Thinking lazily about notifications and alerts: Part 3

[Note to readers: For those coming into this cold, I wrote Part 1 and Part 2 early in January; this one, Part 3, will be followed by a handful more in weeks to come].

I think of sensors this way: every piece of equipment capable of sensing something and sending me information about that something is in effect extending my own set of senses. A security camera outside the house extends my eyesight. If it is capable of night vision, it extends my ability to see. If it is linked to a network and allows me to “see” from afar, it allows me to sense remotely. If it has the capacity to retain what it sees and allows me to query it at a later date, it allows me to “see” into the past, to travel in time as well and in space.


Kevin Kelly (one of my favourite authors)

Sensors extend our natural senses. As I mentioned in an earlier post, this is very much in keeping with Kevin Kelly’s assertion that technology speeds up evolution. [I love having a reason to re-read essays in his Technium. Something I would commend you do, it is well worth the while].

It’s not just about enhancing an existing sense or extending the sensing capacity over distance or over time. We are also on the threshold of “sensing” new things, things we could not sense before, things that haven’t existed for long. Nobody thinks twice about our current ability to “sense” (via satnav apps) the nearest ATM, the nearest fuel selling unit, the nearest electric car charging facility.

Yup, our smart devices, and their ecosystems of hardware extensions (sometimes as wearables) and software apps, they’re all part of our rapidly expanding sensory network. Some form of Extra Sensory Perception is now reality.

It doesn’t stop there. It’s now been a few years since I first read about how we’re bringing sensors closer to home, not just by wearing them or hanging them off our smart devices, but by implanting them. Cochlear implants that, while improving our sense of hearing, also throw in, for the heck of it, an ability to sniff out wifi signal and compass direction, just to give a few examples. I guess it will only be a matter of time before people gain “x-ray vision” or an ability to see through walls. Time to dust off that William Gibson mantra again. The future’s already here, it’s just not very evenly distributed.

Some of our technology-enabled extra-sensory ability to solve time and distance issues have existed for a while. The security guard in a room somewhere looking at a wall of screens, checking for exceptions. The recording capacity attached to surveillance cameras. All ways to “sense” something and receive that sensing in a different place or at a different time.

Prior to that, the technology used to do the remote sensing was cruder. Mountain and Mahomet time. Since the remote place couldn’t come to you, you went to the remote place physically. Before video cameras, security guards used to do the rounds the old-fashioned way. Expensive, inefficient but reasonably effective. Most of you must have seen films set in the Second World War where prisoners of war escape only when the security guard is at the aphelion of his personal orbit vis-a-vis the would-be escapees.

We’ve seen this movie before. Before telephones we couldn’t speak over any real distance. Telephones conquered the distance problem, but not the time one. If the party you wished to speak to wasn’t there, tough. No tickee no washee. Then came a time when people took messages for you if you weren’t there. And left them by the phone, so you had to get to the phone to see them. Then came answerphones that looked like tape recorders, attached to the phone. The message taking facility had become a little more automated. Then you could query those messages remotely. And the capacity to hold messages increased rapidly. And then the message could call you.

That telephone-message movie is now playing out for pretty much every form of notification or alert there is.


Firehoses of notifications and alerts.

So they need filters before they can be rendered useful.

Notification Class 3, Houston We Have a Problem, is a filtering mechanism. Conditional, with thresholds that can be set in advance and changed at will. Some of you will be used to IFTTT, If This Then That. Houston We Have a Problem needs IFTTT for notifications, nothing more. You don’t want the firehose. You want to know only if some exception condition is met or breached. If the doorbell rings and the only person in the house is my aged aunt who doesn’t hear too well, then make the bell ring more loudly, or make a pre-agreed light fitting flash. You get my drift. Establish the threshold for something that can be sensed remotely, then establish the notification process that is triggered when the threshold is passed.

There is a lot more to be done with the notification process in such contexts, in terms of the devices alerted, the timing of the alerts, the route taken (sound, light, movement, etc), whether the alert is persisted for later inspection, whether time series of the alerts are themselves persisted, whether there is a need for acknowledgement of the notification (and that’s a notification in itself).

Imagine the drudgery of building maintenance and you can see just how efficient it can become. No need to inspect the bulbs, batteries, toilets, rubbish chutes, whatever. Remote sensors will tell you when a threshold condition is breached. Maintenance by exception.

Enough on Class 3 for now. The next class of notification is I Am Here. The best way to think of this one is as the answer to the question “Dude, Where’s My Stuff?”. There’s a lot of motion in life, lots of stuff moving around. And people want to know about the state of that thing in motion. Are you on the train, on your way home yet? Did you get my letter? Where’s the dress I ordered? Where’s Kevin? Where’s Wally? Did you get my cheque? (No, not the one’s that’s “in the post”, along with Billy Bunter’s Postal Order or the homework that the dog ate).

Fundamentally, I Am Here signals the current position of something in motion. The requester of the notification wants to know that Elvis has Left the Building. That the Package Has Arrived. That the Train has Passed Clapham Junction. Whatever.

So many notifications, so little time. Filters needed. We need to be able to subscribe to the notifications sensibly, so there’s a pub-sub approach needed. We need to have some way of signalling conditional routing, not just about the thresholds to be tested against, but also the routes taken by the notification, the timing of the notifications, and the devices to which the notifications will be sent.

That’s enough on I Am Here for now. I will deal with further classes of notification, and start building on the subscription models and threshold conditions in later posts.







Time travel

On any given day I get sent maybe 20-25 messages through one communications channel or other, with links to new sites or apps. Most of them are of no value to me at all. Maybe I’m growing old. A friend sent me a link today; I can usually rely on him to send me interesting things, so I took a look. This, despite the site and app having one of those oh-so-oughties names.


I tried it. Not having to register in order to try it out helped, that was a big plus for me. Chose Canada, Slow, 1970s. And up came Neil Young and Vampire Blues. After a while switched to India, stayed Slow and 1970s. And I was served Ananda Shankar and Raghupati. Registered straightaway. Downloaded the app as well. I like being able to vary how I want to engage with such things.

It’s still in beta, and I’m still learning about the site. Some categories are empty. I have no idea how many people have uploaded music, but that number feels low at present, I see the same names come up a few times. That may have to do with the selections I’m making.

I’m intrigued by the Share and by the Buy options song by song; the prominence given to the uploader suggests that over time this is going to become a with an edgier UI.

The ability to time-travel around a music site is itself not new; neither is the serendipity offered in various forms. I couldn’t help but smile when I saw India turn to British India when I chose 1930. But being served Yom Hashabat by Nathan Solomon Satimkar was, to say the least, unusual.


Radiooooo feels a bit like the first time I came across a food hall at a mall in the US. I was like a child in a sweetshop when I realised that I could choose to have something sensibly spicy while other family members could do their own thing, and we could still sit together and eat together.

That’s how I feel about the site right now. It’s fascinating to be able to mix genres so easily. It’s almost as if someone decided to build a mechanism by which each one of us could design our own StumbleUpon for music.

The ease with which I can get to, discover, shuffle through disparate times and places and genres is very attractive. There’s a long-tail aspect that soothes me, I’m not a hit-culture fan. I am even less a hit-culture fan when people I haven’t learnt to trust make the choices for me, but that’s another story.

I haven’t uploaded anything yet, nor shared anything so far. I’m still in early explorer mode.

But what I’ve seen so far, I like.

Radiooooo has possibilities. And I shall continue experimenting, and watch with interest.




Musing about Kurt Vonnegut and writing software

Kurt Vonnegut, who died earlier this year, was that rare breed, a sane and articulate maverick. I’ve read most of his stuff, and enjoyed everything I’ve read. His last book, A Man Without A Country, was a wonderful read.

4.13 Kurt Vonnegut

Some years before he died, as part of a collection of hitherto unpublished short stories called Bagombo Snuff Box, he wrote this:

“Now lend me your ears. Here is Creative Writing 101:

1. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.
2. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
4. Every sentence must do one of two things—reveal character or advance the action.
5. Start as close to the end as possible.
6. Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them—in order that the reader may see what they are made of.
7. Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.
8. Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To heck with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.”

When I read that, I could not help but think that we need a simple equivalent for software. Something along the lines of:

1. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.
2. Give the user at least one function or facility he or she can root for.
3. Every function should satisfy some user need, however basic.
4. Every screen should do one of two things: reveal new functions or extend an existing function.
5. ………..

You get my drift. Don’t be put off by my paltry attempt, but I was thinking of setting up a wiki with the text and inviting readers to submit their entries and to vote for the best, just for the crack. What do you think? Let me know if I should.

My thanks to Steve Brodner of for the drawing, I really think he captures something of Vonnegut’s attitude in it.

Musing about Agile

I’ve been catching up with my reading, and came across an intriguing post by Kathy Sierra. Headlined What Comes After Usability, it poses some very interesting questions. I quote from her post:

Unlike waterfalls (which run in one direction and don’t back up), spirals can produce software much more likely to match what users want. Spirals support usability, and usability drives the need for spiral development. But what comes after usability? And will new development approaches emerge to support it?

So, I guess I’m really asking two somewhat-related questions.

What are spirals? Kathy’s term for the family of techniques we know as Agile and XP and fast iteration, a term I happen to like. Here’s the context she uses it in:

Development models

Kathy puts forward the suggestion that what comes after usability is Flow, and, as you would expect, makes reference to the Godfather of Flow, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, and to his seminal book on the subject. By the way, she invites comment and opinion on her suggestion, so please join the fray at her site so that we can all learn from it.

While I was thinking about this, I was doing my usual thing and reading a number of other books and magazines in parallel. And one of the books I’ve been reading is quite unusual; it’s called Dreaming In Code, and it’s written by Scott Rosenborg, one of the co-founders of When I saw it was touted as “the first true successor to Tracy Kidder’s The Soul of a New Machine“, the Data General person in me couldn’t resist picking it up. And seeing recommendations from Steven Johnson and Dan Gillmor made sure I read it. [An aside. As a result of buying the book I’ve discovered Scott’s blog, Wordyard. Fascinating.]

In the book, Scott quotes from an interview he did with Joel Spolsky some time ago. While on the subject of methodologies, Joel is quoted as saying:

“The key problem with the methodologies is that, implemented by smart people, the kind of people who invent methodologies, they work. Implemented by shlubs who will not do anything more than following instructions they are given, they won’t work. Anyway, the majority of developers don’t read books about software development, they don’t read web sites about software development, they don’t even read Slashdot. So they’re never going to get this, no matter how much we keep writing about it.”

Incidentally, Scott makes reference to The Joel Test as part of this discussion, and it made me smile, just as it did when I first read it nearly seven years ago. If you haven’t seen it before, here are Joel’s Twelve Questions:

  1. Do you use source control?
  2. Can you make a build in one step?
  3. Do you make daily builds?
  4. Do you have a bug database?
  5. Do you fix bugs before writing new code?
  6. Do you have an up-to-date schedule?
  7. Do you have a spec?
  8. Do programmers have quiet working conditions?
  9. Do you use the best tools money can buy?
  10. Do you have testers?
  11. Do new candidates write code during their interview?
  12. Do you do hallway usability testing?

Anyone feel up to updating those 12 questions, to make them relevant to today’s context? [Yes, I do realise that the anti-Agile crew will probably insist that no such update is necessary… the same crew who claim that opensource is anti-innovation and anti-capitalist and anti-I-don’t-know-what-else….]

Apologies for the ramble. What point am I trying to make?

Well, let’s start with Scott. One of the points he makes with real vehemence is the importance of constraints. I quote from his book:

Despite the odds — despite complexity and delay and unpredictable change — a lot of software does get written and delivered and, finally, used. Occasionally, it’s even good. Rarely, it actually does something new and valuable. And in a handful of cases, it achieves all of that on schedule.

Very often, in those rare cases, success is a by-product of iron-willed restraint — a choice firmly made and vociferously reasserted at every challenge to limit a project’s scope. Where you find software success stories, you invariably find people who are good at saying no. Like an artist who deliberately limits his pallet to one colour, a poet who chooses to write a sonnet instead of free verse, or a manufacturer who chooses to serve one small product niche, the successful programmer thrives because of, not in spite of, constraints.

if you’re interested in software development, you should read the book. Scott goes on to explain and develop the experience at 37 signals, an experience that really underlines the importance of user stories, in documenting what the user expects to see, touch, feel and do.

Then we move on to Kathy, who speaks about the need to move from usability and into flow, a state where the user is too busy enjoying what she is doing, too busy to critique or snipe at the software. Flow is when the user experience is no longer submerged in the software, but instead elevated to the outcomes that the software make possible.

Which brings me back full circle to a recent post of mine, where I was talking about Patricia Seybold’s new book, Outside Innovation. The excitement and the challenge of customer-created anything.
The excitement and challenge of helping make that happen.

Remember what Peter Drucker said all those years ago, something I’ve quoted before:

Shoes are real. Money is an end result.

Customers don’t want software, they want the things they can make and do because of the software.

When we speak of customer experience, it is not about the software, it is about the things they can make and do. That’s where the flow is, that’s where the joy and the magic are. I still remember the joy I had when I played my first Star Trek style game on a Commodore Pet, when I played my first text-driven adventure game on a Burroughs 6800, when I played my first game of Rats on a B20. Ah yes, nostalgia.

Whose joy? The customer’s. Who is in the Zone, who’s experiencing the flow? The customer. Who can define what that experience is? The customer.

Which is why everything we build should be built around user stories.

And that’s why I’m Confused. How come everyone doesn’t use Agile?

Four Pillars: Thinking about sand and broccoli

I’ve always been intrigued by what people actually do in services firms; I’ve worked in them all my life, and I have yet to figure it out completely. Why? Because every time I look, the daily “outputs” of individuals mystify me, yet everyone appears really busy. Weird.

I used to understand how things worked, but lost my way after we discovered “productivity tools” and “end-user computing”. Ever since people started using spreadsheets and presentation tools, all the service industry rules changed for me. And I understood less and less.

Maybe I’m a dinosaur.

You see, I understood how individuals could use the spreadsheets and presentation tools, and I thought it was great. Then, when I saw some semblance of group work in these contexts, I thought I understood, and I hoped it would be great.

But the reality was different.

People spent incredible amounts of time producing the spreadsheets and presentations. People spent even more incredible amounts of time changing these things, arguing about what was in them, comparing the “content” with other sources of the same “content”. People spent time trying to acquire preview copies of spreadsheets and presentations; trying to influence what they contained; trying to differentiate what their particular thing said in comparison to what someone else’s thing said.

These productivity tools became the playthings of politicians. Particularly in large organisations. You know what I mean. It’s a bit like finding out that a GANTT chart was suddenly more important than the code deliverables it represented. [I know, I know, I’ve met those project managers as well….charlatans.]

The playgrounds that were called Meeting Minutes started looking deserted, as the serious players went on to bigger and better things. The power of presentation and graphics. And, particularly in Europe, the power of the spreadsheet. [Many years ago, I remember reading an unusual paper called Britain’s Right and Left Handed Companies, written by a professor from Warwick. His first name was probably Peter, his surname was short, perhaps only four letters, I can’t remember any more. But he looked deeply into this “figures” mentality and its European roots, and how it affected companies, particularly those in the UK]

Yes, I know I’m painting the lily. [Painting, not gilding. Gilding is what one does to refined gold]. But I digress.

Why am I so worked up about this, so much so that, explicitly, I didn’t allow for spreadsheets and slideware in Four Pillars?

Simple. Because these things are often lies. Without substance. They don’t need to be based on anything. Which makes the process of comparison and challenge and validation and verification truly painful. Yet everyone swears by them. Emperors and New Clothes. Everyone swears by them and everyone wastes incredible time using them. Unproductivity tools.

I think of spreadsheets and slideware in the same way I think of DRM. They pollute the path. Why do you think auditors the world over pore over and challenge ‘end user computing”, “desktop computing”, “spreadsheet computing” and their likes?

Which sane person would actually implement business processes that crystallised swivel-chairs all over the place? Let’s face it, that’s what we did. We didn’t learn from all the attempts at “Business Intelligence” and “Data Mining”. We didn’t learn from the prior pain of having implemented stand-alone non-referential systems. We went and enshrined all this in the way we work. No wonder ERP systems never delivered on their savings promises.

This is why I see no space for spreadsheets and presentation tools in Four Pillars.

There’s no point just ranting on about something, no point unless I suggest alternatives, new ways of working.

Plants 7 Bg 082104

So I want to talk about broccoli.

Not really, except for the fractal bit. I think there’s something Small-Pieces-Loosely-Joined about the way we work today, something High-Cohesion-And-Loose-Coupling, that means that everyone deals with fairly well-formed items of work. Not piecemeal Assembly-Line, the way the productivity experts tried to make service industries work for the last fifty years. Somehow, we’ve gone and used concepts of workflow to break up tasks that cannot and should not be broken up, so that we felt happy in our assembly line cocoons and security blankets. Somehow we haven’t cared about the impact on our productivity, because we’ve had spreadsheets and presentations to hide behind. Standalone spreadsheets and presentations.

Now, with Web 2.0 tools and Web 2.0 ways of working, these things are changing. Tasks are becoming more fractal, and the information inputs and outputs are similarly fractal. Who knows, maybe we’re actually discovering what Object should have meant. I think that’s why I found what Sigurd Rinde was doing at Thingamy so fascinating. There was something about the way he looked at enterprise financial information that really jelled with me. He definitely saw through the clothes that weren’t there.

Which brings me to sand. Granularity. Granularity in the context of Four Pillars.

When I looked at the way Search, Publishing, Fulfilment and Conversation work, I realised more and more that there’s something different about the way we interact with information now. There are small pieces, for sure, but the pieces are beautifully formed and whole. Not sliced and diced to nothingness. Not summarised up the wazoo.

Now, when we see a summary of something, we can dig into what it represents. Dig and dig and dig until we go to the source. [In fact many years ago, not long after I started using spreadsheets, I met someone who had a startup in this space. I think it was called Forest and Trees. It may have become part of Symantec, I lost track. But they were on to something.]

Now, there’s no real loss of information as a result of synthesis and summary. No risk of error in multiple transformations. No need to reconcile stuff because you’re looking at the source anyway. No need to employ armies of reconcilers either. No need to spend years arguing about the figures on spreadsheets, or making the authorship of presentations something politically desirable.

Spreadsheets and presentations are like nuclear energy or e-mail. There are good uses and bad uses. The trouble is that for the last few decades, we’ve been in the Bad Use phase, and we need to break away from there. We need to make sure the small pieces stay loosely joined.

[My thanks to for the wonderful royalty-free broccoli image. They do accept donations, though, which is good.]