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December 30, 1999
Web visual design pattern: The Module.
For a while, I was the only member of the creative team at Epinions. (Happily, I've hired on 3 exceedingly capable folks.) Which meant that, for lack of anyone else to do it, I executed graphic design for new or redesigned pages on the site. As my personal site shows, I'm not a trained graphic designer--the best I can hope for is to not offend. I surfed around for visual inspiration, and came across a visual design pattern for the Web: The Module.

The Module is content contained in a little graphic box. Elements include:
- A thin colored rule (usually one-pixel wide) delineating the box
- The header on a background color the same or similar to the colored rule

The module originally gained prominence on portal sites, particularly on personalized pages, where users selected what content they wished to see. While those modules all had the dark-header-background, they rarely had the thin colored-rule--probably because that requires tables within tables which are a burden on browsers to render.
When something crops up all over the place, it suggests it's serving some need. As we work on the piecemeal redesign of Epinions, The Module has proved to be a handy solution to our highly componentized design. A certain look can successfully brand a module, making it easy to spot on page after page (particularly applicable to search boxes).

Be careful, though, as problems do occur. In an earlier design, the colored rule lead to too-many-lines; we've since softened it by using grey instead of black.

Those violent Canadians. As a proper Gen-X geek, my mind continually riffles through pop media references to any situation. A favorite source of such chestnuts are The Frantics, a Canadian comedy troupe active in the 80s. It turns out that no one I know is familiar with them, though they are/were regularly featured on Dr. Demento (the Saturday night savior of larval geeks everywhere), and had a TV show, "Frantics 4 on the Floor" which was syndicated on Showtime. Of the few who have heard them, it's most likely their "Ti Kwan Leep" sketch.

They're also known for their "Boot to the Head" song, which is strikingly reminiscent of (and recorded many years before) "Kick in the Ass" by fellow toque-wearers Moxy Fruvous.

My favorite bit of theirs is the ongoing adventures of Mr. Canoehead (scroll down a bit), an inadvertent superhero with a canoe lightning-welded to his head.

December 28, 1999
Ray Eames.... Charles Eames.... Ray Charles!

December 26, 1999
In New York through the 29th. Occasionally checking email.

December 23, 1999
Xmas prezzies for you! (Culled from the recesses of past petermemes)
Terribly Clever. The New Gashlycrumb Tinies (dig that loading bar!) The Inscrutable 8-Ball Revealed. Metababy!
Shockwave nifties. Mr. Noodlebox (where even the transitions rock) Turux (click monkey, click!) t h e s q u a r e r o o t o f - 1 , MetaDesign's Advent Calendar, Zen Cat Box (what is the sound of one paw scraping?), NetBaby!
Blasphemous comics. Spread some Yuletide cheer. POKEY THE PENGUIN!
Science! The Visible Human Project (one of the first websites with which I became obsessed). J-track.
Toys. Your Sanrio Fortune. Tamagothi, and the new Punkemon!

Evolve. James P has moved his Blink animations, and has turned Blink into a community space for pushing the boundaries of Flash.

December 21, 1999
I'm not laughing at you, I'm laughing around you.
A couple days ago my dad emailed me that he'd seen the re-release of Welles' The Trial, (playing January 21-22 at the UC Theater in Berkeley), and had noted "Neither the reviews nor the audience seemed to get the humor in The Trial. They don't really understand artistic satire in the form of irony. They take it seriously." I wrote back how it surprised me in college how my classmates didn't get the humor of The Metamorphosis. Now, Metascene points us to "Laughing with Kafka," David Foster Wallace's attempt to convey the difficulties of teaching funny.

I don't know if I could agree more. As his holiday present to you, timg provides a helpful list of interaction design concepts.

Good vibrations. Turn your Touchpad into a theremin!

December 18, 1999
Oh dear goodness.
You have got to hear this. "88 Lines about 42 Presidents." Foolish me for not having kept up with the 'Cocks.

Off of The Nails' website, a clip from the original "88 Lines about 44 Women." (RealAudio)

December 17, 1999
SPHERICAL COW!!!! MOOOOOO! [posted while tipsy]

December 16, 1999
We call it "research." I'm reading The Elegant Universe, which is a damn fine book, featuring the best layman's explanations of relativity and quantum mechanics I've ever read. So, I poked around a little bit on the Web for good resources. Didn't turn up much. Britannica has a bang-up summary, and I dig the title of Claustrophobic Physics, which answers the train-in-the-tunnel paradox that a friend put to me.

Whenever I read good science books, I'm reminded that among my dream projects is utilizing the interactive medium to explain physics. I have yet to see a good example of this.

Those Damn Commies in Congress. Researching my review of American Movie, I typed "American Dream" into Google and found this. Refreshing to see our own government calling into question what's going on.

It's a helluva town. I will be in New York from Dec 25 - Dec 29. I eagerly await CAMCon NYC. I also look forward to meeting any of you good folks who live out there. Drop me a line.

December 14, 1999
Noted without comment.

"BTW, I would have rejected the name Story Server because its initials are SS, the name of the secret police in Nazi Germany, probably the most despised pair of letters in western culture."

"Dave, when I first got into the software business, the idiots in the minicomputer business sniffed that no one would ever use the "toys" we were creating..."

We're not net.worthy! Adina Levin, a disturbingly clever lass, has launched her website o' thoughts. For those interested in networked business culture, her site is a must-read. Of particular relevance to my own myopic viewpoint is "The Network is the Infomediary," an analysis of net.worth. See, after I joined Epinions, I found out that the site is an "infomediary," a term that's becoming all the rage in those business consultant circles I once tried so hard to avoid. She also has a faboo social history of technology and culture reading list. Heck, she's even begun a blog!

December 12, 1999
Stop the presses! Actual research exists on creating usable web hierarchies. Kirsten Risden, a usability researcher at That Place That Shall Not Be Named, wrote "Toward Usable Browse Hierarchies for the Web" [Word .doc, natch], featuring tests done with real users, and, and a nifty diagram representing confusion.

Still and all, Kirsten doesn't address the fundamental problem, which is that such top-down hierarchies simply won't work, no matter how much testing you do. So, I've been pursuing alternative categorization schemes, and came across "basic-level categories."

Basic-level categories are those which are most immediate to human understanding and perception. As discussed in Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things, [yes, someone who scanned in much of the text of the book and posted it on the Web] they are:

"- The highest level at which category members have similarly perceived overall shapes.
- The highest level at which a single mental image can reflect the entire category .
- The highest level at which a person uses similar motor actions for interacting with category members.
- The level at which subjects are fastest at identifying category members.
- The level with the most commonly used labels for category members.
- The first level named and understood by children.
- The first level to enter the lexicon of a language.
- The level with the shortest primary lexemes.
- The level at which terms are used in neutral contexts. For example, There's a dog on the porch can be used in a neutral context, whereas special contexts are needed for There's a mammal on the porch or There's a wire-haired terrier on the porch. (See Cruse 1977.)
- The level at which most of our knowledge is organized.

"Thus basic-level categories are basic in four respects:
Perception: Overall perceived shape; single mental image; fast identification.
Function: General motor program.
Communication: Shortest, most commonly used and contextually neutral words, first learned by children and first to enter the lexicon.
Knowledge Organization: Most attributes of category members are stored at this level.

"The fact that knowledge is mainly organized at the basic level is determined in the following way: When subjects are asked to list attributes of categories, they list very few attributes of category members at the superordinate level (furniture, vehicle, mammal); they list most of what they know at the basic level (chair, car, dog); and at the subordinate level (rocking chair, sports car, retriever) there is virtually no increase in knowledge over the basic level."

So, the trick would seem to be to get people to the basic-level as quickly as possible. And that doing so by way of traversing megalithic top-down hierarchies is likely not the best way.

Well, then what is the best way? The most obvious answer is "search." But this would require search engines to more strongly weight "basic-level" categories such that they'll appear earlier in a list of results. Which, in turn, would necessitate having someone or something tag those categories as "basic-level."

I've posted to CHI-Web an attempt to address these thoughts in the presence of cognitive and library scientists. We'll see what responses come...

In the meantime, for those interested in further pursuing basic-level categorization:
Category theory (within a discussion of medical diagnosis)
A Common Structure for Concepts of Individuals, Stuffs, and Real Kinds: More Mama, More Milk and More Mouse (an intriguing title to an essay simply too long for me to digest right now)
Thinking About Thought (kinduva "well, duh" title to what appears an enlightening essay)
Cognitive linguistics: prototyes (notes from a UC Berkeley lecture. God I hope the professor didn't just simply read this aloud. Though, hell, all the lectures for this class are accessible here. Ain't the Web grand?)

December 11, 1999
A glorious waste of time awaits you at artandculture.com. Dig that related-concepts cloud! Reminiscent of altculture but with more lavish production values.

Click down the garden path. Mark Bernstein joins the fight against dull hierarchical Web structures with this:

Have I already plugged my "Hypertext Gardens" essay to you? It's an attempt to convince hypertext teachers that simple structures aren't always the best answer. Just as we have parks and gardens to relieve the urban grid, our hypertexts need ordered organic forms (like gardens) and wilder, planned exploratory spaces (like parks).

The full-dress version of this argument is a paper from Hypertext '98, describing the kinds of structures we can actually observe in hypertexts today.

December 8, 1999
Oh. Now I see. This hierarchy stuff is about some thing called "topology."
My buddy Travis [trav at majorleaguemarket dot com], a design engineer who is also fighting hierarchical information structures, chimes in with this:

What the Smithsonian Thinkmap does has been tried on a lot of projects, with varying degrees of success. If you reduce it to a topology, you have a few different taxonomies (Era, Theme, Object), each rather flat since, for example, each era has the main "Era" node as its direct parent. (I think there were exceptions for some children of "Theme", but it was kinda hard to tell.) Anyway, you can aggregate all the taxonomies into one big one, and you then map the actual data records to as many nodes in the master taxonomy as you see fit. Not entirely unlike Yahoo, where each indexed site can represent itself in other categories via a link.

You can see this on, say, a site about wine, which has a master category hierarchy that contains a taxonomy organized by geographic region, a taxonomy organized by wine varietal, and other taxonomies yet to come. it also happens to be another example of the overuse of the "meta" prefix: the classifications "region" and "varietal" are labelled "metacategories" when they're really just high-up nodes in a regular data tree. As follows:

            root category
         /        |       \ 
    region    varietal  something else 
   /   |   \     / \       / | \ 
here there etc this that   A  B  C 
 / \  / \  / \  / \ / \   /| /|\ |\ 

Thinkmap's advantage is that they're better at visually presenting it -- they collapse the object map into the category tree and give it to you in digestible pieces, and provide handy lists of related items sorted by relevance, and such.

In fact, when I worked with a site that implemented this sort of category scheme, what interested me is that its programmers designed it, but didn't really get that they were essentially mapping objects onto a _separate_ category hierarchy. They kept fallaciously trying to fit the objects and categories into a single taxonomy.

What this suggests to me is a couple things: 1) This scheme is not easily visualized, and needs to be represented by an improvement on the Thinkmap design or by something much more transparent that appears to magically know what you're looking for. But, 2) there is something intuitive about the structure.

I guess that's enough for now. The other important note is, of course, that it took the time and careful brainpower of a Human In Charge to lay out all the associations in the Smithsonian's exhibit, and we need to automate that.

Trav's point leads to all sorts of notions. In response to his last graf I submit to you Self-Organizing Maps. SOMs invoke neural networks and semantic processing to "understand" bits of information, glean conceptual metadata (i.e., keywords), and provide associative links across bodies of content. The promise is to allow the data speak for itself, and to free people from the task of tagging their own metadata. (As a lazy blogger, I can tell you that I'll never define keywords for my content bits. Not all of us have the time.)

December 7, 1999
The Broadvision saga continues.
In response to Broadvision's claims, I received this email [links to a text file] from an engineer who wrestled with the famed One-To-One Server. (Sneak preview: he doesn't like it. And he plugs Frontier. Cooool.)

December 6, 1999
Apologies for being so slack. Here are a couple of funnies that you might enjoy.

Smell my finger. Adamindustry creates custom scratch and sniff stickers. It doesn't just smell good, it's art!

Take off, eh? Join the campaign for Canadian World Domination. Note their eventual conquest. Shifty-eyed toque-wearing donut-eating Labatt's drinking pasty francophones.