Tuesday, November 30, 2004

Bill Stone, Explorer

Wired has an article on Bill Stone - he's a spelunker, invented the re-breather for scuba diving, an architect on NISTs Ladar (laser Radar) project and work on DepthX - a submersible robot probe to explore the oceans of Europa. He's also an explorer of the old school. To wit:
"There are plenty of people on Earth. It's not like the human race is going to disappear if a few people don't come back," he says coldly. "Exploration is dangerous. So NASA has lost 17 people. Here's a list of 16 of my close friends dead with no state funerals, no schools named after them. These people have been to unknown territory, where every step forward is one step deeper into what might be the world's deepest cave. It's a holy mission."
The article describes the process Stone went through of recovering one of his dead colleague from a mile deep cave in Mexico. While Stone's attitude towards risk is refreshing it does make you wonder if the people who work with him share the same attitude. In a way, he reminds me of the Capt. Kilgore character from Apocalypse Now:
Well, he wasn't a bad officer, I guess. He loved his boys and you felt safe with him. He was one of those guys that had that weird light around him. You just knew he wasn't gonna get so much as a scratch here.

Tuesday, November 16, 2004

Littlefield Tank Collection

I was lucky enough to be invited to view the Littlefield Tank Collection. The collection is owned by Jacques Littlefield and is on his 500 acre property in Portola Valley. Basically, he likes tanks and so he has ~250 of them in a custom built facility (de-militarized of course). The pictures are here. My capsule review? "That's alot of tanks!" There aren't many places where you can park your car next to one of the propellers from the R.M.S Lusitania or point a Bazooka at one of your co-workers? The real treat is hearing the history of the various tanks (which is usually pretty grisly) - the gist of it is that being in a Tank in WWII was not a great job. On the other hand being chased by a tank was even worse!

The Venture Brothers

If your not already watching it, I heartily endorse the Cartoon Network show The Venture Brothers. If you enjoyed "The Tick" cartoon show, it involves a lot of the same people and is done in a similar vein...

Sunday, November 14, 2004

The Preference Problem

Malcolm Gladwell, a writer for the New Yorker, gave a presentation on understanding the instability of preference. This is going to be part of the topic of his upcoming book - Blink - The Power of Thinking without Thinking. Companies spend millions doing consumer testing and focus groups - most movies are tested and edited based on focus groups. Primaries and Presidential elections are, in large part, decided on the basis of telephone polls. Gladwell takes a step and tries to establish to what extent people are accurately predicting their consumer preference when they participate. Gladwell recounts the story of the Herman Miller Aeron chair. First he details how Herman Miller looked at the various problems with existing chairs and how they came up with innovative solutions. Then they ran consumer testing - when it came to comfort, the chair received very very high scores. However when people looked at how attractive they thought the chair was, the chair scored remarkably poorly. In fact, when they showed the chair to office managers, the overwhelming response that was it was far too ugly. But over a series of years the chair sold and went on to become one of the most popular selling chairs ever. Moreover, when they did studies later asking people how they liked the appearance of the chair the results had changed - now people found the chair not just inoffensive but actually attractive. Preferences are unstable. People think that preferences are immutable but in fact they are unstable. As a further example, Gladwell looks at the series of events that caused Coke to introduce New Coke. Despite the fact that Coke was the #1 drink ahead of Pepsi, Pepsi ran a remarkably successful ad campaign called the Pepsi Challenge. Basically people in malls were given samples of Coke and Pepsi without being informed of which is which and they were asked to pick which they preferred. Overwhelmingly they said that the preferred Pepsi. What could be more unbiased than a blind taste test? So Coke launched a campaign to produce a drink that would do well in the blind taste test. The product was New Coke and it was preferred over Pepsi in a blind taste test ~ 55% / 45%. The product was introduced and went on to become a business school case study in product launch disasters. Much has been made of bad marketing or lack of market place acceptance but Gladwell thinks the answer is a lot clearer than that. The problem has to do with the instability of preference. The principal problem with the Pepsi Challenge test is that you only take a sip. It turns out that if you are sampling drinks and you only take a sip you will invariably pick the sweeter sample. But a sweeter drink that is more palatable for a sip becomes revolting when you drink a whole glass. This was the genius of the Pepsi Challenge - Pepsi knew that they had a sweeter drink so they developed a test (by design or not) that would favor their drink. There is another type of test called "home use" where the participant is given a case or two of the product to use and it invariably comes up with different results than a sip test. Gladwell goes on to cite different ways in which focus groups can be deceived:
  1. The Triangle problem: The Triangle problem shows the instability of preference - start with two samples (Coke, Pepsi) and pick which one is one. People can do this correctly about 80% of the time. However, if you give people 3 samples of two drinks and ask them to determine which two are alike it is significantly more difficult - in fact people can do this correctly 33% of the time which is the same as randomly guessing. Why believe people when they say they don't like something if preference can be this unstable?
  2. The Story Telling Problem: Many times when people tell you why they like things they are just making up stories. Gladwell cites an experiment where top tennis players were asked how they hit a top-spin forehand serve. Without exception, they all said that they rolled their wrist at the moment of impact. However when analyzed with a high speed camera, none of them actually did this. In fact, if you roll your wrist at the moment of impact it's very difficult to hit the serve. Despite the fact that all of the people they asked are masters at hitting this type of serve, when asked how they do it they are incapable of introspecting what they do and resort to telling a story (most likely how they were told to do it).
  3. Perils of Introspection: The Act of getting someone in a room and asking them to explain their preference for something can affect the answer that they are likely to give you. Gladwell cites an experiment where two groups of people were asked to select a poster from a set. However the second set of people were asked to explain why they picked their poster. After 6 months, the people were asked how they liked the poster they had picked. Overwhelmingly, the people who were asked to explain their selection were unhappy with the poster whereas the first group of people were very happy with their selection. Moreover, the first group of people were more likely to pick impressionist painters whereas the group that had to explain their selection were more likely to pick kitten posters. In this case, forcing people to explain why they liked a poster forced them to like a poster that they could easily explain why they liked it. This is a pretty big problem if you are trying to understand why people like one product over another.
Can we just not trust people when it comes to product testing? Gladwell thinks that they're are a class of products for which consumer testing work - somethings are ugly and will always be ugly. But some products challenge people and they don't know what to think about them. If you are coming up with something that is new and radical and challenging then you need to be wary of feedback and consumer testing as an absolute science. When you ask people what they think of things and they respond with words like "no" and "ugly" and "I don't like that" you have to take it with a very large grain of salt. People are very bad at introspection and consumer testing is treated too much like a science.

Sunday, November 07, 2004

BloggerCon III redux

BloggerCon III was yesterday in Palo Alto. Photos here and links here. Here are my hazy memories / notes from the sessions I went to:

Newbies - Rebecca MacKinnon
The title was maybe a little misleading / vague - the primary focus here was on people who want to get other people to blog and how / why you might want to do this. Rebecca has set up a Blog Introduction Wiki as a clearing house of tips for people new to it. Given the rate at which things change in the blogging world, a wiki is probably the best way to start with this (putting it on Wikipedia might be an improvement). Getting started seemed to hinge on two specific problems - technology problems and having something to say. There was a general consensus that the current tools (while vastly improved) are not easy enough for general consumption even in a hosted environment and that when you run into trouble there is little direct vendor support. It was pointed out that most of the hosted solutions (Blogger, Typepad) have user groups where help is available. People don't seem to get Trackbacks partly because of lack of support (Blogger), general flakiness of the way they work and social problems with other people not understanding how they work. What to write seems to be a constant problem - particularily when there is low readership or with people who have nothing to say. A common suggestion was that people should focus on something specific to give it a purpose (hey, I should take that advice!). It was pointed out that Blogs are public so there are ramifications: slander / job-related blowback and security issues. People sited examples where blogs had been used (as examples of the sorts of things people could write about):
  • Someone set up a tech support issue database. Resistance to getting people to write things down - eventually it was replaced by a dedicated system.
  • An unspecified US Intelligence Agency used a blog as a replacement for the usual intranet home page - allowed people to comment on it.
  • Julie Adair from BBC Scotland talked about a program to give blogging technology to people who lived on remote islands to talk about their daily lives.
  • Examples of Photoblogging to document travels and as a photo diary.
  • People who live in rural areas are organizing together using blogs to bitch to the phone company about crappy service. Good luck! Ed Cone talked about forming a local blogging comunity in Greensboro, North Carolina¬†¬†to route around the local newspapers. I might take a stab at this in my neigbourhood.

Journalism - Scott Rosenber of Salon.com
In retrospect, I wish I'd gone to the overloaded session (apparently there were fireworks of some sort). Nevertheless - endless amounts of "is blogging journalism or not" back and forth (despite Scott's best efforts to the contrary) - this was probably the most adversarial sessions I went to. There was some talk about what blogs can learn from journalism (it's hard work! Editing is a good thing!) and vice versa (fact checking is good!). Someone asked about "Astroturfing" - companies using blogs and feedback to create a faux grass roots movement. Using blogs for PR == bad. Using blogs for customer feedback == good. Paul Boutin from Slate mentioned that the San Francisco Chronicle has ignore crime in his neighbourhood (despite the fact that he lives right behind the Chronicle building). As it happens, one of his neighbours is photoblogging it. Several people talked about a distinction between Journalists and Blogger in terms of access (to the Pentagon, Whitehouse). Scott mentioned that Salon doesn't have anyone working the Whitehouse. Someone from AP mentioned that journalism required training and experience to maintain objectivity. Dave Winer (conference organizer) took exception to this and claimed that we'd all be better off if people were more up front at what there biases are rather than attempt to suppress them. Around this point I developed a splitting headache...

I had lunch with a bunch of developers (Alan Xing, Jeff Cheney, Chip Vanek). Talked about blogging in China (and blogging restriction problems), Blogging Tools, ATOM, etc.

Mobile Blogging - Craig Cline
I went to this mostly out of interest rather than experience with moblogging. One very clear point was that other people seemed a lot more willing to give money to serice providers than I am. Having to pay to get your photos off your phone strikes me as a throwback to the days of film photography. If my camera is going to integrate with my phone, then I expect to be able to use it in the same way I use my phone. I suspect this magical day is a long way off. Apparently phones are starting to have > 2 megapixel cameras in them. That's great but it won't have a flash or decent optics for a long long time - see the conferance photos here. People seem to tolerate (and apparently appreciate) low quality. And if you think USB is slow, wait till you see how long it takes / how much it costs to get a 5 megapixel image off a cameraphone. There was a comment that phones should be clients for published photos - someone who had experience working with doing cellphone services pointed out (and I would agree) that cellphone services are historically a very closed and provider specific world. Whatever happens, it will cost you $x every time you use it.

Legal - Lawrence Lessig
By far the best session at the conference and consequently the one I have no notes for. Lessig talked about how restrictive copyright really is and claimed that (based on his own experience arguing in front of the supreme court) it was unlikely that the current laws would be changed in the short term. Instead, he sugested how we could work in the current system by using Creative Commons licenses to grant copyrights that are less restrictive than the default given by copyright law. There are some better notes here.

Closing Remarks - Dave Winer
Evidently there was some problem in the Overload session with a vendor (Pubsub) alegedly trying to plug his product (or not - more details here). Several people claimed they wanted to have vendors talk to them, provide support. Dave is strenously against it, based on bad experiences in the past - I think the vendors should be welcome but their job there is to listen to the users, rather than sell to them. Nobody wants to sit through product demos but there was apparently some ambiguity over the rules and people evidently felt they could not mention any products (for the record, the rule was vendors cannot mention there own products). I understand what Dave is trying to do but it seems to have been misinterpreted and applied. Oh well.
This was the first conference I've been too that encouraged people typing away in the sessions. WiFi worked reasonably well (it crapped out maybe 2-3 times during the conference for me), nobody seemed to be using SubEthaEdit for collaborative note taking (but then neither did I). Posting photos to Flickr with a common tag and links to del.icio.us worked really well although not many people seemed to know about it. There was IRC running but I didn't use it.

Thanks to Dave Winer for organizing all of this and the various session organizers and conference organizers. Thanks to Stanford Law School for providing the facilities which were excellent (despite the fact that finding buildings at Stanford is pathologically difficult).

Saturday, November 06, 2004

BloggerCon III

I'm attending BloggerCon III today. So far it is just getting underway and people are trying to decide which sessions to attend. There is Wifi at the conference and there are the following sessions set up: Themes:
  • Lots of people from companies who want to get introduce people to blogging.
  • People from PBS and BBC public broadcasting wants to know if this is a replacement / augment public broadcasting.
  • How to deal with comment spam.

Tuesday, November 02, 2004

Wiki Travel

This is neat - Wiki Travel is an open Wiki (like Wikipedia) Travel Guide site - basically anyone can edit and improve (or add crap). Given that most travel guides are pretty superficial and sometimes written by people who have only walked into the lobby of a hotel, this strikes me as really useful. Hopefully, like Wikipedia, it will only get better over time - the page for San Jose was only so so... Keeping it non-commercial may be a bit of a challenge.

Why Google bought Keyhole

Charlene Li (Forrester Analyst) has an article on why Google bought Keyhole -- her theory is that they are going to use it as some sort of local search UI tied in with GIS / Location information.

iPod Halloween Costume from Tablet PC

Some guy dressed up as a working iPod for halloween using a Tablet PC as the display. What do you do when your friend makes a great costume like that? Dress up like Mr T of course! "I pity the fool who one up's me!" UPDATE:It's gone now. Doh!

Federal Deficits Under Bush

This graph pretty much says it all (from Russell Beatie).