Christian Heilmann

You are currently browsing the Christian Heilmann blog archives for June, 2013.

Archive for June, 2013

In praise of intelligent paper maps – mapĀ² on Kickstarter

Saturday, June 29th, 2013

I am currently in Barcelona, a gorgeous but quite confusing town. Once again, I am getting the distinct feeling that we are becoming the slaves of the usefulness of our technologies as I find myself checking my phone for the map and places to go just to realise that I am not on roaming data and can not use either. So I get the worst experience:

  • I am in a city notoriously known for its pickpockets
  • I show a very expensive smart phone (or very scarce Geeksphone) while I am walking down the road
  • I can not move around the map as Google Maps doesn’t allow me to cache the tiles here

Of course the hotel offers free maps which are huge and very much pinpoint me as a tourist and potential target. They also cover the whole city and don’t allow me to zoom into a level that I need. Which brings me to a great product a friend of mine created and I wrote about before: map² the intelligent map on paper.

zoomable map on paper

map² is a paper map that solves the above issue. It is small, fits in your hand and allows you to zoom into the area you need:

So far the map is only available for Berlin and London, but here is the good news: Anne, the designer of the map started a kickstarter campaign to create the map as a city series. If she reaches the £20,000 goal she’ll create a similar map for New York with others to follow. You can even propose new cities using this form.

As I will be in New York soon, and suffer the same connection issues there, I’d love to be able to get one of them. Worthy cause to support?

Mobile Solutions Day – Firefox OS:supercharged HTML5

Tuesday, June 25th, 2013

Yesterday I did a one-day round-trip to Frankfurt, Germany to speak at T-Mobile’s Mobile Solutions Day about Firefox OS and what it means for app developers. The slides are available here and I recorded a screencast with not-that-amazing-but-does-the-job audio here.

The whole conference was also streamed on the internet and the raw stream recording is available. My talk starts at 02:29:00 onwards. That said, there were some amazing other talks. I especially enjoyed the Ford presentation on making smartphones and smartphone apps controllable by voice and by hardware available in cars like buttons in the steering wheel.

All in all the mobile solutions day was an interesting first round of innovation showcasing inside Deutsche Telekom. More will come soon.

Use your words

Saturday, June 22nd, 2013

I love the web. I live it, I breathe it, I was there when it became available to a larger audience at an affordable rate and I have seen it grow more and more to the most interesting, versatile and easiest to participate media out there. I’ve witnessed the power it gives to people who have no voice in traditional media and give people education where their social standing or school system would not support them.

This is why it hurts me to see people squander the opportunity that is the web away by clogging it with short-lived, let’s say it – bullshit. Sure, this is a natural thing – the web is a normal part of our lives and the new generation of users is web-native, meaning they don’t know any longer what it would be like to be offline. When we stop seeing something as hard to get it becomes a commodity and we value it less. Didn’t have to fight for it, so why see it as something I should care for? It is always there, isn’t it? Much like we waste drinking water until we lived in a country where you couldn’t drink from the tap.

didn't read, LOL - apparently something to be proud of…

The time when we listened to random beeping sounds from our modems and got excited when we got a full 56KB connection for a change are over. Mobile connectivity is still a problem, and sometimes gets expensive but even then the connection speeds are great. That is when you are in the country where your mobile contract and in “first world” countries. Get out of this world and you still feel the flakiness of connectivity and you get much more grateful for information becoming available after the third exasperated reload of the current web page.

And this is where I get very disappointed when I see that we are moving into a world where people stop using text and words to describe their feelings, ideas and plans and – well, communicate with others. Instead we are confronted with an avalanche of images, memes, animated GIFs of several megabytes and age-old fake conversations, jokes and “inspirational quotes” as badly optimised JPGs full of artifacts. We also get a lot of messages that could be a short post in the form of a video with terrible lighting and bad audio. They are easy to make, but they are much harder to consume. I can skim a long text until it gets interesting. I can not do that with a video unless I have a timed transcript.

I am not even going to start on the accessibility issues that come from a web that consists solely of images and videos. I am talking about incredibly useful technology and systems that are available to us as a result of a just a bit more than a decade of web evolution becoming useless.

Search engines like text. You will get your productions on the web found by having good text in there. Your images and videos can be as amazing as they come – if there is no descriptive text all you get is traffic coming from people seeing your things and sharing them. This can be incredibly powerful – something “going viral” can get you a lot of hits and shares in a very short amount of time and give you the false impression that you are a success and made an impact on the web. But the success is fleeting and a few minutes later the next cool thing will come around. A day later other people will share your work as theirs and again get a quick fix of fame. It is turning the web into a pure Operant Conditioning Chamber, the same phenomenon that powers casual online gaming and makes people give up on privacy, as explained eloquently by Cory Doctorow in his TEDxObserver talk.

Of course, social sharing also has great benefits beyond the quick fame. People describing your work in their words when sharing can add different language explanations or give your content more impact as an important voice people trust tweeted about it, but it relies on the good-will of people consuming what you produce and making the effort to share it or write words around it. If you provided the words from the beginning, you’ll get this as extra on top of people who will find your work using search engines – because you used text. And even better, if someone gets to your product and doesn’t speak your language, they can use a free translation service to get the product in at least an approximation of their language. We can use web technology to make products more accessible to us without having to rely on a social interaction of someone capable of both languages to do the work for us.

Above all, what bugs me is that the flood of memes, animated GIFs and videos and their quick, false fame robs new users of the web of the opportunity to learn how to speed-read, write and – above all – communicate in writing. I learned English in a few ways. First of all, in school, which works well if your teacher is not a non-native English speaker just trying to get through the curriculum. Secondly, I watched English TV series (Monty Python, as this was the only non-dubbed show) with subtitles. This taught me to understand English and thus – subconsciously – how to pronounce it.

A large part of me learning other languages though was through text communication with people from other countries. First on notes sent on floppy disks in the mail trading demos and tools, then on BBSes and then on the web. Reading and writing comments, hanging out on IRC and having many a fight and a lot of brainstorming there, taking part in forums and mailing lists, newsgroups and finally in social networks like Facebook and Google+. I could talk to someone on the other side of the globe, in real time, and it didn’t take ages to get a video or suffered from bad audio on a phone call or voice call.

It baffles me to see that we have a world-wide communication network with a very low barrier to entry and nearly no expense on publishing and we don’t use it to better ourselves, to make us better communicators. Instead we complain that governments don’t do enough to make school education better. Today you don’t need to buy a book in another language and wait for it in the mail. You can get it online and read it in Kindle, Google Play books, or even go to Project Gutenberg and read them for free. And yet people using proper grammar on the web are congratulated for it or – more commonly – made fun of. A higher level of education should not be a surprise in a world that has access to the largest library ever. It should be a given.

Words are powerful, they spark a theatre in the head. People reading your words make their own pictures at a speed pictures could never be transmitted. Instead of giving one image you create a gallery, one that you will never see, but your readers do. And this gallery is very personal to them and thus gets remembered much more. Of course words can cause controversy, misunderstandings and can hurt. But even then they can spark a conversation and make you realise the effect of your actions much more than a “like” or an “upvote” could ever do.

The old saying that a picture says a thousand words is true when it comes to explanations. Re-hashing memes and jumping on bandwagons based on current pop culture references that will be impossible to grasp a month later doesn’t say a thousand words. It basically says “I am lazy, here is a quick laugh to hint at my creativity”. We are blessed to be able to transmit our thoughts to an audience we will never be able to meet physically. We should not squander this.

Please, use your words. Turn on that grammar check, re-read that tweet before you send it. Write a short sentence instead of posting a meme we’ve seen thousands of times before. And don’t get discouraged when people don’t jump on it and thank you or go nuts about it. This is not for fame, this is for you. If all technology fails, words and gestures is what we have. You can exercise and train your brain to paint with words, to create gorgeous constructs. You get better the more you push yourself to not be lazy and use the obvious word but one that is more specific. Words are beautiful. Paint with them, compose with them, woo people with them.

First video of a Firefox OS series is live

Friday, June 21st, 2013

The last weeks I have been busy scripting (and then improvising as always) a series of videos explaining Firefox OS. These are now going live on a weekly basis.


Over on the Mozilla hacks blog, you can now find the first in a series of six videos explaining what Firefox OS is about. Under the description “Firefox OS - the platform HTML5 deserves” (a slogan I used in a few talks and interviews already) these videos are meant to explain a few things:

  • What Firefox OS is
  • How it is different to any other mobile platform
  • What it means for HTML5 as a movement
  • How you can be part of it
  • What its benefits are to you (a stable HTML5 platform with full hardware access aimed at a completely new and huge market of end users)
  • How to get started
  • Where to find documentation and file complaints and enhancement ideas

All in all, we thought a series of videos would be a good way to get the message out that scales better than talks and posts. Each of the videos will be about five minutes long and an interview/conversation between experts and me, namely in this case Daniel Appelquist ( @torgo) from Téléfonica Digital/ W3C and Desigan Chinniah ( @cyberdees) from Mozilla. The videos were shot over a period of two days in the London Mozilla office by Rainer Cvillink who did an amazing job.

Get over to the hacks blog and see the first video now, and feel free to spread it as far and wide as you can. Cheers.


A few tricks about public speaking and stage technology

Thursday, June 20th, 2013

Preparing for my upcoming workshops on public speaking for Mozillians, I just collected a few tips and tricks when being on stage and thought it might be fun to share them here.

Speaking at beyond tellerand

Stage attire/clothing

You will read a lot of things by clever people about “dressing better than the audience to give you a position of authority” and other – possibly true in some environments but so not in all – tips and tricks, but here are some things I found work very well for me:

  • Take off your lanyard/badge – it’ll reflect in the light of a stage and look odd on photos. Furthermore, if you use a lapel mic the lanyard will keep banging against it making clicking sounds or muffling your recording. I tend to put my name tag on my hip, threading the lanyard as a loop through the hoops of my trousers (I know, not possible when you wear a dress – just take the badge off before you get mic-ed up).
  • Provide a space to clip the mic to – this is why button down shirts and polos are better than T-Shirts. You can clip the mic on them without having to thread the cable through the whole shirt, out of the neck and back to the middle of your chest where it should be
  • Avoid stripes or loud patterns – they take away people’s attention to a degree but more importantly look terrible on photos and video as they cause a Moiré pattern effect. A great example of that is the Hugo Boss site, where it is impossible to see the texture of some shirts even in zoom because of this effect.
  • Dark is good – you will probably sweat on stage, either because of the heat from the lamps or because you are nervous. Dark shirts don’t show sweat stains. Remember Developers, Developers, Developers? The other way to deal with this is to wear a hoodie/jacket/blazer to cover up
  • Keep a bit of space – very tight fitting clothing might show your perfect figure but it can also be distracting or in the case of largely built men intimidating. This is not a date, you are here to deliver some great content.
  • Empty your pockets – you will need them to put the wireless transmitter of the lapel mic, it looks better to have no unsightly bulges and there won’t be the sound of clinking coins or keys in your pocket.
  • Leave your mobile behind – a call or message during your talk can really change the flow of your talk. Furthermore, the buzz of the phone trying to find a connection will be audible on your microphone. An exception to this is of course when you want to show stuff on the phone or bring it up as a surprise. Even then turn it into flight mode. Some people also use the phone and alarms to tell them when there is only 10 minutes left in your talk. That could cause issues with the audio, too, so leave that to a friend in the audience or ask the organisers to have a clock on stage.

Audio equipment/microphones

In some rooms you can make do without a microphone at all, but that is not always the case and you need to be a trained speaker to be loud but not detrimental to your vocal cords. Here are some things to be aware of when it comes to microphone technology:

  • Wireless lapel microphones – these are awesome and by far my favourite. As mentioned earlier, make sure they don’t end up next to anything that could cause click sounds, like buttons, tie-clips or your lanyard. Other than that, having those is the best thing you can get as they give you the most mobility on stage and are very simple to put on and take off. Try to get mic-ed up as soon as possible, as wiring them under your shirt is a bit intrusive and you might want to check your looks afterwards again (if that is important to you). Make sure they are muted when you are not on stage yet and that you turn them on just before. As my colleague Robert Nyman put it “You just don’t know what weird sounds your body is capable of until you get wired up”. Also you don’t want conversations you have with people before your talk be transmitted or recorded (well other than by the NSA)
  • Behind the ear microphones – these are a bit trickier, but yield very good sound results. Make sure that the mic doesn’t scratch against your beard stubbles, do not wear large ear-rings that might clink against them and take off your glasses, put the mic on and then put the glasses on top of them. I always found these microphones to be not really comfortable as they can cut into the back of your ear and limit your head movement a bit. Be aware of that.
  • Handheld microphones – these seem intrusive as one of your hands needs always to be close to your mouth and effectively covering your chest – thus not allowing for large, inviting open gestures with both arms – but they can be great. If you are not too comfortable a speaker yet, they are something to hold onto on stage and keep your hands from randomly moving around or shaking. Also, they just work without people having to fiddle with your hair, glasses or other attire.

As a strong rule of thumb – show love to the audio folk of the venue you speak at. They know their stuff and it is up to them for you to be audible by the audience. Follow their advice and make their life easier and you’ll give a great talk.

Available stage tech

Last but not least, here are some things on technology available for you on stage.

  • Bring your own power cables and adapters – not every venue or conference is equipped with all the things you need
  • Do not expect audio or video playback to be available – many a time I saw speakers building up to “a great video” just to be forced to show a blank rectangle or something without sound
  • You will be offline – just give up on the promise of connectivity on stage. A good speaker does not need it and there is nothing more discouraging than seeing someone who is there to inspire you about the awesomeness of cloud services struggling with the wireless crapping out
  • Plan for low resolution – 1024*768 at 60hz is normally possible, higher, not so much. So plan your demos and slides to be readable and usable on that resolution
  • Bring your own remote/clicker – these are awesome. First of all it means you will not be glued to and hidden behind your computer. Secondly you have something in your hand (see handheld microphone above for the benefits of that). Thirdly they have laser pointers which is great to get rid of stray cats that may enter the stage

Hope that was helpful, there is more to come :)

Photo by Andreas Dantz