Sunday, April 30, 2006

When is a Nutshell not a Nutshell?

I was in a bookstore yesterday and noticed that Java in a Nutshell, a popular reference book about the programming language Java, has become one of the fatter books on the Java shelf. The current, fifth edition is 1,252 pages and weighs 3.3 pounds—in paperback. In comparison, the book’s first version was 460 pages.

I then came across a blog post by Kathy Sierra that notes (a) the first public release of Java’s API had roughly 200 classes, and (b) Java’s current standard edition has something like 3,500 classes.

So Java in a Nutshell deserves praise for growing less than 3x between its first and current edition, given that the Java class library has grown 17x. And one could argue that the nutshell-ness of the book is in the concise coverage of topics, not the number of topics. After all, it’s not meant to be read straight through.

But that said, I can’t help thinking if a book exceeds 1,000 pages, or requires multiple volumes, it’s time to trade-in the nutshell metaphor—something more spacious would be less specious.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Hearing Glasses

Here is an inspired idea: “hearing glasses,” an eyeglass frame that also function as a hearing aid.

The problem being solved? Because they amplify all sound coming into the ear, traditional hearing aids are often useless in noisy environments. For example, I have a relative who avoids restaurants because she can’t hear what people at her table are saying amid the amplified background noise.

Hearing glasses start with the assumption that a person is most interested in sounds that she is facing. To distinguish sounds in front of a person, hearing glasses have an array of eight mini-microphones, four along each arm of the glasses frame. By using the tiny differences in time between when a sound reaches each microphone, hearing glasses’ integrated processor can calculate where the sound is coming from. (The human brain locates sound in a similar way, comparing when a sound reaches each ear.)

With sounds located, hearing glasses can amplify front-facing sounds—like the person talking to you—and diminish (without eliminating) rear-facing sounds. The glasses even have a charging station for when they are not being worn.

Hearing glasses have just been released in the Netherlands, where they were developed by the Delft University of Technology and Dutch company Varibel.

It’s such an elegant and useful idea that I really hope the product delivers on the promise.

[Originally seen at, “Improve your hearing with a new pair of glasses”]

Sunday, April 16, 2006

Where the U.S. Poverty-Rate Metric Came From

How to measure poverty is a subject of continual debate. In the process of reviewing the issue, a recent New Yorker piece included an interesting tale about Mollie Orshansky, a statistician that invented how the U.S. poverty rate is calculated:

From 1945 to 1958, she worked in the Department of Agriculture’s Bureau of Human Nutrition and Home Economics, where she worked on a series of diets designed to provide poor American families with adequate nutrition at minimal cost. In painstaking detail, the food plans laid out the amount of meat, bread, potatoes, and other staples that families needed in order to eat healthily.

In 1958, Orshansky joined the research department of the Social Security Administration, and decided to try to estimate the incidence of child poverty.... Orshansky used her food plans to calculate a subsistence budget for families of various sizes. For a mother and father with two children, she estimated the expense of a “low cost” plan at $3.60 a day, and of an even more frugal “economy plan” at $2.80 a day. Rather than trying to calculate the price of other items in the family budget, such as rent, heat, and clothing, Orshansky relied on a survey by the Agriculture Department, which showed that the typical American family spent about a third of its income on food. Thus, to determine the minimum income a family needed in order to survive, she simply multiplied the annual cost of the food plans by three. Families on the low-cost plan needed to earn at least $3,955 a year; families on the economy plan needed to earn $3,165.

Orshansky compared these figures with the Census Bureau’s records on pre-tax family incomes and concluded that twenty-six per cent of families with children earned less than the upper poverty threshold and eighteen per cent earned less than the lower poverty threshold. In total, she estimated that between fifteen million and twenty-two million children were living in poverty, a disproportionate number of them in single-parent households and minority neighborhoods.

[In 1964], Congress created the Office of Equal Opportunity, which used Orshansky’s method to determine eligibility for new anti-poverty programs, such as Head Start. Other federal agencies followed suit, and in 1969 the White House adopted a slightly modified version of Orshansky’s lower threshold—the one based on the economy food plan—as the official poverty line.

The article notes that, to this day, the same general method is in use, not because it’s the best—it has numerous, obvious problems—but because changing the measurement would change the poverty numbers, which would be politically unacceptable.

For the full article, see The New Yorker, Relatively Deprived: How Poor is Poor?

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Genetic Data’s Hammer and Nails

In Regrow Your Own, The New York Times covers research into regeneration of body parts. If other species like salamanders can regenerate various body parts, can humans be made to do the same?

It’s an interesting topic in general, but the part that caught my eye was this:

Regeneration is studied in only a few laboratories. It was not even on the agenda of the research planning meeting held last October by the California Institute of Regenerative Medicine, which was dominated by stem cell biologists.

One reason for this orphan status is that the model animals used by most biologists, like the roundworm, the fruitfly and the mouse, happen to be ones that do not regenerate.

The genetics of regenerating animals, like the salamander, are largely unknown. Hence the process of regeneration has received little attention from research biologists.

Now that’s a great example of how, as the saying goes, people with hammers (existing genetic data about a small number of species) only see nails (issues relevant to those small number of species).

Sunday, April 9, 2006

Windows XP and Tivo: Don’t Confirm When You Can Undo

For most Windows XP users, attempting to delete a file gets you this:

Are you sure you want to send “[file name]” to the Recycle Bin?

Despite its familiarity, this confirmation has long been scorned by user-interface designers. You can understand why by looking at a better approach from Tivo, which recently eliminated its confirmation for deletes. Then I’ll explain how you can get Windows XP to do the same thing.

Tivo: Doing Delete Right

Before Tivo’s March 2006 software update, if you pressed delete while you had a show selected, Tivo asked whether you really wanted to delete that show. Now, Tivo doesn’t ask; the show just goes away. However, the show goes to an area similar to Windows’ Recycle Bin, where the show resides for a while before permanently disappearing. Thus, if you make a mistake, you can recover the show.

So what’s the benefit? For the 99 times out of 100 where you do not make a mistake, you no longer need to do the equivalent of this:

You: I'd like to delete this show.

Tivo: Are you sure you want to delete that show?

You: Yes, I am sure.

That’s 99 useless confirmation clicks avoided. And for the one time you make a mistake, you can undo it with a few clicks. Thus, the extra clicks are only used for the exception, not the norm.

Windows XP: How to Delete Like Tivo

With its Recycle Bin and its “Undo” menu selection, Windows XP already has a way to undo mistaken deletes. The bad news is that Window XP nevertheless retains the “Are you sure...” confirmation for deletes. The lesser-known good news is that you can configure Windows XP to suppress the confirmation: Right-click the Recycle Bin icon, select “Properties,” uncheck “Display delete confirmation dialog,” and click “OK.” Deleted items will still go to the Recycle Bin but without the confirmation.

If you change that Windows XP setting, deleting files will feel righter, similar to Tivo’s new way of handling deletes.

Sunday, April 2, 2006

News vs. Blogs: Mobile Distinctions

The primary way I read news is via my Treo 650 PDA phone. By “news,” I mean traditional news a la The New York Times, BusinessWeek, or wire services. That’s different from blogs, which I read on a computer via an RSS reader. It’s interesting to consider how these distinct use scenarios evolved, because they tell a story about what works and why, at least for me, with mobile content.

First, why read news on a phone? For me, it’s about idle moments: waiting in line somewhere, holding my baby daughter while she sleeps, whatever. These are not situations where a computer is at hand, yet my phone is. Compared to carrying a particular magazine or newspaper, the phone gives me up-to-the-minute access to many news sources.

Okay, how do you read news on a phone? I’ve tried AvantGo (a free but proprietary gateway to content for mobile devices) and mobile RSS reading. They didn’t work for me as well as simply bookmarking a small number of news sites that have mobile versions and hitting those with the Treo’s built-in Web browser.

What’s wrong with using RSS on a phone to read news? Three issues:

  • Whereas most blogs have full-text RSS feeds, most traditional news sources have teaser feeds that require you to follow a link to the original story. Unless you have a special mobile RSS feed for your news source (you probably don’t), the links will take you to the normal news Web site, which probably won’t display well on your phone.
  • Yesterday’s news has relatively little value. If I didn’t get the chance to read any news yesterday, no big deal; I’ll just read today’s news, thanks, as opposed to using RSS to go back through the stuff I missed. I say this from experience: Back when I subscribed to the New York Times via RSS on the desktop, I often found myself needing to “mark all read” after a few days of RSS neglect. Besides, if something really interesting was in yesterday’s news, it’ll likely be followed-up in today’s news or referenced in the blogosphere, which I do track via RSS.
  • With traditional news sources, you know their update frequency, which removes one of the main reasons RSS is valuable: relieving you of needing to check when a site is updated.

Well then why not read blogs on a phone? A few reasons:

  • Most traditional news stories are self-contained, so when you view one on your phone, you read it, and you’re done. By contrast, blog entries often link to other content on the Web. The chance the linked-to content will work well on your mobile phone is low, which means you will likely be stuck doing something ridiculous like using your phone to email the link to yourself so you can view the page when you get back to your computer.
  • Unlike yesterday’s news, yesterday’s blog entries are worth going back for, at least with the bloggers I read. That makes me want to use RSS, but my preferred method of reading RSS is to visually scan through a long page of full-text entries (e.g., all unread entries from blogs in my “tech” folder). It works great on a big monitor; it does not work great on a tiny screen. Thus, the mobile versions of RSS readers like Bloglines don’t do it for me.

Of course, there are obstacles to reading news on your phone. You need a phone with a reasonably sized display and a high-speed wireless service, but both are commonly available today. More important, you need news sites that are formatted for the limited screen sizes of phones. Because it’s hard to squeeze advertising into such a small space, news providers have not stampeded to the wireless world, although some of the biggies are there anyway.

As suitable phones become more common, I expect to see more people divide their media like I have. Following the logic that drove traditional news providers to have Web sites in the first place, those that don’t have wireless versions will get them, employing whatever advertising or other revenue-generating schemes they can conjure. And just to blur the lines, traditional news providers—actually, particular people within news providers—will have blogs that I’ll read via RSS on the desktop.

All that said, a few disclaimers: Although I think there will be many people with similar needs to mine, I’m not claiming anything universal. For example, because I have a short walk to work, I don’t have a commuter’s idle time that might be well suited to getting news via podcast, which I could play on my phone’s MP3 software. And I’m usually around a computer, so my mobile phone is a minor supplement as a media platform. By contrast, if I had a job that kept me moving around town all day (like a real estate agent does), my mobile phone would likely become a primary platform for media as well as communication. And so on.

Exceptions aside, my point is that mobile content has ended up filling a specific niche in my world, in effect segmenting my media consumption. And it’s not that I’m reading more news. If anything, the displacement of news into my idle moments has opened up more time at the computer for blog reading (or writing). So perhaps the mobile-content revolution’s hidden opportunity is growth in non-mobile media. After all, something needs to fills the vacuum on the desktop caused by the shift of news (or music videos or whatever you’d like to predict) to the mobile platform.