Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Getting to "yes"

I've talked about Getting to Yes before, and use parts of it in second semester software engineering as pointers for negotiations between software developers and clients.

One of the author's Ted talk is now online. Some of the comments are brutal (they obviously haven't read the book :)

Saturday, November 27, 2010

But what if the TSA scanning machines were *in* Denver?

A few more things today. A comment to a blog entry about the TSA scanner talks about exposure:
Just for fun, I'm expressing the Reported Dose from a typical body scan in an adult (2.6 microRem) in terms of Time Spent in Denver. The answer? Atmospheric annual exposure in Denver (Not including Radon!) = 1.8 mRem or about 1,800 microRem per year. Calculate: (1800 microRem/ year) x (1 year/365 days) x (1 day/24 hrs) = 0.2 microRem per Hour for just standing around in Denver. So the scanner gives you about half of a day in Denver- now you've got something to think about during your layover. ;)
The Frontal Cortex post "The cognitive cost of expertise" reminded me of expert-novice differences when it comes to working with images such as schematics and visual programming languages. The author says "Now for the bad news: Expertise might also come with a dark side, as all those learned patterns make it harder for us to integrate wholly new knowledge." Novices experience the opposite of this -- they can't see the patterns and are lost in details, or misidentify patterns. A great summary is Marian Petre's "Why looking isn't always seeing: readership skills and graphical programming" from the June 1995 issue of Communications of the ACM or the always popular "Visual Depiction of Decision Statements: What is Best for Programmers and Non-Programmers?" by Kiper, Auernheimer, and Ames published in Empirical Software Engineering.

Just two more things: Did you know that the unnecessary "camera sound" made when you take a picture is called a skeuomorph? The author of "Is realistic UI design realistic" says
There’s no complex mechanical mirror assembly swinging upward when the shutter opens. No matter, though. The cigarette box sized camera burps out a faux ka-click anyway. The mechanism producing this noise was quite necessary for its predecessor, the SLR/DSLR camera, but now functionally irrelevant in the newer point-and-shoots. This design cue (audible in this case) inherited from an ancestor is referred to as a skeuomorph, and they can be found everywhere in our daily lives — air intakes on the electric Chevy Volt, window shutters that don’t shut, copper cladding on zinc pennies, nonwinding watch winders. Even the brown cork-pattern on cigarette tips is a holdover from the days when cork was used as a filter.
I thought the camera-sound was part of the "Cell phone predator alert act" (see Wired's take). Did it become law?

And finaly, Danny Hillis, the Long Now Foundation clock guy, works at a great place, see this article - scroll down to see the illustrated "Nerdvana". Pretty cool.

Levers shifting by themselves, buttons being pushed, instrument readings changing.

Even stranger than relativy (see previous post) is ESP or psi or ... whatever you want to call it. I can't figure out if this article is serious or not, but it is being published in an APA journal, and the authors have something interesting to say about random numbers (more on that later).

"Feeling the Future: Experimental Evidence for Anomalous Retroactive Influences on Cognition and Affect", Daryl J. Bern, Cornell. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. DOI: 10.1037/a0021524. You can read a preview here and a critique. From the abstract of Bern's paper:
Precognition and premonition are themselves special cases of a more general phenomenon: the anomalous retroactive influence of some future event on an individual’s current responses, whether those responses are conscious or nonconscious, cognitive or affective. This article reports 9 experiments, involving more than 1,000 participants, that test for retroactive influence by “time- reversing” well-established psychological effects so that the individual’s responses are obtained before the putatively causal stimulus events occur.
This reminds me of the second pilot episode of the original Star Trek series, Where No Man Has Gone Before, where two crew with highest "ESPer ratings" get shiny eyes and havoc ensues. Classic dialog :)
KIRK: Extrasensory perception. Doctor Dehner, how are you on ESP?
DEHNER: In tests I've taken, my ESP rated rather high.
KIRK: I'm asking what you know about ESP.
DEHNER: It is a fact that some people can sense future happenings, read the backs of playing cards and so on, but the esper capacity is always quite limited.
You might as well watch it now, you know you want to.

Back to the Bern paper. The way I understand it, and there is a good chance that I am wrong, is that subjects were told something like "you'll be shown two blank boxes on the screen labeled 1 and 2. One of them hides and image and the other nothing. For each trial, tell us behind which number is the image." Simple enough. But the interesting part is that the number of the box hiding the image was not determined until after the subjet made their choice. And, the number was not always generated by a typical pseudo random number generator, they used a hardware device to generate random numbers:
... if a true hardware-based RNG is used to determine the left/right positions, the next number in the sequence is indeterminate until it is actually generated by the quantum physical process embedded in the RNG, thereby ruling out the clairvoyance alternative. This argues for using a true RNG to demonstrate precognition or retroactive influence.
But alas, the use of a true RNG opens the door to the psychokinesis interpretation: The participant might be influencing the placement of the upcoming target rather than perceiving it, a possibility supported by a body of empirical evidence testing psychokinesis with true RNGs [reference to D.I. Radin, Entangled minds: Extrasensory experiences in a quantum reality, 2006].
But, like I said, I don't really understand the paper. Back to watching Sally Kellerman and Gary Lockwood and their shiny eyes.

Do NBA players experience time differently than shorter people?

Sometimes things are true but just don't make sense. Physics for example: if you have two clocks and hold one slightly higher than the other -- about a third of a meter in the following experiment -- the clocks will run at different speeds. Strange but true. In "Channeling Einstein and Bending Time", scientists do just that. I think a corollary is that taking lots of trips zipping around in airplanes makes you younger (although you might feel older) -- I'll have to think about that more. What is an everyday example of this spacetime stuff? GPS. From the article:
Previously, this could only be seen on much larger scales, like clocks on GPS satellites running faster than clocks on earth. The NIST aluminum ion clock shows that time is moving measurably faster or slower based on even the slightest changes in gravity or velocity. ...
Sean Carroll, a theoretical physicist at the California Institute of Technology, says that this finding drives home that the laws of physics can apply at any size.
"To me, it means a lot that we can measure the fact that spacetime is curved here in my house," he says. "This abstract idea from Einstein ... it really happens. It's measureable. It's always a good thing to get data that tests these ideas."
The strange thing about GPS is that both general and special relativity apply, one making it appear that the GPS satellites' clocks run slower than ours on earth, and the other making the orbiting clocks run faster. RC Davison summarizes:
The changes in time due to these properties of relativity total to an increase of about 38,700 ns/day and will conspire to make your GPS receiver build up errors in location that could cause it to be off on the order of kilometers after several hours—up to 10 km (6 miles) per day! The system is designed to correct for these errors by setting the atomic clocks on board the satellites to run slower than their corresponding reference on Earth before launch, so that once in orbit, and the effects of relativity take hold, the satellite’s clocks speed up and very closely match the reference on Earth.

Monday, October 04, 2010


My favorite Stanford professor, Bob Sutton, gave a talk at the Friday HCI seminar about his new book Good Boss, Bad Boss. If you search my blog for Sutton you'll see how often I refer to him (probably more than to Malc and T-Fried combined :)

You can see the video here. During the Q&A, about 77 minutes into the video, he talks about one of my favorite psych papers that made its way into my research and software engineering in general: "Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One's Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments"

Sunday, October 03, 2010

Growing your own

Classic (2004) HBR article (via LeaderLab) about "The Risky Business of Hiring Stars". Great teaser:
Odds are, the superstars you eagerly and expensively recruit will shine much less brightly for you than for their previous employers. Research shows why -- and why you're usually better off growing stars than buying them.
Lots of good stuff to think about for anyone interested in how we develop as co-workers. Another quote, first something that sounds straight out of Fred Brooks' The Mythical Man-Month:
The arrival of a highflier often results in interpersonal conflicts and a breakdown of communication in the group. As a result, the groups's performance suffers for several years. Sometimes, the team (or what is left of it) returns to normal only after the star has left the company.
then, the money side:
The money that stars make isn't the only problem. Their coworkers often become demotivated because they feel they must look outside the organization if they want to grow or to occupy leadership positions. Their suspicions are fueled by the fact that senior executives provide more resources to a newly hired star than to a company stalwart even if both have performed equally well.

Speaking is not an act of extroversion

I've posted quite a bit about Gladwell (I call him "Malc"), and this week I'm having my graduate HCI class watch his TED video on spaghetti sauce and his 2004 PopTech talk about chairs (and Coke vs Pepsi).

In this brief interview (in which the interviewer has crazier hair than Malc), he talks about being a shy public speaker, and how we are spend more money to see performers live than buy their material (since it is downloadable "free"), which is flipped from the way it was when he grew up. It used to be that concerts were cheap, and you paid for media (vinyl audio recordings, books), now we spend hundreds of dollars for a concert ticket and little for the media.

Fresno State Myths to Live By

Last week I was walking to my car and overheard three frustrated students loudly discussing a professor who is late for class. The students recounted how you "only have to wait 15 minutes" for a full professor. Everyone knows that, right? I heard about in the late 1970s when my dad was teaching part time at Fresno State.

This rule -- The Obligatory Wait -- about how long Fresno State students are expected to wait (based on the academic rank of the instructor) is famous enough for Jan Harold Brunvand to document in one of his books or urban legends, The Baby Train.

You probably know the punchline: there is no such rule :)
One question that seems to puzzle all new college freshmen is "How long are students expected to wait for a tardy professor?" Fortunately, most of the more-experienced students are ready with an answer. Unfortunately, their answers vary wildly, and most of them are wrong.
Also interesting, "The Myth of the Lazy Professor" from the Chronicle.

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Had a CT scan and lost a band of hair? Here's a toupee.

Oh man, another radiation treatment system gone wrong. Back in the day of the Therac-25 one suggestion was to pry the offending key off the keyboard. Now if you lose a strip of hair after a CT scan maybe you'll be offered a wig.

A quote (and the pictures of patients are amazing) from "After Stroke Scans, Patients Face Serious Health Risks" from the NY Times:
... amid concerns that patients are getting more radiation than necessary, the medical community has embraced the idea of using only enough to obtain an image sufficient for diagnosis.

To do that, GE offers a feature on its CT scanner that can automatically adjust the dose according to a patient’s size and body part. It is, a GE manual says, “a technical innovation that significantly reduces radiation dose.”

At Cedars-Sinai and Glendale Adventist, technicians used the automatic feature — rather than a fixed, predetermined radiation level — for their brain perfusion scans.

But a surprise awaited them: when used with certain machine settings that govern image clarity, the automatic feature did not reduce the dose — it raised it.

Monday, September 06, 2010

Stuff from the cog psych world

"Forget What You Know About Good Study Habits" in the NY Times reviews research saying it is better to study in more than one location, and more than one related subject:
... instead of sticking to one study location, simply alternating the room where a person studies improves retention. So does studying distinct but related skills or concepts in one sitting, rather than focusing intensely on a single thing...
“The contrast between the enormous popularity of the learning-styles approach within education and the lack of credible evidence for its utility is, in our opinion, striking and disturbing,” the researchers concluded.
BTW, The Frontal Cortex blog moved to Wired. The entry on "The Identifiable Victim Bias" should be read by anyone in the nonprofit world soliciting donations.
We are much less interested in helping a victim – we only want to help the victim. (This bias is known as the identifiable victim effect, since it suggests that we react much more strongly when the victim can be specified.) Why do we this? Because human charity is ultimately rooted in our compassionate feelings, and not in some rational, utilitarian calculations. We are not Vulcans.

Changing the subject, if you live in California you can see if your physician's been busted lately at this Sacramento Bee database.

Sunday, September 05, 2010

Hackin', figurin' odds, and valuable finds

A couple of interesting articles about hacking critical systems:
  • "Experimental Security Analysis of a Modern Automobile" talks about accessing the networks in a modern car. Schneier summarizes, and the entire article is here
  • and the UCSB group goes after electronic voting machines: "An Experience in Testing the Security of Real-World Electronic Voting Systems". Both papers are in IEEE publications.
Before I forget, a couple of things about statistics. Is Deadliest Catch (crab fishing on the Bering Sea) really the deadliest catch? Nah.

And, what about things parents shouldn't worry about?

Speaking of probabilities, in the past I've talked about the "Odds of Dying From ... ". Make sure you click on the Odds of Dying graphic link on this page.

OK, a little more upbeat, what were the five most valuable things on PBS's Antiques Roadshow?

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Snakes and software requirements

No real connection between the two, but another rattlesnake story, scroll down to Roger's Remarks.

Voas and Laplante discuss "Effectively defining 'shall not' requirements". I've always liked Voas' idea of "software fault injection".

And, I always have my undergrad software engineering students read RFC 2119 about "shalls", it is usually their first experience to language used in that way.

How can school be starting and it's not September yet?

With school starting there are many posts about how to get back into the academic mode. I like Guy Kawasaki, and most of his "Back to School Special" pointers but have a few quibbles. Let's look at a few in detail:
How to talk to your boss.
Bringing questions to office hours is something I expect from undergrads, but I expect grad students to bring answers, which is what he says happens in the real world.
How to survive a meeting that's poorly run, and
How to run a meeting
Great advice, I particularly like

"First, assume that most of what you’ll hear is pure and petty, and it’s simply part of the game. This will prevent you from going crazy. Second, focus on what you want to accomplish in the meeting and ignore everything else. Once you get what you want, take yourself “out of your body,” sit back, and enjoy the show. Third, vow to yourself that someday when you’re the boss that your meetings won’t work like this."

How to negotiate
His five step process is essentially Getting to Yes, complete with BATNA.
How to use PowerPoint
ten slides in twenty minutes? I'm OK with twenty minutes, ten slides is a little slow. Go PechaKucha!
How to leave voicemail
Great advice, please please do this. Leave your number twice, once and the beginning, once at the end.

The Chronicle of Higher Ed has "How to Avoid Being a Jerk in the Classroom". Here's a good one:

"Do you say things like "I can't bear to read that crap" about student effort? Maybe another line of work would suit you better? "Don't talk shit about your students outside of the classroom. That attitude is harder to switch off than some teachers seem to think. And the rest of us don't want to hear it anyhow," via Mike Garcia."

Something common to these guidelines are to not reveal too much personal information. In "Ways That We Irritate Our Students", Delaney Kirk says

"Sharing too much personal information. I had a colleague years ago that had several dogs that were essentially her "children." She brought up the dogs in every class. The students started rolling their eyes whenever she mentioned them. Sharing some personal info is ok if it is relevant to the class. However, the students are not your friends and don't need to know the details of your everyday life."

Finally, you might want to listen to "Women are Over-Mentored (But Under-Sponsored)", which is really more about the world in general, not specifically academics.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Snakes and card tricks

The lakes and rivers are full, and that sometimes means homeless rattlesnakes. I haven't seen any snakes yet this year, so here's someone else's rattlesnake story (scroll down to Roger's Remarks). Someday I will regale you with my story of following a rattlesnake around our property for about an hour watching it hunt.

Other unrelated stuff to consider:
Executive compentation
The more they make the meaner they get. From Harvard Business Review.
It's in your genes (more here). Reminds me a bit of Martin Seligman's book What you can change and what you can't.
V.D. Hanson on
There is no history apart from war: talk at the Commonwealth Club.
A card trick from David Blaine.

Picture books

Take a book in the public domain and illustrate every page. Here's Moby Dick. I'd don't like every image, but I really like the idea. And pages 261 and 262.

It reminds me a bit of computer science patriarch Don Knuth's book 3:16. He translated the 16th verse of the third chapter of each Biblical book (or made other arrangements), and then had well known calligraphers illustrate. Knuth explains his motivation, and relationship with Hermann Zapf, in these short videos.

Speaking of illustrations, you might remember I previously posted about a talk by Zimbardo and using marshmallows to predict personality. A similar Zimbrado talk about the "secret powers of time" has been animated in the style of Dan Pink's motivation talk.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

I never was much of a peener.

Popular Mechanics has a list of 50 essential tools and how to use them. I've had a ball-peen hammer (number 39) since I was a kid, but I have to admit to not being much of a peener. Bugs me that some of the tools are pictured upside down, like the adjustable wrench, and hack saw.

I just got a new computer and was looking for some speakers. I like the looks of these ceramic speakers, but I think they would clash with the subwoofer.

In other unrelated news, the Cassini spacecraft did an incredible dip into the atmosphere of one of Saturn's moons, and lived to tell about it.

In HCI class I always talk about eye tracking studies, particularly the Poynter studies. Here's an interesting summary of work by the venerable Jakob Nielsen on using eye tracking to increase comprehension of web sites.

Finally, this is pretty good: Malcolm Gladwell talking about growing up in the midst of a conservative Mennonite town in Canada.

Monday, May 31, 2010

Light reading

Having a break from work is good for catching up on a lot of things, including the Harvard Business Review :)

Much as I dislike HBR's and EBSCOhost's linking policies for online classes, there's almost always something interesting. A recent blog entry is "Why controlling bosses have unproductive employees" describing a classic psych experiment:
... if your employees consider you a controlling person, even an unconscious thought of you can have a negative effect on their performance. If, for example, they were to happen to subliminally see, out of the corner of their eyes, your name flash for 60 milliseconds, you could expect them to start working less hard. Even if they didn't intend to slack off.
A featured story of the June issue is "The Productivity Paradox: How Sony Pictures Gets More Out of People by Demanding Less" (if you are a Fresno State person the fulltext link is here, for others it is here).
... we encouraged Sony to make two fundamental shifts in the way it manages employees. The first was to stop expecting people to operate like computers ... and to recognize that human beings perform best and are most productive when they alternate between periods of intense focus and intermittent renewal. The second was to move from trying to get more out of employees and instead to invest in systematically meeting their four core needs... These four core needs are physical health (achieved through nutrition, sleep, daytime renewal, and exercise), emotional well-being (which grows out of feeling appreciated and valued), mental clarity (the ability to focus intensely, prioritize, and think creatively), and spiritual significance (which comes from the feeling of serving a mission beyond generating a profit).
Bob Sutton also recently posted his "12 things good bosses believe" at the HBR The Conversation blog.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Win place, or show

Here's a goal: I want to be a finalist in the New Yorker cartoon caption contest. They didn't see the genius of my first entry, apparently, for contest 235 :)

While you are on their site, you might as well read Rebecca Mead's "Learning by degrees" about whether a college degree is "worth the money", or if you keep up with the search-for-the-historical-Jesus folks like Crossan, Adam Gopnik's "What did Jesus do?". First use of the word "dogsbody" I recall seeing. I'd rather be an amanuensis.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

I miss my bright red Aztek

Finally, someone who understands
That car is the despised Pontiac Aztek, an almost universally loathed vehicle that established the paradigm for the Terrain: the crossover SUV, a half-car, half-truck concoction that is one of the fastest-growing vehicle categories. GM needs to remember the Aztek, because it represents the kind of risk-taking design that the post-bankruptcy firm will need to go forward.
I never thought I'd see an Aztek compared to an Apple Newton :)
In terms of innovation, the Aztek shares DNA with some surprising relatives, like Apple’s early, failed PDA, Newton, or its first stab at a portable, proto-laptop Mac. Apple (AAPL) didn’t succeed with these products, but the company began to define new markets with them.
The Montreal police were styling in their Aztek too :)

Learning, or not, from the past

In the reinventing-the-wrong-wheel category, Nielsen and Norman lament user interface mistakes in the latest incarnation of gestures for devices such as the iPad. Norman also says that gestures are not uniformly interpreted across cultures, and that generally, we've been down this road before:
The problems faced by gesture developers remind me of similar issues that arose during the early days of development of the GUI. Thus, in the development of the early Xerox PARC systems, when one moved the icon of a file across the screen to a file folder, it was natural that the icon would disappear into the folder. Similarly, when a file was moved to the trash, it was natural that the icon--and the file--disappeared from sight. But this movement principle got into trouble with the printer: Moving the file to the image of the printer caused the item to be printed, but it also caused it to disappear from the screen. Much rethinking took place then. Much rethinking is required now.
While you are poking around Nielsen and Norman's websites, or waiting in a checkout line, you can learn about the psychology of waiting in lines, without all the mathematics we used in graduate queueing theory class.
Speaking of math, crunching the PGA data shows that Tiger Woods (pre-Thanksgiving incident) is 2.65 strokes better than the professional average, mathematically-speaking:
"In 2008, for example, Tiger computes to being 2.65 strokes per round better than the average," says the professor of mathematics at Roanoke College in Salem, VA. "He rates 1.4 stokes per round better than any other golfer on tour. Over four rounds of a tournament, this predicts that Tiger wins by at least 5.6 strokes."
Finally, a couple of things from the world of social psychology. I usually point out a couple of these in my HCI class. First, some "practical business lessons" (you'll remember primacy and recency from Intro Psych class, and social loafing from any team you've been on), and "psychological influence" (check out "people want shortcuts" and "emotional narratives are remembered best").

Oh, and Anya Kamenetz, author of DIY U I talked about previously, was interviewed on C-SPAN, and you can watch it (and read the transcript).

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Beyond slides: Animated talks

Very interesting talk by Dan Pink about what motivates employees. Essentially for mechanical tasks, greater reward yields greater productivity. But for cognitive tasks, that's not the case. He talks about autonomy, mastery, and purpose. "Management is great if you want compliance, ... but self-direction is better", citing studies from MIT and CMU, among other places. Even if you don't buy what he is saying, check out the way it is animated, instead of using static slides. Really well executed. You can see the traditional video of the talk (as well as other animated talks) here.

The drawing-while-talking reminds me of Bill Verplank from the HCI and design world. You can see one of his talks as part of Bill Moggridge's book "Designing Interactions" I recommended when it came out in 2007. Great book, and if you are patient you can download essentially every chapter. In any case, Verplank is low key, patient, and persuasive.

An end of semester pan-pan

I like to ask my nephew, after we've done something mundane like eat lunch, "So what did we learn from this?", and I/we find a silly answer. Today I leaned that there is a something between everything's-OK and Mayday-Mayday-Mayday, and that's pan-pan.

Here's something fun: Eugenie Scott gave a science-and-skepticism talk you can watch on Fora.tv. If you skip to chapter 09 "Debunking dowsing", the Central Valley is mentioned (along with Kentucky), and in chapter 10 she talks about "Why direct observation is overrated", and uses a cute video demonstration. The same site also has an example of the infamous ball-passing awareness demo (I first blogged about a similar video and "inattention blindness" over four years ago).

Finally, for all you fans out there, "Rush: Beyond the Lighted Stage", is coming to the Tower Theater in June.

Saturday, May 08, 2010

Inspring, Scary, and Typical: three unrelated things

One inspiring thing, one typical thing, and one scary thing.

First, two English profs from Rutgers, Richard Miller and Paul Hammond, gave a talk at the Apple Higher Ed conference. Their English department has its own IT department of five techs! The two profs are better writers than speakers, although the video is worth watching. The good stuff comes during the Q&A beginning at about 32:28 minutes into the video. This is some of the most inspirational stuff I've heard in a long time about using technology to promote deep thinking. A couple of quotes from the report (you'll need to scroll down about 40 percent to page 26 get to their presentation), first about technologists and their relationship to faculty:
Question: What advice would you give us technologists who have to work with the same type of faculty you do? They are not looking at technology as being integrated.
Richard: I appreciate this even more now that I am the acting head of IT. I had to fire the head of IT because he was a Web 1.0 person and he refused to move into the Web 2.0 world. In the old model, IT has the expertise and users are idiots because they don’t have it. We have to move beyond this to a collaborative way of working together. The five IT people I work with now were used to saying two things: “No,” and “That’s a security risk.” “And if the second one doesn’t apply, see the first one.”
What we have to decide is what is the priority here—to keep things bulletproof or to advance the mission of the university?
and about deferred maintenance of the physical plant and "slow reading"
Question: Technology begins with one specific goal in mind, for example, Guttenberg and the Bible. Then it’s driven to scale by something else—pornography. We heard from a panel earlier about students not going to class and so on. And that removes from the university something that has always been so important and that is the social aspect of it.
Richard: Rutgers is a place that is behind in basic maintenance. Through our spaces, we tell students that what you do here is not important. So for us it’s absolutely that we create a pedagogy that is critical to the experience we provide and that’s thinking. Because it’s not available anywhere else. Reacting—expressing a loud opinion—those things are available everywhere. Thinking isn’t. Thinking is hard, it’s frustrating, it can be humiliating, it can be boring. We want to provide that experience to our students in an environment that is not available anywhere else in the world.
We also teach courses in slow reading. I teach a course that meets once week and I don’t allow technology. I assign ten pages per week and there are two rules. 1) You cannot read ahead. 2) The work that comes at the end is to do what the book does, which is to think over a long period of time.
This is how it goes. I ask them, “What did you think of the reading?” They say, “Boring.” I ask, “Well, what research did you do after reading?” They say, “It was only ten pages.” I say, “Who is...” and then I name a person relevant to the reading. And they say, “I don’t know.” And I say, “You had only ten pages to read and you have the best research tool in history and you did nothing?”
It’s the most painful mental experience in their lives. But if we don’t teach people how to think, it’s a lost opportunity not only for education but for humanity.

Second, the scary thing is an American Airlines pilot on the 6 May LAX-JFK flight declared an emergency because he didn't want to land on the runway ATC OK'ed. I've never heard anything from ATC like the mp3 recording, but you don't need to listen to that to get a feel for it, the forum discussion is scary enough. One post says they landed with less than 7000 pounds of fuel, yikes.

Third, Don Norman (author of the Design of Everyday Things, the second week's reading in my graduate HCI class) being typically Don Norman ("I never know what I’m going to do until I’m finished -- but once I’m finished I’m not interested anymore") is interviewed about design and engineers. I've talked before about similar multidisciplinary programs such as Stanford's d.school.

Friday, May 07, 2010


Lynda sent me a link to today's Chronicle article "The gospel of well-educated guessing". A couple of things reminded me of what I talk about in software engineering classes: Zipf's Law, and Jon Bentley's classic "The back of the envelope" from Programming Pearls. Great stuff.

Zipf's law comes up in so many contexts, from estimating the length of software to the odds of seeing a state's license plate while on family road trips to the size of metropolitan areas.

Back to back of the envelope estimation, when I used to teach CSci 1 Critical Thinking and Computer Science I had the students read Douglas Hofstadter's "On number numbness". I've talked about that chapter and innumeracy before.

The CSci 1 students liked this excerpt:
I once taught a beginning physics class on the thirteenth floor of Hunter College in New York City. From the window we had a magnificent view of the skyscrapers of midtown Manhattan. In one of the opening sessions, I wanted to teach my students about estimates and significant figures, so I asked them to esimate the height of the Empire State Building. In a class of ten students, not one came within a factor of two of the correct answer (1,472 feet with the television antenna, 1,250 without). Most of the estimates were between 300 and 500 feet. One person thought 50 feet was right - a truly amazing underestimate; another thought it was a mile. It turned out that this person had actually calculated the answer, guessing 50 feet per story and 100 stories or so, thus getting about 5,000 feet. Where one person thought that each story was 50 feet high, another thought the whole 102-story building was that high. This startling episode had a deep effect on me.
Three unrelated bonus topics: stand up meetings became popular in Silicon Valley and are regularly rediscovered, and how to use your phone to capture and transcribe meeting notes from a whiteboard, and Gartner's 2009 hype cycle for HCI.

Saturday, May 01, 2010

DIY Seth

Seth Godin has an interesting take on higher ed, and references the DIY U book I mentioned in a presentation at our campus's main IT meeting a couple of weeks ago. See "The coming melt-down in higher education (as seen by a marketer)".

The always interesting Michael Feldstein also has a take on DIY U.

Godin mentions Deep Springs College, across the Sierra from us. I've never felt the need for a formal mentor, but the guy I learned the most about higher education was a Deep Springs alumnus and president, Brandt Kehoe (quoted in this article from 1985).

Speaking of the Sierra, having gotten giardia on a backbacking trip to Blaney Meadows, I found "Livestock waste is polluting the Sierra's water" interesting.

500 frames per second

Lately I've been able to regale people with tales of my past. The stories aren't all boring since some are about interesting people :)

For example, in graduate school we worked on security-related software. My advisor's group is continuing in that field and recently took over a famous, malicious botnet!

I also learned something new this week. I didn't know that the Saturn V main engines (which burned kerosene (RP-1) and LOX) were actually started with hypergolics. Reminds me of using starting fluid (ether) on an old lawn mower. On second though, probably not a good comparison :)

Apollo 11 Saturn V Launch (HD) Camera E-8 from Mark Gray on Vimeo.
The video also shows the amazing amount of water dumped on the launcher to suppress sound.

There's also video around from those days showing staging. I think this one is in real-time, and this one slowed.

Next thing you know, we'll be talking about ullage motors.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Where's Lafayette Radio when you need it?

Wired had another great article, this time about the extreme makeover of Radio Shack. In junior high I built a bunch of these P-Box kits (here's a nice picture).

Speaking of kits, I still have a screwdriver that says Lafayette Radio. I built this KT-135 regenerative shortwave receiver (tubes!) -- painful to the ears :)

I never made any Heathkit stuff, but several things from SWTPC. Cool stuff, but was cutting edge (a lot of ICs) and components got pretty hot. For high school electronics class I built this 198/A preamp (the pushbuttons never worked right, even after I replaced them, and the sometimes you got a weird high pitched oscillation when you were going from one button to the next) and the 540 power amp. Each amp (it was stereo :) had an IC with a weird looking heat sink that made it look like something from The War of the Worlds. The top cases of both the preamp and amp were vinyl covered wood. I was always afraid of getting shocked :)

PAiA was more famous for synthesizer and guitar effects boxes, but I built at least one of their things, I think a wireless mic. I'm pretty sure that both PAiA and SWTPC had Theremin kits.

Another blast from the past: Robert Tinney cover art from Byte. I received the Koenigsberg one as a college graduation present. Other famous covers are for artificial intelligence and for Smalltalk.

Sunday, April 04, 2010

Anthrax, Ham radio, and liquor

Occasionally a phrase will amuse me, I'm not sure why. I try to use those phrases in titles of blog posts, but I couldn't figure out what I could say under this post's rubric, other than link to an article explaining it. The phrase is the refrain from a song by Clutch (whom I know next to nothing about):
“Anthrax, ham radio, and liquor” from “50,000 Unstoppable Watts”
“We rehearse very close to the Fort Detrick Army base,” Fallon explains. “That’s where the Army does some real neat-o stuff with chemical weapons. Around the neighborhood are a lot of ham antennas, probably relics from civil defense. On my way home one evening, I stopped by the beer store there in Frederick because the ones around my neighborhood are terrible. Thus: Anthrax, ham radio, and liquor.”
Here are some of my favorite blog post titles:
  • "Man does not whiter at the thought of dancing. But it is generally to be avoided." April 2009
  • "I've always wanted to be someone, but I should have been more specific." May 2008
  • "In most men there lurks a lesser man, and his presence smells in the sun", April 2008 and ""There is a degree of mercy beyond which any man is rude to inquire", also April 2008
  • "We have merely nodded to fear. Now we must shake its filthy hand." March 2008.

Friday, March 19, 2010

You know who you are

A few years ago I talked about traffic-circle haters. You know who you are.

Still doubting? Spend five minutes of your life with this Ted talk. Not only are traffic circles safer, they save time and money.

Three bits of inspiration this week

Three good talks found me. The first is "The Art, Technology and Science of Reading" from this week's MIX user experience conference. The talk is a really nice research-driven presentation about reading from a display, fonts, and how our visual system works. It's DS07 on the list of conference videos. The presenter's blog is here.

Not as research driven, is a talk by the always interesting Seth Godin about "Why marketing is too important to be left to the marketing department".

At school we've been talking about classroom or lecture capture systems. We currently use NCast, as did CENIC for their conference this week. Most of the presentations were captured and are available for viewing. I highly recommend Ed Lazowska's keynote about e-science it was 11am Tuesday. He's given similar talks before, but he's definitely worth watching if you haven't.

Friday, March 12, 2010


Where else would but Freeman SD would you see a Schmeckfest shirt. Yes, the Wichita airport. And that wasn't the only "interesting" thing in ICT last weekend, Brett Wagner, actor, and spokesperson for Bad Boy Mowers waited to take the flight to DFW.

Coming in to ICT was actually interesting. Preflight the flight deck door was open and I could watch the pilots go through the checklists using CRM techniques such as pointing and repeating settings aloud. More exciting though was the missed landing coming in to ICT.

Speaking of airports, it would be great to get the FAT-HNL nonstops back. It's been a long time.

Three more things: an article about JPL using formal methods on Mars mission code, an essay on breaking the rules from Harvard Business Review, and one of my HCI students' favorites, a treemap (this time of the top 100 Internet sites).

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Highed ed

Today's post is all related to higher education.

First, one of my favorite profs Bob Sutton has a take on the infamous tenure vote discussed in Inside Higher Ed. I've participated in some lively tenure votes, but nothing where branding was involved:
When Reader learned that Hodson planned to recommend against awarding tenure, he made the bizarre decision to expose scars on his arms where he had used a branding tool to burn the words “comfort” and “truth” into his flesh.
Shudder. There's also something that must give people with nonacademic jobs a good chuckle:
To exact his revenge, faculty were told, Reader imagined one day being able to schedule them for teaching on Friday afternoons, the report states. Reader has denied saying he was "out to get" anyone, and he's disputed the claim that he hoped to someday create undesirable schedules for those who voted against him.
Class on a Friday afternoon? Preposterous!! :)

A lighter topic: besides "Writing across the curriculum" a few colleges have tried mathematics across the curriculum. Dartmouth's website says
In the same way that all students should be able to write an essay in any subject they have studied, all students should be able to look at a problem or situation or experiment and ask suitable mathematical questions. They should then have some idea of how to seek the answers to their questions. This is inevitably tied to the reduction of a lot of anxiety about the use of mathematics among the students and, we cautiously point out, the faculty.
Mount Holyoke's classes sound great.

Two things on NPR today reminded me of previous posts: "Humans were born to run barefoot" (remember I already talked about the Vibram FiveFingers shoes), and "California budget woes hurt university system".

Finally, y'all should be listening to Grammar Girl.

Saturday, January 09, 2010

Brain strangeness, electric cars

As usual, good stuff in IEEE Spectrum: how our current grid is not build to charge many electronic vehicles overnight, and a piece on "why the Chevy Volt will fizzle" (as part of the January issue's Winners & Losers). About the grid:
EVs need lots of power, especially when charged quickly. Utilities bet that most buyers will want a 240-volt charger that can "fill the tank" of a modest-size EV in 2 to 3 hours, four times as fast as a standard 120-V charger can. Such "AC Level 2" chargers, as defined by the Society of Automotive Engineers' emerging J1772 standard, draw up to 6.6 kilowatts. Turning one on is like adding up to three homes to a neighborhood, and that's with the air conditioning, lights, and laundry running.
Interesting college factoid: Of KIplinger's top ten best values among California public universities, only one has more male students than female students.

Also, the Sacramento Bee published a stunner: an examination of the top 120 college football programs showed that athletes were more likely than general applicants to receive special admission.

I've posted before about perception of time. The NYT's has a nice review "Where did the time go? Do not ask the brain" (info about Bob Levine's Geography of Time book here). You might also remember this previous post about the perception of time during crisis.

Speaking of brain-strangeness, we also have seating preferences in theaters based on dominant brain hemisphere. It doesn't have anything to do with brains, but you should probably also read about "The unfortunate sex life of the banana". You'll find out what bananas and navel oranges have in common.

Two final things: more from Doug Engelbart and the invention of the mouse. I talked about other Engelbart stuff back in 2005. Finally, something I didn't know existed until this week -- The Mid-Atlantic accent. That explains why people in old movies sound strange :)

Thursday, January 07, 2010

My mistake

I admit it, I was wrong, in the previous post I said "This guy ..." has a vegetarian crock pot blog. I was chromosomally wrong.

And now I really want to try her crock pot tamale recipe. We recently lamented the lack of holiday tamales this year, and this looks like a good solution. Although I might use fake pork.

Friday, January 01, 2010

Starting 2010

This is additional 2009 wrap-up, but I'm too late for that. Here's more:
Always good to see what Bruce Schneier is thinking about "TSA Absurdity and the Need for Resilience". This time, in The Atlantic.
Obsolete learning technologies
Including a link to 21 technologies that became obsolete in the 2000s.
The serendipity of Google Streetview
Lots of people are finding interesting things on streetview, so I looked around Fresno and found these folks downtime. OK, not very interesting.
Cool cities
There more to it than attracting knowledge workers, see "Attracting "Knowledge" Workers is a Bad Strategy".
A provocative piece on "Unpacking the Central Valley “dust bowl” lies". You can also watch the recent 60 minutes segment.
Slow cookin'
This guy "started an experimental crock pot based vegetarian lifestyle in September 2009" and blogs about it daily, well almost.