Sunday, July 13, 2008

Cognitive Daily Roundup: Reputation, Gossip, Educating Children in Math

I've been subscribed to Cognitive Daily via the Kindle, and it's been a great feed on that device. [Secrets to a good Kindle feed: Full text that's well-written, not too many links because following links is slow via Whispernet, and regular updates. Ars Technica used to be a great Kindle read, until they changed their Kindle format to just a capsule intro plus link to "more." Me and a zillion others unsubbed and gave it a bad Amazon review for this. I hope it comes back as it was.]

The Kindle lets you save pages as Clippings, which makes blogging about stuff a bit easier. It's not as good as having, which I usually use to track things, but it's not bad.

So here's a few interesting recent Cog Sci research recaps.

How Do You Make a Reputation for Yourself? This study of business school students over time produces an unhappy conclusion. Actual cooperative behavior yields far less payoff in an impression on people than one's starting reputation and popularity. If someone starts out with a good reputation and popularity, then cooperative behavior pays off. Cog Sci Daily chart of popularity vs. cooperativeness

It turns out that your reputation for cooperativeness is only affected by your behavior if you're already popular. If you're not popular, it appears that no one takes notice of your behavior, so it has no impact on your reputation. People with lots of social connections can build a good reputation -- or a bad one -- with much more ease than people with few social connections.

This is not good news for the average workplace and the hope of objective performance evaluation. This study doesn't get at some of the root causes for reputation and popularity independent of behavior, so there's more work to be done here.

Related albeit indirectly, The Economic Value of Gossip, recapping a NY Times article, "Five Facts Prove No Match for Gossip, It Seems." People are more willing to believe others than their own eyes.

The donor was told that the source of the gossip didn't have any extra information beyond what the donor could already see for himself. Yet the gossip, whether positive or negative, still had a big influence on the donors' decisions, and it didn't even matter if the source of the gossip had a good reputation himself. On average, cooperation increased by about 20 percent if the gossip was good, and fell by 20 percent if the gossip was negative.

Now for something completely different. My brother just had a baby girl. As a woman in technology, I've spent a certain amount of time annoyed by my educational past and stereotypes about women in math and science. I'm tired of hearing about how girls aren't good at spatial and 3D tasks. (Especially since I've been working in the CAD industry for the past few years.) There's some interesting hope for new kids out there, now.

Video Games May Reduce Gender Gap in Spatial Ability, and spatial ability is key to many important math and science skills. Apparently after a few months playing Medal of Honor (but not after playing a non-combat game), both girls and boys improve in their spatial reasoning ability. The improvement lasts after game play stops, too.

Also, Children Learn and Retain Math Better Using Manipulables. Giving them blocks to count and do multiplication with helps them understand the reasoning, not just do memorization. But parents and schools need to invest in these kinds of toys.


Sunday, May 18, 2008

CHI 2008 Conf: Usability Considered Harmful

The premier human-computer interaction conference, aka CHI 2008 (pronounced "kai" not "chee") was in Florence, Italy this year. After missing last year's in Silicon Valley, I went despite the ruinous exchange rate. (Other local colleagues went to Italy for the conference, but blew it off to go skiing instead!) One of the more interesting and crowd-drawing sessions was the paper by Saul Greenberg and Bill Buxton, "Usability Evaluation Considered Harmful... Some of the Time." Following it was commentary by Bonnie John, Tom Rodden, Dan Olsen and the ever-sharp CHI attending audience. Here's Saul and Bill listening to the commentary: Buxton and Greenberg

An initial note: CHI as a conference has a huge percentage of academic and research attendees. How to make it "relevant" to the "practitioner" audience is a regular concern of the conference committee. Why research isn't necessarily relevant is one of the reasons for their paper, I think. (And for things I've spoken and written about in the past, too.)

The main argument was...

...We too often perceive … an unquestioning adoption of the doctrine of usability evaluation by interface researchers and practitioners. Usability evaluation is not a universal panacea. It does not guarantee user-centered design. It will not always validate a research interface. It does not always lead to a scientific outcome.
Their supporting arguments were these:
  • CHI reviewers require evaluation, and usually quantitative (lab study) testing results, as a part of a submitted paper (reflected in the submissions guidelines)
  • Quantitative usability studies are often the wrong type of study for certain kinds of design: such as inventions in prototype stage; other types of user study may be more correct for these.
  • In an argument familiar from Buxton's book Sketching User Experiences, a focus on usability evaluation too early in a development cycle produces poorer final results than will experimenting with more design concepts (or "sketches")
  • Early-stage technical innovations that are disruptive or paradigm changing may produce poor or ambiguous user testing results, which may prematurely kill them off as research topics -- when long-term these ideas might find audiences and produce large-scale social or practice change after adoption.

Greenberg and Buxton argue that CHI has too great a focus on scientific results (and poor ones at that), rather than on supporting good design and invention.

“Science has one methodology, art and design have another. Are we surprised that art and design are remarkable for their creativity and innovation? While we pride our rigorous stance, we also bemoan the lack of design and innovation. Could there be a correlation between methodology and results?”
Tom Rodden at CHI

Comments ran the gamut from polite disagreement about the counts of types of papers accepted at the conference, to observations that publication-treadmills don't allow time for disruptive risky innovation that can be studied longitudinally, especially for students in grad school. Saul asked the CHI audience to review papers differently -- after all, the audience there constitutes what gets in, and what's considered good work. What constitutes good work worthy of acceptance is in the hands of the reviewers in the room! Finally, it was noted that different, "riskier" work of a design or featuring ethnographic evaluation instead of user testing is regularly accepted at other conferences in the same ACM family: DIS, DUX, CSCW, even Ubicomp and UIST.

Most difficult, for me, is the idea that the CHI reviewing audience has the credibility and experience to review riskier design work that doesn't come along with (the right kind of) user study. With mostly academics and researchers on the reviewer list, I question whether this audience has the depth of practical design experience and credentials required to recognize and talk about "good design" with credibility. What do I require for credibility: having done a lot of real-world design, and having evaluated a lot of products from a customer-centric perspective. When I say "real world" I don't mean academic design - where it's notoriously easy to go wild and crazy. In the context of a business or large organization, the kinds of compromises that designers face are what separate the real good from the mediocre.

I would like to repeat that human computer interaction is not fully represented at CHI. The conference is just one forum. While it's true that CHI publication counts more than most others to researchers in this field, it doesn't necessarily represent the full range of activities and professional expertise in the broader field of interaction design.

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Sunday, March 23, 2008

Netflix Contest and Recommender Systems (short history)

I'm fascinated by the Netflix challenge: Netflix is offering one million dollars for an algorithm to improve recommendations based on movie ratings. Along with this go intermediate "progress" prizes of $50,000 per year the contest runs. The prize leaderboard is interesting reading, in that you can see who is entering teams, their results, and sometimes a bit about the team. Team Bellkor is a group of researchers from AT&T Labs, my first employer out of grad school. (I don't know these particular folks.) Netflix provides an interesting example of one company "funding" research at another company. The research lab folks are getting papers out of it, of course, probably the most important thing they need to do in a research lab (money comes second; although these days, proof that their work can impact a real business domain may beat everything else).

In another AT&T Labs connection, the Netflix prize FAQ cites an excellent overview paper on evaluation of recommender systems (pdf), co-authored by a colleague of mine, Loren Terveen, from the HCI department I was in at Bell Labs. Loren worked closely with Will Hill, one of the Bellcore researchers who (co-temporaneous with Pattie Maes at MIT and Paul Resnick) kicked off the work on recommender and ratings systems that you now find implemented all over the Internet. Recommender systems as a broad theme include all user ratings on products or comment postings (such as Amazon book ratings, or ratings implemented in almost all forum software now); they're intended to help others find good quality content by aggregates of ratings from other users, not from editorial oversight which is costly and therefore scales poorly to large amounts of content. There are important tweaks you can apply to your system or your filtering mechanism, such as "ratings of people like me" versus ratings of everyone, of course. (Netflix has some version of predicted "ratings for YOU", specifically, which I haven't investigated in any detail.)

I recommend glancing through Loren et al.'s paper, for a refreshingly meta perspective on a piece of technology that now defines a lot of assumptions behind what is called "web 2.0." As a more personal note, I wander among mostly non-research types these days, and the hot topics du jour (like "social networking") tend to get dropped into web system design discussions all the time, with a kind of naive "of course we need it" mentality. I can only sigh at how old I feel sometimes. Critical evaluation and careful implementation do matter, even for all the stuff that made it out of research projects into profit-making companies and community-platform toolkits.

As another personal note, I'm generally pleased by the level of researchy savvy I detect in the Netflix prize FAQ. Hey, if you're hiring at a software company, consider investing in some serious research-minded folks for competitive advantage!

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Monday, February 18, 2008

Colbert Bump for Books

I love this type of real world data analysis: Juice Analytics has done some data mining on book sales following author appearances on the Colbert Report, and finds that the more liberal folks get a bigger sales bump! Not what might be expected, unless you expect that fans of the Daily Show watch Colbert-- which I would expect, despite Colbert's apparent right leaning.

Here is one of their graphs, normalized and aligned for when the authors so classified (by them) appeared and their change in sales figures inferred from Amazon rankings. They also cite an interesting academic study of whether used book sales cannibalize new book sales on Amazon, which finds they rarely do.

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Thursday, February 07, 2008

Genetics and Environment: Are You Depressed?

A good, clear article on the role of genetic predisposition vs. upbringing and occurrence of depression lives at Psychology Today in The Identity Dance. Although there are genes that may suggest a higher chance of developing certain mental illnesses, including depression, your upbringing has a lot to do with how likely you are to succumb during trigger events.

The results were striking: 43 percent of subjects who had the short genes and who had experienced four or more tumultuous events became clinically depressed. By contrast, only 17 percent of the long-gene people who had endured four or more stressful events wound up depressed—no more than the rate of depression in the general population. People with the short gene who experienced no stressful events fared pretty well too—they also became depressed at the average rate. Clearly, it was the combination of hard knocks and short genes that more than doubled the risk of depression.

... Moffitt and Caspi have found a similar relationship between another gene and antisocial behavior. Abused and neglected children with a gene responsible for low levels of monoamine oxidase in the brain were nine times more likely to engage in violent or other antisocial behavior as adults than were people with the same gene who were not mistreated. Finnish scientists have since found similar effects on genes for novelty seeking—a trait associated with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Children who had the genes and who were also raised by strict, emotionally distant parents were much more likely to engage in risky behavior and make impulsive decisions as adults than children with the same genes who were raised in more tolerant and accepting environments.

The saddest part of the article is the alcoholic monkey, though.


Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Stats on Remote Viewing Tests

There are lots of bogus stats studies on parapsychology tests, but this looks more promising: UC Davis statistician analyzes validity of paranormal predictions. Pity it's in something called "The California Aggie."
In 1995, Utts was hired by the American Institutes of Research, an independent research firm, along with psychologist Ray Hyman from the University of Oregon to analyze data from a 20-year research program sponsored by the U.S. government to investigate paranormal activity.

After doing initial research, Hyman and Utts found statistical support, she said.

"The two of us did this review and we both concluded that there were really strong statistical results there, but [Hyman] still didn't believe that it could be explained by something psychic - he thought there would be some explanation [that he] can't provide," Utts said.

The research program involved remote viewing, in which test subjects were asked to describe or draw an unknown target. The target could be anything and could be located anywhere. According to Utts' meta-analysis of the 966 studies performed at Stanford Research Institute, subjects could identify the target correctly 34 percent of the time. The probability of these results occurring by chance is .000000000043.

In contrast, statistical support for the effect of aspirin on heart attacks: "The results demonstrated that aspirin reduced the number of heart attacks in people likely to have heart disease by 25 percent, with a probability of it occurring by chance equaling .0003."

Hyman's concern is valid, of course; the stats don't tell us causation, just that there's a pattern in the data that's unlikely to be due to chance. All sorts of biases could have been introduced during the experiments to produce the results.

But it's still provocative!

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Saturday, August 11, 2007

Victoria's Secret Market Research? Or not.

From my huge backlog of things to post, today I choose Victoria's Secret's online survey -- because I'll be tickled by the effect on my web logs.

Yes, in the past I have bought from VS, and do still buy their bras from time to time, despite the price tag. So I got sent an online survey. I always take these market research surveys for professional reasons, since I write them myself for clients from time to time. This one was, well, just strange.

It's hard to judge it as bad or good without knowing what branching logic they have built in. Branching means: If a respondent picks option (a), show them a different followup set of questions than if they had picked option (b). So I may not have seen the whole thing, and may have ended up in a strange cul-de-sac for people who buy bras because they're sexy. I hope not.

When I got to this checklist of "how does your bra makes you feel" (or somesuch), I was genuinely surprised. There are no negatives in here, and the word "supported" doesn't appear. I wonder what they can learn from this, apart from what they want to hear? The only way to avoid their positive bias is to check nothing, which I suspect will be tough for that helpfully-minded customer set that like to fill out surveys.

Previous to this question, they asked about other retailers you buy from. Now, if they had the usual sort of market research plan, I would expect to see an attempt at a basic SWOT analysis on the results: analysis of their strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats.

How do you do that? Well, the logic is roughly this:

  1. Ask:Where do you buy your bras?
  2. Ask:What's important to you about your bra?
  3. Ask:What's your feeling about the bra you bought?
  4. Data analysis: For people who bought from us in (1), what's the difference between (2) and (3). If there's a big gap, that's our opportunity, going forward. (And roughly, strengths and weaknesses, when you compare against people who bought from Sears and Macy's and Frederick's of Hollywood on the same dimensions.)
If they're going after pure brand image and evaluation of their own success at achieving it, I think they still screwed up. Or at least they lost a serious opportunity in their data collection. They know where I shop (or where I said I shop, where I remembered I shopped), and they didn't have any adjectives that don't seem to be their personal target brand image in the list.

With the right vocabulary choices, including negatives and neutrals, they could have done some interesting segmentation based on where their own customers fall in "feeling" versus the other retailers' customers. Something like this:

They can always conclude from their data that some of their customers aren't that interesting to them from a marketing perspective (e.g., the people who shop at Sears, like their stuff a lot, and only occasionally go into a VS store -- because they'll be hard to capture if they're not dissatisfied enough with Sears).

In any case, some other common mistakes I see in market research via survey:

  • You try to collect too much in one survey, and can't do the analysis (plus you irritate the people who filled it out). You can always get more data later in other forms.
  • You don't know what you're trying to get out of it, so you can't construct the instrument well to get anything at all.
  • You set it up to learn what you want to hear (which is what I think was going on with VS -- I won't even tell you about the underwear questions), so you learn nothing and waste time, money, and your customers' patience.
  • You collect the data, then don't know what to do with it. You either don't do much, because of lack of skills in data analysis (clustering, mining, etc), or worse, you do nothing. You have it, but didn't take advantage of it. (This makes me quite uptight when I run into it. Good data is gold. My consulting tagline is "data-driven" for a reason.)
  • You solicit data from the wrong people, but don't even know it, because your survey didn't check on their credentials for answering and providing input. So you can't toss out any of the responses to clean the rest of the data.
End data rant of the week... I think I'm going to Sears now.

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Sunday, March 04, 2007

Test Your Psychic Powers

Participate in an online study of psychic powers run at Psi Experiments. Their first experiment is up, and all you have to do is guess (or divine) which cup the ring is hidden under. No, it's not a street hustle. You can sign up for the results, too.

Experiment One: "In Which Box is the Ring?"

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Sunday, February 25, 2007

Social Networks of Video Editors on LiveJournal

A few months ago, I did a talk at IBM Research in Cambridge on video (or "vid") editors and their online and offline communities. I made a few social network images, which I thought would be interesting to folks here, and I know I have readers on LiveJournal.

The basic gist of the talk was that hobbiest television fan music video editors existed long before YouTube and their history and organization reflect how they use the internet now -- which is verifiable with some simple data analysis. (NB: I used to be one myself, and in the talk I used a lot of personal examples and anonymized the rest, to protect privacy of anyone who wasn't contacted about this talk. So I'll say "we" here although I'm not practicing myself these days.)

In a quick sum of my talk: We used to do music video editing with VCRs. We existed before the internet was our main way of communicating, and we used fanzines and APAs to exchange tips and tricks (but truthfully, this was borderline before my time, although the friends who taught me all did this). We had and still have conventions at which we showed off our work, to supplement the now popular online posting mechanisms of distribution. (YouTube is not a major site for fan video editors, but another current social network tool that supports video has just become very popular among my friends who use LiveJournal for their conversations.)

Knowing the history makes for interesting cruising of the video communities on LiveJournal. The anime video makers turn out to be, for the most part, a distinct group. This isn't too surprising when you read the "about" text on one of the video community pages (slightly disguised here):

Anime "vidders" are told they may not be as comfortable here, and that VCR vidders are welcome.

This image shows the network of members in the anime community (highlighted) which is somewhat separate from the group (and its affiliates) quoted above:

One of the communities that is closely related to this one is one in which an annual face-to-face convention is discussed, started and fed by some of the older VCR editors and now pretty much populated by the non-linear digital folks, of which former VCR people are now a part. The convention-discussion community members, highlighted below in orange, are closely interconnected to the community quoted from above, which is circled in red here:

The group circled in blue is a Battlestar Galactica video group, less closely related but more so than the anime group. The closely inter-connected groups in these images are the generic discussion groups, at which the craft and technique and technical discussions occur. More specific discussion groups are generally less connected.

I made these images with prefuse, and apologies for the quality of the uploads. I'm available to talk about this stuff anytime :-)

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Saturday, February 03, 2007

New Moon and the Stock Market

I've been quite busy recently, and am getting a backlog of post material. Here's on oldie I never got around to blogging, which is weird and short: there is evidence that the lunar phase affects stock market performance.
We find strong lunar cycle effects in stock returns. Specifically, returns in the 15 days around new moon dates are about double the returns in the 15 days around full moon dates. This pattern of returns is pervasive; we find it for all major U.S. stock indexes over the last 100 years and for nearly all major stock indexes of 24 other countries over the last 30 years. In contrast, we find no reliable or economically important evidence of lunar cycle effects in return volatility and volume of trading. Taken as a whole, this evidence is consistent with popular beliefs that lunar cycles affect human behavior.
You can see the abstract and download the paper here: Lunar Cycle Effects in Stock Returns, on the Social Science Research Network.

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Saturday, January 27, 2007

MultiTouch Display

I guess it's a Tipping Point phenomenon, but I wonder who the cool kids are, everytime this happens. The iPhone demo features a multitouch display, and Jeff Han's demo of this functionality on YouTube has been getting a lot of blognoise; but this idea has been around in the research community for a while. What makes something finally get out of R&D "interesting idea" and into "must have innovation wow" in a product seen as widely as the iPhone? It was even around at Apple, and ignored for years. What does it take to get visibility and get on a product development and business radar? Some links:
  • The Jeff Han video that's been circulated a lot (ok, points for music, for high density of info and fast cutting to demo points -- is this what makes it spreadable?)
  • The Tog column that discusses some of the design history that went into the iPhone (many many ideas over many years, including random access voicemail -- we discussed and prototyped this at AT&T and at Excite 10 years ago too), some of it (but not most of it) at Apple itself.
  • Bill Buxton's article referenced by Tog on multitouch displays. I know some of the people he's referencing, and I feel their mystification too.
I guess this is one of the reasons I stay as plugged in as I can to what's happening in R&D--the best of that work will eventually make it into products, and I'd like to lessen that time by figuring out the tipping point for it.

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Thursday, December 28, 2006

Demotivation and Burnout

Picture from Creating Passionate Users

Today's post is brought to you by a five day vacation, during which I've been catching up on some reading and not working long hours! I've found a couple interesting pieces recently on the subject of why people burn out, which suggests it's not the overtime in itself.

The first article was on Blogher, It's Not Just You. A recent Wharton School study looked at reasons for worker burnout. (It's unfortunately not yet available free online.)

"One of the biggest complaints employees have is they are not sufficiently recognized by their organizations for the work that they do. Respect is a component of recognition. When employees don't feel that the organization respects and values them, they tend to experience higher levels of burnout." Or, as Ramarajan puts it, "it is often not the job that burns you out, but the organization."

It turns out there was another good piece in the NY Magazine, Can't Get No Satisfaction, which meanders through social worker burnout, teacher burnout, medical burnout, and into high tech and NY Wall Street burnout. This one notes previous good research:

In 1981, Maslach, now vice-provost at the University of California, Berkeley, famously co-developed a detailed survey, known as the Maslach Burnout Inventory, to measure the syndrome. Her theory is that any one of the following six problems can fry us to a crisp: working too much; working in an unjust environment; working with little social support; working with little agency or control; working in the service of values we loathe; working for insufficient reward (whether the currency is money, prestige, or positive feedback). “I once talked to a pediatric dentist,” she says, “and he said, ‘A good day is when there are no screamers.’

Googling for Maslach, I hit an online quiz that rates your current level of burnout risk. The questions are about how you feel and about your work environment, as predicted by Maslach's findings. (E.g., "Do you feel that you are achieving less than you should?"; "Do you feel under an unpleasant level of pressure to succeed?"; "Do you find that you do not have time to plan as much as you would like to?" etc.) See how you score!

Finally, there's a related by different piece I just read when catching up on Creating Passionate Users, on Knocking the Exhuberance Out of Employees. When you burn people out, you've got robots and zombies working for you. Zombies and robots don't argue, don't have ideas, and don't threaten you or the status quo. They're a lot easier to manage, too. Hopefully no one who works for me is reading this, though, because I like arguing with them and am in no way an advocate of less exhuberance. Let that go as read!

Lastly, an article on Job Burnout in an online manufacturing magazine says (citing Maslach) burnout is about a mismatch "between what people are and what they have to do. It represents an erosion in values, dignity, spirit, and will-—an erosion of the human soul." America, with increasingly long hours and questionable corporate values, is a leader in burnout. We measure customer satisfaction, but worker satisfaction isn't a serious corporate issue, and the 40 hour work week is long dead.

Postscript: I can't believe I forgot the classic article on burnout, the electrocuted dogs experiment by Seligman: Learned Helplessness. This one has a positive spin to it, in that it suggests some therapeutic ways out of the syndrome. Happy New Year!

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Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Innovation 1000: Companies Profiting from R&D

An excellent study of companies spending money on R&D over the last five years, and their payoff (or not): Smart Spenders: The Global Innovation 1000.

Some takeaways from this study:

Patents don't equal profit. Although a common measurement for innovation, it's a distractor: portfolio doesn't equal profit.

"Money simply cannot buy effective innovation."

There are no significant statistical relationships between R&D spending and the primary measures of financial or corporate success: sales and earnings growth, gross and operating profitability, market capitalization growth, and total shareholder returns. Gross profits as a percentage of sales is the single performance variable with a statistical relationship to R&D spending.... Researchers who study innovation estimate that 70 to 80 percent of the final unit cost of a product (the cost reflected in gross margin) is driven by R&D-based design decisions — for example, product specifications, the number and complexity of features in a device, the choice of standardized or customized parts, or the selection of manufacturing processes. This correlation of R&D spending and gross margin shows that in many companies, the R&D silo has succeeded in its narrow goal: creating a lower-cost offering that thus yields a wider margin, or a more differentiated offering for which a higher price can be charged.

R&D money is being offshored-- or innovation is now occurring in the "rest of the world" rather than Europe, North America, and Japan.

The "integrated value chain" of innovation shows that companies that leverage their "ideation" into commercial products more efficiently are seeing payoff. This makes sense, but seems to be hard to do.

Many high-leverage companies apply distinctive approaches to innovation at all four stages. For example, from the ideation stage through project selection and product development, high-leverage innovators tend to prize end-user input. The Stryker Corporation, a $4.9 billion medical technology company headquartered in Kalamazoo, Mich., works closely in R&D with the surgeons and other medical professionals who use its products. The Black & Decker Corporation’s innovation strategy is also heavily determined by end-users. “We’ve spent a lot of time focusing on where they work, where they play, where they buy, and where they learn,” says CFO Michael Mangan. “Understanding and developing those relationships really increases the efficiency of our new product introductions.”

There are two great stories of how two very different companies seize opportunities. SanDisk operates by watching the market for parts and capitalizing on opportunities offered by lower costs.

In the flash memory industry, prices fall 40 to 50 percent per year. Thus, at SanDisk, a small team of senior executives meets twice per week to monitor prices and market trends. Their awareness, fed back into the company’s innovation process, allows SanDisk to act quickly on new opportunities. In 2004, for example, the company realized that falling costs had created an opportunity for it to enter the market for MP3 audio players with a flash memory–based device. Management contacted an original equipment maker, defined design specifications, and delivered the new product to retailers’ shelves within six months. The SanDisk player is now number two in the market, after Apple. “We don’t have big planning and product committees,” says SanDisk Chief Financial Officer Judy Bruner. “Most decisions, even those involving huge capital commitments, are made pretty quickly by a small number of pretty visionary people.”

Symantec leverages shared code and a strong core engineering team that allows them to be nimble when responding to changes. “We have a large portfolio of products and business units,” says Ann Marie Beasley, vice president of strategy. “One of the key contributors to our R&D bang for the buck is that there’s a lot of common engineering and design, as well as actual code reuse.”

Not profiled in this article, I recently read an update on Philips Design in Fast Company: Design Intervention. Philips has been recruiting for at least 6 years for its R&D Lab, and I keep wondering what's up with them. This piece pointed out a couple positives from their output, which I recall seeing in stores, including the the Ambilight HD LCD display.

A 1995 Philips Design project called "Vision of the Future" was conceptually very similar to the Simplicity extravaganza in Manhattan--a flood of flash-forward products and ideas. Indeed, the concepts unveiled back then read today like a laundry list of the technologies that are changing our lives, including personal digital assistants and voice-recognition systems. Three years later, though, Philips went back to see how many of those concepts had actually gone into production and discovered that while a laudable 60% were already for sale, only 3% of them were made by Philips. "Their design and technical specs were usually good," says Enrique Dans, a professor at Instituto de Empresa Business School, "but they were disconnected from the market."

They're learning from history and adjusting, it seems.

"Philips's total sales from products introduced in the last year were 49% of total revenues in 2005, up from just 25% in 2003. In medical systems alone, an industry with long product cycles, some 70% of revenues came from products less than two years old--up 20 percentage points from the previous year. And despite disappointing LCD results in 2006's second quarter, from a less-than-expected World Cup boost, growth in Philips's medical systems and consumer electronics came in better than expected, at 9% and 10%, respectively."

I'm always impressed by companies that learn from history. And by good analysis in business. Edited to add: There's a nice piece here about a guy studying incentives for failures, a critical part of the innovation process. A lot of companies pay lip service to the value of risk-taking and failure in the corporate learning process, but few of them have incentive plans that reward risk-taking with failure rather than rewarding only the success stories. Employees aren't dumb when it comes to rewards vs. lip service and know what really counts to their managers.

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Friday, December 01, 2006

A collection of professional essays...

The more involved in management I am, the less I feel I am doing things that I can point to and say "I did that." (Also, the less I work for companies that make consumer or well-known products, but that's a different issue and a weird trend I noticed a few years ago...) But I got the good news today that an essay of mine will appear in a book accepted by MIT Press for 2007 publication along with many others by names that I know from my field: luminaries, old friends, and former research colleagues. Most of the other authors are probably wondering who I am in this list; I feel honored to be there and to have been invited to submit something to it. Here's the info on the current Table of Contents: HCI Remixed: Essays on Works that have Influenced the HCI Community. (This book must be 500 pages long!)

We're all writing about previous work that influenced us, in a personal essay vein. It could become a nice secondary textbook in a reading course in interface design or human-computer interaction research. I was fascinated by the list of source papers and immediately downloaded a bunch that I didn't know myself. As soon as I flipped through them, I wanted to know what the other folks said about them. I can see the appeal of this collection immediately. Great idea, Tom and David.

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Tuesday, April 25, 2006

LiveJournal Social Networks

A year ago I did a survey on memes on LiveJournal that garnered a whole lot more responses than I anticipated. I presented some data from that survey at an informal workshop last year at the CHI conference, and revisited the same data again a year later (this week). Here are two pictures I generated of the friends' lists of 222 people, with the same 2 people highlighted in red in 2005 and in 2006.



I believe the latter one shows less network connectivity. I have some stats to support it. Stay tuned...

PS. I used Jeff Heer's prefuse toolkit to make these pictures.

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Sunday, April 09, 2006

You Make Your Own Luck

A nice (positive!) story off one of my favorite blogs, Mind Hacks. You Make Your Own Luck is a summary of the book by Richard Wiseman, The Luck Factor. Wiseman's analysis says that being "lucky" comes down largely to personality attributes, such as being open-minded, optimistic, experimental, and aware of opportunities when they come up.

Principle One: Maximise Chance Opportunities Lucky people are skilled at creating, noticing and acting upon chance opportunities. They do this in various ways, including networking, adopting a relaxed attitude to life and by being open to new experiences.

Principle Two: Listening to Lucky Hunches Lucky people make effective decisions by listening to their intuition and gut feelings. In addition, they take steps to actively boost their intuitive abilities by, for example, meditating and clearing their mind of other thoughts.

Principle Three: Expect Good Fortune Lucky people are certain that the future is going to be full of good fortune. These expectations become self-fulfilling prophecies by helping lucky people persist in the face of failure, and shape their interactions with others in a positive way.

Principle Four: Turn Bad Luck to Good Lucky people employ various psychological techniques to cope with, and often even thrive upon, the ill fortune that comes their way. For example, they spontaneously imagine how things could have been worse, do not dwell on the ill fortune, and take control of the situation.

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Saturday, April 01, 2006

The Physics of Friendship

Another interesting (and successful) paper on modeling of social networks by physicists: A System of Mobile Agents to Model Social Networks (pdf), by Gonzalez, Lind, and Hermann. I recommend the more accessible writeup here.

The gist is that they can model friendship patterns in schools with a system of particle collisions and diffusions, and accurately reproduce the empirical data from a large survey of 84 schools' friendship relations. With a minor variation, the model extends to sexual relations in an HIV study (not at schools).

How depressing to learn we're just particles bumping into each other!

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Sunday, March 05, 2006

Sleep on it for complex decisions.

Complex decisions are made better after a night's sleep, according to BBC NEWS: Sleep on it. It looks like simple decisions are better made consciously than unconsciously, though. (Now, how can you tell the two apart? And why does the alert brain seem so limited-- is this another "7 plus or minus 2" result?)
The conscious thought group managed to pick the best car based on four aspects around 55% of the time, while the unconscious thought group only chose the right one 40% of the time.

But when the experiment was made more complex by bringing in 12 attributes to weigh up, the conscious thought group's success rate fell to around 23% as opposed to nearly 60% for the unconscious thought group.

Importantly, post-decision satisfaction ratings were included in this study. So -- if you have a group of people in charge of making complex multivariate decisions, who also have sleep disorders, your organization is in trouble--? Unless someone up above gets a lot of sleep on all the complex decisions everyone is coping with, perhaps.

That question cuts a little close to home, for some of us. It also begs a new candidate interview question...

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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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Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Usability Research References

Human Factors International (a well-known consulting firm) does end-of-year summaries of important usability research findings in bite-size bullet pieces. The items are useful for designers and researchers working on any UI topic, but there's a definite focus on web design (for obvious reasons). The review is titled Yeah but can you give me a reference?

The 2005 list includes:

  • What users think/ say they will do in focus groups and what they actually do in usability tests often differs. (Eysenbach and Kohler, 2002) [This is a truism often repeated, but now there's a reference you can cite!]
  • Tolerable wait time is about 2 seconds. Users will wait somewhat longer if there is feedback that something is happening. (Nah, 2004)
  • Use of whitespace between paragraphs and in the left and right margins increased comprehension by almost 20%. (Lin, 2004)
They did the same in 2004 and 2003. Interesting cites from those years include:
  • Less than half of users take advantage of breadcrumbs (even when most report having noticed them). (Lida, Hull and Pilcher, 2002)
  • Under click-stream analysis, breadcrumbs are not more efficient than other approaches to navigation. (Lida, Hull and Pilcher, 2002)
  • Color similarity has a stronger perceptual influence than common region, proximity, or grouping. (Beck and Palmer, 2002)
  • Photographs do not increase the trustworthiness of already credible sites. They do, however, improve the credibility of sites that are not generally perceived as trustworthy. (Riegelsberger , Sasse & McCarthy, 2003)
  • Heuristic review tends to uncover usability issues related to presentation (skills- and rules-based user performance). (Fu, Salvendy and Turley, 2002)
  • Usability testing tends to uncover issues related to domain-specific knowledge and interaction (knowledge-based user performance). (Fu, Salvendy and Turley, 2002)
On the final subject, another issue of the HFI newsletter features an article on Pitting Usability Testing Against Expert Evaluation. This is an excellent piece, summarizing well the things that expert evaluation can do for you and what to realistically expect from usability testing -- including where they overlap.

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Saturday, December 31, 2005

Nerd A.D.D.

This post is dedicated to my brother... another nerd who thinks he has ADD. I myself recognize the symptoms all too well, especially after a week at my sister's house where it was not ok to sit with a latop all the time. (The question on my mind today is: can I go to a party tonight and take along a book, my ipod-wannabe, and a palm pilot, in case I need more than conversation and drink to make it through?)

On RandsInRepose, the description of N.A.D.D.

Here's a tip: If the building you are currently in is burning to the ground, go find the person with NADD on your floor. Not only will they know where the fire escape is, they'll probably have some helpful tips about how to avoid smoke inhalation as well likely probabilities regarding the likelihood you'll survive. How is it this Jr. Software Engineer knows all this? Who knows, maybe he read it on a weblog two years ago. Perhaps a close virtual friend of his in New York is a fire fighter. Does it matter? He may save your life or, better yet, keep you well informed with useless facts before you are burnt to a crisp.

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Friday, December 30, 2005

New Scientist 2005 Roundup

Two good NS pieces:'s top 10 news stories of 2005, ranging from 13 Things That Do Not Make Sense (blogged here before) to the Pentagon's rejected sex weapon designed to make enemy soldiers fall in love.

And then there's the Year in Solar System, a look at all the amazing space mission discoveries in 2005, full of links to the articles.


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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Thursday, October 20, 2005

Networked Governance: Network & Teams

Harvard University has a Program on Networked Governance, on whose site I found some nice links on networks and teams. I thoroughly enjoyed the literature review in their first article link, Building Effective Intra-Organizational Networks: The Role of Teams (pdf). The starting observation is that there hasn't been a lot of research cross-over between people studying social network analysis (SNA) and effective teamwork in organizations.

As a tourist in both fields, I found the literature review and the points of contrast and comparison very interesting. It's a good intro to both fields.

  • Bavelas and his colleagues at MIT conducted experimental analyses of how communication patterns among teammates influenced team effectiveness ... When the information was simple, centralized communication was optimal. When the information was complex, centralized communication was dysfunctional.[Me: For decentralized communication to work, the network must be highly functional.]
  • The paradigmatic focus of team research is on the task performance of a small group with a clear and well-defined boundary (Alderfer, 1977) “Clear and well-defined” means that team members and outsiders know who is on and who is off the team (Hackman, 1990). This is a critical element of the very definition of a team. [Me: This is also the in-group/out-group issue I found in the community studies literature in my dissertation research. Individuals who are shared across multiple teams may have a harder time identifying with any one team, and this may impact productivity or team relationships.]
  • For teams with little autonomy or with overloaded team members, communication initiated by the external environment negatively affected team performance. [I guess this includes management wrenches thrown in the game very late...]
  • Do team members know each other before the team exists? Jehn & Shah (1997) found differences in intra-team communication when they compared teams composed of friends to teams composed of acquaintances. [Not surprising. Check who has lunch with each other!]
  • We know that a team’s success or failure can influence subsequent feelings of cohesiveness among teammates (Turner, Hogg, & Smith, 1984). One possibility is that misery (lack of success) breeds company (connectedness). Another possibility is that successful collaborations result in increased communication. Lack of success may lead to a vicious cycle of failure, leading to disconnectedness, leading to more failure, and so on. [As a manager I would think hard about retaining the same team members in a context where their first product was seen as having been a failure... or where they thought it was.]
  • While knowledge networks describe who knows what, each individual in the organization also has his/her own perception of who knows what, or a “cognitive knowledge network” (Contractor, Zink, & Chan, 1998). Cognitive knowledge networks are a combination of knowing who knows who, and who knows what – i.e. who knows who knows what. Cognitive knowledge networks vary in their accuracy and completeness (Contractor et al.), where higher levels of accuracy can be expected to result in greater access to the knowledge in the network. [An environment where people don't know what other people know, or who knows what is a risky environment for the success of a teams and individuals.]
  • Another mechanism social systems have that regulates individual tendencies toward noncooperative behavior is the possibility of continued relationships, because the fruits of future collaboration are at stake (Axelrod, 1981). ... We would expect teams made up of relationships with a greater expected duration will suffer from less free riding. When one free-riding team member can “crash” the entire team, and free riding is thus a dangerous risk, a desirable network will feature high levels of embeddedness, strong ties within the team, and expectations for future interaction. [Free riding, of course, is slacking off, in a work context. So, if the team hasn't felt it has been a failure, the existence of the group over time encourages individual performance and communication.]
  • When a manager assigns people to teams, he/she is molding the social capital of the organization. .. There are two overarching points here: (1) when assigning people to teams, managers should consider the impact of a team on the organization’s long term social capital; and (2) managers should consider viewing social capital the same way they view other types of capital: it may need to be amortized over time. Under certain conditions, it may even be worth sacrificing some short-run team performance for the sake of fostering long-run organizational performance.
I really enjoyed this article, but then I'm a great tourist.

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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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Friday, October 07, 2005

Negative Network Ties

This is an unusual article (a pdf): an examination of negative relationships in social networks, particularly in organizations. The bulk of social networks studies and community studies are about the positive -- benefits acrued, capital, positive reciprocity, sharing of resources, emotional feeling and trust -- but humans do have negative feelings and interactions and groups exhibit negative behaviors both by individuals and collectively.

Labianca and Brass point out that negative work relationships may be non-reciprocal, and may be a result of loss of trust, friendship, or just dislike; significant social liabilities may result from more extreme negativity, as one or both participants in the relationship avoid one another or change work habits to prevent interactions that would be unpleasant. Although they don't associate relationship "conflict" with negative ties directly, they do point out that there may be negative repercussions to the individuals regardless of the existence of conflict "episodes," because of avoidance behaviors impacting work.

This, incidentally, may be related to the "Lovable Fools" article that was summarized on a bunch of sooial network studies sites: it stated that people are more likely to seek out people they like, who may not be competent, in a workplace; which might, of course, also impact work performance at some point. But quoting Negative Ties:

While a great deal of research has been conducted on friendship formation, interpersonal attraction, and the evolution of friendships (see Berscheid & Walster, 1978, and Hays, 1988, for reviews), little has been conducted on the formation and development of negative relationships (Wiseman & Duck, 1995). The evolution of negative relationships may be very different from positive relationships. Friendship development is viewed as a gradual process. According to social penetration theory (Altman & Taylor, 1973), friendship development proceeds from superficial interaction in narrow areas of exchange to increasingly deeper interaction in broader areas. Perceptions of the rewards and costs of interacting with a potential friend drive this progression – if you feel that the rewards from a relationship outweigh the costs, you will continue to progress toward closer friendship.

However, Wiseman and Duck’s (1995) qualitative work indicates that negative relationship development is a much faster process that tends to lead to the other person being included in coarse-grained categories such as “rival” or “enemy.” By contrast, fine-grained ranking distinctions are created for friends as they move through a relationship progression from casual acquaintances to close friends. Thus, the formation of negative relationships is not the mere opposite of the way that positive relationships form. Not only is there evidence that negative relationships form differently, but there is also evidence that they may have greater power in explaining some socioemotional and task outcomes in organizations than positive relationships.

Some of the factors they associate with negative relationships are absenteeism and turnover (lack of organizational attachment), disproportionate impact on job satisfaction (i.e., a negative far outweighs any positives), disproportionate impact on promotion and salary (negative outweighs positives by far at review time).

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So what do you have to do to find happiness?

There's some coverage of the increasing study of what makes people happy in the Sunday Times Online. Some sample quotes in an excellent article:

Public surveys measure what makes us happy. Marriage does, pets do, but children don't seem to (despite what we think). Youth and old age are the happiest times. Money does not add much to happiness; in Britain, incomes have trebled since 1950, but happiness has not increased at all. The happiness of lottery winners returns to former levels within a year. People disabled in an accident are likely to become almost as happy again.

...Showing how easy it is to give people an intellectual boost, Isen divided doctors making a tricky diagnosis into three groups: one received candy, one read humanistic statements about medicine, one was a control group. The doctors who had candy displayed the most creative thinking and worked more efficiently.

..."The things that you desire are not the things that you end up liking. The mechanisms of desire are insatiable. There are things that we really like and tire of less quickly — having good friends, the beauty of the natural world, spirituality. But our economic system plays into the psychology of wanting, and the psychology of liking gets drowned out."

...In essence, what the biology lesson tells us is that negative emotions are fundamental to the human condition, and it's no wonder they are difficult to eradicate. At the same time, by a trick of nature, our brains are designed to crave but never really achieve lasting happiness.

Regardless of the pessimistic finding, there's hope at website, if you pay $10 a month. An interesting footnote in the article states that women and men do have different emotional makeup, with women more extreme in their highs and lows. Not surprising to me.

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Monday, October 03, 2005

Preschoolers Drive Flu Epidemics

Surveillance Data Suggest That Preschoolers Drive Flu Epidemics. I found this linked off a social network analysis blog, bemoaning the lack of SNA in the study. I would have thought epidemiology was all up on social networks as a mechanism of disease spread. At least on TV the CDC are -- even if it's just a masked doctor asking who the carrier had contact with in the last 2 days, and then sweating and hissing, "It's getting out of control, shut down O'Hare and then LAX!!"

Quote:"The data suggest that when kids are sneezing, the elderly begin to die. Three- and 4-year-olds are sentinels that allow us to focus our surveillance systems." I wish they better explained what the "biosurveillance" system is.

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The Ig Nobel Awards

The IgNobel Awards are this Thursday at Harvard. Based on Steve Crandall's recommendation, I impulse-purchased a ticket today. If anyone else local is going, it would be fun to meet up for a drink before or after.


Saturday, October 01, 2005

Physical Models of Virtual Spaces

Tom Vollaro has an interesting item on his website: A visualization of the virtual contents of a MUD, which is a virtual chatspace with a user-expandable geography. He did a site map of the rooms of BayMOO, and then built a model showing what it looks like. I like the concept of turning compass directions in a text engine into a plastic model you can walk around. His site is here.

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Sunday, September 04, 2005

Children develop cynicism at an early age

How sad: Children develop cynicism at an early age.
In the second part of the study the children were asked how self-interest might lead someone to make an incorrect statement. Children were provided with three choices: intentional deception, unintentional bias, or pure mistake. They rarely endorsed bias as the best possible explanation for being incorrect. The youngest children were more likely to think the characters were lying. ... "It is not until sixth grade that children begin to endorse lies and biases as equally plausible explanations for self-interested incorrect statements," Mills said. "Adults are clearly sensitive to all three sources of inaccuracy. How children begin to understand what it means to be biased is an open question."

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Friday, September 02, 2005

Silicon Valley Network Analysis

"Saxenian (1994) presented a systematic argument that network structure in Silicon Valley was quite different from that in the Route 128 corridor of the Boston metropolitan area, for a variety of historical, economic, and cultural reasons, and that this difference translated into what she called, in her book’s title, a distinct “regional advantage” for the Valley." One of the reasons for the difference is the dense social network linkages in Silicon Valley, the high mobility of employees, and the sharing of knowledge at sidewalk cafes -- impossible in a cold, secretive Defense-funded climate like Boston's.

On the SiVNAP--Papers's site, the last article summarizes the network effect on the founding of the semiconductor industry, the growth of Venture capital firms, and the relationships between Stanford and local industry.

I miss the Bay Area! Although it was somewhat disconcerting how small the world felt, every time you went for an interview ("what do you think of so-and-so--?").

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Physicists vs. Sociologists, oh my.

Apparently there's been a bit of bad blood over the fact that physicists are doing social network analysis. An account of some of the "hmph, why don't they cite us" is over at Crooked Timber.

It probably sounds like I'm not sympathetic, but actually I am. I had it bad in the cross-disciplinary early days of Internet research when I wrote my dissertation. It was hard to figure out who to read, what to cite, and where to follow-up. Hard, but not impossible, and so I am sympathetic. (But possibly the relatively powerless position of grad student made me more concerned about this process than tenured physics professors?)

Eszter at Crooked Timber has a nice reading list for social network studies. And here's the link to the infamous social network paper by physicists, on the Eurovision song contest -- always an interesting subject! Even more entertaining, from their abstract: "We investigate the complex relationships between countries in the Eurovision Song Contest, by recasting past voting data in terms of a dynamical network. Despite the British tendency to feel distant from Europe, our analysis shows that the U.K. is remarkably compatible, or ‘in tune’, with other European countries. Equally surprising is our finding that some other core countries, most notably France, are significantly ‘out of tune’ with the rest of Europe."

I'd guess the physicists are British.

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Saturday, August 27, 2005

History of Social Networks Analysis

Here's a review of The Development of Social Network Analysis, which looks like an entertaining history.
Freeman defines social network analysis as having four key features: a structural intuition, systematic collection of relational data, graphic images, and mathematical or computational models. (I would add a fifth feature that is ancillary yet crucial: a study of the flows through the network.) The first four features alone tend to produce a static network, though in Freeman's own work flows are often important. When flows are added, networks become channels through which ideas, values, friendship, esteem, money, sales, disease, or almost anything can travel. The same network structure may pass flows of different kinds, or different structures may better facilitate different flows. The impact of social network analysis and its utility depends in large measure on which flows are studied. The way the different flows capture the popular and academic imagination determine, in part, the place of network analysis.

There were plenty of kooky characters in this history, like in any academic field: Moreno had dark side: "self-centered, self-serving ... admitted hearing voices, he sometimes thought he was God, and he was convinced that others were always stealing his ideas" (p. 31). Though to gain a full appreciation of his bizarre side, there is nothing like reading Who Shall Survive, available in the original 1934 edition for about $175 (what to give your favorite network scholar) or the even more bizarre 1953 edition that -- oddly -- costs about the same. "For the most part Moreno seemed to be unfocused but, when he was involved with a woman who could serve as a muse, he succeeded in concentrating and was able to write" (p. 34).

Ew. On the other hand, it's probably a fun read.

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Saturday, August 06, 2005

Quantum information can be negative

According to this article, Quantum information can be negative. Science reporting is often iffy. I especially liked this section:
One can also have situations where someone knows more than everything. This is known as quantum ‘entanglement’, and when two people share entanglement, there can be negative information.

I'm pretty sure I've seen this situation, even without quantum particles.


Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Francis Crick and the Claustrum

I've been thoroughly enjoying the blog on Mind Hacks. It's one of the blogs I read right away and don't let pile up, unlike many others these days. One of their latest posts is on the late Francis Crick's attempt to explain consciousness in his final paper (co-authored with Christof Koch). The claustrum is a thin sheet of grey matter: "Crick and Koch argue that the claustrum is probably connected to all of the cortex, and has a significant role in emotion, suggesting it may be involved in the 'binding' of emotion and the senses into a single conscious experience."

The post is here: Mind Hacks: Francis Crick has left the building.


Thursday, July 21, 2005

The Futile (?) Pursuit of Happiness

In a comment on my previous post Erik reminded me about this chestnut article from the NYTimes magazine: "The Futile Pursuit of Happiness."
Gilbert and his collaborator Tim Wilson call the gap between what we predict and what we ultimately experience the ''impact bias'' -- ''impact'' meaning the errors we make in estimating both the intensity and duration of our emotions and ''bias'' our tendency to err. The phrase characterizes how we experience the dimming excitement over not just a BMW but also over any object or event that we presume will make us happy. Would a 20 percent raise or winning the lottery result in a contented life? You may predict it will, but almost surely it won't turn out that way. And a new plasma television? You may have high hopes, but the impact bias suggests that it will almost certainly be less cool, and in a shorter time, than you imagine. Worse, Gilbert has noted that these mistakes of expectation can lead directly to mistakes in choosing what we think will give us pleasure.

We may be poor at making personal choices, but there is a political component to happiness. Cross-cultural studies have shown that having money is not sufficient for well-being. One of them is at Cross-National Differences in Happiness (pdf).

...Happiness tends to be higher the better the country provides its citizens with material comfort, social security, education, health care, and political rights. Happiness is also higher in the relatively equal societies. These differences are not only a manifestation of wealth. After control for RGDP the correlations remain sizeable. Together these country characteristics explain 80% of the variance in (average) happiness in the 28-nation set.

The Netherlands is a happy place, despite the weather. Happiness correlates with longer life, in their study, and is inversely correlated with "anxiety" measures like alcoholism, suicide, mental distress... It seems that happiness is a measurable trait that can be improved, perhaps more at the political and social level than by action at the individual level?


Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Creative or Nuts?

In the Psychiatric Times: Are Genius and Madness Related? Contemporary Answers to an Ancient Question . The answer is "yes" by a number of careful measures. Creativity is described as this set of attributes:
In general, creativity requires the cognitive ability and the dispositional willingness to "think outside the box"; to explore novel, unconventional and even odd possibilities; to be open to serendipitous events and fortuitous results; and to imagine the implausible or consider the unlikely. From this requirement arises the need for creators to have such traits as defocused attention, divergent thinking, openness to experience, independence and nonconformity.

Despite the linkage between depression, alcoholism, suicide, and creativity, there is some hope:

Second, creative individuals score high on other characteristics that would seem to dampen the effects of any psychopathological symptoms. In particular, creators display high levels of ego strength and self-sufficiency (Barron, 1963; Cattell and Butcher, 1968). Accordingly, they can exert meta-cognitive control over their symptoms, taking advantage of bizarre thoughts, rather than having the bizarre thoughts take advantage of them. Furthermore, the capacity to exploit unusual ideas is supported by general intelligence. Although intelligence is not correlated with creativity in the upper levels of the intelligence distribution, a certain minimal level of intelligence is required for exceptional creativity (Simonton, 2000). That threshold level is in the gifted range, roughly equivalent to an IQ 120. Creators do not necessarily have genius-grade IQs, but they do have sufficient information processing power to select, develop, elaborate and refine original ideas into creative contributions.
And the article ends with some suggestions on how to treat creative individuals and maintain the edge that makes them create, without them sliding over it. Fascinating reading.

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Thursday, June 30, 2005

Vertical Leap Conference on Search

My friend Barney has been blogging some detailed (albeit raw) notes from panel sessions at Vertical Leap. Here are his most recent notes, and you should check a few days behind this as well: Investing in Vertical Search.

Here is more blogging of the events: Technorati Tag for Vertical Leap. You'll find stuff on venture funding, classifieds and job search, travel search, shopping, blog searching.


Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Smell Research

Like most people, I think aromatherapy is kind of hooey, except that I do really like perfume and different aromatic oils. It turns out interesting research has been done on the physiological impact of different scents, leading to some neat conclusions. Most of this comes from the Smell and Taste Treatment and Research Foundation, ltd., and published reports of the research of one Alan Hirsch.
  • Smelling of Grapefruit Helps Women Appear Younger But Doesn't Affect Other Women. Very odd. "Another possibility is that the grapefruit aroma could have sexually aroused the men, clouding their judgment, or even could have acted as a stress buster, he says." Grapefruit makes me more stressed, not less, but then men are strange about foods.
  • As this shows, too: Various Aromas Enhance Male Sexual Response, most marked being the smell of lavender and pumpkin pie, closely followed by a mix of donut and black licorice. Strange, desserts and candy are sexy.
  • But meanwhile, the Sense of Smell Can Make You Eat Less, which has even been productized in Australia. Banana, green apple, and pepermint are high weight loss scents.
  • And Floral Scents Make Women Look Thinner. That rose based perfume I bought in Paris must make me look anorexic.
  • Male Underarm Odor Makes Women More Fertile plus other weird smell facts, like "Green apple and cucumber scents create the impression of a larger space, while the scent of roasted meat creates the impression of closer quarters; Some people can't smell skunks, while others can't smell freesias; A 1-week-old baby can discriminate between the smell of his own breastfeeding mother and another mother; Women are born better smellers than men and remain better smellers over life." And lavender really does measurably induce better and deeper sleep.
  • While back on Hirsch's corporate page, people scratching their noses might be lying. Or, like me, it could be allergies.


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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Thursday, June 09, 2005

chemical trust and love with oxytocin

From Steve on tingilinde: "chemical trust and love with oxytocin." Wouldn't it be interesting if, along with depression, anxiety, and high cholesterol, antisocial behavior and international conflicts could be fixed with prescription drugs?


Monday, May 02, 2005

Visualizing Friendster

I've linked to the prefuse project a few times already. Danah Boyd and Jeffrey Heer have a paper they submitted to InfoViz (the conference) on using prefuse to build a network vis tool for Friendster users, and some frank evaluation of it. It includes a lot of nice screen shots.

Here is danah's link and notes about the project:   apophenia: Vizster. And here is the InfoViz paper link itself (pdf).

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Friday, April 29, 2005

Mirror Neurons

Apparently some scientists say humans can read minds:

"Mirror neurons suggest that we pretend to be in another person's mental shoes," says Marco Iacoboni, a neuroscientist at the University of California, Los Angeles School of Medicine. "In fact, with mirror neurons we do not have to pretend, we practically are in another person's mind."

Since their discovery, mirror neurons have been implicated in a broad range of phenomena, including certain mental disorders. Mirror neurons may help cognitive scientists explain how children develop a theory of mind (ToM), which is a child's understanding that others have minds similar to their own. Doing so may help shed light on autism, in which this type of understanding is often missing.


Networks and Creativity

A link from Boing_boing on the value of fresh perspectives in creative endeavors, studied from a social network perspective: Dream teams thrive on mix of old and new blood.
"You need someone new to get the creative juices going so you don't get trapped in the same ideas over and over again." Uzzi added, "If your systemic network has teams with only incumbents, and especially incumbents who have worked together repeatedly, your field tends to have low impact scores. The fact that we found this across fields with equally powerful minds suggests that how the brain power of a field is organized into different kinds of networks determines the field's success."


Sunday, April 24, 2005

Exploring Enron Email

This is how I found Mark Newman's stuff and it well deserves linking to in its own right. Jeffrey Heer, the main author of the prefuse network visualization toolkit that I linked to a few weeks ago, has this cool paper: Exploring Enron, visualizing social networks from the Enron email corpus at UC Berkeley.
enron social mess

He implemented one of Newman's fast algorithms for detecting community structure in Java and it worked out fairly well.


Mark Newman is Hot

I found Mark Newman's web page while tracking down some references on social network graphing algorithms, and was wowed by his list of pubs. I scanned through a bunch before finding the home page, noted he is quite cute, boggled he is in a Physics dept., and then saw he was one of the characters responsible for the widely linked to blue & red election results maps of the country.

Coolness AND attractiveness factors, ok; but back to the substance that convinced me I wanted to date him before I even saw his picture. He's applied his general network analysis algorithms to analysing wide ranging network data, from biological pathways to animal behavior to routes in cities to physics paper citations to web site linkage. The papers tend towards the math-full, but the points are pretty interesting nonetheless. And his math gives me hope I can crunch my enormous pile of LiveJournal network data into something tractable, eventually!

On his pubs list, look for the "Why social networks are different from other types of networks", "Finding community structure in very large networks" (in which they analyse buying patterns and find community-like structures), and the sweetest one, "Identifying the role that individual animals play in their social network," a study of dolphin communities.

Apparently one individual (SN100) acts as the broker between 2 dolphin groups. (Other dolphins had names like "fish" and "thumper"; so why couldn't SN100 get a real handle?) Dolphins hang with other similar dolphins, just like people do. Here, I'll make it easy to get to the dolphin story.


Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Pivot Points in Network Diagrams

Blogging this fast so I can come back to it later from home (eek), this guy has some nice pictures of big networks showing meta information about them, including pivot points in social networks:

Off of a strangely laid out CHAOMEI CHEN's HOMEPAGE.


Saturday, April 09, 2005

SNIF: Social Networking in Fur

The SNIF paper from MIT caused some consternation at the CHI conference in Portland this past week. It's a proposed design (or thought experiment, or classroom project) for smart leashes and collars which detect and react to other pets with smart leashes and collars and then save information about the pets' interactions. Two of the authors presented photos of leash prototypes attached to stuffed toys lying flat on the carpet, and cardboard mockups of dogs with pointy ears. It got a lot of giggles, but some people just left the room. small snifs pic

At the end, Marti Hearst (UC Berkeley) asked, "I'm not sure if this is a serious paper or a parody of a CHI paper, but in the spirit of parody, have you considered the dogs' privacy?" A big laugh there -- they nodded deadpan and said of course this was a concern.

My biggest disappointment with it was that it wasn't "done"; it hadn't been deployed and tested at all. Some of the people who left the room said the same -- amongst the flat out "it's ridiculous" accusations circulated "even if it was serious, they hadn't done the usual required analysis work." And some consternation that this got in and serious work got rejected instead, but then the CHI reviewing process is always a crazy crapshoot, since the conference is so interdisciplinary.

Maybe I've become a former-CHI-hardass in the past few years away, but I thought it was both funny AND interesting, despite the research flaws. Dog owners probably would like something like this, which for me makes it more than a little compelling! There are too many CHI papers with solutions to non-existent problems, or that present incremental design work on existing products. Dog owners meet other dogs and dog owners all the time, and they even meet non-dog-owners, sometimes quite enthusiastically ("want to meet women? get a puppy and take it for walks" -- who doesn't know this one?). So for me their paper was only 45 or 90 degrees off true right-on; it needed to focus less on making dogs happy with each other and more on the owners of dogs, and it did need some deployment (with associated design issues worked out) and testing.

In general, I'd like CHI to include more experimental thought-projects and I'd like to see more wacky creative design. I suppose the design briefings track sometimes included this stuff in the past. But of course I'd also like to see this stuff done well. CHI has been late for the boat on a lot of hot technology trends (games, poker, handheld entertainment, porn...? blogs?) because of the extreme "seriousness" of so many of the reviewers and attendees. Randy Pausch said in his opening plenary that it was important to be silly sometimes; I agree, because non-researchers and consumers and our users are sometimes silly too and buy dogs to meet women.

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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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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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Saturday, March 19, 2005

MIT OpenCourseWare

I was cruising around for some online courses (so I won't get stuck in any more blizzards whilst trying to educate myself), and I hit the OpenCourseWare files at MIT. Here is the list of courses with online materials for browsing: MIT OpenCourseWare | Master Course List. The list includes a nice set of architecture classes, bio and biotech (some requiring MATLAB and including the M-files they use!), Sloan School courses, and economics. There's also mathematics, so maybe I can ditch my newly purchased Calculus for Dummies. However, the lecture notes aren't always self-explanatory; there's no substitute for being there, of course.

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