Friday, September 30, 2011

Why I blog: Structured procrastination?

I just came across a marvellous essay called Structured Procrastination

The author just won an IgNobel award for it.

It is a humorous article, but it rang incredibly true for me.

Why did I start blogging about a 11 months ago, when as a professor an researcher I am always profoundly overloaded? Because it was a way to fill in time when I was sick of working on more important tasks that were causing me stress (writing papers, reviewing, preparing grants, preparing for courses, doing administrative tasks, etc.). It was a way, just like reading the paper, or going for a walk, to exercise my brain in different directions. 

After writing a blog post, I often feel motivated to get back to the grind. Overall I have found my productivity on those important tasks has gone up substantially in the last year. Furthermore the blogging process has caused me to think more deeply about some things, which has helped aspects of my research.

I have a nice blog post in preparation showing the vast number of types of tasks professors of Computer Science have to do ... but enough for now. This little bit of structured procrastination has motivated me to tackle by two important tasks for the afternoon: Writing up some minutes and preparing for an accreditation visit.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Are the Ontario Green's really farther right than the federal Greens?

In the Canadian federal election earlier this year, I used the VoteCompass tool produced by the CBC to see where I stood politically. I wrote a blog post about that. I was middle-of-the-road, like the Liberals (according to the tool) on the economic spectrum, but more socially liberal than the liberals. 

Notably, I did not seem to be placed close to my favoured party, the Greens (favoured because of their environmental stance, coupled with good economics). At the time, I commented that the Greens seemed to be placed wrongly by the VoteCompass tool. I have always liked the Greens precisely because they are environmentalists who also have a good grasp of economics, and are not as left-wing as the NDP.

The new VoteCompass tool for next week's Ontario election has a fascinating contrast to the above: All the other parties appear right where they did in the Federal campaign ... except the Greens. The Greens have shifted right. Not beyond the centre, but they are no longer on the left economically. I think this new tools is placing them where they belong. See below for the output of the tool after I had used it.

The Ontario VoteCompass puts me right on top of the Liberals. I think, actually I ought to have been placed right where the Greens are: In the dead centre. 

I will likely vote for the Greens, but might consider the Liberals if my district was close. I think Dalton McGuinty has done a good job. His push for clean energy is on target, for the most part. I would hate to see the Conservatives reverse course, as they have indicated they will.

My only question to McGuinty is, if he lowers university tuition as he has promised is he going to make up difference to the universities? And more than that, is he going to reverse the decline in per-student funding?

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

The Keystone XL Pipeline or not? We must say no to protect the world for our descendants

I urge everybody to read an excellent post by Steve Easterbrook, in which he writes a letter to President Obama, asking him to consider carefully before approving the Keystone Pipeline.

Easterbrook's post says it all. Making it easier to bring massive new fossil fuel resources to market will put us further on the wrong track regarding climate change.

We are in an awful dilemma. Economically, Albertans, Canadians and US residents will be much better off in the next 10-15 years if we can increase access to the huge oil sands resources. Our current economic troubles are caused, in large part, by the fact that we are at or nearing Peak Oil (where supply of oil can't be raised to meet new demand, so prices rise). Making it easier to exploit the Alberta resources would buy us more time.

However, the devastation to be caused by climate change and higher C02 levels (desertification in some areas, flooding in others, increased weather disasters caused by more intense storms, shifts in food productivity, mass migrations and conflicts caused by these factors, mass species extinctions, acidification of oceans) are an even more critical issue.

We need high oil prices to force investment in alternative energy sources, and we need to resist bringing high-CO2 energy sources to market. The oil sands are extra-high CO2 resources because so much energy is required to extract the oil.

My guess is that Obama will approve the pipeline, since the votes from people without jobs and affected by the recession will likely be greater in number than the votes from people who understand the real issues at stake. I respect Obama, but he is in a tight spot politically. I think he will end up making the 'wrong' decision. Mind you, if he loses next year's election, I shudder to think what might happen if the US Republican's regain the ability to freely make decisions on issues like this.

The only possible way forward is to have everybody spread the work about the issues at stake, so more of the general voting populace can have an influence on their politicians.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Palestinian UN vote: Let's hope statesmanship wins

This morning's article in the Globe and Mail says it all. The US, and even Israel, would be far better off supporting the Palestinian bid for UN membership.

The US and Israel would gain by finally showing Arabs that they can do what is right. Support would help quell radical tendencies and lend greater influence to moderates in the Middle East. That, in turn, would help boost security on all sides and lead to earlier and lasting peace.

Not supporting the Palestinians would fuel the fires of radicalism that have burned for decades. The potential setbacks and harm are unimaginable.

Israel clearly knows that the Palestinians will one day have their own state. Why not now? The Israelis clearly are concerned about security and want to maintain bargaining power: "You will get your state when you agree to terms that are more favourable to Israel". But that kind of heavy-clout bargaining just fosters anger in the weaker party.

Give the Palestinians their state now. There are plenty of nations that have disputed borders and other issues to resolve with their neighbours. The disputes can be resolved at a later date.

The Israelis claim that the Palestinians have not been willing to bargain, and shouldn't be allowed to do an end-run around the process. With some legitimacy, the Israelis say that Palestinians don't make enough effort to control their terrorists and hence support violence when they haven't got what they want. But Israel uses somewhat-heavy-handed military 'defensive' might when attacked by the terrorists, and then won't bargain because it fears more violence. Both sides refuse to bargain because they are being attacked in different ways. This will never stop unless moderates are given more influence, and the statehood bid is one way for that to happen.

It is easy to see why many in Israel, and Jewish people (and their friends) in other countries want to keep all the bargaining cards they can against the Palestinians. They are deeply emotionally tied up in the issue. But it is even easier to see why the 'underdog' Palestinians and their Arab supporters (and their friends) feel especially aggrieved. As a friend to many Arabs and Jews I really hope that the opportunity is now seized to get past at least some of the long-standing roadblocks.

It all really boils down to politics though: Obama needs votes from people who don't want the UN vote to pass. Let's hope statesmanship wins.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Monarchy in Canada: Anachronism?

I have dual British and Canadian citizenship.

In Britain I think the monarchy is a wonderful thing: It brings many tourists, it helps provide cultural cohesion, it reminds people about the richness of their history.

But in Canada, things are not so clear. Prime Minister Harper brought back 'Royal' to the military and has asked embassies to display a picture of the Queen. However, this funny satire by Jeffrey Simpson points out how such changes probably look very odd to many in the country, and even odder to outsiders.

Canada's head of state is the Queen, who occasionally visits, and has her image on all our coins. We probably get some tourism and cultural cohesion value from the monarchy, like Britain. But I think that emphasizing the monarchy will do more harm than good. A great many Quebeckers will feel a little more alienated, and international observers will take Canada a little less seriously.

Do I think we should abolish the monarchy in Canada? Perhaps, but I would prefer to use some term other than 'abolish', and I think we should not do it while Elizabeth II is on the throne. Perhaps we could talk about 'evolving' the monarchy.

I would not like to see an elected president: That would just result in more divisive partisan politics. I would prefer to see the official head of state be the Governor-General, who would eventually become chosen from a group of elder statespersons from all parties, chosen both by the Federal and Provincial governments as well as the aboriginal people. A similar thing would happen with the Lieutenant-Governors of the provinces. Perhaps the elder states persons group could create a private shortlist from which the Prime Minister would finally pick, in consultation with the Leader of the Opposition.

But to preserve a link to the past, perhaps the reigning British monarch could then be given several honorary titles in Canada, such as Honourary Prince/Princess, or Honorary Commander of the Military.

The above would result in formal legal changes to the way government works, but in practice we would continue to be governed as we are now. It would also result in removing the need to have the monarch's image on every coin, and other things that irritate some people. And we could even keep the names 'Royal Canadian Navy' and 'Royal Canadian Air Force' as long as the rank and file members support that.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Mac OS Lion irritants that Apple should fix

When Mac OS X 10.7, otherwise known as Lion, first came out, I published a series of reviews.

Here is an update after about 45 days of using Lion.

Overall I still find Lion an improvement to snow Leopard, but only just.  I have found myself using the optional new features less and less. For example, I practically never use Mission Control and only occasionally use LaunchPad. The 'compulsory' new features, such as the change in scroll direction, and the new look of Calendar and Address Book, remain more negative to me than positive. I have continued my practice of turning off 'Natural' scrolling, for example.

Although in my earlier post I rated Autosave and Versions highly, in a months use I have actually found details of their current implementation to be very irritating. I will explain why below.

The thing that probably saves Lion, for me, and results in considering it a marginal improvement, is my confidence that backups are now being done when I am away from my backup machine.

Here is a list of what irritates me about Lion. All of these things could be fixed easily in a future update of Lion. Hopeful Apple will take notice:

1. Stability: It is normal in a new OS version to have stability problems, but Lion is worse than normal. I have had about four OS crashes, which is considerably more frequent than I experienced in the last few years with Mac OS. With Snow Leopard, I experienced about one OS crash every 8 months. I would leave my computer running (or in sleep) for months on end. I have also had nasty crashes in a few applications, most notably NetNewsWire, which now crashes over and over again every few days, probably when some malformed RSS item appears. This started occurring the day I installed Lion and has ever since.

2. Slowness due to firing up attached hard drives. If external drives are attached and sleeping, Lion and its apps now sometimes insist on spinning them up to speed, displaying the 'beach ball' while doing this. That delays one's ability to do work, and never happened in Snow Leopard.

3. Lion won't sleep when a second screen is attached: I usually work with two screens, my laptop screen and an attached larger screen. In Snow Leopard, closing the lid would cause sleep. Now, if the second screen is attached, closing the screen results in that second screen taking over as 'main screen'; sleep does not occur. This is highly irritating, and I haven't been able to find a way to deal with it in a satisfying way. The workaround is to remember to unplug the second screen before closing the laptop, but that should not be necessary. Apple should have a preferences option allowing users to choose which laptop-closing behaviour they like best.

4. Drag and drop in Finder is harder to do: Apple has made drag and drop more 'fancy' by adding graphics and animation to the set of items being dragged, however this makes it more difficult to position the cursor accurately over a small target, resulting in items being all-too-often dropped in the wrong place. The subdued colours in Lion also make it harder to see whether the target is selected. A good solution would be to animate the target, when selected, making it grow in size, like the dock does.

5. Sideways signatures: The 'signature' feature in Preview is cool. I like being able to sign documents electronically using the web cam. However it has one weakness. It won't allow you to rotate the signature. If someone sends you a scanned document sideways and the pdf file thinks that 'up' is one of the sides, then Preview will insert the signature sideways. There needs to be an option to rotate the signature when placed on the page. Rotating the pdf file doesn't solve the problem. The current workaround is to print the pdf file to pdf. You get an identical file, except that it now knows which way is up!

6. Restart/restore needs per-application control: One of Lion's key 'features' is that it restarts open applications and reloads open files upon restart. But the fact that there is no way to fine tune this is just plain annoying. It is possible to turn it on and off entirely. What is needed is an ability to turn resume and file reopening on and off for specific applications. Why? Applications like Word and Excel open a blank page when started. This just gets in the way when rebooting. With other applications, like Preview and BBedit, one way to clear out tons of open files was to quit.  With applications that do things like maintain a network connection, it makes no sense to start them until I am ready to connect to that network service. But I don't want to turn the feature off entirely since it is quite useful in a few apps.

7. Autosave and versions disrupts workflow and causes crashes: Although I gave autosave and versions an A+ in my earlier post, I have come to dislike the way one is forced to use them. Currently they are only available in Apple apps and certain third-party apps. My experience is with Preview. One of my main workflows in Preview is to work through a long list of JPEG files, adjusting them in rapid succession. Autosave has a hard time keeping up; in one case I was taking less than a second per file to reorient a whole load of files, and was working faster then autosave could keep up. Eventually Preview crashed. Another workflow I use extremely often is to take a document, modify it and then save the modified version with a different name. In Apple's new setup you have to 'export' a version and restore the original file, or remember to make a copy first then modify that copy. Sometimes you don't know until you have made a few edits whether you want to create a new file out of the old, or apply the edits to the original. There needs to be a 'Save as...' menu item that will make a new file with the changes, and by default, restore the original file to how it was.

8. Calendar event entering is subpar: I find that Calendar's method of interpreting free-form text to make a calendar entry doesn't work well, particularly since I always need to open the dialog to set other fields anyway.  How about popping up a non-modal dialog with all the available fields if you hit enter without typing anything.

9. File renaming is more awkward in Finder: When you rename a file, it momentarily flashes the old name. This is a visual annoyance more than a functional one, but gets in the way mentally when doing a lot of renames.

In addition to the above, I have started using Safari as my main browser. I used to use Firefox. The following are the irritants in Safari that Apple should fix:

10. Remembering passwords is modal: In Firefox, the 'remember password' feature works nicely. After you enter a userid and password into a website, Firefox transmits the information and you get logged in (or not if your credentials are wrong). Only then are you required to confirm that you want Firefox to remember the password. Safari, on the other hand, has a modal dialog shown below: You are forced to confirm remembering the password before you get to see whether you got it right. This is absurd. It also adds delay. I have well over 100 passwords, so password management to me is very critical, and my memory often gets it wrong. I really want to know that I got it right before confirming that to Safari.

11. No memory of larger font: I often use command-+ to make the font bigger, so I can read text more comfortably. Firefox remembers, on a site-by-site basis, when you have done this. That is an extremely nice feature. When I am reading a news site, each page appears with the font size I have selected in the past. Safari, however doesn't remember this information, so I have to command+ every page I visit. Incidentally, Internet Explorer on Windows seems even worse, often not remembering font size when using the back button.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Hardware with usability problems: Dyson Airblade hand dryer

Most of my usability posts are about software, but from time to time I will comment about usability issues in other aspects of life, such as machines and buildings.

The picture below shows the Dyson Airblade. This is a new kind of hand dryer popping up more and more in public washrooms. I hate them. Please, if you are installing a washroom, don't choose this technology!

This technology uses high speed jets (blades of air) to rapidly push the water off your hands. You insert your hands from above. The water is 'pushed' rather than evaporated. It works, if you are an able-bodied adult with steady hands.

The big benefit of the device is lower energy consumption.

What are the problems:

  1. They are totally unusable by small children. You have to insert your hands from above. Small children simply cannot reach the slots. In many washrooms with these devices there is no alternative, so kids have to leave their hands wet. My four-year old cannot use these yet; she is short and likely will only be able to use them when she is 6 or 7. This is unacceptable.
  2. Disabled people in wheelchairs cannot use them. This is a critical accessibility problem.
  3. People with Parkinsons, or unsteady hands in general will always find that they end up touching the yellow borders of the device. This is unhygienic. Dryers should not require touching anything because not everybody washes their hands well.
  4. Even people like myself and my wife don't like them because of reason 3. I have steady hands, but it it requires attention to avoid touching the borders; not easy, for example, if you have little kids in tow.
I don't see an easy way to fix this without major redesign. They could somehow arrange for an additional set of hand slots much lower down, to solve problems 1 and 2. However that would increase the cost a lot. To solve problems 3 and 4, they would need to increase the openings a lot, but that would decrease the effectiveness. Perhaps some kind of mechanism could automatically move to avoid having the device touch people's hands, or perhaps it could be redesigned so people insert their hands up to their sleeves, so only their sleeves would touch. A moving element could then push the water with the blade of air. However, this all seems very difficult to achieve inexpensively from an engineering standpoint.

If you agree with the above, please forward to the company, to building supervisors and to your friends. The corporate website has a feedback form  Let's try to get a movement going against this device until it is redesigned to solve the above problems. Such unaccessible devices are totally unacceptable.