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Sometimes I Wish That It Would Rain Here

Friday, February 27, 2009


a few days back, I heard someone make the following comment. he was describing different reactions to the advent of some new technology (I don't recall exactly what), saying that different people felt very differently. the two poles of reactions were described as follows: "it was the best thing since sliced bread, or the worst thing since the guillotine." wow. since it was during a formal research talk, I had to exert a massive effort not to laugh out loud. "the worst thing since the guillotine"? is that a common adage, or did the guy just make that up?

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Tuesday, February 24, 2009

unintended consequences

my apartment complex recently implemented a new parking permit system. until last fall, residents received plastic hand tags with an pretty uniquely identifiable iridescent sticker (ostensibly making them difficult to duplicate). as September 2009, they switched over to an electronic system. residents enter their car's license plate number (or those of their visitors, with a limited number of visitors per quarter) online. cars from parking and transportation equipped with cameras and a specially designed computer vision system then drive around the parking lots, automatically issuing tickets for those parked illegally.

nevermind for the moment the surveillance and privacy issues. those are certainly pretty complex, but I feel like they're also some of the more obviously problematic aspects of this technology. what I want to comment on here is a somewhat subtler impact I noticed a week or two ago. it used to be that going to the grocery store, the movies, the dentist, or wherever, one would quite often see hang tags for the graduate student housing complex in which I live. it's not as if I know or am friends with a very large fraction of the hundreds of grad students that live there, but seeing those hang tags created something of a sense of solidarity, of community; it made me feel like I was not alone as a grad student and that, even in this hyper-planned suburban area in which I live, there was a group of people with whom I could identify.

however, since the deployment of this electronic system, no one needs to display hang tags anymore. I didn't even realize that something had been lost until recently when I saw someone who had an old tag up that she had not taken down, which made me realize that I missed the tags. it was interesting, because I'd heard lots of discussion among students and professors about the implications of the new system as related to privacy and surveillance, but I'd not heard anyone else mention the socio-emotional impact of not seeing grad student parking hang tags. I wonder if anyone else has had similar experiences. I find this a particularly provocative example of the development of sociotechnical systems. often times, designers are encouraged to consider the impact their designs may have, beyond just the technical, before deploying them. certainly, one could have hypothesized about or considered surveillance-oriented impacts, but the impact of the absence of visible hang tags would have been, I suspect, harder to anticipate and even harder to address. I wonder if there are better ways of predicting, and accounting for, such effects, short of actually deploying the system.

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Monday, February 09, 2009


well, it's probably just coincidence, but it's fun nonetheless.

for those of you who don't pay particularly close attention to these sorts of things, the end of this week we have a Friday the 13th coming up. most people think about Friday the 13th as a particularly unlucky day, a superstition the origins of which are much debated. however, growing up, I always noticed that particularly good things would tend to happen to me on Friday the 13th. none of them were particularly momentous -- I won something in a drawing at school, I received some good news about planning a family vacation, I spent the day hanging out with friends -- but they always gave the entire day a "good" vibe.

recently, my attention was called to an interesting numerological fluke; the UNIX time code for 1234567890 resolves to 23:31:30 Feb 13, 2009 (UTC). for those unfamiliar with UNIX time, that means that, at
23:31:30 Feb 13, 2009 (UTC), exactly 1234567890 seconds will have passed since 00:00:00 Jan 1, 1970, a date which is dated as the beginning of the Epoch. for me, this will be 15:31:30. to see how this resolves in your timezone, you can try one of the following:

Mac OS X: date -r 1234567890
Ubuntu Linux (or Debian or similar flavors): date -d @1234567890
other: man date (see what parameters to use to convert UNIX time to local time)

many commenters on the post linked above seem to believe that such coincidence bodes incredible unluckiness, but I like to that that it will be far more lucky than un. as it happens, at that exact second, I will likely be listening to a talk (or questions thereafter) by Ben Schneiderman. not sure what kind of (un)lucky events to expect, but I'm guessing the talk should be pretty good.

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