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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Interface Design Recommended Reading List
Whose "My" Is It Anyway?
Frames: Information Vs. Application

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August 31, 2002

Gone testin'. Off to Tokyo for a week. First half is user testing, second half is running around playing. Ping me if you live there and we should meet.

And feel free to add Stuff Of Interest to the comments section of this post.
Posted at 08:04 AM PST [0 comments]

August 28, 2002

peterme in D.C. Arriving Saturday morning (red eye on JetBlue), I've been visiting and working in Washington, D.C. Some highlights.

National Building Museum. Easily my favorite museum experience this trip. First, I learned about Turner City, a kind of visual annual report produced by Turner Construction, in which a fictitious 'city' is created, made from buildings that Turner constructed. For 2001, they employed Flash to create an interactive city.

Then I took in "On Track: Transit and the American City", a lengthy and informative look at mass transit over the last hundred years. We non-car types find this stuff fascinating. Some quick Googling has turned up interesting transit history links:
History of Williamsport, PA Mass Transit, text and photos, showing horse-drawn street cars, trolleys, and more.
"Transit City, U.S.A" is the federal government's take.

At the National Museum of American History, we enjoyed Within These Walls, a 200-year history of a single Boston-area house... with the entire house rebuilt inside the museum!

Ray's The Steaks -- an exceedingly relaxed steakhouse in Alexandria, which seems to be run by stoners. But damn that bleu cheese sauce was tasty.

Lazy Sundae -- a hipster ice cream parlor with massive portions, tasty chocolate peanut butter ice cream, and a groovy old-school pinball machine with actual digit counters.

International Visions Art Gallery, where Adaptive Path hosted a wee drinks soiree. Great exhibit of Australian Aborigine-influenced art. Mike Lee took some photos of the event. I'm the psychotic-looking one.
Posted at 08:32 AM PST [1 comment]

August 23, 2002

Off to D.C... Where I'll be for a week. Even fewer posts than usual! Though maybe more pictures... Take care!
Posted at 02:22 PM PST [0 comments]

peterme, Abnormal American. So, I'm looking to buy property. I moved to Oakland a little over 6 months ago, and I quite like it. I'm committed to the Bay Area, and want to settle in a bit. Also, even in this crazy market, buying a home still makes financial sense. Building equity, not throwing money away in rent, likelihood of further appreciation, etc.

My mom is a real estate agent (in L.A., she's great, work with her if you want to buy down there). She hooked me up with a very friendly agent up here, who in turn connected me with a loan officer. See, before you start looking seriously for a house, you need to get pre-approved for a loan. That way, you know how much house you can buy.

The loan officer came over a couple of days ago. Before coming, she had run a credit check. Pretty standard stuff. Thing being: I have no credit. It's not that I have bad credit; I have no credit.

Now, I thought I had credit. See, last October, I went in on a property purchase with my parents (their new condo), and I had no credit then, either. But I thought that being on the loan and the title would give me credit. Well, it turns out that since I'm listed third, I don't show up on the computer.

And if you don't show up on the computer, there's nothing you can do.

It's also not that I don't actually have credit. I do have a credit card. It's just that I have just one. And it's through Schwab, where I do all my banking and investing, and for some reason, Schwab doesn't report my credit to the credit report people.

The fundamental problem here, see, is that I'm not a typical American. And by typical American, I mean, "Living beyond my means." Well, maybe I'm taking that a bit far. But you get the point.

The fact that I've made a good salary for the last three years? Meaningless.

That I have cash saved in the bank? Eh, who cares.

That I have no debt, have never defaulted in anyway, etc. etc.? Not interesting.

See, I lead a fairly simple life. I rent an apartment. I don't own a car. I don't make extravagant purchases on a bunch of different credit cards. And because of this, "the computer" doesn't know what to make of me.

It's really frustrating, really. I am perfectly suited to get my piece of the American Dream, but The Man won't let me. (Well, he will eventually, but only after I game the system through a means that my loan officer informed me.) It's fucked up that there's seemingly simply no way of dealing with this on a human level. My loan officer could tell I'm good for it. It doesn't matter. The system doesn't have a category for people like me, and so, instead of risking it, would just as soon keep me out.

This will all blow over, I'll get good credit, and I'll buy property. I'm just upset that my un-self-consciously simple existence is a bane in others' eyes.

If you want to avoid having no credit, do things like:
- have at least three credit cards, with good high credit limits, and no late payments for the last two years
- buy things like cars that require loans (prove that other people are willing to loan to you)
- not being the third person on a title for a house

Rant over.
Posted at 10:22 AM PST [38 comments]

August 22, 2002

Two Amazing Nights with The Night of the Hunter Last week I had two amazing nights with my favorite American film, The Night of the Hunter. Folks who know me know that I can blather endlessly about this inspiring piece of work, so beware...

"Have you heard the story of left-hand right-hand?"

The First Night of The Night of the Hunter

The first amazing night was watching the film on DVD at home. Previously, I'd only seen it in theaters. It's an utterly sumptuous film, shot by Stanley Cortez, pretty much requiring the silver screen to due justice to the expressionistic play of light and shadow. However, my theater-viewing experiences were hamstrung by the audiences' inability to appreciate NOTH for what it is. See, NOTH is a deeply allegorical film, shot in a fantastic style. Much of the film's magic is due to its cinematic license in not having to represent "reality," and instead offers up impossible imagery that allows for a deeper and more direct telling of the films themes.

Willa among the weeds.

Unfortunately, modern audiences have little to no idea how to appreciate this. Raised on a diet of TV and movies rooted in dramatic realism, when faced with something that's designed to be otherworldly, they bring their past experience to bear, and then simply miss the point of what's on the screen in front of them. Of course Birdie Steptoe wouldn't see Willa so clearly at the bottom of the river. Of course the Preacher couldn't cast that shadow on the childrens' bedroom wall. Of course the house and barn on the riverside appears stagey and fake. *That's the point*. Such devices express an emotion or provide a context that requires such liberties.

Shots from the trip down river, as the animals of the kingdom watch over John and Pearl. If this doesn't set your "allegory" bells ringing, well, there's no help for you.

So, watching the film at home, and not distracted by the nervous giggles and commentary of people not "getting it", I had a nearly transformative experience watching NIGHT OF THE HUNTER. I've seen it many times, but I'm still able to get lost in the story, the imagery, the acting, the music. This was my first viewing where I actually got choked up and cried--when John's little fingers slowly reach out to hold Mrs. Cooper's hand.

Mrs. Cooper joins The Preacher in singing "Leaning on the Everlasting Arms"

Watching the film in this way was like viewing a piece of art, or reading a book. It became an intensely personal experience, a direct connection between what was on the screen and me. Films are often best in theaters, with audiences, where the emergent reactions and emotions of the audience meaningfully effect your experience--we "go to the movies" as much to be in a group of others as we do to enjoy the work up on the screen. NOTH, though, might be a film best enjoyed alone (which would suggest why it didn't do so well at the box office).

The Second Night
The second amazing night I had was viewing "Charles Laughton Directs The Night Of The Hunter", a three-hour presentation of rushes, dailies, and outtakes from the making of the film, made possible by the UCLA Film and Television Archive. Yes, I flew down to L.A. just to see this (and flew back the following morning, 'cause I had to get back to work. Thankfully, Southwest made this all economically feasible.).

Charles Laughton

Laughton loved to keep the camera running, getting take after take after take, so the clips shown reveal how he interacted with his actors. Most obviously, he was a demanding director--he had an idea in his head of how things should be, and much of his direction was to get the actors to fulfill that particular vision. This was most clearly demonstrated in a series of takes of Willa Harper's soliloquy before she is murdered. She's lying on the bed, arms folded across her chest, the camera looking down on her from the foot of the bed. We see Laughton run Shelley Winters through innumerable takes, getting her to pronounce the word "hid" (as in, "where the money's hid") *just* right. To folks not familiar with filmmaking, this process looks like abuse--my viewing partner commented on how Laughton was being an "asshole." But, really, he was just being an incomparable director. There's nothing wrong with knowing what you want, and doing what it takes to get it. (Having just watched the DVD of Gosford Park, it's interesting to contrast this style with Altman's more "anything goes" approach.)

Willa turned out of the bed on the wedding night

My favorite parts of the outtakes were those that revealed the person behind the actor. In getting her motivated for the prayer revival scene, Laughton directs Winters to "say a prayer, any prayer, that you know"--just something to get her going. Winters immediately begins shouting out in Hebrew, betraying the fact that the actress playing the good Ohio River Christian girl is, in fact, Jewish.

After flubbing or forgetting a line, Robert Mitchum (called "Mitch" by those off camera), was prone to shouting "poontang!" in exasperation.

Though, after watching the outtakes, perhaps the biggest mystery of the film remained unsolved. As my dad said to me afterwards, "How did Mitchum do it? Where did that performance come from?' He'd never done anything like it before, yet he was so perfect, so in tune with the role. It's telling that, in the outtakes at least, Laughton doesn't provide Mitch with a lot of direction--it's as if Mitch just knew what it was to be Harry Powell.

I'll--uh, I'll--uh, stop here.

Though, with two links:
One to a page devoted to the film, with many great stills, some of which I've stolen.

The other to the book Heaven and Hell To Play With: The Filming of the Night of the Hunter. No idea if it's any good.
Posted at 08:49 AM PST [4 comments]

August 18, 2002

Can't Get Enough of That Airline Industry Stuff.
(Am I boring you all yet?)

Today, the New York Times had a well-researched and thorough piece on Troubled Airlines Face Reality: Those Cheap Fares Have a Price. Among other things, it discusses how Big Air might compete with folks like Southwest by offering graduated fares, where those who pay the least get no frills (wait in lines, first-come/first-serve seating), and you can pay more for extra amenities (food, assigned seats, etc.) It also points out that Lufthansa is fulfilling Meg's dream with a business-class-only flight between Newark and Dusseldorf.

The article mentions a couple of economists. One, Steven Morrison, has recently posted a presentation titled "The Evolution of the Airline Industry: Before and After September 11" (PDF), filled with tasty stats.

The other, Sam Peltzman, has edited a book titled Deregulation of Airline Industries. While you *could* pay $17 for it at Amazon, you can also download the complete PDF of the book here (I suspect this is an oversight. Enjoy!)

For the further obsessed, I found Christopher Mayer and Todd Sinai's essay, "Network Effects, Congestion Externalities, and Air Traffic Delays: Or Why All Delays Are Not Created Evil".
Posted at 07:33 PM PST [1 comment]

August 15, 2002

United Airlines Threatening Bankruptcy. The morning news tells us that United management claims it will seek bankruptcy protection in the fall unless it can get its labor unions to make concessions. This cements what was speculated on in my last post. There's been some good discussion in the comments area there.

Two more notions on the whole Mess That Is Big Air.

One is that a potential solution might require airlines to act as friendlier neighbors. It seems a given that a single airline cannot serve the entire United States, much less the world, in a cost-efficient fashion. The system just gets too complex and bogs down under its own weight. So, perhaps instead of trying to be all things to all people, airlines focused on certain regions and routes, and worked with each other to provide smooth handoffs when a passenger was leaving their "network" and moving into another. (Is this how mobile phone providers do it?)

The other is related to Valdis' comment from the last post, pointing out that hubs are a double-edged sword, ensuring greater efficiency when working appropriately, but becoming a critical point-of-failure when something goes wrong.

As it happens, I'm reading Nexus, a book addressing the same subject matter as Linked, except written by an observer (a journalist), not a participant. In chapter 8, the author, Mark Buchanan, discusses airlines-as-networks, and the need to factor in costs and consequences into a network's operations. The summer of 2000 was the worst in history for air traffic delays, because the airline network was operating at a capacity that became impossible to handle, and it looked like this problem was only going to get worse.

A side effect of the September 11th tragedy is that air traffic has diminished markedly. From my personal experience, this has lead to a much higher "on-time" ratio for the airlines; in fact, I can't think of a flight I've been on that has been significantly delayed. The current amount of air traffic is about what airlines can comfortably handle.

Though they clearly have many other things on their mind, the airlines would be advised to utilize this decrease in demand as a chance to step-back and seriously consider the topology of their network. Eventually, air traffic will return to its pre-9/11 levels, and if nothing is changed before then, we'll simply return to a world of massive delays.

Buchanan points out that this shift has already begun to occur, and that the rise of the regional airlines, utilizing secondary airports, is an effect of the hubs being overtaxed. This shift is still very much in process, and its likely endpoint is to move the airline network model away from a hub-and-spoke model, where a few nodes have many links, and most others very few, to a more egalitarian model, where no node has many links, but they all have more than a few.

Posted at 08:50 AM PST [2 comments]

August 13, 2002

Getting My Head Around The Airlines Mess. A story in today's Chronicle focuses on United Airlines woes, as it burns through $1 million in cash every day, and many fear it's headed for bankruptcy.

As someone who attempts to understands problems so as to solve them, I'm utterly flabbergasted by what should be done to clean up the current airlines mess. As my calendar to the left suggests, I'm finding myself in the air a lot, and so I've actually found myself thinking about this.

US Airways is headed for bankruptcy, American Airlines is laying off people, and the loans the airlines got from the federal government after September 11 seem pretty much all used up.

And then you've got carriers like Southwest and the up-and-coming JetBlue, smaller, profitable, while still providing cheaper fares and, oftentimes, better service. And so, I want to say, "Well, United should just restructure itself to run like Southwest."

But that's too simple. Southwest serves a fairly narrow swath of the airline market, focusing on short hops, mostly in the (duh) southwestern part of the US. But, well, if I want to get to Tokyo, Southwest isn't going to help me.

A further wrinkle is the fact that United has an extremely high payroll to cover. Let me say right now that I'm pretty much as pro-union a guy you'll find -- management will, given the slightest opportunity, do what it can to dick over their employees, and so any structure the allows for collective bargaining and a stronger voice for the workers is a Good Thing. But, I wonder, are the unions only dicking themselves over, seeing only so far as the end of their nose, not realizing their walking right into the turbines of a jet engine?

Also, not only can United get me to Tokyo (non-stop!), it can get me to Washington D.C. non-stop, something Southwest can't do. (And lord knows I won't do the three-plane-hops that they offer to get across the country). So is that Big Airlines' competitive advantage? Well, maybe not. JetBlue gets me from Oakland to D.C. non-stop for $130, and they seem to be making money doing so. JetBlue's model is interesting because what they've got going on are coastal hubs that in turn service local areas. So they're economics are very much like Southwest's, in focusing on local markets with quick plane turnarounds, no-frills, and point-to-point travel, but with the one exception of getting people from one side of the country to the other.

How can Big Airlines compete? Can they? First, I think they've got to make their pricing make sense. With Southwest or JetBlue, you pay per leg, and you always know what it will cost. With Big Air, it's a notorious gamble, with ridiculous realities like round-trip flights costing less than one-way. I think "human-understandability" in fare structure would go some way to help earning trust.

I also wonder if United, American, etc., have to simply retool themselves as global airlines. To not be so US-centric, since flights within the US seem better served by smaller carriers, and instead utilize their size and operational capabilities to get people from country to country. Are there any true "global carriers"? Virgin Atlantic comes to mind (tho, yes, it focuses on the UK, but there are only two airports served in the country, and their route map displays a global vision.)

Many folks are calling for the dismantling of the hub-and-spoke model. Which, after reading LINKED, and thinking of the power of small-world networks, seems odd. Thanks to hub-and-spoke, I can get anywhere in two legs, and it's fairly efficient for the airline. The problem seems to be the massive amount of human resources necessary at the hubs, and the hideous crunch times that happen, because planes are all scheduled to arrive around the same time, so that people making connections can do so all around the same time. This means that when times aren't crunched, you've got a lot of personnel sitting around waiting.

And then there's James Fallows' notion in Free Flight, of utilizing more of a swarm mentality of lots of little planes that can get people from point-to-point, taking advantage of 2nd, 3rd, and 4th tier airports, which are cheaper to operate, and quicker to get in and out of.

But, see, really, all you've got here are lots of ideas. And no sense of which, really, will work. Clearly, there's a problem. It seems that Big Air simply cannot operate at a profit. The last thing I want the government to do is give them more money so they can continue to lose it. In other such situations, I'd just say, "Well, let Big Air die! They're sclerotic dinosaurs. Why should they get corporate welfare?" Except that I have both personal, professional, and societal reasons for wanting Big Air to stick around -- I want to be able to travel to Tokyo, I want American business to be able to operate with some fluidity, I fear that massive Big Air failure could have a detrimental impact on the American economy.

All this makes me even more frustrated with glib analysts who offer quick fixes that don't take into account the exceedingly and enmeshed reality at play.

That's enough of a ramble for now. Thoughts?
Posted at 09:35 AM PST [4 comments]

August 8, 2002

Brief Book Review: Linked. Linked: The New Science of Networks, by Albert-Laszlo Barabasi, is hands-down the best science book I've read in a while. First off, I find it quite remarkable that a Transylvanian physicist is able to write such a delightfully accessible book. Stories are wisely used to illustrate every element of networks discussed, demonstrating that, at a conceptual level, the theories of networks are eminently graspable.

Barabasi is a major player in this emerging field, and his first-person viewpoint, and excitement in pursuing the subject, proves contagious when reading this work. After setting up some brief background on early network theory, Barabasi spends the bulk of the text discussing his discovery, that of "scale-free" networks, and how, it seems, most every network seems to evolve into a scale-free form. (Scale-free networks give rise to "small worlds", which in turn lead to phenomena like "six degrees of separation," where a seemingly improbably low number of links are required to connect any two nodes in a system.)

The strength of the first-person also accounts for the book's main flaw, which is a sense of myopia, in that I was left to wonder, "is scale-free really all there is?" Still, it's a small problem in an otherwise engaging read.

Malcolm Gladwell's The Tipping Point is often brought up in these discussions of networks (it's cited in Linked). However, where as Gladwell was utterly unable to provide a convincingly coherent theory (though, it seems, sadly, that many people DO think his thesis all adds up), Linked successfully shows how the various pieces of the network puzzle integrate, and thus is a far more illuminating work--you feel like you can act on it.

Oh, and props to Valdis for warranting a lengthy mention in the book!
Posted at 08:51 AM PST [2 comments]

August 7, 2002

More on ROI from Design. Readers of will recognize many of the ideas in my latest essay on the Adaptive Path site, as they were incubated here.
Posted at 11:04 AM PST [17 comments]

August 6, 2002

It's in the refrigerator. As a boy growing up in Los Angeles in the 70s and 80s, you had to love the Lakers. I'd watch every game I could, Kareem at center, Magic top of the key, Jamal Wilkes nailing jump shots from the base line, Michael Cooper stuffing the now-cliched alley-oop. "Showtime," as their dazzling game play was named, was a delightful thing to behold, or, if you found yourself stuck in a car going from one place to another (common in L.A.), listen to on the radio.

"The Lakers march down the court, going left to right across your radio dial." It's hardly original to say, but no commentator was able to bring a game alive with words the way Chick Hearn did. His play-by-play could achieve the cadence and rhythm of beat poetry, punctuated with phrases like "dribble drive", "Coop-a-loop," "In-and-out, heart-brrrrrreak!", and "yo-yoing up and down now."

Though employed by the Lakers, Chick never behaved like the sycophantic broadcaster that so many sports teams had. He called it as he saw it, and could be particularly hard on the Lakers when they weren't playing up to snuff. His views were typically honest and insightful.

When I was 11-years old, I was that weird kid with goggle-glasses, who, highly improbably, dreamed of being Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, practicing my sky hook on the ramshackle hoop set up in my backyard. In my mind's ear, Chick was calling the shots.

Yesterday evening, Chick Hearn died. Complications from falling in his home. 85 years old, this was a while in coming. Still, I just spent the last 30 minutes welling up reading various obituaries. I don't know why, exactly, Chick has had this kind of impact--I tend not to grieve for celebrities. Perhaps its the result of being a key part in a young boy's fantasies.

To get a sense of his verbal wizardry, read this page of Chick-isms.
And view the video tribute to him.
Posted at 07:25 AM PST [3 comments]

August 5, 2002

If I were to build a software product. It would either be some type of social network communicator, or:

CMS for Intranets -- It seems that so much energy has been focused on supporting the design of external sites, that the operations' needs have gone unsupported. I've been designing Adaptive Path's intranet, and it's surprising how complex the needs of a 7-person company can be. The heart of it is a faceted document repository. I'd be interested in designing a CMS that combines the ease of use of MovableType with the faceted goodness of FacetMap, and allows for an easy building of tools to access a content, project, contact, and user database.

In talking with Marcus about this today, he commented on how the needs of a 7-person company are pretty much as complex as the needs of a 200-person company. Which is probably true--there's just this baseline of rather significant complexity, but it scales remarkably well.

I wonder if there's a significant enough market for such things. Or if it could be built with a platform generic enough to be tailored to these needs, yet not so generic that people wouldn't have a clue what to make of it.
Posted at 10:52 PM PST [2 comments]

August 4, 2002

The Interconnectedness of Corporate Malfeasance. In reading Linked, you develop a sensibility that *everything* is a network. And just as I'm reminding myself not to get carried away with such notions, because, really, the world is a more multifaceted place, along comes this diagram depicting the links between various elements in the current corporate misconduct game.
Thanks to David for posting it, and to Jeff for pointing it out to me.
Posted at 10:45 PM PST [7 comments]

August 2, 2002

Bzzzzzz brrrring bzzzzzz brrrring.

"You always want it near you," somebody says. "You take the phone out of your purse and leave your purse behind. You take your phone even when you don't take your purse or your keys. It's like a little person."

Further evidence of the power of social technologies is this thoroughly researched article on mobile phone use. It begins with commentary on self-organizing swarms brought together through mobile technologies, and progresses to a more general discussion of the uses of mobile. (thanks dnkb)
Posted at 07:25 AM PST [2 comments]

August 1, 2002

Oh, and Hey. An RSS Feed.
<-- over there.
Posted at 08:32 PM PST [4 comments]

Humane isn't the same as human. So, a bit back, Matt posted a frustration with the phrase "humanizing technology," rightly citing that, well, technology is what, in large part, makes us "human." That rightness notwithstanding, Matt's comments stuck in my craw, and I feel I need to make some response.

First off, some niggling factual details. As Matt's employer points out, "Cro-Magnons" were not apes--they were the earliest of the modern humans.

Continuing down this words-oriented path, it is, supposedly, our thinking that makes us human (Homo sapiens), not our making (which would be Homo faber). Take that as you will.

What I guess most bugged me about Matt's point is that it sounds right, but I believe it to be misguided. Yes, demonizing technology is misguided. But so is, I would argue, glorifying it. There's every reason to both admire and deplore the effects of technology on people.

Bonnie Nardi and Vicki O'Day said it very well in their first chapter of (the oft-cited on Information Ecologies, in their discussion of the film Metropolis, and how it portrays the dehumanizing qualities of technology. (It also rights Neal Stephenson's misguided inversion of the Morlocks and Eloi, but, then, "In The Beginning, There Was The Command Line," is actually a remarkably weak piece of rhetoric, popular only because it assuages the superior feelings of Unix folk.)

The point is to recognize that technology, and, particularly, technological progress, while distinctly human, is often not humane. Technological progress has developed into a system without empathy--it moves inexorably forward, unconcerned with its effects. I happen to think this is okay, but it does require a check, namely, people to guide the fruits of that progress to behave humanely.
Posted at 08:27 PM PST [5 comments]

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