Saturday, September 26, 2009

Chairs and Design

As a computer "power user" aka computer geek, I spend somewhere near 95% of my time at home (and awake) sitting at my desk. For a few years I had a pretty good chair that was snagged for free from an unused office. However, with the extreme use it received, it gradually and literally fell to pieces. Though I did my best to keep it in functioning order, which near the end of its life involved keeping it together with rope, it finally gave up the ghost when bolts irreparably sheared and welds failed. I moved to a backup chair that was primarily used by Pickles (who wasn't so happy about me stealing her chair), but as time has progressed the chair has proven wholly unfit for sitting, often feeling more like a torture device than furniture.

For one reason or another, functionality and office chairs are in most cases two unrelated concepts; I have been looking for a new chair for years but never found anything close to adequate. As far as I can tell, the design of office chairs starts and stops at the notion that there is some sort of surface with dimensions such that any person so inclined could do something resembling "sitting," with the result that any rudimentary design meeting this limited criterion can pass as a chair. Any person who sits as much as I do can profess that much more is involved in what can qualify as a chair... anything less is simply a surface which can be sat upon (regardless of if sitting upon it is a good idea). Considering the depraved state of computer furniture thusly described, for the longest time my intention was to design and construct my own chair, just as I did my desk. However, before long I realized that the manufacture of a chair was a problem much less feasible for an individual in comparison to that of a desk, and resigned to waiting for a better solution to present itself, which worked until my marginally adequate chair decommissioned itself.

With every passing moment in my backup chair it became clearer that the need for a new chair was desperate; it is never a good sign when your legs fall asleep sitting in a normal position, nor when they go numb while one's butt just constantly hurts. At such a point even an end table starts to seem like a superior alternative. Fortunately my waiting appeared to pay off, as a solution presented itself: the Herman Miller Embody, fairly recently introduced as successor to the famed and prestigious aeron (which was nonetheless eliminated from consideration in my previous seating quest). At first glance the price completely banished any desire of purchasing it--as with all Herman Miller furniture, it cost somewhere near an arm + half a leg. Nonetheless, moments passing in a chair unfit for sitting humans (despite being suitable for cats) had me realizing with increasing urgency that an arm and half a leg was cheaper than everything waist down. Still hesitant, a bit more research proved it to be a viable choice: a 12 year warranty(!!), reports of it being the most comfortable chair ever sat in, and finally, a site that for one reason or another had $300 in options available for free. And thus, it was settled.

I really hate spending money (which is not to say I don't enjoy the results!) and so this was a difficult thing to do. However, there are a few notions that even a frugal person need keep in mind. First and foremost is the idea that often despite a high entry price, the purchase in question can prove to be a far better value over time. Of course this takes research, because there are an incredible amount of nauseatingly overpriced products, especially relative to quality. In this case the 12 year warranty easily dispelled all fears of poor quality. Second, particular emphasis must be placed in purchasing products which will receive substantial use; only the most foolish professional house-framing carpenter would buy a hammer out of the dollar bin! To me as a programmer, a chair is just like a hammer, it's a tool necessary for getting work done with maximal efficiency, which in turn maximizes value. With only these two things in mind, the purchase is easily justifiable, but there is another critical point which seals the deal: health. Just as a poorly designed pneumatic nailing gun can be the death of a carpenter, a poorly designed chair can quickly harm the health of someone who sits for extended periods--this is why wheelchair cushions are very specialized, and why bedridden folks must be treated with care (otherwise they will get bed sores).

In my experience, when all the research is done and the intended purchase thought out well enough, even a frugal person can spend a chunk of change without feeling purchase remorse. Indeed, I have never felt an ounce of regret after buying the pricier items I own; when I do feel regret after a purchase, it is always for the cheaper items that I failed to adequately contemplate. Anyway, enough blabbing, eye candy after the jump (yes, there's more).

Friday, September 25, 2009

Project 10^100

About a year ago Google started up Project 10^100 which invited people to submit ideas they thought would change the world. The intention was that a few of the best ideas would be put up for a vote, where one or several winning ideas may or may not be put into motion through funding and initial management by Google. Note, I used the ambiguous qualifier to reflect the verbiage of the site, which says "Your vote for one of these ideas will help our advisory board choose up to 5 projects to fund," thus somewhat resembling the electoral college in terms of feel good vote theater. Snark aside, I genuinely support the idea of this project regardless of the chosen process.

Moving on, the window for submissions closed quickly as over 150,000 entries flooded the digital suggestion box, and now, having supposedly read through every one, the voting has opened. The project somewhat defies our typical expectations in that it's not really about ego, that is, there is no winning person or prizes for winning people; the notion is that what really matters are the ideas, and that the people behind the ideas should be perfectly satisfied that their world-changing idea is getting attention. Likewise, judging a winning person would probably be very challenging, as there is little doubt in my mind that the ideas up for voting were put forward more or less with a consensus amongst many submissions. Humility therefore firmly established, it appears that the idea I (and certainly many others) submitted has made it into those selected for voting.

Here's an excerpt from my submission:

Unfortunately the sister project of Wikipedia, Wikiversity, has had a difficult time getting off the ground. This is attributable to several factors, most significantly the lack of contribution which itself is likely resultant from the expertise required in the knowledge of the topics as well as in the arrangement of the information in a manner conducive to learning. Thus in the spirit of Knol, portions are written by community members to be periodically approved by volunteers who are acknowledged experts in the field. International schools from elementary forward would be able to use crowd crafted expert approved materials for free, as well as individuals desiring to educate themselves in any topic. It may even be possible to establish an accredited university online using performance tests based on these materials, providing a degree for the bare minimum cost. Education is generally presumed to be a profoundly positive thing, thus indirectly the issues resolved by universally available education are multitudinous. More directly however the result of education in an individual's life are tools for empowerment and progress, which itself may eventually benefit all mankind were they to become the next Gandhi or Gödel.

From the idea titled "Make educational content available online for free," there are shown suggestions that contributed to the idea:

1. Collaborate with top schools around the world to make their lectures freely accessible online
2. Create an online educational platform that provides free training and education as part of a worldwide, officially accepted degree
3. Provide free online lectures and textbooks for every subject and grade level
4. Facilitate information exchange among students around the world, including cross-country "study groups" on specific topics

Honestly I think that all of this is inevitable, and in fact much of it has already happened. Years ago MIT kick-started what would become the OpenCourseWare consortium by making available course materials for free, and since then a large number of other institutions have joined. Though limited to post secondary materials, I'm certain it will expand soon. Point 4 is pretty well taken care of with various message boards and forums online, I often find help through questions already asked and answered on these sites with a quick search. Point 2 is the most technically challenging one, and that is only because accreditation is done through outdated organizations operating in their own interests. My opinion on this matter is something like the inverse of point 2--rather than seeking accreditation, seek to dismantle the accreditation organizations. It seems to me rather clear that the qualifications and abilities of an individual cannot even begin to be known simply because they have a degree from an accredited institution. Nonetheless, I doubt accreditation is going away, and I have heard of some organizations working towards minimum cost accredited degrees. On that note I ought to mention that affordable education is available--the tuition for foreigners at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM) is a couple hundred US dollars, which despite being an incredible bargain is still more than native Mexicans who pay less than a hundred dollars. For anyone who might find themselves prejudiced against Mexico for whatever reason, I ought to also mention that UNAM is a world class university that has produced a number of Nobel laureates, participates in cutting edge research, and is one of the largest universities in the world, with satellite campuses all over the world and nearly 306,000 students.

Of course all the criticism I have offered is quite ironic given that I apparently contributed to the idea... but I suppose all I can say is that a lot has changed in the past year, especially my own thought patterns. Fortunately the collective conscious has my folly covered in this situation, as there were enough people thinking then as I am now to have also gotten a spot titled "Drive innovation in public transportation." Intriguingly, a number of the "suggestions" for this spot match very closely with what I would have said myself (emphasizing ultralight vehicles, preferably power-assisted pedal bicycles, minimizing injury and maximizing efficiency via autonomous transports). This makes me think one thing more than any other: what are the people that suggested those things a year ago thinking about now?? Apparently I am a year behind others in getting to the thoughts I'm having now, it'd be really nice and interesting to be able to jump ahead another year's worth of thinking!

Anyway, I highly recommend taking a look at the ideas. There are a total of 16 big ideas representing a good cut of what the collective mind is thinking for the future, some of which at the very least will probably pique your interest, or maybe even move you to action.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Old cars are not safer!

Here's another common misconception ready to be exposed: old cars aren't safer. By older cars it is typically meant late 60's and prior, and the thought goes that because they are heavier, they are safer. This is absolutely false, weight doesn't matter in vehicle safety; what really matters is the ability of the frame to absorb impact while maintaining structural integrity of the passenger space. The safety of a vehicle accident is very simple physics: by spreading an impact over time and distance the force of impact is also minimized. This matches our intuitive understanding, just imagine dropping an egg from 10 feet. If the egg hits concrete, it breaks--it goes from speed to stopped instantaneously. If the egg hits 5 feet of padding, it will be fine--it will slowly go from speed to stopped over time and distance, as the padding absorbs energy from the moving egg. The "padding" in a car accident is mainly of one form, the crumpling of steel. Of course this is all moot if the passenger cabin is compromised, as our soft, fragile bodies are no match for hard things moving at high speeds, and that's the rub; no matter how much energy is absorbed, if the engine block ends up in the driver's seat or the vehicle explodes, there is little hope of walking away from the accident. Excluding air bags, seat belts, and other obvious safety features, modern cars still have the advantage because they are designed to crumple up to the cabin, which is in turn designed to be as rigid as possible. As far as I know, older cars weren't designed with any energy absorption in consideration, and thus a double edged sword: if the car doesn't crumple at all, no energy is absorbed and it is like an egg hitting concrete; if the car does crumple, it will most likely continue to crumple well past the engine bay and into the cabin, rendering all energy absorption for naught. And now, for the demonstration:

The cars collided each moving at around 40 mph. As is usual for the Internet, a number of people (I think it's safe to assume they are classic car enthusiasts) have stepped forward challenging the veracity of the video, suggesting that the chosen car was not representative. As in any scientific pursuit, contentions are often valid and desired, and the responsible scientist will acknowledge, explore, and respond to any valid concerns. I found this on Consumerist, where amongst the comments arose criticism (from user Nighthawke) as follows: the appearance of reddish dust that may indicate the presence of structure-compromising rust; the lack of seat belts used in the test vehicle (which were available as a dealer option); The expense of an unsafe frame for the aesthetics of the curved front pillar specific to Bell-Airs; Finally, the frontal offset test is unfair because the skinny engine didn't have the opportunity to absorb energy.

The responses are easy, as only the first point is really valid. The IIHS, which conducted the test, assured that the "rust" was just accumulated dirt and the car appeared structurally sound. For the final 3: the optional seat belts were lap belts only, and almost certainly wouldn't have made a modicum of difference; perhaps the Bell-Air has uncommonly poor structural integrity (I'm not sure, but I know of other classic cars with the same pillar shape), but the whole point is to show that collision safety design has improved tremendously and no other modern American car has performed anywhere near as bad as this Bell-Air; Last but not least, life isn't fair and the frontal offset test is one of a scant few standard tests that all cars undergo. Likewise, it's an important test for how common this type of accident is; James Dean died in a frontal offset collision. Frontal offsets have a particular propensity to cause extensive damage--the energy of the collision is focused on a smaller portion of the vehicle, thus causing more damage. In fact, in terms of energy absorption, a direct, in-line/"head to head" collision is safer! Clearly our intuition begins to fail us at this point, our instinct even more so; two people destined for a head on collision will swerve, unfortunately magnifying the danger of the impact be reducing the surface area of the collision. Nonetheless, this idea of applying a force over increased surface area is one that is often understood (or at least utilized) by people using snowshoes. This same principle is what allows people to lay on a bed of nails.

At least we have some kind of standards! Check out other poorly fairing vehicles here and here. In closing, I want to point out that heavy modern cars aren't safer either--in fact many large vehicles (trucks, SUVs) fare worse in passenger protection than smaller vehicles for a few fairly obvious reasons. Also, it's a matter of perspective: presume large vehicles are safer for the occupants, what about the people in any smaller car that may be hit? You'll probably walk away from your Suburban with a few scratches, but how will you feel about having possibly killed several or all of the people in that Yaris? The truth is, large vehicles aren't safer, they're more dangerous for everyone. The only reason huge cars can be viewed as safe is because there are other huge cars out there, and that's just an unsustainable and foolish perspective--keep it going and before long we're all driving monster trucks. Unfortunately even that won't help just as our huge SUVs haven't helped because more and more people will be getting injured in single-vehicle rollovers.

Certainly cars have gotten a lot safer, but as long as they are being driven by people, they will never be safe enough.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Information, a perspective

Fair warning: I'm about to talk about math. However, I don't think you need to know or even like math to enjoy this. Suppose I were to tell you that the following images were both of the same thing. Would you believe me?

Unless you know multivariable functions or are pretty slick, you probably think I'm crazy. However, I can assure you that these are simply two different perspectives of the exact same shape; the only thing that has changed from one to the next is the place from which you are looking at it. If you're a skeptic (and I hope you are), you still don't believe me. Fair enough, but look at the animation after the jump and you don't have to believe me--you will see it with your own eyes.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

IQ Scores: Junk

Intelligence is a thing that is very difficult to define, if it's even possible to begin with. Historically something called an IQ test is considered the way to quantify or put to some kind of standard scale. In fact there are may different IQ tests with a fairly substantial deviation in approach. I think that IQ tests might be one area where we see how tradition is not adequate to justify continued use. Interestingly, there are ways to quantitatively explore an abstract idea such as IQ scores, and that is through associated statistics. For instance, wouldn't it be interesting to consider IQ score as it correlates to salary? It is at least interesting enough for someone to have done the data collection from the same people nearly every year since 1979 (the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, funded by the Bureau of Labor Statistic, information found here)... and the results? Smart most definitely does not mean rich! In fact, people with high IQ scores exhibit higher than average rates of fiscal stupidity. With this in mind, IQ scores can be thought of as failing to consider a rather essential and applied form of intelligence for proper functioning in this modern era--personal finance. Ultimately an IQ score can only tell somebody how well they are at taking IQ tests.

There are certainly many instances in which IQ tests fail to adequately describe something easily considered intelligence. The most common example is the phenomenon of savant syndrome, where the affected people have such unique and powerful capabilities that they almost seem intellectually super-human; recalling the phone number and address of any random person they've read in a phone book, instantly performing arithmetic operations on large numbers, and on and on. One of the most famous savants, local to SLC, Kim Peek, was the basis for the character in the film Rain Man; Kim is able to read books at a rate of ~10 seconds per page, even faster accounting for his ability to read in parallel, two pages at a time--one for each eye. If that weren't convincing enough, he can recall each of ~12,000 books he has read, and his amazing abilities extend beyond reading/recollection. Despite all this, Kim has an IQ of 73. Clearly IQ fails to capture something that would most certainly be called intelligence. Further, I think this failure is much more ubiquitous than the special case of savants; from personal experience I can say with certainty that I've met many, many people who would appear unexceptional to an IQ test but whom I can attest have a special (and meaningful) type of intelligence.

It might seem that I'm battling IQ like a spurned testee--indeed we would expect a person who considers themselves intelligent to express their dissatisfaction with their score. Thus it may be moderately surprising that I'm battling IQ despite having gotten a favorable score, though the reason is simple: I don't think IQ scores do any good for anyone. In fact, I think it very well may be to everyone's detriment to put any reliance on such an ambiguous and not altogether indicative thing such as an IQ score. It's a sword that cuts all ways too; it would be erroneous to think that because one has a higher than average score they are somehow superior or more likely to be successful in life... if anything, a person who finds themselves to have a high IQ should recognize a statistical disadvantage and start paying closer attention to their finances! Likewise, people with very average scores shouldn't feel limited--plenty of people with average IQs have been billionaires, CEOs, athletes, world-renowned musicians, and presidents.

In short, don't let anyone tell you what you are and aren't capable of. We are all amazing, and when it comes to nearly 7 billion unique people, there is little hope of a meaningful, broad quantification, and a great chance of spectacular, rare, and unforeseen abilities to arise.