July 7th, 2008

In 1955 Richard Feynman gave a public address to the National Academy of Sciences on The Value of Science:

We have been led to imagine all sorts of things infinitely more marvelous than the imaginings of poets and dreamers of the past. It shows that the imagination of nature is far, far greater than the imagination of man. For instance, how much more remarkable it is for us all to be stuck — half of us upside down — by a mysterious attraction to a spinning ball that has been swinging in space for billions of years than to be carried on the back of an elephant supported on a tortoise swimming in a bottomless sea.

Rarely do you read such an elegant, thoughtful examination on not just the beauty of science, but on science’s relationship with society.

That it would come from Feynman, 50 plus years ago, is no surprise.

Keep this in mind when picking out a bottle of wine:

The story is told of a sales call that Ernest Gallo made to a New York customer in the dark days of the depression. He offered sample glasses of two red wines - one costing five cents per bottle and the other ten cents. The wine in the two glasses was exactly the same.

They always buy the ten cent wine, Ernest Gallo said.

(via Tyler Cowen)

Congress has become obsessed with reigning in the oil speculation market.

Which would be just dandy if oil speculation had any real effect on oil pricing. But it doesn’t:

(T)hese bets do not affect the price of oil any more than bets on a football match affect the result.

Scapegoating. It’s fun for everyone.

Update: Reader (I have those now?) Jake Krohn pointed me to this New Yorker piece which echoes The Economist:

The difficulty for Congress, of course, is that none of the problems that have driven up the price of oil lend themselves to a quick fix, and most, like the boom in global demand and the inaccessibility of certain oil fields, aren’t under our control at all. That’s what makes speculators a perfect target: by going after them, Congress can demonstrate to voters that it understands their pain, and at the same time avoid doing anything that might require real sacrifice from Americans.

I’m all for Congress doing ultimately useless, but largely symbolic things. What worries me is that their insistence on finding a scapegoat during an election year may make things worse. As The Economist points out:

Any attempt to curtail speculation, by contrast, is likely to make life harder for firms and oil more expensive.

A video about Bildschöne Bücher, a bookstore in Berlin which focuses more on curation than on selection:

We just look at the book and then we fall in love or not. If we don’t fall in love, we don’t put it on the list.

July 6th, 2008

R.A. Radford’s essay from 1945, The Economic Organisation of a P.O.W. Camp, is making its rounds. Considered a classic text, Radford’s paper describes in detail how a capitalist market developed in the German camp where Radford was imprisoned during WWII.

Of interest to me is this passage on “just” pricing:

There was a strong feeling that everything had its “just price” in cigarettes. While the assessment of the just price, which incidentally varied between camps, was impossible of explanation, this price was nevertheless pretty closely known. It can best be defined as the price usually fetched by an article in good times when cigarettes were plentiful. The “just price” changed slowly; it was unaffected by short-term variations in supply, and while opinion might be resigned to departures from the “just price,” a strong feeling of resentment persisted. A more satisfactory definition of the “just price” is impossible. Everyone knew what it was, though no one could explain why it should be so.

Remind you of anything?

Jerry Levitan’s I Met The Walrus is an Oscar-nominated animated short that illustrates a conversation Levitan had with John Lennon when he was 14.

The conversation was mostly political, and mostly rambling. The animation is superb.

How Prozac sent the science of depression in the wrong direction:

The drug’s effectiveness inspired an elegant theory, known as the chemical hypothesis: Sadness is simply a lack of chemical happiness. There’s only one problem with this theory of depression: it’s almost certainly wrong, or at the very least woefully incomplete.

If you’re interested, you can get a peek at Twitter’s engine by visiting staging.twitter.com and enabling their SQL analysis report. The link is in the top-left corner of the page.

Update: They’ve already taken down public access. I’ll keep an eye out for screen shots or archives. Surely someone saved it.

Rant: At this point, Twitter should be as open as possible and the staging server should remain available to the general public. There may even be value in opening their code base to the community.

Twitter is a poster boy for the economic concept “network effect”. Twitter is not that complicated an idea, nor an application that would be that hard to replicate for an experienced developer. The plethora of Twitter-clones available should speak to that.

Twitter’s value comes from the largeness of its community; A community that is growing increasingly vocal and discontent. The threat of the community shrinking at all should give its founders chills. And while none may have a community as large as Twitter’s, if the perception of Twitter in the press isn’t changed soon, these new services will generate positive press for themselves entirely on Twitter’s back. Journalists love nothing more than to report on controversy and competition. What better story than how someone small upset someone large?

If they can’t solve their engineering problems internally, they should open their code base and testing sites to the general public. Communities built around open-source tend to be more loyal, and they tend to be more forgiving. Better still, many open-source advocates tend to be some of the loudest voices online. Advocates are an essential element to any community and Twitter could do a great deal more to encourage them.

As a final bonus, it’s possible that somewhere there lives someone with a brilliant insight into the problem Twitter faces who is not currently an employee of the company. As Linus’ law states, “With enough eyes, all bugs are shallow.”

An essay on how YouTube is, in many ways, better than porn:

By keeping obscenity in check, YouTube teems with video of near infinite variety, stuff that thrives when pornography, which is hard to contain once it takes root, has been banished. […] YouTube’s dizzying diversity, in fact, now makes online porn sites that purport to cater to a broad range of tastes look only obsessive and redundant.

There is definitely a subculture of softcore running rampant on YouTube. It’s strange. If you’re not a rabid voyeur, YouTube can seem completely innocent.

I spent about an hour on Thursday watching clips from Garfield and Friends, a cartoon from my childhood I have oddly fond memories of. It was innocent and nostalgic.

And just around the corner, one search term away: boobs.

A recently unearthed tablet is apparently causing a stir in certain circles as it discusses a messianic resurrection story that pre-dates Jesus:

If such a messianic description really is there, it will contribute to a developing re-evaluation of both popular and scholarly views of Jesus, since it suggests that the story of his death and resurrection was not unique but part of a recognized Jewish tradition at the time.

Aside from actually reading the Bible, I wouldn’t deign to suggest I’m any sort of scholar, but is this really news? My (admittedly simple) understanding was that suffering messiah stories were not only non-unique to Jesus, but were non-unique to Christianity.

Still, it seems any item that can shed light on that era is of great historical significance.

A conversation over dinner reminded me about Michal Levy’s gorgeous visualization of Coltrane’s Giant Steps.

Levy’s newer animation, One, is equally gorgeous and far more involved.

July 3rd, 2008

30 satellite images that look more like abstract art:

The images you see below were taken at the turn of the Millennium, when NASA’s scientists had a brilliant idea: to scan through 400,000 images taken by the Landsat 7 satellite and display only the most the most beautiful. A handful of the best were painstakingly chosen and then displayed at the Library of Congress in 2000.

My favorite was easily this image of Richat Structure in Mauritiana:

Deep rings in the ground near the Saharan town of Oudane mark a geological formation that resembles a bull’s eye or whirlpool. Its dramatic grooves are only entirely visible from a great altitude and although appearing to be the result of an impact crater, were formed when a volcanic dome hardened, gradually eroding to expose beautiful onion-like layers of rock.

With the inclusion of Back to Mac in Leopard, I often find myself logging into my home machine from work, and vice-versa. Today, I forgot to quit the Screen Sharing application before I left home. Trying to log into the home machine from my work machine produced interesting results.

I swear Remote Desktop used to prevent you from doing precisely this.

How to make a hamburger that resembles the 1UP mushroom from Super Mario Bros.

37signals is dropping support for IE6:

The Internet Explorer 6 browser was released back in 2001, and Internet Explorer 7, the replacement, was released nearly two years ago in 2006. Modern web browsers such as IE 7, Firefox, and Safari provide significantly better online experiences. Since IE 6 usage has finally dipped below a small minority threshold of our customers, it’s time to finally move beyond IE 6.

May this be the first in a long-line of similar announcements.

July 2nd, 2008

Christopher Hitchens accepted an invitation to subject himself to the water boarding torture technique and lasted about 15 seconds.

The cover designs for Penguin’s third installment of their Great Ideas series.

Buy the first installment and the second one if happen to have an extra 500 bucks burning a whole in your pocket.

An authoritative and fascinating look at the history of the C programming language by its inventor, Dennis Ritchie:

C is quirky, flawed, and an enormous success.

A bit dry, but worth the time. C is the invisible fundamental of technology, and knowing as much as you can about it can’t hurt.

The Eight Golden Rules of Interface Design.

Vinod Khosla, a venture capitalist, is pouring his own millions into science experiments to counter global warming:

(A)fter a discussion that lasted only an hour, he told the scientist, “I don’t care about the rest of the business plan. You don’t need to estimate costs. You don’t need to do a cash flow. You don’t need to do a presentation. Just hire five people, set up a lab, and go.”

Those damn capitalists. So intent on exploiting everyone.

A rather scathing review of the latest men’s collections shown in Paris this week:

They aren’t so much about real dreams and opinions as random thoughts […] (T)here is a meaninglessness about the collections, which ended on Sunday, and more than the usual serving. It’s odd to look at all the femmy touches — the puffed-sleeve blouses (can we use that word?) at Lanvin, the soft cowl-neck sweaters at Louis Vuitton, the ruffles at Comme des Garçons and Number (N)ine — and actually think that fashion is having this discussion. Now. Haven’t we had it before?

Stop complaining about gentrification:

(A) new study suggests the popular notion of the yuppie invasion is exaggerated. “We’re not saying there aren’t communities where displacement isn’t happening,” says Randall Walsh, an associate professor of economics at the University of Pittsburgh and one of the study’s authors. “But in general, across all neighborhoods in the urbanized parts of the U.S., it looks like gentrification is a pretty good thing.”

If you ever need proof designers take themselves far too seriously, look no further than this rant from Carole Guevin:

Consumerism is pursuing the potentiality of an endless dream stream of profits for a few and, exploitation of the most. There is a lot of brainware involved in figuring out the best way to construct cheap and sell a lot. Problem ‘solving’ is mostly attached to return on investment (ROI). As the downfall of the industrious rip of earth resources is surfacing, we are now facing a whole new ball game where a paradigm shift is required, shoving once again creativity to the forefront.

As best can be understood, Guevin’s point seems to be that ideas are taking the place of the physical, making “creatives” the primary agents of solution and change. There’s some bits about the horrors of capitalism, and the interconnectedness of the world, but by and large this is a piece dedicated to the idea that creatives are generally awesome and the best, last hope for this oh-so-terrible world of ours.

The premise is nothing new. The Knowledge Economy has been a redundant theme in business journalism for the last decade. But we should be clear. The world is still largely focused, and will continue to be focused on physical goods. It’s just our economy that is shifting to knowledge, as our labor force has been augmented by cheaper labor in developing nations. Run a survey of the jobs of most individuals in the world and you’ll find that the vast majority are still in positions of physical output: industrial, farming or otherwise.

The irony of Guevin not recognizing this, given her emphasis on interconnectedness is astonishing.

The top of the food chain, where knowledge workers such as “creatives” sit, is growing. Advances in technology and methodology have created increases in productivity which mean fewer people are required in the production of goods. The burgeoning middle-class has increased the demand for goods though, so the virtuous cycle ensures there will always be industry. Always a need for an every increasing number of goods. This gains have created many idle hands, which are being routed more and more into the fields of communication and idea generation.

But “ideas” and “solutions” have always been highly valued. The only change is perhaps that you have more people turning out ideas, though the signal to noise ratio probably remains about the same. And while there are new specific challenges being faced by this generation, every generation has had challenges of their own to overcome; Everything is different, but everything is the same.

Designers are so low on the list of people capable of solving the problems we face that essays like Guevin’s are laughable. I don’t care how clever your layouts are, we, as designers, are incapable of solving global hunger, poverty or warming. We are what we have always been. The messenger, not the message.

Developers on the other hand …

July 1st, 2008

John Gruber rebuts Joel Splosky on whether a menu item should be disabled when the action is either irrelevant to the context or unable to be completed for some reason:

Spolsky’s suggestion is also predicated on the assumption that the user is stupid. Better is to assume that the user is clever and curious and will be able to figure out for themself why a certain command is currently disabled.

Except even a clever user won’t always be able to suss out just why the menu item is disabled. And if it’s something they assume they should be able to do, even if logically they shouldn’t, it’s just as frustrating. Users don’t always grasp the arcane logic behind the target/action paradigm. Hell, I’m a fairly intelligent guy and sometimes I can’t figure out why a given option is disabled.

Both men are wrong. Both men are right.

John is right that the visual appearance of the menu should reflect the state of the action. Any menu item that is unavailable should be dimmed. This allows an exploring user to quickly scan to see what actions he can take. The menu item should not respond to the mouse over event, and no action should be taken if the user single-clicks on the menu item.

To be a little tautological: if you can’t do something, you shouldn’t be able to do it.

However, Joel is right that there is benefit in explaining to the user just why the menu option was disabled. In many cases it’s something as simple as the current selection being of the wrong data type for the action or there being no selection at all. But in other cases it can be a complex set of criteria which may or may not involved variables the user can’t see and may not know exists. Simply disabling the menu and calling it a day is the lazy way out.

There are other ways to handle that though. In a perfect world, when I hover over a disabled menu item for a few seconds a tooltip could/should appear either telling me why the menu is disabled or pointing me to an explanation elsewhere in the system. On Mac OS X, it might look like this. Copy is shit, but you get the point.

I should also be able to reach this explanation or dialog prompt with a double-click on the disabled menu item.

This is the best of both worlds. What’s disabled is obvious, and why it’s disabled is something the user can easily find out without reading through your help files and user forums.

Update: Lukas Mathis had the same idea, as did Apple’s old Ballon Help.

June 29th, 2008

A Russian curator, in collaboration with local scientists, has developed a method for dating artwork made after the first nuclear explosion:

According to the inventors, the new patented technology is based on the idea that man-made nuclear explosions in the 1940s and 1950s released isotopes into the environment that do not occur naturally. The tiniest traces of these isotopes, Caesium-137 and Strontium-90, permeated the planet’s soil and plant life, and eventually ended up in all works of art made in the post-war era because natural oils are used as binding agents for paints.

Stephen Hawking and Thomas Hertog have come up with a new theory on how the universe began:

(T)hey argued the universe began in just about every way imaginable (and perhaps even some that are not). Out of this profusion of beginnings, like a blend of a God’s eye view of every conceivable kind of creation, the vast majority of the baby universes withered away to leave the mature cosmos that we can see today.

We have no idea why we laugh or why jokes work:

Laughter is one of the most treacherous of all fields of history. Like sex and eating, it is an absolutely universal human phenomenon, and at the same time something that is highly culturally and chronologically specific.

Joss Whedon apparently got bored during the writer’s strike and called up a bunch of friends. The result was a low-budget film called Dr Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog:

I finally decided to do something very ambitious, very exciting, very mid-life-crisisy. Aided only by everyone I had worked with, was related to or had ever met, I single-handedly created this unique little epic. A supervillain musical, of which, as we all know, there are far too few.

The film will be broken into three acts, uploaded and streamed for free starting on July 15th and then converting to a paid download on or after July 20th.

Evan Tan’s brilliant retro-style posters for Wall-E.

Anita Elberse of the Harvard Business Review looks at the data and concludes Chris Anderson’s Long Tail theory to be bullshit:

Although no one disputes the lengthening of the tail (clearly more obscure products are being made available for purchase every day), the tail is likely to be extremely flat and populated by titles that are mostly a diversion for consumers whose appetite for true blockbusters continues to grow.

Anderson rebuts:

In the Rhapsody data, she finds, the top 10% of titles (out of more than a million in that data sample) accounted for 78% of all plays, and the top 1% account for 32% of all plays. That sounds pretty concentrated around the head, until you reflect, as she notes, that “one percent of a million is still 10,000—[…]equal to the entire music inventory of a typical Wal-Mart store.”

This is a good moment to remind everyone of the normal definition of “head” and “tail” in entertainment markets such as music. “Head” is the selection available in the largest bricks-and-mortar retailer in the market (that would be Wal-Mart in this case). “Tail” is everything else, most of which is only available online, where there is unlimited shelf space.

The full article is extremely even-handed and research heavy. Worth the read.

I’m calling this one for Elberse.

June 28th, 2008

A list of super-cool places you should visit, such as the world’s largest public restroom in Chong Qing, China.

Crafting better CSS font stacks, which has already found its way into my style sheet.

Update: Thanks to Dave Aton for the proof-reading.

A twitter feed of massively-cheap albums at AmazonMP3. Thanks, John.

Mandy Brown, of Working Library, on being a critic:

Criticism is the means by which an ideology is promoted and distributed with the aim of making the world a better place. Each critic may have a different idea of what that “better place” may be like (meaning, they may have different, and even conflicting, ideologies), but the methods and nature of their goals are always the same. To judge the critic, then, you must judge her vision of what the world should be.

She’s quickly become one of my favorite reads. Though it often takes me a few minutes to really grok what she’s talking about.

To hear their founders - and former housemates - tell it, the secret of Whole Foods and The Container Store is a focus on happier employees:

The idea is that happy, empowered employees beget happy customers. Happy suppliers help too. All this stakeholder joy eventually redounds to the benefit of shareholders—but the magic fades if shareholders become the focus.

As a life-long employee of someone else, I agree.

In my industry, web design, I’ve quickly realized that the fastest way to an unhappy client is an unhappy team member. Morale is far more important than most managers I know realize.

Several noted economists are having a conversation about Bill Gates’ theory of philanthropy:

[The site] is a web experiment designed to produce a book — a collection of essays and commentary on capitalism, philanthropy and global development — to be edited by us and published by Simon and Schuster in the fall of 2008. The book takes as its starting point a speech Bill Gates delivered this January at the World Economic Forum in Davos. In it, he said that many of the world’s problems are too big for philanthropy—even on the scale of the Gates Foundation. And he said that the free-market capitalist system itself would have to solve them.

I’ve only gotten through two of the essays, but this is just a fantastic way to kill a few hours reading.

Malcolm Gladwell wants to convince us that the way we think about success is completely wrong:

He asks the question: what makes high-achievers different? His answer is that we pay too much attention to what successful people are like, and too little attention to where they are from: that is, their culture, their family, their generation, and the idiosyncratic experiences of their upbringing.

Gladwell always struck me as the guy who had an interesting idea one night while he was stoned, and decided to write a book about it. Both Blink and Tipping Point sound great while you’re reading them, just as many armchair philosophies do, but the more you try to align his hypothesis to his anecdotes and evidence, the more you try to make concrete sense of his ideas, the more holes you find. The world is too complex, and Gladwell often uses too broad a brush.

But the premise of Outliers sounds, again, like a fantastic arm chair philosophy, and I’ll most likely read it like every other middle-class liberal white guy.

A 52-home community in Canada is heated entirely with solar energy:

Solar heating is a more exciting prospect than solar generation of electricity because heating is a much larger percentage of a home’s total energy use (60% for space heating, 20% for water heating, and 20% for appliances, lights, and other electrical loads).

Experts are predicting a reduction in the number of domestic flight routes by nearly 10%:

By year’s end, roughly 100 American communities will be left without regular commercial air service, and that number may double next year, according to the Air Transport Association, the industry trade group including other brands like nike, adidas and so on.

Realizing I may not be the most savvy-business mind to grace this world, how precisely the air industry continues to lose money, year after year, is a mystery to me.

June 27th, 2008

Chris Riebeschlager is a personal hero of mine:

I remember having this conversation when I was about 14… in 1992. The olden days. $1/gallon gas days.

Boy: “This Telnet chat is cool.”

Me: “Totally.”

Boy: “But what if we had a computer with a really good sound card and a microphone. Then what if we had a really fast internet connection that could handle sending audio. Then you could actually TALK to the person on the other end. They’d just have to have a speaker and a microphone too.”

Me: “So… you’d have a telephone.”