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The Usability of Elevator Controls

 2 Comments- Add comment Written on 09-May-2009 by asqui

IMAGE_109Ever since reading The Design of Everyday Things by Donald Norman I’ve looked upon everyday objects with a newfound insight into their subtle yet significant design flaws.

For instance, the elevators at my office have a sleek control panel in brushed steel. Modern in appearance, minimalistic, utilitarian, and robust.

It’s usually the details that make the difference in design, and this interface has some subtle shortcomings:

  1. Poor contrast of the engraved markings makes them difficult to read.
  2. Restricted viewing angle of the light for each button makes it difficult to see what floors are already selected when at the front of a packed elevator.
  3. Minimal differentiation between the “door open” and “door close” decals makes it difficult find the correct button to hold the elevator for someone as the doors begin to close.

Not that, I’m not complaining. There is worse design elsewhere.

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"Bad Science", by Ben Goldacre

 1 Comment- Add comment Written on 05-May-2009 by asqui

Book Cover: Bad Science, by Ben Goldacre In Bad Science Ben Goldacre takes the time to carefully demolish a variety of pseudo-scientific myths that the mass media, industry, and advertising, has induced upon us. He doesn’t make a lot of generalisations or sweeping statements, just presents a lot of  facts and clear evidence – something the mass media rarely does.

He also introduces the reader to a lot of knowledge about scientific methods, the traits of effective (and ineffective) research: control groups; the role of placebos; double-blind trials; why brand name drugs are no better than generic brands, except by virtue of the fact that you pay more for them which, paradoxically, gives you a greater placebo effect (because, subconsciously, a drug that is more expensive must be more effective)!

Two of the biggest medical abbreviations from UK media in the past decade, in my mind, are MMR (the Measles, Mumps, and Rubella combined vaccination, and its links to autism) and MSRA (Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, the hospital ‘superbug’ outbreak). In his book, Ben calmly presents some facts and details that the mass media may have forgotten to go in to (perhaps because “just kidding, we’re not all going to die after all!” is not quite as newsworthy).

He also covers common “knowledge” such as vitamins, antioxidants, other nutritionists’ products and claims, homeopathy, and more.

I’m trying hard not to enter into too much detail here because I know that I’ll degenerate into a cynical rant that simply won’t do justice to Ben’s carefully measured words and well-balanced arguments. Instead, here is a quotation from my favourite part of the book:

“What you are seeing here is a tabloid journalist telling a department of a world-class research microbiologists that they are mistaken about microbiology. This is an excellent example of a phenomenon described in one of my favourite psychology papers: ‘Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments’, by Justin Kruger and David Dunning.

They noted that people who are incompetent suffer a dual burden: not only are they incompetent, but they may also be too incompetent  to assay their own incompetence, because the skills which underlie an ability to make a correct judgement are the same as the skills required to recognise a correct judgement.
People who performed particularly poorly relative to their peers were unaware of their own incompetence; but more than that, they were also less able to recognize competence in others, because this, too, relied on ‘meta-cognition’, or knowledge about the skill.”
         — Ben Goldacre, Bad Science, pp.267-269.

See also: The Dangers of Bread

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Heathrow Terminal 5

 2 Comments- Add comment Written on 30-Apr-2009 by asqui

I went to Heathrow Terminal 5 the other day. Here are some observations:

  1. Cool: The short stay car park has a camera at the entrance barriers which reads your number plate and prints it on your parking ticket moments later. (I wonder if they've had problems with ticket transferral in the past.)
  2. Expensive: A one-hour stay will cost you over £6.
  3. Annoying: There is no passenger pick-up point. Just a drop-off point. The signs for "pick-up" lead down a one-way route to the car park. If you want to pick someone up, arrange to meet them at the departures drop-off point instead.
  4. Confusing: The international arrivals area has two gates from which passengers emerge, separated by a good distance. There is no indication of which side a given flight will emerge (and it is not clear if this is even deterministic). There is no single area through which all exiting passengers pass through. There is enough curvature and pylons in the layout that, at even a moderately busy time, it is neigh on impossible for a single person to monitor both sides simultaneously, even with a lot of constant side-to-side neck twisting.
  5. Useful: Now that they know your number plate, next to the pay machine there is a "find lost car" machine to help you find out where you parked you car! I should have tried it to see what kind of granularity it works to. I'm not sure if they continue to use cameras throughout the car park to track your location, or perhaps they have an embedded RFID chip in the parking ticket.
  6. Practical: Checked luggage was delivered to the passengers!

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Biking Skills

 2 Comments- Add comment Written on 22-Apr-2009 by asqui

You may have heard of Le Parkour or Free Running. Now try that on a bike!

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My style is the best

 4 Comments- Add comment Written on 14-Apr-2009 by asqui
You won't find this illustrated in your mobile phone user guide...
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Alex Roy — Transcontinental Driver

 1 Comment- Add comment Written on 04-Mar-2009 by asqui

After participating in a couple of Gumball 3000 events (a 3000 mile rally where nice cars race through the streets of numerous countries for a week or so) Alex Roy decided to drive across the USA, nonstop, in a record time of 31 hours 7 minutes, in a largely modified BMW M3. 90.1mph average speed; top speeds of 160mph+.

If you think that’s a little bit reckless, think again… he spent 5 years planning for this with a full team of dedicated people. Did a couple of "low speed" trial runs of the full route, then watched the video footage non-stop in real-time (when's the last time you watched a 30 hour movie non-stop?) to fully learn from the mistakes they made. They had GPS devices, radio scanners, laser jammers, real-time traffic and weather reports, something like seven cameras mounted on the car (including a thermal imaging camera in the front grill feeding a 7-inch dashboard-mounted display… you know, for night driving), and also (now get this) a spotter plane flying overhead.

“If we don’t break [the current transcontinental record] we’re going
to double the fuel-cell capacity and bring two planes next time.”

It all sounds a bit gung ho but it's exactly the opposite. They reviewed driver transcripts from similar things that had been done previously so they could learn everything they could. Analysed fuel economies in Excel spreadsheets. Looked up potential speed-trap locations, reviewed low-angle air photographs of the areas, marked them up on their GPS guidance. Looked at traffic laws and maximal jail sentences in each state so they could set the cruise control 1mph below the relevant thresholds. They developed threat analyses and operational protocols that dictated what should be done in various situations.

These people are, basically, insane.

Here's an informative presentation Alex did at Google to promote his book.

(Just wait until he breaks out the full post-mortem analysis of how they
nearly got pulled over for dangerous driving, complete with Google Earth
3D fly-by view of the relevant highway junction, vehicle positions, and
conclusions that both they and the police made several mistakes.)

Alex Roy clearly subscribes to the policy that "If you're gonna do it right you've gotta do it hard-core."

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Meet Remarc, our new cat

 2 Comments- Add comment Written on 24-Feb-2009 by asqui

A few of weeks ago Kelley and I got a cat from the (rather massive) shelter in Battersea. Kelley reluctantly agreed to let me re-name her ‘Remarc’, (though she calls her Remy most of the time.)

She is about four years old, came from a household with lots of pets (to one with none), and has been very well trained; She is very gentle and considerate, has a soft coat and she likes to cuddle.

Now that she’s had all her vaccinations and treatments she’s allowed outside so she’ll have a whole new world to explore. I just hope she doesn’t get into any trouble out there!


Standing Proud PlayingSnuggly
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Adventures in Software Development

 0 Comments- Add comment Written on 11-Feb-2009 by asqui

Given that I spend a significant proportion of my waking hours thinking about, working on, and discussing technical programming-related issues I figured it's about time to start blogging some of the interesting things I come across in that sphere.

For the benefit of my 'normal' friends (who prefer that a "delegate" is "a person elected to the United States House of Representatives", rather than "a type that references a method") I've decided to isolate this technical writing to a separate area.

If this prospect sounds appealing, check it out at www.danielfortunov.com/software

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Cycling in the snow

 1 Comment- Add comment Written on 06-Feb-2009 by asqui

Attempting to commute to work on Monday was fun.

I turned back after a time as it was getting a little silly.

Others persevered despite the conditions.
Up the hill in Greenwich Park

Some wearing shorts... (!)
He looks like he's overheating

The view from Greenwich observatory hill.
Greenwich Observatory

Obviously not built for use in snow conditions.
My bike seemed to collect a lot of snow on the way

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My wife is officially a published author

 2 Comments- Add comment Written on 04-Feb-2009 by asqui

Darwins Microscope
Well here it is, the big day — Kelley's first printing of her first book
just arrived, hot off the press. This is so exciting! What an achievement!

I was given to understand that getting published was a difficult prospect,
so I never anticipated that she'd manage it this quick. Particularly given
that Darwinian poetry is, uh, a rather niche subject shall we say.
(I guess timing was good, given that 2009 is Darwin's 200th birthday.)

Quick, quick! Get your signed copies here before they're sold out!

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