Amar Sagoo

13 December 2005

Brewster Kahle

Seeing this link about Amazon opening up the Alexa index today reminded me that I've been meaning to blog about Brewster Kahle, the father of Alexa and the Internet Archive.

There's an excellent interview with him on NerdTV. It's actually my favourite NerdTV episode so far. Many of the other guests talk a lot about their lives in general. Kahle, on the other hand, talks about what kind of place he wants the Internet to be, something he's very enthusiastic about. He's someone who really has vision, and who just generally seems to get the plot. It's strange he's not more famous.

Check it out.

18 November 2005

Namely 2.0

Finished sooner than expected, Namely 2.0 is now ready for your launching pleasure. The most obvious change is that it has a new, customisable look. I spent many hours (literally) tweaking the matte and shiny shading algorithms and the different colour presets. I hope it caters for the majority of tastes.

It is also smarter about how it orders matches. It will keep track of how often you launch which apps, and will give more frequently used ones precedence in the list. The result should be that you can open many of your favourites with just a single letter.

There are other changes as well, so check out the Read Me file.

17 November 2005

Have they never heard of scrollbars?

When Apple introduced the iTunes Music Store, one thing I hated about it straightaway were those views that have left and right buttons to page through a list of albums. At first I thought it was forgivable, given that the iTMS is more like a web site than a rich client interface. But after a short while I noticed that my eyes had become conditioned to move after clicking those arrows, trying to follow the animation. The problem is that they would never be in sync with the actual animation, especially since there's always a delay, which conjured up my old friend, motion sickness. I've now actually developed a habit of looking away right after clicking the arrows, and look back only after the animation is over.

When Tiger arrived, I was shocked to see the same awful paging view used in the Dashboard when you're adding widgets. The delay there is not nearly as bad as in the Music Store, but why on earth would you not use scrollbars for something like this?

It baffles me how Apple, out of all companies, keeps throwing decades worth of interface design wisdom out the window. They've done it with window title bar controls, with the Dock and with the Mail toolbar, to name just a few obvious examples. Jef Raskin once said that instead of interface architects, Apple has been infested with decorators. I think he had a point.

30 October 2005

Got money lying around?

Although some kind people have offered me money for my software in the past, I never felt accepting it was quite justified, because I was full-time employed and only spent very little time on my products.

Well, starting today, I'll be accepting donations through a link at the top of my website. This is a) because I'm planning to spend more time on my software (within the constraints of my studies), and b) now that I'm a student, I don't mind the extra money so much.

As you may have already noticed, I've put up a pre-release version of Tofu 2.0 which includes PDF support. There are a number of other releases in the pipeline as well: Deep Notes is getting some interface enhancements, I'm looking to improve Namely, and there's a brand new CoreData app for storing software licenses, pending only a name and an icon (if you have an idea less boring than License Manager, let's hear it!)

21 October 2005

Mighty Mouse impressions

I have been using a Mighty Mouse for about a month now which I got as a leaving present from my kind colleagues, so I thought I'd share my impressions. I intentionally waited for a few weeks to allow myself time to get used to it.

Up to now, my mouse of choice has been a Microsoft Wheel Mouse Optical, a two-button mouse (three if you count the scroll wheel). I really like the shape, the feel of the buttons, and its durability.

One of my first thoughts when I started using the Mighty Mouse was that the button was too hard to press. I searched for a switch to adjust the firmness, as I had seen on the Apple Bluetooth Mouse, but no luck. I got used to it eventually, but initially this caused my hand to get tired quite easily. It's a shame they don't have the adjustment feature across all their mice. I can't see any obvious reason for not including it.

Another reason why my hand and wrist felt tired was that I was used to resting my hand on my Microsoft mouse, which is quite high at its highest point. The Mighty Mouse is much flatter. Also, I think because the whole surface forms the button, I felt hesitant to put too much weight on it.

What people probably wonder about most is how well right-clicking works. At least I did. As you may have read elsewhere, it requires you to actually lift your index finger off the surface. As long as your finger touches the area to the left of the scroll ball (for the right-handed setting), any clicks are registered as primary clicks. I wasn't sure if this would be a problem, because I didn't actually know whether or not I usually lifted my index finger. Well, it turns out I didn't. On other mice, I was just applying more pressure on the right side. I wouldn't say that getting used to Apple's prescribed technique was hard, but it did take some conscious effort at first. I still fail very occasionally, even after four weeks of using it.

The side buttons are also interesting. You squeeze them to activate them, but although they give slightly, there's no tangible click. Instead, you get feedback in the form of a clicking sound from the built-in speaker. This sounds very natural and I find it actually gives you the illusion of feeling the click as well. It's only when the mouse is disconnected and has no power that you're sure there's no physical click. Of course, this whole concept breaks down if you are in a noisy environment or if you are deaf. Also, the buttons really give only slightly, so I tend to apply quite a lot of pressure, which is tiring.

I have to say I don't really use the side buttons. The main reason is their positioning. When I hold the mouse in a natural position, my ring finger is on the side button on the right, but my thumb is just behind the left one. So to get a grip, I either need to move forward my thumb (and therefore my wrist) or hold the mouse slightly angled to the left. This is kind of crappy, since it seems like an obvious problem and shouldn't be hard to fix (just make the buttons wider, spanning further back).

On to the Mighty Mouse's other big curiosity: the scroll ball. Let's look at traditional, vertical scrolling for now. In a nutshell, it feels great. Scrolling is much smoother than on other mice, because it seems to have a higher resolution. Scrolling produces soft clicking sounds, which are artificial like on the side buttons, but here the illusion of tactile feedback is even more convincing. Also, you have to apply a tiny bit of pressure while using it, so if you touch it very lightly and move it, nothing happens. I guess the reason for this behaviour is to avoid accidental scrolling when you brush over the ball while moving your fingers. Apple did an amazing job of tuning the threshold for this so you probably will never notice.

What I was looking forward to most in this mouse is the idea of being able to scroll horizontally without having to hold the Shift key. Unfortunately, the result here has been disappointing. It works, but it doesn't work very well. The problem is one of ergonomics. To scroll vertically, you can use about an inch of your index finger's length to move the ball, from the tip of the finger to just behind the first joint. This not only gives you a fairly good range, but also very fine control. In contrast, when scrolling horizontally, only a very narrow part of you finger can make contact with the ball, so you have to keep scrubbing to scroll longer distances. That could be fixed by accelerating horizontal movement more than vertical, but the other problem is that horizontal scrolling is very hard to control. This is partly due to the limited range, of course, but also because your finger sticks to the shiny surface of the mouse on either side of the scroll ball. When you apply more force to overcome that stickiness, your finger suddenly sweeps across the ball much faster than you intended, resulting in very jerky movements. It can be quite frustrating.

I can think of two possible improvements. One is to make the surface rougher, at least around the scroll ball. The other is to expose a bit more of the sides of the scroll ball, by making the surface of the mouse slightly concave at the top.

The other thing you can do with the scroll ball is click. The thing to note here is that it's not the depressing of the scroll ball which causes the click, but pressing the whole mouse down while your finger is on the scroll ball. In fact, the same pressure detection used to activate the scroll ball when scrolling also seems to give the condition for a middle click. This means that a middle click doesn't actually feel any different from a normal click, which can be a bit confusing. But at least you don't have to lift up your other fingers in order for it to work.

So the Mighty Mouse delivers many novel ideas, but how well these work is quite a mixed bag. Vertical scrolling is the only real winner. Once you're used to this one, traditional scroll wheels will feel clunky and primitive. Although some of the other features, like horizontal scrolling, are potentially useful, others feel like they're just there to make the mouse as unconventional as possible.

Innovation is appreciated, but not just for the sake of innovating.

28 July 2005

Lots of pasta ahead

Apologies for the lack of activity on this blog recently. I do have a list of things I want to post about, but I've been so busy at work that when I get home, I just want to switch off and play Myth II, because my brain's too tired for anything more constructive.

The main reason I've been so busy is that I'll be leaving my current job at the end of September. Instead, I'll be studying for a Masters in Human-Computer Interaction with Ergonomics at University College London's Interaction Centre.

Although it's a full-time course, I think that being a student will give me some more time to work on my software, post on this blog, and watch my bank balance dwindle.

30 June 2005


If you aren't using it yet, you have to try it.

This is a great piece of information design. I've been checking it regularly for the last two weeks or so, and I find that I pick up news that would have previously completely passed me by. This is because buzztracker draws your attention to the most significant (from the press's point of view) news, whereas on traditional, headline-based news sites you are most likely to notice news associated with regions or topics familiar to you.

I only wish the article titles weren't truncated.

Also check out the About page, which is quite interesting.

13 May 2005


Although scrolling on the iPod is famously easy compared to other music players because of its wheel, it still has one problem: when scrolling quickly through a long list, for example all your artists, you are very likely to shoot past the artist you want to select. So the typical procedure is:

  1. Scroll down quickly until you see the desired artists whizzing past.
  2. Scroll back up more slowly until they re-emerge at the top of the screen
  3. If you missed them again, scroll down one or two rows until you've finally got them.

The basic problem is that most of the time while scrolling, the selection is right at the top or right at the bottom of the screen, meaning you need superhuman reflexes to stop in time when the correct artist's name appears.

A solution would be to keep the selection near the middle of the screen (unless you're right at the beginning or the end of the list, of course). That way, you can see a few rows ahead while scrolling, because your artist's name will become visible just before it becomes selected.

I sent this as a suggestion to Apple a while ago, but I'm not too optimistic about who actually gets to read what's sent through their feedback page.

7 May 2005

Smart Library drops

Ever since Mac OS X came out, I have been missing how the classic Finder used to try to recognise what kind of file you dropped on the system folder and would offer you to move it to the right place automatically, for example Extensions or Conrol Panels.

With new kinds of extensions being introduced in every version of Mac OS X (Preference Panes, Contextual Menu Items, Screen Savers, Widgets, Dictionaries, Image Units), it would be very convenient if we could just drop these on one of the Library folders and let the world’s most advanced operating system handle the details.

28 April 2005

You but me

It would be nice if English-like programming languages such as BASIC or AppleScript allowed using but in place of and.

Logically, and and but are the same; only but carries some additional semantics implying contradiction or contrast. (Note how I cleverly avoided using two successive buts there).

Why bother? Well, consider the following example:

If License.IsValid And License.IsBlackListed Then
End If

Now read this:

If License.IsValid But License.IsBlackListed Then
End If

Although interpreted the same by the computer, the second version makes the programmer's intention more obvious to a reader of the code.

This is similar in spirit to how you can use the in AppleScript and HyperTalk to make code more readable without affecting its behaviour. But this would be even more useful, because complex logical propositions can be quite a pain to decipher when you don't know the original intention. In fact, even constructing them can be difficult when you're having to translate from real-world terms into and and or-terms.

25 April 2005

Becoming one with the machine?

For the past few weeks, when using my computer at work, I have been getting unpleasant onrushes of a feeling that’s probably best likened to motion sickness. What seems to happen is that right after performing an action such as scrolling or dropping down menus, my eyes move automatically, anticipating where my attention should be focused next. However, that reflex is sometimes quicker than the software, and this mismatch between what I expect and what I see seems to have a slightly nauseating effect. I think it’s especially bad with animated (smooth) scrolling under Windows, because it behaves quite unpredictably, with some increments moving faster than others for no obvious reason. That’s actually where I started noticing this feeling, but it has since started happening in other, non-animated situations as well. On a few occasions it’s been so bad that I had to look away and my eyes started watering, although that could have just been general tiredness of the eyes. I also think my awareness of the effect makes it worse.

Have I used the computer so much that my brain has started treating what’s on the screen like a real environment, or have I just not noticed before? I’ve been using computers for more than half of my life now (and I’m only twenty-five!) and very regularly for the past nine years.

I’d quite like to test myself with an eye tracker and see if my eyes really move ahead of the graphics, and if so, by how much, and how it compares to less extreme users.

Maybe how we use animation and how responsive our systems are is more important than we think, especially with what’s happening with Aqua on the Mac.

Update: I think the worst situation for this motion sickness is when the expected motion doesn't occur at all. That happens quite often when using the mouse's scroll wheel in Windows IE, because this sometimes stops working until you click in the window's content area, as if it lost its focus.

I'm also pretty sure now that my eyes watering is a separate problem, but the two combined make for a particularly unpleasant scrolling experience.

24 April 2005

CSS3 multi-column layout

As you can maybe imagine, I'm quite excited about this. I wonder when WebCore- and Gecko-based browsers will start supporting this. Although I guess adoption by web designers will be scarce until Microsoft gets its act together.

16 April 2005


In the past year or so, a lot of thoughts about usability have been floating around my head. Since there aren't that many people in my physical proximity that I can discuss these with, I decided to write down some of them and put them online. I was originally planning to do this in the form of essays on my web site. However, I discovered that writing these essays kept throwing up new ideas that made them longer and longer, and less and less coherent. I therefore decided to publish shorter pieces here instead, each about a single thought.

I want to make this accessible to both technical and non-technical readers, so if you are technical, please bear with me when I explain some concepts in more detail than you need.

I am not great at writing, but I hope it will be enough to communicate what I'm thinking. I also think doing this should help me improve my writing. As Paul Graham puts it:

"Writing doesn't just communicate ideas; it generates them. If you're bad at writing and don't like to do it, you'll miss out on most of the ideas writing would have generated."