Daddy, what’s a remote control? May 31, 2012Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202 , comments closed
A recent New York Times article discusses the history and imminent demise of the TV remote control. The article provides a nice and articulate overview of the effects of the TV remote on modern life with television. The remote was designed simply as a convenience, a less effortful version of getting up, walking over to the tube, and working the controls located there. As we all know, however, the remote proved to be more than just a tool; it changed the way that television worked.
One of the changes effected by the remote is that it changed how viewers attended to the content of television. The effort of having to get up, stroll to the TV and work the controls there put people off of doing the work at all. In short, viewers tended to sit passively as the program they were watching went on, was interrupted by commercials and announcements, and then resumed. By severely reducing the effort needed to change channels, the remote made viewers–or their thumbs, at least–more active. If people got bored with a show, they could easily search for something more interesting. Instead of watching ads they did not like, viewers could find something more appealing on another station. To some extent, the remote allowed TV viewers to became curators of their own viewing experience, formerly the exclusive preserve of network producers.
The producers fought back, of course. For example, the presentation of TV shows changed in order to minimize the impact of the most boring parts, such as the credits at the end of a show:
Television began to change, rapidly and profoundly, as power shifted from corporate offices to increasingly fickle viewers. After a research team at NBC discovered that 25 percent of its audience changed channels when credits rolled, the network introduced the format known as “squeeze and tease” in 1999. Credits were consigned to a third of the screen, running simultaneously with promotional spots intended to keep the viewers hooked.
Nowadays, this form of presentation is standard.
This story is interesting in its own right. However, it also illustrates the broader theme of the effect of technology on attention. Nicholas Carr, for example, has argued that the Internet is scrambling people’s ability to pay attention by offering a feast of bite-sized chunks of information in hypertext form, allowing readers to skip quickly from one to the next. On his account, the upside is that we can form an acquaintance with information in many areas efficiently. The downside, however, is that we form a deep comprehension with few, if any, of those areas.
The history of the remote control tells us that this issue is not a new one. The channel surfing made possible by the remote also invites people to pay attention in an unsustained way. I am not aware that anyone, apart from TV executives, regretted this phenomenon, perhaps because TV literacy was never regarded as highly as book literacy, which the Internet is seen as threatening. Nevertheless, the fact that television has changed to address the problem suggests that it is not insurmountable. Although traditional book literacy may fade somewhat in importance, new and useful forms of literacy better adapted to the Internet age may yet be on the way.
Chew your food! May 25, 2012Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202 , comments closed
An interesting article in this week’s Science discusses the interaction between diet and teeth in human history (registration required). The article summarizes some work presented at a conference on the “Evolution of Human Teeth and Jaws: Implications for Dentistry and Orthodontics,” National Evolutionary Synthesis Center, 28–30 March, Durham, North Carolina.
Some of the results presented do not surprise. For example, a comparative study of dental hygiene in two Maya villages in the northern Yucatan shows that a modern diet is bad for your teeth:
Young adults in the town of Dzilam González had three times as many cavities as those who live in a poorer, more isolated village nearby where people can’t afford soft drinks every day, according to a new study. In the poorer village, people eat a traditional diet of maize tortillas at every meal. The richer village has a pizzeria in its central square, shops with ads for soft drinks, dentists’ offices—and significantly more tooth decay in people aged 20 to 30….
Clearly, the refined sugars present in quantity in modern foods increase the risk of cavities.
The history of these refined sugars is less well known. It seems that they were introduced to the West from the Middle East as a result of the conquests of Alexander the Great. Their use increased steadily, to the detriment of the teeth of Europeans:
But the biggest spike was from 1800 to 1850, when Britain took control of the West Indies and imported far more sugar than previously. Sugar helped fuel the Industrial Revolution, which was a transition from an agriculture-based economy to a machine-based economy. In 1874, the British reduced the tax on sugar, and it became available to all social classes. “In London, mostly 1800 onwards, they have absolutely dreadful teeth,” Hillson says.
More surprising is the relation of diet to occlusion, the way in which the upper and lower teeth interface. Youth eating an industrial diet are known not merely for cavities but also for overbite, where the upper teeth overlap the lower ones. It seems that this condition may also be related to the Western diet. Our preference for processed foods means that we do not need to chew as hard as our ancestors did. However, chewing seems to stimulate the growth of the lower jaw:
Chewing stresses stimulate growth of alveolar bone, the thin layer of bone surrounding the roots of teeth, which causes children’s lower jaws to grow more robust and longer, with little overbite or malocclusion. As a result, when the ancient Egyptians closed their jaws, their upper and lower incisors (the four front teeth) met in an edge-to-edge bite, with good spacing between the teeth in their robust faces. People today, who eat softer foods, have a “scissors configuration” bite, in which the upper incisors protrude over the lower incisors, because the lower jaw is smaller than the upper one.
From this story, I infer that the common requirement for braces in Western children also stems from the design of our foods, our preference for soft foods especially.
On the whole, it appears that our teeth are designed for a diet of coarse, non-sweet foods but that we have developed a preference for soft, sugary foods. The result is an elevated risk of cavities and misaligned teeth, and the subsequent technological response of dentistry.
Naturally, the deployment of this technology is influenced by culture. Consider the stereotype of bad British teeth referenced by The Simpsons. The Guardian explains that the crookedness of British teeth relative to American teeth may be the result of different cosmetic sensitivities. In short, Americans set more stock in having a model smile, whereas the British consider it vain. Thus, braces are deployed more in North America, so that children there can have the smartest smiles.
So, our teeth tell quite an interesting story about our culture, in which our technologies of food and dentistry play a central role.
Event: Indefensible Missile Defence May 22, 2012Posted by Scott Campbell in : Events , comments closed
An event that might interest CSTV readers:
The Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI) will soon be featuring a lecture by Dr. Yousaf Butt on “Indefensible Missile Defence” presented by Project Ploughshares, Canadian Pugwash and Science for Peace.
“Indefensible Missile Defence: Securing the peaceful use of space for future generations.”
Wednesday, May 23, 2012 from 7:00 PM – 9:00 PM
CIGI Campus Auditorium, 67 Erb St. W, Waterloo, ON
Seating is limited, sign up now!
If you are interested in attending this FREE event, please RSVP to Debbie Hughes:
firstname.lastname@example.org or 519-888-6541 extension 7702
About the speaker:
Dr. Yousaf Butt is a scientific consultant to the Federation of American Scientists and a physicist in the High-Energy Astrophysics Division at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. He holds a Ph.D. in nuclear physics from Yale University and a dual B.S. in mechanical engineering and physics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Is your car too smart? May 18, 2012Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202 , comments closed
Robert Charette at IEEE Spectrum reports on complaints that computerized amenities in modern cars are too confusing for many drivers. Car producers are packing more and more computerized features into the cabins of cars for operators to interact with. Unfortunately, the operators sometimes have difficulty figuring out how to work their new toys. The MyFord Touch system, for example, has attracted complaints that it is too complex for people to operate.
To deal with the problem, Ford is trying to persuade dealers to become more expert in the operations of these new, in-car electronics. With greater training, dealers can then help to train buyers in the ins and outs of their new computerized gear.
Charette puts the problem down to poor design:
Of course, it might help if car designers spent a little more time with their human factors counterparts to make the operations of the electronics more transparent and easy to use. There has been several occasions where I would have been more than pleased to explain in detail to the designers of several of the electronic systems on my Toyota Sienna how they got it dreadfully wrong. Needing a couple of hundred page manual to explain how to use my car’s electronics is a symptom of the problem.
It would not be the first time that poor design sabotaged a new, in-car system. Early versions of BMW’s iDrive system were notoriously difficult to deal with, requiring drivers to use a joystick to navigate a hierarchical menu system to operate the simplest functions, e.g,. the radio, all while driving at speed. Usability has always been an issue for the software industry, which has a tendency to present functions in a way that prioritizes their abstract relationships rather than their practical uses. Now that cars are ever more computerized, these problems with software design have become problems for automotive design.
The response of having dealers train users is reminiscent of the problem of training new drivers when cars themselves were a new invention. In his book, “User unfriendly“, Joseph Corn documents how the first automobiles confounded their users. Cars were radically different than the familiar horse and buggy, and early operators experienced many problems with driving and just keeping their machines working. Auto manufacturers responded by training dealers enough to talk up the features of their cars, and by issuing manuals that purported to explain their purchases to new car owners. Neither effort was much of a success. The situation was amended only when new technologies made cars reliable enough to work without so much fuss by the drivers.
It may be that this will have to happen with in-car electronics too. That is, instead of training drivers to adapt to their gear, automakers will have to design the gear so that drivers can operate it without so much preparation.
404 Error: This blog not found May 17, 2012Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202 , comments closed
(Roman 92/Wikimedia commons)
Renny Gleason delivers a short and amusing TED talk about how some Web companies pimped their 404 error pages. The “404 Error” page is the one that you get when you request a Web page from a server and the server cannot find it. Instead of the page you wanted, you usually get a page with a bland, default error message like the one above.
What we have here is another example of the maxim that “form follows frustration“. Receiving the “404 Error” page is a frustrating experience (although I am not sure that it is as devastating as Gleason portrays it). Besides not getting the page that you wanted, you get a bland and unhelpful page with a cryptic error report and a lot of annoying white space. Rather than subjecting potential customers to this experience, Gleason and his associates realized that they had an opportunity to provide a more positive experience, and to “build the brand”.
Besides its cleverness and the amusement factor, this story raises the question: What other opportunities do you have to turn frustrating experiences into more positive ones?STV202 , comments closed
TechCrunch reports on a new feature in Facebook that allows users to pay to put their updates in front of eyeballs. At present, the article reports, only about 12% of friends and followers see your status updates. This level of readership exists because Facebook employs a mechanism to rate the importance of incoming posts and prioritizes those with the highest importance. Currently, importance is calculated based on how close a friend you are to the poster, and how many likes and comments the post has attracted already. The new service, Highlight, allows you to jump the queue, as it were, by paying to have the priority of your postings enhanced.
(Ja nobasu/Wikimedia commons)
This approach to prioritizing access to attention could be controversial. As Josh Constine points out in the TechCrunch article, the new setup could alter, for the worse, users’ understanding of the value of updates:
… it could erode the site’s sense of community. On Facebook, what’s supposed to matter is how interesting your posts are, not how deep your wallet is.
In the present setup, the queue of status updates visible to any user is already a form of advertising; Facebook arranges things so that people will talk most about goods and services they might like to buy or sell – advertising packaged as a subtle form of peer pressure, as Jaron Lanier has pointed out. The Highlight system would make this covert form of advertising more overt, which users may regard as overly intrusive or uncool.
The issue also brings to mind the discussion of the ethics of queues in Michael Sandel’s new book, What money can’t buy. Sandel notes that people tend to object to certain forms of queue jumping, such as paying scalpers $100s for tickets to campsites in public parks like Yosemite that are sold by the government for $20 a piece. There are basically two objections:
- The payments make the system unfair, since many campers cannot afford the scalpers’ prices.
- The payments undermine the purpose of the park. Since affluent campers can jump ahead in the queue, the less affluent are effectively barred from a resource that is meant to be universally available.
As Sandel observes, the effect is to break down the egalitarian nature of camping in public parks, which then undermines the basic sense of equality among all citizens that such public amenities are supposed to promote.
The Highlight system, if generally adopted, is vulnerable to the same sort of criticism. Allowing some posters to push their updates ahead in the queue could be regarded as unfair and as contrary to the purpose of the posting system. Of course, Facebook is a private company not a public amenity. However, users have been conditioned to view it as a free amenity and so could balk at the change anyway.
Facebook says that Highlight is merely a test, a trial balloon:
“We’re constantly testing new features across the site. This particular test is simply to gauge people’s interest in this method of sharing with their friends.”
So, it may not materialize in the end. Whatever the outcome of this test, it provides an interesting illustration of the general problem of organizing queues and how people perceive them in terms of fairness and purpose. (More material on queues and the ins and outs of their design can be found in The psychology of waiting lines by Donald Norman.)
Form follows frustration May 10, 2012Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202 , comments closed
Norman Ball, our director emeritus, once wrote an article entitled form follows frustration. The article related an example of how a design innovation resulted from a designer who found something that frustrated him and set out to fix it. The point of the article was twofold: (1) to note that the elimination of frustrating aspects of existing designs is a source of innovation and good design and (2) to remind us that we all too often simply learn to live with bad designs by adjusting our behavior to them.
I was reminded of the maxim that “form follows frustration” when I read an article on how a Danish designer modified trash cans in Copenhagen to deal with the mess left by disposable coffee cups. Sandra Hoj, the article reports, got fed up seeing public trash cans overflowing with the cups, creating an eyesore. To deal with the problem, she got to work and designed a tube that could be fastened to the garbage cans. The tube allows cups – minus their lids – to be dropped in and stacked up, thereby permitting them to be stored more efficiently and thus preventing the unsightly overflow. The new system seems to work, to judge from the photos posted to Sandra’s blog.
Alas, the City seems to have removed the unauthorized appendages. Hopefully, they can be persuaded to adopt the new design. In any event, kudos to Sandra Hoj and let us hope that more designers can turn unnecessary frustrations into opportunities for improvement.
Stereotypes and student cultures May 8, 2012Posted by Scott Campbell in : STV100 , comments closed
C.P. Snow warned us over fifty years ago to look for common ground between students of the liberal or literary arts and those of science and engineering. A recent survey done by Higher Education Strategy Associates offers some revealing similarities and differences, particular among humanities and engineering undergrads. To summarize:
- When asked if they Agree that “Being Challenged in School is Important to Me” and if they Agree that “I Prefer to Take Courses where the Instructor is an Easy Marker”, the results were very similar. That is, more than other groups, both want to be challenged and neither find “bird” courses attractive.
- When asked if they Agree that Classes that Require Application of New Concepts and Techniques are Enjoyable or if they Agree that Courses that Require Long Hours of Work are Enjoyable, the results were quite different. Engineers were much more likely to look to apply new concepts and techniques, and much more likely to enjoy long hours of work.
Clearly, the survey is hitting on a few stereotypes, such as engineers work hard and maybe even that they love getting new gadgets. The common perception is that change seems to drive technology, and technology seems to drive engineers, so I suppose these students don’t see much choice but to knuckle down and be prepared for long hours, adapting to a continuous stream of change. Yet, outside of research and development, engineering can be a very conservative field, for good reason! Nobody is going to build a bridge with new materials or techniques until absolutely certain it will not fall down. I’ve heard of “traditional” subdisciplines of engineering such as civil, electrical, or mechanical that haven’t changed their teaching curriculum for decades. Indeed, as David Edgerton points out in The Shock of the Old, “maintenance and repair are the most widespread forms of technical expertise” (p.80), not invention or research. Most of us (including working engineers) spend more time keeping technologies going than making wholly new ones.
On the humanities side there’s another possible discrepancy, of students who want to be challenged yet don’t want to apply new concepts. I wonder if the roadblock is of “new concepts” or “application”. One stereotype at work here might be the long intellectual history many philosophy, history or literature students face, which could leave the impression that there isn’t much room for anything new or even a preference for the past. Many humanities arguments do seem to have an endless quality. Or maybe it’s the problem of “application”, and a view that humanities is simply not about the application of anything beyond an understanding of the human condition. To borrow from Stanley Fish, the only honest appraisal of the humanities is that they are of no use whatsoever, and any attempt to justify or apply them is to not recognize their intrinsic value: “The humanities are their own good“.
What I’d like to take from the survey is that “artsies” and engineers really aren’t all that different, a view I do try to encourage in my students (who amount to about two-thirds engineers), and to remember that we’ve all got a lot more in common than our biases, assumptions and stereotypes might have us believe. Once we recognize that, we’re better able to bridge the gap between the two cultures.
Climate change seminar May 7, 2012Posted by Cameron Shelley in : Events , comments closed
Keith Hippel is giving a seminar presentation on “Tackling Climate Change: A System of Systems Engineering Perspective”, Wednesday, May 9, 11:30 a.m., E5 6111. The presentation, I believe, makes a case for a “fee and dividend” approach to tackling climate change.
Chain link art May 3, 2012Posted by Cameron Shelley in : STV202 , comments closed
A recent article in The Atlantic: Cities shows off some unusual chain link fencing. Normally, chain link fencing is just an unpleasant fact of life in the city scene, grating and unpleasant if not hidden away. However, Dutch designers of the Rotterdam group DEMAKERSVAN have developed a way of weaving chain link into fantastic variety of patterns. The “lace fence” comes in many faunal, floral, and abstract patterns, from lions and butterflies, to flowers and frilly doily patterns.
The fencing is so artistic that it is on exhibit at the Pompidou Centre in Paris.
Apparently, the designer, Joep Verhoeven, was inspired when he came upon a gashed chain link fence that had been stitched back up. So, here we have another example of good design emerging from serendipity, a chance, inspirational encounter.
It is fascinating to see that chain link fencing could be considered a welcome material for outdoor and indoor uses! Whether or not you will see much of it depends, I suppose, on the price. The US distributor’s website provides a nice brochure with the technical details, but says only that pricing is available on request. I guess that means that I cannot afford it.
Where would you like to see some lace fencing?