Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Wake up when it's optimal

HappyWakeUp is a program that runs on Nokia phones that uses breathing patterns (as measured by the phone's microphone) to analyze sleep patterns and wake the user up at an optimal point. Per the press release:

The new alarm clock is built in to a mobile phone. The subject sets the desired alarm time as normal and places the phone nearby (usually beneath the pillow). The phone analyses the subject's 'sleep movement sounds'. Twenty minutes before the alarm is set to go off, the phone determines when the subject is making 'almost awake' sounds, and gives off a soft alarm signal.

If I had something to tell me that, despite my desire to get more sleep, it really would be better to just get up early than go back to sleep and force myself to wake up when my alarm goes off, I think I might be more prone to do so. As it is, without such reassurance, I sometimes will wake up like 20-30 minutes before my alarm clock is set to go off but then go back to sleep, only to regret that decision when I try to break out of the deep sleep I'm in when my alarm goes off. I hope software/alarms like HappyWakeUp become ubiquitous.

Via Medgadget.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Citi's Demise

According to Wikipedia:

Citigroup Inc., operating as Citi (pronounced Siti), was a major American financial services company based in New York City before its demise on September 30, 2008.

Problem is, September 30, 2008 has not yet occurred. Here's a screenshot:

Is this a random act of vandalism or is some insider at Citi trying to tell the world something? Time will tell...

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Interesting User Research Idea

As I was unwrapping a red Starburst (unfortunately Super Target was all out of the California flavors so I had to settle for the original bag), I thought to myself, "Wait, you have two yellows, a pink, and a red. Don't eat the red one first; eat the yellow ones first and save the red for last."

This reminded me of the strategy I typically employ when eating snacks of a mixed variety. I tend to ration the best parts (the almonds in a can of mixed nuts, the red Starburst in an "original flavors" bag, or the shrimp in a bowl of jambalaya) so that I have a disproportionate amount of them towards the end of the eating experience. This got me thinking that it would be interesting to observe how other people approach this "problem." Is my experience typical, or is it peculiar? Even more interesting, are there other areas of life besides snack consumption where one might find similar behavior patterns?

Some quick virtual ethnography reveals what one dissatisfied Starburst consumer chose to do with their yellow and orange Starbursts:

I wonder if the geniuses at Starburst have already figured all this out and have determined the optimum balance of flavors to put in each bag to ensure that consumers get just enough red to keep them wanting more, but just enough yellow to make the red all the more desirable?

Images from here and here.

Remember This Song?

Movies - Alien Ant Farm

Best Franchise Ever

Churro Station.

Thursday, September 18, 2008


With stuff like this, a move to Switzerland (the 4th economically freest nation in the world) is looking more and more tempting by the minute.

The chief executives of the three big American automakers — General Motors, Ford and Chrysler — met on Wednesday afternoon with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

When they emerged, they expressed optimism that the loan guarantees would be included as part of a budget resolution that is needed to finance government operations through the end of the year.

Let them fail! We'll still have all the cars we need, and none of the inefficient corporations we don't need.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Cool Website: Schematic

Vân told me about Schematic. I'm quite impressed by the novel mode of interacting with the site they employ: in addition to the conventional way of navigating between pages using links, you can "zoom out" and view the entire website as a collection of individual pages, similar to how you might view all 20 pages of a Word document at once by setting the zoom to something like 10%. I found it very intuitive to zoom in on a particular page; just click (or double-click, as I initially did) on the page you want. All in all, I think this is a good example of how a site can show off its creative bona fides without sacrificing usability altogether.

Bush Is Not Laissez-Faire!

I don't know if it's Obama or the media (or both) that is guilty of conflating George Bush and his fellow Republicans' economic philosophies as "free market" and "laissez-faire," but whoever (ahem, Rupert Cornwall) is doing so is being intellectually lazy.

Barack Obama has expanded his call for stricter control of the US financial sector into an across-the-board attack on the laissez-faire economics championed by Ronald Reagan, pursued by President George Bush for the past eight years, and embraced by the Republican candidate for the White House, John McCain.

Cutting taxes while raising spending at a record rate and increasing burdensome regulations is not laissez-faire. As Tyler Cowen says in the New York Times:

THERE is a misconception that President Bush’s years in office have been characterized by a hands-off approach to regulation. In large part, this myth stems from the rhetoric of the president and his appointees, who have emphasized the costly burdens that regulation places on business.

But the reality has been very different: continuing heavy regulation, with a growing loss of accountability and effectiveness. That’s dysfunctional governance, not laissez-faire.


Still, the Bush administration’s many critiques of regulation are belied by the numbers, which demonstrate a strong interest in continued and, indeed, expanded regulation. This is the lesson of a recent study, “Regulatory Agency Spending Reaches New Height,” by Veronique de Rugy, senior research fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, and Melinda Warren, director of the Weidenbaum Center Forum at Washington University. (Disclosure: Ms. de Rugy’s participation in this study was under my supervision.) For the proposed 2009 fiscal budget, spending by regulatory agencies is to grow by 6.4 percent, similar to the growth rate for last year, and continuing a long-term expansionary trend.

The Republicans and their flagrant misuse/abuse of free market-friendly language (they sometimes talk the talk but never walk the walk) has poisoned the "laissez-faire brand." While it's generally contemptible for any politician to bash self-interest and risk taking (i.e. the things that make our society prosperous), I think it's actually a good thing for McCain, as he carries the banner or Republicanism, to do just that, as hopefully his doing so will work to diminish the false association that many people have between Republicans and free-market economics, and in turn reduce the damage to the laissez-faire brand that such a false association has caused.

Bottom line: blame the current financial situation on Republicans all you want...I'm sure they're plenty guilty. But don't make the intellectually lazy mistake of blaming laissez-faire policies by association. Republicans aren't laissez-faire, and laissez-faire is not what caused this mess.

Design for Disguise

I think the "Anti-Theft Lunch Bag" is pretty clever:

It reminds me of the fake Saturday Night Live commercial for the Chameleon XLE, the "luxury car that doesn't look like a luxury car":

Inside, the Chameloen XLE has everything you would expect in a luxury sedan of its class. Soft leather seating, a contoured instrument panel, and fine wood. But there's more - much more.

Authentically distressed fenders give way to a partially padded roof of blistered vinyl. While under the hood, a simulated transmission-fluid drip whispers, "Hey, not worth the trouble." This is craftsmanship no one will steal. GThis is engineering for the inner-city driving experience.

Via Boing Boing.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Solving Climate Change with Cute Icons

Here are the icons used in BP's latest TV campaign ("Energy security 1"):

And here are the icons from Chevrolet's "Gas-friendly to Gas-free" campaign:

The two sets of icons are pretty different from each other, yet each seems to represent their respective brand's image well. BP's icons fit their "we're-cute-even-though-we're-an-oil-company" image, and Chevy's icons fulfill the role that Chevy plays in the automobile marketplace as the "trying-to-be-cute-but-still-not-European" automaker. Hopefully there's also some substance behind these two companies' campaigns, and they're not just counting on consumers to assume the problem is solved because the icons for yet-to-be-viable solutions already exist.

Images from here and here.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Txtpert: The New Crossword Puzzle

Via Small Surfaces.

Park(ing) Day 2008

Par(king) Day 2008 is September 19th:

PARK(ing) Day is a one-day, global event centered in San Francisco where artists, activists, and citizens collaborate to temporarily transform metered parking spots into “PARK(ing)” spaces: temporary public parks.

The image above is from Phillips Garden, a Minneapolis participant in Park(ing) Day 2007. Park(ing) Day was founded by REBAR, a San Francisco group, and has since taken off to cities around the world. Here's the first Park(ing) Day installation from November 2005.

Via Greater Greater Washington.

I Should Try Tivo

According to Garrick Van Buren:

TV without TiVo is like email without a spam filter.

I don't like spam, so maybe I should get with the '90s and finally get Tivo. Then again, maybe I'll just wait 'til everything's online.

Bob Barr

Here's my position on the upcoming presidential election. If polls indicate that Minnesota is not safely "in the bag" for Barack Obama, I'll vote for Obama, if for no other reason than it's a vote against John McCain. But if it's obvious that Obama will win Minnesota, then I'll vote for Bob Barr. He's not the perfect candidate (or even the perfect libertarian), but his position on the War on Drugs (end it now) is way way way better than either Obama's or McCain's.

But treating what is, at base, a moral, spiritual, and health problem as a matter of federal criminal law has solved nothing. The next president must put politics aside and take a long, hard look at the failure of the federal war on drugs. We must reestablish the primacy of individual choice and state's rights in deciding these issues. This always has been the greatest strength of America, and should be again.


This guy is my new idol for standing up against the US Border Patrol's unconstitutional checkpoint 40 miles from the US-Mexico border:

Via Cato@Liberty.

Wilkinsonian Insight

David Brooks (of The New York Times) wrote an op-ed proclaiming that individualism is dead because humans are naturally social creatures. Will Wilkinson smashes that non-sequitur with one sentence:

Individualism is indeed unnatural — much like other noted mockeries of the natural order, such as equality under the law, vaccination, and the wheel.

He actually wrote many more sentences, all of which destroy David Brooks' ridiculous proposition.


Guess what movie this poster is for:

Why, it's the mad-capped zany Weekend at Bernie's, of course! Apparently Poland likes its movie posters a bit more dramatic.

Via The Agitator.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Cursive Typing

This is the future of text input:

Just like cursive handwriting allows a person to write words without picking up the pen, this technology from Swype allows you to type words on a touchscreen without picking up your finger. I think I would prefer this greatly over T9 (the predict-what-you're-going-to type technology used in texting).

Via 37 Signals.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Foodzie: Like Etsy for Food

Foodzie is a new website that allows people from all over the world to buy food directly from small boutique producers. As 37 signals says, it's "like Etsy for food." Hopefully the site will be a huge success...this is a great way for small businesses to compete on equal footing with big corporations.

Image of "Enrobed Candied Lemon" from here.

Monday, September 8, 2008

User-Reported Usability Testing

A while ago I heard about UserTesting.com, and then this post in Usability News alerted me to the presence of Userfocus. Both companies offer unmoderated, "crowdsourced" usability testing in which users spend a bit of time with a website and then offer their opinions. Whereas UserTesting.com seems a bit more structured--users are screened ahead of time and paid for answering pre-defined questions, Userfocus seems more open-ended and open to more users. In other words, UserTesting.com delivers more feedback but also a lot of noise, while UserTesting.com will yield less but more useful feedback.

Users are notoriously-bad at self-evaluation, so my first reaction to these services is that they probably are a good first pass but do not substitute for more traditional, moderated usability testing. In some respects, these services seem more like crowdsourced heuristic evaluations, which typically involve "experts" in user interface design rating an interface against a standard set of metrics. Of course, UserTesting.com also provides recordings of each user's screen actions and the "think-out-loud" things that users say, which is a useful check on the self-reported findings.

In any case, these services seem to be filling an important niche of providing cheap and fast usability testing. While not perfect, this may be the only usability testing that many startups and small businesses can afford, and certainly some usability testing is better than no usability testing.

Image from here.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

I wonder how well these work...

The picture above is from this post by Jan Chipchase. I wonder how effective those little blue things are at protecting against door dings...it looks like the blue things have to be on the door of the would-be denter, as opposed to the dentee. So what's the incentive for the reckless door openers of the world (those most likely to dent other cars) to put on these blue things? Maybe it's part of the ground rules for parking in a given lot?

I got my picture taken with Rachel Maddow!

After going to the Daily Show in St. Paul last Thursday, I noticed MSNBC's Rachel Maddow in Rice Park. She was nice enough to let me take a picture with her. Obviously I don't agree with Ms. Maddow on everything (although I'm sure we agree on a lot), but I really respect how she argues/debates. She's one of my favorite political pundits. So it was neat to get my picture taken with her.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Wilkinsonian Insight

Will Wilkinson:

Indeed, it makes a lot more emotional sense for me to feel led by by a woman like that than by some hotshot Air Force pilot. When a guy with a buzzcut says “jump,” I say “screw you.” When a woman like Sarah Palin says “jump,” I am inclined to deferentially inquire into the requirements of this jump.

I have to say that I agree...maybe it's a midwestern thing?

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Just Attach the Funding to the Student

There is a big protest going on in Chicago that first involved hundreds of Chicago Public School students peacefully gathering on the campus of a very nice suburban public school and is now going to involve students sitting in the lobbies of big corporations in downtown Chicago. The goal of the protest is to even out the discrepancy in per-pupil funding in Illinois:
At issue is how much money schools spend per student. In a funding system largely fueled by local property taxes, New Trier Township spent nearly $17,000 per student in 2005-06 and Sunset Ridge spent about $16,000, while Chicago Public Schools spent an estimated $10,400 per student.

The leaders of the protest seem to want to change the system so that all schools in the state get the same amount of per-pupil funding. This would be better than the current system, but imagine all the bureaucracy needed to work this out.

A much simpler, more elegant solution is to just attach the funding to the student and let the student and their parents decide where to go to school. This is how they do it in Sweden.