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  past petermemes

December 28, 2000
Why I'm happy I don't design airplanes.
Because the ramifications of a crash or a (search) engine going down aren't nearly so critical.

Leave the light on for you... A delightful feature on motels in American pop culture, written by a Brit (link from Arts and Letters Daily). Along with crashing with friends, motels are my preferred method of lodging while travelling. I'd love to see this feature turn into a book on the history of motels, dwelling on the business, design, and cultural developments of this recent architectural form.

Hrm. Maybe it's already been written? Further poking around turned up Motel Americana (a website "exploring classic roadside architecture"), and Roadside Architecture in 1950's America: Reflections of Society (with info on, among other things, Burma-Shave and diners.) Some day I'll stay at the Madonna Inn (but in which room?!)

The Motel In America, by Jakle, Sculle, and Rogers, seems to address my interests (it's part of their Road and American Culture series, which includes Fast Food: Roadside Restaurants in the Automobile Age). Coincidentally, At Borders yesterday I looked over Fast Food Nation, which struck me as likely a good companion to my old favorite, For God, Country, And Coca-Cola. Methinks I'm a sucker for deep, somewhat populist/leftist/'alternative' reads on American pop culture.

Other worthwhile related links:

Welcome New York Times readers! I'm quite flattered to be mentioned in this article on weblogs (And I'm particularly grateful to those new folks who typed in my URL--god forbid The Times should actually link to their web site-ations.) I often ponder what first-time readers think of this place. I've been publishing for about two and a half years, slowly building an audience who groks my POV. I don't know what I'd make of a site like this if were just dropped into it. (I'd probably wonder aloud who would bother to read the self-indulgent ramblings of a 'designer' with such poor design skills. And then I'd click off to something worthwhile, like Feed, or The Onion, or the Brunching Shuttlecocks, or Scitech Daily.)

The Times is also cute in their stodgy copy ways. They refer to the format as "Web log", two words, with "Web" capitalized--no one else on earth writes it like that. It's also a hoot to see references to my friends Mr. Williams, Ms. Hourihan, and (hehe!) Ms. Blood.

December 26, 2000
Space over time.
Manhattan Timeformations resides in my psyche next to the Archeological Collage--both use interactive media to present the evolution of urban landscapes over time. And both are pretty damn nifty.

Traveling heavy. This holiday season finds me back in Ann Arbor for nearly a week. I was able to pack everything in two large backpacks. One backpack is stuffed with clothes. The other, books and my laptop. Books are heavy. Particularly when you're sprinting to catch a connecting flight. But I cannot travel without books. What I brought on this trip:

I also brought, and just finished, Turtles, Termites, and Traffic Jams: Explorations in Massively Parallel Microworlds, by Mitchel Resnick. Ostensibly a description of his StarLogo programming language, it's also a remarkably accessible primer on self-organization, a great place to start wrapping your mind around emergent properties of complex adaptive systems. Cosma Shalizi's thorough review is revealing, though his analysis of the book's weak points seem like criticism for the sake of criticism.

I'm now reading Memoirs and Stories of a Madman, by George Gilbert. You won't find this work at Amazon--George has self-published on Iuniverse.com. George is an old family friend--he and my dad moved came out to California from Chicago together in 1950. The title is spot-on accurate--the book is a collection of vignettes, real and imagined (and, more often as not, the two are intertwined), from George's life, mostly his last 30 or so years in San Francisco. Writing from the vantage point of a 68-year-old man, there are moments of hilarity and of deep sadness, as he looks back on what could have been--how an aspiring Hemingway ended up a career taxi driver, an alcoholic who abandoned his family, a chronicler of the Free Love era, a man who calls sex "oompus boompus." Memoirs... is a surprisingly solid piece of work, one I especially recommend to those who do now or have once resided in San Francisco--it'll show them a side of the city they likely didn't know was there. Curious but want to know more? Read the first chapter.

December 24, 2000

Twinkle twinkle little cities.
Making the rounds is this awesome satellite composite of the Earth at night. The detailed image warrants prolonged gazing.

December 22, 2000
It's Official "Insane Travel Day."
The woman on the airport reservation shuttle line, after I asked if things were busy, said, "You know when Homer Simpson says, 'Oh god oh god oh god!'? Today's been like that."

News Flash: Interfaces Still Suck. So, just completed a round of user testing. And though I can't get into details (that'll cost you!), I can relate that I was surprised by the degree to which people had difficulty manipulating the interface of a browser (In this case, Internet Explorer for Windows). Of particular trouble was scrolling a web page. A number of people would click and hold the scroll bar, and, dragging down, the mouse would increasingly tend to the left. And after it goes a certain distance to the left, the scrollbar snaps back to it's original position, even if the person has the button still down. A number of people got confused by this.

The Web browser is so riddled with interface problems that it automatically limits the usability of anything within it. I wonder if interfaces developed with tools like Flash, designed with express intent to overcome this idiocy, can make a significant impact. Or if we're simply screwed.

December 20, 2000
Cherished industry secrets revealed!
Are you studying e-commerce competitors with wide selections? Want to really tax their search engines? Search on "elmo." That little fucker is on everything.

You can't take the Wal-Mart out of the dot com. This might be the only office I've ever been in that offers, in its free beverage selection, V-8.

And I like it.

December 18, 2000
Insert buzzword here.
So I'm becoming increasingly interested in "bricks-and-clicks" or "clicks-and-mortar" for a number of reasons. Most obviously, because I'm working on contract with Walmart.com, serving as an acting Director of User Experience. (Spare me tirades about how Wal-Mart stores destroy communities--I voted for Nader, remember?) But also because it's clear that there's actual value in clicks-and-mortar, unlike the pure plays we've been seeing cluttering up the obituaries. As I mature, I find myself interested in that which has actual value in the market. Maybe I'm getting boring. I like to think I'm simply getting practical, and cutting through the crap.

Among the most appealing things for me, when it comes to clicks and mortar, is that they're founded on companies that are already profitable. There's already an understanding of selling things for more than you bought them for. An area that's been poorly explored up until now is how to integrate the online and offline worlds... Many stores (Best Buy, Gap, Old Navy, etc.) are doing the 'buy online, return at the store,' but that's not a particularly innovative notion.

If I weren't working at Walmart.com, I'd be quite interested in doing intranet design. I'm attracted to it for three reasons: 1) Intranets and other 'inside the enterprise' technologies have clear value; 2) it's terribly unsexy, and I think working on the terribly unsexy would be good for me; 3) I've never done it before, and so there'd be a whole host of new challenges.

December 17, 2000
Because robots are like boys.
A great article on FEED about AI and homebrew robots.

I decide to assemble a crackerjack team of experts (my architect roommate and computer whiz boyfriend) to help me build my robots. They are excited, as is every male friend that I tell about the project. All boys love robots.

December 16, 2000
What are you plotting?
Jorn points to the Gallery of Data Visualization.

December 14, 2000
Quality VC-bashing.
I'm not much into pointing fingers (mistakes are often innocent, and should also be encouraged far more than they are in this society), but much of the Dot Com Debacle (such as it is, if it even exists) can be laid at the feet of venture capitalists. Upside, which I usually can't stand, has a decent article about the CEO of a failed B2B railing against the VCs that, through their control of the pursestrings, promoted activity that ran his company into the ground.

My most recent hatred of VC's was spurred by reading this in a New York Times piece on the state of e-commerce:

Venture capitalists themselves now ridicule the thought of putting money into a mass-market e-tailer, the so-called business-to-consumer sector. "B-to-C is dead," said A. Barr Dolan, a partner at Charter Venture Capital. "Excuse some venture capital humor. We call it 'back to consulting.' " The more recent batch of business-to-business sites that were meant to help companies trade steel coils, paper cups or whatever earn similar scorn. "Back to banking," Mr. Dolan said.

Such pomposity is appalling, considering the degree to which their shortsightedness played a part.

Since when does the US need "healing"?

Funny, funny stuff. I don't know how I never saw it before, but NewYorkerMag.com is high-sterical, and the banner ad is the funniest thing I've seen on the Web in a long time.

December 13, 2000
Lacking... motivation... to... write...
Dunno why, just don't have much to say. So, why not head over to the newly re-sprung Monstro.com. Lane wrote up a good brief presentation on "Marketing vs Usability" (a topic title he was given, and which he rightfully labels as stupid). Presentation in PowerPoint's "Save as Web Page" so it'll look crappy on anything other than IE.

December 10, 2000
Thoughts from a weekend.
Spent the weekend at a retreat with a bunch of brilliant people, some familiar, some new, all delightful companions. An intriguing subject that came up over dinner was Conversation Analysis, made particularly a propos as one of the other attendees was Doc "markets are conversations" Searls (who is also quite a fan of George Lakoff, and spoke a great riff on the metaphors we use to describe markets. Doc pointed out in his blog that Lakoff has a new book out: Where Mathematics Comes From: How the Embodied Mind Brings Mathematics into Being -- sigh... something else to add to the pile.) Conversations are often the most productive aspects of my life--I think best when bouncing ideas around with other people, and it's in such situations where I synthesize disparate notions and (occasionally) create something new. Such mental activity never happens alone--I rarely have the attention span to think through a problem in solitude.

Doc is writing a piece on Why Operating Systems Suck -- my take is that they (and I mean WIMP GUIs like Windows and Mac OS) are ill-suited for the new set of tasks people engage in with computers. The WIMP GUI as we know it was developed by Xerox PARC for the Alto. Xerox is The Document Company. The Alto was designed to manage document creation. And until the Web, document creation was the primary purpose of computers (having superceded calculation). But now there are two new primary tasks--communication (via email) and information consumption. And none of our OSes are equipped for that.

Some further topics from the weekend that I want to pursue: gift economies (time to get back to Durkheim), natural capitalism (and the Rocky Mountain Institute); developing a model for degrees of user input in the design of interactive spaces; oh, and more, I'm sure.

December 7, 2000
Live specifications.
Unfortunately I don't have time to read it now, but I'm keen on perusing Michael Kopcsak's masters thesis, the abstract of which reads:

My ITP MPS Thesis will be a prototype for a flash driven Information Architecture visualization tool. The tool will function as an elegant and easy to use solution for the difficult task of mapping and documenting complex large-scale site architecture and functional specifications. Through the variable passing and expression building features of Flash 4.0, I will create a front-end experience that allows a user to build a customized interactive presentation without knowing anything about the Flash authoring environment. The prototype will be supported by documentation that will articulate the information architecture and functional specifications used in the development of the concept.

In talking to Michael about it, it sounds like a first step towards creating live, dynamic specifications. A problem all Web designers have faced is turning requirements into specs, and then specs into wireframes/mockups, and then those into final design. This usually requires translating across different types of media and formats, which is silly, since the *data* is always the same. I don't have the database savvy to solve this problem myself, but I know how it could be addressed--I want someone else to do the hard work of figuring out the details. Looks like Michael has definitely gone part of the way there.

Shop shop shop! A reader pointed me to Surprise.com, a smart gift guide written by the site's users. What's best are the quirky "What are they like?" categories, such as Caffeine Fiend, File Under X: Conspiracy Theorist, Krispy Kreme Maniacs, and Organized, Or Wants to Be. Each category features a number of gift options and related categories, and the site intelligently keeps track of categories you've browsed (since it's likely you'll wander serendipitously, it would otherwise be hard to get back to stuff you found). This is 'e-commerce' how I like it--simple, effective, useful.

Another successful e-commerce experience is Bed, Bath, and Beyond's website. A snap to navigate (the menus get you pretty much anywhere super quickly), with big, clear product thumbnails that load quickly, and some smart browsing features--on a product detail, you can page back and forth between products in a category.

Feeling a little conflicted. ResearchBuzz points us to The Library of Congress' new Fifty Years of Coca-Cola Television Advertisements online exhibition. And while it's pretty cool, and Coca-Cola has proven to be an important player in American history, I'm still made a little uneasy over what is, essentially, using civic institutions to advertise flavored sugar water (try to find anything damning about Coca-Cola in this collection). But, hey, you get the Mean Joe Greene ad, which actually used to make me well up.

December 5, 2000
Ah, the irony.
I'm writing this from seat 10F of United Flight 59 from O'Hare to SFO. On the video screen in front of me, the film The Replacements is being shown. Which is essentially about union-busting. United's workers aren't doing themselves any favors with such cinematic selections!

Maybe I'm not getting it. You know that saying, "You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar"? Well, yeah, but you catch even more flies with shit.

My apologies for the delay. I've spent an extended weekend in Ann Arbor, MI (WOLVERINES!). It was lovely. If you plan on visiting make sure to: eat barley malt ice cream at Stucchi's; wander through The Arb; have a martini and beef (burger, steak, etc.) at Knight's; enjoy an afternoon coffee respite at the Sweetwater Cafe.