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Month: July 2012

Recently, an old friend gave me back something I’d lost…

If you know me in real life, you’ll know that a had some health trouble a while back.  This post isn’t about that, but it gives some context, so I’ll fill start there.

One of the symptoms of that trouble was an even-less-reliable-than-usual short term memory.  Short term memory isn’t “the past few days”.  It’s not even hours or minutes – it’s seconds.  Short term memory isn’t your ability to remember what you did ten minutes ago – it’s your sense of now.

It was a scary time in general, but I found it particularly unpleasant  as it caused me to lose something valuable to me – my ability to read books.

I could read the words and they made sense, but more often than not, they’d be gone a few seconds later.  I’d have to go back and reread a sentence over and over to give it a chance of sticking. Or, because I had no sense of now, I’d keep reading, with no reason to realise I’d forgotten anything.  It was only when I stopped briefly that I’d realise I had no recollection of anything I’d just read.  It stayed long enough for me to parse it and be conscious that I had read it… and then went out of my mind entirely, as if it had never been there at all.

So I stopped reading.

After a few false starts, nearly a year later, I decided I was better.  Except for the whole reading thing.  That wasn’t coming back.  I managed to read a book here and there, if it was one I’d really been waiting for.  In some cases, I need to go back and read them again, because I’m fairly sure I’ve got massive gaps in my recollection of them.

But, when I’d started to be able to read books again (albeit slowly and painfully) I decided to invite an old friend back into my life.  One I’d not seen for a fair while, because we’d become a bit too close and decided we needed to see other people for a while.  Not a flesh and blood kind of friend, you understand, but one of the paper kind.

I decided to re-read the “Memory, Sorrow and Thorn” trilogy by bestselling author and crazy person Tad Williams.  We used to hang out a lot, those books and I.  In my youth, we’d get together at least once a year for over a decade, and we’d hang around in the same circles a lot.  In particular there was the Lyst, which I had been around for a great many years, often in the background as a moderator, but from time to time as an active participant as well.

Over time we’d drifted apart.  Many new books had come into my life since we parted ways.  There was A Song of Ice and Fire.  There were The Dresden Files.  There were the Fencer, Scavenger and Engineer trilogies.  There were the collected works of Alastair Reynolds and the works of Charles Stross and Cory Doctorow.  That’s just a small sampling, too.  My eyeballs got around a bit, if I’m honest.

Then, as explained above, something horrible ate my brain.  In a strictly metaphorical sense, of course.

But when we met up, the old familiarity was still there.  Not enough for me to regret reaching out, but enough for me to re-adjust to this whole “reading books” thing.  I spent a couple of weeks with The Dragonbone Chair, and the bond between us was still there.  It took time, but over the course of a couple of weeks we became re-acquainted.

I don’t think it’s fair to take all the credit for that.  I was struggling a bit at first.  There were moments where my brain panicked and decided I needed to stop reading in case it all went horribly wrong.  It sounds daft, but anybody who’s had clinical anxiety will know what I’m talking about. Sometimes you just have a fight, flight or freeze reaction to the most mundane of things.

(As you might have guessed, clinical anxiety was another aspect of my health problems.  My doctor and I are both pretty sure it was a secondary condition rather than the root cause, but as with all such things, you never really get to know what came first because something horrible was eating your brain at the time.)

But anyway, The Dragonbone Chair helped me through all that.  The fact that we could fall into an old and well remembered pattern made it all so much easier.  I got to know Simon Mooncalf again, and his first interactions with Malachias and the scattercat.  I refreshed my acquaintance with Dr Morgenes Ercestres and his works.  I felt once again the unlooked for conflict between two royal brothers, rekindled by the death of their father.

I saw the Uduntree and the blood of Igjarjuk.

Given that our time together in the past had, on occasion, taken place in the space of a single sitting, our re-acquaintance was slow, but it was pleasant, and the pace quickened over time.

So much in fact, that I had something of a wild fling with The Stone of Farewell.  In some ways, I feel that I hurried all the players to get together at Sesuad’ra faster than was wise.  But I was hungry for things to move along.  Hungry to see Jao e-Tinukai’i again, and hungry to visit the house of Shent.

Shent is a game that, even now, appeals to me because it’s a game where playing competitively is missing the point, whilst exploring possibilities and experiencing different flows of the game is paramount.  My kind of game, and my kind of gameplay.

I slowed down a little for To Green Angel Tower, not out of any shame or second thoughts… but because my hardback copy was too titanic to read on the train.  Seriously.  If I were to hit you with that hardback, you would die.  Your neighbours would die too, from the ensuing shockwave.  So I had to read my paperbacks, one of which is not in fantastic condition so required some care to avoid breaking the binding.

So I learned again the story of the Storm King, and I learned his reasons.  I re-learned the deepest secrets of Osten Ard’s greatest knight, and I re-learned of the sorrowful events that had happened long in the past to bring it all to pass.

Since then, I’ve been reading books consistently and comfortably.  I’ve been ploughing through them at a fair rate, if I’m honest.  Sometimes two at a time – I know, I’m shameless.

So, thank you, Memory, Sorrow and Thorn, for helping me get back something I’d lost.  Thank you, Tad Williams, for writing those books, all those years ago… and for being around to talk to a bunch of internet geeks about them (and other things) when many other authors still hadn’t worked out that computers were more than fancy typewriters and that the internet might actually be a “thing”.  I still wonder if I should be taking pineapples with me to SF cons, just to see who understands.

Oh look, a bit fell off…

So, I spend a few minutes this morning on my hands and knees, crawling around the floor looking for a bit of myself that had just fallen off.  Not a typical way to start they day, but, contrary to what you might think, it wasn’t a bad one either.

It was only a little bit, after all.

I’ve had a mole on my neck that’s been inflamed and painful for over a month now, and which was due to be removed in the very near future.  It doesn’t need to be removed any more, as it decided to make a bid for freedom all on its own this morning after my hair got tangled around it.

The only problem was that it made a bid for freedom whilst I was only half awake after my first good night’s sleep for a couple of weeks, and I didn’t see where it landed…so I had to get down and look for it before I trod on it and squeezed the tiny amount of blood it contained out onto the carpet.

But after all that, for the first time in several weeks, I don’t get a stab of pain every time I turn my head or move my shirt collar.  I think the mole had realised that the imminent minor surgery to get it removed was going to end it anyway, and it decided to go on its own terms rather than waiting for the inevitable.

I call that a win.

A user experience gripe… about users?!

A Gripe About Users? You! Out of the UX club! Now!

To be clear, this is not really griping about users… but is instead a gripe about the way that businesses handle contact with users, and the way that they research and prioritize future work.  The users are merely the intermediary in this particular gripe.

To clarify further, I’m not talking about the kind of software that you’re generally familiar with, like MS Word, Google Chrome or Adobe Photoshop…  I’m talking about the kind of software that most of you will probably never see.  Enterprise software.  Software bought by businesses, rather than by people.  Software used by interchangeable cogs in corporate machines, rather than by people (or, given how the software works, that’s how it often seems).

So… what’s the gripe?

Well, I’m afraid I’m going to be a bit long-winded about explaining it, and start by explaining a couple of other things first.  Things that relate to how users complain, where they do so, and what happens as a result.

First, users complain when things don’t work or when things crash.  In these cases, users complain in the form of support requests or helpdesk tickets.  This results in bugs or defects (or whatever the company calls them) being raised in whatever tools are used for such things.  Usually there’s an urgency based on how quickly a fix would be needed and a severity based on what the impact of the problem is.  This is good and proper, and results in work to rectify the problems being scheduled and fixes released in some way.

Second, users complain when functionality they want just isn’t present.  In these cases, users complain in the form of an RFE  – a Request For Enhancement.  This will go through a process to see if enough users want it to justify the development time, and then it’ll be entered into an appropriate work scheduling tool, with a priority based on how many users want it and a “size” based on how many person-hours it’ll need.  This is good and proper, and results in work being done where there’s an appropriate amount of demand.

Thirdly, users complain when a piece of software works, but in an obtuse, counterintuitive, unresponsive or otherwise hostile manner.  In these cases, users respond by grumbling a bit and maybe swearing a little.  Or a lot.  Occasionally, they’ll raise a bug too, but it’ll get logged as low priority because, when it boils down to it, the user managed to get the job done.  Or they’ll raise an RFE… but it’s unlikely to get prioritized because the feature already exists.  As a result, pretty much nothing will get done.

What does this mean?

This all means that users learn how things work, and so stop bothering to complain about the painful stuff unless it’s the software equivalent of a leg falling off.  We never get to hear about pain, or about early symptoms… only about the moment that the patient fell over and died.

Obviously, this makes addressing the non-fatal problems a little more awkward.

Surely user testing is the answer?

Sure, it helps.  But only if the problems that are found can get prioritized and get some development time allocated to them.  What tends to happen is that the problems get identified, and then get logged as bugs or RFEs, which promptly get prioritized exactly as explained above.

If you do user testing, you create an expectation with those users that things will improve.  If you then don’t act on what you find, you’ve failed to deliver on an expectation, and that’s bad.

So how do you get anything done?

As you might have guessed, a large chunk of my professional life is spent around those third types of complaints.  So I’m pretty familiar with the “we agree it’s a complete dog, but we’ve got more important things to do than fix it” answer.  It can, on occasion, be a touch demoralizing.

So you have to find other ways to get work done.  Ways to sneak it in under the radar.  Like keeping a record of tweaks you want to make in a part of the UI and sneaking them in next time something else is being done in that area.  A bug in an area with ropey UI?  Fix the bug and tweak the UI at the same time – commit it all at once.  A bit of new development that requires some new UI?  Where’s the jump-off point that leads to it, and can we rework that jump-off point at the same time?  Can we push the work back up the navigation architecture to the layer above and sneak some extra changes in at the same time?

The problem with sneaking work in like this is with QA (Quality Assurance).  If you’re stretching development work beyond it’s original scope, you’re also stretching them – probably even further.  By taking slightly longer to develop something slightly better, you’re invariably squeezeing your testing time further and putting more load on that department.

A trivial change in the UI has to be tested in many environments, and with many different kinds of input – both good and bad. The load a UI change puts on a QA department can be exponentially greater than the load it puts on development.  If it’s extra work being squeezed in to improve the user experience… that’s work that QA may not have budgeted for, and so it makes things late and gives UX a bad reputation for delaying things.

What needs to change?

I think we need a new model for handling the third type of user complaint that I mentioned above, or we need to adjust the criteria for prioritizing them.  The problem is that we’ve spent so long conditioning users to an environment where it’s not worth complaining about mere pain – only about the aforementioned “limb dropping off”.  They’ve become so used to nothing being done about things being cumbersome and awkward that they’ll suffer in silence rather than complaining.

So two things need to change:

  1. As mentioned above, software companies need to make a viable route for handling “this works, but is like crawling through barbed wire” issues.
  2. Software companies need to then prioritize those issues and allocate development resources to them.

When those two things happen, UI developers and User Experience professionals may start to lose some of their reputation as interfering troublemakers.  Until then, we’ll probably have to keep sneaking work in under the radar, making everything late in the process like the meddling troublemakers we have to be.

I’m not vegan, but sometimes I feed them…

…and when I do, I make a rather well regarded vegan chilli.  This can be modified to feed omnivores too, but I’ve generally found that to be an unnecessary complication, as the vegan version is (though I say so myself) pretty damned mighty.

I’ve posted the recipe online before, but I don’t think I’ve ever made a dedicated blog post for it an pointed the whole world at it.  So I thought I’d change that.  The recipe is designed to serve around eight people, when served with rice or something similar.

But first, the history:  In the dim an distant past, cooking and eating chilli was a communal act for myself and a couple of friends…  and I’ve retained the ability and inclination to occasionally prepare chilli for the masses.  However, the main other human being involved in that ritual of spicy deliciousness has fled these shores for a point that’s about as far as you can get without leaving the planet…  and turned Vegan.  The pre-mixed spice blend that I used as a basis for my chilli had something non Vegan in it (milk or egg or somesuch), which was a problem.

The fact that I would no longer be able to provide her with a hearty meal of chilli should we ever be geographically colocated preyed upon my mind (foolish fact, there’s little nourishment there!.  So I did what any self-respecting technically minded designer would do…  I took it apart to see what made it tick.  I reverse engineered the original spice blend, modified it to be vegan-friendly and then cooked a chilli using that as the base.  I also recorded my personalised “tweaks” along the way and folded them in.  I say “tweaks” in inverted commas because those tweaks changed so much along the way that the dish I make bears little resemblance to what you’d get if you used the pre-packaged spice blend on it’s own.

So here’s the recipe for the vegan version of my traditional chilli.  I’m rather proud of it.  It comes in four sections – ingredients for the dry spice mix, ingredients for the wet or gooey bits that go with the dry spice mix and the “everything else” ingredients.  After the sets of ingredients come the actual instructions for how to assemble them into something resembling hot food!

The “Everything Else” ingredients

  • 4-5 cans beans (assorted, mainly kidney, some black beans) – these should be ready to cook with, so if they need soaking, soak them first.
  • 4 (large-ish) Sweet Potatoes (chopped into 1.5cm irregular cube-like lumps, or thereabouts)
  • 4 bell peppers (assorted colours)
  • 3 Onions (Chopped)
  • 3 cloves garlic (chopped) (or more.  I favour more if I’m cooking for myself.)
  • 2 cans chopped tomatoes (maybe 3 – have one spare)
  • 2 cans plum tomatoes
  • 1 can/tube tomato puree
  • “Some” Jalopenos or Chillis – chopped (these get added to taste along the way)
  • “Enough” Basmati rice

The Dry (ish) Spice Mix

  • 30g Cornflour
  • 5.25 tsp Onion Powder
  • 4.75 tsp Paprika
  • 1.75 tsp Salt
  • 3 tsp Garlic Powder
  • 2 tsp Sugar
  • 2.5 tsp Wheat Flour
  • 1.5 tsp Cumin
  • 2.5 tsp Oregano
  • 1 tsp Chilli Powder
  • 0.5 tsp Black Pepper

The wet or gooey bits of spice mix

  • 1.5 tsp Wine Vinegar / Balsamic
  • 30g Tomato Puree
  • 1.5 tsp Vegemite / Marmite (or more – I’ve been increasing the amount every time I make this!)
  • 8g Avocado (or a bit more)
  • Around 450ml water

How to make it:

  1. Chop stuff that needs chopping (That’s all the veggie bits)
  2. Prepare the mix and then set it aside:
    1. Combine dry chilli mix ingredients
    2. Mix into ~450ml water
    3. Mix in wet chilli mix ingredients
    4. set aside until (5)
  3. Mix the beans, separate a quarter of them to use in (4).
  4. Start frying the following on a high heat:
    • the sweet potato (fry this for a bit before adding the rest)
    • about 1/2 of the onion,
    • the separated 1/4 of the beans
  5. When the onions are softened, throw in the pre-prepared chilli mix from (2)
  6. Throw in about half of the tomatoes
  7. Gradually throw in everthing else.
  8. Keep on a high heat for a bit, then turn down and hold on low heat until deemed nearly ready.
  9. Cook enough rice for the people who are going to be eating chilli.
  10. Serve & Devour.  I tend to serve it with rice and a couple of rings of raw onion plonked on top.  I devour it with style and aplomb (and a fork).

So now you know, and now I have a place to point people at when I wish them to know about my awesome vegan chilli recipe that even non-vegans seem to like.

All Change, Second Iteration

Hey folks, I’ve just noticed that when I flood-filled all of my old entries onto the new blog yesterday, I accidentally flattened the “there’s been a change” post.  So it’s time for a new “there’s been a change” post.

My old blog platform, whilst pleasant enough for the most part, was a sledgehammer to crack a nut.  It was also broken by a routine upgrade, and attempts to fix it were not going well.  So I decided to ditch it and move to something simpler and easier to maintain.

So here we are!  New platform, old posts.  I’ll be working out the details of the look & feel when I get more spare time… but in the meantime it’s not too offensive, so it’s not a priority just yet.

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