Question Writer Wins Gold in Brandon Hall Awards


In case you hadn't heard . . . Question Writer is this year's recipient of the Gold medal in the Brandon Hall Excellence in Learning Technology Awards in the 'Best Advance in Technology for Testing or Evaluation' category.

The Brandon Hall Group conducts extensive research in the authoring tools market and publishes the widely-consulted guide: 'Authoring Tool KnowledgeBase 2011: A Buyer's Guide to 130+ of the Best E-Learning Content Development Applications'.

I'm delighted that Question Writer has been recognized as this year's best advance in technology for testing or evaluation. Previous Brandon Hall gold award winners have included companies such as Adobe, Articulate, Cisco, IBM and Microsoft.

Posted by Alexander at 10:48 AM, May 04, 2011 | Question Writer Wins Gold in Brandon Hall Awards | TrackBack (0)

Why I Love My Netbook

I've been travelling in Thailand this week and my netbook (Acer Aspire One) has been an invaluable companion.

It lets me stay in touch by e-mail, Skype and supports the full internet, so I can respond on forums and keep up with blogs. It runs Windows XP and so I can use all the same software as my desktop PC. I wouldn't want to try to do any serious work on it because of the smaller keyboard and screen - but I can easily review files and make small edits without trying to convert the files to a different format.

I much prefer to use my own hardware when travelling - it's a security concern. It is stupidly easy to add a keylogger (to record keyboard strokes) to public internet terminals and using them is promiscuous internet use - much safer to connect from your own hardware to a wired or wi-fi network and use a secure login form.

Something else I do is pack a monitor cable and a sound cable - I can usually hook the netbook up the TV in hotel room and watch my own media - that's been essential this week for catching those new season six episodes of Lost. :) (I still consider myself to be travelling light, because I haven't got a wireless router and media server packed.)

A friend had commented on my netbook 'You should be able to afford a full-size laptop' - but the low cost and especially the lightweight nature of device is the draw. I can take it travelling easily and not worry about it being lost or stolen because of the low replacement cost. My friend is an iPhone owner and it occurs to me that Apple owners do tend to be more concerned with the appearance and style of devices - while I'm more about the functionality and usefulness. Sometimes I do get gadget lust but always end up with buyer's remorse when I purchase a cool gadget that I really have no use for.

I've been giving this a lot of thought this week because Apple's iPad has been the hot story in the blogosphere. It has being talked about as a netbook replacement or a netbook re-invention. But I think that is a mistake - it simply doesn't support any of tasks that I use a netbook for. I don't know what the iPad is for (aside from conspicious consumption) but I am sure it is not a netbook nor a netbook replacement.

Posted by Alexander at 04:54 PM, February 08, 2010 | Why I Love My Netbook | TrackBack (0)

The Google Slap and Resolution

At approximately 5AM on the morning of November 9th, 2009, GoogleBot switched off all of my AdWords advertisements. GoogleBot didn't tell me about his decision - it was a week before I even realised what had happened. I've had a frustrating two weeks working out how to get the ads re-enabled. Here's some advice on steps you can take where you've had the same experience.

First off, there are a lot of reasons why GoogleBot might not be showing your ads - this advice really only applies to a specific situation, Here's how to diagnose it, call it the 'Google Site Slap'

1. All keywords in ad groups with ads that have a landing page on a particular domain have a LPQS (landing page quality score) of 1/10.
2. No ad impressions will be displayed for these ads, for any keywords, at any price.
3. If you create a new Ad Group, with an ad with a landing page on the domain, a few impressions might be served, but as soon as the ad moves from 'Pending Review' to 'Approved', no further impressions will be served.
4. If you create a new Ad Group with an ad for another domain, it may work fine - try creating an ad leading to a Wikipedia page to test.

This happens because there's something about the site that GoogleBot doesn't like. Because he doesn't like the site, he won't send any AdWords visitors to any page on the site. Check Google Webmaster Guidelines for ideas.

There's a lot of ideas there - to narrow it down, have a look at your raw weblogs. Do a text search for 'GoogleBot' - if there's a particular page(s) that GoogleBot is visiting very regularly, the problem may be on that page. For my website, there were three pages that he was visiting every 6 hours and 20 minutes. They all had something in common - I publish quiz software and the pages all had sample quizzes that opened in a new window with the new window being automatically resized. I changed the behaviour on those pages to show those quizzes in the same browser window. Within 24hrs, GoogleBot re-enabled the ads.

Final Thoughts
AdWords support reps are well meaning but take 24hrs to respond. My sense is that they don't have any great insight into GoogleBot nor have much influence with him.
My pages are heavily interlinked - it is possible that all the pages with a LQPS were simply linked to a page on the site that GoogleBot didn't like. So it is also possible that linking to a page on another site that GoogleBot doesn't like might cause the same difficulty.

Posted by Alexander at 01:20 AM, December 02, 2009 | The Google Slap and Resolution | Comments (1) | TrackBack (0)

UK to Destroy DNA Samples After Six Months

It's important to understand the distinction between a DNA sample and a DNA profile. In nearly all coverage of the UK DNA Database, the two terms are conflated or used interchangeably.

A DNA sample contains genetic material which contains 3 billion base pairs. That's about 750MB of information.

A DNA profile is a something like a hash code of this information containing 20 points. I don't know the exact data size - but I'd be surprised if it was more that a few kilobytes.

The procedure in UK has been to take a DNA sample, create a profile of it, and then keep both. The profile is stored in a database, and the sample in some kind of laboratory warehouse.

Whether you agree with it or not, there is an argument for keeping all DNA profiles on a database - the database can identify individuals. It's used currently to identify murderers from crime scene DNA, and within about 10 years it'll probably be used to identify householders who haven't sorted their waste into the correct recycling bins ;). That feature creep is inevitable, but it is largely predictable.

The argument for keeping DNA samples is 'We might think of something to do with them in the future.' - That's 750MB of data on each individual. Future developments in DNA analysis mean that data could be used in ways we can't even imagine now. The scope for feature creep is enormous.

That's why it'll be a victory for civil liberties to see DNA samples destroyed six months after collection as proposed in the 2009 crime and security bill. It doesn't look like the goverment will fully comply with European law (deleting all DNA profiles of the innocent), but it is a big improvement on the current situation.

Link - Alan Johnson on the DNA Database (The Guardian commenters seem to have missed the good news about the u-turn on the destruction of the samples)

Posted by Alexander at 10:46 PM, November 25, 2009 | UK to Destroy DNA Samples After Six Months | TrackBack (0)

Free Education Software

Dr. Mike's Education Blog today features a good list of free software tools for use in education. There are lots of lists and sites devoted to free software out there - but this one provides particular value because of the recommendation to use the software in a specific context - the classroom. Each tool has a description and website link.

Posted by Alexander at 02:12 AM, November 24, 2009 | Free Education Software | TrackBack (0)

.NET Penetration

I've updated the final figures for the October .NET Penetration statistics. Turned out to be pretty much the same as the reading taken in the middle of the month, suggesting no large gains for .NET towards the end of October.

Posted by Alexander at 02:55 PM, November 20, 2009 | .NET Penetration | Comments (1) | TrackBack (0)

.NET Version Penetration

I've run a quick analysis of the Question Writer website logs to try to determine the prevelance and progress of the different .NET runtimes. I've also added some figures published on the Business of Software forum in March 08 by SteG for comparison.


Click here to view the Flash chart

I thought I'd publish this data as there don't seem to be any official numbers available, and there's a real dearth of information on it. (Compare this to the stats for the Flash player made available by Adobe)

Version 3.5 has been making great strides recently.
Right now .NET 3.5 covers 52%, .NET 3.0 covers 59%, .NET 2.0 covers 70%, .NET 1.1/1.0 covers 78%

Possible sources of error:
I'm using the same methodology as describe by SteG in the Bos post mentioned above.
Only Internet Explorer reliably provides .NET version information -

IE users use MS software and so may be more likely to have .NET installed.

IE users may be generally less inclined to install new software, and may be less likely to have .NET installed.

I'm identifying IE users by looking for the string 'MSIE' in the logs - this may be catching other clients which don't report their .NET versions. This may cause the 'Dot Nothing' figure to be artificially high.

Question Writer uses the .NET runtime. Visitors to the website may be more likely to have .NET installed. Particulary version 1.1

October data only covers first 12 days of October - it might be a little less reliable than the previous months.

There were some users of .NET 4.0 but there were so few, I've bundled them in with version 3.5

Note: I'll update the data if I get any good recomendations for improvement in methodology.

Other Sources
The results differ quite a lot from the April 09 data published here. I don't have an explanation for the discrepancies.

Chart Data in XML
Java log analysis code

Posted by Alexander at 09:38 PM, October 13, 2009 | .NET Version Penetration | Comments (3) | TrackBack (0)

Flash Quiz on the HTC Hero

I wanted to show you this video of a Question Writer Flash Quiz running on the HTC Hero smartphone. The Hero runs Google's Android operating system and also includes the Flash plugin.

This quiz is running through the Hero's browser in the video, but I suspect it won't be long before you'll be able to convert a piece of Flash into an Android App. It's exciting because mobile apps are going to be a big growth area in the next 2-3 years, and a good Flash player on Android is going to allow Flash developers to compete. (Some estimates of Flash developers run into the millions)

Also even non-technical users will be able to turn their Flash content into Apps - For example, I'm hoping to have a 'Publish as an Android App' in the Question Writer publish menu, so that users can sell the content they create in the Android Market without having to get bogged down with all the technical details that usually go with creating a mobile app.

Some interesting technical details for you Flash geeks -

The plugin identifies itself as AFL 9,1,122,0 - I'm guessing this stands for 'Android Flash Lite'. However, this is the most powerful Flash player I've ever seen on a mobile device - I've seen Flash Lite 3 running on Nokia phones, and this is in a totally different league. This player seems to have the full memory and processor of the phone available to it.

The screen resolution from the quiz is returned as 314x480 - I'm not sure if that's accurate as it seems to take up the whole screen without any borders on the side.

The directional control on the Hero doesn't affect the focus - I hope it will when Flash 10 is released for Android in October, I know a lot of Flash games rely on this kind of directional control.

If you'd like to get started making mobile quizzes in Question Writer, you can download the mobile theme here, which is a variation on the Information Technology template at a 320x480 size. You'll also need the Nokia pixel font or another pixel font for best results.

Posted by Alexander at 12:48 AM, August 25, 2009 | Flash Quiz on the HTC Hero | Comments (2) | TrackBack (0)

Windows 7 mini Boom for Tech and IT


"Wait for Windows 7!" is what I've been telling anyone considering a computer purchase in the past few months. The beta of Windows 7 was already better than Vista months ago. Even the promise of a free upgrade with a purchase today doesn't make it a good idea - nobody wants to install a fresh operating system in 2 months time. Better just to wait.

And there are other two types of users/businesses waiting too - those frustrated with Vista, and those on the now 8-year-old XP. There's a lot of pent up demand. You'd expect to see a dearth of purchases now, and a flood on the October 22nd release date.

This Dearth/Flood affects the whole tech and IT industry - there are a lot of complimentary products and services for a new operating system. Computer hardware is the big one, and this itself has a host of complimentary products. A user buying a new computer/os combo might buy a few additional peripherals with it and a few new software packages. A business migrating to a new OS may require help from IT services firms to keep everything running smoothly. Virtually every hardware, software and IT services outfit with exposure to Windows should see more business in the months following the Windows 7 release.

Posted by Alexander at 01:04 AM, August 20, 2009 | Windows 7 mini Boom for Tech and IT | TrackBack (0)

On2 No Shop Clause

I was Interested to read that the On2 acquisition deal included a 'No Shop' clause to preclude On2 from soliciting other offers or starting a bidding war. I wonder who might have been interested in putting in a better offer having heard the proposed Google $106 million takeover.
Maybe one of their big customers, already using their technology Adobe, Skype, Nokia or Sony? Or maybe Apple or Microsoft. The value is not just in the technology, but the ability to shape the video standards used in the future by either adding or removing restrictions on the use of the technology and patents.
I've seen a number of suggestions as to how Google intend to proceed - many suggesting that Google will free some or all of the codecs and use it to reduce bandwidth costs for YouTube. Another interesting idea is that Google will use the encoders to help users upload their vidoes. It's nice for YouTube to have the highest quality upload, but processing and storage must be expensie. Most broadband users have much smaller upload connections than download ones - better compression would allow for faster upload times, and higher resolution for live streaming from say an Android mobile device with limited bandwidth.

Posted by Alexander at 06:06 PM, August 17, 2009 | On2 No Shop Clause | Comments (2) | TrackBack (0)

Google's On2 Move Will Pressure Adobe To Open Source Flash Player

This is what the Android's desktop looks like -


If you study it very carefully, you'll notice some subtle integration with Google's web search service.

It's a straightforward plan.

1. Bake Google services into Android (and Chrome OS)
2. Make it not just free, but fully open source
3. Become dominant OS in mobile devices
4. Gain more users for Google services

Online video is a problem though - YouTube is Google's own service, and yet you can't use it on a pure Android phone because of the lack of a suitable open source video codec. This will hamper adoption for Android. The new HTC Hero phone includes a Flash Player atop Android to address this issue, but they will have done their own integration, and negotiation with Adobe.

Google's solution is to buy On2 and open source a player with a more advanced codec. YouTube can then publish video without the Flash player, and Android will display it. YouTube won't remove the Flash player any time soon because it offers compatibility for a huge range of desktops, but it relegates it to being the legacy desktop player, rather than the cutting edge mobile one.

All this adds pressure for Adobe to find a way to provide an open source Flash player for distribution with Android. Adobe doesn't have its own mobile platform or devices. Apple has been resisting it for 2 years. Android is its big chance to take Flash mobile.

Posted by Alexander at 02:50 PM, August 06, 2009 | Google's On2 Move Will Pressure Adobe To Open Source Flash Player | Comments (6) | TrackBack (0)

Local Websites Provided By Wi-Fi

I've been wondering why businesses haven't been using Wi-Fi hotspots to connect more with their customers.

Many Wi-Fi hotspots start with a 'Captive Portal' mode . . . this allows the hotspot owner to redirect the user to a webpage when he first connects. This is usually a terms and conditions of use, or a sign-in page for subscribers . . after which the user connects to the internet as you know it.

This first webpage could equally well be offers from local businesses, or a message board or social networking services specific to that location.

There were a number of ideas like this floating around a few years ago when Wi-Fi was 'Hot' (2002/2006). (Neigbornode, now defunct, and Place Site, no activity since 2006). I wonder if they might have been a little bit before their time - Wi-fi access back then meant a large laptop with short battery life. In 2009, there are netbooks a plenty, iPhones and Android phones, all with Wi-Fi and browsers.

If this sounds a bit theoretical - here's a concrete commercial example. You're running a small restaurant near a busy bar . . . you set up a Wi-Fi hotspot. A patron of the bar connects to tweet or check their facebook . . . but the first page the user sees is a review of your restaurant or the night's specials. Direct, relevant, location based advertising to a qualified prospect!

This is a kind of 'Wi-fi sponsorship' model - but there's been an explosion of interest in social networking. Local websites with users linked to facebook profiles and twitter could add a new communication channel to a location or an event.

I'm in Manchester (UK) and I'm intested in experimenting with this in different locations. I'm not sure there's a big Web 2.0 IPO in this . . . but I'm sure there's hundreds of ways it could be use to good effect, creating a huge amount of value locally.

Posted by Alexander at 04:20 PM, August 04, 2009 | Local Websites Provided By Wi-Fi | TrackBack (0)

Accents Quiz (Flash Audio Quiz)

How well can you tell someone's nationality or linguistic origin from their accent? Here's a quiz that helps you find out. Accents Quiz. It uses Question Writer's capability to embed Flash files to associate the audio with each question. There's a tutorial on how to do this too.

Posted by Alexander at 01:01 PM, September 08, 2008 | Accents Quiz (Flash Audio Quiz) | TrackBack (0)

Google Wins. Wikipedia Wins.

I'm at the end of my informal one-week search engine comparison. My conclusion? Google wins. Overall, it provided more relevant links, higher up the search page than did Microsoft. I'd approximate that for about 60% of searches the quality of the results were equivalent, Google provided better results in 30% of cases and 10% went to Microsoft.

Google was also more likely to provide relevant advertisements and only to provide them when they were useful - Microsoft placed ads directly above the search results nearly always, and they were of lower relevancy.

The other thing I noticed was the 'Wikipedia' effect. For a lot of my more general searches, the search engine that placed the Wikipedia link higher in their search result was the one that provided the better result for that search. Sometimes I find myself adding '+wikipedia' to my searches - and I notice Wikipedia ranking highly for many searches irrespective.

For technical information, I think I'll always want a full web search - but I wonder if a general search for me will gradually evolve into the best way to find what I'm looking for on Wikipedia.

Posted by Alexander at 05:14 PM, July 18, 2008 | Google Wins. Wikipedia Wins. | TrackBack (0)

Search Engine Taste Test

I changed my homepage from Google to Microsoft last week. I've been thinking about the Microsoft-Yahoo deal and I wanted to test my contrarian hypothesis that there's not much difference in the quality of search between Google/Microsoft.

I tried first - this seems to be the page that Microsoft suggests as a homepage - but it's unusable. There are too many distractions and the seach box actually moves as the page loads in. is a much better for direct comparison.

I found out that I prefered the interface for Live image search, and that the search results for 'Flash Player' from Live are suspiciously bad. I didn't find out much more. Mostly I was wondering if the results from Google would have been any better without bothering to find out.


This week I've used my HTML and Javascript skills (circa 1998) to put together a search page that loads up results from both searches side by side. For every search I do for the next week - I'll see both sets of results and get a general idea of which is producing better results for me. You can play along too if your monitor is wide enough!

Posted by Alexander at 03:33 PM, July 09, 2008 | Search Engine Taste Test | TrackBack (0)

Vista is Killing My Productivity

I've been using Vista for several months now. I thought I'd give it a try because I resisted XP for a long time, but I quite liked XP once I started using it. I thought it would be the same story with Vista. But there's one thing that's killing my productivity and turning my habitual zen-like calm into apoplectic fury.

Folder View.

I spend a lot of time working with files. I thought everyone did. Well, every time I try to open, save or otherwise interact with the file system, I have those files displayed to me in some god-awful random fashion, contrived to cause me the most frustration.

Sometimes I get giant icons, too big to view many in a small 'file open' dialog. Sometimes I get the files in two, or three columns, alphabetized horizontally! Sometimes I get a list of artists, ratings and genres. I nearly never get what I need - Filename, Size, Date modified. In other words 'Details View'. Always. You keep the rest of all that other nonsense until i ask for it.

Fisher-Price icons here are user-hostile, not user-friendly

Don't say it. 'Apply to Folders' doesn't work. 'Reset Folders' doesn't work. 'Apply this template to all subfolders' doesn't work. Hacking the registry doesn't do it. And I don't want to. I use Windows because I hate configuration. I don't want to spend an hour hacking the registry to view my files the way I've viewed them for the last 15 years.

215 people agree me with enough to register and vote on this -

Are three columns alphabetized horizontally
the best way to view an ftp directory?

I'm annoyed enough about this to rant about it online and completely blow the cool, calm, collected persona that I've been cultivating. That's frustration. Microsoft! Fix this.

Posted by Alexander at 08:54 PM, July 08, 2008 | Vista is Killing My Productivity | Comments (3) | TrackBack (0)

Seeking Translators

This blog gets more exposure than the Question Writer Blog - so I just wanted to echo an offer I've made there - I've got some academic licenses for Question Writer in exchange for translations of the GUI . It is fairly easy and low cost to outsource the translations, but that kind of approach might result in a poor quality interpretation from someone who'll hurry the task and isn't invested in the final outcome. But a user knows what the expressions mean, how to interpret them and cares as much about getting it right than just getting it finished.

Translating the interface is a great way to learn about all the features of the software and it's an especially good deal if you're expecting to be a long term Question Writer user because as I update the software to new versions, I'll supply you with free upgrades for the few additional items that are needed for translation in each version. You don't need to be particularly technical, but it helps to know a little about XML. You'll be able to make the edits in a text editor.

Here's the Question Writer Blog item.

Posted by Alexander at 12:41 PM, March 04, 2008 | Seeking Translators | TrackBack (0)

A Waste At Every Level

Next time you hear some-one spouting off about the perfect efficiency of the free market, spare a thought for the 'Hawaii Chair'. From the design, to the manufacture, to the marketing, to the shipping, to the near immediate disposal, this is a waste of resources at every single level.

Posted by Alexander at 11:06 AM, February 06, 2008 | A Waste At Every Level | Comments (1) | TrackBack (0)

UK house prices, adjusted for inflation

So here's an interesting chart. It's UK house prices, adjusted for inflation over the last thirty years. Source - Nationwide Building Society.

Compare this to the non-adjusted for inflation values, again, same source.

What looked like a crash between 1989 and 1995 in the first graph, looks more like 'prices going sideways' in the second graph.

I'm no economist, but I am fool, so I still like to predict the future.

I'm expecting to see continued increases in UK inflation in the next few years to avoid the appearance of a house price crash. I'm also expecting trickery to keep the official inflation figures low. We might see house prices (while they are declining) reflected in the Bank of England's inflation target and/or a different remit for the BoE who are currently charged with keeping the CPI at around 2%.

Posted by Alexander at 02:48 PM, February 03, 2008 | UK house prices, adjusted for inflation | Comments (1) | TrackBack (0)

UK Mobile Broadband

I heard about this over the weekend and it took me by surpise. Mobile network operator "3" now offer the best value and most convenient broadband connection for a substantial segment of the UK market. It's HSDPA and functionally like a precursor to Wi-Max.


Attach this device to your PC/Mac via a USB port, and it will use the 3 mobile network to offer a (max speed) 2800/384 kbps connection. It's £10 month (18 month contract, 1Gig cap). It's a suitable replacement for both a light home-user, and as a replacement to the patchwork wi-fi network in place across the country for mobile users.

The revolution here is because it doesn't require a landline (£11 p.m. alone) . . . . BT now also require an 12 month contract for any new line connection and an installation charge of £125. That's pretty tough for a student or a short-term renter. You might think TalkTalk would be an alternative . . . but what they don't say is that they can't connect phone lines. So you've got to sign up with BT first. 12 months later, you can become a Talk Talk user.

For anyone who doesn't need a landline - this broadband is very affordable. And it's mobile.

Posted by Alexander at 10:34 AM, November 12, 2007 | UK Mobile Broadband | Comments (1) | TrackBack (0)

LearnDirect's Jeremy Kyle Sponsorship

LearnDirect sponsors "The Jeremy Kyle Show". In other words, you may need an education or a new vocation if you find yourself watching this show.

LearnDirect's goal here is to reach the right audience but a side effect of its sponsorship is to underwrite the show. I wonder if that remains a tenable way to spend taxpayer funds after Judge Alan Berg's comments yesterday in sentencing one of the show's participants after a head-butting incident -

"It seems to me that the purpose of this show is to effect a morbid and depressing display of dysfunctional people whose lives are in turmoil. It should not surprise anyone that these people, some of whom have limited intellects, become aggressive with each other. This type of incident is exactly what the producers want. These self-righteous individuals should be in the dock. They pretend there is some kind of virtue in putting out a show like this."

He added that it was "a form of human bear-baiting which goes under the guise of entertainment".

Posted by Alexander at 03:48 PM, September 26, 2007 | LearnDirect's Jeremy Kyle Sponsorship | TrackBack (0)

The Japanese Market

I spent yesterday working with a translator to provide a Japanese interface for Quiz Edition. It strikes me that it's been a great use of time - in a single day, I've added a large new potential market.


And I'm particularly excited by the Japanese market. Generally, Japan is poised to do exceptionally well in the coming decades. I think its financial markets will suffer with the rest of the world in the short term with the inevitable return to a 'real economy' (as opposed to a 'financial services economy').

With the US looking down the barrel of deflation/stagflation/hyperinflation right now, Japan has been emerging from a 15 year deflationary period, stronger and leaner. The emerging Chinese market is on Japan's doorstep and with an emphasis on honesty and productivity, it's in pole position for a global rebalancing.

Posted by Alexander at 02:42 PM, August 21, 2007 | The Japanese Market | Comments (1) | TrackBack (0)

Public Support Forum Helps Sales

I want to talk today about the Question Writer Support Forum because it's one of the things that is working really well for Question Writer. It's a warts-and-all forum - you can see the kind of problems people are having and what's getting resolved. I offer e-mail support too but offer a faster guaranteed response time(24hrs) for the forum than for email(48hrs). I've incentivized it that way because that's where I prefer to deal with support enquiries. Here's why -

1) It grows and creates a knowledge base. That's searchable, so users can find the answer to their question immediately if it has been answered before, although I'll always answer a question rather than expect users to search for the answer.

2) It's indexable. Google indexes it and it's already full of the keywords that people searching for quiz software are looking for.

3) It's public. Each post is timestamped - that provides a public record of how long it takes to get answers to support queries. And it's usually much faster than the guaranteed 24hrs - I'll drop nearly anything to respond to a support forum request.

It requires dedication - but the benefit was crystallized for me last year when I got this e-mail confirming the direct link between forum support and sales -

"I want you to know that one of the things that convinced me to purchase the software was looking at your support forum and seeing how well and, especially how fast, you always responded to questions and comments." - Alan Merrell

I made it a priority to get the forum right from the start because I knew that quality of the forum is important in making a purchasing decision and because so many software companies make mistakes with their forum. The main problems I see are -

1) Hidden Forum. Some won't let you see the forum until you're already a customer - that doesn't suggest confidence in the product.

2) Empty Forum. Some forums are empty with few or no posts - you wonder if anyone is using the product at all.

3) Undersupported Forum. Some leave all the support to a customer support department - but some questions can only be answered by the developers.

4) No Forum. Some don't have forums at all - they have 'Frequenly Asked Questions' but they're more like 'Favourably Answerable Questions' - only questions that cast the product in a favourable light are there.

5) Private Forum. And most have some kind of registration system (but who wants to set up a whole new account just to ask a question?)

Posted by Alexander at 04:45 PM, July 30, 2007 | Public Support Forum Helps Sales | TrackBack (0)

Britian Facebooked after BBC article

About half of Britain signed up to Facebook last week. The other half will sign up this week. I think it's down to Rory Cellan-Jones. Whether it's the Atkins diet, anti wrinkle cream or Facebook, there's nothing like some BBC approval to turn something into an overnight hit in the UK.

Posted by Alexander at 12:29 AM, June 05, 2007 | Britian Facebooked after BBC article | TrackBack (0)

Flash Video on BBC news

BBC News is embedding Flash Video alongside some of its news stories. BBC limited video feeds to a choice between Windows Media Player and Real Player previously. I groan when faced with that choice and usually select neither. Now I can read the story and then play the video, confident that it has already loaded in the background. Nice to the see Auntie catching up.

Here's an BBC news report about using the PSP as a wifi phone/video phone.

Posted by Alexander at 01:49 PM, May 24, 2007 | Flash Video on BBC news | TrackBack (0)

Aqua Teen Hunger Force Press Conference as Performance Art

This is some of the best performance art I've ever seen.

These guys held a press confence on hairstyles from the 1970s amidst the media circus of the Boston city bomb scare. They refused to play their assigned roles, thereby highlighting and questioning the broadcast media's automatic right to define the story.

The real story was the incompetence and overreaction of the Boston Police and their willingness to cause fear (or terror if you like) rather than admit their mistakes. To add to the city's shame, the artists had trumped-up hoax charges levelled against them in support the official narrative.

The charges have been dropped today, but it looks like they've been through the wringer. I hope that they can find a way to capitalize on their fame.

Posted by Alexander at 07:56 PM, May 11, 2007 | Aqua Teen Hunger Force Press Conference as Performance Art | TrackBack (0)

Buddhist Monks and Ant Infestation

I like this story about the difficulty some Buddhist monks are having with an ant infestation. They are finding it difficult to get rid of the ants with non-violent means. I think it shows that, whoever you are, inflexibility is eventually going to you into trouble.

Posted by Alexander at 02:28 PM, March 13, 2007 | Buddhist Monks and Ant Infestation | Comments (3) | TrackBack (0)

Jury Nullification

Patricia Tabram is in Carlisle Crown Court today charged with growing and possessing cannabis for personal use. She's 68, a grandmother, uses the drug to relieve pain and she's defending herself. She's admitted the facts but has pleaded not guilty.

She's hoping that the Jury knows that they have the power of jury nullification. (Jury Equity here in the UK). That's the ancient power of a jury to judge the law as bad rather than the defendent and bring back a 'not guilty' verdict (or a hung jury) even where it flies in the face of the evidence.

Typically, a judge won't tell the jury of this power and inisist that they only consider the facts of the case.

Furthermore, a judge will typically hold a defendent in contempt if trying to educate the jury of their power.

She just has to hope that they already know.

It doesn't seem the mainstream media is rushing to educate people either - this Sky News report doesn't mention jury nullification, even though it's clearly relevant in this case.

In the UK, where mass protest is largely ignored, voting has little impact, and complaining on the internet does squat, jury nullification is a real power that reasonable people have to reject unreasonable laws. But only if people are aware of it.

Let's hope Patricia Tabram gets lucky and gets a fully informed jury today.


Digg It

Posted by Alexander at 06:06 PM, March 05, 2007 | Jury Nullification | Comments (3) | TrackBack (0)

How to Praise

This New York magazine article about praise is full of educational psychology ideas for teachers. I hope you'll read the full article, but my takeaways were -

Praise for effort rather than intelligence or even results.

“Emphasizing effort gives a child a variable that they can control,” she explains. “They come to see themselves as in control of their success. Emphasizing natural intelligence takes it out of the child’s control, and it provides no good recipe for responding to a failure.”

To be effective, praise needs to be specific and sincere.

New York University professor of psychiatry Judith Brook explains that the issue for parents is one of credibility. “Praise is important, but not vacuous praise,” she says. “It has to be based on a real thing—some skill or talent they have.” Once children hear praise they interpret as meritless, they discount not just the insincere praise, but sincere praise as well.

Teach that intelligence can be developed.

The teachers—who hadn’t known which students had been assigned to which workshop—could pick out the students who had been taught that intelligence can be developed. They improved their study habits and grades. In a single semester, Blackwell reversed the students’ longtime trend of decreasing math grades.
The only difference between the control group and the test group were two lessons, a total of 50 minutes spent teaching not math but a single idea: that the brain is a muscle. Giving it a harder workout makes you smarter. That alone improved their math scores.

Intermittent Re-inforcement

The brain has to learn that frustrating spells can be worked through. “A person who grows up getting too frequent rewards will not have persistence, because they’ll quit when the rewards disappear.”

That intermittent re-inforcement idea is particularly important in developing persistent behaviour - it's why you check your e-mail too frequently and why gamblers in Las Vegas continue to play slot machines.

Posted by Alexander at 05:25 PM, February 12, 2007 | How to Praise | TrackBack (0)

QTI 2.1

QTI is an XML format used for describing tests and assessments. This QTI Training Guide is quite a good introduction for people considering implementing QTI 2.1. Question Writer already supports QTI 1.2 - but drop me a line if you'd like to see support upgraded to include QTI 2.1 also.

Posted by Alexander at 06:00 PM, December 09, 2006 | QTI 2.1 | TrackBack (0)

Tone Deaf Test

Here's a test to measure your tone-deafness. It plays two sequences of music and asks you whether the two are identical. There's 36 sequences and it is purposefully very difficult. Over 85% means you have potential as a world class musician - although I wonder why you'd have to score less than 50% to be 'tone-deaf' - a tone-deaf monkey randomly pressing the buttons will score better than 50%, 50% of the time. Maybe using a 'don't know' button here would help to improve the accuracy.

Posted by Alexander at 10:47 AM, November 10, 2006 | Tone Deaf Test | Comments (12) | TrackBack (0)

My Gmail Spam Box

Something I do more and more is to mark mailing lists that I can't get off of as spam. Some require long-forgotten passwords or multiple responses to e-mail robots to unsubscribe. Much easier to let Google treat it is as spam than to work out some e-mail command list manager interface circa 1996. That's why you should make it really easy to unsubscribe from your mailing list - if multiple people are marking it as spam because they can't unsubscribe, Google is going to eventually decide that it is spam, and not send it to anyone.

There's 4603 spam e-mails in my spam folder today. I don't delete them anymore, Google trashes them after 30 days - so the number is a good indicator of volume of spam in the previous month. It's getting worse. The number was hovering around 2000 only a few months ago. It's half my own fault - I have dozens of e-mail addresses connected to one thing or another, all funneling into the same place. Google's spam filter is reasonably good, but there's still some spam getting through, and an occasional false positive.

Something I've asked Google to do is to let me direct all Chinese and Arabic language e-mails to my spam box. I might get one or two genuine foreign language e-mails a month, and if they're French, German, Spanish or even Danish, I might see they're genuine and machine translate them. But with Chinese or Arabic, I don't stand a chance and when I've tried translating, it just confirms what I already thought - it's spam. Another idea - maybe they could put a 'translate' button on the interface for foreign language e-mails. They already have the translation service.

Posted by Alexander at 10:55 AM, October 24, 2006 | My Gmail Spam Box | TrackBack (0)

Netflix Million Dollar Prize

I find this contest remarkably interesting. Netflix has a database of their customers' ratings of various movies. They use this database to make recommendations to their customers on which movies they might like to see next. The recommendation is not so much 'Goodfellas is a great movie' - but more 'Goodfellas was rated highly by people who like the same kind of movies that you do'. The competition is to improve the algorithm making the recommendations - prize $1 Million USD - open to anybody, anywhere (so long as you're not hated by the USA, including Quebec, harshly enough).

The target doesn't sound too ambitious. The ratings are between 1 and 5 stars. Their current system 'Cinematch' doesn't do too well. On average it's out by just under 1 star for each rating - so typically Cinemax will predict that a viewer will watch a movie and score it 4 stars - the viewer will actually score it 3 or 5 stars. You could probably get close to that level of competence by guessing that the viewer will rate every movie at 3 stars. Many times, you'd be right, and many times, you'd only be one star away. The vast majority of movies that I've seen are 2, 3 or 4 stars.

The contest is looking for just a 10% improvement on Cinematch to be eligible to win the prize. If I understand the small print of the contest correctly - it'll run for a minimum of 4 months, and provided at least one entry meets the 10% improvement, the algorithm that does best will win the prize.

This kind of contest is right up my street - I specialized in artificial intelligence subjects in University, but I've found it difficult to use those skills outside of personal projects. I'd have to regard this as a bit of fun too - but it's great to have this dataset to work with, and the potential prize makes it a lot more exciting.

Posted by Alexander at 02:54 PM, October 02, 2006 | Netflix Million Dollar Prize | TrackBack (0)

Blackboard - Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt

I wonder why Blackboard is suing Desire2Learn for patent infringement. Software companies usually don't enforce software patents except when defending themselves. Big software organizations routinely infringe each other's patents, but Mutually Assured Destruction prevents everyone suing the pants off everyone else. For example, before the acquisition, Adobe won $2.8 million from Macromedia in May '02 for patent infringement. Eight days later, Macromedia won $4.9 million in a counterclaim. They could have gone on all night, but instead declared a truce and made some fat checks out to the lawyers.

Many software companies have silly patents,
but they are usually reserved for defence

Patent trolls are different - they usually don't have anything to lose - so they have much upside, and no downside when enforcing trivial patents. Blackboard does have something to lose - a whole software business, and the people who use their software are the same people who are most infuriated by this kind of patent claim. (And everyone at SlashDot, of course).

So why piss off your users so much? Have they come to the conclusion that the goodwill and the software business are not worth keeping?

I think the going might be getting tough for Blackboard - Jim Farmer estimates (pdf) that it might cost upto $250,000 for Blackboard to acquire each new enterprise customer. When I heard that figure, I nearly fell off my Aeron - I could write the damn software for less than that.

Or even better, I could use an open-source alternative. Blackboard's sales prospects have been working that out in their droves too. Moodle is rapidly taking market share with estimates that 56% of all UK Further Education institutions are making use of Moodle.

Could it be that Blackboard is facing such bleak prospects that it sees the patent troll route as more profitable than the software business?

Or is it that they hope that this case might get settled without testing whether the patent is valid (it's probably not). That would leave the threat of lawsuits hanging over universities and schools using Moodle - you'd hear administrators arguing "It's better and cheaper, but we might get sued if we use it, we'll use Blackboard instead". And, assuming Desire2Learn license the patent, it might not be so bad for D2L either.

Either course seems risky for BB. It might be the new environment that is forcing them to take risks to maintain their position, but It seems counter productive to me to gratuitiously sue competitors or to frighten customers into using your software.

I'll leave you with some of Paul Graham's thoughts on patents -

When you read of big companies filing patent suits against smaller ones, it's usually a big company on the way down, grasping at straws. For example, Unisys's attempts to enforce their patent on LZW compression. When you see a big company threatening patent suits, sell. When a company starts fighting over IP, it's a sign they've lost the real battle, for users.

A company that sues competitors for patent infringement is like a defender who has been beaten so thoroughly that he turns to plead with the referee. You don't do that if you can still reach the ball, even if you genuinely believe you've been fouled. So a company threatening patent suits is a company in trouble.

Posted by Alexander at 03:12 PM, September 16, 2006 | Blackboard - Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt | Comments (2) | TrackBack (0)

Royston Forum

I've just managed to get my office set up. I'm in Royston now, about 10 miles outside of Cambridge. There's new details on the contact page. I just want to thank and recommend some people who helped along the way.

Lorna, of the Lower Warren Guest House runs a great B&B near the centre of town. The nearby The Old Bull Inn has a pub that provides good Wi-Fi coverage and a good lunch.

Thanks to the friendly Dave Martin, of Dave Martin Transport who provides a courier and taxi-van service. Taxi-vans are a great idea - you get a van, and a guy who drives the van and helps you move your stuff.

I've also set up a Royston Forum - I was a bit dissappointed with the lack of service from the local estate agents (there's about 10 of them) and I thought there should be a better way to disintermediate when renting or letting in Royson - hopefully this forum will help.

Posted by Alexander at 12:57 PM, August 29, 2006 | Royston Forum | TrackBack (0)

Royal Junk Mail

I really like this story of a postman who found a way to lighten his load. He recommended a junk-mail opt out scheme to people on his round. Junk mail is beneficial to those who send it, but it wastes a little bit of time for a lot of people, so overall it's a waste and makes the economic pie smaller for everyone. It's great to see employees conspiring with customers to reduce this waste! Royal Mail have made a calamitous error by suspending this guy - I didn't even know about this opt-out scheme until it became this story. Now I do and I'm going to join!

How to opt out of UK junk mail

Posted by Alexander at 12:34 PM, August 29, 2006 | Royal Junk Mail | TrackBack (0)

A Hot Potato

If you'll ever have to name anything, you'd best have a look at Igor's naming guide. It's goes into detail about companies and products, but I think it's widely applicable to many kinds of naming tasks.

It got me thinking about different names in my area - quiz software. I've known for a while that 'Hot Potatoes' is the best name out there and now I know why - a hot potato can be a difficult problem or question, and is also a children's game - it does really well by suggesting the experience of learning through play - that's just right for school quiz software.

Posted by Alexander at 12:57 PM, August 15, 2006 | A Hot Potato | TrackBack (0)

Flash but no Javascript?

Just a question I wanted to put to the blogosphere (you) - Have you ever run into difficulties with a platform or machine that has Flash but no Javascript? I became curious after reading the comments in this blog post.
Over the years, I've heard a lot of references to a user who might have Javascript disabled, but still run Flash. It has never rung true to me - I'd imagine anyone uncomfortable with Javascript is doubly uncomfortable with Flash. But has anyone actually seen problems with this? Is building for this case over-obviation?

Posted by Alexander at 01:05 PM, August 09, 2006 | Flash but no Javascript? | Comments (5) | TrackBack (0)

Mobile Software Publishing Office

I'm doing the mobile office thing this week. I'm in Royston, a town about 15 minutes away from Cambridge looking for a new place. It'll be a week or two before I get moved in anywhere, but I'm surprised by the amount that I'm able to achieve with just a laptop and a quiet pub with a wifi access point.
I use Gmail so I have all my e-mail available and searchable, and remote SVN hosting, so I can work with clients on the latest updates to projects. I'm not quite able to publish a complete Question Writer recompile from here. Maybe by the end of the week.

Posted by Alexander at 04:27 PM, August 01, 2006 | Mobile Software Publishing Office | TrackBack (0)

Central Question International Headquarters Moving To Cambridge

I'll be busy over the next week or two with a move from Manchester to Cambridge. The move is for personal reasons, but it could be a serendipitous location - Paul Graham suggests that Cambridge is the most likely place in Europe where a Silicon Valley environment might develop because of Cambridge University.

I asked a handful of American computer science professors which universities in Europe were most admired, and they all basically said "Cambridge" followed by a long pause while they tried to think of others.

There's already a place in Cambridge referred to as 'Silicon Fen' which is a play on a place in Scotland called 'Silicon Glen'. But to get that joke, you'd probably need a degree in English. From Oxford.

Posted by Alexander at 02:51 PM, July 26, 2006 | Central Question International Headquarters Moving To Cambridge | TrackBack (0)