Rewriting the web with MSIE

In response to my item on media hacking the other day, this comment alerted me to a really sweet bookmarklet that adds a slider to a Flash movie. You don’t get timecodes but you do get start/pause/scrub which is a tremendous benefit.

When I tried it out, on both Firefox and IE, I was reminded again about the relative inaccessibility of bookmarklets in recent versions of IE. In Firefox it’s a drag-and-drop to the linkbar, and even that procedure eludes most people. In IE it’s a much more complicated dance which I illustrated in my Bookmarklets 101 screencast.

Because I now aim to improve digital literacy as broadly as I can, I’ll be focusing more than I have in the past on the browser that most people still use, which is IE. Here I’d like to toss out a couple of points for discussion and follow-up.

Bookmarklet policies.

It’s understandable that bookmarklets, which are JavaScript snippets that run in the context of web pages, would be locked down in a browser that’s busily rehabilitating its security reputation. But typically they’re not really locked down, just inconveniently accessible. Suppose you want to encourage your people to use these kinds of productivity aids. What does the domain policy look like for doing that?

Greasemonkey for IE.

What’s the deal nowadays? At one time I heard about Trixie but not so much lately. I’ll revisit it myself, but I’m curious to hear reports on Trixie’s compatibility with Greasemonkey userscripts, its rate of adoption, and its security model.

Thursday night switcheroo

The original plan to meet up at the Crossroads Mall on Thursday night turned out to conflict with what sounds like a popular and fun event: the Seattle podcasting network get-together. So I’ll be there instead, and if anyone wants to go out for drinks later, I’ll be up for that. Dennis Hamilton, who originally proposed the Crossroads Mall, has kindly volunteered to drop by there and see if anybody who does happen to show up wants to go over to the podcast meeting instead.

Channel 9 media hacking

In honor of my first get-together with the MSDN Channel 9 and 10 folks later today, I thought I’d do a spot of media hacking in support of the cause. One of the things that caught my eye recently was Brian Jones’ screencast on data/view separation in Word 2007. It’s published as a SWF (Shockwave Flash) movie and, like other SWF files on Channel 9, it’s delivered into the browser directly, without a controls wrapper. So there’s no way to see the length of the screencast, or pause it, or scroll around in it, or — as I was inclined to do — refer to a segment within the screencast.

I figured it would be a snap to grab the controller that Camtasia Studio emits and tweak its configuration file to point to Brian’s screencast. But that seemingly simple hack turned into a merry chase. It turns out that the Camtasia controller isn’t entirely generic. It embeds (at least) the width and height of the controlled video. I could use Camtasia to create a new controller, but I don’t have that software here with me, and in any case it seems like there should be a way to override those values.

First, though, I took a step back and spent some time looking for a generic SWF component to play back SWFs. For FLV (Flash video) files, I’ve made great use of flvplayer.swf 1. It’s a nice simple widget that does just the one thing I want: it accepts the address of an FLV file as a parameter, and it plays that file. There has to be an analogous swfplayer.swf, right? Well, I looked hard and didn’t find it, maybe someone can enlighten us on that score.

Circling back to the Camtasia controller, I asked myself another question. There has to be an easy way to not only display, but also edit, the header of a SWF file, right? Again, I looked hard and came up empty handed. Now it was a challenge, so I dug into things like SWF::File and Flasm, tools for picking apart and reassembling SWF files. Neither quite did the trick. Then I remembered a tip from Rich Kilmer about Kinetic Fusion, a Java toolkit for roundtripping between SWF and XML. Using it, I was able to convert the SWF to XML, alter the width/height values, and recreate the SWF 2.

I know, I know, this is crazy, there has to be a better way, and I hope someone will enlighten me. But in any case, I finally did succeed, sort of. Here’s a controllable version of Brian’s screencast:

One further complication: I’d hoped to publish only the modified controller and configuration file, leaving the screencast in situ on Channel 9. But the cross-domain nature of that arrangement seems to rule it out. So I wound up rehosting the video on the same server as the controller and configuration file. In this case, just to keep things interesting, that server happens to be my Amazon S3 account.

Anyway, if you’ve made it this far, I can now refer you to the segment of that screencast. At 6:45 (of 9:53), Brian shows how to swap out one batch of XML data associated with a Word document and swap in another. I’ll say more about why I found that interesting in another post. Meanwhile, I’ll be pondering how one of my perennial interests — URL-adddressable and randomly accessible rich media — can help expose more of the considerable value that’s contained in the Channel 9 screencasts.

1. If you’re a Flash developer, it’s trivial to whip up your own playback control. But it’s non-trivial for regular folks who just want to embed videos in HTML pages. These folks find themselves rooting around on the net for components that should be way easier to find and use.

2. If you try this on the Camtasia controller, note that the decompiled XML won’t immediately recompile. The generated ActionScript contains a handful of references to this:componentName that instead should be this.componentName.

New employee orientation

Once in a blue moon I find myself sitting in a new employee orientation. Today, as on other occasions, I was struck by how hard it is for the benefits people to explain their offerings. The presentation is necessarily general but everyone’s circumstances are particular. There’s no good way to bridge that gap in a large group session.

My guess is that a lot of the folks who were in that session today will, upon joining their teams tomorrow, ask for advice about various health and investment options. But team members won’t necessarily be the best sources of advice, because similar work circumstances don’t map to similar life circumstances. What new employees really need is to compare notes with other employees in similar life circumstances.

Benefits people and coworkers often won’t be in a position to meet that need. But a social application that matched up employees in similar life circumstances could be a great way to transfer highly particular kinds of benefits knowledge.

Ambient video awareness and visible conversations

A few years ago Marc Eisenstadt, chief scientist with the Open University’s Knowledge Media Institute, wrote to tell me about a system called BuddySpace. We’ve been in touch on and off since then, and when he heard I’d be in Cambridge for the Technology, Knowledge, and Society conference, he invited me to the OU’s headquarters in Milton Keynes for a visit. I wasn’t able to make that detour, but we got together anyway thanks to KMI’s new media maven Peter Scott, who was at the conference to demonstrate and discuss some of the Open University’s groundbreaking work in video-enhanced remote collaboration.

Peter’s talk focused mainly on Hexagon, a project in “ambient video awareness.” The idea is that a distributed team of webcam-equipped collaborators monitor one anothers’ work environments — at home, in the office, on the road — using hexagonal windows that tile nicely on a computer display. It’s a “room-based” system, Peter says. Surveillance occurs only team members enter a virtual room, thereby announcing their willingness to see and be seen.

Why would anyone want to do that? Suppose Mary wants to contact Joe, and must choose between an assortment of communication options: instant messaging, email, phone, videoconferencing. If she can see that Joe is on the phone, she’ll know to choose email or IM over a phone call or a videoconference. Other visual cues might help her to decide between synchronous IM and asynchronous email. If Joe looks bored and is tapping his fingers, he might be on hold and thus receptive to instantaneous chat. If he’s gesticulating wildly and talking up a storm, though, he’s clearly non-interruptible, in which case Mary should cut him some slack and use email as a buffer.

Hexagon has been made available to a number of groups. Some used it enthusiastically for a while. But only one group so far has made it a permanent habit: Peter’s own research group. As a result, he considers it a failed experiment. Maybe so, but I’m willing to cut the project some slack. It’s true that in the real world, far from research centers dedicated to video-enhanced remote collaboration, you won’t find many people who are as comfortable with extreme transparency — and as fluent with multi-modal communication — as Marc and Peter and their crew. But the real world is moving in that direction, and the camera-crazy UK may be leading the way as seen in the photo at right which juxtaposes a medieval wrought-iron lantern and a modern TV camera.

Meanwhile, some of those not yet ready for Hexagon may find related Open University projects, like FlashMeeting, to be more approachable. FlashMeeting is a lightweight videoconferencing system based on Adobe’s Flash Communication Server. Following his talk, Peter used his laptop to set up a FlashMeeting conference that included the two of us, Marc Eisenstadt at OU headquarters, and Tony Hirst who joined from the Isle of Wight. It’s a push-to-talk system that requires speakers to take turns. You queue for the microphone by clicking on a “raise your hand” icon. Like all such schemes, it’s awkward in some ways and convenient in others.

There were two awkward bits for me. First, I missed the free-flowing give-and-take of a full duplex conversation. Second, I had to divide my attention between mastering the interface and participating in the conference. At one point, for example, I needed to dequeue a request to talk. That’s doable, but in focusing on how to do it I lost the conversational thread.

Queue-to-talk is a common protocol, of course — it’s how things work at conferences, for example. In the FlashMeeting environment it serves to chunk the conversation in a way that’s incredibly useful downstream. All FlashMeeting conferences are recorded and can be played back. Because people queue to talk, it’s easy to chunk the playback into fragments that map the structure of the conversation. You can see the principle at work in this playback. Every segment boundary has an URL. If a speaker runs long, his or her segment will be subdivided to ensure fine-grained access to all parts of the meeting.

The chunking also provides data that can be used to visualize the “shape” of a meeting. These conversational maps clearly distinguish between, for example, meetings that are presentations dominated by one speaker, versus meetings that (like ours) are conversations among co-equals. The maps also capture subtleties of interaction. You can see, for example, when someone’s hand has been raised for a long time, and whether that person ultimately does speak or instead withdraws from the queue.

A map of a conversation

I expect the chunking is also handy for random-access navigation. In the conversation mapped here, for example, I spoke once at some length. If I were trying to recall what I said at that point, seeing the structure would help me pinpoint where to tune in.

Although Hexagon hasn’t caught on outside the lab, Peter says there’s been pretty good uptake of FlashMeeting because people “know how to have meetings.” I wonder if that’s really true, though. I suspect we know less about meetings than we think we do, and that automated analysis could tell us a lot.

The simple act of recording and playback can be a revelation. Once, for example, I recorded (with permission) a slightly tense phone negotiation. When I played it back, I heard myself making strategic, tactical, and social errors. I learned a lot from that, and might have learned even more if I’d had the benefit of the kinds of conversational x-rays that the OU researchers are developing.

Virtual worlds with exotic modes of social interaction tend to be headline-grabbers. Witness the Second Life PR fad, for example. By contrast, technology that merely reflects our real-world interactions back to us isn’t nearly so sexy. For most of us, though, in most cases, it might be a lot more useful.

In Redmond next week

My new job at Microsoft starts Monday, and I’ll be on campus in Redmond all week. The first 1.5 days are all HR stuff I’m told, but after that I’ll be available. I’m setting up various meetings, but of course I don’t know many of the folks I ought to meet. So if you’re one of those folks, would like to get together, and are within earshot of this blog, speak up. We could maybe coordinate right here in comments, or if that’s too weird, then email me at my permanent address, judell at mv dot com.

A case of suspected fraud

I had an odd experience a few weeks ago, related to the conference I just attended. The Australian organizers had volunteered to book my Boston-London flight. Then one afternoon I got a call from Charlotte, a travel agent who works in the U.S. branch of the organizers’ Australian travel agency. She thought the booking was probably fraudulent, and cited three reasons:

  1. The booking was issued in the name of one of the organizers, but I was listed as the traveler.
  2. The fare was unusually high.
  3. The email address, which concatenated the organizer’s name with the name of the travel agency, seemed odd to her.

She: “I’m pretty sure this is bogus.”

Me: “How would it be in someone’s interest to fraudulently book me a flight?”

She: “Who knows? It could be anything. When you’ve seen as much of this kind of thing as I have, you give up on trying to figure out people’s motives.”

Suddenly the whole thing felt wrong to me. I recalled how sparse the conference website had been when I’d last visited it the week before. The keynote speakers, including me, were listed, but everything else was placeholders. So I went back to the site and…nothing was there. Holy crap! Was it conceivable that the whole deal was some kind of malicious prank? That unlikely conclusion began to seem disturbingly likely when I googled around, found the organizer’s site and an affiliated academic site, and discovered that they were dead too.

Finally I found a page listing advisory board members, and called the person who lives closest to me, an academic in New Jersey. She verified that the company and conference were real. When I went back to recheck the websites they were up and running again, and the suspiciously sparse schedule was now fully populated.

My post-mortem analysis of this strange combination of circumstances raised a couple of interesting points:

Eyeballs on transactions.
After things got sorted out and the flight was booked, I had a long conversation with the travel agent. It seemed unusual that she had personally reviewed this transaction and, on her own initiative, flagged it as suspicious. Was that company policy, I asked? No, she said. The company mostly uses an automated system. It just happens that, in her remote branch office, Charlotte sees all the bookings, is motivated to review them, and brings substantial energy and intelligence to that task.

She told me she catches real fraud attempts every week or so. To the company at large, this is just spoilage. It gets written off as a cost of doing business. We assume that eyeballs on transactions are uneconomical. But is that really true? After this experience, and in view of my conversation with Paul English about the practicality of human-intensive customer service, I wonder if we should revisit that assumption.

Locality of trust.
This was an international conference, and the members of the advisory board live all around the world. The one I chose to contact, though, is the one who lives closest to me. Of course I’d be unlikely to call overseas first, because of long-distance tolls and time zones. But there were various folks in the U.S. I could have called, yet I picked the person who lives in New Jersey. Why? In retrospect I believe that’s because New Jersey is closer to my home than Illinois or California. Of course it’s completely irrational to trust a New Jerseyite more than a Californian for that reason. And yet, at a moment when nothing seemed certain, I acted out that irrational behavior. Trust shouldn’t diminish as the square of distance but, in our unconscious minds, I think it probably does. I’ll bet Jim Russell would agree.

All’s well that ends well. The conference organizers turned out to be really pleasant folks. (I’m downplaying their identities here, though you could triangulate them if you wanted to, because they’re naturally a bit embarrassed about what happened.) I enjoyed giving my talk, I met interesting people, I got to see Cambridge for the first time, it was a good trip. But for a couple of hours on that afternoon in December things were really weird!