Saturday, April 14, 2007


Here's the description of new web service LeapTag:
LeapTag enables you to discover the Internet on your own terms. You define your interests, show LeapTag a few examples of what you like, and it does the rest, scouring the Internet for relevant news, blogs, books – and more. LeapTag works on your computer, allowing you to discover your interests in total privacy.
Get it? Tivo for websurfing. - The World According To You -

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Via FranticIndustries, MyQuire is a cross between a social networking service and a project management system. The idea is positive, but the execution lacks the elegance and simplicity of Basecamp or Facebook. - Social Networking with a purpose.

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Friday, April 13, 2007


UIScape is a new group blog devoted to discussing user interfaces in broad historical context:

HCI is an insanely broad field, drawing from psychology, ergonomics, design theory, computer science, sociology and anthropology. HCI research can involve studying users, modelling human behaviour, designing and building solutions, and experiments to test hypotheses and designs. This breadth not only makes it hard to define what HCI is, but also to predict what you will find on this site. However, what all the work has in common is that it is relevant in some way to how humans interact with technology, and therefore potentially interesting to anyone involved with this aspect of design. Whether you are an interaction designer, software developer, product designer, architect or simply a design and technology enthusiast, we’re sure there’ll be plenty of interesting stuff for you in there.

Looks really interesting.


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kill -9

"It's like I'm running Thunderbird and you're still stuck with Pine." (Via my sysadmin)

kill -9 (kill dash nine. the geek unix / linux song by monzy) - video

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"What really killed that goal once and for all was the web."

User interface consistency is dead. It was overrated anyway.

Should adolescence be abolished?

I have't read the book or listened to the podcast, but I wanted to flag this discussion because it seems to be coming up in different venues. - The Glenn and Helen Show: Should Adolescence Be Abolished?

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WriteWith launches

WriteWith is "a group writing platform that falls somewhere between a blogging platform, a wiki, and an online Word clone." My impression after a few minutes: It's simpler than GDocs, appropriate for blogging and straight text, but I'm not sure it will be up to doing medium-duty word processing and collaboration yet.

Y Combinator’s WriteWith Launches - Collaborative Blogging

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VisiblePath sounds a lot like ContactMap

VisiblePath is an Outlook add-on that tracks and visualizes personal networks. ContactMap was a project that Bonnie Nardi and associates wrote about in 2002, an app that -- tracks and visualizes personal networks. Nice to see how research and innovation follow parallel tracks.

VisiblePath Is A Lot Like LinkedIn, Except It’s Useful

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Thursday, April 12, 2007

Twitter's tools

Opening your API tends to result in rich interoperability if your service is simple enough, as Twitter's is.

All Twitter tools and mashups in one place - franticindustries.

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Alternative terms for lifestreaming

This item is a few days old, but still interesting. What I've been calling "lifestreaming" has been mutating as it's applied in different ways. » Blog Archive » The Many Terms Used to Describe the Lifestreaming Concept

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Web annotation services

TechCrunch has a roundup.

Five Ways to Mark Up the Web

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Special issue of TCQ

Jason Swarts and Loel Kim are calling for proposals for a special issue of TCQ on new technological spaces.

cfp: New technological spaces [TCQ Special Issue] | Kairosnews

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The LifestreamBlog has a feature on Dandelife, a personal biography site that is incorporating the lifestreams idea. » Blog Archive » Preview of New Dandelife Streams Feature

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Reading :: Good to Great

Good to Great
by Jim Collins

Jim Collins' Good to Great, which follows on the heels of his bestselling Built to Last, has become a bestseller in its own right. Collins, who left his faculty position at Stanford's Graduate School of Business to found a management research lab in Boulder, attempts to define what distinguishes "good" companies from "great" companies. How do companies make this transition, and what are their characteristics?

To be specific, his team studied
companies that showed the following basic pattern: fifteen-year cumulative stock returns at or below the general stock market, punctuated by a transition point, then cumulative returns at least three times the market over the next fifteen years. (pp.5-6).
Eleven companies on the Fortune 500 fit these characteristics. His team compared each company directly with a competitor in the same industry. They also examined six "unsustained" comparisons, companies that made a short-term shift but did not sustain that trajectory. That made a total of 28 companies (pp.7-8).

The comparisons were not just financial. Collins' team also examined "articles, analyses, interviews, and the research coding" (p.9), systematically comparing the "good-to-great" examples to their comparisons. Based on this work, they drew several conclusions that cut across the grain of management wisdom:
  • "Celebrity" leaders who were brought in to run companies were negatively correlated with success. The good-to-great companies were characteristically run by people who came from within the company and who were both modest and determined.
  • No forms of executive compensation appeared to have any effect.
  • Long-range strategic planning did not appear to have any effect.
  • Good-to-great companies were as likely to focus on what not to do as they were on what to do.
  • Technology did not precipitate good-to-great transitions, although it could accelerate transitions that were already in progress.
  • Mergers and acquisitions played no role.
  • Good-to-great companies spent little time on motivating people.
  • Good-to-great companies did not launch efforts with events or programs; they often were not aware of the magnitude of changes at the time.
  • Good-to-great companies were not generally in great industries; they performed despite their industries. (pp.10-11)
In many ways, then, this book is the analogue to The Millionaire Next Door, the famous study that revealed how many millionaires live in middle-class neighborhoods and drive used cars.

Collins found that great leaders, so-called "Level 5" leaders, were "self-effacing, quiet, reserved, even shy" (p.12), a sharp contrast to the brash type-A personalities that we often think of as leaders. These leaders, Collins says, tended to focus on getting the right people first, before setting vision or strategy (p.13). The best companies, like prisoners of war, confronted the brutal facts about their situations even as they maintained faith that they would prevail (p.13).

Good-to-great companies also employed what Collins calls the "hedgehog concept": staying within the intersection of (a) what the company can be best in the world at; (b) what drives the company's economic engine; (c) what the company and its people are deeply passionate about (pp.95-96). They did not stray out of that intersection, while comparison companies tended to diversify too much or hang onto a legacy area for too long.

The good-to-great companies had a "culture of discipline": "When you have disciplined people, you don't need hierarchy," Collins states (p.13). They also used carefully selected technologies to accelerate their momentum, without relying on that technology for the initial spark (pp.13-14).

Finally, these transitions relied on steady momentum rather than great leaps, a concept that Collins calls the "flywheel" (p.14).

Okay, let's get critical. I really like the narrative of this book, which follows the plot of Aesop's fable about the ant and the grasshopper or the tortoise and the hare -- and I always root for the ant and the tortoise in those stories. On the other hand, those stories are a bit simplistic. And even though I believe Collins when he says these stories emerged from the data, I see places in which they also tend to be a bit simplistic.

For instance, at least in the telling, the study seems to rely heavily on the recollections of the good-to-great companies' CEOs and executives, and retrospective interviews are notoriously unreliable. Some of the interview questions also relied on simplistic categories: CEOs, for instance, were asked to name their "top five factors in the shift from good to great" (p.155), as if abstract and overbroad categories such as "technology" and "consistency" were discrete and readily evaluated. Similarly, Collins tends to overemphasize the individuals' roles in the transitions, not only focusing on the executives but also asserting that they key to success is hiring "the right people" (p.192) -- while underdefining what constitutes "right." When Collins talks about how workers collaborate, which is not often, he characterizes successful collaboration as a natural result of hiring people who are passionate and motivated. That is, the system is simply an effect of having the right individuals.

Even though I'm skeptical of some aspects of the study, though, the book is quite valuable for thinking through what it takes to build sustainable positive change within an organization. The precepts generally make intuitive sense, particularly the notion of working steadily in one direction (like the turtle, I suppose, rather than the hare), and Collins' clear writing style makes the pages turn quickly. I'll be using this book as a reference as I continue to work within my own organizations.

Sunday, April 08, 2007

Game :: The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess

The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess

Longtime readers of this blog will recall that although I rarely read fiction, I enjoy long narrative console games. The gold standard of this genre, of course, is The Legend of Zelda: The Ocarina of Time (N64), which has been called the Citizen Kane of gaming. Ocarina's combination of strong narrative, puzzle solving, and combat earned it a perfect 10 in reviews, and it was so popular that it was rereleased on the GameCube with new puzzles. Even with comparatively low-res graphics, it's still a compelling and challenging game.

Ocarina is part of a long series of Zelda games, starting in 1987. In every game, Link has to acquire skills and a series of tools by visiting different dungeons and beating different bosses, finally saving the Princess Zelda and the land of Hyrule from the villain Ganondorf. Each time, by the way, the principals are the same but the details are different, and this fact is addressed in the later games by referring to past legends of the hero Link and etc. This mythos was brought out most strongly in The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker, the GameCube offering that came out a few years ago. (See my review.) Wind Waker was enjoyed by many and reviled by many others, due to its use of cel shading and its cartoonish look. Personally, I liked the look a lot, but I didn't like the tedious nature of travel or some of the unavoidable side quests. I really liked the continuity, though.

Wind Waker's follow-up is last year's Twilight Princess, released simultaneously for the GameCube and the Wii. The advance buzz was very strong, with some critics claiming that it was even better than Ocarina. We got it as soon as we got the Wii, and I went to work. TP has gone for a much more realistic look than any other Zelda game, and it pays off, producing a game that feels more serious and adult than Wind Waker. Is it better than Ocarina? I don't think so -- but I think it comes very close.

The story is very strong, as with most of the other Zelda series (except the execrable Majora's Mask, the only game that made me actively hate all NPCs). Like Ocarina and Wind Waker, TP starts Link off in his own village, meeting the villagers via low-stakes puzzle solving. The gameplay ratchets up fairly quickly once the basic skills are learned, though, and anyone who has played the other Zelda games won't have too much trouble learning them. (The Wii controls do present some challenges, though, which I'll get to in a moment.) After a short time, Link is off to Hyrule Field with his beloved horse Epona -- a name you'll recognize from Ocarina. In fact, you'll recognize a lot from Ocarina: TP is most emphatically a sequel to that game, a direct sequel, so the tools, locales, and even dungeons are essentially the same, though eons later. That Link's adventures are all but forgotten, but you acquire his garb, gallop through his lands, and eventually fight his nemesis.

Let's take a moment to discuss this, because it really has an effect on how you view the game. Two points really jumped out at me as making these direct connections. One is when you visit the fishing shop, and the proprietor casually mentions that one of the pictures on the wall is of a supposed ancestor, the championship fisherman of his day. It's a screen grab of the proprietor of Ocarina's fishing shop -- a little detail that puts you on notice that this isn't just a retelling. The other is when you pick through the ancient ruins of a building in a sacred grove, find out how to open the ruined doors in a clearing, and on the other side, you see what building once stood there: Ocarina's Temple of Time. It's hard to describe how viscerally this hits someone who has played the previous games, each of which creates a specific mood and fosters a deep emotional connection with the land and the mythos.

But although this is the same Hyrule of Ocarina, it's a very different experience. In Ocarina, the scale was so small: mountains seemed like hills, rivers seemed like streams, and Lake Hyrule seemed like hardly more than a pond. In TP, though, the effect is the opposite: Hyrule Field seems like an entire country, Lake Hyrule seems enormous and incredibly deep, and even the dungeons seem cavernous. The twilight that threatens to take over Hyrule is just creepy in a Japanese anime sense, and adds quite a bit to the effect.

Puzzle solving and tools are not terribly different from the other games. One surprising and disappointing thing, though, was that the dungeon bosses were not hard to beat -- in fact, the sub-bosses were consistently harder. This is true pretty much up to the point that you face Ganondorf himself, at which point the difficulty ratchets up considerably.

Unlike Ocarina, there is no magic system to speak of. However, you do spend a lot of time as a wolf, and later in the game you have to switch back and forth between human and wolf in order to make any headway. You do also visit several places that weren't in Ocarina.

Some have complained that the game, which was developed for the GameCube and ported to the Wii for its release, doesn't make good use of the Wii's graphics capabilities. Maybe. But my chief gripe was the controls. To swing the sword, you swing the Wiimote, which seems like a great idea but does not work as well in practice. To perform a spin attack, you shake the Wii's Nunchuck attachment lightly, something that worked inconsistently for me. I also found that I had a tendency to turn the Nunchuck inwards without realizing it, so I would sometimes think I was pushing the control stick forward when I was really pushing it sideways. Most distressingly, while swinging the sword, I found that the Nunchuck would sometimes detach for a split second and reattach while I was pressing the control stick -- and suddenly the Wii would think that center position = back and forward = neutral. That made it difficult to fight, and I got used to temporarily pausing so I could reset the stick orientation.

Nevertheless, the game is really quite good, and I am impressed at how well told and moving the story turns out to be. Defeating Ganondorf was satisfying (although I started to feel sorry for him, since the game allows you to retry if you've been defeated, and I took advantage of that four or five times during the final battle). The great thing is that, now that I've won the game, I can wander around Hyrule exploring all the parts I didn't get to. That's what I'll probably be doing in my spare time next week.