The power of language

Royal Mail infuriates with badly phrased letter.

I’ve recently moved house. Setting up mail redirection has been a bit of a faff because the postcode database doesn’t quite match reality, so I had to apply in person at a post office. This also required brandishing paper documents, which I don’t have because I mostly bank electronically. Anyway, a week later I go back and and apply. I’m told it’ll start on the 1st November.

I get a letter at the new place, “We’ll start (…) on 4-November, as you requested.”

In reality the extra 3 days is not a big deal; but if you’re going to include copy that calls out the user intent, it had better be real, and not “this is the date arrived at after we lost your form in the post”.

Getting Playful

Playful is a conference about games, and playfulness.

Another Friday, another conference. This time it was Playful 2010. Not as good as dConstruct but a fun day nonetheless.

I didn’t take many notes, but the general theme seemed to be “stop putting points and prizes on things, because that doesn’t make them a game, and it doesn’t make them fun”. This was perhaps seen as an about turn.

Richard Hogg and Sebastian Deterding were my favourite speakers. Richard did a great skit on being a contrarian and how you can “Escape from the crushing inevitability of liking something that’s good”. Sebastian was the dry German who pointed out that just because you’ve nicked badges from foursquare doesn’t make badges good or appropriate for your thing.

In between these things, some important 4square rules were sorted out: REALLY DON’T auto-tweet your location all the time. Especially if you’re a drive-by checkin merchant.

dConstruct 2010 in summary

A summary of the speakers at dConstruct 2010.

I attended my first dConstruct yesterday, which was a nice trip to Brighton, seeing friends and drinking a bit too much. My very brief take on the sessions:

The Designful Company
You’re aiming for different but good, but it takes guts to aim for and will test badly as it’s unfamiliar. Sticking with the familiar will test better, but ultimately market badly.

Boil, Simmer, Reduce
Collect ideas, play with them without pre-conceptions “Nobody will die doing this”, prune stuff back again, try and aim for simplicity.

Information is Beautiful
There’s too much information, this needs to be pruned and presented. Don’t do circular diagrams.

The Power & Beauty of typography
Typefaces have emotions and these should be in keeping with the overall site/copy. Much like shoes can set off or kill an outfit. This wasn’t too well received too well by a bunch of men and women attendees who appeared to be of the “what’s wrong with 1 pair of shoes and helvetica” crowd.

The Auteur Theory of Design
Explored the idea that projects need one ultimate authority like the Film Director with Final Cut, and that person is a limiting function on the output, and can drag up or down the overall output.

Jam Session: What Improvisation Can Teach Us About Design
Improvisation can bring about your best ideas, works best within a framework when you’re riffing off other people, and your self-inhibitions are lowered when you do it; removing that self-censorship can lead to new things.

The Value of Ruins
An unexpected standout for me; archives are potentially amazing for the future, but as we turn off things like Geocities we’re potentially losing just as much information as previous civilisations did in fires and the like.

Everything The Network Touches
Eons ago a cunning road network provided the ability to carry messages really quickly, and that communication gave empires advantages. Now we’re potentially building the infrastructure for this kind of stuff in the online world, with Bathroom Scales that tweet. Every time devices get more connected information becomes increasingly contextualised and ever more useful. Winner of the Most OCD-ly amazing slide Deck Animations Award – they really were lovely.

Kerning, Orgasms & Those Goddamned Japanese Toothpicks
Nerds care about things that other people don’t. That’s fine, don’t expect them to, try and make stuff so they don’t. Never get complacent, useful feedback probably hurts. Put the “narcism of minor differences” aside to deliver

The Real Test if Old Spice gets the Internet

Updated: Sure the @oldspice videos have been funny, but this voicemail generator showed just how well they get the internet.

Update: Was done with their encouragement.

Sure the @oldspice videos have been funny, but if this voicemail generator is not part of the campaign, how they handle it will be the real reflection of how well they get the internet. @oldspice played along with this voicemail generator and showed they “got it”

I’ve seen followers on twitter saying things like “@oldspice wins the internet”, and their video responses to people tweeting by the actor in their adverts have been generally funny, and impressive for really engaging with people. The knowledge behind comments addressed to the founders of Digg and Twitter gave them decent internet gravitas.

Enter now the Oldspice Voicemail generator: now I don’t know if it’s something that somebody has genuinely done by someone else, or if it’s just another part of this oh-so-viral campaign (I’m a little too tired to go digging properly, so I wouldn’t be surprised). If it is an external thing, how they handle it will be the real indication if they “get” the “internet”.

Don’t go slapping a take-down notice, as you’ll replace a load of Win with an Epic Legal Fail.

They set the campaign free, I suspect this will be the textbook “how to merge big campaign with social media” example for a few years. Look forward to a many piss-poor imitations.

a new look and a (partial) admission of defeat

While it’s tempting to try and do everything myself, using the work of others makes more sense.

For years I’ve been talking about my new theme. It was going to be lovely, it was going to use things like JQuery and BlueTrip. It was going to show my technical credentials as understanding HTML, Progressive Uplift & all that good stuff. It was going to pull in data-feeds from around the web.

In short, it was going to be a most awesome theme.

It’s just a shame then that I’m not proficient enough to do this. Much like doing the revision timetable instead of revising, I’d think about Version Control, and editors, and local development instances. I was great at the meta-work, less good at phasing development and the design work.

Eventually, I probably could just about knock something together, and it’d work in Safari on the Mac. It might work in some versions of Firefox, and IE. But it would always be a bit hit and miss for compatibility, and I’d always be playing catch-up to new features in WordPress.

So instead I used the new TwentyTen, the new WordPress 3.0 theme. It’s nice, compatible and configurable. And I have more time to write actual posts, instead of spending endless time deciding on the <div> structure.

I still have ideas on clever data feeds though, but they can wait.

I miss being bored

In an age where you’ve always got an unread count, are you ever bored. Are we losing something because of that?

I’m a victim of CPA. I’m on Twitter. I’m Facebook. I’m still on IRC. I think that clicking “read all” in Google Reader is somehow cheating, so I’m left constantly playing Whack-a-mole on that and my iTunes podcast collection.

Anyway, the other thing I miss is genuine boredom. I can’t think when I last really said “I’m bored” and meant it, like you did when growing up. Leaving aside twee comments from teachers like “Bored people are boring”, the thing that I wonder is “Do you need to be bored sometimes”?

I don’t think this for any great spiritual reasons, I’m not going to suggest that we all go off on Vision Quests to find our Spirit Guides. I just think that sometimes, for some people, boredom is a driver to change things. In the words of some great children’s telly of the UK of the eighties: “Why don’t you turn the TV off and do something less boring instead.”

The never ending stream of messages, podcasts, feed items and conversations to tune into mean then you’re never bored. You’re sat there, sipping away at the information passing by, sating your CPA appetite but remaining ultimately unsatisfied. Sure you have close run-ins with boredom, but thanks to the omni-present inbox you can dodge it for another 30 minutes staring at Keyboard Cat on YouTube or debating constructively with like-minded individuals.

I’ll admit counter-point is that you can see lots of cool things online that you “might” want to do, but then you see so many cool things that you might want to do that choosing to actually do one of them becomes another exercise in itself (though you can always ask Twitter followers what to do)…

I think this year I need to try and unwire a little bit, feel a little more bored sometimes.

Redefining expectations, BA’s “massive” loss.

Making comparisons about losses, after the Global Financial Crisis, £0.29bn isn’t that much.

British Airways have just announced a record loss, of £292mn for the most recent 6 months.

There’s something deeply wrong when, having had your expectations of record losses racked up by the £20bn likes of RBS, that £0.29bn isn’t that big a deal.

Which seems wrong.

US Healthcare ‘debate’

Having used both the US and the UK healthcare systems, and getting increasingly fed up by the misrepresentations by some in the US about the NHS, I write in favour of universal healthcare.

Apologies as this is quite off topic for this blog: I’m going to justify it under the “travel” tagline as I was unlucky enough to break my wrist while in the USA, and to require surgery.

The US healthcare debate appears to be descending more into farce by the day, the latest and well covered point is the laughable assertion that “Stephen Hawking would not be treated under the UK system as the cost-benefit analysis doesn’t stack up”. Aside from the obvious fact that he was, is and will continue to be treated by the NHS (and has since made a statement about his NHS care), this comparison is especially bizarre given that the Obama plan is not modelled on the NHS. The other mistake is laughable misrepresentation of the role of the National Institute for Health & Clinical Excellence (NICE).

Sarah Palin has been citing “death committees” who will somehow sanction treatment, and NICE was described as one of those. The role of NICE is to assess treatments, new and old, to recommend if they are offered on the NHS. It doesn’t assess things per patient, but it does assess the cost-benefit analysis of introducing a drug. Put simply drugs that cost 5% more than existing treatments, but provided a terminal patient with 30% additional quality-adjusted life tend to be approved, a new treatment that costs 500% more but provides limited improvement tend to be rejected.

NICE is often in the headlines for refusing new treatments, but rarely when it recommends that older, cheaper drugs shouldn’t be used as newer, more expensive, drugs are better. The concept of Quality-Adjusted life years is not that controversial, as much of the new treatments focus on terminal conditions.

It’s always an emotive topic, but the cost of providing someone 1 extra month of life, with a drug that costs 3 times the existing needs to be evaluated again providing 50 other patients palliative care. They make tough choices, and in the face of public outcry are overruled more than I would like. However, this is not a death committee.

The USA system already has something much closer to “death committees”, the teams of Doctors who scours medical records looking for unreported medical conditions that can be used to rescind insurance – removing coverage from patients with lethal conditions, because they omitted to mention a minor, unconnected illness some years ago.

There will always be some form of rationing: in the absence of an infinite supply of money there will always have to be choices. The US healthcare system already has rationing in place, by insurance providers. The opponents of reform claim that “a layer of bureaucracy would be placed between you and your doctor” which seems to be ignoring the fact that your insurance company is already playing this role quite successfully.

Would you rather those be made by a medical committee of experts looking at the true value of a given medicine, or by a fixed cap on your insurance policy, meaning that if you get cancer and you’re at 190k of your 200k cap, that you can have 10k of treatment? Oh, and finding a new policy will be problematic as it’s a pre-existing condition.

Rolling policies are prone to falling foul of the pre-existing problem – if you’re on a 3 month rolling policy, unless you fall ill at the beginning, and are healed by the end of the window you’re going to be in problems come the next renewal. It’s a new policy and your chronic condition is pre-existing… these policies are typically taken out by those unemployed or without workplace health cover. Even people attempting to do the right thing can still lose out if they are diagnosed with cancer at 2.9 months.

I am not going to say the NHS is perfect, we’ve a lot of bureaucratic problems that have crept in during the last decade. Our MRSA and C.Dif rates are nothing to be proud at all. We have deaths due to mistakes and mal-practice.

But so does the USA. However, unlike the USA we don’t have people dying because their cancer treatment is withdrawn part way through because of cost caps. Or because someone can’t afford co-pays.

While in america the staff at the hospital where I had surgery treated me fabulously, I was scheduled for day surgery, and received good care (and many opioid painkillers). I have no complaints, however a good friend received awful care at the same institution where they were dismissed due to superficial assessment. The best care in America is amazing, however this care is not universal.

The administration burden also appears amazing: In the fallout from my broken arm I attempted to get a bill out of one of the hospitals that I was treated by. As I had a foreign address they couldn’t send this, but they could send me a questionnaire to rate “how well they dealt with my billing enquiry?”. Badly, but thanks for asking.

This week I’ve had some of the best primary care that I’ve ever had from the NHS, I popped in for 1 item, and while there discussed 2 other things, both of which require some degree of specialist services, and both of which will be undertaken at my local, clean, modern GP complex.

And those services are also available to the people less comfortable and middle class who live down the road from me, and who don’t have an option to go private.

In the UK I live in a country where everyone has acceptable care, and where those who choose to can pay for better care in the private sector. In some cases that gets you better treatment, but mostly it allows you to jump a waiting list and while being seen by a doctor who still does some work for the NHS.

In America you can get exceptional care. I will not deny that, the specialist hospitals and surgeons available are among the best in the world. But not everyone gets that, the masses of un-insured or under-insured people go without healthcare, or have to make very tough choices to get basic care available elsewhere in the world free at the point of use.

Our system is not perfect, but it’s more equitable, and you don’t have to use it if you don’t want to. Go private, go abroad, you’re not stopped.

From what I’ve read of the reforms in the US, you won’t be stopped either.

Saving power with Wake On Lan

As I was saying to my friend Nick Taylor who’s clued up about identity management, I want my ID card integrated with the IT Wake-on-Lan systems.

When I walk in through the turnstiles, my card fires a message to the IT Asset management system, and if I’ve designated a computer, my machine is woken up, and by the time I arrive it’s ready to log on.

Saves me all of 45 seconds, but could well get at least some of the people who insist on turning their machines off overnight because “they don’t have time to waste”.

Ultimately though, this doesn’t have that much long term use given that everyone is moving towards laptops and wireless.

On the Yahoo/Bing search deal

Firstly a disclaimer: I know a number of Yahoo!/flickr people, including a few who were previously involved in search.

I think the deal was inevitable, and starts to define what Yahoo! actually is. Can it defeat Google, I’m doubting that, but I think that when you’re in the market dominance that Google has you really need to have bigger competitors. In search Microsoft could be an oil tanker, and that once they really get up to speed that bing will start approaching Google as a bigger challenger. I’m not cheer-leading the deal here, just thinking that neither party had much option when they were comprehensively outgunned.

Anyway, much of the negative coverage, in particular this article shared the same character. The tone. It was all “Yahoo! was” “Yahoo! should have” “if I was in charge I would have”.

Yahoo! is where it is. It’s lost market share, advertising revenue and focus. Search is expensive to run, and if you’re in what appears like ongoing decline, then a strategic retreat could make sense.