Archive for July, 2009

Wii Fit Defaults

July 18, 2009

A key decision in designing a user interface is deciding on what the default entries should be. One example is deciding on the default for “country” when entering location data. If you are a site that is catering primarily to the US crowd — — you might make “United States” the default. If you are looking at a more international clientele — — you might make it a straight alphabetical list (although you are likely to get few readers from Aardistan). The idea is, you make the most likely choice the default. Unfortunately, the Wii Fit gets this wrong on a number of its screens.

In many cases, the only choice is (A), ‘yes, I heard you’. You don’t have to point, you just click, and it moves on to the next repetitive message (of which more anon). In other cases, there is a real choice to be made, and enabling the correct click event makes the user experience smoother. Remember, you don’t want the user to have to think.

Consider the start of an exercise. When you call up an exercise, Wii Fit offers two choices, [Demo] and [Start]. In this case, the WF doesn’t default to anything, so you have to point and click. Is this the end of the world, a deal-breaking failure of the software? Obviously not, but it indicates a lack of attention to detail. Once again, it makes the user think, and users hate to think, they want it to just work. The WF knows who I am (it has the correct Mii after all), and it knows how often I’ve done this exercise (it tells me, whenever I highlight it), so what’s so hard about picking a default that matches my exercise patterns?

As another example, consider that I have just finished an exercise. What is more likely, that I want to do it again, or that I want to move on? I’d vote for move on, but WF assumes that I want to [Repeat] (yes, many do, but I’m talking of the majority). I am usually good for one mis-click per session, partly because the click-(A) option has trained me to respond in a manner inappropriate for the current screen. While we are on the topic, I note that after a Yoga or Strength exercise, WF recommends an associated exercise, usually from the opposite set (Yoga recommends Strength, etc). Unfortunately, the only way to get to the recommended exercise is to [Quit] the one I just finished, go back to the selection screen, shift from Yoga to Strength (or vv), and pick the new one. Why couldn’t the interface offer the option of clicking on the recommended excercise rather than [Quit] or [Repeat]?

I see three possible solutions. First, pay more attention to what the defaults should be. Nintendo does user testing, so ask the users. Second, keep track of what the individual user does, and conform the interface to their habits. Finally, when all else fails, ask the user. Allow them to go into the setup routine and change the default responses.

It’s all about respect for the user and attention to detail.

I go two-headed

July 11, 2009

My wife and I have been playing musical monitors. We saw a nice 23″ Samsung wide screen monitor last week, and I just had to have it. After I got it on my desk, I decided it was a little much, compared with my 19″ ViewSonic 903b. So, my wife graciously accepted it as a gift, and gave me her 19″ ViewSonic 912b. Plugged them into my linux box, configured them, and am now learning their little idiosynchs. For some reason, I can’t get them to mount as two separate screens – the Nvidia card wants to make them one big screen, with the mouse jumping from one to the other as you slide it across. That’s not bad, but it does change your windowing habits – it’s a little disconcerting to have 3/4 of your email message on one screen, with the RH 20 characters on another. So, what’s required is that instead of maximizing a window, I adjust the size to fit a single screen, and then drag it to whichever monitor is appropriate. That doesn’t keep the Opera bookmarks from spilling across the margin, though.

Right now, I have the left hand one set up as my main screen, with my working window for Opera. The right hand one is set up with my email, and with Twitter open in a separate Opera window (not tab). That way, when I use the KVM switch to move to the XP box on the LH screen, the RH screen still shows my comms flow. Gotta stay in touch with the flow.

One of the nice things about Opera is that you can tell it to refresh a page every x minutes, so my tweet stream updates every 15min in the RH page, and the email checks every ten. I understand FF has a plugin for that, and I don’t know what IE does – probably assumes your servant will come in and press F5 as needed.

One interesting thing is the different color balance between the two monitors. The 903 (left hand) shows the Ubuntu background as earth-toned brown, while the 912 is distinctly orange. I ran the color setups on both, and both are set to 5600 somethings (probably degrees).

Summer Reading

July 8, 2009

This is a short list of MIS-associated fiction and nonfiction that I made up for my students last spring.

Keep in mind that these are books about how the system works, not about specific systems, so the fact that some of them are over 30 years old doesn’t matter. Some are available online in .pdf format. The first three are descriptive. The rest, more textbook-like.

The Cuckoo’s Egg: Tracking a Spy Through the Maze of Computer Espionage, Clifford Stoll, 1989
A classic description of how a 75 cent error in a computer use charge ended with the breakup of an East German spy ring.

Soul of a New Machine, Tracy Kidder, 1981
What it’s like in the trenches

Accidental Empires: How the Boys of Silicon Valley Make Their Millions, Battle Foreign Competition, and Still Can’t Get a Date, Robert X. Cringely, 1992
The early days in Silicon Valley

Death March, Edward Yourdon, 2003
More life in the trenches

Mythical Man-Month, Frederick Brooks, 1975, 1995
Managing software development

Systems Thinking, Systems Practice, Peter Checkland, 1979, 1999
Soft systems approach.

Multiple Perspectives for Decision Making, Hal Linstone, 1984
Technical, organizational, personal.

The Fifth Discipline, Peter Senge, 1990
Business dynamics

The Jargon File, Eric S. Raymond (ESR), et al. 2003
AKA, The Hackers Dictionary. a serious dictionary, maintained online at:
Go for the words, stay for the descriptions of hacker culture.

Just a few of the classics.

Shockwave Rider, John Brunner, 1975
The SF novel that defined the idea of a computer worm

Neuromancer, William Gibson, 1984
The SF novel that defined cyberspace
Also: Count Zero, and Mona Lisa Overdrive

Snow Crash, Niel Stephenson, 1992
The SF novel that defined Second Life.

Diamond Age, Niel Stephenson, 1995
Ubiquitous computing and nanomachines.
Can’t do it the way he thought, because a carbon cloud is explosive.

Cryptonomicon, Niel Stephenson, 1999
SF/Historical. A good take on what data centers might be like tomorrow, combined with a pretty good fictionalized history of computers and cryptology in WWII.

Overclocked, Cory Doctorow, 2007
Short stories. Not written in a balloon, no matter what XKCD says.

see also the series beginning here (and what’s _your_ daughter done recently?):

…and speaking of daughters, here’s Girl Genius. It’s steampunk and not cyber, but who cares? It’s working on Vol 7 right now, but you need to start at the beginning, before they invented color:

or you could read a short story
(but stop on page 7 or you will drop into the main storyline and be beset by spoilers)

Or, if that’s too girly for you, try Megatokyo. Two gamers in Japan. It’s joke-of-the-day up until about strip number 100 or so, and then it gets a plot. They are on strip 1200 now.

Reconstructability Analysis

July 7, 2009

Reconstructability analysis (RA) is an information- and graph-theoretic methodology which originates with Ross Ashby’s constraint analysis and was subsequently developed by several others. RA resembles log-linear methods used widely in the social sciences, and where RA and log-linear methodologies overlap they are equivalent. RA also overlaps with Bayesian networks. In RA, a probability or frequency distribution or a set-theoretic relation is decomposed into component distributions or relations. When applied to the decomposition of frequency distributions, RA does statistical analysis. RA can model problems both where “independent variables” (inputs) and “dependent variables” (outputs) are distinguished (called directed systems) and where this distinction is not made (neutral systems). Being based on information theory, which ignores metric information in the variables being analyzed, RA is a natural methodology for nominal, e.g., genomic, data.

Right now, I’m looking at how RA compares with Logistic Regression. They produce identical classification rates for low penetrance genetic data, but RA appears to be easier to use — you don’t have to create dummy variables, and the results look to be more directly readable.

An open letter to our Senators and Representatives

July 4, 2009

I have never written to my elected representatives before. I can only make that claim once, and the fact that I am doing so now should give you an indication of how important I consider this to be. I am writing about the current discussion on how to improve health care in this country. My position can be stated in one sentence: it is vital that any legislation passed include provisions for a public health option, and I am willing to accept increased taxes to achieve that goal.

As an elected official at the national level, you, more than anyone (and on this day, more than any other) should be aware of a major reason that the US Constitution was written the way it was. To put it in modern language, the founders wanted to make it difficult to game the system. For decades now, private insurance companies, whose goal is profit maximization, have demonstrated an ability to game the system to maintain those profits, and a willingness to do so at the expense of their customers. Far from being a competitive market, health care today is characterized by few buyers colluding with few sellers, none of who represent the population, either sick or well. The most important thing a public option would do is create a countervailing power, with a different objective, that will help keep the insurance companies and hospital chains honest.

I come from a military family, and a military career. I lived in Europe and Asia for six years, and I got to see how other systems worked. Recently I have been assisting an aged mother-in-law with her medical bills. She has a decent health care package as a result of her late husband’s years of work. Her own decades of work, by the way, proved fruitless – the victim of corporate mergers and destruction of retirement medical plans, well before the current meltdown. Her bills are a labyrinth of bureaucracy, apparently designed to discourage the elderly and infirm, and those who need it most. I have seen and been the beneficiary of a ‘public’ health care system since birth, and I can say without reservation that, despite it’s many flaws, it is far better than what most Americans have now.

I recognize that all systems have to ration medical treatment. Today, in the US, we do it by employment status, by socioeconomic standing, by luck, and by bureaucratic frustration. A private health industry is an important way to offer higher end treatments to those who can pay. A public option has to establish a rational method of rationing, but will have the example of the many different methods used around the world as a starting point. For example, it has been pointed out that in the Canadian system, everyone gets prompt, efficient emergency care, with moderate waits for elective surgery. High end treatment is constrained by limited numbers of specialists, not by government bureaucracy. The current US system provides an overabundance of specialists, with a shortage of General Practitioners. A private insurance system with a strong public option is the best way to go.

I also recognize that providing even minimal coverage for everyone will cost money (although not as much as the public plan critics have claimed, and there is a reasonable chance it will save money, overall). Even if it does cost more, it will be worth it, for two reasons. First, a public option will remove the uncertainty and frustration associated with today’s non-transferable employer-funded (if you have a job) system, a system that is designed to deliver profits, not health care. Second, it will be worth it because it is the right thing to do. I am offended by the fact that I live in a country that allows the poor and the unlucky to die in order to maintain insurance company profits. I am appalled that so much of my contribution to health care is wasted in a corporate bureaucracy designed to limit support for my needs. Under the current system, health care costs continue to rise, and more of every patient’s valuable time is spent digging through paperwork. These costs are at least as burdensome as higher taxes. If taxes go up, and the system becomes more reliable and available, then the extra tax is worth it.

Recently, conservative columnist George F. Will admitted that a public option would be cheaper because of the negotiating power of the government, and because it is not driven by a profit motive. He then complained that this was unfair to the insurance industry. I am not opposed to the insurance industry, and I certainly am not opposed to businesses making a profit. I am opposed to businesses profiting from the suffering of their customers. The whole point of a public option is to use the power of the government, and its mandate to provide for the common good, to…provide for the common good.

In conclusion, I urge you, our Senators and Representatives, to support a public option in the upcoming health care legislation. I know there are compelling political reasons and pressures against such support. But, the point of health legislation is to protect the health of Americans, all Americans, rich or poor, employed or (increasingly) unemployed. It is too important to be held hostage to special interest groups and politics as usual. This is your chance to rise above politics, to rise above being a politician, to become a statesman.

More Tales of the Heike

July 3, 2009

The 12th Century in Japan was one of civil war and great deeds by warriors. Writers were as fascinated by the appearance of the individual warrior as we are of celebrities today. You can just hear the color commentator whispering into his ink-stone:

“Ashikaga no Matataro is attired in a coral damask undersuit, a suit of armor with dark-red lacing, and a high-horned helmet. At his waist, he is wearing a sword with gilt bronze fittings; on his back, is a quiver containing arrows fledged with black-banded white eagle feathers. He is holding a rattan-wrapped bow and riding a white-dappled reddish horse, whose saddle is edged in gold and decorated with a golden owl in an oak tree. Let’s listen while he announces his name…”

The Year of the Wii

July 1, 2009

A year ago we got a Nintendo Wii, along with a Wii fit board. It has take over our lives. It sits in the dining room, between the table and the TV, and every morning we embarrass each other into using it. At first it was a novelty. Now, it’s a morning ritual. Twenty minutes to half an hour of exercises, a body test, and mutual commiseration. Given that an exercise tool, be it a walker or a weight set or a Wii, is only useful if you use it, it has become useful.

How useful? In the last year, I’ve lost 20lbs, and my wife has lost 30. Our balance scores have improved. Our flexibility is greater. I’ve gone from obese (“I’m sorry, one of you will have to get off the scales”) to merely overweight. She’s gone from overweight to normal. I’d say it was worth the money.

The tool is not perfect. It works for us, but in some cases it works despite the design rather than because of it. In future bloggets I will be discussing the Wii and its games and its interface.