Tag Archives: Maryland

Female? In a Chatroom? Get Out While You Can

We probably didn’t need an academic study to tell us this, but the figures are still quite surprising: The University of Maryland’s A. James Clark School of Engineering has, in a study released today, found that chat room participants with female usernames received 25 times more threatening and/or sexually explicit private messages than those with male or ambiguous usernames:

Female usernames, on average, received 163 malicious private messages a day in the study, conducted by Michel Cukier, assistant professor in the Center for Risk and Reliability in the Clark School’s Department of Mechanical Engineering, and an affiliate of the university’s Institute for Systems Research, and sophomore computer engineering student Robert Meyer.

First off, I have several questions. What is a School of Engineering doing in a study like this? Isn’t this more of a sociology, or anthropology type research project? Secondly, what were a couple of fellas doing impersonating females in chatrooms? And, more importantly, what names did they use? Thirdly, 163 sounds a lot. How long were they online for?

The study, the press release says, “focused on internet relay chat or IRC chat rooms, which are among the most popular chat services but offer widely varying levels of user security. The researchers logged into various chatrooms under female, male and ambiguous usernames, counted the number of times they were contacted and tracked the contents of those messages. Their results will be published in the proceedings of the Institute of Electronics and Electrical Engineers International (IEEE) Conference on Dependable Systems and Networks (DSN ’06) in June.” Now I’m really curious. Ambiguous? Sean? Stacey? Bob?

Seriously, though, this kind of thing is pretty awful. But it’s not new. I did my own bit of sleuthing back in 1997 pretending to be a female in some chatroom or other and was approached by more men, or people claiming to be men, than a nun at a bishops’ convention. I can’t imagine it’s gotten any better. And, as the study points out, this kind of thing is by no means reserved for adults. Their advice: use ambiguous or gender-nonspecific names when you register, and be alert. If you need any good pseudonyms for this kind of thing, I’m collecting fake spam names here.

The Demise of the Handheld Interface

Am I the only person depressed by the idea that Treos are now going to be Windows Mobile-powered? (It remains to be seen whether there’ll be Palm versions too; it would make sense, at least for a while.)

First off, feel sorry for all the third party developers who came up with great Palm software over the years. Mourn the small file sizes. Mourn the simple interface.

For sure, Palm and the OS had their weaknesses. They never seemed to really improve on the software that was in the Palm IIIs except add some colour. They missed more opportunities than your average Premier League club. And my Treeo 650 still crashes on a regular basis. But Windows? Why has nobody ever questioned the wisdom of mimicking a Windows environment and GUI on a screen the size of a cigarette box? The whole idea of Windows is to have lots of programs open that you can see on your screen and move stuff between. When did anybody ever do that on a Pocket PC?

I hate everything about Pocket PC Windows. I really do. There’s no style, no grace to it. Too many unnecessary lines. Big clunky scroll bars. Silly start menus that are at the bottom or top of screens, making for awkward stylus (or finger nail gestures.) Why is the only serious innovation in this field done by outsiders such as the great University of Maryland-developed Datelens? And what’s so Windowsy about Pocket PC Windows anyway? Why, for example, has Microsoft (nor Palm, for this matter) not figured out how to throw up status messages that don’t take up the whole screen?

Sorry, I’m cranky today. But while I long ago lost hope in Palm turning its software into more than a colour version of its mid 1990s original, I have never been a convert to Windows on a handheld. Is there no vision out there about how we use our portable devices that isn’t just an ugly, stripped down and clunky version of what we have to put up with on our desktop? Why haven’t these wonderfully simple new ideas about interfaces from, say, 37signals spread to the handheld? Or is the future Apple shaped and we haven’t seen it yet?

On News Visualization, Part III

This week’s Loose Wire column in WSJ is about visualizing news. Researching the column I had a chance to interview Marcos Weskamp, the guy behind the very cool newsmap, who is setting up a studio specializing in interface design and information visualization for the web called B2 inc (no website available yet).

Here’s an edited transcript of our chat:

Jeremy: what are you doing in japan at the moment?
marcos weskamp: well Ive just moved back here. I’m setting up a small interaction design office.
Jeremy: i see… why japan?
marcos weskamp: I had been living here for around 7 years before. I’m originally from argentina, I came under a scholarhip from the japanese government to study graphic design. When I finished I stayed working and so I was until november last year when I moved to italy to do a graduate program in interaction design.
Jeremy: ah i see. could you quickly update me on newsmap? why you did it, what you think it offers over other interfaces, whether you have plans to develop it further, etc?
marcos weskamp: sure
marcos weskamp: newsmap was basically born after I saw googlenews. Again, I’m from argentina, so my mother tongue is spanish, I speak english since I was 5 and I’ve learned to read and write japanese when I moved here.
marcos weskamp: so when it comes to reading the news, the web is my main source of information and I often read online newspapers in spanish, english or japanese, sometimes reading about the same story in several languages, trying to find what are the nuances that differ from each point of view
marcos weskamp: when googlenews came up I was dazzled, it was impressive. not only they agregated news from thousands of newspapers online, but also – this is the most impressive part – whenever they find the same story in several newspapers, no matter how different the actual text that makes the story is, they group them all under one single cluster
marcos weskamp: so if there’s 300 newspapers reporting about, say “Insurgent attacks in Irak” they’ll file them all under one group and tell you: theres 1357 articles related to this story now
marcos weskamp: now that particular number was what most interested me. that means if I sumed up the total number of articles, and started making percentages, I could somehow see, which stories where the ones that the media was mostly paying attention to
marcos weskamp: now, in googlenews, today you have a total of 22 countries
marcos weskamp: inside each of them  you’ll find 7 categories: world, national, business, sci/tech, sports, enternatinment and health
marcos weskamp: so when I thought about visualizaing all of the articles inside googlenews, I came into treemaps
marcos weskamp: treemaps is a visual layout algorithm developed by Proffessor Ben Shneiderman from the University  of Maryland
marcos weskamp: Treemaps are used to create space constrained visualizations of quantitative hyerarchical data. Shneiderman originally thought about treemaps to visualize the content of his hard disk. If you think about it In your hard disk you have folders that have folders that have folders that have files
marcos weskamp: that structure is hyerarchical, and those files have a quantitative value; the k size of each of them
marcos weskamp: through a treemap then he could easilly find which where the files or folders that where taking the most space in is hard disk
Jeremy: (i’ve played with a couple such programs, like spacemonger…)
marcos weskamp: in the same way, in googlenews you have countries, that have sections, that have articles. the quantitative value is the ammount of related articles for each news story
marcos weskamp: so I then thought about visualizing the all the content of googlenews in one screen, using a treemap.
marcos weskamp: though I never thought newsmap would replace google news, I simply made it so that I could see, in a quick glance, which where the most important stories at the moment, and also be able then to compare how much attention media in each country gives to each news story
marcos weskamp: what I also found later was well how do different countries look at news. for example if you go to the US, you’ll see that most of the times, the US gives more importance to national news than international news
marcos weskamp: all other countries mostly report about international news
marcos weskamp: except italy where you’ll find that sports news always takes the most space;)
Jeremy: naturally!
marcos weskamp: in a way you can see how much we are all Biased through US centric media

Jeremy: do you plan to develop it further?
marcos weskamp: yes, definitivelly. I’m working on it:)
Jeremy: what kind of plans do you have?
marcos weskamp: well, I have to add all countries now present in the agreggator. from a data perspective that’s no problem. it only means there’s more html to process (I’m  not using the google api)
marcos weskamp: but in the front end I need to change the interface a little bit, and also it’s tough to display asian characters cleanly in flash without a hughe download. I’m looking into alternatives now. there will be other features like being able to reverse the treemap, so that you can find which stories where burried by the big news.
marcos weskamp: there’s also a java version in the works which allows me to display the actual shift of the news throughout the whole week. but well I hope you’ll see it when I publish it sometime later

Jeremy: do you see this kind of thing hitting the big time? replacing the way people view their news online ?
marcos weskamp: not really. again I never pretended to replace the aggregator. this is simply a visualization that gives you a different perspective of what’s inside googlenews.
marcos weskamp: I like to think about it as a complement to googlenews;)

Thanks, Marcos.

Update: More On E-Voting

 Further to my recent column on e-voting in FEER and WSJ.com (my apologies; available on subscription only), the story continues. Avi Rubin, the Johns Hopkins University computer scientist who identified security lapses in the voting system Maryland is adopting appeared before state legislators in testimony that illustrates the issues involved, and entrenched positions of those trying to defend weak voting software.