Tuesday, 16 September 2008

Why I wouldn't like to design an Asian Website

Actually I wouldn't like to design any kind of website, that is not where my strengths lie. I would be particularly careful of making any design decisions on a website that was aimed at a culture I didn't fully appreciate though.

Taking Chinese as an example, a number of times I have directed Chinese users to an Internet site I like and then been surprised when they are completely underwhelmed by it. One reason has been that they feel there is not enough content. This screen shot above is from web-page of the Chinese television station CCTV, it is typical of many I have seen and to my eyes appears very text dense with lots and lots (too many links). It wasn't until a Chinese web friend told me that many Chinese Internet users had yet to get used to using search functionality that the penny dropped, navigating through and discovering new content via links felt most natural to them.

Also consider that a Chinese designer can typically choose a lot of two character words for links (or three / four character words/phrases) this makes it an awful lot easier to layout blocks of links that can be scanned much better than if they were written in English.

I am not advocating the CCTV site as a good example of any kind of web design, simply attempting to highlight the kind of issues that may need to be taken into account when looking at websites from different cultures. It has to be said that in my experience many Asian websites do a better job of catering for Western users (with language options and search support) than their Western counterparts.

Naturally nothing is that clear, many young Chinese will be familiar and used to Western style websites, many of them have gone through the language/culture mind-hack.

This post will be a small part of the background to my Bathcamp presentation Bathcamp presentation Twine(in progress).

Thursday, 11 September 2008

Is Learning Chinese a Mind-Hack?

Mind Hack image from psd.

It has been said that learning a language is a type of mind hack, it is good for the brain and gives you a different perspective on many things. Written Chinese however has a peculiar feature compared to English and that is simply that it takes rather less characters to write something. Many Chinese words are just one or two characters and there is no space between words. Some of the space gain is lost because each Chinese character takes the same space and English fonts can take advantage of proportional spacing but on the whole a block of Chinese text takes up less space. On Twitter and other micro-blogging sites you are typically given 140 characters, a fairly short message in English but a Chinese writer can potentially pack in a lot more information. As a couple of examples (美女) and (帅哥) map to (beautiful women) and (handsome guy). I also believe from my own early experience and observation that the Chinese reader can read noticeably faster than English readers (could be useful if you have a lot of information to scan).

Sometimes it is unfortunate that so much emphasis is given to ease of use and quick learning/understanding, often the thing that is initially easiest to learn, understand and use falls short in the long run when compared to something that initially takes more effort. Douglas Engelbert is credited with developing the computer mouse which was widely adopted, he also developed a special one hand keypad that in conjunction with the mouse was proven to significantly improve typing speed. This keypad was not adopted though simply because the learning curve was considered too high (taking into account all the typing I do though it makes me wonder).

I feel that an often overlooked mind expanding element of language learning occurs when you are prepared to open your mind to a new culture however. It is possible and sometimes illuminating to see something from two points of view simultaneously. A recent Newscientist article How to keep your head in scary situations (unfortunately you have to be a subscriber to view full text) stated "find a knowledgeable person who shares your general cultural but who disagrees with you. You are likely to give this person's arguments a sympathetic hearing, which will help offset the natural disposition we all have to dismiss as unreliable and biased the arguments of persons whose basic outlooks are different from our own." The cultural element is important because you are not likely to believe or entertain an argument coming from a culture that differs from your own. I found that being prepared to start adsorbing another culture suddenly hugely expands the number of people that you can learn from. As Steve Kaufmann puts it History is a good example. Students should be obliged to read history books from different countries, in order to see how different these perspectives can be.

A final thought, many people who have learned English as an additional language (and or adsorbed Western culture) have undergone a mind-hack of some sort, doesn't this leave many mono-lingual English speakers at a disadvantage?

This post will be a small part of the background to my Bathcamp presentation Bathcamp presentation Twine(in progress).

Learning Via a Muse

This is what learning Mandarin means to me in respect to learning about the Internet, no Wait! let me explain ;)

Like the artist's muse my language learning gives me a focus, a filter, a point of reference and a reason to learn more about Web(n.0) and to judge whether a new technology is really helping me. Perhaps because I often spend more time working on the back-end of websites I used to find it difficult to learn about using web-technologies via learning about web-technologies. I often felt I was in a kind of "echo chamber". Although this work that sold for so much money probably doesn't fully represent a muse.

At Dconstruct08 Aleks Krotoski explains how Web developers can learn from game developers, this is her own summary on at the Guardian. I think learners can learn from game players also, make it fun, get passionate and the learning happens before your realize.

What is your muse, or if you don't have one, how do you avoid the echo chamber?

This post will be a small part of the background to my Bathcamp presentation Bathcamp presentation Twine(in progress).

Learning Potential of the Internet

The Rue Sophie Germain named for the French mathematician (1776 - 1831).

I believe that the Internet has boosted learning potential in a way that most of us have not caught up with yet. The full impact has yet to be realized but I think many subjects, or the foundation of many subjects can be easily acquired and practiced by an individual with no need for teachers, classes, university etc.

Of course to learn successfully requires dedication and interest but this is almost always the case, no matter what the method. The internet gives us unprecedented access to information, unprecedented access to fellow learners and experts and supports more media and approaches than most traditional methods.

A big hint lies in the IT sector, of there are many that are formally educated, but due to the ever changing nature of IT and due to fact that the barrier to playing with and building real things with real technology is so low, many people in successful IT careers have no formal qualifications at all, many have learned everything that supports their career via the very same devices and infrastructure they use in their daily work.

Take the mathematician who inspired the French street name above, she taught herself mathematics from books in her fathers library despite all the efforts of her family to stop her (not the done thing for a middle class girl at the time), she had to pretend to be a man initially to correspond with famous mathematicians of the time and develop her theories. Think how much lower is the barrier to entry for a modern day Sophie Germain, the vital inputs and opportunities to communicate are so much more now. The interesting questions is will the availability of information create many more autodidacts like Sophie?

In language learning we have access to media, learning resources, foreign speakers, fellow learners, free tools (Audacity for audio for example, your own personal language lab), I firmly believe that any reasonably motivated learner can learn a language to a significantly better level than most university students in less time as a hobby (it really seems that farcical).

I hear people moaning about informational overload but this is a personal problem we just have to learn to adjust the way we view learning and knowledge, nowadays the possession of information is less important than the understanding of it and the ability to do things with it. The memory tricks of savants like Kim Peek seem much less impressive today, although Kim has show an increasing ability to work with his facts and develop his social skills due to his fame allowing him to practice and use what he knows. Many of us today can retrieve information as reliably Kim does and almost as fast, it is up to us to understand and use it.

I understand that some areas will always need professional qualifications, and some will need access to special equipment (particle physics springs to mind at the moment). But the basis of knowledge acquisition in these areas can still be acquired outside of special institutions.

How many times have I heard someone say "I really want to learn XXXX, I haven't started yet though I am waiting to see if there is going to be a course at the college next year...." how much do you want to learn???

This post will be a small part of the background to my Bathcamp presentation Bathcamp presentation Twine(in progress).

Sunday, 7 September 2008

Social Network Portability

Attended the Dconstruct conference last week and as last time I'll try to process the information I got from it over the next few weeks. As I am also attending BathCamp next week I will start with the talks that have any kind of potential connection with my BathCamp presentation.

Tantek Çelik gave an interesting talk on Social Network Portability a brief summary of which is provided by Tom Hume.

The point Tom makes that there may be instances where we don't want to share aspects of ourselves between different social sites is one that immediately came to my mind also. In my case an excellent example is when using some social sites for language learning. I don't see this a significant barrier though, unless I am mistaken in the application side of things, a profile page that you create on a social site is not going to be able to make those connections or allow others to make them unless you provide the initial link into your social network, it will still be easy to create completly separate identities. Also the connection to your identities on other social sites will be limited to public information.

The basic aims that Tantek initially expressed certainly need to be addressed, my own AHA moment recently came whilst using the microblogging service at identi.ca, thanks to the openmicroblogging specification I was able to follow a user on http://openmicroblogger.com/ simply by adding the url of his profile page. The exchange of avatar icons and who is following, being followed by who happened automatically (try doing that on Twitter).

I guess at that moment the microblogging AHA moment sums up my interest in this area (although I have not looked under the hood I don't thing it uses the same technology Tantek was discussing), unless I am doing something at work that is impacted by Social Network Portability then I will leave the implementation and specifications to others and wait to see how it affects me. I have installed the Operator Firefox extension for microformats and so far it doesn't appear that much if anything I am using online is using them (or if it is, then it doesn't impact what I am doing).

Information on the technologies that Tantek discussed can be found here on the microformat wiki.

Monday, 1 September 2008

BathCamp Presentation

For the last two and a half years I have been learning Chinese, for the last two and a half years I have also been learning about learning especially how the learning landscape is changing thanks to the web technologies.

Learning Chinese has become my muse for learning about new web technologies. My job has involved me in many different aspects of developing web applications (possibly too many) and a while ago I had totally lost touch with the front end and more importantly how to "use" the emergent technologies. Because I don't feel you can really understand something until you can use it and because I was interested in learning a language I decided to learn a language as much as possible via the internet.

I like to write down my thoughts sometimes especially to refine ideas, when I came to think about a presentation for Bathcamp the obvious thing to do was to write down anything I feel I have learned so far and then pull out the more interesting points(in my opinion) for a short spoken presentation. Whatever happens the writings will be useful to me in the future, I have found it very useful to review what I wrote about Dconstruct last year.

I tend to write in more than one place and may have some other resources to add so I am going to try to pull all the background material to the presentation in a twine. By the time I make the short spoken presentation (or at least shortly afterwards); hopefully everything underpinning it will be available on the twine.