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Archive for April, 2007

PMP

Posted by Avadhut on 28 April 2007

A PMP is a project management plan, and I consider it as important to a software project as earbuds are to a fish.
When I came in on Monday hoping to get my hands dirty with MySQL, Drupal, and some good old-fashioned PHP, this is what my CIO expects me to do—prepare a freaking PMP!
What does it do? Make people run here and there achieving absolutely nothing. Seriously!

Preparing it made me feel like I was back in college preparing UML and use case-diagrams without really knowing their usefulness—the so called essential documentation of a software project. My stay in college hadn’t been a particularly efficient learning experience. When I graduated, I had learnt, from sitting for lectures, only as much in my five years of college as what smart kindergarten toddlers learn in one year. My “research” work was not dissimilar [1] to the kind of analysis that I imagine idle secretaries indulge in when they make estimations about the love lives of their bosses based on the amount of paper they are shredding. That’s exactly how I felt preparing the damned PMP.
Anyhow, the project’s gone well. The themeing is done. I will put up some pics of the interface on this blog as soon as I get back to work on Monday.

[1] either in spirit or complexity
P.S: She literally forced me into writing this.

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Posted in Foo, Office | 27 Comments »

Inspired by jazz

Posted by Avadhut on 9 April 2007

coltr1.jpg

You can play a shoestring if you are sincere.

– John Coltrane

Posted in Foo, Music | 9 Comments »

Cognitive seduction

Posted by Avadhut on 7 April 2007

While conceptualizing the wire-frame for the office Intranet, I was always confused with regard to the amount of complexity/ease-of-use I should build into the user interface. Should it be amazingly simple or should I make it extremely techie. Should I go according to the textbooks just because they enumerates rules? When will I do something new then? Conventions say I should make sure all hyperlinks are blue because all over the Web they are blue. Conventions say that tagging works for blogs, Flickr, and Youtube; it would be of no use for enterprise content. Conventions say that my navigation should be extremely simple. What new groundbreaking feature do I build into my site so as to make it stand apart from the rest?

On doing research for solutions to this problem, I came across this foreword to the book “Steps to an ecology of mind” by Gregory Bateson. While discussing games, Gregory Bateson makes this important observation:

…there are important emotions that we feel and go through and enjoy and find in some mysterious ways to enlarge our spirit.

So, is solving Rubick’s cube even remotely sensual to our brains? Is formulating strategies sexy? Absolutely. This is what is referred to as “cognitive seduction.” While most of us do not refer to the word “seductive” in non-sexual contexts, game designers do. They are experts at the art of “cognitive arousal,” and I am looking for ways to build these type of features that ensure “repeated playability” of games in a Web model. I am not talking about the use of sex and imagery to keep users/readers interested. I am talking about the type of “experiential pleasure” one might derive out of solving a puzzle, finding something new in an existing framework, interacting with someone in a social networking model, discovering something new about themselves, etc. The premise here is people derive pleasure by having to work something out or to engage cognitively in a challenge.

How does one go about doing this?

Lets try to establish a sort of list of different types of user experiences in conjunction with cognitive seduction:

  1. Discovery: user experience as the exploration of something new
  2. Challenge: user experience as overcoming an obstacel in achieving something, going past previous individual thresholds and knowledge levels, etc.
  3. Narrative: user experience as a story
  4. Self-expression: user experience as self-discovery and creativity
  5. Social framework: user experience as interaction with colleagues or someone unknown in an Web model
  6. Cognitive arousal: user experience as a brain teaser
  7. Thrill: user experience as risk-taking in presence of a safety net
  8. Triumph: user experience as an opportunity to kick ass
  9. Flow: user experience as extreme concentration, extreme focus, lack of self-awareness
  10. Fantasy: user experience as alternate reality
  11. Learning: user experience as an opportunity to grow and improve

No. Its not possible to build a model equipped with all these features. An excellent example of the implementation of the above features would be game design. But even the best game designers do not, and cannot, build a game to mirror all of these requirements. The idea is to make sure that whatever you build—be it a game or, as in my case, a social collaborative tool—incorporates some of these features into its basic model. Or at least it should be tuned to realize a few of the above mentioned user experience types. In simple words, I do not want to make a site extremely simplistic, I do not want to provide just excellent usability; instead, I want to provide a user experience. I want to make sure that every time I design a site, I keep in my mind that my users are smart. I want to give them some credit and reward them if they use my system in an innovative way I had’nt thought of before. I want them to surprise me. I do not want things to get boring very fast!

Am I on the right track here? Or is convention the only way?

Posted in Knowledge management, Office, Social media | 7 Comments »

Brothers in arms

Posted by Avadhut on 4 April 2007

Last few weeks had seen me get into endless debates about whose music is better—J or mine? The weekend that went by saw VH1 air thier “VH1 Storyteller Sessions.” It started of fine, with Green Day doing the honors of warming the stage. I was thoroughly enjoying myself. What was in store was even more magical though. After an hour of spiked hair, eye make-up, songs about angst, broken dreams, and general all-round histronics, Pearl Jam came on. As soon as they started thier set, I could not help but notice the stark difference in, well, everything. The music, the voice, lyrical progression, composition, melody, on-stage presence of a bunch of guys in khakis, long hair, and beard. Everything. I realized why I loved Eddie Vedder so much, why every waking moment of my second year in Pune was spent with either Vitalogy, Vs, Ten, or Yield playing on my PC. While Billy Armstrong screamt out his lyrics demanding attention, Vedder’s voice could be likened to the mysterious incantantions on an ancient cave—you can’t but want to find out what they are all about. While talking to C about all of this, she told me to write about it. And I decided I would. But for the longest time I had something else on my mind, musically—Mark Knopfler, Brothers in arms to be precise.

Through these fields of destruction
Baptisms of fire
I’ve watched all your suffering
As the battles raged higher
And though they did hurt me so bad
In the fear and alarm
You did not desert me
My brothers in arms

Dire Straits are still seen as the bastions of dad-rock, a hangover from the days when music and youth were alien to each other. They weren’t. They were great. Brothers In Arms is great. And this is where I prove such. Before the defense makes its case, though, some anecdotal evidence. I have a friend, Thomas, Q-Jam Box technician. His CD collection is full of dead white guys—The Who, Lynyrd Skynyrd, The Beach Boys. Talk to him about recent years though, and he’ll express a liking for Dixie Chicks and an opinion that Britney Spears’ “Boys” is the finest single of the last decade. He puts Todd Terry and R Kelly onto pub jukeboxes. I quizzed him about this volte face once and he denied that it was cultural schizophrenia but rather that guitar music nowadays has nothing to appeal to him in the same way it did under the reigns of Heath, Wilson, Callaghan, and Thatcher. He cites Brothers In Arms as the logical end point for his CD collection, and, after that “People should have just put the guitar down. They may have come up with something new, but nothing new that was worth coming up with.”

He’s right.

When the final track on this album draws to an end, you realize that you’re actually listening to a historical document. The release of this album in 1985 marked the era-end for what we now term “classic rock.” Listen to the classic rock station on Worldspace, tune into 107.1 FM, ask guys in denim jackets what music they listen to—nothing comes after Brothers In Arms. In the five act play of stadium rock, Brothers In Arms ends with a stage littered with corpses.

It wasn’t the only way that it changed the world though.

Brothers In Arms was to CDs what spreadsheets were to PCs; the iPod, to MP3s; or The Matrix, to DVDs—the killer application. It may exist on cassette, it may exist on MP3, it may even exist on vinyl, but no album better typifies the CD era than this. Take the cover—powder blue, crystal clear simple image, and neat typography that utilizes and benefits from the regulation 120 × 120 mm booklet. This is a CD album. It wouldn’t work with poor MP3 rate quality or the scratchy warmth of vinyl. There is nothing warm about this album; it has been produced to within an inch of its life and conducted with scientific accuracy. Simple. If Kraftwerk had been formed in India, this is what Altaf Raja would have sounded like.

Knopfler’s lyrics really serve only to give him something else to do whilst pulling the notes out of that National Steel guitar. Just playing it on its own would be far too easy. There’s a kindred spirit, however obscure the link may seem, between “Brothers In Arms” and a simultaneous musical movement, the face-approved neo-jazz of the time—Sade and the like. The whole sound of this album is surgically scrubbed of any imperfections with every note in its right place, but then the entire room is covered in fake cigarette smoke and fog for the sake of realness. It is film noir on wax. Or plastic, as the case may be.

So, having put together the third larget selling album in world history, and an album that stands up to any critical yardstick you place against it, why did it not make it big in the 90s?

For an album so intrinsically tied to the 80s, it doesn’t present that clown-face that the cultural historians want from the era. Dire Straits were their own unique brand of oddness simply by being conventional and ordinary in a decade where all around them people were too busy trying to break boundaries. Dire Straits did not break anything, except maybe your heart if you listen close enough. Brothers In Arms is the last great work by dead white guys.

So the next time Thomas loads up “There’s something going on in Your Soul” and “She’s got that vibe,” I’ll remember to nudge him to close on “Money For Nothing.”

Posted in Foo, Music | 6 Comments »