Tuesday, November 01, 2011

The Steve Jobs biography

Walter's Isaacon's biography of Steve Jobs is big (a fact I didn't really appreciate untilI I saw the physical book in my local bookstore). At over 600 pages it doesn't lend itself to rapid reading. However, it's certainly worth the effort.

The historical detail on the personal computer industry is fascinating. Jobs was ideally situated in time and place at a nexus where technology, much of it funded by US military expenditure, was becoming sufficiently sophisticated and accessible to enable truly revolutionary developments. Companies like Hewlett-Packard, Westinghouse, Intel and Fairchild were locals. (A young Jobs phoned HP CEO Bill Hewlett when he needed some parts, and ended up working for the company in a junior role.)

Steve Wozniak and others were building rough-and-ready machines that they showcased to their friends. Jobs had the business acumen to see that there was a market beyond the special-interest groups.

Jobs was also at another nexus, that of technology and the liberal arts, and this was a space he consciously and deliberately occupied throughout his adult life.

Of course the book is not primarily about technology, but about Jobs, and the author provides plenty of detail about his origins, including the fact that he was adopted, and that he had a full sister whom he met only as an adult. There is some discussion of whether Jobs' need for control and his tendency to latch onto father figures had their origin in a sense of abandonment.

Jobs learned at least some of his desire for perfection in design from his engineer father's focus on craftsmanship. His father taught him that it was important to craft properly even the parts you could not see, such as the backs of cabinets. Later, Jobs would insist that the internal parts of Apple devices were pleasing to look at, rejecting for example a circuit board in which the lines were not straight. We might consider it obsessive, but this perfectionism is very much at the core of what made Apple such a successful company.

From a user experience perspective, the book is fascinating. An early partner in Apple, Mark Markkula, wrote "The Apple Marketing Philosophy" which stressed empathy, focus and imputation. The need to impute - to assign a value by inference - was enormously influential. Jobs embraced the concept, and it is apparent in the attention to detail, presentation and branding that has epitomised Apple for most of its existence. For example, the packaging on your new MacBook Air or iPhone imputes the quality of the machine it contains. The little folded cloth that came with your iMac is not just a nice touch, but the essence of how Apple would attempt to communicate a message not only through the product itself, but through the entire customer experience.

The book is full of fascinating stories (the lifelong interest in Zen, the interaction with Sculley, the relationship with Disney, the obsessive diets and issues of personal hygiene) and quotations ("I hate the way people use slide presentations instead of thinking." "We make progress by eliminating things, by removing the superfluous.") It's also an interesting exploration of two conflicting philosophies; open or closed systems. This is particularly relevant at the moment with the release of iCloud - will Apple be able to move the digital hub to the cloud, and still maintain a closed and controlled environment for its users?

The author is clearly sympathetic to Jobs the person, although he doesn't shy from discussing his negative and destructive characteristics. Jobs was frequently bullying in his behaviour. His focus on delivering a high-quality user experience didn't often extend to the people he had to deal with. He could be cold, hostile, destructive or distant.

It's a telling point that when he was close to death, he told the author that the reason why he'd cooperated with the biography, despite being worried about it, was that "I wanted my kids to know me. I wasn't always there for them, and I wanted them to know why and to understand what I did."

The book is thorough, and reading it will take you on a journey though a great deal of key moments and decisions in the recent history of IT, personal computing, movies, music and publishing. I forgave its length because none of the content was irrelevant. It is well structured and clearly written.

It's also an important book, because Jobs and the people with whom collaborated, or with whom he competed or fought, have been key drivers of the technology that now pervades our environment.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Two rules for social media engagement

There are two rules for businesses establishing or maintaining a social media presence:

1. Monitor the channel
2. Respond to commentary.

A few months ago, I tweeted a somewhat acerbic comment about @museumvictoria. They'd emailed their members an offer for discounted tickets, but when I followed the link, the destination page was missing some functionality required to make the booking.

Within a few minutes my phone rang. A staff member from Museum Victoria wanted to know what the problem was, and how they could help. They sorted out my problem efficiently. A little later they tweeted a general "sorry for the email problem - it's fixed now" comment.

I was impressed.

More recently, I tweeted about CityLink in Melbourne:

"Gobsmacked. @citylinkmelb KNOWS website broken. Will be fixed in a MONTH. They let users go through the hoops rather than tell them!"

Several people responded to me, generally saying they'd had similar problems, but there was no reply of any sort from CityLink. 

My friend and colleague Fergal Coleman at Symphony3 told me of a discussion he had with a local council that was establishing a social media presence. They were concerned about exposing themselves to negative commentary. "Would you rather not know about the issues," he asked them, "or would you like to have a forum where you can identify and address them?"

I think this is at the heart of social media as a channel for businesses to interact with their customers. To be successful, social media must be treated as enablers of conversation. Seeing social media as one-way channels misses the point. It's the equivalent of saying; "Let's have a conversation. I'll talk."
Photo: johnsnape on Flickr, creative commons license

Rule 1: Monitor the channel
Never before have companies had the opportunity to get such ready access to first-hand unsolicited input from customers. However, it does require that someone within the company has the task of actually listening. Turning a deaf ear is senseless.

The extent of the attention a company needs to pay depends on the nature and amount of feedback, and a clear plan is required. It may be as simple as having one person who is assigned the task of monitoring mentions on an hourly, daily or ad-hoc basis.

Rule 2: Respond to commentary
Responding to what people say is the essence of the necessary conversation. Thanking people for nice comments is both polite and brand-enhancing. Acknowledging faults, deflecting unwarranted criticism, or explaining why problems may persist all engender trust.

Ignoring commentary, on the other hand, suggests either arrogance or incompetence.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Reviewing the Velorbis Churchill Ballon

In April 2010 I wrote about my Gazelle Aristo “city bike”.

I was very happy with the Gazelle, but being a bit of a gadget nut I was also keeping my eyes open for other choices. It’s easy to justify a new bicycle every year or so. In fact, my back-of-an-imaginary-envelope calculations tell me that even if I buy a reasonably expensive commuter bike, it pays for itself in less than a year in purely monetary terms.

In November 2010 I bought a Velorbis bicycle (the “Churchill Balloon” model) from Morgans Bicycles in Sydney.

For many people who are considering such a bike, the first question is whether it’s heavy. The answer is definitely “Yes.” At just shy of 18kg, it’s a heavy machine.

It’s certainly possible to carry it up a flight of steps, but I wouldn’t like to do it on a regular basis.

Some enthusiasts will tell you that the weight of a bicycle is of little significance in terms of ease of riding. In my opinion this is nonsense. The Gazelle was  much lighter, and consequently took less energy to ride.

The weight of the Velorbis is offset by the fact that it has 7 gears, so it’s not unreasonably difficult to ride up hills. I rode the bike in Sydney, which is not exactly flat, for some months. Although I never got off and walked (unacceptable loss of face) I did use the lowest gear fairly often, and found riding up from Bondi Beach, for example, to be challenging.

When compared with the Gazelle, the Velorbis also has a less refined feel. The Gazelle is thoroughly modern, and beautifully engineered and constructed. The Velorbis is more reminiscent of the traditional old black bike.

The Velorbis was also a few hundred dollars cheaper than the Gazelle, so I’m not really comparing like-with-like. Nevertheless, I think these impressions give an idea of an essential difference between the two.

Incidentally, I sold my Gazelle very recently, and the new owner is very happy. Ironically, he got its first puncture (ever) within a week.

For several months I had both the Gazelle and the Velorbis (somewhat to Gina’s annoyance), but I found myself using the Velorbis almost exclusively. Despite being heavy and, to my mind, a tad clunky, the Velorbis is just an all-round beautiful machine. If you look at the photos, you’ll see what I mean. It has the classic handlebars, an extremely comfortable Brooks leather saddle, and leather hand grips. It has a certain presence, I think. Sam Butler said that it was like a Daimler, and he thought a police escort would suit it.

The drum brakes are integrated into the wheel hubs. There’s a dynamo integrated with the front hub, and this powers front and rear lights. There’s a capacitor (or something equivalent) that stores the charge, so the lights stay on for plenty of time after you’ve stopped riding (for example, at traffic lights).

There’s a built-in wheel lock. Again, this is much clunkier than the Gazelle equivalent, requiring a bit of fiddling at times, whereas the Gazelle lock always slid into place without demur. These locks are great for parking at the shops, but someone can still carry the bike off, so for extended parking, or in areas with a high theft risk, I use a bike lock to attach the bike to an immovable object. The Gazelle had a chain that was well-engineered to attach to the wheel lock, but the Velorbis doesn’t have that capability.

Mudguards are built-in, and work really well. Even when riding through gravel on wet days, I've been spared getting splattered.

The carrier is sturdy. The spec (PDF file) says the load capacity (which I presume means the amount of stuff you can put on the carrier, but I may be wrong) is 50kg. Certainly I frequently give Marcus a ride on the back (which is illegal in Australia. Of course), and although it’s not the most comfortable way for him to travel, it’s convenient when he’s not riding his own bike. The carrier doesn’t have the Gazelle’s built-in elasticised straps (which I miss - they were very handy). It has a little latch sticking out of the right-hand side, supposedly for affixing an attaché case. For me, this merely serves to make it impossible to attach a pannier to the right hand side. I’m always tempted to hacksaw it off, but that feels like vandalism. But one of these days…

Filmed under controlled conditions
I had to replace the pedals after only a few months. One of them had an annoying jiggle on each revolution. A trivial fault that many would probably ignore. I had to do the same thing on the Gazelle. Maybe I'm particularly hard on pedals. I do like to dismount and stand on one pedal while coasting to a stop, so maybe that's got something to do with it.

There’s a built-in kickstand, which is very satisfyingly clunky to operate. It provides pretty good balance, but I have had the bike fall over a couple of times. Well, actually, more than a couple. So I try to be a bit more careful about being on level ground and not leaving a loaded pannier attached.

It came with a really nice, old-fashioned two-tone bell. This was eventually destroyed because of allowing the bike to fall over on that side, so I replaced it with a somewhat unsatisfactory substitute. Most bikes in Australia have a really crappy little thing that makes a little ding when struck with the spring-loaded lever. The two tones are cheerful and polite, but when rung repeatedly and with enthusiasm can also convey a more strident message. (Thanks to Morgans Bicycles for sending me a replacement bell after reading this.)

One of the very noticeable features of the bike is the big tyres. Gina (being the visual design expert) told me to get the shop to fit white ones instead of the brown or black that they suggested, and of course she was right. Again.

The big tyres (Fat Franks) are certainly a factor in making the bike very comfortable to ride, although no doubt they add to the weight and are probably not particularly efficient.

However, I have experienced four punctures in the past several months, which is four more than I’d had for the previous several years, so I may consider changing to tires that are a bit tougher. Then again, maybe not because it's so nice to ride on them.

The gears (SRAM seven-speed hub gears) are, again, clunkier than the Gazelle’s Shimano Nexus eight-speed. There’s a little pause when you change before the new gear engages. I like it, but then I also prefer cars with manual transmission.

Since the Gazelle, I’ve become a fan of hub gears. No awkward ugly derailleurs to bang into things.

(Eunan reminded me that In Flann O’Brien’s brilliant and bizarre novel “The Third Policeman”, there is a discussion of the benefits and disadvantages of the “new-fangled” three-speed gear:

- “It is a power for the hills,” said Gilhaney, “as good as a second pair of pins or a diminutive petrol motor.” -)

Although I’m sure the bike would be largely invisible in many European cities, here in Sydney and Melbourne it’s sufficiently exceptional to attract a lot of commentary and questions, and not only from cyclists. A very polite driver waved me ahead on the hill out of Bondi on a very narrow road, and then politely followed me at 4km per hour as I panted to the top. When he had an opportunity to pass, he rolled down the window, not to remonstrate about the delay, but to admire the bike.  I think the bike strikes a nostalgic chord in a lot of people who no longer ride. At Marcus’ primary school, he telle me the bike is considered “cool”. The closest I’ll ever get to that status, no doubt.

I wouldn’t attempt serious hill climbing on the Velorbis. For example, if I were going for a weekend ride in the Otways (which I haven’t done for ages) I'd borrow someone's mountain bike.

For me, it’s an ideal bike to get around town in a relaxing fashion, and I’m comfortable with the fact that I’m one of the slower people on the road. Yesterday I rode my old Scott “flat-bar road bike” (now Brian’s), and realised that I don’t think I could ever go back to that style of bike again (not that there is anything wrong with the Scott).

Since I wrote my review of the Gazelle a year-and-a-half ago, the cycling situation has changed significantly in Australia. There are far more commuter bikes on the road now, and bike shops that denied their existence two years ago now have a large part of their floor space dedicated to them.

Of course, many of the cheaper models are of relatively poor quality, but it’s nice to see the bicycle rapidly re-emerging as just a regular machine for getting around, rather than something that has to be hurled along at maximum velocity and with legs shaved to minimise drag.

If you’re looking for an elegant, comfortable and utterly pleasant way to commute, I can thoroughly recommend that you consider a Velorbis.

Me, I’ve got my eye out for its successor, but I think it’s going to be hard to beat. Any pointers would be appreciated.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Sustainable data centers

Originally published in print format in User Experience magazine, 2009.
Photo: IBM
Information Technology (IT) looks clean. Individually our laptops and mobile phones consume only small amounts of energy and there are no apparent emissions. However, IT is not without environmental impacts. Our high-tech devices require vast amounts of water and energy to create, contain materials that are hazardous to our health and the environment, and are costly to recycle. One example (from PE International GmbH) showed the carbon footprint of a small laptop to be approximately 400kg of CO2 , including manufacture and four years of usage.
Apart from the individual devices, however, there is also the overhead of providing the always-on, always-available access to data that we have come to consider the norm. This information is stored in data centers and accessed via the telephone network.
Individual requests for data appear insignificant. For example, Google stated in January 2009 that one Google search “is equivalent to about 0.2 grams of CO2 .” It is, of course, the sum of all the requests that shifts our perspective. Imagine for a moment that you could see the information flowing through the wires and the airwaves. Most of us would be surrounded most of the time by vast streams of data, mostly emanating from data centers.
It’s hard to know how much energy is used by data centers, and security and competitive factors mean that owners are tight-lipped. But the United States Environmental Protection Agency estimated that U.S. data centers and servers accounted for 1.5 percent of the total U.S. electricity use in 2006.
Perhaps because of the perception that doing things online is “greener” than doing things in the real world, there has been, until recently, relatively little consideration of the impact of all this computing.
When I interviewed Tom Raftery in June 2006 about social media, he mentioned almost in passing that he was building a hyper- energy efficient data center in Cork, Ireland; it sounded like a rather quixotic undertaking Tom and his partners at the Cork Information Exchange (CIX) focused on ways to minimize energy use. For example, they used cold aisle containment—completely sealing the cold aisle in the data center so that cold air goes only to the servers. They also used extremely efficient, uninterruptible power supplies (UPS), sourcing units that had an efficiency of up to 98.4 percent (compared with a more traditional 75 percent). CIX now promotes itself as “a leading provider of green, mission-critical colocation services.”
More recently, Sam Ng at Optimal Usability in New Zealand investigated hosting options for Optimal Workshop (their usability software-as-a-service application), and tried to calculate their carbon footprint. Provider RimuHosting persuaded them that using semi-dedicated servers in preference to fully dedicated would be a more sustainable solution. A fully dedicated server would mean having one computer permanently assigned to their application, whereas semi-dedicated would mean sharing the computer with others, with concomitant savings in energy use (and price). According to RimuHosting, a semidedicated server would save approximately 1 tonne of CO2 emissions per year, or the equivalent of 24 trees.
Liz Quilty at RimuHosting says the company believes it has “a responsibility to the environment as well as our customers,” although she adds that most clients still don’t inquire about environmental impacts when purchasing.
Of course, large companies like Google, Microsoft, Amazon, and Yahoo, with huge server farms, have a very strong interest in reducing energy costs. This is an area where the dual goals of sustainability and profitability are strongly aligned, so it’s likely that good progress can be made.
For example, Google touts a five-step plan to move toward a more sustainable model:
  1. Minimize electricity used by servers
  2. Reduce the energy used by the data center facilities themselves
  3. Use recycled water instead of fresh water
  4. Reuse or recycle all electronic equipment
  5. Engage with peers to advance smarter energy practices
Microsoft has a similar set of steps:
  • Use recycled resources whenever practical (including water)
  • Use renewable resources whenever available. For example, the Microsoft data center in Dublin, Ireland, uses outside air for cooling (perhaps no great surprise to those of us familiar with Dublin’s climate!)
  • Reduce waste in operations (for example, ordering servers literally by the truckload to minimize packaging required when servers are delivered individually or in racks).
  • Take part in industry environmental groups
Many of the steps being taken by data center operators are hardware-related (for example, improving power conditioning to minimize losses and using more efficient cooling).
Microsoft has also identified ten business practices for environmentally sustainable data centers. These highlight the strong connection between environmental and economic goals. The first item on the list of practices is to “provide incentives that support your primary goals.” Microsoft points out that while technologies and practices that support energy efficiency already exist, industry adoption has been relatively low because “data center managers are typically compensated based on uptime and not efficiency.”
There are now many bright people working on the problems of energy efficiency in data centers. James Hamilton, vice president and engineer at Amazon Web Services, in his keynote address at the Usenix technical conference in June 2009, presented a fascinating and practical analysis on power usage in high-scale data centers. He pointed out that as computing power gets cheaper, the cost of power and infrastructure are likely to become dominant. This provides additional impetus to reduce these costs.
Because up-time is such a key measure of success, there has been a tendency to overspecify. Hamilton and others have pointed out that most of the components in server farms are specified to withstand temperatures much higher than the ones to which they are exposed. Reducing air conditioning may often be possible without detrimental side effects.
Utilization is also an important factor. Feeding electricity to servers that are not operating at near capacity is inherently wasteful. Steps such as Optimal Usability’s use of a semidedicated server can help reduce waste, but the real solution is for data center design to be leaner, with operators making better decisions about how much computing power is actually needed to meet required service levels.
Besides all of these supply side issues, there are also issues of demand. As designers, we frequently have some control over data calls. For example, I’ve often castigated banks and similar organizations for failing to provide adequate historical data (which have frequently been bound by legacy decisions). On the one hand, I’m pleased to see that in recent years they have made more historical account information available. If we want to minimize server usage, however, we would request a sensible subset, and retrieve additional information only on demand (rather than retrieving and caching for possible display). Thinking about simple problems like this may help us to consider end-to-end issues—not just in physical or visible manifestations, but also in the ways that we store and retrieve data.
Creating efficient data centers with significantly lower environmental impacts is attainable and highly desirable for economic reasons. Hopefully we can continue to be ravenous infovores while treading ever more lightly on the planet.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011


I received an email from the company I use for my infodesign.com.au mailing list. It provides a good example of some of the things to think about in customer communications. I'll start with the original email, unedited other than removal of the company's name.


Dear Gerry Gaffney,

You are receiving this email because you have chosen to prepay for [company name], and your prepay balance is running low.

Please be advised that if your account balance is less than the actual amount due for any invoice, your account will automatically be switched to a monthly payment plan and you will be billed at standard monthly rates.

To check your balance on account, login to your account today  and select "My Account".

To add funds to your balance on account, choose the "Add Funds to My Account" option available from the "My Account" screen.

We appreciate your prompt attention to this matter. Be assured that we are working hard to make your use of [company name] as enjoyable and productive as possible. As always, thank you for your business.

Best Regards,


A first pass is to delete unnecessary text. For example, expressions like “please be advised” are, at best, useless and at worst a source of confusion and ambiguity.

This leave us with the following:


Dear Gerry Gaffney,

Your prepay balance is running low.

If your account balance is less than the amount due, your account will automatically be switched to a monthly payment plan and you will be billed at standard monthly rates.

To check your balance, login  and select "My Account".

To add funds, choose the "Add Funds to My Account" option available from the "My Account" screen.

As always, thank you for your business.

Best Regards,


This is better, but the key paragraph explaining why I've received the email is unclear. What the email is trying to tell me is that if I don't take action, I'll be switched to a more expensive rate, but it hasn't stated that explicitly.

In addition, the advice to log in and then navigate somewhere is problematic, since once I've followed the link I'm likely to have forgotten where I'm supposed to go next. It would be much better to give me a direct link (which I should reach after providing the appropriate credentials).

Further, there should be no need to both check my balance and top up my account; if the destination Accounts page is well designed, my balance will be clearly displayed while I'm logged on.

So a further refinement leads us to:


Dear Gerry Gaffney,

Your prepaid balance is running low. To avoid being switched to more expensive monthly charging, please log in to top up your balance.

As always, thank you for your business.

Best Regards,


This verges on being too short, and there's an argument for having more information of a marketing or explanatory nature. This could some immediately before (or instead of) the “thank you” sentence.

By ensuring that the opening paragraph is brief, instructive and actionable, companies can maintain the option of providing further information, while still catering to the needs of the busy customer who just needs to jump into the required action (in this case, topping up the account balance).

Monday, July 18, 2011

The ineluctable modality of the cloud

A long time ago, records (those grooved vinyl discs) were replaced with compact discs.

The music industry was very keen on CDs. The superior sound quality, it was argued, would make them difficult to “pirate”. Presumably there were other reasons for the enthusiasm. For example, selling something you’ve already sold, but in a new format, may well have been an attraction. CDs would, we were told, be next to indestructible (and indeed when compared with records, they are quite sturdy).

I always felt that the music industry did a disservice to itself, and its customers, when it embraced the jewel case as the packaging for CDs. The jewel case was peculiarly inadequate. It limited the amount of printed material that could be squeezed in with the CD, forced publishers to use fonts that were too small to read, broke easily, failed to protect its content and failed to differentiate its content from everything else around it.

I don’t want to gloss over this; it’s a critical, illustrative and seminal occurrence. Prior to the CD, music packaging was quite individual and identifiable. An “album” or “record” (a double-sided vinyl disc usually containing several tracks or songs) was typically 12 inches (30cm) in diameter . (There were variants, which I’ll ignore to avoid unnecessary detail.) Albums were packaged in readily identifiable and highly individual “sleeves”, usually made of cardboard, often with distinctive artwork, and often containing multiple pages of text. There was plenty of room for innovation and differentiation. For example, a Rolling Stones album (“Sticky Fingers”) had a zipper, which enabled one to reveal the underwear beneath the jeans depicted on the cover. Even low-budget musicians could achieve interesting results. Irish band Horslips used an octagonal cover (representing a “squeeze box” or accordion) as the cover of their first (brilliant) album, “Happy to Meet, Sorry to Part”.

I don’t lament the demise of the album. They were tricky, subject to wear. Each time an album was played, it deteriorated. Albums would also warp irretrievably when left in direct sunlight, loaned to careless friends or handled when in party mode.

Of course, the CD was merely a step on the road to the true digitisation of music. While CDs store music digitally, they are still subject to the disadvantages of their physicality. They can be lost or damaged, and are confined to existing in only one place at a time. Some artists create bespoke packaging that is beautiful, but the appalling jewel case is still the norm.

The next logical step is from the CD to an online medium. Although one can still buy CDs, there are many music purchasers who have never done so and never will. There will probably remain a niche market for some years (as indeed a niche market for vinyl discs remains) but it is relatively insignificant.

Delivering music directly to the listener on demand is wonderful, but let’s not pretend it’s an unmitigated improvement. Most people old enough to grow up on vinyl will attest to the fact that sometimes the very difficulty of finding an individual track meant that you listened to music you would otherwise have skipped, and that sometimes that was a rewarding experience. Songs that seemed difficult or unappealing unfolded gradually to reveal that they had qualities worth hearing. Sometimes. The richness of the medium – the vinyl disc, the sleeve, the accompanying booklets or artefacts – created a rich experience beyond the aural. Sometimes the artefacts were peripheral and irrelevant, but frequently they were not.

More recently, books have been moving online. Without an intervening milestone, they have leapt from the bookshelf to the iPad, Kindle, Kobo or whatever.

I’m a big fan of the digital book, but I’ve always been a fan of the book as physical entity. When I go to someone’s home for the first time, my initial impressions are informed by what’s on their bookshelves. There is no equivalent for the online library. (“Excuse me, can I see your eBook reader?”)

Our personal images are also moving online. Flickr and Facebook and a dozen other services store our memories. No longer do we pull out photo albums and shoeboxes; instead we gather around an iPad or other device to view the “precious memories” we’ve stored.

Since the digital is what I do, and how I work, and where I live, I’m not inclined to dispute its value. However, there are factors to consider.

Digital media have also provided the ability for small operators (publishers, artists, authors and musicians) to access audiences and markets previously beyond their reach.

What do we lose by putting our books online? In many cases, very little. Excepting “coffee-table” books or books produced specifically as printed artefacts, most can be put online to great effect. They are rendered portable, searchable and transferrable (malleable, too, once we grow out of our attempts to restrict them). They are pleasantly convenient to purchase and access. On a recent short holiday, I read four books, three of which I didn’t even have with me when I left home.

What I’ve found I miss is the sheer physicality of the book. Not its shape or size, its smell or heft or tangibility, so much as the very fact of its existence. A physical book reminds me: “I am here”, “You haven’t read me yet”, “You’re half-way through me”. My online books have no such power. They lie un-viewed, unopened and unregarded. They have no power and no presence. If I do not actively attend them, they do not exist.

One could envisage an über-book or an ur-book that morphs at random or at predefined intervals or in response to the emotional state of the (potential) reader into a specific book – now a classic, now chick-lit, now sci-fi, now a political biography.

One could envisage a virtual bookshelf that looks as if it were occupied by books, but whose spines instead open up online representations of their masters. Or a photo album that contains images relevant to the people in the room it occupies. Or a wall-mounted photo collection that responds to mood.

Whatever form it takes, I would predict that the more we move our texts, images and sounds online, the greater will be the attraction and the desire for a physical manifestation.

What form that manifestation might take, I have only the vaguest idea. But I do feel sure that we will not accept that the modality of the cloud is ineluctable.

(The title is stolen from Joyce’s Ulysses. Stephen Dedalus, walking on Sandymount Strand, thinks: “Ineluctable modality of the visible: at least that if no more, thought through my eyes. Signatures of all things I am here to read, seaspawn and seawrack, the nearing tide, that rusty boot. Snotgreen, bluesilver, rust: coloured signs.”)

Friday, April 01, 2011

Why is Dublin a cycling city?

In September 2010 I was in Dublin for a few days. It seemed to me that in a period of around 18 months (since my previous visit) the city had experienced a cycling renaissance. There were lots of bike on the streets, and every fixed object seemed to have an array of attached bicycles.

What had happened?

To my entirely unscientific eye, it seems that a few factors contributed.

  • The Dublin Port Tunnel connected the port to the motorways, and took heavy goods traffic out of the city centre.
  • Speed reductions have made roads safer, although the city-wide 30km/hour attracted criticism and was not necessarily being observed (as this article in the Irish Times attests).
  • The introduction of bus lanes (some of which cyclists can use) has provided a clearer and largely uncontested route for many cycling journeys.
  • government scheme designed to encourage pople to cycle to work enables employees to buy bikes (and accessories) up t1,000 (around USD $1,400) through their employer, and gain tax benefits that offset the cost.
  • Although not cited by anyone I canvassed, the financial situation (with Ireland going through a crisis, unemployment rising and major banks being effectively nationalised) may have prompted people to forego their cars or reduce driving to economise.
  • Perhaps there's a predisposition towards bicycles in Irish culture. When I interviewed iQ Content's Morgan McKeagney for the User Experience Podcast (primarily on entirely unrelated matters), he suggested that "we're all bicyclers inside us, you know, given the opportunity we'll jump on the bikes". So maybe it's as simple as that.

A bike share scheme has proven wildly popular.Unlike the scheme here in Melbourne which has been crippled by mandatory helmet laws, the Dublin scheme has been adopted with gusto, and there are plans to increase the number of bikes from 500 to 5,000.

One thing that impressed me in my short time in Dublin (where I rode as a young adult as cyclists were being marginalised), was the diversity of people using the bike share scheme. I took the accompanying photo down the docks, but it doesn't depict a "typical" user, because I don't think there is one. Users seemed to encompass students, business people, fashionistas, factory hands and drug dealers. There was also a good gender balance (there's a general consensus that cycling cultures only become established when there are as many women as men on bikes.)

Incidentally, when I asked this rather dapper businessman, who was en route to a meeting, whether I could take his photo he said "It's not going to be in the paper or something?" and I assured him not. I hope this usage is acceptable. 

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Publishers mangle books

Most of my books are in traditional format, printed on paper. I have a growing collection of online books; I began using an Amazon Kindle over a year ago, and more recently have been using Kindle and iBooks on the iPad.

The online format is particularly suited to technical and text books; these generally don't arouse a significant emotional response, and a purely utilitarian approach suggests that the online format is often the most appropriate. However, I've also been reading (and in some cases, re-reading) novels.

Being of a mind to re-read Flann O'Brien's darkly comic classic, "The Third Policeman" recently, I purchased a copy through Apple's iBooks (since my printed copy is in storage in Melbourne somewhere.)

To my great disappointment and annoyance, it was littered with errors, apparently introduced by optical character recognition (OCR) failures and perpetuated by negligence and a failure to effectively proof-read the final result.

How can Harper Perennial Modern Classics have the temerity, I wonder, to publish an edition of any book - let alone a classic - with such woeful inattention to quality?

Some of the errors were relatively trivial, in the form of omitted opening quotes. Others were more egregious. One of the De Selby commentators is variously referred to as "Hatchjaw" (the correct rendition) and "Hatch jaw". The word "rap" appears in place of "rat". I didn't bother counting, but I estimate that there is an error every 3 pages or so.

Publishers are understandably moving to provide online versions of their catalogues, but treating it as some sort of free lunch is surely an encouragement to potential purchasers to engage in piracy instead. I felt incensed that I'd paid $10 for this flawed version. Unfortunately this is not, in my experience, an isolated incident. I've also encountered quality problems with other books from other publishers.

"The Third Policeman" is extremely funny, dark and bizarre. Flann O'Brien (one of the pseudonyms of the brilliant Brian O'Nolan) was admired by both James Joyce and Samuel Beckett.

I highly recommend the book. Just don't buy the mangled Harper version.