It was Elly’s birthday yesterday, so we took the weekend off (yes, I managed to stay off the net for 3 whole days) and went shopping and stuff in Camden (black swooshy skirt +1, jewellery +3) and then spent some time on the bike, since it’s been in London rather than Bath for ages. It was all pretty damn good 🙂

Happy birthday, Sweetheart 🙂

As for the blog, it will return to its regular schedule of HCI, softeng and perhaps some gay politics (hey, did y’all see what’s going on in SanFran at the moment?!?!) shortly. For now, please amuse yourselves with Klingon Software Engineering via Kayodeok.

Over at OK/Cancel in the last couple of weeks, KC and Tom have been discussing why there are so many HCI gurus with so many diverse views. Possible explanations include the need for competitive advantage between different consultancies, the field of HCI really being quite complicated and there being different methodologies at work. Tom thinks they’re important just because they give us a common language to argue amongst ourselves with.

All good points, but I think that their main use is as a figurehead. Now, admittedly, this isn’t always useful. If you have a figurehead and you want to refer to them for credibility, then the fact that half of your co-workers may never have heard of them doesn’t really help matters. Similarly, if they all disagree with each other very vocally, then it undermines your protestations that something just isn’t the “right thing to do”. But if you do have a situation where the people you are trying to convince know the names and understand the opinions, then they can be a powerful tool. They also give the industry some visibility and credibility. If it weren’t a real industry, we’d have alpha-HCI-geeks, but not gurus. So I think they should stay ;-P

Never mind my opinion though, go fight it out with the rest of the guys in the new forums!

A lot of the time technological innovations improve the way things are currently done. Every now and again, though, something comes along that will change the process completely. I found an example of this in a Slashdot article a few days ago. The Wired article it links to talks about a variation on voice-recognition systems, designed to detect anger and frustration in the callers voice when dealing with automated phone systems in call centres. The idea is that they want to transfer you to a real human voice as soon as you get so frustrated that they think you might slam the phone down.

Great idea? Well, yes and no. Stuart previously ranted about call centres, since he feels they are unfair and insulate the company from criticism. People you eventually get to speak to might be useless (usually because they’re not well trained), but at the end of the day it is the company that has annoyed you and not the poor soul being paid next-to-nothing to deal with your complaints. I tend to agree with him. This is why although on the surface of things the new “redirect me when I get really annoyed” system will be great for the customer, I think it will actually end up changing the whole arena for the worse.

Imagine a world where getting annoyed gets you somewhere (even more than it does already). So I call up one of these companies. At the moment I’d try to be calm, since it’s not the person I’m speaking to’s fault that x went wrong in the first place. When these new systems are in, however, I’ll know that the fastest way to get through to a human being and to get my call dealt with will be to sound angry, frustrated, about to put the phone down. I’ll be gaming the system … and everyone will do it. Which is why I think this is a great example of a piece of tech redefining the way a whole function operates … and it will be interesting to watch how it develops.

Found a few of interesting articles in the past couple of days, related to writing. To blog, perchance to write is a discussion of how blogging is a particularly easy and lazy form of writing and probably quite bad for anyone aspiring to a career as a professional writer. This is quite a fair argument, since it is really easy to just publish something on the web now. Although it is a great tool to increase the confidence of those unaccustomed to writing regularly, the chances are that it does those who have already developed into something of an accomplished writer to hone their existing skills.

Personally I think that more of this is due to the attitude to blogging than the act of writing frequently itself. The best creative writing coach I ever had would always maintain that what was most important was just to write. To write all the time, about anything. That old chestnut of “1% inspiration, 99% perspiration”. His theory was that even if you threw away 90% of everything you ever wrote, the remaining 10% would be much higher quality as a result.

The problem with blogging is that we publish directly, immediately, straight into the gaping yaw of Google and our consumers on the web. Going back and editing is low on the list of priorities, particularly when debate has ensued and your personal deadline for the next post is already upon you. If we are serious about using this blogging hobby as a facility for increasing the quality of our writing, we should draft & edit more, only publishing when we are completely happy to release our creations into the public. Stops sounding like blogging pretty quickly doesn’t it?

The other interesting link was from BoingBoing, also noted on /.. It focuses on rising numbers of children writing fanfiction. I find it quite amusing that younger kids have now joined what was previously the domain of sexually charged teenagers and lonely adults. Admittedly, some of what I’ve been exposed to is probably better known as slash than just fanfic. Equally, I can see the advantages and I’m glad that so many kids are taking the opportunity to develop their writing in this way.

Focusing on character development, plotlines, story, timing and more general style is certainly a lot easier when you have a ready-made universe to slot your characters into … or even someone else’s characters to define and control. It can certainly be a great stepping stone into original creative work and also a good way for a budding writer to decide if that’s really what they want to do. With systems such as a the “beta-reader” one that many fanfic domains employ, criticism is likely to be friendlier and rejection easier to take.

Writing will always be hard work, however, and better they discover this at age 12 and decide to go for it with everything they’ve got, or to concentrate on something else, than lose focus on their studies, only to realise once they’ve (barely) graduated from high school that they didn’t really understand what their dream entailed. Too many of my friends put all their stock in their potential writing careers, only to find too late that it wasn’t really what they wanted to do. They could have done much better by participating in the fanfic world early on and learning the hard way that they should much rather go for that accounting career.

Admittedly, the best advice I’ve ever heard for someone considering writing as a career came from Neil Gaiman in this post. Great writer that he is, you’d be much better off reading his words than mine.