September 29th, 2008

Why you can’t divide by zero:

The reason that the result of a division by zero is undefined is the fact that any attempt at a definition leads to a contradiction.

And that explains that.

The Superbrother’s Dot Matrix Revolution:

Following an early morning status check of their vintage electronic equipment, two computer engineers “throw down” in an awkward dance-off that seems to (innacurately) echo the development of information technolgy and the internet from 1951 up to the present day.

Inaccurate or not, it’s a lovely little film.

Mike Soloman’s Apple Soundtrack, a song composed entirely of Mac OS X interface sounds.

September 26th, 2008

I’m shocked at how well David Rees’ Get Your War On has translated to animation. If you aren’t watching, check out the most recent one on the bailout, and the premier episode.

Two hundred-plus economists have signed a letter of opposition to current bailout plan:

We ask Congress not to rush, to hold appropriate hearings, and to carefully consider the right course of action, and to wisely determine the future of the financial industry and the U.S. economy for years to come.

Of course, their stated reasons for opposing the current plan are beyond vague. Principled, but vague.

Just like everyone else.

Why Joe Biden is gaffe proof:

Informational gaffes don’t hurt Biden because, whatever his imperfections, he’s generally seen as worldly and knowledgeable. Message gaffes don’t matter because, even if it’s a headache for the campaign, they make him sound authentic. (If he thinks the ad is “terrible,” that’s just his honest opinion!) And political gaffes don’t damage Biden because, well, he’s so darned congenial. Even John McCain likes him.

McCain’s in for tonight’s debate:

McCain said earlier this week he would not attend the debate if an agreement had not been reached on a $700 billion bailout plan for Wall Street.

The campaign said the Republican presidential nominee believed that enough progress had been made for him to travel to Mississippi to participate in the debate, set for 9 p.m. ET at the University of Mississippi campus.

Of course he is.

Why I sell all of my used computers on Ebay:

Scientists previously thought either risk aversion or the joy of winning drove overbidding, but the new study found the behavior was prompted by a “fear of losing.” The results, the authors say, were not predicted by current economic theory.

While it may seem like common-sense, the difference between doing something so you’ll win and doing something so you won’t lose is important.

Why they lie to you:

Because of tricks the brain plays, Mr. Miller wrote, “we’re likely to believe anything we hear repeated frequently enough. At we’ve noted how political spin-masters exploit this tendency ruthlessly, repeating dubious or false claims endlessly until, in the minds of many voters, they become true. Making matters worse, a study by Hebrew University’s [Ruth] Mayo shows that people often forget ‘denial tags.’ Thus many people who hear the phrase ‘Iraq does not possess WMDs’ will remember ‘Iraq’ and ‘possess WMDs’ while forgetting the ‘does not’ part.”

Good to know it’s our fault.

A similar study, or at least conclusion, was discussed over at Ars Techinca:

Volunteers were shown news items or political adverts that contained misinformation, followed by a correction. For example, a study by John Bullock of Yale showed volunteers a political ad created by NARAL that linked Justice John Roberts to a violent anti-abortion group, followed by news that the ad had been withdrawn. Interestingly, Democratic participants had a worse opinion of Roberts after being shown the ad, even after they were told it was false.

One has to appreciate how stupid we really are.

Adaptive Path released their previously 395-dollars-cheap report How ROI Changes User Experience for free, which, in a nutshell, says that user experience design is something you should make accountable:

The ability to “value” user experience design makes it a visible and credible business lever on par with marketing, research and develop- ment, and channel strategy. As a result, applying ROI-measuring tech- niques to user experience investment decisions has a positive impact on how Web teams are structured and perceived within an organization.

The research is interesting, but the language is about as user-friendly as a business-marketing textbook.

You can download the 412k PDF here.

Konigi’s depressingly out-of-stock Wireframe Graph Paper Notepad is the product I’ve been looking for for the last year, without realizing it.

Absolutely perfect for the type of quick-hit information architecture work I’ve been doing lately.

Thanks, Robb.

Turns out that whole “high-fructose corn syrup is just dandy” ad-campaign might not be complete bullshit after-all:

The special harmfulness of high-fructose corn syrup has become one of those urban myths that sounds right, but is basically wrong. Nutritionally, high-fructose corn syrup and sucrose may be identical.

Of course, like many urban myths, there’s a grain of truth to it:

The commercials claim that just like sugar, high-fructose corn syrup isn’t unhealthy when consumed in moderation. But it’s hard to know exactly how much of it we’re actually consuming because it shows up in so many unexpected foods.

Personally, I’m of the opinion that if it takes high-fructose corn syrup to make Cherry Coke delicious, so be it.

Looks like Washington Mutual just folded:

JPMorgan Chase acquired the banking assets of Washington Mutual late Thursday after the troubled thrift was seized by federal regulators, marking the biggest bank failure in the nation’s history and the latest stunning twist in the ongoing credit crisis.

I feel sort of bad for being late on a few of my card payments now.

September 25th, 2008

Whether you consider McCain’s recent campaign suspension statesmen-like or buffoonery, both sides seem to be in agreement that his actions, directly or indirectly, are to blame for the bailout’s plan downfall this evening:

Senator Christopher J. Dodd, Democrat of Connecticut and chairman of the Senate banking committee, denounced the session as “a rescue plan for John McCain,” and proclaimed it a waste of precious hours that could have been spent negotiating.

And lest you think it’s just the Democrats crying foul-ball:

A top aide to Mr. Boehner said it was Democrats who had done the political posturing. The aide, Kevin Smith, said Republicans revolted, in part, because they were chafing at what they saw as an attempt by Democrats to jam through an agreement on the bailout early Thursday and deny Mr. McCain an opportunity to participate in the agreement.

How McCain, an “experienced” politician, could not have realized that his injection into the process would cause exactly this type of upheaval is beyond me.

Of course the Democrats were going to try and jam through the bill, in hopes of making McCain look useless and grand-standing.

Of course Republicans were going to stop that from happening.

His decision and announcement changed the political math on Capital Hill. No longer is it about whether a deal is brokered, but about who gets credit for it. He’s made the process more complicated by turning what should have been a series of principled compromises and lesser-evil agreements into a tug-of-war over who gets credit for it.

Neither side has room to back down now. If the Republicans agree to the plan as originally presented, McCain looks bad. If the Democrats cave to the Republican’s alternative plan, McCain looks good.

He’s turned the process away from the deal and towards himself.

And either he realized that and did not care, or he did not realize that and managed to serve for 26 years without learning anything about Washington.

Either way, I’m not impressed.

Obama puts it a bit more delicately than I did in his interview with Brit Hume:

When you inject presidential politics into delicate negotiations, sometimes it’s not helpful. The cameras change things.

Can I get a “Duh”?

Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, perhaps the most honest men in political news, gave a joint interview to Entertainment Weekly that’s riddled with more fantastic points than most political interviews:

STEWART: There’s this idea that people who hunt and have ”good” values are somehow this mythological American; I don’t know who ”this” person is, I’ve never met them. She is no more typical ”us” than I am, than Obama is, than McCain is, than Mr. T is. If there is something quintessentially or authentically American about her, I sort of feel like, you know what? You ”good values people” have had the country for eight years, and done an unbelievably s—-ty job. Let’s find some bad values people and give them a shot, maybe they’ll have a better take on it.

On the hopes this election would be different:

STEWART: I was convinced an Obama/McCain campaign would be measurably different on almost all standards. And to watch it become Bush/Kerry, Bush/Gore, has been one of the most dissatisfying experiences.

COLBERT: That means it’s not an Obama/McCain campaign. It’s a Guys Who Work for Bush/Guys Who Work for Kerry campaign. Both sides have people who are just smart enough to know “We need to tweak this dial right here,” so of course voters are divided 50/50 between the parties.

It’s been odd to watch this reaction to the general slide of both campaigns towards the same self-serious, jab-and-duck, low-blow campaigning that has riddled our political discourse for so long.

Both sides seem to live in the same mental bunkers, convinced “their guy” is still OK. Convinced that, at some level, “their guy” is only doing it because, jeez, they need to win. Or that its the other guy’s tactics that are forcing their hand. Or worse, that “their guy” isn’t doing it at all.

Both of “our guys” are guilty. Yes, of course, McCain’s been quite a bit worse about it, no doubt there. His actions, not his campaign’s, his, have made me lose what respect I had for him as a politician. He has proven himself less a man of principle than a man of convenient principles.

And to some extent, that’s true for Obama as well. While I will most likely cast my vote for him, it is no longer because I believe he is the agent of political change I so hoped he was, so believed him when he said he was, when other’s said he was. It is because, on policy, I agree with Obama more than I agree with McCain.

But whatever delusions I had that this election would be a substantive debate between two honest men who respected each other is gone.

It’s just another election now.

September 24th, 2008

What would happen if a person tried to travel through a tunnel from one side of the Earth to the other:

It takes 42 minutes regardless of the path you take.

That’s just neat.

I can see Alaska from here, and I’m a PC.

I get the sense that the backlash to Microsoft’s ill-advised counter-punch has only just begun. Call this the first salvo.

September 22nd, 2008

Steven Weinberg, writing in the New York Review of Books, on the tensions between science and religion and a more general guide to atheism:

The problem for religious belief is not just that science has explained a lot of odds and ends about the world. There is a second source of tension: that these explanations have cast increasing doubt on the special role of man, as an actor created by God to play a starring part in a great cosmic drama of sin and salvation […] As Richard Feynman has said, “The theory that it’s all arranged as a stage for God to watch man’s struggle for good and evil seems inadequate.”

Towards the end, Weinberg also makes an excellent point regarding morals and religion:

[E]ven someone who believes in God can feel that Abraham in the Old Testament was wrong to obey God in agreeing to sacrifice Isaac, and that Adam in Paradise Lost was right to disobey God and follow Eve in eating the apple, so that he could stay with her when she was driven from Eden. The young men who flew airplanes into buildings in the US or exploded bombs in crowds in London or Madrid or Tel Aviv were not just stupid in imagining that these were God’s commands; even thinking that these were His commands, they were evil in obeying them.

September 20th, 2008

Ben Kingsley as Minor Threat’s Ian MacKaye. No, I am not joking.

Thank you, Coudal.

September 18th, 2008

Kevin Dart’s work on this promotional spot for the BBC’s Olympics coverage is absolutely gorgeous.

Jokes only type nerds will find funny.

September 17th, 2008

Willem Buiter over at Financial Times asks a pointed question regarding the Federal bailout of AIG:

If financial behemoths like AIG are too large and/or too interconnected to fail but not too smart to get themselves into situations where they need to be bailed out, then what is the case for letting private firms engage in such kinds of activities in the first place?

There is a long-standing argument that there is no real case for private ownership of deposit-taking banking institutions, because these cannot exist safely without a deposit guarantee and/or lender of last resort facilities, that are ultimately underwritten by the taxpayer.

Interesting take.

The Christian Science Monitor’s Patchwork Nation explores the electorate of the United States in vastly more precise terms that just “red” and “blue”:

We’ve identified 11 places across the US that represent distinct types of voter communities … As the 2008 campaign progresses, the Monitor will write about what issues matter in each of these communities, how the issues affect residents’ votes, and how the candidates tailor their messages to a particular audience.

David Streitfeld, reporter for the New York Times and former book editor at the Boston Globe, quotes David Foster Wallace:

Fiction, [Wallace] once said, is “one of the few experiences where loneliness can be both confronted and relieved. Drugs, movies where stuff blows up, loud parties — all these chase away loneliness by making me forget my name’s Dave and I live in a one-by-one box of bone no other party can penetrate or know. Fiction, poetry, music, really deep serious sex, and, in various ways, religion — these are the places (for me) where loneliness is countenanced, stared down, transfigured, treated.”

I’ll let folks who’ve finished more than half of one of his books continue to memorialize him. But that quote hit me just hard enough to be worth repeating.

September 16th, 2008

Semir Zeki is searching for the neurological underpinnings of beauty:

Ten participants were shown 300 paintings and asked to classify each of them as beautiful, ugly, or neutral. Paintings rated as beautiful by some of the participants were rated as ugly by others, and vice versa. The participants were then shown the paintings again while lying in a scanner. “Beautiful” paintings elicited increased activity in the orbito-frontal cortex, which is involved in emotion and reward. Interestingly, the “uglier” a painting, the greater the motor cortex activity, as if the brain was preparing to escape.

As massive a fan of neurology I’ve become as late, there is something almost depressing about placing a theory on beauty.

I’m almost rooting for Zeki to fail.

Bill Bishop, author of the The Big Sort, has a new blog up on Slate, with his first two posts focused on why the electoral map will essentially remain the same, despite the 50 State Strategy:

Sen. Obama is stuck. He didn’t find a way across the boundaries of lifestyle and culture that split Democrats. And now it’s the middle of September and he still trying to find a way to bring these very different Americas together. (It might be there isn’t one.)

John McCain may have come to another conclusion: That he doesn’t need to widen his net and can win by turning out the same voters who elected Bush.

For more on Bishop’s book, check out his interview on The Daily Show.

Spend the next few minutes clicking through the images on Schtock:

I work at a major stock photo company cataloging images. The majority of the stuff I work with will never see the light of day for no other reason than that most people don’t know it’s available to them. It’s a shame which I’m trying to remedy with this site. As an amateur designer, I occasionally can’t help but play around with the images I see floating across my desk on a daily basis.

Damn fine work for an “amateur”.

A map of where connections were most frequently missed, according to Craigslist.

Yes, I have an obsession with missed connections.

August 26th, 2008

Richard Dawkins read his hate mail.

Panic has posted Coda 1.5.

Long list of feature additions, including Subversion support, AppleScript support, support for searching across multiple files, and improved clips.

Will it replace my beloved TextMate? We’ll see.

August 23rd, 2008

Isabella Rossellini explores the mating habits of bees.

Odd. Very, very odd. Informative, yes. But, odd.

Thanks, Jess.

Diebold, which at some point renamed themselves Premier Election Solutions, has admitted that voting machines used in 34 states contained a software bug that caused the machines to drop votes:

The GEMS system is supposed to save information from one card at a time to be counted in order as the cards are read by a database that Riggall described as the “mother ship.” But a logic error in the program can cause incoming votes to essentially shove aside other votes that are waiting in the electronic line before they are counted.

Diebold’s stance is that the error should have been caught by election officials, so long as they followed proper procedures and double-checked that the reported number of memory cards counted matched the expected number from the precincts.

Obama has picked Senator Joe Biden for Vice-President.

If you’d like to know more about Biden, I’d recommend you read GQ’s profile of Biden from last year:

“I believe the only really distinguishing feature I bring to this dance,” he says, “is my reputation for being stand-up, straight, say it what it is. The moment I divert from that, I’m done. I’m done. So I don’t think I can win by being more liberal. I’m not gonna win by having a better health care plan or a better Iraq plan. I win, if I win, because people look at me and say, ‘Goddammit, there’s a guy who’s got strength, who knows what he believes and isn’t gonna back down.’

An equally great profile can be found at the Tribune’s The Swamp.

August 21st, 2008

I Want You to Want Me was an interactive visualization of online romance:

(It) chronicles the world’s long-term relationship with romance, across all ages, genders, and sexualities, gathering new data from a variety of online dating sites every few hours. The system searches these sites for certain phrases, which it then collects and stores in a database. These phrases, taken out of context, provide partial glimpses into people’s private lives. Simultaneously, the system forms an evolving zeitgeist of dating, tracking the most popular first dates, turn-ons, desires, self-descriptions and interests.

Sadly, the exhibit doesn’t seem to exist anywhere online. Though the search lead me to an older project by the creators, We Feel Fine, a less aesthetically pleasing, but equally interesting work.

And that reminded me of Golan Levin’s The Secret Life of Numbers and Audiovisual Environment Suite. Then I returned to the source of this find, this Slate article on Infoviz art, and noticed Golan’s The Dumpster was mentioned, along with They Rule.

Now it’s nearly 3 AM and I’ve spent an hour clicking on useless but incredible things.

Damn you, internet. You’ve beaten me again.

Ridelust tears red light cameras apart:

“The rigorous studies clearly show red-light cameras don’t work,” said lead author Barbara Langland-Orban, professor and chair of health policy and management at the USF College of Public Health. “Instead, they increase crashes and injuries as drivers attempt to abruptly stop at camera intersections.”

In fact, six U.S. cities have been found guilty of shortening the yellow light cycles below what is allowed by law on intersections equipped with cameras meant to catch red-light runners. Those local governments have completely ignored the safety benefit of increasing the yellow light time and decided to install red-light cameras, shorten the yellow light duration, and collect the profits instead.

August 20th, 2008

Unboxing the Samsung Omnia.

If you’re looking for an explanation as to just why Motorola, a company struggling to recapture its brief glory from the RAZR, seems so inept at building a great phone, look no further than this article over at Gizmodo:

“There’s this amazing wealth of engineering talent, but there’s no system for harnessing that talent for the good of the consumer,” says one former Motorola executive. The men in the R&D labs are permitted to indulge their flights of fancy, many of which center on fine-tuning antennas to optimize reception. Meanwhile, no one pays much attention to more prosaic fundamentals such as reliable software.

The article, which quotes the ominous “insiders”, lambasts Motorola as a culture where engineers reign supreme, marginalizing designers and consumer research.

Something rings a bit untrue about this though. One, if engineers ran the shop, wouldn’t the software be unattractive but functional? The majority of the phones from Motorola are plagued by issues on all sides of the product equation. Unreliable, slow software, coupled with poor design on the software side. Either the engineers in control at Motorla are hardware junkies, with no understanding of software, and the designers are castrated lackies, or both sides are equally incompetent and blaming each other.

I think the latter seems far more likely.

Thanks for pointing the article out Robb.

Update: Mike Karlesky, via email, disagrees:

I can assure you that it’s entirely possible for Motorola engineers to run the shop and yet not deliver functional devices. When it comes to electronics and firmware engineers, there’s a distinct line between developing amazing, intellectually stimulating core functionality and developing functionality that is robust.

In more cases than I care to remember, I’ve seen engineers spend inordinate amounts of time tweaking and building something that is elegant and powerful that fails in 50% of real world uses because the engineer in question overbuilt unnecessary functionality but paid no attention to edge cases, error handling, testing, or integrating with the rest of a system’s complexity.

Fair enough.

I prefer to give engineers the benefit of the doubt, but as I said, it’s entirely possible both divisions at Motorola are equally incompetent.

A slick tool from the MooTools team to compare the speed and accuracy of DOM selectors in the various JavaScript frameworks.

Running the tests on my MacBook in Safari showed my beloved jQuery to be the fastest of the bunch, though not by much, with YUI being the slowest by far.

Never been a fan of any framework other than jQuery. They all seemed to clunky, too focused on abstract design patterns, instead of the real work of making JavaScript less of a bitch to use.

jQuery fundamentally changed how I thought about JavaScript development, turning it from the occasional evil into something I’d often rather be using instead of server-side logic. It placed the ideals of web development, minimal download, fast response and progressive enhancement, within my reach in a way no other framework has managed.

Prototype always felt like a series of clever hacks. MooTools was Python, but not quite. Dojo was a clustered dump of brilliant functionality, but ultimately too much to remember. YUI more a collection of functionality than a cohesive framework, overly verbose and broad.

I often dip into YUI when I need a quick get-there-already bit of code. I’ve used its drag and drop library several times, and was impressed by its flexibility and capability. Each time however, I wrapped my calls to YUI in clever jQuery extensions, as it just felt more natural to deal with.

Marguerite Del Giudice went searching for the soul of Iran:

“When I go abroad, people get surprised when they realize that 65 percent of the college students here are girls. Or when they see Iranian paintings and Iranian architecture, they are shocked. They are judging a civilization just by what they have heard in the last 30 years”.

Iran has remained a weird obsession of mine for the last few years.

I devoured the article, despite its length, and began, once again, to price out just what a trip to Tehran would cost me. There is something deeply contradictory about the country to me, something historical and pristine, but angry, forgotten and out of touch. Del Giudice touches on this, and so much more. Absolutely worth the read.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has spent half a life time studying the creative personality, attempting to understand what makes them so very special. Apparently, they’re pretty strange folks:

Creative individuals are remarkable for their ability to adapt to almost any situation and to make do with whatever is at hand to reach their goals. If I had to express in one word what makes their personalities different from others, it’s complexity. They show tendencies of thought and action that in most people are segregated. They contain contradictory extremes; instead of being an “individual,” each of them is a “multitude.”

I’d like to think that everyone is as wondrously complex and contradictory as he paints the creative breed, but I’m certainly not going to spend 30 years proving that point. Still, his list makes for a good read, and several of the traits he lists definitely ring true. Though so does my astrological description, and we all know that’s complete horseshit.