tecznotes

Michal Migurski's notebook, listening post, and soapbox. Subscribe to this blog. Check out the rest of my site as well.

Aug 31, 2005 2:25pm

two reblogs in the wild

Mike Frumin brought these two sports-focused Reblogs to my attention this morning:

  • Sunday Story: NFL news, injury reports, rumors, fantasy football cheat sheets, player rankings and more.
  • Hoop Log: Basketball news, with all posts categorized by team and player. Very well-designed, nice orange date slugs.

Both sites are maintained by Kyle Bunch.

Aug 27, 2005 10:16pm

freedom and discipline

Sorry for the recent interlude of radio silence, but many interesting developments in Stamenland have conspired to fill my time with meetings, phone calls, conversations and plans instead of the usual aimless hackery.

William Blaze just released an essay on Web 2.0, with a few choice observations on web-enabled API's and other hot topics. Some selected excerpts:

...the web is different now, but the big differences aren't necessarily found in those prosaic "information wants to be free" ideals, which actually stand as one of the biggest constants in web evolution.

...

What really separates the "Web 2.0" from the "web" is the professionalism, the striation between the insiders and the users. When the web first started any motivated individual with an internet connection could join in the building. HTML took an hour or two to learn, and anyone could build. In the Web 2.0 they don't talk about anyone building sites, they talk about anyone publishing content. What's left unsaid is that when doing so they'll probably be using someone else's software.

As a tool-builder, I'm somewhat biased towards the idea that good software leads to good publishing. In the beginning, it didn't really matter how you published content. Webzine '98 lists the minimal entry requirements: a computer with internet access, a text editor, and ftp program, and something to say.

This core is no less valid today than it was seven years ago, when I picked up the essay linked above on a printed flyer at 3am in a National Guard armory in Santa Rosa, CA (don't ask). What's changed is that a lot of people have gotten the message, and suddenly the phenomenal rate of growth in blogs has made every individual voice just a tiny bit quieter. Your options as an opinionated online-writing-guy are to accept that on the Internet, "everyone is famous for fifteen people", or to start paying attention to how you say what you need to say.

Enter RSS, XML, API's. William:

Any user of a public API runs the risk of entering a rather catch-22 position. The more useful the API is, the more dependent the user becomes on the APIs creator. In the case of Ebay sellers or Amazon affiliates this is often a mutually beneficial relationship, but also inherently unbalanced. The API user holds a position somewhat akin to a minor league baseball team or McDonald's franchisee, they are given the tools to run a successful operation, but are always beholden to the decisions of the parent organization. You can make a lot of money in one of those businesses, but you can't change the formula of the "beef" and you always run the risk of having your best prospects snatched away from you.

...

The real hook to the freedoms promised by the Web 2.0 disciples is that it requires nearly religious application of open standards (when of course it doesn't involve using a "public" API). The open standard is the control that enables the relinquishing of control. Data is not meant to circulate freely, its meant to circulate freely via the methods proscribed via an open standard.

In other words, there's a strong relationship between freedom and discipline. Freedom without discipline becomes the freedom to not reach our goals. Discipline is standards literacy. Literacy in the common culture and an ability to navigate it is a pre-requisite for effective communication, a point made by E.D. Hirsch in his work on Cultural Literacy. Hirsch's point about the communicative freedom gained by anticipating the cultural standards of your audience is directly applicable to the read/write web, where publishing your information under a technical format such as RSS and a legal format such as a Creative Commons license means that your work can fly faster, further, and affect a broader audience. This is a higher freedom afforded by self-discipline.

Blaze's paragraph on the risks of public API's can be understood as a criticism of cultural domination. In some cases, this domination is probably not something that can be overcome: Flickr's API grants access solely to data that users have chosen to host on Flickr. EBay's data is specific to the marketplace run by EBay. A more interesting example might come from information that is public domain, such as the Library of Congress' categorization of printed works, or the dense network of facts kept by Wikipedia. I can't speak for the former, but the latter information is made explicitly free under the GNU Free Documentation License. 3rd parties can and do duplicate the Wikipedia database for their own purposes, and Wikipedia ensures that this information is available in a coherent form (SQL database dumps) under a permissive license.

The benefits gained from a higher degree of web 2.0 professionalism are enormous, and they don't invalidate the easy-on promises of 1998.

Aug 16, 2005 1:25am

del.icio.us user flocks

This is kind of neat:

Late last night, Slashdot linked to a Site Pro News article about 10 good CSS resources. Today, the article and its contents (WPDFD, Glish, the offical spec and others) absolutely freaking dominate Del.icio.us Popular, as seen in Vox Delicii, above. (If you're reading this more than a few days after I posted it, hit "Back one week/day" a few times after the jump)

When I first posted Vox, I expected to see users "flock to stories linked from Slashdot or BoingBoing", but not swings as wild as this. Aside from the Slashdot effect, is there something more going on here, like a Del.icio.us Popular feedback effect? I certainly don't think it's a Vox feedback effect; here's the traffic stats since it was launched:

So here are two questions I would like to have answered, after some more data builds up:

  1. Is there a pattern to the kinds of sites that get the heaviest traffic? If they tend to be list or surveys, it might indicate that Del is being used as a meta-bookmarking service, and that highly-popular bookmarks are themselves pointers to the real content. Here, there seems to be a halo effect, from the Site Pro News to the linked sites, each of which has individually been around for ages.
  2. Where do the links come from? There are a few URL tastemakers such as Slashdot, BoingBoing, Waxy, or Kottke. but then there are these guys ("Del.icio.us users who bookmark helpful/timely URLs"), none of whose usernames I recognize. Are they top users because they are quick on the draw, or because other users look to them for interesting places?

Aug 13, 2005 8:17pm

music industry worried about everything

music industry are big-time weenies.

News for music industry: nobody likes a whiner. Stop complaining and do something interesting so Apple stops eating your lunch.

Aug 11, 2005 12:35am

second-person shooter

WMMNA, via Eyebeam:

Julian Oliver is investigating the second-person shooter format, what it might look and play like. In this take on the 2nd Person Perspective, you control yourself through the eyes of the bot, but you do not control the bot. Your eyes have effectively been switched. Naturally this makes action difficult when you aren't within the bot's field of view; thus both you and the bot (or other player) will need to work together, to destroy each other.

This reminds me of my senior year at UC Berkeley, perfecting my game of multiplayer deathmatch GoldenEye. This was one of the few games I had seen at that time which allowed simultaneous split-screen competitive play, and the secret to getting really good was to stop watching your own screen, and watch the other three. It really did start to seem like a second-person shooter after a while, when tense standoffs were resolved by carefully watching what the other players could see, and reacting accordingly.

The other split-screen game we liked was Mario Kart, where viewing the other screens didn't help quite so much.

Aug 10, 2005 2:20pm

vox delicii attention

Vox (announcement) has gotten a bit of very-appreciated attention since I posted it last week:

It's interested to note the difference in reactions between this version and the older In The News site. Is Del.icio.us Popular really a more interesting data set to graph than Google News?

Aug 10, 2005 2:20pm

rediscovering america

Three recent accusations of recognition masquerading as discovery:

  • "Funny, but while reading the article my brain made several twitches. It's not so much that I disagree with the sentinence of the article (focusing on activites as compared to, uh, other human aspects, such as colors, shapes and taste, maybe), but I really disagree with the problem specified above; what the hell is the difference between designing for some users compared to all users? They are still both user-centred design!" (Alexander Johannesen on Don Norman)
  • "I'm more troubled by the 'Get Real' philosophy. Not that it is in itself wrong, but I can see the horde of inexperienced managers and sloppy programmers who use this kind of rationale as an excuse for poor planning and bad execution." (Cedric, commenting on 9Rules in response to 37signals)
  • "First we have to set aside the fact that Clay is now talking about free-text search, and not tagging. But, let's say he is talking about tagging. The system he's discussing already exists. It's called "postcoordinate indexing," and I mentioned it in a prior folksonomy post of mine. I guess that's another thing that's really bugging me. Clay acting as if he's discovered unchartered territory, when, really, it's been well-trod upon for awhile." (Peter Merholz on Clay Shirky)

I think what's happening is that all the accused parties above have absorbed the lessons of All Marketers Are Liars:

Successful marketers don't talk about features or even benefits. Instead, they tell a story. A story we want to believe.

The problem is that there are only so many untold-stories out there. Norman is rehashing the time-worn lessons of attentive, professional design, while making dubious distinctions between "human centered" and "activity centered". 37Signals is repackaging agile software development a.k.a extreme programming, warts and all. Clay Shirky is an academic, and academics are frequently required to take aggressive or contrarian positions to ensure attention, tenure, and publication. If you take the step of distilling your story to a one-sentence elevator pitch, there's a solid chance you'll be overlapping someone else's pitch. This is fine... if you're not also pretending to break new ground by conventiently omitting mention of where the idea may have originated.

Aug 4, 2005 3:13am

acd, hcd, etc

There's an interesting thread going on at SIGIA-L right now. After Don Norman's latest doe-eyed essay ("Human-Centered Design Considered Harmful") was posted, a mostly-illuminating discussion about the role of the designer in unintended consequences ensued. I was initially swayed by Don's essay, but I don't really have the same background in the relevant literature, and I've since come to view Norman's essay as somewhat deceptive.

From the article:

One basic philosophy of HCD is to listen to users, to take their complaints and critiques seriously. Yes, listening to customers is always wise, but acceding to their requests can lead to overly complex designs. Several major software companies, proud of their human-centered philosophy, suffer from this problem. Paradoxically, the best way to satisfy users is sometimes to ignore them.

This quickly started moving in the direct of Intelligent Design, a topic that needs its own Godwin's Law.

Anne Miller:

How many purposes does a telephone directory serve? I use one to jack up the height of my PC monitor. This is a function of characteristics of the technology (phone book), my desktop environment (desk/chair/monitor heights) and my need for a higher monitor (my physical capacities) and my ability to 'see' the phone book as a solution to my problem.

Ziya:

Again, these may be interesting use cases that are relevant to an anthropologist, as it were. But there's absolutely no reason for paid designers to go out of their way to consider your usage of a phone book as a monitor stand. The fact that you did doesn't inform the design process in a meaningful way.

Eric Scheid:

Designed for driving nails into wood, (the hammer) has been designed with a simplicity that it affords many other uses (driving in wooden plugs, driving in screws, breaking bricks, cutting wire, opening bottles of beer). It's easy to imagine some designer being tasked with "design me a tool for driving in nails" and coming back with some device that does that, but has no affordances for anything else.

Meanwhile, O'Reilly posts topics for this year's Emerging Technologies conference, one of which is "Externalities, Affordances, and Unintended Consequences":

Affordances, usually associated with human-computer interaction, industrial design, and environmental psychology, is here seen as the flipside of externalities: one person's externality is another's affordance.

If I can get a proposal together in time, this should be a hell of a gathering. Antoher interesting topic is "Data as Platform":

How can data visualization use our cognitive preattention to assimilate data quickly, rather than just paging through a database view. Will remixing always be a hack, or are there ways to offer stable commercial services around remixed applications? In other words, what's the path from hack to product for remixing?

Aug 3, 2005 12:57pm

announcing vox delicii

I switched the data source for the News project from Google News to Del.icio.us Popular, and called the resulting piece Vox Delicii.

Here's why:

Since August 2004, Google's algorithm for determining news items worthy of inclusion on the "In The News" short list has become much more opaque, and a little less meaningful. Before that date, I believe it to have been based on objective popularity. George Bush was always in the news, and major news events such as the Richard Clarke / Condi Rice hearings in Spring 2004 were very well-represented. About a year ago, Google switched to an algorithm that appears to be based on the first derivative of popularity: major newsmakers such as George Bush no longer showed up, while lots of "flash in the pan" names did. It was a sensible decision on Google's part, but hell on anyone trying to do a visual analysis. The appearance of the heat map became significantly more chaotic, and it was more difficult to view patterns. In effect, the map above shows change over time, and doing so with information that is already showing change over time gives you a map of acceleration, which is more difficult to comprehend quickly and less interesting to watch.

Similarly, Google's process for determining what constitutes a "proper noun" is also opaque. When Sun and Microsoft settled their long-standing legal disputes, Sun Microsystems appeared here while Microsoft did not. I don't know why - maybe Google is only interested in pairs of capitalized words surrounded by non-capitalized words.

Meanwhile, Del.icio.us Popular is completely transparent. A quick glance at the list of popular items shows them to be organized by number of recent posts. A little digging shows that this number is probably based on the number of posts in the last 24 hours, so right away there's an objective method for understanding the source of the data.

In some ways, the Del.icio.us data is also more interesting for what it represents. The News information was based on news-room memes, and strongly influenced by the Associated Press and the general tendency for news sources to reprint each other's stories. Thus, it wasn't really graphing the mindshare of information deemed interesting by the general public, but by that of professional journalists and their employers and stockholders. Meanwhile, Del.icio.us popularity is a significantly more bottoms-up affair, tracking the oddball tastes of the geek set as it flocks to stories linked from Slashdot or BoingBoing. This is real, honest-to-goodness attention data and it should be fun to watch and analyze as the set grows.

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