April 24, 2006

Fetish for the New Millennium: Sex in the MRI

Posted in Sex at 7:46 pm by mj

Over at scienceblogs recently, there was a story about researching sex in an MRI tube. (NOTE: It appears this research is actually seven years old, and won the 2000 IgNoble award for Medicine. Which means you’re fully justified in laughing at the research…that is, if you’re not as aroused by it as I am.)

The methodology was a bit weird, and left a bit to be desired:

After a preliminary image for positioning the true pelvis of the woman was taken, the first image was taken with her lying on her back (image 1). Then the male was asked to climb into the tube and begin face to face coitus in the superior position (image 2). After this shot—successful or not—the man was asked to leave the tube and the woman was asked to stimulate her clitoris manually and to inform the researchers by intercom when she had reached the preorgasmic stage. Then she stopped the autostimulation for a third image (image 3). After that image was taken the woman restarted the stimulation to achieve an orgasm. Twenty minutes after the orgasm, the fourth image was taken (image 4). At the end of the experiment, the images were evaluated in the presence of the participants.

Obligatory wisecrack: at least they were realistic about the stages of sex.

In case you’re wondering, they removed the bed–so the participants did have a full 50cm to move about inside the tube. In spite of this freedom of movement–or maybe because they weren’t as confined as anticipated–most of the couples, um, had trouble performing. (As one who’s been through an MRI tube before, I have to say it was a huge turn-on. Or maybe that was the cute nurses.)

Frankly, I’m surprised this kind of research was still getting funded in 2000. I remember, as a child (yes, I was a very naughty child)–and I’m talking, I believe, pre-teen here–watching an episode on PBS where they’d inserted a camera into a woman’s cervix as she was orgasming (and, apparently, so was her partner). I remember this episode because they reran it several times (did I mention I was a very naughty child?).

The point of that program was to demonstrate the role that female orgasms play in human reproduction. I recall finding it both gross and oddly compelling. More important, I recall being struck by the question: how/why did the female orgasm evolve? (Was it was an evolutionary response to widespread rape/forced servitude?)

So if researchers were inserting cameras during intercourse 15-20 years ago, why the need for MRIs of staged/static faux sex?

A better question is: as medicine matures and aging MRI machines are discarded by hospitals, will a new sex industry spring up around hand-me-down MRIs? Why should doctors have the upper-hand in getting past the third date with lines like, “Wanna go back to my office and check out my gargantuan MRI?”

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April 19, 2006

The Value of U.S. Currency Over Time

Posted in Money, Politics at 7:58 pm by mj

Somebody by the name of Finster has produced a plot of the value of currency from 1665 – present:

This chart purports, in context, to show that the value of currency in the U.S. was relatively flat until the Federal Reserve Bank was created in 1913. I’m not sure if it does so accurately, and it seems there is controversy surrounding the use of FDI as a measure of currency valuation.

Apart from any controversy, though, I wonder if there is a less sinister explanation.

For example, the cliff does not appear until 1918, corresponding to the U.S.’s entry into WWI. Post-war, it recovers and again stays relatively flat, until 1940 or so, corresponding to WWII. (This is more apparent if you look at the Excel data series he provides.) Then it’s all down-hill.

But the latter half ot the 20th century is marked not only by wars and cold wars, but also by the industrialization of most of the world–even the backwards communist countries. Since the FDI (if my understanding is correct) measures the relative importance of the U.S. versus the rest of the world, that would also account for some of the erosion.

My curiosity has been piqued, however.

(Link via Catallarchy.)

April 16, 2006

Not Your Father’s Polyamory

Posted in Love, Relationships, Sex at 7:28 pm by mj

New York magazine on The New Monogamy: marriage, with benefits. The authors–two engaged women–explore the option of negotiating the definition of “monogamous” and the boundaries of monogamous relationships.

There are two things I thought worth noting.

First, surprisingly, not only is this not polyamory, it’s actually anti-polyamory:

“We’re not polyamorous,” insists Mike—and in fact, every couple we spoke with said the same thing. “We don’t date other people, and we don’t have romantic relationships with our sex partners—though we’ve become close friends with some of them.”

If he sounds a bit defensive, it’s understandable. Because in most people’s imaginations, you’ve got on the one hand your earnest, hairy polyamorists (see San Francisco) and on the other, doughy, middle-aged swingers (see Minnesota or HBO). These are the bogeymen of today’s hipster open relationships […]

Second, by the end of their exploration, the authors conclude there may be something a bit more sinister at work:

[…] a pattern we saw emerge in our research: The most smooth-running nontraditional relationships, it seems, comprise a straight man and a bisexual woman who’s not particularly interested in men besides her No. 1 guy. “I wish I were bi,” says Siege. “It’d make things easier. But it’s like this island of old-fashionedness in my brain—I just don’t want her messing around with other guys. Because I don’t find men attractive, my only instinct would be to punch them.”
[…]
Perhaps this is all a performance to turn guys on, Girls Gone Wild Gone Nonmonogamous. It could be that sexually speaking, women are just not taken seriously: Hot, yes, but as sex toys, not real romantic threats. (Who could trump the mighty penis?) As two women about to embark on what we hope will be lifelong commitments, we’re left wondering: Has the bar suddenly been raised? Is female bisexuality the latest way to be the perfect girlfriend?

Not that male hypocrisy is anything surprising…

How much of “negotiated monogamy” is descended from “technical virginity,” which was popular when I was a teenager? If you’re not familiar with that, it runs like this:

If you valued virginity as a moral ideal (as many of my generation did), but you were horny (and what teenager isn’t?), you’d do everything but allow penetration. You’d still call yourself a virgin and feel superior in doing so–and girls still had the psychological advantage in warding off unwelcome advances by claiming to be virigins–but you could get your kicks every weekend.

After all, the subjects in this article are all from the same generation.

(Link via ValleyWag.)

April 12, 2006

Working for a Large Web Site Has Made Me Impatient

Posted in Development, Work at 7:27 pm by mj

Last week, Webshots launched CollegeLive as a beta — a distinct, more-or-less “walled garden” for university students. It’s not just a ripoff of Facebook, but, let’s say, inspired by their success, with some improved features. And it was a lot of fun to develop.

Most entreprenuers would be happy with the traffic we’re getting in our first week.

Me? I’m just impatient that we’re not yet getting tens of millions of pageviews.

It’s been a while since I’ve worked on anything that wasn’t large scale within a short while. Our mobile offerings have always been medium or small scale. Mobile has always been a good place to try new things–new platforms, new development models–because it’s large enough to pose some challenges, but small enough that it’s not going to tip over. There are few mobile services of that magnitude today.

Now, nobody expected tens of millions of page views the first week, especially launching mid-semester. It needs time to grow, and we’ll doubtless respond to our members with features in time for a fall rush (no, not that kind of rush…well, maybe that kind of rush). I’m just incredibly impatient. I’m not sure I could go back to working at a company that doesn’t deal on a large scale.

April 11, 2006

Home Library Organization

Posted in Books, Categorization, Me at 6:04 pm by mj

David Weinberger asks How do you sort your books?, apparently as part of the book he’s writing on classification in the physical world.

It was nice to see that I’m not alone. I’ve always been a bit embarrassed by my organization. My books are roughly organized by the year I last referenced them, and then suborganized by topic in rough order of descending importance. This scheme works because it means I can put my shelves wherever I have room, and not have to clutter any rooms with excess shelves.

I also keep my professional books separate from everything else, but I think that’s mostly a side effect of trying to have books I’m most likely to reference in my office. And since we’ve expanded into two offices (his and hers, you might say), my professional books are, more than ever, organized by the rough year of last reference.

And, of course, I never bother organizing my “to-read” pile. Or, piles, I should say: each pile being organized by the quarter in which I first ordered the books in that pile. That’s probably the most embarrassing part.

It was interesting to hear the idea of organizing your books by the color of the cover. That seems somehow intuitive to me. I often don’t remember the names of books, but I usually remember the color of the spine and the picture on the cover. I’ll have to contemplate that. It would make for a nice visual element.

Of course, knowing my obsessive-compulsive tendencies, I would still never be happy, since I’d never be able to decide whether to place (for example, a book I’m looking at right now) The C++ Standard Library with the gray books (for its cover), yellow books (for its typeface), or orange books (for its neat orange-plated C++ logo on the spine). That’s something that could keep me up nights.

April 9, 2006

A Sound of Thunder

Posted in Movies, Reading, Reviews, Writing at 3:15 pm by mj

Last weekend, we watched the 2005 Hollywoodisation of A Sound of Thunder. I didn’t really expect much of the movie–this is Hollywood, after all, retelling a 50-year old story that had already seeped into the consciousness of every American boy.

I cringed most of the way through the movie. First of all, the acting was pretty bad, and not intentionally so. It was like every actor was just reading his lines from a teleprompter. Second, the special effects were worse than, say, those found on Sliders ten years ago. Third, the story itself was just bland; ironically (or not), The Butterfly Effect was a far superior movie.

But the worst was the preachiness, which seemed to be on overdrive: every other line was either hitting the audience over the head with an explanation of the events to come, or preaching about how saving the environment is a noble cause, or blaming capitalism for the evils of the world. I’m not saying these were bad sentiments, or necessarily out of place. I’m sure Ray Bradbury agrees with every line uttered, and probably most Americans too. It’s just that they were out of place and overdone.

So, this weekend, I went back to read Bradbury’s original story. …

Read the rest of this entry »

Tag Usability 101: Essence of a Tag

Posted in Search, Tagging, Usability at 11:36 am by mj

Tim Spalding of LibraryThing (the plural version of which appears to be a squattor) recently wrote a nice (and funny) little response to a multi-versus-single-word-tag thread on the TagDB mailing list.

For good or ill, most web users have no such intuition. 99.9% would never speak of the “union” of two tags, this being some sort of trickle-down from set-theory talk. Far fewer would have that intuition in terms like “find all pictures tagged both ‘london’ and ‘trip.'” And of those, few would have any idea how to do it. Yes, most search engines allow all sorts of clever boolean logic (+london +tip -“pigeons shitting on me in trafalgar square.”) No, nobody uses that logic.
[…]
“London” and “trip” make sense on their own; “Spring semester” does not. The union of “spring” and “semester”? How about the union of “spring,” “training” “red” and “sox”? Or shall we look for the union of “springTraining” and “red_sox”? Congratulations, you need an “about” page to tell people how to tag, and your users are all programmers.

This conversation is necessary among any team implementing tagging. It’s a basic usability point.

In the single-word corner, we have Ihe tag purists. To them, tags are unstemmed tokens, and tokens are atomic. If you allow phrases and even sentences (e.g., “my trip to london”), you’re moving beyond tags/reverting back to captions/keywords. Tag purists also view tags as facets of an item–attributes or metadata describing some aspect of the item–and frown on tags that seem to represent (or replace) content.

In the multi-word corner, we have what I’ll (lovingly) call the usability police. To them, as to Tim, any notion of the “intuition” of using lists of single words to file and then retrieve items is absurd: most users have no such intuition. Forcing users into fusing words together (e.g., “red_sox”, “hot_dog”, “beer_belly”) is just asking to limit your reach to only the most technically inclined.

The tag purist perspective makes a lot of sense from the IR point of view. Computing tag intersections and unions, related tags, tag clusters, etc., is much simpler than doing the same with collections of full-text documents. This is appealing. From here, it looks as if tags basically distill the essence of a thing down to a few words. It’s like calculating statistically relevant words for free. Plus, it sort of pushes off the question of “Do I use a real search engine, or do I just go with the standard three-table MySQL tag schema?” until your system really, really needs to scale, since there’s no need to compute or analyze anything.

It also makes serving your customers’ needs easier. If I’m looking for things tagged “london,” I’d expect to get back things about people’s trips to London, or London bombings–which won’t happen if another user tags her photos/blogs with “London Bombing” or “Trip to London” or “London – March 2006” without some back-end analysis. But if you do that, then you lose the atomicity of a tag like “hot dog.”

The compromise position some sites have reached is to push multi-word tags inside of quotation marks. That poses a bit of a parsing issue, though (not for the code, but for the human trying to maintain/scan the list).

I think part of the anxiety people are having over multi- versus single- word tags is due to the early hype surrounding tagging as a cure-all for site navigation. In truth, any user input requires the application of IR concepts. Just as full-text indexing results in ambiguities, false positives, and false negatives, so too will any tagging scheme, no matter how intuitive to its users.

The advantages that I see for tagging are:

  1. it provides an obvious navigation alternative,
  2. it allows for dynamically expanding facets (sets of attributes) of items, and pivoting on each,
  3. it’s simpler to index and cluster around a subset of words that the author/reader feel really represent an item, than it is to try to automatically distill the essence of the same item from a collection of hundreds of words,
  4. it reduces the effort required to input metadata for visual items, and
  5. it increases the opportunities for tools to automatically add important facets to an item.

As for my own opinion, I lean heavily toward multi-word tags separated by commas when the only possible input of tags is through a single textbox. I believe, however, this will be rendered moot in the next year as new graphical–and usable–tag management interfaces are developed (and I don’t mean a series of checkboxes on the right-hand side of the page). But this is going to force people to think in terms of IR concepts who’d rather not.

(Dodge an issue? Why, I’d never!)