Friday, November 28, 2008

Jobs for a Stressed Economy: Smashing Stuff, and Psychics

What do you do when you're stressed? You can pay to throw things, at Sarah's SmashShack in San Diego. Sarah's site says you can come alone or in groups, and throw crockery and other nice breakables in her special smashing rooms. Along with whatever soundtrack you prefer.
Celebrate that break up...good riddance! Celebrate dumping that job you hated anyway! Celebrate that promotion you darn well deserved! You can write on the things you break -- we've got lots of markers for you to use. ... We don't use any "weapons" hammers, sledgehammers, baseball bats, golf clubs, flame throwers (come on!), bb guns, etc. It's all YOU.
According to one article, business is really great right now, since people are understandably super stressed by the economy.

The "menu" is kind of - funny while still a little disturbing? smash shack menu excerpt

Women seem to have written the bulk of the testimonials. I find this rather interesting.

"The best cathartic release around (besides bashing a pole w/a bat). Peaceful angry destruction is very centering. :)" ...Vanessa

"I was a little trepidatious at first, but I loved it! I especially loved writing things on the plates and smashing the bad things. Terrific stress-relief for this stress-filled stay-at-home mom." ...Rachel R

Sarah is clearly a business genius. In another booming business, psychics are doing very well, and more and more men in business are using them, according to this NYT article: "Love, Jobs, and 401k's."

“Your mortgage agents, your realtors, your bankers, you can’t go to these people anymore,” said Tori Hartman, a psychic in Los Angeles. “...People are sensing that the traditional avenues have not worked, that all of a sudden this so-called security that they’ve built up isn’t there anymore. They come to a psychic for a different perspective.” ... Their clients, who include a growing number of men, are often professional advice-givers themselves, in fields like real estate and investments, and they typically hand over anywhere from $75 to $1,000 an hour for this form of insight.

“My Web traffic is up and up and up,” said Aurora Tower, a New Yorker who constructs spidery star charts for her growing clientele. “People will entertain the irrational when what they consider rational collapses.”

The fellow who runs, a very cool site offering person-to-person consulting on any number of subjects, tracks the rise in his psychic experts' business against the economy. offers technology and business consultants, home repair consultants, almost anything, and yet...

Live Person earned revenues of $30 million this year, about 70 percent derived from spiritual readers, Mr. LoCasio said. "In this day and age, a spiritual guide is an everyday therapist — that’s what the business has become," he said.

That's what good business sense is all about - staying tuned into what people will still pay for when times are tough. Or, in the case of smashing crockery, offer them things they didn't even know they wanted and could pay for!


Sunday, July 27, 2008

Some Fun Entries in the Create the Future Design Contest

Now that the Create the Future Design Contest is open and collecting entries, it's time to point out some of the reasons I love this contest. Before I do, I should say that although I help with the site design and administration, I have nothing whatever to do with judging, which is done by a panel of engineering and research experts recruited by NASA Tech Briefs. And my opinions won't mean anything to them!

One thing that makes this contest fun are the wacky ideas - the napkin sketches, the weird diagrams, the mad scientist schemes. Some of them just sound funny at first, but are actually quite earnest. Take, for example, the "Thumbtack Remover." Or the "Personal Transport Pod" (I especially like the solar panels). (Be sure to check out the scheme for the "Personal Safety Belt" by the same inventor, which slightly resembles a super hero's costume.) And then there's the eSpider, a recyclables pre-sorter with a hand that looks like a spider.

Some of the entries have terrific images, rendered with high-end tools like Rhino and SolidWorks. Here's a student entry using Rhino to illustrate a convertible boat. Another student entry uses Rhino to diagram a medical self-diagnosis unit, called Sintomatico. And there's a student design for a vertical bike rack, using SolidWorks, which makes any design look very professional. Here's a part of a SolidWorks entry for an electromagnetic rail motor:

Some have surprising descriptions - this one for a breast exam device features a quote from a famous columnist that I didn't expect, but supports the case! This one is for handling hair-oil storage, which makes me flash back on Clooney's hair treatments in "O Brother." In another odd hair-related device, you've got to check out the Bowman, which I find hilarious. He submitted pdfs, so be sure to open them up! Bowman entry on Some also have funny names, like the A.T.E.A.M, for the "ANTI-TERRORIST ECM-AUDIO MECHANISM."

A few words about the site and contest: While we are showing page view counts, there is no prize for page views this year. It was too much trouble to police last year. I will probably review and reset them any case, to keep them more or less believable. Please check out the entries with fewer page views right now, they are very deserving of eyeballs. There will be some form of public rating mechanism in October for another popular vote prize - development resources willing. Finally, if you like the home page, the flash banner of the Wright Brothers' plane with jet engines was done by an intern at SolidWorks, game design student from WPI Alex Schwartz. Awesome addition to the site.

If you have a blog and you post about the contest, I'll put your post link up on the site's press page.

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Sunday, January 27, 2008

Theo Jansen's Strandbeests

One of the excellent presentation's at SolidWorks World 2008 was the keynote by Theo Jansen, maker of strange tube sculpture creatures that walk on the sand, powered by wind. The man is brilliantly mad, and his obsession and philosophy are very interesting to see -- apparently for much of the geek world, given his press coverage in recent years (see Wikipedia links).

Worth the videos at TED 2007, and the explanation here on YouTube from ArtFutura for how they walk can be viewed in this Physics Engine demo of a model of one walking over obstacles.


Friday, December 07, 2007

Food for Brains

It's been a tough week - minor road accidents in snow, encounters with consultants that earn $2500 for a few hours of phone time [I don't earn this!] - so here's venty post on something that bugs me: People with bad memories. I don't mean bad in the sense of "I lost my keys again," more in the sense of "Weren't you going to schedule that meeting?" No, you were, you said you would! Why do I suddenly feel so defensive, when I did nothing wrong??

Any number of excellent books have been written about project management and scheduling, but few of them confront this phenomenon head on, and I've now seen it at a bunch of companies. Someone important, or even just useful, can cause a lot of damage by having a bad memory. If they're a manager, it might become their employee's second job to stockpile email in case they need to "prove" who's mistaken at review time. If it's a peer, they don't pull their share of the work because they conveniently forgot to do most of it and someone else has to, or some schedule slips. This might be passive aggressive (if they're not a psychopath or an asshole), but since it's the holidays, let's consider that it might be a medical problem. Maybe they're eating badly?

A few suggestions for coping: Start ordering in veggie platters. Take them out for sushi whether they like it or not. Leave them Secret Santa Ginkgo Biloba supplements by their monitor. And finally here's a list of some nice articles from Psychology Today on food for your brain, which I rather enjoyed:

Happy holidays, and eat better! [Edited to add: Consider hiring a chimp instead if your team mate or manager can't remember things after eating better.]

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Sunday, November 04, 2007

Fast Company: ebay, and Business in Siberia

I caught up on the latest print version of Fast Company on a flight, and I have to admit I'm loving it via print. I read almost ever word, while on the site I just browse occasionally. And now I can point to fun stuff, since the mag is all online.

First, some slightly irksome "news": ebay is trying to revamp itself in the face of flattening numbers. Like a lot of business press, this makes a hero-to-be out of a new exec hire, Matt Carey, CTO. He learns in paragraph one during a focus group that the site is hard to use. He determines to "make the buying process efficient and fun again."

Having heard the industry gossip for years about the company -- mostly from designers who've left in droves -- the people who knew it was hard to use and knew it needed usability and design work weren't listened to when it might have prevented flattening numbers in the first place. Too risky to change what was seen as successful! Till the big picture numbers start to look scary, and the competition spreads, I guess. That's when it might already be too late. A reminder that design and usability are strategic competencies not handled well by most executive boards at most companies.

On to more fun: Nightmare in Boomtown, a story you could not make up. With all the twisted personalities at work, it would make a good movie. It's the saga of a fallen rabbi gone to Kazakhstan to do business, and getting eaten alive by the corrupt system and an angry gangster rival who wanted a $5 million dollar discount he didn't get. It probably cost a few hundred thousand, but the ex-rabbi gets locked up in a Siberian jail for a year and virtually abandonned by any officials who should care.

In October 2006, after 11 months in Siberia, Seidenfeld was loaded aboard a prison train to be extradited from Russia to Kazakhstan. For 32 days, he was stuffed into a 3½-foot-by-7-foot cell in a boxcar with one toilet for 60 convicts. His fiancée, Natiya, doggedly followed the train on its 3,000-mile journey, intercepting it as it stopped at detention centers. Word of the presence of a wealthy Western businessman had traveled fast among the prisoners, and Seidenfeld learned early on the importance of isolating himself as much as possible. Natiya secured lawyers wherever the train stopped, bribed officials, and did whatever she could to make sure Seidenfeld traveled in his own cell. He kept his head down while shuffling to and from different prison stops to avoid the batons of the more-sadistic guards. "If I had been kept with the rest of the population, I might not be around today," he says.
Really a fascinating read....

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Saturday, October 20, 2007

October Roundup: Owls, UFOs, Ghosts

I've been busy on non-work related activities, for once!

Owls: Saw-whet migration is upon us. The local birders with Mass Audubon were caught off-guard by how many of the little owls are on the move south from Canada this year. Record numbers on some nights, and earlier than usual. These are tiny, adorable owls, who seem to like people and hang out for a bit. They even like being petted, which makes them a great ambassador for birdkind.

I put up a gallery of their extreme cuteness: Saw Whet Owl Banding in MA. I will be posting some video later. But for now, I require you to be amazed (this is not a baby bird):

Here's another set of photos (with a better macro lens) featuring yours truly holding one of these cutie pies.

And just to be slightly scientific, the site with the most data on the migration patterns and how to track these guys lives at Project Owlnet.


Last weekend I also went to a local UFO conference, hosted by Mass Mufon. There were two very interesting talks, one on crop circles and the other on the Shag Harbor Incident in Nova Scotia.

The crop circle presentation started quite strong, with a lot of data and images that can also be found on the website at BLT Research. My data analysis interest was piqued but then dismayed by claims of correlations as "proof." The speaker got less scientific and more, well, peculiar towards the end when she announced a bunch of other phenomena including the ghost of her dead brother caught on film at recent circles. I don't quite understand why the folks interested in paranormal end up mixing it all together so readily; one phenomenon probably has nothing to do with another!

The Shag Harbor UFO Crash Incident from 1967 was entertainingly recounted by Chris Styles, a good storyteller who had collected a lot of documents from the Canadian government (who are much happier to send things out on request than the US government). The most interesting sidebar was that a character named Maurice "Mace" Coffey was working as a parapsychologist investigating mysterious phenomena in the Canadian Air Force at the time of the "crash." He was the Fox Mulder of Canada. He's also editor of a collection of Maritime poetry and was later an important figure in the Northwest Territories (once helping find a downed plane, in which the survivor had lived only by cannibalism). I personally wanted to hear more about Mace, and maybe less about the RCMP.

Ghosts: I've received a few more stories about Windhouse, the haunted house in Scotland that I keep track of here. The essay is updated at the bottom with more photos from contributor Phil Mortimer (scary Photoshop work as shown below) and from another relative of a former inhabitant, Kate Bainbridge.

Phil Mortimer pics of Windhouse

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Sunday, October 07, 2007

Search Engine Poetry Generator

I've always liked random poetry generators (I could dig up some of my favorites, but I'll save it for another day) -- so I wrote one based on an idea I saw on someone else's blog. (I admit their idea is more interesting, but I had a simple goal to start with: practice with SQL and PHP on my hosting server.)

My generator builds random "poetry" by stringing together keywords and keyphrases that hit my site from searches in the last month. (I'm afraid it's not a real-time feed from my logs, it's canned from the last month.)

Popular searches on my site: ghosts, Canada, and disorganized organizations. It makes for peculiar poetry, not good, but kind of fun. Victoria's Secret is definitely showing up more and more, too.

One of them:

alice in wonderland porn
  i need
  tivo patents

for me, illusion
   -- erin
Give it a try, or ten...

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Sunday, September 30, 2007

Visual Personality Tests

Random personality tests of recent discovery: tests that rely only on visuals. Or, kind of.

This first one is "psychogeometrics." Go here and pick the shape you are most drawn to. If you want to really test the test, before you click on it to read about yourself (!), take a short questionnaire (not visual) here and see if the shape it picks for you matches what you chose by look alone. (Mine: "You appear to be a complex personality. Or perhaps you didn't take the questions seriously.")

Then, for a really visual one, take the Dewey color test. This one is entirely based on response to colors, and comes with an interesting color chart for the month, kind of like biorhythms in flavor but all in hues.

I found out about the latter because another former colleague of mine dropped out of interface design management to become a color and interior design consultant, and she uses the Dewey system. She says she got sick of fighting for good software. That makes 4 colleagues (2 junior, 2 exec level) who have quit the UI design fight in mid-career. Who's next? Are other software professions like this?


Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Pavel's Puzzles

Thank goodness, just when I was dreading starting my post about strategy and tactics, Pavel Curtis gave me a good excuse to avoid it: he's launched an online puzzle shop! Since I'm currently reading the slightly evil yet fascinating The 4 Hour Workweek: Escape 9-5, Live Anywhere, and Join the New Rich which describes many such businesses, I'll be fascinated to watch his progress. (Updated to add: Here's his announcement post about it, on his regular blog.)

Pavel is not only a Lisp hacker with mathematical talents, ex-PARC denizen, and founder of famous online community LambdaMOO, he's a gentleman who co-hosts an annual games party on New Year's that attracts an interesting crowd. I went once attached to one of his invitees, and it was more fun than I would have expected, being your typical uncompetitive, non-gamer who freezes under public performance pressure. His and other puzzles dotted the house, I recall. That was back in the hills of Palo Alto, before the more recent Seattle move! We are all getting old and moving too often.

If you like puzzles with interesting stories, go help Pavel retire from the Evil Seattle Empire and become the new rich!

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Sunday, April 22, 2007

Fractal Art

I've been playing with 2 fractal-generating applications recently, and recommend them for different reasons. If you'd like to quickly generate random beautiful 2d images, of often breath-taking beauty, use Apophysis.

If you like to play with dials and sliders and 3d imagery, and generally do a bit more work yourself, I recommend Chaoscope, a "3d strange attractors" rendering package.

Samples from both:

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Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Pretty Visual Generators

I've been looking at online generators for the last few days (a recurrent interest) and was reminded of these pretty visual ones. Worth checking out.

Jared Tarbell's beautiful I'Ching interactive display. Hard to describe, and a little mysterious in practice, as it should be.

The Walking Insect Generator, which is also beautiful, but funnier. Seriously, do click and marvel.

A scribbler art project -- this one is fun to watch, like a lot of these visual noise generators. It tends to fuzz up your drawing.

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Saturday, February 10, 2007

Owls in Massachusetts

Last weekend was an "owl festival" at my local Audubon nature preserve. First was a great presentation on snowy owls at Logan Airport (not given there, about owls who hang out there) by Norm Smith of the Blue Hills Audubon nature preserve. Yes, there are snowy owls all over Logan's landing strips. No, this is not good for the airplanes. Yes, they are hard to spot if you're flying out from there, as I discovered a day later-- white could mean snow, trash, or owl.

Norm has some great pictures of them, and points out how little we understand them -- they don't seem to be migratory in the usual sense, and might even be circumpolar. They are able to filter out the sounds of the jets to tune in on squeaking rats. They all look a bit different, and have different personalities, too.

Some articles and links worth looking at on this work:

This is a map of where some of the owls he attached transmitters to ended up in Canada -- mostly up towards Hudson Bay. Some have been tracked to Siberia, though. (Hey, I've been there. I saw no owls, however.)

The day after Norm's terrific talk and slides, a guy brought in some birds living in captivity because they've been hurt or grown up with people and now identify too much with people to hunt properly. These were beautiful birds. Below you'll see this fellow with a screech owl, incredibly cute, and a wonderful great horned owl. None of my pictures turned out very well due to the interior lighting, but you get the idea.

After the demo of the birds, we went on an "owl prowl" walk in what was probably 14F degrees at best. In the gathering dark, I add, because at the point where I'd had enough of the cold, I didn't think I could see my way back to the lodge. We crunched all over the grounds of Broadmoor making dumb owl calls, and hearing not a peep back except for the bored kids shifting around while we listened and whining a little and sometimes pretending to be owls themselves which didn't really help us. It was so cold even the CD player with some real owls on it wouldn't perform properly. An owl bust, all around. Now that I know what screech owls and saw whets sound like, I can confirm I have never heard them where I live beside the reservoir. Too bad! They are really cute.

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Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Democratizing Data Insight

It's an exciting world right now... i-Stuff and the spread of "design" as a buzzword aside, I'm thrilled by the spread of data and graphs into the public world. A few recent pointers on the theme of public data exploration:
  •'s Hans Rosling presented to TED a year ago, with the beautiful animated charts that his site made famous. His final comments say, in paraphrase, "Publically funded data is public, but hard to get at, hard to search, and presented in boring ways. We can and should change this." One of his great takeaways, for me, from his data illustrations of "third world" healthcare is that the error in the data is no doubt much less than the truth in it, at the magnitudes he illustrates.
  • Swivel is a new site for data upload and exploration, with a fun blog. They also allow community discussion around their charts. I like their enthusiasm and enjoy the blog a lot.
  • Friends from IBM (Martin Wattenberg and his group) have just announced a similar concept to Swivel's, but with even more graph types and they're all nicely interactive. Upload data, create a picture, and post it... other people can play with your data and present their own insight pictures, or modify yours. And comment on them. It's Many Eyes, and it even has a nice website!
  • Google claims to be making real time stock quotes available, which means live data plotting is possible. Found on swivel's blog, a post on Googleblog: Real Time Quotes for Free.
  • And don't forget There's a nice visualization of State of the Union speeches highlighted there, including word frequencies and grade levels of the speech. (It's by Brad Borevitz.) They've been averaging around 9th or 10th grade level, but notice the great spike of Jimmy Carter's at grade 15.

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Friday, January 19, 2007

Annual Site Stats and Changes

I don't have time to do real stats on my server logs, but I offer the annual impressionistic ones, at least, as well as some updates on the site.

Search phrases that strike me as funny, that show up every single week (usually with multiple counts):

  • girls on boats
  • alcohol induced blackouts
  • temporary wallpaper
  • real ghost photos/ghost photos/real life ghosts (etc)

Posts or pages with high hit counts, regularly:

  • The crop-circle google-montage (I should put a Google ad or two here, it's ludicrous; and no one ever comments, but it's hit 68 times or more per week.)
  • The weird red tree in Shropshire that almost made me drive off the road. It has 67 comments, which I should really trim/clean/purge most of. Also, add a Google ad.
  • An incredibly short post on Bara Hack, haunted village in CT. With a lot of chimers-in on the illegality of going there, or not.
  • My travel essays, especially the Siberia one. They're low on the page, but very popular, and the Windhouse and Fair Isle one are catching up in hits.
  • The bio/resume page is visited at least 20 times a week. I've added some info to it recently.
Visitors in sizable numbers are coming from images searching (no surprise there), a few companies where I think I know the folks :-), and increasingly from Stumbleupon, which is nice.

I spruced up the blog template a tiny bit, since Blogger has added tagging ability. Now you can click on a link to items in categories I post on regularly: design, tech industry, management, archaeology, funny stuff, weird stuff, information visualization and data analysis, etc. It took hours and hours to do a cursory tag job on my 504 posts of the last few years, so if you notice a mislabel, let me know. The tags list is on the right side under the index of recent posts.


Saturday, January 06, 2007

Puzzles and Mysteries

Malcolm Gladwell wrote a great piece in the New Yorker: OPEN SECRETS: Enron, intelligence, and the perils of too much information. It's being blogged all over, but since I'm still thinking about it 12 hours after reading, I'm posting too.

He distinguishes between puzzles and mysteries, and the role of data in both.

The national-security expert Gregory Treverton has famously made a distinction between puzzles and mysteries. Osama bin Laden’s whereabouts are a puzzle. We can’t find him because we don’t have enough information. The key to the puzzle will probably come from someone close to bin Laden, and until we can find that source bin Laden will remain at large.

The problem of what would happen in Iraq after the toppling of Saddam Hussein was, by contrast, a mystery. It wasn’t a question that had a simple, factual answer. Mysteries require judgments and the assessment of uncertainty, and the hard part is not that we have too little information but that we have too much. The C.I.A. had a position on what a post-invasion Iraq would look like, and so did the Pentagon and the State Department and Colin Powell and Dick Cheney and any number of political scientists and journalists and think-tank fellows. For that matter, so did every cabdriver in Baghdad.

Adding data to a mystery doesn't make it less of a mystery, but smart analysts can bring experience to bear that will point towards possible answers that are more or less likely to be true.

The Enron disaster qualifies as a mystery, and Gladwell's summary of the confused and complex financial details is disquieting. Even financial experts couldn't make heads or tails out of what was going on with the money. I'm unsettled by how easily corporate environments breed mysteries requiring complex analysis both of their internal and external behavior; and how hard it can be to understand and correct corporate mismanagement. People lose their livelihoods all the time now-- how many other Enrons are actually happening with no one noticing?

As a side note, as I read the recap of the Woodward and Bernstein investigation I actually thought, "This is surely going on all the time now. Would anyone be shocked at this in this political era?"


Saturday, May 13, 2006


There are personality quizzes all over the net, spread as memes via sites like LiveJournal where memes have a long life. PersonalDNA is a next-generation personality quiz, with high quality widgetry that the respondent has to manipulate to set their answers. While fun to take, I am not so sure that all that gadgetry entirely supports the problem at hand and it probably detracts a bit. I found it hard to figure out where in a quadrant of 4 my "dot" should live in a case like this.

On the other hand, it's very fun to take, and you get the results in nice couple of visuals suitable for posting in a blog with the URL; and you can ask other people to rate your own personality and compare the results. It has all the makings of a successful meme, and for once it looks like some serious visual design and engineering went into the site. I wouldn't be surprised if someone like this finally figures out how to make some money off this stuff; there's millions here waiting to be had, given the massive popularity of these quizzes in social sites.

Incidentally: I came out as a "Benevolent Inventor."

PersonalDNA | Your True Self Revealed - Fast Fun Free Personality Tests.

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Saturday, April 15, 2006

April is Poetry Month

Endicott Studio is celebrating Poetry Month nicely with a new illustrated poem every day. If you like fairy tales and poetry, this is the place for you. Featuring writers like Delia Sherman, Ellen Kushner, Holly Black, Jane Yolen...


plusminus design: flashbag

This is one of those brilliant and simple ideas, that also happens to be funny. A USB device that "fills up" visibly until it's ready to explode, at which point the drive is full: plusminus design: flashbag. (Off Information Aesthetics, where else?)

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Thursday, February 02, 2006

The Snapshirts Blog Tag Cloud Meme

I don't know if 3 people count as meme-spreaders, but I got the Snapshirt blog cloud link off Jeff Mather who got it off someone else. I also wouldn't order the T-Shirt, but I like the cloud of terms it got off my site, so here it is.

One of the disadvantages of using blogger is that you can't tag entries, and therefore it's all one big soupy list that no one can find anything in (including me). I found another site somewhere that was offering a tag-cloud generation service for blogs, but when I tried it, it basically hung trying to do mine. Anyone have any further suggestions for how to do this easily in a useful (interactive) format for my own site? Drop me a note if so; I may hate flickr, but I like tags a fair bit.

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Sunday, January 29, 2006

Illusion of Explanatory Depth

Fantastic post here: Mixing Memory: The Intellectual Teeth of the Mind. Chris is writing about the Illusion of Explanatory Depth, a cognitive science observation that people often think they know how things work when in fact they don't know.

The old-time reader who knows me will automatically connect this to one of my favorite findings of recent years, that I seem to repost every six months: Incompetent People Really Have No Clue that they're incompetent (that was the popular press reportage, here's the scientific article).

Back to Explanatory Depth:

The idea behind the illusion of explanatory depth (and it may be a dangerous one) is simply that there are many cases in which we think we know what's going on, but we don't. There are many great examples in cognitive psychology (e.g., psychological essentialism, in which we believe that our concepts have definitions, but when pressed, learn that either they do not have definitions, or we don't have conscious access to those definitions), but you don't have to look to scientific research to find them. If you ask 100 people on the street if they know how a toilet's flushing mechanism works, many, if not most will tell you "Of course I do!" But if you then ask them to explain it, you will quickly find that they really have no idea how a toilet's flushing mechanism works. This is the illusion of explanatory depth. They know that when they push down on the flusher, the water leaves the bowl, and then fills back up, but they don't know how this happens, they only think they do.

In experiments, it was shown that participants' ratings of their own knowledge of a subject decreased over time, upon being asked to explain device functioning and having problems doing so, and upon receiving explanations that clarified their issues. They realized what they didn't know, by being forced to explore it and being "corrected," essentially.

Chris recaps 3 factors that influence the phenomenon:

  • Confusing environmental support with representation: People may rely on visible parts to build their (shallow) theories about how things work. For me this relates -- very tangentially-- to the notion of "affordances" in UI theory, where roughly speaking analogies to physical world behavior are sometimes leveragable for indicating functionality of controls. I have to think about the implications a bit more.
  • Levels of analysis confusion: Multiple causation means you can stop at any level you want, and usually stop early. For me this raises the question of when a level is sufficient, and whether it always matters to go further? In UI design, we want to work with and understand existing mental models of application behavior, but also educate our users with feedback in the UI about necessary differences between their "naive" expectations and how things really work. We don't need to explain object models and for-loops in our code (hopefully) but we sometimes need to indicate relationships that aren't obvious to our users from their current world knowledge.
  • Indeterminate end state: People have a hard time knowing when they know enough, partly because of the above point. Stories about how things work help clarify this, because of their determinate beginnings and endings -- assuming they're well-structured and not ultra-postmodern and intended to confuse! (This reminds me, again tangentially, of Harvey Sacks' proto-story told by a small child: "The baby cried. The mommy picked it up." Causation is represented, there's a problem and a solution, a beginning and an end. But it's also a story of the most simple analytic level possible!)

Chris says: To sum up, then, the [Illusion of Explanatory Depth] exists for explanations that involve multiple relations between parts, particularly causal relations, but not for more surface knowledge (e.g., facts, stories, and simple procedures), and it shows up fairly early in childhood. The concern it raises for doing science is that increasing specialization -- depth in branches of science -- means shallower understanding on the part of practioners of mechanisms outside their immediate field.

Now see the article noting that geniuses built their work on the work of other geniuses. Although not all examples are cross-disciplinary, it's clear that cross-disciplinary work is a huge opportunity and an increasing challenge.

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Thursday, January 19, 2006

Map Things of Interest

Not the post I was intending to make tonight, but I've just freed myself from an accidental click on the Canadian Cartographers web blog that somehow ended up in my Bloglines reading list. A bunch of it was fun stuff, if you like maps.

First, this amusing item that I blogged right away, before editing the post to add the rest: The Prejudice Map shows a map of the world with callouts identifying stereotypes gathered by Googling "X is known for" where X is a nationality or cultural group.

Some hilarious juxtapositions appear, like Turkey's tags: "Hospitality. Using weapons." It's unscientific, but as a travel map it isn't completely useless. For instance, it makes me want to go to Cuba: "relaxed, humor, sophisticated jazz." On the other hand, you have to admit that the UK sounds pretty bad unless you like dirty but posh restaurants with nice management: "fair play, aristocratic kitchens, extemely unclean, rarely complaining."

Then, there's the now ubiquitously blogged Starbucks Center of Gravity in Manhattan map, which I include just in case anyone living in Manhattan cares to know where all the neighborhood coffee shops went in their neck of the woods. Apparently there was also once a Starbucks Avoidance map, but the link is broken.

Try the Avenza Publisher Map Awards, which are all maps produced in Adobe Illustrator using GIS support. Winners available in PDF and jpg. Good news for any Seattle readers, the Grand Prize winner is a geologic map of WA state, and a runner up is a hiking map of King county. How they were made is described, which is very cool. As is this quote from Van Gogh they stuck on top: "Great things are not done by impulse, but by a series of small things brought together." But in the "you've got to be kidding me" category, there's the interactive map of Bethesda, MD. I grew up near there, Bethesda is not interactive.

A map of the world showing dots corresponding to newspapers, from newseum, and when you roll over the dot, you get a thumbnail of the front page. It expands to mostly readable. Quite useful, actually.

Seemyroad is filming towns, and has Zurich down pat. Zoomable overhead map, plus. You can get ride-throughs of locales, reminiscent of the Paris ferrari's bumper video, except not so illegal. (They stop for pedestrians and red lights.) You can also get a tramline fly-over from the sky. I'd really enjoy this for London and Paris.


Saturday, January 14, 2006

Donner Party, pigs, maps, mayans...

Apparently, the Donner Party cannibalism legends remain unproven.

Do we really need glow-in-the-dark green pigs? Apparently we do, and these ones are better because they are entirely green, not just patchy green like the previous attempts.

Mayan writing is older than we thought. (How old did you think it was?)

And there is a debate going on over whether a 1418 map shows that the Chinese discovered Rhode Island before Columbus found America. The fact that the admiral was a eunuch seems to merit reporting in the TimesOnline.

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Monday, January 02, 2006

My Site Traffic (an Unscientific Report)

In the last year, I've browsed my traffic logs on and off, and noticed a bunch of things get visited a lot. I haven't tracked it carefully or with real numbers, but it looks like these guys are winners: Search terms that hit me a lot include "girls on boats" (no idea why!), my name, Siberia, Windhouse, and for a while the Caspian sea merman sighting brought me some occasional traffic.

In honor of the Windhouse traffickers, I have finally cleaned up my old post about the folklore of the Shetland haunted house and put it up off the essays page: The Haunting of Windhouse.


Sand Game

Steve didn't really do this sand game justice when he rec'd it. It's beautiful and surprising. Tips: fire eats plants, water feeds plants, and it's all pretty. Try mixing the sand colors.


Friday, December 30, 2005

In the future... Sam's comics.

In the future we will all be connected by a network. 37Signals' weblog Signalvs.Noise is hosting some great comics by artist Sam Brown. He is illustrating "in the future" sentences supplied by readers in the comments. It makes reading the comments really fun and kinda Zen.

His style reminds me a little of my friend Ken's What Cartoon site.

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Friday, December 23, 2005

Best of Best of 2005 Lists

Off Cluefairy, the long list of 2005 summary lists on Fimoculous.

My favorite list titles, content aside: Top 10 Most Confusing (Yet Widely Used) High Tech Buzzwords from Global Language Monitor, Bad Sex In Fiction Shortlist from The Guardian, Ten 2005 Ads America Won't See from Ad Age, 10 Most Pathetic Media Meltdowns from Ad Age, Cheap Toy Roundup from The Onion A/V Club, Top 25 Military-Friendly Companies from GI Jobs (!), 25 Britons Who Wield Influence In America from The Times of London, Weirdest Tech from, Top Reality TV Whores from Reality Blurred, Top Cryptozoology Books from Loren Coleman, 50 Photos Of People Smiling from LowCulture, Top 10 Kitchen Utensils Of This Year from Utter Wonder, Top 40 Weather Days from

Sorry, it was too much work to get the actual links for all those into this post. You know you want to see the source page, anyway!


Thursday, December 15, 2005

Bumblebees Recognize People

This article explains that bumblebees trained with photos can remember faces. Does that mean bees could be used to assassinate people who are allergic? I go to the positive immediately...

From bees to wasps, spiders and even sheep, other animals have proven they can not only recognize our faces, but they navigate mazes, match objects and shapes and even associate smells with previous experiences. "Sometimes I wonder what we are doing with two-kilogram brains," mused Srinivasan.

Uh, making mazes and training insects to recognize photos?

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Thursday, November 24, 2005

Number Factoids

Another break in the Thanksgiving cooking. Check out tingilinde: take a number .... I'm far from a mathematician (and was even when I dated one), but I find this list of number facts magical and opaque. These are my favorite of the inscrutable, OCD, and sometimes just silly observations:
  • 4 is the smallest number of colors sufficient to color all planar maps.
  • 11 is the largest known multiplicative persistence.
  • 17 is the number of wallpaper groups.
  • 36 is the smallest number (besides 1) which is both square and triangular.
  • 38 is the last Roman numeral when written lexicographically.
  • 92 is the number of different arrangements of 8 non-attacking queens on an 8x8 chessboard.
  • 136 is the sum of the cubes of the digits of the sum of the cubes of its digits.
  • 405 is a pentagonal pyramidal number.
  • 570 is the product of all the prime palindromic Roman numerals.
  • 1005 is the smallest number whose English name contains all five vowels exactly once.
  • 1084 is the smallest number whose English name contains all five vowels in order.
  • 1435 is a vampire number.
  • 1650 has exactly the same digits in 3 different bases.
  • 1666 is the sum of the Roman numerals.

Anyone know what a vampire number is? An amicable number? And can anyone help him fill in the ???'s? (Huh, looking at the list, I'm reminded that I kind of liked geometry.)

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Paris seen from a Ferrari's bumper

I got this one off Steve's tingilinde which I'm catching up on after a couple week's of distraction with a new job...

I used to love late night taxi rides home from dinner or bars in Paris-- being a bit tipsy made the lights and the curves in the road and the people on the pavement cafes flow together in a very scenic and exciting blur. (I fantasize about going back with a camera and trying to recreate that sensation.) Well, some nut has made a film of an early morning high-speed drive through Paris, shot bumper-level, from a sports car.

I counted about 22 red lights he ran. I could be off by as many as 5. I got lost in the northern Paris roads, but wasn't surprised where he ended up. (The most entertaining and hair-raising section is in the middle, where he has to get through the center of town around the Louvre and just north of it. The last scene is really nice and very French. I read her expression as "Wow, you didn't get caught or killed!") Note, the starting text says it hasn't been accelerated or cut in any way.


Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Stats on LiveJournal

Some friends helped me out with a short panel talk I gave on LiveJournal today at a conference, so I thought I'd share a couple pictures and stats. One person on LJ asked me about the demographics of LiveJournal usage. LJ admin posts regular automatically generated stats on their stats page. I collected some in March this year, and then again this month for this talk, and they showed this pattern.

Note that the number of accounts has increased, but the level of activity is flat. This suggests some disturbing things for the growth of LJ usage, at least in terms of persistent regular usage.

Also, it's been true for the lifetime of LJ as far as I know that the usage has always been 2/3 women, 1/3 men; with age frequency peaking at 18 (with a long tail down to 55 or so).

Finally, here's a picture of some community structure I generated, too far out to see any identifying people:

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Sunday, October 23, 2005

Beyond Salmon

A friend of mine, Helen Rennie, once entertained me and several work colleagues on the subject of fish for a good half hour. We were on a work trip (to Disney, but that's another story) and we were sitting beside a fake pond; she told us an awful lot about different kinds of fish with suspicious enthusiasm. I hadn't known her very long, and I thought, "Wow, this is almost weird."

Later it all came clear: she's a fish cooking expert! She's been writing a fish cookbook, which involves interviewing fishermen and fish dock storage warehouse people (or whatever they are), teaching popular fish cooking classes at Cambridge Adult Ed, eating at and reviewing excellent restaurants online, and now has a fish blog: Beyond Salmon. Go read about fish. She's smart about it.


Friday, October 14, 2005

Funfurde: oops. revisit.

Aren't we circularly referential today! The other day I blogged about Funfurde and the "bad table," Pavel commented about a similar designer in my comments, the Funfurde author searched and hit my post and Pavel's comment, and has now blogged Pavel's reference for him/herself. Check out the blogosphere in action on this post on Funfurde.


Sunday, October 09, 2005

Funfurde's latest: Phone Modes, Bad Tables, DNA art

Funfurde's wacky furniture/design pointers continue to amuse me.

Right now they've got a cool-looking plastic phone with a bunch of big plastic "pages" you turn to switch modes on the phone -- the "phonebook." And a peeing table, which you have to see to understand ("Bad Table"):

The Straight Line Design folks who do the bad table mainly do wonderful children's furniture. It's really worth a visit, especially to see the melting cabinets!

Also, funfurde points at DNA art for your wall -- your own DNA, sequenced and visualized. I wonder if you can ask for indicators showing off your tendency towards alcoholism and your wonky knee on it?

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Saturday, October 08, 2005

Winners of the Ig Nobel Prize

The 2005 winners were presented at Harvard last Thursday. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Some of my favorite awards:

  • LITERATURE: The Internet entrepreneurs of Nigeria, for creating and then using e-mail to distribute a bold series of short stories, thus introducing millions of readers to a cast of rich characters -- General Sani Abacha, Mrs. Mariam Sanni Abacha, Barrister Jon A Mbeki Esq., and others -- each of whom requires just a small amount of expense money so as to obtain access to the great wealth to which they are entitled and which they would like to share with the kind person who assists them.
  • PEACE: Claire Rind and Peter Simmons of Newcastle University, in the U.K., for electrically monitoring the activity of a brain cell in a locust while that locust was watching selected highlights from the movie "Star Wars." The locust responded mostly strongly to scenes of Darth Vader in his tie fighter. Don't we all?
  • FLUID DYNAMICS: Victor Benno Meyer-Rochow of International University Bremen, Germany and the University of Oulu , Finland; and Jozsef Gal of Loránd Eötvös University, Hungary, for using basic principles of physics to calculate the pressure that builds up inside a penguin, as detailed in their report "Pressures Produced When Penguins Pooh -- Calculations on Avian Defaecation." The winner wore a t-shirt of the penguin poop diagram.

Other good moments included the news that the physicist who swept the paper airplanes off stage for the past 5+ years was unable to attend because he was being awarded a Nobel Prize at the moment (Roy Glauber); and the 24/7 lectures in which scientists explained complex concepts in 24 seconds and then summarized concisely in 7 words or less. "Purring is melodious snoring" got a most excellent round of applause.

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Saturday, August 13, 2005

Folding T-shirts

Pavel Curtis has geek cred defined: with a history working on Smalltalk, Lisp, and Scheme, and then creating internet community before it got cool via the famous LambdaMOO at Xerox PARC, then founding a startup, Placeware, which was finally (ahem) purchased by Microsoft... well, bottom line is, he's got a lot of T-shirts, as anyone in the computer industry does. He has more than most people, in fact.

His most popular blog entry is about how to fold t-shirts. Here's more on the phenomenon: Pavel's Blog: A Very Specialized Website.


Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Whose Fish?

This is a brainteaser logic puzzle attributed to Einstein.

Whose fish is it?:

There are five houses in a row in different colors. In each house lives a person with a different nationality. The five owners drink a different drink, smoke a different brand of cigar and keep a different pet, one of which is a Walleye Pike. The question is-- who owns the fish?

1. The Brit lives in the red house.
2. The Swede keeps dogs as pets.
3. The Dane drinks tea.
4. The green house is on the left of the white house.
5. The green house owner drinks coffee.
6. The person who smokes Pall Malls keeps birds.
7. The owner of the yellow house smokes Dunhills.
8. The man living in the house right in the center drinks milk.
9. The man who smokes Blends lives next to the one who keeps cats.
10. The Norwegian lives in the first house.
11. The man who keeps horses lives next to the one who smokes Dunhills.
12. The owner who smokes Bluemasters drinks beer.
13. The German smokes Princes.
14. The Norwegian lives next to the blue house.
15. The man who smokes Blends has a neighbor who drinks water.
According to the home page on Coudal Partners, over 7000 people wrote in, and over half of them got it right.


Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Dolphins with Sponges on Their Noses

This is a really cute story, which also happens to have some very unintentionally funny sections... It seems female dolphins in one bay are using sponges as tools to help them catch fish better. The boys are too busy chasing the women to learn tool use, but the mothers are passing the method on to their daughters.

Dolphin with sponge on her nose.

They found that most spongers shared similar mitochondrial DNA, which is genetic information passed down from the mother. This indicates that the spongers are probably all descended from a single "Sponging Eve". The spongers also shared similar DNA from the nucleus, suggesting that Eve lived just a few generations ago.

But not all the female dolphins with similar mitochondrial DNA use sponges. And when the researchers considered ten different means of genetic inheritance, considering that the sponging trait might be dominant, recessive, linked to the X-chromosome or not, they found no evidence that the trait was carried in DNA. "It's highly unlikely that there is one or several genes that causes the animals to use tools," says Krützen.

The story is here: news @ Australian dolphins learn to hunt with sponges stuck to their noses.

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Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Players Who Suit MUDs

Martin Wattenberg gave a wonderful talk at my company today about information visualizations he's produced in recent years. He cited this old goldie, which warmed my heart: Richard A. Bartle: Players Who Suit MUDs.

What does text adventure gaming have to do with information visualization? That's what makes Martin so brilliant.


Friday, May 13, 2005

Oddball Critters

A bunch of strange furry animal stories I've had on my mind. This morning I read about a new rat, being sold for food in Laos. By "new" I mean scientists didn't know about them, although human carnivores apparently did.

'Oddball Rodent' Is Called New to Science (NY Times): "To find something so distinct in this day and age is just extraordinary," said Dr. Robert J. Timmins of the Wildlife Conservation Society, one of the discoverers. "For all we know, this could be the last remaining mammal family left to be discovered."

And then there are the giant gerbils of China:
giant cute gerbil pic Giant gerbils infest China (BBC News, 2003): The Great Gerbil found in many parts of Central Asia can be up to 400 millimetres (16 inches) long from head to tail...Officials say the gerbils have damaged more than 4m hectares (11m acres) of grassland - about the size of Switzerland. Authorities are trying to combat the gerbils, not only by using poison, but also by breeding eagles to devour them.

I think they should be exported as pets. I want one. They could take my cats, no problem. Giant gerbil-eating eagles sound like a real concern to me, though.

In other genetic breeding news, mice will soon be immortal. We will then need immortal cats to take care of THEM, which certainly works for me.

And finally, still in the transgenic pet category, in my bio class we discussed the glow-in-the-dark bunny, a rabbit genetically altered by jellyfish DNA. I'm a little disturbed to find out it's an "art" project, if this guy's web page is the right spot for this story. On the other hand, an art project has better chance of getting the moral issues into the minds of voters than a lab experiment does, which my biology teacher is always concerned about.


Thursday, May 12, 2005

Garage Cinema

I just had a strange blast from the past: a message from the admin for Marc Davis at UC Berkeley SIMS asking if I'd like to attend the Master's Students' final project presentations from his Garage Cinema research group. It took me a little while to understand the connection! And then it all came flooding back, as they say.

Marc Davis worked at Interval, where I met him when I did a talk during grad school about television fan video editing. The subject he works on that's closest to my heart is technology to make it easier to edit video and film footage. His paper "Editing Out Video Editing" in IEEE MultiMedia points out that nearly everyone consumes digital video/film, but almost no one makes it or edits it, because the barriers are quite high. (The acknowledgements list on that paper includes a lot of people I know from various diverse places: MIT cultural studies, someone who once interviewed at TiVo, research folks, friends of friends from research-- how small the Bay Area is.)

Here's his list of pubs: Garage Cinema Research Group, Publications.


Saturday, April 23, 2005

London's Abandoned Tube Stations

If you're a fan of the underground, or the Underground, this is an interesting collection of trivia and old photos: London's Abandoned Tube Stations. (Scroll down past the cartoon to the content links.)

Gotten from the wonderful Things.


WorldChanging: Stories of wallpapers

There are enough cool technology pieces out there to draw on for decades of product innovation; what we need now is for designers to come up with clever ways to combine them in artistic and provocative ways... Here's another set of fun idea aggregations: some very cool wallpaper evolutions posted on Worldchanging in Stories of wallpapers:

"By embedding electroluminescent materials into the pattern of the wallpaper and incorporating a light sensor, the wallpaper responds to the lighting requirement of a room, acting as a decorative element when a room is naturally bright, and as a wallpaper light when the space requires more light. With power supplied from a solar charged battery or standard electricity, it can also be manually controlled to increase or decrease luminosity."

Other good ideas in there: "The Activity Wallpaper, by Tobias Skog, explores how a place can get an electronic "memory" of how it is inhabited: how people move around, socialize, make noise or spend time there." (This is an oldish theme from the HCI literature, in which documents or objects or places record previous usage or interactions for later users to see. Nicely applied to wallpaper, though.)

And then there's "The Not-So-White Walls, by Dario Buzzini, is an interactive wallpaper that works like a display, giving you the possibility to change patterns and content as you wish. Resistors placed behind the paper surface make the color of the paper change according to your fantasy: you can dim lights, turn on home appliances, read email on the wall, view pictures taken with a camphone, etc." Yes, but can I watch a movie on it?


Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Journal of the H.M.S. Endeavour, 1768-1771

Captain Cook's journal is scanned and online from the National Library of Australia. The part I dipped into seemed to be full of recipes, and I later gathered this was the doctor's section on the effects of portable soup and port on scurvy. Go to: Digital Collections - Manuscripts - Cook, James, 1728-1779.. Journal of the H.M.S. Endeavour, 1768-1771 [manuscript].


Saturday, April 16, 2005

Life's top 10 greatest inventions

A good article in New Scientist on the best inventions of evolution, from brains to death to sex to parasites. It's readable, and fun if you know any biology (apparently I really am learning some!): New Scientist-- Life's top 10 greatest inventions.


Saturday, March 26, 2005

13 things that do not make sense

I think this has circulated a bit, but in case you missed it, it's a fascinating read: New Scientist's "13 things that do not make sense", a list of thus-far unexplained phenomena in science that you want to be goofs or hoaxes, but apparently you don't get your way. They include homeopathy, cold fusion (I didn't realize it was real), the placebo effect, dark matter, dark energy, bursts of energy from space, tetraneutrons, the 10th planet, methane on Mars, the rapid expansion of the universe.

You too should count the number of times Einstein gets second-guessed in this list.

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Thursday, March 24, 2005

Apartment Therapy on Happiness

I love Apartment Therapy. This is one of those blogs/sites that always amuses me and surprises me when I dip in. Today I caught up and got a suggestion for a keyboard cleaner I'm going to order for a friend at work. I might have it delivered anonymously-- I just want him to have it and don't want funny looks.

Buried in a long list of posts about the ideal kitchen design (using photos of real kitchens as examples), cherry blossoms and the value of cut flowers, links to items for sale in NYC (I always want to move after reading this site), I hit a couple posts that made me pause. In response to a post about typically American competitive more-more-mania and depression, a poster mused on his top ten toolbox for being happy.

I used to keep a Far Side cartoon on my fridge which read, "The Bluebird of Happiness long absent from his life, Ned is visited by the Chicken of Depression." How do I keep the Chicken away?
(I obviously quoted that because it's funny and about some guy named Ned, but anyway:) His list includes Review, Don't Take Yourself Too Seriously, Too Much is Not Enough, And Yet Splash Out, Don't Postpone Joy, and Clean Your Plate. And he ends with a poem that made me think of Paris, so when you read it you should think of your version of Paris, too: Apartment Therapy: On Happiness.


Wednesday, March 23, 2005

The Memory Championships

This article on the awesome feats of the memory champions ("Forget Me Not - How to win the U.S. memory championship") reminded me of one of my favorite novels from my younger days -- Little, Big by John Crowley. In it is a massive tangled house, full of memories, and in it is a character who uses the trick used by the memory champions to remember things: building a landscape--like a house--in your head, and adding details to the house to trigger memories you want to retain.

Glancing at the 84 rave reviews of the book on Amazon, I am picturing myself rereading Little, Big on my sun porch this summer when the weather is good again. I intend to remember this plan, so the sun porch looks particularly nice; on the rocking chair is a model of a complex little house that I can't quite understand from the outside.


Sunday, March 20, 2005

Interested in Sleep? Try Circadiana.

I've been really enjoying this blog on the biological study of sleep and sleep disorders. Here's an excellent post taking stock of "what the blog is all about," a mission statement that describes what I've enjoyed about the site: occasional science tidbits accessible to lay people, still research-oriented --not bleached into pop science writing, educationally oriented (in that it's actually useful for students of biology), full of good references to other work in the field.

If you're interested in the physical processes behind sleep, or lacking it far too often, this is the place to go: Circadiana: Quarterly Summary.

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Monday, March 14, 2005


This is a nice tool for keeping track of bibliographic references and looking at social linking to academic (i.e., scholarly, peer-reviewed, as opposed to just blogosphere-reviewed) articles. It has some interesting UI attributes, including a display of tags (natch) for the articles, and a graph view of related articles using TouchGraph's cool tools. Unfortunately, in the Touchgraph, I couldn't figure out how to "go to" an article node I wanted to pursue. If anyone else figures it out, please drop me a note.

Topics of current interest to academic groups using this include bioinformatics, protein structure, social networks, bayesian inference, and a whole lot of other HCI (human computer interaction) stuff. In other words, lots of stuff I care about right now :-) For an actual example, see this citation: CiteULike: Community structure in social and biological networks.

Now I just need access to a real academic library again.

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Thursday, March 03, 2005

Are these for real? Safe In The City ...

Through a weird route on Amazon (looking up lock picking, something I always wanted to learn), I ended up in Street Survivalist land. From this one: Safe In The City : A Streetwise Guide To Avoid Being Robbed, Raped, Ripped Off, Or Run Over, I learned that other customers had looked at these titles too:

I'm especially impressed that the original Fugitive! sold well enough to justify a sequel; did all those guys on the lam write to the publisher asking for advice on how to thrive--instead of just survive--outside the law? Are they sitting in their sleazy pay-per-night hotels with a stack of self-help books by the bed?


Wednesday, March 02, 2005

Who's who in publishing on LJ

An interesting thread naming at a lot of writers and publishing industry folks hanging out on LiveJournal (it's just growing and growing): seriouswriters: Who's who in publishing on LJ


Tuesday, March 01, 2005

A Talking Yahoo Directory in a MUD

My friend Ken did a cool MUD hack -- he made a MUD character who delivers directory information using a published Yahoo API.
Ken [to Bob]: cappy's near boston
Bob flips through a big book and says, 'Cappys Cleaners & Laundromat at 41 Belvidere St Boston, MA; phone number is (617) 859-7525'
Bob whispers to Ken, 'You can see a map at [big url]'.
Sometimes I really miss muds. Here's his notes: Yahoo APIs.

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Monday, February 28, 2005

'inside the bathroom' competition

After designboom's "Kitchen of the Future" competition winners, I was afraid to look at the Bathroom results. They are scary. The Winner isn't so bad, although I had to squint a lot at the picture and text: it's the Fizzy Bubble, a unit combining bath and shower and lighting in a kind of space capsule that seats 3! Not bad, as long as you can open the hatch from inside and there's air available too!

fizzy bubble pic

The Honorable Mentions just disturbed me. The first one, from the U.S., is one of those designs you see from tech folks -- just because you can do it doesn't make it a good idea. Most people when looking in their mirror aren't happy to see how much they've aged, thanks very much. And the second honorable mention doesn't get the concept of affordances, if you ask me. Why should we remove all physical design grace from our faucets, just because mobile phones require controls close together in small spaces? I mean, really!

If you dare: designboom's 'inside the bathroom' competition results.

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Friday, February 25, 2005

A Rape in Cyberspace

While I'm on memory lane, and while I'm worrying about people reading my old stuff, here's something better written and more interesting that meant a lot to a lot of people for a few years: A Rape in Cyberspace: How an Evil Clown, a Haitian Trickster Spirit, Two Wizards, and a Cast of Dozens Turned a Database Into a Society, by Julian Dibbell. This Village Voice piece kind of started it all off, in a lot of ways. (Julian has gone on to do and write about many interesting things since, including making a living--or trying to--off selling stuff in multiuser games. Also, he's not just a good writer into cool stuff, he's really hot. :-)

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Monday, February 14, 2005

That way sanity lies

From a friend on LJ, a nice piece in the Observer about a guy who is writing about what it means to be sane, instead of screwed up. I'm not a huge fan of psychotherapy, myself, so this one resonated: "He may well be the most sceptical psychoanalysts practising today, and has famously said that, 'for me, psychoanalysis is only one among many things you might do if you're feeling unwell - you might also try aromatherapy, knitting, hang-gliding. There are lots of things you can do with your distress."

Also, the bit about taking time to be bored and see what comes out of it is really nice. The Observer | Magazine | That way sanity lies.


Thursday, February 10, 2005


Here's the cover of the new tabloid in France, the Anti-American. Sigh.

L'Anti-Americain PRIMAIRE ! And here's Yahoo's news story on it.

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Monday, February 07, 2005

How Much Does a SF/F Writer Make?

Off Tobias Buckell's site, survey results from 74 writers: How Much Does a Science Fiction or Fantasy Writer Make?.

Summary: The typical advance for a first novel is $5000. The typical advance for later novels, after a typical number of 5-7 years and 5-7 books is $12,500. Having an agent at any point increases your advance. There is some slight correlation between number of books and number of years spent writing as represented in the 5-12.5 thousand dollar advance shift of an average of 5-7 years. Charting individual author's progressions, which I will not release to keep anonymity, reveals a large number of upward lines at varying degrees of steepness for advances, some downward slides.

Some authors noted that they'd gotten large advances in the 90s but were being paid less now.


Thursday, January 27, 2005

Guide to Public Restrooms

Boston Online's Wicked Good Guide to Public Restrooms. Rated by number of toilet paper rolls.

(I had a friend in college whose mother wanted to write a coffee table book about restrooms she'd used; photos of graffiti, nice architecture, odd conversations overheard, etc. I remember it every time I visit one in a restaurant. In bus stations, I'm too busy running to remember it.)

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Monday, January 24, 2005

Dead Microbiologist roll-call

Sarah Weinman posted about this, and it's not a mystery novel. Apparently some folks (Steve Quayle anyway) think that the rate of mortality for microbiologists is a little too high, and it might mean something about future bio warfare.

Steve Quayle's list with pics and method of death: Dead Scientists; and another page of Quayle's with news clippings on the same.

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Saturday, January 22, 2005

20 Questions: "Does it exist in another dimension?"

Hey, this is fun. Play 20 questions with an expert system that learns from the game. From the post-game responses you get (see mine below for "lemon"), I think people might be telling it lies, though. Check it out at

Uncommon Knowledge about a lemon:

Does it bring joy to people? I say No.

Can it affect you(cause an effect to you)? I say Yes.

Does it have keys? I say Yes.

Is it a part of something larger? I say Probably.

Does it have buttons? I say Probably.

Is it tapered? I say Yes.

Does it have good vision? I say Probably.

Does it spin? I say Yes.

Do people own it as a pet? I say Yes.

Is it lumpy? I say Probably.

Does it have paws? I say Probably.

Is it found in salad bars? I say Yes.

Does it exist in other dimensions? I say Yes.


Monday, January 17, 2005

2 Lists of Books

This has a few that sound worth looking into: Business Week's Pick Of This Year's Crop Of Books. For instance, the provocative title The Wisdom of Crowds: Why the Many Are Smarter Than the Few and How Collective Wisdom Shapes Business, Economies, Societies and Nations and Emanuel Derman's My Life As a Quant: Reflections on Physics and Finance.

And then there's the doomed-to-failure-but-always-interesting attempt to list Mathematical Fiction, fiction with mathematical themes. It reminded me of the existence of group theory, and why I don't date a mathematician anymore. (Er, just kidding.)

Both links off Neat New Stuff.


Being French in America: Bridging Oceans of Differences

An American who has spent several years abroad in other countries, I never felt more "American" than I did when I lived in France. I felt it was a culture of polite indirection, circuitous discourse, and ephemeral business values and goals at odds with what I had learned in Silicon Valley. I'll never forget the bid my company lost with Euro Disney, an American company employing international staff. My boss's explanation for why they should have taken our proposal despite our pricetag and my understanding of why they didn't were 180 degrees divergent. A few years later, I'm still trying to understand my 18 months there. (And, it must be said, I feel a bit foreign in the US much of the time, especially around election time.)

Here's a very interesting article by a French consultant who lives in the States and writes about cross-cultural workplace issues. I'm not sure it's capturing exactly what I experienced, in terms of how I understand the cultural differences I saw, but it's valuable for me to see a French experience on the issues. I especially appreciated the section on "Feedback and Self-Esteem." See Life in America: an International Perspective.

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Sunday, January 16, 2005

Robot Quilts

Off BoingBoing, but nevertheless domestically applicable, it's Robot Quilts! Here, "The Robot Visits the West."

Check out Kathy Weaver - fiber and mixed media artist. She also has some "political" quilts featuring automatic weapons, which I recommend less for household use.


Saturday, January 15, 2005


An interesting teaching concept: an English-speaking "immersion" town in Spain for English-learners, offering a scenario that could be a setup for a cool Agatha-Christie-style novel or a very nice holiday if you speak English.

How does a 8-day stay in a picturesque village in the mountains of Spain sound? And how does it sound if you add in free room and board, and interesting company? These aren't trick questions – this is the deal offered by Vaughan Systems, a language school with offices in Madrid, Barcelona and Granada which specialises in helping professionals whose first language is Spanish to improve their conversational English by isolating them in said village for 8 days with a group of English speakers.The Spanish speakers pay, the English speakers stay free – they just have to live up to their name and speak English to the Spanish speakers, morning, noon, and night, through meals, excursions and dedicated “talking time”.

Check out Vaughan Village, their website. I seem to be unacceptable, since I have had some minor experience teaching ESOL when I was in college.

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Thursday, January 13, 2005

The Rotundus Rolling Robot

According to, there's a new ball-shaped rolling robot in town: The Rotundus Rolling Robot. They say,

Nils Hulth of Rotundus AB in Sweden writes, "I do not know if you are interested in our novel robot design - a ball-shaped robot. Currently we are looking for uses for this robot apart from surveillance and inspection. Maybe one of your readers might have an idea?" The Rotundus robot looks like a large, black bowling ball.

The videos and stills on the product page are entertainingly weird. Don't miss the arty photo of the ball sitting by a fence in the snow.

So what can you do with a rolling ball robot? I can think of a few things really fast: put double stick tape all over it and use it to clean your floors (compete with roomba?), cheat at boules/bowling with it, paint it like a jackolantern and scare kids on Halloween (chase them off your porch in Legend of Sleepy Hollow flying head style!), confuse your cats/dog/bird/rabbit, play a really surprising soccer game with it, crush spiders and ants in your yard and house, roll it uphill and convince paranormal investigators they're looking at another magnetic magic hill, kick it around all by yourself and just tell it to come back by itself, scare home invaders away (with appropriate sensors and menacing sound effects), polish it and take pictures of it in the snow.

Because I'm convinced by my domestic terror use cases and want one of these myself, I one-click-ordered Robot Building for Dummies today.


Saturday, January 08, 2005

Human Universals

Apologies to those of you who got this from me elsewhere: an interesting list of proposed universals about human behavior and thought. Good for designing alien cultures, if you're into that kind of thing.

Human Universals


Friday, December 31, 2004

Arthur C Clarke is still alive.

Roger Ebert once again proves his scifi geek roots. He wrote to Arthur in Sri Lanka to check if he was still ok. In email back, Clarke describes some of the devestation and suggests some charity organizations to help Sri Lanka.

Arthur C. Clarke from Sri Lanka.


Monday, December 20, 2004

Kudzu Covered Houses

I got this off Fodor's travel blog page... a collection of creepy pictures of abandonned houses in Georgia and South Carolina being eaten by something called a "kudzu." It's a vine, I guess. Or a green leafy alien invasion.

Kudzu Covered Houses in North Georgia.

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Saturday, December 18, 2004

Life Does Imitate Art: Ebert's Answerman

An odd story, about a guy inspired by Before Sunrise, who meets a woman on a train and ends up kicked out of law school because of it. Who says real life isn't interesting?

Roger Ebert's London Calling, and it's Daryl.


Friday, December 17, 2004

Robot workshop

This Robot Workshop in Sweden sounds like a lot of fun. Which means of course Lars Erik Holmquist, an attendee of the long-ago games workshop I co-organized at CHI, is one of the instigators. He's involved in everything that's cool right now.

Interestingly, Luc Steels is also involved -- the former boss of a a long-time friend of mine. They worked in Paris on language-evolutionary game theory stuff that was somehow illustrated with internet-connected small robots. It was quite weird, but colorful. I think we ran into him (Steels) in a bar in Belgium when he was entertaining Rodney Brooks, whom we later took on a bar crawl. I do know we took Rodney on that pub crawl, at least. Ah, those were the days (of much more serious hangovers and now rather distorted recollections).


Thursday, December 16, 2004

Earthsea in Clorox, by Ursula K. Le Guin

Ursala speaks about the abominable SciFi version of her books. (I just shook my head all the way through the 4 hours. Why did I keep watching, I have no idea. Maybe because there's not enough new SF on right now?)

Earthsea in Clorox, by Ursula K. Le Guin

"Well," I said, "you do realise that almost everybody in Earthsea is 'those people,' or anyhow not white?" I don't remember what their answer to that was -- it may have used that wonderful weasel word "colorblind" -- but it wasn't reassuring, because I do remember saying to my husband, oh, gee, I bet they're going to have a honky Ged.


Wednesday, December 15, 2004

Tree-hugging Topics

I was accused of being a tree-hugger today, and then someone else told me squirrel and oak tree stories, so I'm digging up a bunch of related stuff. (Plus I'm avoiding writing my Xmas cards that have to be done.)

Apparently it's been a bad year for acorns, so the winter might be lean for the squirrels and chipmunks. It seems that squirrels are choosy about which acorns they eat right away (white oak acorns are the dark chocolate of acorns) and which they cache away (the red oaks'): Researchers Tackle The Nutty Truth On Acorns And Squirrels. Hiding them does plant trees, as you might expect, since they forget about some of them. Or maybe it's intentional-- they need these trees too! I find it endearing that squirrels are crafty and paranoid and resort to tricks to hide their stash, including pretending to bury stuff -- for any watching nut-predators-- and then running away with the real loot.

And here's the Op-Ed piece in the NY Times by the Nobel Peace Prize winner, Wangari Maathai, who relates democracy to environmental concerns and suggests we all plant a tree. "But today in Nyeri, as in much of Africa and the developing world, water sources have dried up, the soil is parched and unsuitable for growing food, and conflicts over land are common. So it should come as no surprise that I was inspired to plant trees to help meet the basic needs of rural women."


The Paris Review - Interviews

Thanks to Erik for the news, the Paris Review is putting its author interviews online. We're still in the 1950ies, but it's got Capote, Isak Dinesen, TS Eliot, Faulkner, Hemingway, Parker... well, the luminaries.


Monday, December 13, 2004

Smart and Dumb Furniture

I'm not even sure how I got here, but I was intrigued by the need Adam Greenfield had to rant that dumb furniture might be a better idea than "smart" furniture. In the dumb furniture manifesto, he recaps previous folks saying that "smart furniture" is "that which uses information processing to significantly change its properties and affordances: objects that react and adapt in real time to the demands of their environments and users."

This is what's generally meant by "smart" in AI/agent/ubicomp circles, sure. And as he suggests, smart is usually way dumber than the average yeast cell, so it never is "smart" enough to be useful.

What I wonder is why we don't have just slow-learner furniture, or even "educationally challenged" furniture that nevertheless takes direction well. I'd prefer to tell it what to do than have it try to guess and get it wrong or irritate me with misplaced self-confidence. Or else I just want very small, quite low IQ improvements in current furniture behavior. I want my chair to pull itself out from under the table when I pause by it with a plate and glass in my hand; I want the couch to straighten its own rumpled cover when I get up; I want a window that turns one-way reflecting outward when it gets dark and I haven't pulled the curtains, so people on the street can't see me inside.

Everything I own could be just a smidge brighter without actually being "smart."

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Sunday, December 05, 2004

More from Will Shetterly: The honorable hack

Will S follows up with another post on writing, this time on being an honorable hack producing good stories for money, or "commercial art." Go read "The honorable hack, my proposal, and why I blog".

PS. I admit I want to read what he wants to write, from this paragraph here: If I'm going to enjoy writing a potentially commercial project, what do I want? Brash young protagonists. Locations that I would love to visit and locations that I would hate to visit. Cool clothes and cooler dialogue. Secrets, misunderstandings, intrigue. Love, death, and midnight meals in diners.