Thursday, December 29, 2005

[Research] Google Research Papers

A list of research papers published by people while at Google. Oddly enough, they don't seem to have any papers on PageRank listed.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Driving and Individuality

Now here would be an interesting PhD. I think the author (George Monbiot) is usually a little crazy, but he might be onto something here. There are tons of research explorations you could do to support / refute this claim, and it would be socially relevant and useful.,5673,1671053,00.html

I believe that while there are many reasons for the growth of individualism in the UK, the extreme libertarianism now beginning to take hold here begins on the road. When you drive, society becomes an obstacle. Pedestrians, bicycles, traffic calming, speed limits, the law: all become a nuisance to be wished away. The more you drive, the more bloody-minded and individualistic you become. The car is slowly turning us, like the Americans and the Australians, into a nation that recognises only the freedom to act, and not the freedom from the consequences of other people's actions. We drive on the left in Britain, but we are being driven to the right.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

[HCI] Game-like elicitation methods: A new approach to user research

MindCanvas is a research service to help companies gather insights about customers' thoughts & feelings. We use Game-like Elicitation Methods (GEMs) to let online users participate in answering the complex questions that you face in designing a product or service.


Monday, December 19, 2005

CMU's Great Flood

Well, it wasn't quite 40 days and 40 nights, but there was enough flooding to destroy one of our machine rooms in Wean Hall. I've also heard that Wean Hall caught on fire a few years before I arrived.

Friday, December 16, 2005

[Scary] Cyranoids

One of my friends told me about an experiment done by Stanley Milgram, where Milgram coined the term "cyranoid". Apparently, Milgram had a young child wear an earpiece, and he was telling the child what to say when interacting with adults. Sort of creepy, hm?

We are all familiar with the story of Cyrano de Bergerac who loved Rosalyn, but provided prose to help another man to woo her. From his name, Stanley Milgram coined the term "cyranoid" to describe an intermediary that communicates with a target using the words or non-verbal behavior of another individual. To examine the use of a cyranoid in social interaction, Milgram conducted a study in which participants interacted with an individual who, unbeknownst to them, was a cyranoid whose words were being controlled by a third party. Milgram described cyranoids as: “People who do not speak thoughts originating in their own central nervous system: Rather, the words they speak originate in the mind of another person who transmits these words to the cyranoid by radio transmission” (Milgram, Sabini, & Silver, 1992).

Thursday, December 15, 2005

[Research] New Research Labs funded by Microsoft, Sun, and Google

News of two new corporate research labs in the news today.
University of California computer scientists plan to announce on Thursday that the companies - Google, Microsoft and Sun Microsystems - will underwrite a $7.5 million laboratory on the Berkeley campus. The new research center, called the Reliable, Adaptive and Distributed Systems Laboratory, will focus on the design of more dependable computing systems.
Internet goliath Google Inc. will open a research and development facility on Carnegie Mellon University's campus, state economic development and university officials are expected to announce today.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

[Funny] CNN: Turn Left, Fool

Companies are offering some surprising voices for you car's navigation system. Make room for Mr. T.

NEW YORK ( - Believe it or not, getting yelled at and berated by Mr. T actually becomes boring pretty quickly.

Everything he tells you to do -- everything -- starts with "Hey, Fool!" That's true even when he's telling you to do something dumb, like drive onto the lower level of the Queensboro Bridge when the upper level is the one you need.

California company NavTones has contracted with Mr. T and the actors Burt Reynolds and Dennis Hopper to record voices that can be loaded into navigation systems, giving your driving directions a little extra personality. More voices are coming, the company said.

Another company, TomTom, offers John Cleese's voice along with several "fictional" characters that include a New York City cab driver and a Freudian psychoanalyst.

[Phishing] IRS Warns of Tax Refund Scam

The U.S. Internal Revenue Service is warning taxpayers about a phishing
scam that uses promises of tax refunds to steal sensitive financial

The IRS issued a statement Wednesday warning consumers of the scam
e-mail messages, which appears to come from and
contains a link to a phishing Web site that collects Social Security and
credit card information. But one anti-virus software company claims a
flaw in a U.S. government Web site may be helping the scammers.


Tuesday, November 29, 2005

[CompSci] Interactive Tree Visualizer

Interactive Java applet that lets you add and remove things from various kinds of trees, including AA trees, AVL trees, binary search trees, etc. Pretty nice, good for learning how they work.

Monday, November 28, 2005

[HCI] Of Mice and Menus: Designing the User-Friendly Interface

A high-level summary article describing how the GUI was developed.

Over three decades of work by diverse engineers and researchers intent on learning how best to interact with a computer come together in the windows and icons used today

Monday, November 21, 2005

Automatic Design Pattern Detection

This looks interesting...

Automatic Design Pattern Detection
Dirk Heuzeroth, University of Karlsruhe
Thomas Holl, University of Karlsruhe
Gustav Hogstrom, University of Växjö
Welf Lowe, University of Växjö

Full Article Text: Download PDF of full text Buy this article Get full text from IEEE Xplore

DOI Bookmark:
We detect design patterns in legacy code combining static and dynamic analyses. The analyses do not depend on coding or naming conventions. We classify potential pattern instances according to the evidence our analyses provide. We discuss our approach for the Observer, Composite, Mediator, Chain of Responsibility and Visitor Patterns. Our Java analysis tool analyzes Java programs. We evaluate our approach by applying the tool on itself and on the Java Swing Set Example using the Swing library.

[Research] Famous Rejected Papers

I've always thought it would be fun to compile a list of famous rejected research papers, ones that later turned out to be highly influential.

For example, in My Life as a Quant, the author tells the story of how the famous Black-Scholes paper (which describes how options should be priced) was rejected several times. The work eventually led to a Nobel Prize in economics. (Yes, I know, there technically is no Nobel Prize in economics).

Then there's George Akerlof's work on asymmetric information. I don't recall exactly, but I think the reviewers thought it was too simplistic. It also led to a Nobel Prize in econ.

And then there's Tim Berners-Lee's original paper on the World Wide Web. He describes his experiences in his book Weaving the Web. I think it was submitted to a hypertext conference, but was accepted only as a demo. I'm guessing reviewers didn't see much novelty in the work, which probably was correct from a research perspective.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

[HCISec] Cyber Defense Academy Game

Cute game for kids to teach them about the dangers of spam, viruses, chat rooms, etc. The intro is particularly funny.


[HCI] HCI Books in Chinese

A person in a class I taught in China this summer tells me that there are some new UI books recently translated into Chinese.

BOOK: About Face 2.0: The Essentials of Interaction Design

Another very good book:

BOOK: Emotional Design

Thursday, November 03, 2005

[HCI] Happy World Usability Day

"Why doesn't this work better? Why can't they make this easier?” World Usability Day, November 3, 2005, is for all the people who've ever asked questions like these.

This worldwide series of events, organized by The Usability Professionals' Association, will promote awareness of the benefits of usability engineering and user-centered design, Earth Day style.

The 36 hours of World Usability Day starts with a breakfast in New Zealand and ends at around 10 pm on the west coast of the United States with the opening reception at the DUX 2005 conference.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

[HCI-sec] New Course: Usable Privacy and Security

The spring course schedules are now posted and I wanted to bring to everyone's attention a new course that Jason Hong, Mike Reiter, and Lorrie Cranor will be teaching this spring: 17-750/5-899A Usable Privacy and Security. This will be a 9 unit course offered T/Th 9-10:20am.

Here's the description...

There is growing recognition that technology alone will not provide all of the solutions to security and privacy problems. Human factors play an important role in these areas, and it is important for security and privacy experts to have an understanding of how people will interact with the systems they develop. This course is designed to introduce students to a variety of usability and user interface problems related to privacy and security and to give them experience in designing studies aimed at helping to evaluate usability issues in security and privacy systems.

The course is suitable both for students interested in privacy and security who would like to learn more about usability, as well as for students interested in usability who would like to learn more about security and privacy. Much of the course will be taught in a graduate seminar style in which all students will be expected to do a weekly reading assignment and each week different students will prepare a presentation for the class. Students will also work on a group project throughout the semester. The course is open to all graduate students who have technical backgrounds. Juniors and seniors may enroll with permission of one of the instructors.

Friday, October 28, 2005

The United States still has a large lead over China, but if the current sad state of affairs with respect to education and research continues here in the US, it's only a matter of time before China catches up.

When Andrew Chi-chih Yao, a Princeton professor who is recognized as one of the United States' top computer scientists, was approached by Qinghua University in Beijing last year to lead an advanced computer studies program, he did not hesitate.

[JIH - Andrew Chi-chih Yao won the Turing Award in 2000]


China has already pulled off one of the most remarkable expansions of education in modern times, increasing the number of undergraduates and people who hold doctoral degrees fivefold in 10 years.


In only a generation, China has sharply increased the proportion of its college-age population in higher education, to roughly 20 percent now from 1.4 percent in 1978. In engineering alone, China is producing 442,000 new undergraduates a year, along with 48,000 graduates with masters' degrees and 8,000 Ph.D's.


The Transportation Experience

One of my friends just published a book on transportation, entitled The Transporation Experience.

While much of the transportation systems in Europe and the United States are mature (if not senescent), the rest of the world is still planning, developing, and deploying new systems. The accomplishments and mistakes of places like the United Kingdom and the United States, then, can teach us lessons that may be applied to places where transportation remains nascent or adolescent. The Transportation Experience seeks to understand the genesis of transportation policy in America and the UK, along with the roles that this policy plays as systems are innovated, deployed, and reach maturity, and how policies might be improved. The work presents case studies of particular transport experiences in rail, road, water and air (with a special emphasis on railroads), and then finds commonalities in all of these experiences with thematic analyses that are often bold and unconventional. The book is predicated on the idea that the story of transportation policy can tell us what transportation, is, does, and might do in the future, and at an even broader level, how society has learned to create, deliver, and operate large, complicated systems. It should appeal to students and researchers in a broad array of fields, including geography, civil and environmental engineering, and public policy.


Thursday, October 20, 2005

Thursday, October 13, 2005

[Ubicomp] What is ubicomp?

One reader asks about ubicomp and its relationship to supply chain management.

[We think ubicomp is] simply the philosophy of using computation to augment the ability of entities in a non-invasive way. If our definition is correct, then would it follow that technologies which can vastly improve transparency across a supply chain without requiring significant process changes be one valid application of ubiquitous computing? If so, then wouldn't any and all supporting technologies (data storage facility, barcodes, etc.) be part of ubiquitous computing technologies within that context?

My response:

Well, on the one hand, the term ubiquitous computing is sufficiently general that it could include lots of things, sort of like personal computing. On the other hand, if you look at the specific research that calls itself ubiquitous computing, you only see certain kinds of things. For example, mobile computing, sensor networks, large displays, etc. Lots of areas with previous work done (ex. databases, hardware architecture, AI) may be doing work that is highly relevant to ubiquitous computing, but often don't call themselves that, probably for cultural reasons.

From my perspective, what is and isn't ubiquitous computing is debatable, and ultimately not that useful.


Ubiquitous computing also suffers from the same problem as AI, which is that the bar keeps getting raised. Things that might have been considered ubicomp a few decades ago (ex. TVs and barcodes and LEDs) are no longer so.

Currently, the main characteristics of ubicomp technologies would one or more of the following:
- Natural interaction (speech, sketching, pointing, etc)
- Mobile, off the desktop
- Awareness of the physical world (location, identity, activity)
- Integration with the physical world (smart cars, smart tables)
- All wirelessly networked

The off the desktop part is important too, as that is part of integrating computation and communication into all aspects of our lives, rather than just a single place in a single machine. I would categorize things like barcodes and data storage as mostly fitting within the desktop environment.

On the other hand, there are emerging technologies for supply chains that I would also consider ubicomp:
- RFIDs for real-time tracking of inventory
- Wearable computers for coordinating employees
- Location-based services for tracking vehicle fleet

So I'd say it's a question of degrees here. While supply chain and ubicomp aren't mutually exclusive, there are some technologies that exhibit more of the characteristics described above than others.

Monday, October 10, 2005

[HCI] Martin Wattenberg Visualizations

Some really amazing information visualizations by Martin Wattenberg. Includes

  • QuerySketch, sketching for retrieval of relevant stock graphs
  • Tree map layout of the stock market
  • History Flow, modifications to wikipedia
  • Site X-Ray, modifying a page in place to see log analysis data

Thursday, October 06, 2005

Monday, September 19, 2005

Friday, September 16, 2005

Web service for calling phone

Just tried it out, very cool idea.

Motorola Contest

Imagine your car contacting the mechanic directly to schedule its next oil change or downloading a music video from your car stereo to watch on a conference call with a friend across the globe.

Is this the future of mobile communications? You tell us.

To help visualize the next generation of seamless mobility, Motorola, Inc. (NYSE: MOT) today launched MOTOFWRD, a nationwide competition challenging emerging innovators to depict – either through words or visuals – how tomorrow’s society will answer to the consumer demand to live life wherever, whenever and however. Seamless mobility is a set of solutions that will provide easy, uninterrupted access to information, entertainment, communication, monitoring and control when, where and how we want regardless of the device, service, network or location.


Tor GUI Contest

Tor is a decentralized network of computers on the Internet that increases privacy in Web browsing, instant messaging, and other applications. We estimate there are some 50,000 Tor users currently, routing their traffic through about 250 volunteer Tor servers on six continents. However, Tor's current user interface approach — running as a service in the background — does a poor job of communicating network status and security levels to the user.

The Tor project, affiliated with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, is running a UI competition to develop a vision of how Tor can work in a user's everyday anonymous browsing experience. Some of the challenges include how to make alerts and error conditions visible on screen; how to let the user configure Tor to use or avoid certain routes or nodes; how to learn about the current state of a Tor connection, including which servers it uses; and how to find out whether (and which) applications are using Tor safely.


Wednesday, September 07, 2005

[Mobile] Video Snacking on Mobile Devices

Sounds plausible, could be a new genre. Though I wish phone carriers could open up access more and make it easier for average developers to innovate. EBay, Amazon, and Wikipedia didn't emerge because people had to ask for lots of permission.

While consumers may not have the patience to watch a feature-length movie on a 2-in. square LCD screen, they may likely view commercially-produced short clips-- "video snacks"-- up to 10 minutes in length.


Monday, August 29, 2005

[HCI] Wired: Nintendogs Teach Us New Tricks

As it turns out, we're suckers for babysitting. Sherry Turkle -- the digital-age pundit and author of Life on the Screen -- has been researching the relationship between robots and people. She's discovered that the most popular robots are, unexpectedly, the ones that demand we take care of them. They trigger our nurturing impulses, the same ones we deploy toward infants, the elderly or any other vulnerable creature.

The thing is, this precisely inverts the normal logic of artificial intelligence. Back in the '70s, everyone assumed we'd eventually have super-smart robots as servants -- guarding our homes, managing our schedules and bringing us a beer. That never happened. Nobody really wanted robots like that, because robots like that are kind of scary. Nobody wants a Terminator hanging around the kitchen.

In reality, when robots finally broke out into the mass market, it was the Furby and the Aibo. Not only did they serve zero useful purpose, they actually demanded we spend hours and hours nurturing them. If you didn't pay attention to your Aibo, it'd wilt. That, Turkle suggests, is precisely the reason these robots have such emotional purchase. Over in Japan, nursing homes are issuing Aibos to the abandoned elderly, because people love to feel needed -- and as it turns out, that's the one thing that Aibo is genuinely "useful" for: making you feel needed.


Maybe sci-fi doomsayers have got it all wrong. Artificial intelligence won't be dominating us with its superhuman cognition and bloodless logic. It'll be peeing itself and demanding to be taken for a walk.


Wednesday, August 24, 2005

[Cool] Large Scale Model Crystals of the Galaxy

This is just ridiculously cool.

[Cool] Harry Potter Currency Converter

Would you like to know how much dragon liver would cost if you could buy it in your local supermarket? In the Harry Potter books, it says it costs 17 sickles an ounce. So, enter 17 into the sickles box and click "Calculate." There's your answer: $4.82.

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

[Academic] CNN: Worst Pay for the Investment

As I keep telling prospective PhD students, don't do it for the money.

A career with one of the most disproportionate ratios of training to pay is that of academic research scientist.

A Ph.D. program and dissertation are requirements for the job, which can take between six and eight years to complete. (See correction.) Add to that several years in the postdoctoral phase of one's career to qualify for much coveted tenure-track positions.

During the postdoc phase, you are likely to teach, run a lab with experiments that require you to check in at all hours, publish research and write grants – for a salary that may not exceed $43,000.

The length of the postdoc career has doubled in the past 10 years, said Phil Gardner, director of the Collegiate Employment Research Institute at Michigan State University. "It's taking longer and longer to get there. You can't start a family. It's really tough."

And it's made tougher still by the fact that in many disciplines, there aren't nearly as many tenure-track positions as there are candidates.


Thursday, August 04, 2005

[Location] GeoMinder

For Nokia phones...

Geominder allows you to create location-based reminders that stay attached to physical locations.

When arriving at a marked location, Geominder can play an alarm and display a stored text note or a voice note previously associated to the location.

Monday, August 01, 2005

[Tech] [Research] Fumbling Our Future

In the US, the debates we have about education deal with whether we should teach the Bible in public schools and downplaying evolution in favor of the pseudo-science intelligent design. Sprinkle this with the reduction in overall funding for basic research in all sciences, mix in the difficulty foreign students have in getting visas to study here, and stir in the general American disinterest in anything remotely intellectual, and you have a recipe for long-term disaster.

If America doesn't get its act together soon, I wouldn't be surprised if China or India takes the lead within a few decades. It reminds me of the Xerox PARC "Fumbling the Future" stories, except on a national level.

Several years ago, Chinese car manufacturer Geely grew concerned about a shortage of well-trained workers. Its solution: plunk down $800 million and start a private university.


Since 1998, when Jiang Zemin, then president of China, spoke on the 100th anniversary of top-ranked Peking University and issued his bracing call for change, overall college enrollment in China has roughly tripled. The country now outpaces leaders like the US, India, Russia, and Japan in numbers of students in colleges and universities.


China almost doubled the number of science and engineering PhDs between 1996 and 2001, to just over 8,000. Some observers say that within a decade, China is likely to boast some of the world's leading engineering schools.

Friday, July 29, 2005

[Cool] My Software Engineering Rant Seven Years Ago

Great Caesar's Ghost! Someone just sent me an email commenting on a usenet post I made seven years ago on software engineering! I actually like what I wrote too, it still seems highly relevant in this day and age. Well, except maybe the part about Enterprise Java Beans... :)

I've edited the line breaks slightly to make it more readable in a web browser.

From: jasonh@xxx.yyy.EDU (Jason Hong)
Subject: [NEWS] Re: Why is programming so hard?
Date: 11 Dec 1998 23:02:30 GMT

: I'd like to hear more. Perhaps it would bring theory,
: philosophy, and poetry to engineering.

Here's a few I'd also add:

o No natural visualizations
There's no simple way to "see" or "draw" software, often
making its abstract representation the only one we have.
I'm also unconvinced that all of the various object
modeling tools and techniques (UML, Fusion, etc) really
augment our abilities to think and do design.

o Scale
It's difficult to think and design in several orders of
magnitude, from bits to gigabytes. Also, the size of state
grows exponentially with each new variable. We've had to
invent new ways of managing and abstracting this scale,
but we still need to do more.

o Logical thinking
Let's face it, humans are not innately good at it. Our
brains are underpowered for this kind of thinking without
lots of training. And logic is the foundation computer
systems are built upon.

o Lack of good tools
How many people still do debugging via print statements?
How many people still use editors that have little or no
knowledge of the programming language being used?
How easy is it to profile your application?
How easy is it to get good visualizations of what's going
on in the system?
Why is using a compiler more like talking to a wall than
a dialog between person and machine?
How many errors are still due to pointer arithmetic and
buffer overflows?
How long does it take to implement a _good_ user interface?
How many times have teams overwritten each other's code?

Let's face it, most of our tools are like paleolithic axes:
somewhat useful but very crude.

o Few metrics
There are few metrics that indicate we as a discipline
are improving. Faster processors, cheaper memory, and
larger disks only go so far, but what is their relationship
to programmer productivity?

Also, what's good code? How do you measure it?
What's good design? How do you measure that?

o Lack of orthogonal properties
If you want scalability, high availability, fault-tolerance,
and security, often you have to build it directly into the
software so that it permeates the very essence of the software.

This mixes the functionality and application logic of
the software with the properties of the software, making
maintenance, debugging, and testing more complex.

What we need is a way of separating desired system properties
from logic, making it easier to get what you want without
having to understand every underlying detail. I do believe
Enterprise Java Beans are one small step in this direction.

o Lack of widespread experience
People still aren't taught good design skills at universities.
People still aren't taught good testing skills at universities.
People still tend to reinvent the wheel because it's too hard
to find something that fits what you need.
People still aren't taught good systems engineering skills.
People are still making many of the same design and
implementation mistakes others made decades ago. It's as
if we haven't learned.

o Lack of good methods
What's the process for creating good software? I really don't
believe it's anything methodologies like OMT, Booch, Fusion,
and others describe. They're too prescriptive and completely
ignore wide areas of real software development.

o Mercilessly precise need for details
Computers are stupid, and have to be told every single detail
in order to work. Most people don't think in this manner at
all, but are forced to adhere to the absolute precision needed
by the computer in order to get anything done.

This also makes programming real applications more difficult,
since people think and do things differently, and your
application will have to handle not only the right case but
all of the exception cases.

o Poor understanding
A lot of people still don't understand that software
engineering is more than just programming. It's about
prototyping, designing architectures, re-designing
architectures, interacting with customers, working within
a team, communicating with others, testing the system, and
running usability studies, just to state a few.

: But I'm interested to hear some other people's views on why
: programming is hard by nature. Or if you don't have time for
: that, maybe some stimulating articles or books you can refer
: me to?

Here are a few. Check out:

o The Mythical Man Month, Fred Brooks
(especially "No Silver Bullet")
o Rapid Development, Steve Maguire
o Code Complete, Steve McConnell
o Hints for Computer System Design, Butler Lampson

Friday, July 22, 2005

Fortune: Can Americans Compete?

From Fortune Magazine, via the FoRK Mailing List

The No. 1 policy prescription, almost regardless of whom you ask, comes down to one word: education. In an economy where technology leadership determines the winners, education trumps everything. That's a problem for America. Our fourth-graders are among the world's best in math and science, but by ninth grade they've fallen way behind (see table). As Bill Gates says, "This isn't an accident or a flaw in the system; it is the system."

The good news is that we've overhauled the system before. A century ago, as America changed from an agricultural to an industrial economy, something called the high school movement swept the country...

We responded to a changing world again in 1958, after the USSR orbited Sputnik while our rockets kept blowing up on the launch pad... We went to the moon, science and engineering became cool, even glamorous, and we gained a wide technology lead.


A prescription urged just as widely is immigration reform. A critical element of America's economic dominance has been its attraction for the world's brightest, most ambitious people, but today's immigration laws favor family reunification far above talent, intelligence, or credentials.


John Doerr, the legendary Silicon Valley venture capitalist, recommends that every foreign student who gets a Ph.D. at a U.S. university should also get a green card (granting permanent residency) stapled to his or her diploma.


But the greatest challenge will be changing a culture that neither values education nor sacrifices the present for the future as much as it used to--or as much as our competitors do. And you'd better believe that American business has a role to play--after years of dot-com-bust- and scandal-driven reticence, more corporate leaders need to summon the courage to lead.

[Funny] Craigslist: How I got the best of this Nigerian scammer

One approach to fending off email scams is to flood the scammers with lots of bad data (an anti-spam amplifer, in the words of UWashington professor Oren Etzioni).

This person on craigslist has a rather humorous way of wasting the scammers' time...

Dear Sir,

I don’t know who this other person you were writing to is , but, my name is Bo Luke. I operate a moonshine business with my brother, Luke. You might say that we are in the “distribution” business. I am interested in your proposal. I know a little about steel – as I have that album “british steel” by Judas Priest. Please tell me more.


Bo Luke
Hazzard County, USA





It gets even better afterwards...

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

[HCI] Lincoln Lab TX-2 Group

Bill Buxton has a page up on the CHI2005 panel about the early days at the MIT Lincoln Labs. Cool history about some of the early pioneers in interactive computing.

Monday, July 18, 2005

On Failing To Think Long-Term

At first it was going to be a book of 18 chapters chronicling 18 collapses of once-powerful societies--- the Mayans with the most advanced culture in the Americas, the Anasazi who built six-story skyscrapers at Chaco, the Norse who occupied Greenland for 500 years. But he wanted to contrast those with success stories like Tokugawa-era Japan, which wholly reversed its lethal deforestation, and Iceland, which learned to finesse a highly fragile and subtle environment.


Diamond reported that his students at UCLA tried to imagine how the guy who cut down the LAST tree [in Easter Island - JIH] in 1680 justified his actions. What did he say? Their candidate quotes: "Fear not. Our advancing technology will solve this problem." "This is MY tree, MY property! I can do what I want with it." "Your environmentalist concerns are exaggerated. We need more research." "Just have faith. God will provide."


One common one is that elites become insulated from the consequences of their actions. Thus the Mayan kings could ignore the soil erosion that was destroying their crops. Thus the American wealthy these days can enjoy private security, private education, and private retirement money. Thus America itself can act like a gated community in relation to the rest of the world, imagining that events in remote Somalia or Afghanistan have nothing to do with us. Isolation, Diamond declared, is never a solution to long-term problems.

[Tech] IBM's New Paradigms Using Computers

I think this is the first time in seven years I haven't gone to this conference. Fortunately, JD Lasica did...

Ian Smith, Intel researcher, argues for the future of mobile phones as a development platform:

Smith holds up his mobile phone: "Most people don't even think of this device as able to run new software. They don't think of that for mobile phones, and that's really really weird. … You can retire to Jamaica if you figure out (how to create a business model in that space)." Ringtones and screen backgrounds for your cellphone aren't really software applications. "I'd argue there's no piece of software that's driving this platform today."


An audience member asked about proprietary systems that allow only a limited amount of applications and experiments with content. Smith says he thinks we'll see a "hungry hippo in this space," perhaps the No. 2 or 3 vendor, which will make a business decision to open up the box and allow this thing to have lots and lots of applications on it and let 1,000 flowers bloom.

More info, and an interview with IBM Researcher Dan Russell:

[Privacy] NYTimes: A Pass on Privacy?

Sort of meanders around, but the basic point is about privacy vs convenience.

The E-ZPass system, as it is called on the East Coast, seemed like idle gadgetry when it was introduced a decade ago. Drivers who acquired the passes had to nose their way across traffic to reach specially equipped tollbooths -- and slow to a crawl while the machinery worked its magic. But now the sensors are sophisticated enough for you to whiz past them. As more lanes are dedicated to E-ZPass, lines lengthen for the saps [JIH - ie, people like me] paying cash.

E-ZPass is one of many innovations that give you the option of trading a bit of privacy for a load of convenience. You can get deep discounts by ordering your books from or joining a supermarket ''club.'' In return, you surrender information about your purchasing habits. Some people see a bait-and-switch here. Over time, the data you are required to hand over become more and more personal, and such handovers cease to be optional.


The potential applications multiply: what if state policemen in the United States rigged E-ZPass machines to calculate average highway speeds between toll plazas -- something easily doable with today's machinery -- and to automatically ticket cars that exceed 65 m.p.h.?


People waver on whether to trade privacy for convenience, but they're pretty untroubled about trading privacy for security. On occasion, E-ZPass records have been used to track down criminal suspects.

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

[HCI-Sec] SOUPS - Symposium on Usable Privacy and Security

Ping Yee has summaries of many of the sessions at SOUPS2005, recently held at Carnegie Mellon. Some highlights:


SFGate has an article about how online resumes can be used by identity thieves and other kinds of criminals. It seems like we're getting to the point where "creative" criminals are leveraging any kind of personal information for gain.

"We're hearing from a couple of people each week who are having their resume accessed by criminals," said Pam Dixon, executive director of the nonprofit San Diego research organization World Privacy Forum.

Often, the offer is for a so-called remailing job. In one such case reported by the nonprofit Privacy Rights Clearinghouse in San Diego, a woman found a job through the Web site

The woman, whose name was not disclosed, was to receive packages in the mail and resend them to an address in Belarus. She was promised a $2,000 monthly salary for the relatively cushy job. When she never got paid -- or even reimbursed for her shipping costs -- she started to investigate and found out that the company didn't exist.

Wednesday, July 06, 2005

[Cool] NYTimes: Creative thinking foils car thieves

The LoJack security system has hurt the business model of auto theft, forcing thieves to go into new lines of work -- and that should inspire us to think more creatively and systematically about how to reduce crime.

Sold for $695, the LoJack is a radio transmitter that is hidden on a vehicle and then activated if the car is stolen. The transmitter then silently summons the police -- and it is ruining the economics of auto theft.

Car theft, it turns out, is a volume business. And so if even a small percentage of vehicles have LoJack, the professional thief will eventually steal a car with one and get caught.

The thief's challenge is that it's impossible to determine which vehicle has a LoJack (there's no decal). So stealing any car becomes significantly more risky, and one academic study found that the introduction of LoJack in Boston reduced car theft there by 50 percent.

Two Yale professors, Barry Nalebuff and Ian Ayres, note that this means that the LoJack benefits everyone, not only those who install the system. Ayres and another scholar, Steven Levitt, found that every $1 invested in LoJack saves other car owners $10.

Nalebuff and Ayres note that other antitheft devices, such as the Club, a polelike device that locks the steering wheel, help protect that car, but only at the expense of the next vehicle.


An article in The Milken Institute Review proposes other ideas for reducing crime. The author, John Donohue of Yale, notes that both building prisons and adding police officers reduce crime rates. But he argues that we get much more bang for the buck by hiring police.

We have about 300,000 more prisoners than is cost-effective, Donohue calculates. In other words, every extra $100 spent on incarceration reduces crime losses by some smaller amount, say $50. But he also finds that we could add up to 500,000 police officers, and they would pay for themselves in crime savings.

Some social programs also pay for themselves in reduced crime. Donohue argues that a good bet is the Perry Preschool program (which involves weekly home visits). Its graduates end up 40 percent less likely to be arrested than those in a control group. The Job Corps for at-risk teenagers has also been shown to be very effective.

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

[Pittsburgh] NYTimes Op-Ed on Pittsburgh

Three posts in a row, with more to come. This is what happens when you're jet-lagged and have too much time at night.

Anyway, John Tierney has an op-ed in the New York Times about the recent Supreme Court decision on eminent domain, using Pittsburgh as an example of eminent domain gown awry. I haven't lived long enough here in Pittsburgh to visit all the places he mentions, but I've been in downtown enough times to notice that no one really lives there, and while it's not unpleasant, it's not vibrant either.

Pittsburgh has been the great pioneer in eminent domain ever since its leaders razed 80 buildings in the 1950's near the riverfront park downtown. They replaced a bustling business district with Gateway Center, an array of bland corporate towers surrounded by the sort of empty plazas that are now considered hopelessly retrograde by urban planners trying to create street life.

At the time, though, the towers and plazas seemed wonderfully modern. Viewed from across the river, the new skyline was a panoramic advertisement for the Pittsburgh Renaissance, which became a national model and inspired Pittsburgh's leaders to go on finding better uses for private land, especially land occupied by blacks.

Bulldozers razed the Lower Hill District, the black neighborhood next to downtown that was famous for its jazz scene (and now famous mostly as a memory in August Wilson's plays). The city built a domed arena that was supposed to be part of a cultural "acropolis," but the rest of the project died. Today, having belatedly realized that downtown would benefit from people living nearby, the city is trying to entice them back to the Hill by building homes there.

In the 1960's, the bulldozers moved into East Liberty, until then the busiest shopping district outside downtown. Some of the leading businessmen there wanted to upgrade the neighborhood, so hundreds of small businesses and thousands of people were moved to make room for upscale apartment buildings, parking lots, housing projects, roads and a pedestrian mall.

I was working there in a drugstore whose owners cursed the project, and at first I thought they were just behind the times. But their worst fears were confirmed. The shopping district was destroyed. The drugstore closed, along with the department stores, movie theaters, office buildings and most other businesses.

You'd think a fiasco like that would have humbled Pittsburgh's planners, but they just went on. They kicked out a small company to give H. J. Heinz more room. Mayor Tom Murphy has attracted national attention for his grand designs - and fights - to replace thriving small businesses downtown and on the North Side with more upscale tenants.

The city managed to clear out shops and an office building to make room for a new Lazarus department store, built with $50 million in public funds, but Lazarus did not live up to its name. It has shut down and left a vacant building. Meanwhile, the city's finances are in ruins, and businesses and residents have been fleeing the high taxes required to pay off decades of urban renewal projects and corporate subsidies.

Yet the mayor still yearns for more acquisitions. He welcomed the Supreme Court decision, telling The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that eminent domain "is a great equalizer when you're having a conversation with people." Well, that's one way to describe the power to take people's property.

But I think a future Supreme Court justice would have a different view of eminent domain after touring Pittsburgh's neighborhoods, especially those that escaped urban renewal: the old-fashioned business districts with crowded sidewalks and the newly gentrified neighborhoods with renovated homes and converted warehouses. The future justice would quickly see what sets the success stories apart from Gateway Center and East Liberty. No politicians ever seized those homes and businesses for a "better use."

[Cool] Science: 125 Questions on What Don't We Know?

A good overview of some frontiers of science.

[Research] IEEE Spectrum: The End of AT&T

At the time, Bell Labs managers generally regarded their company as a quasi-public institution contributing to the national welfare by enriching the country's science and technology. Seen in that light, AT&T's vigorous promotion of semiconductor technology made good sense—especially during a time the company was churning out profits and didn't feel any competition breathing down its neck.

But such generosity may have been one of the crucial forces behind its eventual downfall, as smaller, nimbler, and more legally unfettered firms seized the opportunity to develop and deploy innovations that would help undermine AT&T's dominance of U.S. telecommunications. "After its forced breakup in 1984," The Wall Street Journal's Rhoads wrote, "it was slowly crushed by technologies that drove down the price of a long-distance call, and more recently by wireless calling and Internet phoning."

At the same time Bell Labs and Western Electric were working on their many innovations, there was a resistance to rapid change rooted deep within the parent company's culture. According to Sheldon Hochheiser, former AT&T corporate historian, "a service ethos and the absence of the countervailing pressures of competition produced a corporate culture dominated to a great degree by an engineering mentality." That culture, he adds, "encouraged a value system where managers tended to take the time to get innovations right, as an engineer would define right."

Thus, AT&T engineers usually emphasized reliability and robustness of the network over the rapid introduction of advanced technologies. Often a decade or more passed before new features, such as long-distance direct dialing and touch-tone phones, would finally percolate throughout the system. And cellular telephony, first described in detail by Bell Labs engineers in 1947, never gained widespread commercial operation as part of the Bell System.

IN RETROSPECT, IT SEEMS UNREASONABLE to expect that a publicly held corporation can devote so much money to long-term research when facing the ruthless forces of the marketplace. AT&T added tremendous value to society, but as a condition of its regulated monopoly status, the company was not allowed to commercialize new technology that was not directly related to telephony.

Nor could AT&T charge customers for the technology except through its fees for telephone equipment and services. When it was a regulated monopoly, the company could build into those charges a pittance devoted to risky future-oriented research, such as setting up a solid-state physics department in the postwar years. But as ordinary corporations competing for customer dollars after the breakup and later spin-off, AT&T and Lucent could afford no such luxury.

We the customers are the ultimate losers. A vigorous, forward-looking society needs mechanisms like this to set aside funds for its long-term technological future. Letting governments serve the purpose is an imperfect alternative at best, fraught with the difficulty of making wise choices. The peer-review process widely used to select projects may be able to direct public funds to worthwhile research, but it usually favors established scientists and often overlooks bright young researchers—such as Chu—with bold but risky ideas.

AT&T, Bell Labs, and Western Electric effectively diverted a tiny fraction of our everyday expenses—and from all corners of the U.S. economy—into long-term R&D projects in an industrial setting that could, and often did, make major improvements in our lives. Today we are eating up the technological capital they built during those amazingly productive years. Are we doing anything to replace it?

[Cool] If Feynman interviewed at Microsoft

Funny, other people I'd like to see parodied:

  • RMS
  • Steve Jobs
  • Larry Ellison
  • Bill Gates

If Richard Feynman applied for a job at Microsoft

Interviewer: Now comes the part of the interview where we ask a question to test your creative thinking ability. Don't think too hard about it, just apply everyday common sense, and describe your reasoning process.

Here's the question: Why are manhole covers round?

Feynman: They're not. Some manhole covers are square. It's true that there are SOME round ones, but I've seen square ones, and rectangular ones.

Interviewer: But just considering the round ones, why are they round?

Feynman: If we are just considering the round ones, then they are round by definition. That statement is a tautology.

Interviewer: I mean, why are there round ones at all? Is there some particular value to having round ones?

Feynman: Yes. Round covers are used when the hole they are covering up is also round. It's simplest to cover a round hole with a round cover.

Interviewer: Can you think of a property of round covers that gives them an advantage over square ones?

Feynman: We have to look at what is under the cover to answer that question. The hole below the cover is round because a cylinder is the strongest shape against the compression of the earth around it. Also, the term "manhole" implies a passage big enough for a man, and a human being climbing down a ladder is roughly circular in cross-section. So a cylindrical pipe is the natural shape for manholes. The covers are simply the shape needed to cover up a cylinder.

Interviewer: Do you believe there is a safety issue? I mean, couldn't square covers fall into the hole and hurt someone?

Feynman: Not likely. Square covers are sometimes used on prefabricated vaults where the access passage is also square. The cover is larger than the passage, and sits on a ledge that supports it along the entire perimeter. The covers are usually made of solid metal and are very heavy. Let's assume a two-foot square opening and a ledge width of 1-1/2 inches. In order to get it to fall in, you would have to lift one side of the cover, then rotate it 30 degrees so that the cover would clear the ledge, and then tilt the cover up nearly 45 degrees from horizontal before the center of gravity would shift enough for it to fall in. Yes, it's possible, but very unlikely. The people authorized to open manhole covers could easily be trained to do it safely. Applying common engineering sense, the shape of a manhole cover is entirely determined by the shape of the opening it is intended to cover.

Interviewer (troubled): Excuse me a moment; I have to discuss something with my management team. (Leaves room.)

(Interviewer returns after 10 minutes)

Interviewer: We are going to recommend you for immediate hiring into the marketing department.

Keith Michaels

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

[Privacy] GPS for your own good

Last year, a UK insurance company tested a "pay as you drive" insurance system that uses a GPS receiver package to track exactly what distance a car is driven and set each month's premium accordingly. It's a sensible idea: If you leave your car in the garage for a month, there's no reason why you should be charged the same as someone who drove 500 miles over the same period. Even better, because the instruments are transmitting (not just recording), if your car is stolen it can easily be tracked and the miscreants apprehended.

So what?

The system has some interesting potential side effects. For one thing, the police (or an estranged spouse) could easily subpoena your "travel records" for use in an investigation. The insurance company could also start charging based on where your car spends time: Long periods in high-crime neighborhoods would affect your premium accordingly. Even more provocative, companies could begin collecting data on their customers' driving habits: when and how much they speed, how often they change lanes, their tendency to accelerate rapidly or slam on the brakes, and other features of their driving performance that could (potentially) correlate with accident data.

Really good analytics might even indicate when someone is driving in an impaired state (such as he just saw his latest premium notice and is in shock). But the most intriguing and perhaps lifesaving possibility comes when you hook the insurance company's server to a SPAM phone dialer and arrange for a deep, authoritative, machine-generated voice to call and remonstrate with customers who are speeding or otherwise driving recklessly. (Of course, you'll be able to cut the irony with a knife if answering the phone distracts you so much that…you get the idea.)

Monday, June 13, 2005

[Java] Tim Bray on Java Generics, Arrays, and Comparables

Tim Bray bangs his head against the wall when using Java generics. I just turned off the compiler warnings in Eclipse. I don't care how powerful generics are, the syntax is ugly and the effects are unpredictable.

Anyhow, a Comparable isn’t a Comparable any more, it’s a Comparable, and an Integer isn’t a Comparable any more, it’s a Comparable, and you’re going to get unsafe-comparison whines every time you try to compile anything (and worse, your API’s customers will too).

Then when you try to paramaterize it all with generics you’ll discover that Comparable is kind of surprising, and then you’ll discover there are all sorts of problems with arrays of parameterized types. Anyhow, after pursuing a maze of twisty little Java-Generics passages around the Internet (I read Gilad’s explanation of the unsafeness of generic arrays seven or eight times, even), I stumbled on the key resources to explain this stuff: Peter Williams of Sussex University on Generic arrays, and this excerpt from Java in a Nutshell by David Flanagan, which I totally have to buy. To summarize, the key incantations are:

public interface Page<K extends Comparable<K>>
public class LocalPage<K extends Comparable<K>> implements Page<K>
Pair<K>[] p = (Pair<K>[]) new Pair[size];

On that last one, you have to be prepared to ignore the unchecked-cast warning (and it would be good to read Gilad’s piece so you understand why it happens).

ACM Ubiquity: Immersed in the Future: Randy Pausch on the Future of Education

And so, when people say, well, how do you feel having a career doing all this frivolity, I hasten to point out that the number of computer science majors in America last year declined by 23 percent. The direct implications to American productivity, quality of life and educated citizenry and national defense could not be more stark. Not producing enough computer scientists is a mission-critical way to fail for a modern society, and I'm the only guy in town that I know of with a potential solution to that problem. Yet I'm the one being called frivolous?

I know Randy's been criticized for working on research considered "non-serious", but he's got an important point here. It sort of reminds me of when people start out saying, "if only people were better, then we could...". Well, the problem is that millenia of recorded human history strongly suggest that people aren't better, and it's a fact we have to deal with. And if being entertaining improves retention, learning, and quality of life, why does it have to be an either-or choice?

I like this quote:

It's not an accident that the highest rates of academic dishonesty occur in introductory programming courses, and that's not just because it's mechanically easy to copy code; the reason is that we put people into the most frustrating situation in the world...

I imagine, if you wanted people to cheat the most in freshman composition, you would say, you have to write a five-page paper, and you can't use any tools other than some very crude editing system that doesn't do spelling correction or anything else. You submit your five-page paper, and if there's any spelling or grammatical errors in it, you get told there's a problem in your paper somewhere on page two. And if you can beat your way all the way through that, then you get to submit your five-page paper, and the professor will read it and grade it on its merits. Oh, and by the way, this course will be taught in Sanskrit. I mean, literally, that's what we do to people in intro programming. And then we have a community of people who, I think it's a fair assessment, that if you measured the social skills across the disciplines, computer scientists, shall I be generous and say, won't end up in the top half. And we wonder why a lot of people never take their first programming course. And if they do, we don't get a lot of them to go on to a second one.

[Privacy] NYTimes: Take My Privacy, Please!

Ted Koppel correctly notes that there are many privacy threats greater than the PATRIOT Act. One problem, however, is that just because the PATRIOT act is a lesser concern, does not mean that it is not an important concern.

Part of its mission statement, as found on the OnStar Web site, is the creation of "safety, security and peace of mind for drivers and passengers with thoughtful wireless services that are always there, always ready."

As an aside, I was in the Barnes and Nobles last week, and couldn't help but skim through the Revenge of the Sith book. The part I was most interested, though, was how Palpatine actually convinced the Senate to go along with his scheme of creating the Empire, framing it in terms of peace, justice, and security. Supposedly, Lucas based this portion on Richard Nixon and on Hitler taking over the Reichstag.

There's something about these themes of "peace, justice, and security" that just targets our reptile brains, short-circuiting our thinking brains and makes it impossible to think through these issues rationally.

And here's a good quote from Tivo:

And how about all the information collected by popular devices like TiVo, the digital video recorder that enables you to watch and store an entire season's worth of favorite programs at your own convenience? ... No one is suggesting that TiVo tracks what each subscriber records and replays. But could they, if they needed to? That's unclear, although TiVo does have a privacy policy. "Your privacy," it says in part, "is very important to us. Due to factors beyond our control, however, we cannot fully ensure that your user information will not be disclosed to third parties."

Thursday, June 09, 2005

[Location] CNN: Google tinkerers make data come alive

Google charts each point on its maps by latitude and longitude -- that's how Google can produce driving directions to practically anywhere in the nation. Seasoned developers have figured out how to match these points with locations from outside databases that can contain vast amounts of information -- anything from police blotters to real estate listings.

Thanks to Adrian Holovaty, 24, who overlayed Chicago Police Department crime statistics on a Google map, house-hunters in the Albany Park neighborhood can pinpoint all the sexual assaults in the district between May 19 and April 19 on a single map. With each crime marked by a virtual pushpin, Chicagoans can quickly learn what dangerous train stations, pool rooms and alleys to avoid.


Visitors to, which combines Google Maps with data on convicted sex offenders, can call up maps of their communities and click on the pushpins to see the name, last known address and mug shot of each offender.

Drivers searching for their area's cheapest gas can go to, which blends Google Maps with data from's database of prices at individual gas stations.

Home buyers can pinpoint the locations of houses in their price range at And renters can turn to, which melds the technologies of Craigslist and Google, to spot available housing in 29 cities including San Francisco, New York, Los Angeles and Chicago.

Monday, June 06, 2005


Microsoft is finding customers for its cell phone location server

Junk remover 1-800-Got-Junk is among the first to use a specialized Microsoft server to incorporate real-time location information into maps and driving directions generated by Microsoft MapPoint Web Service, the companies announced on Monday.


The Microsoft offering lets 1-800-Got-Junk pack capabilities into cell phones for its drivers, such as pushing a single cell phone button to adjust a delivery route on the fly should they get lost...

The deal is a sign that the market for location-based services is starting to catch on among businesses. However, the technology has not yet caught on among the general public. While Microsoft has had some success with selling location information--it has more than 500 corporate customers generating 20 million maps and directions a day--Seinfeld conceded that it has been difficult getting consumers interested.

Thursday, June 02, 2005

[HCI-Sec] Pet Photos for Bank of America

Now here's an interesting idea. I wonder what kinds of attacks scammers will try on this...

NEW YORK (CNN/Money) - What could make you feel more at ease than a picture of your dog, Scruffy?

Bank of America (Research) will require Internet clients to register their computers and assign a digital image, such as a photo of a pet, to their accounts in an effort to cut down on fraud, the bank announced.

The free service, called SiteKey, lets clients pick an image, write a brief phrase and select three challenge questions.

The image will appear on the site every time a customer has to enter a password.

Thursday, May 26, 2005

[Emergency Response] High-tech Tool Improves Incident Planning and Response for Emergency Management Officials

The Geographic Tool for Visualization and Collaboration includes high-resolution imagery available at 1-meter resolution for all of Georgia, and even higher resolution for certain areas. The maps scale with each view and maintain all the markings made on them electronically.

[Social] Academic turns city into a social experiment

We need something like this for American politics. Also reminds me of a question I've been asking for a long time, why are politicians almost always lawyers? Why don't we have more educators, more scientists, more engineers, more artists?

People were desperate for a change, for a moral leader of some sort. The eccentric Mockus, who communicates through symbols, humor, and metaphors, filled the role. When many hated the disordered and disorderly city of Bogotá, he wore a Superman costume and acted as a superhero called "Supercitizen." People laughed at Mockus' antics, but the laughter began to break the ice of their extreme skepticism.


"Our reading had focused on the standard material incentive-based systems for reducing corruption. He focused on changing hearts and minds - not through preaching but through artistically creative strategies that employed the power of individual and community disapproval. He also spoke openly, with a lovely partial self-mockery, of his own failings, not suggesting that he was more moral than anyone else. His presentation made it clear that the most effective campaigns combine material incentives with normative change and participatory stakeholding. He is a most engaging, almost pixieish math professor, not a stuffy 'mayor' at all. The students were enchanted, as was I."


When there was a water shortage, Mockus appeared on TV programs taking a shower and turning off the water as he soaped, asking his fellow citizens to do the same. In just two months people were using 14 percent less water, a savings that increased when people realized how much money they were also saving because of economic incentives approved by Mockus; water use is now 40 percent less than before the shortage.

[JIH - This next part is simply amazing... What is it about American politics that just makes us so cynical?]

He also asked people to pay 10 percent extra in voluntary taxes. To the surprise of many, 63,000 people voluntarily paid the extra taxes. A dramatic indicator of the shift in the attitude of "Bogotanos" during Mockus' tenure is that, in 2002, the city collected more than three times the revenues it had garnered in 1990.


Another innovative idea was to use mimes to improve both traffic and citizens' behavior. Initially 20 professional mimes shadowed pedestrians who didn't follow crossing rules: A pedestrian running across the road would be tracked by a mime who mocked his every move. Mimes also poked fun at reckless drivers. The program was so popular that another 400 people were trained as mimes.

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

[Privacy] NYTimes: Personal Data for the Taking

[A]ll it takes to obtain reams of personal data is Internet access, a few dollars and some spare time.

Working with a strict requirement to use only legal, public sources of information, groups of three to four students set out to vacuum up not just tidbits on citizens of Baltimore, but whole databases: death records, property tax information, campaign donations, occupational license registries. They then cleaned and linked the databases they had collected, making it possible to enter a single name and generate multiple layers of information on individuals. Each group could spend no more than $50.


The Johns Hopkins project was conceived by Aviel D. Rubin, a professor of computer science and the technical director of the Information Security Institute at the university. He has used his graduate courses before to expose weaknesses in electronic voting technology and other aspects of a society that is increasingly dependent on - and at the mercy of - digital technology. "My expectations were that they would be able to find a lot of information, and in fact they did," he said.


In some instances, students visited local government offices and filed Freedom of Information Act requests for the data - or simply "asked nicely" - sometimes receiving whole databases on a compact disc. In other cases, they wrote special computer scripts, which they used to pick up whole databases from online sources like Maryland's registry of occupational licenses (barbers, architects, plumbers) or from free commercial address databases like Verizon's SuperPages, an online yellow pages directory.


"We feel that open access to public records is key to a free society," said Jason Brandeis, the A.C.L.U. lawyer handling the suit, which seeks to bar Alaska from disseminating contact information for licensed nurses. "But a balance needs to be struck between the public interest in open access to government information, and the need to protect individual privacy."

Whether such a balance can ever be achieved when so much information is already available is an open question. And some people are troubled by recent trends against access.

"I have no problem with an individual who faces unusual threats from publication of her identity or identifying details being able under the law to seek special exception from openness," said Rebecca Daugherty, the director of the Freedom of Information Service Center for the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press in Virginia. "But the secrecy should be the exception not the rule."

Several Johns Hopkins students came to a similar conclusion. Despite their surprise at the number of records they could amass and combine, many still felt that the benefits of openness outweighed the risks.

"If some citizen is concerned about dead people remaining registered to vote, he can simply obtain the database of deaths and the voter registration database and cross-correlate," said 21-year-old Joshua Mason, whose group discovered 1,500 dead people listed as active registered voters. Fifty of those dead people somehow voted in the last election.

"The problem is, we don't know what we want," Dr. Rubin said, referring to the competing social interests in openness and privacy.

"It is clear that there are strong negative consequences to being able to collect and correlate all this information on people," he said, "but it is also possible that the consequences to personal freedom would be worse if it were outlawed."

Monday, May 16, 2005

[HCI-Sec] Usable Security Blog

Ping Yee has set up a new blog on usable security.

[HCI] Thinker: Cognitive Science Resource

Cool demos and (brief) descriptions of some cognitive science principles.

This resource is intended to assist students with their mastery and appreciation for the field of cognitive psychology.

Thinker makes extensive use of Flash animations.

[HCI] [Web] NYTimes on Next Generation of Web Apps

Interactions with many Web sites boil down to modern and extremely fast versions of an old and often slow process. If you go to a government office or a bank, for example, you fill out a form, hand it to the clerk or teller and eventually get something back. That is essentially the way most Web sites now work. You enter data on a Web page. You send that information to a distant computer, by pressing "Enter" or "Continue" or clicking a link. Eventually the computer sends something back. The page it sends is usually as static as a form you receive from a clerk. If you want to see something more - the next group of search results, other flights on different dates - you have to send another request and wait for another response.


At, pick the satellite view of any point in America. Then click on the map, and pan it east or west or use the right or left arrow keys for the same effect. With most mapping programs, when you reach the edge of the area initially displayed, you can't go any further without requesting and waiting for more data. With Google's map, you can head east or west - and keep going, all the way around the world, with the ability to zoom in at any point. The detail varies by country, but it is as if Google sent your computer a map of the globe's entire surface as soon as you logged on to its site.

Of course that's not what really happened. Instead, the system was applying two basic tricks to make it seem that you had an infinite map in your machine. One was asynchronous updating - that is, instead of waiting for you to request more data, it was preloading what it thought you might want next, at the edges of the current map. The other was very selective updating, altering only the parts of the display that had actually changed rather than bothering to "refresh" the whole page.


In general, he and others stressed that interacting with "rich" Web sites could become more and more like working at your own computer. For instance, Gmail, the Google e-mail service, now allows more sophisticated on-screen editing of its messages, and commerce sites can recalculate order totals and shipping costs instantly, as if they were spreadsheets. The key, again, is that pages are updated automatically, and only in the specific parts that have changed.

[Ubicomp] [Location] Rosum Indoor Location Tracking via TV Signals

Would be nice if they had some data about how well their service works. Would also be nice to see what hardware requirements there are, battery life tradeoffs, etc.

Rosum's TV Advantage
In contrast, television signals were designed for indoor reception. Rosum TV-GPS uses commercial broadcast TV signals to provide reliable positioning indoors and in urban environments. By combining TV signals with GPS signals, Rosum can provide seamless indoor/outdoor coverage across all environments.

Friday, May 13, 2005

[Cool] Steve Jobs on Design,1284,67483-2,00.html?tw=wn_story_page_next1

In a 1996 interview, Steve said, "Design is a funny word. Some people think design means how it looks. But, of course, if you dig deeper, it's really how it works. To design something really well, you have to 'get it.' You have to really grok what it's all about." (A geek's word, to grok is a coinage of science-fiction writer R.A. Heinlein, meaning to understand something thoroughly by having empathy with it.)

Steve went on, "It takes a passionate commitment to really thoroughly understand something.... Most people don't take the time to do that." He then proceeded to tell a story that both sheds light on his private life and gives some insight into the decision-making process that often turns life into a hell for people who work with him. Making the point that design isn't just an issue for "fancy new gadgets," he described how his whole family became involved in, of all things, the selection of a new washing machine and dryer. This is a little hard to picture: The billionaire Jobs family didn't have very good machines. Selecting new ones became a project for the whole family. The big decision came down to whether to purchase a European machine or an American-made one. The European machine, according to Steve, does a much better job, uses about one-quarter as much water, and treats the clothes more gently so that they last longer. But the American machines take about half as long to wash the clothes.

"We spent some time in our family talking about what's the trade-off we want to make. We spent about two weeks talking about this. Every night at the dinner table" -- imagine dinner-table conversation about washing machines every night! -- "we'd get around to that old washer-dryer discussion. And the talk was about design." In the end, they opted for European machines, which Steve described as "too expensive, but that's just because nobody buys them in this country."

Monday, May 09, 2005

[Cool] Apple Macintosh history has some personal histories of the Apple Macintosh on it. My two favorites so far:

"I've got good news for you", [Steve Jobs] told me. "You're working on the Mac team now. Come with me and I'll take you over to your new desk."

"Hey, that's great", I [Andy Hertzfeld] responded. "I just need a day or two to finish up what I'm doing here, and I can start on the Mac on Monday."

"What are you working on? What's more important than working on the Macintosh?"

"Well, I've just started a new OS for the Apple II, DOS 4.0, and I want to get things in good enough shape so someone else could take it over."

"No, you're just wasting your time with that! Who cares about the Apple II? The Apple II will be dead in a few years. Your OS will be obsolete before it's finished. The Macintosh is the future of Apple, and you're going to start on it now!".

With that, he walked over to my desk, found the power cord to my Apple II, and gave it a sharp tug, pulling it out of the socket, causing my machine to lose power and the code I was working on to vanish. He unplugged my monitor and put it on top of the computer, and then picked both of them up and started walking away. "Come with me. I'm going to take you to your new desk."


Steve plopped my system down on a desk in an office near the back of the building and said, "Here's your new desk. Welcome to the Mac team!", before darting off.


I was surprised to see that [my desk] was still full of someone else's stuff. In fact, the bottom drawer had all kinds of unusual stuff, including various kinds of model airplanes, and some photography equipment. I later found out that Steve had assigned me to Jef Raskin's old desk, which he hadn't had time to move out of yet.

Burrell had a great sense of humor, and he was capable of performing devastating impersonations of everybody else on the Mac team, especially the authority figures.

Whatever idea that you came up with, Jef Raskin had a tendency to claim that he invented it at some earlier point. That trait was the basis of Burrell's impersonation of Jef.

Jef had a slight stammer, which Burrell nailed perfectly. Burrell began by folding his fingers together like Jef and then exclaiming in a soft, Jef-like voice, "Why, why, why, I invented the Macintosh!"

Then Burrell would shift to his radio announcer voice, playing the part of an imaginary interviewer. "No, I thought that Burrell invented the Macintosh", the interviewer would object.

He'd shift back to his Jef voice for the punch line.

"Why, why, why, I invented Burrell!"

Thursday, May 05, 2005

[Off-Topic] Prime Minister's Questions

I was trying to explain the differences between US and UK governments to someone not very familiar with either of them. I was describing the Prime Minister's Question Time, and expressing how much I wished that they had the same system here in the United States so that our Presidents would have to justify more of their decisions in public, have to convince a potentially hostile audience of their rationale, and overall be more accountable for their actions.

And then my friend asks, well, why don't they just start it here? Ahh, if only it were that easy...

Prime Minister's Question Time (often referred to as PMQs) is an opportunity for MPs from all parties to question the PM on any subject.

It lasts for about 30 minutes and usually focusses on the key issues of the day.

The PM answers questions every week that Parliament is in session - so for about two hours per month. This is twice as long as his chief cabinet colleages or their junior ministers.

[Research] NYTimes on Science Education

Thomas Friedman has been sort of hit or miss for the past few years, but this one is definitely on target.

I just interviewed Craig Barrett, the chief executive of Intel, which has invested millions of dollars in trying to improve the way science is taught in U.S. schools. (The Wall Street Journal noted yesterday that China is graduating four times the number of engineers as the U.S.; Japan, with less than half our population, graduates double the number.)

In today's flat world, Mr. Barrett said, Intel can be a totally successful company without ever hiring another American. That is not its desire or intention, he said, but the fact is that it can now hire the best brain talent "wherever it resides."

If you look at where Intel is making its new engineering investments today, he said, it is in China, India, Russia, Poland and, to a lesser extent, Malaysia and Israel. While cutting-edge talent is still being grown in America, he added, it's not enough for Intel's needs, and not enough is being done in U.S. public schools - not just to leave no child behind, but to make sure that the best students and teachers are nurtured and rewarded.

Look at the attention Congress has focused on steroids in Major League Baseball, Mr. Barrett mused. And then look at the attention it has focused on science education in minor-league American schools.

Wednesday, May 04, 2005

[Cool] SATIN and DENIM part of the Purdue Benchmark Suite


Just found out that both DENIM and SATIN, software my former research group (GUIR) and I worked on, are both part of this Purdue Benchmark Suite, a large collection of Java software, primarily used for compiler testing. Sort of neat, never expected that to happen.

Tuesday, May 03, 2005

[Just Plain Weird] NYTimes: Metropolitan Diary

As a peripatetic city walker and straphanger, I thought I had seen the full range of postings. But last weekend, at the Columbus Circle entrance to Central Park, a large, well-dressed man sat at the base of the imposing Maine monument with a sign saying: "Ninjas killed my family. Need money for kung fu lessons."

[Just Plain Weird] Wired: Augmenting the Animal Kingdom,1282,67349,00.html

[James] Auger envisions animals, birds, reptiles and even fish becoming appreciative techno-geeks, using specially engineered gadgets to help them overcome their evolutionary shortcomings, promote their chances of survival or just simply lead easier and more comfortable lives.

On tap for the future: Rodents zooming around with night-vision survival goggles, squirrels hoarding nuts using GPS locators and fish armed with metal detectors to avoid the angler's hook.


Future technologies, though, could yield fruit. For example, some theorists have floated a Matrix-like scenario that would use direct stimulation of the brain to fool livestock about the reality of their living conditions.

"To offset the cruelty of factory-farming, routine implants of smart microchips in the pleasure centers may be feasible," says David Pearce, associate editor of the Journal of Evolution and Technology. "Since there is no physiological tolerance to pure pleasure, factory-farmed animals could lead a lifetime of pure bliss instead of misery. Unnatural? Yes, but so is factory farming. Immoral? No, certainly not compared to the terrible suffering we inflict on factory-farmed animals today."

Sunday, May 01, 2005

[Research] FastCompany: Change or Die

They started with the crisis in health care, an industry that consumes an astonishing $1.8 trillion a year in the United States alone, or 15% of gross domestic product. A dream team of experts took the stage, and you might have expected them to proclaim that breathtaking advances in science and technology -- mapping the human genome and all that -- held the long-awaited answers. That's not what they said. They said that the root cause of the health crisis hasn't changed for decades, and the medical establishment still couldn't figure out what to do about it.


"A relatively small percentage of the population consumes the vast majority of the health-care budget for diseases that are very well known and by and large behavioral." That is, they're sick because of how they choose to live their lives, not because of environmental or genetic factors beyond their control. Continued Levey: "Even as far back as when I was in medical school" -- he enrolled at Harvard in 1955 -- "many articles demonstrated that 80% of the health-care budget was consumed by five behavioral issues." Levey didn't bother to name them, but you don't need an MD to guess what he was talking about: too much smoking, drinking, eating, and stress, and not enough exercise.


About 600,000 people have bypasses every year in the United States, and 1.3 million heart patients have angioplasties -- all at a total cost of around $30 billion. The procedures temporarily relieve chest pains but rarely prevent heart attacks or prolong lives. Around half of the time, the bypass grafts clog up in a few years; the angioplasties, in a few months... But many patients could avoid the return of pain and the need to repeat the surgery -- not to mention arrest the course of their disease before it kills them -- by switching to healthier lifestyles. Yet very few do. "If you look at people after coronary-artery bypass grafting two years later, 90% of them have not changed their lifestyle"


The conventional wisdom says that crisis is a powerful motivator for change. But severe heart disease is among the most serious of personal crises, and it doesn't motivate -- at least not nearly enough. Nor does giving people accurate analyses and factual information about their situations. What works? Why, in general, is change so incredibly difficult for people? What is it about how our brains are wired that resists change so tenaciously? Why do we fight even what we know to be in our own vital interests?

Kotter has hit on a crucial insight. "Behavior change happens mostly by speaking to people's feelings," he says. "This is true even in organizations that are very focused on analysis and quantitative measurement, even among people who think of themselves as smart in an MBA sense. In highly successful change efforts, people find ways to help others see the problems or solutions in ways that influence emotions, not just thought."


"We also need to bring in the psychological, emotional, and spiritual dimensions that are so often ignored." Ornish published studies in leading peer-reviewed scientific journals, showing that his holistic program, focused around a vegetarian diet with less than 10% of the calories from fat, can actually reverse heart disease without surgery or drugs. Still, the medical establishment remained skeptical that people could sustain the lifestyle changes. In 1993, Ornish persuaded Mutual of Omaha to pay for a trial. Researchers took 333 patients with severely clogged arteries. They helped them quit smoking and go on Ornish's diet. The patients attended twice-weekly group support sessions led by a psychologist and took instruction in meditation, relaxation, yoga, and aerobic exercise. The program lasted for only a year. But after three years, the study found, 77% of the patients had stuck with their lifestyle changes -- and safely avoided the bypass or angioplasty surgeries that they were eligible for under their insurance coverage. And Mutual of Omaha saved around $30,000 per patient.

[JIH - Reminds me of my belief that insurance companies will be a primary lead in creating a ubicomp world...]

So instead of trying to motivate them with the "fear of dying," Ornish reframes the issue. He inspires a new vision of the "joy of living" -- convincing them they can feel better, not just live longer. That means enjoying the things that make daily life pleasurable, like making love or even taking long walks without the pain caused by their disease. "Joy is a more powerful motivator than fear," he says.

[JIH - Interesting, they successfully reframed the problem from an "aspirin" to a "vitamin" problem, and had people stick to the vitamin. ]

Lakoff says: "Concepts are not things that can be changed just by someone telling us a fact. We may be presented with facts, but for us to make sense of them, they have to fit what is already in the synapses of the brain. Otherwise, facts go in and then they go right back out. They are not heard, or they are not accepted as facts, or they mystify us: Why would anyone have said that? Then we label the fact as irrational, crazy, or stupid." Lakoff says that's one reason why political conservatives and liberals each think that the other side is nuts. They don't understand each other because their brains are working within different frames.


Reframing alone isn't enough, of course. That's where Dr. Ornish's other astonishing insight comes in. Paradoxically, he found that radical, sweeping, comprehensive changes are often easier for people than small, incremental ones. For example, he says that people who make moderate changes in their diets get the worst of both worlds: They feel deprived and hungry because they aren't eating everything they want, but they aren't making big enough changes to quickly see an improvement in how they feel, or in measurements such as weight, blood pressure, and cholesterol. But the heart patients who went on Ornish's tough, radical program saw quick, dramatic results, reporting a 91% decrease in frequency of chest pain in the first month. "These rapid improvements are a powerful motivator," he says. "When people who have had so much chest pain that they can't work, or make love, or even walk across the street without intense suffering find that they are able to do all of those things without pain in only a few weeks, then they often say, 'These are choices worth making.' "