Archive for 2007

Yearly Archive

Many well-regarded universities are actively putting much of their course material up online so that anyone can pull down audio recordings of lectures and teach themselves (here’s ten universities with free science courses). As someone’s who’s never been able to constrain my interests to only the things I’m supposed to be working on, this is both a blessing and a challenge. On top of Google Tech talks and aforementioned TED conferences, that adds up to hours and hours of terrific educational content to load up an iPod with, both audio and visual.

So far I have been using UC Berkeley’s podcasts and am almost finished “attending” the Introduction to Astronomy course (which has been an excellent way to sate my fascination for the subject since catching The Sky at Night on TV is a non-trivial task). I’m planning on brushing up on my heretofore lacking Economics skills next.

Rube Goldberg machines are fun, as anyone who has seen The Goonies will tell you. Physical machines, such as the meticulous, elegant design built for the award-winning Honda ad “Cog” (which required 606 takes to get right), cost millions of dollars and take months of work to film.

A recent trend on the web is the building of virtual Rube Goldberg machines, using existing video game engines to supply the components and physics, and essentially developing their own emergent gameplay. Half Life 2, with its included Havok physics, has an entire community working on building various exceedingly complicated contraptions that do very little, by tying together various blocks, pulleys and the ubiquitous exploding barrel. For my money, the finest examples of the art have come from the venerable Super Mario World.

The Big Lebowski Phenomenon:

The peculiar experience of seeing/hearing/reading/experiencing something for the first time, and being relatively unimpressed by said thing. Then, when said thing is revisited on multiple successive occasions, it increasingly grows in one’s estimation.

It only took about four viewings for The Big Lebowski to become my favourite film. (Thanks Conor.)

TED: Ideas worth spreading
(Technology, Entertainment, Design) is a conference run each year which brings together a mix of scientists, entrepreneurs, performers and thinkers of all types who trade in the fundamental currency of ideas. They get some terrific speakers in to wax lyrical for twenty minutes or so about what’s on their mind, and for the last few years the best talks have been put online. It’s hard to choose which ones to watch, but some of the ones I found worthwhile are:

Jeff Bezos: After the gold rush, there’s innovation ahead
Bezos is the founder of Amazon and someone who knows a thing or two about fluctuations in the fortunes of the web. He begins by connecting the dramatic boom and bust of the web to the rise and fall of the American gold rush. Switching analogies, he goes on to liken the enabling effects of the introduction of the web to the introduction of electricity into people’s homes.
Dan Gilbert: Why are we happy? Why aren’t we happy?
Fascinating talk on the nature of human happiness, our “psychological immune system” and how parts of our brains have evolved to be able to simulate experience and fake happiness when required. Also discusses the pyschology of choice: how having less options will generally result in happier people.
Jeff Han: Unveiling the genius of multi-touch interface design
Before all the hoopla about the iPhone‘s touch-sensitive screen, there was Jeff Han, and one of the best technology demos I’ve ever seen.
Seth Godin: Sliced bread and other marketing delights
Marketing master Seth Godin on the requirement that a product or service be not just “very good”, but remarkable to succeed, and why early adopters are the most important group to market to.
Malcolm Gladwell: What we can learn from spaghetti sauce
Writer and master of the cross-disciplinary insight, Malcolm Gladwell (of The Tipping Point fame) illustrates the fallacy of designing anything for the “average user”.

(via Aaron & Mike.)

Hello ruby in the dust
Has your band begun to rust?

My first patent, which I filed during my time in IBM over the summer of 2005, is now available via Google patent search. It’s pretty dry, but that’s the nature of these things. :)

The web today is a-flutter with calls for new “standards” to fight back against the increasing problem of hostility in the world of blogging. This comes on the back of a spate of unpleasant, unprovoked attacks on various bloggers because of their politics or views on seemingly harmless topics.

Tim O’Reilly and Jimbo Wales have jointly put forward a proposal to tag websites with somewhat quaint badges, showing what level of discourse you can expect to see. This idea seems doomed to failure to me, despite the big names that are pushing it through. As they stand, the draft “Code of Conduct” has a number of problems. For example,

We do not allow anonymous comments.

We require commenters to supply a valid email address before they can post, though we allow commenters to identify themselves with an alias, rather than their real name.

Identity spoofing is ridiculously easy at the moment, so this recommendation just can’t work. At least until initiatives like “Identity 2.0” and OpenId take off.

On the badges, Jeff Jarvis writes:

[The blogosphere is not a medium.] It’s a place. And when I moved into the place that is my town, I didn’t put up a badge on my fence saying that I’d be a good neighbor (and thus anyone without that badge is, de facto, a bad neighbor). I didn’t have to pledge to act civilized. I just do.

Indeed. I posit that the big win here will come from improvements in policy enforcement, rather than up-front policy declaration. Everyone already knows they’re not supposed to act like a jackass.

The NYTimes article linked above notes

A subtext of both sets of rules is that bloggers are responsible for everything that appears on their own pages, including comments left by visitors. They say that bloggers should also have the right to delete such comments if they find them profane or abusive.

The problem here is that deleting moronic or venomous comments does nothing to stem the tide of trolling that a particular post is going to attract. It merely hides the problem under a rug for a short time, before someone, on finding their comment deleted, decides to write something even worse, perhaps in a place where the original poster doesn’t have such sweeping editorial control.

Online discussions are entropic, and it only takes one misinterpreted or snide comment to transform the complexion of a thread into a chaotic flamewar of no merit. Chaos begets chaos, and maintaining the quality and order of a discussion requires both time and vigilance.

A few years ago I saw an interesting approach by Sam Ruby, very nicely illustrated through an anecdote here by Mark Pilgrim. The theory:

In social sciences, there’s a theory called the “broken window” theory. It states that a little ongoing maintanence — like fixing windows as soon as they get broken — can have dramatic effects. It also states that the smallest sign of destruction, if left untended, tends to bring about more destruction. Even in a “good” neighborhood, where normally people wouldn’t dream of being randomly destructive.

This is powerful thinking, and the most effective way to deal with the problem that I have seen. Passages in comments are selectively marked as “flamebait” by the site’s owner, which then appear as text with a strike-through to anyone reading the comments. This allows a site owner to Bowdlerise a comment in line with their site’s own (stated or no) comments policy, and leaves a tangible signifier to anyone else thinking of commenting that there is a single voice patrolling the comments and keeping order.

Things could be so different now
It used to be so civilised.

Nikky and I were in Berlin last week, and visited Zoologischer Garten Berlin. I got to see a giant panda, which has been my favourite animal since childhood. Sadly, on Monday the zoo’s second giant panda “Yan Yandied. Visiting zoos is always bittersweet; we also saw a gorilla that was for all intents and purposes, crying, which was particularly affecting, and sorta made me never want to go to a zoo again.

Jack Rebney, Winnebago salesman and all-American hero, having perhaps the worst day of his life. Brilliant. I’ve watched this video almost as many times as I’ve seen Tremors.

Following on from the article on channeling group intelligence I linked to yesterday, we have desire lines:

Desire lines are the paths people make when they cut across a grassy area instead of following the prescribed walkway. Rather than discourage people from making their own way, landscape architects can opt to design walkways to accommodate the natural patterns formed after a period of use.

Check out the illustrated examples of different parts of the Berkeley campus following and ignoring these suggestions.