The laws of UX

Jon Yablonski has created a site that crisply illustrates the "Laws of UX" -- some well-known precepts of how people interact with on-screen information. One of my favorite laws, which you see in action all the time in the real world, is the "Serial Position Effect". As Yablonski describes it ...
The serial position effect, a term coined by Herman Ebbinghaus, describes how the position of an item in a sequence affects recall accuracy. The two concepts involved, the primacy effect and the recency effect, explains how items presented at the beginning of a sequence and the end of a sequence are recalled with greater accuracy than items in the middle of a list. Manipulation of the serial position effect to create better user experiences is reflected in many popular designs by successful companies like Apple, Electronic Arts, and Nike.
(Via Sarah Drasner) Read the rest

Lost words of English that we should probably reclaim

Buzzfeed has curated a list of old words that we should revive, because man, they seem to really fit modern life. Like "fudgel" -- "pretending to work while actually doing nothing at all." Or "ultracrepidarian": "Someone who gives opinions beyond their level of expertise". They're all taken from The Horologicon, a wonderful book by the writer and word-lover Mark Forsyth. My favorite is "uhtceare", which means "lying awake in bed before dawn and worrying about the day ahead". Forsyth's passage in The Horologicon about "uhtceare" is informative:
Uht (pronounced oot) is the restless hour before the dawn, when Aurora herself is loitering somewhere below the eastern horizon, rosying up her fingers and getting ready for the day. But for now, it is dark. And in the antelucan hush you should be happily slumbering and dreaming of pretty things. If you are not, if you are lying there with your eyes wide open glaring at the ceiling, you are probably suffering from a severe case of uhtceare. There's an old saying that the darkest hour comes just before the dawn. However, that's utter tosh. If you get out of bed and peek through the window, you will see a pale glow in the east. But don't, whatever you do, actually get out of bed. It's probably chilly and you'll never get your posture in bed (technically called your decubitus) quite right again. You'll just have to lie there and try not think about how horrid it all is.
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Octopus attacks and kills a dolphin from within, while being eaten

A dolphin ate an octopus, but the octopus got its revenge -- it attacked the dolphin's internal organs, killing it in turn. From National Geographic:
Stephens says that the 4.6-pound cephalopod appeared to have grabbed onto Gilligan's larynx with a tentacle, preventing it from reconnecting to the dolphin's breathing apparatus and effectively suffocating him to death. "That octopus might have been, in theory, dead, but the sucker was still functional," Stephens says, adding that while nobody wins in a situation like this, "the octopus gets a bit of a last hurrah."
There's a study in Marine Mammal Science detailing the entire grisly affair. For the fifteen years I've been blogging, I have really had only one consistent message: Do not mess with octopuses, people. They will cut you. They will cut you while they are inside you. (Image from Marine Mammal Science) Read the rest

Artist photoshops away the tattoos of ex-gang members

Steven Burton embarked on an amazing project -- taking photos of ex-gang members in LA and then meticulously photoshopping away their extensive tattoos. It took about 400 hours of 'shopping.

When Burton showed the results to the photograph subjects, they were mesmerized by the spectacle of themselves looking so different -- a sort of parallel universe of possibility, a digitally-revealed road-not-taken. Some laughed; some wept.

There's a good story about Burton's project here at DIY Photography, with several examples of the pics, and Burton has released Skin Deep, a book of all the before-and-after images. As the publisher describes it ...

For these men and women, the aftermath of gang life is not only carried within–it is also scrawled across their faces and bodies. Skin Deep uniquely highlights the impact tattoos have on the way a person is perceived by showing what each participant might look like without them. Utilizing before and, thanks to the advantages of Photoshop, after photographs, these men and women got a chance to see what they’d look like without the inked visual armor. After the bare images were presented to each, they were asked to talk about themselves and their families, what tattoos represent to them, and their aspirations for the future. Seeing themselves without tattoos–many for the first time in decades–naturally brought about a wide range of emotions, recollections, hopes, and dreams, with responses such as: “I am shocked. I don’t know what to say about this. I am going to give this to my mom, she is going to be so happy.” “I think this guy in the pictures would judge the one with tattoos right off the top.” “That’s crazy, that looks real crazy.
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Mechanical Turkers paid $1 are better at predicting recidivism than secret, private-sector algorithms

It looks like everyday folks -- recruited on Mechanical Turk, no less -- are better at predicting recidivism than the elite, secretive private-sector algorithms used by courts. The software, COMPAS, has passed judgment on 1 million offenders since it was introduced in 1998. It uses 137 bits of data about offenders to predict their chance of recidivism, but its accuracy is dodgy: A Pro Publica investigation of its output suggests it isn't much better than coin toss, and also that it's racist, being nearly twice as likely to suggest blacks will reoffend than whites with comparable criminal records. It would be nice to examine the algorithm to see how it's weighing the variables, but no dice: Northpointe, the firm that runs COMPAS, says it's a proprietary secret. But now there's yet more evidence that COMPAS's algorithmic precision isn't great. Two Dartmouth college researchers did a shoot-out. They took 1,000 defendants and examined COMPAS' predictions for recidivism. Then they paid 400 people on Mechanical Turk to look at the defendants' files and make their own prediction. The researchers gave the turks only seven pieces of data about each defendant, none of which was race. The researchers also had the real-life data on whether the defendants really had, in fact, reoffended -- so they could see how well COMPAS stacked up against random folks on Amazon Turk. The result? The randos did better than the software. The turks' predictions were right 67% of the time; the software, 65%. As Wired reports:
"There was essentially no difference between people responding to an online survey for a buck and this commercial software being used in the courts," says Farid, who teaches computer science at Dartmouth.
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MS Paint, redone in Javascript

Isaiah Odhner has recreated MS Paint in javascript. JS Paint! You can try it out here -- and the code's on his Github account. This is too much fun. As he writes:
Ah yes, good old paint. Not the one with the ribbons or the new skeuomorphic one with the interface that can take up nearly half the screen. And sorry, not the even newer Paint 3D. Windows 95, 98, and XP were the golden years of paint. You had a tool box and a color box, a foreground color and a background color, and that was all you needed. Things were simple. But we want to undo more than three actions. We want to edit transparent images. We can't just keep using the old paint. So that's why I'm making JS Paint. I want to bring good old paint into the modern era.
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The war over apostrophes in Kazakhstan's new alphabet

There's a fascinating linguistic fight brewing in Kazakhstan, due to the president's decision to adopt a new alphabet for writing their language, Kazakh.

The problem? It's got too many apostrophes!

For decades, Kazakhs have used the Cyrillic alphabet, which was imposed on them by the USSR back in the 30s. Now that Kazakhstan has started moving away from Russia -- including making Kazakh more central in education and public life -- the president decided he wanted to adopt a new alphabet, too. He wanted it based on the Latin one.

But! Kazakh has many unique sounds that can't be easily denoted using a Latin-style alphabet.

Kazakhstan's neighbors solved that problem by following the example of Turkey, where they use umlauts and phonetic symbols. But Kazkhstan's president didn't want that -- and instead has pushed for the use of tons of apostrophes instead.

Kazakhstan's linguists intellectuals think this is nuts, as the New York Times reports:

The Republic of Kazakhstan, for example, will be written in Kazakh as Qazaqstan Respy’bli’kasy. Others complained the use of apostrophes will make it impossible to do Google searches for many Kazakh words or to create hashtags on Twitter. “Nobody knows where he got this terrible idea from,” said Timur Kocaoglu, a professor of international relations and Turkish studies at Michigan State, who visited Kazakhstan last year. “Kazakh intellectuals are all laughing and asking: How can you read anything written like this?” The proposed script, he said, “makes your eyes hurt.” [snip] Under this new system, the Kazakh word for cherry will be written as s’i’i’e, and pronounced she-ee-ye.
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How to "code like a weaver"

People often stumble while trying to find metaphors that explain what, precisely, writing computer code is like. In "Code Like a Weaver", the software developer Kristina Taylor notes that she got all her conceptual framework from her mom, who exposed her to baking, laundry, and weaving. Baking taught her fractions and math; hanging the laundry taught a concept uncannily like the "software stack"; and weaving is about as algorithmic as things get. As Taylor notes, the 19th-century Jacquard Loom -- which was fed weaving patterns via punch-cards -- set the stage for the idea of feeding instructions into obedient machines, and watching abstracted patterns rendered onto the world. Lately, Taylor's been using her personal loom to weave Swedish lace, and she prototypes her patterns by taking the structure of Swedish lace and emulating it using cell formulas in Google Spreadsheets:

My loom is a fairly simple 4-shaft, 6-treadle counterbalance. I’ve currently got it programmed to weave Swedish lace. To decide how to thread the loom and what treadling pattern to use, I took the basic structure of Swedish lace, and fed it into a google spreadsheet. The first 4 rows across the top define the threading: which warp threads go through the heddles on which shafts. I used the first 8 columns in the spreadsheet to play with treadling & tie-up patterns until I got an overall fabric structure that I liked. It turned out that I only needed 6 of the columns for the patterns I wanted to do, which is great — because I only have 6 treadles.
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Ad networks let you easily and quickly make a botnet

The coder and artist Brannon Dorsey (previously) wondered about the potential of "browser based botnets" -- running Javascript on tons of machines, stitched together into one massively parallel computer. As he notes, this is already happening; among other things, there's cryptocurrency malware that hijacks your browser to do mining. But that Javascript generally only hits you if you visit the site hosting it. Dorsey wondered if there was a faster, more efficient way to inject malicious Javascript into tons of browsers. And he discovered that there was: Online ad networks! Anyone can make an account, create an ad with god-knows-what Javascript in it, then pay to have the network serve that ad up to thousands of browser. So that's what Dorsey did -- very successfully. Within about three hours, his code (experimental, not malicious, apart from surreptitiously chewing up processing resources) was running on 117,852 web browsers, on 30,234 unique IP addresses. Adtech, it turns out, is a superb vector for injecting malware around the planet. Some other fun details: Dorsey found that when people loaded his ad, they left the tab open an average of 15 minutes. That gave him huge amounts of compute time -- 327 full days, in fact, for about $15 in ad purchase. To see what such a botnet could do, he created one to run a denial-of-service attack (against his own site, just to see if it worked: It did pretty well). He got another to mine the cryptocurrency Monero, at rates that will be profitable if Monero goes much higher. Read the rest

Filament LED bulbs that mimic hipster old-school incandescence

LED bulbs provide incredibly low-power light, and can last way longer than incandescent bulbs (though the lighting industry is trying to make LEDs artificially die more quickly, too). They also face an aesthetics issue: Almost every new form of low-power lighting is regarded as less pretty than traditional, old-school bulbs.

The one exception is the "filament" LED bulb, which uses little strings of LED to mimic the look of old-fashioned incandescent bulbs one finds in hipster craft-beer saloons. The sales of these are growing rapidly, as Bloomberg reports:

Filament LEDs could also solve a problem for policy makers who have long desired to ban inefficient incandescent bulbs, over the objections of consumers who prefer the old-style look. Almost a third of British people who voted to leave the European Union in 2016 said they wanted to see the return of the old bulbs that were banned by Brussels bureaucrats, according to a YouGov poll. Even Donald Trump wrongly warned in 2012 on Twitter that energy-saving bulbs can cause cancer because of the miniscule amounts of ultraviolet rays they give out. With better aesthetics, filament LEDs could help speed the switch from the 7 billion incandescent lamps still lighting the planet. Lighting demand is expected to rise 50 percent in the next two decades as poorer countries gain more access to power, according to the United Nations. Switching to LEDs could offset some of that increase, avoiding the release of more than 390 million metric tons of carbon dioxide a year.
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Crowdfunding for medical costs is turning health-care into a reality-TV competition

The Financial Times does a long, deep dive into the exploding world of Americans who crowdfund their health-care costs.

It's a sad -- if gripping -- document of the wildly inefficient, friction-hot mess of medical care in the US, where one-fifth of household spending is lavished on healthcare, handily eclipsing that of other wealthy countries, while procuring worse results. As the piece notes, crowdfunding for health-care happens worldwide, but in other countries with adequately-funded public systems, it's used for rare, uncovered treatments. "In the US," in contrast, "it is often about paying for the basics."

But the really freaky message of this piece?

Crowdfunding turns health-care into a reality-TV show performance, where only those charismatic and sympathetic enough can make it work. Everyone in the ecosystem -- from the patients to the platforms -- acknowledges this reality:

Koziner understands what works. She has broadcast Facebook Live videos from the hospital and ends her frequent posts with tweetable hashtags such as #isabellastrong. “I don’t put everything, honestly,” she tells me. “You have to balance a little bit of the fun, the happy, the silver lining, because if not it’s too depressing.” Others are uneasy about the demand for self-marketing. “You have to kind of make the appeal that you are a worthy subject for donations. It’s the commercialisation, the commodification of your illness,” says Jeremy Snyder, an associate professor at the Faculty of Health Sciences at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia. The business of healthcare turned the sick into consumers.
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The history of the Internet's first viral video

Wired has done a fun job of documenting the history of “badday.mpg" -- which became a passaround hit in 1997, making it probably the first viral video of the Internet.

Mind you, as the author Joe Veix notes, they didn't call it a "viral video" back then, because the very concept of "virality", as applied to culture, wasn't yet mainstream. Given how slow most people's Internet connections were back then -- and, frankly, what a small percentage of the population was online -- and given that there weren't any big social-networking tools, it's amazing the 5-meg video spread so wide. The origins of the video:

Loronix was developing DVR technology for security-camera systems and needed sample footage to demonstrate to potential clients how it worked. So Licciardi and his boss, chief technology officer Peter Jankowski, got an analog video camera and began shooting. They filmed Licciardi using an ATM and pretended to catch him robbing the company’s warehouse. Licciardi decided he wanted to be a “disgruntled employee,” which gave his boss an idea. “It was pretty ad hoc,” Jankowski says. “We had some computers that had died and monitors and keyboards that weren’t working, so we basically set that up in a cubicle on a desk.” Jankowski directed the shoot, as Licciardi went to town on a broken monitor and an empty computer case. It took two attempts. “The first take, people were laughing so hard we had to do a second one,” Licciardi says.

The video spawned fan sites and conspiracy theories, Veix adds, so it presaged even more of our modern online culture than mere virality. Read the rest

Logic gates made purely of joints and levers

Here's a paper outlining a way to make logic gates out of nothing but links and rotary joints.

It's quite ingenious -- binary states are indicated by the lean of the mechanisms, so you do calculations via entirely mechanical means, with the links shifting back and forth on the joints. They've worked out how you'd build everything from AND gates to NAND, NOR, NOT, OR, XNOR and XOR.

The picture above is a model that illustrates what the mechanical circuits would look like if you built them out of pegboard-mounted links and joints -- but the real promise, the authors note, is in using these techniques to make micro- and nano-scale computational machines:

Recently there has been some resurgence of interest in molecular machines created by atomically precise manufacturing. Apart from their ultimate miniaturization, molecular machines would offer the advantages of very low friction and zero wear. Mechanical computers constructed from molecular-scale atomically-precise components would be highly desirable because of their potential for combined high performance and low energy dissipation.

Alternatively, it'll be a way to continue to do computation using twigs and string after the zombie apocalypse. (Via Hacker News) Read the rest

Study finds municipal broadband is up to 50% cheaper than telcos

Telcos despise community-owned broadband, and fight like mad whenever a city announces it's going to build its own network. Why?

Because when communities provide their own broadband, it costs users way less than broadband from telcos.

That's what the Berkman Klein Center at Harvard found in a terrific new study. They collected data on 27 community-owned broadband networks that offer at least 25/3 Mbps service, and compared it to the pricing of similar offerings from telcos serving those communities. This sort of comparison is hard to do, because it's tricky to find enough markets that have side-by-side offerings; but they found enough cases to see the trend, and it looks terrible for the telcos.

In nearly every case, the community-own broadband was cheaper -- up to 50% cheaper -- and had more consistent, predictable pricing.

The whole report is here, but here are the top-level findings:

When considering entry-level broadband service—the least-expensive plan that provides at least 25/3 Mbps service—23 out of 27 community-owned FTTH providers we studied charged the lowest prices in their community when considering the annual average cost of service over a four-year period, taking into account installation and equipment costs and averaging any initial teaser rates with later, higher, rates. This is based on data collected in late 2015 and 2016. In these 23 communities, prices for the lowest-cost program that met the current definition of broadband were between 2.9 percent and 50 percent less than the lowest-cost such service offered by a private provider (or providers) in that market.
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The wild physics of superblack "bird of paradise" feathers

How are the feathers of Papua New Guinea's "birds of paradise" so freakishly black?

Because, man, they really are. Crows and blackbirds look, y'know, black-like ... but birds of paradise look like a hole has been punched in reality. It's like they've been coated in Vantablack, the freakily engineered substance you can coat on objects to make them superdark. The birds also often have striking colors, of course; but the parts of them that are black are inkily so.

A team of biologists have finally published a paper unraveling the secret: The feathers, it transpires, are essentially covered in light-trapping nanotech.

As the Atlantic reports:

A typical bird feather has a central shaft called a rachis. Thin branches, or barbs, sprout from the rachis, and even thinner branches—barbules—sprout from the barbs. The whole arrangement is flat, with the rachis, barbs, and barbules all lying on the same plane. The super-black feathers of birds of paradise, meanwhile, look very different. Their barbules, instead of lying flat, curve upward. And instead of being smooth cylinders, they are studded in minuscule spikes. “It’s hard to describe,” says McCoy. “It’s like a little bottle brush or a piece of coral.” These unique structures excel at capturing light. When light hits a normal feather, it finds a series of horizontal surfaces, and can easily bounce off. But when light hits a super-black feather, it finds a tangled mess of mostly vertical surfaces. Instead of being reflected away, it bounces repeatedly between the barbules and their spikes.
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Frankenstein considered as a novel about climate catastrophe

1816 is famous for being the year that Mary Shelley began to write Frankenstein. But it's also infamous for being "The Year Without A Summer". One of the hugest volcanic eruptions in recorded history emitted a sun-obscuring ash cloud, and temperatures worldwide plummeted -- destroying crops and ushering in several years of brutal famine.

It provoked massive social disorder. So while Shelley was writing her novel, she may have had her mind on the hordes of starving Europeans desperately migrating across the nearby countryside in search of food, and being utterly rejected by the elites well-off enough to feed themselves.

In a terrific essay, Gillen D’Arcy Wood argues that we could read Frankenstein as an allegory not just of technology run amok, but a climate spun out of control:

[Our] too-easy version of Frankenstein — oh, it’s all about technology and scientific hubris, or about industrialization — ignores completely the humanitarian climate disaster unfolding around Mary Shelley as she began drafting the novel. Starving, skeletal climate refugees in the tens of thousands roamed the highways of Europe, within a few miles of where she and her ego-charged friends were driving each other to literary distraction. Moreover, landlocked Alpine Switzerland was the worst hit region in all of Europe, producing scenes of social-ecological breakdown rarely witnessed since the hellscape of the Black Death. Shelley’s miserable Creature, in the context of the 1816 worldwide climate shock, appears less like a symbol of technological overreach than a figure for the despised and desperate refugees crowding Switzerland’s market towns that year.
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Ocean waves can hurl boulders 2.5X the weight of the Statue of Liberty

That rock you see above? It's 620 tons, over 2.5 times the weight of the Statue of Liberty.

Yet some powerful wave in the North Atlantic was mighty enough to lift it out of the sea and plop it onto land.

Everyday ocean waves are way more powerful than we ever thought: This is the conclusion of a fascinating paper by geoscientist Ronadh Cox and her research group. Scientists long knew there were unusually huge rocks hurled ashore around the world, but generally they assumed they'd been tossed up by tsunamis, rare tectonic events.

Nope. It looks like regular 'ol storm-waves can manage these sorts of feats. Cox and her group took a bunch of before-and-after photos of the northwest coast of Ireland around the time of a 2013-2014 storm cluster, and identified several boulders that the storms had thrown ashore. They were huuuuuuuge!

No wonder Homer called Poseidon the "earth-shaker".

The paper is here online in full, and is both layperson-parsable and seriously gripping.

Given that global warming is pouring evermore energy into the oceans, we're going to need to reassess just how powerful coastal waves can get, as Cox points out in this story about her work:

“Why bother with this study?” Cox knew members of the audience might be asking. If these deposits are formed by storms, then we can better understand storm dynamics and coastal processes. This information will be important as global climate changes cause storms to become more frequent and intense. The research could also help to constrain tsunami models elsewhere.
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