sneedle flipsock

15 April 2004: playtime

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This week: search engine

The Internet bookseller is starting up a search engine company, A9.

via James Harris

15 April 2004 | top of page

Haunting guidelines

"Guidelines. We seem to have a love-hate relationship with them. At the same time we construct them, we worry they’ll come back to haunt us... As you bring guidelines into the design process keep in mind that they are not conclusions, but instead just part of the conversation between designer and the design situation."

15 April 2004 | top of page

Appearing professional

Police are more likely to think a suspect's psychological profile is accurate if they believe a professional profiler wrote it.

15 April 2004 | top of page

A 1608 coffee-table book

"Thomas Trevelyon's 600-page manuscript can best be described as a prototype coffee table book, created for the entertainment, education, and edification of his friends and family. The subject matter leaps from mundane to mythical, poetic to practical. Familiar scenes of domesticity and husbandry are intertwined with epic religious and political epitomes."

15 April 2004 | top of page

White-collar workplace

Business Week's sneak peek at the office of tomorrow has echoes of the 'paperless office' we heard so much about in the late 70s. The developers of office furniture, equipment and systems have a common goal: "To raise white-collar productivity--or at least preserve the huge gains of recent years while avoiding employee burnout."

Which reminds me: the Astor Theatre in St Kilda last week had a sell-out season of Jacques Tati's Playtime. This fabulous film will be back for another season 18-24 April, showing with Jour de Fete.

15 April 2004 | top of page

Evolution of web sites

A study of 150 million web pages over 11 weeks finds that:

  1. Most web pages don't change much.
  2. A page's previous change rate is a good predictor of its future change rate.

The findings have implications for search engines: how often do you need to crawl the web to ensure listings are up to date? CMS managers could also use this information in planning their content management workflows, basing dates for review and archiving of a page on the page's history of change, rather than on arbitrary periods of weeks or months.

15 April 2004 | top of page

Web usability reports for sale

Adaptive Path has taken a leaf from Nielsen Norman Group's book and is offering a series of reports for sale as PDFs. The reports focus on usability and development solutions for particular kinds of web sites--presidential campaigns, boutique software vendors--and for common interfaces--registration and login, site content search, and so on.

Prices are much more reasonable than NNG's: US$50ish rather than US$300-500 for a single report. Get 'em while they're hot!

15 April 2004 | top of page

Rory Hume 0 for 2, Bruce Hall (still) not out

The Oz reports that For Hume, the bell tolled over fees, not only because of the Hall affair.

A letter from several current and former University of California staffers eulogises Rory Hume's management style, saying he is "an incredibly effective leader, a champion for justice, a tenacious advocate for equality of opportunity and a man of unwavering commitment to the highest ethical standards in every action he took. In sum, he was and is highly respected, highly regarded and revered for his values." In fact, UC would like to get him back.

UNSW Council member Catherine Rossi Harris says "How we run the administration of university and how we run councils and corporate governance models have both got to change."

Though the vice-chancellor has resigned, doubts still remain about the integrity of UNSW's biomedical research. Complainants in the Hall affair note that the original issues still haven't been resolved satisfactorily, and Bruce Hall still refuses to resign.

Oz columnist Dorothy Illing summarises several recent high-profile sackings in universities.

14 April 2004 | top of page

Screenwriting tips

"Everything I needed to know about character development I learned from a fish." Nemo, to be exact.

14 April 2004 | top of page

Silence and inarticulacy

Silence and inarticulacy: what is the job and when will it be finished? Holding elections won't necessarily guarantee a democracy that lasts more than a week (ask the Taiwanese).

14 April 2004 | top of page

The C-words

As used in humanities and social sciences, and in formal logic, 'coherence' is actually a family of related concepts: consistent, cogent, congruent, comprehensive, cohesive and others.

14 April 2004 | top of page

Spoiled for choice

Brian Millar is spoiled for choice:

"A few years ago I worked with a big UK supermarket chain. We did some research into why people shopped organic. Was it for health? A commitment to the environment? To sustainability? The real reason was quite shocking: in the organic aisle, there’s only one kind of carrot, two kinds of potatoes and one kind of lettuce. People were paying a premium to escape being confronted with twenty varieties of spud."

I tend to have the opposite experience: I shop at the Melbourne's Victoria Market, near where I work, because the 'organic' vegie stalls offer 20 varieties of spuds (and other stuff) and even the premium prices are lower than those of supermarkets. The four supermarkets nearest home only have two or three varieties, and none are organically grown. If you're a foodie with a green gene or two, the choice is clear.

Living just outside a so-called regional city has its benefits, too: if I want organically grown fruit or vegetables on a non-work day, I can usually find a farmer willing to sell them cheaply from a roadside stall.

via Doc Searls

14 April 2004 | top of page

Did you see that?

Brian Millar is appealing for witnesses to nine incidents. Did you see that great movie on Channel 4? What about the 4WD with the suspicious air that was parked here last week? Did you hear the loud hum in this area on Sunday?

14 April 2004 | top of page


Brian Millar recently moved house:

"London’s Notting Hill takes a little getting used to. It’s very like the film of the same name, except that in real life not everybody here is white...

"The concentration of so much wealth and youth and beauty on one square kilometre or so has some odd effects, beyond just being very annoying to me. One of which is that the shops have reverted to the way shops used to be in England, which is to say, the way shops ought to be.

"There’s a butcher, a baker, a greengrocer and some coffee shops that aren’t owned by Starbuck’s. I went into one last week and ordered a Grande Latte. The whole place went silent, the record on the jukebox stopped and everybody looked at me."

Uganda exported 235,578 60-kilo bags of coffee in March, an increase of 45.2 per cent during the same period last year.

14 April 2004 | top of page


"You do not own your brand. People own your brand. Brands are simply a by-product of making good things, treating people right and communicating well. They are not a product in themselves. And anybody who tries to value their brand, and puts that value on their balance sheet as an 'intangible asset' is away with the fairies."

This should not stop you trying to advertise on butterflies' wings. <wistful> Wouldn't it be fun to design your own decorative butterfly? </wistful>

14 April 2004 | top of page

Microsoft staffers attempt to engage customers in conversation

No, this is not an Onion article.

Five Microsoft developers have started a collaborative web site, called Channel 9, in an effort to establish "a new level of communication between Microsoft and developers. We believe that we will all benefit from a little dialogue these days. This is our first attempt to move beyond the newsgroup, the blog, and the press release to talk with each other, human to human."

Credit to the Channel 9 guys for a worthwhile effort, but the concept isn't totally new: Sun Microsystems was doing this sort of thing with Java developers back in the 90s, with one difference: the Sun communities were part of normal company operations, whereas the Channel 9 initiative appears to be outside the Microsoft employees' normal charter.

via Doc Searls

14 April 2004 | top of page

Biological insight

"If you're one of those insufferable people who can finish the Saturday New York Times crossword puzzle, you probably have a gift for insight." Researchers have now found the part of the brain that does the extra work that leads to 'Aha!' moments and solved problems:

"Problem-solving involves a complex cortical network to encode, retrieve, and evaluate information, but these results show that solving verbal problems with insight requires at least one additional component. Further, the fact that the effect occurred in RH aSTG [a particular region of the brain's right hemisphere] suggests what that process may be: integration of distantly related information. Distinct neural processes, the authors conclude, underlie the sudden flash of insight that allows people to 'see connections that previously eluded them.'"


14 April 2004 | top of page

Big, multidimensional ideas

"[B]ig, multi-dimensional ideas are way too important to leave to tlfdtjdtx," says Emma Tom. "As a mature-age student, you get used to finding university survival guides a little off the mark. The hilarious idea that working might be optional, for instance. Or that excessive beer drinking is something you'd have time to do after spending every non-working minute of the day trying to get a grip on the difference between structural and non-structural transcendence. Still, you'd think there'd be at least one reference to dealing with academic writing-related psychopathy."

The US government gives Pell Grants to undergraduate students who need financial help to study at university or TAFE ('community college') level. Community colleges say a time limit on Pell Grants would disadvantage non-traditional students such as those returning to study part time while working or raising kids.

Universities once predicted the smart card would improve campus services for students and institutions. No one has questioned the superiority of the smart chip technology itself, but administrative bottlenecks, start-up costs and compatibility issues have, for now, deterred many potential users.

14 April 2004 | top of page

Why is it so?

The ABC has digitsed highlights from Julius Sumner Miller's TV series for viewing on the web. Yay. (Requires Real Player or Windows Media Player)

In episode 1, "Professor Julius does an electrostatics experiment for no other reason than it is enchanting. Watch out for the cat skin, the pellets and a brief appearance by the Professor's assistant, Anderson." You get the idea.

thanks, Toby (via Science Matters)

14 April 2004 | top of page

Mach 1 baby

Sometimes those hilarious, wacky stories that arrive in your e-mail box turn out to be true.

"Justin Lee is pretty clever but he was not smart enough to be able to drive within 90 minutes of being born," reports Martin Kay. "Neither has he mastered the art of time travel, nor invented a car capable of going 1000km/h. So it was a mystery when the Auckland accountant was pulled over near the Bombay Hills on January 26 and fined $120 for speeding at 6.25pm on June 23, 1974--the day he was born."

The New Zealand Herald published a photo of Justin Lee with his non-supersonic Nissan.

And Sneedle Flipsock subscriber Katherine sent me a PDF of Lee's speeding ticket, letter of appeal and a letter from the police waiving the fine.

thanks, Katherine

14 April 2004 | top of page

New and old journalism

One of the things I like about Chris Lawson's Frankenblog is that he bothers to write down the stuff I merely think about. In "We wish to inform you that we did nothing" he's applied a critical eye to two books about genocide in Rwanda and the UN's role in peacekeeping.

The books, which I mentioned here on 1 April, were both written by westerners, Linda Polman who was in Rwanda during the 100 days of killing in 1994 and Philip Gourevitch who arrived soon after. Both journalists apply moral judgements to their accounts of what happened, and they come to rather different conclusions about the relative culpability of the UN, 'peacekeeper' troops, France, the USA and others in allowing the genocide to happen.

Reading Chris's analysis, I found myself mentally labelling Polman a gonzo journalist (minus the sex and drugs, presumably) and Gourevitch more of the old-school 'impartial and detatched' approach to reportage. I remain unconvinced that Polman's engaged, personal narrative is the best way to cover conflict or genocide: it's important to reach the heart, but we also need to think intellectually about news stories. Better, as Michael J Arlin's 1972 "Notes on the New Journalism" explains, to have both styles--at least, when the story involves Big Issues as well as the facts of an event.

(Aside: Joshua Quittner's Wired article of 1995, "The Birth of the Way New Journalism", contains much that seven years later seems quaint. It also contains a lot of good sense about how the Internet, and specifically the Word Wide Web, is changing the nature of journalism and news publishing.)

(Another aside: "...we could say that Rupert Murdoch is not so much a man, or a cultural force, as a portrait of the modern world. He is the way we live now; he is the media magnate we deserve.")

Chris Lawson also mentions The Economist's coverage of reconstruction and current politics in Rwanda. Here are some URLS:

  • Lessons of a genocide. An editorial that concludes: "With hindsight, there were plenty of warnings in Rwanda: speeches, editorials, preparatory massacres and so on. Outsiders did not take those warnings seriously, however, because what was being planned was so implausible... The grimmest lesson from 1994 is that men are capable of evil most people would consider 'unimaginable', had they not seen the rows of punctured skulls." The magazine's editorial stance has been consistent since August 1994 on the issues of early warnings and the need to reform the UN's peacekeeping activities.
  • The road out of hell. Article available online to subscribers, or you can pay US$2.95 per view. "Rwanda is tranquil: a staggering achievement. But the way the government enforces peace is disturbing."

A census by Rwanda's Ministry of Youth, Culture and Sports found that 937,000 Tutsi and politically moderate Hutus died during the 1994 genocide, somewhat more than previous estimates of around 800,000.

General Romeo Dallaire now believes the UN ignored warning signs in Rwanda because the country had no strategic value and no strategic resources. He returned to Kigali this month to participate in the tenth anniversary commemmorations. Brave man.

The 'Peace Africa' page has more on Rwanda, plus human rights in Sudan (nonexistent), insecurity in Nigeria (lots) and reports on an alleged coup plot in Equatorial Guinea that involved a who's who of South Africa's mercenary market, including some veterans of the firm Executive Outcomes.

12 April 2004 | top of page

Education for employment

Public funding for universities will for the first time be linked to graduates' employment rates, which seems (to me) a fairly obvious clue that Education Minister Brendan Nelson believes education is the same as vocational training. The idea of pursuing knowledge per se is just so much piffle, apparently.

As well, the minister wants universities to introduce a computerised tracking system to collate information on students' academic progress and loans details:

"Known as the Higher Education Information Management System, the tracking program will use a national student ID number to record enrolment statistics and academic results. Under the $2.6 billion Nelson reforms, if students fail to complete undergraduate degrees within seven years, they will be forced to pay up-front fees to complete their studies.

"The changes are designed to reduce a drop-out rate of about 40 per cent. The tracking system will allow students to check their Learning Entitlement records, loan records, course entry criteria and fees.

"Australia's 39 universities will get $250,000 each towards implementation costs, an increase of $50,000. However, universities have warned it could cost up to $1 million for each institution to implement the tracking technology."

Bring on the identity papers and travel documents, I say. We might as well, it's only a matter of time before it happens by stealth.

8 April 2004 | top of page


Yep, that was me, number 1 (for about five minutes) with my fourth-ever googlewhack:

A screen shot of my latest googlewhack, proudly sitting at the top of the whack stack

8 April 2004 | top of page


Here's a nifty patent application for a product designed for people who like to put pants on one leg at a time.

Donald Norman discusses the nature and usefulness of mental models, and how they can be used for making design decisions and for teaching. Avi Parush says your expectations (mental model) of an application are influenced by your experiences of using different devices, and it's possible to measure the usability effect of using the same application on different devices.

7 April 2004 | top of page


Before Jim Lewis went to Congo, he thought American news media had a duty to publish photographs of atrocities. Now, having been there and done that, he's less certain: "I no longer think that what happens when horrifying pictures are published has anything to do with journalism." (via

The language of risk: "Should worst-case scenarios, if they are sufficiently terrible, trump all other considerations when politicians have to decide what to do? ...[T]he precautionary principle... [is] founded on [an] unjustified supposition: that in the face of an existential threat, some risks are just not worth considering."

7 April 2004 | top of page


In 1996 congressman Donald Rumsfeld criticised war profiteering by company Brown & Root. This year privately contracted military workers in Iraq (such as Brown & Root's employees) outnumber British troops 5 to 4. Brown & Root is a subsidiary of Halliburton, and Dick Cheney is a former executive of the latter. In January 2003 Cheney was still being paid by Halliburton.

Says "Alphaville Herald" editor Peter Ludlow, when gamers in the Sim world get bored they turn to sex and organised crime. Left to my own devices, I probably would too.

How e-voting threatens democracy.

7 April 2004 | top of page

Words and music

"Could it be possible that ... music fans and artists can find their own ways of connecting with each other? And maybe, instead of a few hundred millionaires, we might have thousands and thousands of musicians making a decent living? Could that be possible?"

Describing animals can be tricky. Here's a handy list of words for plurals, collective nouns, sounds, gender and offspring, with some bonus jokes. I like the idea of a rumpus of baboons, but the author doesn't seem to have discovered that a young echidna is a puggle.

Michal Zalewski takes us behind the scenes at Microsoft: one geek's journey through the 'track changes' records of freely-available Word documents on the Microsoft site. He also makes available his text-scanning tool so you can check the .docs on your own web site. (via Language Log)

Watch out for slow children, sharp-edged signs and multi-directional one-way signs. (via This Is Broken)

The Klingon Language Institute has released translations of Hamlet, Much Ado About Nothing and Gilgamesh. (via Ansible)

After playing with a random phrase generator, contributor Paul comments: "At base level, this just comes down to integrated organisational programming. You really can't fail with facilitating asset hardware. Our upgraded model now offers systemised monitored options." (Thanks, Paul)

7 April 2004 | top of page

Search, and ye shall find

When you search PubMed, a leading database of medical research papers, you get a chronological list of articles. Using ClusterMed, you can have your PubMed results list grouped into hierarchical folders based on subject categories. The 'clustering engine' with the Google-like interface also works for Ebay, US government sites and other large, messy collections of web pages. (via Doc Searls)

"Hoping it will push them to the top of an increasingly competitive market, Internet portal Yahoo has added soul-search capabilities to its expanding line of search tools".

Blogstreet lets you see who's linking to your blog, who blogs about similar stuff and other indicators about the size and shape of the blogosphere.

Well, if they're offering 1 Gb storage for every Googlemail account, they'll *have* to expand off-world just to hold all the new servers.

Searching the web by shape is an intriguing notion.

7 April 2004 | top of page


"That's ridiculous. How can meat make a machine? You're asking me to believe in sentient meat."

Thanks, Chris

7 April 2004 | top of page


2004 flipsocks:

17 Dec: the sock has flipped
10 Dec: anything anywhere any time
3 Dec: instant flattery
26 Nov: the steamroller of branding
19 Nov: fried v rice
5 Nov: the page with no name
29 Oct: and then there were none
22 Oct: filled with naughty laughter
15 Oct: get souls and disconcert the public
8 Oct: ooh, aah, ooh
1 Oct: pinch and a punch
24 Sep: design is the new art
17 Sep: footsteps of Aeneas
10 Sep: slow art, viral aesthetic
3 Sep: I can see your house from here
27 Aug: forever blowing bubbles
20 Aug: jargon for the digital age
13 Aug: beautiful plumage, the Norwegian blue
6 Aug: brokenated terribility
23 Jul: Alice underground
16 Jul: color-coded
2 Jul: for so long treated as nouns
25 Jun: looking for love, echidna-style
18 Jun: joy-to-stuff ratio
11 Jun: fun's fun but a girl can't dance all night
4 Jun: pink dinosaur
28 May: two people every minute
21 May: incompitnce [sic]
14 May: zygomatic smile
5 May: mailbox
30 Apr: bananaguard
23 Apr: mmmmmWAH!
15 Apr: playtime
8 Apr: googlewhack
2 Apr: we wish to inform you...
18 Mar: daffy dills
12 Mar: echo chamber
9 Jan: refund profologies


Also on this site:

about this site
home page

who is geoffrey ebert?
testing for the fun factor
chicken at the (higher education) crossroads
crawford's theory of interactivity

home-page real-estate wars
the eagle has landed

must-reads for web people
recent reads

pop-culture quotes

they shoulda been words

lemon and rosemary risotto

Written In Blood by Chris Lawson
The Salmon of Doubt by Douglas Adams

Without whom (web):

frankenstein journal (Chris)
tbn97 (Troy)
webster's encyclopedia [sic]
science playwiths (Peter) (Neroli)
Maverick IT network consultants (Rick)
Look! There's a castle! (Brent)
Cairns Corporation (Gerald)
Homosapien Books (Julie and Bruce)
Southern Sky Watch (Ian)
Panda's Thumb (Ian again)
ABC Science-Matters (official)
science-matters (unofficial)
Bovios (Alex Burns)
Lee Battersby
Little Malop Gallery
Digest of Usability Resources and News (Dey)
WooWooWoo (Andrew)



Without whom (also):

Ramona P Lovechild
Katherine with a K
Katherine (no relation)
Claire (no relation)
Toby and Jann
Paul, Warren, Dr K and The New Reality


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