Sunday, December 28, 2008

If I Were Rich, I Would Buy Books

I read a lot. This year it will be 77 or 78 books, depending on whether I finish my current book before the new year; I read the complete Discworld series this year.

I also measure the books that I read with a caliper, so I know how much shelf space they consume. This year it'll be at least 107% percent of my height (6 feet even); last year it was 75 books and 110% of my height.

I put a list of everything I read online: (No RSS on that; sorry.)

Currently, I get nearly everything I read from the library. But if I were rich, I would just buy the books, because I'm a pack rat, I love books, and libraries have limited collections, so frequently there's a lot of messing around to get certain books.

So, I looked up the prices of all the books I've read this year on Amazon, to see what the damage would be. I chose new and hardcover, when possible. The total? $1,313.93, not including shipping.

I would buy them from a local bookstore, not Amazon. So maybe it would be $2000. Still, that's less than I thought. Hmmm.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

New Digital Camera?

I got a new toy in the mail today, a Canon SX-10 IS. I'm not entirely convinced it's right for me... it's kind of a bizarre bastard child occupying the space between point-and-shoots and full DSLRs. It's three times bigger than my old camera, but 1.5-2 times smaller than a DSLR. It has an extraordinarily versatile lens, 28-560mm (which is fairly wide to huge zoom), and zero-centimeter macro capability (i.e., the subject can touch the glass)... for a DSLR that'd be 3-4 lenses, and at least $2000 and 10 pounds of glass (but higher quality glass, of course).

However, it's way bigger than the P&S that I've been taking on hiking trips so far (36-105mm) and been fairly happy with, and it has the same kind of small, noisy sensor that compact cameras do, and the user interface is rather weird in places. Is the fancy lens worth the extra mass and bulk? I'll contemplate this question over the next few days.

This is a picture of my cat. Believe it or not, it's a 1/2 second exposure, hand-held. Sometimes image-stabilization really kicks ass (click through - it's even reasonably sharp full-size). [Edit 1/5/09 - no, it's actually not very sharp at all.]

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

The Minnesota Senate Recount: Is There HCI Research to Be Had?

The drama here in Minnesota these days is the recount of the U.S. Senate race -- and it's dramatic: a difference of a couple of hundred votes out of 2.5 million cast, a hand recount, going to court, etc. Kind of like Florida in 2000, but more competent. (Minnesota Public Radio has good background coverage.)

But the most interesting part is the "challenged" ballots: these are ballots where the election judge doing the recounting wanted to classify the ballot one way, but a campaign observer objected. There are a few thousand of these ballots; most of them are fairly clearly frivolous, being done for PR reasons, and now the number of challenges is fluctuating day by day as the campaigns withdraw and un-withdraw challenges.

These ballots are now before the Canvassing Board, a 5-member panel convened by the Minnesota Secretary of State to determine the final disposition of each. You can watch the proceedings, live during the next few days or archived. Here's a direct link to one 90-minute segment of today's proceedings. (I was only able to make the link work on Internet Explorer. However, don't use Explorer until you've patched the latest nasty zero-day vulnerability!)

I find the process fascinating. Each board member, and a lawyer for each campaign, has a binder containing photocopies of each challenged ballot. For each ballot, the committee chair (MNSOS Mark Ritchie) announces which ballot is being considered, and then makes a motion with a proposed disposition ("I move to reject the challenge and allocate this ballot to Coleman"). Simultaneously, the board members and lawyers examine their photocopies, and an aide passes the original ballot down the line of board members. The process takes a few tens of seconds for a ballot where there's immediate agreement with the chair's motion, and maybe a couple of minutes if there's discussion.

Having the original ballots (Minnesota uses optical scan voting) is critical; some of the ballots which are clearly one way when viewing scans online are clearly something else when the original is viewed. (Example: The pen ran out of ink. The bubbles are blank in the scan, but on the original you can see the indentations in the paper where the voter tried to mark -- clear voter intent, which means the vote must be counted under Minnesota law.)

Also, if the decision takes more than a few tens of seconds, the camera switches to a laptop feed, where there is someone manipulating a PDF viewer to show the ballot. You can see the mouse cursor and UI manipulations and everything.

It's a very human process, with synchronization all accomplished by verbal announcement, at least one synchronization error ("Mr. Secretary, I missed the decision on ballot Minneapolis foo"), and occasional dry humor on the part of the committee members.

Bottom line, I think there's some HCI research with a great story here. I think the basic premise is a case study of the human processes going into this laborious and monotonous task, with some participants having extreme vested interests, some but limited computerization, the need for high public visibility, and a very high-value outcome.

Who's gonna do it?

(Crossposted to the GroupLens research blog.)

Thursday, December 11, 2008


In case you missed the last half-dozen blog posts that I didn't write, here's a summary:
  1. I attended the CSCW conference in San Diego, where I presented my paper, "Computational Geowikis: What, Why, and How", which was nominated for Best Paper and earned an honorable mention. My talk was very well received and cited as the "best talk of the conference" by at least one stranger.
  2. I demoed Cyclopath to a standing-room-only crowd of ~50 city planners and other governmental types. They liked it.
  3. I attended an HCI symposium in New York and gave a talk.
  4. I gave my oral preliminary exam and passed, making me a Ph.D. Candidate. It will be official when all the paperwork that I was supposed to bring to the event is signed. ("Where's the paperwork?" "What paperwork?")
  5. I moved to a virtual private server, which is way faster and more reliable. E-mail service will follow soon (not that you'd notice any difference).
  6. I bought a fancy battery charger with all kinds of buttons and modes. It's great.
  7. My FW made incredible toffee, and I ate it.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Mozilla Developers Hate Saved HTML Manuals

My website, Cyclopath, is written in Flex, Adobe's development environment which produces apps that run in the Flash Player. Needless to say, I occasionally need to reference the Flex documentation, which is HTML. I can browse it either on Adobe's website (slow) or save their zip file and browse it off the hard disk (fast). Guess which I chose?

Anyway, recent versions of Firefox 3 break these docs, because they don't allow different files in the doc package to reference needed JavaScript (because it's in a higher directory), so all the helpful links like "Show Inherited Public Properties" don't work.

And here's the error message that shows up in the error console:
Error: uncaught exception: [Exception... "Security error" code: "1000" nsresult: "0x805303e8 (NS_ERROR_DOM_SECURITY_ERR)" location: "file:///export/scratch/reid/flex3.2.0/doc/langref/asdoc.js Line: 493"]
...impossible to Google. Bah.

Wandering around the Mozilla bug database a little (using, frankly, a lot of expertise that most people don't have) revealed that, in fact, this is by design.

You can turn off the behavior by going to about:config and setting the secret configuration variable security.fileuri.strict_origin_policy to false. Mozilla developers are not interested in making this more obvious and don't believe that anyone other than a web developer needs to change it, despite the large installed base of on-disk HTML user manuals for a variety of things.

I don't fully understand the security reasons for this change. I assume they're sound. But what an absurdly opaque failure mode.

Shame, Mozilla!