically increase the risk of innovation in the software industry in the United States. If passed, this legislation is likely to prompt a large number of the United States’ most talented software engineers to consider relocation to another country.

The United Kingdom is well suited to provide an alternate base for these displaced software engineers, where their innovations may benefit the UK’s economy, not to mention the economy of the European Union.

My question is whether the UK government has made sufficient provision for displaced American innovators to migrate here given the hostile environment they may soon face in their own country. It is my belief that the United Kingdom can only benefit from the influx of talented software engineers from the United States, and should minimise any barriers to their migration here.

I await your response with much anticipation,

Kind regards,

Ian Clarke
Cematics Ltd.