Visual Classic: Pride and Prejudice

Today's Visual Classic is [ Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen ]

( Visual Classics are word clouds that graphically represent how often words are used in selected classics. Click on the image above to see a larger version. All text is courtesy of Project Gutenberg. The word cloud is courtesy of Wordle. )

Quotations: A.J. Heschel

"The solution of mankind's most vexing problem will not be found in renouncing technical civilization, but in attaining some degree of independence of it."
[ Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Sabbath ]


Myers' Friendly Middle is No Friendly Place (or, the story of the ugly duckling)

David Myers is now the latest scholar to toss his opinion into a recent surging of literature seeking to ease theist-atheist tensions. In his upcoming book, A Friendly Letter to Skeptics and Atheists: Musings on Why God is Good and Faith isn't Evil, Myers contemplates and comments on everything from the effectiveness of prayer to a Christian perspective on homosexuality. The book won't be released for nearly a month, but the preface, the first two chapters, and the controversial section on homosexuality are all on display at Myers' personal site.

Although the book by itself is an interesting one (after reading the "teaser" chapters online, I've already penciled in a bookstore date - coffee on me), the emergence of literature by intellectuals like Myers, Collins, and Giberson deserves its own spotlight. Scrolling through the entries of Science & Religion Today reveals that one of these books seems to be coming out on almost a weekly basis.

There is a common practice among many of the vocal atheists to mock any sort of theism that tries to claim a middle ground in the theist-atheist debates ("middle ground" is probably poor terminology to describe the position. Maybe "diplomacy" is better.). Unfortunately, there is also an equaly dissenting opinion stemming from the televangelist religious right that is eager to bloody and bludgeon anything less than a literal, word-by-word interpretation of the Bible.

David Myers is interesting because he doesn't fall into either camp. I think the perception is that Myers, Collins, Giberson, Gingerich, etc. have a faith of convenience - just scientific enough to be a scientist, and just Christian enough to be a Christian. It seems easy - glean the parts that you like, throw out the parts that don't mix, and stay friends with everyone.

Well, it just isn't true.

In reality, neither camp is quite willing to fully embrace many of these Christian scientists. Apparently, they aren't reasonable enough to be a scientist, and not Christian enough to be a Christian. How can someone believe in evolution AND God? Or in Myers case, how can you believe in homosexual marriage AND believe any shred of the Bible?

I think that a good example of this sort of tension can be seen in the reactions to Karl Giberson's Saving Darwin: How to be a Christian and Believe in Evolution. Take a look at a blog post by ID advocate William Dembski :
"So in Giberson we have an erstwhile fundamentalist who used to reject evolution, got some education, swallowed Darwin hook, line, and sinker, and now spends his days justifying why his move to embrace Darwin was the better part of wisdom — all the while proudly proclaiming that he remains a Christian. Given the mental contortions required to remain a Christian once one embraces Darwin, Giberson is loathe to admit that Darwin is passe and the mental contortions were unnecessary. Hence the need to “save Darwin,” for in doing so Giberson saves his own intellectual and spiritual credibility."
Ouch. Unfortunately, Dembski is downright chummy after we compare him to atheist PZ Myers:
"Theologians like Giberson who try to impose their fantastic personal delusions on a book like that actually interfere with our understanding — they betray the entirely human story that we should be trying to extract from it. I will have no truck with the perpetuation of fallacious illusions, whether honeyed or bitter, and consider the Gibersons of this world to be corruptors of a better truth."
To Dembski and PZ, the Gibersons of the world are the ugly-ducklings of their cause: "Sure, they are part of our group . . . but only sort of."

But I applaud the people who stand in the middle; not because I believe everything they say, not because I think their books will persuade many to join their camp, but because it keeps the rest of us from running rampant in our increasingly radical and polarized tribes. After reading Myers excerpts, I'm not convinced that any atheists will switch camps. I don't think that many will leave saying, "Boy, God really is good" or "Faith really isn't evil." This is by no means a negative review, but a recognition of the reality where an atheist is about as likely to embrace God and faith as a Red Sox fan is to embrace Alex Rodriguez and the Yankees. Fortunately, in order for the book to succeed, I don't think they have to.

No matter where you stand on things, the middle opens a dialogue between the two camps; and that is good. That is very good. It prevents us from turning our own interpretations of God and theology into divine truths that were chiseled from the cliffs of Mount Sinai.

Both camps have some things right, and I'm sure that both camps have beliefs that are terribly, terribly wrong. Listen, I'm not opposed to strong opinions, or even defending those opinions with pitchforks and pickaxes a la Frankenstein. But we've driven ourselves so deeply into a nuclear stand-off that we've gone straight past the Cold War and crashed right into a Tom Clancy novel. At the very least, we should applaud efforts of diplomacy. Don't leave the phone off the hook. Don't defriend someone on Facebook. Don't key the car.

There are pages more to write about the subject (I've erased at least 5 paragraphs that could have easily turned into chapters), but for the moment, I'll leave it to the guys whose writing gets cover-art.

And in case you've forgotten how the story of The Ugly Duckling ends, I'll leave you with a worthwhile reminder, courtesy of Mr. Walt Disney himself:


The Last March of the Ents?

A couple of days ago, the New York Times posted an article about the rising success of small, cheap PCs - Smaller PCs Cause Worry for Industry:
"The new computers, often called netbooks, have scant onboard memory. They use energy-sipping computer chips. They are intended largely for surfing Web sites and checking e-mail. The price is small too, with some selling for as little as $300 . . . Industry analysts say that the emergence of this new class of low-cost, cloud-centric machines could threaten titans like Microsoft and Intel, or even H.P. and Dell, because the giants have built their companies on the notion that consumers want more power and functions built into their next computer."
The titans should be afraid. Very afraid. More and more of my colleagues and friends are turning away from high-powered computing beasts and looking for stripped down, easily maintained machines. Face it, 90% of the casual computing public only cares about three things:
  1. Browsing the internet
  2. Word Processing
  3. Music management
Online file storage is becoming more prevalent. Online office suites like Google Docs and Zoho are more and more widely used. The only thing stopping users from completely running off their internet browser is spotty wireless coverage. If free wireless ever becomes as widespread as say, cell-phone coverage, you might as well say goodbye to the expensive computer.

Sure, specialty computers will always exist (designing, movie-editing, programming, gaming, etc.), but my guess is that several years down the road, the average american won't need a computer running anything more than the latest version of Firefox. Viva la revolucion!


Fonts: Too Much of a Good Thing is a Terrible, Soul-Sucking Thing

A couple of weeks ago, Creating Dew posted a list containing 11 of the Highest User Ranked Free Fonts. The list is fun, and I've already found myself playing around with several of them.

But (and there's always a but), please please PLEASE use them sparingly. Let's face it, a majority of people who read this site are not designers, which means your mind immediately jumps to PowerPoint. And it's tempting, I'll be the first to admit it. It's fun to elicit an "ooh" or "ahh" when queuing up your presentation. You feel like you are establishing your PowerPoint street cred. You are proud that you aren't using Times New Roman or Calibri. And for a fleeting moment, you should be.

But then you ruin it. You ruin it for everyone.

You get excited about your new toys. You put them everywhere - you use and abuse them like a sadistic 5th grader with a Tomagatchi. Before you know it, your presentation goes from being Cinderella at the ball, to Cinderella at the night-club. You don't fit, no one understands you, and yes, they are all looking at you strangely.

Want to know what a portion of this post would look like in Jellyka Castle's Queen font? Just look on below (WARNING: the graphically minded may want to avert their eyes):

So once again, please PowerPoint responsibly.


Rules of Usability: Unix

Eric Steven Raymond and Rob W. Landley have written an intriguing, free online book called The Art of Unix Usability. Although the site has been receiving more than its fair share of attention over the past 24 hours, the chapter titled Rules of Usability is worth a second, third, and fourth look. Roll the highlight film:

Rule of Bliss: Allow your users the luxury of ignorance.
"Simplify, simplify, simplify. Look for features that cost more in interface complexity than they're worth and remove them."

Rule of Distractions: Allow your users the luxury of inattention.
"One good test for an interface design is, therefore: can it be worked comfortably while the user is eating a sandwich, or driving a car, or using a cellphone?"

Rule of Flow: Allow your users the luxury of attention.
"Well-designed interfaces do not clamor for attention or advertise their own cleverness . . . They support concentration and creativity by getting out of the way."

Rule of Documentation: Documentation is an admission of failure.
"The best user interfaces are so transparent and discoverable that they don't require documentation at all. "

Rule of Least Surprise: In interface design, always do the least surprising thing.
"If you're writing a calculator program, '+' should always mean addition! . . . The best interface designs match a pre-existing model in the minds of their user populations."

Rule of Transparency: Every bit of program state that the user has to reason about should be manifest in the interface.
Mindspace is much more scarce and precious than screen space . . . Interface design is not a game to be won by claiming those slots [the 7+-2 slots in short-term memory; see below] -- to the contrary, you've done your job best when the user is freed to allocate them himself."

Rule of Modelessness: The interface's response to user actions should be consistent and never depend on a hidden state.
"It has been widely understood that modes are a bad idea . . . A computing system ideally designed for human use would have one single set of gestures and commands that are uniformly applicable and have consistent meanings across its entire scope."

Rule of Seven: Users can hold at most 7+-2 things at once in working storage.
"While users may be able to visually recognize more than seven controls, actually using them will involve refreshing short-term memory with retrieved knowledge about them."

Rule of Confirmation: Every confirmation prompt should be a surprise.
" . . . It is very bad practice to have confirmation prompts for which the normal answer is 'Yes, proceed onwards'. Thus, routine confirmation prompts are a bad idea."

Rule of Failure: All failures should be lessons in how not to fail.
"A special hell awaits the designers of programs whose response to errors is a message or popup giving a hex code, or one cryptic line that simply says 'An error occurred . . . ' . . . In a well-designed UI, all failures are informative. There are no brick walls; the user always has a place to go next and learn more about the failure and how to recover from it."

Rule of Automation: Never ask the user for any information that you can autodetect, copy, or deduce.
"Every time you require a human user to tell a computer things that it already knows or can deduce, you are making a human serve the machine."

Rule of Defaults: Choose safe defaults, apply them unobtrusively, and let them be overridden if necessary.
"Autodetection can become a problem if the computer guesses wrong and there is no way to override the guess."

Rule of Respect: Never mistake keeping things simple for dumbing them down.
"It is misguided and lazy to attack simplifications of an interface by claiming that they necessarily dumb it down. The test for a good simplification shoudl always be the same -- whether or not it makes the user experience better -- and that test shoudl be checked with real users."

Rule of Predictability: Predictability is more important that prettiness.
"You don't get usability from mere prettiness. Beware of pushing pixels around too much."

Rule of Reality: The interface isn't finished till the end-user testing is done.
"Far too many programmers who would never consider shipping a library without a test suite are somehow willing to ship programs that feature an interactive UI without testing them on real users . . . Go out and talk to people who are likely to use the thing. Slap together a quick prototype and get them to complain about it at length. Get a piece of paper and ask them to draw the interface they want with a pencil."


Can Bad Design be Good Design?

First off, let's look at the basis for this article.

Three Truths about Design
  1. Design has a purpose
  2. The only qualification for a good design is to meet that purpose
  3. Everything else is superfluous
What does this mean?

If a design meets its purpose, it can assault your eyes all day long and still be good design.

Why do I bring this up?

I was watching TV the other day when one of the Viagra commercials came on. I have always though they were ridiculous. I have always thought they were poorly done. In fact, I feel the same way about most medical commercials. Dr. ImAPaidActor hasn't convinced me to take my vitamins, let alone make an appointment to find out if mystery medicine #5 is "right for me."

So that means the commercials are poorly designed, right? Right.

Wrong. The truth is that Viagra doesn't think of me AT ALL when they create a commercial. They don't care about me. I am not their target customer. They don't care what I think of that stuffy doctor, or the middle-aged parents having a dance party in their kitchen (although, to be fair, I hope that I am having kitchen dance parties in thirty years).

So at this point, I have to concede something - they know their target audience much better than I do. Apparently. people who are pro Viagra are al
so pro awkward dancing. I shouldn't simplify it so much, but the point is still there.

What's the Point?

Looking at design from this perspective, don't we have to reconsider for a moment exactly what we define "good design" and "bad design" to be? Most of the design-savvy people I know are in their 20s and 30s. So while the right grunge font may catch my eye, it might make my grandparents change the channel. Think about the following questions:
  • Is this website that uses Comic Sans targetting 5th graders?
  • Is this midi background music targeting elementary music teachers?
  • Is this design that is based on a neon color palette targeting Vegas strippers?
You may be saying, " . . . but wait, WAIT! Those things are still bad design!" And the truth is, yes, I die just a tad every time I see something of that sort. But I can also tell you that my mother loves midi music sites, and my 5th grade self (rocking sweat pants and pogs) thought that Comic Sans was the coolest font ever.

To me, it is bad design. But if the design serves its purpose, doesn't that qualify it for good design? Can't bad design be good design?


Unclickable "Buttons"

The Site

Last week, I was given the link to a new city guide website: PlanetEye

The homepage looks wonderful. It is easy to navigate, interactive, and eye-catching. Over on the right side of the screen, there are three buttons labeled discover, plan, and share. They are three distinct colors, and even with all the other eye-candy around the screen, I am drawn to click them. But instead of jumping right into those options, I first want to try searching for a city I know well. Regardless, I figure that I might as well take a look at the basic use-case. I hop over to the search area (inviting, and easy to find), type in "Boston," and am immediately taken to a map of Boston. Cool. I am beginning to like this place. But now back to those colored buttons.

Share looks like a good place to start. I am interested in the Web 2.0 features this site has to offer.

A screenshot highlighting those colored buttons


click. click. clickclickclickcLickcLicKCLickCLiCKCLICK. CLICK. CLICK.

Nothing. It turns out that those "buttons" aren't buttons at all. They are just informational boxes. This shouldn't be a big deal. It really shouldn't. But it drives me crazy. Why would you make those boxes look like that if I can't click them? Now, all I want to do is look at the Share options. But where do I do that?

Maybe you think I'm making something out of nothing. The problem is that a silly misunderstanding like a button that isn't really a button becomes a barrier to the user. It is annoying. And as ridiculous as it sounds, every time I visit PlanetEye, I want to click those "buttons." Every. Single. Time. When internet users have the same attention span as a caffeinated 5th grader in Chuckie Cheese's, creating a fake door can make them visit a different house.

The Solution

The worst part it? A fix is easy. Looking around the site, I realized what it was that convinced me a wall was a door. Everything clickable on the front page is colorful, with hard, defined edges (pictures, real buttons, etc.). Everything that isn't clickable is contained in soft, grey lines, generally surrounded by white space.

I would simply make white the dominant color of those containers, with blue, green, and brownish being secondary. I might even soften those edges just a tad.

"But it looks good the way it is now," you might say. And you could very well be right. But not by much. The new design would still look nice, fit in with the theme of the page, and not make me angry.

And let's be honest. Keeping me happy is what this is all about.

Reason #3,928 Why Dostoevsky is Brilliant

"He [Alyosha] did not stop on the porch, either, but went quickly down the steps. Filled with rapture, his soul yearned for freedom, vastness, space. Over him the heavenly dome, full of quiet, shining stars, hung boundlessly. From the zenith to the horizon the still-dim Milky Way stretched its double strand. Night, fresh and quiet, almost unstirring, enveloped the earth. The white towards and golden domes of the church gleamed in the sapphire sky. The luxuriant autumn flowers in the flower beds near the house had fallen asleep until morning. The silence of the earth seemed to merge with the silence of the heavens, the mystery of the earth touched the mystery of the starts .... Alyhosha stood gazing and suddenly, as if he had been cut down, threw himself to the earth."

(The Brothers Karamazov)

We appreciate literature.


An Update: Puzzles for All

Due to some brief life circumstances, I haven't been able to update the blog in a couple of days. I've also been a bit "all over the place" in terms of my writing. While there are four or five articles currently in the works, none of them can be wrapped up in a quick, ten minute segment.

Another reason for my blogging laziness?

I've been picking up Python lately. I recently discovered the most fantastic and most maddeningly terrible way to do so - The Python Challenge. For those of you who haven't stumbled onto this gem, it is a series of mind-wrenching brain teasers that require a programming exercise to progress to the next level (or puzzle).

It has slowly, but surely managed to capture a stronghold on my life.

I'd like to see more of this. After numerous Google searches for programming brain teasers or puzzles, none can even claim the same ballpark. They are all boring and contrived. But maybe that deserves an article all of its own.

Until next time, cheers!


Digg: The Communal One-Night Stand

I write and read in coffee shops. I've figured out that it makes me productive. I need an appropriate amount of distraction to get anything done, and usually, I'm good at it.

But there are times when I'm not; like when the girls behind me start talking about their friend's one-night stand.

"So I told her, 'Honey, he isn't going to call you back.' But you have to do it with some tact, you know?"
"Definitely. But she'll figure it out. She's just new to it."

Then there was more rambling about "that guy." Then something about how he isn't worth the grinds at the bottom of a coffee cup. Then some sentences that started with "If I ever...," but a conversation that ultimately concluded with "She should have known."

I started thinking about that guy a little bit more. The conversation bounced around my head. He sounded familiar. And for awhile, I couldn't place him. I knew I'd seen him somewhere. But where? In what context? I couldn't quite figure it out. Then, just as I started sucking on my own grinds from an iced grande coffee, it hit me.

Digg, you are that bro.

"No, but I cared about that blog, I really did."

Trust me, you are "that guy."

"I didn't think it would happen. I thought I could stick with it for awhile."

Really? What about the others?

"I thought I could stick with them, too."

What did you think would happen? You raised her expectations to impossible levels. You knew that would happen, Digg. And maybe she is naive. Maybe she should have known better. Maybe she should have asked her friends and found out about you. But you made her feel special. You made her feel wanted. For one day, you gave her the star treatment. You gave her your undivided attention, and dropped comments left and right. So of course she wanted to be with you. But once it was all over, you left her. And you didn't even look back. You made her feel inadequate. You made her feel like a blue-sticker sale at Wal-Mart.

"Listen, can we chat about this later? I heard an anonymous blogger is reporting that McCain tips waitresses with bunny scalps."

As much as you'd like to deny it, Digg, you're the double-popped-collar (colored pink and lime), gel-spiked hair, tanning salon, protein shake pounding, I talk at you not with you, daddy-bought BMW driving brosef of the internet world.

And the worst part of it all? Most of us wouldn't mind a little more attention.

So for those of you finding yourselves sobbing into wet pillows, reapplying that eye-liner, and gauging yourself on two pints of Ben and Jerry's New York Super Fudge Chunk ice cream, just remember . . .

You're not alone.


The Email Killer: Could AI Strangle the Internet?

Sometimes, questions trouble me. This is one of them.

The Premise

Consider this:

1. We distinguish spam by using a variety of techniques that help sort out human comments, emails, and requests from bot comments, emails, and requests. Basically, we use AI's failures in the Turing Test to filter spam.

So far we have done well. Surprisingly well. CAPTCHAs has been successful, and GMail's spam filter is down right impressive.

2. The field of articial intelligence loves to foil the Turing Test. We are working and progressing in machine vision. We are also beginning to create robots that appear to be emotional and conversational (yes, I know there is very far to go ... but progress is being made).

The Question

Don't the folks over at point 1 completely rely on the failure of the folks working over at point 2? Couldn't the success of AI result in a muddled, cluttered web, making some of our most valuable tools nearly unusable?

A Few Words from "The Know"

Luis von Ahn, the creator of CAPTCHA's addresses this problem at an official CAPTCHA page:
CAPTCHA tests are based on open problems in artificial intelligence (AI): decoding images of distorted text, for instance, is well beyond the capabilities of modern computers. Therefore, CAPTCHAs also offer well-defined challenges for the AI community, and induce security researchers, as well as otherwise malicious programmers, to work on advancing the field of AI. CAPTCHAs are thus a win-win situation: either a CAPTCHA is not broken and there is a way to differentiate humans from computers, or the CAPTCHA is broken and an AI problem is solved.
With apologies to von Ahn, I don't quite agree with his "win-win" assessment, but that is for later. For right now, are we even close to these AI problems being solved?

Well, Are We Close?

Yes, we are.

Just to pick on CAPTCHA a bit (it seems to be a good example), programmers are becoming increasingly proficient at breaking the CAPTCHA tests. If you're really interested, look here and here for some examples.

But to highlight the real problem for CAPTCHAs and protecting against spam in general, take a look at this paragraph from the Blight Watch:
The problem is that making Captchas more difficult shuts out more and more legitimate users. For most commercial purposes, designers want to make their websites and services easily available. Difficult Captchas have become tollgates that slow down or turn away traffic. Today, 20% of state-of-the-art Captchas are not solved correctly on the first try (and often, there’s no second try). At the same time, bots have evolved to the point that commercially available software can successfully defeat the most difficult Captcha 10-15% of the time.
To clarify things, the best bots are almost as proficient as we are in solving CAPTCHAs. And just to show that CAPTCHA isn't the only spam filter having a problem, take a look at this article from CNET: Spammers are winning -- and it's not even close. We're fighting a uphill battle, and it looks like we might just be playing in the foothills.

What are the Consequences?

The value of the web lies in its ability to provide data quickly - whether it is to access email from a close friend, look up a wikipedia reference on hairballs, or leave scathing comments on this blog.

Excessive spams undermines the value of this data. If it takes five minutes to find an email in a sea of spam, then emailing no longer becomes a time-saving endeavor. It becomes stressful, time-consuming, and ultimately not worth it. If I have to wade through 50 advertisements before I reach your comment on this post, then the value of your opinion is diminished.

Craigslist? Worthless.
Digg? Littered.
Ticketmaster? Ruined.
Blogs? Forget a dialogue. Might as well print a paper.

Even beyond that, every piece of that spam must also be shipped through the same wires you are trying to stream the latest episode of LOST through. Welcome to a slower web.

So back to von Ahn . . .

Looking one more time at a piece of that quote:
CAPTCHAs are thus a win-win situation: either a CAPTCHA is not broken and there is a way to differentiate humans from computers, or the CAPTCHA is broken and an AI problem is solved.
On one hand, yes. Absolutely. Someone will win. On the other hand? A win for AI means one heck of a loss for the internet as a whole.

I'll be the first to admit that my scenario might be a bit far-fetched and exaggerated. But it is a possibility, isn't it? There will be innovations in the spam prevention field, but at the heart of the matter, if it boils down to "Are you a bot or are you a person?," I have to say that I'm not terribly optimistic.

So I challenge someone to give me an intellectual back-rub. Let me know why I'm wrong. Let me know why the internet won't get overrun by spam. Let me know why AI is not about to strangle the internet.

Virtual high-five to any responses.


Free Trade Fail

I pride myself for participating in dialogue, for remaining receptive to constructive criticism, and finally, for feeling failure every once in an “all too often.” For all those reasons, I decided to give voice to Amy, the co-creator of failcamp, and her response to my post FAILcon fails, but it doesn’t have to. Without further ado, here it is:
If you assume that the purpose of Failcamp is to prevent people from making identical technical mistakes, well then, you're mistaken.

It's also not a "feel-good about ourselves pow-wow."

Failure is omnipresent. It's the default state of everything. There are no techniques you can use to avoid failure in general and technical failure stories are not going to necessarily be applicable even in the same situation.

What can be learned is how to deal with the aftermath, and learning to take value directly out of the failure. And that's universally applicable.

And there's absolutely no difference between specific technical failure and general life failure in this view.

If you want to create a peer-reviewed journal, by all means do so. But I think if you'll look at the history of peer-reviewed journals you'll see the flaw in your idea. The idea that you'll get industry people to bother to write long essays about problems only to wait for them to be *reviewed* by their "peers"... well, I have to say, I think it will fail.

To get people to own up to their own problems you need a convivial atmosphere. A non-permanent, non-serious one.
First, I would like to thank Amy for commenting. I’m currently working on an entry that emphasizes the importance of response and criticism within the blogosphere**.

Okay, now on to the good stuff. While I don’t quite agree with everything Amy has to say, our difference in opinion stems more from a divergence in vision than a divergence in philosophy. So let’s throw the failcamp philosophy out there:
failure is the default
failure can be intrinsically valuable
we can bond through our failures
and bonding over failure is a good thing
also, beer is a good thing.
My response? Yes.
And good.
And yes again.

But we may be talking apples and oranges (or ipods and zunes for you tech people out there). My response to FAILcon was exactly that, a response to FAILcon. Here is an excerpt from Conference FAIL:
All of the great software developers I know have at least one great story of how a project they were working on was a complete disaster. Often these projects are shielded from the public eye, since nobody wants to talk about failure. So, how do we make a public discussion of these ideas socially acceptable?

Thus, an idea was born: FAILcon. The idea is simple: submitted talks and papers must be related to projects which failed in an interesting way. The larger the better, of course — the bigger they are, the harder they fail — but anything that failed in an interesting way would be a valid subject for discussion.
After reading the article, I made the following assumptions about FAILcon’s vision:
  1. FAILcon is not intended to merely address failure in its general scope, but failure that is more specific to software developing.
  2. FAILcon is centered on submitted talks and papers, and the discussions that come as a result of those papers and projects. I would guess that the resulting discussions would conjure up questions such as Why did we fail? and How can we prevent future failure?
Based on those assumptions (and they could very well be wrong), you may begin to see where my article came from. Although, to be fair, after 24 hours of Calvin & Hobbes-esque pondering, I don’t even completely buy into my own vision for FAILcon.com, but I’ll leave that for separate entry.

In direct response to your response (sentence structure that would make at least two of my former English profs die on the inside), I never intended to say that failcamp is a “’feel good about ourselves’ pow-wow.” My full sentence, “Failure conferences already exist, and I assume that you envision more than a 'lets feel better about ourselves' pow-wow” meant to convey two different points. One is that failure conferences exist (example: failcamp). The other is that I don’t think FAILcon’s vision is a fluffy one. Let’s chalk that misunderstanding up to me. Maybe you can even mention my “clarity fail” in your upcoming conference.

Does that entitle me to beer?

That being said, I encourage people to go to failcamp. If I was in the neighborhood, I’d probably stop by myself. Get familiar with failure. Why? Because everyone does it, and even the best do it more than the rest (let that sink in for a moment).

Once again, thanks for the response Amy. Failcamp.org. Check it out.

** Did you know that Microsoft Word 2007 recognizes blogosphere as a legitimate word? I can’t decide whether I am impressed or depressed.


Please PowerPoint Responsibly

Being a bit of a PowerPoint perfectionist, I enjoyed stumbling across a blog entry from a Master's student at the School of Informatics at Indiana University: PowerPoint: How it should and should NOT be used.

I'll save my presentation rantings and ravings for later postings, but I think you'll particularly enjoy the second video in the entry. It should be mandatory viewing for anyone who speaks.

FAILcon fails, but it doesn't have to

This post over at Twin Sunset deserves attention.

Here is a clip:
The idea is simple: submitted talks and papers must be related to projects which failed in an interesting way. The larger the better, of course — the bigger they are, the harder they fail — but anything that failed in an interesting way would be a valid subject for discussion.
FAILcon is a fantastic idea to prevent developers and researchers from hitting walls harder than kids jumping on exercise balls. However, since I do like the concept, it deserves a second, more critical look.

I think that FAILcon falls a bit short in its objective. Here's why:
  • The software industry is too large. There are too many projects in too many fields, and even then, it is rapidly expanding. People working on sensor networks may not visit a conference full of game development failures. Sure, failure is universal, but that doesn't mean that it is universally applicable.
  • Aside from the enormous resources that would have to be corralled, a conference emphasis isn't the right approach. Failure conferences already exist, and I assume that you envision more than a "lets feel better about ourselves" pow-wow. I'm not sure that a single failure conference (even if it is annually) will a) create enough papers to be a lasting resource, or b) cover diverse enough subject matter for the concept to really be useful.
This is how I would approach FAILcon:
  • Forget the conference-centric approach. Instead, focus on an online journal. This a) builds a foundation from which a future conference can be created, and b) doesn't have some of the limiting factors of a conference (listed above). Make the failure resources the primary goal and keep the conference as a secondary goal.
  • About the online journal: It would need to be peer-reviewed, as someone mentioned in the original blog-entry. Make it an "open application" process. Don't limit papers to a certain time of year, or month. Especially when laying the groundwork for a new resource, we need to encourage participation as much as possible. An annual conference isn't the best way to do that. Finally, tag each article so it can easily be referenced by people in the applicable field - game developers can find articles on game development or network administrators can find networking articles.
FAILcon can be a fantastic, much needed resource. A conference would be fun, but would it really accomplish anything (other than a flash-flood of great jokes)?

Base a conference off a journal, not a journal off a conference.


Dostoevsky on Education

While it isn't quite so explicitly about graduate education as I would like to think, I found this passage from The Brothers Karamazov particularly enlightening.

[Introducing Alyosha]

" . . . he was partly a young man of our time - that is, honest by nature, demanding of truth, seeking it and believing it, and in that belief demanding an immediate participation in it with all the strength of his soul; demanding an immediate deed, with an unfailing desire to sacrifice everything for this deed, even life.

Although, unfortunately, these young men do not understand that the sacrifice of life is, perhaps, the easiest of all sacrifices in many cases, while to sacrifice, five or six years of their ebulliently youthful life to hard, difficult studies, to learning, in order to increase tenfold their strength to serve the very truth and the very deed that they loved and set out to accomplish - such sacrifice is quite often almost beyond the strength of many of them."

Small, Dark, and Mysterious

UPDATE: It turns out that the mysterious grey box is simply an iFrame containing javascript. Crushing blow to conspiracy lovers.

If you're reading this post, you may already be familiar with the peculiar box (is it a page turn?) in the top left-hand corner of Gmail. What exactly is it? Who put it there? And in Google's world of pride and (at times) political statements, is there some sort of significant meaning behind the mystery box? Bloggers, tech enthusiasts, and just plain pundits have been regurgitating their thoughts, theories, and musings all over the web for the last week. TechCrunch recently embarked on their own Wonkian search for the golden ticket, offering prizes for readers with outlandish, elaborate, and detailed theories about the box.

Well, I for one hope that Google says nothing. I hope they leave us all out in the dark. I hope they sit back in their cubicles, feet up on the desk, and laugh. Just laugh. Laugh at us all.

First of all, is it a mistake? I have a hard time believing it is. Ask a middle school student with acne problems how hard it is to hide the latest assault on their face. Someone (probably a lot of someones), somewhere at Google knows exactly what is going on.

But set aside for just a moment your knowledge of the massive internet mogul that is Google. Revisit your embarrassing knowledge of romance movies. Dark and mysterious is good. Dark and mysterious is very good. Sound ridiculous? Maybe. But imagine that Google isn't Google. Imagine Google is a small, internet start up. Imagine Google is this blog. Dark and mysterious can be brilliant.

I'll admit it, the concept sounds a bit counter intuitive. We (including myself) critique websites on their ease of use in terms of navigation, or their ease of use in terms of my eyes. But we expect that now. Ease of use doesn't create buzz. In fact, the better it is, the more it fades into the background.

What are/were some of the most highly anticipated movies of this past year? Off the top of my head, I'd say Cloverfield and the Dark Knight (which, at this point, we should be giggling in schoolgirl excitement over). Both used brilliant marketing campaigns that functioned more as teases than infomercials. What if we applied our same ease of use principles to those marketing campaigns? The data is too hard to find. The navigation is too shaky to understand. The screen is too dark for the user experience. Fail. Fail. Triple Fail.

I know, I know, I know, movies and web design are two completely different animals. But I think you get my point. Is Google's mysterious box an attempt to create mystique and press? No, I don't think so. They are Google. They don't exactly need it. However, for us kids that are getting beat up at the playground by the internet cool kids, it can be worth the risk. Don't throw it out so quickly.

So every once in awhile, take a gamble. Be dark. Be mysterious. Who knows, maybe the girl will fall for it?

(Of course, maybe you'll just end up turning into the creepy guy down the street. Those trenchcoats aren't always cool. Trust me.)


the w questions

What is this place?
Just look around.

Who are you?

A graduate student at Tufts University.

How can I contact you?
You can email me at techINcolor AT [insert the letter after f]mail.com
(I list my email this way so bots can't find it and spam me.)

Isn't the name a bit ironic? There are no colors on your site.
I hadn't noticed it until now, but yes, you are correct. It is ironic.

Will you add more to this section? It really isn't helpful.
Yes, I will update this page. We'll see how things go.