Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Review: Blink by Malcolm Gladwell

Blink, by Malcolm Gladwell (2005)
[Cover image courtesy of gladwell.com/blink]

Blink, like other works by Malcolm Gladwell, delivers so much more that you expect when first opening it up.

On its surface it's a book about snap judgments - the things that happen in our brains in the blink of an eye. By the end, it's a book about the illusion of free will and objectivity, and the power of human prejudice.

Through the stories he tells, the order in which he tells them and his skill with language, Gladwell takes us on a progression through the way the brain makes judgments and forms opinions, and ultimately what we can do about it.

First we learn about the unconscious processes that enable us to read minds and make amazingly accurate snap judgments.

Then we learn about the big ways that those snap judgments can mislead - when judgment lands far from truth.

After that Gladwell debunks the Pepsi Challenge to illustrate why different people will make snap judgments differently, and why some are better at it.

Finally we learn, through the story of Amadou Diallo, about how our judgments are informed by our prejudices, and how catastrophic errors of judgment can happen disturbingly easily.

We're left with deep insight into how this important but overlooked part of the subconscious works.

The only complaint I have is that Gladwell does not so much deliver on his promise that the book will teach you how to train your mind to make better snap judgments. Sure, you have some important takeaways about slowing down the process, trying to make first impressions happen in contexts that don't poison the well of objective observation, and to look at faces (hear with your eyes), but I'd love a few concrete suggestions on how to develop these skills deliberately...

Overall a great, easy read that delivers on many levels. You will be smarter after reading Blink.

Monday, April 29, 2013

Boston bombings: Why Lytro is a game-changer

Major public events like the Boston bombings reinforce the importance of spectators' iPhone photos, GoPro videos and surveillance footage from sidewalk cameras as officials enlist every source they can access in the search for answers.

The many hi-res iPhone photos we have of the scene are great, and better than what came before them, but all of them are grainy and unsatisfying, despite their apparent success in smoking out the Tsarnaev brothers.

There is better photo technology out there though, and my first thought is that THIS is what the Lytro camera was made to do.

If you're not familiar with Lytro, it uses what's called light-field technology that basically uses a 3-d light sensor to capture not a flat image but one with depth, with enough visual information to allow you to focus after the fact on whatever part of the image you like.

I don't have a Lytro, but I played around with one once, and this image from a crowded subway shows a little of how it works. Click on the face in front left, then on the blonde on the right, then at the back of the subway car and you see how the focus changes dynamically.

That means no matter what you were pointing your Lytro camera at when you took the picture, you can decide later on if you want the foreground, background, or middle ground in focus.

It's easy to criticize the apparent trend toward always-on lifecasting, even when you are not the one doing the lifecasting, (Google Glass, anyone?), but in times like these there never seem to be enough selfies, vlogs or surveillance videos with hi-res images that we want to use.

Imagine if iPhones somehow used light-field technology. Or imagine if surveillance cameras used Lytro technology? A few dynamic stills could definitely be more useful than grainy video in investigations like these.

We are still years away, sure, but the technology is here, and could be a game-changer in any situation where you need to scan an image of a crowd and produce usable visual information.