Usability Testing: More Honored in the Breach than the Observance

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The Internet and the Worldwide Web have arguably changed the path of history. And they have made companies like Google into mega successes. But those companies have also caused much consternation among their millions of users. Why? Apparently they don’t bother to check with many (or any!) of those users to see how logical and self-evident their websites and associated tools are for their target audiences. Examples abound, and we will be posting some of the more egregious. But the Internet giants could have been even more successful, and keep website visitors on their sites longer (where they would be exposed to more advertisements) if their user interfaces were less opaque. The goal is usability, which is not rocket science. Two of most used tools are the Chrome browser and YouTube, which we will discuss in separate posts.

Can Thoughtful U.S.-Wide Economic Planning Enable Orderly Growth?

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Skyrocketing house prices and apartment rents, long and slow commutes, overcrowded schools, etc. not only dramatically diminish peoples’ quality of life but can choke off economic growth in places like Silicon Valley. (And Silicon Valley is not unique; e.g., Boston has a similar problem.) What can be done about it? We need to think bigger, in terms of geography. Every sizable city or cluster of nearby cities has some form of LOCAL regional economic development authority. But those authorities are sub-optimizing. We believe that what is needed is a nationwide advisory council AND a change in thinking by large companies. Germany is a good example of what is possible. We can understand to some extent the economies of scale of microchip manufacturers for examples, but it especially baffles us that technology giants like Facebook, Google, Oracle, eBay, and LinkedIn, which are principally software companies, insist on building mega-campuses in Silicon Valley. Seems to us that—using their own technology and realizing that software can be written anyplace—they could do large portions in regional centers. Even Apple, who farms out much of their manufacturing to Chinese companies like Foxconn, very likely would benefit if their employees spent more time working and less time commuting to their new giant building (which will almost certainly exacerbate the already horrendous traffic jams in that area).

There are lots of other attractive cities in western states with a critical mass of local services and attractions that would welcome an influx of well-paid, well-educated employees: for example, Austin, TX; Denver, CO; Seattle, WA; Portland, OR, Los Angeles, CA; San Diego, CA; Sacramento, CA; and Phoenix, AZ. Similarly for eastern states.

GoPro’s Stock May Be Correctly Priced

GoPro's CEO Nick Woodman holds a GoPro camera in his mouth as he celebrates his company's IPO at the Nasdaq MarketSite in New York, Thursday, June 26, 2014. GoPro, the maker of wearable sports cameras, loved by mountain climbers, divers, surfers and other extreme sports fans, said late Wednesday it sold 17.8 million shares at $24 each in its initial public offering of stock. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

GoPro’s CEO Nick Woodman holds a GoPro camera in his mouth as he celebrates his company’s IPO at the Nasdaq MarketSite in New York, Thursday, June 26, 2014. GoPro, the maker of wearable sports cameras, loved by mountain climbers, divers, surfers and other extreme sports fans, said late Wednesday it sold 17.8 million shares at $24 each in its initial public offering of stock. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

We hate to tell you we told you so, but … we told you so (see our post of July 3, 2014). Investors were initially stampeded by the sex appeal and attitude of the surfer dudes who were taking exciting videos of their surfing exploits, but now their motto may have changed from “eat camera” to “eat crow”. Or, to segue to another mixed metaphor, this one-trick pony may have done its one trick already, and all the early adopters have already adopted. We wonder how many earlier buyers are actually continuing to use the GoPro, and how many newer buyers are putting up with the flawed documentation, steep learning curve, and difficulties of using the product to take videos and still pictures they are proud to post or to show their friends.

And what about competition? The GoPro Hero4 Silver costs $400. The Garmin Virb line has models for $200-400. But the $100 Polaroid Cube may be fine for the rest of us. Or the $76 SJCAM SJ4000. Or the $64 entry-level Yi model from Chinese smartphone maker Xiaomi (not as many features as the GoPro Hero4 Silver but some interesting ones such as selfie stick support).

Gallup Poll Says Americans Prefer Small Business; Then Why So Many Mergers?

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Although Americans’ confidence in most major U.S. institutions remains below historical levels for most institutions, two institutions are notable for rating higher than their historial levels, the military at 72% and small business at 67% (as measured by the sum of respondents who said “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence), according to the June 2-7, 2014 Gallup Poll. Big business is a woeful 14th on the list and is rated at a meager 14%.

We at Technology Bloopers find the recent spate of acquisitions and mergers within both the technology sector (e.g., Western Digital and SanDisk, and Lam and KLA-Tencor) and other sectors (e.g., Walgreens and Rite Aid, and AB Imbev and SAB Miller) distressing, if only because “Absolute Power Corrupts Absolutely”. And its first cousin agglomeration is not much better.

Do beer drinkers really want a world of boring lagers or one of tasty craft beers? Or do diners really want their meals increasingly dominated by garish and uninteresting gigantic chain restaurants (big business) serving below-average variety, taste, and healthiness of food or a world of eating with lots of tasteful (in both décor and food) provided by smaller, independent businesses with the owners on site? We didn’t think so.

N Y Times: “Let’s Get Back to Work”

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“The Lord Giveth and the Lord Taketh Away” is a truly flexible and useful concept. We can replace “Lord” by such notions as “Technology” or “Internet” or “Mobile Devices” or a whole host of other products and services. And those products and services can be used to teach us, to inform us, to entertain us, etc. How valuable they are depends on the objectives of the individual or group in question. We’d guess that a large fraction of the folks who read the New York Times either work pretty hard or respect others who do work pretty hard. On the other hand those who spend a lot of  time looking at or posting to Tumblr probably are at the other end of the spectrum, as Tumblr itself serves up such suggestions as “5 ways to waste the rest of the day” (by the way, you can find lots of OTHER folks using that phrase when you surf) and counsels its members that “work can wait”, presumably while you read or write posts on Tumblr.

To put this in perspective we took a look at how Americans spent their day in 2014, thanks to some detailed data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Of the 24.00 hours in a day, we spend 10.75 hours taking care of basic needs (sleeping, other personal care, and eating and drinking), 3.59 hours working or doing work-related activities, a meager 0.42 hours being educated (a low average because the majority of Americans are not enrolled in educational institutions), a whopping 5.30 hours on leisure and sports (which includes 2.82 hours watching television), and a modest 0.14 hours communicating (telephone, email, and snailmail).

But even the most casual observer would likely object to the low communicating figure from the BLS because everywhere you look people are peering into their smartphones. One study found that smartphone users spend two hours each day using those devices. And what are they doing with those phones? It depends on whose statistics you believe, but it is interesting to note that it’s not all entertainment. And it is even more interesting to realize that a smartphone enables its user to seamlessly shift between work-related and personal activities, so they aren’t all just wasting the rest of the day a la Tumblr. Whew, the American economy may not be in danger!

“Fair Use” of Copyrighted Material Gets (a Little) Justice

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Did Stephanie Lenz make a bag of money from her video that Universal would otherwise have made? It seems that actually Universal and Prince got a lot of free advertising out of it starting in 2007, no? A U.S. Circuit Court of Appeal has just struck a blow against the hubris of music publishers such as Universal who send out takedown notices at the drop of a hat. If every YouTube (or Vimeo et al) video that borrowed a little, or even a lot, triggered so much legal argy-bargy, there wouldn’t be enough lawyers and judges on the planet to deal with it all. Similarly for the print world, and look at all the examples of “the pot calling the kettle black”:
-Google violated copyrights wholesale by scanning millions of books; but didn’t that provide a service to humanity by making intellectual content available for out-of-print volumes?
-Facebook was essentially a college Freshman Register; could it have been sued by thousands of universities collectively?
-Amazon’s Kindle refuses to let owners copy even one word. So all students writing term papers are back to the archaic 3×5 cards in the digital age. How stupid can they be, especially in the days of the Turnitin plagiarism checker technology?

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Anything is Funny if it Didn’t Happen to You

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But though most people can recover from having their credit card data compromised (or perhaps weren’t personally affected by it), they might not recover so well from having their marriage destroyed, so perhaps the most poignant of  recent hacks was the one of the Ashley Madison extramarital affair website. Most recently Ashley Madison users filed class action lawsuits in Canada and the US, which will almost certainly destroy the company and at a minimum disgrace its parent company Avid Life Media  Ironically, the hackers had originally not tried to destroy the whole thing but to force more ethical behavior on it, and when the company stonewalled the hackers carried out their threat of disclosure. Another example of hubris … which has at a minimum forced  the CEO of Avid Life Media to resign.

We Have Met the Enemy and He Is Us – Redux

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If something can go wrong, it will. And in the millions, nay billions, nay trillions (or more) of lines of code that comprise the Internet and its many websites (the total reached 1 billion in September 2014) that  there are countless opportunities for errors or loopholes that let the bad guys (AKA hackers) wreak havoc. And that havoc can affect millions of innocent victims. The extent of the hacking during the past few years is enormous as can be seen from an interesting infograph.

In another recent episode that demonstrated the increasing ease of hacking, shady securities traders stole announcements from Business Wire, PR Newswire, and Marketwired after it was uploaded by the companies but before it was released to the public, and made millions by trading ahead of the public. (The former, harder method was to recruit company “insiders” to get advance tips.)

And there may be some recent disasters that were self-inflicted, e.g., the outages at the NYSE and United Airlines. Absent an identified villain, we would attribute those to faulty code that is so complex it is impossible to test thoroughly and to change as the environment changes.

Hacking has even become so widespread, and apparently so easy, that one of the leading anti-hacking software companies, the Italian company Hacking Team was recently hacked itself.

Even more scary is the almost certain hacking by unfriendly nations’ government-sponsored hackers (China, Russsia, etc.). Some of it is stealing commercial intellectual property, which can undermine the US’s economic strength (and directly or indirectly its military strength). Other of it can be military secrets, the loss of which can compromise the national security.

In the ultimate irony, The Wall Street Journal pointed out that while the giant tech firms like Apple, Facebook, and Google encrypt their data they don’t cooperate with the US government to searches that are legal under the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution.

hitchBOT’s Destruction: A Chilling Example of Humans’ Failure to Deal with Technology

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Technology has evolved a lot faster than human beings. There have always been people with warped minds around who do malicious hacking, purse-snatching from old ladies, etc., so inventors of new technology need to anticipate this malevolence. A recent example was the destruction in Philadelphia of a harmless robot that had trekked across Canada and started across the U.S., thanks to many small acts of kindness from humans along the way. Almost any American citizen could tell you that routing it through Philadelphia was a bad idea. Notwithstanding the protestations of satirist Joe Queenan, isn’t Philadelphia the city that is, per-capita at least, the American city that is the butt of the most jokes? E.g., W.C. Fields’ classic “First prize is one week in Philadelphia; second prize is two weeks in Philadelphia.” Given the existence of these maladjusted individuals (which apparently are less numerous in Canada), be they juvenile or older delinquents who might just have destroyed something just because they are incapable themselves of building such a cool thing, it seems a bit strange that the designers of the robot did not include one or more security cameras that were constantly sending photos to the cloud. Maybe that was the real blooper. Or perhaps the robot wasn’t programmed to (a) deal with people other than the large majority who found it cute (using its cuteness to avoid violence) or (b) to threaten to call the police (using its electronic  prowess), in other words doing the things that humans do better than robots.   And here is a highly-unlikely but chilling thought: suppose this law-abiding robot was destroyed by a criminal robot. But if benign students and professors are capable of creating a well-behaved device that successfully navigated more friendly nations, then ill-intentioned but equally capable ones could create an army of ill-behaved devices that could rape, pillage, and plunder. Think about it.

Is Any Organization Perfect Enough to Stop Listening?

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We thought that every website and publication worth mentioning had some form of “Contact Us” or “Letters to the Editor”. Apparently not. We have recently tried to bring to the attention of Trip Advisor an incorrect listing of an establishment in Antigua, Guatemala, but could find no one to send it to or place on the site to post it so that future travelers would not be misled as we were. And we could add a comment to an article in the most recent  AARP Magazine correcting some serious mistakes in their editorial content (which obviously was not fact-checked), but our correction really should be included in an Errata in the next issue; but again there was no apparent place on their website and no email address to deal with it. These organizations, and we suspect that many others, too, only talk and don’t listen. We suggest that web surfers or magazine readers choose alternative sources, ones that LISTEN to their users or readers.