Have Confidence in Algorithms

On Christmas Eve Eric Meyer wrote about Facebook’s Year in Review in a post titled Inadvertent Algorithmic Cruelty. Eric’s daughter died on her sixth birthday this year, and when Facebook suggested he share his Year in Review it featured photo of his daughter and the caption “It’s been a great year.” When he tried to dismiss the prompt the Facebook app crashed.

This is a huge oversight Facebook’s part. Some percentage of their over one billion users experience tragedy every year and shared a relevant photo on Facebook. By choosing the photo that generated the most responses as each user’s cover story it is highly likely that photos from tragic moments appear as the Year in Review prompt. Reading the comments on Eric’s post and on the mainstream media stories about his experience show that there are plenty of people who had a similar experience.

Other comments and responses show a lack of confidence that Facebook, and computer science in general, can do better. Comments say things like “the algorithmic approach… is almost certain to kick us at the end of a bad year” or a comment on the follow-up post: “the year in review algorithm brings things to the fore without understanding. Only humans can do that and the negative aspects only exist in the edge cases.” This is wrong. Facebook can do, and should have done, better, as can any algorithm-based system. In this case eliminating posts with a comment containing the text “for your loss” would have removed many, probably most, of the painful posts from the year in review. Surely Facebook is capable of doing sentiment analysis on each user’s year of posts then making a choice to prompt that user to create a Year in Review or not. If they want to really help maybe they can do something to help or console people who had a terrible year. After the media exposure this year I am sure that Facebook will make changes and avoid this problem next year, they may have fixed it already.

We can do better. When designing any system that will interact with people we can consider those in pain and try, at a minimum, to avoid deepening it. It’s not something that we have done well so far, but Eric is trying to change that, and so should we all.

Sorry for the Spam: The Google+ for Google Apps Rollout

I use Google Apps for my E-mail here on johnbeales.com. Earlier today I was updating some unimportant thing in the admin and noticed that I could turn on Google+ for johnbeales.com, something that I’ve been wanting to do for a while, woohoo! With Google+ up & running it was time to set up my circles.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with Google+ it’s Google’s answer to Facebook, and you can add your friends to groups, called “Circles.” There’s animation & stuff and it’s kind of fun.

After turning on Google+ for johnbeales.com I went ahead and added pretty much my whole address book, (Since Google already controls my E-mail it can show me anyone that E-mailed, pretty much ever), thinking that I was putting the people I know into groups that would make them easier to find and when if I needed to contact them again. What I hadn’t realized was that Google was E-mailing every single person I put into a group. So if I did business at some point with you years ago I might have put you into my “acquaintances” group, or perhaps into my “Vendors” or “Customers” group, and you would have received an E-mail because of this. If I’ve dealt with you at multiple E-mail addresses you may have receives an E-mail at each address. I did not mean for this to happen. Inboxes are polluted enough, and I’m sorry for polluting your inbox even more.

So of course I went and turned off the E-mail notifications, right? Wrong. I can’t figure out how. Once you’re already signed up with Google+ you can say that you don’t want notifications when other people add you to their circles, but it seems that if you’re not already a member you’re doomed to just keep getting this spam from Google. If Google is smart, and they often are, this will change. I’ll keep looking for a solution. In the meantime, I’ll be more selective about who I add to circles.

Why the Keyboard is Here to Stay

There’s been a lot of fuss recently, (and not so recently), about multi-touch interfaces and alternatives to keyboard and mouse as input devices for computers, but I believe that the keyboard, at least, is here to stay.

The keyboard is the best instrument we have, and the second best instrument that I can think of, to get text quickly from my mind into a computer. It’s been around for about 181 years now, and while there are some strong arguments to change the way it works, there is no really good reason to get rid of it.

As Scott Berkun said the other day:

Most technology doesn’t change much. The wiring that powers your home, the plumbing that brings you water, the roads you go to and from work on, work in mostly the same way they always have. This is ok. Lack of upgrade is not a sign of failure.

He is right, and the keyboard belongs right in there with plumbing, elictricity, and roads. How else are we going to get ideas from our minds into a computer? (I have an idea, I will come to it shortly).

Multi-touch has been the darling of the UI world for a little while now, and we keep hearing about the possibility of multi-touch enabled full-size screens. BumpTop has released a version of their software, (which is really cool, by the way), that has multitouch support. Do you really want to spend your day at a desk or counter, with your arms extended in front of you touching a screen? Try it right now for sixty seconds. Just reach out and put your fingers in front of your screen. I’ll wait. Finished? How do your shoulders and arms feel? A little tired? Now imagine your whole workday like that. Yes, we will become accustomed to the feeling, and we’ll get more endurance in our shoulder muscles, but we’re not meant to spend eight hours a day with our arms out like zombies.

How about voice control? It works pretty well in Star Trek, but if you have ever had to speak for an extended period of time you will know that your voice can get tired and sore just as your shoulders and arms can. Even if voice recognition technology was good enough to correctly transcribe what we say every time, with the correct grammar, (and it’s not, as Fred Wilson’s Dictated Post clearly illustrates),we would still end up talking all day. Imagine what it would sound like in an office, and how would students take notes on their laptops? Because of voice fatique and noise levels, voice control is not a viable solution for entering large amounts of text, or for doing long periods of computer-based work.

Multi-touch and voice control are great for short messages and commands. Even my ancient Motorola lets me use a voice command to call my fiancée, but for entering a lot of text, or for long sessions of work, they suck.

What’s the solution? Thought control. Hook the computers up to our brains, then whatever we think will become what is written, or drawn, or whatever. Imagine the possibilities, no more typing, no more trying to draw something that you see in your mind using Illustrator, because your computer sees it too. Also, we won’t need computer screens because hey, if the computer can see what’s going on in our minds, surely it can show things to us as well. However, even if we include the Firefox, controlling a computer with my thoughts is still a dream and will remain a dream for many years to come. The solution for today is the keyboard. It lets us enter text and commands very quickly, often faster than we could write them using pen and paper. It lets us do so quietly. And it’s a worldwide standard.