Monday, November 28, 2011

Vienna Design Week and Pecha Kucha Night!

Hi Brain Hats!
As some of you may know, I am currently living in Austria as part of a really cool transnational research initiative sponsored by the European Union. I've had a great time at the Alpen Adria Universit├Ąt in Klagenfurt, which is a beautiful, friendly and remarkably Mediterranean-style town.
I've been working hard and learning a lot from the great research teams at AAU and I recently had the chance to present at the Pecha Kucha event that was held on the last night of Vienna Design Week. This weekend, I am back in Vienna and have met with one of the Pecha Kucha organisers, the very cool Maximilian Kamenar. Max pointed out to me that all of the talks from that Pecha Kucha soiree are on youtube.
So, without further ado, here is a link to my talk, from which you will find links to all of the others. Most of them are in German, but I wasn't feeling quite that brave yet, myself. Oh, and those of you who were at the first Ottawa Pecha Kucha night will find some of this presentation very familiar. There are a lot of new parts, but some of it is identical. Sorry about that but, really, in both instances, I thought the best way to introduce myself to a design community would be to challenge their theories and their faith.
It seems to be a great way to make new friends!
Please let me know what you think,

Friday, November 04, 2011

Science news: Please discuss.

This is going to just be a quick piece to try and start a discussion. If you're reading this please take a minute and provide some feedback. Ready? Here we go:

In the last two weeks, two really big things have happened in the realm of research science. Well, okay, that's a ridiculous statement. On any given day, hundreds or thousands of really cool things happen in the realm of research science.

Look, if you think I'm exaggerating, it's because you aren't reading the right journals or magazines or blogs or tweets. But I want to talk, briefly, about two very particular things that might just have a very strong effect on our work.

One of them is really cool.

The other one is horrible.

They can both provide a great learning experience for us all.

A little over a week ago, the entire archive of the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society was made freely available to the general public. If you don't know it, the Philosophical Transactions is the original name of what became the Proceedings of the Royal Society, arguably, the first, oldest, and longest running scientific journal.

Wonder why I say "arguably"? Ask a French scientist or, you know, offer me a beer and five minutes of listening.

Anyway, I now have a pdf on my desktop allowing me to read the original "A Letter of Benjamin Franklin, Esq; to Mr. Peter Collinson, F. R. S. concerning an Electrical Kite", from 1751.

Another pdf I had to look for right away is the 1671 article by Sir Isaac Newton "containing his new theory" on the relationship between light and colours.

Cool, eh?

What are you going to look up first?

The other piece of big news that I'd like to propose for discussion is the confession this week of Diederik Stapel, PhD, who admitted that he has been falsifying data for most of his 20 year career as a well-respected social psychologist. He has been heavily published, and has supervised more than a dozen PhDs. Worse than all of that, his work has influenced public, private, academic, corporate and medical opinions and actions... ...and it was all based on falsified data.

To frame a selfish question that we could all be asking right now: In this time of anti-scientific naysaying from high offices, how will Stapel's actions effect our prospects, and how should we respond?

Any thoughts?

Thursday, November 03, 2011

Writing an Academic Paper in 600 Words or Less.

Hi Brain Hats!
A few years ago, a friend of mine asked if I could help his daughter, a freshman, improve her grades and her opinion of school. Bright and very capable, she just didn't understand how to write a paper for a university course. What follows is the email I sent him. Please let me know what you think. Was I way off base? It's certainly possible. I mean, it still reads well to me, but I could be wrong. It wouldn't be the first time today.

Writing an Academic Paper (in 600 words or less)
John NA Brown

The idea of an academic paper is that you want to tell somebody your opinion, and you want them to see where it comes from.  You’re showing them the sources of your information and you’re showing how you put all of those ideas together in order to build the opinion you have now.

It’s like writing out your side of an argument before the other guy even opens his mouth.  He’s all set to argue and you just put out your hand and say: “Here, read this.  I don’t need to say anything.  This sheet of paper can argue better than you can.” Then you hand it to him.  If you’ve written it well, all of your ideas are backed up, and any disagreements you could imagine have already been dealt with, too.

A university professor, or the Teaching Assistant working for them, wants to see a few simple things in a paper.  If you can show them those things, they will believe that you are taking the work seriously and you will probably get a good grade.  Those things are:

a) that you have an opinion (or “thesis”) you are trying to “prove”
you show that by stating your idea right at the start of the paper

b) that you have the right kind of information to back up your opinion
you show that by listing important authors who have talked about this idea before and summarizing or even quoting what they had to say.  You can use the same quotes your prof uses in a lecture, but make sure to cite a written source for it.  Use as many good sources as you can (you can usually base this on the names mentioned in lecture) but as a rule, use books or journals, not websites.

c) that you have thought about what others might criticize
this is that imaginary argument.  What might be weak about your idea, or the ideas of the people you’re quoting?  Somebody, somewhere has criticized these ideas before.  Find out who, summarize their criticism and, if you can, show why it’s wrong.  You can probably find writers who have criticized the critics… there have been a lot of opinions in the history of the written word, and a whole lot of them can be found in Google Scholar.

d) that you have either proven or failed to prove your idea
to me, this is the coolest part.  You stated your case, you showed your reasoning (and that you have some idea about where these ideas come from) and now… well, now you can be either right or wrong.  Really!  If you prove that your original idea is right, and you show it through references and good reasoning – then you win!  And if you prove that your original idea is wrong, and you show THAT through references and good reasoning – then you STILL win!

Academics want a good argument.  Not bickering, mind you, but a good, well thought out, intricately researched, cleverly reasoned argument.  Prove your original idea is right or wrong; a real academic will judge you on the reasoning and research, not on the original idea.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

The Song of Technological Progress

There is a chorus singing somewhere just out of sight, and if you listen, you can hear the echo of their voices in every lab and every office in the world.

The melody carries through our portable phones and our cars, and through every modern transaction you conduct. The rhythm is syncopated with the tapping of my keyboard as I type these words, and the backbeat is in time with the microsaccadic movements of your eyes as you try to focus past the glare on your monitor to read them.

This is the Song of Technological Progress, as it is sung in the 21st Century. 

And the words they’re singing? The lyrics of this omnipresent muzak are hardly important so long as everyone keeps humming in time. In fact, it would probably be better for all of us if we were to just mumble smilingly along like a politician singing his national anthem and forget about the meaning… better for us as developers and thinkers and planners and Engineers…

But as humans; as humans it would help us to listen to the words, to try and drag the meaning of them out into our shared understanding.They are familiar words. As programmers and Computer Scientists, as technicians and office workers and especially as Ergonomists, we sing these words all day long. The tune has grown more popular than ever before but the words... what has become of the words?

“Human-centered design” is in there somewhere, as is “intuitive” and “ergonomic”, but just like “trusted” and “proven” and “reliable” and “guarantee”, the words have lost all meaning under the sway of the powerful jingle that has everyone singing and humming and drumming 24 hours a day.

Well, I guess I have to admit that these words haven’t lost all meaning...

Now they all seem to mean: “BUY THIS!”

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

From the pen of a former student and trusted friend, a message has arrived bearing political news from Kanada.

By the time these few words reach you, you will have learned the terrible truth: the revolution has failed.
No doubt you will read accounts of our failed enterprise from the State propagandists.  Allow me to share with you the truth.  Defeats in the East, hardship in the cities, and corruption among the powerful led us to the capital with a petition for Her Majesty.   Please believe me when I tell you that any tales of Anarchists, Levellers, or Coalitionists within our ranks are false!  We were but a collection of peasants, machinists, and the unemployed with a priest at our head.  Our procession had not yet reached the Langevin Block when poor Georgiy Apollonovich was cut down.  The Tories have no more pity for a bishop than a dog.  The night was a whirl of sabre and horse.  I became separated from our group and hid in the strand until the Tartars had quit the hill and stole back to our old flats under cover of darkness.
The world is an ocean now: always in motion and never still.  Mikhail Georgiyich Ignatiev is lost to us and the little Canadian, Lukian, has fled - his faction all but extinct.  Stepan Osipovich stalks the palace unchallenged now and I live in fear for our motherland.  As I write, the cossacks seize the Post Offices and railways, and the people - oh, the people, Ivan - the people are fools.  They sat in quiet repose and did nothing.  Have the indignities heaped upon us been so few that they must call for more?  May God curse them.
But take heart, Ivan!  Voices in the underground bring word that Yakov has the strength of the zemstvo behind him and has taken to the hills surrounding the capital!  Does it not fire the imagination?  That is should be Yakov of all men!  Do nothing foolish, brother.  Remain in Vienna's shadow and heed your studies well; we will have need for men such as you in the short years to come.  It will take time for Yakov to organize - perhaps as many as four years - but soon, Ivan, soon we will come down from the mountains and there shall be  a reckoning of accounts.
-- Gerahd Urvanovich Francisek

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Please vote for those who can't... like me!

As I write this, I am on a train from Klagenfurt, Austria, through the Alps. Tonight I will be in the Netherlands, where I plan to spend two weeks attending a seminar at the Eindhoven University of Technology. The university, called TU/e, is one of the five partners I'm hoping will grant me a joint PhD in about three years' time. This will be my first chance to see the university, to meet the professors there who interviewed me via skype last year, to see the facilities I hope will allow me to build the first prototype of a new invention. The professor presenting the seminar is an international expert in the field, and I am very excited to be travelling, through these mountains, to this place, for these purposes, and yet...

...and yet my thoughts are far from here.

Canada is having the most important election of my lifetime, and I'm not able to vote.

There is a well-established process in place to allow overseas Canadians to vote. In fact, the problem seems to be precisely that the process is so very well-established. On paper, it is very clear:
      1. Get a copy of Form EC 78500-X (07/2010).
      1. Fill out the form, including a return address, and send it to Elections Canada. Before 6PM on April 26th.
      2. Once there, the form will be manually checked to make sure that it is legible and that the information is both correct and complete.
      3. If my Form EC 78500-X (07/2010) is correct, then Elections Canada will send me a ballot for my riding back home. If not, they will notify me, and I will have to resubmit a corrected version. This iterative cycle continues until the form is acceptable and a ballot can be sent to me, or until 6PM on April 26th.
      4. Once the ballot arrives, I will fill it out and return it to Elections Canada before Election Day.
And there, to misquote Shakespeare, is the rub. The election was called on March 26 and Election Day was set for May 2nd, leaving me 20 business days in which to successfully execute steps 1-5 as explained above. How hard could that be? Well, for me, that would be impossible.

As I mentioned, I am on my way to a seminar. I will be staying in a pension, a small hotel. Even if that were an acceptable address according to Elections Canada (and I wouldn't want to wager more than lunch money on that possibility) even if it were, I didn't get a confirmed address until yesterday, the day before Form EC 78500-X (07/2010) was due in Canada. No problem, right? Just fill out the form on-line and let them print it out. Do they print it out and then have someone check it, or can they evaluate it while you're both on-line and give you feedback before making a hard copy?

Well, no, that's not an option at all as there is no on-line application. We can all understand why, right? I mean, sure, a lot of people aren't comfortable with on-line security... ...though a whole lot of Canadians do bank that way, and file their taxes that way, and shop, arrange travel, and handle their stocks, bonds and mortgages that way.

But sure, Elections Canada are being safe, right? And anyway, Email exists for the very purpose of rapid communication, right? I mean, I'm riding through Gasteinertal right now and, if I can pick up a signal, I could send an encrypted, scanned copy of Form EC 78500-X (07/2010) right from the train.

Wireless too scary?You're one of those folks who worries about encryption? I can't blame you at all, at all. I mean, every government and business official who is addicted to their crackberry uses it all day long and it really isn't all that much like radio, but I can grok your concerns, so I won't push it.

Tell you what, let's do it “Old School” (to use a phrase that, really, I think is only used in Hollywood these days, and then only to make it obvious that the person speaking is as old as me).

Anyway, yes, we could use one of those old-fashioned, noisy and annoying fax machines. I might have a hard time finding a fax machine I can use, but a lot of folks still have them and, you know, they are still used by other branches of the Federal Government of Canada, as well as the courts and the police and, you know Interpol and groups like that, so they should really be secure enough for Elections Can- no?

Really, you ask, sounding suspiciously like John Cleese in a very clean cheese shop, really?

Really. None of those methods are secure enough for Elections Canada.

Not fax, not phone, not Internet,
No on-line form for me,
Like Robinson Crusoe,
They're primitive as can be.

Feel free to go back and sing that last bit, if you haven't already. Don't get the tune? Picture an official from Elections Canada wearing a baggy red rugby shirt and a floppy white sailor's hat and try again. Still not clicking? Read it out loud, pausing at the line breaks, and see if anyone else in the room starts singing.

There you go!
[Note: This may only work with a North American in the room.]

Is it any wonder that crowd-sourcing scares control freaks?

And speaking of control freaks, let me digress for a moment and discuss the last Federal election. Last election,the officials at a polling station in Ottawa tried to tell me that I couldn't vote. Despite my passport and driver's licence, they said I had to show them a bill that had been sent to me at my current address... as though they trusted the phone company to verify my citizenship, more than they trusted the passport office.

I pointed out this flaw in their reasoning and they told me that this was a new requirement. By quoting the elections act, right there in front of a long line of university students who were being systematically turned away for the same reason, I got the attention of someone a little higher up. His... well, his instinct for self-preservation helped him to realize that it would be better to allow me my legal right to to vote than to sign and print his name at the bottom of my handwritten copy of his ridiculous demands.

As I was leaving, I pointed out to the students (off to the side, in their own segregated line) that all Canadians have the right to vote at any open polling station in the country and that they shouldn't leave without doing so, despite the shenanigans of the officials in charge.

Anyway, the point of this story, and I promise it wasn't just to point out that Elections Canada could use a laugh track or that it is out of touch with the state of electronic communications and human interaction in the 21st Century. No, they've done that more eloquently than I possibly could by threatening a $25,000 fine for anyone using Twitter or some parts of Facebook on Election Night.

I mean, write what you want on some parts of Facebook, but the same words on other parts of Facebook will cost you $25,000 - who could compete with that?

No, the point of this story is that I won't be voting this year, despite trying my very best to make it work. I couldn't find a way to do it without involving someone else in the process. Some one with a stable address who could receive the ballot and courier it to me, so that I could complete it and send it on. According to Elections Canada that would have been cheating, and it is much more important to me to be honest during this election than to try to win at any cost.

I sure wish more people felt the same way.

At least, that's my opinion. I could be wrong, It wouldn't be the first time today.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Reposting from a year ago- Oh, Canada!

FRIDAY, MARCH 26, 2010

Oh, Canada! Ta dee dum dee dum daaa...

Now, I could be wrong, but it seems to me that our Prime Minister did something really clever a few weeks ago, and I just don't understand why no one is talking about it. Let me tell you what I think might have happened, and you can decide if it's all my imagination.

Like a lot of other Canadians, I watched a few key events of the Vancouver Olympics with friends and strangers in my neighbourhood pub. We cheered and we laughed and we shouted "LU!!" and when the National Anthem was played, we stood and we sang along.

Some people belted it out, but most of us sang it in a normal speaking voice.  Where I was, most of the crowd was singing in English, but there were always a few of us singing in French, and we all seemed to agree that the two overlapped very nicely. Everything else pretty much stopped for the eighty or ninety seconds it took for us to belt out that song, and there was always at least a little cheering afterwards. And a funny thing happened...

There we were, facing whichever TV was nearest, and the camera panned past the athletes, and cut to the crowd and cut to flags waving and cut to the VIP area, and showed us the Prime Minister, and- and he wasn't singing.

Do you remember?  BC Premier Gordon Campbell was belting it out and waving his flag totally unheeding of the people around him, and there stood our PM, eyes down and mouth closed, looking uncomfortable and bored.

Once the singing and cheering was done, everyone at my local was talking about it.  Some were laughing and some were furious and no one put a partisan slant on it. We all saw it, and we all agreed it was wrong. We didn't all agree on how wrong it was, or what it might mean, but those differences of opinion made for a fair bit of the regular conversation for the next few days. A lonely voice suggested that he didn't like to sing in public, but some wag called out: "Unless he's got a piano and Yo Yo Ma!", and there just wasn't any arguing with that.

And for a while the internet was on fire with it.  It seemed to me that a lot of Canadians were pretty upset about it, and were saying so in person and in public and on-line. I commented to a friend that this might be a mistake that can't be defended. And a funny thing happened...

A few days later, the Governor General read out the speech from the throne and, at the end of a paragraph about recent and upcoming celebrations of Canadian history, she read:  "Our Government will also ask Parliament to examine the original gender-neutral English wording of the national anthem."

Conservatives were up in arms, the press covered it obligingly, and after a few days of loud ranting on every news site in the country, the decision was made not to change the lyrics after all. Major news outlets expressed surprise at the PM' s strange announcement and at his sudden about face.  The Globe and Mail even ran an accompanying photo of the PM singing the anthem (with a hidden caption pointing out that the photo was from a different event) [].

It reminded me of one of the great lines from Macbeth: " is a tale, Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, Signifying nothing."  

There certainly was a lot of sound and fury, and it came and went quickly, and it changed nothing... or almost nothing.

Ever since then, if you Google a series of words like: "Harper, Not Singing, Lyrics, National Anthem, Olympics", instead of video clips and still shots of the PM not singing our anthem, or any of the on-line discussions that were all over the place for a few days, all you get is coverage of either the official news release about the intent to change the lyrics, or the follow up saying that no changes would be made.

So, I'm kind of thinking that maybe our Prime Minister, or someone on his staff, staged that little shouting match just to make that little faux pas go away.  What do you think? Am I on to something here, or not?

I think so but I could be wrong. It wouldn't be the first time today...

Saturday, January 29, 2011

THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS AN ERGONOMIC WORKSTATION. (Part 1 of a new series on Things That Ergonomists Get Wrong)

Humans evolved while walking. Or, if you prefer, we walked while evolving. The curvature of our spine is unique among the animals. A lot of anthropologists, including me, think that the curve shows that we forced ourselves upright to adapt to walking around in high grass instead of hanging around in trees.

Animals evolve according to their environments. Their behaviour and their bodies work together and against each other to respond to their environments in different ways, and some of those are "better" or more successful than others. That success dictates who gets to reproduce and who doesn't. Over time this continuing action changes both the form and the behaviour of the species - that's what evolution is.

Environments in which we evolved are "natural" to us. If you put a fish in the open air and sunlight of the desert, it will die. That's because a fish has evolved in a way that requires at least partial immersion in clean, oxygen-rich water. On the other hand, even the richest, oxygen-filled water will not suit a human because our lungs are closed at one end and are built to separate oxygen from captured gas, not from passing liquid.

Thanks to Jacques Cousteau and Emile Gagnan, we can use a machine to survive underwater, in one sense. S.C.U.B.A. has made it possible for three generations of humans to spend time underwater. Unfortunately, ignorance of the other environmental factors of life underwater has killed and continues to kill hundreds of people every year. We have the tool, but we have not evolved with it enough to use it safely. Some of us have learned to adapt to it, and some of them have adapted safely, but adaptation is not evolution. Adaptation means that we are working against our nature, not in flow with it.

We can thrive in these environments that compliment our evolution, and we can thrive in environments where we have learned to adapt through behavioural or technological means. In the second case, though, a conscious and deliberate change in behaviour must be maintained.

A S.C.U.B.A. diver who doesn't carefully plan out the time and depths of her dive may die or be seriously injured. The same is true of a diver who loses track of her depth, or her mix, or her breathing rate, or her rate of ascent or many other aspects of her environment which she never has to consider in her natural environment. Her great-grandparents never had to consider these things, nor did any of their ancestors before them, In that way it is against our nature to worry about these things, so the diver has to make a conscious effort to consider them - and to maintain that consideration during her entire time under water. She even has to be careful of what she does for a day or so before and after a dive.

A diver might want to spend her entire day following a coral reef full of tiny, skittering shrimp and grinning eels, while warm water surrounds her in comfort that feels better and, somehow, safer than open air. But the diver must be aware that this not her natural environment and that her tools are not yet good enough to allow her the full freedom of using them without thinking.

Does that make sense? I hope so, because here's the leap:

A computer workstation is also an environment that is unnatural to humans. The tools exist to allow us to interact with the computer, but there has not yet been any interconnected evolution between the machine and the user. Oh, we have adapted the typewriter as a data entry tool, and the television as a data output tool, we've even adapted the office worker's workspace as a computer user's workspace, but none of it has evolved naturally, so we should take none of it for granted.

Contrary to what nearly every ergonomist will tell you, there is no such thing as an ergonomic chair, or desk, or monitor or headset or mouse. That's because most ergonomists don't consider the issue deeply enough. They are like doctors who only diagnose towards expected and anticipated treatments. They have been taught what to measure and which standards to ensure and, while some of them are very, very good at that, they will always find a way to recommend one of the predetermined solutions that they have been taught to deliver. Usually that's a commercial product.

What is much more rare is an ergonomist who understands the underlying physiology, or the psychology or the engineering behind how humans really work, and who see it all in the context of evolutionary change, adaptation and environmental health. They look at desks and mouses and chairs and they know that these are tools that we are still learning to adapt to better suit each other and to better suit the user.

As an ergonomist, and as a human factors specialist, and as a techie, I've been shown dozens of these tools. Usually, someone is nodding towards a pile of them, pushed into a corner of the home office or into a desk drawer - a heaping testimony to the practice of throwing money at a problem.

Usually, by the time someone finds me, they've been through a few standard ergonomists, and they've tried several different commercially-driven solutions. They've tried the alternative mouses and trackballs and all of the other nonsense out there and they still ache in their shoulder, or they can't fully unclench their fingers, or their specialist is telling them that they should really wear a brace or have surgery. I've worked with people who can hardly use their hands because of the repetitive strain of mousing. People whose arms or fingers are numb, or whose palms, wrists, elbows or backs ache; people who are losing their ability to work without pain.

The truth is that none of that pain is necessary. All injuries heal more quickly if you catch them earlier. If you are injured now, it will take time for you to heal. The first step towards that healing, and this is the tricky part, the first step has to be to stop injuring yourself.

Remember how I said the first step is tricky? That's because the first step isn't to stop using a particular mouse or chair or desk or keyboard. The way to stop injuring yourself also isn't to stop using a computer. Computers are vastly adaptable. The way to stop injuring yourself is to stop trying to adapt your aching body to an environment that is unnatural. Don't try to sit at a desk for eight hours a day. Don't try to sit in some ludicrous, predetermined, one-size-fits-all posture. Remember that we are the first generation of humans to spend more time sitting than standing, and well... stop it.

Walk around. Shift your weight from one leg to the other. When you're sitting you can do the same thing. Use different postures, work at different angles and at different heights. Move as much as you can, and as differently as you can.

Here are two pieces of advice that never fail to relieve pain.

Set a stack of hardcover books next to your chair, just a little forward from straight under your shoulder. Pile them high enough so that your hand rests on it when your arm is nearly straight, and mouse down there for a while.

Is your shoulder and neck pain lessened?

Put your keyboard on your lap and let it tip away from you, rather than towards you, before you start typing. Do you feel some relief in your wrists?

Remember, before the age of assembly lines and standard schooling, the only humans who spent all day sitting in the same posture, doing the same repetitive motions were galley slaves.

Stand up and shake off the tools that bind you. You have nothing to lose but your pain.

There are hundreds of other simple solutions out there waiting for you to discover them. There are also expert ergonomists who can teach you. Just be mindful of any ergonomist who seems intent on selling you a shiny, new set of really cool, ergonomic shackles.


This is how I'm feeling right now and I won't make any claims that this opinion is going to stand the test of time. Why, maybe someday I'll learn a great secret and all of my prior reasoning will crumble before the light of corporate, profit-driven health care. Anyway, please drop me a line and let me know what you think. I could be wrong about the whole idea - it wouldn't be the first time today.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

A thought for the day... Please discuss amongst yourselves.

A thought occurred to me the other day, and I think it might be a good one. I thought I'd share it out here and see if anyone else agrees. Please drop me a line and let me know if you think I'm way off base.

"The difference between intent and practice is entirely a matter of self-discipline. This is true in all endeavours regardless of circumstance, but nowhere is it more clear than in interpersonal relationships."

I think it's a nice little turn of phrase, but I could be wrong. It wouldn't be the first time today.