Liquid Relaxation

For anyone who hasn’t heard, there are new EU-wide regulations on hand baggage - which have the effect of slightly relaxing the rules that were in place at UK airports (although there are still plenty of awkward gotchas). The implication of this, of course, is that either the original terrorist threat has subsided (although it would be nice for the security ‘services’ to explain why), or that they panicked and couldn’t handle the situation they suddenly found themselves in. Either way, I suspect the next knee-jerk reaction isn’t far off. In the meantime, maybe this will reduce the number of annoyed executives having to check in an overnight bag.

Incidentally, any particular reason we can’t have a free market here? I’d happily pay less for less ‘security’.

The History Boys

The History Boys is a little different from some of the other ‘up-North-lads-do-good pictures of recent years (Full Monty, Billy Elliott). Firstly, it is a bit intelligent (although it’s probably a bit unfair to expect the Full Monty to be intelligent, superb though it is, and there’s still a lot of English-lit. and philosophical self-indulgence in The History Boys). It’s a strong character-focused film, and masterfully acted by a surprisingly large set of prominent performers (who aren’t really as young as they look), as well as being hilarious to boot - to the extent that the more serious scenes sometimes dull the film’s impact.

The inter-character rivalry makes it an easier film to believe than, say, the hero-worship of Dead Poets’ Society, and only the slightly messy ending - which has probably just been clumsily adapted from the original play - upsets the strength of the plot. The clichéd gay stereotypes don’t help the film’s bid for originality, but it’s still a worthy watch, although you’ll probably get more out of it the more strongly you relate to the teenage schoolboy personality type.

Fight, Fight, Fight!

Richard posted a link to the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis’s multi-guess Economic Literacy Test. Most of it was fairly easy if you know the standard economic textbook viewpoint on capitalism (which allows for a few market failures but is mostly fairly single-minded about the market’s ability to be efficient).

Unlike Richard, though, I only managed 11/13 on the first pass. So in true bad loser style, it’s time to defend myself. I got the right answer second time round on both questions I failed on, and I was dithering over two possible answers on both. One mistake was because of the ambiguous use of the phrase ‘public interest’ in the question (they actually meant: make goods and services people want, I thought of cuddly things like clouds and cars that don’t pollute). The other was to do with high inflation and the money supply - mah, I’ve never understood macroeconomics properly anyway. Plus it was the 12th question and I was getting slapdash…

OK, I’m ignorant. Time to go do some reading.

Two Google Ideas

Google have created a powerful brand based on creating simplicity from complexity (what all good IT is about). Their tools aren’t perfect, but they’ve made life easier for billions, and so I think they still deserve some free feedback from time-to-time. So, a few thoughts:

  • Mr. Google, please develop a podcast search engine. So much interesting content is now being released as podcasts (quick plug for my favourite: EconTalk), that it would be useful to be able to search them. All you have to do is invent a speech-to-text interpreter that actually works reliably. Simple. [Note: as I sometimes do, I wrote this post in advance of it being published. I’ve since discovered that such a tool already exists. However, I thought I’d leave the original prose here: Google, if you get one out soon, you could still corner the market]

  • Mr. Google, please stop developing so many interfaces - and plug them all together. If I want to do an exhaustive search for something, I now have to search Google Web, Google Images, Google Groups, Google News, Google Video, Google Blog Search, Google Book Search, Google Scholar, and possibly others. This is not a good thing - you’re straying from the simple search you started with. Some of those searches do show up in the main search results, but you could do a better job of tying them together to show what I’m actually looking for. This could be a real competitive edge, especially since the basic searches that MSN and others provide are now actually quite reasonable.

Google still have an edge in providing what people want - for a company so technically-focused, they either have talented marketers or are just lucky. Please, Google, keep it up.

It's a Web 2.0 Jungle Out There

I’ve upgraded my interweb connection to Web 2.0 in the last few months. Although no-one can really point to what Web 2.0 is (even though there’s a validator for it), many people feel that they know it when they see it. I now defend the term against cynics because I think it’s genuinely useful. To me, it’s a combination of little things: blogging and feedreading, a good quality web browser, in-place dynamic web sites (mostly driven by AJAX), to name but a few. For a technically minded person, I’m atypically late adopting, and so I’ve only recently happened on two powerful aspects of Web 2.0:

  • Social bookmarking. I now use delicious, so I can manage my bookmarks properly across the many computers I regularly use, as well as discover high-quality sites other people have stumbled upon.

  • In-browser Flash-based video. You can argue until the cows come home about the technical superiority of this method, but the success of YouTube shows that it’s the way forward. I use to shy away from web-based video because of the hassles involved: Download or stream? Do I have the right codec? Which media player to use? Flash-based video solves this problem.

However, the Flash-based video technique does highlight a problem that users of Web 2.0 sites are likely to encounter for a few years as they become more prevalent: interface inconsistency. It’s been long recognised that consistent user interfaces are a good thing, but everyone thinks that they can make a better scroll bar, and although Flash has been around for some time, it’s so far mostly been relegated to those websites created by designers who value form over function.

Now that there’s a great use for Flash (no, hang on, really great), and AJAX is becoming more widespread, we will go through some years of pain before the UI conventions are worked out and those who stray are vilified, rather than held up as paragons of originality - it seems to have already started with the hourglass, as well as on some of the cruddier YouTube-imitating sites (several of which don’t let you skip forward in videos). This phase of inconsistency has happened plenty of times before in UI history, although never in an uglier way than some of the first web sites. Brace yourself, it’s coming again.

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