The social life of powerpoint

A few years before he wrote Blink, Malcolm Gladwell wrote an article about the social life of paper [Gladwell, 2002]. Published in the New Yorker, the article argued that paper enables a certain kind of cognitive thinking and social process. This is because paper has a set of affordances that facilitate such social and cognitive behavior. For example, paper is tangible – we can pick up a document and flip through it at our own pace. Bits of paper can be arranged spatially to mean something (e.g., the piles on my desk). Paper can be annotated. I recognize what Gladwell is saying on a personal level. My desk is full of piles that go away only to make way for other piles.

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Who wants to be a cognitive neuroscientist millionaire

A graduate student – named Ogi – studying Cognitive Neuroscience of memory (that the exact description of what I did in graduate school as well) decides to use his understanding of memory to gain an edge in “Who wants to be a millionaire”. The article written in first person explains how memory works in an easy to understand manner. It is also an interesting example of a scientist using their research on themselves and observing themselves in the process.

For his $16,000 question – “Which country first published the inflammatory cartoons of the prophet Mohammed?”, Ogi used priming (to activate memories of a conversation he had with a friend about the issue) and successfully recalled that the country was Denmark.

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Neuroscience comes to the Superbowl – Further evidence that the brain has become a popstar

fmri brain I almost choked over my morning cup of coffee when I saw an instant experiment about the brain response to Superbowl ads on the Memeorandum front page. An instant-science experiment, what the heck is an instant experiment? The goal of the study was to simply watch some people react to the SuperBowl ads while they were in the magnet, and draw some inferences regarding effective ads.

Recently, I have been struck by how often I come across articles about fMRI research in newspapers and popular blogs. Articles that earlier used to remain confined to Cognitive Neuroscience Journals. A weekend article in New York Times comments on the same trend. As if just to highlight this point, there was a another article in the Magazine section about scientists looking for the deception center in the brain using fMRI. Quoting from the New York Times from whom I stole the phrase “The brain becomes a pop star”.

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Clustering your own tags

clustering delicious tagsSomeone pointed out this clustering application for Its just for clustering your own data though, so its not leveraging the group mind. Still it was interesting to see the clusters formed by my tags. Some of the clusters were: clusteranalysis(!); visualization; mobile research; market research; flash; ajax; cardsorting; design.

Expectedly, they are using k-means clustering algorithm. I played around with the number of clusters and the cohesiveness of the clusters does change as the number of clusters goes up.

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The rising star of corporate anthropology

corporate anthropologyTwo recent articles about anthropology in the corporate environment caught my eye.

The article in Fortune magazine focuses on anthropological work at Microsoft and contrasts modern corporate anthropology with its origins:

“Their fieldwork is far removed from the popular perception of the anthropologist as lantern-jawed adventurer in baggy shorts and pith helmet, canoeing up the Amazon in search of the proverbial lost tribe. But there is a certain correspondence between Microsoft’s research agenda and the work of those old-time anthropologists, many of whom were funded by colonial governments that needed to understand their native subjects in order to rule them more effectively. The modern version of this knowledge-power dynamic is Microsoft, a multinational technology colossus that hires anthropologists who study the natives in order to sell them more software.”

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How to make my hippocampus grow (or why I rely less on online maps)

hippocampus.jpgEver since I discovered Yahoo maps (seems aeons ago now), I started using it for most of my navigation needs. Not just when going to a new address, I found myself using it for places I have visited before – places in the neighborhood. Its just so convenient, one never gets lost (well, I still get lost – but thats another story).

I have started realizing that I no longer have good generalized learning of a neighborhood. For example, we lived in San Francisco for over a year. I hardly learnt its geography, driving like a robot on its roads – turn right after .02, Bear left on Post.

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Neurobiology of trust

Neuro-economics is a burgeoning field, that I have written about before. Read about a fascinating experiment in trust, using a game scenario like economists often do. The twist is that both the participants are in the fMRI scanner so their brain activity can be watched by scientists.

The terms of the game were like this: “At the beginning of each round, Belur could put up to $20 in play. Any investment automatically tripled. Tang then decided how much to return and how much to keep.

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Card Sorting Analysis: One size fits all approach

Just noticed a tutorial on card sorting at CHI.. Here is the description:

“This tutorial will provide researchers with practical guidance and hands-on experience in card sorting and cluster analysis methods and tools…

-What is a card sort and cluster analysis?
-How do I perform a card sort and cluster analysis (tools and methods)?

-What else do I need to know to be able to perform this method in practice?”

My question is – why on earth are they restricting themselves to cluster analysis. Although they do not say so explicitly, I suspect they are probably going to mostly talk about “Hierarchical Cluster Analysis”. This is such a restrictive use of Card-sorting which is capable of being a general purpose user mental modeling technique.

We have used Hierarchical Cluster Analysis, K-means cluster analysis and Multidimensional scaling with great success. Different types of problems require different analysis techniques. Architectural problems might require Hierarchical Cluster Analysis, but I often find such analysis too restrictive and prescriptive (it gives me a structure – take it or leave it). In contrast, I find the results of MultiDimensional Scaling helps more in understanding the domain for an exploratory project.

I really need to put together some examples of visual deliverables for different types of card sort analysis. If only my clients would let me get out of those NDA’s, and let me share some examples!

Malcolm Gladwell in a blink

Every book should eat its own dog-food. At least, thats my storyline for a “blink” reaction to Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink (I went to a reading by him, but have not read his book – so this is a quick reaction).

Gladwell’s book is about Rapid Cognition (or immediate reactions, instant decisions and first imprsessions) – how both science and culture do not appreciate the importance of rapid cognition as much as slower, more deliberate decision processes.

The material was not new (if you ever took a college level course in social psychology, then the content itself is old hat). Gladwell, however, has a knack for framing a powerful argument, weaving together dry, academic Social Psychology research, disguised as stories from popular culture. He is also a great storyteller.

Gladwell thinks that both science and society have traditionally paid more attention to the slower, more deliberate decision making processes as compared to the instant reastions, and rapid decisions that people make all the time. He focuses on rapid, emotional decisions (e.g., I like this chair, I don’t trust this person), and how such judgements are equally valid, synthesize a lot of information and are often deeply reflective of our innermost thoughts and feelings.

Gladwell’s theme can be summarized by the diagram below.


A: Slow, Cognitive: Human decision making is mostly understood in terms of this slow, deliberate model of decision making.

B: Slow, Emotional: When people think too much about their emotional reactions, they might change their minds. Gladwell cites an experiment asking people to choose painting with & without justification. Second group (that had to justify their emotional reactions) liked their paintings much less 6 months later.

C: Rapid, Cognitive: Rapid cognitive reactions often form the basis of expert decision making. For example an expert, who can immediately judge if a painting is a fake or not, is making a rapid, cognitive judgement.

D: Rapid, Emotional: This cell is the crux of Gladwells’ argument. Rapid, emotional decisions happen far more often than it is realized. People make up their minds to like/dislike something instanthly (for example, whether to trust someone or not) seemlessly synthsizing information from current situation and past experience and learning. Such decisions can be indicative of our true thoughts and feelings, but can also be problematic. For example, stereotyping a race, or group falls into the catgeory of such decisions.

At the Story, Metaphor, Vision conference

The brain is giving up its secrets and people from the arts and humanities are listening! I have been attending a few talks at the Story, Metaphor and Vision, organized by the Humanities Department at Stanford University. The conceit of the conference is that its time to make connections between literature, culture, art and what we understand about cognition and the brain. Some of the topics would be of special interest to information architects:
-Metaphor in semantic theory and innovation
-How metaphor works in the brain

There is also a lot of reference to the “digitization of culture”, interest and more than a little angst at the creeping influence of technology in everyday life. The most interesting talk I heard was by Mark Turner about conceptual blending, a topic that could of relevance to designers (in a manner similar to metaphors).