Keep whimsical

March 15, 2009 | Leave a comment

I took some time out this afternoon to hang out in Oxford University Parks with Brian Selznick’s The Invention of Hugo Cabret, which I’d been given for Christmas but hadn’t a chance to read yet. It’s a children’s book, and one whose 526 pages were whizzed through in a couple of hours, leaving a kind of screen burn on the way I look at the world. It’s probably the most beautiful hardback I’ve ever owned, but more than that, it pushes the boundaries of what’s possible with a traditionally printed and bound story. Prose gives way to graphic novel, and then to cinema stills, all becoming part of a visceral patchwork that adds texture to its plot and subtexts. It overtly promotes thinking outside predetermined structures, which is an important lesson for any kid (even a big one in his thirties), and dares the reader to imagine what they could achieve, even going so far as to equate creativity with magic. I loved it.

It’s also a good reminder that people, particularly in crunch times like that one we’re now in, will always try and constrain things to the categories that make sense to them. The people who are really successful, and who changed the world for the better, all managed to take the skills they’d learned and built up over their lifetimes and turn them to breaking through the barriers other people had put in their way. They weren’t afraid to be themselves, think the way they think, and push the boat out that little bit further.

What can you imagine? Why aren’t you doing it?

Flying by Francisco-PortoNortePortugal, released under an Attribution-Noncommercial 2.0 Generic license.

Elgg 1.5

March 13, 2009 | 2 comments

Elgg 1.5 was released today. There’s an official post over at news.elgg.org, but I wanted to make a note of it here too. This is the longest we’ve taken over a release since 1.0, and there are almost eight hundred significant engine changes since the previous version. More than one person has remarked to me (while testing the release candidates) that it feels more like a version 2.0.

Marcus points out:

Elgg 1.5 has loads of new functionality – both visible and under the hood. There’s a brand new theme and dashboard, groups are more powerful, and the whole core has been made much much much faster.

The notifications engine is another feature worth highlighting: you can subscribe to the content produced by any of your friends, or any group you’re a member of, and have it delivered using the method of your choice. Out of the box that might be email or internal messaging, but developers can add new notification methods, and Curverider offers a commercial SMS service.

This release makes Elgg particularly suitable for professional social networking, and pushes the software well ahead in its field. And there’s more to come.

See the official Elgg site to download the software or read more.

Gender differences on the new frontier

March 10, 2009 | 16 comments

It’s a commonly accepted fact that computing is a male-dominated industry, but I was shocked by the scale of the inequality. Okay, this is kind of unscientific, but take a look at these statistics:

  • Female population of the world: 49.8%
  • Female population of Facebook: 55%
  • Female population of social networks as a whole: 54.7%
  • Percentage of people awarded undergraduate computer science degrees by PhD-granting institutions in the US and Canada in 2006-7 who were women: 12%

While social media usage is skewed ever so slightly towards women, a whopping 88% of the people who study to learn the skills to build these tools are men. This is at a time when, in science generally, women receiving undergraduate degrees are increasing as a percentage year on year.

Some of the reasons for this have been covered a lot over the past year. This 2007 interview with Aaron Swartz (who worked on Creative Commons and is now behind the awesome government site Watchdog.net) contains some interesting thoughts on discrimination on the basis of both gender and race:

If you talk to any woman in the tech community, it won’t be long before they start telling you stories about disgusting, sexist things guys have said to them. It freaks them out; and rightly so. As a result, the only women you see in tech are those who are willing to put up with all the abuse.

[...] The denial about this in the tech community is so great that sometimes I despair of it ever getting fixed. [...] It’s an institutional problem, not a personal one.

Last year, Chris Messina called out a BusinessWeek article for disproportionately featuring the male participants at Web2Open, a Web 2.0 technology unconference Tara Hunt had predominantly organized. He followed it up this month with another post about the Future of Web Apps as a white boys’ club:

Turns out, white men also don’t have the monopoly on the best speakers – even in the tech industry – yet their ilk continue to make up a highly disproportionate number of the folks who end up on stage. And that means that good content and good ideas and important perspectives aren’t making it into the mix that should be, and as a result, audiences are getting short-changed.

This isn’t just about technology, and it isn’t just about the commercial web. We’re in an era where everything is going online; Barack Obama would arguably not be President of the United States without his engagement with grassroots social media technologies, and he is certainly continuing to embrace them into his Presidency. Yet if those technologies are effectively controlled by a minority of the population, that population’s biases and predispositions seep into how they’re designed, how they’re built, and ultimately how they work in practice.

Although I’ve picked out gender here, the same is doubtless true regarding race and sexuality discrimination in the tech sector, although the numbers haven’t been as widely published. As computing becomes more and more important in society as a whole, it becomes more and more important to ensure the people who help shape it are selected fairly and represent a cross-section of the people it serves.

Update: Lots of really interesting links in the comments, including Katie Piatt’s recommendation of Ada Lovelace Day, which encourages people to blog about women in tech.

Meitar Moscovitz points me to Will the Semantic Web Have a Gender?, a ReadWriteWeb article from last year about the possibility that the semantic web will reflect a predominantly male attitude to the world.

Image by mouton.rebelle and released under a CC-Attribution-Noncommercial license.

Bug tracking

March 9, 2009 | 4 comments

All software has bugs; the trick is to find them and remove them as quickly as possible while balancing against the other development you have to do. This is where bug trackers come in: they allow developers to project manage these activities while allowing users and other members of their organization to submit issues while not interrupting the development workflow.

Even though every software project needs a decent bug tracker, finding one isn’t easy. Everything seems to have a downside:

  • Bugzilla, while very powerful, has a near-psychotic user interface – or at least, I nearly went psychotic trying to use it. I’m the technical lead of an open source project with a computer science degree and twenty-five years of programming under my belt; an ordinary user stands no chance of reporting issues in a meaningful way.
  • Lighthouse is really simple and integrates well with email and things like Basecamp. Unfortunately, it’s so simple that certain features – like a drop-down menu that allows users or developers to suggest the priority (or complexity) of an issue – have been deliberately left out of the mix with no hope of inclusion. That means there’s no way of saying that a massive privacy flaw is more important than a minor rendering error, except by integrating with another product.

In the end, Trac seems to be the best solution. Integrations with the Eclipse development environment and Subversion source code repository (through plugins) are a definite advantage, and although the web interface leaves a lot to be desired, it’s nothing like Bugzilla.

The perfect bug tracker needs to encompass these two values:

  • Project developers must find it a significant help, not a hindrance.
  • Users (and project managers) must be able to easily submit useful bug reports, issues and feature requests, and follow progress on them.

Useful bug reports are ones that aren’t duplicated and effectively describe the problem so that the guesswork required on the part of the programmer is minimized. In some ways, both bullet points would be satisfied by a bug submission wizard that falls back to an integrated form once users have become used to the process. At any rate, it requires some empathy on the part of the user interface designer, and more of an emotional approach to the interface design.

In the most perfect world, this would also be fulfilled:

  • In an open source project, external developers must find it easy to contribute code through the same interface.

I’d be interested to hear recommendations for any other products – or to hear any bug tracker horror stories from developers and users alike.

Image Lucanus cervus taken by CCCvrcak and distributed under a CC attribution license.

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