I really enjoyed The Visual Display of Quantitative Information by Edward Tufte. One sentence from the book is all you need as a synopsis:

Graphical excellence requires telling the truth about the data.

The book is a collection of principles that guide how to effectively tell the truth about data. A couple of my favourites even have measurable metrics, like the ‘lie factor’ - a way of checking if representations of numbers in the graphic are proportional to measured quantities.

Hand drawn formula for the lie factor = size of effect show in graphic / size of effect in data.

If the lie factor is greater than 1.05 or less than 0.95, then the graphic is a distorted representation (i.e. a lie).

There are also a number of principles around efficiency and maximising ‘data-ink’, which is the non-erasable core of a graphic. Again, measurable with a little metric, the data-ink ratio is the proportion of a graphic’s ink devoted to the non-redundant display of data information.

Hand drawn formula for the data ink ratio = data-ink / total ink used to print the graphic.

Tufte describes a number of ways for both erasing redundant data-ink and maximising data-ink. It is at this point where the book gets really interesting. He adds a bit of depth by giving the necessary information to critique some of his following redesigns with this quote:

When modern architects righteously abandoned ornament on buildings, they unconsciously designed buildings that were ornament. In promoting space and articulation over symbolism and ornament, they distorted the whole building into a duck. The substituted for the innocent and inexpensive practice of applied decoration on a conventional shed the rather cynical and expensive distortion of program and structure to promote a duck…

Tufte then continues down a road of epic reductionism to maximise the data-ink used in Eleanor Spear’s range bar. Taking the design from this:

Photo of Eleanor Spear's range bar in the book the visual display of quantitative information.

Down to this:

Photo of Edward Tufte's range bar redesign in the book the visual display of quantitative information.

I felt as though Tufte had gone too far, promoting minimalism over legibility, and thus stripping the warmth and welcome from the original design. I guess I’m trying to say that if it is impossible or difficult to gleam understanding from a visual display, then it is nothing more than abstract ornamental art.

But then I realised this was Edward Tufte’s plan all along. He wanted to promote skepticism and critical reactions to his re-designs, as revealed in his Epilogue:

The theory of the visual display of quantitative information consists of principles that generate design options and that guide choices among options. The principles should not be applied rigidly or in a peevish spirit; they are not logically or mathematically certain; and it is better to violate any principle than to place graceless or inelegant marks on paper. Most principles of design should be greeted with some skepticism, for word authority can dominate our vision, and we may come to see only though the lenses of word authority rather than with our own eyes.

Oh, but the best part? That would be the simple word-sized graphics section in the final chapter, which demonstrates simple neat depictions of biomedical data. Stunning. A visual culmination of all the text that precedes it.

The Visual Display of Quantitative Information is available from Amazon. It gets 5 out of 5.

5 stars out of 5.
 

Last year, I started to put some serious effort into learning about influences. I’m starting to get a better handle on the ‘family tree’ of people that influence my own ideas and work. Two people in this tree are Van Neistat and Tom Sachs, the authors of ‘Nautical Challenge’.

Tom and Van are both artists - Tom’s focus is mostly on sculpture, while Van’s focus is film. They have a long history of working together, and in 2008 collaborated on a story that was woven through different episodes of the HBO series ‘The Neistat Brothers’.

You can watch extracts from the TV series in the supercut below. It’s a boat race that sets the scene for playful rivalry between the two friends.

In 2013, ‘Nautical Challenge’ was printed to accompany Tom Sachs’ exhibition “Nautical Challenge and other Voodoo” at Baldwin Gallery. The book opens with a letter each from Van and Tom, and contains a collection of photos from the exhibit and stills from the film. Being a couple of years late, and half a planet away, it was the closest I can get to seeing the exhibit in person. The layout perfectly shows off the props and boats installed at the Gallery. However the layout doesn’t work quite as well for the stills from the film. It is the only thing that holds this book back from scoring a perfect five.

Stills from the video are often used in a double-page spread throughout the book. They provide a great blast of full colour to offset the other pages containing white space and sketches. However they struggle to translate into the printed pages of the book. If the frame is centered on a subject, there often ends up being a massive crease through the point of interest. Here. Let me show you.

Photo a page crease in nautical challenge, obscuring Tom Sachs' reaction to a taunt.

This is a still from my favourite scene, where Van taunts Tom with a scale model. The crease obscures Tom’s reaction to Van’s gift. But really? Page creases in a book? That is all there is to complain about? You will have to excuse me while I sip on this glass of cool clean drinking water while I ponder other first world problems.

This book made an awesome gift, and as Australians say, it is going straight to the pool room.

Nautical challenge is still avaiable from Amazon and Printed matter. It gets 4.5 out of 5.

4.5 stars out of 5.
 

This is an old idea, maybe six years old? My former employer wanted to get a patent for it, then they decided not to pursue the patent. This happens from time to time, patents are expensive. But now, the patent application is in the public domain, which means no one can patent the idea. That is pretty cool, because anyone can build on these ideas, for FREE.

During product development, I run into situations where people tell me, “It doesn’t work”. Oh? How so? “I don’t know what I did, but it broke.” It is frustrating, because reproducing the problem usually involves a fair bit of back and forth, plus more time in front of the debugger. After all that time spent in diagnosis, the fix is usually pretty quick and easy.

So I created UserMetrix. It combined analytics with error logging to automatically diagnose these reproduction steps for me. It reduced the amount of time diagnosing software faults, so I could spend more time fixing them.

Each time someone uses software, I imagine the way they click, and do stuff as a pathway. Someone skipping along a road, navigating the interface and executing pieces of software. That is, until they get to their destination or hit a roadblock. Like an exception or a crash.

Diagram of software usage as a virtual pathway

UserMetrix would capture the pathway they took, as a list of actions taken or buttons clicked. A bit like this:

  • New file.
  • New spreadsheet column.
  • Rename spreadsheet column.
  • New spreadsheet cell.
  • Save file.
  • New spreadsheet cell.

UserMetrix also kept track of all the roadblocks, the content of exceptions. Stuff like “DoUpdateTemporal - time < lastTime”. All these pathways and roadblocks formed the perfect search space for classical pathfinding.

Diagram of multple user journeys through software ending at a roadblock

UserMetrix started by pulling out all the pathways leading to the same roadblock. Then working backwards from this roadblock it would use an A* search to work out the common path that ended at the roadblock. It would count up all the features that happened just before the roadblock. The feature that occurred most was expanded, and the number of features that happened before that tallied. This process repeated until the path couldn’t be expanded anymore. Finally the pathway was reversed to form a list of features - the reproduction steps for replicating an exception.

Animation of the UserMetrix search algorithm.

It also worked for other kinds of roadblocks too, not just exceptions or crashes. Like when software is unclear or confusing to the people using it. Kathy Sierra gave an awesome talk at the Business of Software in 2009. At 43 minutes in, Kathy drops this awesome gem:

Software does not let people make ‘that’ face. It does not let them look like ‘that’. You can do it, but your software is ‘not listening’, it doesn’t care. But yet, if you made that face in front of a human who was helping you, they would do something as a result. They would see that face and they would do something. People are trying to figure out ways to do this in software. How to let users be confused. Of course the AI folks are working on this, right? Well you could make software that could recognise the person’s facial expression, and it’s complicated and it is expensive. Turns out there is a much easier way, which is, you could just let people tell you , because they know when they are making that face. So just add that button, then of course it is up to you to figure out what to do when they click it. But we can let people tell us they are confused.

Why not use a ‘WTF’ button to capture someone’s confusion or frustration? What about those people who use your application once, click around a bit and then leave, never to be seen again? Both these roadblocks could be pushed into UserMetrix to find common pathways that led to confusion about your software. This data could be used to design scenarios for some traditional usability testing - targeted testing on known problem areas in your software.

I got a fair way with the idea, developed a service and had a handful of applications trying it out. My friend Joshua Lamont also made an awesome video promoting the concept. In the end, I made a few mistakes and wasn’t able to turn a neat idea into a sustainable business. It died a slow painful death despite some enthusiastic early adopters. But with the patent application out in the public domain, I can talk about the idea and techniques. So while although the business may have failed, the idea lives on.

 

Dear Aaron Swartz,

You passed away three years ago today. It is kind of embarrassing, but it has taken me that long to catch up. I was shocked to learn that on a daily basis my computer is filled with things you had a hand in creating: RSS, Markdown, Creative Commons and Reddit. You helped build all this before you were 26.

Then I ran into the documentary ‘The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz’, unsurprisingly it is freely available. It made me both angry and sad. Angry at the US government for pursuing an outrageous sentence for downloading academic papers. And sad that you are no longer with us.

You know those platitudes that get trotted out in these sorts of situations? ‘Gone to soon’ and stuff like that? They often get written when talented musicians like Jimi Hendrix, Kurt Cobain and Jim Morrison pass at an early age. Those guys never had the chance to live up to the expectations set by their early formative work. You are the first software developer I have found that also falls into this category.

Your abandonment of startup culture and transition into political and social activism was inspiring. It recast you as the perfect digital antihero.

In the three years since you passed, the ball has kept rolling. Some things have gotten better, while others worse. Governments are releasing more data and academic institutions are continuing to adopt open-access mandates. Although, this seems counterbalanced by increasingly intrusive digital surveillance laws. What bothers me most though, is the looming end to the Obama Administration. I can’t help but think that the current race to the White House would be different if you were still around.

I’m not sure exactly how, but I think that re-engaging people with the political process will be a software solution. Something that sidesteps mainstream media and creates a new way for people to access and contribute to politics. Something that breaks the disproportionate influence some vested interests have in shaping public opinion. Current activism platforms are a logical first step, but I think we can do so much more. I would have loved to learn your thoughts on this, and I’m hoping I will find something in your back catalogue of essays.

Without a doubt, the most difficult part of including this fan letter in my family tree of influences is following your ancestors. You were so widely read I have no idea where to start, no idea who would be in the top three influences of your work.

Love,

Clinton Freeman.

 

Whenever I try to learn more about functional programming I run into a mental road block and think, “But it is just so hard! It will be faster and easier if I just keep coding this way - the old way that I know.”

Well did you see what SpaceX did recently? They landed the first stage of their rocket. It was kind of a big deal. Partly because it was really, really difficult. Some people even thought it was impossible. All the while, SpaceX kept trying despite some pretty spectacular ‘RUD’s (rapid unscheduled disassemblies).

But not once did I see SpaceX CEO, Elon Musk, moping around, “Oh, but it is just all so difficult. Why are we even trying to land a rocket at all?”

Nope. Not Elon - he is out there reverse parking his Falcon 9 rocket like a boss. Why?

If one can figure out how to effectively reuse rockets just like airplanes, the cost of access to space will be reduced by as much as a factor of a hundred. – Elon Musk

REUSABILITY. That is why I’m learning more about functional programming. To make more of my code reusable. To make it easier to adapt software to new situations in a more reliable way. Even if it feels difficult - almost as difficult as landing a rocket.

 

I wish I remembered exactly how I discovered this book. It is kind of important. What I do remember is that it was free. Wait! Now I remember. I was watching the documentary ‘Press Pause Play’. It is a neat show about how the democratisation of culture was changing the quality of art.

In one of the better interviews, Seth Godin mentions his book Unleashing the Ideavirus. The whole documentary is pretty great. But if you’re stretched for time, the interview with Seth is below:

Anyway focus. The book. This is a review about the BOOK.

Unleashing the Ideavirus is about how ideas spread, especially in advertising and marketing. It is the sort of thing you would normally find in the business section of an airport bookstore. The sort of thing I would have once jumped on thinking, ‘Yee-haw, this is the one. These are the ideas that will turn me into a WINNER.’ I’m not like that so much anymore, but I still read the whole thing. I guess I was looking for some insight into some of the woes of curation on the Internet.

The core of Seth’s argument is that traditional advertising is a waste of time and money. That getting others to share your ideas or advertisements is a more effective approach. Instead of purchasing expensive TV advertisements, writing a book and sharing it for free is a better alternative. Sixteen years later, someone might read it. Decide to write a review that exposes someone else to your ‘ideavirus’. Like the one about Seth being an entertaining author of bestselling business books.

OK. So now that I have completed my part in the fabric of social media advertising space. Lets get down to business.

Unleashing the Ideavirus was published during the early 2000’s dot com ‘bubble’ and hasn’t aged well. Some of the examples are pretty hilarious, tech fads that have long since evaporated. Early on Seth uses Palm software company, Vindigo as an example ‘ideavirus’ done right. They let people share their software for free at the press of a button. Vindigo went bankrupt in 2008.

While history has been kinder to some of the examples Seth used as mistakes in creating an ‘ideavirus’. At one point Seth riffs on the Toyota Prius and even suggests that it is not a driving billboard for itself. Umm… Unlike Vindigo, Toyota is still pumping out the Prius. They have sold 1.7 million of them since Seth authored Unleashing the Ideavirus.

But to be fair, I wonder how many of Seth’s suggestions Toyota adopted over the years? Actually I’m confident someone at Tesla is working from the Seth Godin playbook.

Tesla has a generous referral program, and don’t buy traditional ads. Plus the Tesla has a distinctive style that is a driving billboard for itself.

Oh, and Seth also wrote this:

Let people sit in it. Invite them to take the “Audi Sudden Acceleration Test” and see for themselves what the car was like.

Sound familiar? Seen one of those Tesla acceleration reaction videos? This one is definiately my favourite:

Seth would give Tesla a gold start for how they are cultivating their ‘ideavirus’. So will Tesla evaporate like Vindigo? I don’t think so. Honestly? I’m betting they won’t (I own a little Tesla stock).

So if you can wade past the technological archaeology in Seth’s book, Unleashing the Ideavirus is a good read. It hints at how marketing and advertising would weave itself into the fabric of social media, well before social media was a ‘thing’.

4 out of 5.

4 stars out of 5.
 

Phew. What a challenging year! Difficult, but fun. And the whole sticker chart thing? What started out as a bit of a joke? Got pretty serious towards the end of the year. It kept me focused. The good news? I’m not going back to a ‘day job’ in 2016. It is going to be a whole lot more of discovering myself through making things. Scratching those odd ‘why don’t I just make…’ itches, along with putting some serious thought into a longer term project. But more on that another time.

CREATE

Darkwing Duck Sticker.

This month I made two little things, the first was a gift for my three year old for Christmas. She is a rabid Octonauts fan. Her favourite character from the show is ‘Peso’, a medic that carries around a medical bag. Well, considering my daughter has real tools, my wife and I thought ‘why not a real medical bag’? So I made one to scale out of foamcore, while my wife filled it with supplies.

Photo of a homemade medical bag inspired by Peso from Octonauts. Features real medical supplies

I also made a duffle bag thing for a large inflatable raft. It came out OK, but was surprisingly hard to sew. I think I will make a couple more tweaks (add some extra handles / straps). But it does the job, and is much better than the cardboard box I was using.

Large duffle bag for carrying an inflatable raft.

Having the time and space to make my own thing in 2015 was so much fun. And looking back through my photo album it looks like I made a few more things than I realised. I need to update my Project Archive, which only has seven. But I also made a digital museum, a shoe box and tool storage system. Plus a talk for CampJS along with the stuff I knocked up this month.

I need to spend a bit more time shaping my create goals for 2016, but I’m likely to ease up off the one a month thing. I have a couple of ideas I know I won’t be able to finish in just a single month. Plus I have also been doing the odd spot of consulting for the right projects. I know, not what I set out to do for 2015. But the projects were too interesting to turn down. Plus with the extra money it has brought in, I can now stretch for some more ambitious projects of my own.

I was hesitant to share the below chart, it is a bit embarrassing and making money wasn’t what this year was about. Plus the first version didn’t tell an accurate story. It made it look that by smashing my ‘goal’ (which was set pretty close to zero), I had made insane amounts of money. Which isn’t true. So I scaled it against my old full time equivalent ‘FTE’ wage for some perspective.

Eventually I am going to need to make a little coin to fund the monastic engineering experience. But for now? I’m just going to focus on creating, learning and exercising.

LEARN

No Sticker.

Just missed out on this sticker by about forty pages in December. My goal of reading a book a month was terrible in 2015. So for 2016 I’m shuffling this category around a little. This is all going to be about learning. So while aiming to read a book a month, I will also be including the other research and writing I do. I kinda fell off the writing wagon in the later half of 2015.

In 2016 topics I would like to learn more about are:

  • Getting back into neural networks. It was one of my favourite subjects at university and I haven’t kept up with it at all. I want to find out about the latest topologies and techniques.
  • Improving my functional programming skills.
  • Explore a couple of (new to me) web protocols such as HTTP/2 and IPFS.
  • Oh, and I will keep chipping away at my tree of influences. Writing more love letters and making little projects inspired by their work.

In 2016 I want to write a new article every week to reinforce the ideas I’m currently learning about. It is a bit of a vanity metric, but I’m hope that to take website visitors from 80k a year to 120k. I guess I use this metric as a proxy for how well I explain the concepts I’m learning about.

EXERCISE

Inspector Gadget Sticker.

Clocked up another 57.2kms for December and picked up my last exercise sticker for the year. Oh, and I got to trundle along Four Mile Beach at Port Douglas for a couple of runs too.

Photo south, down along four mile beach at Port Douglas.

In 2014, my brother wanted to race me to 600 kilometres over the year. Our lives kind of got in the way then and neither of us came close. So 2015 seemed like a good year to have another crack, I ticked over 600kms on the 14th of December. I was pretty surprised that exercise was my most consistent activity for 2015. I always managed to find time for it, and often would go out my way to make sure I got it done. So for 2016, I’m going to try for another 600kms, but this time I’m doing it with zombies chasing me.




 

I’m a nervous public speaker. I used to go out of my way to avoid it, and have lost count of the excuses I have used to get out of public speaking. November was the month I stopped and tackled this fear.

Create.

Count Duckula Sticker.

I accepted an invitation to speak at CampJS VI about my monastic engineering experience. Seeing as the day of the talk coincided almost to the day with my departure of full time work a year ago, it was a perfect opportunity to reflect. The perfect November curiosity.

The talk was incredibly difficult to prepare, trying to compress a whole year into twenty minutes? Without it devolving into an incoherent wandering mess? Not to mention the stress and fear of it all? The first rehearsal had a couple of epic pauses where I just seized up with a blank stare for a solid two or three minutes. Terrified of what I was saying, of sharing some of my inner thoughts with others.

It went OK though, it was all filmed and will be online soon. But nothing bad happened, my fears were my own and remained trapped in my imagination. If anything it was more a case of the opposite, I got to meet some awesome people, had some great laughs and conversations. The best way to help wrap up a year of largely building things in solitude.

A photo by Kris Howard of my talk at CampJS VI.

Photo by Kris Howard.

Read.

No Sticker.

Grinding my way back through the book I paused to read Edward Tufte last month.

Excercise.

Danger Mouse sticker.

Ran through another 52.1kms for November. A couple of cool runs in the rainforest down at Springbrook national park while I was down at CampJS. A much needed reprieve from the hot and humid tropical runs at home in Cairns.

Photo of the view from Springbrook national park down to the Gold Coast.
 

Whoah! I landed all three stickers this month. I think I need to come up with an equally awesome reward.

Create.

spongebob Sticker.

This month was a bit of a deviation from the usual monastic experience projects. ‘This is Capital City’ was a collaboration with ‘counterpilot’. An interactive theatre performance that has been in the making for over twelve months. Here, the audience carried a phone that played narrative at various places around the Brisbane Powerhouse. I used Estimote iBeacons for indoor positioning, this worked better than earlier GPS versions. I also coded up a system for mixing soundtracks live, based on the position of the participant. More details (and source code), here.

Photo of a man silhouetted in a doorway.

Read.

scrooge mcduck sticker.

I was wandering around a local library up here in Cairns, a little forlorn. I had realised how spoiled I was for library access in Brisbane. UQ Library, State library of Queensland, even our little local library 5 minutes walk around the corner. When suddenly a wild Tufte appeared. I was so excited I may have even yelled Whoo!

Visual Explanations by Edward R. Tufte had been in my reading list for a long time. It is excellent. The layout mirrors what you would find in a book on art, rather than a science or statistics book. The two opening chapters were the best. The first showing how spatial data located the cause of the 1854 Cholera epidemic. The second showing how the misrepresentation of data led to the Challenger shuttle tragedy.

Excercise.

Scooby doo sticker.

Manage to scrape out another 52.6kms for October. But it is getting hard, we have entered the monsoonal ‘build up’. Humidity and heat are really ramping up. That haze on the mountains below? It is just going to get thicker and thicker till I am running my way through thick soupy air.

Taken from the Cairns sea wall, across the mudflat north toward the airport.
 

This guide will show you how to update your Edison and connect it to your local wireless network.

Downloads. These sort of guides always start with downloads. Grab the latest image from Intel, at the time of writing this was the 2.1 Yocto complete image.

You will also need the phone flash tool lite (for uploading the image to your Edison). It is available for Windows, OSX and Linux.

NOTE: The drivers for OSX, El Capitian don’t exist yet. If you are on OSX and trying to flash your Edison, you will need to use Yosemite or another operating system.

Unzip the downloaded image, install and start ‘Phone Flash Tool Lite’.

image
  1. Start with your Edison unplugged (we do this later).
  2. Press the browse button, navigate to and select the ‘FlashEdison.json’ file in the unzipped image.
  3. On OSX select ‘CDC’ as the configuration, for windows leave it set to ‘RNDIS’.
  4. Press ‘Start to Flash’.
  5. When prompted, use the socket labelled ‘OTG’ to connect the Edison to your computer.

When completed, unmount or eject the ‘Edison’ drive from your computer and switch the cable from the ‘OTG’ socket to the one labelled ‘CONSOLE’.

image
  1. Open up a terminal. (On windows you will need to install PuTTY).
  2. Run ‘screen’. Where XXXXXXXX is the device’s unique name (you can use tab to autocomplete this): $ screen -L /dev/cu.usbserial-XXXXXXXX 115200 –L
  3. At the blank screen, press enter.
  4. Use ‘root’ for the login.
  5. Run: $ configure_edison --setup
  6. Follow the prompts to set the default password, unique name and wireless access for your Edison. When successfully completed your terminal will read something like. Done. Please connect your laptop or PC to the same network as this device and go ...

From here we can SSH into our freshly minted Edison and create!

$ ssh root@http://edison.local

P.S. The package manage for the Edison is ‘opkg’, it works in a similar way to apt. Here is how you upgrade the packages on your Edison. First add the following to /etc/opkg/base-feeds.conf:

src/gz all http://repo.opkg.net/edison/repo/all
src/gz edison http://repo.opkg.net/edison/repo/edison
src/gz core2-32 http://repo.opkg.net/edison/repo/core2-32

$ opkg update
$ opkg upgrade