BrainBlog

BrainBlog is the Brains4All weblog. Established 2004 in The Netherlands. Brains have been working in IT since 1983, working on the internet since 1993, and using their own agile development process for design and application development since 2003. We talk about about design and usability, the industry of software and web development, web applications and simplicity, beautiful and spectacular things.

Dutch Rock in IT

marko

DutchNews reports that The Netherlands has risen to the 10th place on the Economist Intelligence Unit’s list of the most attractive countries for the IT sector.

The Dutch, who were in 12th place in 2007, scored particularly well for its good infrastructure and high research budgets.

Top of the list was the US followed by Taiwan (up from 6th) and the UK. Japan fell from 2nd to 12th place. Denmark and Sweden are also strong European countries in the index taking places 4 and 5.

ITIndustryCompetitivenessIn.gif

  • Globalization and the Internet will “liberate” R&D. Ecosystems similar to America's Silicon Valley—bringing together talent, technology, venture capital and good universities, supported by a risk-taking ethos—will remain the best incubators of IT innovation. Internet-driven collaboration will partly level the playing field, however, facilitating companies’ access to skilled IT innovators and researchers wherever they are located.
  • Competitive broadband markets help cultivate strong IT sectors. Without fast, reliable and secure Internet access, technology firms cannot interact effectively with partners nor can they sell their services online. IT industries in the index top tier all derive substantial benefit from the high-quality networks developed through competition, but more telecoms liberalization is needed in less developed regions to spur infrastructure development.

So again, we see that the Internet is a essential tool for business. What can the Internet do for your business?

  



Online Nation

marko

Image by Seth Stoll available under a Creative Commons licenseEight out of 10 Dutch are regularly online, says DutchNews

When it comes to internet use, the Dutch are ahead of most of the rest of Europe with eight out of ten people regularly online, according to a study by Forrester Research.
The report also shows that Dutch 16 to 34-year-olds use the internet for an average 16 hours a week. Only the Scandinavians are online as long.

The latest Comscore reports give slightly different numbers and even show a decrease of 1% of internet usage in the Netherlands. Netherlands has had the highest broadband Internet penetration in the world and remains steadily in the number one position. Internet access in Holland is completely saturated.

Other countries in Europe are moving up fast, showing more people online, more often consuming more data and services.

While online last year, the Dutch spent an average of €365 per head buying everything from secondhand comic books to houses, according to another study also out on Monday.
The total amount spent online through sites like Marktplaats.nl is estimated at €4.6bn in 2007, research group Blauw said. This figure does not include purchases made through webshops.

Even though the reports vary, on the whole you can draw one conclusion:

If you're not making it your business to have an active online presence, you're losing money to competitors who are.

The Phantom Writers have a few tips for moving your off-line business on-line.

A few years ago off line businesses would never have dreamed of bringing their businesses into the Internet arena but now marketing has changed so rapidly that businesses cannot afford to ignore the Internet.

What is the most heard excuse?

1. My business is local and the Internet is global
2. I have a wholesale business I cannot sell hard goods on the Internet
3. Websites are expensive and what do I do with one anyway?
4. Internet "surfers" are not interested in my offline goods

Here are some tips from the article to help you think about:

1. Local businesses have local customers that still use the Internet to research their purchases. If you're not showing up on the net, they'll eventually move to a competitor that is.

2. You can make use of drop shippers and fulfillment houses that can be contacted online. Drop shippers can deliver directly to your customer and give you the wholesale prices. Fulfillment houses can take care of your inventory and shipping to your customers.

3. A good professionally designed and developed website works to help you and your customer. Websites can be designed and built for a very reasonable price by using experts like us. Don't think of your website as a online brochure or an online shop only. Your customers are used to having Internet tools to interact with people and companies. A great way to use your web presence is to help increase customer service levels. Very cost effective. Also new web techniques can be used to help you better understand your customers and to forge a relationship.

4. Internet surfers are actually your own customers but in a different place. They are serious shoppers and expect the high standards they have been used to offline. Your website will provide them with all this and more.

What other tips can you share to move your offline business online effectively?

  



Baby step discovery learning

marko

lego_7245.jpg

Here is an old post from my personal blog which I wrote about a year ago. When I was still taking my first steps with AJAX... I think it still has some value in it and I often find myself wondering about this curiously effective learning method.

I was watching my son, Quinten who is four years old, play with some Lego he'd got for Sinterklaas the other day. I was fascinated by the way he was going about discovering how it worked, and how he could interact with the toy; a Police car, bad-guy included.

This particular piece of Lego contains a lot of small parts and Quinten's fine motor coordination, let alone his constructive insights to build from a blueprint, is not quite up to the task of building the car completely himself. So his parents build the toy for him at first. That way the parents get to play with Lego too.

The way Quinten was experimenting with the car was curious. He would take apart some pieces slowly. He would take off the roof. Play with the car with the roof off. Put the roof back on. Then play with the car some more. He would then take off the roof again and then some other pieces as well. Play. And try to put the pieces back together again. And play. Sometimes he would get stuck, because he'd taken off too many pieces and ask me for help reassembling the car.

I was flabbergasted because I had caught myself using the exact same technique of learning by baby step discovery the day before. I was trying out some AJAX techniques. I was trying to combine AJAX and PHP, one of the languages developers use at work. What I did was to look for a working example. Then I played with it some. Then I changed a few bits here and there. Then played with it some more. I used a versioning system as my parent, always resorting to the last working state when I changed too much or weren't able to get myself out of the mess I put myself in.

As I was working this way, I was learning about this particular example I was building and I was learning about the way PHP and AJAX could work together. I was also learning about building AJAX based web applications as well. As was Quinten learning about the way his police car was constructed and he was learning about building with Lego as well. He was also learning how construction works in general.

I was surprised to see such elementary learning behavior al ready present in the child aged four as well as in the parent aged thirty-five. It appears to me learning behavior like this is genetically present in both parent and child.

The analogy with the way TDD works is also staggering. It is the analogy in which I have been building software all my life, and has only recently begun to flourish and be widely acceptable as the definitive way to build better software. At least until we find something else. ;)

My task was less exploratory because I had some clear goals I was aiming for. Quinten’s learning was much more playful. I wasn’t aware of any goals or particular piece of knowledge he was after. He was just playing with his police car. Seeing how it worked. Seeing how building with Lego worked and learning about construction in the same time.

Is this learning behavior a valid comparison? I think so. Though Quinten’s learning is more exploratory, mine is also exploratory in nature. However I have guided my learning onto achieving a particular goal that I have set myself upon discovering. Quinten may have a general interest in cars, Lego or construction, or he might just like police cars. He is hungry for ANY knowledge. Not any knowledge in particular.

The speed at which his mind is picking up concepts is quite astounding. He's progressed in his building skills and his Lego skills over the past day or two. Quinten has also received a Lego police boat for Sinterklaas as well, just a few days later. He is now quite comfortable adapting and expanding this along the possibilities of his imagination. And beyond. I am however still struggling to keep up.

Perhaps an exploratory fashion of learning is more efficient than the guided learning by taking or working towards a task I was using. Perhaps the child’s mind is more set towards a more general state of learning. Picking up general knowledge until it knows how, why and when to become more specific.

A movement in Dutch education also has no set program for learning in school. (Montessori) In essence a child can learn and study what ever it fancies. Perhaps this is not so bad an idea. I wonder how to cope with knowledge that is essential to functioning in today’s complex society? Where is the balance between guided learning and free learning and who is setting that?

As a parent I am one of the people or influences setting this balance for my children. The government and school are doing the same by offering educational programs in school or setting test result standards for graduation. People are deciding for other people what they think is right for them to learn, or what not to learn.

This may be right for knowledge we al ready posses as a species or social group. How to tackle knowledge that we do not yet have?

I have been thinking about learning and self organizing teams for quite some time. I am a follower of the situational leadership model by Hersey and Blanchard. It assumes a certain amount of directive behavior is required and starts out by providing structure and knowledge, then experimentation. Trying and doing. It then moves on toward more supportive behavior of the teacher, as the pupil finds out there is still so much to learn.

In self organizing teams there is however not always the knowledge to be presented by directive at first. It may be that exploratory learning is the key to uncovering these situations; learning by baby step discovery.

In the mean time, Quinten has become very effective with Lego. Brains4All has done things with AJAX and DOM that I've dreamed of doing for years, and I can safely say we've become very effective with that too. Not only did we explore the technical capabilities of the technique, but more importantly we now have insights into whether or not to apply the technique, or not.

So while in the past year I feel I have progressed in technical skills and definitively in Design and Usability skills, I didn't set out to acquire those. I find that through baby step discovery learning I've acquired an almost mesh-like network of knowledge that works like, and acts almost as an instinct for building powerful, valuable and easy to use websites and killer web based applications.

What are your experiences with baby step discovery learning?

  



Little Pink Bench

marko

littlePinkBench.jpg

When we first moved into our present house, the former owners left behind an old wood and iron “little bench” in the backyard. Not knowing what to do with it, we've put it in front of our house, right on the curb. We gave it some love. Cleaned it up a bit and then we sanded it down and my wife painted it pink.

I can't believe the effect that the "little bench" has had.

We don’t have a yard in front of our house, so we're right on the street. It is a nice neighborhood we live in, but before we the little bench, most people would hardly meet each other. Children would play in their respective backyards and mostly amongst themselves. The bench has changed that; amongst other things.

Every night children from all the houses in our street, but also from all over the neighborhood will come out to play with each other right on our doorstep. The bench is packed, double row, with kids playing on their Psp's, their Nintendo’s and Game-boys. Others are playing football (soccer), or catch, or hide and seek. Yesterday over twenty kids spontaneously held a competition folding and flying paper airplanes.

In the daytime or in the evening when all the children have gone to bed the bench is a place where neighbors meet and come to talk about and discuss the things that are important to a small village.

The bench has been a catalyst for communication and has helped to bring people together. It is a place to stop the frantic world of today, to cool down and to sit and relax. And when someone does, other neighbors will see someone sitting outside, and they'll come outside too. Just to chat. Or to share some beer or wine or water or just a silent moment together.

If someone is walking down the street, of course you say "hello" in passing, but because we're always busy-busy-busy, we're almost afraid to start a conversation. Or just to ask how things are.

The "little pink bench" changes that. Because when you sit on the bench you're approachable. People feel safe and that if they're going to invest to come out of their home to talk to you, you'll still be there, and not gone and already busy doing some other thing.

The little pink bench has improved our street and our neighborhood. Putting it out increased our quality of life. It has made our children happier and our community stronger.

So you too can help and make the world a better place; put out a "little pink bench".

The little pink bench is a metaphor. It reminds us to create a simple and safe place where people can come to share and relax where they would otherwise just pass each other by with just saying "hello".

The bench is pink so it stands out is noticed. Because when it is noticed the pink bench reaches out to people and offers them a choice, just by its very presence; “You can hurry on by or you can, if only for a moment, stop what you are doing and sit down.”

But the most important thing the little pink bench is saying is; "Look, you too, can make a change."

What is your "little pink bench"?

  



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