Friday, December 29, 2006

Blog Tag, and I'm it.

update (March 12, 2007): Two bloggers have responded, see below.

The blog tag meme has reached me just before the Christmas holidays, and since I'm in a festive mood, I'll comply.
Hmm, it took me a couple of days to compile the list, so I am posting this closer to the end of the year than I imagined.

First of all, I need to send a proper thank you to my lovely girlfriend Marijke, mother of our son Kasper, and founder of IdeaCompany, for tagging me. Her entry is on her blog, in Dutch.

So, the idea is that I expose five things that most people don't know about me, then tag five further victims, chain letter style? Deal!
  1. The stereotype is true: All IAs are Librarians.
    When I was 10 years old I maintained the class library of geographical textbooks. Not only did I know all the names of all the places shown on the maps (yeah, I lost most of that knowledge now, see #2), I also knew what country maps were in what book AND the number for each of the books (I remember there being at least 25 but maybe up to 50 books). And of course they were always in order.

  2. I was the founder and first president of a beer fraternity.
    During my years in university I first 'discovered' for myself regular beer, then "special" beers: bock beers, Belgian beers, German, French, English, American, Danish, African, and more.
    Our fraternity wasn't really a frat-club: we weren't associated with any larger student society, and we had female members too. Our motto was "To discover the world of beer, in pleasant company". We organized trips to breweries, usually combined with things like survival weekends, visits to a casino, hitch-hike competitions, mountain biking, caving (the sport version of Speleology), and city trips. The whole thing started 15 years ago and we still see each other regularly. I consider some of the members to be my closest friends.

  3. My first CHI conference was mostly a party.
    When I was performing the research for my Masters' Thesis I discovered the CHI conferences as a major event in the HCI world and referenced many papers from their proceedings. Soon after I began working I found out that my employer, General Design, was responsible for a large part of the CHI'97 website (under the title Hypermedia Support!) and were scheduled to publish the CHI'97 proceedings online. I helped out in the preparations and at some point was asked if I wanted to attend the conference. Of course! The idea was that I would be there, in the correct timezone and available for face-to-face discussions to make last minute changes to the site. Especially the CHI-kids section would need to be updated regularly during the conference.
    Well, it turned out that that was the only bit that needed updating, and the volunteers were smart enough to figure out how to do that themselves; all I had to do was give them the username and password for the FTP server... There I was, a week in Atlanta, with access to the three days of the main conference. Luckily I discovered the student-volunteer quarters and started hanging out with the SVs. They were required to work for 20 hours during the week but were free to go wherever they wanted the rest of the week. Just like me. With a couple of them, I hung out a lot, visiting the shopping malls, the park, countless bars and clubs, late-night hotel-room parties, and ALL of the CHI-social events, until closing. Oh and I attended some sessions too, of course, although the one piece of online evidence, a picture in the Photo History of CHI that's tagged with my name, seems to have gone missing).

  4. I once played an all-star basketball game by accident.
    During my years at university I stopped playing volleyball for a while to accommodate for playing in a theater group, visiting a girlfriend back-home, and organizing and participating in the activities of the beer fraternity (see #2). After a couple of years, some friends persuaded me to start playing basketball. I did, joined their team for a year, played for another year but I didn't show much progress. I am not entirely sure what happened in the third year, but I didn't play much. I vaguely remember not being able to play because I practiced too much in the summer, on a concrete court outdoors, wearing really old shoes. My knees must have given in.
    Anyway, at the end of the season we had a festive day with the entire club. The program included an all-star game, with selected members from each of the 15 teams playing against each other. Since I had hardly played during the year I was not selected, although no one had told me. I had no idea at what moment in the day that game was going to happen so I showed up early, changed into my sporting clothes and started with the warm-up for the day. Other players did the same, while some more simply hung around in the arena and I thought nothing of it. After a while the head coach started dividing the people on the court into two teams and suddenly I was a member of one of the teams! My friends on the stands didn't believe what they saw, and I was flabbergasted as well, but decided to not let it show. With my knees now almost fully healed, I played the whole game, scored some points here and there, and lost (I think). In the end I also managed to get myself signed up for the dunking competition after the game with some minor successes. Afterwards we played some more in random teams and the day slowly turned into a party, especially for me, the accidental all-star. What a day!

  5. I was in a pretty scary car accident a couple of years ago, and got away with minor damage to my left eye.
    Two years ago now, my girlfriend and I planned to visit my parents for Christmas. It turned out that, due to other family members' plans, "3rd Christmas day" was best, so we rented a car for 2 days (I don't have a drivers' license, Marijke doesn't really like to drive, it's insanely expensive, so we don't own one) and started driving north. Everything went fine, we had taken our 10-minute stop after the first hour, and were nearing the end of the highway, after which we'd still had to drive for another 30 minutes on smaller roads to reach my parents' house. We drove towards a large intersection with traffic lights, slightly uphill. The traffic lights were somewhat hidden behind some trees, but they were announced by a sign and we knew they were coming. We saw the lights were red, so We were slowing down to stop behind the cars already waiting there. And then, all of a sudden, a car slammed into ours from behind. Apparently the driver had missed the sign, had not seen the lights coming and must have been somewhat distracted (he wasn't from around there, so he may have been looking at a map) because he had hardly slowed down from the 120 km/h (75 miles/h) he was allowed to drive there. My girlfriend saw him coming in the rear-view mirror but to me it was a big surprise. I was knocked out immediately.
    The first thing I remember is a fireman pulling a blanket over my head and I thought that they thought that I was dead. I started to protest but told me he knew I wasn't dead and that he was only there to protect me (us actually, he crawled under the blanket too) from the sparks that were about to start flying around: the roof of the car was about to be cut off!
    You see, we had rented a Smart car (see: and though I hadn't really gotten stuck in the car, the rescue workers were afraid I had suffered damage to my spinal chord or neck so they wanted to get me out in a straight line, on a plank. In the collision, I was thrown around the car and my legs had landed on the dashboard something I would have put money on as being impossible in the small car! The only way to pull me out was to remove the roof...

    I was brought to a nearby hospital where they checked all my vitals and it turned out I had suffered a big blow to the back of my head. I still have no clue what part of the car (or our luggage, or even Marijke) I had hit. I always joke it was the towing-hook, even though the car doesn't have one. Besides the concussion from the blow, and a general feeling of dizziness, I seemed to be alright and was sent home. I don't remember if we had our Christmas dinner that night or the next night, but I do know that the next morning I realized I was seeing double and that there was a green blur over everything I saw. I went to see a local eye doctor who said she suspected that the blow had temporarily crippled a nerve that controls a muscle in my left eye. It happens quite a lot and most of the time the nerve repairs itself after a couple of days, weeks or, at most, months. She made sure I'd make an appointment with an eye-doctor in Amsterdam and sent me home.
    In the following months it became clear that in my case the nerve would not fix itself and that I would always have a problem seeing clear in the lower right corner of my field of vision: the crippled muscle in the left eye causes that eye to give a different picture to my brain than the fully functioning right eye. Even when, over time, my brain learns to adapt a bit, my left eye will never be able to focus on stuff in the lower right corner.
That's it!

Now that I've written these stories, I see that they got longer and longer. This probably has something to do with their nature but it may also mean I was getting into telling stories. Now that I think of it, every once in a while I send my friends an update on my life (since I have a habit of ignoring them for long periods of time) and those tend to get long too. Maybe I should switch careers and become a writer :-)

And, speaking of switching, the following bloggers are next in the chain:

Happy 2007!

Friday, December 22, 2006

Ask Amazon: Askville versus Mechanical Turk

update (31 dec 2006): I just read about AskCity, a service recently launched by This wouldn't happen to be a coincidence now, would it?

update (30 Dec 2006): My question remained unanswered and was therefore closed...

I just learned about Askville, a new Amazon service described in its FAQ as:
Askville is a place where you can share and discuss knowledge with other people by asking and answering questions on any topic.
On the other hand, I already knew about Amazon's Mechanical Turk, described in its FAQ as:
For businesses and entrepreneurs who want tasks completed, the Amazon Mechanical Turk web service solves the problem of getting work done in a cost-effective manner by people who have the skill to do the work. [..] What if [..] a computer program could ask a human being to perform a task and return the results? [..] The application sends the request, and the service returns the results. Behind the scenes, a network of humans fuels this artificial artificial intelligence by coming to the web site, searching for and completing tasks, and receiving payment for their work.
Two question-based services from Amazon. One aimed at people, one at developers (sorry!), both based on the principle that there's always someone who will answer a question or perform a task, no matter how boring the question is.

Judging on the requests I see at the Mechanical Turk, it takes quite an effort to have a computer program specify the questions; there's a lot of detail in the sample questions I had a look at. The timeline for answering seems long: I saw open requests that had been standing there for weeks.
Asking a questions at Askville seems simple enough: you have 120 characters initially, and 1000 for background information. Answers seem to come in quickly, sometimes within minutes.

The two services do not refer to each other, but they could be complimentary. How does someone choose between the two?

Hey, since I feel like a person, I'll ask Askville in an attempt to get an answer...

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Today's best summary of Web2.0

I just read Optimizing Content: Give Users Control on Jonathan Mendez' SEO-oriented blog "Optimize and Prophesize".

In it, Jonathan talks about how publishers seem to begin to grasp what is happening with content on the internet and how they could adapt ("1. think like a search engine").

He ends with a great description of Web2.0, at least in the area of publishers:
To be blunt it’s what you can do for your audience not what your audience can do for you. If you don’t keep your audience engaged and interested they will go elsewhere. There are simply too many other choices and zero switching cost. Worry about revenue models later or die today. The choice is yours.
Will publishers catch on?

(In the past, I have worked with Elsevier Science's UCD team (44KB PDF) and I know they have had great successes in applying user-centered design methods to the design of Elsevier's products. And there are good signs that they are staying up to date: the Reed Elsevier corporation has recently hired a Web2.0/Folksonomy specialist. I wonder if the UCD team knows...)

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Hugs! For free!

Three words: Free Hugs Campaign.
The video is heartwarming!

Magritte-like, somewhat creepy, but beautiful!

There is a commercial on Dutch TV these days for an insurance company (RVS) that has a wonderful atmosphere: it manages to both creep me out and give me a warm feeling.

The visual style smells of the work of the Belgian painter René Magritte, who is best know for La trahison des images, his painting of a pipe with below it the words "this is not a pipe").

On its website, the company describes the commercial as follows:
With this commercial, RVS want to bring across the message that there is always an RVS consultant around when you need one. It also symbolizes how the consultant is looking ahead for his clients and informs them about financial implications at important moments in their lives. And how he offers them a fitting, personal financial advice.
(the last bits aren't clear from the commercial, but the first line-and-a-half are very well covered)

The commerical can be viewed directly from the RVS website or, of course, via YouTube.

The background music, "Come wander with me" by Jeff Alexander, adds to the experience. To me, this is a great example of corporate design.