Dec 182013
 

Most of an organic chemist’s physical work appears to the naked eye as an interchangeable set of clear liquids and white powders (that is to say, if they are lucky enough in the lab not to produce brown sludge.) This is because atoms, even entire molecules, are too small to be seen through the lens of a microscope, so chemists must deduce their shape and structure indirectly. This is achieved with a variety of instrumentation and analytical techniques, most of which output their data in the raw form of spectra, wavy lines that with a little experience can be used to paint a high-resolution image of the unseen. Because atoms and molecules, even gigantic ones such as a protein or enzyme, are smaller than a wavelength of light, they appear under even the most powerful electron microscopes as a nothing more than a fuzzy blob. Atoms and molecules each have their own spectral signature. Because it’s not part of our human perception, interpreting spectral data is a difficult challenge that chemists face every day starting when they are undergraduates. And operating the obscure equipment, and the hardware and software interfaces that this entails, is its own sort of challenge.

There are several types of spectroscopy, which is a broad concept that describes any kind of radiation of energy as it passes through a given material. Mass spectroscopy or Infrared spectroscopy is widely used in organic chemistry, but is mostly good for identifying mixtures. For instance, a winemaker might use one of these techniques to understand levels of eugenol in their chardonnay and therefore determine how long to toast their French oak barrels (eugenol is a compound from oak which gives the clove-like aroma and flavor to wine). Ultimately the Mass and IR techniques are too low resolution to do what most organic chemists really need to do, which is to confirm if the thing you think you made in the lab is what it is supposed to be. Step in, NMR. Nuclear Magnetic Resonance, the work horse tool of the organic chemist, and therefore the only one I’ll get into much detail with here. It is said that if the NMR machine is shut down for some reason, then the organic chemist goes home for the day. (So in my world I guess that makes it a bit like a Starbucks.)

 Posted by at 11:59 pm
Dec 182013
 

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If Charles Seife’s Proofiness has a lasting contribution to offer those in the fields of user experience, design, or even business, it will be in the elegant branding of its own subjectivist epistemology. This, in itself, is no small victory. It involves taking a complex debate on the origin of knowledge and in a single catchy word, turning it into a meme. Picture a future where somebody whips out a clever piece of marketing research in a design or business meeting, something with lots of correlations and a confident sounding sample. Maybe there is a scientific looking visualization, like a scatterplot diagram with one of those Jackson Pollack splatters of microscopic pinpoints, something that screams data was collected here. Its presenter starts speaking with the cajoling air of someone trying to impress the truth, with a capital ‘T,’ upon their audience. And then suddenly, the attendees stand in protest and accuse their tormenter, in unison, of proofiness.

Then try to grasp what a profound departure that is from today’s climate of info digestion, where almost nothing is spit back if it smells and tastes like it was cooked up from numbers. Jakob Nielsen, the founding father of pragmatism in HCI research, has condemned number fetishism in our field periodically since he came to prominence in the early 1990s – most exasperatingly in this 2004 post, The Risk of Quantitative Studies. He writes, “…most statistical research is less credible than qualitative studies. Design research is not like medical science.” In a 2009 post, five years later, little has changed. He writes, “People still pay far more attention to questionable quantitative studies than they do to simpler qualitative studies that have much greater validity.”

 Posted by at 11:57 pm
Dec 182013
 

Well, this was definitely the most prolific year of book reading in my life – 61 books. Many of these were audio books, which a surprising amount of people challenge me about, as if it is not the same as reading. But as a heavy listener, I have learned to concentrate quite well while being read to through my iPhone headphones. I think it’s an acquired skill, because last year I retained a lot less and spaced out a lot when listening to audiobooks. Now I rarely do. I listen around 3 hours a day now because of my commute, dog-walking, and exercise regimens. I also turned back to reading print books again this year, more than ever, since going on a “low information diet” on all things other than books. No more newspapers or magazines this year and way fewer podcasts and blog posts were consumed. A couple of insights when reading over the list:

 Posted by at 11:56 pm
Dec 182013
 

I am fascinated with the Bloomberg terminal and its inscrutable interface. To use it is to be at the center of an elite membership of global financerati. If one of these $1500 a month machines is on your desk, for your exclusive use, it is a sign of your arrival. Everything about its physical presence communicates its primary affordance, exclusivity. The outward appearance, which has changed little since the introduction of the original “Bloomberg Box” in the early 1980s, seems to say you’re probably too stupid to even use me. But if I’m on your desk, then you, my friend, are one serious cat.

 Posted by at 11:56 pm
Dec 182013
 

Shizuku is approachable, a bit scruffy and rebellious, but with a pedigree inherited from his deep family roots in the wine business. He is modeled after Bordeaux. Issei inherits his personality from Burgundy – tight and complex, arrogant, and, well, ok let’s just say it – anal. These are the dueling protagonists in the Japanese wine themed comic – Kami no Shizuku. This is a wine nerd’s fantasy, a place where a cultured young lad can score babes with a bit of daredevil decanting. Yes, that’s right – decanting – as in pouring wine out of the bottle in which it was shipped into another vessel for aeration purposes. It’s also known for it’s passionate descriptions of drinking wine and it’s off-kilter tasting analogies. The comic series is so insanely popular in Japan and Korea that the wines it mentions sell out immediately. It has even been remade as a very popular television program in Japan. Kami targets young-ish men (mostly) and women, many of whom are in their thirties, with the express goal of educating them on the basics of being an insufferable old-world wine snob. And it works! While your average American in their thirties doesn’t know their left bank from their right bank (I’m talking about the Gironde river in Bourdeaux, of course, which I admit, I had to look up), young people in Japan and Korea are forking over $1000 euro for a bottle of Chateau Le Puy and reviving a whole export business in fancy French wines. Obtaining a copy of this manga has become my obsession – but unfortunately I don’t read Japanese. So what to do? Spend hours with a Kanji dictionary just to experience a 2001 Chateau Mont Perat compared to the ’sweet and husky’ voice of Queen lead singer, Freddy Mercury?

 Posted by at 11:55 pm
Dec 182013
 

Chemistry is one of the great non-verbal disciplines. In so many ways it reminds me of music. Atoms are too small to see, even with a microscope, so chemists must measure the invisible as spectra and then visualize the data as waveforms – just like audio engineers do with sound in applications like ProTools. To express themselves, chemists draw things in complex symbolic notation – just like a composer draws sheet music. Chemical structure drawings not only represent a molecule’s make-up, but also it’s spatial arrangement, information about it’s chemical properties, and it’s potential intermolecule interactions. From their first days as students, chemists quickly learn to think in two-dimensional planes of geometric shapes such as hexagons and dashed lines, and rarely need to reach for the English words to describe the same concepts (cyclohexane rings and partial bonds, in case you were wondering). By the time one is working as a professional in the field, the visual vernacular is not even questioned. The complex notations are scrawled (by hand) in lab books and on fume hoods, then ultimately plugged into a computer in order to utilize specialized search engines, lab-book software, PowerPoint presentations to colleagues, and to illustrate scientific articles. It is a natural, living language, bending itself over time as new abbreviations and rival ways of doing things are constantly introduced.

 Posted by at 11:55 pm
Dec 182013
 

Formula One fans know that competing at auto racing’s highest level is as much an act of technological bravado as it is one of sport, and F1 teams are undoubtedly the sporting world’s must gluttonous consumers of information and statistics. Telemetry refers to the automatic measurement and transmission of data by wire, radio, or other means from a remote source – in this case, an F1 racing car moving at speeds up to 250mph. Massive amounts of data are involved. For example, 150,000 measurements are made by the Williams F1 BMW FW26’s on-board computer from almost 200 separate sensors on the car during a typical test run. All of this is shipped back to the pit lanes via live radio transmission or downloaded from the car’s on-board computer, and is then sent to engineers back home in the UK control room in Woking on dedicated pipes of fiber optics. (There is a good reason F1 teams seek out sponsorships from telecoms companies such as Vodaphone.) During actual races, around 25 key functions are actively monitored, with about 1MB of data per second sent back from the car. Some stats won’t surprise you since you can monitor them on your own vehicle’s dashboard, such as engine revs, water and oil temperatures, ground speed and fuel. However, you are unlikely to have a team of analysts scrutinizing the exact moment of your gear changes, your tire temperature, or your braking efforts. What do the interfaces look like that these engineers are using?

 Posted by at 11:54 pm
Dec 182013
 

Dave Malouf coined a prescient phrase in the title of a recent blog post regarding the design of websites. It’s not really a page anymore, but more of a stage. “Like the real stage itself,” he wrote, “we can create sub-stages where sub-dominant contexts have great significance and focus if only but for a short while, while contextually relevant to the whole.” This is a tidy way of characterizing the very essence of the RIA movement, and an excellent conceptual framework for understanding the information architecture of the post-page web. Web designers have traditionally constructed virtual buildings, not narratives, out of information – with pages as their rooms and sitemaps and breadcrumbs as their planning tools and system of wayfinders. But this is changing fast and stagecraft is soon to become a key skill of all employed web IAs.

 Posted by at 11:53 pm
Dec 182013
 

I am a reluctant brander. Like most User Experience designers, I like to think of myself as a high-minded design thinker – not a marketer. You know the arguments. Designers think about solving real human problems and obsess on the essence of something’s purpose. Marketers define essence as that which gets noticed and remembered. Designers are empathically creative. Marketers are exploitatively creative. Designers seek timeless truths. Marketers are trend-chasers. Designers live in Brooklyn and sell artisanal pickles between freelance gigs. Marketers live in Manhattan and coin phrases like FroYo. Yet it didn’t take me long working in this field to realize that making such distinctions is wrong-headed. If anything, I relate more to the marketer these days. Marketers trend towards the pragmatic. Designers? At their worst: ideologues, aesthetes, navel-gazers. Design and marketing ultimately chase the same goal, “marketplace magic,” so why not think like a good branding brain in order to name and position your digital business? At a minimum you should know a little about the work of Lynn Altman before you set about trying to name your site and write a tagline for it. Her firm, BrandNow, and her book, Brand it Yourself, are excellent starting points for demystifying the creative process behind successful product branding.

 Posted by at 11:53 pm