January 30, 2011

Difficult Listening, bathtubs and kitchen chairs -- as Flow

So sit bolt upright
In that Hard Backed Chair ...
and get ready for some
Difficult Music

- laurie anderson, difficult listening hour, home of the brave

Of course that's a double irony isn't it? First the playing on the notion of easy listening with its antithesis, and then framing "difficult" in terms of a delightful and engaging (rather than impenetrable) performance.

I thought of this twisting of what is relaxing and entertaining with our notions of what can be hard or perhaps challenging to figure out. This, of necessity, lead to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's notion of FLow and Carole Goble's meditation on the relation of bathtubs, coffee and reading research literature.

In Prof. Goble's framing, she proposed (and i am dammed if i can recall where, but one of her madly compelling talks) that there is a paper reading polarity: the work that can be well appreciated with a glass (or was it bottle) of wine while soaking in a tub and the one that requires coffee at the kitchen table.

Since then, i have been wondering if perhaps there is even a greater continuum between or perhaps beyond these to opposite (or apposite) points.

I should like to propose that from time to time we encounter the double espresso, hardback chair at kitchen table, avec papier. This one is where one actually needs to make little figures to work out what the heck is going on.

What does this have to do with Csikszentmihalyi's Flow? Well, one might propose that there is the paper where one is at such a remove from it, it might as well be blank for all we can get out of it - or perhaps one back from it, we try and it leaves us standing facing into a corner drooling. I own i generally back out before i hit that point, feeling that the weakness is in me and i am not worthy. Yet.

THe other end of the spectrum might also be to be so bored by the insipidness that one risks swallowing one's own tongue in having to read to the end. One might ask - why would one ever keep reading? Ah! the review process brings all sorts of things through the door, does it not, that one cannot refuse.

I personally do not want to put either of the beyond states of either boredom or fear on this continuum. Here's why: my take on Carole's dialectic is that both ends are pleasurable. At the Tub end, one is delighted with being able to run along happily and feel engaged with an interesting process; at the coffee end, it's like having a great workout - challenged by not winded. I'd say even the double espresso with the harder chair and paper notepad is a version of same: one is still hanging on; one is working harder, but, like sprint intervals, more than once or twice a week might induce nervous system collapse.

The boredom or fear papers are not delightful.

In Csikszentmihalyi's Flow, he maps out where this state of flow happens: we are sufficiently challenged that we remain engaged in a task, and sufficiently challenged that we must pay attention to the task. He argues that if we are so over challenged that we cannot get purchase on the task, then we cannot achieve flow; likewise if something is so banal that it does not present any challenge, we are similarly left unengaged. This is not the happy paper experience. This is not flow or delight or a good workout or practice.

And heck flow doesn't always have to be comfortable - it's not all bathtubs and wine. Some flow is what in the Talent Code, Daniel Coyle talks about as Deliberate Practice: where one is in the uncomfortable place of working through one's mistakes with the intent to figure out what's wrong and fix it. Ask anyone who's twisted up over a math problem or a challenging passage in playing a rif, or bouldering a particularly frustrating path over a rock. And coming off repeatedly. Wiring in the rif is difficult. uncomfortable. satisfying. GOOD TIMES (after).

And so all i propose in thinking about extending or more discretely populating Carole's polarity is that just as there are degrees or kinds of flows, there may be degrees of wine to coffee, tub to table.

so far i think i've only encountered one refinement - the double espresso avec papier.

I'd be interested to learn if you've found others. For instance, what might be the sofa and X beverage type paper? is there one?

Posted by mc at 11:03 PM | Comments (0)

April 21, 2009

What is Web Science? No really, What is the CORE of Web Science? the Web Self

Ok What IS Web Science?

This question was posed at the recent web science conference by some wild and crazy researchers from that wild and crazy town, Paris. The resulting video features Tim Berners-Lee speaking French, among others. french words french words french words french words linked-data french wordsf rench words...200904220929.jpg

Last year for the Web science workshop at the WWW conference, a few of us also sent in a video asking the question "what is web science" (that alas we had to agree never to show again -something about TBL in the WSRI space station, i think). It featured a series of long pauses and laughter from researchers working in the very area in response to the question. Including with Tim. Now there's this new video. And no pauses, but with long and divergent replies. Except from Wendy Hall with her concise " it's the intersection of these disciplines but more than that. it's everything really" We'll come back to this.

But the Paris Video goes beyond this fundamental What is It question and asks: "what is the core of Web Science" with answers from its four experts supplied in due form.

That's the question that got me thinking. what's the core of web science?

my first thought that 'it's an egg' - i don't know where that came from, but setting that aside, the core of web science now it seems is a leap of faith, a trusting of instinct, and a large excavation project.

It reminds me of the way stephen king describes writing a story - as archaeology - that one is brushing and trowling away the bones in situ - to say "gosh what is that?"

To rif past where King stops, to talk a little more about archaeology, the practice is, as we excavate, we apply theories to what we see. Even if there's only a piece of it. Even when we have the whole thing we don't always know what it is or how it works. we're still making up stories to understand it. we seek models we can test against the discovery.

There's the old story in 200904220937.jpg archaeology that when you don't know what something is, call it a religious artefact. My favorite application of this theory has been to what will happen centuries from now when aliens dig up the 6 ring pop can holders? religious artefact of some dualistic trinity: it's a ubiquitous symbol, it's made of stuff that lasts eternally so must have high value, it's also cheap and portable so used cross culutrally, etc etc etc.

In the case of even defining web science, it strikes me again as this kind of excavation at the present (or perhaps it's like how cosmologists detect a new star). We know something's there, and it's big. We know it's exerting an effect and we know that it operates in several disciplinary dimensions. Part of the challenge at the heart of web science is how do we combine these lenses into an Uber Lens to enable us to see this thing better?

And why would we want to do that anyway?

More than because it's there, it's something new to do, or any other cynical codswallop (there's a word you don't get to use every day), but more i think because, this is something WE made - we contribute to it and use it daily. Tim may be the Big Bang but we're all engaging in the expanding universe's cosmology. There, i have shifted metaphors from archaeology to Big Science. Yodelayheehoo as Laurie Anderson once said.

Big Science?

But it's in that yodel where those of us thinking about the Web and it's effect - and the web and models for webliness may be drawn. Tim has compared the number of web connections with the numbers of neurons in the brain "there the comparison kind of stops" he says, but it's still something of a gee whiz. does that mean something?

It's kind of interesting that we actually struggle to find a succinct definition of what it is we're trying to do. Did computer science have this hard a time when it was breaking away from Math to call itself a Thing? Did the Defense Department? Several Scientific Board meetings have been given over to asking this question "what is web science" - and coming at a reply rather obliquely in "the overlap of a bunch of disciplines" Somehow that just seems dissatisfying.

So we come at it by questions where we don't have answers: what's the predictive model for the web, for instance? but that doesn't really set anyone's hair on fire, does it?

More i think it's that there's a gal who got a bee in her bonnet to trust her gut that there's something there, and then fired up a bunch of other people [ insert link to future novel, large historical archive of letters, photos, etc here] to say "yes, we could do something with this."

Which comes back to the core, and the excavation, and the need to do this.

There was a book in the 80's with the unfortunately gender specific title of Grammatical Man. The argument was very interesting though: that all the things we build are in some ways (if i remember this right) examples of us trying to rebuild ourselves to understand ourselves. Rockets and machines and all such things were part of this case. But these are the products of specialists that are largely only consumed by us (the products, not the specialists). this is the one where we all kick at it - it's such a cool platform; we're working to make it even more malleable.

With the web, we are all webbed up. Increasing numbers of us are adding to it. There have been world wide networks before, and continue to be the same for telecommunications, learning, etc. But they are also service oriented, infrastructure oriented, rather than something whose strings we keep tugging at, keep from going transparent. And while there is great interest to include the social side of the Web in any discussion of Web Science (pdf), what does the fact that that is such a part of this thing mean? Here, with the great ability to post our thoughts for the world to see, and exchange micro bits of information with each other, mediated via this massive IT that is THE WEB we have something we haven't had before in terms of record (though that too is reshaping since pages change so frequently - stability and its value are being replaced with currency perhaps?).

Mirror Mirror

There is something so narcissistic about the web too. In Wim Wender's Until the End of the World,

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participants became lost in being able to rewatch recordings of their own dreams. Now, we can rewatch our blog posts, or social network status, or "ego check" our "selves" on google. We are our own favorite commodity. There's nothing new there, but that we have this super new mirror, this social grooming, this status in multiple new dimensions.

What is this? No wonder there's a group of people asking this question. That the first organized cadre happens to be mainly engineers and social scientists is perhaps no surprise. How do we build it? Where are we going with it? What have we done? what are we doing?

Some other questions that may be related - i mean, you have to ask - is, especially with the brain parallel, will it (whatever the web is/has evolved/evolving into) become aware? evolve its own kind of intelligence (it certainly seems to know a lot about us) - with Web Science, will we become aware of it first? and then what?

Even that's a question in the web science agenda: once we get to grips with this discovery of the web's 'ness, what will that let us do that we couldn't do before? predict the next phenomenon before it emerges so we can all develop great IPO's? That's more codswallop, of course. But perhaps, perhaps being able to get a sense of immanent emergence is a good thing. Are there any examples in science fiction where that's the case?

What are we making here in our own image? Consider the early days of the web. People's photos of their cats, and a huge drive to produce credit card security for buying porn. There are anthropologists on the WSRI board? Is the Web our mirror? or just a mirror for some of us? If it reflects all our basic desires (and why wouldn't it), we see there are healers and healing across the web. Has there been the opposite too? It's roots in Arpanet.

And if this web thing is us - our wiring and desires all exposed and writ so vast we need a new science to understand it, will we find ourselves looking back up the microscope, and find we're not at all really who we thought we were? Do we ever transcend our expectations of ourselves?

So what is the core of Web Science? well it's us, isn't it? it is the archaeology and cosmology and engineering of a question that has bridged, it seems, who am i, to who are we? That in itself seems a profound evolution of our identity from i to we. or perhaps its not us that's evolved, but this thing outside us, that is so much about and for us, but may end up not being and being us all at once.

Oh yes, web science, go go go. Lay down, web scientists wanna be's or already are's, the requirements to say "this is what web science is; here's our 20 page manifesto" and hire up some medievalists to go with the anthropologists to help tell the story that web science is about discovery. IT's the tale of the green knight. It's not a quest, but it's the inescapable pull of self, isn't it: there's an entity Out There - that we seem to have created - that escapes our ken, and we want to ken it; we need to ken it. There's really no option: we're gonna ken it, or give it a dam good go. It's too fort - da compelling.   

Yes, it seems so clear and inevitable now: of course there's a web science. somehow we'll get what that learning may be. We may even get to that uber lens of disciplines to uncover this thing, if we realize, despite all the talk of big machines, huge scale and everything else, we are looking for while trying to develop another, a new, model of ourselves, and we are all pouring into that those grains of ourselves we wish others to know, love, desire of ourselves. Including successful research careers. But perhaps something gestaltier, too?

And one more thought - in our projects to enhance the web, if we ask ourselves if they reflect our better selves, our best selves, is this what we'd be doing first?

thanks for reading.

mc

wsri

research "fellow"

Posted by mc at 5:27 PM | Comments (0)

November 24, 2008

Building Knowledge: What's Beyond Keyword Search?

The success of the Web as the main provender of information is indisputable. If a company or government is not on the web, it effectively does not exist. A key to the Web's phenomenal success, intriguingly, is in some respects less the information on it, than in our ability to find the information it references. Indeed, the main way we access the Web is via that wee box that from a few words seems to read our mind and return a list of links to resources we want. So successful has this approach to finding information become that on the one hand it is difficult to remember how we managed to find any information at all prior to web based keyword search, and on the other, it's difficult to envision needing or wanting any other tool for information discovery. If we can find it with Google, what more do we need?


Successful paradigms can sometimes constrain our ability to imagine other ways to ask questions that may open up new and more powerful possibilities. The Newtonian model of the universe-as-clockworks, for instance, is still a sound paradigm to explain a great deal of physical phenomena. Indeed, one may say it was only some niggling phenomena that were not well described by that model already that begged the question might their be a better model, a different paradigm? Relativity, a very different way to imagine the behaviours in the manifest world, opened up whole new ways of understanding our universe.

The success of the Google paradigm may be our Newtonian paradigm for the Web. It enables us to do so much information discovery that it is difficult to imagine what we cannot do with the paradigm of continually refining search terms to get to The Result. The approach Google has made ubiquitous, however, does assume that there is An Answer Out There; if we can just specify the query correctly, we can find It.

But how does the Google paradigm help a busy mom find a better job quickly, effectively, that is a match for her passion and skills. And if that mom could use some extra training to support that skill to get that better job, how would the Google paradigm bring in that highly relevant information that is outside the constraints of the keyword search?

In the Information Retrieval and Information Seeking literature, these kinds of more complex, rich information discovery and knolwedge building tasks have been modelled in terms of Search strategies and tactics (Think bates and belkin). In the relatively recent work classed as Exploratory search (see Special Issue, CACM April 2006)., the emphasis has been on harmonizing human computer Interaction design approaches with models of information seeking to develop new tools that will support these alternative kinds of search and knowledge building.

Examples of such approaches include:

  • knowledge building by association: being able to explore the scope of a domain to create new knowledge through building associations between one domain/concept with another (HT paper 07), rather than by seeing "an answer" in any one item.
  • wanting to explore a domain without sufficient knowledge of the domain. Someone who is not an expert may look for one piece of information without realizing that another component, not matched by a keyword search, is highly relevant.
  • annotations and notes. A well known way of supporting knowledge building is to be able to annotate information for a specific context. For instance, "The socket described worked well for this project but was miserable for this other - despite what the authors claim here" Similarly being able to create notes ABOUT something and add references easily from related sources is another powerful knowledge building technique
  • Collections. Pulling together information resources as they are discovered for future knowledge building, as part of information triage (Marshall and Shipman) is another approach for developing knowledge
  • History Review. Interrogating both previously looked for information as well working back through the paths taken to that information.
  • Collaborative knowledge building. A common feature of (non-digital) knowledge building activity is collaborative contribution to knowledge building, from brain storming to shared component development.

Each of these approaches to knowledge building involve exploration of information that yes, pull together a wide array of information resources, but that have less to do with specific iterative searches for a particular pre-existing answer, than support for the development of a New Answer through the interrogation and association of these sources. To support these different kinds of knowledge building goals, we need to develop the tools that will support these kinds of approaches to exploration. The goal of this article is to consider some of the nascent efforts that have been developed around these non-keyword search paradigms.

Exploratory Search Tools to Date

The pre-history of Exploratory Search can be seen in the raison d'etre of hypertext: to support human made associations through knowledge spaces. Nelson, who coined the term "hypertext" in 1965 was inspired by Vanevar Bush's close of WWII vision of the Memex. The goal of the Memex was to support better knowledge management of a post war Science Explosion by helping scientists build, maintain and share their own paths through the document space. Bush called these paths Trails. He postulated that these human made Trails of associations would be more meaningful for scientific discovery than having to track up and down through library taxonomies of texts. Nelson took Trails and imagined what was to become the key component of the Web: the Link, the ability to "transclude" or connect by reference into a new document both one's own thoughts with others' work to develop a perpetual exchange of ideas. A key attribute of the hypertext link was to support non-linear exploration of information for free form association building. Nelson, an Arts graduate, imagined "A File Structure for the Complex, the Changing, and the Indeterminate" a few years before computer scientist Doug Engelbart first presented the NLS, including the debut of the Mouse for navigating a dynamic file linking system, shared screen collaboration, and hypertext. A critical component of the NLS demo was providing multiple visualizations for the ways files and their associated categorization/hierarchies could be represented or resorted.

15 years later, prior to the networked web, Trigg's Notecards system (1984), put NLS on steroids via somewhat richer visualizations of the types of linking functions already described in NLS. While most hypertext researchers point to Triggs formalization of link types as his key contribution, from an HCI perspective that he chose the note card as the metaphor for his system is for our purposes significant. The card paradigm would later be developed into spatial hypertext (Marshall and Shipmen; Bernstein) to support not just a temporal model of seeing one card at a time (a limit of 1984 display systems) but of being able to support the cognitive model of presenting information akin to the layout and re-organization of cards in a physical world in order to build new knowledge through the association of this information. Bernstein's Tinderbox is a commercial application that leverages this visualizaiton for information sense making and for building new knowledge as associations emerge. A data mining engine in the software also exposes potential associations on a topic to surface further information possibilities. It is only recently, in research projects like VIKI by Dontecheva and Drucker that have begun to bring spatial hypertext metaphors to the web, via Web 2.0 protocols. It's early days yet for these projects, but it will be interesting to see how this approach may be used to build, organize and share new knowledge, and what the translation will be between cards-as-notes and documents.

Another related exploratory search thread in the pre web research space that has been Hypertext is adaptive/adaptable hypermedia. Summarized by Brusilovsky, Adaptive Hypermedia sought to blend context awareness with hypertext to deliver the appropriate set of links and trails through a document space. The main scenarios for adaptive hypermedia have been context-aware tour systems and learning programs. The goal of adaptive hypermedia has been, through a user-model, to anticipate the best delivery of material to best support what a person needs to achieve a particular goal, whether that's to get a customized tour of a museum based on one's cultural preferences, or to get the best learning package based on one's current knowledge of a domain. If successful evaluation of these systems has been relatively thin on the ground, they expose the challenge, desire and potential to try to refine a search space based on a person's needs and interests, rather than keyword searches alone.

Some take-aways from these preweb representations of knowledge building across automated resources (both real and imagined) is that Search as keyword search has been largely absent from the main visions of these systems. Perhaps it was simply assumed as a rudimentary tool/strategy such as rooting through the various categorizations of a card catalogue, but it seems important to realize that strategies such as recovering the path through a document space from start to goal (Trails) were seen as critical. Likewise visualizations that privileged non-linear, non-temporally restricted representations of information such operations that can be carried out with notecards - stacking, sorting, selectively displaying, sharing, tagging - were also seen as key parts of information building and communication of that information. And then the Web happened.

This pre-history of current Web-based exploratory search approaches is likewise important because it motivates a kind of recherche du temps perdu - we have been here before, asking how to best enable knowledge discovery - not as fact retrieval but in terms of how to support and enhance that retrieval for building new knowledge. With the astounding success of the Googleverse, however, we occasionally demonstrate a kind of amnesia about what we once sought to achieve. Part of this amnesia may be driven by a similar kind of Newtonian Model success: we've gotten so much out of this approach so far, why not keep digging away at it, push *its* limits? Google demonstrated such envelop pushing by showing how search term patterns correlate to the movement of the flu in the USA.

Early Web Serendipity and Serendipity Redux

One of the celebrated features in the early days of the web - something we have heard less about in the past few years - is the ability to explore a domain. To "surf" the web was a common expression: it meant that we navigated from linked page to linked page - pre the power of search engines - to come upon information serendipitously. The power of the hypertext link was ascendant. this surfing as sense making was something that was not as readily possible in the physical world: books or documents do not have ready links to other documents. While references may be embedded in documents, and one could go from one physical reference, and physically track through a library to another, this took considerable time. The more or less immediate ability to decide to follow one link rather than another and have that linked document returned and displayed caused the notion of serendipitous discovery to be foregrounded as a key value of the web. It made serious and valuable the hours spend surfing that might otherwise be seen as a non-productive use of time. The lack of a powerful search engine made this navigational hit and miss, buggy approach to information finding on the the web a feature rather than a bug. in its early days Indeed, the acceleration of the serendipitous discovery from the rare to the frequent demonstrated another power of the web: acceleration of an analogue process once it goes digital begins to change that practice and our expectations from it. We'll come back to the role of acceleration.

So what has happened to web surfing? The scale of the web has grown so profoundly that surfing has been largely replaced by searching interspersed with select sources of mediation, such as blogs, rss feeds and social networks: we leverage each other's serendipity. We serendip within a smaller set of known resources and search with intent for particular answers. We google so much that it has become a verb that presidential candidates must know to be seen as au fait with the cultural memes about "the internets" and "the google;" those who would serve and who are not current with what is perceived as such basic literacy may be the recipient/victim of "google bombs." These bombs are only so effective because this kind of search has become the key way by which we find information.

The Web as such a networked model of documents misses some of the key features of document exploration we have had in the physical world. Artefacts like library shelves let someone get a sense of the scale of a domain by looking at the space taken up by a topic. Classification systems meant that related topics could be clustered in physical space and located. Some argue that it's impossible to put shelves/categorization systems on the web. Indeed, early ways of exploring the web were through categorization systems like Yahoo and the Internet Directory Project that seemed to fail at scale. The categories, it seemed, became to brittle for the fluid growth of the Web. One of the early Exploratory Search paradigms has been to revisit the notion of categories valuable ways to make sense of a domain and see if there mayn't be a role for such an approach within the web. These models have become known as Facetted Search.

Facetted Search: the Metadata is the Message

Whereas a keyword search brings together a list of ranked documents that match those search terms, the goal of a facetted search is to enable a person to explore a domain via its attributes. One of the most well known examples of such a browser is Apple's iTunes application which is an interface to access and playback tracks or sets of tracks from a collection of music files.


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The browser to the collection presents three columns, representing three facets of the Music domain: genre, artist, album. Attributes matching these facets are populated into the columns.A selection in any column acts as a filter on the column to its right. Once a selection is made, and the right column(s) filtered, a list of individual tracks matching those selected is presented in the lower most browser pane. Keyword search is integrated into iTunes such that the list of data matching the search terms populates the facets in the columns as well as returns a list of individual track results. This layout means that even after the keyword search results are returned, the facets can be operated upon to further explore the collection. If results returned cover multiple genres it is easy to highlight those instances that are associated with a given artist, genre or album.

Exploration by facet enables one to make new connections about a domain or its attributes within a domain. One might, for instance discover that someone perceived to be a Jazz artist has also recorded Country music, which may lead one to explore Country music - something previously thought to be of no interest. This same ability to reconsider a domain via attributes also supports creating new knowledge about the domain: a person may not know that these attributes are a way of interpreting a domain. In online shopping sites it is increasingly common when looking for an item to be presented with facets as a way of refining a query by seeing visually, what ways that query can be narrowed . For instance, after doing a search for "sweater" a range of categories to choose from are presented: Category: men's, women's, snow boarding, kids. Feature: on sale, colour, brand or price.

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Enriched Facets. Another attribute of note in this small commercial example that goes beyond even iTunes is quantity. The facets not only provide the categories of sweater possible, but how many of each there are. In a sense this is reminiscent of seeing the number of books on a shelf for a particular topic: we immediately get a greater sense of the domain from this simple cue.

A facetted browser that has made particular use of representing quantity is the RB++ browser.


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Here, several types of information are visually communicated. First, histogram bars against each attribute in a facet show how many documents are associated with that facet. Hovering over a facet reduces the histograms accordingly to show clearly which attributes are included in the remaining set if that attribute is selected.


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selecting mathematics (above)


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then selecting Asia after mathematics (above).

Again, it is informative in an of itself to be able to see that in an education curriculum space regarding mathematics that about 25% of the associated information is about Asian curriculum performance, that the documents are mainly in the k-12 space and available as web pages. In this respect the RB++ browser persistently presents the total documents associated with the space, as well as the effect of selection on the space. These light weight information markers provide additional attributes on a space that are not available from keyword search alone.

Backwards Highlighting (UIST08) in the mSpace browser is a similar way of showing effects of selection across facets in what is otherwise known as a directional browser like iTunes. In iTunes, a selection in the middle or left column only filters to the right; it does not populate back to the columns to the left of that selection. Picking the artist "radiohead" in other words does not show with what Genres that band is associated. Backwards highlighting shows both the filter to the right as well as the possible paths that could be associated with that selection from the left. In the example of a newsfilm space below, where the facets are decade, year, theme, subject and story, a person has picked the 1940's in the leftmost column. The columns to the right are all filtered by that choice. They next choose a Theme in the third column. The effect of this selection is both to filter the remaining columns to the right, but also to highlight two items in the Year column to the left from which the selected third column item is related. The intensity of the highlights also shows a person which attributes were deliberately selected (the bright highlight) and which were calculated (the duller highlight). These simple information guides have been shown to assist both recall and descriptions of information in a domain.


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Making Sense of the Facets themselves. Another sense making attribute that can be associated with an individual item in a facet is a Preview Cue. Preview cues were designed to help users unfamiliar with a domain and its attributes which may still be presented at a level of expertise outside the ken of the explorer. For instance, someone unfamiliar with classical music may not find much exploratory help in a list of types like Sonata or Symphony or periods like Classical or Baroque. They can make a judgement about the actual music represented by an attribute and whether or not they like that sound. The preview cue, in the classical music example, associates a set of music samples with that attribute. Once the samples are triggered the person can either step through those samples, or based on the first one played decide if they wish to explore that area of the domain further, or move on.


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In the image above, hovering over the Speaker icon has triggered a preview cue for the Baroque Composer Reneau. 3 selections by the artist are also cued up in the preview cue. Note also that where Baroque in Period has been selected, a description of the selected facet is presented. Likewise, to help develop an understanding of the domain, when an item associate with a facet is selected, information about that facet is presented.

So far we have seen how small cues associated with static facets can enrich their value for users exploring a domain. mSpace has focused on supporting manipulations of the facets to be presented. mSpace refers to the presentation of facets as a "slice" through a domain space, and enables the facets in the slice to be reordered, as well as enabling other facets to be added or removed to a slice.


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This ability to reorganize a slice according to a person's interests was motivated by the desire to enable a person to explore a domain by what is relevant or known to them: to enable them to have more facility to make sense of a domain in ways that are meaningful to them. In the newsfilm world for instance, one may be more interested to organize a space around the work of a particular reporter than around a particular topic.

Visualizations to Enhance Representations for Knowledge Building

While the above discussion has highlighted the simple ways in which information facets can be decorated to enable rich exploration of a domain, mash ups have also shown us the value of re-presenting those attributes across a variety of visualizations. Exhibit is an example of a tool that provides facetted exploration of data along with visualizing that data against maps and timelines


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The value of these representations is in the questions they foreground that can be asked. The Presidents facets makes it easy to see at a glance that most Presidents were born on the eastern side of the US. That Cleveland was the last president to hold office completely inside the 19th Century (MacKinley bridges 19th and 20th C).

Projects like LifeLinesII have taken larger sets of data such as patient's health records and medical test results, mashed them up, in order to enable medical professionals to align rank and sort them according to the attributes available on the data. This visualized and parameterized mash up readily facilitates seeing whether and where there might be correlations across populations of timing of a drug, for instance, with respsonses to it when other conditions are present. While IBM's manyEyes shows the value of being able to share visualizations of data quickly for powerful analysis, by adding manipulatable facets onto the visualization, LifelinesII enables dynamic exploration of many "what if" scenarios to be explored and new discoveries through correlations to be made.


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Moving from Data Manipulations to Tracking New Ideas

Facetted browsers and tunable visualizations as we have seen make it possible to ask questions either not easily expressed in a keyword search, but also facilitate rapid refinement of queries with real time direct manipulation. Spatial layout of the data's attributes for manipulation allows relationships within the data to remain available for rapid comparison. Likewise mapping data against different kinds of coordinates like quantity, temporal and spatial qualities enables additional information to be communicated without actively seeking for it, enabling the information implicitly to inform query manipulation.

Related to actual data manipulation for exploring data and generating new insights is the question of what to do with the information while moving through it - information we may want to return to later, but not now; thoughts we have mid stream that we'd like to capture without leaving our current focus. All these types of interactions are components of enhancing our information seeking and knowledge building practice.

Currently, we have seen the use of tags-as-annotation as one strategy to enhance the personal or social network value of found things: a tag helps gather that artefact into many potentially relevant contexts. Indeed, the popularity of online photo tagging has rather destroyed the credibility of the oft expressed sentiment that people won't add metadata to their data. Indeed the social sharing value that tags enables, such as a social network being given a set of artefacts from a space tagged specifically for a collaborative project has high value: someone on the team found this thing relevant to our work. Projects like Folksonomies are considering how more strcutured taxonomies may emerge from these flat spaces in order to add the value of categories for exploration to these annotations.

Beyond tags (single words) to strings, or data that's more recognizable as a note or comment on a document, SparTag.us enables not only notes to be associated with a Web page and shared, but these notes can automatically show up anywhere online the document may be cloned. The authors of the technique make the compelling case that much of the Web's available content, from news articles to blog posts, is frequently reprinted verbatim. But what do we do with something we find interesting in the middle of a search? The most common approach is to bookmark or otherwise record the URL for a given post. As work in Hunter Gatherer showed (2002) however, sometimes we don't want the whole document. We want a piece of a document. In Hunter Gatherer, components of Web pages could be captured by highlighted text and hitting a control key. The text was titled and the URL automatically associated with it, and was captured in a linear list called a "collection. " As mentioned previously, drawing on earlier hypertext ideas and modern graphics processing, work by Donetcheva and Drucker on VIKI takes the collection notion and enables each component captured to be laid out as an individual card (2006). LiveLabs recent version of this project adds machine learning processes so that extracted addresses from a collection can be automatically mapped; books can be explored via extracted author or genre information, and cars by price, engine size, model and so on.

Right now, each of these categories of information extraction - books, cars, addresses, people - have been handwrapped widgets matched with the machine learning, and deployed at personal scale. It will be interesting to see how the benefits of formally facetted data can be brought to wilder data collections where machine learning techniques can extract these values for richer re-presentations.

Whither the Note Book , History and what i don't know i need to know?

At a recent NSF workshop on Information Seeking, two of the components that the discussants kept resurfacing as critical tools for exploratory search were History and Note Keeping. An expressed desire was for tools that would help surface things we should know about if and when we're looking at a given topic.

For history currently, we have the History list of our browsers, it's true. But show me someone who has tried to refind something based on History alone and i'll show you a frustrated person. In mSpace, when someone shares an article with another person, they also share the state of the facets to get to that artefact so a larger context of discovery is available. Going outside the context of a single application, the Jourknow project (UIST07) proposes being able to use local computer context to associate and recover information across personal facets like location (from wireless mapping and calendar information), date, and applications to support questions like "what pages was i looking at when i was in the cafe last sunday?" This kind of approach to information seeking does not discriminate between possible search contexts like public, social, private, or application-specific data. The philosophy beyond journknow is that any process might inform any other process of interrogation and discovery: how can we make them available to each other for exploration? Will this ability to blend personal, social and public data itself surface new knowledge/discoveries?

Such questions lead us to come back to questions around how do we capture and reflect upon the knowledge building we are doing? Right now, the main paradigm for exploration is to "go to the web" - via a browser - to trawl for information. Is this the optimal interaction? It seems there are at least two challenges for knowledge building via information seeking while we are working on our own thoughts, or bluntly, when we are taking notes. We may wish to take notes about something while we're reading it - hence being able to select and annotate web documents, as imagined by Nelson decades ago, is as yet uncommon, and still very much in the research wood shed. But likewise we write notes on our own thoughts. Blogging is a popular demonstration of how well writing notes, thoughts or articles is supported - where we can effortlessly add in links to other information. Indeed, with trackbacks, we can also inform those to whom we've linked that a conversation involving their work is underway. Comments on blogs set up meta conversations around the initial seed of a discussion. Fabulous. But blogging is still largely text based. Sure we can link in photos and YouTube videos, but there is many other kinds of data that we might want to reflect upon and share with others.

For instance, consider a scientist who wants to gather up scientific data generated from an experiment, add some notes, tie in some data about the apparatus, along with several quotations about the informing theory, all to give as a blog to a colleague to ask "why aren't my results what the theory predicted? On a more casual note, someone has used VIKI thoughtfully to gather considerable data about various digital cameras. In the mix is the camera they've selected to purchase. How would that annotation be captured to be shared? or the features that were important easily selected for persistent views? And as the data rapidly goes out of date, how might the person share the attributes of their choice to act as a template for a friend's future choice? Backstory (Venolia 08) is a search tool that has been developed to look at some of these issues within a software developer support group works. Gathering up web based sources with local resources and notes on contexts of use, Backstory makes it possible to share local knowledge within a team across data object types. Backstory is a start to taking collections and making the rationale for those collections easier to share, but we are still very light on such wrapping for reuse tools. Right now, wrapping knowledge about gathered artefacts for reuse is what Dan Olson would call a highly "viscous" process: the cost of carrying out the process of gathering organizing annotating and managing the data may be higher than the perceived benefit, and a knowledge building opportunity is postponed or lo

If these kinds of data gathering and sharing tasks for enhanced knowledge building were better supported, we can readily imagine that the process of discovery and innovation would accelerate. As we have seen with Google, when a process accelerates, such as finding a phone number or a paper or the answer to a "what is it" question, the activities supported by those processes change. If we can do something quickly, trivially now that used to take days or hours, we can move on more rapidly from information seeking to knowledge building.

Related to this kind of human enhanced annotated and gathered set of data for another's engagement is what the machine may be able to bring to the table. A repeated demand at the NSF workshop was, "tell me what i don't know i need to know." Such a challenge goes beyond related recommendations of people who read this also bought that. Recently we looked at search behaviours of 2000 users looking for information on diets. We saw that people who also found diet forums came to a decision about what diet they wanted to pursue in about half the time of others who did not. We also saw that the forum users' queries were quite distinct from those who had not found the forums. We know from related research that social support for dieting is a signficant benefit. This preliiminary study seems to indicate that seeing someone search for diet information, and hooking them up with forums where diet support is the topic of the space would be one of the good things to know that a neophyte would not know they need to know. The design challenges here are significant: how can we surface this kind of valuable associated knowledge that would not show up in a keyword search? how do we reflect back why information of this type was being surfaced? Are there ethical issues around how information is selected to be associated? eg, people who are interested in explosives might also want to know about off shore suppliers of hydrogen peroxide?

These kinds of challenges are exciting to contemplate. They suggest that there are many more ways in which we already want to be able to find, manipulate, ponder, share and reflect upon information - all with the facility of keyword search, but none of which keyword search addresses. All which are part of the larger space of "information seeking" beyond simple "search"

So while Google can certainly find data with an increasingly freaky extrasensory like ability, there are so many other aspects to our information seeking and knowledge building practices that, if they too were on Google like steroids, we could return to that initial scenario of a busy mom being able to come to the computer and say "i want a better job" and see a result set perhaps that shows

Your Interests matched with Current Skills Needed Additional Skills Where to Get Training Where to Apply for Positions Now, here's a package to send - would you like to amend any details? would you like me to dial the number for you?

Posted by mc at 3:53 PM | Comments (0)

October 13, 2008

Zeitgeist the Movie, Elections and Impunity

So i asked awhile ago if elections for president in the US could be predicted on the basis of whose campaign had the most money. I also said i didn't know whose did right now, but that a list of corporate donations was available. Critically, both presidential candidates went to the Senate to vote on a bill that had failed in the house. Both went to support the bill. Both gave speeches to endorse it.

Unlike the UK rescue package just going into effect this morning (Oct 13, 08), it seems there are no shares/stakes in the banks changing hands. There, the operator of the Fed and former head of Goldman Sachs (rival of the failed Lehman Brothers) uses his discretion to buy up bad debt from banks. In the UK, we are told, we actually *own* significant stakes in the banks that are assisted. American tax payers will be absorbing debt in exchange for what? More debt?

There's an interesting film called Zeitgeist. It actually comes in two parts, and the second part, the Addendum, focusses almost exclusively on the monetary system of the Federal Reserve (and IMF and World Bank). In that, by reading through and translating the documents that enable the Fed (a private bank), it makes clear how the current system attaches debt to every dollar created. So each dollar costs the government a dollar + something. And then interest is charged on this money. There's more about loans, inflation and so on, but at the heart of it is with the central bank, dollars are alway money+debt.

This is the system we are all in a sweat to bail out? something that immediately means that through income tax (which some in the states argue is illegal - was never appropriately passed into law) where a quarter of one's earnings goes not to hospitals and other government services, but to service the debt of the Fed - a debt that by its nature can never be repaid, since the creation of a dollar by itself incurs debt.

Whoever thought this was a good idea?

What else is compelling is that it is actually well known that various significant market and bank panics of the past were engineered by bankers in an effort to consolidate their own wealth. this is monopoly capitalism at play. It's not about diversity, is it? And what of the current "crisis"? If it were not manufactured as well, would it not, we are lead to ask, be an exception?

The above is part 1 on the Fed. The rest is on youtube, dvd and at the film's site.
Posted by mc at 9:36 AM | Comments (0)

July 23, 2008

Review of the Warrior Diet's "science" claims Three Cylinder Satisfaction Experience

This entry is really just a pointer to a review of the warrior diet's science claims i did at Begin to Dig, a place where i talk about training. Some folks have asked me why i bothered with this critique, so i thought i'd touch on that here as a "before the blog post" post about a blog.

Because many folks whose training i respect say they practice the warrior diet, i wanted to check it out. It's thumbs down on processed foods and more up on whole foods. It is not unique in this approach. Many folks refer to the emphasis on getting rid of junk food, reducing processed foods of all kinds, and upping whole foods from veggies to legumes "eating clean." Clarence Bass has an entire series of books dedicated to this approach to eating.

So what is unique in this diet since eating clean is taken care of? and why did that end up being so annoying i had to write a big fat review?

The packaging is pretty special.

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The diet in brief is to eat a wee bit during the day, and then have a big meal at night. It prescribes what kinds of things are ok to eat during the day, and the order of things to eat at night. It frames its rationale for this approach in two key things: the mystery of history on the one hand, and so called science on the other.

The mystery of history is to invoke the myth of the warrior, and to say this is how men on the move ate, how our fighting ancestors ate on the prowl, whether we're talking Roman Legions or Paleolithic hunters. Grr.
That the author's support for such claims is pretty thin on the ground historically and archaeologically is as nothing compared to what is presented as the science of how our bodies process food.

And so, i've looked at most of the key claims in the diet, shoved them up against physiology texts, and checked in with various researchers, nutritionists and trainers. The result of this discussion is at Begin to Dig, called "Review of the "Science" claims of the Warrior Diet"

I'll say again here as i do there that my intent is not to stop people from being on the Warrior Diet - many folks claim to have had life-transforming success with this approach, and that they resonate with the Warrior ethos - at least as it's painted in that book. And that's grand.

What i guess ultimately disturbs me is that folks are not being taken to this New Place with all the facts. The analogy i've used recently is that of someone with a screwed up motorbike - running on one cylinder. They encounter a mechanic who speaks to them of the Way of the Rider and the true path to keeping their bike running Pure.

Turns out that ya, the bike runs way better after the mechanic finishes with it, but it's only running on three cylinders. Buried in all the verbiage about cam shafts and high viscosity fuel is that it's just wrong info. The reasons the mechanic is giving for why the bike is running better is just wrong, and it's missing a whole lot of information that would help people maybe find out how to replace the gasket on that fourth cylinder to get even more power out of the engine, and run even better.

The response, i've been surprised to find, has been you know, mc, fuck off. This thing used to run like shit. and now it runs great. and i'm so happy because i barely have to think about taking care of it now, it's running so much better. So keep your theories about how the bike could run better to yourself, and oh ya, don't try to tell me that the Mechanic is wrong. No way. I have the results that say otherwise. My results say i'm getting three times the fuel response as before, it's not dying nearly as often, and i'm well pleased with that. And i tell all my biker buddies to go to the Mechanic too.

So, initially when i saw this response, i didn't get it. See, for me, i thought, well, i would want to know if someone is selling me the goods or is selling me a story, a con, a fake, snake oil - and if i found that they were doing the latter, i'd likely question any other claim such an author made. Not so here.

Fact is, the author's adherents trust him a heck of a lot more than they do me waving the flag of science - especially around nutrition. Books like Taube's Good Calorie Bad Calorie or Pallan's In defense of Food give a good historical kicking to the politicization of science in nutrition, and a casual read would make it easy for folks to say those scientists don't know everything; scientists get lots wrong - especially in nutrition. Fats used to be bad; now they're good. So much for science.

Consider the source. It's not "science" - it's usually the media or some federal agency selectively representing a single study or a sterilized position to the People. Science becomes the straw dog of these authors. In this case it's two journalists reviewing the history of various facets of what Pallan references as "nutritionism" - it's very interesting, and great reads, but also some unnecessary straw dogging of science to make points. And a lot of readers whose only view of Science is through such books are well satisfied to use it to dis science anywhere else. If it can't explain how a bee flies (myth), then i ain't gonna trust it to tell me how to eat.

Interestingly, folks who get p.o'd at my review for suggesting that the science claims in the WD don't stand up, and who criticize "science" in general, don't seem to get that it's their author that started it by asserting his position as founded on "science." Others just brush that part of the discussion of all together. Who cares about the accuracy or not of the theory; it's the results that count.

But what results? whose? Are they three cylinder results and three cylinder better than one satisfaction?

It's amazing to me that we can be so defensive and protective of our norms, to our current comfort zone, that we are reluctant to see, perhaps things could be better -we mayn't be able to imagine what that would be like, but what if it could be? What does that mean?

Many people say that satisfaction is a great thing to achieve - i'm satisfied, they may say, with my progress, with myself, with my health, with my practices.

Why? How? What is the basis of that complacency? What is the cost?

What i've seen here, besides a whole lot about the digestive system and the human energy system from doing this science review, is that new ideas can be experienced as threatening, dangerous; if they don't fit current paradigms, it becomes easy to dismiss them. This really isn't new. What question it raises for me that is new is why. Why the reluctance to consider another position? especially if satisfied with where one is? Wouldn't that make it that much easier to look at other ideas?

Dunno. i just dunno about that one, but i would conclude by saying that the discourse of the warrior diet is highly reminiscent of tales of don juan. And that's all the signifier i need on that one.

and so,
oh you tee, to paraphrase good buddy will williams.

Posted by mc at 7:25 PM

June 27, 2008

Laurie Anderson on the Star Spangled Banner

Thank heavens for youtube.

The work of the artist is to make us see the familiar afresh - to defamiliarize and thus cause us to look anew at the thing conceptualized.

In the late 80's or early 90's (they blur), Laurie Anderson did a series of "public service announcements" from Women and Money to Jerry Rigging. One of these was about the Star Spangled Banner - the US of A's National Anthem. I had certainly never thought of the song this way - as she puts it - just a series of questions: heh, is that a fire? couldn't really say, it's early in the morning...

And that's it really: a nation's anthem is about someone noticing a place going to hell during a fire and a flag waving away. So important - no matter what. The brand label survives. X marks the spot. Let X, knock knock, equal X.

anyway, here it is:

Posted by mc at 12:12 PM

June 25, 2008

Utilikilts Review: Un-bifrucated Quality & Service

KiltI've said it before: the things that make a product great are not just the excellence of the product but also the information and engagement around the product while considering a purchase and then the support of the product after a sale is complete - especially if/when something goes pear shaped. Utilikilts, an American company that makes "American Made Utility Kilts for Everyday Wear" definitely stands in the company of Great Company because of its entire kilt culture experience.

The following post is a review of Utilikilts: it tells the story of why from the in-store experience (and ya gotta get the in-store experience especially for the utilikilt-as-changing room effect), support and post sales problem resolution is rock solid.

So if you're a guy and haven't considered a kilt before, why the heck not? Are you a sissy? If you're a gal, these put the fun into funky - far more fun/funk than jeans, worn low as hipsters.

Utilikilts makes the kilt experience a cultural phenomenon that is explorable, affordable and perhaps best of all usable. The following illustrates how and why that is so.

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"Welcome Home"
200806211630 was the way i was greeted as i walked into the Utilikilt flagship store in Seattle. This from a200806211632 staff member whom i'd not met before. I had on a Utilikilt Workman's kilt (the model displayed in the Victoria and Albert museum (pdf) in London), a brown leather jacket and my hair down. Each point was commented upon as a totally righteous way for a gal to "crossdress" with a utilikilt ("cross-dressing" is what utilikilt calls gals who wear their gear). Not used to this kind of enthusiastic greeting from sales staff, i was both flumoxed and delighted - did this person know that i was coming into the store because there'd been a size issue with another kilt i'd ordered? No, it turns out, he did not. This is just the Way of the Kilted Men of Utilikilt greet members (of either gender) of the Clan.

So that was nice. And leads me to wax on a bit about the
In Store Experience of Utilikilt

It may be important to make clear that Utilikilts are designed for Guys, for those Manly Men secure enough in their masculinity to enjoy the freedom of going unbifrucated. Consequently they spend considerable time in their promotional literature to assert the Grr-ness of kilt wearing. To this end they have a suite of Mock-u-mercials made by Utilikiltarians protesting the manliness (and robust functionality) of their Kilt. This award winner, for instance, blends a sub plot of getting an upper chest tattoo with a main plot of carrying out metal work and welding while donning a skull-painted welder's mask (really nice paint job), and of course, wearing a utilikilt.

Howiekilt2

While in the FAQ they are quick to point out that "women look hot" in their kilts, this intense masculine vibe may suggest an atmosphere unwelcoming to those willing to "cross-dress." I was willing to risk at least crossing the threshold of the store for two reasons: i work out with guys who are nail bending bad ass Big Men, and they are some of the nicest kindest folks i know. So my guess was behind the Grr were sweet people. Likewise, i am passionate in my love of kilts. And pockets. My main kilt lust has thus far been sufficed by Howie Nicholsby's excellent custom made-to-measure 21st Century Kilts from Edinburgh - that have great pockets (shown left in blue pinstripe denim with Howie's custom Juggling Rooster Seat Belt belt).

Much to my delight, when i arrived at the store there were two really geeky guys trying on kilts (not quite the heavy metal rock poster children of many in the utilikilt photo gallery site). Right on. Kilts for All Men (and gals who love unbifrucated pocketed garments)

The customer base exemplified at that moment was not threatening. Indeed, the kind of clean grunge feel of the store itself was funky and inviting.

Kiltguys

Blended with the atmosphere comes the in-store sales experience. I was immediately impressed by the fact that there was one sales person in the store, Andrew, and he managed several customers (including me) at once - and effectively so - balancing the awareness of when one of us had a question and needed attention, and when one us needed to mull . Impressive.

Waiting Room. My sense from the next experience in the shop is that this multitasking brilliance may be Andrew's forté. I would therefore encourage anyone planning to visit the shop to make sure you have time to browse, since having the full attention of people on the floor can be a bit of a wait. On this account it would be nice if there were a few more surfaces for sitting, rather than making do with various edges or tool boxes.
Once attention is had, however, it is full on YOU, and care of your sizing and specific kilt interests (utilikilt makes a number of models).

This attention is critical - perhaps especially when fitting women since, as the web site FAQ says, fitting a utilikilt for gals is different than fitting guys. As my hand went to grabbing a kilt close to my waist size, Andrew's hand was there to go further up the rack to larger sizes "these fit on the hips for women" and he was so right. They are hipsters.

And how does one try on a utilikilt?
"So, where is the changing room"
"The Utilikilt is its own changing room," states Andrew, opening out a kilt to walk into, have wrapped around one, and therefrom to drop one's drawers beneath. Goodness. What fun. When was the last time trying something on in a store was so risky (not riskee) - or that a guy helped you robe in such an intimate, if seemingly semi-public way.

After a couple of iterations, an OK fit in one kilt went to a SUPER oh ya that *works* fit version of the kilt. This is why buying online may be a *wee bit* problematic for gals - and why the web site also recommends "go to where the kilts are" for women trying them out.

Which brings us to the next story: the Incorrect Order : even when you THINK from having been in the store that you know your size, the material of the kilt *may well* have a significant impact on the actual size you (a gal) might get for your hipster, cross-dressing utilikilt.

This was an error: in my enthusiasm for these groovy garments, i ordered another model in the same size. The tricky bits were (a) i didn't realize that all sales were final and (b) i was rushed at the time (c) and was trying to avoid the cost/time of a cab ride from Bellevue into Seattle. My previous sale made me think that oh i must know my sizing.

Perhaps the wonderful Johnny with whom i placed this order might have interrogated me to find out either how i had arrived at my sizing or what kind of kilt i had purchased, since the materials may cause a slightly different fit. But perhaps this is an issue that had not actually come up before for fitting a gal (maybe few women buy multiple instances of these things?)

But then, something else that would have been useful to hear on the phone as well was "just a reminder: all sales are final." When i had been in the shop, the kilt i got was a special sale item and Andrew stated clearly "you realize this is a sale item: all sales final; no refunds or exchanges" - No problem: i had the kilt on and was wearing it out of the store. So realize this: all sales are final; only in store credits.

As said, when i ordered this kilt i was dealing with Shipping Jedi (their nomenclature) Johnny at the 800 number for the store. Why did i have more than one chat with Johnny other than to order the item? Because i wanted to arrange to have the kilt picked up by courier in Seattle and delivered to me in Bellevue - apparently this had never happened before. But they were up for it. I treasure the intrigued directions on how to get the courier to the right part of the correct alley to make the pick up. Johnny emailed me to confirm that it had been picked up, and the kilt arrived without incident. Shout out to FleetFoot Couriers in Seattle for their excellent service.

Arriving at the hotel, unpacking the kilt, this is when the concern started: was the kilt just too big, and thus too long from hanging too low on the hips? After a tough evening hemming and hawing about does it fit, does it not? oh gee i think it's too big...what am i gonna do, will i have to return it, i read the fine print on the sales slip: no refunds. And so i had to call Johnny again to say why does this kilt fit so differently? is there a solution? what might it be? If there isn't another right fitting, right colour kilt in stock, am i stuck with this gorgeous but not particularly usable kilt?

Here's where customer service goes to the Right Next Level. Johnny immediately recognized that the usual In Store Credit offered to someone from another country who might never be back in the state to claim it might not be the best customer experience. So "while we are confident that we can get you fitted into the right fit, i've talked with Ben, my manager, who's said yes, in these unique and extraordinary circumstances we'll drop the kilt if we can't get a fit for you." That's cool. So, transport arrangements made, the clock ticking (i had a flight to catch), i head down to the store being assured that the replacement color at the replacement size would be waiting for me.

Jasonbrett-Utili-Sm Amazingly, when i got to the store late that afternoon, it seemed that the replacement kilt of the right size and color had gone walk about. Brett, the staffer who had greeted me with "welcome home" spent considerable cycles on attempting to locate that kilt that Johnny had previously asked Andrew who'd had to go home sick early to pull and set aside. I tired on a longer one with the right waist that they could "chop" - but then i had a plane to catch and their sowers had all gone home for the day. But they'd been willing to find a solution that way if it had been available. Andrew was even called at home, and pulled out of his sick bed to be queried on where he had put the pulled kilt. It just wasn't there.

In a proactive fit of excellence, Brett went down the road to the warehouse himself to go look for the wrap in question. Rather than come back empty handed, Brett came back with a kilt of the right waist and length - though not the color i had picked, but what the heck? Tried it on. Loved how it felt.

Fitting again: Here's an interesting thing: this right size/length but different color model i left with felt *better* in fit than the long version that was supposedly the same waist, just longer. Once again, this reinforces the point on their site: go to where the kilts are. I don't know why the difference - maybe it's cuz on a longer kilt, the pockets are lower down; maybe it's because each of these is hand machine sewn, so there's slight differences. Maybe it's because different dies create different textures. But in each case of each kilt i tried on, each felt unique unto itself.

Fitting Note 2: Women's Tanks. If you're interested in one of the few made-for-women items in the shop, like the hot ribbed tank, gals may find they wish to go up one size. These American Apparel made tanks fit *tight* - even when going one up from your typical, anticipated snug fit shirt. Likewise, go in with a bra/top cover you're happy to wear in public: this is one area where a utilikilt may not be its own changing room.

And, with the kilts exchanged, that was pretty much it. One might stomp and spit a bit: how, after all these conversations and assurances, could the bloody kilt have gone walk about? It was no small deal to come down from Bellevue to Seattle, etc etc. You know, i don't know. Stuff happens. In the worst case, my worst fear was addressed anyway: that if no kilt available, then i could just return this one for a full refund, which was totally off the song sheet of the shop in anycase, so really, no harm no foul, and these guys were working it. Honour and all that satisfied. In future they may keep their pulls better labelled and stashed, but as said, in this case, it worked out: there was a well agreed Plan B in place and for that i thank Utilikilt.

Wrapping Up. Brett also resolved the sale well, and just as we were packing up, even Johnny called over to see if all had been settled out ok, while Jason went on a mission back to the warehouse to get me a not-for-sale Utilikilt mug as a gesture to say thanks for the patience; sorry for the mix up.

The staff at Utilikilt have plainly drunk the Kool Aid, which lends to a super experience. These guys seem to live the product. Andrew had had utilikilts for 7 years; Brett had plainly gone through a suite of them, recounting various experiences with different models at different points in time. It's a strong testament to a retail store that it can hold staff for a long enough period that they know the stock so well and how to fit people and keep up excellent customer service, from phone orders to in store experience. It is a kind of culture thing, and that's cool, too.

So kudos to Andrew, Johnny, Brett for sales handling, Jason for backing up Brett in the store, Sam for connecting the calls and Ben for supporting Johnny on Plan B. Despite the bumps, a super customer experience.

Epilogue: Walking down the Street
The Utilikilt culture is in evidence around the store. As i was walking towards it, about a block away, another kilted person was coming out of it - same kilt model even. There seemed to be an initial disconnect on the gender: am i seeing what i'm seeing - a gal in a kilt? Is that ok? Then, the quiet nod of the head to each other in passing, acknowledging. It reminded me of how in Canada, where motorcycles are far less common than they are in europe, folks on motorbikes tend to nod at each other: we know we're a wee bit off the norm in this pursuit, the nod admits, and we support each other in that. The Utilikiltarian nod felt similar.

Also, the number of times while in the Seattle/Tacoma region someone said to me "Is that a Utilikilt?" or "I love your utilikilt" has grown more than i can count. Brand awareness of this local product seems pretty good. I learned that at Microsoft and Boeing, Utilikilts have the status of "authorized wear." Even at the airport going through security, one of the personnel asked the Is that a... question. I'm ready for it now, as it's kept happening well outside the Home State. Indeed, it's become clear to me why Utilikilt pads a pocket of a new kilt with their business cards: they're to handle the number of times a person gets asked about the garment. So now i just say "Yes it is. Here's a card for the site and how to order"

Some folks aren't ready to make the leap to unbifrucatedness. Some folks chat a bit. Others break out in a big smile, and say thanks, staring at that card like it's magic. It's interesting to see the array of guys who comment, and talk about wanting to take the plunge.

I'm running out of cards.

Posted by mc at 7:20 PM

December 19, 2007

Temporal Mapping in Arts and Humanities Data: Where and When's Waldo?

The most popular current Web 2.0 representation is geography: putting everything on a map. It's a powerful thing to do: when we can SEE how close registered sex offenders are to schools and day cares, we have certain reactions about where our psychic sense of "too near" or "too far" meets the legal/phyiscal interpretation of "appropriate distance." A little bit of information, as has been said many times, can be a dangerous thing. This particular offender/schools mash up does not provide a brushing interface that, say, relates re-offender statistics based on various distances from schools to help confirm whether our sense of dread is well-founded our not.

It is with this caveat in mind that, our group has been thinking about how adding not just mapping but temporal mapping might be for a project we have called musicSpace to integrate a variety of musicology sources for easy exploration. More recently in a project called continuum we'd been looking at how to map rich data sets like classical music onto timelines so that the visualization doesn't implode. That is, if there's lots of stuff going on at the same time in a time line, all the info looks like a big blob, or if you zoom out, you lose the surrounding context. Our challenge was to solve the "too much info=blob; too little=not enough information" dilemma. Inspired by that work, we'd like to take what we learned there and think map thoughts.

Mapping Time

What we are calling Temporal Mapping is not unknown but it's not common. to be clear, temporal mapping has one meaning in discussions of disease tracking for instance that doesn't involve visualizations; spatio-temporal mapping has another meaning in computing. The kind of temporal mapping we're considering is more akin to an example from the Land Cover Institute which on a map over a relatively stable geography shows how population density has grown and spread over 200 years. Other work shows how the geography of a place itself (such as a river valley) changes over time.

'Istanbul was Constantinople now its Istanbul" - They Might Be Giants

Our sense of temporal mapping it turns out is more complex than these example because it turns out we are looking at a variety or parameters that change: in terms of locations, borders change; names change and even the geography can change. One way to reflect this change is to use maps that can present borders/locations that are accurate for a given period - this assumes that various places recognize the same borders/place names. Consider the mapping of Taiwan as a political representation issue. To use the music examples, if a composer created something in the 1700s, the borders of the domains were different and the place names may be too, so we need to have maps with borders and place names that are accurate for that time. As we discuss below, there are other issues that come into play when, to coin a phrase, wanting to co-map points that cross times, and thus cross representations of locations.

Even if we don't want to co-map, but restrict ourselves to single maps, there are some challenges: if we know where a piece was composed we map that; if we know where a composer was born we map that, if we know where a composer first performed a piece we map that.

There are a few data subtleties there: do all objects in a classical music repository now need Lat/Long data associated with them, as well as a date? Even there the temporal bit is not so obvious: there are kinds of dates and kinds of locations: how tease these out so they are clear in the UI? so it's clear a person is choosing to see performance dates/locations rather than composition dates/locations. What happens if a work was known to have been taken out and put away over a range of places and times? How is that stored in an object in order to be represented?

If we put aside that question of the back end data representations and UI finesse for the moment, let's assume whatever it is we want to map in music we can map, the more glaring, basic challenges are how both borders and place names have changed not just over the centuries but even within decades. Maps that only map against geography lat/long have it somewhat easier than mapping against historically/politically accurate representations.

And as always, the question of how to represent the information is non-obvious. For instance, how handle multiple names or boundaries for a place? Only show the appropriate name for the specific time? Show all versions to provide context not only of place but between times? These kinds of decisions become critical when crossing domain representations. For example, what happens when looking for a location in europe that produced the most major compositions of the Romantic Era relative to location(s) in Europe of most significant performances in early 20thC. The borders and place names from the 1700s and indeed even between 1914 and 1920 change several times.

So Temporal Mapping is?
Perhaps a fast way to begin to think about temporal mapping in arts and humanities data that involves people, places and times is to be able to accurately reflect these places as they were interpreted both in their times, and in ours, and to be able view these comparisons from any variety of perspectives - comparatively, relatively.

Animation and Insight
A potential benefit of developing temporal mapping approaches for arts/humanities data is in meaning that is communicated through animation: if we can step through the various places by time of where Beethoven worked - see who else was in the neighborhoods at various points, and correlate that with specific works, and perhaps specific historical events and their key locations, can we begin, almost at a glance, to get a new appreciation of a domain space? Do seeing these patterns animated over time and space and politics and whatever else let us ask new kinds of questions - questions that would have been potentially intractable to ask before?

These are early days for our investigations, but from early scenarios domain experts have given us, the ability to step through time, and to see events of interest comparatively across time and space, is a thing devoutly to be wished. These representational desires are driving our current UI research efforts.

Posted by mc at 7:22 PM

August 26, 2007

The 50 Thousand Pound Local Phone Call: How UK banking has Changed in 18 months

That local Call that was Free and Normal Service 18 months ago now costs Fifty Thousand Pounds
A few years ago when we arrived from Canada, we went to the bank branch close to where we would live, met with the branch manager and set up various accounts and credit cards. The manager, Simon, kindly gave us his card and said be sure to call anytime. He also told us about places in town for good eats, and places to avoid "Oh yes, that's where i got mugged." Personal service! It was great.

There were very few times we actually had cause to call Simon, but it was lovely to be able to speak with him. We were sad when he moved and wrote the head office a nice letter about how grand he'd been.

That was then. Over the past year or so our branch is no longer a "branch" - it's been re-designated a "service branch" which means it has no manager (if one thinks this downsizing is due to the bank losing money, it's not: they made £11.7BILLION profit last year). If we want to talk with a manager now we cannot call that branch up the road directly; we have to call a call center in India, answer a barrage of security questions ("But i just want a call back; why do you need my date of birth?") and hope that someone local gets back to us.

The main high street banks have now come up with a new Premier Service: they will once again give you a direct local line to your branch manager *if* you have either £50k in savings or make £75k a year AND have a mortgage of 250K or more (see any of the big 4 for their version of same). What was once free, and a default part of banking in England has now become the privilege of the well-heeled few. £50k. For a name and a local phone number.

12 billion in profit and the bank wants 50K for a local phone number. Is that the definition of obscene or have i missed something?

And if you haven't the money reserves to get you into this Premier league of service, count on continuing to be considered suspect each time you pick up the phone and want to ask a question. Your call center will be asking the questions here, bub. And you better be fast with the right answers, or suffer the consequences: getting your call dropped; having your internet access suspended, and/or having a note on your file that you refused to answer security questions.

Don't let anyone tell you there ain't no class system here. As far as UK's big banks are concerned, they've just re-enginered it with a vengeance.

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Posted by mc at 4:09 PM

February 17, 2007

What does the semantic web look like? What's the model to describe it easily?

I've been pondering what the paradigm for the Semantic Web is:

if the Web is like a page + links, what's the analogue for the semantic web?

Where i've come to recently after thinking "star trek next generation's computer in conversation with Geordi LaForge" is a researcher's notebook + memex: a place that blends work in progress with internal and external associations/contexts that become explorable for building new knowledge. The key to the analogy of the notebook is the notion of work in progress, where notes include scattered fragments of information where context/structure is often implicit, and can reach out to external sources, knowledge, references.

I've discussed this analogue in more detail (with pictures) in a blog piece called
"What is the Analogue for the Semantic Web? If the Web is like a Page+Links, the SW is like a..."

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Posted by mc at 11:45 AM

November 3, 2006

Webmaster/Webmistress: oh come on!

I was just at a press conference where a lead figure in computer science was discussing Web masters - and Web mistresses too, he adds quickly in a bid to be inclusive.

Who came up with the term web MASTER? or the even more problematic, S&M flavoured web MISTRESS. As if anyone could master the web or even their corner of it (beat it into submission?)?

The master, the mistress. Lords and Ladies of the manner. The bosses. The classes. So much for the democratization of the infosphere. At least we talk about bloggers rather than blogsters and blogstresses (think aviator and aviatrix).

10 or so years ago when the web was just hotting up within university departments, i proposed the term "webster" as an alternative to web master. Webster, i proposed, is informed by terms like waiter, or server, or manager. Gender neutral; no claims to special class or authority.

I'd thought at the time that i was making up a word. On further lexical research, it turns out that the term exists, and has its roots in weaving culture. Even more apropos, no? So why not use it? Why is it still important for many to identify a gender with a role?

Just a question.

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Posted by mc at 2:33 AM | Comments (0)

July 1, 2006

Tony and Cleo in the Big Brother House: RSC's Antony and Cleopatra at the Swan

As someone who studied Shakespeare as an undergrad and a grad, i'd been given to think of Antony and Cleopatra as one of the tragedies. Tragedy, i'd learned, at least from the audience perspective, has to do with our experience of a sense of loss: that by the tragic hero's death, no matter how problematic that hero, like Macbeth or Hamlet, their going leaves the world emptier than with them in it. The other accepted truism is that the tragic figure must also be something above and beyond ourselves. Hence, usually royal, but that royalty has some greater biggness to it than title.

This week i saw the Royal Shakespeare Company's production of Antony and Cleopatra, and have been puzzling ever since, where's the tragedy? where's the loss? Does the loss overbalance what's left? is this play a tragedy? What made me think it was before?

Or maybe the fault is with the production: Is this a really crappy production of the play which misses delivering on the tragic; where all we get is a look at some particularly problem characters with more money than sense, or is this a really accurate presentation of the text, where we don't get tragedy, because who's sad to see either Antony or Cleopatra go if who they are are the self-interested, petty, monied shites they seem to be? At least with Octavian the last one standing, he at least seems to care about keeping the state running and ending civil war. What's happening here??

In the production, there's little opportunity to see grandeur of what is lost by Antony and Cleopatra's eventual death, even though we are left with Octavian - at least he seems to be more economical with the troops he spends in battle, where Antony's and Cleopatra's decisions cost lives carelessly.

In the early scenes of Act 1, where Cleopatra repeatedly entreats Antony to hear the messengers from Rome, there is an opportunity to see Cleopatra as at least somewhat politically astute, cajoling Antony towards dealing with a potential crisis in Rome. Not a spec of that awareness in the RSC production - the words are played literally: Cleopatra is saying that Antony's wife just wants to get him away from her - nothing else. There's no hint here that she is striving to use that as an excuse to get Antony to deal with his reponsibilities: the lines are played like this is exactly what she means: she's jealous of Fulvia's potential to provoke Antony into leaving her. That the personal actions of these people have highly political consequences seems either oblivious to Antony and Cleopatra or they just don't care. This portrayl of cleopatra has, however, been celebrated by some reviewers.

Antony is also played as simply reactive, and consequently dangerous, starting from his if Cleopatra says see the messengers then he won't see them - until he's alone. Not particularly appealing is his blaming of her for everything that doesn't go right for him, whether it's his enjoyment of egypt itself - bonds he suddenly feels he must break - or his fleeing after Cleopatra in the battle of Actium . She should have known he'd leave if she did. That's part of the problem: they act as if they're the only people involved. The social cost of their highly personal reactions to each other have a higher cost than anything Octavian does in the play. And perhaps it's that this production doesn't provide a way to see this self-involvement as anything particularly noble that makes it difficult to experience the deaths of either as particularly tragic.

Indeed, in the production, Stewart's Antony is in deep need of therapy: in the second half, post Actium, he starts yelling without much provocation. He goes from quiet recitation to full throated yelling. It's not a subtle performance, and that was a surprise and disappointment. There's also not much listening to others on stage. For instance, in the battle of Actium preparation when everyone is telling him not to fight by the sea, the line in the text is "Antony: The Sea, the sea" - and that's about how Stewart delivers it - a throw away. He's not listening, getting angry and responding with "if you tell me this, then i'll do that" - there's just no listening. He's in his own little world. No wonder so many soldiers abandon ship as it were: he's out of touch with reality and who wants to die for a delusion? Perhaps then, that's a reasonable interpretation of Antony: he doesn't care about how his orders are received. He can just do what he wants.

But likewise later when he has Ceasar's messenger whipped who has kissed Cleopatra's hand, Stewart's Antony just goes into a rant, looking like Mr Magoo in a kilt having a fit, arms flailing. We see no sense of jealousy; he's just a demented old man who thinks his plaything's being taken away, rather than someone feeling the sense of his loss. In a following scene, he'll insist that one of his own soldiers whose done well take and kiss cleopatra's hand. There's not one look on the stage that shows anyone -including Antony - is aware of the contrast.

Now maybe all that is a legitimate way to play the text, but it just puts us at an increasing distance from the character - and sure tragedy does that too: watch Macbeth or Hamlet at their worst - Hamlet causing the deaths of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern for instance, but they recover their nobility by the end of the play; we are brought back to them, usually out of growing awareness of how much worse those around them are. In this production, we are never close to the characters, except perhaps in the first act, but that's more politeness around characters we don't exactly know, than any real feeling of closeness. On hearing of Enobarbus's defection, Antony sends Enobarbus's goods after him rather than keeping them to supplement his own war chest. Enobarbus and his new Roman cohorts recognize Antony as "a Jove" in this generosity. But the act is given short shrift in the production, such that again, any sense of Antony's nobility is cut off by his short-sighted, self-delusion and pettiness.

Beyong the loss of greatness, in this production, they go for farce too frequently, including in the early scenes: Cleopatra's treatment of the messenger when his bad news (Antony's married) has Cleopatra potentially attacking him is played as comedy, not as seeing Cleopatra as feeling this news as a betrayl or loss. Why? this keeps Cleopatra as a joke; not as someone whose passions are so deep. Here she is portrayed as shallow, overall. An actress remembering her glory days of acts, not of a character experiencing depth of feeling. But that too may be a legitimate way to play the text - maybe the lines don't really give her anything other than superficial passions - it's just harder to care about her with such a portrait - it's also harder to believe that all these significant men from Ceasar to Dolabella by the end of the play would fall for her.

Some actions played as comedy seem more problematic than the above scene. In the scene where Antony botches his own suicide, and there he is dying, collapsed on the floor, immobile, because he believes Cleopatra has already killed herself, a messenger from cleopatra comes in, gets down at floor level to say right to antony, and says

"the queen has sent word to you" -
- when?
-now.

Even before Antony asks "when?", the audience cracks up. The interaction is played as comedy. Stewart's Antony also starts to laugh. In an open discussion with the cast after the play, stewart says that this laugh was the assistant director's idea - but that overall they wanted the play to be as human as possible. Others in the cast said that one of the ways they were looking at it was as a kind of celebrity expose, where we see behind the closed doors of the Royals, and this is what we get.

And as for Octavian's performance - it is one note: someone who's really really sincere. and pauses. alot. between words. of a line. to show. just how sincere. he is.

The actor says he wanted to play Octavian as less of a cold calculating fish and more of an emotional character who hero worships his enemy Antony. Not sure where he gets the hero worship, though Octavian certainly seems to parrot many of his actions, but the actor claims that several times Octavian is accused of weeping in the play so he must be a more emotional guy than most have given him credit.

He too plays Octavian literally from the text: for instance, he plays the scene of getting Antony to mary Octavia as if Agripa's "studies" proposal for marriage came as a surprise to Octavian. And if it did, Agripa doesn't even "ahem" and cautiously try to interpose the idea. He just sails into it. But Octavian, as soon as he hears that Antony considers himself free to marry, doesn't evan blanch at the idea. And yet later on, he's played the scene where Octavian bids farewell to Octavia and Antony as if he can't stand to let her go. The two scenes' responses to Octavia seem therefore inconsistant: the one throws away Octavia in marriage to an enemy; the next seems filled with almost incestuous reluctance to let go of her. Surely if that's how he felt, that first scene where the marriage is proposed should show at least some reluctance on his part to make this political bargain, if that's how it's to be played?

The only actor on stage who seems to hear the words he's saying, speak them like they are thoughts or interactions with other characters is Ken Bones' Enobarbus. His description to Agripa et al of Cleopatra's barge is the only moment of embodied poetry in the play. He conveys the sense that despite his Roman cynicism, he is moved by Cleopatra. She is a force for illusion and emotion. Pity the rest of the play lets that portrayal just ring hollow.

But is that what's in the play? Only moments of memory like these, cast against a smallness of Tony, Cleo and Ocky in the Big Brother House, having to perform ridiculous tasks to see who gets voted out first? Or perhaps it's more Survivor, where Sextus Pompei is voted off the island first; last to go are Antony, then Cleopatra and Octavian is the winner. How is that tragedy? Indeed, watching this version of the play felt more akin to watching an episode of the Sopranos: fascinated, occasionally hopeful, but simultaneously repulsed by knowledge of the leads' self-interested insensitivity/rationale of their tangential cruelties.

Joyce Carole Oates starts an interesting piece talking about the Tragedy of Imagination - that unlike in other tragedies where the tragedy comes of the hero having to confront his (ya his) illusions and confront reality, that's something that doesn't happen here. Cleopatra and Antony stick with their version of the world throughout the play. Though not said explicitly, for Oates, the tragedy seems to be the potential loss of poetry that goes out of the world when it loses its two best poets, Antony and Cleopatra. With them goes illusion of "sun drenched Egypt."

I dunno. That used to be sufficient for me to say, yes well, that's the big loss and we're left with Octavian who's so constantly contrived (tho he cries, and rages at Antony's message to him where "he calls me boy!" - oh how the audience laughs at this explosion onto the stage at the start of the scene). But again, the tragedy may be that the world is seen as so polarized: why are the practical poetry-less, and the poets useless at best or harmful at worst? Not a tragedy - an anti-Romance perhaps?

It's interesting that the RSC has put performances of Romeo and Juliet in the main theater against Antony and Cleopatra in the Swan: was the irony deliberate?

As for the production at the RSC, while the cast may have striven for something "more human" it seems they lost communicating something grand. Humanity does not have to be equivalent with vapidity, but that seems to be the case here. The venialness, the superficiality of cleopatra and the lack of awareness/hysteria of Antony make it seem like nothing so grand as poetry is lost when these characters suicide themsleves, rather, that this illusion-driven allowance for self-indulgence and social harm would be better for everyone if it slept with the fishes. And that's as close to tragic catharsis this production achieves.

Post Script

Re-reading the play didn't help get a better sense of the tragic. Indeed, the production could be a fairly straight reading of the text, though it still seems that Cleopatra could have been both more sensual and more politic, and Antony less extreme in his mood swings. But so? While i didn't experience a great tragic loss or catharsis, it was still awesome to see shakespeare live - with great costumes, sets, to hear the words spoken aloud, and at the Swan, which is designed similar to Elizabethan theaters. Jeez, Patrick Stewart paced past me four times as he (and others) used the theater patron's exits and entrances as well as the stage's own doors. Fantastic! A real opportunity to get up close with the play in the real as well as the round.

This play is part of the RSC's complete works year putting on shakespeare's complete plays. If you're anywhere around the UK this year, try to find a way to catch one of the plays.

Posted by mc at 10:21 PM | Comments (0)

June 11, 2006

Audiophile by Headphone: nice ways to listen to music in small spaces

When working in a lab or open office environment one gets used to the idea of listening to music with headphones. Anyone walking around with an ipod or other portable audio player also knows the charms of auditioning music in our own little worlds. But there's something else that can happen with headphones, especially if one enjoys music: one can get closer to an audiophile experience.

By audiophile experience i mean the audio experience one has when listening to awesome loudspeakers powered by awesomely clear amps in a space that can show them off (a colleague of mine in Music said that one of the best investments people could make in their stereo system is double glazing).

No but really, what *is* an audiophile experience? It's hard to describe unless you've experienced it. Or actually lots of people spend lots of cycles describing audiophile experiences (it is an industry afterall), but words like soundstage, air, black backgrounds, noise floor, etc etc mean little without some audio point of reference for them.

I had what i would call my first near-audiophile experience a few months back. I went into my favorite audio shop, Phase3 HiFi where i'd been getting stuff like rca connectors and bits and pieces, talked with Sam Lowe, a super friendly and knowledgeable sales person who i've watched give equivalent time and help to somebody asking about a £3 cable as to someone about to drop £3.5k on a cd player.
And that's part of what makes a store like Phase3 worth one's custom: every customer is important; the atmosphere is friendly, knowledgeable and not pretentious. And most especially folks are both keen about what they do as well as helpful. They convey a sense of passion, without ever feeling like you've walked into a scene from High Fidelity where you're made to feel like an idiot becuase (a) you don't know the difference between tubes and solid state or (b) you're not A Rich Audiophile Geek. An example of this kind of passion and easygoingness lead to this story:

I asked Sam if i could have a listen to the components he'd been saying were just oh so fantastic. So that's what we did. We went to their listening room (which looks like a normal living room - very sensible) and Sam sets up the £3K (in GBPs) preamp and £4.5k amp ("This is the set up the Royal Opera House uses") and that £3.5k cd player and the £3k speakers AND the £300 worth of cables to connect the amp, pre and cd player, and the £1000 worth of speaker cable.. (at one point Sam swapped out the £170 speaker cable he'd used for this £1000 Chord Signature UK cable. Don't let anyone tell you wire is wire: another myth shattered: there is a difference. and it's not subtle. Noise i didn't notice before was just gone. The effect that let the music stand out against a "black" background was jaw dropping in contrast. The effect of this absence was stunning).

When everything was set up just so, i was asked if i wanted a coffee while invited to sit on the couch and listen . We'd been benchmarking everything against the eric clapton's live and unplugged cd they had which was a revelation in itself. With this, Sam swapped around a variety of types of speakers and amps, too, just to show what effect each part had on the sound. And then he made one small adjustment (swapped one preamp for another) and my god (really) it was a religious experience. It was just so locked in, the combination. Then, going to another level, i popped in one of my fave instrumental tracks, and ok, i wept. It was piercing, the experience.

Now, i'm a musician and a music lover, and once upon a time i used to both gig live events and record music in actual real studios. I thought i knew what recorded music on a "good" system sounds like. I was SO WRONG. I had no idea that this sound experience of getting this close to (recorded) music was possible. You may be in the same position: you're heard the term audiophile, may have an idea that that means people with more money than sense, but perhaps you've not HEARD what a truly high end system can do to those bits on a cd (or to waves from vinyl for that matter). If you care about music at all, i am sure you will not walk away unchanged from the experience. It's an experience i'd pay for: to be able to use that room, that set up, say for an afternoon, just to listen to music like that.

Rent the audiophile experience rather than purchase it. Why not? Especially since not a lot of people i know are at a place either where they can or would think of heading into that heady space of forking out 7-10k for the "entry level" system above just to have that rush of an audio experience in their homes. They have kids to put through college; car payments, mortgages, student loans to pay off. And, just in passing, yes, £7-10k, the cost of a small automobile, is entry level. What would be "high end"? Consider something like the 75kUS/pair for british made Chord Electronics monoblock power amps and you go from price of car to substantial down payment on a house.

There is another way to get close to that heady audio experience: try headphones. Wiith a little help from some good headphone gear, which is about a tenth the cost for an equivalent speaker-based experience it's possible to get that kind of hi end audio experience. It's also potentially easier to check out this version of audiophile nirvana than requesting some private time in the room upstairs. Indeed, if you have a portable digital music player, there are some free ways to improve what you're hearing right now, too.

The following describes some approaches to audiophile headphone happiness - a word though, before continuing. Some engineers accuse "audiophiles" of being people who just get intrigued by the gear, not the music. That may be for true for some folks - like sports fans who care perhaps more about the player stats than about the joy of the game (and so what if they do!) What follows is not about gear intrigue: it's about getting closer to that ecstatic experience, the joy of hearing music. The french have a word for such folks - it's mélomanes: music lovers (thanks to Sam Tellig's Stereophile July 06 review of Quads for this term). The following story of headphones is offered up for les mélomanes.

Headphones can offer a potential audio experience that is earth shakingly good, and possibly better than what many of us would be able to or want to invest to replicate in a freestanding loudspeaker system - especially if your accommodation won't let you let those speakers rip. There are several stages to this: data source, player source, amplification source, digital to analog conversion, and of course, headphones.

Improvement One is Free. The Data Source.
Most folks listen to data now either off a cd or off an mp3 file. Bit rate can and does make a difference, and you don't have to have the golden ears of a 22year old (you're golden ears are over the hill after 25) to appreciate the differences. There are encodings like FLAC or Apple Lossless that really do replicate what's on the cd, but at half or less than the size of the original recording. Try playing back a lossless file against a 128bit mpg out loud over typical external computer speakers and you'll hear a difference on these very not audiophile components. So that's a for-free audio improvement - or largely for free - larger files take up more space, but that space becomes less of an issue as larger and larger drives become common - why not try Apple Lossless or FLAC with some of your fave CD's and see what you think.

Alternately, there is a school of thought that says 128 AAC Variable Bit Rate (aac, not mp3 and VBR on) on itunes, combined with great headphones (discussed below) yields results that are indistinguishable from CD's - and that's the opinion of a recording engineer - who also councils to be SURE to turn on ERROR CORRECTION in the prefs/advanced/importing if you rip your cd's with iTunes. Truly, it's great to have smaller file sizes for one's ipod - smaller file sizes means less harddrive spin up to access all the data and therefore better battery performance, but try it yourself: put a 128 AAC VBR, error corrected file you know really well next to an Apple Lossless or FLAC encoding or your system of choice and see what works for you.

An advantage of Apple Lossless is that you have all the data and can later encode down from there to 128 or whatever AAC you want at some future point - that's thinking archivally.

Improvement Two - Headphones.

The next part of the experience of course is a good set of headphones. What are good headphones? That question is the subject of endless discussion at head-fi Let's just say that Sony rarely gets mentioned, but German companies are very well represented (Beyer Dynamics, AKG, Sennheiser, Ultrasone...), with each flavour of headphone presentation having their partisans. Discussions range around qualities like sibilance, sound stage, color, neutrality, micro and macro dynamics, harmonics - all to do with how much of the recorded experience your headphones replicate and how.

You can find many comparative reviews of various "cans" online. One exemple is the sennheiser HD 650 which does very well in

non-comparitive reviews likethis by Wes Philips of Stereophile, or this interesting one on CameraHobby, but throw them in with others, and the flavours in the review space show up. A great source for such reviews that's free is Stereophile , but again a keyword search on your fave search engine for "review headphone x" will pull up a plethora of information.

>Will that be Closed, Open or In Your Ear?
There is also the issue of whether you want in ear phones or closed back or semi closed back or open. There are excellent versions of each, and reasons for choosing one form or another. Closed cell headphones like the Ultrasone Pro 750 review pdf ) for instance are not by default better than in-ear (canal) phones like the very decent Etymotic 6i , or open phones like the Sennheiser HD580 . Hi Impedance headphones like AKGs (600 Ohms) are not always better than low impedance phones (Ultrasones at 75 Ohms). They do have different qualities tho. What to do? try great versions of each kind. Understand the pros and cons of any form and make your decision.

The point is, good headphones (usually in the 75£ plus zone, tho price is not always indicative) will let you hear MORE of the audio signal coming from your system.

Headroom has a list of their 10 top fave headphones of various stripes. I don't agree with all their findings, but it's a great way to get a sense of the ranges of types. With these definitions in hand, why not hit an audio shop and head for the pricier models (just as a first pass indicator) and experience the difference between say the Apple default ear buds, and some really good cans - just so you can gage the degree of difference - and if that difference is meaningful to you.

Improvement Three: Plugging them In - to what?

When you try different kinds of headphones, make sure you have an appropriate source driving them: an ipod on its own will not show off a 300ohm headphone like Senheisser HD600's - it just doesn't have the power to drive these things, as explained very well at Dan's Data. A 600ohm AKG will struggle with the ipod cranked to full. An ipod will be adequate for canal phones: they're low impedance devices. A good audio shop will make sure you're hooked up to an appropriate source to drive the phones you try. But don't think the fact that an ipod can't easily drive hi impedance phones means you can't use them with your ipods - we'll come back to that in just a moment. in the meantime...

Let's assume you've picked something you enjoy in the headphone space. Let's also assume you have an ok stereo - or at least an ok cd player (one that has a digital out of some kind will come in handy later in this discussion) but it doesn't have a headphone jack (most stereo components increasingly do NOT come with headphone out jacks) or you do want to use those high impedance phones with your ipod or your computer. What to do?

Enter the headphone amp.
A headphone amp is a dedicated box (read: with its own power supply) that amplifies the music signal from whatever source, and sends it directly to its headphone jack. There are many kinds of headphone amps: some have tubes in them; some are

solid state, like UK's Musical Fidelity X-Can-v3 (fantastic review by Edwin Leong). Some are hybrids of solid state and tubes.

Some amps are built for living within a stereo system, like those just listed, but there's a whole breed of portable headphone amps, too, built to go with portable players. Some of them are designed to reuse candy/coughdrop tins as the casing! As Dan's Data says, every geek needs a tin with a light on it.

One of my faves in this space is made by Robert Gehrke in Germany, taking up the Amp in A Tin concept, but taking the circuit design further, cleaner ( see description ). So far Gehrke has been selling these fine designs on EBay for both US and UK/EU customers in your choice of penguin tin design (he also sells the caffeinated mints that come in the tins, too, at penguinenergy ). As said, the design fundamentally lets you drive higher impedance headphones on an ipod (or from a laptop). They can also have some nice effects for even very low impedance cans sold specifically for ipods and similar devices. They can help open up the bass, eliminate audio clipping down there, especially on less well encoded tracks. Mainly, you notice that you can drive the headphones louder while maintaining very good clarity, without the amp coloring what you're hearing.

Depending when you find this page, he may not have many on offer, since he's hard at work on a Next Level design that will be similar to the

Total BitHead amp , with USB in, excellent DAC (see below), crossfeed, and digital optical out (very hard to get in the UK/EU). Can hardly wait. But i'm getting ahead of myself. And just to mention one more portable (tho slightly larger) amp that has lead to incensed debate among those who care is the Ray Samuels Emmerline SR-71 ( 6moons review ; stereophile review ).

The main thing about a headphone amp, whether a stereo/stationary one, or a portable, is what it does for listening via headphones. Using a headphone amp means that a dedicated amplifier is handling the volume of the signal, and can, especially in the ipod case, do so more efficiently than the ipod - can drive more demanding loads than phones designed for portable players. easier drive is smoother sound. Now a lot of audio geeks can tell you why this is the case, suffice it to say, it really is.

You may wonder about sound. A good headphone amp will help the audio "breath" so that your high quality headphones can get all those nuances out of the audio that's in that stream but which a less effective amp mayn't be able to deliver. Again, this is something to try out at your favorite audio shop - maybe when you try out the headphones.

Bottom line: with excellent headphones and a good source to drive them, along with well-encoded tracks, you are now in a position to experience that audiophile's experience of "wow, i heard *new* things in that recording i thought i knew - that's stuff i've never heard before; it sounded like they were playing with new instruments, in a better room, right beside me. "

And you could easily stop there. But in case you were wondering if that's it, it's not. You can also do things to squeeze those 0's and 1's better so that you get even better sound. Enter the role of the DAC.

Making it Better - External DAC for the computer or home stereo (or yes, your ipod, too).dac

So you've got a good audio source, you have found the headphones you enjoy, you've found some way to plug them in, and now you'd like to go to the next level into your ears. We now circle back towards the data source. If it's digital, the DAC or digital audio convertor of either your computer or your cd player is the thing that turns the zeros and ones into audio signal. The circuits used to do that conversion do make a difference to the sound you hear. If you want to check this out, head to your favorite audio shop and ask them to set up an ok (100-200£) cd player, and have a listen on their sweet stereo system. Then ask them to hook up a dedicated DAC to their system using a good coax cable between the cd and the DAC. The Musical Fidelity X-DAC v3 is one well-regarded example of such a beast. On the somewhat portable side, there's the mainly USA-only Headroom Micro DAC . On the USB silly money side, there's The Brick . There's also chord electronics DAC 64 (review). Now listen to that set up. Take in your headphones and listen to that cd player with and without the external DAC. See what you think. Take in your own cd player for the comparison - that will show you, too, how to get better value out of your current cd player, using it as a transport only. Hell, take in your computer or laptop if it has an optical out, and do this comparison!

Why should you care about an external DAC? your CD player has a DAC as does your computer anyway! Yes it does, but as with anything, there's more than one way to skin a dac. Different quality parts make a difference. One issue addressed in translating zeros and ones into analog audio signal is "jitter" ( see this 1990 article for a clear discussion of info on a cd, how it's pulled off, and the jitter effect on the waveforms that make sound ; or here's a less intrigued discussion of what happens inside a cd player to create jitter ) - jitter is about timing of the read of the signal on a disc. If the timing is a wee bit out for whatever reason, it effects the sound. Timing of what? when a sample of the music represented by those zeros and ones gets played. Imagine a fence with pickets. The pickets get nailed against a fence rail at exactly the same distance apart. Now imagine someone marked the rail where each picket is supposed to go, and occaisionally gets bumped when measuring so the pencil mark gets pushed ahead. The spacing of the pickets is no longer regular. Rather than being regularly spaced, some are further apart; some a bunched up. The visual effect is that the pattern of the pickets gets changed. That's what can happen with digital audio: samples of sound are supposed to be exactly and regularly spaced. a clock is used to synch the samples up so that they'll be regularly spaced, like the pickets. Various things can happen, however, that the clock gets slightly out of synch (and there's not just one clock involved). The result on the wave pattern of the music is like the picket fence: the pattern changes, and consequently so does the sound or fidelity of the music.

Most systems have robust measures in place to address jitter and keep timing errors to a minimum (some are better than others). So, after timing, the next part of the process is translating the zero's and one's into electrical pulses to create the sound. There are different qualities of digital audio converters that do different things to make the 16bit audio of a cd sound richer, fuller. Remember that digital audio is composed by taking samples of the frequencies in an audio stream - it's not continuous like analog recordings. So, even though it is taking samples very rapidly within very short periods, there are still gaps between those samples. The size of the sample also effects how much information it can hold about that sample. The CD is 16 bit. Interestingly, most high level recording systems record in 20 or 24 bit, and audio is downsampled to fit the CD format.

Just to put 16 vs 24 bit audio in perspective, on a computer screen, once upon a time they were only black and white (or orange and black, or black and green...) That was what two bit color could do. Early color monitors were 8bit, giving 256 (2*2*2*2*2*2*2*2) colors. 16bit color came next, giving thousands of colors. The difference between 8 bit and 16 bit color can be seen when looking at color gradients (one color fading into another): the more bits, the smoother, and less noticeable the transitions from one color to another. Now, 24bit color (millions of colors) is common. The transitions are even more seamless. Same in audio: the higher the sample depth, the richer the information about the audio that can be stored in that sample. So, some of the newest DACs take that 16bit audio from a CD and up-sample it to 24bit sample depth and 192 khz samples a second - calculating/simulating richer information both in the sample and filling in the holes between the samples. Indeed, upsampling can help address jitter errors introduced by the sampling process itself.

It wouldn't be fair to say that there isn't debate in the engineering vs audio community about the role of such technologies , whether up sampling or oversampling in dealing with audio signals. But no matter what the magic is in the box, the only thing that matters is whether or not you hear a richer audio presence: does it sound like the musicians you love are playing better? suddenly have even nicer instruments? If you can't hear a difference, there isn't much point. I tried a DAC recently that didn't seem to sound any better hooked into the CD player than without it. I was using the CD players optical out. Someone suggested i try the coax out from the cd. WOW! that made a difference. The optical out (toslink) on the player was shite. Glad there was the coax. Suddenly a cheap-ish cd player was competing with players hundreds of pounds more expensive than it.

DACs aren't just for CD players - they can be applied to any digital audio source that has a digital output (toslink or coax). If you have iTunes coming out of a mac with a digital audio out (new macs, including the laptops, do; g5's also have optical out), you can feed that optical out right into something like the X-DAC. Indeed, because of the way the x-dac works, you can hook up a toslink from your computer (monster makes the appropriate cable as part of the airport express cable pack) into the optical port on the x-dac, and have a coax connection going from the cd to the dac as well. The box detects which machine is on and locks onto that source. Magic. But again, hear it for yourself (or read the pdfs of copious reviews but much better to hear it).

Review: putting it all together.
Audio recordings played through really good stereo equipment does make a difference to the audio experience. It improves the audio experience on so many levels - whether it's the clarity of bass as it becomes distinct notes rather than a low thump, or the real silence of the spaces between notes, or the presence of the scratching of bow against string.

Hi Fi audio experience is possible in the headphone space at a fraction of the cost it would take to create a similar stereo system. There are four parts to consider, particularly for the ipod/computer based source to move closer to music nirvana.

And yes sure you don't NEED any of this to be moved by music (just like a photographer doesn't need the most expensive digital camera on the planet to take great pictures) . Some of my best memories of music have been of cheap nearly worn cassettes played during long roadtrips on gnarly car stereos with one speaker bust, BUT it can be emotionally very satisfying as well, moving even, to really hear something the way some better gear can bring out that experience.

Indeed, being able to hear a recording on good gear can make you appreciate stuff you may otherwise have brushed aside. This has certainly been the case for me with brahms string sextets . I'd passed it over. even said "yuck" and then i accidently heard it with a headphone amp plugged into the cd player and it was a revelation. It's since become a favorite recording.

So, yes, two main things, then two bonus bits:
(1) decently encoded data - whether AAC 128 Variable Bit Rate, or, my preference, Apple Lossless
(2) great headphones - closed, open, canal; high or low impedance
(3) a good source to drive and open up whatever cans you're using - headphone amp!
(4) and finally, if you're getting really into this, a dedicated DAC to squeeze the most from your digital source.

Lest you think this is the end, it's not: there's external power supplies to drive the devices better; there's the quality of the cables connecting the bits (don't let an engineer tell you cable is cable: it's not - you can hear the difference. It doesn't mean the most expensive stuff is the best, but you can hear the differences between cables - try a blindfold test with different ones. For example, with an x-can v3 hooked up directly to your fave store's cd player, and your headphones on, ask to hook up that cd player to an x-dac using, for instance, UK made

Chord Electronic 's CoDac cable then try the same set up with their prodac cable - just don't let them tell you which is which, and see what you think. And that's not all: there are a myriad of aftermarket headphone cable upgrades that tune the sound of the headphones themselves for AKG and Sennheissers - see groups like Cardas or Stefan Audio Art for examples).

But before getting super intrigued about the path towards perpetual upgrades, the simple truth is, a really good pair of headphones can go a long way to openning up music in ways that you may not have experienced before, and in a way that only could be approximated for 10x's the cash to set up an equivalent speaker-based system.

Headphones to try for starters?
- Sennheiser HD 600's or 650's - open cans
- Beyer Dynamics 770's - closed cans
- Etymotics Research 4s - canal phones

There are all sorts of others in here - AKG, Grados, Ultrasone and more

The thing is, this is also a relatively cheap proposition to test: first, improve the encodings for your own current portable digital music set up; next, take a few cd's to a good local audio shop (someplace not pretentious, but knowledgeable, helpful - you'll get the vibe as soon as you go through the door) and give it a whirl. If nothing else, you'll have a grand audio experience, so not a waste of time. If music is important to you, you'll be glad you tried - it may be a revelation.

Many thanks to Sam Lowe of the most excellent

Phase3hifi
for his time in walking through the differences between cables, dacs, headphone amps and other components, and letting me experiment with different combinations.

Posted by mc at 7:48 PM | Comments (0)

April 4, 2006

So, how long you here for?

It never fails: get into a cab anywhere in the UK, and within minutes, i'll be asked "so, how long are you here for?" There are variations, "Are you traveling or on business?" - then the delicate probing to discover whether the accent originates from the US or Canada. This is followed by either "i have family in Canada" or "what part of Canada are you from?" - never mind that either (a) the person has never been there and so has no knowledge of what being from any region means or (b) their knowledge of the country is that they have relatives invariably either in Vancouver or Toronto. "They wanted me to come out there too, but...."

The surprise is the automatic assumption that if one has a north american accent, then that person is either a tourist or just in the UK on business. Even within a work context, i regularly get asked first if i am working over here and then "how long have you been here?" For a Canadian who's grown up around a sea of voices, such questions have never occurred to me to ask. But in the UK it seems it's the opposite. The assumption is first and foremost that you're visiting at most, and that if you're working here, it's just a quickie.

Is it so shocking to the UK psyche that someone from the New World/colonies would move to the old country?

In Canada, you're surrounded by accents, not the least of which is English of some sort. I've spoken with many many canadians about this: not once have any of us, on hearing a non-local accent EVER asked "so, how long are you visiting for?"

It's not that there's an assumption that the person either lives here (in Canada, say) or not. It's simply that to question someone about their locality would not occur as a question.

I was in yet another taxi awhile ago, and asked by the driver (a) where i was from and (b) how i liked it in the UK. When i asked her if she liked it in the UK, the reply was she hated it and wanted to leave. This is not the first time i've heard such admissions about wanting to get out.

I can't lay hands on it now, but there was a survey a couple years ago about Brits feelings about their home and native land - and nigh on 50% of them wanted to leave. Increasing numbers who can afford to are retiring to Spain and such warmer Euro climes - to the point where the local communities are getting quite miffed at the adamantly english invasion and lack of sensitivity to local cultures/languages.

Having only been here a few years now, i could only speculate about this angst to get out, whether these folks have ever been out or not, but it goes some ways to explaining the seeming mental hurdle that UK nationals seem unable to overcome when faced with a North American accent - a perspective that can't believe anyone who could chose to be elsewhere would be here.

Posted by mc at 9:51 AM | Comments (0)

March 21, 2006

The UK's Royal Mail - what an amazing thing

The US still has mail on saturdays. Canada dropped saturday mail decades ago. In Canada it can take a week for a piece of post mailed from an address in Toronto to reach another address in Toronto. It recently took five weeks for an air mail envelop (light - contained a scarf a cousin had knitted for christmas) to arrive from california to the UK. "Typical" was the only reply.

In the UK, you can order a parcel from Scotland on Monday, and it will be with you in England by tea time on Tuesday.

To a Canadian, such postal service is just this side of miraculous; it's this kind of service that makes internet shopping something equally magical: order something from electronic scales to sneakers at a UK internet shop and it's there the next day - two days at the most - and at a savings from buying "on the high street." And there it is: brought right to your door. For those who are not keen on the hurly burly of heading into stores (the get in and get out types) this kind of shopping service is heaven sent.

And really, in the UK, there is an online store for everything. A colleague was telling me about a place that just sold hassocks. Another, that i wrote about earlier, just does light bulbs.

I thought perhaps this kind of internet service was a global phenom. It isn't.

i wanted to get a pal in the US a gift, so was looking to order something from a US online shop to be delivered to him - in the US: it would take 3-5 days to process the order and then another week for delivery of the goods. A ten day to two week process. The business processing the order was one part of the hold up; speed of the post is another.

Now maybe it's just that the UK has hit the sweet spot between geography and population density, such that it can move mail with such alacrity. After all despite Canada's land mass is three times the size of the US (the UK would likely fit inside the province of Alberta) it has a low population (about 33mil) compared to either the US (295mil) or the UK (60mil). Too few people to form a chain to pass the mail from one end of the country to the other?? And in the US? Just too many places for mail to get to, to be delivered efficiently? Dunno.

There's a lot of problems with services in the UK, as there seem to be in any country. Ask someone about trying to get an NHS dentist in the UK; where the concept of a semi-private room in a hospital is a complete non-starter (wards - just multibed wards here. does canada have wards in hospitals outside of Intensive Care Units?).

But when it comes to the mail, and what an efficient mail service enables for local trade, it seems quite untouched. I don't know what the rest of Europe is like, but compared to North America, the Royal Mail is a wonder.

Posted by mc at 10:12 AM

January 17, 2006

ID Cards - Will This Be the UK Government's Next - if Biggest - IT Failure?

The UK Government wants to push through ID Cards to use biometric data to connect the card, its data ("basic personal information") and its owner. Uh huh. While one can theoretically imagine how such a scheme would work (and the govn't is dealing in theory since its own site says it doesn't know yet what the cards will actually be like), you would be hard pressed to find any technologist (not funded by a biometrics company) who would say that such a scheme is practical at scale. Indeed, the summary of the consultation exercise on ID cards, which found largely against the practicality or efficacy of such a scheme is - no longer to be found on the Govn't web site. You can still find news articles quoting various computer science experts who spoke to the committee on the multiple problems with ID cards.

And you'd think that such concerns might be part of why the house of lords chucked out the ID Card Bill yesterday. Apparently, though, they were worried about costs - the fact that they weren't well enough defined by the government. Who knows, maybe that's a really good first act rejection: because if the government comes back with a better cost breakdown, perhaps the House will get to the gnarly question of "how can we trust those figures."

Why would they ask such a question? Because the Government has a lousy track record when it comes to specifying and delivering - no matter what the budget - national IT systems. And if they can't get a national database right on the smaller scale of specialist IT systems like the Magistrates court, Ambulance Services [additional research paper pdf], doctor's surgery systems, the police's IMPACT program or Tax Credits, how on earth can they be trusted to get an even more complex system like an ID registry with databases, specialized hardware for collection of biometric data, specialized hardware and software for matching biometric data, specialized training, and specialized secure documents delivered?

So the question is pretty simple the next time the house of lords gets the ID Card Bill back: even if delivering an excellent ID Card system were possible, and even if there were no questions about the technology, about the biometrics, the database security, the security layers between the system itself and humans accessing it, the hackability of the cards, and never mind the social, moral, or economic issues, or for that matter the political ones about whether or not such a system could even stop a terrorist [look here for a list of all these issues and the organizations that query them], disregarding all that and cutting to the chase, would the UK Government simply have the wherewithall to deliver it?

Posted by mc at 9:47 PM

January 4, 2006

brilliant vs excellent - canadian and british parallelisms and cultural dissonances

In Canada, where i hail from, the term "brilliant" is gnerally reserved for truly outstandingly genius-like demonstrations of talent, intelligence, wit - whatever. It's not a term you hear often. If someone says "that was brilliant" or "she is brilliant" it's pretty much the highest degree complement with respect to intelligence or excellence one can achieve.

Not so in Britain (not prepared to generalize to the UK yet...).

In Britain, everything and anything can be "brilliant." Brilliant seems to be used in a way very similarly to the way "excellent" is used in most parts of North America. The one difference between the interchangeability of brilliant/excellent is the rather ironic way that brilliant can be used in the uk to indicate its opposite: you'll hear "oh that's just brilliant, isn't it" when something's really "a complete cock up" (to use another great brit'ism).

You'd rarely find a Canadian saying "oh that's just excellent" when it's a disaster. "That's just great...just great" is more common when going for reversal.

So if you're in the UK and someone says something you've done is "brilliant" - it's still a compliment, but it's just not as hot as you think were that epithet to be used back home. Alas.

Another expression that seems to have no Canadian equivalent is "bless 'em" or "lord bless 'em" or more simply "bless"

It's been harder to get a handle on when and how this particular expression gets used, but it seems to have something to do with covering one's ass after offering a critique of a person. Someone might say something to the effect of "he's not the sharpest tool in the shed" and follow this immediately with "bless him." The desired effect of the apostrophe "bless him" seems to be to mitigate the perceived harshness of the critique - so much to say "doesn't mean i don't like him or that he's not in other ways a nice person, no doubt."

The above interpretation is just deduction on my part based on the contexts of hearing the expression, and also the cultural context of observing the british reluctance (relative to canadians) of saying anything critical of anyone or anything.

This could well lead into an observation on canadian/british behaviour rather than word usage, but it's interesting to see how the two might be related.

It's just these small kinds of differences between english word usage that is part of the culture shock a person coming from Canada experiences when hitting the UK: the word differences become clues to deeper cultural differences that are more challenging to decode, because it's not a case of equivalences like "biscuit" in britain means "cookie" in Canada; it's a case of differences where there aren't parallels between the two places. So it sounds the same, but it isn't the same.

Even being in Britain for a few years now, i don't know how to interpret all the differences, but am better at recognizing them, and the recognition at least allows more comfort; less disorientation. I'll have to think of some examples anon.

Who'd a thunk it, eh? that two such supposedly historically close nations would have these, what would you call them, gaps in connection? I'm not sure what it's like for Brits going the other way, from here to Canada, if there's the same sort of sense of slight twilight zone off set. I have the impression of Canadians being so exposed, our heart, thoughts, everything on our sleeves, without being boisterous about it, that there'd be no difficulty getting a read on Canadian customs, practices and rationales for same. huh.

Mind you, try asking a Westerner why a Quebec'er may be a "separatist" and you'll soon see that we're not always so clear about our own culture(s), either...bless us.

Posted by mc at 1:37 PM

November 10, 2005

Kate bush's Aerial: wow

Wow.
wow
wow

I suppose that could be me quoting a Kate Bush song, but it's not - or not only that: it's the response after half a dozen listens to the new (double) album. It's been great reading other folks' reviews too because they're pulling out things (this one at Play Louder is great)- a flamenco at the end of Somewhere in Between for instance; the lyrics of Mrs. Bartolozzi - that get missed in the first listen- make a track worth going back to, and there is so much to go back to.

My current fave is Nocturn/Aerial. Two songs but they blend into each other in a way that just makes a listener want to run and run and run, the build is so expressive, so explosive. Bush's vocal layerings - her mixes in these her productions are so compelling. Find Nocturn, find someplace where you can play it loud and see if it doesn't make you want to yell! (in a good way).

Here's one thing i haven't found other reviewers talking about but in passing: Bush's laughter in Aerial, or just the recurrence of bird song throughout. In an interview this month in Mojo, Bush talks about her interest in this other language. The album asks repeatedly what is this language - either explicitly in Sunset, or implicitly just by its presence throughout the album Aerial Tal is filled with it), or Bush's call and response laughing against bird calls in Aerial "all the birds are laughing, come on let's join in." Excuse me? Not the way i'd thought of bird song, or what to do with it, before, to be sure. it's GREAT!.

One of the best lines (why, i dunno) in a song i've heard lately is Bush singing in Aerial "i feel i wanna be up on the roof; i feel i gotta be up on the roof up on the roof up on the roof" With its insistent ryhthmn, it's another yell, another ya ya ya!

Bush has a small web site to support the album. One of the best attributes of it (one of the only ones so far. Where's the back button, Kate?) is access to the lyrics to share with people while you're playing your tunes.

Though the site currently has very little content, the way it's put together sets a tone, creates a pace: the animation is subtle (birds flying over the water).

The cover art completes the whole: the frequency pattern on the cover of the cd connects to the theme of the aerial, and also - as shown on the site - blends/fades into the shape of a honey colored sunset across the water.

There is such a completeness or connectedness to each of these elements, that again, the pleasure just grows in the seeing a little more each time. If you're into these tunes, do search for other reviews. They'll help find those precious bits in Bush's a sky of honey a sea of honey.

wow wow wow

Posted by mc at 12:35 AM | Comments (0)

November 9, 2005

Designing the Semantic Web: "Pro Bono" vs "What's in It for Me?"

In the vein of stating the blindingly obvious:

designing useful and usable tools isn't just about good widgets. There can be great widgets that will let a person carry out a task.

But what if the person doesn't want to carry out that task?

For insance,
In the UK there's a requirement to make publicly funded research publicly available - many places are turning to repositories like Eprints that will enable this process to happen. But right now, getting papers into Eprints is a manual, tedious process: filling in fields and fields in forms.

The "pro bono" argument is that increased access to the data will enable better access to cutting edge research.

A slightly more self- interested benefit is that there is research to show that openly available papers are more than twice as likely to be sited than those that are not.

But that petition to self-interest to leverage future benefit to off-set current pain does not have an immediate, perceivable benefit for the person stuck with uploading papers. We've seen that people just don't do it.

As Alan Dix might put it, the perceived cost is higher than the perceived benefit. The What's in It for Me effect only works, it seems, when that benefit is immediately perceivable. For instance: take these steps now to upload these papers and you'll never have to add them to your cv again: they will automatically update; also, one line in a web page will let you publish all your papers formatted anyway you want.

So either the benefit must outweigh the cost or the cost must be reduced to the point where future benefit is sufficient to cost. Seems obvious, eh? But the idea does suggest that usability is about perceived usefulness as well as usable-ness.

about "what's in it for me - NOW" not just "what can i do with it"

This might also be seen as where affect meets effect. This again is not new in the design community: Dillon's proposed model for assessing applications, Process, Outcome, Affect, formalizes the role of affect - how the user feels about their experience in using a system: do they feel empowered. Ethnography has also always looked at what is the cultural context of the planned artefacts to be developed?

One thing that may be new, however, about using "what's in it for me" as a design query, is that it asks the question of affect before the system is developed - but i won't claim that for certain. What i will suggest is that putting design issues in terms of "what's in it for me" is an easy way to translate the iimportance of effective/affective design to non-hci specialists (ie, software engineers).

If your software cannot pass the test of what's in it for me? of the perceived cost being balanced by the perceived benefit, then it's time to rethink the design.

i was at a talk lately where an interesting tool was presented that all the people in the audience said "wow that looks really complicated to try to set up" - and these were rocket scientist type people. The challenge to the presenter was "would it perhaps not have been better to talk with your stakeholders about how they already do what they do and then design the tool to support that, rather than what seems to be the other way around: designing a tool and asking the community to adapt to it?"

The response was a gob-smacker: that if we had designed for one community, then we would have a custom tool not a general tool.

Perhaps having a tool that was useful and useable by one community would provide a path to a tool that was more generally useable - rather than a tool which now is general but that puts the fear of god into anyone who goes near it - where the what's in it for me - the perceived benefit - is (a) unknown and (b) not even approached because the perceived cost is far too obvious.

So, take away: start with finding a me to whom you can ask "what is in it for me" - and test the answers against the push back of cost. it'll likely end up being pro bono, too.

Posted by mc at 2:56 PM | Comments (0)

June 25, 2005

The Apple Store London Experience

My one previous experience of an apple store had been in a boston shopping center last summer when i watched in amazement as people came into the store, went straight to the cashier, pulled out a wad of hundreds, and requested an ipod. "Windows or Mac?" was the only question. More often than not, the answer was, interestingly, Windows. The cashier would turn to a wheeled cart, loaded with nothing but ipods, ask next "20 or 40" hand poised. The size was given and the exchange made. It mayn't have been a rush on the till, but it was a persistent and steady stream. And at least a transaction was taking place.

In London at least on this day, the grand Apple Regent Street Store was useless, unless of course your idea of a great store is something that disguises itself as an internet cafe - albeit one with some massive screens and the occasional ipod or digital camera attached. Maybe it's sale by virus? It was a pain in the ass. But since i seemed to be the only one in there interested in purchasing anything other than an iPod, maybe it's no big deal. Who am i to argue with a company that holds 2% of the PC market?

If you haven't been, the London Regent Street store is all open plan, pale wood floors, aluminum trim and glass panels, two floors. The crowd on the day i was there was largely 20-somethings taking over all the computer demo stations - to do email on a web browser or to configure IM to do fast chats. It was amazing. MSN messenger is certainly THE IM client - not ichat. There was a lot of IM'ing in spanish going on. Had word gone out to the backpack tourist crowd that this was the place to connect up with home? Something in the casual sashay of the staff suggested, however, that this was par for the course.

I had gone in to check out a new midi keyboard Apple was vending: it was attached to a 12"powerbook on a very short leash - and the guy "looking" at said power book was also just running a chat. When i asked about it wanting to check it out, the black shirted, black trousered "apple genius" was not particularly helpful: i wanted to try it. Like maybe to buy it. Oh well, too bad. Someone doing their email was using the space, so the customer can stuff it. Excuse me? i mean it must be a business plan right? Let people come in and use all this techno as a free internet cafe and that'll build brand loyalty. Don't ask them to move over because an actual customer might want to buy something or look at something. email/websurfing access is too important to the culture.

Two glorious 30" monitors set up side by side running off a g5 were not showing the marvels of final cut pro (aside: surely one 30" would do? have you seen these things? it's like swimming in a screen - just one - two is a jaw dropper. Who has a desk this wide? an office this wide??). No, these beauties were occupied by another person checking their mail. And that seemed to be just fine with all the staff.

And i mean all the staff. No shortage of the lads (i didn't see any women employed there: maybe they were all in the bathroom) who could point over the shoulders of the internet cafe-ers to try to paint a verbal picture of what the system would be like if you could actually get close to seeing it.

There were what appeared to be queues in front of many of the machines, but when i asked someone if they were in line (to try out the machine?) they said no. What they were doing, standing, staring, is still a mystery to me.

On the second floor is the theater. Some poor soul was giving a tutorial on the image editing software photo elements and doing some cool stuff. No one seemed to be watching - or listening; they were im'ing on their own laptops. Maybe the apple store is an open wifi point? so why not on a hot day come into the Xanadu of computer design, sit in a comfy chair, in a semi-darkened area, headphones on, and surf? Perhaps that's another subliminal message: Apple is so cool it provides free wifi; it is the internet cafe location (though there's no coffee on site) of choice. You don't need to come here to shop; just to absorb.

I'm trying to think of any other store where people could just come in an use the stuff for nothing to do with the store, actually stand in the way of potentially paying customers. Does this actually add, not lose sales?

Upstairs there was a line up not for the till, (like boston, ringing up ipods only there) but for the "genius bar" People with laptops, with questions, earnestly pouring out their hearts to another load of lads in a row, asking for healing, for vision, for confirmation that this was the end of their personal techno hell, the summit of wisdom had been reached.

At another round version of same, people sat in a circle looking earnestly at digital video cameras as the geniuses there walked the inner circle, helping decisions to be made.

While the first floor was the land of the internet cafe twenty-somethings, the info bars were the realm of people who looked like they already had substantial mortgages. Who might actually buy something - a digital camera not made by apple at the round bar - or who had actually bought something - at the line dance on the other side of the glass stares.

At uni i recall the rationalization for either selling software cheap at education rates was to build brand loyalty. Similarly, the looking the other way if someone had "illegal" software on their deck was rationalized as "heh, when i get a job and i can afford it, i'll buy it" - that's generally held true.

Maybe Apple's store is trying to build this kind of deferred product lust. Maybe that's a bigger market than the too few of us who might actually walk in to try something specifically with an eye to buy. Maybe it's working for apple. And the value of the many in the future exceeds the possible purchase at that moment by the one? Does this work? Or was this just a blip in the day of the life of a "flagship" Apple Store?

From a cultural perspective London Regent St Apple Store was an interesting experience, but as an individual consumer, it was a turn off. And if i wasn't already a long term apple customer, i could say one of those kinds of turn offs that make you feel you won't be back.

Posted by mc at 7:31 PM | Comments (0)

May 19, 2005

What happens When the Energy's Gone?

What happens when technologies go transparent? when they become so common that we no longer think about them? What's happening with mobile phones in some countries is a case in point: the techno has gotten to a place when it's only noticed when someone doesn't have it: "What do you mean you don't have a cell phone?" This is an example of a technology in the process of going transparent.

One technology that is pretty much transparent in most of the "first" world is oil - and its derivatives. Oil based products, whether energy, plastic or synthetic materials, have gone effectively transparent. We rarely see these technologies any more: we take synthetics for granted; although the price of gas has goes up, we don't think that the gas will run out.

But what happens when it does? or as it does - run out, that is. Because it will - and according to at least one expert, it will run out a lot sooner than most of us would care to believe.

Salon recently published an interview with James Howard Kunstler author of "The Long Emergency" to discuss his predictions/scenarios of what life will be like when the "oil fiesta" is over - in 15 years.

Try to imagine all the things we do - including looking at this Web page - that presume abundant energy. The plastic in the computer you're using; the milk jug in your fridge; the clothes in your closet; the shoes on your feet; the cheap flight you took on holiday; the food in your grocery, trucked in from god knows where, but not your back yard, the dvd you rented.

Now imagine it gone.

Kunstler suggests that people at least in the States are too overwhelmed when presented with a scenario postulating the immanent demise of a way of life that they are in a state of denial. They won't consider it. And consequently the opportunity of a "smooth transition" from the Way It Is Now to the Way It (Soon) Will Be has been effectively lost.

Thus the question may worth be considering, what would we need to rebuild, reknow, relearn, regenerate, to get along in a world that may be more like the Victorians (or at least Neal Stephanson's digital version of that era [see the Diamond Age]) than the Space Family Robinson. Danger danger, Will Robinson: you're running out of oil.

What would we hate to lose most? how would we keep it?
What would it mean to become again far more locally/community oriented?
What would it be like not to be able to travel at the drop of a hat? or if Pirates once again became a formidable thread to global exchange of goods?
What would it mean if the suburbs collapsed?

These are hard things to imagine. Or not - there are periods of history that reflect these ways of being; there are parts of the globe today that live in this disconnected (but highly impacted) way. But we like to think of them as a part of the past, not our future.

How do we psychically and practically prepare for such a transition?

Posted by mc at 1:46 PM

May 4, 2005

Youth vote vote vote, eh? - The UK Elections

It's the British Elections tomorrow, and thanks to the Iraq War becoming the issue of the election, the Labour Party under Tony Blair is not assured the cake walk into a third term that was anticipated.

So it seems there's a real opportunity to feel one's vote will have an impact. As in the states election, however, it seems that the youth vote is an under tapped resource for any party. In the states, despite major effort by a variety of venues from the parties themselves to MTV, student numbers weren't any higher than the previous election. What's with that? In the UK, there's been no such out reach. Perhaps they feel it's not worth it? It doesn't seem that 20 somthings in or out of university care to "get out the vote." Why not? What's different here? Various programs featuring interviews of 20 somethings in pubs have shown them saying "there's nothing interesting for me" and "i have to go somewhere to vote? i'm not doing that" or "it's the politicians fault: they're not offering me anything." This seems to be a bit of a surprise. For youth contemplating an education, there does seem to be an issue.

The Labour party introduced top up fees for university. The Liberal Democrats have said that they would scrap them. For selfish reasons alone, wouldn't it be worth voting for a group that would kill your major debt burden?

I've heard some mature adults here say students will just get used to fees being part of their lives. Ask some North American students how they feel about getting used to student loan debt and how crippling it can be for decades following graduation. It will be interesting to see if students who protested top up fees this past year will take the opportunity to create change here.

[Update: students ARE voting] more...

Perhaps the media has been rather misrepresenting the Youth vote - at least the Student youth vote. I've had the chance to speak with first years, third years, fourth year students and researcher assistants and they've each said, but one, that they're voting, or for that matter have postal voted already. Walking down the hall today, i heard my first political argument: it wasn't about voting or not, but about who these two "youth" had decided to support. Fantastic (the grown ups have seemed far more reluctant to "talk politics:" is that a British cultural thing, this reticence?). One of them was talking about how he's been proselytizing the need to vote to his peer group.

So what's with the media portraying the Youth of the UK as apathetic and uninterested in the election? Perhaps heading to the pubs isn't the best place to ask these probing questions?

Or is there a divide between students and employed 18-21year olds? Dunno. But today i heard if not overflowing joy at the opportunity to vote, at least a commitment among student youth to do so.

Posted by mc at 12:01 PM | Comments (0)

April 14, 2005

email - turning it O F F - at least for some of the day

A colleague of mine, Jeremy Cooperstock, has a rigorous email policy: once a day, and that's it. His emails always include a link to this policy so that folks know where they stand. That's polite (Canadian, eh?). But why have such an explicit policy?

There's an implicit, cultural expectation of immediacy with email: it can be sent and received at near light speed; a response should be just as rapid, so the logic seems to go. If one does not abide by these expectations, an explanation needs to be proffered. Hence an email policy. Based on Jeremy's example, i offer this note as a first draft of an evolving policy.

I'm pulling back from email. It's getting to be too much. Maybe you see this too: email, combined with a laptop and wireless, seems to have become the great distractor: i sit in talks and conferences and watch my colleagues and myself "multitask" - doing email while the speaker attempts to be more engaging than the current virtual exchange. There's nothing inherently wrong with these capacities, but i'm noticing that there does seem to be something problematic with my own practice of them: too much response mode to email rather than to the bigger picture.

So, over the next month at least, i'll be limiting my email reading to one or two set periods in the day, during the week, and likely zero on the weekend. As a result, replies to emails will likely be more like within a day or so, rather than an hour or so.

The reason for setting these limits is to reclaim my day from the reactiveness that is email. I find myself in open response mode - Pavlov's dogs come to mind: the email chimes and i respond. This can't be right.

Indeed, i know from experience that pulling away from email can be a positive, effective thing. My laptop keeled over last year, and had to go to warranty repair land. I remember the look of sympathy and horror that came over my colleagues' faces when i told them my laptop was in the shop - sympathy that this must be a terrible experience; horror at the thought of how awful that would be if it happened to them. I took the time as an opportunity to see what life without constant access to email would be like.

For what ended up being six weeks last year, i reclaimed my space from email and my world became a more relaxed, more effective place. Rather than have email on all the time while at work, i had it on twice a day only. I did other tasks the rest of the time. Things got done; things got finished; i went home at the end of the day and was home, not online. It felt great. Liberating.

And then i got my laptop back, and my resolve began to slide.

I've hung onto not doing email at night: that's family time, not work time. But now i find myself back to checking email first thing in the morning (and throughout the day) - with the idea that i will understand the shape of the day to come if i understand what emails i need to address. This is ridiculous, no? Email in my life is more often than not small things: confirming this thing; forwarding that file; setting up that date. These are not unimportant; indeed, they can be critical building blocks for projects. But here, too, i note that when they get to urgent mode of requiring several iterations back and forth in a day, or in an afternoon, or within the hour, that more often than not it's because i've let them slide, build up, so that they go from a reasonable thing that could have been dealt with calmly in advance to something that must be addressed "right now!" oh no! - i must be online to deal with this now now now - now how did that happen?

To gage days this way is too reminiscent of Prufrock's coffee spoons. It suggests that the big picture may be slipping out of focus, behind a flurry of to do's.

"So what is the big picture?" i ask myself. What are the big things, the mission level things, i want to accomplish? What are the big pieces that support that picture? and what are the things which need doing to support those pieces? Those things first.

In the 7 habits of Highly Effective People, in the section called Habit 3, First things First, Stephen R. Covey writes " 'The key is not to prioritize what's on your schedule, but to schedule your priorities.'

Where does email fit into that? When does email fit into that?

Over the next month, i'm hoping to rediscover this.

Posted by mc at 10:50 AM

March 21, 2005

File Names and Evil Attachments: We must Shake off the File System Chains

Like most folks, i get a ton of email. I get a ton of attachments with email. And those attachments are evil. For the most parts they have only generic names like "my assignment" or "Job Application" or "invoice". The mail client will add a number to the name so that one file doesn't overwrite another, but that's for the file system's benefit, not mine, the human being trying to make sense of these files without having to come through associated emails.

So whose problem is this? people's for not using more descriptive name identifiers?

I blame the System.

But to be proactive, we suggest alternatives...

It's not right to ask people to who have some kind of file template to come up with nice rich file names - especially when some folks are still getting over the legacy of 8char file names plus three character extensions.

But those days of short file names are G O N E.

So we need file systems to step up to the plate and help name these suckers in meaningful ways. There's lots of simple stuff a file system could do: it could automatically prepend all files with a user id; it could develop a bunch of project codes/names that a person could use (like course numbers or business names) for specific files, and have defaults set up which a person only changes as they need - if the system can't determine the context from other cues in the data itself.

With more operating systems deploying technologies for rapid content indexing, such reading of documents for labeling cues isn't that unlikely.

Simple selections with well chosen defaults could take a load of effort of people for creating reasonable labels for files both for their own later retrieval and for sharing. These same file names could be decoded on the recipient end for multiple categorization of these resources, too. So i could say for instance "show me all the files associated with comp6012 from Alistair" without having to reef through file folders.

I know this kind of listing is just what Apple's Spotlight is aiming at in OSX Tiger due out April 15, but index retrievals alone are not enough. we still like to be able to look at where things are in relation to other things, so we need to make these labels apparent to us, not just derivable by the system.

In the myTea project, we're looking at this kind of approach of assistive file naming for bioinformaticians (see the short paper on this), whose biggest challenge it turns out is not coming up with new insights into genes, but is managing the hundreds of files they get on their desktop which are generated by the various Web processes they run.

We can do this. And more than just improve personal data, we can get that data into sharable forms which makes it feasible for people to share the parts of their work they wish to share with the world or subsets of the world, where this information is meaningful. Community. We can do this. It's time to be liberated from the file systems and provide interaction that frees us from naming files and lets us get on with what we want to do: have fun, create knowledge, share.

Posted by mc at 1:52 PM

March 19, 2005

mSpace: Becoming an Example

Mspace logo
mSpace more than anything is an idea about access and exploration: improving access to information; helping people make connexions from one idea to another.

mSpace has been expressed as an interaction model (ah03 paper; ht04 paper): the idea of an interaction model is to look at what attributes you want to support for an interaction, and see how they can be formalized. From the formalism, it becomes possible to see how it can be applied to situations in general that may wish to use the model.

More recently, mSpace has been deployed as an evolving software framework based on Semantic Web technologies ( demo, software download, framework docs(pdf, 1.6m)), which embodies many attributes from the interaction model. The mission with the framework is to enable folks interested in this open standards approach to making connexions among data to do so - to at least try one way of exploring data that can be hooked up in such an associative way.

And just yesterday, mSpace became an example.

In this case, an example "for someone trying to make use of data on the web, the web is one huge heterogenous data integration problem."

The great thing is that the person who turned to the project is Mike Linksvayer, CTO of the Creative Commons project, looking at getting more information to more people in less entangled ways.

Of course the other happy thing is that none of our team knows Mike personally, so it's nice to see that mSpace is moving out beyond the shores of its home in ECS at the U of Southampton.

And one more great thing is that mSpace was used as an example in the context of a talk given on a panel called "“The Semantic Web: Promising Future or Utter Failure”" at SXSW; it was placed on the side of Promising Future - perhaps in no small part because, as Linksvayer put it, "it won’t be obvious to an end user that they’re [using] a semantic web technologies application, and that’s as it should be." Here here!

Future Note: While we've put up an mspace browser for classical music, the model can be applied to any domain. If IMDB used Mike's Creative Commons licensing, we'd be able to put out an mSpace of movies (it's built, but we can't show it to you, since that would cost us 10k). But other mSpaces are sprouting up (one in the Sculpteur project is to use the model rather than the framework as a java applet-based ontology browser in a museums context). We'll link to these mspaces as they become available.

Among other things, we're also working on supporting the intersection of multiple mSpace domains (via a meta-mSpace), so that people can move as easily to tangents among domains, as they do now within domains.

Geek Note: you don't have to have a formal ontology to build an mSpace. If you have one, that's nice, and you get the added benefits of inferencing and connection which an ontology makes possible, but if you want to start light, you only need to define what we've been calling a "domain model" for your info. It's what might be seen as an implicit schema. We're working on a tool set to make constructing a model file dead simple. In the meantime, instructions are in the software docs on sourceforge included in the download.

If you want to see a full bore semantic web ap on steroids which uses an ontology, and is a precursor in its implementation to mSpace (it doesn't have all the sorting/swapping/slicing features of an mSpace), take a look at CS AKTive Space (CAS), an ap for exploring who's doing what research in computer science in the UK (described in the paper "CS AKTive Space or how we stopped worrying and learned to love the Semantic Web").

CAS won the Semantic Web Challenge of 2003 in part because it: got data from a host of heterogeneous sources, used them in ways for which the data's initial deployment was not presented, demonstrated the power of an ontology for doing inference over data (like who collaborates with who which is not in any of the data explicitly; what other stuff not already known about have these people done), it could scale (this thing handles tens of millions of triples - the manner of storing data in rdf for SW deployment) - and it lets folks explore complex queries in simple direct manipulation kinds of ways.

We took the lessons learned from deploying CAS in order to make a first pass at (a) implementing the richer set of interactions we wanted to support, like picking what things you want to explore, and being able to reorganize these on the fly, and (b) making it easier to sling an mSpace across RDF data without requiring all the heavy lifting of an ontology, but letting designers use and benefit from it when they had one.

In the meanwhile, thank you for using mSpace as an example. We're developing new ways to keep it light: to make it easy for folks to use the advantages of the semantic web without them (you and me) having to know that they're/we're using it.

Posted by mc at 1:12 PM

Between vs. Among: Exceptions to the Two/Three Rule

One uses "among" when something occurs involving more than 2 people, and between for stuff involving two people. Right?

Hence, one would think that the sentence, "the objective of the workshop is to facilitate discussions between atendees," is grammatically incorrect: shouldn't the phrase be "discussions among antendees" since there will, one hopes, be more than two souls at the workshop?

But no! there are a few exceptions to this rule!

The Dr. Grammar Frequently Asked Questions page

summarizes the exceptions thus, siting other rhetorical sources:

If more than two are involved in a united situation, between is used: 'Between the four of us, we raised a thousand dollars.' If a comparison or an opposition is involved, between is used: 'There was great rivalry between the three colleges. It was difficult to choose between them.'" (Parle-Craig, Ruth, and Vincent Hooper. Barron's 1001 Pitfalls in English Grammar 70)

How bout that, eh?

Posted by mc at 12:13 PM | Comments (0)

March 12, 2005

If we were inventing email today


What if starting with technologies currently available, we were to rethink how to support mail electronically? would we end up with email?

What if, instead of taking a purely functional, or task oriented view to email, that of getting a note from here to there, we were to think about the affective properties of mail, and of letters in particular? What if our design goals were to incorporate both the functional and the affective into this new digital mode of communication? what would this new digitized form of communication be like?

These are the questions the Masters students in COMP6012 are considering in order to think new thoughts about existing technologies that are based on 30+ year old, command line systems. Sure the GUI has brought new features to email: multiple concurrent open windows, embedded HTML, graphical icons to

apple's Tiger Email client

replace text typed smileys, new ways of connecting contact and date information from email into contact managers. great.

And, to be sure, email is not physical mail. It's become a whole other communication medium.

But these are just the differences that the group is looking to tease out. What has been lost in comparison to physical mail? what's been gained? do we want to reconsider whether what's been lost needs to stay gone? are other modes of communication taking up the parts missing from email that were once a part of physical mail, of letters or cards in particular?

The question makes me think about blogs again. As i wrote recently, my casual survey of blogging in our group suggested that blogging has two core purposes: journaling, and letting family and friends know what one's up to.

There's something letter-ish, to be sure, about those kinds of blogs: extended entries, the possibility of multiple people looking at the same arifact. But why not email the thing to everyone with a cc to all? Perception? In email, one looks at their own copy of a cc'd missive. In a blog, despite the technical reality of one downloading a local copy of a web page (similar to email), there's the affect of sharing the same artifact: everyone goes to the same URL. Is that a similar experience to passing around the same letter? that social experience then enforced by the medium (paper) replicated in the sharing of the URL?

I still think there's something voyeuristic/exhibitionist about exposing communication supposedly primarily intended for oneself or one's friends to the world (and why help identity thieves?) but there is something undeniably social here that does seem to be both missing in email and present in physical letters.

Other attributes do not seem to be echoed in any other digital manifestation right now, though perhaps new IM client features are moving towards them. If a letter pisses one off, it can be returned, torn to shreds. If it is treasured, it can be carried in a special place, saved in a favorite book, close to hand, secret. Where's the digital equivalent here? Where's the social equivalent of everyone seeing that you remembered to send the birthday card that is happily displayed on the wall, or kept on the fridge? How emulate any of these effects? Do we need new hardware to support such display or effect- like the digital picture frames now available for displaying changing favorite photos? How emulate texture, beauty of hand crafter paper, fountain pen scrawl? the suspense of the envelop, waiting for discovery.

There's another side to the consideration of the reinvention of digital letters: is their anything new the computer can bring to textual communication besides what it already has (filters, search, indexing - effectively archiving and file management)? To answer this question, do we need to think not about mail, but about what we cherish in asynchronous exchanges?

There's a scene in Minority report the main character obsessively watches a 3d video of his son on the beach. The video is shot from the father's perspective. We can hear his voice off camera as he asks his son questions. In the now of the film, the son is dead and the father, in his darkened appartment, steps into the position off himself then so he can seemingly look into his son's digitized eyes, and mouth the same questions along with the video. This is a human moment (a pain cry for therapy to be sure but poignant nonetheless), enhanced, enabled by the lifelikeness of the digitally captured, infinitely repeatably copy of the moment.

It is a precious digital artifact, kept (referenced) on a special lucite-clear disk. The disk is inserted into a player to initiate playback. A techno geek may scoff, oh come on, all that would be on a server: no need for the plastic disks. And yet, and yet. From an interaction point of view, that marker, that disk (perhaps only a URI pointing to an associated file on a server?) gets at some of the preciousness of the physical, tangible, of older familiar beloved, personal atifacts, like letters, and blends them with the potential evocativeness of the pure(ly) digital replication.

Projected video, however, is an easier mapping here to tearing off a moment of real life to replay. Letters are abstract, textual, imaginative. What is the role of the medium for something abstract, always translated from signs?

Which comes back to the question: what do you treasure of physical letters? what do you wish you could do with email that you can't?

Posted by mc at 5:34 PM

March 5, 2005

Starting with the End in Mind

Our grad advisor once told us we should live our lives backwards: think of what we did in terms of how it would look on our CV. This was supposed to motivate us as we prepared for getting a faculty job in a university. Perhaps we should have done more to consider the source.

In the Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, Steven Covey characterizes one of the seven habits as "start with the end in mind" - and here the end is not one's CV, but what one wants others to think of them at the real END. What do you want people to say of you? what do you think they'd say of you now? do they match?

It's challenging to think at the end of the day if that day was lived in such a way as to contribute to the sense of self one would hope to hear reflected by others.

Part of the Seven Habits approach is learning ways (habits) to connect daily life with such a reflection. Three of those habits stick out for me: first things first, be proactive, win win

First things First
Covey divides things we do into four quarters - from the little things that suck time and don't particularly need doing, to things that aren't so important but need doing, to things that need doing - that are important - but not urgently, finally, to things that need doing and are urgent.

He says the goal of this habit is to learn increasingly about doing the things that are important, which contribute to that sense of self and mission one wants to achieve, that are not urgent: the result is spending less time on crap or in crisis. Covey has a whole lexicon about trust, emotional bank accounts, and interdependency that makes sense in the context of a personal mission. It's an approach that addresses procrastination without once saying the word (he doesn't): is what i'm doing right now contributing to my mission? my living with the end in mind? Am i farting around with stuff that isn't important and doesn't need to be done? am i spending most of my time in crisis mode? If i focus on first things first, will i spend more time in that quadrant where what i'm doing is important (contributes to that end i want) but isn't in crisis? Where what i'm doing has value and worth?

Be Proactive
Covey also talks about building a circle of influence by being proactive. By owning an issue rather than moaning about a problem. Find the solution, put forward the idea, take the initiative and deliver it. This comes back to trust: saying i'll do something and not doing it or moaning about something rather than finding solutions - unasked for - is not helpful. It does not build up trust, it does not influence. Covey is also big on leading rather than managing people: lead people; manage things. Being proactive is a challenge when feeling worn down. Why didn't i get that opportunity? why wasn't i included in that? can be first reactions. The challenge is to say how can i turn this around by proposing a solution?

Win Win
Related to being proactive, is the notion of "win win" - engaging with people so that both parties feel like the solution they've found together is a better one than the solution they'd proposed alone.

This approach relates to Covey's other arguments about listening: seek first to understand. Be able to reflect back the other person's position, better than they could themselves.

In win win, the desire is to come up with a solution where both parties (let's say there's two parties) feel like they have a stronger solution than they would have without that exchange. One of the attributes of engaging this way is also to say sometimes there's no solution, and to agree to walk away from the matter.

The win win approach is one that Covey says he gets the most grief about as being the least realistic in "real world" settings, but he gives working examples of how this approach can succeed.

It's a life changing thing to think about embodying the habits Covey articulates. The emphasis on building trust underlying communication with others, of building any project from a collaboratively developed mission, is inspiring as well as challenging.

to start with the end in mind, to put first things first, to seek first to understand, to build trust, to develop a shared mission, to be proactive, to go for win win - these are just the highlights - it's worth listening to (or reading ) Covey to get the richer context of this approach. As he puts it, these are not quick fixes. In other contexts he uses the concept of natural laws: it takes time to get to harvest; seeds need to be planted, tended, etc. Trust relationships take time to be built. They take time but promote real change.

I like them, find them effective because they aren't things like "be sure to right down all your to do's" "draw up a budget" Making a to-do list won't work, if you don't have a reason for doing what you do. Covey talks this way about excersise: you do it because it's important to stay healthy for yourself, for your loved ones, not because you feel like it or don't feel like it: we're not run by feelings. We do it because it's the right thing to do. Likewise, if you take a first things first approach, you don't need a calendar to keep you on track (just remind you of where you have to be next). If you don't have a first things first or end in mind paradigm, devices like calendars are just that: devices that don't (at least in my experience) stay stuck.

It's worth checking out Covey's definition of habit, too. And paradigm shift. The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People - is available in print, as an ebook and as an audio book which covey himself presents. Great to listen to on your personal stereo device...highly recommended

Posted by mc at 9:25 PM

March 2, 2005

No reply is a reply

What do you do when someone doesn't get the hint? or doesn't take even a direct request to stop contacting you? What do you do when, despite these requests, they persist?

Imagine the scenario where you've already said "stop, no more, desist" but you keep occasionally getting mail as if no request had been made (no acknowledgment of the reason for the request being issued). There seems no point in responding: the person has already demonstrated that they aren't interested in respecting your wishes, and a response could be taken as encouragement.

Do you continue to ignore these occasional psychic irritants? what options does one have? Especially in the virtual world: how write "mail refused: return to sender" on undesirable email?

There used to be a time in the early 19th C - and a practice that persisted into the early 20th - where people would send in their cards (calling cards) to a home to request to be seen. The person they wished to see could well be at home, but the recipient of the card had the option to refuse the current request for a visit. The card could be sent back, on a silver platter perhaps, to the sender. The gesture was usually understood; the caller retired.

With physical mail, the return of unopened mail was also well interpreted as a request for no further contact. Consider the tune Elvis made famous - and she wrote upon it: return to sender. This seemed to have the desired effect. Communication was terminated - baring of course the physical arrival of the troubadour on the recipient's doorstep, demanding further clarification of "no means no."

But with email, the great virtual postcard system, there seems no such recourse, no such mediation between the sending and the reception of the message. How is a lack of reply to email interpreted? It's not clear. It could mean the mail was not received; it's been lost in a flurry of other communication; the person is just too busy to reply right now.

Sure one can filter out email - have certain addresses immediately sent to the trash - but that leaves no trace for the sender. No receipt is returned to say "your mail has once again been shredded; was not read."

Perhaps there could be levels of rejection: where mail can be returned - bounced back on an individual level. If this is not respected, mail can be returned in shredded digital bits - again unread. But how manage unread? the new mail is highlighted; its contents exposed before one has a chance to think about it.

Where are the virtual envelopes? the virtual wax seal with signet ring crushed into its surface: a return clearly indicating the contents were not even read.

Neal Stephenson has a novel, the Diamond Age, which is set in a more technologically sophisticated future, and where the leading class have adopted Victorian manners (or an idealization of them) as a kind of civilizing layer for cultural exchanges.

"Well somethings lost and somethings gained, it happens every day" to quote a Joni Mitchel song.

In the case of email, what may have been lost are a range of subtle but useful, perhaps kind, signifiers around communication. And that still leaves the dilemma or the requirement for a perceptual shift to resolve something that is somewhere between a psychic irritant and uncalled-for distress.

Posted by mc at 10:59 AM

March 1, 2005

Blogging Until the End of the World

There is a film by Wim Wenders, Until the End of the World. In it, a scientist works on a way to let people record their dreams onto video. The characters become enamoured of watching their own dreams. Some become more adicted than others. The dream watching enacts a kind of strange narcissism.

Are blogs a similar kind of narcissism, combined with public display?

I've been asking folks about why they blog and what they blog. The answers so far have been mainly in two camps:
1) to let friends and family know what the person is up to.
2) to have a place to write something down to keep ideas from slipping away.

But these reflections are available to the WHOLE web. ANYONE can look at them. What makes that seem safe?

Are blogs effectively a broadcast medium, then? They include the facility to comment, but it seems few people do. The small number of folks i've communicated with about blogs have said that while they track other blogs, they don't usually leave comments. They'll email the blogger. So the use of the blog as a forum for public exchange isn't there it seems.

Or does it depend on the kind of / context of blog?

Posted by mc at 3:04 PM

This is a test of the Emergency broadcast system

In the event of an emergency, you would have been notified of what? i don't remember.

Do you?

Some set of instructions would have been given.

These tests used to be regular occurrences on the TV - least ways in North America, accompanied by an irritating (perhaps the point) sin wave tone.

A little googling shows that this system was instigated by Kennedy in 63.

It's an icon of cold war. Another shared cultural marker of a particular time and community. It's been how long? a generation? since the wall fell? young adults in their late 20s, born after the fall of the Berlin Wall, have no direct knowledge of the culture of fear over global nuclear devastation.

What does a film like War Games look like to a post Wall Fall person, where wee border towns like Grand Forks North Dakota are pictured on a direct nuclear flight path for anihilation? For Canadians on the other side of the border, Grand Forks of that time (and slightly more south, Fargo (same as the movie)) were Mall Stops for weekend cross border shopping sprees, where the goal was to hit Target, Kmart and find deals and products only available south of the 49th and CHEAP. Now there's walmart in Canada, so not so much incentive. but that's another story. But there they were. In holiwood and russia: strategically significant malls. The fall out would hit home. We were in the flight path of global nuclear annihilation. This is a test. This is only a test. It's a bonding thing.

What are the icons of cultural communion in the post cold-war error. It took a generation to develop it - the War on Drugs perhaps a pilot test for the globalization of "evil." But now, an icon of globalized engagement, in the era of the internet, is the "war on terror," where there are no walls to fall, where borders are irrelevant, where communication is networked, elusive.

Ideology on fire. Secret. Peer to peer. Distributed. privileged.

is there more to be wrought from the analogy of P2P, globalization and that the cultural divider of our time would be "terror" of the fleeting, unpredictable, rather than the identifiable, vast, specific arsenals and silos of hardware?

Posted by mc at 2:53 PM

February 27, 2005

Welcome to nopain2.org

no pain, no gain.

All great art is born from suffering

etc etc etc

A friend of mine, however, once put it somewhat differently. We were staying in a cold basement flat in a house next to an illegal body shop, living on UI or student loans, speaking of life, karma, and our respective futures

"Well you know," he proffered, "no pain...no pain"

Welcome to no pain 2, read as "no pain, squared" as in

(no pain)^2 = "no pain no pain"

Where you can explore with your tray tables down, your seat backs reclined, and your seat belt unfastened. Please feel free to use electronic and portable devices such as laptops or personal stereos. Cell phones may continue to be used. nopain2 is a smoke free environment. In the event of turbulence, the fasten the seat belt sign will be illuminated.

Posted by mc at 12:07 PM