CHI’s Interactions Magazine has turned into a travesty

About 5? 6? months ago, I let my membership to ACM’s SIGCHI lapse, pretty much for exactly the reasons Todd details in his recent post on the Adaptive Path site.

Even though I had not attended a CHI conference since 2001, I kept my membership until this year because Interactions was pretty much the only printed publication that addressed my area of professional interest. But in the last year or so, Interactions has suffered a precipitous decline in quality, only partly mitigated by OK/Cancel and Don Norman.

It’s a travesty, really. As the field has grown, expanded, and gotten more interesting, Interactions has retrenched into an overly academic, dull, and wonky tome that addresses topics of startlingly little relevance. Or, if the topics are relevant, the articles do a terrible job of commentary.

It’s a shame, because interaction design deserves a thoughtful publication.

Super Quick Book Review – Erik Larson’s Thunderstruck

Like much of the North American reading population, I enjoyed Erik Larson’s Devil in the White City, a book which deftly intertwined the design and development of the 1893 Chicago World’s Columbian Exposition (focusing on Daniel Burnham’s leadership) and the grisly murders in a house near the exposition. So, I picked up Larson’s latest, Thunderstruck as travel reading.

Thunderstruck is nowhere near as entertaining as Devil, and for a very simple reason. In the two stories that comprise Devil, the protagonists are compelling characters in whose fate you’re interested — Daniel Burnham in trying to achieve a grand vision for a world’s fair, Dr. H. H. Holmes in his dastardly and ingenious method of dispatching wives. (You might not be sympathetic to these characters, but you’ll find them continually engaging).

In Thunderstruck, Larson’s protagonists are Guglielmo Marconi (the inventor of wireless telegraphy, in a role here akin to Birnham’s) and Hawley Crippen (the criminal, and thus analogous to Holmes). The problem is, neither of these people are all that interesting to follow. Marconi is a self-obsessed, conniving, socially inept, paranoid boor. You don’t root for his success, and you don’t really care when others threaten to overtake him. Crippen is a mousy, hen-pecked, and, well, simply pathetic boob. You feel sorry for him, perhaps, but he elicits no fascination for his mechanisms and plotting the way that Holmes did.

So, Thunderstruck spends a great deal of time chronicling the activities of two unlikable people. For me, the only thing that saved the book is the period detail — the historic context is kind of fun. But it’s definitely nothing to seek out, and will likely only disappoint fans of Devil.

Cusco – The Ruins

Somehow, I don’t seem to know anyone who has ever been to Cusco. And, to be honest, before planning this trip, I’d never really thought of Cusco, and had no idea really what to expect. Stacy, being an archaeologist, knew better — the area around Cusco is rife with Inca ruins, including, most famously, Machu Picchu.

I’m annoyed that I didn’t know anyone who’d been there, because I’m guessing that person would have told us that 4 days wasn’t going to be enough. We realized this about 15 minutes after landing.

So, let me tell you: If you’re visiting Cusco, and are truly interested in the historic sites, give yourself 6 days there. Okay.

We spent three days wandering ruins. Here’s my report.

Tambo Machay, Q’enko, Sacsayhuaman

The first set of Incan ruins we visited began with Tambo Machay, about 30 minutes bus drive outside of Cusco. (And by “bus” I mean “collectivo,” a cheap form of transit — we paid around US$.70 for a 30 minute bus ride; we were among the few gringos on the bus.)

Tambo Machay is most interesting for the massive stone walls and the water fountain it contains…

There’s not much else there, but it’s an impressive site, and a good start to a walk through three sets of ruins (four if you count Pucu Pucura, but there’s really not much there). The idea is you start at Tambo, and then walk back down the road toward Cusco.

The next ruin, Q’enko, is actually kind of fun. There are two items of note at Q’enko. One is the carved out cavern, a kind of small version of the labyrinthine tunnels that you seen in a lot of Inca sites…

More interesting are the zig-zag channels that were used in blood-letting rituals. There were a series of such channels, and you’d sacrifice animals (or humans) and their blood running down the channels would help predict the future. Or something.

Those crazy savages.

The final ruin on this walk is Sacsayhuaman, the Inca site closest to Cusco. Sacsayhuaman is much larger than the prior two sites, though the primary distinguishing feature at this time are massive stone walls. There’s not much else going on here…

Machu Picchu

Well, when in Cusco, there is one site that you have to go to. And that’s Machu Picchu. Getting to Machu Picchu is something of an ordeal. Many folks opt for the Inca Trail, the four-day hike culminating in “The Mach” (as I decided to call it). We didn’t have the time, equipment, nor desire, so we opted for the train ride.

Getting a train ticket is an ordeal in itself. You reserve online, and then go to the train station in Cusco — not the train station you’ll be leaving from, but another train station. The train tickets cost around $105 per person.

(Speaking of costs, the entry fee to Machu Picchu is around $40. The bus from the train station to Machu Picchu is another $12. So, visiting Machu Picchu costs around $150/person.)

You take a 4 hour train ride from Cusco to Machu Picchu, through the pretty pretty Sacred Valley. Perhaps you’ll be in a car full of Germans, like we were:

Arriving at Aguas Calientes (the town nearest The Mach), you can either walk, or get a bus up to the site. We opted for the latter (after some confusion, trying to find the buses on the other side of the labyrinthine craft market).

You arrive at the site, and you wait in line to enter, upon entering you climb a set of steps, and your first view of the site looks something like this:

Apart from the awesome majestic beauty, the unparalleled landscape, and the size of the place, what you notice are all the people. Even in what is considered the “off-season,” The Mach is crawling with people, people from all over the world, people in their brightly colored clothing, people moving _en masse_ from place to place.

We did what we could to avoid the teeming masses and spend our own time on the site. We wandered around for about 3 to 3.5 hours, taking it all in. And taking a lot of photos. Some favorites of mine:


Stacy in the Three Doorways


Stacy in the residential area. The residential area might have been my favorite on the whole site. It was revealing just to see the spaces in which people lived. Little house-like structures, lined up in a row.


The Shot Most Likely to End Up on a Moo Card.

(All my Machu PIcchu photos)

The train ride back provided something of a surreal experience. We sat across a couple from New Jersey who were on a packaged tour, and, well, who honestly had no personality whatsoever. (It was one of those things that confirmed my prejudices about Those People Who Take Packaged Tours.) Then there was a fashion show of clothes made from alpaca, modeled by Perurail employees, with cheeseball music. And then there was us getting off in Poroy, because it’s quicker to take a bus from there than the train (you save about 45 minutes), and having the bus get pulled over by the cops and all these Gringo passengers sitting nervously in a foreign town having no idea what was going on.

So how do I feel about Machu Picchu? I don’t quite know. It’s an amazing site, for sure. It’s largely and remarkably well-preserved (for ruins). It’s ensconced in some of the most breathtaking mountainous landscape you’ve ever been in. It’s unlike anything you’ve ever experienced. And for that, it’s worth visiting. But it’s frustrating that it’s *so* expensive and time-consuming to get there, that it’s teeming with tourists, and that the park provides no interpretive materials — you either need a tour guide or a detailed book to know what it is you’re looking at.

Pisac

On our last full day we headed to Pisac, a ruin about an hour outside of Cusco. Pisac is now known for two things — the ruin way up on the hill, and the artesan market in the heart of town. Upon arriving, we made straight for the trail up the hill, and found ourselves following a local who occasionally stopped to play his pan flute (an inadvertent poke at Stacy and my difficulty breathing climbing the hill). He introduced himself to us, his name Miguel, and he offered to take us on a free guided tour — he just wanted to practice his English. It was great–he helped us understand far more than we would have gotten just on our own.

Miguel told us about the Inca Cross, lead us around the various structures, and explained the numerological meaning behind 3 (puma, snake, condor), 4 (cardinal directions/4 elements), and 7 (all the peoples of the world, symbolized by the 7 colors in the rainbow).


Miguel

Miguel is 21 years old, and said he makes the walk everyday for exercise. I have no idea what else he does. He was an interesting person — clearly a somewhat solitary soul (he was walking along, playing his pan flute to himself when we ran across him), but interested in engaging with new people.

Pisac was a real revelation to us. For one thing, it’s huge — the acreage spanned is larger than Machu Picchu. But it’s not all contained the way The Mach is — there are natural formations to build around, so there’s probably less “usable” square footage. Still, it’s pretty complex, and in a pretty good state of preservation.


These is just one small portion of the Pisac ruins, the living quarters, which, according to Miguel, are arranged in the shape of a partridge.

Word of wisdom — if you hike up, prepare for some complications if you want to drive down. Most people are driven up by cabbies (or in a tourist bus), and those cabbies wait to take their people down. It took a while before an unclaimed cabbie came up that could take us back.

Oh, and the “artesan crafts” market in Pisac? Filled with crap. As were many of the Incan markets — wall-to-wall mass-produced crap. I was so frustrated I ended up buying nothing.

And, those are the ruins we saw. Perhaps in a later post I will detail more of our Cusco-specific experiences. But now, I’m about to get on the plane for California!

Chile – Parque Nacional La Campana, and Olmué

I realized a couple days before we left on our trip that Stacy and I had planned no outdoorsy excursion while we were in Chile — though, from what I could tell reading the guidebooks, getting your outdoors on was the main reason to visit Chile. We didn’t have time (or equipment) for anything extreme (no Patagonia or Tierra del Fuego), but our reading revealed a national park between Viña and Santiago (where we had to go to get a plane to Peru) with a mountain you can climb.

According to the guidebooks, Parque Nacional La Campana is among Chile’s premier national parks, and it’s centerpiece, Cerro La Campana, is famous for two reasons — you can see the ocean and Santiago from its peak, and Charles Darwin climbed it in 1834. So would we.

There are a few towns near La Campana, the largest and most practical being Olmué. We stayed at the Hosteria el Copihue right in the center of town.

I’ll take the city first — Olmué is dull. As Jorge warned us before we headed there, it’s a resort town for old people. There’s pretty much nothing to do in Olmue but hang out in your hotel and eat at one of the few restaurants in town.

As a hotel, Hosteria el Copihue was uninspired. It cost too much money (it ended up being around $100/night with tax), and provided too little in terms of service. Also, the restaurant there was mediocre. I cannot recommend it, though I wouldn’t know where else to direct you in Olmue.

My favorite place in town was La Cafetta, on the main avenue, which served tasty coffee drinks and good jugos naturales. We went there a few times for a relaxing beverage.

But really, we weren’t in Olmue to be in Olmue. We were there to climb La Campana. So, on our first morning in town, we woke up, fortified ourselves with desayuno, and set out for the park.

And, in short, we didn’t like it.

We didn’t like it for a number of reasons. The primary one was that there was no real warning as to how difficult the climb was. The guidebooks mention that it’s very steep, that you shouldn’t wear sneakers, blah blah. They don’t mention that for long stretches the trail pretty much disappears as you scramble over broken rock. That “steep” is an understatement. That it’s a remarkably difficult slog up the hill. So, we weren’t prepared for what lay ahead, and that upset us.

Also, when you get to the top, while the view is spectacular, it’s not, well, interesting. Chilenos love La Campana because they have a context in which to put what they’re seeing — the ocean, the surrounding valleys, the cities. As a foreigner, all that context was lost on me — seeing it all in one sweep didn’t *mean* anything, so it was just a view. And while a good view, it wasn’t worth the 4.5 hours of getting up the mountain, nor the subsequent 3.5-4 hours return.

Simply put, I just don’t think La Campana is really “worth it” to a non-Chileno. I’ve never been on a hike before that felt so much like work, just a slog.

So, I cannot recommend it.

Olmue and La Campana were travel experiences, and, when you adventure a bit, well, you’ll occasionally be disappointed. And we were.

Basically, what we realized as we left Olmue and headed to Santiago (where we spent the night before getting on a plane for Cusco, Peru) is that we simply spent too long in Chile. We should have shaved two days off of our Chile travel, and spent longer in Peru, specifically Cusco, because Cusco is simply amazing. But that’s for another post…

More on Chile – Valparaiso and Viña del Mar

When I last wrote, I mentioned we had just arrived in Viña del Mar, a city on the coast of Chile about 90 minutes drive from Santiago.

Viña is a perfectly pleasant beach town, pretty much geared toward Chilean tourists getting away for the weekend. It has a passel of restaurants and cafes, strolls along a beach, and some uninteresting shopping. Viña provided a welcome respite from the bustle of Santiago.

We particularly enjoyed this bar on 8 Norte near the main Avenida…

I forget the name of the bar, but you’ll know it when you see it. Very comfortable local.

We had some good food at Otro Estilo, a teeny Italian restaurant staffed by two people (I’m guessing husband and wife — husband cooks, wife prepares drinks).

And the Hotel Monterilla, where we stayed, was extremely pleasant — comfortable rooms, free wi-fi, and ideally located to walking all over the city.

A 20-minute bus or commuter rail ride south of Viña is Valparaiso (“Valpo”), the port city of Santiago (i.e., where all the shipping happens). Valpo is justifiably famous for it’s peculiar city planning — the bulk of the city rests on a series of rather steep hills…

Arriving in Valpo by commuter rail, your find yourself in the heart of “El Plan,” the flat, gridded area that hugs the coast. Take my advice: get out of El Plan ASAP. It’s smoggy, congested, squalid, and overall unpleasant. Get yourself on an ascensor (Reina Victoria will do very well) and head for the hills.

There’s not much to “do” in Valpo — time is best spent wandering the hills, taking photographs, and stopping occasionally for a bite to eat, something to drink. Some particular photo favorites in my flickr feed:


I call this Thank God It’s Pie (click that link to see a large one, with the Pie graffito in the lower right hand corner)


Stacy amid the orange bars. This was in the “Museum of the Open Air”, a series of murals painted by artists.


“OMFG Crazy Stairs” that just go up and up…

“Color” (click for larger size)… Valpo has a San-Francisco-like love of pigment


I just love this mural…

In terms of sustenance, we found two places we liked. Kabala, on Almirante Montt was a good, somewhat hip restuarant, and Cafe Con Letras, up near Concepcion, was a very comfy coffeehouse.

After a couple days, we felt like we had gotten a robust Viña/Valpo experience — any more time spent here would have been simply lounging.

Our next destination was the little town of Olmue, from where we would set out for Parque Nacional La Campana, to climb Cerro La Campana. More on that in another post!

You don’t have our excuse…

When Stacy and I planned our Chile and Peru trips, we figured we’d end with a couple days in Lima before returning to the States. We’d heard great things about Lima food, and we found a charming-looking “hostal” in Miraflores, reputed to be the most comfortable neighborhood.

We told many people we were going to Chile and Peru. Not one of them told us the one thing I am going to tell you:

Don’t go to Lima.

Really. Don’t bother. There is pretty much no reason to visit here. And many many reasons not to. Stacy and I have disliked it almost from the moment we touched down. We’ve had some perfectly fine experiences, but none worth traveling for. We should have stayed longer in Cusco, which was great (and which I’ll write about later).

But Lima, as a traveler’s city, is pathetic. Forget about it. Make sure the only time you spend here is at the airport, transferring to a plane to Cusco or some other point of genuine interest.

There. Now you have no excuse.

More from Chile…

It’s been a while since I’ve written about our travels in Chile.

We’re currently in Viña del Mar, a seaside town just north of the more famous Valparaiso. We’re staying at the Hotel Monterilla as guests of its owner Jorge Barahona (who also happens to run AyerViernes, a leading user-centered design agency in Chile).

Since I last wrote about our Chilean travels, we were in Santa Cruz (for the IA Retreat). We stayed at the Hotel Santa Cruz, an extremely nice hotel, and enjoyed great meals and socializing. As part of the retreat we visited Vina Santa Cruz, a vineyard owned by the hotel, that was something of a wine-making Disneyland — it was clearly designed for tourists (with a restaurant, a gift shop, a funicular to take you up a hill to a plateau with an observatory, a Mapuche house, a Rapa Nui (Easter Island) house and moai, and two llamas for petting. Or kissing, as the picture below shows.

After Santa Cruz, we returned to Santiago, where we stayed in the “boutique” Hotel Bonaparte. I put boutique in quotes because, while that’s how the hotel refers to itself, in style and substance it’s about a step up from a Howard Johnson’s. It wasn’t a bad place, but nothing special at all.

The next two days in Santiago were dominated by the conference, and conferences are pretty much the same all over. This one did have the distinction of having a sitting senator give a talk (which I already wrote about).

The evenings became the points of distinction. The first night we ate at El Chalan, a Peruvian cuisine restaurant that was *very* tasty, and a delightful hint of what is to come for Stacy and I when we’re in Peru. The second evening was spent at one of the Liguria bar/restaurants, a loud, boisterous place with good food and free-flowing booze.

Yesterday, before heading out to Vina del Mar, Javier drove us around the shiny and new parts of Santiago that we had yet to see. New Santiago very much looks like New World City anywhere, resplendent with Starbucks and wide streets.

He then took us to his favorite lunch spot, which he called the “non-restaurant,” because it’s not an official licensed restaurant. I don’t think it had a name. It looks kind of like a restaurant tucked into a house. We had cazuelo, a traditional Chilean hearty soup, followed by a dish of gelatin. It was a delightful not-typical-tourist experience.

From there, we headed to the Metro, and connected to the interurban bus system, and ended up in Viña del Mar. Last night we wandered around Vina, a pleasant seaside town. We still haven’t gotten used to the 9pm dinner times, so we were hungry and aggro by the time we ate. We need to remember to snack around 5:30pm (Chileans even have a name for it — once, which means eleven, but which is traditionally eaten at 5pm). Today, we head over to Valpo for some walking on the hills!

Adaptive Path’s Newest Conference: MX – San Francisco!

MX – San Francisco is Adaptive Path’s newest event, subtitled “Managing Experience through Creative Leadership.” We’ve set out to plan an event that serves the audience that has grown with Adaptive Path — those who were practitioners 4-5 years ago and are now finding themselves managing experience design teams, and looking for insight and inspiration (and, knowing us, maybe a little inebriation).

The conference takes place February 12-13, 2007 in San Francisco. It’s our first big event in SF in a while, and it’s a delight to plan for the hometown crowd. (Not that people shouldn’t travel to come! San Francisco in February is much nicer than much of the US!) We’ve got some local big names such as Tim Brown (CEO of IDEO), Caterina Fake (co-founder of Flickr and now poobah at Yahoo!), and visiting dignitaries like Scott Berkun (who is writing a book on innovation for O’Reilly) and Jennie Winhall (whose talk at About, With, and For blew away the audience).

Early early registration is November 30, and if you sign up with promotion code FOPM, you’ll get an additional 15% off.

See you in February!

(and yes, I’m in Chile right now, but no reason I can’t support the team back home!)

Listening to Fernando Flores, Chilean Senator

The final speaker of the first day at the Encounter I am attending in Santiago, Chile is Senator Fernando Flores. As that Wikipedia page demonstrates, Flores has been very active in cognition, philosophy, and even human-computer interaction. He has become a huge advocate of blogs as a means for encouraging broader Chilean discourse.

Anyway, he just name-checked French philosopher/sociologist/intellectual Bruno Latour. And artificial-intelligence theorist Ray Kurzweil.

Why can’t the United States have geek senators who blog, who cite international intellectuals? Why do I think if a US senator were to do that, he’d be pilloried in the press as out of touch with the common person (see: Kerry, Gore). Flores is all about empowering the common person, through technology.

(Looking over his blog, he talks about, among other things, Second Life, MIT media theorist Henry Jenkins, MySpace and Youtube, Web 2.0…)

Anyway.