petermeme Archives

June 01 - June 09, 2001
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April 01 - April 30, 2001
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February 01 - February 28, 2001
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past petermemes
May 28, 2001

The meaning of Web cartography. A discussion on a mailing list introduced me to WebMap, an information visualization technology that creates topographic maps of Web spaces, in a manner strikingly similar to ThemeScape, which I believe has been around far longer. In this discussion, someone else mentioned, Tim Bray's new foray into Web cartography, which has a public version at (find here, and click "3d" for a city-scape representation. Beware plug-in download.)

In the past, I've been a sucker for these visualizations. Among my first pieces on this site was a run-down of Way New Interfaces. I find the Plumb Design Visual Thesaurus useful (make sure it's set on "2d"). I believe that such fluid, single-screen designs better suit human cognition when it comes to interacting with information, as they help maintain context, exploit recognition over recall, and address our inate spatial memory.

But in the four years that I've been observing and writing about such interface modes, very little has changed. The "new" technologies are pretty much the old ones with some new colors. And, most frustratingly, not a single visualization model has caught on. And, on the Web, if something catches on, it usually catches on in a Big Way. (e.g., oh, Napster. Or Google.)

So, I've been putting together thoughts for an article on "The Folly of Web Mapping." (I've pitched it to one magazine--if you've got suggestions for venues, please let me know.)

My thoughts begin with the question, "Is the Web mappable?" or, more generally, "Are information spaces mappable?" Maps represent static entities that have a generally agreed-upon orientation. Information, though, is fluid, and attempts to diagram relationships are wholly dependent on an individual's perception. There are no universally agreed upon organizations of information. If you asked a group of people to close their eyes and imagine a map of a familiar physical space, their minds' eyes would likely be seeing similar representations. However, envisioning a familiar information space would no doubt lead to wildly divergent constructions.

In fact, WebMap adds complexity to the user's quest for information--whereas before the visitor had to simply understand the Open Directory Project's arbitrary taxonomy, now she must also "get" the interface overlaid on it, an interface that spatializes an inherent abstract construct (information and the relationships between different piece of information) in a fashion unlikely to map to the user's model of such relationships.

This leads to a second question, "Why a map?" We all use maps, but a wealth of anecdotal evidence suggests that maps aren't the most usable tools. (For me, a primary association with the concept "map" is how my mother could never navigate using one.) On the mailing list that spurred this thoughtwander of mine, Gary Stock wrote:

I spend considerable time working with landowners and local government (zoning commissions, elected boards) on a variety of land issues. Cartographic literacy rates are virtually zero in the public at large. Unless a profession _demands_ it (surveyors, planners, field engineers) most folks recognize little more than the big 'N' at the top -- and a surprising number have no idea which way north is, anyway.

In my experience, something fewer than three in ten will make any attempt whatever to orient a printed map to their actual coordinates, even when they are in view of, or standing directly _on_, the site the map represents. Among those who make an attempt, only about half are able to accomplish the task to some degree of accuracy. Among those who must be _asked_ to orient the map, fewer than half will do so usefully. By extension, learning to orient graphic data to what's going on in their _head_ must be generations distant from today (either forward, or backward :-)

This sentiment is bolstered by my experience in trying to get folks to understand abstract representations of websites, be they site maps or wireframes. Many, if not most, people have a difficult time "filling in" such things.

So now I've poked around the Web, researching map usability, and how maps are attuned to human cognitive processes. I've had difficulty coming up with much, but a few interesting leads include Making Maps Easy to Read, Cartography, GIS, and Visualization, and The Process of Reading Statistical Maps: The Effect of Color.

A final, and possibly tangential, point to this discussion is the emerging field of "new geography," which, in part, marries semiotics and cartography to suggest that maps are not straightforward depictions of the world as it is, but rather highly loaded artifacts designed with explicit intent that skews the representation. There was a great book review in Harper's a couple months back on this academic trend. A Google search on "cartography semiotics" turns up some interesting leads, including the home page of Alan MacEachren, who seems to be a leader in this field.

So, this is something I've been thinking a lot about. If you've got thoughts or resources to contribute, please share in this discussion!

May 25, 2001
"Power Corrupts, PowerPoint Corrupts Absolutely" -- Edward Tufte. Run to your nearest newsstand and pickup the latest issue of The New Yorker, featuring "Absolute PowerPoint," a revealing look at corporate America's favorite software tool. Ian Parker writes the kind of feature I ought to--a compelling mix of history, theory, story, and analysis.
May 23, 2001

Alfred Hitchcock, Applied Cognitive Psychologist. I rented The Birds on DVD, mostly to watch the documentary on the making of the film. Often referred to as "The Master of Suspense," I'd label him more broadly as "The Master of the Cinematic Language."

The documentary is comprised of interviews with folks who either worked on the film or have studied it. Two stories of Hitch's genius stuck with me, both around his inate understanding of human perception.

One was a discussion of the scene where mayhem occurs outside the Tides restaurant, including an explosion at a gas station. A number of things are happening at once, and Hitch realized that he needed an extremely high shot to re-orient the audience. He intuitively understood the audience's cognitive state, and how to best serve it through his craft.

Another instance is told in the documentary by Veronica Cartwright, who played the lead child in the film. Oftentimes there were scenes featuring masses of birds just sitting, providing many of the films most delightfully ominous moments. Now, most of the birds were simply dummies, and little Veronica asked Hitch, "Won't these scenes look fake with all the fake birds?" And Hitch explained, "As long as there are a few real birds mixed in, and they're moving, the audience will think all the birds are real." And it's true. It works. The bits of movement here and there lead the brain to think there's movement everywhere (probably because our brain doesn't assume fake birds).

Anyway, folks getting degrees in the field of visual perception could do worse than to simply study the films of The Master.

May 22, 2001

Making Sense Through Stories. Buzzing through the blog community is the story of Kaycee Nicole, the 19-year-old leukemia victim who posted tales of her struggle on a weblog for 2 years, who died last week, and who, it was discovered recently, never existed. Read this for backstory.

In thinking about the hoax, the thing I return to is the power of narrative in making sense of things.

It's true that "narrative happens." Whether intentional or not, we use techniques from narrative and storytelling to make sense of the world. Fill in the gaps. Etc.

Master storytellers exploit narrative expectations. Debbie (the "mother" who perpetrated the hoax), proved to be a master storyteller. She told the perfect teen-cancer-survivor story. It almost reads like an afterschool special. Cute teen girl, taken down in the prime of life, fighting against the odds, providing insightful commentary about what's happening, etc. etc. Debbie tapped into *what we want to hear* in such situations, even when, if it were broadcast on TeeVee, we'd likely dismiss it as hokum.

What's amazing here is the robustness in how the narrative was portrayed. It wasn't just a weblog. Kaycee had member pages on collegeclub, an AIM account that was actively used, and received and sent physical packages through the post. If Electronic Arts had put together something like this, folks would calling it a "marvel of cross-media storytelling" or something.

Anyway, digging around on the web for "storytelling narrative understanding world" I found a page on Narrative Psychology featuring a lengthy essay on "Narrative Partitioning: The ins and outs of identity construction", all of which addresses the cognitive underpinnings of storytelling, narrative, identity, and other tasty topics.

Adopt, adapt, and improve. I recently stumbled across Microsoft's Adaptive Systems and Interaction research page, which has tasty bits on a range of topics from user modelling to collaborative filtering to visualization to conversational systems and more. You can read about the research that lead to that annoying little paper clip!

Not the Vulcan Way. In response to my solicitation for good business-y writings, a friend pointed me to The Consortium for Research on Emotional Intelligence in Organizations. Sigh. More to read.

And Yet Even More To Read. It turns out that there's a new sister site of Arts and Letters Daily and SciTech Daily Review--the Business Daily Review. You'll recognize the format, only this time pointing to (duh) interesting Web articles on business matters.

May 20, 2001

Don't let the shitty ads fool you. Angel Eyes [I know that's not the film's site, but there's a link to it there, and I like the humor with which the proprietor accepts her newfound popularity] is a smart little character study and love story, quite well-crafted, and Ms. Lopez shows off some fine acting chops in a film that provides one of the best leading woman roles in a long time. This film is being torpedoed by bad marketing, I think trying to capitalize on "J. Lo's" urban appeal and present it as some cop thriller, when in fact it's a touching girl-meets-boy tale with it's heart in the right place. Hell, I *cried* at this film. I hope it finds an audience.

Linky-love. I recently dipped into Arts and Letters Daily and SciTech Daily for the first time in a while. What a treasure! More time in my life, please.

May 17, 2001

Thanks to all who have contributed to the Business-y Books discussion! Un chien de merde offered up a particularly tasty suggestion. And more thoughts always welcome!

Making meaning through blogs. The folks at elearningpost have written up "Grassroots knowledge management through blogging," an engaging discussion of weblogs, stressing how their conversational aspects lead to the creation of stories that process and analyze ideas.

Speaking of blogs, I, like Ev, was interviewed on video for a CNN segment on weblogs. The role I play in this segment is the "blog historian," where I discuss the meaning and import of weblogs, and relay, yet again, the coining of the word "blog." It's pretty clear that the CNN folks had the segment shaped before they talked to anyone-- they pretty much have to know what you're going to say before you're going to say it.

Style that's silly. The NTKMart is open for business, featuring most notably Jakob as a Che-like revolutionary leader. USABILITY!

May 13, 2001

Quite a few things on my mind. On a few different subjects.

Now that I co-own a consulting firm, I'm reading more business-oriented magazines and books. I was quite taken with a couple of articles in the latest Harvard Business Review--"Get Inside The Lives of Your Customers" and "Swarm Intelligence: A Whole New Way to Think About Business." (both abstracts, must pay for full article.)

The former, written by Patricia Seybold, is a well-presented discussion of user-centered design methods that sound pretty much like contextual design. I like that it's printed in the HBR--I think it'd make a good sales tool to convince clients of the utility of these methods. ("See? This very smart woman published in this esteemed business magazine said you should do it!")

The latter, written by Eric Bonabeau (read another article by him) and Christopher Meyer (more from him here), offers a few high-level case studies on how business processes can be modeled after the workings of ant colonies and other self-organizing systems. Particularly interesting in how practical business applications are being found for complexity theory. Hrm... There's actually a whole issue here on evolutionary models for business organizations. In fact, the whole journal looks intriguing.

On that note, suggestions for business-y books are welcome. (QuickTopic discussion.)

On a different tack is this NY Times article on internet business consultants, which proves, more than anything, that pretty much any reader of this website is likely more clueful than these supposed experts, and that there is seemingly no cure for boneheadedness.

I've been thinking about how Adaptive Path relates with it's clients. Being small, we have the fortune to engage them personally. Working with larger firms is a corporation-to-corporation exercise; when you work with us, you don't work so much with "Adaptive Path" as you do with "Mike" or "Jeff" or "Janice," etc.

And as such, our idea is to come in and actually listen to and observe our client organizations. It's important for an external organization to make sure its solutions work within a client's existing set-up, whether or not those current processes seem fucked up to you. If you don't tailor to their idiosyncratic processes, clients will reject your solutions the same way a body rejects a potentially helpful organ transplant. The typical practice wherein consultants bulldoze their clients with some supposed "proven methodology" won't work, particularly when it proffers solutions that require clients to change behavior. The solutions might not be rejected outright; in fact, the client might happily receive them and thankfully write the final check. But don't be surprised if 1 year from now your effect is nil.

This isn't to say that Adaptive Path doesn't hope to make organizational change. It's clear that many organizations aren't set up to optimally utilize their internet resources, and some alterations will help. But the only alterations that will be accepted are those that decrease effort. Which requires studying the client organization the way you'd study their customers--get an understanding of their work processes, what the pain points are, and how you can smooth out the roughness. You must provide a solution suited to fit their specific needs; there is no "proven solution" that, when applied, solves all problems.

This past weekend I participated in a kind of salon with some extremely smart folks, where the main topic of discussion was "change." And it was pointed out, by someone far smarter than me, that all of us in the room hoped to be agents of change, and, as such, we must consider how to make our potential subjects of change receptive to it. And that's not an easy problem. There's probably nearly as much work in preparing an organization for change as there is in instituting such change.

An a different note, folks interested in valuable research being done on how people perceive the Web should head to the Stanford Web Credibility Research Page, discussing valuable work headed up by BJ Fogg (linked to previously) on what leads people to believe what they find on the Web. I believe BJ's research on persuasive technology to be rather important. For folks to understand that the computer, by its nature, is a persuasive technology. This work, along with the work of his colleagues Clifford Nass and Byron Reeves, is beginning to reveal fascinating details as to how we relate to our communications technologies.

This weekend I finished Lemon, the first novel published by McSweeney's. It's good. It's a little different. Each book's cover sports a unique drawing by the author. Read it.

And about my last post? Well, I'm bigger, and feeling better. But I haven't totally shaken it.

May 9, 2001
I feel very very small. And a little ill.
May 8, 2001

Funny books... on the Internet! The latest issue of The Comics Journal focuses on internet publishing. Stories range from the seethingly short-sighted, heavy-handed, miss-the-point idiocy of Gary Groth's anti-Reinventing Comics screed, to a well-researched expose on the rise and fall of Stan Lee Media, and a delightful interview with Tristan Farnon, the demented creator of the incomparable Leisure Town. Oh, and there's an interview with Scott, but you'll have to buy the printed issue to read it all.

You all think about this stuff, too much, too! The discussion board for my Further Reflections piece has been quite active, and often informative. Well worth a look.

All your recommendations are belong to us. Steven Johnson interviews Cory Doctorow on OpenCOLA. Issues discussed include social intelligence recommendation engines, self-organizing systems, the difference between relevance and recommendation, and lots more good stuff.

May 6, 2001

I think about this stuff too much. I've just written a sizable piece on some Further Reflections on Information Architecture, spurred by my attendance of the Intranets2001 conference last week. I'm trying to stir up the dirt, putting forth that information architecture is not the property of information architects, and suggesting that IAs might want to recast themselves as (gasp!) marketers.

May 2, 2001

The Edge of No Edge. Cesium writes in with a pointer to "Office Sprawl: The Evolving Geography of Office Space," a report on how metropolitan office spaces are shifting from downtowns to suburbs and outskirts. No secret to those of us in the SF Bay Area, though it leads to no end of traffic headaches. Our roads were designed to have San Francisco be The Center of Everything, and San Mateo and Santa Clara and Contra Costa counties to be bedroom communities. Overtime, those counties (particularly San Mateo and Santa Clara, which comprise "Silicon Valley") have become industrial hubs, such that there is no "direction" of commute anymore.

IBM is smarter than you. I've been marvelling at the disconnect between the Big Media take on IBM's sidewalk spraypaint campaign for Linux, and the response from those to whom the campaign is directed. The press chastises IBM, a sentiment I've been seeing on some mailing lists I'm on. But the Slashdot kids, perhaps the most difficult to please, cooler-than-thou, annoying engineering types you can find, are eating it up.

Which proves, I think, the campaign's brilliance. The cost of spraypainting is minimal. The cost of cleanup is minimal. The press publicity has been huge. And the winning over of the hearts and minds of "fuck tha establishment" elite Linux geeks? Well, as MasterCard would say: priceless.

Fashion is a passion. Jennifer Fleming and I deconstruct

May 1, 2001

In your face. In the latest issue of his newsletter, Alan Cooper strokes his chin over possible second-order effects of wireless technology, which is where he thinks the real interesting social impact will occur. He posits the notion of multiple faces--how we'll use wireless technologies to augment how others see us. This idea is similar to the Media Lab's Thinking Tags, which I wrote about after CHI 98, a main idea of which is instead of having computers turned inward, looking at us, we face them outward, so that, like clothes, they provide others with further context about who we are.