April 7th, 2006

Friends at Berkeley’s School of Information (formerly SIMS) are building something intriguing. It’s called Mycroft and it replaces Web site banner ads with tiny tasks for users to complete. In aggregate, all these tiny completed tasks can solve massive problems that computers can’t tackle on their own.

Here’s an example:

It’s still a student project but already you can publish the banners on your own site. Details here.

To take it further, consider: Mycroft presents each puzzle piece to multiple users to verify the solution(s). So the second or third time a puzzle piece appears, why not present it in a different setting: not as a Web banner ad, but as a captcha test for someone creating a new account on a Web site? (Captcha tests are those “type the letters you see in this scrambled image” tasks that verify you’re a human.)

So when verifying that a new user is human, Web sites could offer a Mycroft test and boost their revenues or help solve problems for nonprofits — with no extra work or hassle for users. That’s powerful stuff.

[tags]global brain, mycroft, mechancial turk, captcha, berkeley, sims[/tags]

The Yahoo! Berkeley Research Lab

July 15th, 2005

It’s official: Yahoo! will open a new research lab in partnership with UC Berkeley, just off campus.

Congratulations to Marc Davis, the Berkeley SIMS professor who will head up the lab, and to the other sharp SIMS folks who will work there. I can’t wait to see the goodies that will emerge from this.

PlaceSite Launch: Tuesday

April 16th, 2005

[ UPDATE: Our launch period at A’Cuppa Tea is over. Keep an eye on for news of upcoming launches. ]

ps-logo-sm.gifWe’ll launch Project PlaceSite this Tuesday
at A’Cuppa Tea cafe and teahouse in Berkeley.

Full details:

Come out and join in!

Seeking Bay Area Wi-fi People

March 26th, 2005

wifi-survey.gifHelp supercharge wi-fi public places in the San Francisco Bay Area!

For my final Masters project at U.C. Berkeley I’m exploring new ways in which online social interaction can move into the offline (“real”) world — and learning what online services can add to face-to-face conversation.

An important part of our research is to learn how people here interact and use wi-fi (wireless Internet) in public and semi-public places.

If you’re 18 or older, live or work in the Bay Area and use wi-fi, you can help us immensely by taking a few minutes to answer the following brief survey. Your responses will be kept completely anonymous.

Here’s the survey:

We need all the responses we can get, so it would be great if you could spread the word by pointing your Bay Area friends to the survey.

This summer we’ll post a report about what we learn; I’ll link to the report from here when it’s available.


Project PlaceSite

March 13th, 2005

Imagine opening your laptop computer in a neighborhood wireless Internet caf� and firing up a Web browser. Instead of your usual startup page, imagine this on your screen:

That’s the core of Project PlaceSite. It introduces a new way of using wireless networks — to create a local information service by, for and about people who are in the same caf� together.

We’re rolling it out in Berkeley in a few weeks. Details:

Please let us know what you think. And come out and take part!

David Byrne

March 7th, 2005

byrne2-small.jpgAt least 300 people showed up tonight to see David Byrne give a Powerpoint presentation about Powerpoint. [Free video of the talk may be available soon.]

What luck it was to happen upon one of the best seats in the front row. As Byrne was introduced he sat on the stage, about 5 feet away. The only camera I had was the crappy one on my mobile phone but I couldn’t resist a few shots.

Along with David Bowie and a few others, Byrne got me through my childhood during the 1980s. As a kid I loved his otherworldly tunes and that deeper, darker, subtler vibe that set him apart from the shrill, candy-colored MTV culture that overtook pop music in those days.

I can’t agree with all his Powerpoint points, but it’s fascinating to consider how he views this tool. The user interface geek in me is dying to watch him work with it firsthand in his natural habitat.

I wanted to step up and hug him when he said that a Powerpoint presentation is just part of a larger “performance” which includes not just the person speaking but the audience, the room, the surroundings. Software designers, even self-professed user interface and needs analysis experts, can learn a lot from Byrne. The point seems like an obvious one, but we’re still stuck in “user-centered” tunnel vision: we design for a prototypical single person staring at a single computer, as if that person and computer operate in a vacuum. This approach can be worse than meaningless if you ignore the surrounding context. This tunnel vision can be downright dangerous as we design software that moves beyond the desktop and into public spaces.


Byrne presented another intriguing argument: that Powerpoint’s constraints, particularly its “low resolution,” can be a benefit. (He meant “resolution” in the way the Powerpoint-loathing Edward Tufte uses the word: in terms of graphics quality but also in more general terms of how much information standard Powerpoint templates allow you to convey to an audience at a time). Simpler, lower-resolution images force the audience to become involved more in the presentation because they have to actively connect the dots.

This brought to mind a couple of analogies. Think of how books and radio can seem richer than television — the lack of visuals forces the audience to actively imagine the action, to envision many details that aren’t explicitly described.

Scott McCloud pointed out in his book Understanding Comics that many protagonists in popular comics are drawn in a simpler, less detailed style than other characters and their surroundings. Think of Tintin or Orphan Annie. McCloud theorizes that readers can more easily sympathize with minimally-drawn heroes because they can more easily project themselves into those characters. The more details you give a character, the less that character shares in common with a given reader. On the other hand, the story can be more compelling if faraway lands that the character visits, and other characters that the character encounters, especially bad guys, are drawn in a detailed manner — because intricate detail in itself can make those thing seem more foreign, interesting or even frightening.

Does this apply to Powerpoint? I don’t think so… I still hate Powerpoint and the agonizingly dull, ubiquitously unimaginative corporate communication style that its use has embodied and encouraged since Microsoft purchased the software and took over its development and marketing. The world needs more elegant and customizable presentation tools, which can be made just as easy to use for non-techies as Powerpoint. Constraints can be a blessing, but the wrong sorts of constraints can be a curse.

Anyway, it’s fun to watch Byrne turn the Powerpoint tradition on its head.

The State of Free Speech at Berkeley

October 11th, 2004

The richest man on Earth visited Berkeley Friday October 1 — on the 40th anniversary of the free speech movement’s birth here on campus.

Bill Gates’ reception was a stark reminder of how the concept of free speech here has changed since 1964, when thousands of students and sympathizers revolted against attacks on their First Amendment rights, forcing the university administration to permit free speech on campus. This Free Speech Movement spread quickly to universities around the world. The movement played a pivotal role in the fight for civil rights and in the withdrawal of American troops from Vietnam.

Nowadays Berkeley is a very different place. Walk around town and you’ll see some street merchants and homeless people and older residents making their voices heard with placards and posters and t-shirts and an occasional megaphone. Not so with the students. Most of the students are silent, unquestioning, complacent consumers.

On campus, huge corporations enjoy much more free speech than the students. Some administrators nurture and enforce this state of affairs.
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Road Sage

May 16th, 2004

roadsage.gifRoad Sage, a project at Berkeley for which I led the user interface and interaction design, won second place among 18 contenders in my department’s final project competition. (Second-year students in my program must build and present a substantial final project before they graduate. At the end of each year two panels of outside judges select the best projects.)

Essentially, Road Sage is Mapquest on steroids: it takes live and historical traffic data into account in choosing and presenting routes, and in estimating travel times. It uses data logged from highway sensors operated by California’s Department of Transportation to forecast traffic between any given starting and ending points, and to suggest the best route at a given time in the future. It also shows live traffic along a given route, among other things.

Mikhail Avrekh, John Han and Lauren Wilkinson (all now graduated) came up with the idea and worked hard for much of the past year to build it out. Bravo team! (Sorry Bay Area drivers, but don’t get too excited. We don’t have a robust multi-user version of Road Sage so it’s not ready for public use. But if Mikhail and friends can track down funding, who knows.)

Imagine weighting the historic traffic data with historic weather records and with the latest weather forecasts — in this way we could more accurately predict future traffic and provide more accurate route suggestions. For regions that include sports stadiums, imagine weighting the traffic data on game days based on past traffic changes that occured on previous game days. Plenty more can be done here to provide ever-more-accurate traffic forecasts and route recommendations, all of which can be built on top of the Road Sage foundation.

Schwarzenegger: This Time it’s Personal

January 13th, 2004

tuition-hike comic from -- if you're reading an rss feed, you really should check out this image.  The gist of it: Schwarzenegger's raising California grad student tuition by another 40 percent.
No joke. And this follows last year’s 30 percent tuition increase. My degree’s getting more expensive by the minute.

And its value might be shrinking. This $372 million cut faced by the University of California system, following on the heels of similar cuts each year for the past four years, has the preseident of the UC system “deeply concerned” about the quality of education that UC can provide. Many people consider Berkeley the best public university on the planet, but how long can that reputation be maintained without funding?

Free Berkeley Wi-Fi Cafes

September 7th, 2003

Below I’ve posted a map and a list of cafes near the University of California, Berkeley campus that offer free wireless Internet access. If you have a laptop or other device with a Wi-Fi (802.11b) card, turn it on in one of these places to enjoy a free high-speed connection.

I’m surprised that so few free wi-fi cafes exist in Berkeley, considering that more than 70 such cafes thrive in San Francisco. Do you know of any free wi-fi cafes near the UC Berkeley campus that I’m missing? If so, please let me know: sean[at]

Help expand this list: next time you pass one of those big cafes near campus that charge exorbitant usage fees, go in and tell the manager that she’s losing business to the dozens of Bay Area cafes that provide free wi-fi access.

UPDATE 6/26/05: If you use Windows and you’re interested in seeing who’s in cafes and at other hotspots nearby, check out Meetro. It’s not available for Macs so I haven’t been able to try it out but it looks like fun. -Sean
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