Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction.
-- Blaise Pascal
May 10th, 2014

Freebox Batch Video Conversion (mp4 to mkv)

mp4-to-mkv

I often have the problem of needing to convert a folder full of video files to a format compatible with my Freebox, without spending ages in front of my machine doing each video individually. This often happens when I have several takes from my mobile phone or camcorder as mp4 files. Here’s how I worked out how to do it. These instructions apply to Windows 7, and may also work elsewhere on Windows machines.

I have tailored these instructions for a generic encode that will work on Freebox (ADSL triple-play box in France) but since the resulting files stick to standards they should work on most set-top boxes and portable players, including phones and tablets except iPhone/iPad, which read mp4 natively anyway… The typical conversion required is from mp4 to mkv or avi; I prefer mkv for the Freebox as it has worked in more cases for me.

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June 5th, 2013

Using wear and tear to guide usability simplification

Worn Remote

The great thing about physical objects is wear and tear. The places you touch most wear down, an ideal indicator for the key functions in your remote interface. This type of observation has even led to abstract art such as the traces left by different iPad apps. You can tell a lot about how something is used by investigating these physical traces. Doing the research to collect that data can be fun, using heat maps, click tracking or even a screen cover and paint. The results of that research can be visually persuasive too. It’s pretty obvious from the photo on the left that play and fast-forward are the main used buttons. ON DEMAND is bigger, screaming at you to spend money on content… why isn’t the really useful button (play) in that simple central place? Did the big “on demand” button increase rentals?

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June 1st, 2012

Interactive Design Festival: notes from the WIF

I’ve just got back from the international interactive design festival, or WIF (from the original Webdesign International Festival). It’s a meeting of designers linked to the web and interaction (HCI) from around the world who come to talk about the latest trends and ideas.

I was on the jury for the design competition which gave student and corporate teams 24 hours to design a concept and create an interactive prototype. This year the subject was “the school of the future”. The entries were fascinating and most were impressive, especially given the limited time available.

Unusually for events like this, it takes place in Limoges, a town in the centre of France which is better known for porcelain and quiet country life than for international events. This gives it a different feel from the London and Paris roadshow corporate events, though it limits somewhat the audiences. Overall the WIF was a great experience and I hope to be able to attend next time it’s organised in an active capacity.

While the teams were busy sweating, I had some time to attend the many workshops and conferences (talks, really) and meet some very interesting design professionals. I thought I might share my notes, including my poor sketches which are nothing like the wonderful Sketch Notes by Eva Lotta Lamm.

Download them / view the PDF here => notes from the Wif 2012
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March 9th, 2012

Bad Science Should be Required Reading

Cover of Bad Science as viewed on Kindle Android

Bad Science by Ben Goldacre is a fascinating read. I’ve intermittently followed his Bad Science column on the Guardian and it’s often thought provoking and uplifting too. I’m thus no stranger to the placebo effect, the inflated claims of homeopathy, and the commercial interests of all these companies selling diet plans and nutrition guidance. This book concentrates an overview of all that and more, with a level of scientific detail and rigour which should leave you without doubt that you must be prudent about what you read in the papers especially when related to carcinogens and/or wonder pills.

I recently bought the book for my Kindle. Pictured is the book on my phone (with Kindle app), happily synchronised with my Kindle which stays on my bedside table. It’s fantastic to be travelling home on the train and to simply pick up where I left off the night before, on a different device. Bad Science makes for fascinating – and frightening – reading. Sometimes there is complexity in the discourse, but this appears necessary to expose the fluff and pseudo-science which at face value seems reasonable or seems to prove the efficacy of a proposed wonder pill. This complexity is thankfully rare for the less scientifically inclined and certainly doesn’t get in the way of perfectly readable and understandable prose for the most part. Read the rest of this entry »

February 21st, 2012

WordPress Pharma Hack and Updates

Hacks Honey Lemon Flavour

WordPress is a fantastic platform, with an excellent plugin mechanism and the most usable admin interface I have seen. I know and have used several others including Joomla, Zope, Drupal, and old stuff you may not have heard of. The problem with being popular though is that you are likely to be a victim of more attacks. There’s a strange pharmaceutical spam attack out there, and it got me too. I first found out about it when Google emailed my with a possible hacking notice. Links like /valium-high were appearing in the Google results for this site, yet when I tried the links they were giving me a 404 (page does not exist) result. The sneaky thing is that the hack is cloaked, the link /valium-high did in fact work but only if accessed via a search engine spider (or search bot / Googlebot). So Google sees a strange page selling valium, whereas regular visitors see a boring “page not found”. Spammers use these techniques to help their own strange pages rank in Google.

Using “Fetch as Googlebot” in Google webmaster tools allowed me to confirm the cloaking issue. To clean the hack, and simulate a search crawler without resorting to publishing tests live to my domain, I used my own server and tested using a search engine crawler simulator on a custom subdomain.

After a lot of searching, including various scripts like lookforbadguys and advice on checking the database I still couldn’t find the bad code. I gave up forensics and just reinstalled a clean version of WordPress (often the best recourse if you can’t find the hack quickly). It then took me a while to get a few other files I needed (my theme, images, custom scripts) from the old install and make sure they were working correctly.

Since I was making updates, I finally brought this WordPress site up to date with a few changes to CSS to take full advantage of screen real estate. This humble template was less than 800 pixels wide. I am now using a 960 pixel grid which is a de facto standard on the web given larger screen resolutions. I hope you find it a little easier to read.

January 9th, 2012

The Facebook Walled Garden?

Is anyone else concerned that the Internet is becoming a walled garden on Facebook, encouraging people never to leave the facebook site? People are more likely to read the Guardian now it’s a Facebook app. No doubt this is due to having to install the app to read content “read” by others – frictionless sharing as they call it. It means a lot more traction gained for Facebook, and a less neutral web experience.

Net neutrality is already wishful thinking, now that Google & Facebook dominate so much – do you even have a separate Instant Messaging / email app outside of Outlook at work? Are you aware that most of what you listen to and read will be shared automatically with your friends?

‎”As well as increasing traffic, the app is making our journalism visible to new audiences. Over half of the app’s users are 24 and under – traditionally a very hard-to-reach demographic for news organisations. The Facebook app is one of a number of successful launches by the Guardian in recent months as our ‘digital first’ strategy gains momentum. We’re delighted with the results.”
Andrew Miller, chief executive officer of Guardian Media Group

I must be an old grumpy git, since being on Facebook is frighteningly efficient at appealing to the younger demographic. I do get nostalgic about plain-text email with properly nested quoting wrapping at 74 characters, web pages that are visible anywhere on any device, and music that comes from analogue encoding on physical objects. Will appealing to the younger net users without embedding your content on Facebook be possible soon?

Happy New Year too!

October 20th, 2011

Together for Ten Years

Five years ago, I published an article for our fifth wedding anniversary. So if I have got my head on straight, that makes it our tin – 10 years – anniversary today.

How time flies. When we first got married our wedding site had a guestbook I cooked up in PHP. Five years on, a blog post was where a few friends gave their comments. Ten years on, and it’s Facebook where all the reactions have come from. So from DIY PHP/MySQL to WordPress (also PHP/MySQL) to Facebook (PHP too) things keep on changing.

Here’s to ten more! No doubt the next anniversary post will happen somewhere else entirely. Any predictions?

September 22nd, 2011

Facebook Redesign and Change Aversion

Every time a major site with a big audience changes, there are always going to be detractors. Especially a site like Facebook. People spend a lot of time there, so interface changes are almost tantamount to moving stuff around in their lounge/den.

I think there are a number of issues with the new Facebook homepage. I’ve seen it before. It’s called feature creep. Lots of stuff all clamouring for your attention. Chat, realtime updates, top stories, the rest of the news, adverts, suggestions for friends, app updates, messages (FB-ized email) and notifications. Read the rest of this entry »