1. Thoughts on reading Ancillary Justice

    Posted July 16, 2015 in books  |  No Comments so far

    I’ve just finished reading Ancillary Justice, the recent recipient of multiple science fiction awards including the coveted Hugo. It was the first science fiction novel I’ve read for some time.

    Having once read that genre almost exclusively I was expecting to like the novel far more than I did, so I was left wondering if I’ve become less receptive to the genre as a whole or if it’s down to Ancillary Justice in particular.

    Before reading Ancillary Justice I’d heard a lot about its similarity to Iain M Banks’ Culture novels, and I could see some common elements, in particular the notion of starships having sufficiently advanced AIs that they develop personalities and become engaged in political affairs. But is that even an interesting idea any more? It seems to me that, in the early 21st century, our portrayals of the far future would be stranger if they didn’t include some form of advanced and politically engaged AI than if they did. So I’m not sold on the idea that the use of an AI as the novel’s protagonist is particularly radical.

    Of course it’s not fair to say that science fiction novels are only made good by the novelty and uniqueness of their underlying ideas, but I found Ancillary Justice flawed in some other ways too. There’s an over-reliance on what seem to be quite amazing coincidences, including the chance meeting with Seivarden which kicks off the story. For a while I expected some explanation for these, what with the numerous references to the Radch belief that there is “no such thing as coincidence”, but as the novel drew to a close it became clear that the coincidences were what they’d initially seemed to be: a convenient and lazy literary device. There were other problems with characterisation and motive but I’m not going to get into the details of these here.

    Don’t get me wrong, Ancillary Justice isn’t a car crash and it’s by no means the worst science fiction novel I read. Maybe my expectations were inflated by the awards it received; maybe I was wrong to think, upon starting it, that I was about to encounter the state of the art of modern science fiction. But I’m left with two questions. First, should I press on and read the sequels to Ancillary Justice? And second, are there other novels out there that better exemplify the best modern sci-fi?

  2. What Magna Carta symbolises

    Posted June 17, 2015 in ephemera  |  No Comments so far

    An informative, combative post from Jack of Kent about the Magna Carta, which is supposed to have celebrated its 800th birthday a couple of days ago. Magna Carta plays more of a symbolic than a functional role in English law. But what does it symbolise?

    [It symbolises] not a great English constitutional principle, but the lack of one.  It symbolises the capacity of people to nod-along at being told they have fictional and non-existent rights instead of having rights which can actually be enforced.  It symbolises that people are content with believing in fairy tales.

    Those with political and legal power know this.  It is safe for the government to want you to celebrate Magna Carta, which you cannot rely on in court, whilst it – for example – seeks to repeal the Human Rights Act, which you can.

    Read the whole thing here.

  3. How The Wire can help you be a better design researcher

    Posted May 22, 2015 in research, user centred design  |  No Comments so far

    I liked this post on Medium by Sam Ladner about how design researchers need to think fast and slow. If you work in design or UX or whatever, you should read it.

    Taken from the Medium article

    Taken from the Medium article


    The general gist is that problems can be approached with two different styles of thinking: “fast” thinking, in which the components of an idea are allowed to form in rapid succession without being challenged or tested too much, and “slow” thinking, where the opposite rule applies and ideas come into being via a more rigorous and methodical process. Design research will be more successful if you combine both ways of thinking, says the article, before going on to explain at what stages in a design process “fast” or “slow” thinking would be most appropriate.

    When I read the piece, however, I found myself thinking of The Wire (as I often do) and specifically a scene where Baltimore detective Kima Greggs arrives at her first murder scene with her partner, Bunk Moreland. Here’s the discussion they have about “soft eyes”.

    Bunk: You know what you need at a crime scene?
    Kima: Rubber gloves?
    Bunk: Soft eyes.
    Kima: Like I’m suppose to cry and shit?
    Bunk: If you got soft eyes, you can see the whole thing. If you got hard eyes — you staring at the same tree missing the forest.
    Kima: Ah, zen shit.
    Bunk: Soft eyes, grasshopper.

    Kima and Bunk

    When I’ve approached design research projects in the past I’ve often thought about them in terms of “soft eyes” and “hard eyes”. There are various points along the way where you need to defocus—take a step back from everything you’ve put up on the wall or into your spreadsheets, stop yourself from staring at individual data points or considering specific questions, and allow the whole thing, everything you’ve learned or accumulated, just permeate your consciousness. Then you’re more likely to grasp overarching themes and patterns, those elusive things that lurk behind the data. This is how I interpret “soft eyes”.

    “Hard eyes”, on the other hand, are needed at other times: when you do need to solve a very specific problem, to optimise something in your design, to understand why something isn’t working. This is when you step forward to focus on individual data points and questions, or apply checklists or other pre-defined analytical processes to solve your problem.

    Knowing when you need “soft eyes” and when you need “hard eyes” is important. You can’t get by with one and not the other. And I think this applies just as much to “fast” versus “slow” thinking, as defined in the Medium post.

    Postscript: Quora has a thread about Bunk and Kima’s “soft eyes” discussion if you want to read other people’s thoughts about what it means

  4. Benedict Evans: the cut-down version of the internet is on the PC

    Posted May 15, 2015 in links  |  No Comments so far

    Benedict Evans writes that we should stop thinking of mobile devices offering a constrained, semi-functional version of the internet experience available on PCs:

    We’ve always thought about the mobile internet as a limited thing compared to the desktop internet, because of the constraints of hardware and network. Today, obviously, those constraints are a lot less than they were in the featurephone world, but it can still feel natural to talk of the PC as the most fully-featured version of the internet, and mobile as the place where you have to make lots of allowances for limitations of various kinds, just as for a smart watch…

    I’d suggest that we should think about inverting this – it’s actually the PC that has the limited, basic, cut-down version of the internet.

    I get where Evans is coming from. I felt that way after buying my first proper smartphone—not the Windows Mobile monstrosities that I used to wrestle with in the pre-iPhone days, but my first recognisably modern smartphone, an HTC Hero back in 2009.

    It was clear right away that the device was designed and built to be on the internet, while desktop operating systems and first-gen smartphones still felt like machines from another age which had had internettiness retrofitted on to them. Up until then I’d always had to sync new phones with horrible software (Microsoft ActiveSync for example) but this was the first phone I’d had that just did all that over the internet without making a big deal of it. Thinking about the potential of the thing was overwhelming and nearly gave me a panic attack.

    What wasn’t clear to me then, though, was just how much these devices would redefine the internet by breaking it out of the browser’s sandbox, by disconnecting it from the desktop PC’s power socket. Desktop & laptop PCs still do a lot of things that mobile devices don’t and I don’t see them becoming obsolete any time soon. But their relationship with the internet is, and always will be, far less direct, far less intimate, than that enjoyed by mobile devices.

  5. The multi-party continental fantasyland that was never to be

    Posted May 12, 2015 in politics  |  1 Comment so far

    Lots of people have written about the election last Thursday and the decisive Conservative victory, which came as a surprise to everyone.

    I was going to write something too but decided against it. Instead here are some other things that might be worth reading.

    First, at Public Policy And The Past, the enigmatic “historian” has a good piece titled “So What Did Happen Last Thursday?” which offers five reasons for the surprisingly easy Tory victory and the mistaken assumption so many of us had that two-party politics was a thing of the past. Labour and Conservative actually both increased their share of the vote, so it’s very much politics as usual:

    All of this has come as some shock to your average cafe-dwelling leftist. They thought that a new world was coming into being: a multi-party continental fantasyland, in which parties would have to work together, in which voters would choose based on a buffet of different policy options, in which a ‘left alliance’ of all anti-Conservative parties could seize power, enact voting reform and generally make the world a softer, greener, more pluralistic place.

    It wasn’t.

    As a café-dwelling leftist myself I should admit to being quite excited about Borgen-style coalition politics. Not so much because I thought it would deliver the sorts of policies that I lean towards, though: more because it would liven things up a bit.

    Here’s another piece by Chris Cook on BBC News. It quotes extensively from Labour strategist James Morris, who I think I might have met once in real life. It’s an insightful look at what was going on behind the scenes during the campaign within a Labour party whose private polling was far less favourable to them than the (as it turned out, shockingly inaccurate) polls that appeared in the press.

    “The campaign strongly toughened our stance on the SNP before the final Question Time [TV appearance for Mr Miliband], but it was not enough. The Tories successfully used the fear of Scottish influence as a way of catalyzing pre-existing doubts about Labour in a way that had not been possible earlier in the campaign. Labour’s unexpected post-referendum collapse in Scotland transformed the election across the whole of Great Britain.”

    At some point in the future I’d like to learn more about this election campaign. Behind the tabloid mud-slinging and one-note anti-Scottish fearmongering there was obviously some brutal yet intricate thinking going on. Lynton Crosby is clearly someone to be reckoned with.

  6. Harry Brignull on how to get hired in UX

    Posted May 10, 2015 in Uncategorized  |  No Comments so far

    In my last job I spent a lot of time interviewing candidates for UX jobs and running design exercises. So I can recommend reading Harry Brignull’s tips for anyone looking to get hired in UX – they all ring true.

    And in fact they’re still worth reading even if you’re not looking to get hired but are the person doing the hiring. If you’re not already  looking for the red flags he mentions, you should be.

    I’ve lost count of the amount of times I’ve asked people about surprises or unexpected results from user research only to receive a content-free response. One UX designer even said, “I’ve always been right.” Needless to say, that person didn’t get the job.

  7. Brutalism & sticks

    Posted May 4, 2015 in Uncategorized  |  No Comments so far

    via Instagram http://ift.tt/1OUFflo

  8. Meanwhile, North of the Wall, the Sun says…

    Posted April 30, 2015 in politics  |  No Comments so far

    Today’s Sun says you should vote Conservative. Not a huge surprise there.

    Oh, hang on: it’s also saying you should vote SNP.


    That’s odd. How can the Sun say two different things on either side of the border?

    To a lot of people, these front pages show the low regard the Sun has for its readers’ intelligence. That it thinks it can say one thing to one group of people and another thing to another group of people, and get away with it, because the two groups of people don’t overlap or talk to each other. That Rupert Murdoch doesn’t have the guts to say in Scotland what he says in England, because the Scottish Sun’s circulation would collapse if it supported a party that’s so unpopular there.

    While these people have a point, it’s worth remembering that these are two different newspapers here, published in two different nations, so it isn’t unreasonable that their editorial lines might diverge.

    What I find bizarre isn’t that the newspapers have offered different views but that the contrast between their coverage is so striking. The “English” Sun has, along with the rest of the right-wing press here, spent the last month engaged in increasingly hysterical attempts to demonise and smear Nicola Sturgeon, the leader of the SNP. In today’s endorsement of the Conservatives it lists, as the second most notable argument in their favour, that they would “stop the SNP running the country”.

    It’s the extreme negativity of the English SNP coverage that makes it seem odd and deeply cynical that the Scottish Sun has come out in their support.

  9. “Fast is good, clever is better” – on speed, or the lack thereof

    Posted April 28, 2015 in user centred design  |  No Comments so far

    Two articles on a similar topic. One is recent and the other is old. Both UX design related so don’t worry if you’re not interested in that kind of thing.

    First, “Let Your Users Wait” by Tal Mishaly at UX Magazine. The upshot is that designers of interfaces should think more about time: about how users perceive it, about how the same period of time can seem to pass more quickly or more slowly depending on what the interface does, and even about how it can sometimes be useful to create delay.

    Second, an oldie but goodie from four years ago: a cognitive teardown of the Angry Birds user experience by Charles Mauro in 2011. Reading the first article made me remember this one and how much I liked it at the time, so I dug it out of my bookmarks and read it again. I was hooked on Angry Birds back then, and some of Mauro’s comments about the game’s approach to response time management had a big impact on me:

    In Angry Birds, it was possible for the programmers to have made the flight of the birds fast – very fast, but they didn’t. Instead they programmed the flight of the angry flock to be leisure pace as they arc across the sky heading for the pigs’ glass houses. This slowed response time, combined with a carefully crafted trajectory trace (the flight path of the bird), solves one huge problem for all user interfaces – error correction. The vast majority of software user interfaces have no consideration for how users can be taught by experience with the system to improve their performance.

    I reinstalled Angry Birds recently to show to my 3-year-old son before recoiling in terror from its barrage of ads and—worse—dark patterns leading to shady in-app purchases. But despite all that I think there’s still a lot for interaction designers to learn from Angry Birds.

    If you’re one of them (an interaction designer that is, not an angry bird) feel free to spend tomorrow morning playing Angry Birds. If your bosses ask you what you’re up to, tell them it’s research and point them to Mauro’s article.

  10. Phone Numbers versus Email Addresses

    Posted March 27, 2015 in comment  |  No Comments so far

    Stowe Boyd has written a piece about email and how it needs to die.

    I broadly agree with the argument. The physical constraints of transport and logistics meant that postal or snail mail was never going to fundamentally progress beyond its initial model of a bunch of people relaying an object from one place to the other over a couple of days. But there’s no equivalent constraint that forces us to accept email as an unchanging model for digital communication. It is old-fashioned and has flaws so why not do better? Other tools exist that work better for specific use cases so why not use them? Let’s move past email when it doesn’t meet our needs, let’s forget about its anachronistic metaphors of inboxes and folders and carbon copies.

    There was, however, one assertion in Boyd’s piece that made me raise an eyebrow:

    In a mobile world, I expect the phone number will replace the email address.

    I really hope that doesn’t happen as it would feel like a huge backward step. You have to pay for a phone number. A phone number is assigned to a specific country. Phone numbers can only be provided by government-licenced telcos, an industry that’s so consolidated that consumers have little real choice. Phone numbers in and of themselves contain no information (apart from nationality, as mentioned above). You can’t choose your phone number.

    I could go on but I think those reasons alone should be convincing enough. Whatever the post-email form of unique digital identification is, let’s not allow it to be phone numbers!