Friday, November 26, 2004

Slashdot | User-centric GUI Design Explained to All

Ok, Slashdot is a very good site and recently had an article about the debate of User interface design.

Now this is something I have a few thoughts on, and while some of it will no doubt be expressed slightly incorrectly due to the amount of alcohol currently in my system (just refer to my last post for proof of said).. Ok enough with the caveats here it is.

Game designers like ID Software or Blizzard have all learnt a valuable lesson, called immersion (and these companies are by far not the only ones), whereby the user (or in this example the gamer), totally forgets the outside world and loses himself in the game.

From Kushner, David. Masters of Doom. New York: Random House, 2003.
Because [Carmack] was a craftsman engineer, 3-D was the obvious step for him. Three-dimensional graphics were the holy grail for many programmers as well...The idea was to make the player feel as if he were inside the game. Though Carmack was not aware of it, he was joining a pursuit that had begun thousands of years before. The dream of a realistic immersive, interactive experience had consumed humankind for millennia. Some believed it to be a primal desire. Dating from 15,000 BCE, cave paintings in Lascaux, in the south of France, were considered to be among the first "immersive environments," with images that would give the inhabitant the feeling of entering another world. (80)

Now there was a lesson to be learnt from ID, as if memory serves (can't seem to find a weblink about it) Doom actually was on more pc's than Microsoft Windows, now this was a lesson (and this is my own threory not supported by any other information) that Microsoft wasn't going to fail. Now aside from changing it's marketing strategies, what else has the infamous Microsoft done?

Well to me part of it is applying the usuability of Doom (and all good games) to every microsoft application. That usability is not about making it fun to use, it is quite simply (and if I remember correctly this a quote from John Cormack, if not I'll claim ownership): "Make it so the user no longer things 'how do I shoot that monster' instead the user will just shoot it".

Put another way, if you as the user has to think for too long about "Ok, I want to change this text to Bold" before being able to get it, the user interface needs to be reworked. Now obviously there will be some training required (particularly as most business applications are significantly more complex than the average game in terms of what the user wants to do at any point in time [or are they?]), but to me the user interface of any application should follow some fairly straight forward rules (and I'm probably paraphrasing a microsoft guideline here):

  • intuitive interface: namely that if I am using the application for the first time (dependent on knowing the skill ie: if I'm a doctor using a medical application), I can easily come to grasp with how to make my way around and do simple things.
  • don't restrict the expert user: Basically this means that as a user, when I use an application for a while I would like to be able to find quicker ways to do what I do frequently and maybe do some more advanced stuff (ie: in excel rather than just creating a bar graph, maybe I'd like to use data from 3 different worksheets put through a mean algorithm)

Now both of those points are difficult to implement, but I think the second is more so unless you have a cohesive plan... For example:
ID Games: You start with a basic setup of your character (set keys and so forth), can start shooting straight away... Eventually you find you prefer to have certain commands tied to certain keys (you use the menu to adjust), then you find you'd like other modifications (keys or otherwise), and so you can use the console (activated by '`') to gain access to a lot more features (usually undocumented).

Microsoft: There is the primary window with the toolbar allowing you to do what you need/wish to do... Eventually when you hit slight issues (formatting in Word for example) you want greater control, and so you discover the extensive menu options (with keyboard shortcuts as well!), so you find you can do complex stuff with a couple of key-clicks! (Yay for you!), and ultimate of ultimate, if there's really something specific you find yourself needing to do, you can create an add-in, using a programming language (VBScript) to customise how you use the microsoft application...

Ok, I think you get the idea there, both successful companies where they support the progression of the user from Beginner through to (and in some cases beyond) Expert.

Beginner to Expert
A lot of very worthy applications out there only support one type of user on that spectrum, either limiting the application that only simple tasks can be done (or that more complex tasks take too much interaction for an advanced user), or that you have to spend 5 days reading the help file just to find out how to save a file. Both types of users are important!

Immersive/Intuitive Interface
If the user (particularly after using the application for a while) has to frequently search for how to do something (either by looking up the help file, or by searching through menu options), there is something wrong, I'm sure that out there are some heuristic research telling us what the limit is, but you get the point, I shouldn't have to think "How do I bold this text?" I should justBold this text.


Hugs Are Good for Your Heart

Ok, the article itself doesn't actually give you much info:
Hugs Are Good for Your Heart

But I gotta say hugs are good, they're my favourite way of greeting friends and family, though with some it just ain't what they want/appreciate... But for me it's the best, you get to feel all warm and fuzzy inside, along with wanted and liked by those around you. And bonus by getting this feeling you give the other person the same in return, simply by returning the hug!

And it can just be a friendly hug (though the other type are good too, for a different reason), but there's something different about having a friend you feel comfortable enough to hug as opposed to just talk.. Though it's difficult to say how to cross that boundary..

So my advice today, go and hug someone close to you, they'll probably appreciate it. :-D

Here's a big virtual hug for you too.

Wednesday, November 24, 2004

One of the coolest comics of all time

Ok for those that know me from back in Aus, you'll probably recall that I read a lot of comics (well not really that much in recent years), but anyways a good friend Dan put me onto this cool comic:

Questionable Content which is absolutely hilarious!

For example one of the earlier strips featuring the underwear ninja that is one seriously funny concept, love it!

Oh and for anyone who likes comics check out:

oh and if you use rss feeds, checkout: Tapestry it has a whole heap of webcomics in rss form (as most of them don't seem to provide rss feeds) Thanks to Fish for sending that link through to me.

Keep having fun!

The Inslaw Affair | Gadgetopia

Ok, huge fan of this news site (use their rss feed, to read their stuff though).

Usually very geeky news items, about new technology and gadgets (hence the name I'd say), but this one reads like a proposal for a new Dan Brown or Michael Creaton book:

The Inslaw Affair | Gadgetopia

Have a read, it's cool. Bit sad for the company Inslaw (as they're still bankrupt), but interesting for the rest of us!


Sunday, November 14, 2004

My photo's are up..

For those that are interested, I think all my photos are now up on the web... To look at them check out:

Basically on the left hand side is a tab for Biscuit, just have a look under there... at the moment the photo's don't have any info, but I plan to 'slowly' update most of them (that and re-arrange the order of the folders so that it's in the order I visited them)... That and go through them to find the best ones to post on here, while telling you about the remainder of my trip...

See? I'm getting there, slowly... :-)

Oh yeah, and looks like I've lined up a job! Yay! Money! :-) I should know for sure on Monday (the offer is there from the company, just waiting for the agent to finish negotiating how much for)

Till next time, enjoy yourselves!

Thursday, November 11, 2004

Cryptography thoughts

Following is an incomplete piece I started to write on one of the missing elements of modern cryptography, I'll leave it up to you as to whether it is a necessary or irrelevant part of cryptography. For me it's just something I've been interested in for a while and recently while reading The Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson (highly recommend it!), it got me thinking about this topic. Comments and questions are welcome.

Information Theory in Cryptography

One of the original rules of cryptography refers to making the message indistinguishable to it's background (namely if you can't see it you can't break it), back in the first & second world wars this meant making the messages appear as white noise.

White noise refers to making encrypted information indistinguishable from its background, which is fine when the communication medium is radio signals (also known as static)

A technique used to accomplish this was for 2 albums (of random noise) playing at either end of the line, so that the signal would appear to be random noise as it was sent through the air, but at either end the records would cancel each other out, and only leave the actual communication (be that 2 people talking, or an actual data stream). This technique actually served 2 purposes, being encrypt live communication (the 2 albums were in essence the encrypt & decrypt keys), as well as to hide (or mask) that stream to sound like the background it was traveling through.

But in today's era of computers and the internet what was white noise for radio transmissions is not white noise for the PC let alone communication between PC's. In fact by keeping with the current format we're advertising that we have an encrypted file, something to be focused on to 'crack'.

There's lots of different ways to crack encrypted files (some straight forward approaches to cracking: brute force, only secure as the key, social engineering, technology improvements, etc...)
Note: A lot of the current techniques for encrypting depend upon it being unfeasible to crack, ie: that a brute force approach will take years to find the key, even using the latest technology.

What can be done?
To answer that we need to answer what is the background of files on a PC and/or in communication?

On the PC there are 2 types of backgrounds:
• standard files (part of the file system)
• Unallocated blocks of the file system (random 1's & 0's)

For communication between PC's there's really only 1, as any one who has access to all the packets of data can re-create the full 'data block' which is for our purposes the same as a file.

Given that info there seems to me to be the option of creating methods for 'masking' data (preferably already encrypted as added security) to look like a standard file, obviously easier said than done, hiding the data in unused sections of the files is easily spotted (virus checkers do this on a routine basis).

Some possible techniques:
• Alterating a master file without breaking the format rules (con that need master file to unmask)
• Creating a program file using standard rules (con of unusual to transmit, possible execute and cause crash)
• Create human viewable file, ie: picture, text, audio (con complex rules to conform to to be truly hidden)

As a general note though, these techniques because of their very nature make it hard for us (as users) to realise that the file we’re looking at is not actually a thesis on cats moulting, but is in fact a masked (and possibly encrypted) design of a revolutionary can-opener.. This of course meaning that, the ease of use which is now starting to really appear in computers, is made more difficult with this masking technique… One possible solution is to only apply it when transmitting the file…

Question for the future
An alternative method is to look at how a pattern can be identified in terms of finding a file (whether or not it has been encrypted) perhaps the answer for communication is to have a constant stream of random data, in essence replicating early radio communication. [obvious problems with bandwidth and pollution of networks though..]

Saturday, November 06, 2004

Chat to Mark & Mail-to-Blogger SUCKS!

Heard from mark a very cool friend of mine who has created his own blog Ravensdarks Rants who’s favourite movie or one of at least is the cool movie Underworld (there was a picture linked, but it's been moved)

He’s doing well, which is very grand, even if he is currently coming up to exams for uni (Good luck dude!)

Actually this is mainly a test of the Mail-to-Blogger stuff that blogspot has recently implemented, to see if I can easily create the post in an email and nicely link to web pictures and so forth… Mainly as I’ve been having difficulties getting into blogspot (been really slow creating and editing posts), so would be much nicer if I could just email the posts in…

This’ll do as a test post, as well as was cool to catch up with my friend Mark! Even got an email from the ever elusive Judd!

To you all, take care of yourselves and enjoy everything that life has in stall for you!


Addendum: Well this was originally a test of the Mail-to-Blogger thing, which I had high hopes for, but about 2 days after I sent this email, I got an email saying

"Your message could not be posted because of the following reason(s):, Invalid Content Type

Not a huge surprise on the Invalid Content Type, as I was using Outlook 2003's inbuilt html editor (which is basically the word editor set to produce html), which doesn't exactly produce nicely formatted html.. But you'd think it'd be ok? since it is all standard html anyways! Actually on that veign I change my mind, it should of just saved it as a draft to let me edit, not just sent a response back saying invalid content!! I mean it was still just text, it wasn't as if I had an imbedded binary file in there!! (the picture was not even an attachment, it was a properly linked pic that's already up on a web site!)

So that blows out that nice idea of using email to post blogs! Argh!! Oh well, I'll have to just login and update manually instead.. Actually these last 2 posts have been surprisingly fast to connect and publish, maybe they're now on top of those server issues that they've been having?

By the way, I do think the rest of blogger is cool! Just this latest service has a few issues to be dealt with (like actually putting up a post in a timely manner, and some smarts on handling slightly unusual text)

There is some hope in the world (maybe)

Just read this article on The Age that makes me wonder if maybe there is hope for us as a human race..

Americans sick of being Bushwacked

For those that can't read the article (now that the age has introduced subscription), basically as soon as it was announced that Bush had won the latest election, thousands more people checked out becoming citizens of other countries..

From the article:
Before this week, there was a daily average of 20,000 hits to the website of Citizenship and Immigration Canada.

Last Wednesday, according to the department, those online visits soared to 115,000, just from the US.

To me this means that are that many (at the least) people interested in living in a better world where war (and the people who seem to want to pursue it) do not exist, or at the least are opposed.. Hopefully there are more people who stayed in the US that actually want to do something about changing it in that country (not just moving to somewhere it ain't supported)..

Well that's my 2 cents anyways...

Oh yeah, I will get back to what I've been up to on my travels real soon