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.]
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June 27, 2002

Have a nice weekend. See y'all on Tuesday afternoon. I'm travelling to Canada, inadvertently celebrating Canada Day. Think of it! The country grants itself A WHOLE DAY! That's esteem!

And in honor of our neighbors to the north, here is Geddy Lee of Rush, with Bob and Doug McKenzie, singing what *should* be the national anthem, "TAKE OFF!" (4.36MB... and worth every bit!).
Posted at 11:06 PM PST [2 comments]

Interview with social network researcher Valdis Krebs. Valdis Krebs is the proprietor of, a site devoted to issues of social networks and organizational dynamics, and the creator of InFlow, a software tool designed to depict social networks. I first became aware of Valdis through his depiction of the knotted hairball of internet industry partnerships, and have checked into his work on occasion ever since. As part of my visualization research, I poked around the world of Social Network Analysis, and chatted with Valdis. He was kind enough to let me post the interview.

peterme: What is the *purpose* of Social Network Analysis?

Valdis: To write papers. To discover nifty new equations. (Laughing)

It's basically to see how complex human systems really work. It can be a project team in an organization, or a terrorist team, or it could be a community where a virus is spreading, and figuring out how and why it's spreading a particular way. It allows us to look at and map what are normally invisible dynamics inside a community. Once you know about it and start thinking about it, you start to realize there's a lot of relational data out there. If you start putting it together piece by piece, you put together an interesting picture, more than any of the pieces by itself.

valdis_19 (6k image)

That's what I did with that terrorist network map. Everyone was talking about terrorist networks, but no one was putting it together. So I slowly started gathering data from various sources, and with a couple hundred data points, it started looking like something.

Sometimes its people or groups that want to look at their own networks, look at their own community, so they start gathering data, and start to see what's going on in the community.

Once you draw one of these maps, you can measure that map... You can measure the picture. It allows you to find whose the key player. Who's in a position of power. Who's in a position to bridge one community or one group together. Who has the most connections. Who has too many? Where are there gaps? In a corporation, you might look at a map and ask yourself, "Why aren't there connections between marketing and sales?" In an urban community, it might be, "Why aren't there connections between this street and that in the neighborhood?"

Once you get some measures, you have a baseline, and you can act on that to improve the community. And then track it over time with these metrics. The relations are improving, because we have metrics showing this, etc.

peterme: It seems that SNA is very focused on visualizations, the need to see the network. Is that true? How has that developed?

sna_moreno (13k image)

valdis: Initially there was a thing called a socio-gram, which Jacob Levi Moreno developed in the early 30s. These were drawn out by hand. You would observe a group, and draw a diagram, where the circles are the people, the lines are who talked to who. Other researchers started to follow.

(ed.: For a good history on the development of social group visualization, read "Visualizing Social Groups," (.PDF) by leading social network theorist Linton C. Freeman. And dig his hair and shirt!)

Of course, there was a limitation to how complex these diagrams could get. With paper and pencil, you can only do so much.

Visualization was crude until, probably, the mid 80s, with Unix programs, that could crunch significant numbers of data.

As technologies progressed, the ability to visualize has progressed.

At first, all you could do is count nodes. Then, someone said you can calculate them in a matrix. Multiply them together, raise them to a power. If you raise them to a second power, you can see how many two-step paths there are. Matrices are a pain in the ass to do by hand.

As spreadsheets came in, the networks got larger and larger.

What I do with InFlow is, instead of using the matrix approach, InFlow is written in Prolog, which is good for modelling relationships. Rather than crunch matrices, you just put data in as linked lists, and search for patterns and paths in the data. The networks we can visualize and measure have gotten larger and larger and more complex.

peterme: How does one *use* your visualizations? What are the goals sought?

valdis: You can show these network layouts, with as many nodes you have, as high as N goes, all those different layouts, maybe more. How a network is laid out can convince people that something is or isn't going on. Just like you can lie with statistics, you can lie with visualizations, too.

It's important to come up with some standard way of laying things out, also a simple way. I've seen 3D layouts, and all sorts of other things. And I've found that managers, those folks born in the middle of the last century, well, they just don't get 3D. Maybe the younger generation will get it, but most of today's managers have a hard time.

peterme: That's what I heard in my interview with Marti Hearst. She mentioned that 3D is not the way to go, but animation is.

valdis: I *am* getting more and more people asking for, "Don't just show me a graph, but show me a time sequence. Show how a network changes over time." We can do that today.

Simple is real important. People have to understand how the network is being visualized. If something is important, or key, it's going to be somehow in the center of the picture. If it's less important, it will be in the periphery of the picture.

As long as you keep things as simple as possible, then people can start to understand what's going on. If you just show a network map to someone, the first time they think, "Huh?" But with a little explanation, people pick up quickly.

To understand it well, I will sit down and interpret it with my client. I may be an expert in organizations and network analysis, but I don't know how to run Ford or IBM. Together, we'll come up with what's happening here. What we frequently find is that it's nice to bring the laptop in and show people what's going on.

So, I'll come in, and say, "When we do New Product Development, here is what happens. Hrm. What's happening with Marketing and Sales. What's happening there? Let's remove the other nodes and focus on them." The ability to interact with the visualization is very important, the ability to move things around and play with it. Get a feel for what's going on.

One of the things that people like about the Java applet on my website the most. You know, I pulled this node, and whole bunch of other nodes came with it. I knew it was an important node. If they pull something and it resists, then it's really well-grounded or something. They use what they know about the real world in this visualization.

Another thing that's really interesting, and that I run into all the time, is isolation. Some nodes aren't well connected or not connected at all. And some assume, if they're not connected, they're not necessary. I was making a presentation at TRW, showing how our department was connected in various activities. The first slide showed the boss very disconnected. This is good that he is not connected, because this is a network map of how our department does computer support.

peterme: How do you know when to stop? What is a robust data set?

valdis: Often, you don't know where to stop or where the network stops. You draw an arbitrary boundary, and say, this is what we're going to look at. For product development, we'll map the product development team. We may not map individuals outside the organization, but vendors of various sorts. Making the edges more generic and inclusive.

That's part of the inexactness of this science. You don't know where this network stops.

peterme: What is the value? Does it actually solve problems?

valdis: I play the role of the X-ray or CAT-scan technician in a hospital. You go to a hospital, get a CAT scan, say "see right here, there's a funny shadow here," and I give information to the doctor who will help the patient get better. To my clients, I'll give more information so they can see what's happening in their processes. I may not have the solution, but I can expose them to what's going on.

peterme: Here's a rather crass question: How can we use InFlow to stop terrorism? Can we?

valdis: I thought through that very question when I wrote an essay called "Can Large-Scale Terrorist Attacks be Prevented?"

What it takes is searching for data, working with investigators, and get them to provide their data and develop a map of what is going on. It's the type of thing that could have been done. The data they would have gathered is simple data gathered through their surveillance. In the article, I show how, from the two suspects known as far back as January 2000, a network could have been drawn, which, we now know, shows links to the hijackers.

From an organizational analysis perspective, the guys at RAND are screaming at the government -- They're saying we need to have as good or better of a network than they have. What we're fighting is a network. And if we just keep building hierarchies, it's not going to work. We need to be able to swarm and self-organize and all those things that networks do, and do it better than they do.

Rather than a massive top-down effort, analyzing all the emails and phone conversations in the world, turn it around, look at known suspects, use their planning and communication process, and unearth the network around that person. By having certain people under surveillance, it would have been easier to figure out what was happening. Look at known suspects. Monitor those who have a higher probability of being guilty. You reduce your data requirement significantly.

peterme: What is it about SNA visualizations that allow them to work?

valdis: They don't always work. You can have a very dense network. Where most people are connected to most others. No matter the visualization, you're going to get a hairball. It tells you something -- that you have a solid core of social space. It's just not very pretty.

Some of the layout algorithms give you a nice picture, but I always have to go in afterward and go in and clean it up.

I always look at the metrics. If someone stands out, and has a high centrality score, and clustered with 3 or 4 other nodes, I'll move those nodes out, to make the distinctions clear.

A friend at IBM did a network analysis of a department. The person who hired him was totally isolated in almost all of the networks. Connected with very weak links. The guy who hired him is on the outside, and here has to break it to this guy. This guy is going to have to go through this embarrassing
situation, showing what everyone already knows, which is that he's out of touch with his department. Instead of leaving him out on the periphery, he moved the node closer to the center, to make it appear less obvious. To remove some of the embarrassment.

And that was that.

For folks looking for more information on Social Network Analysis, I suggest
Peter Morville's introductory article, which is written in the context of knowledge management and information architecture.

And Valdis highly recommends Ronald Burt's "The Network of Social Capital," though at 93 pages, it's a commitment.

And you can try your hand at creating your own social group visualization.

Posted at 10:52 PM PST [4 comments]

June 25, 2002

Marti Hearst on Information Visualization In researching an essay on information visualization, I interviewed Marti Hearst. A professor in the School of Information Management Systems at UC Berkeley, Marti's background includes working at Xerox PARC. Learn more about her here:

While I'll try to quote as directly as possible, much of what follows is paraphrased (I can only type so quickly!) But I'm confident I'm getting the basic gist across.

So, What I Learned About Information Visualization from Marti Hearst

My first question to Marti was about the success of information visualization as a field. Because, well, you don't see many visualizations out there. Marti agreed, and commented that in her latest class on visualization, she encouraged students to emphasize any usability studies if any had been conducted. Unfortunately, for the most part, there has been little or no validation of information visualization applications.

treemaps_2 (14k image)

There are some success stories, most notably Smart Money's Map of the Market. The original idea of tree maps, developed by Ben Shneiderman, had a number of problems -- poor aspect ratios, no interactivity, it was ugly, and it solved a problem no cared about. The people at SmartMoney were able to take the fundamental core of this 2-d space-filling idea, and improve it by: correcting the aspect ratios (the elements are more squarelike, not long thin sticks); made fixed locations for the boxes, so that industries are always in the same area on the screen; not try to provide too much detail in the overview--just the green or red to show, generally, whether the market was up or down; relating the size of the box to a meaningful piece of data, a company's market share (the original tree map related the size of a box to the size of a file on a hard drive... who cares?); applying it to a very targeted task; choosing appealing colors; and making the interacting with it quite intuitive, through mouse-over and drilling down.

Marti forecasts a significant change in how visualizations are approached. In the past, they've been treated as standalone applications, "Look at this thing! And how beautiful it is!" Where as the key for the future will be incorporating it as a small part in a larger system, integrating it with the rest of the interface. In doing so, this will require visualizations to seriously take the problem that users want to solve into account, a motivation currently lacking from many visualizations.

spiral (14k image)

A visualization that particularly impressed Marti, and which hasn't received much notice, is the spiral visualization used to represent serial and periodic data. The essay which describes it(PDF) explains how it's been used to track food consumption by chimpanzees, for which there is a remarkably complex data set. Though perhaps quite obtuse to the layperson, Marti believes that for the scientists studying this phenomenon it's an innovative solution, using data tailored to the domain. An intriguing application of a spiral visualization can be played with at Rhizome, the community, where you an use a spiral to navigate their article database.

One of the most common applications of information visualization is searching and browsing textual data (as I discussed yesterday). Marti, who has focused a lot of energy on this specific problem, is coming to the conclusion that very little works. She has a class lecture devoted to the topic (PowerPoint), a section of which is called "Why Text is Tough", and which points out that "abstract concepts are difficult to visualize," that "language only hints at meaning," and that categorization is insufficient in understand the meaning of documents.

She pointed out you could use visualizations for data mining applications on text, but that's a very different task. You're not trying to understand relationships so much as analyze a concordance.

When discussing how visualizations might be used by the intelligence community (particularly in light of the Current Situation), she commented that in her initial conversations with folks in the IC, it's clear that have a lot of other issues (mostly organizational) to tackle before visualizations become at all useful. As an aside, she mentioned that the IC folks are researching software used by casinos to track individuals. It seems that casinos have some of the best intelligence software out there.

Biotechnology is considered a prime market for visualizations, and while Marti believes it is likely to be so, she spoke of a discussion she had with someone at Genentech, who have "the fanciest tool ever," but no one uses it because it's too complicated.

In no uncertain terms, Marti believes that the future of visualizations does NOT lie with 3-D. (An interesting counterpoint to another researcher, Mary Czerwinski, who states in an interview on InfoVis, "I am predicting--I would even bet money on it--that you'll see more 3D environments.") Instead, Marti believes that we'll see animation used more, taking advantage of humans' natural understanding and reaction to motion.

I'm sure there's a lot more Marti could have said, but we had to stop at some point, and this was it.
Posted at 06:15 PM PST [11 comments]

June 24, 2002

Communication, not Content. I think we can all agree that finding information on the Web is hard. I mean, sure, Google can turn up a few high-quality links, but any rigorous and deep use of the Web remains difficult -- particularly finding information of which we're not aware. One of the joys of researching at a library is to look up a particular book, find its place in the stacks, and then develop a crick in your neck as you drink in all the topically-related books gathered around the one you originally sought.

Many have sought to replicate this experience online through visualizations of Web spaces. The Atlas of Cyberspaces is littered with attempts at overlaying some meaningful spatial framework in order to highlight semantic relationships and strengthen recall.

Yet none of these have really caught on. Systems like WebMap only make the process of finding information more difficult, because they require a user to understand yet another layer of abstraction, and a highly arbitrary one at that. The main problem here is that visualizing semantic relationships is nearly impossible. There are far too many dimensions of meaning, and the dimensions that are particularly meaningful to me might have little relevance to others.

In an essay I just finished on information visualization, I wrote this passage:

World Wide Web visualizations begin to make sense when documents are no longer treated semantically, with attempts at assaying their meaning, but socially, by following how they are connected through links. Visualization tools like TouchGraph, which borrow from network analysis diagramming to depict web site connections, benefit from the proven effectiveness of social network visualizations.

Which made me think of Andrew Odlyzko's oft-cited notion that communication, not content, is the internet's killer app. And the realization that visualizing connections between sites helps overcome many of the problems that visualization semantics faces, in that those connections doubtlessly encompass many semantic qualities (thus wrapping up n dimensions of semantics into a single link), and that the act of connecting sites is an extremely meaningful act in itself, whereas the passive comparing of semantic meaning is far less likely to be relevant. Now, all I'm doing here is merely retreading over Google's ground (the order of their results is guided by the act of linking, not simply semantic meaning), but all that does is bolster the thesis.

Anyway. Some food for thought on a Monday afternoon.
Posted at 11:59 AM PST [3 comments]

June 23, 2002

The Secret To Meeting Women Is To Not Bathe. (from an AIM conversation with a friend; her responses removed, my comments edited for readability)

me: I frame the experience I had yesterday as, "Why do women only hit on me when I'm not available?"

me: I was in Pacific Heights, killing time before a movie. Went to the Grove Cafe. Sat down at one of the few available tables, which happened to be next to a woman sitting alone.

me: As I'm reading my book, I laugh out loud at a passage. She asks, "So what's so funny?" I explain to her, and we start talking, and I realize in no short order that there's a bit of a come on here.

me: Some interesting details:

I was reading THE NEW CONCEPTUAL SELLING a somewhat cheesy book on sales management (my company is having a sales consultant lead us through two days of training, and this is required reading). The book is filled with Rules in Title Case, Numbered Lists Of Things to Remember, and utterly serious use of the phrase "Win-Win" (which is what got me laughing).

me: She was reading ANNA KARENINA, which I realized, in retrospect, is the kind of book you read when you're alone at cafes in order to have something to talk about with someone you meet. (I know, I've done similarly.)

me: She works in "equity brokerage" after having worked in investment banking, which means she probably has scads of cash.

me: She's lived in San Francisco for three years (after moving there from NY), and comments on how she hasn't found people with the same kind of intellectual or political edge as she knew in New York. I ask her, "Do you ever get out of Pacific Heights?" It becomes clear that she doesn't, really.

me: Anyway, the last interesting detail, the one that makes me laugh most:
I had spent the night at a friend's home in the city, so I a) hadn't showered and b) was wearing the same clothes two days in a row. Not the situation to make you feel all attractive.

Some further thoughts--
The New Conceptual Selling, when you strip away its rhetorical excess, is a pretty good book. It's essentially "user-centered sales," encouraging you to try to get in the mind of your potential customer and understand their needs, and not just overwhelm them with sales pitches.

Bringing a book to a cafe in order to spur conversation has *never* worked for me.

I've never read ANNA KARENINA. Or any Tolstoy. I do {heart} Dostoyevsky, though.
Posted at 03:01 PM PST [5 comments]

Lane pre-cognated, "When you review this on your site, you're going to call it 'Mediocre Report', aren't you?" The answer to which is, "Yes."

Yesterday I saw Minority Report. Reviewers have been falling all over themselves in praising this film, and the clips looked like it had promise.

Well, it's not a bad movie, but it's not very good, either. The movie is chock-full of interesting ideas about the future (beware: it's marketing hell), has some fun set pieces involving chases and eye surgery, and has a slew of perfectly good performances.

It just doesn't add up to anything. From what I can tell, reviewers are dazzled by the look and paranoia and the film's "edge," without bothering to check to see if they had any emotional engagement... And I challenge a viewer to have an emotional engagement--I don't think it's there. This isn't helped by the paint-by-numbers plot--once the movie starts, you feel inexorably pulled to the utterly predictable end, like a ride-on-rails at an amusement park. Not that I'm against formula (I just watched for the umpteenth time, and loved, DIE HARD... side note: great DVD commentary). But the plot and characterization never do more than simply follow the rules, and leaves you very little to care about.

See it as a matinee.

Poking around, I found one review that shared my weariness with the flick. You've got to like a critic who hasn't given an "A" grade to any flick currently in theaters.

Oh, and someone must stop John Williams from ever putting pen to staff paper again.
Posted at 08:41 AM PST [12 comments]

June 22, 2002

Chicago, IL.

mil-to-chi (4k image)

I have this unfortunate habit of visiting Chicago on business, thereby having little opportunity to actually see the city. See, the crux of this road trip with my dad was this workshop in Chicago I was teaching along with Jeff and Lane. Dad was interested in Chicago because he lived there, oh, 50 years ago, and was curious as to how the city held up. Me, I found myself in a recently-converted ballroom inside the Chicago Athletic Association for three days. (Bryan wrote up some good stuff about the venue. The only thing I'd add, to help you get a sense of its character, is that the CAA is exactly the kind of place you'd expect to find medicine balls.)

I'll refrain from boring you all by saying, simply, that the workshop went very well, the students were mighty engaged, we had a bunch of good discussions, and it was a great way for we at Adaptive Path to start this new venture. In fact, that was probably the most exciting aspect of this--at the beginning of the year we set ourselves the goal of having workshops, and in Chicago we realized it. That's always a thrill.

Also, I finally have a decent picture of myself smiling:
peterme_smiling (18k image)

Chicago... well, when I was able to get outside, I had some delightful experiences.

Dinner at The Berghoff, one of Chicago's oldest restaurants, enjoying a plateful of wurst, drinking their house beer, and buying their damn fine bourbon. The bar also features Chicago's first liquor license after Prohibition was repealed.

Dinner at Molly's, always a delight, with more wurst (this time fine Wisconsin bratwurst), more beer, and lots of good conversation on the deck. At Molly's, Bryan told us just how much beer he drank when partying with the Dutch at the Olympics:
bryan_chair (42k image)

Two nights later, a group of us went to see the Neo-Futurists production of TOO MUCH LIGHT MAKES THE BABY GO BLIND, a delightful theatric romp of 30 plays in 60 minutes. Definitely worth the trip uptown and any wait you might experience. I, naturally, developed a crush on almost all the women performers in the show. It's a bad habit of mine.

After the show, we retired to a bar nearby, where Lane took this moodily-lit shot of Bryan:
bryan_bar (13k image)
What is it, always with the beer, Bryan?

Posted at 10:28 AM PST [3 comments]

June 21, 2002

Milwaukee, WI.

new-to-mil (7k image)

We were making good time on our sojourn, and it looked as if we could arrive in Chicago a day early. (I had to get there by Tuesday to prepare for teaching workshops on Wednesday and Thursday.) Instead, I suggested to dad that we choose an alternate route, one that would have us staying in Milwaukee for the night. Why Milwaukee? Because I'd both read in the media and heard from friends that the city was having something of a rebirth, and I'd never been there before, and this trip was all about new experiences, so hell, why not?

Our first activity was to find a bookstore, wherein we could find a guidebook that might suggest some options for the day. We ended up at a downtown mall that was pretty much deserted, and a brief conversation with some sales clerks inside the mall's Eddie Bauer informed us that the lack of a crowd is pretty standard. Not a good sign for a city on the rebound. Flipping through a city guide in the Waldenbooks (yes! they still exist!), we read that "Historic Brady Street" was where the "hipsters" were, which in my mind translated to, "that's where the good coffee will be!"

We found pretty good coffee at "Brewed Awakenings." Even better, we found a very friendly local, an unemployed graphic designer ("you have them here, too?"), who filled up an entire napkin with suggestions for where to eat and drink. After driving and wandering around for a couple of hours, we returned to Brady Street for a drink at the Hi Hat, where our very friendly bartender (originally from Orange County, clearly missed California a bit), served my dad the largest martini ever, and offered us the use of the house phone and phone book to find lodging and dining--even though the Hi Hat served food itself!

For dinner we settled on what we learned was a true Milwaukee Experience--Kopp's Frozen Custard. It's a massive operation, serving burgers, fries, and various forms of frozen custard (a supposedly thicker/richer kind of ice cream). A huge crowd of people were ordering and eating, the energy in the place nearly palpable. Unfortunately, the food itself was remarkably bland--I prefer In-n-Out burgers and fries. Still, I suspect we got a sense of "real Milwaukee", which is definitely part of the point of such travels.

Heading out of town the following morning, we did find some very good coffee at the Hi-Fi Cafe (which dad and I kept calling the "Hi-Lo", in honor of our favorite diner in Weed, CA.... and what is it with Milwaukeeans and the diminutive "Hi"?), which is in the Bayview neighborhood, which had the most interesting vibe (funky, ethnic variety, creative) we'd seen in the city.

While I in no way regret the time we spent in Milwaukee, I don't think I'd ever go again. The people were very pleasant, but, frankly, it's a kinda-depressing post-industrial city without a whole lot going on. If you're thinking like I was thinking, "Hey, I have a day to kill, I'll go to Milwaukee," well, I'd now suggest to not bother.
Posted at 01:06 PM PST [5 comments]

June 19, 2002

Visualize Articles Worth Reading In researching the topic of information visualization for an essay I'm writing, I came across, a general resource site on the topic. Most intriguing is Inf@Vis, the "digital magazine", all articles written by the site's proprietor, Juan Carlos Dürsteler. Scrolling through the archives showcases Juan's solid publishing track record, and an impressive range of subject matter.
What's also cool? The *entire* site is bilingual, Spanish and English.
Posted at 09:12 AM PST [2 comments]

Where's The Beef... Coming From? In their continuing attempts to become a newspaper with reporting worth reading, the SF Chronicle presents a story on the trend in Bay Area restaurants towards offering grass-fed-only beef, and the debates raging in the cattle industry on how to raise cows. A lot of sources are drawn from, including Alice Waters (Chez Panisse master chef), Eric Schlosser (Fast Food Nation author), Bill Niman (of Niman Ranch beef, which has found itself in the uncomfortable middle, as the beef isn't *solely* grass-fed--it's grain-fed at the end), and others. As the article points out, considering that the Bay Area tends to set culinary trends for the country, whatever shakes out here will likely have quite an impact.
Posted at 08:52 AM PST [3 comments]

June 18, 2002

Newton, IA.

mccook-to-newton (4k image)

This will be the shortest entry yet, as, well, there's just not much to say about Newton. I was interested in stopping here as it's the home of Maytag, the appliance people, and I thought there might be some kind of interesting "company town" feel. Also, this is where Maytag dairy products, including the world famous Maytag blue cheese, comes from (a further note... a scion of the Maytag family is the man who restarted the Anchor Brewing Company in the mid-60s.) But, we didn't arrive until close to 8p, and it was a Sunday, so pretty much everything was closed, including restaurants. We made do with that which could be deep-fried at "Elmo Fudd's", an "eatery and drinkery." And we stayed at the extremely reasonable Mid-Iowa Motel--less than $25/room.

The following morning, we *did* get quite a good cup of coffee at the Saints Rest Coffee House in nearby Grinnell.
Posted at 11:06 AM PST [1 comment]

June 16, 2002

Networking sometimes is not working. A few weeks ago, I wrote up notes and thoughts on JC Herz' presentation on the "networked experience." She argued that anyone designing a networked system could benefit by understanding the sociological patterns in the world of online gaming.

Among the elements discussed was making sure to include markers of "social status" for each participant. Such status is awarded for the amount and quality of participation in the networked system. In games, this often comes in the form of "levels"--those who have achieved higher levels have a higher status, more power, more influence. In a community publication like, status is noted through "cubes", which reflect the number of essays written on the site.

As JC was talking, I found myself mulling on some of the more pernicious qualities of "status" in any group activity. With status comes stratification, condescension, and other forms of inequality.

JC's talk had the luxury of being concerned wholly with virtual worlds--these gamers don't really know each other in "real life", and the development of status is based solely on the playing, and rewards are given solely on merit.

However, the reality is that many, if not most, networked experiences involve extending pre-existing social structures. Also, JC's talk suffered from what seemed to be a lack of real ethnography. JC did discuss personal observations (such as what she saw in South Korean networked gaming parlors), but it was clear there had been no structured approach to the research.

I was thinking of inequality and structured research because JC's talk triggered thoughts of the ethnography of a hospital operating room presented in Bonnie Nardi and Vicki O'Day's _Information Ecologies_, and the difficulties of placing an interactive system within this environment that didn't take into account the highly stratified, and often times stultifying, relationship between the surgeons and nurses.

Additionally, there's something to be said for anonymity, for a total lack of identifying marker or status. A BusinessWeek article, published around the same time as JC's talk, explores how the racial and gender unfairnesses of automobile buying (blacks, hispanics, and women all pay more, on average, than white men) are being smoothed out in the faceless world of the Web--now, minorities and women are getting sales quotes on par with white men.

I have no answers here. I think there are some extremely intriguing facets to explore in the world of networked ecologies at various levels (familial, vocational, educational, recreational, mercantile). And while some aspects transcend these divisions, and knowledge of one group's interactions can inform how we approach others, it's imperative we also recognize the fundamental inherent differences.

As I was poking around on the Web researching this post, I came across the page of Steve Whittaker, an AT&T Labs researcher who has worked extensively with Bonnie Nardi, who offers up dozens of publications grounded in ethnography and cognitive psychology.
Posted at 04:38 PM PST [1 comment]

June 14, 2002

You can judge a person by her covers. To help explain the essence of Molly...

mollys_head (4k image)

...I shot this photo of her shelf...

mollys_shelf (29k image)

Posted at 09:38 AM PST [0 comments]

"Blog" entering the OED. As this news item states, "blog" is being considered for entry in the Oxford English Dictionary.

I have been corresponding with Jesse Sheidlower, the Principal Editor for the North American Editorial Unit, about this. I pointed him to the piece I wrote on the coinage of the word, and he's informed me that the OED can only cite a print source.

Of course, I don't have a print source. I live in a world of electrons. So, the question is: does anyone know of any printed references to "blog" in 1999 that discuss its coinage? I know there was some early newspaper coverage back then, and articles found in newspapers online are likely also findable in their printed versions.
Posted at 07:37 AM PST [24 comments]

June 12, 2002

McCook, NE.

lar-to-mccook (3k image)
Not the exact route taken, but close enough.

The next leg of the trip (remember the road trip I've been writing about) got us from Wyoming into Nebraska. Along the way, dad had us turn off into Sidney, NE to shop at Cabela's, a massive hunting, fishing, and outdoors retail outlet which emerges in the seeming middle of nowhere. Though not an outdoorsy person, dad is fond of outdoorsy attire.
cabelas_interior (76k image)
I've never seen so many mounted animal heads in my life.

I purchased some great chamois shirts, the kind that Eddie Bauer no longer carries (ever since they ditched their Cabela-like roots in favor of pursuing an 'urban' dollar).

I also had to take a picture of the snack truck outside:
cabelas_snacks (47k image)
One of my few trip regrets is not eating a fried candy bar. And I still don't know what grebel is.

Continuing on, we ended up in McCook, NE, where a slew of my relatives reside. I'm going to write up my family experiences separately, so for now I'll stick with what's going on around town.

Our first step was at Sehnert Bakery, which served perhaps the best coffee in the entire midwest.
sehnert (32k image)
The closest thing to a donut shop in McCook

The bakery is situated on McCook's main street (Norris Ave), which isn't half-bad, as small-town main streets go. There's a book store, decent clothing stores, even a gourmet kitchen supply store.

Dinner was eaten at The Looking Glass, where I had an absolutely abysmal shrimp scampi. Dad said his pork tenderloin was quite good, though.

We got ice cream at the local Baskin-Robbins, the quality of which surprised me... Has Baskin-Robbins had to put more fat and flavor in their ice creams in order to compete with Ben and Jerry's? The last time I had a B-R cone, it was pretty tepid stuff. The scoop I got here, though, was admirably rich.

We spent the night at my cousin Marcie's house, so I can't speak to the lodging of McCook.

Posted at 09:27 AM PST [7 comments]

June 10, 2002

Do Not Read If You Want To Trust Your Government. Over the weekend, the SF Chronicle published a commendable work of investigative journalism, "The Campus Files: Reagan, Hoover, and the UC Red Scare." Based on documents recently made public through the Freedom of Information Act, the series of stories details how the FBI targeted UC Berkeley as a hotbed of communism, unlawfully exceeded it's jurisdiction in the quelling of student protests and the firing of Chancellor Clark Kerr, and how gubernatorial candidate Ronald Reagan cosied up to the G-Men, happily playing the rat in return for help in defeating incumbent Pat Brown.

What's most frustrating about "The Campus Files" is that, well, it's history. No justice will come of these findings. One hopes that we can at least utilize this history so as not to repeat it, but recent actions by folks such as AG John Ashcroft suggest otherwise.

One of the ripest ironies of the piece is that Hoover's attacks on UC Berkeley went into high gear following the use of this question on a 1959 scholastic aptitude test:
"What are the dangers to a democracy of a national police organization, like the FBI, which operates secretly and is unresponsive to public criticism?"
Supposedly, Hoover flipped out after learning of this question. Though it couldn't be because what it suggests is untrue. Over the next 10 years, Hoover orchestrated a covert campaign to remove Kerr and "clean up" UC Berkeley.

Kudos to the Chron for using the Web to extend the reporting: many of the censored and uncensored documents are available. The first time I remember seeing such supporting material placed online was for Gary Webb's notorious "Dark Alliance" article, where he connects the dots between the CIA, the Contras, and crack cocaine (click "Library"). (And shame on the Merc for removing this, and huzzah to the Internet Archive for keeping it. This is *exactly* the kind of thing we need the archive for.)

Another interesting element of the meta-story is the lengthy battle the FBI put up in not releasing these documents. For 17 years they stalled the reporter, who had to use the courts to get at the information. What's most upsetting is that the FBI had *no grounds* for not releasing the documents. There was no sensitive or security-harming information contained therein. Obviously, the FBI just didn't want it known that they were (are?) goons who manipulate the system in order to get their way. Of minor interest to the techie crowd: the judge that forced the FBI to stop stalling and give up the goods is Marilyn Hall Patel, whose ruling about Napster served as the initial blow in its demise.
Posted at 08:01 AM PST [1 comment]

June 8, 2002

For a weekend's web musings. At the bookstore I impulsively purchased The Ganzfeld No. 2, a beautifully designed book, with a collection of... well... stuff that's visually interesting. Among my favorite pieces is the section devoted to Peter Blegvad, who, among other things, is the proprietor of Amateur. That site is well-worth clicking around. I'm a particular fan of "Imagined, Observed, Remembered", and "The Spirit in the Thing," an essay on milk.
Posted at 08:23 AM PST [0 comments]

June 7, 2002

Candy Branding. The inestimable Jen Robbins has discovered that new M&M colors makes branding yummy!

Here's my contribution:

epinions_mms (8k image)

Posted at 09:20 PM PST [0 comments]

June 2, 2002

Boldly Going Where No Town Has Gone Before. Vulcan, Alberta is a small, agricultural town that, at some point a few years ago, decided to forsake its history and identity by, well, you'll just have to view the town's official website.

But I guess it's working.

Is this one of those things where you laugh or cry? Or both?
Posted at 09:23 PM PST [5 comments]

Laramie, WY.

elko-to-lar (3k image)
As always, image from Mapblast

lar_donut (18k image)There really ain't much to say about this part of the trip. Driving through Utah and Wyoming is awesome. I-80 affords views of mountain ranges, salt deserts, mirages, and lots and lots of big sky.

room26 (8k image)Laramie, WY proved a good place to stop. We stayed at the Ranger Motel, in room 26. We were even able to get one of those suite-like rooms, with two separate bedrooms sharing a common bathroom--just the thing if one (or both) of you snores.

Dinner was at "the best restaurant in town," (according to the girl who checked us in at the Ranger) The Cavalryman, where dad hoped to get a good steak. The steak was fine, the meal came with unlimited serve-yourself-soup-and-salad AND a dessert, and Kelsey, our waitress, was delightfully dippy (she forgot orders, acknowledged that the cook of 17 years wasn't very good, and at one point made us a drink herself, even though she's under age).

Dinner was capped off by coffee at Muddy Waters, seemingly quite the young local hangout (and pretty much the only place open that wasn't a bar). I flipped through local papers in an attempt to defuse the painfully embarrassing (for me) attempts of my dad in flirting with the girls behind the counter. These are the things you have to accept when traveling with others.

I wish I had more to share, but this was really more of just a driving day. That Daylight Donut sign on the left was a couple blocks down from the motel. I hope I've been able to add just a little bit of information to the Global Brain about Laramie...
Posted at 09:16 PM PST [5 comments]

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