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  past petermemes

July 27, 2000
Off to Austin.
I'll be in the Live Music Capital of the World this weekend.

In the Middle of Web Design. Jakob's The End of Web Design has fomented a debate/discussion/flamewar on websites and message boards throughout the land. And what no one seems to understand is that Jakob isn't *happy* about what he has to say. Jakob isn't dancing in the streets over these things. I've had the fortune to chat with him, and I know he's as frustrated (if not more frustrated) about the state of design on the web as anyone else.

The simple thing that Jakob's article points out is how the world *is*. It's currently a networked mess of hundreds of sites, with people adopting conventions from general web use, conventions they'll apply to your site whether you want them to or not. Sippey's article, while smart, is unfortunately afflicted with a "how the world *should be*" sentiment. And maybe how it might be a few years down the road.

But I've got to design for the *right now*, and I can tell you, as we're in the early stage of redesigning Epinions, Jakob's notions smack a whole lot truer than Sip's. We have users who tell us, "I always ignore the left-hand side of the screen." We have users who want to apply shopping cart metaphors to things that aren't shopping carts, simply because the terminology is kinda similar. Also, we have to integrate our offerings with those of other Web services, and we need to make sure we have a malleable (and possibly generic enough) design that allows for a consistency of experience as users move from our site to others.

The other thing that seemingly everyone misses is "what remains in web design", which includes task analysis, content design, and information architecture. Which, to my mind *is* web design. That's pretty much all I do. And it suggests to me that Jakob doesn't really believe in the title of his own essay.

And what really pisses me off are the attacks on Jakob's person. Disagree with his ideas, fine. (Lord knows I have.) Hell, I think Jakob's quite off-base with some of his contentions in this latest piece, particularly around wireless. But this passel of self-important Designers, incapable of coping with rhetoric, and whining about Jakob's proclamations, and resorting to ad hominem attacks because they have no actual reasoned response, well, SHUT THE FUCK UP. Why bother going on about it? Why publicize it? Just go design something, and leave the discussion to folks with something to say.

July 24, 2000
Komplexity for Kids!
Steven points us to StarLogo, a programming environment for modelling decentralized systems, based on Logo. Looks like fun!

Everyone else will link to it, so why shouldn't I? I'm a big fan of Jakob's latest alertbox, The End of Web Design. I particularly like it because A) many of his notions are dead on, b) he knowingly betrays his own nihilist title in the last part of the essay, and c) it's sending "web designers" into apoplexy, always a good thing. For a well-reasoned rebuttal, read Sippey's The Beginning of Web Design. Though, I think Sip agrees with Jakob more than he realizes.

July 20, 2000
More poking around on the self-organization front led to The Symbiotic Intelligence Project: Self-Organizing Knowledge on Distributed Networks Driven by Human Interaction, which I'll read, really, when I have the time, honest.

July 19, 2000
An explanation of my apartment.
When I have people visit my unkempt apartment, I shouldn't say, "Sorry it's such a mess." Instead, I should explain that it's a highly evolved self-organizing system.

So, I've been doing some research on self-organizing systems. This has been spurred by some discussions at Epinions--our CEO spoke at the Industry Standard's Internet Summit conference on how our service is a self-organizing system--and why it means it's not just a product buying guide.

My primary exposure to self-organizing systems was through the WEBSOM (Web Self-Organizing Map, I don't know why WEB is in all caps), a data visualization technique for massive information spaces. The basics are straightforward--a semantic processor analyzes all the discrete bits of information and develops a rough 'understanding' of them, and the algorithms of the self-organizing map group the information bits into clusters of related relevancy. An interesting application of this process is the PicSOM, a way of navigating and finding pictures by selecting pictures similar to what you're seeking. (The interface for the PicSOM sucks, you'll probably have to read the user guide, but it's worth poking around if this stuff interests you.)

The utility of such a system is clear--human editors can't handle the complexity of All Information; if we can get computers to intelligently categorize, we can more easily find items of interest in the vast sea of data.

This extremely accessible explanation of self-organizing systems stresses the importance of feedback in the process. Though written by a self-help guru type, seemingly to promote his services, it's thesis that iterated trial-and-error is superior to coaching gets at the crux of the matter--these systems work from a bottom-up, evolutionary approach reliant on mutations and feedback that gradually lead to improved results.

This is one of those yet-another examples of how bottom-up approaches perform better to top-down approaches. And reminds me of the work of Rodney Brooks, as featured in Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control.

Eat red rocks! I'm an idiot because I keep not reading more of Phil Agre's writing.

July 17, 2000
In other news.
I'm hosting Danes (who *love* to shop), and have piles of work, so blogging will likely be less than normal. Happily, my readers are looking out for me. Evan points us to "Bushwhacking Through the Computer Ecosystem," an article on biological models of engineering. Poking around, I found the SFI Bulletin is likely to be of interest to y'all.

Afflicted with Small Penis Syndrome. And my dad points us to "Was Freud a Minivan or S.U.V. Kind of Guy?" a New York Times article (registration required, I guess) on the difference between otherwise demographically-identical consumers. Unsurprisingly, it turns out that SUV types tend to be anti-social small-minded selfish unhappy people with penis-size issues.

July 15, 2000
AA is not just a support group. Read my "Deconstructing..." piece on AA.com. It's quite heavily edited, mostly for space (remember, Internet World is a print pub!). Here's how I had submitted it:

The user goal AA.com has to support is a fairly straightforward one-buying an airline ticket to a desired destination. And the motivated user can successfully achieve that end with the current system. However, there are significant details worth exploring.

--Registration required. I bet you can purchase tickets over the phone without having to sign up for frequent flier miles, yet you have to register with the AAdvantage program to make a reservation online. This forced registration detracts from the goal of buying an airline ticket, steering users down a form-filled chute before letting them return to the task at hand.

--Broadvision silliness. AA.com suffers a number of usability issues typical of sites built with Broadvision

  • Typing "aa.com" takes you to a page with a two-paragraph message, but you're redirected before you can finish reading it. Clicking 'back' to see if you missed something important throws you into a redirect loop
  • Being inactive for more than 20 minutes (an plausible circumstance given that people use this site at work, where distractions are many) causes a "timeout," as a "security precaution" even if you haven't done anything to compromise your security (god forbid another coworker see your travel itinerary!). This timeout loses all progress made, forcing you to start from scratch.
  • Once after trying to use the site after a timeout, I a web page with this error message: "NSAPI Error: Bad browser input." No clue as to what caused this.

--Interaction hits and misses.

  • The calendar interface for selecting dates is far superior to the standard pull-down method (though the calendar has no obvious affordances for clicking).
  • Full city names are used, not arcane airline codes. (New Orleans, LA means something. MSY doesn't.)
  • It was also easy to toggle a search between American Airlines flights and all flights.


  • On the first ticket finding interface, there was no way to select time of flight, returning awkward departure times. Clicking around more revealed a nearly identical interface, except with the ability to select time ranges. Why wasn't that offered in the first place?
  • In the reservation process, to move forward after selecting your flight (but before entering personal details) you're meant to click "Purchase." In shopping transaction process, 'purchase' is a strong word, meaning, "When you click this, you'll be giving us your money." Since that's not what it means, users could be discouraged to continue, thinking they'll have to pay before they're ready. Seemingly small details like this can cause big problems.

The other Deconstructor was much friendlier. For me, the thing was that while AA has a pretty good interface, I regularly use United Airlines' site, which offers a far superior experience.

July 14, 2000
You amaze me.
I just want to say that I'm proud to have readers as fascinated with "poontang" as I am. The word "poontang" that is. Yes. Ahem.

What's it all about. We all know that Automatic Media, the hip new content network formed by merging Feed and Suck, is just ChickClick for grad students, right?

July 11, 2000
Even more on poontang.
Dan Lyke chimes in with a pointer to this page, which suggests, among other things, that poontang is a contraction of "Pudding Tang," which would accord with my dad's theory that it's origin resides with a baked good. A search for "pudding tang" on Google just turns up a lot of pointers to the Jell-O product and the drink of astronauts.

July 10, 2000
Don't listen to him. *I* am Jason Kottke.

July 9, 2000
What to do when you're in a mood.
See a Buster Keaton film. (I just saw Steamboat Bill, Jr., with live accompaniment by the Alloy Orchestra. The show was prefaced by a slide presentation from the author of Silent Echoes, a delightful book that uses Keaton's penchant for filming on location to provide an historical glimpse at life in the 20s.) Drink a chocolate malt. Finally get around to reading McSweeney's #4.

Blah reading. So, I've recently read through a number of disappointing works of non-fiction. In order:
Uncommon Grounds: The History of Coffee and How It Transformed Our World, by Mark Pendergrast. I bought this on the strength of how much I loved his previous book, For God, Country, and Coca-Cola, and how much I love a good cup of coffee. Unfortunately, in taking the exhaustively detailed approach that worked wonders in For God and trying to apply them to the history of coffee, Pendergrast produces a ponderous tome, filled with unnecessary details that require rubber pants to wade through. And even so, because the history of coffee is so... big, the book has no focus, and these details simply sit there. A For God-like book on Peet's or Starbucks would have likely provided much more manageable book fodder given Pendergrast's predilection for minutiae.

Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping, by Paco Underhill. A breezy treatise on what people do in stores, from an anthropologist whose devoted his life to studying commerce. This work proved to simply be a number of facile observations of how retail environments should be set up, filled with interesting statistical trivia and revealing stories, but not adding up to any real understanding of the consumer mindset. Most shockingly, Underhill doesn't even bother to address that which ethnography can best uncover in this whole process--a person's motivation to shop. Underhill's work begins from the moment someone walks into the store, seemingly ignoring that person's life outside. The subject of another book perhaps, but, in my mind a subject far more interesting and thought-provoking than a catalog of admonitions for silly shopkeepers. Underhill does anthropologists, and his readers, a disservice with his aggressively popular approach.

The Making of 2001: A Space Odyssey, compiled by Stephanie Schwam. As part of the Modern Library's new "The Movies" series, I looked forward to this book as a thoughtful reflection on the development of what proved to be a watershed in cinema.While the first half delivers pretty well on the book's title(most entertaining are Arthur C. Clarke's diary entries and other recollections), the second half is little more than a bunch of movie reviews, many of which say the same thing, and none of which have anything to do with film craft. It also left me wanting for a lot more about Stanley Kubrick. For those interested in how movies get made, I strongly suggest Leonard Leff's Hitchcock and Selznick, detailing their fascinating history together, and Round Up The Usual Suspects: The Making of Casablanca (which is out of print, but many copies can be found through ABE.)

Referer-surfing. In my logs, I noticed a link from http://werbach.com/news.html. That name rang a bell, so I traced it upstream to the homepage, and a bit of poking around led me to what triggered the memory--when I was a web developer, I swore by Kevin Werbach's Bare Bones Guide to HTML. Well, it seems Kevin has done remarkably right by himself, writing and editing the influential technology newsletter Release 1.0. I'm also drawn to Whirrled, a work-in-progress (abandoned?) on life in the 21st century, cowritten with his brother Adam. Yes, Adam Werbach, who was the youngest president ever of the Sierra Club. Active family, that.

Pissy. I'm in a mood. And I don't like it. Don't know what to do about it, though.

July 7, 2000
From other blogs.
Geegaw points to this page of top ten movies lists of filmmakers and critics. Some great lists in there. And some interesting trends. The obvious ones are there (Citizen Kane, Rules of the Game), but I was delighted to see some personal faves mentioned frequently (High and Low, one of Kurosawa's lesser-known flicks, Au Hasard Balthazar, Bresson's donkey flick). Clicking around Combustible Celluloid, you'll find a number of good resources for the avid filmgoer. It also turns out that the site's proprietor is one of Epinions' top movie critics. Brittney, in her quest for further film geekdom, would be well-advised to poke around there a bit.

Boing Boing links to a reprint of John Marr's classic "Death at Disneyland" essay from his zine Murder Can Be Fun.

And Maura, in email, alerted me to the recent publication of Zot! Online, Scott McCloud's revival of his comic book character.

July 3, 2000
More on poontang.
Steve pointed me to these definitions of poontang. (Though, to be fair, those definitions had been mailed to me earlier by Laura Kehoe, reader of Jessamyn, and librarian-type person.) I had always understood the term to mean, simply, a vagina, used interchangeably with 'snatch' or 'pussy.' I suspect the OED is barking up the wrong tree with it's French etymology (putain, meaning prostitute), because, well, I've never heard it used an anyway to suggest it's about whores. (And the OED says "prob" suggesting they know they're simply taking a stab in the dark.) And if it were French, then it's American origins would be Louisiana or the French West Indies (which one dictionary suggests). I'd love to take a few months off and travel the south, researching the origin of "poontang." Um. That sounds odd, doesn't it.

It's Hell-errific! Though I go on and on about them, I'm not much of a comics reader. They're by-and-large insipid dreck, and I find even those with some substance are often dull. But thanks to the Rak Daddy, I've found myself on a Hellboy kick. Like, spending hard-earned money on over-priced collections. Hellboy is definitely a descendent of The Watchmen, a marvelous melange of super-hero-ish fantasy, Victoriana-horror, and densely packed story-telling and artwork that rewards very close reading and re-reading. The graphic nature of the artwork is exquisite. I suggest that you, unlike me, read the comics in order--the story builds over time, and much of my confusion could have been allayed.