Sunday, July 31, 2005

City Creator

This is fun, for adults and kids. City Creator lets you design a cityscape on your computer (not your dinnertable) in a Flash UI (UPDATE after reading their FAQ: "The pages use HTML and CSS with GIF graphics. The drag-and-drop interface was built using ECMAScript (Javascript) and the DOM (Document Object Model). The back end uses PHP and MySQL").

You can do a medieval city (my favorite), a futuristic looking city, or a snowy skiing town.


Funfurde on the Morphescape

Funfurde had a post on a bunch of dinnerware that got me giggling. Less for the dinnerware than the post itself, I quote:
Like most of you, I've always wanted my dinnerware to look like the city scape of Istanbul, but Pottery Barn doesn't seem to carry anything like that. Fortunately for us, Karim Rashid has taken the first step toward overthrowing the tyranny of non-city-scape-plates by creating Morphescape, "an ambitious project that is equal parts beauty and function. The non-stop continuation of a single undulating surface is divided into every need for the table so you can actually have an entire table connected by each function as a modular scape. The inspiration is the city scape of Istanbul from minarets to mosques."
As most things on Funfurde, it be not cheap to have the cityscape of Istanbul on your table.

Framingham, Farm Pond, lilypad buds.

Thursday, July 28, 2005

Normandy, France, 2005.

Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Major Tivo Withdrawals

One of the tragedies of TiVo is that it invented a porsche while everyone was still walking; now the cheaper horse-drawn carts are looking ok to people, because they don't know what a difference a porsche actually makes in getting around. They'll want porsches in a couple years, but it may be too late by then.

Mike Davidson describes Major Tivo Withdrawals when he switched from a TiVo to a Comcast box for HDTV. His point-by-point feature comparison stresses that the UI on a TiVo makes him want to hug his TV, and the other one's UI sucks so much that he doesn't much want to watch TV ever again.

Although I enjoyed this article, all the TiVo fans out there with DirecTiVo are in early mourning, expecting dwindling support for their TiVos when DTV comes out with their own non-TiVo ripoff. (Although, to be fair, the designer we worked with at DirecTV when we were developing the DirecTiVo was quite sensible, for someone from LA.)

Sunday, July 24, 2005

Moodgrapher: The London bombings

Livejournal lets users select a "mood" when they post an entry. While it's rarely very interesting at an individual post level, in aggregate, it becomes much more interesting. Check out the Moodgrapher: The London bombings, work by students at the University of Amsterdam.


This has shown up a number of places (I got it off MetaEfficient), but it's such a "why oh why wasn't this invented earlier" thing that I have to post it: The Wordlock. A combination lock that uses letters to form words you are more likely to remember, and can be reset to another word at any time.
the word combination lock

It also looks like it's way smaller than your average combination lock with a number spinning faceplate. It's only $5.98 from Staples and comes in colors.

Some Philosophy Behind Good UI Design

I've had a number of conversations about interface design recently in which it was suggested that excellent design doesn't really matter, and that as a designer I have some kind of extreme bias towards quality that amounted to, well, anal fluffiness. My friends seemed to be sold on the concept of usability, which is, after all, a wholesome sounding term (except in France where it doesn't exist), but the relationship of usability to good design was non-obvious to them. While avoiding a homework assignment, I dug up a few relevant pointers.

Andries van Dam's overview lecture (pdf slides) provides a thorough introduction to the process and goals of interface design (although he uses many more linguistic metaphors than I would). He notes in the early motivation section:

In many modern programs, the user interface code constitutes the bulk of program, i.e., 70-80%.
  • For the most part, the user interface is the key to the success or failure of a program
  • Creating a good UI is often harder than software engineering because UI design requires much more than software engineering skills
  • Some people typically believe UI design is unimportant because they misunderstand the design process/methodology
  • Nowadays, software companies can be very picky about choosing who designs their user interfaces because the user interface defines the product
What is being designed? Two languages and the dialogue that interlaces them: Users(s) - > computer-> user(s).

He notes that the UI code usually accounts for most of the code in a modern application, and it's often hard to write and change. (As a corollary to this point, it's my belief that a corporate culture that considers UI engineering as a second class activity, or "not hard," will not be generally capable of getting consistent good results from their product interfaces.) Designing the dialogue between the system and the user requires a non-trivial understanding of many things, including: the widgets in the set of tools available, the features and tasks to support, the mental model of the user going in, how to reveal the model of the application for learnability, what standards exist and might bias your users to expect certain behaviors from your application, what counts as basic vs. advanced functionality (10% of the features are used 90% of the time), good visual layout to support discoverability and task structure, and so on.

Application design is not a static problem -- one screen at a time -- but a dynamic one, and hence van Dam's use of the conversation metaphor. What happens to the interface when your user clicks here; and more globally, how does the application surface the product features during use over time? Does it make sense to a user, or is it only sensible to the development team who structured their code a certain way and locked in a possibly non-intuitive task flow that is now reflected in the interface? The interface, after all, is not icing after the architecture work, but a fundamental part of the entire problem you're solving with your application design.

Seth Nickell at Red Hat summarizes absolutely bang-on the difference I see between designing via lots of usability testing (a parody of the non-design approach to getting usability "into the cycle" a la Microsoft, until recently) and having a designer involved in the process. One of the well-known issues with usability testing is that it finds local problems, but can't itself help you understand the global causes and solutions to those problems. Seth's points are: A good designer will get you much farther than a bad design that's gone through lots of testing and Usability testing is not the best technique for figuring out the big picture and Usability tests can't, in general, be used to find out 'which interface is better.'

During testing, a user may muddle through even a poor design, and with qualitative testing it's tough to say "that's it, it's not good enough" -- there is always a tendency against change, for efficiency reasons, in any software organization.

I'll keep looking for more inspirational pointers, as this is a subject I care deeply about.

Saturday, July 23, 2005


This SketchUp product for 3-d drawing got rave reviews on Cool Tools. The reviewers praised its excellent, intuitive design and feature set. Since I've always been tempted by the idea of designing 3-d Victorian mansions, castle ruins, and haunted houses, yet can't believe this could ever be easy, I watched the movie demos on their site.

Although I'm dubious about how fast one could get up to speed with it, it does look like they did some hard things right. The app looks like a lot of other drawing tools (e.g., Adobe products), offering a big palette of modal mouse tools; and there's a persistent "help" text on the bottom telling you what to do and what key combinations extend the function of the tool (very Adobe-esque). It's the keyboard shortcuts, of course, that would be the hardest to learn as a new user. Once you know those, you're probably focused on the art and not the mechanics, which is what you want in any creative activity.

They've got a clever function for "bookmarking" important views of the buildings for showing clients; they have a nice shadows-by-time-of-day slider bar that looks fun to play with; and they give useful feedback during drawing via tooltips that pop up to tell you what your current status is while you're manipulating the building and objects ("on face" etc.). You do still need to know something about physical objects -- to create a roof from a flat surface, you have to know how to draw the joints that will bend in the right form when you move the lines upwards. All the connections are "smart" and pieces move as units, but you've got to know what you're aiming for, too. (Just like when using Photoshop -- if you don't know what saturation is, you can't use that tool well).

little house in sketchup site

Perhaps most compelling of all, there are downloadable plugins and scripts and "components" (like trees and buildings and people), reminding me of extensible game worlds like the Sims. I'd like to get them together -- my problem with the Sims is that I don't want to start with a white trash shack and build up to a good life, I want a beautiful mansion right from the start. And their building tools aren't so hot, either.

I digress -- SketchUp is, alas, $500. I may still try the free trial, good for 8 hours.

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 20, 2005

Intelligence is irrelevant to a happy old age

Huh. I was once on a lunch date with 2 female university professors who are friends of mine, and I asked idly if they'd like to be smarter. You know, to be able to do something really great, like cure cancer, or invent a new method of collecting lint off black clothes. Of course I would, so I was surprised when they said no! Their reasons were largely about social integration, I gathered. (I did wonder if men would have responded the same way to the same question.)

Since we can't be magically smarter, I guess this is good news for us all: being smart doesn't make you happy in your old age. The next question is, does it actually make you unhappier?

New Scientist Breaking News - Intelligence is irrelevant to a happy old age:

Previous studies have shown that people who possess attributes regarded as desirable by modern Western society, such as intelligence, money or sporting talent are rewarded with higher social status, a better paid job and a more comfortable standard of living. Higher social standing has also been linked to increased happiness. However, Gow and his co-authors suggest that intelligent people may also be more concerned about achievement and more aware of alternative lifestyles, which may lead to dissatisfaction.

Sexual Conflict

How important is sexual conflict? A special issue of the American Naturalist is dedicated to discussing it.
Sexual conflict occurs when males and females differ in their reproductive interests, is an inevitable consequence of sexual reproduction, and is enhanced by promiscuity when males and females have several partners. The study of sexual conflict and the impact it has on the evolution of male and female traits has become a rapidly developing field, in part because of disagreement over its importance. Sexual conflict can generate rapid anatagonistic coevolution between the sexes. This occurs when one sex, usually males, attempt to manipulate reproduction in the other sex, usually females, to the manipulators' benefit. If this manipulation is detrimental to females, females may go on the counteroffensive and selection would favor traits that help them resist this manipulation. Males may then be counterselected and evolve traits that, once again, allow them to manipulate females, while females again evolve measures to defend against manipulation, potentially setting off an endless evolutionary cycle of adaptation and counter adaptation. As with many exciting areas of biology, however, controversy exists over the details and generality of the scenario outlined. Sexual conflict is not in debate; what is being debated is whether this generates escalating arms races between the sexes, and if so, when, how often, and what is the effect of this on the sexes.

Sunday, July 17, 2005

Bummer. The free and easy Snaplog for my photoblog has finally been overwhelmed by my photos or volume or something; I'm no longer able to easily update over there. I'm going to have to look for a new solution, so photo blog is on hold for a while.

Thursday, July 14, 2005

Edinburgh Ghost Hunting Experiments

My friend Angus (whom I first met at Edinburgh U as an undergraduate) sent me a link to a story on an Edinburgh ghost hunter's experiments with local haunting sites. He has done experiments in two Edinburgh sites that show that naive visitors respond differently to ghost-infested spots than they do in unhaunted sites of a similar nature.

BBC News | SCOTLAND | Castle ghost hunt's 'curious' findings says of him:

He found 51% of people in vaults reputed to be haunted reported experiences, while only 35% did so in the other five. Dr Wiseman, who remains sceptical about the existence of ghosts, said he believed the background light from beyond the vaults' archways and the size of the vaults appeared to be a factor.

Okayyy.... His explanation for the even higher rate of ghost-detection in Mary King's Close is different and wackier; he's never heard of Occam's Razor, I guess.

Scientist Spooked by Ghost Study:

About 70% of those visiting the "haunted" locations reported unusual phenomena. In contrast, only 48% of people exploring the locations not reputed to be haunted had spooky experiences. At the "most haunted" site, where a sinister figure in black has repeatedly been seen, more than 80% of the volunteers reported something strange happening.

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Alcohol-induced blackouts

After a debauched weekend, during which I drank enough to achieve actual gaps in my memory, I did a little reading on the impact of alcohol on the brain. Luckily for me, it doesn't look like it's clear that neurons are killed or permanently damaged, but nerve transmission is certainly impaired. Memory loss is a possible side effect, along with other neurological and physical responses most of us know about from experience.

The term for alcohol-related memory loss is "blackout," not the same as passing out. Complete memory loss is rarer than partial loss. From the article Alcohol Induced Blackouts: The second type of blackouts, fragmentary blackouts, as the name suggests, involve partial blockade of memory formation for events that occurred while a person was intoxicated. Goodwin and colleagues(1969a) reported that subjects experiencing fragmentary blackouts often become aware that they are missing pieces of events only after being reminded that the events occurred. Interestingly, these reminders trigger at least some recall of the initially missing information. Research suggests that fragmentary blackouts are far more common than those of the en bloc variety (White et al., in press; Hartzler and Fromme, 2003; Goodwin et al., 1969b).

This page summarizes some of the impacts on the brain in more detail. Alcohol-induced blackouts: Alcohol and the Hippocampus.

Thursday, July 07, 2005

Context Free Art

I'm entranced by this thing -- it's a context free grammar language and rendering environment for fractal-style art. It was inspired by the fake CS paper generator that used a small CFG (SCIgen) which was well-blogged. It's downright ingenious; I've been around context free grammars and text generation since my baby linguist days, but never seen them applied to making visuals.

context free tree picture

The language itself is a little bit like LOGO, which may or may not work for you (I want to read it like Prolog, alas). The app has a surprisingly elegant UI for grad student freeware, which makes it easy to play with the rules for generating the art and see immediate results from tinkering. It includes lots of examples along with a commented Lesson file.

Get it here: Context Free.

Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Tilghman Island, Maryland, at dusk.

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.

40,000-year-old footprint

More wonderful archaeology: Apparently 40K years ago, size eight feet walked beside a Mexican volcanic lake. This is unexpected news in various dimensions: Telegraph | News | 40,000-year-old footprint of first Americans.

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Eastern Shore of Maryland, Tilghman Island heron.