Sunday, July 27, 2008

Some Fun Entries in the Create the Future Design Contest

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Designing the Stop Sign (the Agency Experience)

Having just given a workshop on setting yourself up as a consultant with some warnings about client types, this video is especially apropos. What if a corporation asked you to design a stop sign?

In the list of client types, I think they missed the Appreciative Hands-On Committee of Passive Aggressive Cheerleaders client. Who test your design on their 6 year olds!

Thanks for the timely pointer to Steve at Tingilinde...

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.