March 28, 2007

Veterinary Audiology

Some interesting research going on at UConn: "A UConn hearing expert has adapted human audiology technology to dogs and opened what may be the only site in the United States that offers hearing loss testing for canines."

Read more about this fascinating work in the UConn Advance.

March 26, 2007

Yahoo's Personalized Shortcuts

Great InfoTip from Mary Ellen Bates about Yahoo's search shortcuts.

Not only can you use shortcuts like weather baltimore (if, say, you're going to Baltimore for ACRL this weekend) to see the weather forecast for Baltimore or traffic hartford -- and check out Yahoo's List of Shortcuts), but you can create your own.

Mary Ellen tells us a few she's got, like !wiki, which is sort of like Google's "I'm Feeling Lucky", wherein !wiki evolution takes you to the Wikipedia page on evolution, without passing Go!, and without looking at a bunch of results on Yahoo!. The redirect is so fast I can't even grab the yahoo URL to show you -- you'll have to try it yourself at Yahoo's search page.

She says it's simple to create your own, following Yahoo's instructions. Check out Mary Ellen's Librarian of Fortune blog, too.

Multitasking (switch iPod on) is Not (check email) Efficient (answer phone)

Perhaps unsurprisingly, it turns out that multitasking is not efficient. Slow Down, Multitaskers; Don’t Read in Traffic, from Sunday's New York Times quotes several recent & forthcoming studies detailing the inefficiencies of multitasking.

Some interesting tidbits:
"The human brain, with its hundred billion neurons and hundreds of trillions of synaptic connections, is a cognitive powerhouse in many ways. 'But a core limitation is an inability to concentrate on two things at once,' said René Marois, a neuroscientist and director of the Human Information Processing Laboratory at Vanderbilt University." (emphasis mine).

Marois' article was in the November, 2006 issue of Neuron:
"When humans attempt to perform two tasks at once, execution of the first task usually leads to postponement of the second one. This task delay is thought to result from a bottleneck occurring at a central, amodal stage of information processing that precludes two response selection or decision-making operations from being concurrently executed. Using time-resolved functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), here we present a neural basis for such dual-task limitations, e.g. the inability of the posterior lateral prefrontal cortex, and possibly the superior medial frontal cortex, to process two decision-making operations at once. These results suggest that a neural network of frontal lobe areas acts as a central bottleneck of information processing that severely limits our ability to multitask."

Further, the Times article continues, the perception that young'uns are better able to multi-task than oldsters is incorrect: Researchers at Oxford's Institute for the Future of the Mind "... suggests the popular perception is open to question. A group of 18- to 21-year-olds and a group of 35- to 39-year-olds were given 90 seconds to translate images into numbers, using a simple code. ... The younger group did 10 percent better when not interrupted. But when both groups were interrupted by a phone call, a cellphone short-text message or an instant message, the older group matched the younger group in speed and accuracy."

Hmmm. Guess I really should curb my simultaneous music-tweaking, email-checking, beverage-slurping, and (work OR driving).

Slow Down, Multitaskers; Don’t Read in Traffic
By STEVE LOHR, New York Times, 3/25/07
"Think you can juggle phone calls, e-mail, instant messages and computer work? New research shows the limits of multitasking."
Isolation of a Central Bottleneck of Information Processing with Time-Resolved fMRI
Paul E. Dux, Jason Ivanoff, Christopher L. Asplund, and René Marois
Neuron 2006 52: 1109-1120

March 24, 2007

Usability: Worth the Effort?

Today I'm speaking at Simmons GSLIS West about usability.

You can see the useful links I've gathered over the years on my Simmons wiki, which lists my favorite usability articles. It's also got a copy of my PowerPoint presentation, in case you want to follow along at home.

Bottom line: yes, usability is worth the effort.

March 21, 2007

Emotion & Cognition

Interesting article in last month's Wall Street Journal about emotions & cognitive performance.

The free abstract sums it up:
"After years of studying situations such as choking under pressure or succumbing to 'stereotype threat' (in which you perform worse if you're reminded that your sex, race or age group tends to muff the test you're about to take), scientists are learning how emotion combines in the brain with memory, attention and other cognitive skills to make your spear miss the mammoth."

Begley cites a study reported at last month's American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting which found a surprising effect of emotion on memory & cognition:

Jeremy Gray of Yale University studies the interrelationship between emotion & cognition.

"In one study, Prof. Gray and colleagues had volunteers watch a comedy video. Then the volunteers tried to keep three words in mind ... Feeling amused improved verbal working memory; the volunteers got more answers right. But it made spatial memory -- tested with faces -- worse.

"Horror videos had an opposite effect. The mild anxiety they induced improved spatial memory but hurt verbal memory..."


Towards the end of the article Begley referes to two recent studies about the "stereotype threat", wherein women do worse on math tests when they are somehow made aware of their gender (either by filling in a box indicating their sex or explicitly being reminded that "girls are spatially challenged".

Studies Take Measure Of How Stereotyping Alters Performance (abstract only from the WSJ site)
Sharon Begley. Wall Street Journal: Feb 23, 2007. p. B.1 full-text at ProQuest, if you have it.

March 18, 2007

Neuroscience & Real Life

Interesting application of neuroscience to real life over at the Creating Passionate Users blog. Angry/negative people can be bad for your brain.

Kathy Sierra posted (almost a year ago; I'm slow sometimes) three reasons why it's good to avoid spending gobs of time with angry/negative people:

1. mirror neurons
2. emotional contagion
3. explanation of "happy people"

Kathy quotes neurologist Richard Restak:

"If you want to accomplish something that demands determination and endurance, try to surround yourself with people possessing these qualities. And try to limit the time you spend with people given to pessimism and expressions of futility. Unfortunately, negative emotions exert a more powerful effect in social situations than positive ones, thanks to the phenomena of emotional contagion."

My take?

1. Mirror neurons are hot in the field of neuroscience. Wikipedia says "A mirror neuron is a neuron which fires both when an animal performs an action and when the animal observes the same action performed by another (especially conspecific) animal. Thus, the neuron 'mirrors' the behavior of another animal, as though the observer were itself performing the action."

This may be a large contributor to how we learn, and is likely involved in empathy. Possibly / probably? we can mirror the emotions of other people as well.

2. Emotional contagion, Wikipedia says, "represents a tendency to automatically mimic and synchronize facial expressions, vocalizations, postures, and movements with those of another person and, consequently, to converge emotionally (Hatfield, Cacioppo, & Rapson, 1994)."

Almost like a virus! We smile when others smile, yawn when others yawn (even cats), mimicking them and "catching" their emotion.

3. Happiness & the brain. According to Kathy, "Happines is associated most heavily with the left (i.e. logical) side of the brain, while anger is associated with the right (emotional, non-logical) side of the brain."

I'm not as convinced about this, but Australia's ABC Radio National has a nifty feature on Left Brain, Right Brain and suggests that "recent studies suggest that the left brain may play a part in human happiness and the immune system."

Kathy concludes that "happy people are better able to think logically."

My non-scientific advice? Smile more and stick with the winners. :-)

Radio for ME

Have you seen It's another online music radio source (like Pandora or -- but it's more in the radio mode than the other two.

The home page shows various types of radio stations / genres, broken out by TOP Stations, ALL stations, and Custom stations. The default is TOP stations, which includes the usual stuff you hear on the radio: 60s, 70s, 80s, 90s, 00s, and any combination of those, plus Adult Alternative (playing Elvis Costello from My Aim is True right now, and including Aimee Mann, Bob Marley, and more), Country, Oldies, etc.

For me, the ALL stations link is more interesting. I like the Folk / Folk tab, which includes Lucinda Williams, America, Bob Dylan, and Ben Harper. Some nice Joan Baez is playing now; seems that Love is Just a Four-Letter Word. Sadly, "International" seems to mean UK -- I'd like to see some French, Indian, Caribbean, and African. Maybe that's coming.

Looks like Slacker can also send music to your portable player, and the Times article says a version is coming for your car. Right now it's free (maybe with ads?) and you can get an ad-free version for $$.

One thing I really like about this? The web page title shows the name of the song, artist, & album so you can quickly tell what the song is & who's singing it. It also tells you what's coming next. You can add & delete artists from "your" radio station.

Found from this New York Times article: Technology: Now, a Radio Station for (Your Name Here)
By J. D. BIERSDORFER, March 15, 2007.
"Aimed at the music lover who does not want to fritter away hours creating playlists, Slacker offers millions of songs grouped into radio stations by genre or artist."

Warning: this looks like it could eat up a lot of time ... but provide much musical entertainment along the way.

np: Cigarettes & Chocolate Milk, by Rufus Wainwright from Poses.

March 13, 2007

Code4Lib thoughts (secondhand)

One of my favorite programmers (ProgrammerGuy) went to the Code4Lib conference & gave us an update on some of the interesting things he saw / heard / thought about while there.

Here are three of the things that most interested me from his talk.

1. LibraryFind Open source front end to all the various data "silos" which exist in library. Searches the library catalog, some (all?) library databases using Z39.50, and their image collection housed in ContentDM.

I searched for "cats" and found "items" in Academic Search Premier, Business Source Premier, the Oregonian (newspaper), and the Oregon State University Catalog. I could click on the "images" tab to see photos from their archive (tho oddly, there were NO RESULTS FOUND for my "cats" search). It may not be ready for prime time, but conceptually, it's very interesting.

2. Villanova's Search MyResearch Portal provides opportunities to search multiple data types from one screen -- a tab to search their catalog, another tab to search their MetaLib (federated search), and a third tab to search their Digital Library.

What's cool about this is the lightning-quick speed at which it searches the catalog. ProgrammerGuy said, I think ..., that they are using cached data to search the opac and/or some nifty new search algorithm-thingie called Solr to search text. I wasn't clear on the technology -- but I am SOLD on the speed at which it searched the opac (for a popular term like cats) and faceted results. The display is pretty nifty, too. Again, not ready for prime time, but the implications are fascinating.

3. ILS Vendor Talis. This is a bit harder to describe, but basically Talis is transforming how libraries share information within a union catalog. ProgrammerGuy said that "libraries share item level data." On the Talis Panlibus blog is a link to the presentation by Richard Wallis: "My presentation "'Library APIs Abound!' can be found here [wmv]. With a copy of the slides, in which the live demo has been replaced by screen captures is also available [pps]."

The gist of it is that Talis is using RSS to iteratively search your union catalog and pull out relevant metadata and plop it into YOUR catalog record. Look at the Harry Potter book jacket example in the pps -- a cataloger person searches the catalog, and the behind-the-scenes technology uses RSS to search & retrieve the book jacket, and then the image gets plopped into your catalog.

The neat thing is that you can use the RSS data for all kinds of things, not just to populate your catalog. Towards the end of the pps are examples of how you can plop their RSS for your Harry Potter holdings into any WordPress template you like.

NB: Since I'm not a programmer, or even really a techie, I may have mangled some of the tech aspects, but the front-end, user implications remain valid.

March 11, 2007

SXSW Podcasts

You may know (as I do) SXSW as a musical venue. But did you know there was a technology component, too? And they are podcasting? I heard some of last year's SXSW podcasts on iTunes (tho' they're no longer there).

And you can hear some of them at the SXSW web site.

First up for me? Kathy Sierra (she of the Creating Passionate Users blog)'s opening remarks. About which they say: "By merging technology and cognitive science, Sierra brings an entirely fresh perspective to the challenges faced by today's new media professionals."

March 10, 2007

Congratulations Leslie!

One of my former students has just published an article that may interest my readers:

Leslie Porter: Library applications of business usability testing strategies
Library Hi Tech, Volume 25 Issue 1 (2007): pp. 126-135. (a subscription is required for access)

This is a great review of articles from the business & computer science literature on usability testing, suggesting what we in library-land can learn from those in other disciplines. I'm a little biased, but I think it's an important article.

Congratulations Leslie!

British & Irish genes: not that far apart

Last Tuesday's Science Times describes a new view of inhabitants of the United Kingdom as defined by geneticists at Oxford.

"Historians teach that [the Brits & Irish] are mostly descended from different peoples: the Irish from the Celts and the English from the Anglo-Saxons who invaded from northern Europe and drove the Celts to the country’s western and northern fringes." Turns out that geneticists are leaning toward a different interpretation; they are ... "struck by the overall genetic similarities, leading some to claim that both Britain and Ireland have been inhabited for thousands of years by a single people that have remained in the majority, with only minor additions from later invaders like Celts, Romans, Angles, Saxons, Vikings and Normans."

This chart nicely illustrates Where British & Irish Genes Come From.

Linguistics buffs may wonder how the difference in language arose for the two groups if they are not genetically different. This is alluded to in the article but discussed in more depth in the (excellent) Science Times podcast: language can be transmitted through the use of "technology." There is speculation that the Celts brought agricultural tools to Ireland and their language spread through the use of new farming techniques. Apparently historical linguists don't totally agree, but it seems reasonable to this armchair linguist.

For more, check out Stephen Oppenheimer's The origins of the British : a genetic detective story : the surprising roots of the English, Irish, Scottish and Welsh.

A United Kingdom? Maybe by Nicholas Wade. March 6, 2007.

March 09, 2007

"The Crusade Against Religion"

Been meaning to post about the November 2006 article in Wired magazine called The Crusade Against Religion, but time kept slipping away. Plus, I didn't much agree with the article, and now that I've heard a counter argument to the "new atheism", I'm more comfortable with it.

The "New Atheists" would ask us (scientists, mostly, I think, but also the population at large) "Where do you stand on God?"

"The New Atheists ... condemn not just belief in God but respect for belief in God. Religion is not only wrong; it's evil. ... Three writers have sounded this call to arms. They are Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Daniel Dennett." Gary Wolf, author of the Wired article, interviewed all three of them about the new atheism and wrote this thought-provoking article.

Wolf concludes: "The irony of the New Atheism -- this prophetic attack on prophecy, this extremism in opposition to extremism -- is too much for me."

Religion: Spandrel or Adaptation?

Have you been following the debate over religion & science? Whether you have or not, if you're interested, you should definitely check out Darwin's God, an article in Sunday's New York Times magazine. Robin Marantz Henig summarizes the debate on both sides in clear prose that is not (imho) inflammatory.

The main question is: "are we hard-wired to believe in God? And if we are, how and why did that happen?"

In this corner, we have ... Byproduct Theorists, who argue that religion is a "spandrel", which Henig describes thusly:

"Stephen Jay Gould, the famed evolutionary biologist at Harvard who died in 2002, and his colleague Richard Lewontin proposed 'spandrel' to describe a trait that has no adaptive value of its own. They borrowed the term from architecture, where it originally referred to the V-shaped structure formed between two rounded arches. The structure is not there for any purpose; it is there because that is what happens when arches align." (see the wikipedia definition of spandrel.)

The spandrel could be a result of one or more of these three cognitive tools: agent detection, causal reasoning, and/or theory of mind.

Spandrelists (great name) do not necessarily agree that religion or belief in God "offered an adaptive advantage to our ancestors."

Adaptionists, in the other corner, think that "even if a trait offers no survival advantage today, it might have had one long ago."

David Sloan Wilson, evolutionary biologist at SUNY Binghamton, "staked out the adaptationist view. 'Through countless generations of variation and selection, [organisms] acquire properties that enable them to survive and reproduce in their environments. My purpose is to see if human groups in general, and religious groups in particular, qualify as organismic in this sense' " in his 2002 book Darwin's cathedral : evolution, religion, and the nature of society.

(side note: How does this relate to me? I'm going to see him speak this afternoon at Hampshire College.)

Henig's article is important reading if you are interested in this topic!

is this a Spam Blog?

I have been notified that Blogger's "spam-prevention robots" have locked my blog.

Apparently my frequent links and "irrelevant, repetitive, or nonsensical text" have suggested to Blogger's robots that this is a spam blog.

I'm waiting for them to unblock me, but as there is no way for me to publish posts, and no person for me to contact over in, there's nothing I can do.

They do apologize, however. "Because this system is automated there will necessarily be some false positives, though we're continually working on improving our algorithms to avoid these. If your blog is not a spam blog, then it was one of the false positives, and we apologize."

On my todo list: move blog over to Simmons.

and ... it's back. No apologies, no notification, just the removal of the nasty "your blog is a spam farm" notice. The good news? I don't have to do word verification if I want to post something.