Friday, May 30, 2008

The Badlands

Just off I-90 in South Dakota, you can see them in the distance. They're incongruous in a landscape of gently rolling hills. Jagged peaks sticking out of the horizon. If you know what they are, you're drawn to them. And yesterday, Sheryl and I were drawn to them.

I'll let the pictures speak for themselves.











Simply amazing

Thursday, May 29, 2008

De Smet, Continued

So I was on a limited time frame last night and only go the pictures up. Let me explain a little more about our experience. De Smet is a fairly typical small MidWest town. A lot of farming. Mostly farming, in fact. And as a result, along with the big-boxization of the US, it had dropped significantly in size and importance, except for one critical fact: 5 of Laura Ingalls Wilder's book are set in and around De Smet. Because of that they get 20 to 25,000 visitors each year. Honestly, I'm not convinced how viable the town would be without that.

The four of us stayed in a Bed and Breakfast called the Heritage House. It is on De Smet's main street and just across the street from the location where the Ingalls family stayed during the Long Winter. It was actually pretty cool to be there. On Wednesday morning, we left the B&B and went to headquarters of the Laura Ingalls Wilder Memorial society. There they have the actual surveyor's house that the Ingalls family stayed in, before staking their claim, after Pa had worked for the railroad. It's been moved from its original location at Silver Lake (which, incidentally, was drained in the 1920's) to where it is now. We got to see all the places that we'd read about and that we really neat for me and Sheryl, and lesser so for Kinsey, and not at all for Connor.

On the same site, they have a replica of the school where Laura taught at the beginning of These Happy Golden Years, as well as the actual school house that Laura and Carrie attended, moved from its location as well. From there, we traveled to the house that Pa built after Laura and Almanzo got married, in the town itself. Our tour guide told us about all the things that happened to the Ingalls after the books ended. I didn't get to hear much of that, since Connor was getting restless. After that, we went to the De Smet Cemetery where the Ingalls are buried and then to the best part of the day.

Out at the site of the original Ingalls homestead there is a memorial stone, but further on, on the same grounds is an incredible, interactive experience, called simply, the Ingalls Homestead. On it is a tower to look over everything, then you can see much of what the Ingalls did. They have a Sod dugout, then a claim shanty. You can see a barn with actual animals (a cow and calf). They have an exact replica of what Pa built for Ma on the site as it was when it was finished. They have a larger barn that had a team of horses with a covered wagon that we drove to a school house on the site of the second school that Laura taught at and then you drive back to the barn.

It was really a great experience and I would really, really recommend fans of Laura's books to take the opportunity to go and do it. It really brought the experience of what they went through to life.

Tomorrow (or later tonight): Pictures of a place that nearly brought me to song, the Badlands

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

De Smet, South Dakota

Our adventures have brought us to eastern South Dakota. Yesterday it was cold, 40s when we got here and rainy with a little sleet. Today, I could see why someone would move and stay here. It was completely gorgeous by the afternoon and in the low 70s.

I'm on limited computer time, so here's the pictures. More tomorrow.

Entering De Smet

Help, I'm lost in grass at Lake Thompson

If you look real closely, you can see me on the rail, here at the Surveyor's House.

Being tossed in the air in front of the school Laura and Carrie attended.

You're welcome as long as you don't use a knife to pin pig tails to the desk.

Hanging out at the house that Pa built.

Perched on top of the site of the Ingalls Homestead

Yikes, put me in a crust and I'd be a cow pie.

It was dangerous to let me drive.
Kinsey driving the horses.

Me and Connor driving the horses.

An exact replica of the Ingalls homestead.

The path up to the Ingalls Memorial through the cottonwoods that Pa planted.

Looking across Big Slough toward De Smet that the Ingalls had to walk to get to town.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Where in the US are the Wilson's?

Right now, Kansas City, Kansas.

Unlike many Americans, we decided to do a road trip this year and we decided to head to South Dakota. Of course, every time we told someone that they always said, "What's in South Dakota?" Well, two things: 1) Mount Rushmore, which we'll see later this week and 2) De Smet. Only a few of you will be able to rattle off exactly why we're headed to De Smet, and the reason is that it is where Laura Ingalls Wilder grew up and got married. A few months back we finished reading the Little House series with Kinsey and since both Sheryl and I had read the books when we were kids, and I'm manly (inside Little House joke there) enough to admit that I loved them too, we decided to make a trip up combined with a trip over to Mount Rushmore.

How long is such an excursion? Probably about 22 hours total driving. So we decided to split it up, breaking it in Kansas City. We left yesterday right after church and got here to KC around 10:30. Today we went to see a movie (Prince Caspian, which I will have a LOT to say about at a later date) and hit the KC zoo.

But we also decided to tell the story of this trip from a slightly different perspective. One of Kinsey's stuffed animals, Hound Dog the Webkin, wanted to be the star of the show, so here he is.

You said this was going to be how many hours?

Well, it ain't the Ritz, but it'll do.

Is there any irony in a stuffed animal going to see animals at a zoo? Didn't think so.

There are better views of an elephant...

...Like this one.

As if I didn't feel inadequate enough, I have to have my picture taken with African hunting dogs.



Ok , enough of those. How about some of the actual family.


Kinsey and Hound Dog with the elephant.

I think that's a rhino, but isn't Kinsey just the cutest?

This is a lorakeet that I think was trying to eat the camera strap around my neck. That or it's a vampire lorakeet with awful aim.

Trying out the macro setting on the camera. Not too shabby.

So that's what's going on with us. Expect more pics.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Happy Birthday Connor

Today, my son Connor is 2 years old. It's hard to believe that two years ago he was born. And yet it was. The time is going by much faster than it did with Kinsey, but he's also not as "advanced" as she was. He's only now starting to become pretty clear on some of his words, for example. But the truth is, he is so much fun. He has a very playful sense of humor. He loves to play with cars and balls and he just is a blast to be with (most of the time).

So Happy 2nd Birthday, Con-Man. Your mom, sister, and I love you very much.



Friday, May 23, 2008

Memorial Day

I have a weird relationship with national holidays that honor soldiers. I am the grandson of a soldier. My father's father went up Normandy Beach on June 6, 1944 and many, many of the people that I have loved and respected in my life are or have been soldiers. On the other hand, my grandfather on my mother's side was a pacifist. He DIDN'T participate in World War 2 because of his convictions.

I was out a few weeks back and saw a U.S. Marine bumper sticker that said, "Pacifism is a luxury paid for by warriors." And to be perfectly honest, I don't disagree with that. The idea of pacifism, to me, implies inaction. Someone unwilling to take action. And hence, it's easy to be a pacifist in a world where you never have to stand up for that belief.

What is NOT paid for by warriors is nonviolent resistance. The role of nonviolence is one that I've thought about before and to me it's one of the bravest things a person can do. Someone committed to nonviolence is committed to changing their world, but has decided to do it without resorting to violence. The reason I consider it brave is because someone who does this has decided that they are willing to suffer the consequence of their lives for it.

I know there are people who disagree with that and I am grateful to live in a country where people can respectfully disagree, or even not so respectfully at times. But in a place where we have that benefit, I hope others will not see this as a lack of respect for the sacrifices that soldiers have made to give me and my family that right, but a commitment to the way of Jesus over and beyond that. Through his life, he exemplified what it means to resist nonviolently, even to his death, knowing that his death wasn't the end, but that there was victory over death, a release from fear of death. And that to me is what hope is about.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

YouTube Thursday: Starring Morgan Freeman as...

EASY READER!

As a kid, I loved my 2 hour PBS block of Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood, The Electric Company, and Sesame Street. For some reason, the Electric Company popped into my head this week and I remembered hearing somewhere that Morgan Freeman played the Easy Reader back then, and lo, and behold, yes he did. Warning: the following video is made of awesome.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Hurdles to Usability

One interesting piece of news: Last week, Usability/User Experience Specialist was named one of U.S. News and World Report's Best Careers. And it had a nice little write-up. Pretty nifty.

I've actually had quite a bit of fun talking about what I do over the last couple of week with my job. I've been fortunate to basically fall into a profession that I really enjoy and feel like I have some kind of aptitude for (besides teaching). However, as with any job, there are hurdles to what you do.

Now, before I elucidate some of these, let me say that I realize that everyone feels like what they do is very important, if not the most important part of the process, particularly a software/application project. I'm under no such illusions; my feeling is that requirements and usability and mockups and prototypes and architecture and development and QA are all equally important. I'm just not sure everyone feels the same way.

OK, the first hurdle to usability that I see is one of perception. Because usability is a growing field and one that doesn't have the same amount of roots that disciplines like QA and coding do, it is very easy for usability to be marginalized in the software cycle. Part of this is a lack of understanding about what usability is. In some ways, I think it's very easy for people to look at us as simply web designers. We get requirements and we implement them in a visually pleasing manner. Is that an aspect of what we do? Yes, it is. However, it's only a part of what we do. We also have to consider navigation: how people will get to the different areas of the application/site. Links? Tabs? Both? And why make the choice that we do? Why use certain colors? In using those colors, have we considered color-blind users? Have we considered the audience and their age and familiarity with the web and "understood" web-conventions?

People and groups that do usability are not simply mock-up factories. The mock ups that we deliver are the easiest piece to judge, but they are merely a reflection of the background work that has to go into making them and the considerations that have to take place.

And I think that's the other issue with the perception of usability. Because people don't fully understand it yet, they reduce it to the lowest common denominator, and honestly, people don't think web/application design is really that hard. Much like people don't think running sound is really that hard. "Just turn it up. What's the big deal?" "Just put a button there. What's the big deal?" And because people think it's easy, they don't always understand the complexity of the situations. It just doesn't seem as difficult as coding, for instance.

Which leads us to the other hurdle: time. In the business environment I'm in, time is money. Especially since we don't bill hours to external clients. As a result, everything must be done in as rapid a timeframe as possible. With a huge focus on deadlines, sometimes ones that seem arbitrary, and sometimes externally driven, there's a lot of pressure to get the mock ups done and on to architecture and development. Which is understandable, of course. The goal is to produce products as quickly as possible to produce more products as quickly as possible. However, the difficulty in that is simply that if you rush a design process, you can marginalize the quality of it. And that doesn't do anyone any good: users, product owners, designers, developers, anyone. While I understand we're in a fast-paced world, some consideration the other way has to be taken as well.

So those are the two biggest hurdles I see to good implementation of usability. I hope it doesn't seem like I'm complaining. I think those hurdles are starting to be overcome in general and I hope that usability continues to grow in prominence and acceptance as a valuable part of the software development cycle.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Why Do They Call It the Terrible Twos?

Because they last for two years.

Connor has started to become a lot more willful. He's started to fight us when we try to make him do things that he doesn't like to do, such as sit in a high chair or share a toy. He's started throwing tantrums, which are not fun at all. It's one of those things that I really, really don't like and frustrate me, but I also know that he's still a lot of fun for the most part. I just don't look forward to these next two years, which is how long it lasted for Kinsey.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Gen X vs. Millenials/Gen Y

Over the last few days, a couple of links have come to my attention about attitudes of GenXers particularly in relation to Gen Y/Millenials.

This one from Radar Online called "Generation Slap:They're naive, self-important, and perpetually plugged in. This is a call to arms against Millennials"(ht: Scott Freeman) is much more of a screed against Millenials, containing lines such as: "If you look at the sheer number of Millennials, the outlook is grim. While Gen X boasts only around 30 million members, there are an estimated 80 million Millennials out there. They're like pod people with Facebook accounts. We're outnumbered." It's a very interesting read, but it does contain a lot of adult language/cussin'.

The other one was from Businessweek entitled "10 Reasons Gen Xers Are Unhappy at Work." I thought this one, while mainly anecdotal, was pretty well thought out and reflected some of my feelings about being in the corporate world, although I also feel very fortunate to be doing work that I really like.

Interesting reads for a Monday morning.

Friday, May 16, 2008

GAH!!!

Zero time to do a serious blog today. GAH!!!!

So a question and advance apologies to you preachers (and soon-to-be) preachers out there: How much value do people find in sermons? What is your definition of a good sermon? A bad one?

I'm just curious about people's thoughts on it.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

How We Do Usability

Last week, I discussed a little bit about what usability is (which is what I do for a living). Hopefully that gave some conceptual framework to this week.

Ok, so what exactly do I do? Well, a few things. One thing we do is look at existing applications or sites and help make suggestions to make them better, often by doing redesigns. The other thing we typically do is to start with a project at the beginning, trying to design it as usable from the beginning. Do I have a preference between those two? Well, due to my critical nature, I kind of like looking at existing sites and finding the problems, but honestly, it's much better for the users if we are involved from the start.

To do our work, we have 2 tools: 1) experience (ours and others) and 2) usability testing. To be perfectly honest, a lot of usability work is common sense and experience. By doing the work and the reading, we get a lot of knowledge about how users do things. For instance, it's simply common sense that you DON'T put a ton of text at the beginning of a website or an application. Why? Because people don't read it. All of that marketing speak and junk that CEOs and marketing people love to have to extol the virtues of their brand or company or whatever. Users have learned to scan through websites and applications to find what they want. Very rarely to people on the web browse anymore. Ten years ago when the web was pretty new, sure. But now, people have a purpose when they come. They're wanting to do something or find something; they don't want a brochure. So common sense says, don't have a ton of text at the beginning of a website or application. And yet, how many places do you still see this? Way too many.

The other tool in the bag is Usability testing. What's that? It's very easy. You design your site or application, or you take an existing one that you suspect has problems. Then you get a typical user, sit them in front of it and basically say, "How would you use this?" or "How would accomplish this task?" And then you get another one, and another, and so on and so on to make it statistically significant. If the large majority of people can accomplish what you ask, you know that you've got a pretty good system. If they can't, you need to redesign. Usability testing is the absolute best way to determine how usable a system is.

Because here's the thing: even with all the years of experience that our group has, we still get things wrong. It's very easy to get caught up in getting things done and meeting deadlines that you forget to take certain things into account, like how a user will get to a particular area that you've designed. That happened to me on a project a few weeks back. The other thing is that, especially on a redesign of an existing system, users will have a certain mindset about how to accomplish a certain task and you have to take that into account. Otherwise, they're not going to be able to use what you're creating.

So, those are the tools. Next week, some hurdles to usability. Some ways that people ignore or don't take it into account or marginalize it. Hopefully, those of you out there are finding this slightly interesting and eye-opening. Usability is a growing field and one that people don't really notice until they come across a site or application that just doesn't work.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Kinsey's Dance Recital 2008

Sunday was Kinsey's Spring dance recital. She was wonderful, of course and here's the proof.

Getting dolled up.

Right there in the middle.

With all her beautiful flowers.

With my mom.

With Sheryl's mom

Monday, May 12, 2008

Iron Man

Sheryl and I got out to see Iron Man Friday night and let me give the non-spoiler review first and then I'll get detailed and spoiler-filled.

It was great. Absolutely terrific. I'm a comics fan just in general, and really enjoyed Spider-Man 1 & 2 (not so much with 3) and Batman Begins. I've also seen the comics done fairly poorly in movies like The Hulk and the Fantastic Four. Thankfully, Iron Man didn't fall into the latter category. Beyond the visual effects, what really, really made this movie was the acting. All four of the major characters in this movie were portrayed by Oscar-nominated or -winning actors: Jeff Bridges, Terrence Howard, Gwyneth Paltrow, and most notably, Robert Downey Jr. Beyond all the effects and CGI, it was the acting that really, really made this movie. If you haven't seen it, go see it. If you have seen it, scroll down for my more spoiler-filled review.

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Ok, first of all the effects were great. There are moments the movie like when Downey/Stark is being put into the suit by his robots where you know there's green screen work going on, but it looked so seamless that it's difficult to tell where it is.

But here's the great thing about the movie. It's really Robert Downey Jr's movie. Director Jon Favreau realized this and I think made a concerted effort to NOT make Iron Man the main character. He made Stark the main character. Iron Man never became a persona of Stark the way that Batman is a persona of Bruce Wayne, almost another personality. Iron Man is simply Tony Stark in a suit. And I credit both Downey and Favreau with this. Downey for being a great actor, especially vocally when his face isn't on screen, and Favreau for shots like Downey's face inside the Iron Man mask with all of the displays reflecting on him. It's a great directorial trick to help us maintain a connection with the Stark character. It's very effective.

The other part that really works is the story. Having Stark kidnapped in Afghanistan brings a real immediacy to the story. Even the idea that we've got a guy here that's a genius that can do all of the things that he does works in a similar way to how Batman Begins works. It's naturalistic, at least as naturalistic as a story about a guy in a suit can be. You find it reasonable that a normal guy with enough motivation could pull off the stuff that Stark does.

I really, really liked this movie a whole lot and so did Sheryl. She didn't like me keeping her afterwards as much to watch the scene after the credits, but hey. Sometimes you got to sit through the credits...

Friday, May 09, 2008

Wright Ehrman debate

I got asked in a comment last week what were my reactions to the Wright-Ehrman debate on pain/suffering that I linked to last week. So here's my reaction.

There is a level on which I find Ehrman's arguments very compelling, and it's hard not to. There can definitely be a cognitive disconnect between the idea of a loving God that cares so much for each of us that He sent His Son to die as a sacrifice and be resurrected as the first fruit of the new creation who also "lets" children die of starvation and crippling diseases. But it's also not a new problem. It's not something that people have only recently been dealing with.

I think my basic reaction is that I sincerely hope that what NT Wright talks about is true. I have faith that it is true, but also doubts that it could be. Perhaps I don't have the faith of a child anymore. It's like the old Caedmon's Call song says, "My faith is like shifting sand..." and so on the days that I find it difficult to stand on faith, I find myself standing on hope and grace. That's where I am on this.

What I really liked the best was the end of Ehrman's last statement, that being that even if we don't know the reasons for suffering we can still have the proper response to it. And that, to me, is a very Christ-like thing to say.

Thursday, May 08, 2008

YouTube Thursday: Marvel/DC

I think tomorrow night, Sheryl and I are going to be able to get out and see Iron Man, which I'm particularly looking forward to and was before it got all the good buzz it's been getting.

In my online browsing, I came across a guy on YouTube who has done something kind of interesting. He's taken the Mac/PC meme and moved it over to the comic book world, using action figures. He did a bunch a couple of years ago with Spider-man and Superman and this year, he's done Batman and Iron Man and it's a riot.



Now, as I was looking through this guy's other work, I discovered that he actually did a series called "Marvel/DC: After Hours." It's a seven-part series, and this is the highest compliment that I can give something: at the end, I had to remind myself that it was just a guy manipulating action figures. The story is that good. If you're not a comic fan, you might not enjoy it like I did, but I'm also not as big a comic fan as some other people are, so you might give it a shot.


Part 1


Part 2


Part 3


Part 4


Part 5


Part 6 #1


Part 6 #2


Part 7 #1


Part 7 #2

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

"Usability? What's that?"

Whenever someone asks me what I do for a living, I have a very quick internal debate. Do I give a generic answer that will satisfy them and help us move onto the next topic of conversation or do I really tell them what I do which will almost inevitably lead to the question in the title of this post? If I'm in a talky mood, I'll usually do the latter. So what is it I do? I do Usability for web sites and web applications. And to answer the inevitable question, here's what usability is. It's making things usable.

Now, why is that important? Well, the sad fact of the matter is that most stuff done on the web isn't as usable as it could be. It's like I used to tell my kids when I was teaching, "You can have the best idea for a paper in the world, but if it's unreadable from a grammar or stylistic standpoint, it doesn't matter." Same thing with site and application design. It can be a great idea for a site, but if people can't use it, then they aren't going to use it.

So, why is usability important? In a company like the one I work in, time is money. You want your personnel doing things that will bring income to the company, billable hours, that kind of thing. So the longer it takes a person to do something, the less time they are working for the clients. And so, let's say that a company has 20,000 employees and 15,000 of them have billable hours. If you can save them 10 seconds on a task they do every week, you've just saved the firm 40 hours in a week, one full person, 2,080 hours a year. Even for sites where the user is going to be purchasing, rather that working, studies show that the faster you can help that user make a choice, the more likely they are to purchase.

But not only that, having a site or application that user can "enjoy" using gives a more favorable impression of the brand associated with that site. And it goes beyond look. If a site looks great, but you can't find what you want to find to do what you want to do, you're not going to have a favorable impression of the site or the brand associated with it.

Ok, so that's what usability is. Next week, how do we go about accomplishing that? What do we do on a regular basis to make something usable?

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

He's All Boy

Thursday afternoon, Sheryl and I were out in the front yard, talking with one of our neighbors. Kinsey was running around playing with bubbles and Connor was on the first step of our porch doing a little hop and then stepping down. It's a fairly small step and he was doing fine with it. At the end of our conversation, we were just about to head in and get some dinner when I heard a rather sickening thud. I looked back and Connor had faceplanted onto the sidewalk with his feet above his head on the step. I ran over to him and lifted him up and saw a huge lump developing on his forehead and blood dripping from his nose.

We ran him into the house and held him for a little bit and then looked at the goose egg on his head. It wasn't that bad and I even did the flashlight in the eyes to watch his pupils dilate and see if he was showing the signs of a concussion. I guess watching ER when it was good 10 years ago paid off. He didn't show any signs and was babbling a few minutes later. I woke him up a couple times that night to make sure he'd still wake up and he did. So I guess this is the first in a long line of possible injuries. The pic below were taken yesterday.
















No, really, he doesn't have a concussion.















The goose egg is going down.

















Still in a great mood.

Friday, May 02, 2008

Steelcage Deathmatch Between Bart Ehrman and N. T. Wright

Ok, so maybe calling it a deathmatch is overstating it, just a smidge, but if you haven't read the unfortunately titled Blogalogue between Ehrman and Wright about the problem of pain, you really should. Ehrman is a former Christian who lost his faith as a result of not being able to reconcile the idea of pain and suffering with the concept of a loving and graceful God. Wright is... well, he's N.T. Wright, one of the men I most admire theologically.

I've found it to be an honest and engaging debate and the two were very respectful to each other, something that is often sorely lacking when two people disagree.

Thursday, May 01, 2008

YouTube Thursday: Anne Lamott on the Colbert Report

On Tuesday night, Anne Lamott was on the Colbert Report. He talked about her book, Grace (Eventually) that the Otter Creek Wednesday night book club read last summer. I like Anne Lamott a lot, but don't agree with her on everything, much like I don't agree with just about anyone on everything.

One other thing: If you've never watched Colbert before, realize that he's satirizing people like Bill O'Reilly and Chris Matthews and the pundit shows on cable news. Sometimes he's TOO good at it, but in this case, I think he likes Lamott a lot and let's her get her points across.

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