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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Whose "My" Is It Anyway?
Frames: Information Vs. Application

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October 31, 2002

Smart Mobs mini-blog: Free-Riding in the Commons In reading Smart Mobs, a paradox I'm having trouble resolving is why there's usually positive sentiment towards free-riding on wireless internet connectivity, with glowing reports of efforts like NYCWireless and the Bay Area Wireless User Group, but there's usually negative sentiment towards free-riding in file-sharing communities, damning those who download files from Gnutella and Kazaa without offering files in return.

Why is it okay, or even cool and renegade, to take internet connectivity for free without offering anything in return, but downloading MP3s causes people to stress over the Tragedy of the Commons? Particularly when digital media are endlessly copyable (and therefore never scarce), whereas internet connectivity isn't?
Posted at 08:47 AM PST [6 comments]

October 25, 2002

Smart Mobs mini-blog: Mobile Phone Conversation Dissonance Quickly: Smart Mobs discusses the discomfort that people have with overhearing telephone conversations, and cites researchers who claim this is because such conversations are "private", though taking place in a "public" place, and that this conflation of a person's "faces" makes others uneasy.

This strikes me as far too analytical. I haven't done research on this, but in my experience, the reason I don't like overhearing phone conversations is simple; it sounds wrong to my brain. I don't mind overhearing conversations between two people because I can hear both people, the conversation sounds 'complete', and I can block out the whole affair. Mobile phone conversations are dissonant in that, I'm only hearing one person, but my brain assumes conversations ought to hear two. And so, hearing talking...pause....talking...pause... I get aggravated by the pauses, by the expectation that's not being met.

Posted at 03:25 PM PST [10 comments]

Smart Mobs mini-blog: Mobile Devices as Display In Smart Mobs, Howard discusses how, in group settings, Scandinavian teenagers flash SMS messages they've received to others, or pass the phone around, and he quotes study that claimed, "the physical appearance of the phone...held symbolic value..."

This got me thinking about how these phones have a certain "fashion"able aspect, above and beyond their functional qualities. Showing others messages you've received is something of an inversion of how we think of these devices, which is to assume these devices are "private," providing information and communication to its owner, and to no one else.

This, in turn, made me think of an MIT Media Lab project I saw demonstrated at CHI 1998, Thinking Tags (unfortunately, the passing of time has lead to a lack of cohesion of the information about Thinking Tags). One of the Tags creators, Richard Borovoy, talked about his frustration with "Wearable Computing," which augmented only the wearer's experience, and, typically, made the wearer look like a weirdo to everyone else. He wanted to turn that around, and using computer technology to augment appearance, to put technology to use in encouraging social relationships, not further cocooning us.

(I've written about Thinking Tags before.)

Thinking tags work by being filled with information about their wearers. When two people wearing Thinking Tags are in proximity, their tags can exchange information (say, send business cards, etc.), or perhaps highlight interesting commonalities that could encourage introduction (say, alert both people that they are graduates of the same university).

Of potential interest is Richard Borovoy's Ph.D. thesis, "Folk Computing: Designing Technology to Support Face-to-Face Community Building" (big PDF), with this abstract:
Creating common ground in a community of people who do not all know each other is a chickenand-
egg problem: members do not share enough common ground to support the kinds of
conversations that help build it. “Folk Computing” technology is designed to help build
community in informal, face-to-face settings by giving users a playful way of revealing shared
assumptions and interests. Drawing on the communicative process found in folklore, Folk
Computing devices facilitate the creation, circulation and tracking of new, digital forms of lore.
These digital folklore objects serve as social probes: they circulate among people with whom they
resonate, thereby revealing the boundaries of groups who share the underlying beliefs, knowledge
and experiences that give the lore meaning.
Folk Computing uses technology to enhance the community building functions of folklore in
three important ways: it supports the circulation of more interactive and media-rich lore, it
reduces the social and cognitive costs of folklore creation and circulation, and it enables detailed
visualizations of how pieces of lore circulate through a community. This thesis will explore the
potential of Folk Computing through a design rationale for three new technologies, ranging from
computationally augmented name tags used at conferences (Thinking Tags and Meme Tags) to
devices with which people can create, trade and track animations and simple games (i-balls), used
over several weeks by the population of a K-8 public school.
I know that later in the book, Howard discusses the (in)famous Lovegety, a Japanese product designed to encourage the fomentation of romantic relationships -- owners input their data, and what they're looking for, and if two Lovegetys in proximity "match," they're owners are signalled.

One of the things that's becoming increasingly apparent about our near future world is that people, stores, objects, all manner of things will be surrounded by data clouds, expressing data about that Thing, and that as these clouds interact, they'll talk to each other, sniff each other out, looking for matches (or things to avoid). We'll wander around with invisible layers of metadata enveloping us. It'll be interesting to see how we utilize this further augmentation of our appearance...
Posted at 03:13 PM PST [10 comments]

October 24, 2002

Don't Get Me Wrong, I'm flattered... So, it has come to my attention that someone out there is selling t-shirts with my benday-dotted visage on them.

Thing is, I have no idea who, and I don't quite "get" the tagline.

FUN FACT: benday dots are named after Benjamin Day.
Posted at 03:06 PM PST [5 comments]

October 23, 2002

Smart Mobs mini-blog: Swarming So, I think I'm going to keep a wee blog o' thoughts pertaining to the reading of Smart Mobs, because I'm finding it's firing my brain.

"Swarming" is a theme running through the book. The idea that mobile devices are overlaying a kind of collective intelligence atop geographically separated people, enabling them to act in concert, even though they're not physically together.

This made me think, obviously, of "swarm intelligence", which is often discussed in the context of extremely efficient behavior emerging in ant colonies.

It made me wonder if "swarms" of humans will, collectively, become similarly more efficient, by allowing all of the individuals to try different things, and those who are successful, report the finding around, such that everyone can achieve success more rapidly. We do this already, but I'm curious to see how mobile devices enable this to happen extremely rapidly. A typical problem could be, "Where to eat for dinner?" Send this question out to a group, receive their varying responses, and act based on the results.

Or something.

Posted at 11:27 PM PST [4 comments]

The History of Carter Beats The Devil. A bit back I wrote about the novel Carter Beats the Devil, which I had a particular soft spot since it was largely set in Oakland, my new home at the time. Well, Powell's offers this reminiscence from Glen David Gold, the author, on inspiration for the book, largely from Oakland's sad sack, also-ran history.
Posted at 09:39 AM PST [1 comment]

First thoughts on Smart Mobs. I've just begun reading Howard Rheingold's new book, Smart Mobs, and I like it a lot already, because it's making me think. The book is about how wireless communication technologies, particularly mobile devices, are enabling groups of people to interact in concert almost instantaneously, and the social effects that arise.

I was reading it on BART, and using my mobile phone to email my laptop brief messages to remind me of stuff that I wanted to noodle on. The first message was: "WIRELESS ISP: t1 to wireless. mass competition at wireless level." I was thinking about how the big ISPs are running scared from 802.11b, making it a breach of contract to turn your DSL connection into a free wireless access point. I feel that if I'm paying $50 for an "always on" connection, I should be able to do what I want with that bandwidth. Mulling over the economics of the situation made me wonder if we'd see something like this:

-- the Big ISPs (AT&T, SBC Global, etc. etc.) would recede, providing super fat bandwidth only to...
-- a collection of small-to-medium ISPs, who would resell this bandwidth in any number of ways to business and individuals

It's going to be interesting to see how competition bears out in this market. If AT&T tries to restrict how I use my DSL connection, there will be another provider who allows me to do what I want, and I'll go with that one. I suspect that 802.11, by eliminating the need for physical wires, ought to lead to mass competition for ISPs serving individuals and small offices. This, I think, is what Boingo is all about.

Smart Mobs has a weblog (natch), and in it I found a link to a post on another weblog about a small ISP offering 802.11 to any of it's DSL customers. This is exactly along the lines of what I was thinking.

Other posts on that page discuss 802.11 in airports, which reminded me of how AT&T Wireless is Not Getting It in a big way. I just flew from Boston to Oakland, with a connection in Denver. I would have loved to have checked email during my wait in Denver, but I would have had to pay $9.95 to do so. For, like, 30 minutes of access. What's particularly dumb is that the connection is offered by AT&T Wireless, with whom I have an account as a mobile phone customer. Here's what I should be able to do:
- Open a wireless connection in Denver
- Type in my account ID and password (which I use to my mobile phone bills online)
- Be charged a more reasonable time-based fee (50 cents every ten minutes? Hell, I'd probably pay 2 dollars for ten minutes)
- Have it billed to my AT&T Wireless account
What's the point of having a telecommunications behemoth servicing me, if I can't seamlessly connect with it's many offerings?
Posted at 09:30 AM PST [1 comment]

October 22, 2002

Mrs. Web Designer, I Think You're Trying to Seduce Me. A long time ago, I wrote about "receptivity", talking about how a website's users are typically so task-focused that any attempt to "message" at them is lost until they've completed their primary task (usually finding a particular content page). At that point, users shift from lean-forward to lean-back, and are more likely to look around and see what their options are.

I had no significant data to base this on, apart from my own experience watching people use websites, and thinking about my own experience as a user.

So last week I attended the UI Conference, put together by the good folks at User Interface Engineering, and listened to Christine Perfetti talk about site design, and she mentioned the exact same thing that I wrote about in that receptivity piece, which is that the home page is a terrible place for promotions, because people aren't primed to receive. Well, I know that the UIE people do heaps of research, so I asked the question,
"If someone were to renovate her house, she might not think about reading up on building codes, so she wouldn't look for it. But I know that such information could be extremely useful and important to her, saving her from headaches farther down the road. How do I get people to information they don't know that they need to know?"

Christine's response involved what she termed the "seducible moment." (Don't bother looking up "seducible"; it's not a real word.) As explained in this essay on UIE's site, you can lure users off their path once they've completed a significant part of their task.
Posted at 10:22 AM PST [5 comments]

October 20, 2002

Talking Tech. Adina has a nice post about grassroots tech innovation, largely within the world of open source. It's an affirming piece, providing perspective on all the tech doom-and-gloom that has become standard.

For those who do web design and development, this interview with Doug Bowman about the Wired News redesign is the first time I've ever read anything about CSS and XHTML that a) made sense and b) was presented in a context that I got. It's particularly important because it shows the benefits of doing the Right Thing, as opposed to just keeping up business as usual. This is a sentiment we at Adaptive Path keep trying to put across, though in a different realm.
Posted at 08:47 PM PST [1 comment]

October 16, 2002

My house... Shall be a very very fine house. I just opened escrow on this...

2 bedroom, 1 bath, "Craftsman style" in south Berkeley, near Ashby BART. It's very cute. Not very big, but a good "starter home," as they say. And I only had to offer 3% over asking price to get it.

Obviously, there's still a way to go (marching down the 30 Days of Escrow), but I'm on my way to being landed gentry.

Which means, yes, I got over that little "no credit" thing.
Posted at 09:13 PM PST [14 comments]

October 14, 2002

In Cambridge, MA this week. Email me if we should hang out!
Posted at 08:15 AM PST [0 comments]

October 13, 2002

Truly, An Honor. This past weekend, I served as groomsman in the wedding of two dear friends, Lane and Courtney. The whole weekend was a blast, from the bachelor party, through the rehearsal dinner, to the walking tour of downtown San Francisco that I lead (interested parties should email me), culminating in a nouveau Jewish wedding, one that retained the traditions and the meaning, though gave it a contemporary twist which brought all us goyim into the ceremony.

I first met Lane and Courtney in the desert four years ago. I grew to consider them good friends when I visited Austin for the first time the following year, and then we became progressively closer as I've seen them go through their move to New York, back to Austin, and then on to San Francisco.

When Lane first informed me of my duty, it was about 8 months ago, in a surprisingly off-handed way. (I think it was something like, "Oh, don't worry about looking for a suit to wear, you'll be in a tuxedo." "Why?" "Oh, because you're a groomsman.") I was somewhat dumbstruck, partly because I had no idea what a groomsman was, partly because I hadn't fully realized the closeness I had with Lane and Courtney (it had grown over such time that it just felt normal).

Standing there, beside Jim, Alan, Reed, Ben, and Lev, I felt remarkably honored to be included in this group, the groomsman newest to the couple, afforded a special view of the ceremony, not as a spectator, but as a participant, looking out over the audience, eyes tearing up as the rabbi presided, not quite knowing what to do with my hands.

It was such a beautiful event, filled with life, love, and joy, and to have been asked to take an intimate part in the proceedings is easily among the grandest honors of my life.

To Lane and Courtney, thank you. I look forward to the continued deepening of our friendship.
Posted at 10:31 PM PST [1 comment]

October 10, 2002

Talking 'bout The User Experience. There's an interview with Nathan Shedroff and me up at Digital Web, blathering on and on about user experience, information architecture, etc. I have no idea if it makes sense to anyone but me.
Posted at 10:43 AM PST [3 comments]

October 7, 2002

Poking Little Holes. Clay Shirky's latest essay, Weblogs and the Mass Amateurization of Publishing is right about a lot of things. It's right in that "duh" way, though necessarily, because there are people who think that these electronic scrawls ought to have more pecuniary value. My argument about money and weblogs, (which goes something like this: "But, uh, that's not really the point"), lacks intellectual rigor, which Professor Shirky has seen to provide.

Still and all, one service that weblogs perform is that of World's Biggest Peer Review, and I feel the need to call out the Good Professor on some points that I don't agree with.

Weblogs fix the inefficiencies traditional publishers are paid to overcome one book at a time, and in a world where publishing is that efficient, it is no longer an activity worth paying for.

For some reason, Clay chooses to use "book publishing" as his example throughout this essay, which I find odd, since of all the types of print publishing out there, weblogs perhaps resemble book publishing the least. Clay acknowledges that the form of a book imbues a certain notion of quality, since people who are paid to worry about this sort of thing have gone through the trouble of publishing it. What he neglects is that books are currently (and will be for quite a while) the best publishing vehicles for any form of extended thought. Weblogs, and The Web in general, are clumsy and undesirable media for providing readers with any kind of lengthy thesis. Related to this is that weblogs are essentially free to publish because their content is typically worthless to *produce*. But in our happy market economy, for an author to spend the necessary time researching, analyzing, ruminating, and writing anything of significant substance, it's reasonable to expect he would do so in a system that provided remuneration.

(And Clay himself kind of makes this argument at the end of his essay: "And then there's print. Right now, the people who have profited most from weblogs are the people who've written books about weblogging. As long as ink on paper enjoys advantages over the screen, and as long as the economics make it possible to get readers to pay, the webloggers will be a de facto farm team for the publishers of books and magazines." Which undercuts his statements earlier.)

Oxygen is more vital to human life than gold, but because air is abundant, oxygen is free. Weblogs make writing as abundant as air, with the same effect on price. Prior to the web, people paid for most of the words they read. Now, for a large and growing number of us, most of the words we read cost us nothing.

I'm going to make a couple of niggling academic points, but I think they're worth making since, frankly, Clay's essay is pretty niggling and academic. For starters, oxygen isn't free. While I've never paid for the air, I have paid for keeping it clean enough to breathe. I probably haven't paid a whole lot, but still, in our society, we pay for *every resource*, directly or otherwise.

And, maybe Clay gets free internet access and free computers from his employers, but, well, even though I might not pay Ray to read his weblog, the statements I get every month from SBC, along with the price of my hardware, suggests that reading his musings has definitely cost me.

Again, the basic gist of Clay's piece is right on, and worth following for those who care. (Which, I suspect, is about, oh, maybe 100-200 of us.)
Posted at 12:07 AM PST [2 comments]

October 6, 2002

Marveling at technology. In his latest email newsletter, Clay Shirky includes this:

* Quote of Note: Marcel Proust, Telecom Analyst ======================

Proust, describing how formerly magical human affairs become
depressingly normal, used the telephone as an example, calling it

"...a supernatural instrument before whose miracles we used to stand
amazed, and which we now employ without giving it a thought, to
summon our tailor or order an ice cream. "

This lament over our lost sense of wonder was written 30 years after
the invention of the telephone. Drawing parallels with current
technology is left as an excercise for the reader.

Which is funny, because just today I was sitting at my computer, marveling at websites that make maps. In particular, MapQuest, which has been facilitating my hunt for a house. I can make maps with up to 5 locations identified (though I wish it could be more!).

And don't even get me started with driving directions.

I mean, I don't know anyone whose experiences with maps haven't wholly changed thanks to the internet. And the ease with which we've integrated internet maps in our lives definitely leaves folks like me (whose job is to design products that support what people want to accomplish) with a lot to think about.

Posted at 11:11 PM PST [1 comment]

October 4, 2002

Reflections. So, my first ever contribution to The Mirror Project has gone live.

Along our Route 66 road trip, dad and I would occasionally check email, and we found out that my dad's brother Bertin had just been checked into the Veterans Hospital in Amarillo, Texas. I don't recall exactly what prompted this, but suffice to say Bertin's been in poor shape for quite a while, and it was only a matter of time before he would simply be unable to live unassisted.

Amarillo happens to be smack dab in the middle of Route 66, so we headed to the hospital after a lunch break. It was an eerie experience, driving up to, and then walking into, a veterans hospital. Outside, a flock of old guys sat in chairs and wheelchairs, smoking and looking at nothing in particular. We made our way through the building, received assistance from an orderly, and found my uncle sleeping in his room.

We startled him awake, and he was quite a sight. Outfitted in a hospital robe, a respirator plugged into his nostrils, his pasty pudgy body heaved upward into a sitting position. My dad chatted with him for quite a while, catching up, talking about their mom, Bertin recounting stories from his life, lamenting that he can go nowhere without an external bladder, all the while, repeatedly gasping for air.

I didn't have much to say, and mostly just stood around, listening, looking out the window, looking at Bertin, looking around. I went to the mirror, and saw I could frame myself in between the two brothers talking, and snapped the photo you see on the site. My dad is older than Bertin, and in infinitely better shape. I wondered just what dad was *thinking* as he was looking at his little brother, who probably tagged along with him on the streets of Cleveland, who probably looked up to him in that way that younger brothers do, and now, as they enter twilight years, the younger brother is clearly going to pass long before the older. Which I suspect must seem weird.

I didn't really know what to make of the picture, except that I liked it, I liked capturing this odd moment, healthy brother talking to dying brother, my standing between them, related, yet removed.
Posted at 06:01 PM PST [4 comments]

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