Archives For Interfaces

FB_gay_searchI remember way-back-when, in the early days of Facebook, it used to be possible to run searches based on personal attributes. Anyone who listed themselves as a woman interested in women was easy to find. And then, I think in part due to complaints from users and privacy advocates, that functionality disappeared (or at least was a lot harder to access). Now it’s back with a vengeance.

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Guitars and Heros

Matthew Bietz —  July 27, 2010 — 1 Comment

Over at /dev/culture, my friend Nat posted about Guitar Hero and learning the ukulele:

It was pointed out to me by my brother that playing the guitar is a lot like playing a video game: There are certain things you need to do with your fingers at certain times, and you need to memorize the moves (either specifically or generally) before you try it so it works out better. He’s right. Having played electronic games for over two and a half decades, and finally poking about working on the ukulele, it’s entirely true.

I was a little surprised at how vehemently and viscerally I reacted. I’m sure my fellow Starbucks patrons were wondering why I suddenly burst out with an emphatic, “No it’s not!”

I’ve had (pretty much) the opposite experience from Nat’s. I’ve spent the past two and a half decades playing cello, and have never really gotten into video games. For a brief period of my youth, I was dedicated to Munch Man, but since then, it’s been less video game and more computer-mediated game play (solitaire, scrabble, boggle, etc.). Occasionally I’ve had the chance to play Guitar Hero or Rock Band when visiting friends. And I always come away from the experience frustrated because it doesn’t feel like playing a real instrument.

In one sense, I think Nat’s right: with video games, “your fingers have to be in the right place at the right time, just like fingering for chords on a guitar or other stringed instrument.” But with Guitar Hero, hitting the right button at the right time is the end of the story. If you do it right enough times, you win the game. On a real guitar (or other musical instrument), learning to put your fingers in the right place at the right time means that you are finally ready to begin making music. Playing the correct notes is more of a prerequisite than the goal.

This video of Max Roach is a perfect example that making music isn’t about how many buttons you have:

Like Nat, I’d be happy if playing Guitar Hero encourages more people to get into making music. But I think that it’s just as likely that kids who might have asked for a real guitar for their birthday will now be begging their parents for a cheap five-button fake, and that makes me a little sad.

A few recent posts from around the web have gotten me thinking about how the concerns of cyberinfrastructure play out in local laboratories:

  • Jonathan Eisen, a biologist at UC Davis, posted on The Tree of Life about his quest to find an electronic lab notebook, and the ensuing discussion suggests that, while it’s possible to kludge together something that works, there aren’t many options specifically designed to support the day-to-day needs and constraints of an academic research laboratory. (And just try to find ones that play well with other information systems inside and outside the lab!)
  • Richard Apodaca at Depth-First wants to stop talking about “electronic laboratory notebooks” and instead use the phrase “networked laboratory information.” He suggests that consideration of this new mental model would “start out with identifying the many forms of information we create and use, and the needs of those doing the creating and using. It would then move on to how best to share this information within our organization, and with our customers and partners in a secure manner.”
  • Titus Brown has posted a wonderfully tongue-in-cheek Data Management Plan on his blog, Daily Life in an Ivory Basement:

“I will store all data on at least one, and possibly up to 50, hard drives in my lab. The directory structure will be custom, not self-explanatory, and in no way documented or described. Students working with the data will be encouraged to make their own copies and modify them as they please, in order to ensure that no one can ever figure out what the actual real raw data is. Backups will rarely, if ever, be done.”

These posts seem to highlight a tension that arises from individuals and small laboratories doing science in a computerized, networked, big science world. We hear a lot about how building massive databases and supercomputers is increasingly important for doing cutting edge science. The NSF, NIH, DOE, and many other agencies and organizations are putting significant funding and attention toward creating large, centralized scientific resources. But I wonder if this focus on the centralized portion of infrastructure sometimes comes at the expense of supporting local practice.

For example, Brown’s satire is written in response to the NSF’s new policy requiring grants to have data management plans. At least as it is described in the press release, the focus of the new policy is on “community access to data” and “open sharing of research data.” It seems that for the NSF, data management is only important insofar as it supports the one-way movement of data out of the lab and into the community. This is a shortsighted view of data management.

In a recent article, Karen Baker and Lynn Yarmey present a much more nuanced and complex understanding of data management for big science. They see data repositories existing within different “spheres-of-context.” For example, a local repository might be found in a particular laboratory or small group, where it is intended to support data use in the context of a specific set of research questions. On the other hand, a large remote archive might be aimed at preserving data for future reuse. Whereas the NSF policy treats the local context (e.g., the laboratory) as a pit stop on the road to a shared database, Baker and Yarmey remind us that laboratories are more than data factories, and that the data management challenges are about more than simply enabling data aggregation. Data management policies need to consider how data move through and around the entire “web of repositories.”

I think the spheres-of-context concept can help us think not just about repositories, but about the entire range of cyberinfrastructure. In the same way that the electricity infrastructure needs both power plants and wall outlets, cyberinfrastructures need both the local and the community contexts. Our investments in cyberinfrastructure won’t have the transformational impact we want unless we also pay attention to supporting new scientific practices in day-to-day laboratory life, and to meaningfully connecting those local practices with collective scientific activities.

Baker, K. S., & Yarmey, L. (2009). Data stewardship: Environmental data curation and a web-of-repositories. International Journal of Digital Curation, 4(2), 12-27.

Government-wide emphasis on community access to data supports substantive push toward more open sharing of research data

I spend a lot of time in videoconference meetings. I live in San Diego, but I’m a post-doc in the CSC Lab at the University of Washington, and also have an appointment in the Institute for Software Research at UC Irvine. I attend 3-5 distributed meetings in a typical week. Most of them are videoconferenced, and in most of them, there is a group of people on the other end of the line.

I’ve noticed is that the way I am lit seems to affect how others see me. These meetings are often my only real-time interaction with my collaborators, and I want to be perceived as an important part of the group. Of course, I don’t want to miss what is going on, but I also want my collaborators to know that I am attentive and care about what they have to say. I don’t think good lighting will make it seem like I’m paying attention when I’m not. But I do think that bad lighting can give the wrong impression.

Comparison of 3 lighting conditions

These are 3 pictures of my normal videoconferencing setup taken within moments of each other. In the picture on the left, I have only the regular room lights (an overhead fixture), with the camera set for automatic exposure control. In the middle picture, I’ve turned on the proprietary (and pretty amazing) Logitech RightLight feature, which finds the face and sets the brightness and contrast so that the face will look decently lit. In the picture on the right, I’ve turned on the lights. The colors are brighter, the shadows aren’t as deep, and there’s more contrast with the background. And even though I’m in the same position and have the same expression as the other two photos, I think I look more engaged.

My Lighting Setup

I have a cheap but effective lighting setup. Two 25w Kvart clamp lamps from Ikea ($6.99 each) clamped to chairs positioned at about a 45° angle on the right and left. The fronts of the lamps are covered with tracing paper so the light isn’t quite so harsh. I also have a cheap gooseneck lamp on the floor behind me to provide some backlight. The camera sits on a cookbook stand that’s a little higher than the screen of my laptop (just about at chin level for me). The separate stand also makes it jostle less as I type. When I’m at the computer, there are two windows on my left, and behind me is a translucent curtain in front of a large window, so if it’s sunny outside, I’ll only use one lamp in the 45° position to my right. Even with all 3 lights I can get the whole thing set up in just a couple of minutes.

I use a high-quality webcam, but good lighting helps even low-end cameras.

I haven’t conducted rigorous trials, but I get the sense that when I am well lit, the people at the other end are more likely to include me in the conversation. Good lighting helps me feel less far away.

Facebook gets creepy

Matthew Bietz —  July 3, 2009 — 1 Comment

facebook_suggestionFacebook has been playing with their friend suggestion algorithms, and people are starting to notice. Last week FB suggested I become a friend with one of the participants in my research. I am pretty liberal with accepting friend requests, but that is a line I try not to cross. But what surprised me was that we have no common friends and have no other common interests or memberships on the site. But in the end my own reaction was mostly one of curiosity – what data sources led them to make this match?

But I’ve also seen recently that some people are reacting with outrage. Here’s from a discussion list I saw today:

Mega facebook wtf. I just looked at my suggested friends and found…my mum’s ex. My mum isn’t on facebook. I haven’t spoken to him in years, neither has she. We have no friends or anything else listed as in common. People worry about google but it’s Facebook that scares the !@#^& out of me.

  • He searched for you.
  • This also happened to me. Caused me to lock down my profile.
  • Oh, another thing it does: if you’ve ever given it access to your email contacts to see if anyone you know is on Facebook, it hangs onto those. If anyone ever joins with one of those email addresses they’ll show up in Suggested Friends.
  • yes. quite a few people from a company i used to work for (and quit unceremoniously, but with much yelling over the phone) have come up under suggested friends. i don’t have any contacts who are contacts with them nor have i ever even entered their names or the name of the company into facebook. it freaks me out.

It turns out I’m not the only one to notice these recent changes. When FB was just suggesting friends-of-friends, it was pretty easy to figure out how the suggestion was made. Or FB would tell you how it made the match: “You and Brandon Walsh both went to West Beverly High School.” While FB may actually be improving the accuracy of its predictions (in all these cases, it did predict real contacts, although maybe not “friends”), it also may be straying too far to the creepy side of social networking. It wonder if the unease will persist, or if it’s another “people will get used to it” situation.

If you use Atlas.ti software, be careful when upgrading! Version 6 is not backward compatible.

I really like Atlas.ti for qualitative analysis, but I pretty annoyed by my recent experience. I have a license which includes upgrades, and a few weeks ago received a message that I should upgrade from version 5.5 to version 6. The new features looked great (including direct PDF import and interface improvements) so I loaded the new version. I didn’t discover until after I had installed that the new version uses a new file format and could not save files in the v.5 format. The lab I’m in specifically chose Atlas.ti for its collaboration features, but if you share your files with others, they must be using the same version of the software.

When I tried to find out if there was something I was missing, I discovered that Atlas.ti has published the v.6 software upgrade, but has not yet upgraded the manual. I guess we’re supposed to intuit what all the new icons mean and how to use the completely new features.

I have uninstalled v.6 and gone back to using v.5.

My Facebook Network

Matthew Bietz —  February 17, 2009 — Leave a comment

In response to Jude and Eric, I decided to check out my facebook friend network using Nexus.


Nothing too surprising here, except what isn’t shown. I have “real” friends who don’t use facebook, but actually serve as connections between clusters. I also have friends who would connect clusters, but only show up in one because they made a conscious decision not to accept friend requests from any high school classmates. The only obvious individual that stands out is my bee-you-tee-full sistore, who connects the fam, high school, and undergrad.

Google’s Way

Matthew Bietz —  October 27, 2008 — Leave a comment

I don’t like it when software insists that there is only one right way to do something. Most of the time it doesn’t matter (or I don’t care) if I have to click A before I can click B. And while I generally like the clean design and ease of use of Google products, even they have their moments of “Our Way or No Way”:

a) Labels (not folders): I don’t mind labeling things. I believe that for some people labeling works extremely well. And from a technical perspective, labels aren’t all that different from folders. But folders operate on the idea that a message can only be in one place at a time. I arrange my e-mail by project (rather than topic). I am a frequent filer (I like an empty inbox). I delete a LOT of e-mail rather than saving it. And I like folders. But GMail makes me feel like I’m a weakling for not joining the hip crowd and throwing off the oppressive folder paradigm.

b) Search (don’t sort): Sorting is a really efficient way to find things, especially if you don’t remember the exact words. Try sorting your spam box by subject sometime – I bet you can skim for false postivies it much faster. But not in GMail – they won’t let you sort.

c) Full feature widget (not the simple one): I use iGoogle as my home page. iGoogle used to have a great GMail widget that gave a really simple count of unread messages, showed previews if you wanted them, and allowed you to hide the previews if you didn’t. Recently Google decided they had a brand new whiz-bang widget that made the old one useless. So they took the old one away. But the new one is significantly different, especially in that you can’t hide the previews (so that subject line about the Richard Simmons dolls you are bidding for on eBay shows up on your home page at work). Doesn’t matter that a lot of people prefered the old one – we can’t have it any more.

I admit, Google is not the only company who does this stuff, and they aren’t the worst offender. But every once in a while I hear someone tell me about how amazing Google is and how they can do no wrong, and I cringe.

I haven’t been particularly wowed by the iPhone. Sure it’s cool, but in the end, the price-to-value ratio seems just way too high. But the new Urbanspoon iPhone application tickles my fancy. You shake your iPhone like a Magic 8 Ball, and it finds a random nearby local restaurant that’s gotten good reviews by their users.

I just love the idea of interacting with a computer by shaking it.

ruok? imok.

Matthew Bietz —  October 24, 2007 — 2 Comments

Yesterday Dan got a text-message on his cell-phone from the UCSD emergency response system:

“classes r canceled 4 week du 2 uncertnty of fires & xtreme bad air. Res. dining halls, & studnt health centr open & opn 2 serve. resume norml class & work sched Mon. Oct 29. chk”

Dan wasn’t sure if it was real at first – it was hard to believe that an official message would be written in txtspk.

I recently saw Leysia Palen speak at the e-Social Science conference about “Crisis Informatics.” One of the points she made is that in times of crisis, the official/unofficial dimension of information is often separate from the reliable/unreliable dimension. The text message (at least at first glance) seems to be low on both scales. It comes from an unrecognized number, has few authority cues, and doesn’t follow any of the genre conventions of official communications. On the other hand, it is both very official (coming through a tightly controlled emergency system) and completely true.

For this message, it didn’t matter much. But if you got a text message from an unknown source that said “evac asap. xtreme dngr. leave valubles bhnd.” would you do it?