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 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

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.