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  past petermemes

November 30, 2000
Noted with minimal comment.
This was found in my referers. I honestly don't know why.

November 29, 2000
Not just a bunch of pixel-pushers.
Kaizo Labs, the folks what create Captain Low-Rez, have started a slashdot-like blog MissingMatter, which pointed me to an article on Stephen Wolfram and his research in cellular automata (an interest to those studying complexity.) To read later. No time now!

More linka-dinka-love! The suggested reading page from the enarrative conference has a bunch of tasty books and websites to peruse on topics of hypertexts, narrative, design, etc. Among them is a link to Captain Low-Rez, who has a second pixelated-and-speech-synthesizered adventure for you!.

Design, design, design. Jay Cross has put together an impressive and thoughtful page on various forms and principles of design (instruction, UI, graphic, information architecture, software, industrial), with lots of good quotes and links to worthwhile material.

November 28, 2000
There's nothing wrong with Epinions.
So, in my naivete, I didn't realize that when I announced that I was leaving Epinions.com, many, if not most, assumed that the company must be having problems, because of 'the market' and all that. Well, rest assured, Epinions is doing just fine. In fact, in the next couple of months Epinions will be on the soundest footing it's had since I began. I've been extremely pleased to see how Epinions has weathered the 'tough times' in the market. I credit that to the fact that the essential vision has never wavered, and that the people in charge actually know what they're doing.

I'm leaving for simple reasons--I seek more freedom in my personal life. I want more than 2 weeks vacation a year. I don't want to feel obligated to sit in an office 40 hours a week. Etc. It's nothing about the company. I wish I could continue vesting! But these are the decisions we make.

Smart little buggers. So I'm thoroughly enjoying The Best American Science Writing 2000, edited by James Gleick (which I bought because it features essays from Timothy Ferris and The Onion, among others), and I've just finished an article by entomologist Deborah M. Gordon on ant colonies, which she has found to exhibit principles of decentralized self-organization in their operation. Nifty stuff. Unfortunately, she doesn't seem to have published anything on the Web. However, asearch on Google turned up a number of results: The members of the Gordon Lab (who knew entomologist chicks could be so cute! Next thing you know, I'll discover that librarians are sexy!); an interview with Gordon on FEED; an article on her research, and differences with others in the field.

November 27, 2000
I'm leaving Epinions.
November 30 is my last day. I will return to independent pastures, reclaiming my status as a 'free agent' in the 'new economy.' Actually, I'm thinking of calling myself an 'interaction ronin.' Hai!

So, yeah, email me if you got work!

Two Americas? My dad posted a thoughtful note in the QuickTopic discussion on the county-by-county vote counts.

An interesting aspect of this discussion is the seemingly clear emergence of another two Americas: the crowded America with stressed out citizens looking for Big Daddy solutions for their problems, and the less crowded Americans who like the feel of a more local, hands-ons control of their situation.

I guess the real challenge for effective political leadership would lie in helping these two Americas understand each other a little better in an effort to unite their respective needs and goals towards the reformation of one great America. Is there anyone currently trying to do that?

This statement is particularly trenchant given articles like this, which colors the red "Us" and the blue "Them".

November 24, 2000
Sweet, sweet justice.
Back in March, presidential candidate Al Gore defied the Clinton Administration by supporting legislation to grant resident status to Elian Gonzalez' father. This oily wrong-headed maneuver was designed to curry favor in Florida, already recognized as an electoral crux. It also demonstrated Gore's unprincipled politically mercenary behavior.

It turns out, it additionally showed his utter idiocy in calculating political benefit. Today's paper reports Cuban-Americans protesting Gore's request for recounts:

"We're getting even," said Angelo Gonzalez, 59, a Cuban immigrant carrying the famous photo of Elian being seized by an armed FBI agent, but with Clinton's image superimposed over the agent's face. "We are giving the Democrats their medicine now. They are suffering for it."

So not only did Gore's March statement cause him to lose favor with level-headed Americans sick of his political posturing. It did nothing to gain him support among the community he courted, whose collective memory is limited to "Democrats = Bad." And people call Gore intelligent?

November 21, 2000
Kicking it, information foraging style. "Surf Like a Bushman", gives a good overview of information foraging, a theory in development at Xerox PARC on how people find information.

From the main information foraging page at PARC comes this definition:

Information foraging theory is an approach to the analysis of human activities involving information access technologies. It aims to provide an understanding of how strategies and technologies for information seeking, gathering, and consumption are adapted to the flux of information in the environment. Much of the work is inspired by optimal foraging theory in biology and anthropology, which analyzes the adaptive value of food-foraging strategies. The theory focuses analysis on how the user gains value from interaction and the cost of that interaction. Adaptive behaviors and technologies are ones that have superior value in relation to cost (e.g. time). We use the theory to understand human-computer interaction, and to develop new design and engieering models.

One of the things I most love is the degree of ethnography which has gone into developing the theory. One of the things I least love is that the theory's developers seem to suffer from the "Social sciences are real sciences, too!" syndrome, wherein they load their otherwise informative articles with charts, graphs, and equations that don't really elucidate the concepts; seemingly, it's there just to make the research more 'solid.' Anyway, this 84-page report on information foraging (PDF) is probably the single best document on the subject.

I'm interested in information foraging because it addresses the problems I've had in understanding how people use sites like Epinions. Typical user testing and GOMS-model analyses are fine for document-creation interfaces, but are insufficient when the interface is super simple (as it is for most Web sites), and where people's impetus for action is the content. Information foraging attempts to address this. The theory is still quite raw, and I'm not sold on its efficacy, but at least these folks are asking the right questions.

The paper, "The Scent of a Site: A System for Analyzing and Predicting Information Scent, Usage, and Usability of a Web Site," (PDF) provides a thoughtful discussion on applying the theory to the Web.

Alan Wexelblat's "Footprints: History-Rich Tools for Information Foraging," (PDF)discusses how time can be factored into the life of digital artifacts, and used to enhance finding quality information.

I found the previous paper here, a page on ResearchIndex, a library that utilizes a number of interesting features, including 'similar documents', 'active bibliography', and 'users who viewed this document also viewed.', as well as a linked list of the works cited in the paper (wherein, when you click on a cited link, you can find other papers that cite that work). Lots of delightful wandering.

Oh, and you'll see references to "the scent of information" all throughout information foraging discussions. This notion has been popularized by Jared Spool. However, it seems that Jared has so drastically oversimplified the notion that he's bastardized it into meaninglessness. And since he's the one that's made it popular, he's harmed the utility of the phrase. All for the sake of selling presentations with catchy titles about Smelly Web Sites. Sigh.

November 20, 2000
My apologies.
For subjecting you to that photo above the fold all weekend long. Anyway, we now present a little True Life Interlude:

"Do you mind if I read?"

"No, not at all. I think Reading is Fundamental!"

"You know, you put the 'fun' in 'fundamental.'"

"Actually, I put the 'mental' in 'fundamental.'"

"Yeah, well I put the 'duh' in 'fundamental.'"

November 16, 2000

Image stolen from the NYTimes.

Data viz. Tpodd went one step further and combined visualizations of black and "hispanic" (census term, sorry) distributions with the county-by-county electoral map. It makes the case bloody obvious about voting along race lines. Interesting how African-Americans have collected along those highway swaths in the south.

Snrf. Garden.com is closing down. Long-time petermeme readers know I've been a fan of the store's design--one of the few retail establishments that really 'got it' from the end-user perspective. Unfortunately, the same can't be said for how they operated the business. As you continue to hear tales of site closings and numerous layoffs, you start to think, "What happened?"

From my perspective in this industry, it seems quite clear--companies hired too many people. A year ago this time, every startup was obsessed with ramping up and swelling their staff numbers. This lead to an extremely tight market, inflated salaries, and, frankly, a lack of focus. (It's hard to get your job done when you're recruiting all day.) But the companies hadn't figured out what to do with all these people. I mean, what on earth was Evite doing with 69 employees? Evite should be 5 folks with some PHP and a MySQL database. Evite is a glorified web page maker. It's a useful one, but not 69-employees useful.

The same thing seemed to happen all over. It was as if the goal of the new economy were simply to hire as many people as possible--through sheer mass your company would dominate. (Dominate what? If companies had spent half the energy in defining a vision they spent in ramping up, this might have been averted.)

Lucky companies have been able to shed their staff and survive. Unlucky companies have been sunk by the ballast of deadweight. Who to blame? Well, there was definitely a simple market hysteria--everyone else was doing it, so you should, too.

But word is a lot of blame falls on VC's shoulders. VC's, in a desire to take companies public as quickly as possible, encouraged swelling staff numbers to suggest serious business. When the IPO thing soured, companies were filled with hundreds of people who really didn't have a whole lot to do. VC's, then, seem to have shrugged their shoulders and moved on. For all their talk of 'partnering' with their investments, there's a lot to suggest that's a load of hooey.

November 14, 2000
Little update.
I'd hoped to post about some research I'd done, but I'm feeling way out of it today. For those following this county-by-county map stuff, tpodd added to the discussion a revealing post concerning ethnic/minority distribution and how it maps to the polling results. And there's a thread on Metafilter concerning results maps that references the infamous Southern 'swath.' Heather's 'solution' made me laugh out loud.

November 13, 2000
Highways, the new rivers.
In the discussion of what lead to the voting patterns mentioned in the previous post, it's come up that those swaths are likely along interstate highway lines. So, I've updated the map notes (new URL) mentioning the interstates that seem to be in play. I suppose it's obvious, but I'd never thought before how interstate highways are the new rivers, the means by which commerce flows, leading to encampments developing on their banks. Did the architects of the interstate system get this in the 50s? Was it factored into their decisions?

Simply having highways in those areas doesn't explain why they voted Democratic... There are many interstate swaths that are decidedly Republican. But, clearly, like people have found one another gathered along these corridors.

My favorite quote from the discussion comes from the irrepressible, incorrigible, Mike Monteiro: "Overlay it with a Starbucks map. It's all becomes clear." Oh, and if you're into design, and funny stuff, and stuff, you should check out his site.

November 12, 2000
Voting patterns.
This map shows the presidential polling results, county-by-county. A lot is being made of Gore=urban, Bush=everything else. The map reveals some telling geographic patterns, though what causes those patterns isn't always clear. I've marked up the map (with E-Quill) and I'd love your take on what's going on. The Mississippi River voting bloc is obvious (higher population density --> Democrat), but I can't tell if the other two swaths I circled have any geographic coherence, or are simply random. If you have thoughts, please share them here.

November 10, 2000
Election thoughts, natch. Though not about that damn ballot.
It amuses me that Democrats are angry with Nader. As a Democrat who voted for Nader, I'm not angry. It puzzles me that people thought that if the election were close, Nader would withdraw, throwing his votes to Gore (and many have reported Nader said he'd do that, though, of course, there's no direct evidence that he ever said such a thing.) If Nader were to have withdrawn, then *I'd* be angry. Because Nader stood for my beliefs--Gore sure didn't.

It saddens me that people are so distracted by the small issues to not get the bigger picture. It perplexes me that they don't get the bigger picture, because the bigger picture, at heart, is so simple.

Money should not rule government.

That's all that Nader was campaigning on. Does it make any sense that Bill Gates has more power than you or I simply because he's been able to sell more products? What kind of mandate is that? Money should let you buy nice things, sure. But it ought not let you sway politics, especially to the degree it does now.

Yes, politics have always been entwined with money. But, at least 40-60 years ago, there was a recognition that the 'will of the people' was a valid concern, and often at odds with the will of the monied. That understanding seems to have vanished. To the point, I suspect, where people are so used to the system we're in, they can't see it's flaws--it just seems natural.

That, simply, is Nader's message, and all of his platforms flow from there. It's not about the single issues. It's about the heart of the matter.

In other news. One of the silly things about all this presidential hoo-hah is that it's overshadowing the elections that do matter--city, county, and state politics. We are all far more affected by local government than we ever will be by the White House. And, happily, in San Francisco and California we voted remarkably sensibly. In SF, we told King Willie and money-grubbing developers to go fuck themselves over Proposition K, we told the taxi lobbyists to go fuck themselves as they tried to grab more power, and our supervisor elections favored people not in King Willie's pockets. And never let them tell your vote doesn't count: remarkably, we have a proposition where the difference is 7 votes, or .002% of those who voted.

In the state of California, we've voted to treat, not prosecute, drug users, and shot down the evil that is school vouchers.

So, yeah, my guy might not have gotten his 5%, but I can't really be upset about this election.

November 9, 2000
Blah blah ballot blah blah.
Is it okay if I don't chime in with my take on the Palm Beach ballot? Thanks.

November 8, 2000
Sometimes a blog is just a blog.
In the latest issue of The New Yorker is "You've Got Blog," Rebecca Mead's piece on Meg and Jason and the cult of blogging. Apart from the repeated shock brought on by seeing a word I coined gain cachet in America's leading literate magazine (I don't mean to be immodest... it really is just weird), I was happy that Mead captured the story well. Whenever I've read an article on something about which I know well, the journalist usually screws up royally. This wasn't the case here.

In explaining to the uninformed what a blog is, Mead writes, "Having a blog is rather like publishing your own, on-line version of Reader's Digest, with daily updates: you troll the Internet, and, when you find an article or a Website that grabs you, you link to it..." Though, she later acknowledges that "most of the new blogs are, like Megnut, intimate narratives rather than digests of links and commentary..." And, in so doing, points up the issue of defining blogs by way of analogy, or metaphor.

Still, I've become increasingly of the mindset that blogs are an important new phenomenon. I think there is a new form of communication/publishing taking place. It's not necessarily about annotated links, or diary entries, or whatnot. It's simply about putting form to thought and getting it out there. The omnipresence of the internet allows for the publishing of thought pretty much *as it occurs*. This is new. This is exciting. People all over the world, going about their business, have something occur to them. In moments they can simply *put it out there*. Whatever "it" is. This is a notion that seems obvious when you look at it, but I don't think the blogging phenomenon has ever been discussed in this way.

Many will grouse at this notion. "Oh great. The Web is a morass of unfiltered crap." True. But. It also allows for a delightfully raw dissemination of ideas, some of which could prove powerful. As always, readers need to figure out the landscape for themselves.

Oh, and this week's The New Yorker, is another stellar issue. Apart from the blog piece, there's an informative look at fibromyalgia, and a revealing feature on George Kennan, the 'architect' of Cold War containment. I'm in the middle of a report on teaching Shakespeare to Chinese students, and there are many pages left to go. This magazine floors me.

November 6, 2000
IA2000 aftermath.
Peter Morville's written up his notes on IA2000, which include links to all the presentations given. IA2000 was a content-rich conference, and all the information is worth checking out.

Of particular note to folks in SF and NY (or those willing to travel there for work): Y'all should register for the fantabulous "Synonyms and Taxonomies" one-day seminar. It's surprising how little those of us who call ourselves information architects actually know about very basic methods for structuring information.

Pump up the volume! The Nov 1 petermeme on volume controls spurred a few emails. (God, I need to switch to Blogger so I can have people make comments...) Jesse made an argument in support of horizontal sliders--the anatomy of a human wrist means it's physically easier to move a mouse left-to-right than up-and-down. He wonders if our linguistic and visual metaphors are necessarily linked. Stephen Judd wrote in to say, "Possibly another benefit to physical volume knobs is that they evoke taps (or faucets, if you're American :). Gushing flow = loud volume."

In thinking about this further, I remembered what is perhaps the most important volume-control interface--the mixing board. Unlike a stereo, there's no limit to the space devoted to manipulating the interface for optimal effect. And, lo and behold, we've got vertical sliders, which, on a mixing board, can be as precisely set as a volume knob on a stereo. And which, I argue, map better to how we think about loudness.

Stop and listen. So, thanks to Napster, I've discovered the song "I'll Come Running," off of Brian Eno's Another Green World. It's an amazing track. I can't stop singing it. I'm listening to it endlessly. It's compositionally lush, lyrically oblique, and the refrain ("I'll come running to tie your shoes") makes me smile. And now it's peterme.com's first MP3 offering. "I'll Come Running" (3.6 MB)

Dude, I see trails! Scott McCloud's latest "I Can't Stop Thinking" column discusses the use of 'trails,' the graphic elements he uses to connect panels in the new ZOT! comic. It's perhaps the best piece so far in his series.

Double Dutch. DeLijst is a nifty collection of UI and IA resources. Though in Dutch, it's not too hard to make one's way around.

More patterns.
Jeff addresses patterns in Web design in his Designing The Future Web presentation. (Powerpoint only). His interest in patterns is toward building a componentized/modular interface system.

Patterns patterns everywhere. Nadav has a post about his frustration with multiple pattern languages for UIs. (tangent: This is my fave link for UI pattern languages: )
It made me wonder if a lot of people share Nadav's frustration. See, the thing is, the point of pattern languages isn't to come up with The Pattern Language. Christopher Alexander is explicit about this--that's why the book is titled A Pattern Language.
The point of pattern languages is more about the form of pattern languages--it's a useful tool for constructing your own language to suit whatever needs you have.
At a roundtable he gave at Web98 West, Nick Ragouzis wisely called into question the utility of pattern languages for UI. His main concern was that we not codify solutions so early in the development of this discipline. Architectural patterns evolved over hundreds of years, and it's not as if even Alexander's language is 'the solution.'

November 3, 2000
Hip Hop Air.
So, circumstances of late have lead me to research flights on Northwest Airlines. Not knowing any better, I typed in "northwest.com", which isn't the right site. I then typed "northwestairlines.com", which redirected me to "nwa.com". Which made me laugh, because this is the first thing I think of when I think of "NWA."

November 1, 2000
Conceptual metaphors in interface design.
So, I've decided to excerpt from my What Makes an Interface Communicate talk the bit about volume knobs.

Volume knobs have obsessed me since I learned about conceptual metaphor in reading Metaphors We Live By. A common conceptual metaphor is that the Future is Ahead and the Past is Behind. We "look ahead" to tomorrow and we "put behind" what happened yesterday. It seems so natural to say so, it's not obvious that it doesn't have to be that way. These conceptual metaphors can play a powerful role in interface design, where we're often trying to give form to the abstract.

Following are four volume-setting interfaces. Which is most appropriate?

Quicktime WinAmp (It's the slider with yellow behind it)

Media Player Windows Control Panel

Quicktime has that delightful thumbwheel. WinAmp and MediaPlayer feature left to right sliders. The Windows control panel offers a vertical slider.

Which makes the most sense?

"Crank it up!"
"Turn that down!"

Volume is Up or Down. Only one of the widgets allows you to interact with volume in that fashion. The Media Player is clever with the inset triangle being higher to the right, suggesting louder. WinAmp's slider changes color (from green (soft) to red (loud), I think), but those colors are pretty meaningless outside the system. And let's not even bother going on about the Quicktime debacle, shall we?

An interesting point raised in the talk is how we think of *interacting* with volume as crank or turn. This is a legacy with volume knobs. Why do stereos have knobs? Not because knobs make sense in a metaphorical way--why does clockwise mean 'loud'? Knobs make sense in an ergonomic way--it's the input device that allows for the highest degree of precision. I've used stereos with vertical slider controls, and you spend a lot of time lightly tap-tapping them up and down to get them just right.

Maybe that's an excuse for the Quicktime thumbwheel?

Uh, no.

The interaction with the thumbwheel is so awkward (click and hold and drag up a bit and let go and roll back down to the buttom and click and hold and drag up a bit again, etc. etc.) that the designer responsible should be put in stocks and have RSI-preventive devices tossed at him/her.

Verrry scarrry stuff! So, a search on Google for "scare quotes" turned up this delightful link: About Scare Quotes, from The Dialectics of Scare Quotes and Hyperlinks. Lots on philosophy, philosophers (Hegel, Derrida, Wittgenstein), and, of course, "scare quotes."

Presentation MADNESS! So, I was asked to give a talk on "What Makes an Interface Communicate?" for Web2000. At first I didn't think I was going to do anything particularly interesting, but somehow (lots of coffee and the benefit of good books on interface design lying around the house) I put something together that doesn't suck. Like the previous presentation I posted, there's a Powerpoint and HTML version, but the HTML is no doubt IE-specific.

Anyway, since I was taking someone else's title (I was subbing for another presenter), the talk ended up being more of a riff on what makes an interface communicate (as opposed to some thought out, reasoned discourse on the topic). Lots of sources cited, and a nifty slide comparing volume knobs. Really. Volume knobs are fascinating. Maybe I'll talk about them more someday.