Snapshot

More and more I am feeling the urge to sit down and write something. Today for example, I want to write something, anything. Well not quite anything, I have to write the last bit of my PhD corrections, and I don’t want to do that, so I’m writing here instead.

There are lots of things I feel like writing about today, my recent phone interview with Google, though as the interview was only four minutes, it wouldn’t be a very long piece, so I will wait till I have had the next interview with them for that. I could write about the absolutely amazing hand of bridge I played last night (my partner and I bid game with only 9 points between us, and it would have made if the opponents hadn’t bid higher) but that will no doubt bore all of you. Instead, I think I will write about the photo course I started on Saturday.

As some of you know, and those who don’t might have guessed by looking at the site, I’m into photography. I love it, but while I have always found the technical aspects of it, like shutter speed, and ISO settings easy (they are just applied physics) I have always felt pretty incompetent at the artistic side of it. I have taken some stunning photos, but always by playing to my strengths – technicalities. The dance photos are good because I have trained myself to photograph the moments when the dancers do something impressive. The people photos are good because I have learnt to use the same “capture the moment the subject does something” technique when looking at people interacting. I’m very proud of the technique I have in my photography, but I have always felt a bit of a cheat when it comes to being artistic. Hence the photo course – The Art of the Snapshot at Central St. Martins, taught by Karl Grupe.

I have to admit, I was a bit worried about what the course would be. Carina, who has some other courses at CSM told me she had heard the snapshot course was quite basic. It is, but in the way I want it to be. It’s basic in technique. We have already covered the entirety of the technique we are going to do for the course: “If you don’t know how your camera works, just set it onto automatic”. The course really does focus on art. We spent the first session talking about how all the things that you put into the photo: style, concept, content, symbols and experience all combine to create a reaction, which is then interpreted by association in the audience. That ties in exactly with the MindHacks book which claims “The human brain is an association engine”. The style, or voice of the photographer is very important, and we spent the rest of the day on exercises about personal voice. We did a number of exercises, mostly drawing, where we had to express various concepts, including ourselves graphically. Karl then shows how for most people their voice is consistent, or at least has some consistencies throughout their work, including photos they had brought in. I am very clear and bold in my voice. If I’m depicting a tree, in any medium, I will show a tree, and it will be in the centre of the frame. Where else would it be? It’s a depiction of a tree! But of course there are other approaches, you could just hint at a collection of leaves in one of the corners. That is a very different way of doing it, but just as valid.

I tried hard to stretch myself for the last part, a visual presentation of “me” on A0 paper. I resisted the temptation to put an icon or depiction of me in the middle, but it ended up there anyway. Each of the four parts of my personality (work, home, sports/dance, and photography) ended up having a clear area on the page that didn’t really overlap. But I did manage to have quite a chaotic (messy?) selection of colours, and I even went so far as to try and signify the feeling of not being artistic by ripping off the part of the paper that was going to represent the artistic side of photography. Despite ending up with something I didn’t like, I think I made progress. Some of the other people on the course seemed to not like their work either, despite everyone loving everyone else’s work (at least I really liked all the other ones). Maybe it’s just common for people to not like what they have done?

There was a really good cross section of people on the course, lots of different ages and professions. I’m looking forward to getting to know them better in the weeks that come.

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By |January 23rd, 2006|Uncategorized|1 Comment

Online Communities

I have been thinking quite a bit recently about online communities. Not just the technology that allows them, but what exactly is their role. No doubt this has been inspired by my recent work on Paso, a replacement web based online community tool for IVDA.

My friend James pointed me in the direction of Joel Spolsky, who has written a bit about how the tools provided by an online community can have a drastic effect on its culture, and its sociology. For example, putting a “reply” button at the end of a thread rather than the beginning increases the likelihood of people actually reading the thread before replying.

From there, I did a little bit of research about Ray Oldenburg, who has written a book, The Great Good Place, in which he talks about a “Third Place”, somewhere other than work or home for people to gather, and be social. Joel Spolsky pointed out that more and more online communities are becoming a “Third Place” for people. This strikes me as both very true, and very unfortunate. I find that an online community, such as UDS is capable of providing enough social interaction to remove the feeling of loss that can otherwise drive people out in search of a Third Place, but, falls short of providing the social needs that such a place should satisfy. This raises the question, are online communities doomed to be pale shadows of real communities, or have they just not yet reached the point at which they can compare? I think the answer is somewhere in between. They will never (I hope) replace real face to face interaction, but I think the can serve as a great way to maintain social links when its not possible to be physical present, and I think they have much more potential to catalyse real communities. Over the next few months I will be thinking about how this can be achieved in UDS, and no doubt I will be posting some of my thoughts, and maybe even my conclusions here. I would say that the problem of creating viable online communities is no more than 10% solved.

Finally, I would like to point out a talk by Marc Smith, at Microsoft research, who studies online communities, to analyse behaviour patterns. He did a talk that is available on IT conversations. Well worth a listen.

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By |January 9th, 2006|Uncategorized|0 Comments

Agile Web Development

Recently I have been trying to teach myself eXtreme programming. Without repeating all the ideas and concepts, one of their key arguments is “Do the most important stuff first, the rest can wait till later”. That’s all well and good, and I like the idea, I would even go so far as to say I agree with it, and think it’s a damn good idea.

As an example, Paso, the web software I am writing for IVDA needs some new features before it can go live. It needs to be able to have a forum board that only people at one university can see. That way all the people at Imperial College have a place for gossip, and team discussions, without allowing Oxford or Cambridge to read it and steal their ideas. In fact this is the one biggest thing that’s currently missing from Paso, so XP dictates that I should add that feature right now, as it provides the biggest business advantage.

Web development is different from other forms of development (sorry for the quick subject change, but it will make sense later – promise), and one of the key differences is URIs – those bits of text starting with http:// at the top your window when you are viewing a web page. Every single thing I want done has to be expressed as a URI, and sometimes, some extra data. We all know that cool URIs don’t change, ever!

Often, if you look at the URIs  you will see it contains long strings of numbers and implementation specific details  such as http://www.some-forum-site/viewtopic.php&topic=13487282. This is bad a bad URI! It says what software your site is written in (PHP – but do your users care?), lists what number that topic is (13487282) which is not something that anyone is going to remember. Its really good for your traffic if someone can grab a beer mat in the pub, and scribble down the URI for a topic they were reading, the person they give the beer mat too is much more likely to read the site, then if you say “go to some site, and search for a topic on blah”. Finally, that little “&” says to many search engines “ignore the rest of this URI”, so your actual content doesn’t get indexed. Lots and lots of missed searches – less traffic – bad!

So your site is doing to do better if your URL is something like http://www.some-forum-site/topic/what-fake-tan-is-best, but URIs of the first form are much much easier to develop. I’m using ruby on rails a lot at the moment, which for the most part, produces really nice URIs, but still falls into the trap of putting strings of numbers into the URI. This is probably the most minor of the URI issues, but still one I want to avoid.

The problem comes when you try and combine XP with web development. The business value side of me says “Get university boards up and running”. It’s more important than nice URIs, the part of me learning XP says “Do the university specific boards, then at a later date, sort them out with nice URIs”, the part of me that buys into the cool URIs don’t change mantra, says “ARGHHHHH”

So what to do? In my first few iterations I spent the time creating nice URIs from the beginning. It was great, Paso forums have really nice URIs, I’m very pleased with them, and proud of them. However it added lots of time to the development, and its still not done, The short names (what-fake-tan-is-best) need to come from somewhere, If I ask the users to type them in they are just going to bash away at the keyboard, and I’m going to get meaning less garbage. Auto generating them is a hard problem that will take a long time to get right. Already I’m thinking about how to solve a problem that not that important from a business value point of view. XP says that’s wrong.

My gut feeling is to think: sod it, this is still under development. I will have static URIs once the key features are fixed and done. But I have lots of cool things I want to add to Paso, and fighting with short-names and nice URIs are holding that up, the project becomes less fun, I get less motivated, and less productive. It’s a bad cycle. I know how I work, I really want nice URIs but I want a working site more. I want a site that people can use without caring about the URIs – to be honest, most people don’t. So I’m going to lay off on the nice URI mantra for now. And get the site working. Once that’s done, I will enjoy playing with it to get the URIs nice. And the dance community will enjoy using their new software, or at least, they will enjoy telling me what’s wrong with it :-)

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By |January 1st, 2006|Uncategorized|0 Comments