Monthly Archives: May 2007

Social network capacity

I’m just listening to this week’s /Talkshow, which features Leisa Reichelt talking to Stowe Boyd. I’ve been following Leisa’s blog Disambiguity since I came across her Ambient Intimacy concept, and been following her Twitters. One of those instances where social networking tools have produced a worthwhile strand of interest.

— wiggly flashback sequence —

A few months ago I was driving home from Hursley and listening to Radio 4’s comedy programme The Ape That Got Lucky (now out on CD! also available on iTunes). I actually only caught a single episode – the second one in the series – Social Development.

There’s a section of the programme (about 7m 20s in) where they discuss the limits of the size of crowds and tribes. It is obviously a comedy, so it is presented in a humorous manner, but I found the discussion quite intriguing. The idea is that tribes used to expand in size to around 80-120 in number, but that was as large as they ever got… and even today, our brains are configured to cope with around the same number of people as acquaintances as our primitive ancestors were. Today we live in “super tribes” in cities, but we still have a limit to the number of people we can cope with… so now we break our networks into smaller tribes: associating with clubs, countries, cities and so on.

I immediately began to think about social networks. How many acquaintances can I reasonably keep track of?

— end flashback —

This same concept – the Dunbar constant of 150 – comes up in /Talkshow (about 9m in)… do the new social networking tools allow us to stretch the number? Can we keep up with more people?

My Sametime list at work probably has a few hundred people in it, but I still only regularly keep in touch with around 10 people via IM. If I look around at my online presences, I have the same groups of people in my lists on Last.FM, Twitter, Dopplr and other networks – and the sizes of those lists are relatively limited – so I probably do keep up with some people better. I think I would find it difficult to keep up with more than around 150, and certainly “intimately”. I’m increasingly relying on the ability to annotate contacts in my IM list to remember where I met them, what I know them for… a sure sign that my brain is running out of capacity for remembering things!

I’m fairly sure that the Dunbar number does apply to social software. I’m loving the network I have, but this week I started to reject people on LinkedIn and remove some people from Twitter as I couldn’t take in all the information – it was becoming noise, or I didn’t feel I’d be able to maintain the relationship well enough. The challenge is that I don’t want to allow this to prevent me from reaching out to new people in the future. I need to start trimming the list of feeds I read, for instance, to make room for new ones.

I’ve mentioned before that social networking tools have enabled me to enrich my physical network. I come back to the point that it is important to maintain a network, and develop it, through meetings in person where possible… dovetailing neatly into the fact that I’m getting together with Al Wood this evening, thanks to some monkchips-originated winedrinking, and subsequent blogging and Twittering 🙂

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Playing around with Skitch

I’m sat in Edinburgh airport and thought I’d have a play with Skitch.

Skitch is a new screenshot / drawing tool for OS X. It is currently in closed beta. The application is by, the makers of Comic Life. It is ridiculously easy to use – and very cool.

The interface takes a little getting used to, as it departs from some of the UI conventions that we’ve come to expect. No menu bar. Preferences on the “back” of the window, more like a Dashboard widget. The tools and features are kept to a minimum. But, no problem – when you first start it, a small screencast leads you through the features and the way the tool works. It really is very easy.

You can quickly grab the screen, part of the screen, or take an iSight photo… and then resize it by dragging the window corners, which physically resizes the image inside it. To crop or expand, you grab the edges of the image inside the window, and drag. Once you’ve got something to play with, there are a series of simple drawing and shape tools, and a limited palette of colours. There is also a very cool text tool – simply start typing and your text will appear. To resize the text or change the thickness of the lines, there is a size slider on the left of the window.


Even cooler is the fact that all of the stuff that you do to the image is automatically done on layers, so text and lines can be moved around later – Skitch also keeps an image history so that you can quickly find stuff you’ve edited before.

To save, you simply “rip” off a tab at the bottom of the window, having typed a filename and chosen from one of the formats (JPG, PNG, SVF, PDF or the Skitch format which preserves layers, so that you can exchange the editable file with friends). There is also the ability to email, or you can upload to a web service like Flickr, an FTP server, or Skitch’s own mySkitch site at the click of a button.

I love it. It’s so simple. It took a little bit of getting in to, but now I’m using it more, I find it so quick and easy. Definitely one to watch, for Mac users.

As for Firefox, he’s not my friend anymore. Why use 70% of my CPU when there’s no network connection and the application is minimised and idle?

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New compact camera

(aka Vegas toys, exhibit 2)

It’s a while since I got back from Las Vegas, and I still haven’t posted everything I wanted to write about.

For a while now, I’ve been wanting to pick up a small digital camera as a sidearm / for situations when I didn’t have a DSLR handy. I’d previously owned a compact – a Fuji 5700 which was ~3-4MP, and which I’ve now passed on to my father-in-law. I got frustrated with that due to the lack of creative options as I was getting into photography more seriously, and moved up to the Canon EOS 350D. However, I’ve been to Vegas several times in the last few years, and not had a camera with me, so I was beginning to get itchy. And some days I just want to go out without a large bag with SLR and a selection of lenses!

So, I popped in to the large branch of Fry’s just out of town and spent some time browsing their selection.

I was pretty sure I wanted a Canon IXUS. I actually wasn’t going to force myself into it, but the selection criteria were essentially:

  • very small
  • optical viewfinder
  • 7MP or better
  • NOT taking Memory Stick (so Sony was out), and preferably not xD either (so Olympus and Fuji were not high on the list)
  • preferably with image stabilisation (IS)

Ixus 850 ISThe Canon PowerShot SD800 IS Digital Elph / IXUS 850 IS met all of those criteria. Although the LCD is 2.5 inch rather than anything larger, it retains the optical viewfinder, which both Ola and I prefer to have available alongside the digital display on the back.

The other IXUS on display was 10MP (I think) and cheaper, but had no IS. Besides, that many pixels on a small sensor are going to lead to more noise.

When the sales guy rang it through on the till, it ended up $50 cheaper than on the label, and they also threw in a 2Gb SD card for a knockdown price (the camera itself came with a <sarcasm>HUGE</sarcasm> 16Mb SD card… I mean… wow). The 2Gb is a slow card, so I’ll almost certainly pick up a faster one at some point, but it’s enough to be getting on with. The camera is also compatible with the new high capacity SDHC standard, too, so should be fairly future proof.

Credit has to go to the folks who came electronics shopping with me, for waiting while I dithered over whether to buy a camera at all; and to Alex and Ben for having the patience to put up with my verbal deliberations on the subject.

So far I’ve made use of it in Vegas, and on travels to Windsor and Edinburgh, and Ola has taken it to Paris. Impressions are good. It’s totally pocketable. Image quality is pretty good. The only issues I have are that the lens shows some distortion at the wide end, there is a little bit of fringing on some of the detail, and the exposure can be a bit… err, playful (but then, I’d rather not have to shoot against plain grey clouded skies). It’s not the same as a DSLR, and I need to accept that. I’m sure I’ve barely explored the functions yet, so I’m looking forward to using it a little more.

Images taken with the IXUS are tagged with ‘ixus’ on my Flickr photostream.

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RIA will lead to bad user interfaces?

Web Worker Daily makes the excellent point that the new wave of tools and technologies for building web applications could lead to some bad user interfaces:

With the wave of tools like Apollo, Microsoft’s Silverlight, and Sun’s JavaFX coming out, we’re going to have powerful visual design tools in the hands of developers who have little or no idea what works in graphic design.

Tools like widgets / gadgets have already made the whole desktop user experience much more fragmented. Does this matter?

I’d argue that too many application UIs have been built by low-level developers in the past, and have been far too complex. Back in the days when I produced software for UK schools[1], I used to think we[2] were good at this, but the fact is that we were developers and advanced users, and those kinds of individuals rarely understand what makes a good interface design.

Desktop environments like OS X and GNOME have tried to enforce consistency via user interface guidelines. I’ve read that Vista has a bunch of contradictory interfaces (“standard” buttons in different places with different icons and behaviours in different applications), but I haven’t played with it enough to know. Apple’s interfaces, and tools such as Adobe Lightroom, are far more user and task-centric (in my opinion), which is what makes them nice to use.

Will Rich Internet Applications make the computing experience more confusing for users, or will they be an unqualified success? I think there is certainly going to continue to be a case for understanding good interaction patterns and graphics and UI design.

[1] 15 years ago, fact fans…

[2] PTW Software, which I’m sure none of my readers will be aware of… we wrote educational software for RISC OS / Acorn computers

Minibar London, May 25th

Just had a reminder e-mail from Christian that the next Minibar is coming up, this time with a focus on geolocation and mapping services.

[ entry ]

This fits in with my interest in services like Plazes and Dopplr, geotagging, and cool gadgets. I’ll definitely be making an effort to make it.

Dale should probably come along, too 🙂