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 Amazon.com 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 Amazon.com.

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.