2007 World Tae Kwon Do Championships

Had a great day today went to the National Indoor Arena to watch the 8th Open Tae Kwon Do World Championships. The event started a little later than scheduled due to the vast number of competitors taking part this year. By the end of the day we had seen a number of World Champions crowned in the Musical Patterns as well as the Singles and Team Sparring and WTF formats.

I enjoyed the day, realised how much I miss participating in open competitions so it all felt a little bitter sweet. The level of competition was extremely high which was to be expected given that there were almost thirty countries represented. Plus I caught a glimpse of the incomparable Becky Riggs

I managed to record a few of the fights on my N73 which I’ve uploaded to YouTube, here’s one of them:

All in all it’s been a really enjoyable day.

Ambient Findability – Peter Morville

Ok it’s definitely that time of the week when I catch up on blogs. I have a feed that shows me all the latest Google Tech Talks some of which I ignore but some are genuinely interesting – such as this one entitled Ambient Findability and the Future of Search:

It’s easy to be dismissive due to the sheer pretentiousness of the title until you realise who’s giving the talk. Peter Morville is co-author of …

Many people consider Peter to be the founding father of Information Architecture, and certainly the above text was and still is considered to be a seminal piece.

In this talk Peter discussed what he refers to as Ambient Findability the subject of his new book:

Morville talks about the Internet, GIS, and other network technologies that are converging to make unlimited findability possible. He discusses how the convergence of these innovations impacts society, since Web access is now a standard requirement for successful people and businesses. His central belief seems to be that information literacy, information architecture, and usability are all critical components of what he see’s is the future of search.

It’s a fascinating talk that anyone in the new Web 2.0/Web 3.0 bandwagons should take a moment to listen to. I’m still left grinning at one of the observations he makes right at the beginning:

A few years ago I started to get really sick of the word usability. It’s a good word and folks like Jakob Nielsen did a good job of blasting that word into everybody’s heads. And when I talk with executives about their goals for the redesign of their websites, without fail when I say what’s your goal? they say “we want it to be more usable” so I’ll say great what does that mean?. The problem is that the word usability has sort of grown and grown until it’s almost synonymous with quality.

If you don’t understand why that’s a bad thing, then you really need to listen to this talk.

Equally if your a librarian or a Library System vendor then you need to listen to this talk, many of his examples are from this domain and they are fascinating.

Turning the pages of an e-book. The book metaphor

This is a fascinating talk about whether the use of the book metaphor is appropriate for electronic documents. There’s two schools of thought on this. On the one hand we have those who believe that the book metaphor is useful because humans are already experienced in handling physical books, its ingrained into our psyche. On the other hand many others argue that the metaphor is not useful, and by clinging on to it we are limiting the potential of electronic books – these people also argue that whatever new metaphor are presented they will gain traction and people will get used to them over time, but one could argue that about any technology that becomes pervasive over time. .

I dont want to sound critical of Veronica’s work or even her findings I think it is fascinating, and well worth watching the talk. I just cant help but feel that we are going to be stuck with the book metaphor for a long time to come. All I have to do is look at myself – I work with computers all the time, I download e-books, PDF’s, manual’s ranging from a few pages in length to hundreds of pages. I know that it’s less wasteful and possibly more efficient, and even faster to find the bits i’m interested in by searching the electronic document … I rarely ever bother doing that. I tend to print them out, and if you a funky printer like the one we have at work it’ll print out 4 sides per sheet of A4 then hey presto you have a small A5 size copy of the document/book.

I think there’s several reason’s for this, firstly screens are terrible for reading documents on, they strain the eyes, it’s hard to find the right level of contrast, most screens flicker and the more intently you stare at them the more your eyes hurt over time, if your reading on a desktop machine or a laptop then it’s also easy to be distracted. In contrast, I can happily spend a whole day reading a book cover to cover without ever feeling fatigued or distracted. I can also scribble in them (ok I use those funky peelable sticky labels these days:p as colored bookmarks), I can carry the book with me, read it on the train or the bus, or in bed.

I don’t believe that the book metaphor actually works when interacting with a computer using a keyboard or a mouse. Any time I’ve ever tried to read a book on computer where I had to drag one corner of the book in a pseudo page turning movement, I’ve been left wondering how it would be so much easier with a next page button – the page turning animation looks nice but after a while they become irritating. The metaphor might work on more tactile interface, like the multi-touch interfaces that are slowly being rolled out.

Now I know I’m not a luddite and I’m certainly not anti technology it’s just that I haven’t come across a way to read an electronic book that I’d prefer over having a real book … yet! We’re seeing advancements now in paper technologies where electronic books can be downloaded onto special types of paper that will display the content. Perhaps that’s the real way forward? Have a real book but you can change the contents of to whatever your currently reading … best of both worlds?

Science Commons

James Boyle gives a very interesting talk on Science Commons, which is a project within the Creative Commons movement which strives to remove unnecessary legal and technical barriers to the sharing of scientific materials in order to facilitate collaboration and innovation. Boyle gave another similar talk about 7 ways to ruin a technical revolution, and its well worth listening to both of these talks.

Science Commons was launched to expand the Creative Commons mission into the scientific … all » realm. James Boyle will be talking about two Science Commons projects: The Neurocommons and the Materials Transfer Project. The Materials Transfer Project uses standard machine readable licenses so that one day sharing biological materials between labs might be as easy as buying books from Amazon. If these words weren’t forbidden at Google, he’d describe the Neurocommons as a first draft of an open “semantic web” for neurology. The overall goal is to take some of the ingenuity we devote to allowing teenagers to flirt with each other online, or people to share and find mashups, and use it to reduce the transaction costs of science and make it selfishly beneficial for scientists to share more, and more easily.

Greeks vs Romans. Adaptive vs Plain-Driven development.

Came across this wonderful essay over at Hacknot today. The essay starts off by decrying this assertion made by Raghavendra Rao Loka, in February’s 2007 edition of IEEE Software:

“Writing and maintaining software are not engineering activities. So it’s not clear why we call software development software engineering.”

The author of the essay goes onto offer a brief rebuttal of this this based on some comments by Steve McConnell, and pointed out quite rightly in my opinion that:

Software development is slowly and surely moving its way out of the mire of superstition and belief into the realm of empiricism and reason. The transition closely parallels those already made in other disciplines, such as medicine’s evolution from witchcraft into medical science.

What I found really insightful though was how the author likened these two views ( Loka vs McConnell ) to another conflict:

These two represent the age-old conflict between the engineers and the artists, the sciences and the humanities. In the software development domain, some have previously characterized it as the battle between the Greeks and the Romans.

He then applies this same metaphor to the wider issue of adaptive vs the plain-driven approaches to software development and in doing so offers an interesting perspective on the two schools of thought:

By now you will probably have recognized the analogue between the cultural divide separating the Greeks and Romans and the methodological divide between adaptive and plan-driven approaches to software development.

We can think of the Greeks as representative of Agile Methods. The focus is upon loosely coordinated individuals whose talent and passion combine to produce great artefacts of creativity. Any organizational shortcomings the team might experience are overcome by the cleverness and skilful adaptivity of the contributors.

Alternatively, we can consider the Romans as representative of plan driven methods, in which the carefully engineered and executed efforts of competent and well educated practitioners combine to produce works of great size and complexity. The shortcomings of any of the individuals involved are overcome by the systematic methods and peer review structure within which they work.

It’s a wonderful analogy that I think illustrates some of the differences between the two approaches in a way that most practitioners would readily understand and perhaps even agree with. Which is the right approach? I guess it depends on you, your project but most importantly the kind of people you have in your team. I have certainly spent a considerable amount of time extolling what I believe are the virtues of the agile methodology on this blog.

I spent several years working in a very Roman-esque organisation and I’d probably argue that the competent and well educated practitioners in such organisations rarely fit either of those terms. Probably because the very nature of such systems require those working within that confine to accept a certain level of conformity. Consequently individual flair, creativity or even imagination are less important than the uniformity that such organisations require – a sort of fill-in-the-blanks approach to development where your responsible for only those small pieces assigned to you, and whether you necessarily know what the bigger picture is or even understand it isn’t important because some more senior in the team who assigns you your tasks does know. This often results in developers feeling disaffected or perhaps less likely to feel any sense of personal ownership or even responsibility, because they know they aren’t in a position to be responsible for anything.

I do find myself agreeing that part of what makes agile teams successful is this notion of heroics on the part of individuals. It does work well when you have talented individuals who can work together in a reasonably small scale. How well does that scales up? … I can’t personally answer that question?  I’ve read plenty of accounts and listened to the likes of Scott Ambler explain how agile can work on large scale projects. I must admit I’m not sure if I’m convinced of this. … but that’s only because of my earlier point that this decision needs, in part, to be based on the type of people you have your in team.

Our development group at Talis is quite small,at the moment no more than 20 people – and it’s not for a lack of trying, were constantly trying to recruit people but we look specifically for skilled developers who could fit into the culture that we have. Individuals who are self motivated, self learners who take a great deal of personal pride in what they do, take responsibility and also want to have a sense of ownership over what they are building. As a result we tend to be quite jealous of who we let into the team, but again that’s probably something that is unique to our little group and says more about us than the Agile process.

I do find myself partly agreeing with the conclusion the author of the essay makes:

I favour a development method that is predominantly Greek, with sufficient Roman thrown in to keep things under control and prevent needless wheel spinning. The Greeks are a great bunch of guys, but they tend to put too much emphasis on individual heroics, and pay too little attention to the needs of the maintenance programmers that will following in their path. The Romans are a little stuffy and formal, but they really know how to keep things under control and keep your project running smoothly and predictably

 I don’t agree that, in terms of software development,  the Roman approach was ever truly able to keep things under control or necessarily running smoothly even predictably. If it was we wouldn’t have so many examples of failed projects that went over budget, went over time and totally failed to deliver what the customer actually wanted.

I personally do prefer a predominantly Greek approach and I do see methodologies such as SCRUM imposing the right level of Roman-esque control and structure to keep the project moving along smoothly and predictably, with the added bonus that the customer actually gets what they want.

Chekhov’s: The Seagull

It was my birthday last month and my friend Amanda presented me with a gift, two tickets to see Ian McKellen in Chekhov’s The Seagull at The RSC’s Courtyard Theatre in Stratford. The visit to Stratford yesterday brought back some wonderful memories, we spent some time wondering around the center and seeing some of the sights. The last time I watched a play in Stratford was over a decade ago, prior to that I used to travel there frequently to watch various productions. I’m not sure why I stopped going, it wasn’t a conscious choice, but nevertheless it is one that I regret.

The actual production itself was wonderful. Prior to watching the play last night I wasn’t at all familiar with it, and quite deliberately refrained from reading up on it. I didn’t want to watch the play with any expectations, I guess I just wanted to enjoy the production without trying to over analyse it, or pre-judge it beforehand.

The story revolves around the romantic and artistic conflict between four main characters: The fading actress lady Irina Arkadina, her son the experimental playwright Konstantin, the young, famous and extremely successful writer Trigorin who is also Arkadina’s lover and finally Nina the young aspiring actress who is loved by Konstantin but is herself infatuated with Trigorin.

One of the things you immediately notice about the play is that there is a strong inter textual relationship with Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Arakadina and Konstantin quote lines from Hamlet, and Konstantin is obsessed with winning his mother back from Trigorin much as Hamlet tries to win his mother Queen Gertrude back from his uncle Claudius. Also like Hamlet, The Seagull ends with tragedy.

Frances Barber’s performance as Arkadina is mesmerising, and McKellen as Sorin, (Arkadina’s brother) was a joy to watch – his performance was excellent, and provided some much needed humour to offset the tragic melodrama surrounding the various romantic triangles that we learn of and the tensions they create that ultimately lead to the play ending when Konstantin kills himself.

I had a truly wonderful time yesterday … so thanks Amanda!

Mp3 to iPod Audio Book Converter

Since I’ve been listening to a few Audio Books lately, I’ve noticed rather quickly that many of the places you download Audio Books from allow you to only download in .mp3 format. The problem with this is that when you add these .mp3 files to your iPod it doesn’t know that they are Audio Books, so it wont remember where you listened up to the last time, and it wont neatly categorise the .mp3 in the Audio Books menu, and wont let you alter the playback speed.

I found this free Mp3 to iPod Audio Book Converter, which will convert any .mp3 file into Apple’s .m4b audio book format, and so far the results are pretty impressive. Unfortunately it currently only works on Windows, and isn’t available on any other platform.

Microsoft Research: HDView, viewer for Gigapixel Images

There’s some really interesting stuff coming out of Microsoft Research at the moment. I’ve already talked about Photosynth on this blog which is an incredible technology. Microsoft have also just released into beta a new high definition panoramic viewer that can handle pictures as large as several gigapixels. Here’s a video explaining how this technology works, much like PhotoSynth I suspect it’s possibly also based on Seadragon … the results are stunning:

Video: Creating and Viewing Gigapixel Images


You can try out HDView for yourselves, here – You do have to download the plugin and it only works on XP/Vista using Internet Explorer

Google Research Talk: Semantic Web

Google have recently launched http://research.google.com that will provide information on research activities at Google. There’s a series of video talks that are associated with these research activities.

This is a talk by Eyal Oran, Sebastian Kruk and Stefan Decker entitled “Semantic Web”.

Our development group has been doing a lot of semantic web related work here at Talis, in fact we have built a semantic web platform that we have built several applications upon, so the entire research area is something we are all very passionate about.

The talk covers some of the basic principles of the Semantic Web but also takes about FOAF, RDF and introduces ActiveRDF:

an object-oriented API for managing RDF data. ActiveRDF can be used with different RDF stores and integrates with Ruby on Rails. An addition to ActiveRDF is BrowseRDF, a faceted metadata browsing library. Faceted browsing is a natural technique for navigating that graph. We developed an expressive faceted interface that allows navigating arbitrary semi-structured data and formally show the improvement over existing interfaces.

I found the talk quite interesting, and it’s given me a fair bit to think about.

Everything is Miscellaneous

Last week Rob lent me his copy of Everything is Miscellaneous by David Weinberger the co-author of the Cluetrain Manifesto. It’s a mesmerizing book in which Weinberger talks about organistion, hierarchy, authority and knowledge.

The first thing that I noted and didn’t fully understand until I had finished the book ( and perhaps I still don’t ) was the rather cryptic dedication at the beginning of the book – To the librarians. By the time I finished the book I was left wondering whether David was thanking them for their efforts, thanking them for nothing or simply telling them that they no longer have a function.

To put this in context the book is very much about the history of library science and information architecture in general. Historically we have divided the world into vast categories, subject, topics and hierarchies because real world, physical objects need to be in one place or another, they can’t necessarily be in all the places they might actually belong. The advent of the computers and more specifically the internet has pretty much turned this whole thing on its head, we can now classify objects and even knowledge almost idiosyncratically. We are now becoming aware of how limited the previous hierarchies were which tried to compartmentalise things to make them easy to find ( Dewey Decimal) but in doing this we create a very narrow view of the world. It’s also one that is unfortunately open to abuse, or rather it suffers from biases that inherently lurk in those systems that we create.

How we draw lines can have dramatic effects on who has power and who does not

David further illustrates this point when he writes:

It would seem that Wikipedia does everything in its power to avoid being an authority,yet that seems only to increase its authority – a paradox that indicates an important change in the nature of authority itself.

In opening our eyes to this David makes a really compelling case for a new kind of information architecture that more faithfully represents the messy even chaotic nature of the real world. This messiness on the internet has a unique property – it can actually be used to make sense of the world. Take Flickr tags, for example, thousands of people use them every day to group pictures together, when you consider these tags with other characteristics ( popularity, rating, review, etc ) or information provided, or rather volunteered, by users  we suddenly find that the most interesting pictures for any given search rise to the top in rankings. This is all thanks to the chaos of uncoordinated, unchecked, unintentional meaning that the internet’s users infuse content on Flickr with. Consequently I find myself agreeing with David when he writes:

Discovering what you want is at least as important as finding what you know you want!

Everything is Miscellaneous is a wonderful book and I thoroughly recommend it.