Texting and Common Sense

I had written a post some time ago entitled Determining When Technology Hurts that caused quite a stir. Some people accused me of being anti-technology (a luddite, which is actually a misnomer because the Luddites weren’t anti-technology either). If you read the post again, you’ll find that I’m actually pro-technology, I simply espouse common sense when using it. Using the right technology at the right time is an essential component of using technology responsibly and gaining the maximum benefit from it.

When I read about people doing all sorts of weird things while trying to text, the only thing that comes to mind is that they really need to reconsider their use of the technology. Obviously, it doesn’t work to text and drive at the same time, yet people continue to do it. The latest nonsensical use of technology that I read is about people who insist on texting 911, rather than call. It turns out that most 911 call centers aren’t equipped to handle texting, so texting doesn’t produce a useful result.

However, the problem is more subtle than simply not reaching 911 when you really need the service. After having had to call 911 several times to help my wife as a caregiver, I’ve learned that the officer responding to the call often needs more information. A text can’t provide this information, but a call can. The officer can request additional information that can make the difference between saving and losing a life.

The FCC has mandated that 911 centers do indeed implement a texting interface, but has no power to enforce it. The main reason for the texting interface is to address accessibility concerns for people who truly can’t call 911. It’s not meant as a method for perfectly able bodied people to text instead of calling. The truth is that even with a text interface, 911 works better with a call simply because a call allows for complete communication that is usually faster than texting will allow.

When working with technology, it pays to think things through and use the appropriate technology for a particular need. Let me know your thoughts on texting 911 at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

Understanding the Effects of REM Sleep on Writing

A lot of people wonder how authors sometimes make the creative leaps they do in books. Of course, part of it is natural gift. Writing does involve some element of innate ability—a requirement that has been proven to my satisfaction more than a few times. Another part of the creative leap is mindset. When you spend a great deal of energy looking for something, you’re bound to eventually find it. We can target how our minds process information and therefore, control the resulting output to some degree. Hard work also comes into play—the best authors research their topic heavily (even in the fiction arena).

However, the obvious factors alone can’t account for the creative leap. Something more is at work than these elements. Over the years I’ve come to understand that part of what makes me a good author is my subconscious. An ability to take information stored during my waking hours and turn it into patterns as I sleep is part of the writing process for me and most likely many other authors as well (whether they realize it or not).

Sleep alone isn’t enough to generate the informational patterns, however. Over the years I’ve read articles such as REM Sleep Stimulates Creativity and Sleeping on it – how REM sleep boosts creative problem-solving. In fact, because the topic interests me so much, I’ve probably read a hundred or so such articles and a few books as well (such as, A Whack on the Side of the Head: How You Can Be More Creative). Getting sufficient Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep is an essential part of the creative process. In graphing my own productivity over the years, I’ve found a correlation between the quantity of REM sleep (and most especially, remembered dreams) and the quality of my output. Sometimes quantity is also affected by REM sleep, but the best writing I’ve done is when I’ve had enough REM sleep.

The onset of REM sleep usually occurs about 90 minutes after falling asleep. The sleep cycle varies between light and REM sleep depending on the person. A number of other factors also seem to play a role in my own personal sleep cycle. For example, I tend to get more REM sleep after a day of moderate physical exertion, mixed with plenty of research time (non-writing time). Eating no more than two hours before I go to bed is also a factor and I also try to create a restful environment conducive to sleep. In fact, more than once I’ve taken a two hour nap after performing research to overcome writer’s block. The technique works quite often. (Shorter nap times don’t appear to provide any advantage because the REM sleep cycle may not even occur or is of insufficient length to derive a solution to the problem at hand.)

As part of the dreaming cycle, I’m often able to employ lucid dreaming techniques (or what is commonly called directed dreaming). However, more often than not I simply wake with the answers to the questions I had when I went to sleep and quickly write them down. It’s a technique authors have used successfully over the centuries to great effect.

The point is that REM sleep is a required component for many creative endeavors. It’s not just authors who require REM sleep, but anyone who is involved in any sort of creative effort. A lack of REM sleep may be why engineers on a team are unable to create a useful solution to problems or why developers write buggy code. There is certainly nothing mysterious about the process, except why more people don’t employ it.

What is your take on REM sleep? Do you ever stuff your head full of information and then go take a nap to solve problems? If not, would you be willing to give the technique a try after reading this article? Let me know your thoughts (and the results of any experiments) at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

Odd Nature of Chicken Eyes

When it comes to thinking about how input is perceived, few people think about chickens. However, the whole range of perception has attracted my attention because I see the topics as being interrelated in various ways. I find it interesting that chickens actually have a kind of vision that most of us can’t really imagine. For one thing, instead of the orderly array of cones that humans have, chickens have a disorderly set of cones that actually rely on a different state of matter from those in human eyes. Chickens see color better than humans do and they see a wider range of colors. Humans see red, green, and blue. Chickens see red, green, and blue as well, but they can also see ultraviolet and have a special motion detecting cone (for a total of five cone types to our three).

There are a number of reasons I’m interested in the topic. Of course, we raise chickens and the more I know about them, the better. My interest goes way beyond just raising the chickens though. When I wrote Accessibility for Everybody: Understanding the Section 508 Accessibility Requirements, I experimented with all sorts of techniques for improving a human’s ability to interact with the world. A lot of people might think the book is focused on special needs, but really, it’s focused on accessibility of all sorts for everyone. When a hunter uses a scope to see a long distance in order to hit a mark, it’s a form of interaction that could easily fall into the accessibility category. The hunter is compensating for the lack of long range vision by using a scope (an accessibility aid of sorts). The scientific examination of chicken eyes could lead to discoveries that will help us create accessibility aids that will allow humans to see a vast array of new colors naturally, rather than through color translation (where a color we can’t see is translated into a color we can see), as is done now.

The potential for such study goes even further. Most people don’t realize that men are naturally less able to see color than women. For example, 8 percent of men are colorblind, but only 1/2 of one percent of women have the same problem and usually to a lesser degree. Even odder, some women possess a fourth cone so they can see a vast array of colors that most people can’t even imagine. Only women have this ability. However, it might be possible to provide men with the same color perception through the use of an accessibility aid—one possibly modeled on the research done on chicken eyes.

The ways in which this research could help us out are nearly endless. For example, we rely on the superior smell capabilities of trained dogs to sniff out bombs and drugs. Chickens, as it turns out, can be trained as well (not to the degree that dogs are trainable, unfortunately). It might be possible to train chickens to alert to color discrepancies that only they can see. We could use trained chickens in the same way we currently use dogs.

There are other ways in which this research could benefit us. The actual chemistry of a chicken’s eye is unique. Studying the chemistry and discovering how it works could yield new compounds for us to use.

We look at various animals and think they’re only useful in one way. However, the more time I spend interacting with our animals, the more I come to realize that they really are useful in a host of ways. The next time you look at a laying hen, consider the fact that she can see things you’ll never even imagine. Let me know your thoughts about chickens, the unique nature of chicken eyes, and accessibility at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

Regaining the Sense of Touch

A lot of my accessibility posts have focused on regaining function—the ability to perform a task using a prosthetic devices. Recently, there has been some development of touch. In fact, I reported on it most recently in my Continuing Development of Accessibility Aids post. Until now, the ability to feel has been limited to motor perception—how the prosthetic is moving through space and when it touches some other object. A new development makes it possible for the prosthetic to do more. The sense of touch can now include discovering the size and shape of items, as well as whether the item is hard, medium, or soft in consistency. The combination of motor, shape, and hardness touch makes it possible for someone to perform a considerably wider range of tasks using the prosthetic.

There are still quite a number of things missing from the picture. For example, a prosthetic can’t feel heat or cold just yet. It also can’t feel texture, except in the most unrefined manner. There is also no sensation of pain. So there is still a long way to go before the prosthetic could completely replace the biological equivalent, but the technology is getting closer.

The reason that this change is so important to readers of Accessibility for Everybody: Understanding the Section 508 Accessibility Requirements is that this prosthetic has the potential to make computers truly usable for those with special mobility needs. With a refined sense of touch, someone with a prosthetic could potentially use a standard computer that doesn’t require any specialized hardware or software. In fact, it means that someone equipped with this kind of prosthetic device could use the entire range of input devices, including touch screens. In short, the playing field would finally be completely level for this group of people. I find the idea really exciting because it has been so long in coming.

Of course, the impact of such a change extends far beyond computer and other technology use. Imagine how it would feel to be able to pick up a grape or an egg for the first time after not being able to do so for an extended time-frame. It boggles the mind. We’re not quite to the same stage of development as presented in movies like Star Wars, but we’re getting there and at a relatively fast pace.

A bigger question is whether a prosthetic, no matter how functional, could ever really replace the biological counterpart. The answer to that question would have to be a resounding no. Even if the prosthetic functions exactly like a real human hand, or even extends what a human can do to some degree, it’s still not quite the same emotionally as having the real body part. Geordi LaForge (Star Trek) expressed the concept best when he kept seeking a counterpart to the visor he wore. Yes, the visor gave him eyesight. In fact, the visor presented him with eyesight that exceeded human capacity, but it still wasn’t the real thing.

What are your thoughts on the current trends in prosthetic development? Do you feel prosthetic devices will ever truly duplicate human functionality? Let me know at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

Considering Perception in User Interface Design

I read a couple of articles recently that reminded me of a user interface design discussion I once had with a friend of mine. First, let’s discuss the articles. The first, New Record for Human Brain: Fastest Time to See an Image, says that humans can actually see something in as little as 13 ms. That short time frame provides the information the brain needs to target a point of visual focus. This article leads into the second, ‘Sixth Sense’ Can Be Explained by Science. In this case, the author explains how the sixth sense that many people relate as being supernatural in origin is actually explainable through scientific means. The brain detects a change—probably as a result of that 13 ms view—and informs the rest of the mind about it. However, the change hasn’t been targeted for closer inspection, so the viewer can’t articulate the change. In short, you know the change is there, but you can’t say what has actually changed.

So, you might wonder what this has to do with site design. It turns out that you can use these facts to help focus user attention on specific locations on your site. Now, I’m not talking here about the use of subliminal perception, which is clearly illegal in many locations. Rather, it’s possible to do as a friend suggested in designing a site and change a small, but noticeable, element each time a page is reloaded. Of course, you need not reload the entire page. Technologies such as Asynchronous JavaScript And XML (AJAX) make it possible to reload just a single element as needed. (Of course, changing a single element in a desktop application is incredibly easy because nothing special is needed to do it.) The point of making this change is to cause the viewer to look harder at the element you most want them to focus on. It’s just another method for ensuring that the right area of a page or other user interface element gets viewed.

However, the articles also make for interesting thoughts about the whole issue of user interface design. Presentation is an important part of design. Your application must use good design principles to attract attention. However, these articles also present the idea of time as a factor in designing the user interface. For example, the order in which application elements load is important because the brain can perceive the difference. You might not consciously register that element A loaded some number of milliseconds sooner than element B, but subconsciously, element A attracts more attention because it registered first and your brain targeted it first.

As science continues to probe the depths of perception, it helps developers come up with more effective ways in which to present information in a way that enhances the user experience and the benefit of any given application to the user. However, in order to make any user interface change effective, you must apply it consistently across the entire application and ensure that the technique isn’t used to an extreme. Choosing just one element per display (whether a page, window, or dialog box) to change is important. Otherwise, the effectiveness of the technique is diluted and the user might not notice it at all.

What is your take on the use of perception as a means of controlling the user interface? Do you feel that subtle techniques like the ones described in this post are helpful? Let me know your thoughts at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

Controlling the Body

It surprises me when I think about all the injuries that leave a body part perfectly usable, but unreachable. An arm would still work if the brain could contact it, but something prevents that contact. In some cases, the loss of contact is permanent and is reestablished though physical and occupational therapy. However, in other cases, the loss of contact is permanent and another solution for creating that contact must be found. Both scenarios have seen technical improvements as of late.

As an example of the first, where contact is temporarily lost, students have been experimenting with techniques for taking control of someone else’s limbs. When I first read this article I thought about the scary implications that loss of control can present. However, what if the person doesn’t actually have control? A therapist could take control of the limb in order to help a patient regain control or to make it easier to exercise the limb in a natural way so there is less loss of muscle mass. Both uses are important. Using a person’s own muscles to help them move around and become reacquainted with their body after a severe accident makes sense especially when you see some of the convoluted measures that therapists must use now to work with a patient from the outside.

As an example of the second, where contact is permanently lost (or the limb is actually missing), science is starting to figure out how to create new connections. For example, it’s now possible to connect a robotic leg that a patient controls using the same brain waves that a leg would naturally use. The technology is currently in its infancy, but progress is being made. In another five or six years, it might be possible to see people who have permanent loss of contact with a limb or the need to use artificial limbs walking around without any problem at all.

It’s exciting to think of the possibilities. Both technologies will make it a lot easier to help someone with special needs regain full mobility. Ultimately, the incapacitation or loss of a limb will become less life changing. Yes, there will be some amount of time spent in rehabilitation, but the change won’t be permanent. Of course, it’s going to be a long time before even these technologies will help someone do anything too dramatic—basic walking and possibly light jogging will have to be enough. Would you allow someone take control of your limbs in order to help you regain your full capacity? Let me know at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

The Science Fiction Effect

I love reading science fiction. In fact, one of my favorite authors of all times is Isaac Asimov, but I’m hardly unique in that perspective. For many people, science fiction represents just another kind of entertainment. In fact, I’d be lying if I said that entertainment wasn’t a major contributor toward my love of science fiction. However, for me, science fiction goes well beyond mere entertainment. For me, it’s a motivator—a source of ideas and inspiration. So I recently read A Warp Speed Analysis on the Influence of Science Fiction with a great deal of interest. It seems that I’m not alone in my view that science fiction authors are often a source of creativity for real world scientists who see something that could be and make it into something that really is.

The science fiction effect has inspired me in both my consulting and writing over the years. For example, I’ve seen how science fiction authors treat those with special needs as if they don’t really have any special need at all—science has provided solutions that level the playing field for them. It’s the reason that I wrote Accessibility for Everybody: Understanding the Section 508 Accessibility Requirements and continue to write on accessibility topics. The whole idea that science could one day make it possible for everyone to live lives free of any physical encumbrance excites me more than just about anything else.

What I find most interesting is that the ability to turn science fiction into science fact receives real world emphasis by colleges and universities. For example, there is a course at MIT entitled, MAS S65: Science Fiction to Science Fabrication. Many articles, such as Why Today’s Inventors Need to Read More Science Fiction, even encourage scientists to read science fiction as a means of determining how their inventions might affect mankind as a whole. The point is that the creativity of science fiction authors has real world implications.

Now, before I get a huge pile of e-mail decrying my omission of other genres of writing—I must admit that I do read other sorts of books. Currently I’m enjoying the robust historical fiction of Patrick O’Brian. I’ll eventually provide a review of the series, but it will take me a while to complete it. Still, other books focus on what was in the past, what is today, or what possibly might be—science fiction propels us into the future. The science fiction effect is real and I’m happy to say it has influenced me in a number of ways. How has science fiction affected you? Let me know at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

3D Printing Technology Safety

A number of people have written to comment about the Thinking About 3D Printing Technology post. Obviously, I still have a lot to learn about this technology and some of your questions have taken me quite by surprise (I’ll address some of them later, after I have conducted more research). I always appreciate it when you make me think through the topics I post because the conclusions I reach often make great fodder for book topics.

The one question that didn’t take me by surprise was one of safety. After all, it’s important to know that the output you create is safe. At the time I wrote that post, there was little on the topic of safety, which is why I didn’t include any sort of safety information. A recent article entitled, “3D-Printed Medical Devices Spark FDA Evaluation” tells that the issue of safety is on a lot of other people’s minds as well. The problem for the FDA is that it can’t actually test a printed medical device in any meaningful way and still allow a hospital to use the device in a reasonable time frame (such as in an emergency room), so it allows use of these printed devices on the basis of similarity to devices it has tested thoroughly. In other words, the printed output must match an existing device, except that it provides a custom fit for a particular patient.

I thought about that article for quite some time. It seems to tell me that the FDA is reviewing the issue of safety, but hasn’t come to any final conclusions yet. What I’m trying to do is weigh articles like this one against other articles that decry the complexity and problems of using 3D printing technology. For example, 3D printing: Don’t believe the hype states outright that many of the plastics used for 3D printers aren’t even food safe. I’m assuming that the FDA requires hospitals that rely on this technology to use the correct, safe, materials. Even so, the article does make one wonder about the safety of the materials provided for consumer-level products. Not many people will be able to afford a hospital grade device.

Safety extends beyond the end product, however, and this is where a true scarcity of information occurs. For example, when you melt some plastics, the process produces Hydrogen Cyanide (HCN), which is an extremely dangerous gas. I thought it fortunate that I found an article on the topic entitled, “Is 3D Printing Safe?” The short answer to seems to be yes, 3D printing is relatively safe, but you’ll want to ensure you have proper ventilation when doing so.

This whole issue of safety does concern me because new technologies often have hidden safety issues that are later corrected after someone encounters them (usually with unfortunate results). Like any tool, a 3D printer isn’t a toy—it is a device for creating some type of specific output. For the most part, I’d recommend against letting children use such a device without parental supervision (preferably by a parent who has actually read the manual).  I’d like to hear more of your concerns about 3D printing at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

Thinking About 3D Printing Technology

Any Star Trek fan will tell you that the replicator technology shown in the show is treated as an ordinary occurrence that isn’t so ordinary today. In fact, a number of the ordinary objects, such as communicators, in the show have become reality and some of them are becoming so common that they’re ordinary to us too. Compare a smartphone to a communicator and you realize that the Star Trek creators didn’t actually go far enough—smartphones are actually a lot better than communicators. This makes me wonder if 3D printers might become the replicators of the future.

There has been a lot of news lately about three-dimensional (3D) printing technology. The idea behind the technology is simultaneously easy and complex. The simple part is that a printer adds layer upon layer of one or more substances to create some type of object. The object is described as part of a drawing. Of course, the drawing must indicate all sorts of things in addition to the overall appearance of the 3D object, including which substances to use and what color to make them as needed. Creating a precise description of everything needed to create a real world object can be a complex undertaking and some objects defy simple description.

As with any new technology, 3D printing has plenty of hype surrounding it (such as the printer being able to pay for itself in as little as a year). In fact, hype is a problem because it builds unrealistic expectations. Anything you read about 3D printing today is in an experimental stage for the most part. John Dvorak explores the problems with the hype in his post, “Enough With the 3D Printer Hype Already.” Yes, creating a gun using a 3D printer is doable, but result isn’t really usable today (tomorrow may be another story). However, I get the feeling that many detractors haven’t read quite as much as they should before making a judgement about 3D printing and the sorts of things it can do.

There are other uses for 3D printing that only large organizations can afford. For example, I read about the use of 3D printing technology to create artificial reefs in the August edition of National Geographic (in the Next section). The printer is the size of a house and produces an 1,100 pound result that really isn’t in the realm of something that most people would want to create. However, it’s a useful output of 3D printing technology that is in use today. In fact, there are many uses for 3D printing today, but it’s important to remember that this technology is in its infancy.

Although many of the uses for 3D printing that you read about are for common objects that we can produce less expensively and with greater precision using other technologies, it’s the uses that aren’t available today that intrigue me most. For example, you can use a 3D printer to create a tiny lithium battery. This battery is the size of a grain of sand. You might wonder where a battery like that might see use. Of course, use in spy gear comes to mind immediately, but a more productive use is in medical equipment where battery size is currently a problem.

In fact, for now at least, the main practical area of 3D printing may be for medical use. There was a recent story that talked about doctors printing an emergency airway tube to save a baby’s life. What most people don’t realize is that hospitals don’t typically carry standard airway tubes in the right size for infants because the number of sizes needed would be quite large. In this case, printing proved to be the only practical way to create an airway tube sized for this particular child.

Of course, not every medical use will save lives in such a dramatic fashion. Many uses will be more mundane. For example, a doctor could print a new ear or a new bone for you when needed. Some of the medical techniques use cells from a person’s own body, which makes the risk of rejection quite small. However, even these articles state that this particular use of 3D printing technology is still experimental. The point though is that the technology is being tried in these areas and the result is something that you can’t easily manufacture.

Creating objects using 3D printers is a reality. The cost of those printers is also decreasing in at least some cases. However, the technology is still quite new and you need to take what you read with a grain of salt. Eventually, you’ll likely see 3D printer technology used in a way that makes those replicators on the Enterprise pale by comparison. Let me know your thoughts about 3D printing technology at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

Using Tooltips on a Web Page

Some developers focus on functionality, rather the usability, when designing their Web pages. The tradeoff is usually a bad one because users favor usability—they want things simple. One of the issues that I find most annoying on some sites is the lack of tooltips—little balloons that pop up and give you more information about a particular item. Adding tooltips requires little extra time, yet provides several important benefits to the end user:

  • Less experienced users obtain useful information for performing tasks such as filling out a form.
  • More experienced users obtain additional information about a given topic or the endpoint of a link.
  • Special needs users gain additional information required to make their screen readers functional.
  • Developers are reminded precisely why an object is included on the page in the first place.

In short, there are several good reasons to include tooltips. The only reason not to include them is that you feel they take too much time to add. One of the added articles for HTML5 Programming with JavaScript For Dummies is entitled, “How to Create Friendlier Pages Using Tooltips.” This free extra for your book tells you precisely how to add tooltips (it demonstrates two methods, in fact) and shows how they appear on screen. The article is provided to help you obtain a better understanding of what my book is about and also helps you discover whether you like my writing style and manner of presenting information.

If you already have my book and find that you want additional information on making your site more accessible so that everyone can use it, check out another one of my books, Accessibility for Everybody: Understanding the Section 508 Accessibility Requirements. This book contains all of the information you’ll ever need to address every accessibility issue for any kind of application you want to create.

Accessibility is becoming more and more of a concern as the world’s population ages. In fact, everyone will eventually need some type of accessibility assistance if they live long enough. If you’re a developer, adding something as simple as tooltips to your pages can make them significantly easier to use. Users should request the addition of accessibility aids when sites lack them (and vote with their pocketbook when site owners refuse to add them). Let me know your thoughts about accessibility in general and tooltips in specific at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.