Sunday, July 30, 2006

Sign Usability: San Francisco Does the Right Thing

Last month, I noticed this road-sign usability issue (4th Street, between Folsom and Harrison in San Francisco):

The sign, which was about three feet behind the pole, points the way toward the local baseball park, AT&T Park, the name of which has changed an average of once every two years since its opening in 2000.

A week later, I saw that the City of San Francisco had moved decisively to improve the sign situation...

...not only making the sign visible but also following the wisdom of the previous sign, which restricted itself to the generic term “Ballpark.”

Old School Mash-Ups

It took my entire life, up until last week, to realize that “The Alphabet Song” (the one that goes, “A, B, C, D, E, F, G...”) and “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” have the same tune. Since then, I have asked several people whether they ever noticed this. No one had.

A few details and links: “The Alphabet Song,” originally from the 1830s, uses the same tune as “Twinkle Twinkle Star,” which in turn is a combination of the 1806 poem, “The Star,” by Jane Taylor and the 1761 French melody “Ah! vous dirai-je, Maman.”

If you want to see the various other ways the tune has been repurposed, including by Mozart in 1778, follow the links above.

Monday, July 24, 2006

Why You Will Probably Outlive the Average Life Expectancy

The average life expectancy in the United States is roughly 75 years for males, 80 years for females. Chances are, you will exceed the number that applies to you.

Because life-expectancy numbers are often based on recent mortality rates, you might be thinking that future advances in medicine will give you an edge. While that may be true, the surprise is that you already have an advantage over the original numbers just by being alive to read this.

Think of 100,000 people born the same year as you. A certain percentage of that original population will die each year, as represented by the distribution below. (The original numbers are from the U.S. Social Security Administration, from which I derived the measures and charts on this page.)

It’s not a happy thing, but each bar in the chart indicates the percentage of the original 100,000 people that died, or are projected to die, in each year. You don’t know which future bar has your name on it, but you do know that all the bars to the left of your age no longer apply to you. As a result, your current life expectancy is computed against the average of the remaining population.

In turn, that means your life expectancy is always increasing and that you have exceeded the original average practically from the beginning, as illustrated below (based again on the same Social Security data).

Note that if you are a 40-year old male, you’re already up more than two years from the original average. If you are a 40-year-old female, you’re up about a year and a half. And for those males that live into their mid-80s, they will have closed most of the gap in life expectancy versus females.

Of course, all this is based only on the male and female averages. Your life expectancy will rise or fall based on other important attributes. For example, if you are a chain-smoking alcoholic who lives on a Superfund site, you might want to lower your expectations.

Nevertheless, everything else being equal, this is a subject where it’s nice to know the odds are with you.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

George Harrison, Pirate?

While on vacation, I ran across A History of Pirates. I didn’t read it, but the cover caught my eye: Is that an All Things Must Pass era George Harrison as a pirate? You be the judge.

Small Town Volunteerism

I live in a dense urban setting. But once or twice a year, we decamp to a small town amid the corn fields of Illinois, where my wife is from.

It’s a place where you run into people like the guy who is a member of his town’s volunteer fire department. With a population of 2,500, his town is even smaller than the one we visit.

A volunteer ambulance driver, he was up at 2:30am the night before, responding to a random emergency. He was joined by two other paramedics. They all live close to the fire station, so they can get there within three minutes of their pagers’ ringing.

This type of volunteerism combines generosity with self-reliance in a way that’s natural to small communities. And while I’m not suggesting that everyone in these small towns is ready to charge out into the night for someone in need, I admire those who do.