Thoughts, links, and essays from Peter Merholz
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About peterme

Most of the Time
Oakland, CA

American history around the time of the Revolution, figuring out how to marry top-down task-based information architecture processes with bottom-up document-based ones, finding a good dentist in San Francisco Oakland
Designing the user experience (interaction design, information architecture, user research, etc.), cognitive science, ice cream, films and film theory, girls, commuter bicycling, coffee, travel, theoretical physics for laypeople, single malt scotch, fresh salmon nigiri, hanging out, comics formalism, applied complexity theory, Krispy Kreme donuts.

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[Editor's note: began as a site of self-published essays, a la Stating The Obvious. This evolved (or devolved) towards link lists and shorter thoughtpieces. These essays are getting a tad old, but have some good ideas.]
Reader Favorites
Interface Design Recommended Reading List
Whose "My" Is It Anyway?
Frames: Information Vs. Application

Interface Design
Web Development
Movie Reviews

May 31, 2002

Don't Change Phone Companies Or We'll Shoot This Dog.

chicago_phone_ad (14k image)
SBC/Ameritech, seemingly scared shitless by the thought of actual competition in the telecommunications market, has these ads all over the Chicago "L." Here in the land of Al Capone, I'm wary of any business telling me I'm considering a "bad idea."
Posted at 01:33 PM PST [4 comments]

Elko, NV.

win-to-elko (2k image)
Map from Mapblast

Our first sleep stop along I-80 was Elko, NV, a former mining town with a renowned wild frontier past. Checking into our Motel 6 (serviceable accommodations, not much else to say), I noticed ads for a variety of Basque restaurants in the phone book. Dad had talked up the possibility of getting a Basque meal before we arrived, (lots of sheep in this part of the country) so I showed him what I found. The man behind the counter, William, told us in no uncertain terms that there was one place to go for such a dinner -- The Star Hotel. Considering William's enthusiasm and his size, we opted to follow his suggestion.

And we weren't disappointed. The place was packed when we entered, so we got our name on the list, and got some drinks at the bar. After 30 minutes or so, we sat down to a Basque meal -- dad got the baked lamb, and I got the baked beef. If you've never eaten Basque food, than you wouldn't know that it's standard operating procedure to shove more food at you than you could possibly eat. And you have no say in it. You sit down, you get bread. Then comes the soup. Then a salad. Then the main course comes, surrounded by various vegetables. Then dessert with coffee. In all, costing about $15. And filling you up for, oh, two weeks.

Happily, high quantity didn't mean low quality -- all the dishes were very well prepared, and the beef was moist and flavorful.

elko-donuts (25k image)

We rolled ourselves home, and the following morning made our foray for coffee and a bite to eat. We ended up at the place pictured above, because I couldn't pass up an establishment named "Donuts 'n Mor". And I still can't, for the life of me, figure why they spelled it "mor". For what it's worth, the donuts sucked and the coffee was bad.

For folks interested in learning more about Basque culture and the Star Hotel, a Google Search turned up the Basque Oral History Project, which features an interview with Mary Aguirre about growing up in the Star Hotel, and an old photo of the Star Hotel. It seems that the hotel was a huge part of Basque life in the area.

Posted at 11:40 AM PST [3 comments]

May 30, 2002

Designers of the Lost Ark The good folks at InContext have published a thoughtful, and thoughtfully brief, essay titled "What's an archaeologist doing at a design firm?" I've recently been wondering what user experience types can learn from archaeology (distinct from anthropology or other similar disciplines), where the study of artifacts leads to an understanding of behavior, culture, motivations, etc. This essay provides a good place to start.
Posted at 03:15 PM PST [0 comments]

The Four Types of Users in a Networked Experience. In writing up notes on JC Herz's talk at the Emerging Technology Conference, I referred to her typology of the 4 types of gamers. Well, it turns out I missed her attribution to Richard Bartle, who wrote an essay, Hearts, Clubs, Diamonds, Spades: Players Who Suit MUDs, an earlier look at the sociology of online worlds.
Posted at 11:27 AM PST [0 comments]

Winnemucca, NV

oak-to-win (9k image)
(Image from Mapblast)

My dad and I are hauling ass on I-80 from Oakland to Chicago, both to get me to the workshop on time, and in preparation for the real road excursion--Route 66.

Man cannot live on water alone, so we turned off in Winnemucca in search of a caffeinated fix. An industry town (don't ask me what industry--I don't know) with a few casinos, the prospects for a decent brew were growing dim, when we hit upon Global Coffee. Situated in a little corner strip mall, this coffeehouse provided a welcome respite, with comfy couches, music, good cappuccinos, free internet access with any beverage purchase, and our delightful barista Brittany, working the counter for the summer after her first year in college.

Cannot say much else about the town, but I can definitely recommend a stop in Winnemucca for refueling.
Posted at 06:55 AM PST [0 comments]

May 25, 2002

Don't Get Burned By Bad Citations. In the latest Cooper newsletter is an essay by Wayne Greenwood, "Don't Get Burned By Bad Mapping", which begins with a lengthy discussion of how stove dials often don't intuitively relate to the burners they're meant to control. It's a good example of "bad mapping". Unfortunately, it's also someone else's example. This is the classic example from Donald Norman's Design of Everyday Things, probably the most influential text in the practice of user-centered design.

Now, in the 7th paragraph, Wayne cites Don, but only for the concept of "natural mapping." There's no acknowledgement that the prior 6 paragraphs were pretty much lifted from Don's book. The newsletter's audience, which is probably possible clients, are lead to believe the stove example is Wayne's own.

This is sloppy work, particularly with a text this well-known. And it casts a pall over the rest of the essay, which, while valid, is tainted by this muddled scholarship.

Don's stove example was used to good effect in this article on the infamous Florida ballot.
Posted at 10:50 PM PST [3 comments]

Dunsmuir, CA. This first in a series of posts about travel takes us to Dunsmuir, CA, a riverside town 10 miles south of Mount Shasta. Formerly dependent on the railroad for its economy, the shutting down of the timber industry in upstate California has forced the town to seek it's fortunes in tourism. I've visited Dunsmuir a few times in the last 4 or 5 years, and was surprised to see that it seems to be failing -- more businesses were shuttered, and there simply wasn't a whole lot going on.

One pleasant discovery was our lodging -- the Caboose Motel in Railroad Park, just on the southern end of town. Don't let the concept fool you--I had feared that a motel comprised of modified caboose cars would be a rather gauche, plasticky affair. However, the set up is truly delightful. Each caboose car is decked out in with an art deco vibe from the 30s and 40s. They're arranged around a babbling artificial creek that runs into a little pond, situated right by the actual Sacramento River. The room, though small, was well-enough appointed, the most delightful feature being the lookout perch sticking out the middle of the car. By the time we checked in, we had driven ourselves out; thankfully, the restaurant in Railroad Park (a converted dining car, natch), serves a selection of good standard American fare--the prime rib I enjoyed was quite tasty.

So while I can't recommend visiting the main town of Dunsmuir, the Railroad Park should prove a worthwhile rest spot for folks traveling in the area.
Posted at 10:24 PM PST [1 comment]

May 21, 2002

Intranets For People. At last week's Emerging Technology Conference, the session most germane to the work that I do was J.C. Herz's talk on "Networked Experience Design." In it, J.C. argued that people designing any system that exploits a network would do well to study the "social ecology" of online gaming, where the interactions between players are supported by the elements of the game environments, and spurring various cultural developments. (I put J.C.'s "social ecology" in quotes, because a Google search suggests its standard use is quite different than hers. I believe "information ecology" is the more apt term.)

Lexicon aside, J.C.'s models of the gaming ecology offered insights that could be carried into other milieus. She began by breaking down the four types of gamers:

1. Achievers - they want to win, kick everyone's ass, be seen as the best

2. Explorers - they're modeling the system, they tinker with it's boundaries, winning is secondary to being the most knowledgeable

3. Socializers - they're earning administrative privileges, they run the system, they help newbies get up to speed, etc.

4. Spoilers - they're the class clowns. They're here to, as we used to say in my college co-op, fuck shit up.

J.C.'s point here is simple. An online game has to provide multiple ways to win, or, perhaps a more accurate term is "succeed", because success means different things to these different roles. Not everyone has the
same goal, motivations, etc. People want to take different roles.

She also stressed the importance of the "learning curve" of online gaming, perhaps most obvious in role-playing games, where people start at a beginner level, and, through experience, attain higher levels, and with those higher levels, more power, more access, and more status. But it's not enough to simply gain experience... You must be able to show others your position. It's important to remember that "networked experience design" is fundamentally social, and communication is essential. Emblems of status must be clear.

J.C.'s point reminded me of They have a delightful status marker, their "cubes". Immediately upon clicking to an article, you know the level of devotion of the community member.

J.C. discussed how such emblems allow participants to build their identities over time. Too often, networked environments exist only "in the moment"--there's no sense of history. I've often felt that P2P filesharing systems are like the quote from Herodotus: "No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it's not the same river and he's not the same man." You can enact the same search a minute apart and get wildly different results.

But it's important that these stories be allowed to build gradually. J.C. noted that in online gaming, people work very hard to build identities. It's important that networked environments support that, that they reward people for their efforts.

J.C. then discussed the importance of simply support sociability. She argued that much of what gets sold on eBay is crap, but that's beside the point; people enjoy the interaction of trading. You just use the crap as a means to that end. She felt Napster was a step back, because it stripped the face-to-face aspects of sharing music (embodied in the ritual of the mix tape), reducing it to hunting for tracks. (Though, and I don't think she pointed this out, Napster was perhaps the first program that allowed you to peek into others' hard drives, an *extremely* social act that added a lot of context to the file-sharing, and is, for my money, the single most popular aspect of that system.)

J.C. ended with a discussion of the importance of groups in our social lives. We all watch FRIENDS at the same time, not simply because that's when it's on, but because that's when everyone else is watching it... There's a notion of shared experience that creates value beyond just the content. There is a social metadata -- we share this knowledge -- and the act of sharing can often be more important *than* the knowledge. During the beta tests of Quake, clan structures emerged, to the surprise of the designers. And clans are now a standard part of any online gaming environment--people simple can't not form groups. The challenge is, How do you create wonderful membranes for groups?

J.C.'s main point is a simple one: Technology always changes, yet human nature persists.

Now, I've learned to grow wary (and weary) of attempts to convince me that the secret to interaction/experience/whatever design lies in the world of games. The "task" of playing a game is so different from the tasks the users of the systems I design, my immediate response is to discount it. However, J.C.'s talk is both simpler and richer than that. "Online games" aren't interesting in and of themselves. However, the way that they so clearly expose social behavior makes certain aspects of human nature exceedingly obvious (I mean, emblems of status, sharing, and group dynamics are all elements of "real world" sociability, too--it's just that the online realm magnifies them).

The most obvious beneficiary of J.C.'s modeling would be corporate intranets. Those four user types, the use of experience/knowledge as status, the forming of meaningful groups--all of these are important within companies, and an intranet design that explicitly represented these elements could prove to be exceedingly powerful. Employees getting rewarded for sharing the most information (thus earning the most "cubes"). Employees maintaining group identities, not just with their department, but with other meaningful groups (basketball players, people carpooling from a certain location, etc.) Even a system that allowed the jokester a place for carrying on. Intranets need to respond to its users not just as employees, cogs in a company's system, but as people, social creatures interacting.

For more on JC Herz, check out:
An article on networked media design.
An article on Learning from The Sims.
Her piece in the current issue of Wired, 50,000,000 Star Warriors Can't Be Wrong, one the upcoming online world Star Wars Galaxies.
Posted at 11:23 PM PST [4 comments]

May 20, 2002

Who knew that Google lied? So, Google claims that there are no links to Textism's page about Verisign, and how screwed up a company it is. This is, of course, untrue, as Textism has orchestrated a googlebomb, and Blogdex shows 274 links to that page. I suppose I can't blame Google for not wanting their results to be skewed, though I don't agree with their method--since we know that pages are linking to Textism, they should at least acknowledge it... They just don't need highlight that page in the results.

Also, this googleblock simply suggests that Blogistan ought to explore a new route. For now, I'm going to point to this Kuro5hin article on Verisign's unethical emails. So, that's Verisign.
Posted at 10:24 AM PST [12 comments]

May 17, 2002

Play With Your Words. I have always loved words. I was one of those kids who would run to dictionaries to look up words I didn't know. I loved word play -- anagrams, crossword puzzles, double crostics, etc. And etymologies were particularly fun--what were the components of a word? How did that word *come to be*? Reading the evolution of a word, seeing how the meaning shifted overtime, wondering how the lexicographers had figured it out.

As such, it's weird to experience how my love of words and wordplay has actually made an impact. Sometime in April or May of 1999 (I can't say for sure when I exactly did it), I posted, in the sidebar of my homepage:
"For What It's Worth
I've decided to pronounce the word "weblog" as wee'- blog. Or "blog" for short."

I didn't think much of it. I was just being silly, shifting the syllabic break one letter to the left. I started using the word in my posts, and some folks, when emailing me, would use it, too. I enjoyed it's crudeness, it's dissonance... As I wrote Keith Dawson after he added "blog" to Jargon Scout
I like that it's roughly onomatopoeic of vomiting. These sites (mine included!) tend to be a kind of information upchucking.

'Blog' would have likely died a forgotten death had it not been for one thing: In August of 1999, Pyra Labs released Blogger. And with that, the use of "blog" grew with the tool's success.

And now, it's May of 2002, and over the last few days, "blog" has proven its stickiness in a way I would have never bothered to even foretell. At the Emerging Technology Conference, a prevailing topic was weblogs, with Steven Johnson's keynote "City of Blogs", with Cory's references to the People's Republic of Blogistan, other folks speaking of the "Blogsphere", and endless conversations about who was blogging what.

"Blog" has even received legitmacy from high-minded linguistic circles, as Geoffrey Nunberg's latest commentary for NPR's Fresh Air (RealAudio) extols, at surprising length, the virtue of the word.

I have no idea if this experience, where a single person coins something that spreads memetically, is a typical way for words to enter the language. But it seems that the Web is a linguist's dream petri dish, festering with rapidly evolving language usage, much of the traces of which remain recorded, allowing linguists to march up the trail to the origin. Standing at the trailhead is a delightful reward for this nerdy word-obsessed kid who, flipping through Webster's, used to wonder, "who was the first person to say *that*?"
Posted at 11:27 AM PST [2 comments]

May 16, 2002

Pointer to the future? It should not be surprising that it seems that at least half of the attendees at the Emerging Technology Conference brought laptops. What *is* surprising is that it seems that about 25% of the laptops are Apple, and more of them are iBooks than Ti-books. Hrm.
Posted at 01:47 PM PST [0 comments]

Carly Fiorina - The Graduate? BusinessWeek points out that, for all the sturm und drang of the HP/Compaq merger tribulations, the real difficulties are only yet to come.
Referring to the two companies as "The Happy Couple", spurred me to think of the end of The Graduate, both the film and the book.
What many don't realize is that the story doesn't really have a happy ending. Sure, Benjamin "gets the girl", which, in a typical story, would be the joyous close. However, (if memory serves) in the original book, as Ben and Elaine sit on the back of the bus, Elaine turns to Ben, "Ben?" and he responds, "Yes?" In the movie, the final shot lingers long enough so that we see the elation on their faces turn to uncertainty as to the future that lies ahead.
Posted at 12:05 PM PST [3 comments]

Links inspired by the Emerging Technology Conference, part I: Steven Johnson's Keynote. I'm attending O'Reilly's Emerging Technology Conference, and listening to some great talks, and having some great conversations. Others are doing a good job of reporting exactly what's been said, so I'm opting to provide links that I found inspired by the talks.

Yesterday's keynote was given by Steven Johnson, talking about a "City of Blogs", where he takes the urban studies notions he discussed in Emergence and applies them to the groundswell of interesting in personal publishing that weblogs have inspired. You can read much of his thesis in his essay for Salon, "Use The Blog, Luke". (Which wasn't his choice of a title...) The basic idea is that weblogs are a great knowledge management medium, but need tools to extract the value of the information therein. To turn it from a writer's medium to a reader's medium (or somewhere in between). I've noodled on this in the past, largely because of my work at Epinions. Epinions 1.0 was a writer's site--it was pretty much designed to support authors to write reviews, filling the site with content. The charter of Epinions 2.0, which is essentially what you still see (though it's probably more a 2.3 or 2.4), is to extract the value of all the content and present it in a way that is truly valuable for readers.

(I also found out that Steven reads regularly. Um. Hi, Steven! Good talk. Suggestions: I do think cybernetics ought to get more props in these discussions; you've got to use a less moody picture of me; recognize that extracting meaning from texts is REALLY REALLY hard; spend a little less time with the study of Manhattan... we get the idea pretty quickly; make it clear *what the point* of a City of Blogs could be... So we could have one... Why would I want to visit?)

Steven's talk started getting me thinking about cybernetics, and I've decided I need to read more both by and about Herbert A. Simon. He was a leading thinker in a number of fields, including cybernetics, organizational theory, artificial intelligence, epistemology, and economics. I suspect that a lot of the stuff I've been thinking about (decentralized organizations, knowledge management, getting information to flow in companies in meaningful ways, complex adaptive systems as models for addressing this, etc. etc.), he's long ago considered.

Links that seem worth pursuing:
- Cosma Shalizi's notebook entry on Simon. (Cosma's notebooks are a treasure trove.)
- The syllabus for "Science and Technology Studies 6234: History and Social Studies of Computers and Software", with links to seminal essays, bibliographies, and pointers to online resources. Much goodness there.
- This page on Simon has links to PDFs of his essays, stuff that might otherwise be hard to get a hold of.
- And, whenever discussions of complex adaptive systems and information comes up, I feel obliged to point to the Principia Cybernetica Web, still the best single resource on this topic.
Posted at 10:09 AM PST [0 comments]

May 15, 2002

Nick is scary-smart. Listen up. Nick Ragouzis, sent me an email about my essay(s) on unifying the online presence of decentralized organizations, wherein he perceptively challenges the notions I put forth, extending them to a level of complexity I wasn't yet prepared to go. I asked if I could post it, and he said yes. Nick wasn't sure if a weblog was the best place to promote a disccussion of these issues... I'm hoping we can show him the value!


Now I'm sorry I didn't write sooner. :-)

From our discussions, you know that we agree on the foolishness of offering customers a website that is a simple mirror of the org chart. Do you agree that's so even if the site is consistent throughout?

Brochure-ware and orgchart-maps are but two forms of website immaturity. A third would be uniformity of presentation -- the brand-face website.

The primary mistakes involved here are two: 1) a belief that the web offers limited opportunities beyond recapitulation of the principles that marcom, e.g., has used to control "the" corporate message; and 2) a confusion between consistency in presentation and consistency in principles, coupled with a blindness to the threat this presents the organization.

Starting with the last, the threat is significant: this sort of consistency is one more component of inertia in an organization. The smallest effective argument here is to point out that for a 2-year turnover cycle with 6-month delivery bursts, if the website is responding to marketplace dynamics (let alone service and product evolution), at least 1/4 of it must be [1] inconsistent with the remaining 3/4s. More important arguments (though longer to make) concern, e.g., organization change (yes, internal stuff), competitive dynamics, and, significantly, the primacy of local-ness in communications (revisiting my connectionism argument [2] from years back, and others before me).

The first mistake I listed is no less crucial: the consistency one must seek is on principles, not on presentation, not even on (tho' much preferred over presentation) characteristics. Consistency on principles means understanding the perceived value formula of each of the key constituencies and delivering on it ... even if that suggests, demands, an inconsistence in presentation or characteristics. (A close, weaker, cousin to this relationship is the difference between brand presentation and brand promise.) Or, for another example, some of the principles will have a manifestation in variations in copy style -- even though each part of the website might have its own style variant. Likewise, in the same similar-but-different way, each part of the website will exhibit core and local principles.

Principles are harder than presentation; well, once you go beyond the simple ones of clarity, performance (all kinds), quality, privacy, security. Principles are harder to identify in the organization (it's real work, esp. to get beyond the "Principles we live by" orgspeak, or brand personality police -- which still, btw, concerns mostly static attributes ... can you imagine?); principles are harder to validate.

One side note: with many organizations looking to the website as their new face on the world, we are rapidly losing (or drowning out) one key, crucial, innovation driver: the big-mouthed salesperson. Really successful sales folks, and the P/CEO when let loose in the field, have a tendency to say anything they need to say to close important deals, to retain important customers. Not just anything, of course, but the "Right" anything. Often that is not consistent with anything the organization is officially saying. Or doing. Or wants to do. Despite the fact that sometimes it isn't something the organization should do, it is a primary driver for change in response to important customers, to important competitors, to significant marketplace opportunities.

Well, it is a primary driver still. People in the organization now have a way to participate in this -- to extend their role beyond noticing and acting on things that less important customers wanted, on weak signals from the marketplace, in other words to extend their role beyond things consistent; to extend it to exploring and forcing change. Not by dressing up every page in the same uniform (as some companies have done when they realized that all of those sales folks dressed in their own idiosyncratic, sometimes local, style) but by naming principles and carrying out locally-relevant execution.


[1] "Must be" might well be read as an organizational mandate.

I have a lot to say about this, but unfortunately don't have much time write now. The one thing I want to point out as an exemplar of the problem Nick is mentioning is The "look and feel" of is rigidly controlled by its brand identity group, and they've done a remarkable job ensuring the same typefaces, color schemes, navigation layout, etc., across what is a massively decentralized organization's website. What they haven't done, though, is ensure *functional* consistency, *behavioral* consistency. Such that elements that look the same, and are in the same place, and appear to have the same perceived affordances, act differently in different parts of the site. And that's *worse* than letting the different sub-sites look and feel different--at least in that world, you'd expect different behaviors (though, you might wonder if you're still on the website of the same company). What happens at Intel is that you quickly learn you cannot trust the behavior of the elements, and you feel paralyzed, as your expectations are repeatedly dashed, and you're afraid to click anywhere. (This is part of what I was trying to get at in the fourth step of the second part of the essay, stating that an online style guide has to go beyond appearance, and must specify interaction behavior as well.

Posted at 10:14 AM PST [2 comments]

Build your own faceted classification! I was holding off on pointing to it, but it seems the cat is out of the bag, so I can now announce that my buddy Trav has released a publicly-usable version of Facetmap, his tool for interfacing with faceted classifications. You can upload your own data and create your own Facetmap! (And why he doesn't have "TM" after every instance of the word "Facetmap" I don't know.)
Posted at 06:16 AM PST [2 comments]

May 13, 2002

peterme bleats like the devil! I recently read Carter Beats the Devil, an historical novel about Charles Carter, aka "Carter The Great", a famed magician and contemporary of Houdini, who finds himself the subject of a Secret Service investigation when President Harding dies shortly after attending a performance.

Carter is an archetypal page turner, fun, melodramatic, witty, and plot-driven. It's formulaic qualities are frustrating (every plot device is carefully set up) and yet utterly thematically appropriate. It's fun to play "guess the reference", the most extended of which involves Minnie and her cantankerous boys.

The book is written with all the subtlety of a Hollywood screenplay. As such, it's no surprise that Tom Cruise has acquired the film rights, with the scuttlebutt being he'll star and produce, and Robert Towne will write and direct. I think Cruise is a perfectly appropriate choice for the lead role, but god I hope Towne stays away from this film. He might very well the most overrated writer in Hollywood, and when I saw him speak on stage earlier this year, the only word to describe his presence was "addled." The only casting suggestion I have: hire Ashley Judd to play Phoebe.

Perhaps the most fun I had researching this blog entry was finding this treasure trove of delightful Carter poster images. Amazing designs.
Posted at 04:29 PM PST [11 comments]

May 10, 2002

Some things are better left unspoken. The Washington Post serves up a surprisingly smart article on research in interface design, A Visual Rather Than Verbal Future. Pretty much a paean to Ben Shneiderman and his lab at the University of Maryland, it focuses on Ben's contention that we will interact with our computers visually, not verbally, (though it doesn't delve into how our computers will interact with us), and also gives some play to Ben Bederson's PhotoMesa, an image browser. Ben B has been preaching the power of zooming user interfaces since 1993, and it looks like his persistence is paying off.

(And, is it just me, or is perhaps the best newspaper website? It's tricked out with all kinds of things, videos, chats, etc., in a way that makes sense, and seems to speak to the "promise" of online journalism.)
Posted at 10:32 AM PST [3 comments]

May 8, 2002

Narrative: The Final Frontier. "Narrative as Landscape" is a remarkably thoughtful essay on formal aspects of narrative, it's basic thesis being that we shouldn't think of narratives as "paths", but as "spaces". Any narrative, not just hyperlinked ones.

Reading this essay brought up all manner of thoughts and connections. I'm particularly enamored of how the author addresses the problem through good ol' touchy-feely ruminating, excursions into emergent properties, and dips into cognitive science research on narrative.

The most obvious were the discussions of information spaces, and the spatial nature of the Web, that have occurred here at

His main point resonated with experiences I'd had with interactive narrative. Back in the day, the primary model for interactive narratives were branching paths--at certain points along the story, the audience/reader could choose from a set of options (usually 3), and continue. This never ever ever lead to a satisfying experience. A different model was first exemplified by The Residents' FREAK SHOW CD-ROM, wherein you wandered into, and behind the scenes, of a freak show tent, learning the stories of its various performers, and uncovering connections between them. The narrative built as you wandered, and the experience was flexible; if you met Wanda the Worm Woman before Tex the Barker, you developed a distinctly different impression than if you had stumbled across them vice versa.

While Infocom had explored such notions with their "interactive fiction", what made Freak Show special was that it was *not* a game; there were no puzzles, no goals. Like a good book, there was no point to it except to tell stories.

Thinking of FREAK SHOW reminds me of the work of theater TAMARA. I first became aware of TAMARA while at Voyager--we considered producing a CD-ROM version of the work. It takes the FREAK SHOW concept another step; whereas there is really no "time" in FREAK SHOW (the characters aren't doing anything until you meet them), TAMARA is a remarkably complex play, that takes place over a fixed period of time, with scenes occurring simultaneously in different rooms, and members of the audience are free to take their own narrative paths.

Researching TAMARA turned up this Media Lab thesis on an Automatist Storytelling System, specifically the chapter on interactive narrative, which addresses many of the issues I'm raising here, and has an interesting story about TAMARA:
Krizanc described his recent discussions with a developer about producing Tamara in CD-ROM form and showed the lengthy design document the developer had produced outlining an approach to the project. Amid concerns over bandwidth, the document suggested that the play be recast as a game with the viewer choosing plot lines resulting in one of many possible endings. For Krizanc, the very idea that his main character, the Count, might live instead of die depending on the actions of the "player" was unacceptable; it "completely destroyed the whole point of the story" as he had written it.

I do remember that we at Voyager proposed ideas of making TAMARA more game like. I don't remember us suggesting such fundamental story changes, though I suppose we might have--around this time the CD-ROM market was beginning to fail, and the idea of marketing "interactive theater" didn't seem as sure-fire as, well, "game".

Getting back to the "Landscape as Narrative" essay, the author also delves deeply into the metaphors we use for narrative, sounding quite like Lakoff, and then probes cognitive science research into how the brain processes narrative.

All in all, a thought-provoking read.

Much thanks to Sip, whose on the list pointed me to this essay.

Posted at 06:17 PM PST [3 comments]

May 7, 2002

petermedia report. So. I've seen and read some stuff, my opinions of which I thought I'd share with you.

Let's start with the box-office bad boy, SPIDER-MAN. I might not have the perceptive acumen of some critical snobs, but I'm just a simple Oakland boy who went in looking for some fun hokum, and was treated to it in spades. No matter what Lileks says, it's not a great movie by any stretch of the imagination, but it *is* quite enjoyable, and might be the best Big Comic Book movie since SUPERMAN and SUPERMAN 2 (I'm not counting THE MASK, I didn't see THE CROW, and I don't consider GHOST WORLD to be Big Comic Book. And yes, I *am* counting BATMAN). I was tickled to see such a money movie have some real human touches, my favorite being the man-on-the-street interviews with archetypal New Yorkers. Don't expect much, but enjoy the ride.

HUMAN NATURE, the latest from the writer of BEING JOHN MALKOVICH, was okay. Nowhere near the genius of MALKOVICH, it relied too much on it's quirky oddity and not enough on having a real story to tell. Still, it's a decent flick, worth a matinee if you're looking for something out of the ordinary.

I grew up in the area in the title of the documentary DOGTOWN AND Z-BOYS. The film is about the renegade surf and skate culture of Santa Monica and Venice in the early to mid 70s, directed by Stacy Peralta, a former member of the Zephyr team, the hard-core-ing-est of the skaters. I grew up having seen the DOG TOWN cross everywhere, not having the faintest clue what it meant. The film put some of my early memories in a bit of perspective, and it was fun to see where I grew up, and some of the history and personalities were fun, and the imagery and film clips were cool, but, really, there wasn't enough there there, and it was essentially 45 minutes worth of story stretched out to 90 minutes (I'm guessing in order to warrant distribution). I have trouble recommending this film, because I suspect it just won't resonate with those who don't have some tie to the history presented.

The most engaging read I've had in a long time was the much-praised HIS DARK MATERIALS trilogy by Philip Pullman. I haven't bothered with fantasy in ages (pretty much since high school), but I ate these books up, tearing through them at a pace that surprised me; I'd flip through pages while walking, on the bus, waiting in line at the grocery store, etc. Never wanted to put it down. It's a remarkable work, fun, and clever and inventive and thrilling and sorrowful and inspiring and just a tasty delight.
Posted at 10:11 PM PST [3 comments]

Ensuring Website Consistency in 5 Not-So-E-Z Steps. Go read Part 2 of my essay on how big organizations can achieve unity in their online presence. In the piece, I set out examples of things like style guides. If you folks know of other good resources that would be of help, please post them in the comments section.
Posted at 12:47 AM PST [1 comment]

May 2, 2002

An economist of interest. J Bradford Delong is an economist who writes about new economy and information technology issues, doing so in an accessible style. I enjoyed his essay titled "The 'New Economy': Background, Questions, and Speculations", which provides a thoughtful framework for discerning hype from substance. He also keeps an active blog.
Posted at 08:57 AM PST [0 comments]

Spindly search. I tend not to post stuff like this anymore, but this impressed me enough to warrant it. The Google Graph-Browser links up Google searches with Alex Shapiro's TouchGraph, creating an interesting visualization of related sites that you can explore.
Posted at 08:39 AM PST [1 comment]

Norman's getting soft! Don Norman begins his latest post to CHI-Web with, "I'm starting a new career phase: Ugly is out, beauty is in." He's seeking examples of beautifully designed works, that are still functional and usable.

In related news, a Google search for "truth and beauty" turns up a bunch of interesting links.
Posted at 08:08 AM PST [3 comments]

May 1, 2002

One word: Kerning. Seen on an Evite-brand invite.

I know I'm not the only one whose mind provided an alternate reading of the third word.
(and yes, I've seen the MEGA FLICKS sign...)
Posted at 04:39 PM PST [2 comments]

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