Users and Learners

“In general, learners are engaged primarily in structure or semistructured learning experiences, whereas end users are engaged in tool use.” (this really should not be online, but here’s the source).

I was reading this today in the course of some research and the thought that sprung to mind was that this might be a false distinction or at least not a very useful one. If it ever had some truth to it, isn’t the kind of “learning” that most people do these days done as an “end user”? Our “tools” vary, but a certain philosophical perspective would say that all human activity is some kind of tool use (including working with ideas). Isn’t it that kind of learning that we are working to shape and provide tools for?

Blacksburg Blogging

I really do not have time for this, but I am contemplating the occasional post on my adopted home town of Blacksburg, VA (my real home town is in England). I have looked very deeply, but I have not found much online, and few weblogs writing about the place, at least in any depth. That surprises me, given its long online history.

Just as an example, I have to say, that I do like the optician I use, Tech Optical, for the simple reason that the owner isn’t afraid to offer an opinion on how you look, and actually seems like she knows what she is talking about when it comes to face shape and glasses shape. To be honest, most of the time when I go into a glasses store, my eyes glaze over, and the help I get is pitiful. Lots of choices, and no idea where to start. I appreciate informed feedback, and it’s offered in a professional, friendly fashion.

I hope to have a new pair in the next few weeks.

Verizon Sucks (retro)

The whole verizonsucks thing is a bit old hat, but I came across a deeply frustrating ‘feature” on my service today.

An upfront disclaimer: I’ve generally been very happy with my service and coverage. A vast improvement over my previous provider which was SunCom.

We’ll put aside the incomprehensibly bad web site design…well, maybe I shouldn’t….here’s what happened:

I do not have a particularly fancy phone, no bluetooth, usb, or whatever. I do have a camera though. I tried to take a picture with my phone the other day and got a warning about not having enough space. So I figure I’ll download some pictures and delete them to save space. That should be easy enough, right?

How to get the pictures off the phone? To send a picture message requires an incomprehensible number of button presses, but I noticed a feature “Online Album” and chose that. Hey, cool, it uploads in two clicks. Excellent.

Wait a minute…where is the online album? Hmm…let’s head to Nope. Sign in. Nope, not there. Hmmm… Nope, not there. No sign of it either. Support section (which is not linked from the home page by the way)? Nope, no mention of it. Hmmm…data technical support FAQ. Nothing. Try a search for “Online Album” (and don’t click any of the first 10 links). Aha, I need Verizon Wireless PIX Place (although I have to google for the url – it’s not actually linked from the Verizon site). Cool.

Alright, let’s head over there. The sign up process isn’t bad. I can handle that. Let’s log in and see my picture. There it is. That’s great.

…wait a minute…that looks a bit fuzzy and small. Click it and it opens in a bigger window. Great, but wait…the file size is one third of the file size on my phone.


Now what? Well, maybe I don’t really care too much about picture quality. Maybe I can upload and then send them all somewhere else?

I test it. When you send a picture to someone else, you use a flash interface, and … wait for it…yes, the recipient gets a link back to the Verizon web site.

So, let’s summarize:

  • Phone has feature with great usability, which trumps a feature with atrocious usability
  • Linked to a site that’s nigh impossible to find
  • Which has terrible usability
  • And you can’t get your pictures out of at the quality level you took them at

Sigh…yes, verizon does indeed suck.

Scratching Simplicity – Per Diem Calculator

Every so often, I scratch a technical itch and because the web is the medium in which I choose to operate, I’ll put my solutions online. My Quiz Generator and Tips and Tricks were definitely of that nature. Most recently I have updated the code for my State of Virginia Per Diem Calculator.

You may have to be a state employee to understand the problem this solves, or you could read the six pages of regulations (pdf) that it manages to encapsulate in one web page.

I love doing this kind of thing. It starts with a tortuous business process that people think they just have to live with, and in a short amount of time, I have been able to produce a simple solution that anyone can use and increases the reliability of the data. I really enjoy this aspect of solving a problem that people didn’t know they had. I regularly get emails from personnel at state agencies thanking me for creating it or anxious because the regulations are changing and they need an update.

When I first created it at the college I was at, the business office person responsible was overjoyed. So was I. Filing travel requests and reimbursement forms prior to creating the tool usually involved multiple trips to the business office and revisions to the forms submitted because the rate was wrong, or it didn’t account for a 75% travel day, or that a lunch was provided, but not a breakfast, etc., etc.. Now a travel request and reimbursement can be accompanied by a print-out (we’re not sophisticated enough to do these things online yet) with a clear explanation of the rate, meals provided and totals.

One of the other dimensions I enjoy is making the interface as elegant and simple as I can. I’m not going to say that I have achieved this, but I do think through each comma, word, sentence and piece of functionality.

It’s fun, and it can be technically interesting (it is all written in Javascript). What more could I ask?

Family stories – Our Man in Yugoslavia (Studies in Intelligence S.)

As a fully documented study of a Second World War Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) operative, “Our Man in Yugoslavia” is absolutely unique. Its subject is Owen Reed, an army officer recruited into SIS in the summer of 1943 and then parachuted in to German-occupied Croatia to work with Tito’s Partisans and other Allied secret organisations. After reporting back to London in July 1944, Reed returned to Yugoslavia to find relations with the Partisans deteriorating. His erstwhile comrades began working against him and the intelligence he passed to the SIS came increasingly to focus on the communist takeover. Reed found himself at the centre of the first great confrontation of the Cold War. Blending biography and operational history, “Our Man in Yugoslavia” is a remarkable case study, illustrating how SIS operatives were recruited and trained, and describing their work in detail.

About my step-grandfather and a case study of an SIS operative, by one of his grandsons who is a military historian. Just found out about it by looking at my brother’s wishlist. More details here and here. His other distinction was serving as Head of BBC Children’s television from 1956 to ? – having less luck finding details on that.

I was actually reflecting on family history earlier today (I’m not sure why). My dad drove from England to Afghanistan and back in 1950 or so and took some slides. I’d love to scan them and get them online.