Apr 28, 2010

On the loss of sleep and the sleep of loss

All Nighters is a collection of vignettes at the NY Times site on the subject of insomnia. The articles in this section are often thought-provoking, and the ailment seems to afflict too many people than seems tolerable.

Fortunately, I don't suffer from sleeplessness, but have had fleeting brushes with it during periods of illness. Those among us who sleep like careless infants perhaps do not know how fortunate they are. The whole cliché of realising what we have taken for granted when it is taken away from us is of no solace if you are up at night, tossing about after having numbered the entire sheep population of New Zealand.

The latest installment in All Nighters was particularly moving. Bill Hayes, a writer (of even a book on insomnia, called Sleep Demons: An Insomniac's Memoir1), writes about losing his partner who passed away, nay 'disappeared', in his sleep. In a grave irony, Hayes, a life-long insomniac, slept through it thanks to sleeping pills.

The blog post isn't just for insomniacs - it is for anyone who has lost someone or (dare I say it?) for everyone who will. Hayes writes:

[...] it was a long time before I was able to take his pillow from his side of the bed. I did not dare. The night after he died, I found that a sliver of light from a streetlamp shone through the blinds just so and cast a single yellowy tendril across his pillow. It was the opposite of a shadow. Which is as clear a definition as I can come up with for the soul.

With morning, the light was gone, and I found the days empty and agonizing. It would take about three years for this feeling to pass — a thousand days, give or take — people who had been through this told me. As it turns out, they were right. What no one said is something I discovered on my own: A thousand days is a thousand nights is a thousand chances to dream about him.

1: Hayes has also written a book on the two men behind Gray's Anatomy, which from what little I know of it, is an interesting story.

Apr 27, 2010

Death by Bulletin

They say it is evil. They say it can be put to macabre ends. They say the Devil uses it in his daily briefings to the hapless denizens of the Elysian Fields (ok, I made this up).

Yes, that's how much people hate Powerpoint.

This image, from a Pentagon press briefing, has been doing the rounds in the interweb (is there a unified term for the blogosphere and the twitterverse, btw?). This NY Times article describes the surrounding peals of cynical mirth, as people tell each other - I told you, Powerpoint sucks - before going back to making their next 'deck' (need to brush harder tonight to get the taste of that word out!).

The problem has never been with Powerpoint as with the people using it. Even Edward Tufte, the Grand Duke of all things visual and a man who never hesitates in throwing his punches, criticizes the cognitive style of making slideware more than the tool itself. That the software makes it easy to throw out verbose texts and incoherent fragments in no time does not mean it has been spawned by Beelzebub himself during one of his ghoulish afternoons. This is one case where you should shoot the messenger (preferably with bullet points), and not the medium.

Take the above image. For one the resultant spaghetti has nothing to do with Powerpoint - it is at worst, a failure of depicting the information. In fact, one could even argue the image brilliantly depicts the hopelessly tangled web that is the Afghan situation! The choice of colours & clustering makes it a lot more palatable than some of the simpler images I have had the misfortune of seeing in several business presentations. We do not know how this slide was used and whether it was used to make a larger point of the complications, followed by diving into specific regions of this dense map.

The basic problem is that people gravitate towards using slideware as a communication medium even when it is not required. Hence, ppts show up in routine meetings merely as a visual notebook substitute for the presenter. Or they are used as means to document information. Hardly any presenter is taught effective use of a tool by way of the right techniques for narration, outline, slide & chart design, or using it as a complement to the presenter rather than a body double.

Fortunately, there's a ton of material available these days from which to learn. Garr Reynold's Presentation Zen is an excellent place to begin; there are many examples & contests on sites such as SlideShare; TED contains a wide ranging collection of different presentation styles; these are just a sample of resource map of people, ideas, and content devoted to telling better stories and sharing information effectively. If you are really serious about exploring an alternative to the entire philosophy of Powerpoint, try the awesomeness of Prezi. It provides a non-linear way of arranging your content, backed by some very pleasing frameworks for transition and narrative structure. In fact, this is so cool that it forces you to completely alter your way of thinking about presenting.

So put down the pitchfork, take your mouse away from the Add/Remove Programs, and take a deep look inside your slides before you get booked for cognitive murder.

Apr 20, 2010

A babel fish for irritating voices

My office workspace is, unfortunately, in some proximity to people who make a lot of telephone calls. They (and there is no nice way to put this) have very irritating voices or patterns of speech. Various options present themselves: I can choose tinnitus leading to some form of deafness, do a van Gogh (but I wouldn't know any ladies of the night to give the item to :-)) , or just take the easy way out and retire to a Trappist monastery.

Wouldn't it be great if there was a device that could either filter out certain voices, or perhaps transform them into more pleasing sounds? So suddenly you have someone saying "so, shall we touch base on Monday as regards the scheduling?" in the voice of say, George Clooney. (Some people think Clooney is the only person who could make you want him to do that to you.)

Apr 18, 2010

Jaspal Sandhu haazir ho

Lalit Modi may look like Ravi Baswani, but his actions have always smelt of Tarneja. Both Tharoor & Modi are two high-flying, speed-racing individuals whose words and actions are just wonderfully designed to evoke jealousy and annoyance in many, and as can be seen right now, there's no dearth of people queuing up to yank them down.

Meanwhile, some lament the future of cricket as a sport and business, fears which I find unfounded. Like in Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron, someone will whisk it off saying: न पान्डव द्रौपदी के लायक है, न कौरव| इस लिए द्रौपदी हमारे साथ जाएगी|

हम होंगे कामयाब एक दिन?

Apr 15, 2010

Re-creative thinking

A couple of weeks ago, Scott Berkun tweeted something that I found quite interesting:
Many adults haven't *made* anything in yrs - giving them legos/crayons would help more than reading books on creativity
I wonder if this state of affairs is by unconscious design - reading creativity books seems like a proxy for action to its readers. It is immensely easier than picking up lego blocks or crayons. Children are not (yet) intimidated by a blank canvas or a vacuum, and not so scared about being told off for colouring outside the lines. So to those who want to be more creative, especially to those who know that there are answers in books, the first instinct may be to read about how to be creative, than to practise being creative. It makes you feel you are planning your steps towards that cherished goal without having to dip your toes in the cold water.

And sometimes (who knows) it might not turn out to be that cold!

Apr 13, 2010

Save our saves

I have been using Tomboy, a note-taking application (based on a recommendation by Harsh. (I'm not quite sure why it has that name.) It is simple to use. There is a tiny problem - it is excessively simple to use.

In essence, I have only one problem. Thanks to instant and automatic saving, I don't have to hit CTRL-s or its equivalent here. But I am so used to saving my work while working on a text editor that I end up doing that often in Tomboy. Unfortunately, that's a shortcut to turn the 'strike out' formatting option. Which means I begin to cancel all my forthcoming words (yes, that does allow me the happiness of hitting CTRL-s again to toggle :-))

It's like the story (not sure how true) of how phone service providers had to add a little background noise during a call even though they can completely eliminate it. It feels correct, since we're used to it, and habituated to using it as reassurance of the call being live.

So, though I know my work is being saved, I miss the comfort of having tactile proof of that fact. Just another example of how we get so used to something and that even the tiniest of things can matter to a wholesome interface-experience.

Apr 12, 2010

More terrible than terrific: do we have more negative words than positive ones in English?

One of the common approaches to the problem of sentiment analysis (a field under text mining & natural language processing (NLP), where programs try to detect opinion in natural language texts) is to build a dictionary of 'opinion' words. The words are classified as negative & positive. Given words from a sentence, a program can look up the dictionary to see if any of these words appear in dictionary, and then use the positive or negative category as an input in detecting sentiment for that sentence. (Of course, this is a simplified explanation of what actually happens.)

We work in this field and so, in one of our approaches, have built such a lexicon. Our's is a small list and hence not comprehensive, but sufficient for our purposes. Now, I noticed that I had a lot more words tagged as negative rather than as positive. Stated in numbers, there were 434 words marked positive, and 1348 marked negative. I had initially built a much smaller list by hand, and then expanded the lexicon automatically by (partially) using an approach (pdf) described by Italian researchers Andrea Esuli and Fabrizio Sebastiani.

They had also created SentiWordNet. This extends WordNet, which is a popular language resource used in natural lanuage processing and in essence, is a dictionary-thesaurus on steroids (the good kind :-)). WordNet contains over 150,000 words and arranges them 'conceptually', by grouping together synonyms that make up unique 'senses' (these groups are called 'synsets') (it may be obvious why I didn't the word 'sensually' to describe the arrangement). SentiWordNet augments this by attaching a positive and a negative score to each synset. (Here, I won't discuss why a synset can have both a positive & negative score.) Words like 'horrible' or bad have a high negative score, while awesome and pleasant are very positive.

Coming back to our question. Seeing the difference in my list, I wondered if this was a possibly valid observation, or if my lexicon was just poorly constructed, or a consequence of applying the expansion technique in part. So I counted the number of positive & negative synsets in SentiWordNet (again, not going into details here). I found 14134 negative synsets and 12720 positive ones. Perhaps not a significant difference, but still the negative side is a little greater in number (and I haven't actually counted words, only sense groups). So it could just be that I chose or generated more negative words.

This is all anecdotal and perhaps some fun for language geeks to talk about when they're stuck in a long queue and haven't brought a book along :-)

Apr 11, 2010

How many cancer patients will it take?

How many cancer patients will it take for us to be fully inspired? And stay that way? You could read about the ones that died, like Randy Pausch, or the ones that survived, like Lance Armstrong. Is there now a full-fledged market in cancer stories (sort of like with death row inmates)? Do publishers & movie-makers sift through them, rating cancer stories, so that we may remain inspired? Is testicular or brain cancer better than lung or skin cancer? Is a bald patient with better than one who's still got a fair crop? Are readers recommending these to others based on how much they cringed during the accounts of IV drips, chemo sessions, and supportive wives?

The essential difference between the inspired and the need-to-be-inspired is that the former did, or at least tried to. While the latter read and forgot and went back to not doing. And then came back to be re-inspired, like tyres needing more hot air even after days of inactivity. But these wheels don't spin too much. Pity. If those that inspire us with their real deeds had even a fraction of the lives that we waste, they'd probably have become even more inspirational.

But it might have all been wasted on us, anyway. Put down that book, stop being merely inspired and go do something.

Apr 10, 2010

Glengarry Glen Ross & Frost/Nixon

By coincidence, the last two movies that I saw were both adapted from plays. Both films were highly spoken of, but both didn't satisfy me entirely.

Glengarry Glen Ross is (roughly) 24 hours in the lives of four real estate salesmen whose already tough professional existences become threatened by a sales contest that will result in half of them being fired. How this drives them in different ways is the plot. It takes very little time for desperation, capitulation, changes in fortune, and even crime to show up.

This is a story told using a firehose of dialogues and reaction. The opening acting credits spill over with a massive overdose of acting prowess which help translate this to screen. Jack Lemmon in particular is put through the blender. Sometimes, I wonder if its worth seeing even fictional characters stripped down to their basic forms, bereft of any respect.

However, the film never shrugs off its dramatic origins, and is infuriatingly static in location. The atmospheric stuffiness caused by the rain is both useful and distracting. The high profanity rate may put some off (Wikipedia notes that the film was jokingly titled "Death of a F***in' Salesman" :-)).

Recently, a memo written by David Mamet (the playwright and screenwriter for this movie) has been doing the rounds (and reached me thanks to Sud). An interesting viewpoint on the construction of a dramatic piece of writing, it finally made me get hold of Glengarry Glen Ross, probably his most famous work.

Frost/Nixon is a peeling away of a different kind - of one of the most controversial politicians of the last 40 years. Richard Nixon, a tricky customer of the highest order, disappeared into Air Force One after a defiant wave that left many Americans annoyed. Through a conjunction of commerce and contrivance, British TV presenter David Frost (perhaps only seen on Indian TV as the host of The Guinness Book of World Records once upon a time, and now suitably snow-haired and knighted) interviewed the man who never showed any regret for the Watergate Affair.

The movie prefers to focus on the personalities of the two 'adversaries' rather than treat it as the cross-examination it supposedly was. Frost comes across as a pop-presenter desperately wanting to be taken seriously, while Nixon is a lumbering old man whose self-inflicted guilt weighs down his shoulders. Therein lie the problems with an otherwise engaging movie about just a bunch of interviews.

My own perception of Nixon, even post-Watergate, was of a man who never grew out of being a canny politician who knew that people were out to get him. Towards the end, Frank Langella (playing Nixon), with his excessively deep rendition of the Nixon baritone, reminded me of Martin Landau's portrayal of Bela Lugosi in Ed Wood - a once-great performer who had finally accepted it was all over. Michael Sheen's Frost is that of a lightweight who has to be taught how to control his intellectually superior interviewee, which is at odds with whatever little I have seen of the real David Frost. Perhaps years of television imaging has permanently and irreparably imprinted their respective brands inside my head!

Wikipedia and some clips of the actual interviews online remind us to view the movie as a piece of creative content that may not entirely coincide with reality. But there is much in the movie to watch. A favourite moment was when Nixon tells Frost that given the need of politicians to be liked by people, it would have made more sense for Frost to have been the politican. Of course, Michael Sheen - the man who seems to glide with ridiculous ease into parts calling for a charming Englishman in crisis - played slick Tony Blair in The Queen. Tony Blair, who was everything Nixon wasn't, and ironically, found himself in a similar sort of pickle at the end of his career at the top.