Alex Barnett blog


February 2008 - Posts

I think I might have failed the Turing test.


I think I might have failed the Turing test.


Posted: Feb 28 2008, 09:08 PM by alexbarnett | with no comments
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Top-10 Web App Design Mistakes

Jakob Nielsen is considered the web’s usability guru by many web designers and therefore very influential when it comes to perceived best practices in this domain. Last week he shared his thoughts on web application design, specifically the top 10 mistakes made by web UI designers.

No matter how experienced you are, or how many sites and web apps you've created, or how much you think you know about web design, this article is still worth a read and some digestion.

One piece of advice to really take to heart is this well known (but regularly overlooked) gem:

“…Whatever you do, at least promise me this: Don't just implement feature requests from "user representatives" or "business analysts." The most common way to get usability wrong is to listen to what users say rather than actually watching what they do. Requirement specifications are always wrong. You must prototype the requirements quickly and show users something concrete to find out what they really need.”

If you follow this simple principle, the chances of creating mystery meat navigation will diminish with every new data point gathered and considered.

Top-10 Application-Design Mistakes


Application usability is enhanced when users know how to operate the UI and it guides them through the workflow. Violating common guidelines prevents both.

Posted: Feb 28 2008, 08:53 PM by alexbarnett | with no comments
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My first earthquake

This morning I experienced my first earthquake, although I didn't realize it at the time.

You see, I was doing email and checking out blogs from home, in front of my laptop and suddenly felt weird for about 3-5 seconds. It was like that feeling you get when you've been on a boat for a few hours and then step foot on land...that kind of sea-rocking sensation you get as your body adjusts to terra-firma.

As the weirdness hit, I tried to fix my eyes on to something steady - the corner of my laptop - and could have sworn I was watching it sway ever so slightly. In a few seconds, the sensation went I away.

I looked at my espresso cup and thought - "wow, that's good stuff!"

Then on my drive to work, I heard the news on the radio of a 6.0 magnitude earthquake in Wells, Nevada that took place around the same time as my weirdness moment, some 170 miles away from where I live (Sandy, UT). Well, I put two and two together...

No-one was hurt in Wells, but a fair amount of damage was caused.


There's an interactive map here with reports written in by readers of the Salt Lake Tribune describing where they were when they felt it.

Time to Define "Platform as a Service" (or PaaS)

Before joining Bungee Labs last year, I knew they were on to something big. I mean, really big.

A big idea, an ambitious vision: to provide developers with end-to-end development, testing, deployment and hosting of sophisticated web applications as a service delivered purely in the cloud.

Since we announced our private beta back in May 2007, we've had over 1,500 developers sign up. In January alone we had over 400 developers kicking the tires - not just signing up and disappearing, but 400 returning developers, learning, building and deploying out increasingly sophisticated apps on a fast evolving developer platform, requiring no install of anything on their machine - all through the browser.

And since May 2007, the trend to delivering software as a service (SaaS) has been moving at terrific pace. New web APIs are being made available every month and new announcements by start-ups as well established big players are reinforcing and fueling the acceleration to the inevitable world of cloud computing.

As we announce our move from private to public beta today, we've also tried to articulate the new category of product and service we believe Bungee Connect is at the forefront of defining, the category of Platform as a Service, or PaaS, and our big bet is that PaaS is the next big thing.

So what is a "Platform as a Service"?

In September 2006, Marc Andreessen posted his thought provoking "The three kinds of platforms you meet on the Internet" and it got a fair level attention from the web industry. And we took note. We thought what Marc was describing in his Level 3 definition where:

"A Level 3 platform's apps run inside the platform itself -- the platform provides the "runtime environment" within which the app's code runs.",

...was right, but only partly right. Given Bungee Labs' ambition and vision, we felt there was a lot more to Marc's definition of the highest level definition of an "internet platform", a definition more holistic and comprehensive than a runtime.

But we kept focused, kept working on what we were hearing our developers telling us we needed to fix and improve on Bungee Connect, to give what developers are telling us what they really want - a Platform as a Service - to provide everything required in the lifecycle for the development through hosting of full-on, sophisticated and highly interactive web apps, not just widgets.

As we were readying for our next phase -our public beta - we thought it would be a good time to put a stake in the ground and actually define what we mean when we use the term Platform-as-a-service, and thereby describe the comprehensiveness what Bungee Connect has to offer.

So early this morning, our CTO and Founder of Bungee Labs, Dave Mitchell posted a definition describing PaaS in concrete terms.

What follows is a summary of Dave's post, with a selection of my favorite "soundbites" and ideas, but I suggest you read the whole post for yourself - there's a fair amount to consider:

1) Develop, Test, Deploy, Host and Maintain on the Same Integrated Environment.

"It’s time to stop developing “here” and running “there”. Today, most applications are coded in one environment (usually custom-built for that project by a developer), then tested in another, and redeployed to yet another for production...In a completely-realized PaaS, the entire software lifecycle is supported on the same computing environment, dramatically reducing costs of development and maintenance, time-to-market and project risk. A PaaS should let developers spend their time creating great software, rather than building environments and wrestling with configurations just to make their applications run — let alone testing, tuning and debugging them...Also, an end-to-end PaaS should provide a high productivity Integrated Development Environment (IDE) running on the actual target delivery platform, so that debugging and test scenarios run in the same environment as production deployment.

2) User Experience Without Compromise

"A Platform-as-a-Service must deliver compelling user experiences, with all the richness and live interactivity that consumers have been conditioned to expect....Hiccups like software downloads or plug-in installations, browser dependencies and inconsistencies, or local executables break the web model, and are inherently less secure, less maintainable and less user-friendly. In order to be relevant and popular, PaaS must deliver the best user experience available on the web, comparable to or better than conventional approaches.

3) Built-in Scalability, Reliability, and Security

"Developers should be free to build applications with the comfort that the security of customer data, network traffic, source code (intellectual property) and even server hardware is maintained automatically by the platform through-out application development and delivery."

4) Built-in Integration with Web Services and Databases.

"Applications need to leverage existing software investments in databases, and internal or external third party web services, requiring that the platform offer a wide variety of connectivity options."

5) Support Collaboration

"A PaaS must support both formal and on-demand collaboration throughout the entire software lifecycle (development, testing, documentation and operations), while maintaining security of source code and associated intellectual property."

6) Deep Application Instrumentation

"With instrumentation, organizations can see exactly how users are using the application, the type of performance they are experiencing and any application crashes. This information can also be leveraged to create new business models where costs are tied to actual utilities, rather than flat-rate subscriptions or licenses."

Over the next couple of years we expect to be hearing a lot more about PaaS and how "Y announcement" by "X company" is now providing true a PaaS offering to businesses and developers.

But saying you are providing a Platform as a Service has to mean something, and we think the above definition sets a high but reasonable standard that must be met for any company to claim they are providing a "platform-as-a-service' and legitimately describe themselves as a PaaS player.

The amazing thing is, for me at least, is that Bungee Connect is delivering all of the above, today. From our point of view, delivering PaaS - the real deal - is not statement of Bungee's intent, it's a statement of fact. It's bold, but so is our vision. Yes, we've still a lot to do before we're commercially ready and we think that's coming soon, but so much is already there. Try it out.

Engineering Challenges...


In the meantime...Some unsually sensible discussion is taking place at a Slashdot thread re: Kurzweil's prediction (and one of the original Long Bets): Artificial Intelligence at Human Level by 2029?

Posted: Feb 17 2008, 08:29 AM by alexbarnett | with no comments
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On Politics (and Religion) in America

I've been asked recently by friends and family living in the UK about what it's like to be in the US during this election year and how I think it's going to go. Since I'm not a US citizen (I got my green card last summer) it will be another five years at least before I can earn the privilege to vote here, so won't be be able to cast a vote in November when this race comes to head.

But I do have observations and views on the matter. And since I'm being asked, I'll share them.


Before I share these observations and views, I want to make a few points.

The first is that my voting record in the UK has been non-existent. I've never felt motivated enough to go to the ballot box, a fact I'm not proud of. I'm coming to realize I've been immature and ignorant in this regard. My recent increased political interest is partly due to the fact I'm raising a son, so am thinking more about what the world might be like when he grows up.

The second point to make before I share my views on the US elections is that I don't consider myself either strongly left or right leaning. You might say that I'm an independent, a moderate, observing the US elections here with no particular axe to grind and that my current political views (developed over the last three years of my living in the states) have been developed without a strongly biased starting point.

The third point is this: although this is my personal blog, I have felt uncomfortable discussing politics and / religion) here, feeling that the discussion of these topics is best left to private conversations offline. I'd like to break out of that habit, a little at least. So with that preamble, here goes...

I Care

Since moving to the states over three years ago, my interest in politics has certainly increased, to the point now where if I could vote this year, I would. Given the current administration's general behaviour over the last few years (including the mishandling of the war) and more talk of recession, I'd need to be brain dead not to care about the future of America's domestic political environment and relationship with the rest of the world. I intend to become a US citizen when I have the opportunity and to raise my son here, so I really do care about America's prospects.

My bottom line conclusion on the current state of affairs of the US political scene is that it needs change, urgently. The US elections can't come too soon.

The Candidates

I'm assuming the Republican race is a done deal and that McCain will be one of the two horses running for the next presidency. Given what I heard during the Republican debates, I think that's probably good thing. I wasn't a fan of McCain from the beginning of the race, and I still wouldn't describe myself as a huge fan of his today. However, given the alternative candidates presented it seems the Republicans have actually given themselves a chance of putting up a good fight for the next presidential elections. He's comes across as sensible chap with sensible policies. The fact the extreme right wing media has been frothing at the mouth in reaction to McCain's Republican nomination win is probably a good sign :-)

On the Democratic side, the race is still neck and neck, but for me there is a clear favorite, and it's not Clinton. Let me explain why.

The Elephant in the Room

I have a particular perspective on what I think would be good for the future of America and it's political relationship with the rest of the world.

This perspective comes from the following observation of the domestic political scene here: the biggest long term challenge Americans must figure out in order for them to meet the other big challenges and issues (economy, education, foreign policy, war on terror, civil rights, immigration, etc) is the issue of the relationship between the political system and religion in America.

I happen to believe democracies require a clear separation between church and state in order for the system to work for all its citizens as best as it can. Surprisingly for me at least, this premise does not appear to be a given in America. In fact, it seems to me this critical separation is in danger and the danger requires to be addressed explicitly by its politicians right now. I've seen very little evidence of this.

Equating Faith with Patriotism

The scariest meme I have come across since living in the US is the notion of equating of Faith with Patriotism, i.e. you can’t be a “good American” if you don’t believe in God.

The inherent danger in this concept is not the fact that America's majority are religious, but the fact that there are so many different religions and faiths followed here. If you follow the logic path of: "in order to be “good American” you need to believe in God", then the next question is: which Faith and who decides? And where does that leave the secular?

It's now I turn to Barack Obama, who in this speech ("A Call for Renewal" delivered in 2006) discussed the issue of the relationship between religion and US politics head on (transcript here, video here). The following point illustrates the concern I'm trying to get at here:

"the critical role that the separation of church and state has played in preserving not only our democracy, but the robustness of our religious practice. Folks tend to forget that during our founding, it wasn't the atheists or the civil libertarians who were the most effective champions of the First Amendment. It was the persecuted minorities, it was Baptists like John Leland who didn't want the established churches to impose their views on folks who were getting happy out in the fields and teaching the scripture to slaves. It was the forbearers of the evangelicals who were the most adamant about not mingling government with religious, because they did not want state-sponsored religion hindering their ability to practice their faith as they understood it.

Moreover, given the increasing diversity of America's population, the dangers of sectarianism have never been greater. Whatever we once were, we are no longer just a Christian nation; we are also a Jewish nation, a Muslim nation, a Buddhist nation, a Hindu nation, and a nation of nonbelievers.

And even if we did have only Christians in our midst, if we expelled every non-Christian from the United States of America, whose Christianity would we teach in the schools? Would we go with James Dobson's, or Al Sharpton's? Which passages of Scripture should guide our public policy? Should we go with Leviticus, which suggests slavery is ok and that eating shellfish is abomination? How about Deuteronomy, which suggests stoning your child if he strays from the faith? Or should we just stick to the Sermon on the Mount - a passage that is so radical that it's doubtful that our own Defense Department would survive its application?"

The point is that it should be the religious who should be fighting for the separation of church and state as much as the non-religious. It is in the interest of the religious to do so.

It seems to me that this point has been completely overlooked by those with faith who are trying to force closer ties between religion and politics.

Obama goes on:

"Democracy demands that the religiously motivated translate their concerns into universal, rather than religion-specific, values. It requires that their proposals be subject to argument, and amenable to reason. I may be opposed to abortion for religious reasons, but if I seek to pass a law banning the practice, I cannot simply point to the teachings of my church or evoke God's will. I have to explain why abortion violates some principle that is accessible to people of all faiths, including those with no faith at all.

Now this is going to be difficult for some who believe in the inerrancy of the Bible, as many evangelicals do. But in a pluralistic democracy, we have no choice. Politics depends on our ability to persuade each other of common aims based on a common reality. It involves the compromise, the art of what's possible. At some fundamental level, religion does not allow for compromise. It's the art of the impossible. If God has spoken, then followers are expected to live up to God's edicts, regardless of the consequences. To base one's life on such uncompromising commitments may be sublime, but to base our policy making on such commitments would be a dangerous thing."

My point here is that I can't find any similar concerns or views expressed by either Clinton (who appears to shy away from the topic of religion and politics in America) or McCain on this topic, and I think this topic matters a great deal.

It needs to be discussed - in the open - by the presidential candidates because it is at the heart of how Americans ought to decide policy. It's no good for the Democrats to pretend the issue will go away and simply wish that the religious views of America's population will not and should not affect politics.

I'll quote Obama again:

“In fact, because I do not believe that religious people have a monopoly on morality, I would rather have someone who is grounded in morality and ethics, and who is also secular, affirm their morality and ethics and values without pretending that they're something they're not. They don't need to do that. None of us need to do that.

But what I am suggesting is this - secularists are wrong when they ask believers to leave their religion at the door before entering into the public square. Frederick Douglas, Abraham Lincoln, Williams Jennings Bryant, Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King - indeed, the majority of great reformers in American history - were not only motivated by faith, but repeatedly used religious language to argue for their cause. So to say that men and women should not inject their "personal morality" into public policy debates is a practical absurdity. Our law is by definition a codification of morality, much of it grounded in the Judeo-Christian tradition.

Moreover, if we progressives shed some of these biases, we might recognize some overlapping values that both religious and secular people share when it comes to the moral and material direction of our country. We might recognize that the call to sacrifice on behalf of the next generation, the need to think in terms of "thou" and not just "I," resonates in religious congregations all across the country. And we might realize that we have the ability to reach out to the evangelical community and engage millions of religious Americans in the larger project of American renewal.”

As I mentioned, this is not a new speech, but I was really excited to find when I did (last week). I don't think Obama's views here are an extreme perspective on the matter of religion and politics - he's not calling for an either / or proposition. It's a pragmatic view, not held by secularist, but by a man of faith.

America needs to rally and unify around common ideals and upon on common ground. It seems to me the country needs repair from the fracturing that's been caused for all the wrong reasons.

What I have come to observed is that religion actually has a much bigger part to play in American politics than I realized before I came to the states. The fact is this country has a religious majority - a fact that will remain for a long while. But the fact that the formulation of who votes for whom is strongly correlated by a) which Faith you follow and b) whether you have faith at all, is not a healthy state of political affairs. I think Obama has the potential to help the country heal in this respect.

The Good News

The good news is this - however the cards play of through November, I think America will be presented with two good candidates. In either Obama or Clinton and McCain, the choices presented will be a vast improvement on the status quo and what might have been.

But If I Had to Choose?

Strategically speaking, without the religious / political healing required as I've tried to describe here, I can't see how America can fulfil its amazing potential. That's why if I could vote, unless Clinton or McCain begin to address this issue head-on in the next few months with sincerity, I think I'd have go with Obama for this reason alone.

Now, flame me :-)

Social Clouds, XML 10 Years Old, and Honourable Mentions

The Social Cloud

Kevin Marks is a software engineer at Google, was principal engineer for Technorati and one of the founders of Microformats. In this video Kevin talks about the big picture re: the phenomenon of online social networks in a presentation called The Social Cloud. Great backgrounder to the topic. More Lift videos here.

My Open ID?

Chris Brogen asked Question about OpenID:

"I’ve chosen to use the installation of OpenID. I tied it to my account and have so far used it in only two places. I’m thinking that every time I offer up an OpenID, I’ll point to that one. So far so good, right? ( To get up to speed on OpenID, go here).

What happens if folds? What happens if they change their mind and start charging me, or I leave them for someone else, or whatever?"

Good question, to which you'll find multiple useful answers provided in the post's comments.

Semantic web enablement

The XML spec first public draft was November '96, the final release as a 1.0 was Feb 1998. XML was ten years old Feb 10, 2008. Tim Bray provides a history of the people involved and the events leading up to the birth of XML in his XML People.

Semantic news discovery

Silobreaker "provides relevance by looking at the data it finds like a person does. It recognises people, companies, topics, places and keywords; understands how they relate to each other in the news flow, and puts them in context for the user."

I need to play more to find out how useable / useful this service is, but I like the idea.

Honourable mention

RIA Weekly #06 - What’s Behind Code-Behind, JavaFX with Adobe tools, Microsoft/Yahoo!, and other acquisitions. The Redmonk podcast with Michael Coté and Ryan Stewart (Adobe). Topics include Kevin Lynch as new Adobe CTO, JavaFX vs. Silverlight vs. Air, code-behind annoyance, Google's Android, and the Oracle / BEA deal. I get an honourable mention on the show.

Random but good

Visual Music Instruments - via Kevin Kelly. No manual required, but it would probably help.

Redmonk, Guinness and random stuff

In San Francisco last night, catching up with the Redmonk folks celebrating their 5th birthday (thanks to James for inviting me). Caught up with some industry legends - Steve Gillmor, Chris Messina, Dan Farber and Ryan Stewart, and made some new friends there too, e.g. Ed Hermannn - the guy who created Wii interface into an SAP app). .The Guinness is good at the Shields.


Right, so here's a bunch of random stuff that's been capturing my attention the last week.

Firstly - weird:

Next - wow: 

Next, next - quite right:

Next, next, next - useful:

    via ksharkey: "The purpose of this site is over time to fill some of the gaps - especially by providing code examples as to how how the different patterns can be implemented: to join theory with practice."
  • Short Bits: CableCARD, Beta Testing
    links to everything you wanted to know (and can never know) about the nightmare that is CableCard (I need to angrily rant on this topic one day)
The Xbox 360 Elite laptop

This just has to be the sweetest hack I've seen in a while.

Posted: Feb 04 2008, 10:36 AM by alexbarnett | with no comments
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Microsoft conf call - the jig

I suspect this video has done the rounds inside Microsoft (it's a year old, but I haven't seen it before).

Background: this is the same conf call service Microsoft uses. In my five years I spent way too much listening to the very same track. Ah, memories.

Thanks to Sean Alexander for the link.

Posted: Feb 02 2008, 04:56 AM by alexbarnett | with no comments
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Windows Live Flickr?

Holy testacular Friday. Microsoft has announced in an official press release its proposal to acquire Yahoo! for $44.6 billion in cash and stock, offering $31 a share - a 62% premium over the current trading price.

Ray Ozzie, chief software architect at Microsoft:

"Our lives, our businesses, and even our society have been progressively transformed by the Web, and Yahoo! has played a pioneering role by building compelling, high-scale services and infrastructure...The combination of these two great teams would enable us to jointly deliver a broad range of new experiences to our customers that neither of us would have achieved on our own."

Bloggers, media and pundits are going nuts over this. Reading through some of the reactions, Larry Dignan at ZDNet asks some of the questions that come to mind when considering what this might mean if Yahoo! accepts:

"...the combinations of assets from a combined Microsoft and Yahoo is a bit staggering. MSN, Yahoo, Flickr, Zimbra and a bunch of other properties would be under one roof. The big question: Can Microsoft manage it all?

Some key questions to ponder: Would Zimbra become the future Office Live? How about rationalizing products, ad systems and search algorithms. What about ad markets? Cloud computing projects? The overlap is immense."

Leaving aside the financial, "economies of scale", increased inventory, IP, IQ aspects, the one thing the acquisition would certainly do is massively accelerate Microsoft's progress into the social media space, an area of innovation Microsoft has been lagging relative to Yahoo!

On paper at least. The question then becomes: could Microsoft really leverage the newly acquired social media assets or would the acquisition stifle the innovation in this strategically key area? Windows Live Flickr anyone?

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