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A First Look at Mozilla’s Ubiquity

A First Look at Mozilla’s Ubiquity

    You’ve probably heard of Ubiquity by now. It was causing quite a buzz a few days ago before Google Chrome came along and stole all of its thunder.

    Ubiquity is an experimental Firefox extension that bills itself as “a powerful new way to interact with the web.” One way to describe Ubiquity that gives you a clearer idea of what it’s actually all about is that it’s Quicksilver for the Internet.

    We’re all used to the point-and-click, foreign and unnatural way of interfacing with the web. Ubiquity tries to change the way we interface with the web by allowing us to use language rather than buttons and endless URLs. For instance, if I want to post something I see on the web to Twitter, I’d usually have to copy the text, navigate to Twitter, log in, paste the text and press submit. With Ubiquity, I can select the text, summon Ubiquity and type “twit this.”

    For me, when I realized that the developers had connected the word “this” to various means of input selection, I realized that there have been many simple ways to create more human interfaces for a long time, but we’ve ignored them. Let’s be honest, there’s nothing technologically groundbreaking about getting a computer to understand “this” as the text within your selection, but in the current state of the web, there’s something groundbreaking about it from a user interaction point of view.

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    Useful Commands

    So what exactly can Ubiquity do? Anything really, since creating new commands is pretty easy. But most of us don’t want to do that, so here are a few of the commands that come with Ubiquity, or that you can easily get from the Herd.

    Before you invoke a command, you need to summon Ubiquity. Call up the Ubiquity window by pressing Alt/Option + Space, unless you’ve changed the summon shortcut to something else.

    Wikipedia: Do quick, on-the-spot research with the Wikipedia command. In full it’s wikipedia inserttopic, but you can substitute w for wikipedia to get there faster.

    Define: Typing define word will return the definition of a word within the Ubiquity window.

    Send This To: Select a chunk of text and, after summoning Ubiquity, type send this to person. It’s almost creepy watching it open Gmail and set up a message with the selected text in it, correctly addressed to the right person.

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      Get Lyrics: This one doesn’t come with Ubiquity, but you can grab it from the Herd. If you want to know the lyrics to the song you’re listening to, summon Ubiquity, type get-lyrics Welcome to the Jungle and you’ll be presented with a Google search page with various lyrics for that song. I would like it better if it took you straight to a lyrics page, but this is okay in the meantime.

      Maps: When I heard Ubiquity did maps, I thought if you gave it a street number and name, suburb and state, it would throw the map up for you. It does do that, but it can do a lot more. I thought I’d see if it could find the location of my very first job when I was in high school, with only minimal information. As you can see, it did:

        If you click the map thumbnail, it enlarges and provides you with a link: “insert map in page.” If you’re on a regular HTML page, you wouldn’t expect this to work, but it does. More useful, though, is the ability to quickly drop a map into an email:

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          To get to this point, I had to type “Helensvale KFC,” select it, summon Ubiquity and type map, click the map and click a link. It takes about ten seconds to get a map in your email, compared to the five minutes it used to take.

          Room for Improvement

          Let me briefly preface this section. A pet peeve of mine is when software reviewers slam an app and call it useless when it is clearly beta or even alpha software. It irritates me, so I’m certainly not joining in. So here goes: this software is a 0.1 release and any issues I’ve mentioned here are observations that I’m sure will get fixed eventually. None of this is deal-breaking because the app is very early on in its development.

          The first issue I came across during my time with the software was that the weather implementation isn’t the best. If I look for Brisbane’s weather by invoking Ubiquity and typing weather brisbane, it works fine. However, if I ask it for weather gold coast, the Gold Coast being where I actually live, I get nothing.

          But if I go to my OS X dashboard and type nothing but “gold coast” into Apple’s Weather widget, which uses AccuWeather.com, I get results right away. Is this a problem with Ubiquity? The weather site it uses or the API the weather site supplies? I don’t know, but I know that there are better weather services out there.

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          The second issue I had with Ubiquity may only be an issue because I’ve been spoiled by Quicksilver, but nevertheless there’s room for improvement in the way Ubiquity takes the text you’ve typed and looks for one of its commands that closely matches.

          When you summon Ubiquity and attempt to invoke a command, the list of options presented doesn’t search intelligently. For example, I use Quicksilver to call up the Start-up Disk Preference Pane whenever I want to boot into Windows on my iMac. Quicksilver will find that pane and let me invoke the right command whether I type any of the following:

          • Of course, startup (I use it regularly enough that st or sta will work too)
          • artup
          • starupd
          • diskpane
          • starttuuu

          You can make spelling mistakes, miss letters, or start from the second letter or even second word of the command, and Quicksilver will still find it for you.

          As far as I’m concerned, this intelligent search is exactly why Quicksilver is so useful as an app launcher. To be truly powerful, Ubiquity must implement something like this. I know this is 0.1 software, so I don’t really expect these features to be present, but I’d say if it’s not in there by the big 1.0, then this extension is going in the wrong direction.

          The Bottom Line

          The bottom line? Download it and try it. See if it’s for you. Personally, I swear by apps like Ubiquity and Quicksilver and I think everybody should use them.

          However, not everyone agrees, so give it a shot and see if it’s right for you – but give it a fair shot and spend some time with it before you reject it. If you can’t try it because you’re not using Firefox, that’s fine… unless you’re still using Internet Explorer. In that case, go and download a decent browser!

          More by this author

          Joel Falconer

          Editor, content marketer, product manager and writer with 12+ years of experience in the startup, design and tech digital media industries.

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          Last Updated on July 17, 2019

          The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

          The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

          What happens in our heads when we set goals?

          Apparently a lot more than you’d think.

          Goal setting isn’t quite so simple as deciding on the things you’d like to accomplish and working towards them.

          According to the research of psychologists, neurologists, and other scientists, setting a goal invests ourselves into the target as if we’d already accomplished it. That is, by setting something as a goal, however small or large, however near or far in the future, a part of our brain believes that desired outcome is an essential part of who we are – setting up the conditions that drive us to work towards the goals to fulfill the brain’s self-image.

          Apparently, the brain cannot distinguish between things we want and things we have. Neurologically, then, our brains treat the failure to achieve our goal the same way as it treats the loss of a valued possession. And up until the moment, the goal is achieved, we have failed to achieve it, setting up a constant tension that the brain seeks to resolve.

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          Ideally, this tension is resolved by driving us towards accomplishment. In many cases, though, the brain simply responds to the loss, causing us to feel fear, anxiety, even anguish, depending on the value of the as-yet-unattained goal.

          Love, Loss, Dopamine, and Our Dreams

          The brains functions are carried out by a stew of chemicals called neurotransmitters. You’ve probably heard of serotonin, which plays a key role in our emotional life – most of the effective anti-depressant medications on the market are serotonin reuptake inhibitors, meaning they regulate serotonin levels in the brain leading to more stable moods.

          Somewhat less well-known is another neurotransmitter, dopamine. Among other things, dopamine acts as a motivator, creating a sensation of pleasure when the brain is stimulated by achievement. Dopamine is also involved in maintaining attention – some forms of ADHD are linked to irregular responses to dopamine.[1]

          So dopamine plays a key role in keeping us focused on our goals and motivating us to attain them, rewarding our attention and achievement by elevating our mood. That is, we feel good when we work towards our goals.

          Dopamine is related to wanting – to desire. The attainment of the object of our desire releases dopamine into our brains and we feel good. Conversely, the frustration of our desires starves us of dopamine, causing anxiety and fear.

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          One of the greatest desires is romantic love – the long-lasting, “till death do us part” kind. It’s no surprise, then, that romantic love is sustained, at least in part, through the constant flow of dopamine released in the presence – real or imagined – of our true love. Loss of romantic love cuts off that supply of dopamine, which is why it feels like you’re dying – your brain responds by triggering all sorts of anxiety-related responses.

          Herein lies obsession, as we go to ever-increasing lengths in search of that dopamine reward. Stalking specialists warn against any kind of contact with a stalker, positive or negative, because any response at all triggers that reward mechanism. If you let the phone ring 50 times and finally pick up on the 51st ring to tell your stalker off, your stalker gets his or her reward, and learns that all s/he has to do is wait for the phone to ring 51 times.

          Romantic love isn’t the only kind of desire that can create this kind of dopamine addiction, though – as Captain Ahab (from Moby Dick) knew well, any suitably important goal can become an obsession once the mind has established ownership.

          The Neurology of Ownership

          Ownership turns out to be about a lot more than just legal rights. When we own something, we invest a part of ourselves into it – it becomes an extension of ourselves.

          In a famous experiment at Cornell University, researchers gave students school logo coffee mugs, and then offered to trade them chocolate bars for the mugs. Very few were willing to make the trade, no matter how much they professed to like chocolate. Big deal, right? Maybe they just really liked those mugs![2]

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          But when they reversed the experiment, handing out chocolate and then offering to trade mugs for the candy, they found that now, few students were all that interested in the mugs. Apparently the key thing about the mugs or the chocolate wasn’t whether students valued whatever they had in their possession, but simply that they had it in their possession.

          This phenomenon is called the “endowment effect”. In a nutshell, the endowment effect occurs when we take ownership of an object (or idea, or person); in becoming “ours” it becomes integrated with our sense of identity, making us reluctant to part with it (losing it is seen as a loss, which triggers that dopamine shut-off I discussed above).

          Interestingly, researchers have found that the endowment effect doesn’t require actual ownership or even possession to come into play. In fact, it’s enough to have a reasonable expectation of future possession for us to start thinking of something as a part of us – as jilted lovers, gambling losers, and 7-year olds denied a toy at the store have all experienced.

          The Upshot for Goal-Setters

          So what does all this mean for would-be achievers?

          On one hand, it’s a warning against setting unreasonable goals. The bigger the potential for positive growth a goal has, the more anxiety and stress your brain is going to create around it’s non-achievement.

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          It also suggests that the common wisdom to limit your goals to a small number of reasonable, attainable objectives is good advice. The more goals you have, the more ends your brain thinks it “owns” and therefore the more grief and fear the absence of those ends is going to cause you.

          On a more positive note, the fact that the brain rewards our attentiveness by releasing dopamine means that our brain is working with us to direct us to achievement. Paying attention to your goals feels good, encouraging us to spend more time doing it. This may be why outcome visualization — a favorite technique of self-help gurus involving imagining yourself having completed your objectives — has such a poor track record in clinical studies. It effectively tricks our brain into rewarding us for achieving our goals even though we haven’t done it yet!

          But ultimately, our brain wants us to achieve our goals, so that it’s a sense of who we are that can be fulfilled. And that’s pretty good news!

          More About Goals Setting

          Featured photo credit: Alexa Williams via unsplash.com

          Reference

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