23 August 2006

Book Report: The Design of Everyday Things

This book is for anyone who has ever pushed the pull door. One of my favorite reads in recent years, Donald Norman's The Design of Everyday Things is an entertaining analysis of why and how we are conquered by our things - alarm clocks we can't turn off, for instance, and VCRs that blink 12:00. When you turn on the wrong burner on the stove, do you (like me) call yourself a blockhead, or do you blame the design of the stove?

Norman has advanced degrees in both engineering and psychology, and he uses his expertise in these fields to describe and advocate human-centered design. He proposes that every thing can be designed so its use is intuitive and natural to our brains. If it needs a sign or a label, it is compensating. Our things should accommodate us, not the other way around. "Idiot-proofing" is just good design.

Good design incorporates error-proofing. One example of this is your computer's "are you sure?" message when you try to quit without saving. Norman describes some of the brain slips we tend to make:

capture error - when an action is captured by another familiar process
example: driving to work when you intended to go to the grocery store

description error
- when an action is not defined specifically enough
example: pressing the car key remote button to open the front door of the house (I do this about once a week)

data-driven error
- when data intrudes on a process
example: punching your therapist's door code into the phone to call her

associative activation error
- when associations between internal thoughts generate an inappropriate action
example: calling your 4th grade teacher "Mom"

loss-of-activation error - forgetting the action at hand
example: walking to the basement and wondering what you needed from there

After reading this book, I began to notice things like door handles. Are they obvious about their push/pull status, or are they setting me up for failure? Why doesn't every state's highway system use a distinctive lane stripe for "exit-only" lanes? Why am I so attached to my Mini Cooper? The Design of Everyday Things is an eye-opener - it has caused me to hold the physical world around me to a higher standard.

16 August 2006

Frederick Mosteller: Statistician, Stylometrist, Red Sox fan

The mathematician Frederick Mosteller died last month after a long and rich career. On the faculty at Harvard for forty years, he chaired four different departments and was one of the founders of the school's statistics department. And he put himself through college playing poker!

One of the reasons Mosteller's work is near and dear to my heart is because he was a lifelong Red Sox fan. One of his earlier published works discussed the statistical forces at play in baseball, concluding that the outcome of a game involves so many chance events that the winning team is not always the better team. Hey, Red Sox fans have known that for decades, but Mosteller was the first guy to back it up with science.

I first ran across Mosteller's work reading The Language of Mathematics by Keith Devlin. Devlin describes Mosteller's work on the Federalist Papers - one of the most well-known uses of statistics in linguistic analysis, a field now called stylometry.

The Federalist Papers are a series of essays which appeared in New York newspapers in 1787 and 1788, designed to persuade citizens to ratify the US Constitution. They were authored by James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay, although they were published under a single pseudonym. Although both Hamilton and Madison wrote lists detailing who wrote what, the authorship of twelve of the essays is unclear.

Mosteller and his colleague David Wallace used word counts for thirty common words such as "by", "according", "there" and "enough". Analyzing the essays whose authorship was unquestioned, they were able to create a sort of linguistic fingerprint for each author. They compared these profiles to the word counts in the anonymous essays. Although any one word count alone would not yield conclusive results, the thirty words counts together established that Madison was most likely the author of the twelve disputed essays.

Mosteller's research interests were diverse. His career spanned sixty years of active research in a wide range of fields. As a biostatistician, he studied the placebo effect, analyzed the relative risk of the anaesthetic Halothane, and published a statistical risk/benefit analysis of surgery. More recently, he advised the Clinton administration on the impact of smaller classes on children's learning. He called for better use of statistical trials to test innovations in elementary education and in health care, and it's said that his work in sports statistics influenced Billy Beane's innovative management approach with the Oakland A's.

And he finally got to see his team take the World Series in 2004.

15 August 2006

Getting Creative With Motorcycles

I just finished watching a documentary about motorcycles, and learned about some fascinating bikes out there. The Y2K, which uses a recycled helicopter turbine (Jay Leno owns one), the four-wheeled V-10 Dodge Tomahawk, and the Britten V1000, of which only ten were made, are just a few examples of advanced technology and design turning out something totally new.

By far the most interesting to me is the Roadog (pictured above), a Frankenstein bike built out of aircraft tubing, the engine of a Chevy Nova and the brakes of a Corvette. The Roadog's creator, "Wild Bill" Gelbke, built only two. The Roadog weighs over 3200 pounds and has an amazing and impractical overall length of seventeen feet! The two bikes are in the hands of collectors now, on display because no one seems to be able to ride them except the late Mr. Gelbke himself. Wild Bill apparently used his Roadog for commuting around Chicago, and covered 20,000 miles in the first year after he built it.

Who knows what this aircraft engineer would have come up with next - he died in 1969, just a few years after he completed his second Roadog.

09 August 2006

Turkeys Are Smarter Than We Think

Over the last few years, I have been hearing more and more stories from my parents about the presence of wild turkeys in the suburbs of Boston. Recently, driving the interstate in Massachusetts, I sighted two wild turkeys standing in the breakdown lane, gobbling happily and confusing motorists.

When I told my father about this, he told me the story of Tim Hoban, a local postal carrier who was unable to deliver mail along his route because he was being attacked by a four-foot tall wild turkey.

Apparently Mr. Hoban tried to complete his route by varying the order in which he visited houses, and by trying to sneak to the back doors of the residences on his route. No matter how devious he got, the turkey was there waiting to fly at him and chase him into traffic. He seemed to be the only person who experienced turkey attacks. His supervisors, after seeing an altercation for themselves, finally suspended mail delivery on Hoban's route and called in a specialist from the Audubon society.

The bird expert observed the interactions between the turkey and the mail carrier, and submitted his recommendation: tell the neighborhood to stop feeding the turkey.

The residents of the neighborhood had been feeding the turkey for some time, and the huge bird, whom they called "George", spent his time going from house to house looking for treats. The only other creature who exhibited this behavior was, you guessed it, the postal carrier. George perceived poor Mr. Hoban as a threat to his food source, and mounted an effective defense.

(I did actually research this - it happened in March of 2001. Recent postings on blogs suggest that the turkey problem was brought under control in the winter/spring of this year by coyotes prowling the area. Apparently when they are not hunting turkeys, they like to hang out at the mall.)

02 August 2006


Lobster was always a big part of the rural Maine part of my upbringing. I don't eat 'em, but I used to enjoy playing with them on the porch before they met their steamy deaths in the big stockpot. I was tickled to learn something new today about lobsters: they come in all sorts of funky colors.

This week, two fishermen caught yellow lobsters in different parts of Maine. Yellow lobsters are extremely rare, about 1 in 30 million. One of the two fishermen plans to return his yellow lobster to the sea in a week or so, saying he'd like to give someone else the opportunity to make such an exciting catch.

Last month, a fisherman caught a two-toned lobster in Dyer Bay, near Bar Harbor. In this case it is a genetic mutation, though lobsters can have unusually colored shells (rather than the usual brown) due to diet.

Blue lobsters, still rare though more common than yellow or red (1 in one million), occur when the blue pigmentation in the carapace is overexpressed. Albino lobsters occur when all pigmentation is missing. Shades of red and yellow are due to underexpression of blue pigmentation. More pictures of colorful lobsters here.

All lobsters, regardless of their live color, turn red when they are cooked, because the heat releases the red pigmentation in the shell but not the other colors. Albino lobsters are the exception to this rule, since they have no red pigmentation to begin with - they stay the same color when they are cooked.

The annual five-day lobster festival in Rockland, Maine begins today.