Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Harping on the wrong things

All right, maybe not the wrong things, but they shouldn't be the only things.

Here, I'm referring to diversity. The first things that come to mind are probably ethnicity, and then maybe gender. Not that these aren't important metrics, but this article points out some others that probably don't get the attention they deserve:

Who's in the Corner Office?

The article points out things like educational and economic background as "diversity" factors, and how they don't vary with the more common ones. I can't see anything bad about this one - you can't tell what school a person went to by looking at them (maybe by talking to them, but that's for linguists...). I can't see anyway this should be a separate decision parameter from ability.

I suppose, if you take it far enough, you could call it "discrimination" to go on anything the person can't change - and this would include things like intelligence and talent. This is the "Harrison Bergeron" extreme, and it is going too far. It's reasonable to say you shouldn't select based on anything that isn't actually related to doing the job. The problem is deciding what's related to doing the job. If you're looking for a model, it's reasonable to choose based on a lot of physical appearance factors. But what if you're a what if you're hiring a waitress? If you can statistically show that attractive waitresses raise your profits, could you hire only attractive waitresses? Or should the restaurant-going public just get over how their servers look?

Orwellian - but in reverse

After all the griping about privacy concerns and Google having too much information about people, I'm glad to see someone looking at the other side of the coin:


I love the idea of "armchair science" enabled by vast, powerful web applications. Privacy is only a problem if some have it and some don't. If I get to watch everything the government does, I'm less bothered that it's watching what I do. Or even better, if most of the people I know are watching what it does. We can all be Sangamon Taylor (see Zodiac by Neal Stephenson).

Monday, November 28, 2005

Not quite homesickness...

... but I get this sad longing feeling when I see pictures like this:

Piaw's Blog: My favorite view of Mountain View.

If I'd lived there long enough, or had some connection enough, to call Silicon Valley home, I would just call this feeling homesickness. I guess it gets back to the issue of what home means. I hope I get to like Seattle this much... although I'm skeptical to the point of apprehension and even, sometimes, dread.

Funny, I just went back and read that journal again... and I was homesick for Hawaii, noting that I didn't have the same sort of feelings about [the Bay Area then]. Now I sort of only go back to Hawaii for the beach and the hiking and such. Part II of that journal defined home as a reference point, not necessarily and ideal. I think I've changed my mind since: it's the place I feel most a part of, the place I fit in best - and not 'fit in' in the sense of making myself conform; quite the opposite: the place where I can be myself most completely and be comfortable and happy and integrated that way. It makes more and more sense why the greeters (and other participants) at Burning Man say "welcome home," even if you've never been there before.

Sunday, November 27, 2005


Today, Shauna and I settled on the meaning of the word "cromulent." If you aren't familiar with this word, watch more of (the good seasons of) The Simpsons. It comes up in this dialogue:

Edna: Embiggens? I never heard that word before I moved to Springfield.

Ms.Hoover: I don't know why. It's a perfectly cromulent word.

I have found this definition online for it in several places:


[nonsense word] used in an ironical sense to mean legitimate, and therefore, in reality, spurious and not at all legitimate (assumes common knowledge of the Simpsons reference)

However, I don't like this definition. It doesn't properly fit the context. Shauna and I determined a much more fitting and useful definition: when applied to a word, it means that the word may not appear in the dictionary, but the meaning is perfectly clear from the construction. "Embiggens" is not in any (respectable) dictionary, yet it's clear what it means, especially in context. The irony here is that cromulent is not a cromulent word. (Does this sound like any other roots you know? "Virulent", maybe, at best? Or make you think of Oliver Cromwell?)

Besides being fitting (it makes sense in the context it was used) and useful (plenty of words fall under this definition, and I think it should be more acceptable to make up words so long as it's clear what they mean), this definition appeals to me because it's meta. It's a word about the definition and nature of other words. I should tell Stuart. (For anybody not at UA... Stuart gave a great talks about Meta.)

Saturday, November 26, 2005

Interfaces, Part III

Why is it so hard to design good interfaces? And what is it that makes the difference?

With no training in HCI, I speculate that it has to do with how closely the interface correlates with the world we're used to interacting with. I have no idea if this is true, but it seems reasonable, and so it's going to be my premise for the moment.

(An aside: if this is the case, there are two ways to handle it: change interfaces to be more like how we think, or change how we think to be more like some kind of interface. The latter is hard to justify, since, if nothing else, how do we pick what we bend our minds to? Not that some more education of the general populace would be bad, but this seems like a homogenizing effect, which I'd call unabashedly bad.)

So, assuming this is the case, why should it be hard to make something which is like the real world? Partially, I think, because it is a matter of consensus. It's not just my view of the world, it's figuring out what the consensus view is. But not just the consensus, because there mostly isn't one. It's like factoring out the common elements that most people have. It's a level of abstraction of figuring out what interacting with the world means without actually interacting with the world. And it's worse, because you have to figure out the common elements in this level of abstraction for a mass population.

Mass populations can be very hard to predict. On some levels, they're just statistical, and this works pretty well. On others, they're the hardest thing to predict, since really, you have to predict each element, and each element is extremely complicated in itself. Since we still suck at user interface, I'm going to guess that this isn't one of the things you can just do statistically (or if it is, we haven't found the right parameters). Thus, interface turns into a ridiculously complicated probem if you want to do it right.

(Actually, really doing it right would probably mean an adaptive interface that would reconfigure on the fly to suit each user indivitually.... but that is another matter entirely.)

I got to thinking about all this when an aunt sent me this article:


It's not directly related, but data presentation is just the problem of interface. What's your interface to data? Is it really that different an issue whether you're looking at email or correlated statistics or a bus schedule? You're still trying to put it in some framework that somehow "fits" into a structure of the brain to trigger the right understanding.

One line I must point out that I really like: "Same picture, but many stories" (Tufte, from the article). This brings out another aspect of interface to consider: conveying multiple meanings at once. This might be a good thing or a bad thing depending on what you're going for. I think more kinds of data might lend themselves to this than is immediately apparent. Who would have thought a bus schedule would lend itself well to multiple interpretations or evocations? (On the other hand, if you're just trying to find the next time at your stop, maybe you don't want to get distracted looking for the aerial shot of your house.) What other kind of data is really boring, stuff you'd think should just be presented unambiguously? How about finanicial data? Let's take this one and run with it for a moment. What if you take some nice boring accounting stats, and present them in a way that brings out some obscure trends (or at least, where you can see different trends by looking at it in different ways)? Further, do it in a way that it activates different parts of the brain and gets people thinking creatively. Maybe this could get someone going on the obscure trends (since they're feeling creative) and come up with something useful that they wouldn't have otherwise?

Another point I take away from that article is that this is one place science meets art (not that it shouldn't actually in a lot of places... but that's another matter too). At its best, the presentation of data should inspire new connections, tell new stories, and evoke new thoughts and feelings. And here we are, as often as not, using it to bend the truth.

But why should you listen to me? I'm just some weirdo sitting at a keyboard with white goo on her face... who, on top of this, managed to slam a door on her finger yesterday. Stupid finger got what was coming to it for not getting out of the way.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Hobbies With A Lot Of Parameters

I've realized that getting into any hobby seriously is, well, a serious commitment. Not only is the specialized equipment expensive, there's far more to know than might appear on the surface.

Take biking, for instance. I love biking, and my bike is probably my favorite material object right now. But I'm not into all the technical details as much as I'm realizing I could be. There's a lot about dynamics and torsion and stiffness and other physical bike parameters I don't really know anything about. There are plenty of tweaks of the length and shape of various parts. There are different kinds of clipless pedals. I read an article somewhere about steel having a more real "road feel." I haven't ridden a steel road bike. I'm not sure what this would mean. But, you know, I get a great flying sensation when I ride my bike, and that's what I care about, so I'm not immediately planning to get into all these details.

Cameras arguably have even more parameters. Not only are there all the technical settings on the camera itself, such as metering mode, autofocus zones, whitebalance, filtering, polarization, film speed, resolution, storage format, contrast, exposure, f-stop, focal length, depth of field, number of elements in lenses, chromatic/spherical aberration, vignetting, flash, and probably many others, there's actually "composing" the picture. Huge numbers of physical objects might be worth photographing. Color, direction, and intensity of light all make a big difference. The scale of the object affects lots of parameters and equipment you need on the camera. A city at night and a bug sitting on a drop of water might both need a tripod. If the subjects are moving you might need a different approach entirely. You might need to get up the courage to ask your subject if you can take their picture (I think I was the only one out of the four of us who met that criterion for this picture).

On top of all this, there is postprocessing, including ultimately doing something with an image, even if it's just keeping it in an electronic album (and I'm finally finding a need for a better system of indexing my images... experimenting with various pieces of software), or making prints (also experimenting with this). Postprocessing can include any number of fixes or tweaks or artistic effects. I made a photo look like it was taken from a dark room, rather than just an indoor-lit one (no, not just black - the view out the windows was still the same, and the stuff in the room just looked like the only light was from the windows). One example in the Gimp manual shows a picture of a bottle with some colored liquid in it, and the same bottle "emptied" only using Gimp.

My most recent hobby that I've realized has a lot of variables is music. Take just singing, which is all I do (for now). Pitch, tone, quality of voice, vibrato, where you support the sound from, pronunciation, phrasing, dynamics, volume... the range of music out there, just vocals alone, is amazing. I'm happy if I can just keep up with the weird alto parts.

Low-Tech Solutions

I once heard (from Alma, I believe) that 95% of security failures are for non-technical reasons, such as executives not wanting to type long passwords and just telling them to low-level techies, and despite this, security researchers devote all their time to the other 5%. Sometimes it's also a matter of not seeing the forest for the trees. Those safes whose locks won't open even if they're shot do no good if the side panels are thin enough to get through with a small hammer.

In the computer world, this is the equivalent of a case where some company had a super-secure bunch of software running on an enclosed server and thought there was no way anyone could break in and get the data on it, only to have a couple of hackers attach a simple magnetic field detector to the wires leading to it and read the unencrypted signal that way. Here's today's example of missing the simple solution:


Friday, November 18, 2005

Corporate Image

...is priceless. This, for instance, makes me never want to buy anything from Sony ever again:

Real Story of the Rogue Rootkit

And with all the lawsuits over print and silence appearing as arrogance, I wonder how long it will take Google to burn off its good image. I've seen the inside and I believe they really are that idealistic, but most of the public believes whatever the media says, even though the media usually present a baised, or at least warped, perspective.


It's nice to have that feeling of accomplishment, especially when it means getting something done that you've been putting off for too long. It is, though, slightly less nice to have that feeling at 7:30 in the morning because you're up... "early." (Yeah, I'm gonna take a nap and then go to class, where class in this case fortunately will consist of going to a coffee shop... that was good planning :-))

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Politics Test

I still consider myself a social liberal and financial conservative... the old-school conservatives (i.e., the ones that actually believed in a balanced budget) weren't so bad; it's these neo-conservatives that get me... worst of both worlds.

Kinky Librarian: 10 Reasons Why Gay Marriage is Wrong

Monday, November 07, 2005

Interfaces, Part II

I take this as support of my earlier post about interfaces:

1 Million Windows to Mac Converts So Far in 2005

Why? Because it's the interface that the iPod has going for it... the technology isn't much different or any better than, say Neuros (which I have and works out well for me). But I must admit there is something viscerally pleasing about iPods. Macs have always won on interfaces - and everybody else just copied.

The stupidities of commerce

I hate arguments like this:

Don't Let Fear Kill Muni Wi-Fi

So they're arguing they have a hard time competing... um, isn't competition what commerce is about? I don't see anything unfair about this; it just sounds like whining...

While i'm on the subject - I also hate when people complain "there are no jobs." Well, then make one. Start a business. Entrepreneurship is one of the things that makes this country great. Funding is out there in all sorts of places. It just requires a little original thinking, or maybe just some careful observation of what people want and need....

[Started 2005 Oct 13 9:15pm]


What is it that makes something "sexy"? Presumably, it would be a tie to something that is relevant to reproduction and the survival of the species, some evolutionary advantage. I'm sure you can think of features yourself which fall clearly into this category.

But let's look at some of the many and varied things we call "sexy". Cars, for instance. What do they have to do with reproduction? Well, maybe someone who's got a nice car will be a good provider, and a good provider will be better able to care for their offspring, increasing their chance of survival.

But, then we all take it in our own directions. We all have fetishes. We all have odd little things we find terribly attractive. I have a couple of friends who have a nose fetish (which I've picked up lately too...) - nice long, straight noses. Smell predators and food and all that from further away? Okay, maybe that's reasonable too. Or my typical statement of the kind of guy usually I go for - tall, pale, skinny guys (or, as I prefer to think of them, "slender and fair"). Well, that could be association - guys of that description tend to be geeks, and geeks tend to be paid well these days, and we're back to the "good provider" model. Another friend admits she likes short guys. Not that she consciously goes after them, but she says there's something about the way a short guy walks that she realizes, after she notes she likes a guy, that she feels a pull toward. I don't know if I can explain that one in any terms of evolutionary advantage. Some visible sign of making up for shorter stature, to have better odds in competitions with other males for females/food/turf/all that good stuff?

My point is that we start having to draw edges between more and more nodes, having longer and longer paths back to the original definition. It's a greater number of links in both function and language. And we tend to get these expansions of language (think of all the slang and the huge range of suggestive language related to all this) around things which are important or preoccupying. After all, the survival of the species is rather important.

Non-material Investment

This is an interesting point, one I heartily agree with:

A Consuming Health-Care Conundrum

Friday, November 04, 2005

Expensive habits

Yesterday, we had a speaker in my entrepreneurship class who admitted that he kept a corporate consulting job to fund his "startup habit." This led me to a realization: startup junkies are like artists, willing to be starving because they love the creative process.


Technology has made some staggering advances in the last 30 years. In some ways, though, it has just staggered - made a few awkward steps, and in some cases, just fallen over. One of the biggest failings has been user interface design.

I don't think is from lack of ability (although tech people do have a notoriously hard time designing usable stuff for non-tech people, and that is a hard problem to get around), but rather, underestimation of its importance. Companies lose countless worker-hours due to badly designed, confusing interfaces. We think they're okay because we get used to them, or just started using them before we remember, but to somebody who hasn't used a computer before, a mouse just isn't that intuitive. I mean, think of Scotty: "Hello computer" (aside: anybody else wonder why he could type so fast?).

A lot of technology seems to be in a messy intermediate phase. I liken it to cleaning: when you clean, it gets worse before it gets better. Technology is making things messy right now: throwing off our ecosystem, making people unhealthy, and, although helpful for some tasks, often as distracting and time-consuming in itself as the time it was supposed to save. I have faith that one day we'll get to a point where technology is just a seamless part of our lives, working right in at least as many cases as a human would (don't expect perfection... that's a problem too).

The point of all this is that we need technology interfaces that are more like interacting with the real world, the world we're used to from million years of evolution. We have nice, fast, capacious hardware now. Let's dedicate some of its powers toward making something that's natural to interact with. Something that doesn't depend on liking math or logic or linear thinking. Something that complements the range of human ability and talent and preference and intuition. It's not frivolous. It's what the rest of the world needs - and I don't just mean Third-World countries... I mean everyone, anywhere, who currently doesn't feel comfortable with technology. That's a lot of power and utility we're missing out on.

As a final note... I want telepathy. That's my new standard for when technology has really succeeded. My old standard was flying like Superman.

Thursday, November 03, 2005


Most of it is just annoying junk, but some of it is funny, often because it is so bad. Today, I got an email from "Perpetrates O. Lamppost ". The other day was one from "Redmond Q. Toothpaste" (both for cheap msft software, I might add). Shauna once got one with the subject line "Knock down trees with your massive cock!", and another, "Hot barnyard action!"

Gotta love the digital age. It's like Dave Barry's randomly generated humor... generate enough random stuff, and eventually you'll come up with something funny. And this doesn't even depend on making fun of Marcel Proust.