Sneak Peek: Neurotechnology and My Kid

January 30th, 2007

Here’s a peek at what I’m working on:

Neurotechnology and my kidMy oldest son Caleb, now nearly 7, has been diagnosed with Sensory Processing Disorder (also called Sensory Integration Dysfunction.) This is a Non-Verbal Learning Disability that is neurological in origin. In short: His brain isn’t handling all of the sensory information his body is providing. Or what it does get, it processes incorrectly.

This disorder is typically treated with occupational therapy and - in school - an Individualized Education Plan (IEP). The lives of kids with this disorder can be improved with learned coping mechanisms, but he’ll never see, hear, or feel the world the way most people do. I cannot describe the heartbreak I feel as a father, knowing what lies ahead for my son.

He’ll always be the wierd kid. The “trouble maker.” Studies show he’ll always zig when others zag. He may cope, but he’ll never thrive, never adjust, never fit in.

Maybe.

We have recently been exploring a neurotechnology treatment that might help Caleb’s brain figure out how to process all of the sensory inputs we take for granted. It is expensive, and it has no guarantees. But we’re going to give it a try.

I’ll be writing about the treatment as we go through it, quite possibly in a venue larger than inkBlots.

Stay tuned. When the first article goes public, I’ll link here.

Update: February 10, 2007. Read the series that starts today on Wired.com

Coupons via RSS

January 16th, 2007

Saletastic.com has announced a service whereby you can get an RSS feed of coupons from over 130 merchants. You do need to create an account (to manage your options), but you do not need to provide an email address. You can also add the coupons to your Yahoo, MSN, or Google Portal (ig) homepage. Very nice.

Here’s an example feed: http://www.saletastic.com/rss/userrss/test.rss

The RSS 2.0 feed has a couple of minor validation problems (as of this writing), but all-in-all a nice way to go. Since you don’t know until you sign up, here’s an exhaustive list of the merchants who currently provide coupons through the service:

1-800-PetMeds, 123 InkJet, 1800contacts, 1800Flowers, 4inkjets, ABT Electronics, AC Lens, Ace Hardware, Alazing, Alibris, AppetizersToGo, Apple Store, Auto Parts Warehouse, AutoAnything, Avenue, Avon, Bare Necessities, Barnes and Noble, Batteries.com, Best Buy, Blair, Blinds, Blue Nile, Buy com, Catherines, Chadwicks, Cooking, Cutter and Buck, Davids Cookies, dELiA*s, Dell, Dell Small Business, Diamond com, Diamonds International, Dicks Sporting Goods, Discount Office Supply, Discovery Channel Store, Drugstore, Eastbay, EB Games, eBags, eBatts, ELF, Elisabeth, eLuxury, Esprit, eToys, Fannie May Candies, Fashion Bug, Figleaves, Finish Line, Florshiem, fogdog sports, Foot Locker, Forzieri, FragranceNet, Fredericks Of Hollywood, FreshPair, FTD, Gaiam, GameStop, Gevalia, GotFruit, Great Skin, Hickory Farm, HiFi, Highlights, HobbyTron, ICE, Illuminations, International Male, iTunes, J and R, J C Whitney, Jessica London, Joann, JustMySize, , KBToys, Kohls, Lamps Plus, Lane Bryant, Lens.com, Lerner, Lids, Lillian Vernon, Limoges Jewelry, Linens and Things, Luggage Online, macys, Mikasa, Mondera, Mrs Field, Nashbar, Net Magazines, NetFlix, Office Depot, Omaha Steaks, OneHanesPlace, Overstock, Pajagram, Paul Fredrick, Payless Shoes, Perfume Emporium, PetCareRX, PETCO, PetsMart, ProFlowers, Restaurant, Road Runner Sports, Sharper Image, ShoeBuy, Shoes, ShopNBC, ShopPBS, Sierra Trading Post, SmartBargains, Stacy Adams, Szul, Target, textbookx, The Body Shop, The Childrens Place, Things Remembered, TigerDirect, Tower Records, Vermont Teddy Bear, Vision Direct, VitaCost, Walmart, Wine com, World Of Watches, Zales, ZIRH

Sometimes old ideas can still be good ones. Now where’s the coupon for those nose hair trimmers?

Blockbuster Online and farmed-out customer support

January 16th, 2007

(Was: Blockbuster Online and farmed-out Web surveys)

blockbuster_logo.jpgDear BlockBuster Online,

Your survey company RightNow Technologies doesn’t do you justice. If they were the the lowest bidder on providing surveys for you, it shows.

I got this in my email yesterday:

Dear Mark, Your opinions and feedback can make a difference! As a valued customer of BLOCKBUSTER Online, your input will have a direct impact on how we continue to improve our service to meet your entertainment needs. Please take a moment out of your busy day to share your thoughts with us in an important research survey we are conducting.

Sure, BlockBuster, you’ve been doing some nice stuff lately, especially with your “Total Access” program, so I’m willing to give a little feedback.

Following the link, I’m taken aback. The web pages are circa-1998 ugly, not at all what I would expect fropm Blockbuster Online proper. Checking the URL, I see that the survey is actually administered by RightNow Technologies. Oh well, how bad could it be?

About half-way through, the survey wants me to fill in several dozen fields, each blank and requiring a number. Hint to survey company: Default to zero on fields likely to be zero. This is where things get unbearable. Every time I enter I a number, I get a Javascript alert box telling me I need to use a number. “I am using a number!” This happens about 20 more times. So I view the source of the web page, and spot the problem:

onKeyPress="if (event.keyCode < 48 || event.keyCode > 57) {event.returnValue = false; alert('Please enter numbers only.');}";

The check on event.keyCode is proprietary to IE’s DOM, and doesn’t exist in FireFox, which is what I use. If you’re using FF, (and not in a RSS reader) here is how it acts:

NUMBER OF MOVIES (Please enter a whole number):

Yeah, painful (unless you’re in IE.) Not at all cross-browser. Handling onkeypress events across browsers is pretty well documented, however. Or as a friend of mine says, “it isn’t rocket surgery.” Here is just one example of how to make it work in both IE and netscape/mozilla. After 20 more of the spurious alert boxes, I gave up and dashed off a note to RNT:

From: Mark Woodman
Subject: Survey is too painful to continue in Firefox
Message: All your number validation rules (”how many movies…”) are broken in
Firefox. It’s too much of a hassle to complete the survey.

Shortly thereafter, they responded with this gem:

From: Jean
Subject: Response (Blockbuster Online)
Message: I’m sorry to hear you’re having trouble with our web site, Mark. Internet Explorer is the preferred browser we recommend and is what our tech team uses to test with. Other browsers such as Mozilla/Firefox, AOL/Netscape, Safari, and so forth may not be completely compatible. If you have security or privacy software running such as Norton/McAfee/AVG, then that is very likely the reason why you’re having trouble. If you aren’t sure how to allow our cookies via your software, then please contact the developer for those instructions.

I don’t know what’s worse:
a) An online survey company that doesn’t want to do cross-browser checking in javascript in more than IE.
b) An online survey company that blames their own bad javascript on antivirus software or cookies.

I would love to know what percentage of Blockbuster users have Firefox/Opera/Safari. Whoever contracted this firm at Blockbuster Online should be more than a little embarassed by this.

Update Jan 16, 2007

The ironies continue to pile up. I sent a message via Blockbuster’s main customer support web form with a link to this article, but their customer support service appears to also be farmed out to RightNow Technologies. As if that weren’t bad enough, the support reps can’t get online from their own trouble ticket system:

From: Ryan
Subject: Response (Blockbuster Online)
Message: Hello Mark, Thanks for contacting BLOCKBUSTER Online Customer Care. Please update me with your concern because I just cannot click on the link you have given. Our system won’t read it.

I’m guessing this isn’t going to put me on RNT’s “favorite blogger” list. Any bets on whether Blockbuster HQ ever sees this thread?

Microsoft Patents WHAT?

December 21st, 2006

Dear Amar Ghandi, Group Program Manager of the Windows RSS team,
You guys actually invented the RSS parser and feed API? Your patent claim is baffling:

“A content syndication platform, such as a web content syndication platform, manages, organizes and makes available for consumption content that is acquired from the Internet. In at least some embodiments, the platform can acquire and organize web content, and make such content available for consumption by many different types of applications. These applications may or may not necessarily understand the particular syndication format. An application program interface (API) exposes an object model which allows applications and users to easily accomplish many different tasks such as creating, reading, updating, deleting feeds and the like.”

That describes tons of applications both corporate and open source. Any programmatic API like ROME comes to mind. Did you create the RSS Platform in Windows Vista before all of them? Please do tell, I’m all ears.
(More objections by Dave Johnson here. CNET coverage here.)

The Popcorn Button for RSS

December 21st, 2006

PopcornMike Sansone did a BlogTalkRadio show this morning (listen here) that talks about how he gets business people up to speed on RSS, feed readers, and general tips for using RSS efficiently.

One point that Mike made is that non-technical people look at feeds like a microwave… they don’t want to know about the neutrons and the power configuration. They want to know which button to push to make popcorn. The real power of the RSS/Atom story isn’t in how it works, but in what it does for you.

This goes back to Greg Reinacker’s comment in 2005 that “RSS is plumbing.” The specification merits of RSS or Atom will only win over the geekerati. Everybody else just wants to know where the popcorn button is.

So how do we make RSS as easy as microwave popcorn? Personally, I don’t see this happening until every email client - desktop and online - has free, robust support for RSS feeds. The biggest barrier I see in my workplace is resistance to “yet another application to monitor.” If feed items show up with their email, suddenly it isn’t so bad. Unfortunately, few email client feed readers are both good AND free. If GMail ever integrated Google Reader, that would be a killer, killer app.

Now where’s that butter?