Saturday, September 10, 2011

Idea: hold-and-swipe touch-screen gesture

An idea for a type of touch-screen gesture for phones: the user places their left-thumb anywhere on the screen and keeps it in the same place, and at the same time they swipe across with their right-thumb.

You can think of the left-thumb as acting like a modifier, like the shift-key.  A left-handed person could keep their right thumb stationary and swipe their left thumb - it'd have the same effect.

Each different swipe direction (up, down, left or right) could be recognised as a distinct gesture with its own distinct meaning.

I don't know if anyone has used this type of gesture before, but the benefit of it is that it's quite easy to perform.  Which is one of the challenges with gestures: finding ones that are really quick and easy to do.

Wednesday, September 07, 2011

On distinctions made between 'data', 'information' and 'knowledge'

Someone recently asked me what I thought about the distinction between data, information and knowledge.  I emailed them a response, and I thought I might as well turn that response into a blog post.

I think that it's good to recognise that not all "information" is the same, and that there is a kind of spectrum between 'raw data' and 'deep knowledge'.

But I'm not that keen on all the arguments about how you distinguish between these three concepts.  I just don't think we have a clear enough picture of what *any* of them are to draw sharp lines between them.  I also doubt there are any *sharp* lines to be drawn along that spectrum.

But aren't these sorts of arguments what is required to get a clearer understanding of the concept?  I don't think so.  I think our current understanding of these concepts is a "pre-scientific" one, and that what these arguments are doing is trying to find some set of criteria within these concepts that sharply distinguishes each from the other.  

I think that task is doomed to failure.  Here's aanalogy: when philosophers had a "pre-scientific" understanding of matter, they could get into all sorts of arguments about what was the difference was between liquids, solids and gasses (this is a thought-experiment, I don't know the historical details well enough to know specifically what happened).  But they were never going to solve the problem just trying to find some criteria to sharply distinguish these concepts from each other.

We now know that what was required was to get an understanding that we'd now label with terms like 'chemistry' and 'physics' -- an understanding in terms of molecules, atoms, etc.  What was required was to go deeper than their phenomenal concepts of 'liquid', 'solid' and 'gas'.  To have an understanding of what each of those things actually are, rather than just how to distinguish between them.

So, in the case of data, information and knowledge we need to go beyond our phenomenal notions of them and get at their "underlying physics", so to speak.  And when we do so we may find that -- like with 'liquids', 'solids' and 'gasses' -- there is an underlying unity there.

Nassim Taleb on the lack of respect for those not doing steady and predictable work

Our society doesn't really understand work that doesn't deliver steady and predictable results.  People working away on this kind of work tend not to get much respect.  This is a real problem, because such work is essential to society.  In The Black Swan, Nassim Nicholas Taleb nicely describes what it's like for people having to deal with this lack of respect:

     Every morning you leave your cramped apartment in Manhattan's East Village to go to your laboratory at the Rockefeller University in the East Sixties. You return in the late evening, and people in your social network ask you if you had a good day, just to be polite. At the laboratory, people are more tactful. Of course you did not have a good day; you found nothing. You are not a watch repairman. Your finding nothing is very valuable, since it is part of the process of discovery—hey, you know where not to look. Other researchers, knowing your results, would avoid trying your special experiment, provided a journal is thoughtful enough to consider your "found nothing" as information and publish it. 
     Meanwhile your brother-in-law is a salesman for a Wall Street firm, and keeps getting large commissions—large and steady commissions. "He is doing very well," you hear, particularly from your father-in-law, with a small pensive nanosecond of silence after the utterance—which makes you realize that he just made a comparison. It was involuntary, but he made one. Holidays can be terrible. You run into your brother-in-law at family reunions and, invariably, detect unmistakable signs of frustration on the part of your wife, who, briefly, fears that she married a loser, before remembering the logic of your profession. But she has to fight her first im­pulse. Her sister will not stop talking about their renovations, their new wallpaper. Your wife will be a little more silent than usual on the drive home. This sulking will be made slightly worse because the car you are driving is rented, since you cannot afford to garage a car in Manhattan. What should you do? Move to Australia and thereby make family re­unions less frequent, or switch brothers-in-laws by marrying someone with a less "successful" brother? 
     Or should you dress like a hippie and become defiant? That may work for an artist, but not so easily for a scientist or a businessman. You are trapped. 
     You work on a project that does not deliver immediate or steady results; all the while, people around you work on projects that do. You are in trouble. Such is the lot of scientists, artists, and researchers lost in society rather than living in an insulated community or an artist colony.
(pg 86)

     Many people labor in life under the impression that they are doing something right, yet they may not show solid results for a long time. They need a capacity for continuously adjourned gratification to survive a steady diet of peer cruelty without becoming demoralized. They look like idiots to their cousins, they look like idiots to their peers, they need courage to continue. No confirmation comes to them, no validation, no fawning students, no Nobel, no Shnobel. "How was your year?" brings them a small but containable spasm of pain deep inside, since almost all of their years will seem wasted to someone looking at their life from the out­side. Then bang, the lumpy event comes that brings the grand vindication. Or it may never come. 
(pg 87)

This touches a nerve with me, as my research is definitely a long way from the steady and predictable, though I would say that I've been pretty fortunate in that I have had support and understanding from people.