December 31, 2004

What is "Communication"?

In the New York times article on the internet and socializing, we're told that "57 percent of Internet use was devoted to communications like e-mail, instant messaging and chat rooms, and 43 percent for other activities including Web browsing, shopping and game playing."

And it made me think that a fairly arbitrary distinction is being made here in the use of the word "communication." If I post to my blog or Flickr, or view other people's posts or photos, am I not engaged in "communication"?

Posted by peterme at 07:19 AM | Comments (3)

When Data Makes You Say, "So What?"

The New York Times reports on a study about the internet and socializing. Guess what? The more time you spend online, the less face-to-face contact you have!

Um, so what? The tone of the piece suggests this is a bad thing. You get statements like: "According to the study, an hour of time spent using the Internet reduces face-to-face contact with friends, co-workers and family by 23.5 minutes, lowers the amount of time spent watching television by 10 minutes and shortens sleep by 8.5 minutes."

Um. Okay. Could you distinguish between friends, coworkers, and family for me? Because I purposefully *use* the internet to have less face-to-face time with coworkers. It's called telecommuting. It allows me to have more control over other parts of my life. Like socializing. With friends. And family.

Without reading the original research (it's not yet published online), I can only assume the Times reporter, John Markoff, isn't a very deep thinker, if he can't distinguish between types of face-to-face interaction.

Posted by peterme at 07:16 AM | Comments (5)

The Review Emphatic with Peter Merholz

Couple nights ago we saw The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou. I'd gone in with low expectations -- I enjoyed The Royal Tenenbaums and Rushmore, but early notices suggested that Wes Anderson had gotten a little too precious for his own good, drifted a little too far away from people and emotions toward a world of quirks.

Life Aquatic may be Anderson's best film yet. It doesn't have the deep emotional center of Rushmore, but it's simply funnier and a lot more fun to watch. Yes, it's weird, quirky, and bizarre. But it's soooo delightful. Like the old MAD comics drawn by Will Elder, every scene is crammed with details you want to follow. And, unlike what reviewers suggested, it's in no way condescending. Wes draws you into his masterfully created dollhouse/trainset/whathaveyou.

One thing that's clear about many filmgoers is that they simply don't deal well with weird. And Life Aquatic has weird in spades -- David Bowie sung in Portuguese, brightly colored faux sea creatures, stupid dolphins with cameras on their heads, an intricate boat replete with spa, a deep water submarine that holds 15, a character seen eating in every shot he's in. Perhaps the daffiest scenes involve pirates and gunfire that is shot in a way reminiscent of a junior high play -- lots of pops, people shouting, goofy costumes, and utterly, utterly non-threatening.

Anyway, ignore the naysayers, turn off your cynicism, sit back, and enjoy the ride.

Posted by peterme at 06:30 AM | Comments (8)

December 27, 2004

Movie Review: In the Realms of the Unreal

To witness Henry Darger's art is to get immersed in his fantastical story of the Vivian Girls, spunky pre-adolescents fundamental to a war being fought between Christian Good and the Secular Bad. I first saw Darger's work at SFMOMA about 5 or 6 years ago, and his vivid, candy-colored depiction of "The Realms of the Unreal" sticks with me.

Darger is firmly ensconced in the canon of American outsider artists. With no formal training, he devised his own approach, liberally borrowing from found sources to piece together his bizarre tale. A recluse, Darger lived alone in a small apartment in Chicago, toiled as a janitor by day, and produced his haunting narrative at night.

He also put penises on his drawings of naked little girls. No one knows why.

For me, perhaps the most resonant aspect of Darger's work is its size -- drawings could be as much as 10 feet wide, vast panoramas filled with obsessive detail.

It's this aspect of Darger's work that gets lost in the documentary film In The Realms of the Unreal. Through interviews and Darger's autobiography, filmmaker Jessica Wu pieces together Henry's lonely life, weaving it with his life's work, the fantastic story "In the Realms of the Unreal," with over 15,000 pages of textual material, and 300 large format drawings.

I can't recommend this doc to people who haven't seen Darger's art, because I don't think it does his artwork justice. It can't capture the bigness and detail of Darger's work... I was left feeling that people who'd never seen his work wouldn't have any real idea what the fuss of the film is about.

Also, Wu decided to animate Darger's art in order to aid in telling the story... A bold decision that leaves me uneasy, as it tampers with the vision that is being held in such high esteem. It also makes an imprecise introduction to Darger.

If you *are* familiar with Darger's art, then by all means, you should see the doc -- Wu's presentation of his life and work is thorough and compelling. The interviews with those who know them offer insight into the recluse, though it's clear that no one will really know what was going on with Henry.

Posted by peterme at 04:04 PM | Comments (8)

December 26, 2004

Flickr Wondring

Lane and Nadav have been posting thoughts about Flickr, and I couldn't help but throw my voice into that echo chamber.

Lane is right when he says it's about the pictures. He's wrong that the network is simply the plumbing. That is, depending on his meaning of "network." Those sites that truly succeed on the web do so because of a fundamental appreciation of what "the network" brings. Amazon, eBay, and Google being the biggest, shiniest examples. They get that the network, with its constituent elements of people doing things, and through those activities, somehow connecting to each other (whether it's direct, as in items on eBay, or indirect, as in different people buying the same product on Amazon, linking to the same page in Google), they get that that connection is meaningful, exceedingly meaningful, and if you can leverage that behavior, you can provide an experience orders of magnitude more interesting than when you ignore that connectedness.

Nadav is onto something when he compares Flickr to a massively-multiplayer online role-playing game. And for identifying the importance of play in Flickr. (This is the point at which it might be helpful to explain that the name of Flickr's developer, Ludicorp, comes from the word "ludic".)

But the comparison doesn't strike me as wholly apt. MMPORGs are about the players. Flickr, as Lane pointed out, is about the pictures. More than the people. No, really. Obviously, the pictures are taken by people, and the primary connection that a member of Flickr has is with other people.

But Flickr starts and ends with the picture. My most viewed photo is of my color-organized bookshelf. People viewed it because of what it is, not because of who I am.

Also, an MMPORG must have some kind of economy. Some system to measure risk and reward, to incent people to achieve more, do better, etc. Such an economy would run contrary to the Flickr ethos... If people tried to, I don't know, game the system by filling it with photos whose only point was to engender popularity, well, it would make the system much less interesting.

Also, I think, an MMPORG must be escapist. Allow for leaving this world and entering a place of fantasy. Flickr, being about the photos, being about the snapshots, really, is firmly grounded in our world. It provides joy through it's multiple perspectives on reality.

Anyway, this isn't to detract from Nadav's post. His points are insightful, and valuable. It simply is to push and poke at this thing we all love, to better understand it. Though, I wonder: is this analysis of Flickr like dissecting a pet? Yes, you know how it works, but, well, you kill this thing that you love?

Posted by peterme at 03:03 AM | Comments (11)

December 24, 2004

House of the Snoring Filmgoers

I liked Hero (though it went on about 30 minutes too long). I think Zhang Ziyi is beautiful. The reviews have been favorable, so I got a group of folks together yesterday to head out to see House of the Flying Daggers.

It was terrible. It was unremittingly dull. It's about 20 minutes worth of movie stretched out over two hours. We nearly considered leaving mid-way.

I mean, if you like extended shots of people on horses, this is the movie for you. The director makes very clear that these people are on horses, and are riding them for a very very long time.

But if you want emotion that has any feeling of truth behind it, forget it. And, no, I'm not seeking complexity in this film... But even the simplicity of the plot has no emotional logic, so you end up caught up in a love story that makes no sense.

Anyway, this is a deep deep disappointment of a film. And it's pathetic that otherwise seasoned filmgoers (i.e., The Critics) would get snowed over by the cinematography to the point that they seem to forget they're watching a movie, not staring at a painting. Carla Meyer is an exception, summing it up as "Beautiful but hollow."

Posted by peterme at 05:36 PM | Comments (4)

December 22, 2004

More on Best Cellars - Wine Store Design

Readers of peterme know I'm fan of Best Cellars.

Business week has an interview with its founder, touching on subjects of classification, store presentation, the value of calling assumptions into question, etc. Worth a read!

Posted by peterme at 05:44 PM

December 21, 2004

Content Management Workshop - January 25

On January 25th, Jeff and I will be presenting a workshop on getting the most out of your current (or planned) content management system.

We'll be doing it here in San Francisco, at the new Adaptive Path office.

It should be a great event, and I can guarantee it will be chock full of useful information about handling the organizational politics of content management, how get people to think of content in a structured, and thus manageable way, the futility of much of what the big CMS vendors sell, etc.

In many ways, this is as much of an information architecture workshop as it is a content management workshop. (We believe that content management is, in large part, an information architecture issue). We'll be addressing content models, taxonomies, facets, metadata of various sorts, etc.

This is a hands-on workshop, so there will be many activities to ensure that what you hear sinks in.

We have early registration that ends December 27th - save $50!

Posted by peterme at 12:51 PM

Hotel Room User Testing

A current project requires lab user testing in four cities in California. We knew that for the Bay Area, we could use our client's office, but for L.A., Fresno, and Sacramento, what would we do?

Our first impulse was to get a formal user testing lab -- totally pro set up, one-way glass, lots and lots of M&Ms. So we priced out a couple of labs in L.A., and the cheapest we could find was $1500 for a day. Which struck me as obscene.

And considering I hate testing facilities as it is. It's sooooo corporate/conference-y. So foreign and weird.

So, instead, we booked adjoining hotel rooms. One serves as the testing room, the other as the observation room. Bring down a cheap, small, digital camera, and wire that to a TV in the observation room. Hotels are all about the high-speed internet access now, and Courtyard and Residence Inns by Marriott offer it for free.

Have the testing room be a suite, so that there's a desk set-up in a room with no bed. (Otherwise, it feels a little too... porn-y.)

And hey, since you're traveling, you need a hotel room for the night before (and possibly night of), so the rooms serve double duty.

Two adjoining hotel rooms run for around $300 for a day, depending on location. Even if it gets up to, oh, $500, that's still a huge discount over a testing facility.

Why would I use a testing facility, again?

Posted by peterme at 08:48 AM | Comments (5)

More on Media Obesity

It turns out I wasn't the first to suggest an analogy between food consumption and media consumption. I had done a search for "media obesity" and didn't turn this up before... But now it has risen higher on Google.

Media Surplus

and a thoughtful response.

Posted by peterme at 05:19 AM | Comments (1)

December 12, 2004

TiVo's Slap in the Face of User Experience

I love my TiVo. And, as a user experience professional, I love what TiVo has done to offer a thoughtful, simple, straightforward, and streamlined interface. As such, I was looking forward to Matt's interview with TiVo's head of User Experience, Margret Schmidt.

And as such, I was disappointed by the pabulum spewed, the lack of informative detail, and the bizarre marketroid speak.

TiVo was offered a real opportunity to connect with the larger user experience community, and did little to take advantage of that.

There are two good things in the interview: Margret's discussion of the TiVo design mantra's, and the skip-to-tick incident.

There are two utterly mundane things in the interview: a warmed-over, uninsightful discussion of process, and the discussion of Requests for Enhancement.

There is one particularly frustrating thing in the interview: The phrase "Innovation is a by product of a talented team," which is the not backed up in anyway. How do you put together a talented team? What is the makeup of your team?

There is one bizarre bit of marketroid speak that must have been the writing of a PR Flak, which I'll just reprint fully:

It is actually pretty easy to balance the needs of the two groups, because in general they have the same goals.  Users want to watch quality programming when, where, and how they want to.  Studios want their programming enjoyed by the masses.  TiVo simply empowers users to control their TV consumption within the guidelines of fair use.  We have strong security system called TiVo Guard(TM) that protects the interests of the studios.  We don't support the inappropriate distribution of copyrighted content, and our users aren't asking for it.

Normal people don't say "quality programming." And the rest is a pathetic sop to the content industry. Shame!

There is one lie: "In general a feature won't be ruled out as "too complex" because we have strong design team that can make anything easy to use." The world's strongest design team can't make "anything" easy to use. There are moments of necessary complexity.

It's unfortunate that TiVo wasn't willing to truly engage with the design community on their work. It's unclear if Ms. Schmidt simply cannot articulate what has actually lead to TiVo's design success, or whether she was muzzled/blanded by an overzealous PR team. Either way, TiVo ends up looking worse in the eyes of the discriminating design community.

I hope they make up for it in their upcoming presentation to BayCHI, where perhaps, in such a forum, truth and honesty can bear out.

Posted by peterme at 04:57 PM | Comments (2)

December 07, 2004

Methods and Masters

An ongoing discussion between JJG and I concerns the value of methods in design practice. At Adaptive Path, our "classic" workshop provides two days of presentation and hands-on activities. I'm a believer in the value of such methods and teaching as a "rising tide that lifts all boats." JJG has been less convinced. In his ia/recon essay, he wrote "Research data and formalized methodologies don't guarantee better architectures. Better architects guarantee better architectures."

In the latest issue of the New Yorker, Atul Gawande writes an excellent piece on the quality of medical practice. One would think that, considering the quality of tools and technology, the fast spread of information, and the ability of the physicians, practice would be fairly uniform across treatment centers. Treatment of cystic fibrosis has been closely watched for decades, and the results show a bell curve of quality -- some places do very well, most places are average, and a few are poor.

What the article mentions is that while the "best practices" in cystic fibrosis treatment have been widely disseminated, leading to average hospitals performing much better now than they did 10, 20, 40 years ago, those average hospitals are still average, and the best hospitals continue to far outpace them.

The reason? Driven, brilliant individuals who improvise, take risks, challenge conventional thinking, and are simply unwilling to settle for anything other than perfect.

In short, JJG and I are both right. The dissemination of successful methods does a lot to raise the average level. But the better practitioners will always far outpace the average.

Posted by peterme at 05:43 AM | Comments (1)

December 05, 2004

A 21st Century Affliction: Media Obesity

The obesity epidemic is, in part, blamed on our evolutionary background. Our bodies favor high-calorie foods, which are now too easy to consume. (Obviously, there are other contributing factors, such as sedentary lifestyles.)

Obviously, not everyone succumbs to obesity. Personally, I have no desire to eat myself fat--I'm thin not because of willpower, but just because I have no inherent drive down that path.

But, that doesn't mean I don't have my weaknesses. And perhaps my strongest weakness (ha!) is the media.

I've been thinking about this because I was invited to a discussion predicated on this thesis:

As television moves from a linear broadcast experience to an on-demand one, we will soon be able to access 10,000's of choices at a time. However, viewers already have a love/hate relationship with TV content: they want lots of options, but can never find anything they "want" to watch buried in the 100's of channels and 1000's of programs.

I realized that the "problem" in this thesis has it almost exactly wrong. Any new TiVo owner will tell you that they've got a long list of saved programs that they're having trouble getting through. Not only can we find things that we "want" to watch, we have far far too much stuff we want to watch.

When I combine this access to desirable television with all the other forms of media, I'm awash in options: DVDs from Greencine (which I typically have for 1 or 2 months before I get around to them), books from the library (I often return them only partly read), RSS feeds from 149 websites ("Mark all as read" is becoming my friend), magazines, journals, web pages, and other books piling up.

It's too much.

The problem is, I want it all. There's good stuff throughout all this, informative, compelling, thought-provoking, entertaining.

It made me wonder if there's an evolutionary precedent to media consumption the way there is to high-calorie consumption. I suppose that information gathering and processing could have been a valuable survival tool. There's also the Media Equation aspect -- with engage with media as if they were other people... and we are social beings... so this kind of media consumption might be tapping into our social nature.

Anyway, whatever the root causes, I'm feeling media obese. And obesity, in any form, is Not A Good Thing. I'm realizing I have to treat media with far higher discrimination than I do currently -- and that this will mean ignoring that which is only good and relevant, and focusing only on the very good and very relevant. As a media junky, this restraint will be difficult. We'll see how it goes.

Posted by peterme at 05:46 PM | Comments (9)

Free Parking Isn't

People, Parking, and Cities[PDF] is an essay from the latest Access magazine, published by the University of California Transportation Center. It's an insightful look at issues of parking, density, and the urban experience. To whet your interest:

THE POP CULTURE IMAGE of Los Angeles is an ocean of malls, cars, and exit ramps; of humorless tract homes and isolated individuals whose only solace is aimless driving on endless freeways. From Joan Didion to the Sierra Club, LA has been held up as a poster child of sprawl.

This is an arresting and romantic narrative, but also largely untrue. To the extent that anyone has a definition of sprawl, it usually revolves around the absence of density, and Los Angeles has since the 1980s been the densest urbanized area in the United States. This would make it the least sprawling city in America. Compared to other US cities, LA also does not have inordinately high rates of automobile ownership.

Posted by peterme at 12:14 PM

December 03, 2004

My new favorite thing: The Sun

So, a couple of weeks ago, I downloaded Konfabulator. It's a system that allows you to place all kinds of tools and widgets on your computer, and access those tools without having to launch applications.

There seem to be any number of practical uses, none of which interests me. What I've gotten the most out of is "Sun." As the description says, "Simulates the motion of the sun across your desktop." That's all it does. And I love it.

Here's a screenshot:
I've muted the bulk of my screen to better highlight the Sun, and I drew a red line that shows its course over a day.

I keep the sun permanently above everything else, but with a lot of transparency so I can see through it to my other stuff. I love having this bit of the "real world" impose itself over my electronic domain. This is the kind of thing that would probably give French critical theorists a field day.

Posted by peterme at 04:09 PM | Comments (6)


See Me Travel
December 2006
November 2006
October 2006
September 2006
August 2006
July 2006
June 2006
May 2006
April 2006
March 2006
February 2006
January 2006
December 2005
November 2005
October 2005
September 2005
August 2005
July 2005
June 2005
May 2005
April 2005
March 2005
February 2005
January 2005
December 2004
November 2004
October 2004
September 2004
August 2004
July 2004
June 2004
May 2004
April 2004
March 2004
February 2004
January 2004
December 2003
November 2003
October 2003
September 2003
August 2003
July 2003
June 2003
May 2003
April 2003
March 2003
Archives from June 13, 2001 to January 2003
Archives from before June 13, 2001
Recent Entries
What is "Communication"?
When Data Makes You Say, "So What?"
The Review Emphatic with Peter Merholz
Movie Review: In the Realms of the Unreal
Flickr Wondring
House of the Snoring Filmgoers
More on Best Cellars - Wine Store Design
Content Management Workshop - January 25
Hotel Room User Testing
More on Media Obesity
Subscribe to my feed:
Powered by
Movable Type 3.2