Thursday, July 31, 2008


This very brief post by Jan Chipchase (using his trademark style of fragmented sentences) reminded me of the disproportionately large effect that the presence of condensation (especially on a metal container) can have on ones appreciation of a beverage. The Coke just seems so much colder and refreshing when the can has a bit of condensation and is just a bit wet to the touch on the outside. And the British love condensation!

Leave Barack Alone!

This video's pretty clever, given the recent comparisons by the McCain campaign between Barack Obama and Paris Hilton and Britney Spears. My favorite line: "What you people don't get is that Barack is making America cool again!"

Via Chris Bodenner guest-blogging for Andrew Sullivan.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Bad Day for Humanity...

It seemed like the bad news just kept rolling in today. It definitely reinforced my fundamental mistrust of government.
  • TSA destroys the RepRap's first child: As Boing Boing states, "This year's OSCON was treated to a chance to see the first RepRap "progeny." RepRap is a deluxe 3D printer that is capable of printing copies of itself. On the way back, the TSA opened the case it was in and destroyed the printer." I think the RepRap team's conclusion is quite cogent:
    I recommend that anyone, anywhere shipping any equipment of value by air goes out of their way to avoid having it pass through the United States of America. Otherwise their badly-trained insecurity chimps and box-throwers will wreck it for you.
  • Botched Raid on Innocent Family Earns Cops Merit Badges: Radley Balko puts this embarrassing display of the police protecting their own instead of the citizens for whom they work into perspective:
    This is really beyond outrage. The city of Minneapolis is commending and rewarding its police officers for firing their weapons at innocent people. A family of eight was terrorized, assaulted, and nearly killed, and it’s the "perfect example" of a situation that could have gone wrong?
  • The Doha round of trade talks has collapsed: This quote from Indian negotiator Kamal Nath seems to sum up the apparent economic illiteracy of those who, had they made the right decision and liberalized global trade, had the opportunity to improve the living conditions of millions, perhaps billions of poor people around the world.
    "I come from a country where 300 million people live on 1 dollar a day and 700 million people live on 2 dollars a day. So it is natural for me, and in fact incumbent upon me, to see that our agricultural interests are not compromised. You don't require rocket science to decide between livelihood security and commercial interests."
    By reducing India's agricultural protectionism, obviously some Indian farmers will lose their jobs and experience economic hardship. But that seems like a relatively small price to pay to allow the 700 million people living on 2 dollars a day to gain access to cheaper food purchased on the world market. Protecting agricultural interests at the expense of cheaper food (and better lives) for a far greater number of people is a classic example of the flawed reasoning of the Make-work Bias. (And yes, of course, I think the U.S should eliminate all of its subsidies, farm-related or otherwise.)

Image from here.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

No Haircuts, But What About Barbershop Quartets

Looks like Houma, Louisiana is leading the way on public safety initiatives in the US:

Clyde Scott was in his barbershop cutting hair when a police officer walked in and gave him a ticket… for cutting hair. The city of Houma, Louisiana, it seems, has a decades-old law banning cutting hair on Mondays. It also bans cutting hair on Sundays as well as several holidays and the days after a few of those holidays. Scott says he didn't know about that law.

No word yet on whether barbershops can remain open on Mondays for barbershop quartet practice.

Image from Flickr user obLiterated available under a Creative Commons license

Monday, July 28, 2008

Cuil - Hard to Pronounce and Hard to Use

While browsing through Google News, I saw this story:

With hours of being launched Monday, Cuil - a new search engine created by former top Google engineers - was already being touted in the blogosphere as the next Google killer. But unless Cuil (pronounced ‘cool’) can develop an ad platform to rival Google’s, Cuil will have a difficult time challenging the search giant.

So I immediately went to and tried a search. Naturally, I searched for the word "libertarian." Aside from the content of the results (which was similar but not identical to Google's results), I don't really like the format in which they're displayed. I guess having a summary below the site name is nice, but Google's approximately sentence-long summary is almost always sufficient for me. Plus nowadays I'm almost always connected via a high speed connection, so the cost of experimenting by clicking on many different search results is fairly low, which effectively devalues a link preview.

Another annoying thing is that even though the results are presented in multiple columns (three by default but you can change it to two), you still have to scroll vertically. Not like scrolling is a problem, but why bother with the multiple columns if you still have to scroll? With the single column of results that Google yields, it's pretty clear that more results can be found by scrolling vertically. But when the results are stretched across the page in three columns, I made the assumption that this negated the need for scrolling. But then I tried to scroll anyway (why not?), and found that scrolling down might give you one more row of results. Why even bother with the one extra row?

Finally, for searches for relatively common words like "libertarian," Cuil displays a box in the upper right corner of the page called "Explore by Category." This seems like Cuil's most obvious attempt at differentiating themselves from Google, and I think it has some promise. On the plus side, its behavior is very quick; to see what it recommends in a given category you just roll over the category name and a list of sub-topics is shown almost instantly. The quick response is nice; anything slower would kill its usefulness. But even with the quick response, I wonder how useful the functionality really is...usually when I search for something, I'm looking for something specific. It's rare that I'm just searching on some topic in a general quest to learn more about that topic by exploring one of the recommended sub-topics. But maybe that's just me...

In sum, I guess it's nice to have another options, but I'm not yet convinced of Cuil's utility. If I were them, I'd do multiple rounds of iterative usability testing to make sure they aren't introducing any serious usability (including satisfaction) issues by having both a multi-column display and using just enough vertical space to require users to scroll vertically to view just one more row of results.

One more thing: spelling "cool" like "cuil" reminds me of this classic site. "Pointed shorts!...Kewl!"

Another Reason To Like Subways

An artist in New York creates dynamic sculptures out of garbage bags that, since they're fastened above sidewalk grates that let out air displaced by subway trains passing underneath, inflate and become animated for only a few seconds at a time.

Via the Agitator.

Homer Simpson ist die selbe wie Fred Thompson?

According to This non-American Life, in Germany the guy that does the voiceovers for Homer Simpson is the same guy that does the voiceovers for Fred Thompson's character in Law and Order. Germans love Barack Obama; just imagine how it would have played out if Fred Thompson had become president...

Image photoshopped from this image and this image.

Friday, July 25, 2008

This Headline Caught My Attention

A new law regulating pollution from ocean-going vessels docking in California was recently passed. According to the Los Angeles Times:

The rules, which take effect in 2009, would require ships within 24 nautical miles of California to burn low-sulfur diesel instead of the tar-like sludge known as bunker fuel. About 2,000 vessels would be affected, including container ships, oil tankers and cruise ships.

That's seems like a pretty factual way of summarizing the law. Contrast that with the following headline from

California Rule Cuts Pollution from Ships

Wow, I didn't know a rule could do that! Sounds like all we have to do if we want to cut pollution is create more rules. It's as easy as that. New rule = pollution cuts.

Regardless of the merits of the "rule," rules themselves don't do anything. Rules, or laws, as they're called when the government mandates them, require people to comply with whatever the content of the rule/law is. People then adjust their behavior in order to be compliant. When the law governs business activity, compliance requires spending money. Since this money is being spent to comply with a law, it cannot be spent elsewhere.

The distinction drawn above is not trivial. All laws (especially those regulating business) cost money. You can't just legislate your way to solutions without imposing costs on the people/companies to whom the law applies. Spending more money to comply with a law may mean spending less money on personnel, or research and development, or whatever. To not address this question when a new law is proposed is irresponsible.

To be fair, the article does say that the "new regulations yesterday...will require ships," but their headline glosses over the fact that compliance is not free, and their article contains no mention of the costs of compliance, save for the following sentence:

Shipping companies oppose the rule, and may challenge it in federal court.

The Los Angeles Times article does a better job:

The air board estimates that the new shipping rules will save Californians at least $6 billion a year in health-related expenses and will cost the shipping industry between $140 million and $360 million a year.

A typical cargo ship would pay about $30,000 more in fuel costs for each visit, or about $6 per container shipped from Asia to California. That amounts to 0.1 cent per pair of sneakers, the board noted.

I wouldn't consider this a full examination, as it relies on data from only one source (the California Air Resource Board). But at least it acknowledges that the law will cost businesses. If the numbers are to be believed, the effect seems to be small, if not non-trivial. And it sounds like the environmental benefits are real. So, given my 30-second analysis, this law seems like a good thing, but of course I reserve the right to re-evaluate my opinion upon more in-depth analysis (which I probably won't do unless I either become a shipping magnate or run for office in California). But the law is not without its costs...

Image from Flickr user fusionpanda available under a Creative Commons license

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Visualizing Arrhythmias

I work at a major cardiac rhythm management (CRM) device manufacturer, and as part of my training we were shown a video of a doctor demonstrating different types of arrhythmias by moving his arms (to represent the atria) and his legs (to represent the ventricles). I thought the video was hilarious but wasn't able to find a copy online. Until today:

It starts out a little slow but gets pretty funny at around 2:00. Despite the sort of silliness of the video, I actually think it's a very effective way of explaining arrhythmias.

Video via this post by Dr. Wes.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Wal-Mart Leads to Destruction!!

Creative destruction, that is. In other words, the good kind of destruction. Out with the old and inefficient and in with the new and exciting. This post by Mark Perry summarizes a Cato Institute study [PDF] concluding that, if anything, Wal-Mart has a net positive effect on the number of small businesses in a community.

Myth: Mega discount store Wal-Mart is a plague set upon small “mom-and-pop” businesses. The instant Wal-Mart moves into town, all small businesses are destroyed in its path, leaving downtowns barren and empty. According to Robert Reich, Wal-Mart turns “main streets into ghost towns by sucking business away from small retailers.”

Reality: The popular belief that Wal-Mart has a significant negative effect on the size of the mom-and-pop business sector of the United States economy is statistically unfounded. After examining a plethora of different measures of small business activity and growth, examining both time series and cross-section data, and employing different geographic levels of data and different econometric techniques, it can be firmly concluded that Wal-Mart has had no significant impact on the overall size and growth of U.S. small business activity.

The key is in recognizing that the world is dynamic. Sure, Wal-Mart will crush small businesses with which it directly competes. But, as the study states:

The previous research on Wal-Mart's effects did not correctly model the welfare-enhancing process of "creative destruction." Creative destruction occurs when the introduction of a new idea or product results in the obsolescence of other products. New inventions, for instance, often result in the business failures of products supplanted by now-outdated technologies. That is unfortunate for the old businesses, but it benefits consumers and it frees money and resources that can then give rise to new businesses and further advancements.

For instance, the locale of our university, Morgantown, W.Va., just one of many cities that have witnessed, first-hand, the process of creative destruction unleashed by Wal-Mart. Shortly after a new Wal-Mart store opened, Morgantown's popular downtown area was wrought with empty storefronts. However, after only a brief period of time, the once-empty storefronts filled with new small businesses. A former women's clothing shop transformed into a high-end restaurant. A former electronics store converted into an ice cream parlor. One by one, each of the vacant stores filled with new businesses, such as coffee shops, art galleries, and law firms.

The study concludes:

There is no question that Wal-Mart does cause some mom-and-pop businesses to fail. However, those failures are entirely compensated for by the entry of other new small business elsewhere in the economy through the process of creative destruction.

I hope this study gets the attention and respect it deserves, but the fact that it's coming from the Cato Institute, which has been libeled as "neoconservative" by the popular author Naomi Klein, will probably imply a bias that I don't believe is there. But hopefully the study will serve as a resource for future studies by more impartial institutions that will reach the same conclusion.

Image from Flickr user James Moore available under a Creative Commons license

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Human Brains Don't Function As Well When Fatigued

An interesting article at Scientific American summarizes an interesting area of psychology/decision making research and its intriguing conclusions:

For instance, it's long been recognized that strenuous cognitive tasks—such as taking the SAT—can make it harder to focus later on. But recent results suggests that these taxing mental activities may be much broader in scope-and may even involve the very common activity of making choices itself. In a series of experiments and field studies, University of Minnesota psychologist Kathleen Vohs and colleagues repeatedly demonstrate that the mere act of making a selection may deplete executive resources. For example, in one study the researchers found that participants who made more choices in a mall were less likely to persist and do well in solving simple algebra problems.


In a parallel investigation, Yale University professor Nathan Novemsky and his colleagues suggest that the mere act of resolving tradeoffs may be depleting. For example, in one study, the scientists show that people who had to rate the attractiveness of different options were much less depleted than those who had to actually make choices between the very same options.

I'm still trying to think through how this research can be applied to human factors/user interface design, but to me it suggests that user interface designers should consider not only the dynamic cognitive load a user experiences at any given point while operating some product or system, but also the cumulative cognitive load. In other words, if you burden users with having to make a bunch of choices (even if the choices themselves are not all that taxing) that require frequent shifts in attention, you shouldn't expect those users to be able to perform at peak cognitive levels while busy with one task (obviously) or even after a busy task has just been completed (not so obvious).

Some questions:
  1. How long does it take for a person's cognitive capacity to "recharge?"
  2. Also, can one build up "cognitive endurance" through training?
  3. Is this why people become frustrated at a seemingly exponential rate when, after repeated attempts, something STILL doesn't work?

Image from Flickr user bootload
available under a Creative Commons license

A New Hope!

Kottke points to inappropriate movie soundtracks, among them a scene from Star Wars Episode IV, A New Hope, set to Queen and David Bowie's Under Pressure. Here's the video:

The YouTube name for the video is "A New Hope ruined scene," but I actually love it! Maybe it's the fact that I'm so familiar with the characters or maybe it's just like Pink Floyd and the Wizard of Oz, but I actually feel more emotions watching that video than simply listening to the song (which I love!). I only wish the video wouldn't cut out when it does. Just as the song is reaching its celebratory climax, Luke et al. are saved by C3PO and R2D2 and begin celebrating. But the video tragically stops. Oh well, it's still fun to watch.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Non-organic Food

I'm pretty sure this is a completely non-organic meal:

Via this post by Andrew Sullivan guestblogger Chris Bodenner.

Do Regulations Make Cities Un-livable?

Matt Yglesias has been making some really good points recently about how local government regulations and ordinances can often lead to less-livable cities.

On July 20, he discussed liquor licensing and zoning:

And movie theaters aside DC would, in general, have more bars that feature nice outdoor areas (a) easier to get a license to open a bar, and (b) easier to get a license to establish outdoor tables.

A relatively strict licensing regime keeps the number of drinking establishments relatively low. That reduces one's set of options. But beyond that, it makes for a less competitive environment with higher prices and less effort going into making an establishment appealing. Laxer licensing regimes and more liberal zoning policies about where you can open retail would produce lower prices and more options.

On July 19, he talked about affordable housing:

To me one of the oddest aspects of endless discussions about affordable housing is how little emphasis there is on the fact that many areas have straightforward rules in place that just make it illegal for housing to be affordable. For example, in Arlington County Virginia you might own a nice big house. And maybe you're an empty nester who doesn't need as much space in the home anymore now that the kids are out of the house. So maybe you want to modify the structure somewhat to create a so-called "accessory dwelling" in the garage or the basement that you can rent out to people looking for a cheap place to live.

Well, you can't. It's illegal.

And back in April he covered government-subsidized/mandated parking here:

But that's what you should have -- as much parking as the market will bear. Not government-mandated parking, and not government-provided free or discount parking. Let people build garages and if it's more economical to provide less parking, let there be less parking.

and here:

When you mandate vast acres of un-priced or underpriced parking, that leads to lots of driving. But the space used up by all that parking is still a real resource -- nothing comes "for free." When you don't make those mandates, the world doesn't end and people don't just spend eternity driving in circles looking for spaces. Instead, a combination of market-priced parking and alternatives to driving can meet people's needs.

Yglesias is regarded as a modern (as opposed to classical) liberal, but I think he's much more libertarian than he gets credit for.

Image is Camille Pissarro's Boulevard Montmartre, morning, cloudy weather, 1897, from here.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Usable Lab Tools

I had to use a thumb-actuated pipette like the one pictured above (left) a little bit (less than 2 hours total) in college. I don't remember it being particularly annoying, but I do remember it not working all that well. The Ergopip (right) looks much more comfortable to use and is actuated by a user's fingers.

This makes me wonder if the entire chemistry lab experience could be made easier and more accessible if lab tools (such as titration tubes, graduated cylinders, Bunsen burners, etc.) were easier to use. Not just physically (i.e. ergonomically), but also cognitively. In high school and in college, I remember almost always having a tricky time using the equipment, which inevitably slowed my progress down, which in turn made me frustrated that my classmates were moving through the lab exercise while I struggled to get the equipment set up. Maybe I would have (1) enjoyed chemistry more and (2) learned more about chemistry if I could have actually appreciated the technical content of lab exercises instead of trying to become a master at shutting off the titration valve at just the right time.

Ergopip information via Medgadget.

Image on left from here, image on right from here.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

My Tires Are Bad, Too

Rogier Van Biekel says the tires on his fairly new vehicle are bad:
Which is as good a time as any to report that the tires on my 18-month-old Toyota RAV4 Limited are as bald as the eagle who nests in the trees across my house. The car (and the tires) have just 30,000 miles on them. I'd never heard of modern tires that (properly inflated and rotated) last fewer than 30,000 miles. All the tires I've bought in my dozen years of car ownership have, in fact, had warranties in the 50-60,000-mile ballpark.

The tires on my 2007 Mazda 3 (with just under 36,000 miles) are also in need of replacement. It'll be nice to have new tires (my car's handling has decreased dramatically but I'm guessing I've adjusted and forgotten how good it once was), but I'm not looking forward to spending $500-600.

The user experience of public transportation seems much more fixed and predictable than the user experience of driving/owning a car. Once you figure out your route on public transportation, travel times (especially on non-bus options) and costs are pretty fixed. But with a car, just when you think your car is good to go, some unexpected problem inevitably shows up. I used to think the IRS rate (currently around $0.50 per mile) of owning a car was higher than what it should be, but the longer I've owned cars the less I've thought this.

All this just reinforces my desire to live somewhere where I can commute via some combination of walking, biking, riding a subway/light rail/bus. I like driving, but I could live with only driving a couple times a week. Driving 35 miles to work each way every day is too much.

Image from Flickr user dmitriyo available under a Creative Commons license

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

You don't have to subsidize it just because it's green

While listening to NPR/MPR (I never know which one owns whatever show I'm listening to at any given moment, but it was on 91.1), I learned that Minneapolis was one of six cities selected (by Hymotion, I assume) to have a local Hymotion installation partner. Apparently, Minneapolis was selected after Mayor R.T. Rybak lobbied for Minneapolis:
Originally, they wouldn’t have been able to. Minneapolis was not on the list of six cities selected to be test sites for the technology. But when Rybak caught wind of this, he said he stepped in and told the manufacturer that he may be the only mayor in the country who drives a plug-in hybrid, that it therefore made sense for the technology to come here.

Based on this paragraph, the narrative features a green company (Hymotion) responding sensibly to a request by a plug-in hybrid-driving mayor to market their new technology in the city over which he presides. Everybody gets along, and everybody's happy. Even the "evil corporation" comes off looking good.

But further down in the article I saw this:
The operations aren’t cheap, costing about $10,000. But the state is offering help in the form of a grant program meant to expand the use of plug-in technology. It’s expected to lower the cost by about a third, state Rep. Frank Hornstein (DFL-60B) said.

“This is really the cheapest and environmentally best response to high gas prices,” Hornstein said.

Ahhh...might one of the reasons that oh-so-benevolent Hymotion chose Minneapolis as one of its first six cities be the generous subsidy codified by Rep. Hornstein? The plot thickens...

In any case, it appears that "orders [at the Minneapolis dealer] are booked full through December" (according to Hymotion customer service representative Jim Strong). Is this because a bunch of well-informed hybrid owners are banking on the $3,000 subsidy, or would interest be just as strong without the subsidy? Alas, we'll never know, but from Hymotion's perspective a subsidy certainly won't hurt demand.

My guess is that removing the subsidy wouldn't decrease interest substantially. If you can afford $7,000 to modify what is likely a fairly new car, you can afford $10,000 to do the same. So the subsidy seems essentially like a $3,000 gift to people who already own hybrid other words, upper and upper-middle class people who don't need it.

One final twist to this fun story: Rep. Hornstein owns a hybrid car [PDF] (search for "hybrid"), which apparently he auctions off the use of.

It looks like the Hornsteins owns a Honda Civic Hybrid; although Hymotion currently only makes kits for 2004-2008 Priuses, it wouldn't surprise me if the next model Hymotion goes after is the Honda Civic Hybrid.

Image from Flickr user kqedquest available under a Creative Cmmons license

Monday, July 14, 2008

Roundabouts, please!

Via this post, I discovered the following video, which basically proves via simulation that roundabouts are far superior to intersections with stoplights. Shown to the right is a bird's eye view of the intersection of Valley View Road (Hwy. 212) and Prairie Center Drive in Eden Prairie, MN. This suburban mega-intersection is the bane of my existence on Tuesday mornings when I have to bring my dog Milo to doggy daycare at Petsmart. Each direction has two left turn lanes, so as soon as the cross-traffic has all red lights, you can't go straight until the left turn lights have run their the picture shows, since the intersection is in hyper-safe Minnesota (which seems to have very long "all red" times in which no traffic moves through the intersection), most of the time the intersection is sparsely filled with cars. If that's not inefficient, I don't know what is. As the video below shows, roundabouts are far more efficient.

Plus roundabouts are fun.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Everything's Dynamic

The world is dynamic...all of it. So my clever blog name has multiple interpretations:

Everything's dynamic - Everything is dynamic
Everything's dynamic - The dynamic of everything
(Unofficial third meaning): Everythings dynamic - All things dynamic (not grammatically correct, but so what...)

Unlike Garth, I don't fear change. Well, I do, but not officially.