working on my horse stance

I am writing this on a plane. I’m not literally spray painting this on the hull of an aircraft, but you know what I mean. Written language is a tricky thing, and I’m rusty. It’s been a long time since I’ve written for pleasure and it doesn’t come as easily as it once did. Five years in grad school will do that to you. It reminds me of something I learned back when I worked in healthcare. One of the doctors with whom I worked also happened to be a Tae Kwon Do master (because lecturing at Harvard, editing his own small medical journal, breezily putting in twelve hour days, and saving lives wasn’t making the rest of us look bad enough). Having specialized in both rehabilitation medicine and the martial arts, this doctor decided it’d be fun to scientifically answer the question of which fighting style delivers the most powerful and efficient strikes. He wanted to know, once and for all, whose Kung-Fu is strongest.

So he got a bunch of masters together, hooked them up to some specialized equipment, and analyzed their forms. He found that many of the masters’ styles had been subtly affected by life on the tournament circuit. They were delivering the most “correct” kicks as defined by their own professional standards, but not necessarily the strongest kick. The doctor very politely informed the masters of their flawed techniques via microphone, from behind a locked door.

It’s much the same with my writing. I’ve become very good at writing in a particular style for a particular audience, easily throwing around words like “psychophysics”, “subtending”, and “non-parametric”. This made for a great dissertation (trust me, it was awesome), but it’s been ages since I’ve written for a non-scientific audience, and I can feel it.

My new job is in a much more applied field and we produce content geared toward a much wider audience. One of the first things I did on the job, aside from gleefully order a $3,000 work computer, was to write a white paper. White papers aren’t like peer-reviewed research articles. I wasn’t beholden to the style or conventions of a particular field or journal, and I had tremendous flexibility while writing it. It was difficult at first; no standard definition of the problem to fall back on for a first sentence, no literature review to slide into, hardly any methodology to eat up space. But gradually I began to lay the words down. One thought followed another, things started clicking, and most comforting of all, as I began to write out my initial ideas, new ones emerged.

The draft was well-received. “It was a pleasure to read, seems like you had a lot of fun writing it,” said my supervisor. A few days later, as we were editing a draft of a different project, he said, “Don’t be afraid to shoot down my edits. You’re a better writer than me.” It was nice to hear, but the truth is that I don’t feel like I’m writing as well as I was five years ago.

If my graduate education taught me anything, it’s that the best way to improve is to do. It also taught me that the much-vaunted flexibility of the academic schedule just isn’t for me. My days had too little structure, my workload was too erratic, and I never seemed to find time for things like writing. Now that I’m on a more standard workday I find that I really like it. Far from being constrained by the standard workday, I’m more productive than ever. So here’s hoping that I’ll find the time to do more things like this.

lcd scrub

LCD Scrub Logo

I promised myself that there would be no new major purchases until my dissertation is complete. And then there was a sudden and somewhat unexpected inflow of extra cash, and well, you know how it goes. I am now the proud owner of a shiny new Sceptre LCDTV (42″, 1080p, and more HDMI inputs than I know what to do with). I’m very pleased with it, especially given the bargain basement price. Let’s hear it for no-name brands that deliver on their fundamentals.

There is, however, one tiny problem. A very tiny problem. The TV has one “stuck” pixel. In most practical viewing conditions I’ll never, ever notice it; it’s one malfunctioning pixel in a field of over two million. It’s only visible when the screen is completely black, and even then, I’ve got to be looking for it. It’s no big deal, and not worth the hassle of boxing the whole thing up and sending it back to Newegg.

Still, it’s there. And though it may not materially impact my viewing experience, I will always know. There are various ways to cure a stuck pixel, from physically “massaging” the area to flashing images on the monitor to try to “scrub” it out. The effectiveness of these methods varies from device to device, which is why I am absolutely galled—galled, I tell you—to find that some people are actually charging for image-flashing software. Software which, let me emphasize, may not even work for your particular pixel problem.

So here’s LCD Scrub, a “pixel scrubbing” program that I’m releasing for free. It was built in Processing (easily, I might add), and the source code is included. Here are the details:

  • Start the application and simply move your mouse over it to display a handy help pop-up.
  • LCD Scrub can display several solid-color screens: black, white, red, green, and blue. These are handy for checking your screen for any stuck pixels. If a pixel appears black on the white screen setting, that pixel is likely “dead” entirely.
  • The “color cycle” mode will rapidly flash between black, white, and random colors. This is the mode that will hopefully “unstick” your pixels. At the least, it will remove any burn-in from your screen. Warning: could totally cause a seizure.
  • The speed of the color cycle mode can be adjusted with the up and down arrow keys.
  • Zip file includes versions for Mac, Windows, and Linux. If you don’t have a convenient way to hook up your computer directly to your TV, I’ve also included a plain video of the “color cycle” setting. Stream away.

I’d recommend running the color cycle mode (or looping the video file) for an hour or two to see if that fixes your stuck pixel. I make no guarantees about the effectiveness of this software, nor will I be held responsible in the highly unlikely event that the software damages your screen. LCD Scrub has so far failed to unstick my pixel, but then again, I haven’t run it for a decent length of time (my screensaver kicked in). My pixel may come unstuck simply through repeated use of the TV. I’ve seen it happen. In any case, here’s hoping this little tool helps you out.

steve jobs

What can I say that hasn’t already been said in the last 24 hours? It’s a very sad day.

The departure from his beloved company, the impending biography, these felt like the actions of a man who knew the clock was ticking faster. Still, when I read the news—on my iPhone, incidentally—I was shocked. Even now, I’m surprised at how strongly the news has affected me. He was a once in a generation talent, an improbable mix of Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, and John Lennon, all neatly packaged in casual jeans and a black turtleneck. It will be many years before we see his like again, assuming we are very lucky.

Years before I finally bought an iPod, then a Macbook Pro, then an iPhone, and then an iPad, I found him fascinating, as many people do (even the people who claimed to see him for the elaborate dog and pony show he “really” was). I’ve spent many hours, too many really, trying to figure out what made him so compelling. I think it’s that he was the guy who insisted. He insisted that a computer needed to be, indeed should be, both powerful and beautiful. He insisted that there was a better phone waiting to be invented. He insisted that mice were the future, and then he insisted that they were the past. He insisted that details were important, and he made it his job to perfect them. He insisted that technology empowered people, not the other way around.

I can’t claim to have been one of the faithful. I have no stories about growing up on an Apple IIe or a Macintosh. I’m not old enough to have stuck with the company through its dark days, but I am old enough to have watched him bring that company back to life. His products have changed my life. I truly admired him, and I am sad that he is gone. He was only fifty-six. That seems like hardly any time at all, but then again, I suppose that makes his life’s work all the more impressive.

In closing, take fifteen minutes to watch his 2005 Stanford commencement address. If you only have one minute, watch this instead.

Goodbye, Steve. Thank you for changing everything. Thank you for insisting.

a quick note on smartphone data

I was supposed to do something important and time consuming today, but that turned out not to be the case (not my fault). So to kill time, I thought I’d take a shot at channeling Junk Charts. MacRumors reported today on an analysis from UBS focusing on smartphone brand retention rates. The data are compelling, but the presentation is lacking, if not exactly junky. First, UBS’s chart on brand retention rate:

First of all, if you’re going to print the values of each bar anyway, why are you bothering to make a chart? A table would do just as well. Secondly, that horizontal line representing the mean is redundant; there are only six data points here, so a summary statistic isn’t really necessary. Third, if you absolutely must include a summary statistic, you should choose the median, not the mean. We’re dealing with a very small data set, and one of its values is obviously an outlier. In this case, a simple mean makes for an uninformative summary since it vastly underestimates Apple’s retention number while greatly overestimating the competition’s. The median is a much better choice:

Now we can confidently say that most smartphone manufacturers have around a 30.5% retention rate, except for Apple, which maintains a remarkable 89% of its customers.

The graph of “smartphone switchers” is a more complicated affair:

Grouped bar charts are the Devil, alright? The alternating colors break the visual flow of the data and force the eye to work much harder to follow the story. Readers have to concentrate on colors and distances to pick up trends, rather than having them simply pop out. This data would be easier to follow if it had been split into two separate charts, one for “switching to” and another for “switching from”. Of course, it’s possible to arrange things nicely:

This plot looks a bit fancy, but it’s really just two bar charts laid out horizontally and then arranged next to each other. I’ve also made an effort to be a little more descriptive. Rather than “switching from” and “switching to,” I’ve opted to call these categories “leaving” and “joining”. Color acts as a secondary cue: no one needs to be told that green is good and red is bad. In this configuration, trends in the smartphone landscape jump right out at the reader. People are still switching to the iPhone in droves, seemingly at the expense of RIMM and Nokia, who by the look of the things are in some serious trouble.

Whew. Feel better? I know I do.

new oliver sacks covers

A totally great series of covers for six of Sacks’s books. If this isn’t smack-dab in the middle of my personal Venn diagram of interests, I don’t know what is.