Ambidextrous Magazine is the design journal of the nascent Stanford d.school. It is a magazine for the wider design community, which includes engineers and ethnographers, psychologists and philosophers. Rather than focusing on promoting product, Ambidextrous exposes the people and processes involved in design.
Ambidextrous is a forum for the cross-disciplinary, cross-market community of people with an academic, professional and personal interest in design. The magazine is geared toward high subscriber participation and interaction. It is expressly designed to be informal, irreverent, and fun to read.
I'm still reading through the first issue, but it looks like it'll be both a good place to find new insights and be a nice way to build community between the d.school and other like-minded designers.
There's a debate going on over at The Edge about the role of common sense in science, especially physics and cognitive science. John Horgan is the science journalist who started the debate with a NYT op-ed:
[String theory and the idea of parallel universes] are preposterous, but that's not my problem with them. My problem is that no conceivable experiment can confirm the theories, as most proponents reluctantly acknowledge. The strings (or membranes, or whatever) are too small to be discerned by any buildable instrument, and the parallel universes are too distant. Common sense thus persuades me that these avenues of speculation will turn out to be dead ends.
Common sense — and a little historical perspective — makes me equally skeptical of grand unified theories of the human mind. After a half-century of observing myself and my fellow humans — not to mention watching lots of TV and movies — I've concluded that as individuals we're pretty complex, variable, unpredictable creatures, whose personalities can be affected by a vast range of factors. I'm thus leery of hypotheses that trace some important aspect of our behavior to a single cause.
He later responds to comments with:
The question that I raised — and that all these respondents have studiously avoided — is what we should do when presented with theories such as psychoanalysis or string theory, which are not only counterintuitive but also lacking in evidence. Common sense tells me that in these cases common sense can come in handy.
As I see it, Horgan is mistaking lack of differentiation for lack of evidence. Unlike the so-called theory of Intelligent Design, String Theory and the Parallel Universes interpretation of quantum physics have a great deal of predictive power and evidence behind them. The problem is that (currently) this is the exact same set of evidence that supports quantum theory in general, so there's no way to say that one interpretation is better than the other. However, if we found evidence that our understanding of quantum theory was fundamentally wrong, the other two theories would also be out the window.
Horgan is also wrong about why these theories are so non-sensical. The reason is not, as he implies, that scientists mistake preposterousness for profundity, nor is it that they just like making fun of English majors like himself. As Stanford professor Susskind points out in the debate, the reason these theories violate our common sense is that the world violates our common sense as soon as we look outside of our comfort zone. No theory that fits the experimental evidence will satisfy our common-sense understanding because the evidence itself fails to do so.
(Props to Mind Hacks for the link.)
Rawhide commented on my previous post that he was surprised there was much doubt about the placebo effect's existence. It turns out there've been some serious questions raised about whether the placebo effect is actually just a myth after a 2001 New England Journal of Medicine article that analyzed 114 placebo-using medical studies and found that, on the average, the placebo effect was minimal if it exists at all.
Dylan Evans (a frequent contributor to the MindHacks blog) has a 2003 book called Placebo: The Belief Effect that argues that the placebo effect only helps with some kinds of conditions — namely pain, swelling, stomach ulcers, depression, and anxiety — and that by lumping everything into one average the meta-study washes out the few places where placebos actually work. He also suggests that placebos probably work by triggering the release of endorphins, which affect the same kinds of symptoms. Given the recent study it looks like he hit the nail on the head on that one.
You can find a nice summary of his idea in this short paper, which also includes a nice history of the discovery and our understanding of the placebo effect.
Update 8/30/05: typo fix
Population Services International is a great nonprofit organization — they've got all the business skill you'd expect from a creative and up-and-coming company, especially when it comes to brand management and culturally-appropriate marketing. But instead of making the big bucks here in the states these people dedicate their skills in the poorest regions of the world — distributing and convincing people to use safe-water solutions, nutrition supplements, mosquito nets and bedding to prevent malaria, and safe-sex education material and condoms to prevent AIDS. They've had an incredible track record over the past decade, applying the practical, level-headed thinking more often found in business than in a field where people often think with their hearts more than their heads. As a PSI spokesman puts it, "We're dealing with the world as it is. It's not always pretty."
Unfortunately, the Bush administration is not long on practical, level-headed thinking. Ultra-religious conservatives have been accusing PSI of "supporting prostitution" because they host educational games to teach prostitutes about safe sex and how to use a condom. These groups no doubt think a better way to stem the world-wide flow of AIDS is to simply convince prostitutes to accept Jesus as their savior and recognize that anything but abstinence before marriage is a sin. Well, it looks like these groups will soon get their chance: the Baltimore Sun reports that USAID decided to cut large amounts of funding for PSI in favor of faith-based organizations:
Contract decisions had typically been made by USAID officials with expertise on the topic, but the July 19 withdrawal decision was made by a high-level political appointee, said a public health official familiar with the region. "It was surprising to yank a [proposal] that was so far advanced," said the official, who asked not to be named because of the political sensitivity and fear of reprisal.
On Aug. 11, USAID reopened the bidding process, but with significant changes. The agency reduced funding by $3 million, altered selection factors to put less weight on experience, and eliminated the goal of increasing condom usage. It also added language noting "the strength of community and faith-based organizations and their advantages in the fight against HIV/AIDS."
Michael Magan, deputy assistant administrator for Latin America, declined to comment on the changes in the request. Magan took the post after working in Ohio on President Bush's 2004 campaign. Previously he was head of the agency's Office of Faith-Based Initiatives, established by the president.
Not all Republicans are on this crusade — in particular Larry Craig (R-ID), Orrin Hatch (R-UT) and Gordon Smith (R-OR) have all asked USAID to reconsider. Let's hope these senators can speak loud and strong for the part of the Republican party that still believes in reality over fantasy and what works over wishful thinking.
(Thanks to my favorite well of truth for the link!)
The Economist has a short article on how researchers have observed that people's brains emit more endorphins when given a placebo and told it will counteract pain. The article starts with this:
The placebo effect, long considered nothing more than psychological suggestibility, does now appear to be genuine.
It's hard for me to imagine the worldview necessary for that sentence to make any sense. If you believe (as I do) that the mind is fully implemented by our biology then you wouldn't at all be surprised that there's a biological cause for the observed decrease in subjective pain. On the other hand, if you still put Descartes before the horse and believe in a kind of soul or other mind/body dualism then the idea that a non-physical "psychological suggestibility" isn't genuine (even though it stops the equally non-physical pain) is ludicrous.
It seems to me that The Economist and probably a majority of Westerners want to walk a middle road, accepting only the physical, observable, and scientific world as "genuine" while at the same time refusing to accept that a direct corollary of that belief is that our own minds must be a part of that physical, observable world. It's no wonder we have such difficulty dealing with issues like mental illness in this culture...
Did you fly in June 2004? If so (or if you have a similar name to somebody who did) then the Transportation Security Administration may have secretly collected information on you from airline reservation systems and credit bureaus. Wouldn't it be nice to find out what they know?
Luckily, we still live in a free country — you can just ask! EFF is making it easy to do just that, and you can help them reverse-engineer exactly what the TSA has been up to at the same time.
Intelligent Design has two key arguments:
The first argument has been addressed by a number of people, but it seems like the second argument has been largely dismissed since (just like Creationism or the Flying Spaghetti Monster theory) it doesn't have predictive power and thus is a gut-feel rhetorical argument rather than a scientific theory. I think it should be dismissed on those grounds when it comes to science classes, but what surprises me is how silly the rhetorical argument is as well.
Consider: Intelligent Design claims that life is so complex that it must have been designed by an intelligence, even though:
Given these rhetorical holes, I have to wonder whether the real reason Intelligent Design proponents feel something so complex must have been designed by an intelligence is because emotionally they've already assumed the reverse, namely that any system able to produce something so complex must in its own right be intelligent.
If so, then in a way Intelligent Design proponents are correct: there is an intelligence that designed life. That intelligence is the distributed system of naturally occurring patterns of reproduction, natural selection and genetic drift that we call evolution.
The mad scientists over at Squid Labs have just launched instructables.com, a free collaboration site for posting step-by-step instructions for making interesting stuff, from bikes to food to protocols for biology research.
BlackDog is a great concept. It's a flash-based Debian Linux machine that fits in the palm of your hand (400Mhz PowerPC and 256 or 512MB RAM), with just a USB 2.0 plug, SPI and MMC Expansion slot, and a thumbprint sensor. There's no battery or power plug — it's powered completely via the USB plug.
Plug the Dog into the USB port of a Window-XP and it'll automatically boot up from ROM in about 2 seconds. Then it claims to be a USB CD-ROM drive with an auto-run program, from which it starts up CygWin and X, and then makes an X connection back to its own server. Presto! Instant use of the host machine's display and keyboard with your CPU, computing environment and data (up to 1GB through the MMC slot). Unplug and the host machine is left just as you found it. Security comes from what you have (the Dog itself) and who you are (the thumbprint reader), though of course you're still susceptible to low-level keyboard, screen and network sniffing attacks from the host machine.
There's a lot we could ask for from a personal server that BlackDog doesn't have, like automatic wireless sync-up with the interfaces around us, but this sounds pretty decent and more importantly it'll actually work with today's infrastructure and machines.
(Thanks to Steve for the link!)
Participatory Culture Foundation has released DTV, an open source (GPL) video player that combines an RSS aggregator with a BitTorrent video player. Currently in beta for OSX, Windows and Linux coming soon. Combine this with their open source Broadcast Machine to create your own channels, or use del.icio.us to add videos you find on the web to your own published channel.
(Props to Noel for the link.)
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has just released a report on the effects seen from the repeal of Florida's mandatory motorcycle helmet law back in 2000 (summary and CNN report). The effect was pretty much the same as seen in other states that have repealed helmet laws: deaths increased and costs to treat head injuries more than doubled (with $10.5 million charged to charitable and government sources).
Of course, the report just dredges up all the libertarian arguments about how the government shouldn't interfere with one's right to be stupid, so long as they aren't hurting anyone else by their stupidity. That argument has an air of truth to it for me, and as a public service I'd like to propose a simple government form:
Intended stupidity (check one):
[ ] Riding motorcycle without helmet
[ ] Driving without wearing seat belt
[ ] Asserting my second-amendment rights while drunk
[ ] Other (please specify): ___________________
Please read carefully and sign below:
I hereby attest that I am hellbent and determined to be as stupid as possible, as is within my rights as a free-thinking adult, and assert that it is nobody's business to tell me otherwise. I also attest that all of the following are true:
(Thanks to Judith for the link!)
Chris Schmandt, the head of MIT Media Lab's Speech Interface Group, has just made a PDF of his now out-of-print 1994 book Voice Communications With Computers: Conversational Systems available for download in PDF form for free off his website.
Chris was one of the readers for my Generals Exams, and naturally this was one of the books on my reading list. It's 12 years old at this point, but most of the issues he talks about are inherent in speech communications regardless of the technology. Highly recommended.
(Thanks to Thad for the link!)
With a textbook give away the razors and sell the blades strategy, on June 26th CVS started selling a "one-time-use" video camcorder for just $29.99. Buy it, take your movie, and then get a DVD of your movie for just $12.99 at the CVS photo lab.
Just 39 days later, people have figured out figured how to make it download those movies direct to your own PC directly through USB.
I don't know how much these things cost to CVS, but they can't be happy about this obvious development. (No word yet on whether CVS will be taking legal action based on vague "the government should stop anyone from poking holes in our poorly-thought-out business plan" laws...)
Another back-of-the-envelope calculation, inspired by a comment by my friend Beemer:
Years before a single hard drive will store 1 bit for every atom in the Universe at current doubling rates: 222
Warning: past performance is not necessarily indicative of future results.
I just read a great review of Mac OS X 10.4 (Tiger) over at ars technica. If you're into Macs or finer points of geekery like how file systems should work, especially check out the long discussion on metadata in Tiger.
Yesterday I said that within a decade disk space should be cheap enough to put the entire visible web on your desk for under $1000. I think that's actually a pretty conservative estimate, since it assumes a 100 KB average page size, up to an order of magnitude higher than some estimates.
Here's another back-of-the envelope: let's say we wanted the equivalent of Google's webcache on your desktop (that is, all the HTML but no images). Another way to calculate it starts with the fact that the 2003 update to Berkeley's How Much Info? study estimated that in 2002 the web was only 167 Terabytes total, with only 30 TB as HTML (69 TB when you include images). Assuming 75% compression, that's just around 8 TB. That same year a 2002 OCLC study calculated that the total number of web pages was only increasing by about 5% per year (with the number of sites actually shrinking, but the number of pages per site growing). That rate had been decreasing ever since the explosion in the mid '90s, but let's assume growth became a steady 5% and will stay at that rate for the next few years. (There are a lot of assumptions going on here, but the nice thing about these kinds of curves is that even if my numbers are off by a factor of two somewhere, so long as disk keeps increasing at the same rate that crossover point only changes by one year.)
Now we've got two trends, and just need to find the intersection point for the price we want:
|Year||Price of 1 TB disk||Size of public web|
(compressed HTML only,
assumes 5% growth/year)
|Cost to store|
So given a few assumptions, we'll be able to cache all the raw text on the public web for under $1000 (disk cost) within 3 years!
A paper from January 2005 calculates the publicly indexable Web (the part easily accessible to search engine web-crawlers) as being around 11.5 billion pages. Estimates on average webpage size seem to be all over the map, but let's figure around 100 KB per page, for a total of around a petabyte (one million Gig) for today's indexed web. (I'm assuming text and images, but ignoring other media.)
Disk these days is going for less than 50 cents per Gig, so enough disk to store your own personal Google (and then some) costs around $500,000. With compression you can probably cut that in half. The price of disk is also falling by a factor of two every 12 months, so assuming no major jumps or snags in the disk-price curve, in a little less than a decade we can expect to hold the equivalent of today's indexed web for less than $1000.
Now of course, in that time the web will continue to grow, so we may no longer be satisfied with our measly petabyte-on-the-desk, but I figure the amount of human-generated Web content has a much slower growth rate than our disk-space curve. The number of web sites actually shrank between 2001 and 2002, and though it now seems to be growing again there's only so much content that human beings can create in a day. The real question I have is whether in a decade anyone will see having access to the whole web as being all that interesting — I could easily see the majority of people losing interest in the surface web in favor of personal deep-web niches. The only reason I want the whole web in my pocket is because it's too hard for me to filter out in advance the 99.99% of the web that'll never be of interest to me — the closer we get to that kind of pruning, the less disk we need and the higher-quality the experience will be.
Update 8/2/05: doing a different back-of-the-envelope estimate leads to being able to store a compressed-HTML cache (no images) on less than $1000 worth of disk within 3 years...