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  past petermemes

June 29, 2000
So. I can't find the origin of the word "poontang." It's stuck in my head because in my dad's car, he played an old (sounded like 20s or 30s era) jazz song taped for him by a friend, where a woman refrains, "Ohhhh, Mr. Mitchell, I'm crazy 'bout your sweet poontang!" supposedly referring to a baked good. A neuron buried in my noggin tells me it's of African descent (like 'goober'), but, well, a search for 'poontang' on the Web turns up predictable results.

Clickety-click. The RCA-CRD 2000 show is up, and should provide hours of mouse-clicking enjoyment. The RCA-CRD is a kinda British art school version of the Media Lab. The kind of link for which you turn to peterme.com!

Gurp. One of these days I'll learn to talk to girls. Honest. A couple nights ago Dad and I went out to eat, and found ourselves next to a table of two women speaking a foreign language. It sounded like French to me, and my dad, to verify, asked them where they were from. Turned out one was Belgian and the other French, though both lived in San Francisco. The Belgian, when asked what she did, replied, "I'm a scientist." I loved that. "Scientist." So proudly generic. She researches HIV at SF General Hospital (about 5 blocks from where I write this). The Frenchwoman was an architect. We found out where to get the best Belgian ale (Amnesia, on Valencia), and chatted amiably for a bit before they headed out.

I'm inevitably flummoxed (tm Calamondin) in situations like this. Here were two smart, friendly, attractive girls, talking to us, hell, giving me an opportunity to make an offer ("Well, we should try this ale at Amnesia some time soon"), and when it comes to say something, I sit there, a mute idiot grinning.

Why the self-flagellation before y'all? 'Cause I'm kinda sick of this behavior on my part. I don't know what the obstacle is.... I suppose it's some fear of rejection/desire to not intrude/feeling like a dork that gets in the way. Just need to bolster my resolve.

June 28, 2000
It's all about the freakin' user.
So, the last meme referred to working. What I've been toiling over mostly is user testing. We've done some fabulous research at Epinions, generating some interesting results. Still, I find typical usability methods frustrating. So I posted to CHI-Web:


So, we're engaging in a fairly extensive program of user testing at Epinions, and we've been getting some fabulous results. However, we're not able to find out all that we seek, a problem which seems borne of the common methods of 'usability engineering.'

I think the problem lies in that, if I'm not mistaken, usability engineering was developed for applications used in work contexts. Folks trying to accomplish obvious discrete tasks, and clear success metrics (time-to-completion, etc.).

When it comes to consumer-oriented Web sites, though, things get fuzzy. "Number of clicks" or "time to completion" aren't very worthwhile measurements, unless you're studying an extremely highly specified task. But such high specification, I fear, confounds results, as it's *so* unnatural--while the test environment is an okay approximation of the environment of a user focused on a work-oriented task, it bears little relationship to the environment for a more experiential, wandering task like 'researching products.' (which is likely to be done in 10-15 minute intervals, at work and at home, many distractions, etc. etc.)

The trickiest bit has been developing metrics for what's 'successful.' While I can say that a user can get to a product in X clicks or X seconds, that's not really successful. What's more important, and well-nigh impossible to measure, is what happens afterward.

Any pointers/suggestions to usability engineering for the mushier domain of consumer-oriented, content-heavy sites will be greatly appreciated.

and got some great responses. If you have any thoughts, let me know.

You know, this is the first serious 'usability' engagement I've driven. In the past, I've often been labelled 'usability' guy, even though I did no user research and testing. I did advocate 'user-centered design,' but that's a superset, of which usability engineering is a component--that which proposes problems, suggests solutions, and tests designs. I've been an interaction designer--specifying systems that would meet users' needs. It's funny how folks would just lump it all together. In my mind, they're quite different.

June 22, 2000
Can't blog... Working....

June 18, 2000
Reinventing Comics Is Not Meant For You.
So, I'm finally getting around to discussing Scott McCloud's latest. Unless you draw comics, the book is not meant for you. Whereas Understanding Comics is an exploration of a communications medium, and thus has bearing an all communications media, RC is an open letter to the comics community (creators, publishers, sellers, and, to a much smaller extent, readers). A treatise that if the community doesn't get its act together, it could very well go away. And a proposal for how to solve the problem, step-by-step, and ensure the medium's vitality and longevity.

RC is much simpler than UC. In UC Scott McCloud was an explorer in the New World, reporting back to the old world what he'd found. There was an ecstatic quality in detailing the discoveries, and an impressive attempt to capture everything about this new place.

In RC Scott is a settler on the east coast in the 1840s, and his writings are a diary the mess that he witnesses around him. The book's first half details the failings of the comics industry, its inability to transcend pulp schlock, its willingness to squander a vast audience in favor of the locked-in market of pimply white boys, and its refusal to give artists a fair shake.

But, Scott feels all is not lost--there's a vast frontier to explore, and he urges his colleagues in the comics community to "go west."

Scott's "west" is cyberspace, and the second half of RC is devoted to the coming impact of digital media and distribution on comics. This is the section with most relevance to whomever reads my site, particularly Scott's discussion of "the infinite canvas," the notion that comics must no longer be confined to the bounds of a printed page, but can stretch and unfold endlessly, in any direction. Of particular note is Scott's belief that hypertext will give way to a more spatial mode of display and navigation; that the link will be seen more as an artifact of a low-bandwidth age, to be replaced by information spaces that provide context and holism.

Very little of what Scott has to say will be new to peterme readers. Anyone who's read Wired at any point over the last 6 years has already heard plenty about the miracles of the net for allowing creators to go straight to consumers. About the fluidity of the new economy. And folks who've been designing for computers learned long ago to think of the display not as a screen, not as a page, but as a window.

But, that's okay. Those parts aren't meant for you. Those parts are meant for Scott's colleagues, many of whom are wilfully ignorant about anything cybernetic. Whose tongues and fingers are blackened by inkstains, who will give up their Koh-I-Noors only when you pry it from their cold, dead hands. Scott does a good job of scaring them into realizing the dimness of the future if they don't pay attention and do something to save themselves.

I want to finish by discussing some of the form of RC. The presentation, matching the exposition, is straightforward--far less play with panels and borders than exhibited in UC. Also, there's a notable difference in drawing style, borne of the fact that RC was produced all-digitally. If I'm not mistaken, Scott even sketches using a Wacom tablet--no drawing on paper and scanning it in. This provides a remarkable precision in the lines, though causes some bezier artifacts to ruin smooth curves. It also frees Scott to exploit some helpful visual effects--smooth blurs, transparencies, and endless cut 'n pasting help him get his points across in ways too cumbersome for ink and paper.

My last point is a suggestion for Scott to continue drawing information graphics. His dissection of the supply chain (how print comics get from creator to consumer), his mastery of iconography in telling a story, basically, his ability to use comics to explain abstraction (comics are almost *always* narrative) demonstrates a remarkable skill for visualizing ideas that hadn't yet seen full flower with UC. Any magazine art directors should have Scott's name and number in their rolodex, for when they need to get across a particularly tricky notion.

So anyway, I liked it. And while it's not meant for you, you might very well enjoy it. So pick up a copy (and give Scott a buck in doing so.) If you feel a desire to point to this review, I've also posted it to Epinions.

Shameless fantasy. The latest New Yorker (the fiction issue) offers up "The Smoker." Though there are almost no typically indulgent elements (except for age difference), the story is a remarkably powerful fantasy for smart single straight men aged 25-35. It caught me off-guard. I was irrevocably drawn to that which was a kind of high-minded trash.

In other news. The Museum of Jurassic Technology will soon open a new exhibit on 17th-century Jesuit scholar and polymath Athanasius Kircher. Perhaps a road trip to L.A. is in order...

June 15, 2000
Forgot to point to my debut Media Nugget.

Multimedia photo bliss. So, Caterina pointed to The Boys of Bundy College, a nifty online photography exhibit. That reminded me to check out Cosmo's site to see if Archeological Collage has been completed. And it has. CHECK IT OUT. It's *way* cool. Play with the slider. (And if you haven't yet, visit Personal Dictionaries.)

This reminded me of the multimedia photography CD-ROMs we published at Voyager, including I Photograph to Remember, by Pedro Meyer, who is responsible for the beautiful ZoneZero site. I did a related link search on Google for ZoneZero, which turns up a bunch of delightful photography excursions. Have fun!

June 14, 2000
New servers.
Switched to my new host, which brings with it some moving pains. Excuse the creakiness.

June 13, 2000
Don't ever stop thinking.
Scott McCloud's new column, "I Can't Stop Thinking!" has debuted. I'm reading Reinventing Comics (that link is for Scott's affiliate site), and though I'll have much more on it later, I can say that I think the periodical form might be the best milieu for Scott right now.

June 10, 2000
Mmmm. Tasty! So, I just finished Anthony Bourdain's Kitchen Confidential, a 'tell-all' memoir of one man's life in the restaurant biz. I loved his juicy essays in the New Yorker, and his book doesn't disappoint those looking for a sordid read of the seamy underbelly of cooking. It's not perfect (the autobiographical bits aren't nearly as strong as his descriptions of "a day in the life" of a restaurant kitchen), but holds interest for those who love to go out to eat.

The reviews of the book on Amazon are quite a mixed bag (moreso than with any other title I've seen there), and one reviewer suggests reading "going online" to read the NYC restaurant reports from the department of health. Which I did. And which are fascinating. Every single restaurant is listed, and the health infractions therein. Almost every Starbucks I looked at had a problem with "Vermin." Heh.

Universities matter. I think I've lamented in these pages how corporate America seems to blithely ignore research occuring in academia, missing out on some worthwhile projects and findings. DENIM strikes me as a potentially brilliant solution to rapid Web design prototyping, and utilizes zooming user interfaces to boot! In separate news, devilishly handsome Frank McClelland (not that I've ever met him nor seen him, but he is a regular reader who has been supplying me good links, so I must simply assume he makes the girls swoon) pointed me to CANIS, a project out of UIUC that "is developing and deploying unique analysis environments for large-scale information retrieval applications based on discipline and community scale collections." Sounds good to me.

Happiness is... a day in which I have nothing planned, where no one is expecting me to be somewhere at a certain time, and I'm free to do what I want when I want.

June 9, 2000
Consider this an anti-pointer.
This will be catty. And might annoy folks I know at Razorfish (Hi Karen, Terry, Victor, Heather Anne, Shel, and Ethan. Please note I say this only to hope that you publish things that aren't Craig Kanarick vanity pieces and that don't just give an extremely cursory overview but instead provide depth... Like, say Karen's engaging 'modularity' talk from ASIS.) After wasting time clicking through "Razorfish Reports" (in PDF? Hello?) I can safely suggest to you all to pretty much not bother. It all kind of gives "science" a bad rap. And the numerous typos don't help matters.

June 7, 2000
Kooky kollidge kids.
Alex chimes in with a report on what the folks at NYU's Interactive Telecommunications Program have been up to. Sigh. I miss the time I had surfing student projects sites. Sites like RCA's CRD, MIT Media Lab, Carnegie Mellon, etc.

June 5, 2000
Another damn blog.
If you like my site, and places like Alamut, Calamondin, and Lemonyellow (RIP?), then you ought to start reading Caterina.net. Thoughful links on art and stuff. And she updates regularly, unlike some. Err, by "some," I mean me.

June 2, 2000
More on Tourette's.
Jason points us to this article on Shadow Syndromes, the notion that many people (often 'nerds') suffer milder versions of neurological disorders. This was Slashdotted a while back.

Additionally, Debra Hyde wrote me:

I felt compelled to email you about Jonathan Letham's book because my son has a severe case of Tourette's. It's a fascinating thing to live with, although some elements of it are trying. His sister gets annoyed that he has to eat snacks in pairs, which messes up the "how many did you have?" fairness that kids demand of each other. (But at least he's down to pairs. We laughed over the White Tower burgers scene in Letham's book because my son use to eat Fruit Rollups in groups of four.) His vocal outbursts get trying too because he's 13 (the age of perversion) and lately it's been "do you want a stinky face?" which you *don't* wanna know about. [s] (But it beats the "my dick is bigger than yours!" that use to greet me at breakfast each morning. To which I'd answer, "well, I certainly hope so" or "thank you for that update." Humor helps.) Sometimes, it's hard to stay on track with him because every so often, he has to shuffle his feet a certain way and a certain number of times before he can even take a step forward.

But I always know what he's feeling or thinking, based on what tic he's doing. (Facial grimacing and head nodding usually mean he's excited and happy, for example.) The meds he takes for the Tourette's and a mood disorder (high co-morbidity there) dampens the tics but hasn't come close to killing them.

What I find fascinating about Letham's book is his innate understanding of Tourette's without being a sufferer himself.

Calling all New Yorkers!
You are an idiot if you live or will be near Manhattan tomorrow (June 3) and do not attend Excavating the Archive: New Technologies of Memory.

June 1, 2000
We're all a little bent.
So I'm reading Motherless Brooklyn, a fab novel whose main character suffers Tourette's Syndrome. The characterization is remarkably vivid, a marvelous job revealing the impulses on the inside, not just the expressions of tics and utterances.

What I'm struck by is how Tourettic some of my own behavior is. This actually comes up with almost any neurological disorders I learn about. They usually seem to me to be an extreme type of activity that I (and, I assume many people) do all the time. Tourette's, or autism, or whathaveyou, aren't binary problems, where you either have it or you don't. I suspect we all "suffer" these syndromes, just some much more than others. Studies of neurological disorders fascinate because we're really learning about ourselves, where these extreme examples help highlight exactly what's going on. Hrm. I fear I'm not making sense, and I'm now compelled to return to work.

Mom's birthday! HAPPY BIRTHDAY MOM!

What's the use? By way of Dack I became familiar with ForUse, a website promoting "usage-centered design", a methodology for interactive systems. Of particular interest is the experience forum, featuring papers on "Misused Metaphors," "In-site Searching," "Accelerated Modeling," and more. Constantine and Lockwood's Big Thing are Essential Use Cases, which have always struck me as an appealing method, but which I've never practiced, as I've never had the time to really study it and feel comfortable applying it. Makes me wish I had a cushy agency job or was back in school. Instead, I must produce!