Saturday, November 14, 2009

Freedom of business model

Critics of libertarians often conflate capitalism with a handful of specific business models (like fee-for-service or ad-supported). This leads many of those critics to falsely conclude that anytime a libertarian supports an enterprise that strays from the bounds of these business models, that libertarian is engaging in behavior that is incompatible with "capitalism" and is therefore being hypocritical.

In reality, such a charge reflects the ignorance of the accuser. Libertarians support capitalism not because of how awesome money is, but rather because it is consistent with the general notion that individuals ought to be free to engage in consensual transactions with other individuals, regardless of whether such transactions are profitable or even involve money at all.

Link via Hit & Run.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Norman Borlaug

This weekend was a proud, yet humbling time to be a graduate of the University of Minnesota. Not because of the new on-campus Gophers football stadium, but because the world is remembering the life of Norman Borlaug (left, above), an alumnus of the University of Minnesota and a hero to mankind who passed away on September 12, 2009:

Dr. Borlaug’s advances in plant breeding led to spectacular success in increasing food production in Latin America and Asia and brought him international acclaim. In 1970, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.


Yet his work had a far-reaching impact on the lives of millions of people in developing countries. His breeding of high-yielding crop varieties helped to avert mass famines that were widely predicted in the 1960s, altering the course of history.

David Boaz suggests he be called "Borlaug the Great," a label that from what I've read the humble Dr. Borlaug would most likely be uncomfortable with. Boaz goes on to make an excellent point about how human society remembers its past:

Just think of the people who have gone down in history as “the Great“: Alexander the Great, Catherine the Great, Charles the Great (Charlemagne), Frederick the Great, Peter the Great — despots and warmongers. Just once it would be nice to see the actual benefactors of humanity designated as “the Great”: Galileo the Great, Gutenberg the Great, Samuel Morse the Great, Alan Turing the Great.

Saving the lives of hundreds of millions of people...I think that qualifies one to be "great."

Image from here.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

For a large country, the US does alright

Via Infosthetics, the above graph (culled from the Flash visualization here):
...maps the base pay of the world's parliamentarians, ranked by country and expressed as a multiple of per capita GDP, versus a "Good Governance Index", which itself is a combination of the Democracy Index, the UN's Human Development Index and the Perception of Corruption Index.

In short, the further away the country dot is removed from the yellow cross, the more their MPs are being paid. The larger the (counter-clockwise) angle from the yellow line, the worse their corresponding governance.

Some commenters on the Infosthetics post have decried the visualization as unnecessarily flashy, but I think it's actually pretty useful, at least for relative comparisons. The best cluster of countries in this analysis are all countries with small, fairly homogenous populations such as Switzerland, Iceland, Luxembourg, etc. Not all such countries are in the same cluster (notably Austria and Belgium), but the biggest country (population wise) in the best cluster is Canada, with about 33 million people.

The second-best cluster of countries includes much larger countries, including the US, the UK, France, Germany, Spain, and Japan (Japan is the line that extends to the right out of the image). In general, these countries are more also more diverse (namely the US, the UK, and France).

So, in general, the trend seems to be that smaller, more ethnically homogenous countries get more for their money than large, ethnically diverse countries. This isn't all that surprising. But what was a little surprising for me was how relatively well the US does, considering that it is both the largest country in the upper-right quadrant and also the most diverse. Of course, it should be reiterated that the US' position on the graph is likely heavily influenced by the fact that the base pay is normalized per GDP, and the US' GDP is quite a bit higher than some of the countries in its cluster.

So that's what an A/B test is...

The other day I was reviewing this great Alertbox article on user experience methods, and I came across a method with which I was unfamiliar--A/B testing. Well, sure enough, just like when you learn a new word and then it suddenly seems that you hear it used a couple times within the same day, this 37 Signals post points to a real world example of A/B testing. In this case, Less Everything simply measured the number of "conversions" (I guess the number of people who tried the application for free?) when a button was placed on the left side of the screen versus when it was placed on the right side and found that putting the button on the right led to a conversion rate of 13.8% versus a conversion rate of 12.3% for when the button was on the left.

The study seems to follow the guidelines for A/B testing in that the sample size is large ("thousands of users") and it was performed on an essentially finished design where it was easy to change only one part of the design and observe the effect of that change in isolation.

Sunday, May 31, 2009

Target Price Tags Lead to Shopper Confusion

While browsing through the food aisles at the SuperTarget in St. Louis Park, I observed two separate incidents of shoppers not understanding Target's price tags. Since I didn't observe that many total incidents of shoppers interacting with the price tags, this seems like an abnormally high error rate.

In the first instance, two women were chit-chatting while casually picking up food. As they passed by the barbecue sauce section, one of them remarked to the other that Sweet Baby Ray's (a brand of barbecue sauce that's fairly popular in Minnesota and Wisconsin) was on sale. As a fan of Sweet Baby Ray's myself, the comment piqued my interest (I'm always looking to stock up on something I like when it's on sale) so I looked over to the rack to inspect the price. To my dismay, Sweet Baby Ray's was in fact not on sale. But, the item directly above it (some sort of marinade) was on sale, and the large 'on-sale' ticket was hung directly above the various bottles of Sweet Baby Ray's. As far as I can tell, the shoppers mistakenly associated the 'on-sale' ticket with the Sweet Baby Ray's and used it to justify its purchase, which one admitted to the other was an "impulse purchase."

In the second instance, two teenage boys were shopping with a limited budget (this sounds like some made-up persona, but it's true!) and I passed them in the snacks aisle. One of them saw a bag of Munchies and mentioned to his friend that he loved Munchies and that they sooo good. But he ended up not buying the product because, as he explained to his friend, "Seven dollars is too much for Munchies." Not a fan of Munchies myself but nonetheless an occasional purchase of bagged chips, I thought to myself that seven dollars IS too much for Munchies...something must be wrong. So, I checked the price (since the item was not on sale, the price tag was a standard tag like the one pictured above) and found that the price for the object adjacent to the Munchies (some sort of package of several "lunch size" packs of chips) was $6.99 (i.e. "seven dollars"). However, the Munchies, whose price tag was a bit to the left of the bag and therefore easy-to-miss, were $3.99, a far more reasonable price (I think it was a super-size bag). So in this case, the shoppers' confusion led to a lost sale for Target.

In both cases, the shoppers were confused about which price tag applied to which item, which to me calls into question the effectiveness of the price tags' designs. I'm guessing they were not designed for maximum usability, as they are similar to the tags one would find at any big-box store and are probably merely the default style that the tag manufacturer provides. But, this being Target, I'm surprised that the company hasn't unleashed its army of designers on this problem, something that could be costing the company lost sales and, if solved, could possibly result in greater revenue and most-likely in greater brand equity.

One idea I had was to, at least on the larger 'on-sale' tickets, put a picture of the sale item on the tag. Manufacturers already spend a lot of effort on distinguishing their packaging from their competitors, so why not leverage that effort and simply show a picture of the item next to the price? If this isn't possible, then perhaps the price tag could at least feature an easy-to-read, non-technical, non-abbreviated description of the product. "Munchies, $3.99" would probably be sufficient.

Images from here and here.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

An Idea for Reducing Energy Usage and Subsidies

I had a thought while driving home after softball today and listening to an NPR report about the complex issues involved in developing a multilateral coordinated response to the problem of climate change, something that will be addressed head-on at climate change talks in December of 2009 in Copenhagen.

Here's my idea. Once Google PowerMeter and/or similar services becomes ubiquitous, each homeowner's energy use could be compared to all the other homeowners in the same city or county. Utilities would include a homeowner's energy usage percentile rank (lower is better) on each month's bill (or paperless statement, if the homeowner so chooses) so they could see how/whether their changes in behavior are affecting their rating and private companies (such as DIY KYOTO) could provide devices that deliver feedback on energy usage in real time.

So, nothing too revolutionary with the above paragraph (see pages 195-196 of Nudge). But to really incentivize people to strive for the best ranking possible, what if receipt of the home ownership subsidy (more commonly known as the mortgage interest tax deduction) were subject to a homeowner attaining a ranking below the median homeowner. That is, as long as a homeowner's energy usage is in the lower 50th percentile of their peers (across a given municipality), they receive the full subsidy (just like they already do today). But homeowners with energy usage in the upper 50th percentile receive no subsidy.

The program could be phased in over time, so that in Year 1 no subsidies are withheld from homeowners but those who are in the upper 50% would be notified that next year, they will not receive the full subsidy. In each subsequent year, the subsidy offered to energy-intensive households would decrease (e.g. 75% in Year 2, 50% in Year 3, etc.) such that eventually only homeowners with energy usage in the lower 50th percentile would receive the full home ownership subsidy. And maybe over time the 50th percentile threshold could change or become multiple thresholds, so that homeowners not near the 50th percentile mark will still have an incentive to save energy (after all, if you're already in the 90th percentile, it may be unrealistic to think that you'll ever be below the 50th percentile, so you might just give up). The gist of the idea is to tie receipt of the home ownership subsidy to some level of energy conservation.

Not only does this chip away at the market-distorting home ownership subsidy, it also offers a progressive (as opposed to regressive) nudge to homeowners, since wealthier homeowners are more likely to use more energy. As discussed in the book Nudge, often people (Humans, not Econs, in the terminology of authors Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein) will respond more readily to incentives with high salience than those with low salience, even if the value of the behavior changed by the incentive isn't directly proportional to the value of the incentive. The threat of losing a generous subsidy for not reducing energy usage may in fact be a more salient incentive than a utility bill that is $10 higher in a given month.

One final point: it's important to reframe the concept of the home mortgage interest deduction as a home ownership subsidy, since (1) that's what it is and (2) a tax "deduction" sounds like something to which you're entitled but a "subsidy" sounds like something that has been granted onto you and is subject to removal.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Einstein Expanded on Newton, but Newton is Still Relevant

A great exchange from the two bloggers at Defective Equilibrium, the New Zealand version of Marginal Revolution:

Udayan Mukherjee:
This doesn't mean we have to argue that markets are always and everywhere a non-starter. It is merely an acknowledgment that the model proferred by neo-classical economics is not the final draft of economic explanation, but that it is akin to the Newtonian Physics awaiting its Einsteinian upheaval. For me this is tremendously exciting, as it opens up the study of economics and allows its foundations to be put under the experimental zoom lens. If people are predictably irrational, then it is something we need to be aware of as empirical scientists and integrate into our models of market behaviour.

Tom Mathews:
Uday used a useful analogy of Newtonian vs. Eisteinian physics. Newtonian physics gave us a good approximation of how the world worked for hundreds of years - but as Einstein showed, it turned out to be fundamentally misconceived. Einstein's insights gave us a deeper, more accurate understanding of how things actually work.

But have we since abandoned Newtonian physics? Of course not. In the vast majority of observable situations (that is, except for research physicists) Newton's laws still appear to hold. Engineers need not worry that people moving around in their buildings will increase in mass as they move and thus crash through the floor, for example.

While earning a master's degree in mechanical engineering, I don't think I ever learned about Einstein's theories beyond the cursory mention that Newton's stuff is really just an approximation for how things really work, but it's so accurate for most real world applications that it's all we're going to teach you. Ten years from now, perhaps this is how neoclassical economics will be thought of.

Image from here.

Sunday, May 3, 2009


There's something incredibly inspirational about seeing Danny MacAskill attempt something extremely difficult and then finally master it. That's what happens in the first 1:30 of this video. The rest is just awesome.

Via Kottke, who aptly describes the above feat as "parkour on a bicycle." Although I think the actual term is "bike trials."

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Are stoplights really necessary?

Via Tom Vanderbilt, the London borough of Ealing is about to conduct an experiment in which they observe whether traffic flows better at some intersections without stoplights:
Ealing found evidence to support its theory when the lights failed one day at a busy junction and traffic flowed better than before. Councillors have approved a report which recommended that they “experimentally remove signals since experience of signal failure showed that junction worked well.”

I observed a similar phenomenon sometime around March of 2009 at an intersection near where I work.  For about a week, the intersection shown below, which is usually regulated by stoplights (including a left turn arrow), was regulated solely with stop signs as a 4-way stop. My personal observation was that traffic flowed no worse than usual, and if anything may have been better. Ultimately, I think the best solution for the intersection shown below is multi-lane roundabout.

View Intersection where stoplight was out of service in a larger map

Fostering Increased User Participation in Healthcare

IDEO's Tim Brown thinks that "participation is key to the next big wave of innovation in business and society." In a post specifically about healthcare, he envisions EMRs (Electronic Medical Records) and HSAs (Health Savings Accounts) as two ways to enable greater participation in healthcare.

Fundamental to this collaboration is the creation of platforms that encourage participation. By this I don’t mean goading people into eating healthier food or taking more exercise. These may be beneficial outcomes of other more systemic innovations, but they are not, on their own, going to create the major shifts that we need.

Two platforms that are already under discussion and, in my opinion, offer huge potential for improved collaboration and participation, are e-medical records and health savings accounts (HSAs). With the risk of sounding like a health-care reform lobbyist, here is why I think they are important, but also why I think current ideas about these platforms run the risk of limiting their impact.

The Obama administration has already embraced EMRs, but HSAs have typically been championed by libertarians and conservatives. I agree with Tim Brown that HSAs help people become more engaged with their healthcare decisions, but I'm skeptical that HSAs will gain much traction in the foreseeable future.

Image from here.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Dynamic Haptic Displays: The Next Big Thing?

Dynamic haptic displays like the one shown above (from Chris Harrison) seem to really be gathering momentum and I wouldn't be surprised if they become the next big thing in interaction design. The feedback channels of sight and sounds are already maxed out, but the sense of touch is currently underutilized (we can do better than just a vibrating phone). Another cool dynamic haptic display technology comes from Artificial Muscle:

Corporate Nationality As a Branding Tool

Matt Yglesias on corporate nationality:

Beyond CEOs, Nestle has 15 directors. Of them one is Indian, one is Swiss/American, seven are Swiss, and the rest are from other European countries. But there’s nothing especially “European”—and certainly nothing Swiss—about the company’s actual operations. They earn a lot of money in Europe, but the majority of their revenue is from outside of Europe, and there’s production all over the world. It’s also totally normal for large multinational firms to be disproportionately owned by shareholders located in their “home country” and home continent.

Corporate nationality, in other words, doesn’t matter. But it seems as if it actually does. And for somewhat mysterious reasons.

One reason I can think of is that corporate nationality can and is used as a branding tool. There's probably some serious brand equity in Nestle being thought of as a Swiss company because Switzerland is know for its luxury brands and chocolate. And American companies practically flaunt their American-ness (at least here in America).

Image from here.

Customer Experience In Healthcare

Jay Parkinson:

I’ve started collecting photos I take of medical clinics vs. veterinary clinics in the same neighborhoods. If anyone has some good examples, send them my way…but here’s the first. Just goes to show that when people pay their own hard earned money for healthcare, providers start competing on price and quality and appearance…essentially, the consumer experience.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Interaction Design Ethics

This post at the IxDA Discussion forum got me thinking about a thought I had a while ago about the ethics involved with applying the results of user research/usability testing to product design. I was thinking about users' misperceptions regarding what a product does or how it works and then how to deal with those misperceptions in successive product iterations. Specifically, when is it alright to allow, or even exploit, users' misperceptions and when is it inappropriate? Where is the line separating ethical decisions from unethical ones, and what defines that line?

The way I thought through this problem was by considering two extreme examples. One example where it seems acceptable, maybe even preferable, to just let users continue to misperceive how something works is whether a hypertext link needs to be single-clicked or double-clicked. One needs only to click a link once to follow the link, but a lot of [less-experienced] users often double-click links, probably confusing this action with the action required to open a file or a shortcut on a Windows desktop. Designers of web browsing software allow single-clicks or double-clicks for links, but technically allowing double-clicks allows users to continue to not correctly understand how the browser actually works. Of course, it's really no more work for the user to double-click instead of single-click, and their lack of understanding of how links really work is likely never to matter. In other words, the cost of misperceiving the functionality is essentially zero.

However, what about a product with an interaction that has a higher cost of misperception, say a medical device? Imagine a product with an interface that has, among other things, a green circular button and a switch labeled "Auto-protect." The way the system actually works is that once the various parameters have been programmed elsewhere on the interface, the operator presses the green button to deliver a drug intravenously. The "Auto-protect" switch is not related to the drug delivering functionality. However, since the "Auto-protect" switch is positioned a little too close to the green button, some users misperceive the "Auto-protect" switch to have the functionality of protecting against an inadvertent overdose and, as a result, are observed to always flip the "Auto-protect" switch on before pressing the green button.

In this example, it would be obviously unethical to conclude that since users want the device to include a mechanism that protects against overdoses, we can just fool them into believing that the device offers that functionality by moving the "Auto-protect" switch even closer to the green button, to better afford a relationship betwen the two. Of course, allowing device operators to mistakenly believe that they are protected from delivering an overdose, when in reality they are not, has a very high cost (i.e. patient death), so there seems to be no room here for allowing users to think whatever they want as long as they're able to use the device.

So is the cost of the misperception the thing that determines where the line separating ethical from unethical decisions lies? Or is there something more to it?

Image from here.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Protectionist Law Impeding Competition, Consumer Choice

This issue
should be a non-issue.
The developer aiming to bring the popular Trader Joe’s grocery chain to Minneapolis got a wary reaction from residents and others at a Whittier neighborhood meeting Monday night. Some residents spoke in favor of the plan, but others—including the Wedge Natural Foods Co-op less than a half block away—say the corporate retailer shouldn’t get any special favors that might give it an unfair marketing advantage.

Mark Dziuk is hoping Trader Joe’s will be the anchor tenant in a large commercial and residential project on a busy block of Lyndale Avenue South. The problem is Trader Joe’s won’t sign on unless the store is allowed an adjacent wine and beer store, but state law prohibits liquor stores within 2,000 feet of one another in Minneapolis and St. Paul. Hum’s Liquors, a neighborhood icon for the past four decades, is practically right across the street. If Dziuk wins the exemption to the state law, it would be the first in Minneapolis.

I agree with the Wedge in this case in that Trader Joe's shouldn't be given special treatment. But the special treatment Trader Joe's seeks shouldn't even be an issue in the first place. This is all the fault of some arbitrary protectionist law from 70 years ago (that would be 1939) that isolates liquor stores from competition by prohibiting competing stores from being within 2,000 feet of each other. A defensible (but not necessarily correct) argument for this law is that it might prevent any single area from becoming "liquor store alley." Even if that line of thinking is valid and even if that's a value which the community consents to, then surely the law could be written better. For example, instead of always using one distance (2,000 feet) to regulate liquor store density, why not allow more liquor stores for denser-populated areas or areas with greater pedestrian/vehicle/transit access? There's no reason a small rural town of 500 people should be bound by the same law as a densely-populated corridor in a large cosmopolitan city.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Sarcasm Is Good

With talk of a CPSIA for food getting me all worried, I appreciated this bit of sarcasm from Reason's Jesse Walker regarding an odious Pennsylvania food safety law:

Unfortunately, the inspectors' fight doesn't go far enough: What about the home meal loophole? Every night across America, parents cook unlicensed dinners for their naively trusting kids, and perhaps even a guest or two. Are the kitchens dirty, the ingredients expired, the pots unwashed? We don't know! How many lives will be lost before the government steps in and says, ¡No más!?

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Have Novel Touchscreen Interfaces Fulfilled Jef Raskin's Vision?

For a class called "The Psychology of Human-Machine Interaction," I was assigned to read Jef Raskin's book The Humane Interface (cover pictured to the right). At the time (2004, probably), I was really intrigued by Raskin's idea of zoomable interfaces and the notion that discrete applications are an inefficient way to facilitate users' desired actions, but it all seemed sort of far out and futuristic.

However, with innovative touchscreen interfaces such as the Palm Pre's "deck of cards" metaphor or Bumptop's 3D desktop (demo shown below), it seems that Raskin's visionary ideas are finally being realized. I love the idea of enabling users to use their spatial faculties, a cognitive ability that is severely under-utilized in traditional hierarchical 2D desktop interfaces.

How People Spend Their Time During Work

This map showing Zappos purchases in real-time across the US is very interesting. What I found particularly intriguing is that as lunchtime occurs in a given timezone, purchases seem to slow to a trickle. Meanwhile, there seems to be a post-lunchtime flurry of activity. All anecdotal observations, of course.

Via Marginal Revolution.

CPSIA For Food

You know that new law that was passed that requires excessive testing of products to prove they don't contain lead (CPSIA)? Well, now there's a proposal to do the same thing for food! Thanks, government, for trying to make farmers markets illegal!

Image (with some editing) from here.

Design Thinking and Government

I'm very intrigued by the potential that design thinking has to offer government. Of course, nothing has more inertia than government and it is inherently ultra political, so altering the way government works is extremely challenging. Nevertheless, I remain hopeful, and stuff like this from IDEO's Tim Brown is encouraging:

What if design was used to test some of the rules our government leaders are proposing? Could we go through some experimental cycles using design and prototyping as a tool before final decisions are made about what rules to adopt? Might this help us avoid our tendency to create new rules and then walk away, under the assumption that our finance, health and global energy systems will now behave in the way we want them to?

This is of course an excellent idea. In the private sector, when systems are created they are rigorously tested. Good system designers/engineers understand that a critical part of any system are the humans it affects and relies on, so good system design incorporates a lot of use testing and design iteration to ensure that the system will behave in real life and its designers intend. Almost every government action is a case study in the law of unintended consequences, so it stands to reason that government-designed systems more often than not do not behave in real life the way their designers intended. Ergo, government needs to start using design thinking!

Image from here.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

The growing importance of experience design

This is a very interesting post by David Armano which does a good job of putting into words what has been in the back of my mind for the last couple of months. Basically, he's seconding the proposition of this Economist article, which is that the economic crisis has hastened the phenomenon of people second-guessing whether the constant struggle to keep up with the Joneses by acquiring as many gadgets/knick-knacks/kitchen applicances (i.e. "junk") is really the best way to spend their disposable income. As Armano puts it, we're entering the "post-consumer era." I think this passage is rather salient:

...Credit lines have ensured that we can purchase beyond our means and advertising has had years to perfect it's craft making us believe that we don't want the latest and greatest product—but that we actually NEED it. In fact, if we can't have it our lives will be empty—we will be missing out we won't be living life as it was meant to be lived.

This of course is a lie.

But it's worked for years. Bigger, better, faster, newer. Get it and get it now before your neighbor does. It's a myth that's stood the test of time and fueled a global economy because it could. When it's old, throw it out or give it away. Then one day, the housing market collapsed, the stock market collapsed and we woke up scratching our heads as to why. And some of us are re-thinking the economics of mass consumption.

I think a lot of people are finally realizing that they reached the point of junk saturation a few years ago and there is just no longer a need to rabidly acquire stuff like there's no tomorrow. As such, I think the term "post-junk" may be more appropriate than "post-consumer," for as long as we live in a capitalist society there will always be "consumers" and "producers," per se.

One consequence of such junk fatigue will be an increased desire for fewer high-quality products rather than more low-quality products. Jason Kottke highlighted this a while back in this post, in which he talked about "upgrading oneself" by, for example, replacing off-the-rack dress shirts with tailored shirts.

As Armano goes on to point out, the ever increasing interconnectedness of humanity that has been enabled by the internet is going to push people into becoming smarter, more demanding consumers. This may not necessarily be the result of conscious decisions by each consumer, but rather as a simple consequence of our digital surroundings (e.g. Facebook, Google, Twitter, whatever's next, etc.). Without even realizing it, the inputs into our decision making processes will in effect be pre-screened by the recommendations, purchases, and comments of our trusted peers.

From my perspective, these two phenomena (junk reduction and increasing consumer awareness) pretty clearly point to a greater role for good experience design amongst both products and services. People are going to want better stuff that simplifies/de-clutters their life, and whether they know it or not they're going to be nudged away from objects/services that they perceive as junk and toward objects/services of trusted value.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Imeem...please let me scroll with ease!

I love imeem, but I think their user interface has plenty of room for improvement. One small thing that's really been annoying me recently is how scrolling through a playlist works. To see what I mean, try clicking on the "up" or "down" arrows in the following embedded playlist:


The scrolling increment (how much up or down the list moves when you click on an arrow) is way to small. Right now, one click scrolls the list about 1/5 of a song, so to scroll to the next song you have to click the down arrow five times. At a minimum, a single click should scroll the list by one whole song, but I think a more optimum increment would be 4-5 songs.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Chevy: Ergonomics is for Girly Men! Yeah!

I'm really getting sick of this commercial, which has been in heavy rotation during the NCAA Tournament:

So making something easier (and most likely safer) to use is emasculating? Because real men work harder, not smarter?!?

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Talk About a Nudge!

This bus stop ad for a fitness company in Amsterdam features a bench that shows the weight of the person sitting on it.

Via Kottke.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

The Santelli Rant and Who's to Blame

I admit, when I first saw the rant above by Rick Santelli opposing the Obama mortgage plan, my emotions were stirred and I had to agree with the spirit of his frustration. People like Brian Beutler, Ryan Avent, and Matt Yglesias dismissed the rant in part because Santelli (and the traders who empathize with him) didn't publicly oppose the various bank bailouts. In the eyes of Beutler and Yglesias, Santelli and the traders were hypocrites and narrow-minded members of the wealthy class...always willing to blame the little guy (individual homeowners) but never refusing to accept a free money or political favors (i.e. the various bailouts). I think Yglesias' thoughts are neatly captured in this excerpt:

When someone applies for a mortgage, there are two parties to the transaction. On one side of it is a teacher or a blogger or an electrician or a lawyer or a nurse or a guy who manages a Home Depot. On the side is a guy who, for a living, as a professional, works in the “deciding on what terms to offer people mortgages” business who works, for a living, at a financial services business...That, to repeat, wasn’t the judgment of electricians and store managers; it was the judgment of people who were professional mortgage-offerers.

While Yglesias is happy to excoriate the big financial firms for being over-leveraged (borrowing more than they could pay back if housing values started to drop) because they should have known better, what Yglesias fails to address is the culpability of individual borrowers in their very own version of over-leveraging: applying for a mortgage that was beyond the amount they could reasonably afford. I think this is the crux of the Santelli/Yglesias divide.

Which is why, emotionally at least, I have to side with Santelli. Yes, it was tempting for individual homeowners to keep up with the Joneses, but individual adults cannot be expected to have no self-control over their temptations. Individual adults (wealthy, poor, or middle class) fell victim to their temptations and made stupid decisions. Yes, they were tempted (and it seems that the people doing the tempting sometimes broke the law), but they still made a bad decision. So why should the people who made good decisions have to pay for the people who made bad decisions?!?! That's how I feel from an emotional standpoint, at least.

Now, all that being said, I'm not an economist, so I can't really weigh in on whether Obama's mortgage plan makes sense for the overall US economy. But as an individual adult, it is extremely frustrating to think that there may be two sets of rules: one for the reckless and irresponsible and one for the calm and prudent.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Meta Analysis: The Constitution During the Civil War

Via Information Aesthetics comes this Wordle-like data visualization tool that shows the frequency with which certain words are used in a big word cloud. One thing that jumped out at me was the difference between Abraham Lincoln's first and second inaugural addresses. Here's the word cloud from his first address:

And here's the word cloud from his second address:

The thing I thought interesting was that the most prominent word in Lincoln's first address is "constitution." However, in his second address (when victory over the South was imminent but while his suspension habeas corpus was still in effect), one of the most conspicuously absent words is "constitution." I don't really know what to make of this, but I thought it was interesting for there to be such a huge change. I guess Lincoln didn't think anybody wanted to hear about the Constitution in the second address? Maybe he didn't have time? Maybe he knew in the back of his mind that suspension of habeas corpus was unconstitutional? Who knows...

Designing Product Experiences vs. Designing Product Messaging

I love this quote from Brian Thomas Collins:

Brilliant design cuts out the marketing middleman – the traditional art directors and copywriters – and creates its own media. Like Occam’s Razor, it whittles the marketing equation down to simplest principles: the best experience wins.

Not the best promise. Not the cleverest copy. Not the Big Idea or the biggest budget. The best experience wins.

Via Good Experience.

Monday, February 16, 2009

How Context Changes the Perception of What's Good

This is a very interesting clip showing some capuchin (monkey) behavior. The first part shows capuchins working together to accomplish a task, which is itself quite interesting. But the second part is also very interesting. It shows two capuchins, one which receives a dry biscuit for completing a task and one which receives a succulent grape (apparently more desirable for capuchins) for completing the same task. The first capuchin is alright with receiving the biscuit until he sees the other capuchin recieve a grape. Once he sees that, he refuses to accept the biscuit and holds out for a grape.

What would be interesting would be to see how the capuchins behave when a biscuit is the reward for a simple task and a grape is the reward for a complex task. Would the capuchins grasp that harder work is deserving of a more desirable reward?

Via the Nudge blog.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Do it by design

This encouraging story of the redesign of a plaza in Montgomery, Alabama is a great example of how roadway safety can be built-in to a design instead of relying (in vain) on ineffective techniques such as signs and pavement markings.

Hall, for its part, describes the lack of markings as a kind of symbiotic relationship. As they note on their website: “HPE designers assured the city that a design speed of 25 mph would make explicit pavement markings, or guide lines, unnecessary. The lack of extensive markings would, in fact, help manage the vehicle speeds to the pedestrian friendly 20 to 25 mph range. Rough pavement texture and traffic enforcement will also help manage vehicle speeds.”

And the safety? “Drivers for the most part act as Rick predicted they would. The occasional driver goes the wrong way, but since the plaza is wide open and the speeds are so low, no accidents have resulted. There has actually not been a single accident involving vehicles or pedestrians due to the plaza concept.

Not only is the plaza, safer, but it looks like an actual [European] plaza! Every city in the United States should be doing this.

Via Twin Cities Streets for People.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Annoying Portmanteau Watch


Used on a commercial for Top Chef.

(Bonus annoying portmanteau: "bromance," as seen on the Top Chef website when getting the link for this post.)

Monday, January 19, 2009

Technology's Influence on Gestures

This post at Small Surfaces reminded me of a thought I had when I first saw the iPhone. Five years from now, when the method of zooming in on an image by moving ones thumb and index finger apart along a diagonal on a multi-touch screen becomes ubiquitous, will this gesture become commonplace as a part of normal conversation? Imagine talking to a friend while they're viewing an image (on a big wall-sized screen or a handheld device) and, as you ask them to zoom in on the image, subconsciously pantomiming the gesture pictured above. Or maybe a politician will be referring to "the big picture" and, without realizing how silly it looks, start repeatedly pinching his fingers as if zooming out on an iPhone.

Image from here.

Thirty most-used words in Congress

This page lists the thirty most-used words in Congress over the past month. Not surprisingly, there's no mention of "liberty" or anything remotely related to the idea. "Security" is #18.

Via Jay Parkinson.

Friday, January 16, 2009

The High Cost of Subsidies

This interesting article by Stacy Mitchell discusses the rise and fall of suburban big box retail stores. Her prescription for preventing this problem in the future implicitly identifies the cause on a lack of strict local government land-use regulations.

The only way to ensure that the coming wave of deserted stores and shopping centers does not become a persistent blight on the landscape and a drag on local economies for decades to come is for cities, working together across metro regions, to sharply limit what can be built on undeveloped land.

Mitchell makes it seem like the problem this whole time has been lazy local governments who, if they were only more vigilant, could craft perfect little cities. What Mitchell ignores, however (but which a commenter to the article points out), is the very active role that local governments played in subsidizing just the type of development she decries. Walmart alone has received over $1 billion in subsidies, and it's not uncommon for a big box development to benefit from some sort of tax break or even some unethical use of eminent domain. Talk about distorting the market...

The problem isn't lazy local governments, but rather overly-active local governments.

Cult of the Presidency Watch

Why would anyone want to wear a shirt with the first names of Obama's immediate family on it? I can see wanting to wear an Obama shirt because you think he's the greatest thing since sliced bread, but a shirt with his daughters' names on it?!? Seems a little stalker-ish to me.

Via Trendcentral. Title of post from Gene Healy's book.

Human Factors of TASERS

(NOTE: These images are random images from the internet...I have no idea what the TASER and gun mentioned below actually look like.)

At 2:00 a.m. on New Year's Day, Oscar Grant was shot by a BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) police officer. The incident has sparked protests and riots in Oakland, and for many this seems like an open-and-shut case of yet another incident of police brutality. However, the officer who fired the shot is claiming that he mistakenly drew his gun after intending to draw his TASER, presumably to subdue Grant. Leaving aside the issue of whether the use of a TASER is justified in this situation (or any situation), as soon as I read this I immediately wondered about the human factors involved in this situation.

Dave Schmidt, a former police officer, offers an interesting discussion on how motor learning and and the phyhsical position of the TASER on the officer's belt may have lead the officer to confuse his gun for his taser. Moreover, as Schmidt points out, "The TASER feels and draws like a handgun, but it is completely different." If a TASER feels the same as a gun, then it seems like a blatant violation of Human Factors 101 to store the two in such close proximity on the officer's belt.

It seems like there are two things that could be done to mitigate the risk inherent in officers carrying both a lethal and nonlethal (at least usually) weapon:
  1. Ensure that the "design" of an officer's belt is not such that two different pieces of equipment with two very different functionalities are stored closely to each other. If officers's are used to drawing their gun from the right side of their body and drawing the TASER from their left side or from a leg holster, they're less likely to make the motor skill confusion of grabbing one when intending to grab the other.
  2. Require that all TASERS manufactured and/or sold in the United States do not have the same appearance, texture, or even weight (if possible) as a gun.
Implementing these two mitigations would greatly reduce the probability of TASER/gun confusion, just as human factors engineering has greatly reduced so-called "human errors" in aviation, medical devices, and even consumer products.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Cass Sunstein as Regulatory Czar

Apparently Cass Sunstein is going to be the new regulatory czar. I don't know if Sunstein is the ideal pick, but Obama could have done a lot worse. Libertarians seem to fear Sustein's "libertarian paternalism" because (1) it's more concerned about paternalism than libertarianism, and (2) Sunstein doesn't seem to operate with the same definition of liberty as libertarians do. As Will Wilkinson has pointed out, Sunstein seems to think of liberty as the preservation/defense of choice, while libertarians tend to think of liberty as the absence of coercion.

In reality, I think those two things are less different than they may seem in the abstract. After all, isn't the practical liberty that a person experiences both a function of the lack of coercion AND the choices that their stations in life afford? In other words, people who live in a prosperous society with some coercive regulations (say Denmark) probably experience greater practical liberty than people who live in an anarchic society with no coercive regulations (say Somalia).

In any case, I think Sunstein has the potential to be a very positive force (pun not initially intended, but now that I recognize it it seems pretty clever so I'm going to leave it in there) in the Obama administration, especially if he's able to focus not only on the formation of new regulation, but also on the reformation of existing regulation. After all, the classic "libertarian paternalism" example associated with Sunstein is the idea that by making enrollment in 401ks the default option but allowing employees to opt out (thus preserving choice), participation in 401ks will be greater and people will be better off. Wouldn't it be nice (and intellectually consisten, by the way) if Sunstein/Obama applied this same logic to Social Security and allowed people to opt out of it?

Image from here.