January 22, 2009

For those of you who were interested in the game I mentioned in my last post, here is some more information from a couple of the developers who worked on it:  Steven Robbins and Marc Gravell, which it turns out is called Finguistics. Guys, I really enjoyed the app you created and hope you get a chance to keep making more great stuff for the Surface.

Here’s an interesting quote from Marc about the genesis of this game:

“The aim was to demonstrate how RM could use Microsoft’s product to deliver a solution “of defensible pedagogic value” (direct quote), as part of the next generation of collaborative learning systems. Now I should stress that this was a prototype (not a product) – we were mainly trying to get people thinking about such tools in the education context, so we built an education game for spelling, languages and maths.”

More thoughts on BETT coming soon.

I managed to make it down to BETT on Saturday, and found that yet again, the golden rule of conferences continued to apply: the bigger your stand, the less likely you are to be cutting edge. Here are a few of the things that caught my attention:

Microsoft Surface

Okay, so I’ve just broken my golden rule, but getting to finally play on the Surface was genuinely cool (I promise not to break it again). The technology has been covered absolutely everywhere so I won’t go over it again (not seen it? this is cheesy but gives a good idea); what was interesting was to see some examples of it helping kids get more engaged with learning.


The kids above are playing a spelling game. Each of those little round tokens scattered on the table has a letter on it, and the aim is to press them in the right order to spell the word in the picture. The trick is that you have to press and *hold* them, so to do it before the time runs out you need a few more pairs of hands than just your own.


Why this matters? It was really fun, and quickly got everyone talking to each other. In this particular example, you have the engagement of a well designed game with the quality control that a computer system can bring, highlighting just how useful these table sized displays may become.

Apart from that, there was 3D virtual heart which you could fly around in, a drawing program where you could smear virtual paste around, and of course the usual table sized google maps (the kids absolutely loved that one, see picture)

This makes me really look forward to the rise of tabletop computing (and bartop, of course…).

Guardian news tools

Also interesting were a pair of projects by the Guardian, a major UK national newspaper, to get pre-teen children engaged in the news whilst at the same time teaching them valuable critical reading and writing skills.

The first project, LearnNewsDesk, was a large database of simplified news articles arranged into easily digestible chunks under each school subject area, with exercises and a glossary attached to each story. Kids can also upload podcasts and articles with their own takes on the news. New articles are added daily so the site is a good approximation of the real news.


Why this matters? It’s a good reminder that to be useful and remembered, information must be aware of its context. If you know that context you can add all kinds of metadata as a hook to help that information stick in the mind. In this case, the system provides a great sandbox which teachers can use to help young kids understand some important issues.

Project number two, Newsmaker was the flipside of the news desk, giving children a very simple collaborative, web based tool to create their own paper (see the solitary picture below). At the heart of it is a fixed template into which kids can put their own articles and picture.


One kid gets to be the editor whilst the others take on the roles of journalists and picture editors, with simple word processing and picture editing tools to insert their work. This is cool as it 1) provides a very simple platform for collaboration and 2) lets groups of pupils easily create a professional looking paper.

Why this matters? Easy. Somewhere along the way of trying to teach desktop publishing to ten year olds, schools have forgotten that just learning to lay something out with Microsoft Office is not enough – you need to have something to say with it too.

Peter Molyneux, maker of legendary and beautiful games, once said about hiring 3D artists (and I paraphrase as I can’t find the actual quote):

“It’s easier to teach a great artist to use a 3D modelling tool than to teach an expert in 3D Studio Max or Maya to be a great artist”

Tools like these which do one thing very well are a great way to get straight to the meat of what you are trying to do. Would you rather spend a lesson bogged down in the technicalities of Microsoft Publisher or actually publishing something?


Autology is a natural language search tool which does three rather interesting things.

  1. “Push” search. It watches what you are typing in Word or equivalent and can suggest relevant information. This is apparently already being used by MI5, the FBI, BBC, Reuters, Merrill Lynch, the Deutsche Bundesbank and IBM, and is yet another step towards computers seamlessly integrating with our processes. Instead of having to go to Google, Google comes to you.
  2. Vertical search. It indexes hundreds of high quality secondary school textbooks to increase the relevance of the results. Search focused on particular verticals is clearly going to be an interesting area if generalised search engines reach an upper limit to their accuracy
  3. Search folders. With this feature, a teacher or student can create a themed folder which gets automatically loaded with documents relevant to a particular search query. This is yet another example of dynamically structuring information to be most useful. If you’ve ever used a smart playlist in iTunes, you’ll know how handy this is, and it’s becoming increasingly  important as information multiplies.

Why this matters? I can’t really comment on the theoretically improved quality of natural language vs keywords as I din’t have long enough to test it, but the push search is fascinating nevertheless. In the words of David Black of Autology:

“It is pattern recognition technology which is able to push relevant information to a user. There is no need to go and search for it. It can be pushed to you conceptually, matched to what you are writing about.

“It is like a student sitting in a library and as they are writing their essay somebody keeps coming up to them saying ‘you are writing about this, have you seen this?'”They are not having to go and get it. It’s as near as you are going to get to artificial intelligence.”

From the Birmingham Post

Computers have gone from filling a room to pocket sized, but still require us to play by their rules to get the most out of them. The next step is technology which knows what you need and discreetly sends it your way. Autology may be another tiny leap in this direction.

More highlights coming soon…

What caught your attention at BETT 2009?

Is tagging physical enough?

December 31, 2008

The Persistence of Memory (Dali)

How do we remember? How much of our memory is linked to places, times and people?

Dominic O’Brien was the first World Memory Champion, and holds is in the Guinness Book of Records for memorising and recalling 54 shuffled packs of playing cards. Who better to explain one of the more common mnemonic techniques of placing the elements to be remembered along a journey and then to imagine yourself physically walking it. In his own words (about a shopping list):

“To remember the list, “place” each item of shopping at individual stages along a familiar journey – it may be around your house, down to the shops, or a bus route.

For these singularly boring items to become memorable, you are going to have to exxagerate them, creating bizarre mental images at each stage of the journey. Imagine an enormous, gulping fish flapping around your bedroom, or for example, covering the duvet with its slimy scales. Or picture a bath full of margarine, every time you turn on the taps, more warm margarine comes oozing out!

Later on, when you need to remember the list, you are going to “walk” around the journey, moving from stage to stage and recalling each object as you go. The journey provides order, linking items together. Your imagination makes each one memorable.”

From his book, How to Develop Perfect Memory (read it on Scribd).

Even better is this video.

The making of memory

This kind of technique is not recent. Steven Rose is a leader in the study of memory, and in his book the Making of Memory tells a story about how the opportunity to train it (mnemnotechnics) was first recognised:

“Within western culture, there is a clear history of this mnemotechnic tradition, running back to Greek times, though the written record of the method is not Greek but Roman, and first appears in De Oratore, a famous text on the art of rhetoric – that is, of argument and debate – by the Roman politician and writer Cicero. In it, Cicero attributes the discovery of the rules of memory to a poet, Simonides, who seems to have been active around 477BCE.

The Simonides story appears and reappears throughout Roman, medieval and Renaissance texts. In its basic form it tells how, at a banquet given by a Thessalonian nobleman, Scopas, Simonides was commissioned to chant a lyric poem in honour of his host. When he performed it, however, he also included praise of the twin gods Castor and Pollux. Scopas told the poet he would only pay him half the sum agreed for the performance and that he should claim the rest from the gods. A little later Simonides received a message that two young men were waiting outside to see him. During his absence the roof of the banqueting hall fell in, crushing Scopas and his guests and so mangling the corpses that their relatives could not identify them for burial. The two young men were the gods Castor and Pollux, and they had thus rewarded Simonides by saving his life, and Scopas apparently got his comeuppance for meanness. But – and this is the crucial bit of the story – by remembering the sequence of the places at which they had been sitting at the table, Simonides was able to identify the bodies at the banquet for the relatives.

This experience, as Cicero tells the story, suggested to Simonides the principles of the art of memory of which he was said to be the inventor, for he noted that it was through remembering the places at which the guests had been sitting that he had been able to identify the bodies. The key to a good memory is thus the orderly arrangement of the objects to be remembered.”

From The Making of Memory.

He goes on to describe how this culminated in the Renaissance with the popularisation of “memory theatres” – literally theatres in which you would imagine yourself on stage with the elements you were trying to remember in the audience.

“By the time of the Renaissance, the memory theatre was turned from a symbolic device, a piece of mental furniture, into an actual construct. In the sixteenth century, and to the disapproval of more rationalist philosophers such as Erasmus, the Venetian Giulio Camillo actually built a wooden theatre crowded with statues which he offered to kings and potentates as a marvellous, almost magical, device for memorizing. “

It’s well worth reading the the entire chapter, which I managed to find excerpted here. As often, Wikipedia also has some useful insights.

The breaking of memory

So why mention all this?

If there is one thing these techniques all rely on it is giving a context to the thing being remembered.

And that is exactly what is lacking from one of the big leaps of the web: tagging. The danger of tagging as a way of remembering is that it breaks all our thoughts into tiny snippets which are devoid of context. Normally, we make sense of the world by constantly updating our inner mental map of the people, places and things around us. We also surround ourselves with our crutches, of which the humble notebook is a perfect example. It stores information on a chronology, which we are good at quickly running through. On top of that, it somehow captures a surprising amount that can later jog our memory: the pen we were using, the messyness of the writing (were we at a desk or out and about?) or simply the random doodles in the margin. The main aspect of these crutches: they have a structure we can envision and navigate.

The problem comes when we throw information into something with an unstable, emergent structure like I use and love but am keenly aware that I sometimes prefer to dump links into a note, draft blog post or e-mail it to myself because I know that whilst aggregates it won’t necessarily help me to get it in order.

A challenge to designers

As we move our lives on to the web, our tools will need to help us efortlessly capture the context of each file, photo, message and thought that we upload. The aim: to make our online tools as flexible and fast as possible while still giving them the ability to help us organise our thoughts.

To do this we will have to use every trick in the book, but here are four main themes (with the way we store photos as an example):

  1. Using technology to capture the context (some digital cameras now have built in GPS, even for consumers)
  2. Using the wisdom of the crowds to help us annotate (in the same way that Photosynth matches pictures by their contents to find where they were taken)
  3. Giving the user intuitive, fast tools to mold and organise what he enters ( is not perfect, but has some elements of this fluidity)

The winners will balance the structure we impose with the structure that emerges from the context of the elements we upload.

I can’t wait to use it!

Recommended reading:

  • The Making of Memory (Steven Rose)
  • Metaphors of Memor (Douwe Draaisma) – first chapter here

ps – It’s not all black and white, of course.

AppendicitisCome on, it won’t take long. Just squeeze it in with that round of bugs. I’m sure it’ll work just fine. After all, it’s pretty simple isn’t it?”

Whether your team is stuck in the dark ages of waterfall development or has adopted an agile methodology (agile what? read this or this), this thought has probably gone through your head. Unfortunately, it far too often comes out of the mouths of managers.

The problem is that you often end up with unfinished, half working features which bloat the code, distract developers and confuse users. Left unchecked, these can become toxic to the project’s credibility and usability.

This is particularly important for projects with limited budgets, which can run into the wall with a backlog of bugfixes/feature requests (they’re not that different, really). These can hound you for a very, very long time.

The complicated answer? Follow a tried and tested agile methodology.

The simple answer: iterate thrice. Don’t implement anything that can’t fail at least twice.

What does this mean? Release quickly, test it on users, fix the problems, rinse, repeat.

How long does this take? If your users use your software daily, give them at least a week to spot the room for improvement. Increase this time as necessary. If you have a limited budget, never start a new feature unless you have that time before the money runs dry.

At best it’ll be only partly useful.

Worst case: it will come back to bite you.

You’ve just started a small software project with just one programmer or a small team. You’ve read Peopleware and Joel and your specifications are so lucid they bring a tear to the eye. You think you’ll be done in a couple of months.

This is how to screw up.

  1. Don’t enforce high standards from the start. Tell yourself you’ll mention any sloppy work ‘later’ when things ‘kinda work’.
  2. Micromanage. Whatever you do, don’t chunk tasks into interesting, self contained problems and certainly don’t trust the programmer to work out a good solution by himself. Got a little technical knowhow? If you can make enough highly specific suggestions you might just be able to atrophy his creative thinking completely.
  3. Ignore gaps in your programmer’s skills; treat every task equally. Demand feats he finds impossible without offering training and motivation.
  4. Be a bottleneck. If you’re lucky you’ll completely drain the momentum from the project.
  5. Don’t communicate every day. It only serves to maintain the sense of urgency, and nobody has ever needed forum to resolve issues before they escalate.
  6. Allow your programmer to ignore good testing practices. Also, make sure you test his work for him, so he never feels that quality assurance is his responsibility.
  7. Never set clear, reasonable deadlines.
  8. If by some freak chance you do set one and it is missed, never talk through the why and how.
  9. Never, ever, ever communicate the impact of your coder’s hard work on the business. Keep it abstract, you wouldn’t want any perspective to creep in.

What have I missed?