National Geographic: Swarm Behaviour

National Geographic’s Swarm Behaviour is a thoroughly interesting article on insect behaviour. It discusses how research into insect behaviour is leading to new techniques in problem-solving, management, and artificial intelligence.

It even could shed light on humans and our behaviour.

“A honeybee never sees the big picture any more than you or I do,” says Thomas Seeley, the bee expert. “None of us knows what society as a whole needs, but we look around and say, oh, they need someone to volunteer at school, or mow the church lawn, or help in a political campaign.”

Very often, we don’t try to see intelligence elsewhere. We’ve created a definition of intelligence based on what we know.

I like to think that us humans are pattern recognition and replication machines with vastly more soft-wiring than other creatures. Even so, there’s still a lot of hard-wiring and hormonal influences, much more than we would like to believe.

We certainly swarm, drawn to volunteering to mow church lawns or queue for iPhones. Whatever we do, we love to believe we can justify it.

Benjamin Zander: In contribution, there is no better!

Benjamin Zander in actionI feel indebted to Garr Reynolds of Presentation Zen for introducing me to Benjamin Zander, or at least the following video of him talking to music students:

Link: YouTube – Benjamin Zander Speech Preview

Zander is the British-born conductor of the Chicago Philharmonic Orchestra, clearly an incredible presence on stage, and apparently now a big name on the management training circuit. Here, he is talking about being a performing musician, but the parallels are not lost:

We are about contribution, that’s what our job is … everyone was clear you contributed passion to the people in this room. Did you do it better than the next violinist, or did he do better than a pianist? I don’t care, because in contribution, there is no better!

Spin that yourself any way you like, but Zander clearly isn’t a man interested in the substandard.

Web facilitates wisdom of crowds: Gerry McGovern

As every week, Gerry McGovern provides food for thought, this time on the wisdom of crowds.
In Web facilitates wisdom of crowds he says:

The Web is not about crowd-think, but rather about amalgamating and sifting the results of many people’s independent opinions on particular subjects. This approach is the essence of Google’s success-the more people who vote for (link to) a website, the higher it ranks in Google.

I see this explanation almost like water sloshing about in a breached boat, just because a few people push the balance of the argument off centre, it doesn’t mean the resulting surge takes it to the correct tipping point.

Every week, I find myself seaching for some web technique or another. Google regularly takes me to pages that have been superceded, but from which the balance hasn’t been restored.

In elections where results are declared before the polls close, many people vote for the person they believe is going to win. How many Digg users only digg the stories they find within Digg?

That’s not to say I’m pro-experts in this debate. An expert has to create a niche with a differentiatable product which will sell. Their message can be easier to corrupt, while a crowd’s can merely be diverted.
Experts can be smart, crowds can be smart, experts can be dumb, crowds can be dumb. Gerry’s closing comment is smarter than I can manage:

Something extraordinary and quite revolutionary is happening on the Web. Millions of minds are coming together to create a vast global brain and memory bank. We will spend the next fifty years pondering the implications of all this.

Ideas will compete, crowds will vote and vote again. We may become wiser, but will we attain wisdom?

Artistic Composition – Eyetracking and Training

Eyetracking trace over the same image, one is more expansive, the other focuses on the centre of the image

One of these days I’ll get my hands onto some eye tracking tools!

Cognitive Daily: Artists look different discusses research into the differences between the way trained artists and ordinary folks view images.

 

As someone who works daily with architects, structural engineers, graphic designers and architectural photographers, I’d love to see how their eye movements differ from the above.

Vogt and Magnussen argue that it comes down to training: artists have learned to identify the real details of a picture, not just the ones that are immediately most salient to the perceptual system, which is naturally disposed to focusing on objects and faces.

Vaughan at Mind Hacks puts it more succinctly:

The study concluded that artists spend more time looking at areas of the visual scene that the rest of us pass over as less important.

That’s what I’d call composition. Working with talented visual people, I wonder if eyetracking could reveal their perceptions of good and bad composition, and how they differ by profession.

It’s also interesting to see the effect being ascribed to training rather than artistic talent.

I’m inclined to think that notions of composition come from some kind of imposed training, even if it is implicit training. My question is, does my brain think it’s good composition because it appreciates the arrangement, or because it’s been trained to?

iPhone: Where are the games?

I know everyone’s talking about the iPhone and, hey, I’m no exception.

This is the first product in a long time that has drawn real attention from technology fans across the spectrum (i.e. dedicated PC nuts), and it’s been interesting to see a lot of the initial excitement fade as the reality of Apple’s business decisions becomes apparent.

My question, which I only ask as I haven’t seen elsewhere, is where are the games?

If we’re to believe the hype, Multitouch is the most important user interface development advance in a decade. It’s certainly something I’ve been dreaming of for a while, and maybe it’s the most intuitive interface ever.

I doubt it. I’ve spent too long explaining shortcuts like shift-clicking to select multiple items, double-tap to drag on a trackpad, even CTRL-X,C&V for clipboard actions. What the new interface needs is a selection of games that expose users to the new methods and turn them into instinctive actions.

Of course with light sensors, accelerometers and a touch screen, we’re talking a nifty little handheld gaming console.

It’s unfortunate Apple don’t want to open up the iPhone to developers. Just look at it, the iPhone is the new holy grail for hackers.

Perhaps someone will even make it smart enough to detect when someone’s using it while walking down a busy street, and then scream in their ear “PAY ATTENTION TO THE ROAD YOU *********!”

Ten things I want from my phone

Tim O’Reilly starts an interesting, if tech-heavy, discussion in Ten Things I Want From My Phone.

In January I’ll be looking for my eighth phone in 11 years, in which time I’ve only owned three PCs (discounting upgrades) and have become a little sick of the rigmarole of installations and buying extra kit.

  1. Universal connectors and power supplies
  2. Talk to my PC without software/driver installation – perhaps a web interface like my router
  3. No non-standard file formats
  4. Zero-effort backup and transfer to new phone
  5. Transparent contracts
  6. Device and operator neutrality
  7. Wireless sync at home / work
  8. To be my control centre on the move
  9. Seamless (and secure) connection to other devices
  10. Phone must know when I’m looking for it and should alert me to where it is!

The Rules of Marketing

One, don’t piss off your customer.

Two, make them feel valuable.

Three, give them more than they could possibly want.

Four, be consistent.

Okay, I don’t know the rules of marketing, but take a look at the offerings from MarketingProfs that accumulated in my inbox this afternoon.
MarketingProfs - an offer every four minutes

I imagine Sharon and Shelley fighting it out in the MarketingProfs office:

“I don’t care if they’re unlimited, I want to give them out at half-price!”

“Half price?  No, I say twenty percent off”

[one minute later]

“Maybe that’s a little stingy, how about thirty, it’s their last chance!”

[Four minutes later]

“Sorry Shelley for shouting at you, I was wrong. I miss our little chats, can you ever forgive me?

“Okay, fifty-percent! Can’t talk, he’s here!”

[Five minutes later]

“Oh my god, the server’s overheating. We’ve got to do something, quick reduce it to 20%!”

[Another five minutes later]

“Okay ladies, enough is enough. These are unlimited seminars, even if they are virtual. If you want to come in tomorrow, I suggest you put everything back as it was!”

LoveFilm’s “New and Improved” Rental Queue – the last straw?

When my DVD rental firm LoveFilm (www.lovefilm.com) told me they were improving my DVD rental queue, I was delighted. Now, I fear I will get a worse service, and a worse experience.

LoveFilm Queue - new and improved, apparently

I’ve been using them for two years now, and generally have been pleased. A while back they seemed utterly incapable of sending anything within my queue’s top twenty, dipping once I recall into the top forty. A while back, they hit on a wheeze called FastTrack, a kind of guaranteed delivery service for items that were no longer in demand. If you wanted one of those films, all you needed to do was put it in your top ten – why the song and dance?

You see, at least they had a queue system. It worked, of a fashion.

Now, instead I just rank my items as high, medium or low.

LoveFilm Queue - a question of priority

I suspect this means it’ll skirt over my High Priority discs, and pluck something from Medium. With a list that hovers around the 100 mark, I don’t expect any of the low priority items will ever get a say.

That’s what I mean about ruining the experience. The discs I wouldn’t keep at the head of my queue always got a chance. I liked the way they’d bubble up the queue, and thrust themselves at you at some unsuspecting moment. They’d done their time, therefore they deserved to be watched. How will the delights like The Station Agent or Lagaan ever reach me if I pause each time I think about raising their priority?
You can probably criticize me for both wanting too much control, yet relishing the lack of it.

Right now, I think I stand even less chance of getting the discs I want, when I want them, compounded by losing out on the little gems. Perhaps I’ll make everything low priority, except for a few. I’ll let you know if it works. Otherwise, know any rental sites that will import my queue (albeit broken?)

SerendipitRSS: Icon Analysis and Revision Control

A delightful, but freaky coincidence between A List Apart and Boxes and Arrows this morning.

So I’ve popped a couple of pages from their RSS feeds into Firefox tabs, I’ve been staring at this image of spacially frequency-filtered icons, and trying to imagine how the techniques could be of use to me.Icon Analysis picture - from Boxesandarrows.com
Then I flick over to the next tab to see the heading

I Wonder What This Button Does

It turns out this is an article on revision control, in particular Subversion (SVN) – answering a lot of the questions I had about two months ago, plus giving me a couple of good pointers.