Monday, December 17, 2007

Using the internet as a broker between data processing projects and volunteer resources

Consider this situation. An institution has some worthwhile project they want to undertake, but it has huge data-processing requirements, and they just don't have the resources to fulfill them. Maybe they'd like to simulate protein folding, for medical research.

In an increasing number of cases like this, the internet is being used as a broker to enable such projects, by providing a pool of volunteer resources, either of people's computers or their own time to perform manual data-processing. There's huge pools of resources out there - a whole world of computers in homes and potential volunteers.

So far, this strategy has been quite successful, as reported in this article in the Economist.

Here's a summary of the details

Automated data-processing

Using the spare processing cycles on people’s home computers (and other devices, like Playstation 3’s).

Folding@home - simulating protein folding and mis-folding -- a cause of diseases such as Alzheimer's.
In September, had combined computing capacity one petaflop--a quadrillion mathematical operations per second--something supercomputer designers have dreamed of for several years.

SETI@home - analysing data for signs of the existence of extra-terrestrial civilisations
The BOINC platform has been developed to support such processing.

Manual data-processing ("distributed thinking")
Galaxy Zoo - volunteers help astronomers to classify the shapes of galaxies from powerful telescope images. "Thanks to the exquisite pattern-recognition capabilities of the human brain, amateurs with just a little training can distinguish between different types of galaxy far more efficiently than computers can."
Had more than 100,000 volunteers classify over 1 million galaxies in a few months.

Stardust@home - volunteers spot the tell-tale tracks left by microscopic interstellar dust grains in tiles of porous aerogel from a probe sent into space.
Enlisted some 24,000 volunteers, who in less than a year performed more than 40 million searches (about 1500 searches / person).

Herbaria@home - volunteers document plant specimens from images drawn from the dusty 19th-century archives of British collections. Already, some 12 000 specimens have been documented.

Africa@home - volunteers extract useful cartographic information -- the positions of roads, villages, fields and so on -- from satellite images of regions in Africa where maps either do not exist or are hopelessly out of date. This will help regional planning authorities, aid workers and scientists
documenting the effects of climate change.

Distributed Proofreaders - volunteers help to proofread OCR'd scans of pages from old books (not metioned in the Economist article, but in a referring slashdot article).
The BOSSA platorm (Berkeley Open System for Skill Aggregation) has been developed to support such processing.

What if the non-expert volunteers do a poor job at the dataprocessing? This isn't actually a problem, as redundancy is used to ensure quality. For example, a particular image used by Galaxy Zoo is classified by thirty different people, and it turns out that this is enough to get a highly accurate answer.

Some thoughts

Some ideas not touched on in the Economist article.

Will there always be a need for such volunteer resources? Or might Moores Law make computing power so cheap and abundant that even the most processing hungry project easily satisfy its own needs?

Second, I wonder if there might be a time in the future when the idea of such projects is well known in the public mind, and where people would think of them like they would think now of volunteering for a community group or giving money to a charity?

Lastly, the manual data processing projects might be a good way for school children, or members of the general public, to gain a gentle introduction to the world of science, and learn a bit more about how science is done and how the scientific community works? I'm not saying that volunteering on such projects is an education in these things, but it might still provide a little bit of a feel and familiarity.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Dharmesh Shah: Why Some Software Is Not Simpler, Just Suckier

Last year, Dharmesh Shah wrote some posts on the topic of simplicity in software, trying to distinguish between good and bad types of simplicity (as I mentioned here).

The other day, he wrote a pretty good followup. It's main point is that

The goal for software developers should not be to make things simpler just by reducing features. The goal of software should be to make it simpler for the user to do what they are trying to do.
and the post elaborates on what this means in practice.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

A climate-change leadership opportunity


"I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth."
John F. Kennedy, thirty-fifth President of the United States.

That sort of leadership might be what the world needs for tackling climate change.

The leadership to do what needs to be done, and not make excuses. To set the sort of example that'd make the rest of the world follow.

It'd need a brave leader, but they'd be also taking the opportunity for them and their country to be heroes in the eyes of the world.

The more that the rest of the world drags its feet, and the bleaker the future comes to look, the greater the rewards for taking such leadership will become.

BTW, the text of JFK's speech can be found here.

Monday, December 03, 2007

TextMate text editor, and a screencasting idea

The TextMate text editor looks quite good. I haven't used it -- my laptop runs Windows, and it's only on Mac -- but going by these screencasts, it's got some nifty features and overall seems quite impressive. Looks like it might provide a nice way to edit structured data like XML, while still retaining the free-form feel of a text editor -- see this screencast.

If you watch that screencast, you'll notice that it's often difficult to tell exactly what the person is doing to perform the operations they show, because they're using some sort of keystroke combination to invoke the operations. That made me think that software for recording screencasts could have a feature to add a 'virtual keyboard display' to the video, showing a little display of a keyboard in the video, showing which keys are being pressed as things happen.

That is, user can record their screen cast as per usual, and while they are doing so, the recording software keeps track of what keys they pressed and when. Then, it adds a little animated keyboard picture somewhere in the screencast recording, that shows when different keys were pressed.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

How I’d like my mobile to work – sending an SMS

If I want to send an SMS to confirm a lunch appointment, I'd like to be able to do the following. Pick up my phone, unlock it, and say to it: “SMS Joe Blogs, Lunch at 1pm at the usual place, question mark”.

To which it would display the text “Lunch at 1pm at the usual place?” on the screen and present me with the prompt “Send this SMS to Joe Blogs? Yes/No”.

That’d be a much more direct way of doing things.

This seems technically feasable, so I’m wondering if any phones can do this?

Non-screw-top caps on premium beers seem nothing more than pretentiousness

As far as I can tell, the non-screw-top caps on premium beers are simply pretentiousness.

Screw top caps don't make much change to the bottle's look (cap on or off), and don't -- as far as I know -- have any impact on the beer's quality. They can't be more expensive for companies to use, either, as you find them on all the cheaper beers.

Non-screw-top caps seem to be there to convey an air of class. There's nothing wrong with that goal, per se. But I think it's a shallow attempt at class, to forego an alternative with real benefits just to use an older-style of cap mechanism with no real distinguishing features aside from its inconvenience.

Related to this, in Mind the Gap, Paul Graham writes:

Now, thanks to technology, the rich live more like the average person.

Cars are a good example of why. It's possible to buy expensive, handmade cars that cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. But there is not much point. Companies make more money by building a large number of ordinary cars than a small number of expensive ones. So a company making a mass-produced car can afford to spend a lot more on its design. If you buy a custom-made car, something will always be breaking. The only point of buying one now is to advertise that you can.

Or consider watches. Fifty years ago, by spending a lot of money on a watch you could get better performance. When watches had mechanical movements, expensive watches kept better time. Not any more. Since the invention of the quartz movement, an ordinary Timex is more accurate than a Patek Philippe costing hundreds of thousands of dollars. [13] Indeed, as with expensive cars, if you're determined to spend a lot of money on a watch, you have to put up with some inconvenience to do it: as well as keeping worse time, mechanical watches have to be wound.


The same pattern has played out in industry after industry. If there is enough demand for something, technology will make it cheap enough to sell in large volumes, and the mass-produced versions will be, if not better, at least more convenient.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Alan Kay's definition of 'technology', and taking things for granted

The article on the Kindle e-book reader I recently referred to starts like this

"Technology," computer pioneer Alan Kay once said, "is anything that was invented after you were born."
I like that, it’s nicely put. We are keenly aware of that which is different to the usual stuff we take for granted. We take older technologies for granted, so new technologies seem quite different.

But this is really just an artifact of the way we see the world – of our personal perspective. Objectively, the old and new are both just as much technologies, and a sharp distinction between them is a false one.

If we don't realise that, we end up with an overly narrow concept of ‘technology’ that tends to only include the newer technologies.

The article uses that quote to make a point about not taking books for granted as an example of a technology (and a very successful one at that):
So it's not surprising, when making mental lists of the most whiz-bangy technological creations in our lives, that we may overlook an object that is superbly designed, wickedly functional, infinitely useful and beloved more passionately than any gadget in a Best Buy: the book.
Given their point about not taking things for granted, what they say next is very ironic
It is a more reliable storage device than a hard disk drive, and it sports a killer user interface. (No instruction manual or "For Dummies" guide needed.)
No instruction manual needed. Unlike computers, or cars (people need to get instruction to learn how to drive) or other modern technology. Except that's a kinda silly statement to make, that takes our reading skills for granted.

They may be able to pick up a book now and read it straight away, but then, I can just load up a computer program and use it, or start a car and drive it. I once had to learn how to use them, but then again, I -- and they -- once had to learn to read too. No one just naturally learns to read. It's an artificial skill, and one that takes a lot of time and effort to learn. It's just that, in developed countries, everyone has learnt it at a young age, so long ago, that it's easy for us to take for granted.

e-books might finally be here - the Kindle reader

Another bit of The Future may be about to click into place. E-books have been talked about for a long time, and we may finally have a viable alternative to printed books: the Kindle e-book reader, about to be released by

NewsWeek has a – rather wordy – article on it. (The second half of the article goes into how pervasive ebooks might change things. e.g. people might use advertising in books, and books could be updated w/ errata).

Amazon has got the major publishers on board, and 88,000 titles will be on sale at the Kindle store on launch.

The reader’s specs are:

- has the dimensions of a paperback
- weighs 290g (10.3 ounces)
- sharp screen
- as many as 30 hours of reading on a charge, and recharges in two hours
- doesn’t run hot or make intrusive beeps
- can hold about 200 books onboard, hundreds more on a memory card and a limitless amount in virtual library stacks maintained by Amazon.

Kindle has wireless connectivity for downloading books, and

you can use it to go to the store, browse for books, check out your personalized recommendations, and read reader reviews and post new ones, tapping out the words on a thumb-friendly keyboard. Buying a book with a Kindle is a one-touch process. And once you buy, the Kindle does its neatest trick: it downloads the book and installs it in your library, ready to be devoured. "The vision is that you should be able to get any book—not just any book in print, but any book that's ever been in print—on this device in less than a minute," says Bezos.
You can also
- access newspapers and use it as a web-browser
- search within books
- make make annotations and copy text from books (though it’s not clear exactly how this works).

It’s US $399 (remember that the iPod was quite expensive when it first came out).

A nice information-graphics example – baseball pitches

Here’s a nice example of information graphics done well.

So you know there's many different types of baseball pitches, but can't tell your cutter from your slider or changeup? Well help is at hand in this visual catalogue, showing each type in a simple graphic that intuitively captures it essential character.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

On Schneier's notion of CYA Security

Here's a rather rambling bit of sketching out some thoughts:

Bruce Schneier says:

Since 9/11, we've spent hundreds of billions of dollars defending ourselves from terrorist attacks. Stories about the ineffectiveness of many of these security measures are common, but less so are discussions of why they are so ineffective.
His explanation, in short:
much of our country's counterterrorism security spending is not designed to protect us from the terrorists, but instead to protect our public officials from criticism when another attack occurs.
which he refers to CYA (cover your ass) security.

He gives numerous examples of this. Basically, it's safer for agencies to overreact to things that are out of the ordinary, because if something happens, they can appear to be trying. Or to focus disproportionately on threats in the public consciousness (like what terrorists have tried in the past). Even if these measures are ineffective. And they ignore threat possibilities that don't make the news as much, such as against chemical plants. Or doing focusing on overly specific threats, and not focusing on longer-term investment - e.g. more training in arabic language skills.

There's two comments I want to make on his article.

First, this is another example of systems that have kinds of goals or purposes, where there are various constraints/inefficiencies that impede the system's ability to meet those goals/purposes, as I spoke about recently. In fact, in that post I gave an example of CYA-like force at work in the purchasing of enterprise software.

In this case, that the system is held accountable by government/media/public who aren't necessarily that good at evaluating how well they've done their job, which sets up ineffective incentives/disincentives. Have to remember that in these agencies when they are considering measure to take, they are making a cost/benefit analysis.

Moving onto the second reason.

Despite calling it Cover Your Ass security, he ends up giving the following explanation of the cause of it:
It happens not because the authorities involved -- the Boston police, the TSA, and so on -- are not competent, or not doing their job. It happens because there isn't sufficient national oversight, planning, and coordination.

People and organizations respond to incentives. We can't expect the Boston police, the TSA, the guy who runs security for the Oscars, or local public officials to balance their own security needs against the security of the nation. They're all going to respond to the particular incentives imposed from above. What we need is a coherent antiterrorism policy at the national level: one based on real threat assessments, instead of fear-mongering, re-election strategies, or pork-barrel politics.

Sadly, though, there might not be a solution. All the money is in fear-mongering, re-election strategies, and pork-barrel politics. And, like so many things, security follows the money.
That is, he ends up putting it down to insufficient national oversight, planning, and coordination.

I'm not sure I agree. I think he's closer to the mark with his Cover Your Ass moniker. That is, that the problem is of people needing to cover their asses rather than an issue of coordination.

Except I don't like the term "Cover Your Ass" so much because it makes it sound like the problem is with the agencies. I don't think they really have a choice. Edward deBono coined the term 'ludency' to refer to situations where you're basically forced to play by the rules of the game, and even if you drop out, someone else will come into take your place. So all you can really do is try and find some way of changing the rules.

I think the real culprit here is the way "the general population" attributes responsibility. Typically they want to find a single person to assign the responsibility. If something good happened, that person gets all the praise; if something bad happened, they get all the blame. Even if this is utterly unrepresentative of what actually went on.

There's various reasons why they do this... lack of information about the actual situation... but also it just seems like we're wired to do this. ... a quirk of our psychology.

Here's two of his examples that illustrate this:
CYA also explains the TSA's inability to take anyone off the no-fly list, no matter how innocent. No one is willing to risk his career on removing someone from the no-fly list who might -- no matter how remote the possibility -- turn out to be the next terrorist mastermind.

Another form of CYA security is the overly specific countermeasures we see during big events like the Olympics and the Oscars, or in protecting small towns. In all those cases, those in charge of the specific security don't dare return the money with a message "use this for more effective general countermeasures." If they were wrong and something happened, they'd lose their jobs.
Am I just saying this to assign my own blame to "the general population" for having this attitude? No. I think that to address this problem, we need to create greater awareness of the attitude. It seems so common for people to attribute responsibility poorly like this, and no one seem to blink an eye, so we need some conscsiousness-raising about it.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Some surprises from speed-dating based study of male/female partner preferences

Using speed dating as an experiment, some economists and psychologists examined what males and females look for in a partner (as reported in this relatively brief Slate article). Mostly, it confirmed what they had expected, though there were some surprises.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

'Personas' provide requirements that are too vague (comment on a 37signals post)

The 37signals guys say they don't design software to meet the needs of 'Personas' representing 'typical users', they design it for actual people -- themselves, mostly. Read the post for their justification.

If you've now read it, I just want to note that I think it's an example of how central high standards are to ‘creative’ tasks. The problem with the ‘personas’ is they’re too vague, and thus don’t provide stringent enough critiera or standards for judging what you've done and what you should do.

I think success in creative tasks is primarily a matter of having high-standards or strong evaluation criteria (though my point here is mainly just to make a 'mental note' about this example rather than to try and properly justify that larger point).

Distance-based face-perception illusion (pic)

Have a look at this very cool visual illusion. On the left is the face of an angry man, on the right is the face of a calm woman. But get up, and walk three or four meters from your screen and look at it again -- the image is exactly the same but the faces have swapped positions. Walk back towards the screen and see them magically switch again.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Thursday, November 08, 2007

History is all that's happened


History includes everything that has happened. But that's not the way we tend to conceive of it. In practice, we tend to see it as something much narrower.

There are three ways we tend to narrow it: by focusing on signficant events in 'grand narratives', which happened sufficiently long ago, and focusing on the facts associated with those events.

We tend to just see it as the events in the grand narrative of nations -- wars, successions, the discoveries of new lands, etc. Or in the narratives describing the development of science, tehnology, religion, ecnomics, etc.

We tend to only include sufficiently distant events. Recent events don't seem sufficiently 'historical'.

And we tend to focus on history as a sequence of events -- "one damn thing after another" as Henry Ford is quoted as saying.

Here are some possible reasons for this narrow view: this is the picture of history that tends to get taught in schools, and those are the features that tend to most strongly differentiate history from other fields, and are thus the ones that stick in our minds.

I think this narrow view of history gives a distorted sense of the value of knowing about history. Seeing it this way, we might wonder what is the value in knowing facts like who-did-what-when.

I think the real value in history is lies in drawing out patterns and higher-level conclusions from all of the things we know have happened. This is not just a matter of facts about significant events, and can also include details from the very recent past.

Patterns in economic and technological development, for example. Or general conclusions you can draw about the psychology and behavior of people and groups of people like societies - conclusions that are relevant to today's world.

Many people seem unaware that many questions can be answered by looking at history. As a contrary example, Paul Graham uses many historical points of justification in his essays.

Version history
  • 14/04/06, 00:18 - original
  • 08/11/07, 13:10 major revision. changed expression, and added: people excluding recent events; conceptsCategoriesAndDefinitions tag

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Talisman-based superstitions in gamers

In one experiment, B.F. Skinner fed pigeons pellets every 15 seconds no matter what they did. "After several days each pigeon had developed its own independent superstition about what produced this manna from heaven. One thought circling clockwise was necessary, another that it had to attack a spot on the cage to get the pellets".

Gamblers are known to do a similar thing. If they get a win, they associate it with some property about the situation, and think that repeating it will help bring on future wins.

In all these cases, pigeons/people form beliefs that certain things are talismans (these things don't have to be objects, they can be actions).

Here's a post reporting on talisman-based superstitions in players of massively multiplayer online games like World of Warcraft. That post is in turn commenting on this work.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Phil Greenspun's suggestions for philianthropy

If you've got a bit of money and want to put some of it to good use, Philip Greenspun has some suggestions. He explains the benefit each suggestion could bring, how it could be done, and it's approximate cost.

  • Donate money to Wikipedia
  • Internet Content Prizes - for content such as novels, poems, plays, non-fiction books, textbooks that is published on-line. At present, serious awards for such content is -- by and large -- only when they're published on traditional media.
  • Internet Classical Music Free Library
  • English-language School in Peru's Urubamba Valley
  • Computer Science University in Africa

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Richard Brunstrom on drug policy:

As the Belfast Telegraph reports

"If policy on drugs is in future to be pragmatic not moralistic, driven by ethics not dogma, then the current prohibitionist stance will have to be swept away as both unworkable and immoral, to be replaced with an evidence-based unified system (specifically including tobacco and alcohol) aimed at minimisation of harms to society"
Richard Brunstrom, Chief Constable of North Wales

Bruce Schneier: humans not evolved for IT security (short news piece) reports

Human beings aren't evolved for security in the modern world, and particularly the IT security world, according to security guru Bruce Schneier.

Olle Lundberg’s wood-cabin escape (pics)

Pictures of Olle Lundberg’s wood-cabin escape. “woody, simple, airy and largely reused environment he's created for relaxing when not working”. (normally, he lives in a ferry boat in San Francisco harbor).

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Richard Hamming's advice on doing research - "You and Your Research"

In "You and Your Research", Richard Hamming gives his advice on -- not surprisingly -- doing research. For some reason most research advice seems to be pretty elementary with what they say being fairly obvious, but his advice is actually quite good.

If you're wondering who Richard Hamming is, he worked on the Manhattan project, was a founder and president of the Association for Computing Machinery, and was a recipient of the Turing Award (which is like the Nobel prize for computing).

Incorporating inefficiencies/constraints into your conceptualisation of systems

Companies and governments are examples of systems that have kinds of goals or purposes. I think that when we try thinking about such systems, we find it very difficult to factor in the real-world inefficiencies/constraints that apply to/within them.

We tend to conceptualise and reason about those systems as if the agents within them had full/perfect information and had a clear path to work towards those "goals". (I don't think most of us realise we do this, though we can learn to realise that we do it).

But there are all sorts of constraints there - people have limited information, and not all of the information that would enable them to carry out their job properly, and not everyone has incentives that are aligned with the system's overall "goals".

Let's consider an example. If you didn't know better, you might think that, of all software, enterprise software would be the best. Unlike music playing programs or computer games, this is serious business, and companies are paying lots of money for them. And these are companies in highly-competitive environments, and since the software is crucial to their operations, they'd need it to be good.

But enterprise software is -- I'm told -- generally not that good.

In an idealised system, the software would be designed to meet the user's needs. But there are several practicalities in the actual systems that cause inefficiencies, skewing the system away from the idealisation.

Signals vs. Noise say that enterprise software sucks because it's not really designed for the end-users, but to meet the buying critiera of the software purchasers within large companies, who are not themselves end-users of the software.

The buyers don't have as keen a sense of what the software is required to do, and how well it does it, so their evaluation of the software is skewed towards "the feature list, future promises, and buzz words".

Paul Graham mentions another evaluation criteria used by software buyers: making a choice that appears "safe" or prudent:

There used to be a saying in the corporate world: "No one ever got fired for buying IBM." You no longer hear this about IBM specifically, but the idea is very much alive; there is a whole category of "enterprise" software companies that exist to take advantage of it. People buying technology for large organizations don't care if they pay a fortune for mediocre software. It's not their money. They just want to buy from a supplier who seems safe—a company with an established name, confident salesmen, impressive offices, and software that conforms to all the current fashions. Not necessarily a company that will deliver so much as one that, if they do let you down, will still seem to have been a prudent choice. So companies have evolved to fill that niche.

Leaving this example now, I think one of the reasons it's important to understand topics like economics or evolutionary biology (and probably the law -- especially its hisorical development) it to gain a better appreciation for, and awareness of, the effect of constraints upon systems.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Lone houses in stunning landscapes (pics)

Photos of lone houses in stunning landscapes.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Missing the thickets for the forest

Focus too much on the trees and you can miss the forest. But focus too much on the forest and you can miss the thickets.

If the trees are individual parts or details and the forest is the whole, then thickets are intermediate structures. They are patterns or structures within the whole.

Entities such as car engines, ant hills, brains, languages, ecosystems and economies can not be understood simply by understanding each of their parts in stand-alone terms.

There is a natural tendancy to think that if an entity isn't X, then it must be the opposite of X. If the entities aren't the parts, they must be the wholes. We can end up seeing them as unalloyed, indivisible wholes. Some people practically relish their 'essential wholeness'.

But I think this goes too far. All of those entities have substructures and patterns within the whole, and we understand how they work and their nature by understanding these substructures and patterns, or thickets.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Visual input control

Webcams are more ubiquitous these days. Many newer laptops have integrated webcams in the top of their screens. You could employ all those webcams not just for taking pictures or video-based chatting, but also as another input device for controlling the computer.

The user could provide visual gestures. E.g. they could point at a window to switch to it.

Such visual input might be best combined with voice control. E.g. pointing to a window and saying ‘close it’.

You could analyse the video input in more sophisticated ways. For example, to determine where on the screen the user was looking. So instead of pointing at a window and asying “close it”. The user could just look at it and say “close it” (or something like that). Or they could look at a place in a document and say “move cursor there”.

(I have no idea whether it’s feasable to accurately determine where the user is looking. It mightn’t be possible. For instance, there’s a lot of processing that constructs what you see from what your eyes receive, and the specific thing you're fixating on may not be exactly in line with where your eyes are pointed towards).

Here are a few things in this vein:

EyeTwig 'headmouse' "when you move your head left and right, up and down, the Windows cursor, typically controlled by your mouse, moves about the screen".

Camera Mouse "track head or other body movements and to convert those movements into cursor movements on a computer screen."

Some variations on the theme of getting a camera to pick up on a laser pointer shone on the wall, in order to control things like your music player: here and

Video of using headtracking for some control in a FPS game.

Friday, October 19, 2007

One a day

You know that card game called Freecell that comes with Windows? I play that a hell of a lot while I'm doing PhD writing (though I can't now that my new computer doesn't have it. Probably a good thing).

Whenever you win a game, it displays an image of the King from the deck of cards. I though it’d be a nice little touch if, instead just having that one ‘winning image’, it has a different one for each day of the year. So there’s a specific image for 19 October, and you only get to see it if you win on that day. That might add a little extra incentive to play it.

You could apply the same idea to pretty much any webpage or program where people are likely to read/use it over and over. For example: the user brings up the form, and on it they see a nice photo for this day. Clearly, nothing earth shattering, but might be nice little touch.

Funny Wondermark comic on lack of perspective

Funny Wondermark comic on lack of perspective – “Everyone who’s smarter than me is a nerd! Everyone dumber’n me is an idiot...”.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Favourite Recipes: Grilled Chicken Tacos Alambres

Grilled Chicken Tacos Alambres

(updated 16/10/07: fixed a few typos, and now you can mouse-over ingredients in the cooking instructions to see the quantities, which is useful if you're reading the recipe off the screen while you're cooking.)

Yields 12 to 16 tacos; serves four to six.

This recipe is from an edition of Fine Cooking magazine (I'm not sure whether you can get Fine Cooking at the newsagents here -- I don't recall seeing it -- but you can get them, as I did, from the Brisbane City Council libraries). Tastes really good.

Note that this is for the small, about 12 cm diameter, soft tortillas. Not the big ones, or the hard taco shells.

I haven't been able to find poblano chillis here, but the jalapeno / capsicum substitute works well, and you can get jalapenos at some supermarkets.

  • For the marinated chicken
    • lime juice, ½ cup (from about 2 limes)
    • ancho chilli powder, 1 tbsp (it'll still be fine with other sorts of chilli powder)
    • garlic, 2 cloves (about 2 tsp) minced
    • salt, 1 ½ tsp
    • dried oregano, 1 tsp
    • black pepper, 1 tsp
    • veg oil, 1 cup
    • boneless, skinless chicken breasts, about 600g (1 1/4 pounds)
  • For rest of the filling
    • veg oil, 1 tsp; more if sauteing the chicken
    • bacon, 3 slices, finely chopped
    • fresh poblano chiles, 1 cup, cored, seeded, and finely chopped (about 2 poblanos)
      jalapenos, 2 fresh, and green capsicum, ½, cored, seeded, and finely chopped
    • yellow or white onion, finely chopped, 1 cup
    • fresh corriander, chopped, 1/4 cup
    • juice of 1 lime
    • salt
    • oaxaca cheese OR freshly grated mozzarella, ½ cup (optional)
  • For serving
Note that none of these last three items -- guacamole, pico de gallo, tomatillo salsa -- are essential. And if you can't get tomatillos (so far, I haven't found anywhere that sells them), you could just use a tomato salsa)
  • Marinate the chicken
    • In a medium bowl, mix the lime juice, chilli powder, garlic, salt, oregano, and pepper; whisk in the oil.
    • Add the chicken, cover and, and marinate in the fridge for 1 hr but no longer than 1 ½ hrs.
  • Make the fillings
    • Prepare a medium-hot fire on a gas or charcoal grill or set a large, heavy skillet over medium-high heat for 1 ½ minutes.
    • Remove the chicken from the marinade, shaking off any excess.
    • Grill the chicken (or sear it in the skillet with 1 tbsp oil), flipping after 4 mins, until it’s just firm to the touch and cooked through, about 9 mins.
    • Let the chicken cool and then chop it into very small pieces.
    • Heat a skillet over medium heat, add 1 tbsp oil and the bacon, and cook, stirring frequently, until the bacon just begins to brown, about 6 mins.
    • Turn the heat to medium high, add the chillis and onion, and cook, stirring frequently, until they begin to soften, about 4 mins.
    • Add the chopped chicken, corriander, and lime juice and stir constantly until the chicken is hot.
    • Season with salt to taste.
    • Sprinkle the cheese (if using) over the top, take the pan off the heat, and let the cheese melt.
  • To serve
    • Set the skillet with the filling on a trivet on the table next to the hot tortillas, guacamole, pico de gallo, and tomatillo salsa so each person can assemble his or her own tacos.

Saturday, October 06, 2007

Worlds largest swimming pool (1 km long)

A swimming pool (includes pics), 1km long, eight hectares in size and transparent to a depth of 35 metres, in the South American resort of San Alfonso del Mar in Chile.

Saturday, September 29, 2007

Saveless mode

When I'm using a text editor or word processor, I don't want to have to think about saving the document. I want to be able to expect that if I've typed something, it's safe and I can't lose it.

I'm not saying that programs should completely forgo an explicit save feature. I'd just like it if, in addition to the way they are now, they'd also had a 'saveless' mode of running where it automatically and behind the scenes saved everything you typed as you typed.

At present, everytime I've write a little bit -- like a sentence, or a sentence clause -- I save the document. I find it simpler to constantly and habitually save, rather than having to remember to periodically (like once a minute) save.

I don't want that distraction of remembering to save. And I don't want the interruption of saving. Interrupting my typing and my thought processes, however minor that interruption may be.

Autosave features might sound like a solution, but I don't like them. If you have it save every minute or so, you still have the consciousness that changes between those saves aren't safe. And even if you have it save very frequently, like once a second, it's not ideal. Usually, there's some graphical indication that it's saving, and that's a distraction. And that's still not enough to guarantee that you won't lose things occuring between saves. Like if you've pasted in a large amount of text.

What you really need is something that is designed specifically for saving absolutely everything you type, as you type it. And to do so in the background, without the user being aware of it happening.

An explicit save feature adds to a program's concept count. Something that people have to initially learn. Pads of paper don't have a 'save' button. Without an explicit save feature, programs would be simpler.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Jimi, meet Kurt and Fatboy Slim

Random thought. Imagine going back in time to the sixties, and showing musicians like Jimi Hendrix and the Beatles styles of music that didn't exist then, like hip-hop, grunge (yeah, people don't like that term, but I can't think of a better one for what I want to refer to), heavy metal, and various forms of electronic music... Would it blow them away? Would some of them find some of the styles unpalatable? Would it send their music making down a different path? It'd be awesome if you could actually do it and see.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Measures of the world

What are the different ways we can measure the size of the world?

There's the earth's diameter. Another measure is its surface area. That might be more meaningful to us, since our lives are played out on its surface. You could even just measure the amount of land, ignoring the water. Or limit the measurement to the amount of habitated or habitable land (according to some reasonable definitions of habitated and habitable).

Another thing we could ask is: how big is the world each of us has seen? How large an area have you actually seen with your own eyes, during your lifetime? For most of us, it's only a small fragment.

Though we may have only seen a fragment of it, our conception of the the world is much broader, because it also takes in details that we know secondhand, through conversations, books, television, etc.

This conception is subjective, and infused with personal and social details. The place I went to school. The path I take to get to the train station. Where my best friend lives. Those streets in the city where it doesn't feel safe to walk alone at night.

In my conception of the world, the unit where I live is sketched out in detail. But to the person down the road who only knows it from walking past it from time to time, it's little more than a facade made up of what's visble from the road.

Because of these personal and subjective details, this mental conception of the world, though only dealing with small portions of the world in detail, is -- in this sense -- richer than the physical world.

There's another kind of measure of the size of the world. Though the physical world is large and these mental worlds small, there is only one physical world, and billions of mental ones. And the total area and details covered by that billion-piece mozaic is large indeed.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Don't be afraid to express non-unique points of view

Sketching.. I want to be able to express unique points of view on topics. We're all social animals, so there is an element there of wanting to stand out in the crowd. But it's not simply uniqueness for the sake of uniqueness.

Knowledge is like an expanding frontier, building on and growing out of what we already know. Part and parcel of trying to understand things better is trying to develop unique points of view.

But there's a real risk of trying to only say things that are unique. Of thinking that expressing a non-unique points of view is pointless and lame.

Writing (and talking) about things is a way to "gather your thoughts" about them. Writing about well known things helps you think about them. This also applies to things you know well yourself.

And it's through such synthesis and thinking about the topic that helps you construct new points of view.

There's another dimension to this problem. You might see the value in expressing a non-unique point of view, but you might be worried about what others will think of you expressing it. Will they think it's just an expression of my limitations?

I think it's a sad fact that people tend to perceive any behavior as a direct expression of someone's nature. If someone's mucking around, they're childish. So people who don't want to be perceived as childish avoid mucking around.

Even if they're really intelligent, sensitive, mature people, and mucking around is a reflection of just one facet of their personality, which they'd otherwise only express in appropriate situations, and not express in inappropraite ones.

Memorisation supplanting thinking


our society seems to be awash in
magazines, books and tv-shows on
how to do things - typically 'lifestyle' topics
like renovating or art-and-craft

that in itself isn't necessarily a bad thing
but it does seem bad that the focus so much on
supposedly-useful 'tips',
which are usually pretty lightweight facts

I think that has a tendency to create
the wrong sort of attitude or approach in the 'learner'
it becomes a game of fact memorising
and then approaching a situation
by trying to recall which facts are appropriate to it

whereas you should really want to have
an /understanding/ of the situation
that is relevant as a starting point
and /think on your feet/ as you are within the situation.

the problem is
fact memorsation supplants thinking

Friday, September 21, 2007

Smoky Shredded Pork Tacos recipe (Tacos de Picadillo Oaxaqueño)

Adapted from Rick Bayless's Mexican Kitchen

A perfect combination of flavours -- including pork, hot, smokey chipotle chillis (smoked, dried jalapeno chillis), sweet raisins and roasted almonds. Like with a curry, the flavours improve after a day or two.

If you're having trouble finding chipotle chillis, look in 'gourmet' delis or you can order them from various online retailers.

Makes enough for 16 to 18 tacos

  • boneless pork shoulder, 675g, trimmed of fat and cut into 5cm cubes
  • garlic cloves, unpleeled, 5
  • white onion, 1 large, diced
  • ground cinnamon, ½ tsp, preferably freshly ground Mexican canela
  • black pepper, 1/4 tsp
  • ground cloves, 1/8 tsp
  • raisins, 85g
  • slivered almonds, 55g
  • for tomato-chipotle sauce (makes 350ml)
    • chipotle chillis, 2 to 3, stemmed (or canned chipotle chilis en adobo)
      OR chilies pasillas oaxaqueños, 1 to 2, stemmed
    • ripe tomatoes, 500g (2 large round, or 7 to 8 plum)
    • olive or vegetable oil, or rich-tasting lard, 2 ½ tbsp
    • salt, about a scant ½ tsp
  • corn tortillas, 16 to 18 (plus a few extra, in case some break)
  • hot sauce, optional, for serving

Simmer meat
  • In a medium-size (2 to 3.5 litre) saucepan, cover meat with heavily salted water.
    Peel and roughly chop 2 cloves of the garlic and add along with half of the onion. 
  • Bring to a gentle boil, skim off any greyish foam that rises during the first few minutes.
  • Partially cover and simmer over medium-low heat until thoroughly tender, about 1 ½ hrs. 
  • If time permits, cool the meat in the broth. (Reserve broth for soup or sauce.)
Shred meat.  Between your fingers or with some forks.

Make tomato-chipotle sauce.
  • Prepare chillis
    • For canned chillis - remove from their canning sauce.
    • For dried chillis
      • toast them on an ungreased griddle or heavy frying pan over medium heat, turning regularly and pressing flat, until very aromatic, about 30 seconds.
      • In a small bowl, cover chillis with hot water and leave to re-hydrate for 30 minutes, stirring to ensure even soaking.
      • Drain and discard the water.
  • Roast garlic
    • Roast the remaining 3 cloves of the unpeeled garlic on the griddle or frying pan, turning occasionally, until soft, about 15 minutes.
    • Cool and peel.
  • Roast tomatoes
    • Roast the tomatoes on a baking sheet 10cm below a very hot grill until blackened on one side, about 6 minutes; flip and roast the other side.
    • Cool, then peel, collecting all the juices with the tomatoes.
  • Blend chillis, garlic and tomatoes -- pulse them in a food processor or blender, to a medium-fine puree.
  • Fry puree
    • Heat 1 tbsp of the oil or lard in a heavy, medium-size (2 to 3.5 litre) saucepan over medium-high.
    • Add the puree and stir for about 5 mins as it fries and thickens.
    • Taste and season with salt.
Bring the filling together
  • Roast almonds
    • Turn on the oven to 180ºC.
    • Toast the almonds in the oven in a small baking tin until fragrant and lightly browned, 6 to 8 minutes
  • Heat oil 1 ½ tbsp of oil or lard, in a large (25 to 30cm) heavy, well-seasoned or nonstick frying pan, over medium-high heat.
  • When hot, add the shredded meat and remaining half of the onion.
  • Fry, regularly stirring and scraping up browned bits from the bottom, until the whole mixture is crispy and golden, 12 to 14 minutes.
  • Sprinkle the cinnamon, pepper, cloves and raisins over the meat, then pour on the tomato-chipotle sauce.
  • Reduce the heat to medium and simmer briskly, stirring occasionally, until nearly all the liquid has evaporated, 4 to 5 minutes.
  • Add roasted almonds and stir them in.
  • Taste and season with a little more salt if necessary.

Heat tortillas
  • Set up a steamer (with this many tortillas, you’ll need 2 vegetable steamers set up in saucepans or a big Chinese steamer--either choice with 1cm of water under the steamer basket); heat to a boil.
  • Wrap the tortillas in 2 stack in thick tea towels, lay in the steamer(s) and cover tightly.
  • Boil 1 minute, turn off the heat and leave to stand without opening the steamer for 15 minutes.
Prepare tacos
  • Either prepare the tacos in the kitchen by scooping a couple of heaped tablespoons of filling into each warm tortilla, rolling or folding them and nesting them into a cloth-lined basked
  • Or, scoop the filling into a warm bowl and set out with a cloth-lined basket of steaming tortillas for your guests to construct their own tacos.
  • Optionally, add a dash of hot sauce onto the filling in the taco.

  • Shortcuts: two-thirds of an 800g can of tomatoes can replace the fresh roasted ones; leftover roast pork can replace the boiled pork
  • The pork can be simmered several days in advance (refrigerate it in covered container with its broth, then strain and shred before continuing with the dish) or finish the picadillo a day or two ahead, cover it and refrigerate.

  • Try mixing the leftover picadillo with grated chesese, baking it to heat through, then seving it as a communal appeitzer or a light main dish with tortillas--a variation on queso fundido.
  • Shredded Pork Enchiladas. Prepare the recipe tripling the sauce; set the extra 2/3 of the sauce aside. Roll the filling in the tortiallas, fit them into a baking dish, pour the reseraved sauce over them and bake at 190ºC to warm through. Sprinkle with queso añejo or Parmesean and chopped coriander; seve immediately.
  • Chiles Rellenos for a buffet. Roast and peel six poblanos, make a slit in their sides, remove the seeds, then fill each with about 5 tbsps of the filling (you’ll only need 1/2 the batch) and fit into a decorative backing dish. Slowly cook 2 large sliced onions in a little olive oil until nicely browned, soft and cramelized. Strew over the chillis and bake the whole assembly to heat through. Sprinkle liberally with queso añejo or Parmesan and set out on the buffet.
  • Use filling to fill tamales, other chiilis (jaapeños, chiptles, chiles pasillas oaxaqueños), molotoes, qusadillas and so forth.

Updated 11 Dec 2017: reformatted recipe and modified some of the wording, to make it easier to read.  Fixed a few typos.

Haunting picture by Bansky

Monday, July 30, 2007

Someone at Channel 10 likes Amon Tobin

Amon Tobin's music isn't very immediate/accessible, so I was pleasantly surprised to hear several of his tracks used during the finale of the Australian version of Big Brother tonight tonight: The Killer's Vanilla and At the End of the Day from his latest album, The Foley Room, and Natureland off Supermodified. They used them as background music in several of the video clips they showed.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Nice line from Scott Adams - "The trick is to..."

A nice line from Scott Adams' blog:

The trick is to think of your ego as your goofy best friend who lends moral support but doesn’t know shit.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

A missed chance

David Stenhouse looks back on a missed chance:

"When you’ve read as many books as I have, you know instinctively when something is going to be a hit. You mark my words. We won’t hear of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone ever again."

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Video of impressive statistics visualisation - Hans Rosling using Trandalyzer

If you want to make sense of statistics for people, this is how you do it, as shown in this very interesting and impressive video.

In it, Hans Rosling uses UN statistics to demonstrate that many common beliefs about the modern-day world, such as on the nature of the divide between first and third-world countries, are wrong.

But more than the content (and whether you would agree with it or not), what it's about is how he presents it. The software he uses, Trendalyzer, seems pretty impressive. I don't mean from a technical standpoint -- though no doubt it is -- but from what it is able to do. This is futuristic software, like science-fiction films try to portray.

Graphs are animated to show how the data changes over the years, highlighting the trends. They're morphed to show a different, but related perspective. Details are drilled down into, for example to go from showing data for a particular country to data for its consitutent states. It's all interactive, and it leads to a very impressive flow: one perspective raises certain questions, so he modifies the view to try and get insight into them.

What I think is important about this kind of software is that it allows you to really demonstrate points, directly from the data -- very much showing rather than telling.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Effective analogy for showing what prosopagnosia is like

Prosopagnosia is 'face-blindness' - the inability to recognize other humans by their faces. This page is a very effective description of what it's like, written by a sufferer.

They say good writing shows rather than tells, and that's what that pages does, using a very effective analogy -- to show you what it's like to have prosopagnosia.

If individuals were rocks, then it's like having to remember the characteristics of each rock, and try to realise when you come across this rock again, from your memories. The page uses photos of different rocks so you can see for yourself the sorts of difficulties involved.

There's a lot of complications you probably wouldn't think of, which the page demonstrates well. E.g. when someone gets a haircut - as demonstrated by the rock being obscured by a bit of foliage.

RunBot - robot that can walk with a natural, realistic-seeming gait

RunBot is a walking robot with a natural, flexible gait (BBC story; info). It can deal with uneven terrain, and changes changes like uphill or downhill slopes.

I think they've got the right approach. Like with Steve Grand's work, and Jeff Hawkin's HTMs, it uses a hierarchical means of control, where each level has a certain level of autonomy, and there's constant updating of the structures based on the environmental input.

RunBot has been co-operatively developed by european scientists

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Some presentation-skills lessons from Job's iPhone talk

Giving good presentations - five lessons drawn from Steve Job's iPhone presentation. The lessons the article goes into are: Build Tension, Stick to One Theme Per Slide, Add Pizzazz to Your Delivery, Practice, Be Honest and Show Enthusiasm.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Ishkur's Guide to Electronic Music

Ishkur's Guide to Electronic Music. After a quick look, seems interesting. Maps out the myriads of genres and sub-genres of electronic music, giving a short desc of each -- and the author is not afraid to give their opinion of it -- along with some musical samples of it (usefully giving the artist and track name).

Short Shermer Article on Relativism

Decent, concise piece by Michael Shermer on relativism, and why it's a mistake to think that all false theories are equally false.

Friday, June 15, 2007


truth bootstrapped
because everybody knows
that everybody knows it

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Police system to accept photographed evidence from cameraphones.

Not a huge deal, but could be helpful:

The LA police department plans to implemenent a system so that when someone gives an over-the-phone account of a crime or accident scene, they can augument that verbal account with photos taken on their camera phone, using the phone's photo sending feature.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Map of US states renamed for countries with similar GDPs

Interesting map. Apparently Australia's GDP is comparable to Ohio's.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Article: How to explain RSS the Oprah way

Nice example of a non-technical explanation of a somewhat technical subjectmatter: How to explain RSS the Oprah way.

Article: Design That Solves Problems for the World’s Poor

Turning innovative design towards helping the world's poor -- a New York Times article on an exhibition, currently housed in New York, of designs that strive to do this.

one of the simplest and yet most elegant designs tackles a job that millions of women and girls spend many hours doing each year — fetching water. Balancing heavy jerry cans on the head may lead to elegant posture, but it is backbreaking work and sometimes causes crippling injuries. The Q-Drum, a circular jerry can, holds 20 gallons, and it rolls smoothly enough for a child to tow it on a rope.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Article on upcoming malaysian court case

I've got relatives in Malaysia and have been there a couple of times, and from that I knew that Malays are, from birth, automatically considered muslims, and that they aren't allowed to become non-muslims, but I didn't know that they aren't legally allowed to marry non-muslims, as this article on an upcoming court case in Malaysia says:

Ethnic Malays, who make up just over half of Malaysia's 26 million people, are deemed Muslims from birth.

Constitutionally, freedom of religion is guaranteed. But in reality, conversion out of Islam falls within the ambit of sharia or Islamic courts. And sharia law prescribes fines or jail for those who renounce Islam, effectively ruling out the option.

Muslims who leave Islam end up in legal limbo, unable to register their new religious affiliations or legally marry non-Muslims. Many keep quiet about their choice or emigrate.

Lina Joy, now in her early 40s, was born Azlina Jailani and brought up as a Muslim but at the age of 26 decided to become a Christian. [...]

Until the entry [on her identity card] is deleted, she cannot legally marry outside the Muslim faith. The legal wrangling began when she took the department to court over the anomaly.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Woman dies, ignored, in emergency room of US hospital

The LA Times reports (other) on the death of a lady at a public hosptial in the US:

She lay on the linoleum [in the emergengy room of King-Harbor hospital], writhing in pain, for 45 minutes, as staffers worked at their desks and numerous patients looked on.

Aside from one patient who briefly checked on her condition, no one helped her. A janitor cleaned the floor around her as if she were a piece of furniture. A closed-circuit camera captured everyone's apparent indifference.

Arriving to find Rodriguez on the floor, her boyfriend unsuccessfully tried to enlist help from the medical staff and county police — even a 911 dispatcher, who balked at sending rescuers to a hospital.

Alerted to the "disturbance" in the lobby, police stepped in — by running Rodriguez's record. They found an outstanding warrant and prepared to take her to jail. She died before she could be put into a squad car.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Shirky on why a lack of knowledge is useful for entreprenueurs (similar argument to 'knowledge as a creole')

Rough sketching out...

In Knowledge as a Creole, I talked about the largely unconscious process of 'building a worldview' (though i didn't use that terminology in that post). It's a constructive process, that tries to bulit a reasonably coherent worldview from -- roughly -- the current state of our shared knowledge. We have very limited control over this process, and it is difficult to change our worldview once it is constructed. On the flip side, this process leads to conceptual advances -- advances that were implicit in this shared knowledge.

Clay Shirky has recently written a post The (Bayesian) Advantage of Youth that makes a similar point, though from a different perspective. Rather than knowledge, he's talking about technological advances (made by entrepreneurs), and he's focuses primarily how already seeing things one way restricts your ability to see advances. Also, rather than just the 'worldview' he's talking about experience in general.

...The principal asset a young tech entrepreneur has is that they don’t know a lot of things.

In almost every circumstance, this would be a disadvantage, but not here, and not now. The reason this is so, and the reason smart old people can’t fake their way into this asset, has everything to do with our innate ability to cement past experience into knowledge.

...We are wired to learn from experience. This is, in almost all cases, absolutely the right strategy, because most things in life benefit from mental continuity. Again, today, gravity pulls things downwards. Again, today, my wife will be happier if I put my socks in the hamper than on the floor. And so on.

...In 999,999 cases, learning from experience is a good idea, but what entrepreneurs do is look for the one in a million shot. When the world really has changed overnight, when wild new things are possible if you don’t have any sense of how things used to be, then it is the people who got here five minutes ago who understand that new possibility, and they understand it precisely because, to them, it isn’t new.

Note, Acquiring knowledge is acquiring a skill is closely related to the 'Knowledge as a Creole' post.

Friday, April 13, 2007

Study: one in five couples get together through ‘mate poaching’

Interestly, one in five couples get together through 'mate poaching', according to the study reported
in Psychology Today:

Wedding announcements in newspapers rarely tell the whole story. If they did, they would occasionally read something like this: "The happy couple met through her boyfriend at the time, who is the groom's former best friend. It took four months to lure her away."

According to one study, up to 20 percent of long-term relationships begin when one or both partners are involved with others. Evolutionary psychologists call this "mate poaching." This figure holds steady across age groups and among couples who are married, living together or dating, according to psychologists who polled some 16,000 individuals in 53 countries as part of the International Sexuality Description Project. Most surprising to researchers: Sweetheart-stealing is prevalent across continents and cultures, although it is notably less common in East Asia.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Favourite Recipes: Heston Blumenthal 's Roast Potatoes Recipe

Heston Blumenthal 's Roast Potatoes Recipe

This is from his excellent book "In Search of Perfection" (which I got thanks to Kerry).

They're just roast potatoes, but they're quite impressive. Much crispier and crunchier on the outside, and soft and fluffier on the inside, than you typical ones. It's boiling them for a while first that does the trick.

  • large maris piper potatoes, 1kg
    (he says that the variety of potato is important for the right end results. However, you don't seem to be able to get maris piper potatoes in brisbane, so I just used the standard potatoes you get in supermarkets, and they seemed to work fine)
  • olive oil, enough to fill the roasting tray to a depth of just under 1cm
  • garlic, 4 cloves
  • fresh rosemary, 1 generous bunch
  • table salt

  • Preheat the oven
    • to 190 celcius / 375 farenheight / Gas 5
  • Wash, peel, cut and rinse potatoes
    • Wash the potatoes thoroughly and then peel them.
    • Reserve the peelings and tie them in a muslin bag.
    • Cut the potatoes into quarters
      (the quartering's important because it's the edges that get nice and crunchy: that's why reasonably large potatoes are needed for this recipe)
    • Leave the quaters in a bowl under running water for 2-3 minutes (or put in a bowl of water for 15 minutes, changing the water every 5 minutes).
  • Boil the potatoes
    • Bring a pan of salted water (10g salt per litre of water) to the boil
    • Add the potatoes and toss in the bag of peelings (they
      contain lots of flavour).
    • Cook for 20 minutes, or until the potatoes are very soft: take them as far as you can without ending up without potato soup. (It's the fissures that form as the potato breaks up that trap the fat, creating a crunchy crust.)
  • Preheat the oil
    • Meanwhile, pour the olive oil into a roasing tray (it needs to be large enough to hold all the potatoes in one layer) and place in the oven.
  • Drain poatoes
    • Once the potatoes are soft, drain them in a colander and discard the bag of peelings.
    • Give them a gentle shake to roughen the edges and drive off any remaining drops of water.
  • Roast the potatoes
    • Put the potatoes in the hot roasting tray and roll them around so that they are completely coated in oil.
    • Roast for an hour or so, until crisp and a lovely golden brown
      • Turning every 20 minutes.
      • Add the garlic and rosemary after 50 minutes.
  • Season with salt and serve.

Friday, April 06, 2007

Teaching communication skills with interactive-fiction games


We can use simulations and games to give people the practice at tasks required to develop skills. Here's a way that 'interactive-fiction' games could be used to help people learn communication skills.

I'll illustrate by talking about a particular communication skill - the ability to negotiate effectively. There are principles behind effective negotiation, and to be good at this form of communication you need to have a mastery of them.

It's not that important what these specific principles are (see this article if you're interested in a discussion of some negotiation skills), just that there are different principles, and you can master each of them to various degrees.

Here's the sort of interactive-fiction game I'm thinking of. It probably wouldn't matter if it was textual or graphical, just that it involved a converstaion between your character and another (or others), where you are negotiating with them, and at each point in the conversation you have a selection of options for what to say next[1]. At each point there might be five different possibilities, and you have to choose one. Each choice is of the actual text that the character will say (as opposed to something more abstract such as "Ask about the red book").

The idea is that you are playing not simply yourself, but a character who had a certain level of skills. And you can run through the same scenario multiple times, but each time that character's skills improve -- either they have learnt new principles or have further developed the ones they have. And these improved skills are reflected in the conversation choices you are presented with.

Here are the ways I think would help people to learn those skills:

  • It gives you practice. The conversation options at each point would cover a range of degrees of effectiveness. Would give you a chance to see how effective your choice was.
  • You get to see the differences between different levels of skills. If you don't have the particular skill, it's hard to know what would have been the better way of handling the situation. But if you've already tried one way, and then you are shown what a better way is, then that might make it easier to appreciate the principle involved.

[1] The best examples of these sorts of conversations that I'm aware of are the first two of the 'Secret of Monkey Island' graphical adventure games (there is a third and a fourth game in the series, but they weren't done by the same person and aren't as good)

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Dordoni Worktop table

The guys at Signal vs Noise recommended this desk - looks quite nice (US$1 998, though!).

From the website:'s all about elegant function and ease. The angled table legs afford ample leg room for when you and colleagues pull up chairs for an impromptu conference. To cope with uneven floors, its glides are adjustable. The Dordoni Worktop holds up to eight roomy desk drawers (sold separately) and openings on each end offer convenient storage space for rolled up blueprints and drawings.

Paper - Magic Ink: Information Software and the Graphical Interface

This paper, "Magic Ink: Information Software and the Graphical Interface" by Bret Victor, is a powerful argument for why, in designing software, greater emphasis should be given to graphic design and less to interaction. I think there's a good chance it'll go down as paradigm-shifting classic (and I don't mean that just as a buzzword, but as a genuine paradigm shift).

I've only read the first half of it so far -- it's quite long -- but I thought I'd post here to let others know about it.

Here's the abstract

The ubiquity of frustrating, unhelpful software interfaces has motivated decades of research into “Human-Computer Interaction.” In this paper, I suggest that the long-standing focus on “interaction” may be misguided. For a majority subset of software, called “information software,” I argue that interactivity is actually a curse for users and a crutch for designers, and users’ goals can be better satisfied through other means.

Information software design can be seen as the design of context-sensitive information graphics. I demonstrate the crucial role of information graphic design, and present three approaches to context-sensitivity, of which interactivity is the last resort. After discussing the cultural changes necessary for these design ideas to take root, I address their implementation. I outline a tool which may allow designers to create data-dependent graphics with no engineering assistance, and also outline a platform which may allow an unprecedented level of implicit context-sharing between independent programs. I conclude by asserting that the principles of information software design will become critical as technology improves.

Although this paper presents a number of concrete design and engineering ideas, the larger intent is to introduce a “unified theory” of information software design, and provide inspiration and direction for progressive designers who suspect that the world of software isn’t as flat as they’ve been told.

Do the people living today /really/ outnumber all those who have ever lived?

I'd heard the claim that there are more people living in the world today than all those who had lived before. It seemed plausible, and I took it as true, but according to this Scientific American piece, it's quite wrong.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

More on the importance of acknowledging bacterial evolution as just that

I recently linked to an article saying that researchers and the media tend to avoid calling bacterial evolution 'evolution', and commenting on why why this matters.

This blog post cites another reason it matters -- doctors who don't appreciate that antibiotic resistance is an evolved trait tend to prescribe antibiotics in a way that encourages such evolved resistance -- leading to so-called superbugs.

The author of that post has a personal stake in this antibiotic resistance issue and makes his point quite forcefully and eloquently.

A step-by-step look at the design of a logo

Graphic designer Chuck Greens lays out all of the steps he went through to develop a logo for a helicopter transport company (he ends up with a logo based on a hummingbird hovering). Good insight into the design process. Shows how much of a trail-and-error search process it is.

Friday, March 23, 2007

Amon Tobin on why leaked copies of his latest album means you won't find many copies of it in the stores

Amon Tobin's latest album was leaked to the net a number of weeks before it was to go on sale. On his website he comments on the effects of this ( - it's a flash-based site, so I can't link directly to the text, but it's in the 'Logbook' section)

[...] Today, the release date for my album, it's unlikely that you will see it in most high street shops and after the initial run it's unlikely that you will be able to order a copy even from online stores. this is because in-spite of more people having access to and apparently listening to my music than ever before, the predicted sales of the record were so low that it didn't justify the manufacture or distribution to any significant level. strange? not when you consider how hard it might be to convince any retail outlet, physical or digital, that they should try and sell something everybody could already get for free months beforehand.

so what does this mean in the wider context? who the fuck knows. like I say I won't speculate on the wider picture and you can draw your own conclusions as to what this means with regards to my own future output. again I stress that I'm not talking about what should happen here. I'm not saying I should be able to 'keep on doing what I'm doing' or even that my record deserves to be bought. all I'm saying, mainly for the benefit of those who might otherwise have been unaware, is that if you personally like what I do and wish to continue hearing more then the only way that will happen is if you support it.

Most descriptions of microbial evolution avoid using the term ‘evolution’ - and why this matters

A quite readable article in PLoS Biology by Antonovics et al "Evolution by Any Other Name: Antibiotic Resistance and Avoidance of the E-Word".

"The increase in resistance of human pathogens to antimicrobial agents is one of the best-documented examples of evolution in action at the present time, and because it has direct life-and-death consequences, it provides the strongest rationale for teaching evolutionary biology as a rigorous science in high school biology curricula, universities, and medical schools. In spite of the importance of antimicrobial resistance, we show that the actual word "evolution" is rarely used in the papers describing this research. Instead, antimicrobial resistance is said to "emerge," "arise," or "spread" rather than "evolve." Moreover, we show that the failure to use the word "evolution" by the scientific community may have a direct impact on the public perception of the importance of evolutionary biology in our everyday lives."

"It has been repeatedly rumored (and reiterated by one of the reviewers of this article) that both the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation have in the past actively discouraged the use of the word "evolution" in titles or abstracts of proposals so as to avoid controversy."

"Nowadays, medical researchers are increasingly realizing that evolutionary processes are involved in immediate threats associated with not only antibiotic resistance but also emerging diseases [1,2]. The evolution of antimicrobial resistance has resulted in 2- to 3-fold increases in mortality of hospitalized patients, has increased the length of hospital stays, and has dramatically increased the costs of treatment [3,4]. It is doubtful that the theory of gravity (a force that can neither be seen nor touched, and for which physicists have no agreed upon explanation) would be so readily accepted by the public were it not for the fact that ignoring it can have lethal results. This brief survey shows that by explicitly using evolutionary terminology, biomedical researchers could greatly help convey to the layperson that evolution is not a topic to be innocuously relegated to the armchair confines of political or religious debate. Like gravity, evolution is an everyday process that directly impacts our health and well-being, and promoting rather than obscuring this fact should be an essential activity of all researchers."

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Some beautiful pictures of Chinese landscapes

Some beautiful pictures Chinese landscapes. Apparently they're of the Guilin area.

Article: Illegal drugs can be harmless, report says

As reported in The Guardian:

The report, which is likely to spark fierce controversy, said: "The use of illegal drugs is by no means always harmful any more than alcohol use is always harmful. It called for the concept of drugs to be extended to take in alcohol and tobacco.
Current laws, the panel claimed, were been "driven by moral panic" with large amounts of money wasted on "futile" efforts to stop supply rather than going after the criminal networks behind the drugs on British streets.

At the heart of the report was a call for an end to what the panel called the "criminal justice bias" of current policy in favour of an approach that would treat addiction as a health and social problem rather than simply a cause of crime.
"Drugs policy should, like our policy on alcohol and tobacco, seek to regulate use and prevent harm rather than to prohibit use altogether," the report concludes.

Article: Taking our leaders at face value

The Star reports: "A new study suggests that how we respond to a candidate's face could determine who we vote for". The research was undertaken by the psychologist Anthony C. Little, and published in the journal Evolution and Human Behavior.

Researchers started with pictures of political candidates such as John Kerry and George W. Bush, and used software to blend each picture with an image of an 'average face'. The resulting image wasn't recognisable as the candidate, but "nevertheless bore a sort of family resemblance to the originals".

"Then the researchers asked people to look at the faces and say who they would vote for.

In all eight races, the votes based on composite faces gave the same results as the actual elections."

The article also says

"The problem is, despite our specialized cognitive machinery for dealing with faces, it turns out that faces aren't a very good guide for judging other people.

Studies show that people think they can read all sorts of things about people based on their faces, including intelligence, basic character and personality traits. Unfortunately, the same studies show that we're not as accurate as we think we are.

Like everyone else, I know that I shouldn't judge a book by its cover. And like everyone else, I do it all the time – summing someone up in the street, or at a party, or on the subway, based largely on what I think I see in his face. I'm usually pretty confident I'm right, but I'm also probably wrong."

Wednesday, February 28, 2007

AV Club interview with Ricky Gervais, incl his thoughts on creative control

AV Club interview (single page version)with Ricky Gervais, co-creator of 'The Office' and 'Extras', from Jan 10 2007.

Two answers on 'creative control' I wanted to note:

AVC: How do you establish that kind of creative control?
RG: I just demand it. I just simply wouldn't do anything that I wasn't terribly in charge of. I don't let anything go. I worry about the font on the back of the DVD, and I'll do this as long as that continues. Even if it does continue, I could still get bored with that, but I certainly wouldn't compromise anything.

AVC: When you're working on something, do you ever have to struggle to tell the difference between comedy that can succeed commercially and what you think is good?
RG: Never. It doesn't come into it. We only do what we think is good and what we're happy with. I do that in stand-up, I even do it with my children's books. I don't do market research, I don't have focus groups, I don't care. I don't care if it fails, honestly. I'd rather have something that's completely mine fail than something succeed that I'm not proud of.

Monday, February 19, 2007


Debatepedia (about, FAQ). Kinda like wikipedia, but rather than emphasising neutrality, it emphasises the differences in positions on contentious topics, providing a structured way for each side of the argument to be presented. Much like the (seemingly) unrelated OpenDebateEngine I mentioned last year.

Will be interesting to see how well it works.

Some recent Signal vs Noise posts on communication

Some recent Signal vs Noise posts on communication:

1) and 2)

Both of these concern Chip and Dan Heath's book Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die.

1) is about the usefulness of counterintuitive-seeming statements, for getting people's attention.

2) looks the book's notion of "the Curse of Knowledge." They quote an interview with the authors that mentions it:

And that brings us to the villain of our book: The Curse of Knowledge. Lots of research in economics and psychology shows that when we know something, it becomes hard for us to imagine not knowing it. As a result, we become lousy communicators. Think of a lawyer who can’t give you a straight, comprehensible answer to a legal question. His vast knowledge and experience renders him unable to fathom how little you know. So when he talks to you, he talks in abstractions that you can’t follow. And we’re all like the lawyer in our own domain of expertise.
The amazon description of that book says it's "an entertaining, practical guide to effective communication. Drawing extensively on psychosocial studies on memory, emotion and motivation, their study is couched in terms of "stickiness"—that is, the art of making ideas unforgettable."

3) '[On Writing] Describing a slice instead of the whole pie'
Here’s a look at how four great writers describe an amazing athlete. Note how all three spotlight a single play to explain a larger idea. By zeroing in on a specific moment, they are able to explain to readers what general, big picture platitudes can’t.
4) What being a speechwriter is like, and how it's similar to doing graphic design.

Favourite Recipes: Lamb Shanks with Dates and Pumpkin

Lamb Shanks with Dates and Pumpkin, served with Mashed Potatoes

It's a good one for entertaining.

Adapted from a recipe in Good Taste magaine, June 2002.

Serves 8, Prep 25 mins, Cooking: 1 hr 40 mins
(This is how long the shanks take to cook, but the mashed potato can be made while the shanks are simmering, so they don't have to end up adding mcuh to the time.
Note also that you need quite a large dish to fit 8 shanks - I often halve the quantities of the ingredients).

  • For the lamb shanks
    • lamb shanks, 8, French trimmed
    • plain flour, to coat
    • jap pumpkin, 600g, peeled, deseeded
    • veg oil, 2 tbsp
    • sauce flavourings
      • brown onion, 1, finely chopped
      • stock
        • boiling water, 750 ml (3 cups)
        • chicken stock cubes, 2 large, crumbled
      • dry red wine, 250ml (1 cup)
        Wine suggestion: Lamb shanks need a full-bodied South Australian red.
      • whole peeled tomatoes, 400g, crushed
      • whole pitted dried dates, 150g (1 cup), halved
      • cinnamon stick, 1, 7cm
    • salt and ground black pepper
    • fresh continental parsley, 2 tbsp, chopped
    • mashed potato, to serve

  • For the mashed-potatoes
    • evenly-sized medium unpeeled potatoes, 700g
      best potatoes to mash: kind edwards, pink eye, pontiac and sebago (brushed).
      Use evenly sized potatoes so they all cook in the same amount of time, resulting in a smoother mash.
    • salt, ½ tsp
    • butter, 100g, at room temperature, chopped
    • milk, 100ml
    • salt and ground black pepper

  • Cooking lamb shanks
    • Preparation: cutting pumpkin and preparing stock
      • Cut pumpkin lengthways into four 2cm-thick wedges. Cut each wedge in half crossways.
      • Combine the boiling water and crumbled stock cubes in a heatproof jug. Stir to combine and set aside until required.
    • Brown the lamb shanks
      • Place the flour onto a large plate and coat the lamb shanks all over with the flour. Shake off any excess.
      • Heat the oil in a large heatproof casserole dish over medium-high heat.
      • Add the lamb and cook, turning occasionally, for 2-3 minutes or until well browned. Remove from pan and set aside.
    • Frying the onions
      • Add onion to pan and cook, stirring, for 2 mins or until onion is soft.
    • Slow-cooking the dish
      • Return lamb shanks to pan with reserved chicken stock, red wine, tomatoes, dates and cinnamon stick, and bring to the boil.
      • Reduce heat to medium-low and simmer, covereed, turning lamb shanks occasionally, for 45 mins.
        while this is cooking, you can make the mashed potato - see recipe below
      • Add the pumpkin and simmer, uncovered, for 35 mins or until the pumpkin is tender and sauce thickens slightly.
    • Serving
      • Divide the mashed potato among serving plates. Top with lamp shanks mixture and sprinkle with parsley.

  • For cooking mashed potato
    • Wash the potatoes
      • to remove any excess dirt
      • and being careful not to break the skin
    • Cook the potatoes
      • Place the whole potatoes in a large saucepan
        (Cooking the potatoes in their skin, and not piecing them too often during cooking, stops them absorbing too much water, which can result in broken up and flavourless potatoes, and a watery mash.)
      • Cover them with cold water
      • Add the salt
      • Cover and bring to the boil over high heat.
      • Remove the lid and reduce heat to medium-high.
      • Boil, uncovered, for 30 mins or until the potatoes are soft when tested with a skewer.
    • Dry and peel potatoes
      • Transfer the potatoes to a colander with a slotted spoon.
      • Set them aside for 5 mins to cool sightly.
      • Drain the water from the pan.
      • Once the poatoes are cool enough to handle, use a small sharp knife to peel and discard the skins.
      • Return the potatoes to the dry saucepan.
      • Shake the saucepn over low heat for 1-2 mins to remove any remaining moisture from the potatoes.
    • Mash potatoes
      • Using a potato masher
        (avoid using a food processor to mash them as they will end up being gluggy).

    • Add seasinings and falvourings.
      • Add the butter and mix with a wooden spoon until smooth.
      • Meanwhile, heat the milk in a small saucepan over medium-low heat, stirring, for 4 mins or until milk is hot (being careful not to boil).
      • Gradually add the hot milk to the potatoes and continue to mash until smooth.
      • Taste and season with salt and pepper.
        Serve immediately.

Mashed potato variations

Garlic-infused mashed potato
Peel and thinly slice 4 garlic cloves and add with teh milk in step 5 before heating. Strain the hot milk and discard the garlic before using.

Creamy herbed mash
Stir 2 tbs finely chopped fresh continental parsley and 1 tbs chopped fresh chives into the mashed potato in step 6 before seasoning.