28 February 2009

A/B Testing at Google

This is pretty awesome:

A designer, Jamie Divine, had picked out a blue that everyone on his team liked. But a product manager tested a different color with users and found they were more likely to click on the toolbar if it was painted a greener shade.

As trivial as color choices might seem, clicks are a key part of Google’s revenue stream, and anything that enhances clicks means more money. Mr. Divine’s team resisted the greener hue, so Ms. [Marissa] Mayer split the difference by choosing a shade halfway between those of the two camps.

Her decision was diplomatic, but it also amounted to relying on her gut rather than research. Since then, she said, she has asked her team to test the 41 gradations between the competing blues to see which ones consumers might prefer.

New York Times, "Putting a Bolder Face on Google"

Did you know?

"Bullshit" has a technical meaning, proposed by Harry G. Frankfurt:

[...] bullshitters misrepresent themselves to their audience not as liars do, that is, by deliberately making false claims about what is true. In fact, bullshit need not be untrue at all.

Rather, bullshitters seek to convey a certain impression of themselves without being concerned about whether anything at all is true. They quietly change the rules governing their end of the conversation so that claims about truth and falsity are irrelevant. Frankfurt concludes that although bullshit can take many innocent forms, excessive indulgence in it can eventually undermine the practitioner's capacity to tell the truth in a way that lying does not. Liars at least acknowledge that it matters what is true. By virtue of this, Frankfurt writes, bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth than lies are.

[On Bullshit by Harry G. Frankfurt.]

Now you know!

20 February 2009

Ah, computer programming nostalgia

Python has a turtle module? No way! Using Logo on the Apple IIe is maybe one of the oldest distinct memories I have.

Found via Nathan Naze, who used the turtle module to make holiday cards.

19 February 2009

Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions

We like to think that we make decisions logically and rationally. This is one of the assumptions that underlies much of economics, public policy, and modern life. We just assume that people can determine what is best for themselves and that they act accordingly. Things operate this way even though we are all well aware that no one is perfect. We all make mistakes and suboptimal decisions.

In Predictably Irrational, MIT economist Dan Ariely argues that these deviations from rationality are not just random mistakes. We systematically make the same kinds of cognitive mistakes, day after day, even after the error of our ways is pointed out to us.

Ariely cites a number of psychological studies (most of which he designed or co-designed) and generalizes from them to shed light on various classes of irrational behavior or cognitive failings. (Just one example: people know they will procrastinate, but they systematically underestimate the extent to which they will do it.) And he reflects on the implications for our lives and for public policy. The book is a quick read and is pretty entertaining, and I recommend it. There are quite a few laugh-out-loud moments, mostly while Ariely describes his clever experimental setups, many of them involving unwitting MIT undergraduates.

Psychology fascinates me because for all the talk about people all being different, there are so many ways in which people are all the same. And being able to learn about itself may be one of the most amazing feats of the human mind. But there is something about the idea of "predictable irrationality" that is really sobering. We often imagine that, as human beings, our intelligence and our capacity for introspection could allow us to transcend all— once we have identified a problem we can learn from it and take steps to prevent it from happening again. That is one of the things that makes me (and many others, I imagine) so optimistic about the future. But as it turns out, there is such a thing as "human nature" and we're shackled to it, no matter how willing and observant we are. We make the same mistakes over and over again. As it turns out, we all have the same weaknesses, the same frailties.

16 February 2009

Recent favorite things

My goal is to read 15 books in the first half of 2009. So you should expect to be seeing a lot more book reviews here. But first...

Man on Wire (IMDB). A documentary about Philippe Petit, the Frenchman who, in 1974, strung a tightrope between the towers of the World Trade Center and went walking on it. The idea of a bunch of guys plotting something "illegal... but not wicked or mean" is uplifting in a way. Mr. Petit is quite the character, and the film is in large part a portrait of him. I love this one saying of his:

It's impossible, that's sure. So let's start working.

This film is well-done. It has all the suspense of a heist movie (but without the robbery). And the footage of the act is something to see. I spent about half the movie agape. But don't take my word for it. At the time of writing, Man on Wire is 100% fresh with 137 reviews on RT. It is also being nominated for the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature of 2008.

Rock Band 2. I got RB2 for the Wii over the holidays, and it's a lot of fun. There is a strange visceral appeal about drumming. You can really get into the "zone" in a way that you don't when you're playing the guitar.

Battlestar Galactica. I've watched Season 1 and am starting Season 2. It's quite bleak, which is somewhat refreshing— in the story, humanity is on the run from robots and is on the edge of extinction. It's the military/political and human drama that really makes the show, though.

15 February 2009

Security by obscurity in action

I noticed that the importance of my paper mail is inversely related to the importance that is advertised on the envelope. The envelopes that say Important Cardholder Information always turn out to be some useless offer. And then, of course, my credit cards and checks arrive in envelopes with no distinguishing features at all.

That always reminds me of this story, from Bruce Schneier's Beyond Fear (link):

At 3,106 carats, a little under a pound and a half, the Cullinan Diamond was the largest uncut diamond ever discovered. It was extracted from the earth at the Premier Mine, near Pretoria, South Africa, in 1905. Appreciating the literal enormity of the find, the Transvaal government bought the diamond as a gift for King Edward VII. Transporting the stone to England was a huge security problem, of course, and there was much debate on how best to do it. Detectives were sent from London to guard it on its journey. News leaked that a certain steamer was carrying it, and the presence of the detectives confirmed this. But the diamond on that steamer was a fake. Only a few people knew of the real plan; they packed the Cullinan in a small box, stuck a three-shilling stamp on it, and sent it to England anonymously by unregistered parcel post.

14 February 2009

How people learn to do something well

Instant feedback helps people to learn— quickly. And computers can often help to close the feedback loop, whether it's learning to play the drums or learning to drive efficiently:

Though the new [2010 Honda] Insight gets significantly lower mileage than the original, Honda has loaded it with an array of gauges and displays intended to coach drivers to be more economical. For instance, the speedometer's background color changes from blue to green as one's driving becomes "more environmentally responsible." Readouts reward the frugal driver with an "eco score"; if you excel, you win a digital trophy surrounded by a wreath.

You either need these video-game techniques, or a lot of driving lessons, in order to help people develop unconscious competence.

New York Times, "A New Hybrid Sprouts in the Shadow of the Prius".

Cleaning up

I'm moving back into my old room.

So I have a lot of old stuff to clean up and throw away. I am a packrat, but I do know when things are way past their useful lifetime. Definitely on the list of things that are going to go:

  • Anything with a PS/2 or parallel port connector.
  • Power adapters where I have no idea what they plug into.
  • Hard disk drives no larger than 20GB. I plugged one in, just for kicks, and so that I could wipe it. It was 2GB and the disk label was WINDOWS_95. The computer I just ordered is going to have three times as much RAM and about 1500 times more disk.
  • Old proprietary software. I have scores of CDs from an MSDN subscription circa 2002. These are the "AOL CDs" of this decade. I hate throwing away bits, but I rationalized this to myself: given their age and their proprietary-ness, I am pretty sure they have negative value. If someone installed any of these things and tried to use them, they would be worse off than if they got something Free, for free, off the internet.

02 February 2009

Truly, We Are Living In The Future, Part IV

Nikon's S550 digital camera:

There are also two new modes: Smile and Blink Warning. In smile mode, the camera can actually tell a smile and will wait to shoot the picture until it detects one. Blink warning actually displays a warning message when, in the camera's opinion, the subject has blinked when the picture was taken. Since a lot of people have that annoying tendency, the warning message quickly lets you take another shot without having to check the picture.

Smile detection and blink detection, coming soon to a point-and-shoot that will cost less than my current camera did. Wow.