Archive for the ‘sketches’ Category

June 10 2009

social inviting

by Hang

Social networks rely on invite mechanisms to generate a bunch of their traffic but social proof says that the likelyhood of a person participating in an activity scales non-linearly to the number of their peers doing it. One person inviting you may lead to a 3% chance of action but two people may lead to 15% and 3 people might be 30%. Would a group invite mechanism help social adoption? The way I’m envisioning it, there would be a pointman who’s really, really passionate about someone else getting onto the tool. But what they could do is send out an invite for other people to be part of the invite. So what the user would see in the end is:

“John, Paul & Mary all want you to join facebook”.

Of course, once you join, you would automatically become friends with all of them and thus, be well on your way to a compelling user experience.

Similarly, on that vein, filling out voluminous profiles is a major disincentive for someone to join something. Why not let other people collaboratively pre-fill out parts of your profile so all you have to do is essentially add in your password and you have a fully functioning social presence.

April 18 2009

CHI Digest Vol 1 – alt.chi

by Hang

Below are some quick thoughts on some CHI papers which I didn’t get to see in person. These are solely the highly individualist opinions of the author and no warranty is expressed or implied:

Burn Your Memory Away: One-time Use Video Capture and Storage Device to Encourage Memory Appreciation

A typical MIT media lab presentation, neat concept, no technical depth. Use a double headed match to record and play a video, burn one side to record and then the other side to play. The interface constrains you to one playback per video which can add emotional significance to the video. You can send the half match to someone else as a gift. Sounds cute on first glance but I can imagine it being more frustrating that heartwarming. How do I know when I should view the video? Once I find out, I’ve already viewed it!

Designing for All Users — Including the Odd Users

Frustratingly interesting paper. My reaction was “intriguing, but so what”. Talks about a group of gadget freaks who have maintained the HP LX200, an obsolete handheld for 10 years. Good to promote more awareness that groups like this exist but what are we meant to do with the findings? Paper doesn’t deliver the punchline. Sure, it would be nice to develop for everyone but design is about tradeoffs and you can’t please everyone.

Dying, Death, and Mortality:  Towards Thanatosensitivity in HCI

Heard a lot of great things about this talk. Always interesting when the critical theorists wade into HCI. Unfortunately, also written like critical theory papers, bad memories welling up. Paper seemed too timid, setting up the groundwork without pushing forward with something provocative. Yes, we accept death is a majorly unexamined part of HCI. So now what? What do we do?

Productive Love: A New Approach for Designing Affective Technology

There has been little research done on blah blah… these alt.chi papers are starting to sound similar. Designing for productive love, great concept. Good setup, neat ideas. What I really would have liked is examples pulled from the real world. It’s hard to visualise it purely in hypotheticals. Read it if you’re in the space of evoking emotion in software (and shouldn’t all social software be in that space?)

Television on the Internet: New Practices, New Viewers

Telling us what we already know in a way that we never thought about. Television is being sliced, diced and consumed at will by us youngins. What does that mean for the social institution of television? Interviewed 13 teenagers about their television usage. Read it if you’re a new media junkie.

The Doctor as the Second Opinion and the Internet as the First

Telling us what we already know about health information in a way we never thought about. Same deal as the last paper.

Species-Appropriate Computer Mediated Interaction

Human Chicken Interaction… what the fuck?

Citedness, Uncitedness, and the Murky World Between

Started talking about something interesting (impact of HCI work) and then rapidly devolved into something less interesting (are CHI papers being cited?). Yeah, if you can get your paper into CHI, there’s a high likelyhood that people will read it (I’m proof). If you acknowledge this, there’s no real need to read the paper.

HCI for the Real World

Interesting paper on how ethics should be considered within HCI and as a designer. Worth a read for the intensely navel-gazy among us.

March 23 2009

Improving the social dynamics of customer service

by Hang

It’s a common complaint for the tech savvy that you need to go through the gauntlet of dumb questions (did you check if the computer is on?) before you get anywhere with customer service. What if a company made it a policy that a certain proportion of their customers could get “upgraded” into getting direct tier 2 support. Now customers have an incentive to be nice to the reps because the reps are able to reward them and reps have a better gauge of what level of technical sophistication the customer is.

February 27 2009

The natural unit of innovation

by Hang

**WARNING: INCOMPLETE FOR NOW, feedback still welcome*

This fascinating visualization of the writing process was at the top of Hacker News and unfortunately, it’s easier for you to view it than for me to try and describe it for you. But looking at in made me consider how long it took for that idea to fully develop. Stripping out the whole online component of it, when could you have realistically developed something like that? 1960? 1970? There was a good 40 years between when it became technically feasible and when even 0.1% of the computing population had even been made aware of it.

One thing I started noticing quite a while back was this consistent pattern of a brief period of innovation when a new technology hits followed by a stultifying grind in which ideas barely change. And I think the reason for this is not because all the good ideas were already developed, I was seeing absolutely brilliant ideas coming out of academia every year that were markedly superior to what we had before. I think the right explaination is that the natural unit of innovation is the idea and the natural unit of competition is the product and so when those two get too far out of sync, innovation grinds to a halt.

I can guarantee you the guys at etherpad were not the first to have this idea. At a conservative estimate, I would say that that particular demo had been tried by maybe a thousand people in the past, everyone from grad students to bored hackers to geeky artists. But consider the process from the genesis of an idea to it being a feature that people could use. If you were in the 90′s, everyone would have been writing in Microsoft Word. In order to convince anyone to try out your feature, you essentially had to build something better than Microsoft Word just in order to test this new feature. This is, to say the least, mildly impossible.

The difference between the effort required to create a feature and get it into use was so impossibly large that such an obvious feature languished for 40 years for lack of an opportunity in the market. I think the ratio of effort required for a feature:effort required for a product is an extremely important metric to optimize because even small reductions can have highly non-linear and cumulative effects. In this case, as a rough cut, I’m defining effort required for a product as the amount of work it would take to have your software be installed and used by 1,000,000 people or 10% of the market, whichever is smaller. That includes the coding, marketing, sales etc.

So what are some ways of drastically cutting down on the feature:product ratio?

  • Hiring innovative people: The easiest way to get a feature deployed is to work for the company building the product. Hiring the right people and getting out of their way can push the feature:product ratio essentially down to 1 for that group of people.
  • Open sourcing:
  • Plugin architectures: Plugins allow you to leverage off all the other features that aren’t the feature you want to implement. If you want to prototype a cool comment system, you don’t have build an entire blog, you just download wordpress and start hacking away at a plugin.
  • Good API Design:
  • Great documentation: Sadly, something ignored by most open source projects
  • Scripting languages: Building your product out of a dynamic scripting language allows others to easily dive into the guts of what you’re doing.
  • Orthogonal design: A good plugin architecture is useless if you can’t actually add useful features because everything is so interdependant on everything else.
  • Automated Deployment: Remember, the feature:product ratio doesn’t just involve coding, all the other activities that go around getting an app installed matter too. Huge complicated deployment strategies might make sense for a product but can become disproportionate for a feature. This means you need to provide one click installs, auto updates, an in-product plugin store and a vibrant viral community to help with the marketing.
  • Lots of eyeballs: The larger and more active your community is, the more ideas bubble and ferment to the top and result in concrete results.

If your product can provide all of these things, they can pull a long way ahead of the competition. Look at the example of firefox vs IE, firefox has steadily gained market share because, among other things, you can install an ad blocker. Nobody on the firefox team ever built an ad blocker and it would probably have been deemed low priority if it were ever proposed to them. The sole reason an ad blocker exists today is because the person who thought about writing an ad blocker didn’t also have to contemplate writing a HTML parsing engine.

January 22 2009

Big Science and little science

by Hang

This is an idea I’ve been chewing on for a while on how there seems to be two different modes of science which have a very hard time talking to each other because of their radically different approaches to problems. I’m going to call these two approaches big science and little science.

Big science is about wading into the thick of a big problem and working from a state of utter incomprehension, being satisifed with chewing off whatever nugget of comprehension they can take a hold of. They take hold of questions like “what is love” and grapple with it in it’s full complexity. Big science is like parachuting into the middle of the jungle, setting up base camp and gradually establishing contact with all the other little camps around you.

Little science is all about carving off a well definied, definite area of study and solving it. It asks questions like “How does Paxil bind with the serotonin receptors in the brain”. Little science is all about building the foundation, a solid ground of work on which other work can be based. The little science approach to colonisation is to bring in the bulldozers and clear and settle all the land directly adjacent to the settled land.

Big science and little science represent two fundamentally different ways of trying to understand the world and the approach of one can look bafflingly unscientific to the other. I can feel that frustration when I talk about my work to someone who does little science. My research thesis basically boils down to “How does design influence group behaviour in social software” but everything I talk about comes with the implicit caveat that it’s messy and there’s a lot more things going on than what I’m modelling. I’m not seeking to completely understand human behaviour, even if my work increased predictive power by 1%, I would view that as a major triumph.

Our tools and understanding about social psychology and design are primitive. That’s no excuse for not trying though.

Legitimate and cargo cult ideas

by Hang

There are two types of ideas which appear very similar yet behave very differently and the ability to distingush can be very useful. Legitimate ideas are not neccesarily ideas that are right but their distinguishing factor is that they have an adequate response to all developed criticism. That means one of the hallmark properties of a legitimate idea is that if you’ve heard a criticism against it, that criticism is probably flawed. What’s more, the mere attempt at trying to demolish it looks foolish and woefully ignorant. If a legitimate idea is demolished, it’ll be demolished from the top, by the people who are most intimately familiar with it. Evolution, I believe is a legitimate idea. All attempts to debunk evolution merely reveal the debunker’s lack of understanding of evolution.

Cargo cult ideas are those which have all the outward trappings of a legitimate idea but without the social process that causes those trappings. It survives not because it can survive criticism, but because it carefully prevents legitimate criticism from affecting it. Cargo cult ideas can survive for a surprisingly long time despite the presence of arguments against it because their very survival involves aping legitimate ideas so closely that it can use the same refrain: “if you’ve heard a criticism against it, that criticism is probably flawed”. Cargo cult ideas are undermined from the bottom up rather that from the top down as it involves a loss of faith in the system.

The structure of argument is so different between legitimate and cargo cult ideas that it becomes impossible to argue unless both people are on the same side. You can see this tension play out with the atheist vs Christian arguments where atheists take the side that Religion is a cargo cult idea masquarading as a legitimate one. Christians on the other hand feel safe dismissing atheist arguments because well, even though they personally don’t know the rebuttal to the argument, they’re sure some learned Christian scholar surely does. Why, this athiest simply doesn’t understand the full subtlety and intricacy of the Christian position and all they are doing is revealing their ignorance of it.

How do you distinguish between the two? There are some useful zero knowledge proofs but they’re tricky because ultimately, the goal of a cargo cult idea is to become indistinguishable. I think in order to do so, you need to learn enough about a subject to reach the cliff. The cliff is the point where a simple question, well stated will be rebuffed rather than answered. No good answer will be forthcoming. The problem with this is twofold: It’s impossible to assert that no answer can be found unless you’ve read all of the literature on the problem and it’s impossible to ever assert the cliff does not exist unless you reach the end of the field. Neither of these are practical goals so only probabilistic measures are possible.


November 18 2008

by Hang

These are the features I am currently committing myself to be working on for the 10 feature/30 day challenge:

  1. Redesign of the blog including faceted browsing
  2. Quotations in aminormalornot
  3. email intergration
  4. twitter integration
  5. Setting up an AINON blog + forum
  6. Writeup of of Awesome Comments

This list will get updated with status reports and new feature ideas.

Oct 31st (day 19): The easy problem

by Hang

This is a concept which I’m currently struggling to come up with a better name for but it’s about responses to an argument. A crucial part of argumentation is actually understanding the claims and assertions that the other person is making. In order to do this, one can either solve the easy problem or the hard problem.

The difference between the easy problem and the hard problem is one of recognition vs recall. When confronted by an argument, the easy problem is to scan through your list of pre-canned responses to arguments. It’s a matching between arguments and replies. Is reply 1 close enough to fit? No. Is reply 2 close enough to fit? Yes. Stop, you’re done, spit out response 2.

The easy problem is seductive because it’s well, easy. But it’s more than that as well, it’s gratifying to the ego. You come up with a substantive response and it’s clever so you feel like you’re doing real work. Moreover, you spend your time compiling a larger database of pre-compiled responses and the larger your database is, the closer and more encompassing your matches become so you feel like you’re making progress. But when you solve the easy problem, you stop at the FIRST match which is sufficiently close. If the difference between the actual question and what you perceive the question is suffciently close, then you completely ignore the difference.

Solving the hard problem is taking the opposite approach. Instead of figuring out what response matches the question, you instead look at the structure of the question and reason out a response free from any pre-concieved biases. You conciously don’t try and recognize the question and place it into a particular category. Solving the hard problem can be valuable because it occasionally leads to genuine surprise. Solving the easy problem will never tell you something you could not be convinced of but solving the hard problem occasionally leads you down a difficult path.

The hard problem is more intellectually pure, with less chances of making a mistake. But it’s well, hard, and quite often doesn’t seem neccesary. So many of the questions we are asked every day seem like the sort that can be answered with a pre-cached answer and so we feel comfortable solving them with the easy problem. The problem is, it’s impossible to tell whether a problem is indeed something solvable or not with the easy problem because once you’ve determined that, you’ve already solved the hard problem.

This is especially true of internet comments and conversations. Once you mention certain key words in a posting, people will come in and post based on what happened to match that filter. This makes it very hard to present an argument which is very similar to a common argument because most people will match for the common argument.

So how do you get around this? I think the only way is to gain the respect of a core group of readers and have them get to the point where they assume that you’re not stupid and that it’s worth trying to solve the hard problem when you present them with an idea.

October 27 2008

Oct 27th (day 15): The halfway mark

by Hang

Today marks the halfway point in my little experiment to 30 days of blogging and I thought I would share a bit about my experiences. Making an external commitment to do something has definitely spurred my motivation and it’s been a positive influence on me. It’s been a great feeling that every day, no matter what, I managed to accomplish *something* with my day and it’s also spurred me to be more disciplined and be more aware of the shape of the day. It also means I’ve been much more aware of ideas, constantly on the lookout for new things to blog about. Paradoxically, on some days, it’s meant that I’ve been blogging less as I might have 2 or 3 ideas I deem worthy of blogging about but I want to save the extra ideas in case of a rainy day.

That being said, blogging continuously in this sort of fashion sucks too. Given that I have to fit blogging around the rest of my schedule, I always end up cramming it into this corner or that. All of these blog posts have pretty much been a straight shot, stream of conciousness from start to end and the quality, IMO reflects that. If you study great writers, what sounds like a breezy, casual reflection is actually the result of massive amounts of rewriting, organization and editing to get it into it’s final form. Amateur writers who make the mistake of trying to emulate the greats try and emulate the result rather than the process and, as a result, end up coming up with something clunky.

While the one blog post a day experiment has given me plenty of practise in dumping my raw thoughts on paper, the pace simply hasn’t allowed me to do that reshaping work to produce a piece of work that I am proud of. I know plenty of my blog posts suck (at least in my eyes) and I’m looking forward to having a more measured pace and drawing out a story rather than merely a concept.

Thinking more on how so much of skill is hidden under the surface got me to thinking about skills you didn’t know you needed and how so much of what makes someone skilled is completely underestimated by the outside observer. One of the skills I believe that I excel in is coming up with ideas, concepts and new ways of thinking about the world. Thinking up ideas seems like one of those mysterious things which some people are just naturally good at and people very rarely try and systematically become better at it. It’s often hard to see just how much work is required to become a good thinker.

One of the things which is never seen from the outside is the private vocabulary that I use to scaffold and structure ideas in my head. Words are shortcuts for concepts and the richer your vocabulary is, the more efficiently you can represent and develop a concept. So, as an experiment, I will dedicate this next 15 days to explaining one piece of personal vocabulary a day to give insight into the mental scaffolding that I use.

One of the reasons I started the Figuring Shit Out blog was precisely so I could talk more about this sort of stuff but I stumbled upon a major problem: describing an internal vocabulary is hard. The internal vocabulary is not made up of just english words, it’s got associations, images and visualizations. It’s linked to a bunch of other concepts and whats more, it’s constantly morphing as well. Whenever I tried to pin a concept down on paper, I found that the concept itself was being reconceptualised faster than I could write about it.

Given this, I think this will be a good forcing tool in making me grapple seriously with how I explain things to others but at the same time, I know that I’m going to be immensely disappointed with these next 15 posts. So here’s the deal: all of these next 15 posts will become password protected and hidden once the experiment is over. If you want to read them, you need to be reading them now because you won’t be seeing them again until I’m ready to talk about them again. If you have an RSS reader, now is the time to subscribe to the feed if you don’t want to miss out on anything.

As a rough dump, here are some of the terms I will be talking about:

  • The ego dilemma
  • p+1
  • Acting sober
  • Advanced wisdom
  • The easy problem
  • Life is drama
  • The unavoidably essential nature of reality
  • Zero knowledge proofs
  • The unbearable weirdness of meta
  • Grinding
  • Movieverse
  • The best of all possible universes
  • Sheepdogs and Wolves
  • Obviously wrong truths
  • Everything you think is either unoriginal, wrong or both
  • the no evil geniuses paradox
  • bumblebees

More as I remember them…

October 26 2008

Oct 26th (day 14): Hangovers suck

by Hang

I had my first ever hangover today and it wasn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Mind still a bit fuzzy, a more substantive blog post tomorrow…

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