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August 12, 1999
Last night's Rye: Old Potrero. A libationary experience nonpareil. A succulently smooth single malt rye, a throat-threatening mix of fire and pleasure. Though not widely available, it can be found in your swankier San Francisco restaurants, and, happily, my local, where it's the most expensive drink they serve.

Old Potrero is a product of the Anchor Brewing Company, which, surprisingly, has no official web presence, and I can find little good information about it. If you know of it at all, it's through the company's beers, most notably Anchor Steam (the Web is amazing in that I was able to find what the beer looks like under a microscope, and I think this sign would look great in my kitchen.)

Anchor Brewing is run by Fritz Maytag. Scion of the appliance empire, he turned to professional brewing in 1965. His interests run beyond fermented beverages, though--he is the same Maytag of the world renowned blue cheese.

August 11, 1999

BroadVision, Still Sucking. A series of posts on Yahoo's message boards explicitly outlines how and why you cannot bookmark pages in BroadVision, because of an integral flaw in their product's design. It's pathetic, really.

It has also come to my attenion that BroadVision suspects that I've been put up to posting my "BV Sucks" page by Vignette, a top competitor. Doubly pathetic. My views are my own. And I've let Vignette know the problems I think their system has. Simply, I'm just fed up with BroadVision shitting all over the internet landscape.

However, the market seems to think differently. BVSN shares just keep going up and up. 20% today and nobody quite knows why.

August 10, 1999
peterme, practicin' perfesser. Astute petermeme reader David Parker wrote in with a response to my post about problem-solving and information design.

"That made me think of a question I had asked myself. I was wondering about the apparently subtle differences in definition between the words "data" and "information," "knowledge" and "learning," "intelligence" and "wisdom," and looked them all up in Merriam-Webster to see what they had to say. They defined "information" as: "the communication or reception of knowledge or intelligence." (emphasis mine)
"I had never thought of information being differentiated as either communicated or received. And then I wondered: Do information designers manipulate the communication of the information or the reception of the information? Or is there a difference? Your statement quoted above makes me think that perhaps it is, or should be, the reception that information designers must concentrate on."

What I find most interesting is how the first definition of "information" focuses on the act, not the content; typically when I think of "information," I think of the latter. If we apply the former definition when thinking of "information design" it adds an interesting twist--we're not simply designing the data itself, but the method by which it is transmitted.

The notion of Communication Design appeals because it forces designers to remember that information isn't a substance like clay, waiting to be molded and simply understood. Information requires a delicate tango between sender and receiver.

To follow up on David's musings, I don't think you can manipulate the communication of the information wthout affecting the reception of the information. But, I think he's hit on interesting point of intention, of where the designer fits in the process. If you look at the classic Transmission Model of Information[spawns a new window], it's pretty clear that information designers fit in the "transmitter" box, shaping the data coming from the "info source," and the audience in the "receiver" box, and there's that annoying potential for noise in between. In order for information designers to achieve higher success, they need to better get themselves through to that "receiver" box.

That page points out many problems with applying the transmission model to person-to-person communication, most notably that it neglects the tight feedback loop from receiver to transmitter to help overcome any noise. However, the model (unfortunately) holds well for mass media, suggesting what we already know--little communicating or informing is actually happening. Right now, the corporate Web is far more a mass medium, but opportunities for heightened communication are definitely possible thanks to The Network. Google is an example of a technology that benefits from the feedback of many to provide better information.

This has become something of a ramble, hasn't it?

Well, it's also opened up some interesting channels for exploration.

The k.i.s.s. of the panopticon is a treasure trove of thoughts and pointers on cultural theory and new media literacy. Part of its mission is making obfuscatory critical theory more understandable.

The Media and Communications Studies site has tons of tasty links. And I love the take-off on "under construction."

August 9, 1999
It was about 10 months ago that I told a friend with whom I'd bitched about the lousy state of fiction writing about this haunting and lyrical story in the New Yorker by "some Japanese author" whose name had escaped me. She correctly guessed that it was Haruki Murakami, and encouraged me to find more of his work. Since that time I've been surprised by how often he has come up among my web design geek friends.

I wonder what Zeitgeist Murakami is tapping into that is encouraging the spreading of his meme in this group. I cannot put my finger on it. His stories are subtly fantastic--characters inhabit a world very much like ours but with slight differences. I think a key point is the aplomb with which his protagonists face bizarre situations--they never get too excited, upset, or bent out of shape. They're ciphers that accept what's happening, no matter how weird (I'm now thinking of "The TV People" in The Elephant Vanishes.)

What spurred this reverie was that I found The Wind-up Bird Chronicle on remainder for $5. Gorgeous hardbound edition, jacket cover by designer extraordinaire Chip Kidd, with art from Acme Novelty Librarian Chris Ware. Look for it at your local remainder-carrying bookstore.

This is the best Murakami interview I found.

August 8, 1999
Geek Household Hints. Bored on the potty?
The Visual Display of Quantitative Information and Envisioning Information make great bathroom reading!

August 7, 1999
Deep read. The just-published issue of First Monday is a treasure trove of deep thinking on free software and intellectual property, honesty in news media, and the receiving of email. Slurp!

The elder speaks. My father emailed me responses to the thoughts I posted yesterday. I thought I'd share his wisdom with y'all.

On filmmaking:

Along with the 180-degree rule is one concerned with the sagittal plane. The violation of this rule can be even more jarring than the 180-degree. Especially since most movie shots are focused on the human (or other) head. The sagittal plane is the line runing from front to back, dividing the head into left and right sides. If the camera is just a few degrees to one side of the nose for one shot and the next shot is just a few degrees to to other side, the head or heads will seem to jerk from one side to the other even though there has been no actor movement at all and the 180-degree line has been completely maintained.

On the meaning of "educate":

In case you didn't know this: the Latin roots of educate are e- out, and duce - to lead or draw. So the eduation process is a drawing out of the student what he can functionally know and understand. It cannot be poured into him.

Edified? If so, maybe you could help him out. He's looking for a decent sub-$1000 Windows laptop. Thoughts? Is sub-$1000 just too low to expect quality? Let me know--I'll pass your collected wisdom along to him.

August 6, 1999
Lots o' thoughts on information design. So, I've been reading Information Design, a collection of essays on the emerging field. Obviously, it's led to my jotting down a bunch of notes.

First off--I'm teaching a class titled "Advanced Concepts in Information Design" this fall (in November/December) at the Multimedia Studies Program at SFSU. The fall schedule is not yet online, but you can request a catalog. The class requirement is "Information Design for the World Wide Web I"--this was to weed out those not really interested. If you're interested, but haven't taken that class (and don't want to), let me know. It will be on Mondays, November 8 - December 6, 6:30-9:30.

Okay. Some nitty-gritty. I'm currently thinking through the various methods of information design--not the form, and not the content, but the process by which designers provide structure to the information. I've got three so far:
1. Information-centered information design. This is "let the information speak for itself.". You break down the information and data into its smallest and most discrete bits, observe and analyze patterns, and represent those. This is the Tufte approach. (Obviously, Tufte brings the eye of an artist to his approach, but his basic methodology is accessible to everyone). This stuff tends to be best for non-interactive representations of data, statistics, natural phenomena, etc. I find it falls down in the design of interactive systems--people typically want to solve problems, not hear the data speak.

2. Editorial information design. This has been practiced by book and magazine publishers forever. This is where an expert structures information in a way to best educate, present, or otherwise explain something to the reader. This works very well for education, training, getting across new ideas, knowledge, information. Web sites that work with this model include online publications and corporate information sites. It, too, fails to work well in interactive systems where people want to achieve a goal--the 'experts' often get in the way of the user, or prescribe a single path though many equally valid possibilities exist.

3. User-centered information design. This is what I focus on, and guides 75% of my information structuring decisions. Following a methodology, you discover your user's needs and desires, and create a space that best suits their processes for solving a problem. This method is great for designing interactive systems where the user knows what they want to do--say, shopping. It's cumbersome for more editorial design, because there's no real goal at hand--people just want to read something. Though, in the information architecture of CollegeEdge, we took a user-centered approach to the editorial, because its content was built around a well-understood process, applying to colleges.

I don't want to suggest that you choose one or the other, or that one method is superior to another--good information design is a combination of all three in appropriate measures for the situation at hand.

Well, duh. Reading the book made me formally realize something I had kinda known, but never thought of in quite that way. See, I label myself a "Problem Solver," suggesting I solve other people's problems. What chapter 5 pointed out is that it's not me, but my audience--my job is to design a system that helps people solve their problems. If you get too wrapped up in solving the problem of the design of information, you forget that the goal is to help your audience--and that the information they use to do this is typically an intermediary between their desires and the solution. Information design is very much about getting rid of all but the essentials, not merely designing information because you have it at hand.

Thoughtful quotes. So far, chapter 4, "Human-Centered Design" has been the most down-to-earth and straightforward. And is riddled with substantive morsels such as

That narrow scientific view is obsessed with the notion of "the one best way" (witness the mathematics of convergence or Leibnitz's attempts at an exact language) and with rule-based systems. All of this is deeply problematic. For example, an active trade unionist will tell you that an effective way to stop anything in its tracks is to "work to rule." It is all the little things we do outside the rules, through our sense of purpose, that keep everything going. (Pg. 60)

I do take slight issue with his hierarchy of verbs: "You program a robot, you train an animal, but you educate human beings." A couple years ago, my dad bestowed much wisdom by telling me, "You can't educate others, you can only inform them. People have to educate themselves."

A couple days ago I grew exceedingly frustrated with a friend not understanding Coleridge's "willing suspension of disbelief." It has only to do with form, nothing to with plot. Here's a good discussion of the concept. (Look around [129] and click that "4" footnote.)