Getting feedback on our work

We had a very distinguished visitor at our office yesterday! Prof. Bill Fitzgerald, who heads the Signal Processing Lab at the University of Cambridge, dropped by. For me, that’s one of the nicest things about working for Mendeley – we get to meet brilliant people who do research on the most fascinating of topics.

Bill, for instance, applies his data modelling expertise to a wide range of fields, from audio processing (e.g. automatically transcribing a piece of music to musical notation) to medical imaging and the diagnosis of schizophrenia. Later, during our lunch at Sapori (an Italian restaurant around the corner), he briefly spoke about his PhD research on the statistical properties of quantum mechanics. This prompted Mike to tell a Heisenberg joke I didn’t know yet: Heisenberg is speeding down the highway. A traffic cop pulls him over and asks: “Dr. Heisenberg, do you know how fast you were going?”. Heisenberg: “No, but I know exactly where I am!”

Yet, since Bill has been one of our earliest beta testers, we mainly spoke about his and our ideas on how to improve Mendeley and in which direction to take it. Such discussions are extremely valuable to us, so if you have any suggestions, requests, or ideas, please always feel free to contact us!

What we forgot to say..

Some of our beta testers have thankfully pointed out to us that we forgot to mention a tiny, yet important, detail: Currently, Mendeley Desktop only runs on Windows. Sincerest apologies to those Mac and Linux users who downloaded our software only to discover that their operating system was not yet supported!

We feel a little stupid now for not having communicated this before – a classic case of overlooking the obvious. However, we are working hard on porting the code to run properly on Linux and Mac OS X and other architectures. In the meantime, you can run Mendeley Desktop on these platforms using a virtual machine (such as Parallels or VMware) or by using the free Wine (on Linux) or Darwine (on Mac OS X) which do not require a virtual machine or a Windows license.

From cold fusion to cold beer

I just visited the Scientific American to see whether they had picked up this Physicsworld story on an allegedly successful cold fusion experiment in Japan. It seems they didn’t, and so my premature hopes of seeing the world’s energy problems solved before I left the office today took a little dent.

Instead, SciAm’s front page featured a story on the therapeutic value of blogging:

Scientists now hope to explore the neurological underpinnings at play, especially considering the explosion of blogs. According to Alice Flaherty, a neuroscientist at Harvard University and Massachusetts General Hospital, the placebo theory of suffering is one window through which to view blogging. As social creatures, humans have a range of pain-related behaviors, such as complaining, which acts as a “placebo for getting satisfied,” Flaherty says. Blogging about stressful experiences might work similarly.

Therapeutic value notwithstanding, I’ll stop blogging for now and head over to the Freemasons Arms pub in Hampstead for dinner and a cold beer with Drs. Hennig-Thurau and Wiertz.

Trying to make you happy

The joys and terrors of founding a company are essentially the same. You get to decide almost everything, which means that you also have decide almost everything. In the case of software development, that means the look of every interface, the wording in every dialog, the detailed function of each feature, the placement of each button etc. So, obviously, there’s plenty of room for discussion.

Such was the case again when we had to decide exactly how the Full-Screen PDF Viewer integrated into Mendeley Desktop should look and work. Here’s a preview:

The discussion centered around which features to leave out completely, and which features to retain at least as options. In the end, we left out most of the debatable features and didn’t even put them in the options menu.

You’d be surprised how many options we had in the software at earlier stages (and how emotional the discussions were that got them there). “But wouldn’t it be nice if a user could adjust the font size in the library?” – “Shouldn’t you be able to also sort the data by…”, and so on. Joel on Software captured this predicament quite nicely:

Software has a similar archaeological record, too: it’s called the Options dialog. Pull up the Tools | Options dialog box and you will see a history of arguments that the software designers had about the design of the product. Should we automatically open the last file that the user was working on? Yes! No! There is a two week debate, nobody wants to hurt anyone’s feelings, the programmer puts in an #ifdef in self defense while the designers fight it out. Eventually they just decide to make it an option.

Yet, besides the obvious point that a less cluttered interface is easier to use, there’s perhaps a deeper psychological justification for not including too many options: Too much choice can make people miserable.

There’s a great talk on this very subject by Prof. Dan Gilbert, author of “Stumbling on Happiness” – a book I thoroughly enjoyed, although it’s more a description of “the symptom, but not the cure”. In this video however, eight minutes in, he reveals the secret of happiness. Enjoy:

Guru*Talks and the Bauhaus Film Institute

Phew. I spent a substantial part of the weekend editing transcribed guest lectures, and now I’m done for the night.

Let me explain: While I was at the Bauhaus-University of Weimar, I organized and co-hosted (together with Prof. Thorsten Hennig-Thurau) a series of invited talks on the art and economics of filmmaking. Not to be held back by such mundane things as modesty, we placed the whole series under the motto “The Film Industry in the 21st Century” and named it Guru*Talk (before we had invited even the first guest speaker), drawing on Merriam-Websters definition:

*gu-ru: A teacher and especially intellectual guide in matters of fundamental concern.

Because surely, if film wasn’t a matter of fundamental concern, what was?

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NYT: Einstein Letter on God Sells for $404,000

Just a quick follow-up to my thoughts earlier this week – the New York Times’ Dennis Overbye reports that

From the grave, Albert Einstein poured gasoline on the culture wars between science and religion this week.

Mr. Overbye must have missed his colleague’s Op-Ed stating that these culture wars were obsolete? I kid, I kid. I, too, believe that the relationship between science and religion is bound to remain a touchy subject for the foreseeable future. So, Mr. Overbye’s article is a worthwile read. Another quote:

Einstein, as he says in his autobiographical notes, lost his religion at the age of 12, concluding that it was all a lie, and he never looked back. But he never lost his religious feeling about the apparent order of the universe or his intuitive connection with its mystery, which he savored. “The most incomprehensible thing about the universe is its comprehensibility,” he once said.

“If something is in me that can be called religious,” he wrote in another letter, in 1954, “then it is the unbounded admiration for the structure of the world so far as science can reveal it.”

The article also mentions Einstein’s “famous rebuke to quantum mechanics, ‘God doesn’t play dice'”.

That made me remember Niels Bohr‘s response, which must be the best quip of all time in a scientific debate: “Einstein, don’t tell God what to do.”

Things that gave me pause this week I

Last Friday at the airport, when I was queuing to board the plane, the man in front of me was reading the Economist. I couldn’t help but notice a double-page ad placed by the Templeton Foundation. The ad featured a set of interesting essays by a number of prominent scientists, philosophers and theologists on the question “Does science make belief in God obsolete?”.

Then I came across a column by David Brooks titled The Neural Buddhists in yesterday’s NY Times Op-Ed pages. Ironically, it might be paraphrased as “The question of whether science makes belief in God obsolete is obsolete”.

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Private beta test

I just wanted to give you a short update on our beta test. First of all, we’d like to say thank you to our existing testers (your feedback was very encouraging!) and also to all the new testers who’ve signed up. We are expecting to roll out a new version for testing next week, so please stay tuned…