Sub-prime = Euphemism

I’m studying a subject called Risk Managment for Finance Sector Enterprises at the moment, so of course it mentions the sub-prime crisis and the global financial meltdown. In a couple of places. However, one of the links provided out to supplementary reading material is a great article about people such as Steve Eisman who knew about the disaster well in advance, called The End of Wall Street’s Boom by Michael Lewis. Here’s a particularly scary quote from it:

he draws a picture of several towers of debt. The first tower is made of the original subprime loans that had been piled together. At the top of this tower is the AAA tranche, just below it the AA tranche, and so on down to the riskiest, the BBB tranche—the bonds Eisman had shorted. But Wall Street had used these BBB tranches—the worst of the worst—to build yet another tower of bonds: a “particularly egregious” C.D.O. The reason they did this was that the rating agencies, presented with the pile of bonds backed by dubious loans, would pronounce most of them AAA.

Yes, this is how I can justify blogging as studying for the exam this week.

Usability / Cruisability

I am not a usability expert, but I know people who are.

With that disclaimer out of the way, I’d like to take a look at one of the worst designed interfaces we face on a regular basis: the automobile.

Maybe you’ve heard this complaint about SMS, or Qwerty-keyboards, or MS Windows, but it is the common car that astounds me with how out-of-step it is with the current practice of making things as easy as possible to use. Of course, the basic interface of steering wheel, indicator, dashboard, pedals, horn and gear-stick has been with us for a long time. However, technology now allows us to make this interface significantly better, and the fact that we have been able to make usability improvements (such as automatic gears) proves that big changes are possible.

If you take a look at some general usability principles, two important ones are for aspects of a user interface to be consistent, and for the interface to use concepts familiar to the user (including familiar terminology and metaphors). In the computing field, these principles are tried and true, and there are many examples of where they are put to good use.

Menus are a consistent feature of all applications. You expect that certain menus will be present (open, exit, help, etc.), no matter the application. Where menus are in multiple applications, they will behave consistently. All Microsoft Office applications have the same “open file” menu. Because of consistency, once you’ve learned a behaviour about menus in one application, you’ve learned it in all other applications.

Web browsers use the familiar metaphor of a book in their interfaces: there are pages, you can bookmark them, and you can turn back to previous pages. Operating Systems use the familiar metaphor of a office in their interfaces: there are folders that you can store files in, and when you’re done with them, you put them in the recycle bin. In both these cases, the metaphors and language allow the user to utilise previous learning in dealing with the new interface, and enable the user to take educated guesses on how to accomplish tasks (without reading a manual).

However, to drive a car, not only do you need to read up about it, you need to embark on a specialist course of study. In Victoria, before you can take the wheel (and get your “L” plates), you need to read a 170 page book, and pass a written test on it. Then, you before you are allowed out on your own (and get your “P” plates), you need to practise for 120 hours and pass a driving test. And, after all that, the government doesn’t trust you to have really gotten it yet, and for at least the next three years, you’ll be forced to comply with additional conditions.

Okay, I get it. Cars are a little more dangerous than computers. We should be taking every care to make sure new drivers are as prepared as possible for driving, to protect their lives, their passengers lives, and the lives of anyone who goes near a road. But if it is so important to have cars driven as well as possible, why do we deliberately make it so difficult?

Cars are not consistent. You steer by turning a wheel. You indicate by flicking a lever. You break by pushing a pedal with your foot. You honk a horn by pressing a button with your finger. The speed is shown by a dial that goes in a circle clockwise. The clock itself is probably digital. The petrol level is shown by a gauge that is vertical. Also, none of these are consistent with the ignition, the cruise control, the de-mister, the radio, the wing-mirror adjuster, or the door locks. Every function has to be separately learned. Many need to be re-learned for each car (e.g. indicator lever swapped with wiper lever).

Cars are not familiar. Sixteen year olds who get into a car for the first time have no prior experience that they can draw upon to understand how they work. (Unless, of course, they’ve been playing racing games on their games consoles and their parents have forked out for the full set of car peripherals.) Unlike when cars were invented, teenagers now have plenty of relevant and familiar experiences, such as normal games controllers including joysticks, and computers with keyboards, mice, and even touch-screens. Cars could be designed to take all of this into account.

Cars have been with us since the 18th century, and despite some attempts to improve the experience (including some confused or underwhelming attempts) their current usability is clearly not at a 21st century standard. The standard required to gain a full license is an indication of the degree of failure here.

Of course, there is another way to view this. If it is acceptable to require a heavy-weight licensing regime to ensure that users are sufficiently skilled to use a tool that is of such value and widespread in its use, then perhaps the lesson is not for the automotive industry, but for the computing industry. Computers are much easier to use than cars. They are already a tool that can destroy lives. Do they need to be any easier?

Sixth Sense

Although Pattie Maes doesn’t know of me, I have known of her for over a decade now, since I started my career looking at intelligent agents in the AI group at the Telstra Research Labs. I haven’t been paying any attention to her stuff recently, which turns out to be a bit of an oversight, as her stuff is just so incredible cool.

Her Fluid Interfaces Group has produced a prototype of something they call SixthSense. There’s a demo of it in the video below, from when she spoke at the recent TED conference.

It does pose the question though – if we could pick another sense to add to our existing five, what would it be? I think I’d like to have an electromagnetic sense, able to detect the direction of north, and avoid hammering into power cables in the walls. Or maybe I’d pick “spider sense”, if I didn’t have to wear the costume that came with it.

SixthSense is not really another sense, but more of an augmented reality tool, that supplements the world around us with information we wish was there.

Female of the Species

All too often the achievements in Australia have a qualifier attached. It isn’t the biggest wind farm in the world, but it is the biggest wind farm in the Southern Hemisphere. It isn’t the tallest ferris wheel in the world, but it is the tallest ferris wheel in the Southern Hemisphere. It isn’t the longest jetty, but it is the longest wooden jetty in the Southern Hemisphere.

When all the achievements in a list are qualified in that way, it diminishes the sense of achievement. In this case, suggesting that all the best stuff is in the Northern Hemisphere, but if you’re stuck in the Southern Hemisphere, then perhaps Australia is not too bad a place to be.

This Sunday (8th March) is International Women’s Day. In honour of that, I thought I’d put together a list of a few brilliant people whose achievements aren’t qualified by being the “first woman to”, but who are simply outstanding. And who happen to be women. So, it’s worth shining a bit of extra light on their achievements at this time of the year.

Angela Isadora Duncan (1877-1927) was a musician and dancer. She considered ballet “ugly and against nature”, so pretty much went off and created modern dance. She founded several schools that spread her approach to barefoot, improvised dancing, and so we have it today.

Amalie Emmy Noether (1882-1935) was an accomplished mathematician who also made significant contributions to physics. Although her mathematical discoveries were foundational in the area of abstract algebra, what’s known as Noether’s Theorem is considered one of the most important mathematical theorems ever proved in the field of physics and some physicists have claimed it as on par with the Pythagorean Theorem.

Ayn Rand (1905-1982) was a philosopher and popular writer. Her most famous work is probably the novel Atlas Shrugged, published in 1957, which concerns her philosophy of Objectivism. Her ideas have been extremely influential in the arena of capitalism and former US Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan was one of her keen students earlier in his life. Greenspan’s approach to regulating capitalist markets can be said to be a prime cause for the extent of the last couple of decade’s economic growth in the US and the subsequent global financial crisis.

Hedwig Eva Marie Kiesler (1913-2000), better known as Hedy Lamarr, was a popular Hollywood actor in her day. More significantly (from my point of view), she invented a communications technology that is now used in every new mobile phone and laptop. Together with a friend, she was granted a patent in 1942 for a “Secret Communications System” that the genesis for spread-spectrum communications that has evolved into 3G, WiFi and Bluetooth.

Vera Rubin (1928-) is an astronomer who was responsible for proving the existence of dark matter in the universe. This is pretty important as it turns out that the vast majority of the universe is made up of dark matter, and a lot of astrophysics now relies on dark matter to explain it. Actually, it turns out that most of dark matter is actually dark energy, but this doesn’t diminish the discovery.

I don’t suggest any of these people are perfect, nor that I agree with all their views, but their contributions to science and culture are profound, and I suspect most people didn’t know about them. As for myself, I was inspired by the list of scientists mentioned in the book Pythagoras’ Trousers.

Post-modern Post-bookclub

Even though it was my turn to stay home on bookclub night last month, I did actually read the book anyway. My take on bookclub is to write my thoughts into this blog and whoever reads this is welcome to comment. Or not. It was a post-modern novel this time, so alternatives to traditional, in-situ bookclub discussion are completely appropriate.

The Raw Shark Texts

Jaws meets Memento meets The 39 Steps meets Tristram Shandy

I tried to get this. I really did. I hung on – hoping for something. Something that never came. Almost, but not quite.

It is difficult to talk about or explain The Raw Shark Texts, the first novel by UK author Steven Hall, without giving away some of the surprises. I don’t want to give any spoilers, as it is the mystery and surprises that were the most rewarding parts of the book for me. In this way, it reminded me of The 39 Steps – the main protagonist has no idea what is going on, neither does the reader, and the fun is from finding it out together.

Hall has training in Fine Arts, and apparently produced artwork with a textual element. This background is apparent in the book, with something akin to ASCII art featuring in the story and even forming part philosophy underpinning the story’s universe. It was a very interesting idea, but didn’t quite work for me as a plot device.

The title is a pun on Rorschach (ink-blot) Tests where the reader is urged to come up with their own interpretation of what is happening in the story. Unfortunately, I found enough inconsistency with different interpretations that I couldn’t find any that really worked, although I could appreciate the story as a bunch of clever ideas.

My rating: 2.0 stars