Goodbye Bunnings, Hello Kennards!

This weekend we were stricken with a special type of illness – the one that makes you want to pull up concrete in your front yard. Now that we’ve had it, it’s quite unlikely that we’ll catch it again. I hope for your sake, gentle reader, that it is not at all contagious.

Initially it was quite enjoyable. Going to Kennards to hire the electric jackhammer was eye-opening. While Bunnings is full of things that allow you to explore your creative instincts, Kennards is full of things that allow the more destructive side of your nature to flourish. For example, there were some machines that looked like ride-on-lawnmowers with giant chainsaws attached to the front. Outside of a nightmare or a Simpsons episode, I have no idea what they could be for. Kate wouldn’t let me hire one.

But the jackhammer provided fun enough. At least for the first hour, where we ripped up huge chunks of the front yard’s wall-to-wall concrete. That was as long as it took to get to the reinforced concrete. And huge chunks were quickly replaced with tiny shards. What sort of person maliciously reinforces the concrete in their front yard? A malicious one, apparently.

Despite losing the good will of those of our neighbours with working eardrums, we succeeded in clearing our front yard of the two concrete slabs. That’s 6 square metres of decorative concrete gone from the world. And the world is all the better for it.

Filter or Faker?

I’ve been reading the P J O’Rourke book All the Trouble in the World in which he satirizes the various moral panics that were big in the 1990s, and is at times pretty amusing and pretty intelligent. I have some respect for O’Rourke, which is why I had my own moral panic in reading his opinions on scientists communicating theirs.

Dr. Schneider … is a self-admitted liar and knave: “[W]e have to offer up scary scenarios, make simplified, dramatic statements, and make little mention of any doubts we may have. Each of us has to decide what the right balance is between being effective and being honest.”

The trouble is that Dr Schneider could also be easily describing my own job. In communicating complex matters up the management chain so that timely decisions can be made, I have a responsibility to synthesize the data I receive and pass on enough to justify my recommendations but limit it such that people’s valuable time isn’t wasted in duplicating my analysis. However, I’d never considered myself a liar or a knave before.

Giving Dr Schneider’s words the most charitable interpretation, I can understand the trade-off between disclosure of every fact (“being honest”) and communicating in the most appropriate words and style for an audience (“being effective”). The latter may involve filtering the relevant information out of volumes of data (“simplification”), choosing memorable and impactful examples (“scary scenarios”), and recommendations that are easy to understand when you’re a busy exec being inundated with demands for your attention (“dramatic statements”). This isn’t being a faker or a fraud. In fact, someone who did not do these things could be considered ineffective.

So why would someone like O’Rourke assert the contrary? I’m not sure, but perhaps it’s something to do with his journalism background. The Code of Ethics from the Society of Professional Journalists clearly distinguishes “advocacy” from “news reporting”. It’s hardly unique in this matter, and I suspect journalists typically learn a distrust of those who communicate their personal (even if expert) views and opinions to the public and don’t clearly label it as advocacy.

But maybe I’m too sensitive, and O’Rourke was making a specific point not a general point. Or perhaps he was a little guilty of simplification and dramatic statements himself.

Harry Potter launch

I wasn’t there for the iPhone launch, but I was there for the Harry Potter 7 launch! Kate and I pre-ordered our books at Dymocks, and went to the event held at the Collins St city store to pick them up. We’re probably not the maddest of mad keen Potter fans, but we do like a good spectacle.

We arrived at Flinders St station a little after 9am, and saw people already reading the book. Some of them were walking and reading, so keen were they to begin it! Many were carrying balloons, since Borders was supplying black balloons as part of their Harry shtick. Unfortunately, Dymocks was a little too good at sales fulfillment, and the queue had mostly disappeared by the time we got there at about 9.10am. However, the choir (!) was still singing, and there was a happy, festive atmosphere.

Needless to say, we bought two copies, rather than one of us having to wait for the other. But, we both finished the book (which has almost exactly the same number of pages as Harry 6) by the end of the weekend. It was fun, a little heavy on the exposition, but brought about a satisfying conclusion.

Toastie Speeches

This year I joined up with the international public speaking organisation Toastmasters. Luckily, I’ve found a club that is both friendly and extremely talented. I haven’t got all the nerves under control yet, so it’s helpful that they aren’t too scary.

So far, I’ve gotten through the first two set speeches in the ten speech programme. I think they’ve generally gone alright, and I think I’m improving. Still, eight more to go. In case they can help anyone else, or provide some ideas, I’m putting the original text of the speeches here on the blog. Of course, they weren’t delivered word-perfect, and didn’t quite go as planned, but you can see the vision.

iPhone Innovations

Spectators at the iPhone DisplayIn my previous post, I described the iPhone as appearing to have incremental improvements, but also as allowing the promise of mobile data to be realised. Isn’t this a contradiction? How can minor innovations make such a difference?

I explained how Apple managed to do that with the iPod, compared to other digital music players at the time. It looks like they might have done it again with the iPhone, compared to other WiFi-enabled PDA-phones. Many of these PDA-phones appear to be functionally equivalent to the iPhone: they make calls, play music and movies, manage email and calendars, and allow you to browse the web. HTC has had such devices for a while, and we’ve also seen them from Motorola and Nokia. So, what’s new?

There are basically two types of data that you might want to access when mobile: your personal data, which can be synched to the mobile device; and external data, which these days is made available via the web. The former has been long solved (e.g. iPod) but the latter has been problematic for mobile devices. The main problem is basically that the web has been designed and developed for desktop computers, and not mobiles/PDAs.

Perhaps the most complained about difference between the web for PCs and the web for mobiles, is that on a mobile the web can be expensive and slow. Continual improvements to mobile plans (including caps and bundles), mobile CPUs (along the lines of Moore’s Law), and wireless broadband technologies (such as HSDPA) are addressing these complaints, and will eventually be good enough for this complaint to have little substance. However, for now, increasing numbers of mobile devices, including the iPhone, support Wi-Fi which will provide an equivalent experience to desktop computers in terms of cost and speed. As few people will need to browse the web as they walk or drive, Wi-Fi coverage in hotspots will often be suitable.

No, for the web to work on mobiles, three things need to work equivalently to a PC: input, output and page functionality. The iPhone has brought improvements to what is typical for a PDA-phone, and these are sufficient to gain PC equivalence in these areas.

Most web sites are designed with the assumption that the web browser has a PC keyboard and a PC pointing device like a mouse. The iPhone provides an on-screen QWERTY keyboard, and through its touch screen provides the ability to use your finger as a pointing device. Pretty much all previous touch-screen PDAs assumed that you would use a stylus as a pointing device, but this doesn’t work well on a phone as (i) it means you need to operate the device using two hands, and (ii) it slows the use of the device because before you can do anything, you need to extract the stylus from within the PDA first. The whole UI of the device needs to be completely overhauled if you don’t have the precision of a stylus, e.g. small ‘X’ icons in the corner of a window are too difficult to press to close applications, and scroll-bars along the side of windows are too difficult to manipulate. However, on the iPhone, to scroll a window, you simply wipe your finger along the screen. This is the first time a PDA-phone has managed to provide equivalent input to a PC without needing a stylus.

Most web sites are designed for a screen that is wider than it is tall, i.e. a landscape or horizontal layout. With more desktops and laptops coming with widescreen displays these days, this design principle is likely to become more extreme. However, because PDA-phones need to work when held as a phone, i.e. vertically, so that there is sufficient distance from the ear to the mouth, most mobile devices attempt to display web pages on a screen that is taller than it is wide. When web pages designed for a PC are shown on such devices, the browser either has to (i) shrink the font size so that it becomes unreadable, and needs to support some kind of zooming in-and-out, or (ii) reformat the web page so that it is laid out in a column, which is almost certainly not what the web page designer intended. The iPhone supports vertical display, but also horizontal display; all the user has to do is tip the device sideways. In horizontal display, standard web pages are apparently quite readable.

Most web sites are designed for display on a web browser with equivalent functionality to Microsoft Internet Explorer or Mozilla Firefox. This is not just that it support full JavaScript and dynamic HTML for all that Web 2.0 goodness, but that it supports all the really badly generated HTML out there which is ill-formed and certainly not standards compliant. The Apple Mac has had its own desktop web browser for a while now called Safari, and a version of Safari is included in the iPhone. This should cope with pretty much all those web pages out there that depend on full web browser functionality.

So, that’s it. Three apparently “incremental” innovations – stylus-free touch screen, ability to display horizontally, and a full web browser – are enough to provide an equivalent experience to browsing on the PC. Similar functions have all been seen before, but not quite the same, and not all together. And together they allow the promise of mobile data to be realised.

Legacy of the iPhone

So the world knows that yesterday Apple and AT&T officially began selling that hybrid iPod-mobile phone device called the iPhone. And we’ve had such high expectations of it that even Web luminaries like Om Malik have written that we’ll have to talk about eras Before-iPhone and After-iPhone. I think he’s right, but not for the reasons he lists.

When Apple launched the iPod in October 2001, it clearly changed the digital music business. However, it wasn’t obvious at the time to all technology commentators. For example, CmdrTaco, editor of the popular tech site Slashdot, reviewed it thus: “No wireless. Less space than a [Creative] nomad. Lame.” For to an embittered tech journo, the iPod initially seemed more hype than revolution.

A year earlier, in September 2000, Creative launched a similar music player called the NOMAD Jukebox (or DAP Jukebox in the UK). It was the first widely available MP3 player to use a hard-disk to store its music, and so could store a massive 6GB of music files. A major problem with previous MP3 players was that unlike the portable CD/MD/Cassette players that they competed with, only a limited amount of music could be carried around. Hard-disks had reduced in size, and including a 2.5″ drive in the NOMAD Jukebox was a genuine revolution.

However Apple bettered Creative’s device in three key areas. Firstly, while the NOMAD Jukebox connected to computers using USB 1.1, the iPod used Firewire, which was an order of magnitude faster, and enabled people to upload their music collections to the iPod painlessly. Secondly, the iPod had a 5GB 1.8″ drive, which allowed it to be smaller, lighter, and have a longer battery life (for example, the NOMAD Jukebox advertised battery life was 4 hours, compared with the iPod’s 10 hours). Finally, the iPod possessed many novel design elements, with the scrollwheel (initially mechanical rather than touch-based) and the white earphones being worthy of note, and clearly identified iPod owners from others.

On the other hand, the iPod was initially very expensive, e.g. US$399 compared to US$237 for a typical MP3 player at the time (e.g. Creative Nomad 2 with 64MB in January 2001), was not supported on PCs (it would not be officially supported until July 2002 according to this iPod history), and did not integrate with an online music store (iTunes Music Store would not be launched until April 2003). So you can see why an expensive product, with “only” incremental improvements at best, and targeted at a niche market could be dismissed at the time.

However, even though it was too expensive for most people shopping for a digital music player at the time, it became the aspirational product in its category because its meagre innovations allowed the promise of digital music to be realised: listen to all of my music when on the go. Despite Apple’s previous lack of presence in the market, the desire for both the function and form of Apple’s product forced all other digital music players to follow suit.

So, now we have a similar event: Apple is entering the phone market, which it has never been in before, with one of the most expensive products, which appears to have incremental improvements over innovations already in the market, but there is an incredible desire amongst the public for ownership of it. It allows the promise of mobile data to be realised: access all of my data when on the go. It will become the aspirational mobile phone, and mobile phones to come will need to respond to its function and form.

That’s if it can pull it off. It’s a much bigger task than getting a digital music player right, because it also has to be an effective phone and Internet device. When the user reviews come in over the next couple of weeks, we’ll see how well they’ve done it.

Cafe of Nightmares

Book-club this month had selected the book Cafe Scheherazade, which it turns out is actually based on a real cafe in St Kilda. Not unusually at all for Melbourne, it’s an eating establishment created by migrants for migrants (and anyone else wanting to sample traditional food from the motherland). But as this was a novel, it focussed on all the stories of those migrants…

Cafe Scheherazade

Intermingled tales of escape from war and oppression

This book by Melbourne literary author Arnold Zable is a set of stories within stories. It is at a superficial level the story of a journalist trying to capture the stories of the founders of a Jewish restaurant/cafe in St Kilda, but this is really just an excuse for characters within the novel telling their own tales. And they are not exactly pleasant tales.

The characters (all based on real people) have endured World War II and the subsequent atrocities, and journeyed to Australia as refugees. It was eye opening to read about life in Russia, life as a guerrilla fighter, and the role of Japan and China in the migration of Jews out of Europe.

Unfortunately, the sheer number of stories, and the style used in jumping between them, doesn’t make it an easy read. The lyrical style used principally at the beginning of the book allowed me to treat the writing as poetry, and let the words wash over me without spending too much effort keeping track of the story. Towards the end of the book the style changes into more of a linear narrative that was easier to follow.

I found it an okay read, certainly educational, but probably wouldn’t recommend it to most.

My rating: 2.5 stars
**1/2

A good telco analysis

Telstra’s pretty good at internal comms – almost every article or TV story about Telstra gets sent around the company in no time flat. However, it has emphasised to me the amount of confusion that is out there about the current situation with Telstra, the ACCC, the G9 and the Government. It’s not surprising – it’s pretty complicated.

But then I came across an article written by Greg Peel at FNArena that summarised the Australian telco debate all in lay terms. I’d never heard of FNArena before, but it seems that they have people who appreciate the messiness of the current messy situation. Not that I agree 100% with it all, but it’s the best writeup I’ve seen in the mainstream media. If you’re a little confused by it all, I do recommend a read of it.

And recently Greg Peel’s written another piece; a shorter one this time. It basically brings the previous article up to date with the recent government announcement. It will be interesting to see if his forecast comes true.

Anyway, I’m going to be keeping an eye out for his writing in future.

101 Entries!

99sauces LogoA few of us having been working on a new sort of food website concept, called 99sauces, and today it passed the 100 entries barrier. In fact, it’s now 101 entries, which is a lot better than 101 dalmations, I’m sure.

“What makes it new?” I hear you ask. Well, unlike the hundreds of other food and dining based websites out there that relate to Melbourne, this one is based on the wiki principle, which is that anyone can contribute and edit the contents, even if they haven’t registed. (You may be familiar with this sort of thing from Wikipedia, which is also a wiki).

But that’s not all. It’s also not just about places. More importantly, it’s about people – the people behind the places. There are entries for the chefs, owners, and anyone else of note. When your favourite cafe goes downhill, you can find out that the chef has left, and where they’ve gone to!

But that’s not all. It doesn’t contain any reviews itself, but it refers to reviews from elsewhere, even old reviews. So, you can see a variety of opinions about a place, and whether people think it’s improving, or something’s going steadily wrong.

Since this is the first time I’ve mentioned this anywhere publically, I’d like to thank everyone who has helped us (my co-moderator Cathy and I) with this project, by providing advice, contributing entries/comments to 99sauces, and even designing our logo. You know who you are, and I won’t list all of you here. But a heartfelt Thanks!

No, it wasn’t French

Last night, we went to the movies. I thought we were going to see the French comedy My Best Friend. It seems I was the only one who thought that. The rest of my friends, and indeed the whole cinema, was there to watch the latest Australian film…

Romulus, My Father

Beautiful tension in rural Australia

This is Eric Bana showing how he can be the Everyman. You’ve seen him in Black Hawk Down, Hulk, Chopper and even The Castle. But here he’s not comic nor an action hero, simply the title character. Told through the eyes of Raimond Gaita, the young son of Romulus, who is trying to cope with life in the country when his family is quite insane.

Not quirky insane, actually insane. It’s quite tragic at times, and there are periods of sustained tension where you really don’t have a clue what’s going to happen next, but the whole film is quite beautiful. Australia (specifically the state of Victoria, or even the town of Maldon) is shown off very nicely indeed too.

Kodi Smit-McPhee, who plays Raimond, pulls off an impressive performance. The whole cast handles the themes with a dramatic yet sensitive touch. Expect some award nominations here.

If you want a comparison with another recent film, it is probably closest to Richard E. Grant’s Wah-Wah, which is also about a boy living in the bush and having to deal with some crazy family issues, although its setting is Swaziland rather than Victoria. It’s a good film too.

My rating: 3.0 stars
***