The best systems are simple [TED video]

Simplicity is something we desperately yearn for in areas from data visualization to technology. Yet these very areas often stray into more complex waters, becoming less usable the further they go. George Whitesides, who has a background in chemistry and various other sciences, seems uniquely qualified to help us find a definition of “simplicity” in this TED talk.

If you don’t have 18 minutes to spare, then skip to the 7:30 mark and watch until about 15:30. Whitesides explains how an ideas as simple as a wall switch was used to create the transistor. Many transistors put together created the integrated circuit. Many integrated circuits helped create the computer chip which ultimately evolved into what we know as the Internet and cell phones. Which means a concept as simple as a wall switch was built upon to allow people in the most remote areas of the world to have access to people and information around the globe at their fingertips.

http://video.ted.com/assets/player/swf/EmbedPlayer.swf

Improve Firefox’s spell check feature

One of my favorite features in Firefox is the built-in spell checker. Two recent tips I learned are worth noting to improve the power of this feature.

Change the way misspelled words appear.

The default red squiggly underline for misspelled words is often too subtle for me. So I really like this tip, courtesy of downloadsquad. To change the indicator to something more obvious like a solid double-underline or

  1. Type about:config in the Firefox address bar. If it pops up an alert, tell it that you know what you’re doing and proceed.
  2. Search for ui.SpellCheckerUnderlineStyle. If you find anything, skip to step 4. If your system is like mine, you found nothing. That means you have to add this configuration value. Right-click any where in the whitespace of the window and select New > Integer.
  3. Enter ui.SpellCheckerUnderlineStyle to create a setting by this name.
  4. Set the value of this setting to one of several options: 0 for no highlighting, 1 for a dotted line, 2 for long dots, 3 for a single straight line, 4 for a double underline, and 5 for a squiggly line (the default).

This setting doesn’t require restarting Firefox. It’s effective immediately, so open another tab and test each style to see what looks best.

Remove mistakenly added words from the Firefox dictionary.

I frequently customize the Firefox dictionary by adding new words that I know are spelled correctly but aren’t in the default word list. This is as easy as right-clicking on a word flagged as misspelled and choosing “Add to Dictionary.” Unfortunately, sometimes I do this too quickly and add a word I shouldn’t have. Thankfully, Lifehacker published instructions on how to remove misspelled words from your Firefox dictionary:

  1. Open your application data folder. On XP or Vista, go to your Start menu and hit Run (or just press Windows-R) and paste in %APPDATA%MozillaFirefoxProfiles; on your Mac, navigate to ~/Library/Application Support/Firefox/Profiles.
  2. Find your profile folder, which by default should look something like something.default.
  3. Inside your profile folder, find the file called persdict.dat and open it up in a text editor.
  4. Find the misspelling, delete it, and save the file.

Lost & found: silver screen gems rediscovered

Two recent NPR stories caught my attention for how they speak to a pervasive problem plaguing organizations like mine: loss of organizational history.

One story is about “Bruce,” the name given to the three giant fake sharks used in the movie Jaws. After the filming concluded, all three models were lost and most likely destroyed. After all, you can’t keep every movie prop for sentimental reasons, right? Of course, hindsight is 20/20 and so, years later, the efforts of a determined journalist finally paid off. After coordinating tips from a dedicated Jaws fan community, a fourth shark made from the same mold as the movie models was found in a California auto yard. Used as a prop at the Universal Studios Theme Park in Hollywood, this 25-foot-long behemoth was sorely weathered. But Jaws fans can finally rejoice that a key piece of Americana has been found.

A similar story revealed that 75 silent films were recovered from the New Zealand Film Archive. One such film is a 1927 feature called Upstream by four-time Oscar-winning director John Ford. These early American movies were sent to remote areas of the globe late in their lifecycle. The physical films degraded quickly and, since they were shipped in heavy metal cans, distributors in the States thought it financially wise to abandon them rather than pay to ship them back. However, projectionists and collectors thankfully protected them until they found their way to the vaults of the New Zealand national archive.

Both of these stories are examples where the value of something – films and film props – wasn’t realized until years after they were lost. And, while I can understand how financial limitations prevented preserving a giant shark and dozens of classic films, the same doesn’t apply to expert knowledge and experience. These types of “artifacts” are easy to preserve, especially with the availability of social enterprise tools like blogs.

So I have two questions for you

Can you think of a project or area of expertise you worked on years ago that has since been lost because the knowledge wasn’t captured properly?

What can you do – today – to prevent repeating this mistake?

An introduction to the “21st Century Web”

A while back, I asked for help identifying what web sites would be ideal for someone who had missed key advances on the Internet for the past several years. As a social software trainer, I teach a class designed to encapsulate the “latest and greatest” on the web in order to lay the groundwork for students to understand the nature of our social enterprise tools. It’s my goal to help them “get” how these tools can empower them and increase their productivity both professionally and personally.

I recently published a Google Doc as a guide to the websites we cover in the class and includes ideas for experimenting with each one. Since the class is only three hours long – and focused on those tools that have counterparts in our social enterprise suite – some of the sites (like the ones under “Media sharing”) are only mentioned.

Please view the list of “21st Century Websites” and let me know what you think. Alternatively, you can download the full PDF or 2-page condensed PDF versions.

What critical sites are we missing?

What other activities would you suggest we add to the “Try this” column?

Please feel free to reuse or redistribute this resource as you see fit!