Where are the headless macs?

Todays release of the whopping 24 inch imac renews the question: why isn’t there a midrange headless mac, something between the mini and the pro? Like the Imac hardware, but without the built-in monitor and capable of driving two screens? It just seems like a shame to have a nice 24 inch LCD that will probably be useful for years after the computer attached to its behind is obsolete. I guess it’ll always be able to play movies.

Time for a new phone.

Phone going south

My trusty Sony Ericcson T637 is in the process of shuffling off this mortal coil as you can probably tell from the picture at right. I’m looking around for a new phone but not seeing anything I really like. Cingular seems to be overrun by Motorola phones, and I’ve never liked their interface design. Their cell phone selection seems to be influenced by some echo of Henry Ford. You can have any phone you like as long as its a Razr. In four colors!

I want something that’s not really a smart phone, but rather a “smarter” phone. I don’t want a whole computer to carry around, but it would be nice if it had a basic HTML browser so I could use it with Backpack or some other online organizer. Perhaps some basic calendaring and organizer capabilities. It has to play nice with isync. Music playing and picture taking aren’t priorities because I already have those covered. Hopefully it’s not huge either.

I tend to overconstrain problems so that they can’t be solved, so maybe I’m already there with the above needs.

The Nokia Nseries looks like it could be a winner for me, but I don’t know if or when cingular would offer one of their phones, plus only the top of the line appears to support GSM850. They do offer the 6682 which appears to meet my needs, but they’re not doing me any favors; at $250 its only 50 bucks cheaper than getting it directly from Nokia, unlocked.

I like sony ericcson as well but I can’t decipher their current phone line and cingular only offers one of their phones right now, the Z525a, which doesn’t meet my needs. The k790 and w810
look like they could meet my requirements as well, but they’re not on Cingular yet either, although they are rumored to be showing up soon.

I guess there’s always ebay, but that’s complicated slightly because I have an AT&T; sim card rather than Cingular, so all the Cingular locked phones there will probably not work.

Suggestions anyone?

An interactive line-chart without plugins

I wrote a quick and dirty line chart that is interactive without using flash or any other plugin – it uses Microsoft’s Vector Markup Language (VML) along with javascript. Although I feel dirty for doing something Microsoft specific, anabolics I’m planning to build it into a demo for work (where the apps are alarmingly short of data visualization), and the web-applications are IE-only due to activex plugins.

The example is here.

The chart could be improved in many ways, such as a fill under the line, some markers to indicate the original position of the chart as it is edited, larger click targets for the vertexes, some animations on mouseover. But since I’m not sure any of that will ever happen, I’m putting it up in case someone else can learn from it.

With Canvas and SVG support making it into the the other browsers, VML in IE, and a graphics api (like dojo.gfx/dojo.2d) that will hide the differences, it looks like there could be quite a bit of client-size rendering coming to the web in the not too distant future. (google maps already uses vml as a fall back from transparent pngs for drawing the route in IE)

Incidentally I did most of the work using Aptana which is a quite capable Javascript editor.

Click data as heatmaps

A colleague pointed out this open source project that allows users to visualize the mouse movements of users as a heatmap – the hotter the area, the more the mouse has been used there. Its a neat idea, a well executed visualization and a great that the code is shared, but I wonder about the utility of the resulting data.

Heatmaps are usually used in this context with eye-tracking data – that is it shows where the users look on the page, the movement patterns between sections, and how long they spend there. This data is useful for understanding if the layout makes sense, to understand where to place things so the user will see them.

I don’t think that cursor position is a good proxy for attention while using any application on a computer. I don’t constantly mouse over things on a page, paticularly when reading some amount of content. Maybe its the case that I do it unconsciously enough that there is some real meaning to the data, or maybe there are groups of users who do this all the time?

My colleague pointed out one good use for this – to identify elements of the page that are misleadingly affording interaction – are people clicking on stuff that isn’t clickable? Otherwise I fear people will read too much into the heat maps, and would be better off with just a click stream around the page. I wonder if even a clickstream provides solid enough data upon which
to draw conclusions with any degree of certainty.

Theres a commercial offering of a similar capability called Clicktale. They provide video simulations of the user’s mouse interactions with the page – from the limited information they have, it doesn’t look like they have visualization tools, and who has time to watch all that video?

Self Checkout

Either I’ve been really unlucky or society just arrived at some plateau on the technology adoption curve for grocery self checkout. It seems to me that it used to be only once in a while that the line for self checkout was held up by some poor soul that couldn’t figure the thing out, but the last few times I’ve been in Shaws, i’ve been held up as people take forever to checkout their handful of items.

Its just not that hard! Scan items, scan shaws card, hit finish. Hit Ok at the annoying “check under your cart” prompt. Click the picture of the mechanism with which you’re going to pay. Swipe card. Done.

As someone with some interest in usability, I wonder what it is that leaves these people gaping open mouthed at the screen, struggling to comprehend the current prompt or messsage, but I feel like it would be rude to mosey up behind someone to see what is going on. I hope Shaws is doing something to capture the state where input to the machine is paused for some period of time(along with video tape of the user) to figure out what the stumbling block is.

I wish the self checkout wrangler would be more proactive about helping people who appear stuck – like at the airport where airline employees try to hold your hand through self check in.

As I’m not a patient person, while I’m fuming in line behind these slowpokes, I’m imagining some device where the self-checkout community can vote inept people back to the regular checkout lines. Can we make that happen?

Another thought – why can’t we all wait in one line for the cluster of self checkout machines? It seems to me that would be the most fair approach because now one has to not only judge how much stuff a person has, but also profile for computer aptitude when getting in line. Perhaps that’s un-American? I remember a couple of years ago waiting in line to use the ticket machines in Union Station (New Haven) trying to straddle a couple machines so that I could get the next one and having some lady ask me “Are you in this line?” to which I replied “We’re all going the same place lady”. She wasn’t amused.

Siggraph 2006

Siggraph 2006 is in Boston,
and they had a free public reception this afternoon (which I saw in one of the free weekly papers,
but was unable to confirm through official channels). I headed over there with Marty, and fortunately the paper was right. We were able to check out the emerging technology area (their page is here and a video preview is here) There were many really neat applications. Lots of what my advisor at Tufts would call reality-based-interfaces (RBI) where the user interacts with a computer application by manipulating real physical objects. There were many table top devices, one where multiple users could collaborate to create “music” (more like sound) by manipulating a large number of objects on a projector table. Turning objects to make them louder and softer and moving them around to change their interactions.

I think my favorite demo that I actually got to use was the Forehead Retina System because it made me really able to sense objects through physical sensations on my forehead. The effect really has to be experienced to be believed. It worked really well for linear objects, where it was easy to feel a line moving back and forth on my forehead, but not so much for a round object where the effect just felt mushy.

We also got to see the Art Gallery where there were some cool works, including an exhibit where you could interact with butterflies in side a mirror.

Stuff like this makes me wonder what I am doing with my career…

More macbook wireless

I spent over an hour on the phone today with Apple support about my macbooks’s tendency to drop wireless connections when on battery power. I didn’t really expect a resolution going in, rather I just wanted to have them increment the counter on the problem so they’ll finally fix the real issue, which still appears to be power management settings when the network is idle. I worked with level one support for a while changing this setting and that, and finally got transferred to a product specialist. He of course insisted there was no problem with the macbook’s wireless. Instead he blamed my linksys router. The one interesting thing we found out is that If I have my iMac create a computer to computer network and share its internet connection, my macbook will stay connected to that just fine.

The official apple workaround is to buy an apple airport base station, which seems like an expensive fix to me.

I’m also amazed that the techs I spoke to profess they haven’t heard of this issue, when it does seem to be happening to an awful lot of people. There’s this thread at apple in particular.

In the meantime running iStumbler in the background seems to help, so that’s what I’ll do until apple comes out of denial and fixes the problem.

While we’re on the topic – anyone who runs a macbook with only half a gig of RAM is out of his or her mind. It is a dog configured like that. Now that I have 2 gigs this machine screams. Don’t even think about having less than a gig.

Macbook wireless: use it or lose it

I’ve had my macbook for about a week now: not long enough for it to start turning yellow yet, so my chief annoyance with it (besides it only having 512 megs of RAM because I was an idiot and ordered the wrong kind) is that its wireless drops intermittently. As in, it’ll be sitting there with all 4 bars of strength clicking through web pages and all of a sudden there’s no internet. But I started downloading the new XCode (which is almost a gig), and as I started, thought, no way is this going to finish. And while theres still time for that to become true because its not done yet, for some crazy reason this is the longest its wireless connection has ever stayed associated to my base station.

Other than that I think its great. It’ll certainly keep me warm in the winter time. If anyone does happen to stumble upon this and is thinking about getting one: do not even think about keeping the stock 512 Megs of RAM. It swaps like crazy with more than a couple of things open.

Update: The experiment is a success. Of sorts. I noticed my wireless had dropped so I checked to see if the download had completed. It had.

Gmail notifier stops checking when you’re idle

I’m not sure why this amazed me so much this morning. I got to work, unlocked my computer and suddenly my gmail notifier tells me I have mail – only that mail was some spam I didn’t bother reading this morning on the way out the door. It didn’t just arrive, so what must have happened is that it detected one of: screensaver turning off, machine being unlocked, or keyboard/mouse activity and then resumed checking.

It seems obvious thinking about it now that its pointless to tax an infrastructure by checking for updates that the user won’t even see – I guess I just never thought about it all that hard before.

I know based on what I’ve read about the effects of interruptions on productivity that its counter productive to for me (or anyone) to run any sort of mail notifier; indeed I’ve hated the way my organization has tended to use email as a lame substitute for IM. Problem is I’ve gotten into the bad habit of compulsive mail checking anyway – which puts me in the browser and then there I am checking my feeds and digg. Trouble. So I think for me, right now it turns out to be better this way.

Boston Web Innovators Group

On Monday night I went to a meeting of the Boston Web Innovators Group. It’s basically a bunch of folks either with their own Web 2.0 startups and those that wish we worked on much cooler stuff than we actually do. I fall in the second group.

It was alright – its mostly a shmoozing/networking session. There were two main presentations: the first ProxPro is this location aware application for phones/pdas to facilatate chance meetings. Sort of like dodgeball for business. They also have this application can you can look up background information on business folks so you can find out how to best exploit your chance encounters.

The second, and by far the cooler of the two (or at least more conceivably usable for me) is Plum Its a web-based tool that lets you connect snippets from the web and save them, online, in their original form. One application demoed was group trip planning – you can save a collection of web pages (even in the middle of sessions) and share them with other people. Sort of cool. There’s aleady a firefox extension that does this, and at least one Mac app I know of, but there are certainly some benefits added on here like community, tagging and autofinding of related content in the plum system.

The complete list of demonstrators can be found here.

As a schmoozing-handicapped individual, I would have liked there to be more time spent on formal presentations (it was only ~15 or 20 minutes) rather than rushing through to the free for all afterwards. Or I could just talk to strangers. What would mom think though?