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.' "