Thoughts, links, and essays from Peter Merholz
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Archives before June 13, 2001

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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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Movie Reviews

October 31, 2001

Staying Awake. If the film Waking Life has a target market, it's very small, and I'm a charter member of it. More than anything else, the film is a visual thoughtwander--a series of tenuously-connected ramblings on Big Ideas such as perception, memory, human evolution, the nature of cinema, etc. etc. It utilizes a new technology to fuck with film form and create something pretty distinct from anything that's gone before it, and which allows the film to work on a couple of layers simultaneously--the words provide the grounding of ideas, and the animated visuals serve to comment on the text, which, when successful, leads to a synthesis greater than what was possible through only one or the other.

There's pretty much no narrative to speak of, which means extra effort is required to keep focused on the action. Sitting in a dark theater, listening to the drone of voices (there's a lot of talking in the flick), I was often tempted to nod off, not because I was bored, but just because it all felt so comfortable.

The movie succeeds to varying degrees depending on the scenario. I was drawn to the more patently surreal aspects, such as the chimpanzee, or the animated depictions of absurdity in the Free Will section. The film's weakest elements are the warmed over pop philosophies, and probably the single most trying scene is the bedroom exchange between Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke, blathering uninterestingly about dreams while the visuals remain remarkably uninspired--it smacked of a gimmick to get BEFORE SUNRISE fans into the theater more than anything else. My favorite text + art combo was the "ants" discussion, where a woman challenges Our Protagonist to not just be an ant, interacting with others in highly programmed ways, but to let his Human shine through--this scene was depicted in Divya Srinivasan's flat, dark, rich melancholic style, and the combination worked beautifully. (For more on Divya, visit her website, and read this little feature on her.)

Anyway, you should have the sense by now that peterme readers are eminently suited to Waking Life, so get on out there and see it.
Posted at 11:42 AM PST [4 comments]

October 26, 2001

What IA Needs Now, Is Research, Sweet Research... And that seems to be what we're getting from Rashmi Sinha, in her project, "Methods of Information Architecture.". Rashmi's background in cognitive psychology, with particular interests in how humans categorize, is perfect for approaching problems of information architecture.
Posted at 11:40 AM PST [4 comments]

Leanings... Leanings... Safe and Secure From All Alarms... A pleasant, if sad, feature on Charles Laughton's unfortunately brief career as a film director, marking the showing of a newly restored print. Night Of The Hunter, is, for my money, the greatest film made by an American studio. Remarkably daring and innovative, with every stylistic leap succeeding and ringing true. Amazingly experimental for a narrative film, particularly one produced by an American studio in 1955. Sadly, it's allegorical and fantastic nature can be too off-putting for moviegoers engorged on cinematic realism. Remember--it's only a moo-vie.
Posted at 11:32 AM PST [1 comment]

Does digitalia feature a new aesthetic? As an unabashed formalist, I found "Flow: The New Form?" to be an intriguing point/counterpoint on whether new media has developed a truly new aesthetic, or is merely updated modernism. It's becoming clear that I'm going to have to simply breakdown and by Prof. Manovich's The Language of New Media. In the article, Manovich's notions are exciting and thoughtful, whereas Betsky's seem reactive and stuffy. Manovich states a view I've expressed on this page, which I feel to be a clarion call for designers:

"Perhaps what is important about our society now is not forms but processes cell phones are new cultural forms; so are flows of information."

For the field of Design to remain relevant, it must become less obsessed with artifacts, and more concerned with interactions and processes.
Posted at 10:46 AM PST [0 comments]

October 24, 2001

Links of Information Architecture Goodness. Let's begin with Matt Jones's presentation on "RuleSpace: Information Architecture in a Grand Context". It's a remarkably ambitious talk, beginning by defining information architecture and what information architects do, and then proceeding to draw parallels between the physical and information worlds, inspired by the Eames film Powers of 10. He ends with a provocative thesis around the "RuleSpace", an attempt to situate various web user experiences along a continuum, to help understand the context in which we're designing.

I love the presentation. Lots of pictures, very provocative, quite thinky thinky. I've been having similarly Grand Thoughts on information architecture, though not on the vector of scale, but instead on the vectors of process and interrelated activities (more akin to Lou and Jess' diagram). It's great to see folks getting excited thinking about this stuff.

I'm hoping to get some time to metabolize the research of Christopher Lueg, who has written a number of intriguing papers on knowledge management, context-aware artifacts, socially situated intelligence, etc. More time please.

And finally, One To Watch is Christy Adessa's research journal. She's in the Ph.D. program at SILS at UNC Chapel Hill, and has interests that will be familiar to readers of peterme. She also has a post titled "PETER SAYS IT BEST", a statement which will always get a link from me.

Posted at 08:44 AM PST [1 comment]

October 23, 2001

Ah, Push It. Push It Real Good.

peterme and lowman

A kind of New Wave Euro-synth Salt 'n Pepa or something.

Yes. I'm actually blonde right now. Got to shake things up.
Posted at 08:03 AM PST [10 comments]

October 21, 2001

Biological metaphors for information processes? On "The hell," you say! Though it's been a few weeks since I finished the book Information Ecologies: Using Technology with Heart, it's thesis has stuck with me more than other things I've recently read. Written from an anthropological viewpoint by Bonnie Nardi and Vicki O' Day, it presents a smart and earnest attempt for situating information technologies in our lives.

The book begins with the authors presenting themselves as the reasonable medium between drooling technophilia (of a Nicholas Negroponte or Bill Gates) and abject technophobia (of a Neil Postman), and these might be the weakest chapters. There's a boatload of theory to wade through, the setting up of strawmen, all getting in the way of what I think is the book's single, simple, strongest point--to understand the impact of technology on society, we need to study it from a rational, humanist perspective.

(For those who want to follow along, chapters 1, 2, and 4 are available online.)

The book really comes into its own when proposing the metaphor of the "information ecology":
We define an information ecology to be a system of people, practices, values, and technologies in a particular local environment. In information ecologies, the spotlight is not on technology, but on human activities that are served by technology.
This stance is familiar to anyone approaching user-centered design from a contextual perspective, but I find the adoption of the biological metaphor particularly powerful. It properly addresses the complexity of such a system, the innumerable points of interaction, the importance of the local.

The book further succeeds with their ethnographic case studies, particularly the ones focusing on the ecologies of a corporate library and a teaching hospital. They demonstrate how the "ecology" provides a robust framework for thinking about the interaction of people and technologies in these realms. A framework that I think could be quite powerful in the work that I (and others who practice information architecture) do.

The book stops short of discussing how to incorporate ecological notions in design, but ways of continuing down that path are pretty clear. I think, fundamentally, an ethnographic approach with this ecological framework can lead to a better understanding of just exactly *what* to design. The problems and obstacles in current processes will be highlighted, and thus addressed. Perhaps more importantly, such an approach provides answers for why so many technological solutions fail--they don't take their ecology into account, and thus don't "fit", and tons of time and money are wasted on pursuing a foolish endeavor. I keep returning the notion that much of the money loss in the current tech bust could have been avoided had just a little time been spent up front assessing the utility of all the products being developed. That the 3G wireless debacle in Europe (billions spent, no one buying) could have been foreseen; the same goes for Iridium.

We as smart, human-centered designers have a marvelous opportunity right now, as companies lick their wounds over foolish investments and vow never to make such mistakes again, to promote our understandings and methodologies as efficient and effective ways for developing truly marketable products with far less risk. I believe that modelling information ecologies and demonstrating how new design solutions will fit has remarkable potential moving forward.
Posted at 12:37 PM PST [6 comments]

October 18, 2001

The World, When It Was In Black and White. My parents are cleaning out their current home, preparing for a move to a new condominium (which I'm going in on with them). Such events lead to rummaging through strata of personal memories. On a dig, my dad uncovered this:

John, Barbara, my Mom, my Dad (Memorial Day, 1961)

I wonder what my dad was looking at...
Posted at 11:16 PM PST [11 comments]

Portland--one last story. I left Portland on Sunday. I did little other than head to the airport (via the Max, Portland's light rail system), check in, wander around a bit, and wait at the security checkpoint. Waiting at security checkpoints is becoming the crowd-bonding ritual at airports now--conversations spring up among those in line, unused to spending half an hour moving incrementally to the metal detector. The woman ahead of me in line had been in town for the the Sweet Adelines convention, the Sweet Adelines being (as it was explained to me) a kind of female version of barbershop quartet--woman in large groups singing four-part harmonies. The rooted in an American folk tradition, it attracts members from all over the world, many of whom were leaving Portland that day.

While I was marvelling at the notion of this large, pervasive subculture that I'd never before heard about, a smartly-dressed woman walked hurriedly down the clearing in between the two security checkpoint lines, heading to the front. Every 20 feet or so, she'd say, "Sweet Adelines! We're going to sing, 'The Song I Sang Today'! Pass it on!" When she got to the front, she turned around, shouted "Sweet Adelines! Give me a B-flat!", and a hum went up throughout the lines. She then planted herself pretty much right in front of me, and began conducting the singing. Those who weren't singing were dumbstruck by the performance--those who were were clearly overjoyed to participate in this spirit-lifting activity.

When the song ended, the crowd cheered loudly, applauding these woman for their efforts. I found myself particularly touched, and a little choked up, admiring their talents, and their desire to take the edge off this otherwise agitated time.
Posted at 10:44 AM PST [0 comments]

Portland -- Saturday. In the last installment, we left our intrepid wanderer (that is, me) in his hotel room after a night of karaoke attendance. On Saturday, I awoke (too early... I can never stay in bed past 8), and began what proved to be a typical day of peterme-travel; that is, I walked all over.

From the Clyde, located downtown, I headed toward Nob Hill in the Northwest part of Portland. Doing so lead me through the Pearl District, Portland's "up-and-coming" warehouse loft neighborhood, filled with overpriced condos, modern furniture stores, and shiny-designy coffeehouses with exceedingly cool logo design. Which all seemed quite out of place in Portland, and, according to locals, is not filling up with residents as planned, because Portlanders aren't the type to blow wads of cash on warehouse living.

I met up with a FOAF, Genevieve, an acerbic Australian who works as a design ethnographer for Intel Labs. Kinduva dream job--travel the world, observing people, writing reports, and coming up with design ideas for various cultures.

She took me to the Cameo Cafe for a tasty hearty brunch, and then for a wander around the Nob Hill neighborhood, wherein a clash of various whitebread cultures is very much in evidence. The dominant vibe is one of Yuppie parents, the vaguely liberal strollers-and-dogs culture which you find somewhere in most cities, such as in Noe Valley in San Francisco. This is butting up against a just-out-of-school mild form of early 20s hipsterdom, as evidenced by the indie record store and the goth clothier.

We parted, and I ambled toward and into Powells City of Books, the one Portland establishment that everyone I talked to made sure I visited. It's the nation's largest single bookstore, taking up an entire city block, filled with new and used side by side. As I had limited time in the city, shopping Powells took heaps of willpower--book lovers are known to lose whole days, hell, entire weekends, in Powell's hypnotic grip. I emerged with relatively minor damage to my wallet, perhaps saved only by the thought of schlepping tomes back to San Francisco.

The wander continued in earnest, as I headed back downtown and toward the river. In a visit to Portland 4 years prior, I'd remembered enjoying the Saturday Market--an open air venue of food stalls and crafts--so I returned. Upon arriving, I beelined for the food court, which was oddly unappetizing. I settled on a falafel, and, walking around briefly, it became clear that the market was pretty much just an outdoor hippie gathering, and I couldn't for the life of me remember why I enjoyed it before. Did I change, or did the market? Probably a bit of both.

Making my egress, I strolled south along the river, and then over it via the Hawthorne Bridge. To visiting San Franciscans, the Hawthorne District is equated with the Haight and the Mission, the funky hipster part of town, with the requisite bars, coffeehouses, record stores, thrift shops, etc. It ended up being quite a trek, and along the way I stopped into one of those comic book stores that I HATE--every single item in the entire store was sealed in a Mylar envelope... As if this were some Museum of Comics (don't touch!) instead of a shop. It's obsessive dweebs like that what are ruining the industry.

But anyway, I had a late afternoon coffee at an adorable establishment situated in a converted house. After having walked for something like 8 hours, taking a load off was most welcome. After resting, I connected with Scott, another guy whom I'd met very briefly at SXSW, and he and his girlfriend, Corinn, tucked me into their car and drove us to Delta Cafe, a southern food joint nearby. Delta is very popular, so we waited at a bar down the street, which ran a $1 special on cans of PBR. When seated for our meal, I looked around, and was intrigued by the high hipster quotient--in San Francisco, there are no southern food or BBQ joints filled solely with the young and pierced. My fried oyster po' boy was tasty, though the jalapeno hush puppies were a bit on the WAY TOO SPICY side. I don't mind a little pain with my meal--but a constant tear-inducing sear can be a bit much.

Scott, Corinn, and I shot the shit over a variety of topics, and when the meal was finished, I asked if there were any ice cream stores to hit up for dessert -- trying locally-made ice cream is one of the many habits of my travels (along with drinking local beers, walking until my legs fall off, eating on-the-go, carrying too much crap with me at all times ("But I might find myself waiting somewhere, and I'll want to read, but I don't know *what* I'll want to read, so I better bring two books and three magazines, just in case")). The question stumped my hosts, so we ended up at the Ben and Jerry's on Hawthorne, and sat outside and chatted about all the too-much TeeVee that we watch (Corinn and I bonded over the hottie-ness of Lorelai on The Gilmore Girls).

Scott and Corinn turned in for the night, but I wanted to keep going, and had been intrigued by a band playing at the end of Hawthorne, whose CD I'd heard in the record store earlier that day. I also felt that seeing bands at a club would be a good traveler thing to do--what do the locals do at night? The headliners were the B-Side Players from San Diego, whose music was a combo of 70s funk, hip-hop turntablism, and some latin jazz. The venue was the Mount Tabor, a fairly standard Big Room with bar in the back and pool tables off to the side. Considering the music, I was surprised at how white the crowd was -- a testament, I suppose, to how white the city is. The attire and attitude were pretty straightforward Young Urban Type, perhaps not as cool and disaffected as you'd find in San Francisco, but definitely cut from the same cloth. The one surprise were the little group of definitely older and more made up middle manager types, folks from the burbs out for a night on the town, the men in Oxford shirts, the women with sprayed hair helmets, their attempts at dancing a little too boisterous, sloppy, "look at us, we're old, yet we're having fun like kids!". I wouldn't have minded them had they not repeatedly caromed into me in their joy.

The band played a selection of world-beat tunes, heavy on the African and Latin roots, that ended up not being my style. So I packed it in before the show broke, made my way to the bus stop, and took the 17 back to the hotel. After New York, Portland might be the most transit-friendly city I've ever been in, and I was pleased that I could get a quick, clean, comfortable bus ride at 1am.

Posted at 10:32 AM PST [0 comments]

October 14, 2001

Portland--Thursday and Friday. Airline travel now means waking up godawful early. Last Thursday, awoke at 5am and headed to the airport with my coworker Janice. Being "premier" on United definitely has its advantages, though it didn't allow us any special treatment in the line snaking toward the security checkpoint--SFO's physical layout simply does not accommodate well the slowdown at the gate.

This is my third airline excursion since September 11, and a pattern emerges--get to the airport two hours ahead of time, get past security with an hour and a half to spare. This leaves lots of time for reading and playing on the laptop. A silver lining to airport policy is that the terminals are much calmer--since only ticketed passengers are allowed near the gate, the throngs are kept at bay, and waiting for your plane is much more pleasant.

Arriving in Portland around 10, we quickly retrieved a rental car and sped off to Hillsboro, a suburb. The trip lasted about 30 minutes, pointing up one of the obvious truisms of Oregon's Largest City--it's not that big. The Residence Inn proved to be oddly delightful accommodations--each room has a full kitchen, there is free full breakfast and dessert, the staff were gracious without being obsequious... All made for a very pleasant work stay for the night.

A remarkably helpful resource throughout my stay in Hillsboro and Portland was It pointed the way to dinner Thursday night--Syun, a Japanese restaurant with a remarkably broad set of culinary offerings, all prepared very well.

Janice decided to return Friday afternoon, but I stuck around to explore Portland a bit more. I'd found reasonably inexpensive lodging at the Clyde Hotel, a Registered Historic Landmark, which I guess means things are preserved in some original state, which would explain why there was no phone in my room (though, I guess they did have TeeVee back in the 20s).

Not quite sure what to do, I'd sent a shout out to see what was going on for the night. In harum scarum fashion, plans emerged from suggestions of various folks. The evening began with Alistair and I at the Rock Bottom Brewery--we've developed a tradition of chatting at brew pubs when we're in the same city--throwing back a much needed pint (layoffs had struck his company earlier in the week).

Alistair dropped out, Ben joined up, and Mitsu fetched us in his automobile for a trip to Esparza's for some Tex-Mex Portland-style. I'd never met Ben nor Mitsu before, and they'd never met each other--what transpired was not a single group conversation, but a set of parallel one-on-one conversations, mostly between Mitsu and me and Ben and me (as I was the point in common).

Chatting with Mitsu is like reading his website--conversations very quickly veer into the intellectual and abstract. After discussing the state of quantum mechanics (still quite a hotbed of discourse, I was surprised to hear) and performance art, Mitsu and I then bonded over our shared infatuation with Heather Anne, late of lemonyellow. Many sighs were had.

Continuing the revolving door, Mitsu took off, and Jenifer, Kent, and Brett showed up. Jenifer, hand in a cast, had driven down from her new home, Seattle, and Kent and Brett I'd met last week in Cambridge--I guess I'm not the only one always on the move. With no better plans at hand, we drove up to the Alibi for a night of karaoke spectating--none of us sang, hell, we hardly drank, but that didn't stop us from having a good time. Though I rediscovered my appreciation for California's no-smoking-in-bars law... My eyes stung upon leaving the place. To remember--"Whole Lotta Love", "Dead or Alive", and "Sweet Caroline" make for great sing-along tunes.

That did me for the night. It's funny what happens when you hang out with a bunch of people you hardly know, some of whom you've never met in person. In my experience, it usually ends up working out.... Stay tuned for tales of Saturday's travels.
Posted at 11:20 PM PST [0 comments]

October 10, 2001

Oh and hey. Christina, Jesse, and I are going to be throwin' it down information architecture style on October 16th at BayCHI-East, at UC Berkeley. Come on by.
Posted at 09:28 PM PST [0 comments]

Way New Interfaces, Revisited. A long long time ago (May 1998), I wrote about "the speciation of the interface"--in fact, it was among the first pieces of writing for the site. Among the things discussed are "way new interfaces," attempts to go beyond the WIMP GUI toward new human-computer interface models. I'm reminded of it by the new website Nooface, a weblog that addresses "post-PC interfaces". It's a great resource of what's happening to move interface design forward.

I find a helpful model for thinking about the evolution of interfaces begins with an essay Sippey wrote nearly 6 years ago, "The Three Cs of Computing". In it, he identified Creating, Consuming, and Connecting. For my own purposes, I've shifted it to the 4 Cs and an E--Calculation, Creation, Consumption, Communication, and Entertainment (I've never found a good "C" word for Entertainment).

Computers began as number crunchers. Doing big math. You put a bunch of numbers in, you got a result out. A character-based interface was perfectly suited for this.

Then, thanks to spreadsheets and word processors, they became handy for creation. Character-based interfaces suffered because they couldn't mimic the printed version of the document. This is where the WIMP (Windows Icons Menus Pointers) graphic user interface came in handy. The Mac showed the world the efficacy of this model--black text on a white page looked like what you'd see in the end... It was WYSIWYG.

Right now, Consumption (of documents and other media) and communication (via email and instant messaging) have become the primary uses of computers. However, the interface paradigm has pretty much remained constant, and ill-suited to this new world. The WIMP GUI is fine for document creation, when you know what's in the document, because, well, you put it there. It suffers with Consumption, though, because since you didn't write the document, you don't know what to expect--this is what leads to a lot of lack of scrolling (it's not that user's don't scroll... they just tend to not like scrolling, and often don't scroll without a good reason).

With document consumption, particularly in a Web environment, the staccato, one-page-at-a-time presentation of information makes it difficult form a model of the information space, which is why so much of good Web design is about orienting users to where they are. A lot of the Way New Interfaces you'll see on Nooface attempt to address this by presenting information in single fluid spaces, where you can maintain context between a number of documents. As of yet, none of these models has really taken hold...

Communication is a much trickier issue. Interaction between people is mushy, fluid, subtle, filled with feedback, and used for a nearly infinite number of tasks. Email and instant messaging don't allow for anything that nearly resembles the complexity of real communication, as witnessed by the contortions people engage in trying to suit those applications to their needs. (The latest issue of Interactions features a great article on E-mail as habitat: an exploration of embedded personal information management", demonstrating how central email has become in managing all aspects of our work and personal lives. One of the authors, Nicolas Duchaneaut, has other articles on email available on his site)

Um. I should probably conclude this with some pithy comment, but my brain has just frozen. Good night. And see you in Portland.

Posted at 09:25 PM PST [0 comments]

Memes spread inadvertently. This seems remarkably absurd. In this collage poster that seems to honor Osama bin Laden, one of the pictures seems to be an unironic copying of a Bert Is Evil image.
Posted at 12:28 PM PST [2 comments]

October 9, 2001

A Lifesaver. In this time of laptop death (though efforts to resuscitate it are looking fruitful), I've found that Mail2Web is a lifesaver. It might be my New Favorite Web Service. Really straightforward web interface to any POP account. Customizable now, too!
Posted at 04:28 PM PST [1 comment]

October 8, 2001

Two things. 1. My laptop's hard drive crapped out. Started making "click-click-click" noises. A bad sign. It's at the computer repair shop, where I hope they can recover my data. (Backup my drive? Me? You know, I was *just* planning to... Honest!) So, for the near future, email to me will be sporadically received and even more sporadically responded to. I really ought to have two computers.

2. I'm going to Portland, OR at the end of this week. I arrive on Thursday, leave Sunday. I'm working Thursday and Friday (though with evenings free), and am free all day Saturday and Sunday morning-early afternoon. Would love to hang out with folks. Though I said above email might be tricky, I will make an effort to respond to Portlanders, so write me.
Posted at 01:34 PM PST [0 comments]

October 4, 2001

Cambridge is a really nice town. Forgive my lack of posting--I've been in Cambridge this week, speaking and working and wandering around. Cambridge is, roughly, infinitely more appealing than the city of Boston. I could actually see myself living here, if it weren't for all that "snow" stuff in the winter. I'll write up some thoughts about the User Interface 6 East conference later.
Posted at 09:08 PM PST [0 comments]

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