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.


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.


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.


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.


selecting mathematics (above)


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.


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.


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.


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


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.


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, 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)

November 17, 2008

Compostable Cups & Cuttlery? Cool, but...

I was at Microsoft Research in Redmond, USA recently and found that their new building's caffeteria has recently switched to what i was told was "biodegradable cutlery" made from corn.

Apparently there are a number of manufacturers going into this space offering a variety of types of heat resistance and other properties.
Now that's kinda nifty. I'm not sure what the impact on the environment is on growing corn/spuds specifically to make utensils (there's a compelling overview of these questions here. can you say "cargill" anyone?) or why this is more environmentally sound than having a dishwasher to wash stainless steal stuff on site, or just what the tradeoffs are between compostable flatware production but surely it's better than plastic? It certainly *feels* nicer than plastic.
Of course this whole notion of convenience is a bit wiffy, isn't it? There's no signs up at most institutions that say "think about bringing in your own cutlery and reusing it." or "Why not wash off your cutlery and reuse it?" - probably fears around law suits for self-poisoning from cootie build up on less well washed utensils.
But seriously, this approach to turning disposable into compostable seems like a good one. Apparently it also takes 65% less energy to make a one of these kinds of compostable cups than a plastic (oil based, that is) cup. How much more energy would it take for us to take the next step to add reduce and reuse into that cycle before that final recycle phase?
Posted by mc at 7:51 PM | Comments (0)

August 2, 2008

The F-Scale

I once heard the F-Scale described as a way to see who would kick the person below them while sucking up to the person above them.

Recently i found this intriguing tool from the group that brought us critical theory marked up and available on line.

The goal of the scale was to predict a predilection to acquiescent to authoritarian behaviour. Research from 20-40 years ago suggested thing it really predicts is racism. but it's made a come back as a more valid predictor of authoritarian tendencies - at least in a revised form, the balanced F-scale.

The balanced F-scale attempts to work out the flaws in terms of types of measures in the original F-scale. While a variety of approaches to consider conservatism etc have resulted (listed here), the Balanced F-scale seems popular in the personality/psych literature. This refactored scale changes a hand full of questions from the original.

There's been debate about whether any version shows acquiescence vs cultural traditionalism. In any case, traits associated with its findings aren't nice and apparently are correlated even in decisions in jury trials. Some authors as recently as 2006 argue the validity of the scale has been supported.

In any case, why not give it a go - or better yet, ask your colleagues to give it a go - and see if you're nodding to yourself at their responses - or which ones you think you may just want to fudge.

Posted by mc at 3:11 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.


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.


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

June 8, 2008

Delight: what if we were to design for it deliberately?

The following is a meditation on design, and what might happen if enticing delight were a deliberate goal rather than a rare accident of our software and systems designs.

I recently had the pleasure of setting a man's watch for him.

The man was delighted by this act, expressing a joy that might have seemed out of proportion with the result. He told his friends throughout that day that his watch was now fixed and running with the correct time. Each time he retold the story, it was accompanied with this same animated delight.

The watch was only off by four minutes, so not hugely wrong. Apparently, however, it had been wrong for three years. And for three years this man had shared the story of his chronographic offset with colleagues and friends alike. Many, the story went, had tried to fix this watch and reclaim the lost four minutes. The record of hopes raised only once again to be dashed had grown long. But amazingly, this man had not abandoned hope: he kept *wearing* this watch despite the fact that each time he glanced it he had to be mentally adjusted by four. It was not as if he could not afford a replacement. It was almost as if it had become more important to continue to believe in the possibility that one day someone would fix this watch than to find its replacement. Until that day he would continue to offer the watch to anyone who would have a go, just so that *if* that person did succeed, he would be there to savour the delight in having it work again.

Now, since it has been reset, each time he looks at this watch he can re-animate that delight for himself by remembering how long he had carried it with this offset and how happiness could now be felt in such a simple thing as accurate time-keeping. He can also tell his friends his problem has been solved, and they too will share the joy of their good friend's relief. After all, some of them had been there to experience this regular tiny desolation in their colleague's life.

So the delight has not simply been in a watch running with the correct time - that is common - but that *this* watch now runs on time. The surprise and delight tied within the satisfaction that the man's hope or belief in the possibility of restoration of that which was lost was not misplaced all contribute to the delight in the re-set time piece. Such is perhaps the nature of delight: an internal state that is ready to be surprised by the unexpected becoming possible.

The trouble is, that with digital systems it seems that the unexpected is usually to do what should be normal.

Why is being able to set a watch to run on time (what one would hope to be normal) experienced here as extraordinary? What would happen, therefore, if we designed with delight as deliberate goal rather than if we experienced it as a side effect?

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Consider the parable of the watch: the repetition of the mistimed watch left open the possibility of delight and surprise should what was accepted as "normal" - the wrong time - become the very simple "right."

Computing is filled with examples of coping with the wrong time all too often being the normal.

Imagine the delight in changing that normal-ness of the wrong thing to the right thing. For instance, how frustrating it normally is when trying to get shipping information from an online store, where one has to add the thing to one's cart, register on the site, even provide payment information etc etc all just to find out shipping costs and times - something that will determine whether or not we wish to purchase from that site. Imagine how *delighted* a potential customer would be if the shipping quote was simply available at any point the person wished to know it? Changing the normal expectation of the online store hassle to the right action of giving the customer what they want when they want it may lead to delight and loyalty. They, like the man with the watch, may tell all their friends about their terrific experience with this store, this digital system.

In work we've been doing between MIT and Southampton in projects like Jourknow, we've been looking at imagining a world where one doesn't have to fill in a form to create a note about a phone call or a meeting or the name of a friend or any other kind of information. They simply jot it down, however they like to jot "meeting @ 3 c mc" or "3pm remember to get to meeting with mc" - the note is there; it's also now in the calendar. No forms with clicking and tabbing through 16 fields just to record one event.

It may be that as this potentially delightful way of doing things becomes the new norm, the delight may diminish. For those who would know no other way of interacting with a computer (once we get there) such natural interaction may not invoke delight - it will only be retrospective for those of us who have suffered with previous wrong time "normal."

So, are there attributes where delight may not be dependent on challenging normal so that a design might delight constantly? When was the last time a computer delighted you? Did it keep delighting you? or did what was once delightful become mundane? or did it continue to fold between the mundane and the delightful? I imagine that there will be times when the man looks at his watch and sees the time; at others remembers how it used to be and how it is, and re-kindles that delight for himself - hence a folding between the mundane of a proper normal and the delightful.

For me, my most profound and enduring moment of computer delight was witnessing the Flying Toasters screen saver. Toasters. With wings. Wings that flapped. And made thwap thwap thwap thwap thwap wing flapping sounds against the Ride of the Valkyrie as sountrack. Utterly absurdly gratuitous graphics and absolutely delightful. I remember about five of us huddled around a prof's computer just starring and laughing and poking each other watching the infinite progression of flying toasters across a computer screen.


The normal of the computer was work-based applications; the occasional game. This screen saver used the computer in a completely non-utilitarian, or non-computer or non-normal way. It turned a several thousand dollar piece of hardware into something whimsical. So even when flying toasters were no longer new - we had our own copies of the software - they did not lose their capacity to delight. At any point in the day, if things got a little too intense, well, there was always always flying toasters. There was always this reminder of the difference between the mundane and the unordinary as possible.

Flying toaster moments are all too rare with digital systems.

Why is that?

What would it be like to design deliberately to achieve delight? At least some of the components of delight are afforded by contrast between the expected and the actual; between the normal and the other. Delight takes the expected out of context. The watch that never tells the correct time, tells the correct time. The computer that's meant to be serious does whimsy. Delight is also pleasurable.

With these traits of difference from the expected, the norm, can we use them as motivators for design? Can we construct reverie? It seems that while the perhaps purer delight of flying toasters may be the harder kind of delight to design deliberately, that of addressing the more all-too-common wrong-normals are legion enough to provide an ecstatic revery of delight if only a few of them were tackled with intent. Let us not forget the classic example of the frustration of machines: setting of the VCR to record a program. Was not the delight of the first TIVO not only that commercials could be skipped but that what once was an horrendous process of setting the time on a vcr and then setting the parameters for recording a show became absolutely trivial: here's a program guide; click the show you want right in that guide. Voila - recorded. One may argue that well, we had to arrive at a place where we could get online program guides to be able to click them and send the correct info to a system to translate that into recording information. Right. So what. There are squillions of opportunities for better design where we do indeed have all the technology we could want to make effective systems possible, and just don't do it. It's easier to fill in a form than eliminate it.

Indeed, it's rather sad that there are SO MANY opportunities for this kind of delight in our regular daily interactions in our world. Why, after all, was the man's watch such a gordian knot to those who attempted to fix it? It's just a WATCH. Like filling in forms are what make things simple for computers, crappy watch setting design is what makes setting the time simple for the digital device, not the person using the device.

This is not to say that everything has to be simple. As designer and ACM CHI Fellow Bill Buxton has said, the piano has a very simple interface but it is not "easy" to master. The cost/benefit relationship of learning to master the device can be great, however. But a watch is a watch. The result is simply that it tells the time; it is not a direct intermediary to the muses. It should be simpler to set a digital watch than learning to play a Prokofiev symphony, no?

The moral of the story seems to be that the source of our delight around are devices is all to often when the wrong normal for a fleeting moment behaves as we would hope and expect such a device to behave. And while in part when such behaviour results we have a story of hope fulfilled, as in the man and his watch, that same story is also one of failure: failure of design, of imagination to produce technology that supports us rather than requires us to support it.

Perhaps if we designed with delight as a goal, we would be more likely to achieve something as simple as a digital watch that a human could set without having to be a phd in computer science.

Posted by mc at 5:41 AM

May 3, 2007

action figures as design inspiration for engineers.

Personas are often used in design to help inspire team members with an understanding of the stakeholders - the folks who have a stake in a thing - for whom they're develeping and designing their stuff.

Personas are amalgams of attributes for a particular set of traits that make up a Type of User (or stakeholder) who has to carry out a task. These personas are also known as stereotypes. These stereotypes are really rich: they have names, ages, economic backgrounds, their likes/displikes; their jobs and other information about where the process of interest intersects with their lives.

Eg, Tony is a 34 year old white sales rep. He likes to dress up funky. He wears a shirt and tie, but uses a messenger bag rather than a brief case. He likes his double shot cap first thing in the morning. He's been in sales for 6 years and has been with his current team for 8 months.He has to make 2 sales a day to keep his job, so he's on the phone all the time. He does not have a lot of time to learn about new specs for the products he has to promote. He usually gets this information from links in emails to web pages about new products he'll be asked to promote to clients. His main clients are mid size firms. He makes site visits in his territory once a month (and so on...)

These stereotypes are built up usually by talking with a range of people in these positions, analyzing the data, and creating the composites. The challenge has been: how communicate these rich personas to the people who need to know about them - people like software engineers. The folks at CISCO found a surprising (and surprisingly effective) method: action figures.

Their approach was described in a session at CHI2007 called "Making Personas Memorable" (pdf).

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The User Experience Design Group at CISCO trialed several approaches to presenting personas: stock photos of real people AS personas, realistic sketch versions of the photos, and finally, dolls. While initially the use of dolls was thought to be simply not credible, ultimately they became THE mode for communicating stakeholder needs in a way in which team members could empathize with, and be interested in.

The persona figures were photographed, and then photoshopped into "day in the life" stories to provide context for the personas. Stand up cardboard cards of the personas were distributed in the CHI2007 conference packs - these same cards now populate engineers' desks. Apparently at design meetings, these personas are referenced regularly to validate claims about an idea for a process "No, Millie wouldn't do that because..." and so on. (There's a figure called Vincent that they don't talk about too much: i think he looks like Christopher Walkin).

While the CISCO UXD team is interested in investigating more about how/why these figures are seemingly more effective than photos of characters, the appeal of the approach seems immediate. If the cost of the dolls manufacture weren't quite so prohibitive for the academic space (2000 originally; now CISCO pays 600 per), this seems like an incredible tool to help keep user needs in front of developer teams in an enjoyable and effective way. Use of second life avatars was discussed as a possible alternative route - but i wonder if the physical-ness of the dolls isn't an important factor for take up? The team speculated that the fact that these dolls were obviously professionally created - weren't just photoshopped up in a way that "anyone could do it" - also had a role in the takeup of the dolls.

No matter whether real or memorex or second life, these kinds of action figure personas (apparently they fit right in with the spider man action figures in some engineers' cubicles) seems well worth taking up.

Posted by mc at 2:31 AM | Comments (0)

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

August 3, 2006

Why Graphs Suck for Exploring RDF (ie The Semantic Web)

The most popular mechanism for visualizing RDF - the underlying language to represent the Semantic Web - is a Great Big Graph. Take a look at any model you wish: rdf-gravity is a Big Fat Graph; frodo is a UML-like connected flow chart thing; there's RDF Graphs with GSS; and there's a suite of redeployed classic Node style visualizers that have been modeled and applied anew on rdf (pdf). And that's just a light sampling.

What is this obsession with using graphs to represent RDF?

At first i thought it was because Java, a tool frequently used to create these visualizations, comes default with a Touchgraph component, and its bouncy connected parts have a certain "gee whiz-ness" to them - at least the first time one sees them.

Now it seems, the use of graphs has become a (bad) habit, an overused trope, representing what David Karger calls the "pathetic fallacy" of using graphs to represent the Semantic Web ( a quiet exchange in a paper review that we're now teasing out into a Position you're reading here...).


So what's wrong with Great Big Graphs? After all, RDF is a graph. Ya well, as Karger's comments continued, so's the Web (ps), but we don't see people exploring the Web via it's bowtie shaped nodes (pdf), do we? Indeed, Kager takes this assertion further to state that "everything" can be represented by a graph, and yet we do not use graphs to represent "everything." Why not?

Great Big Graphs are known to address two things that we rarely want to do on the Web: show the Shape and Density of some collection of things so that we can say things like "Oh that's really big" or "there's a lot of activity going on down there in that part of the graph, but not much up here." The classic issue with a graph, however is that to get the overview, detail gets lost. Conversely, as we zoom in, the context gets lost. This loss of context is particularly irritating in touch graphs where zooming in on a component apparently breaks it off from the rest of its graph. This focus vs context issue of any graphical representation of information where the goal is to someone show the whole thing and yet also provide detail is a classic problem in Human Computer Interaction, and the subject of considerable research {refs to follow, but in the interim, take a look at the topic "focus + context" in the ACM digital library's search box}.

At the heart of the problem is that at scale (when there is considerable data to represent), or as soon as what a system is trying to model as a complete entity takes up more than one page/screen, the detail/overview compromise kicks in. Whether the graphs are UML diagrams, flow charts, clustering graphs, maps of geographical areas or maps of streets or networks, scale forces a compromise between focus and context, but if the interest IS in exposing an entire domain at once graphs and the techniques for balancing focus+context can be extremely effective (consider the micro map of either a 3D gaming environment that shows where one is in a world from an overview perspective relative to one's first person perspective; or the similar technique used in a Photoshop document where when zoomed in to work on a small section of image a map tool shows where one is working relative to the rest of the image. This map tile outline can also be used to navigate and reposition one's work area in the image). A question emerges here, however: if graphs are typically deployed to show the WHOLE of whatever is graphed, why is that an appropriate model for providing access to the Semantic Web? And if it isn't (a) why are we using it or (b) what alternatives are there for considering how to wrap up RDF data for effective use?

A fundamental question from the HCI perspective related to the above would be: what question/task/need is a given graph or other visualization answering? or perhaps, to put the question another way, what visualizations/representations/interactions would best support the specified tasks? And to push that question one further, what is particular about the semantic web such that new types of interaction designs may be required to support the types of tasks that are semantic web specific? Indeed this last question is the subject of a workshop on the Semantic Web and User Interaction. The challenge becomes: what, if anything, is special about what the Semantic Web enables such that existing UI paradigms don't suffice?

We've suggested that Great Big Graphs (GBG) are not appropriate as a de facto way of presenting the Semantic Web because the tasks it supports are limited. This limitation is not in itself a bad thing, but that we'd suggest that there is not a strong match between what a GBG provides and the kinds of information support people who use the Web have come to expect (try doing email or buying a book with a GBG).

Part of the problem, one may assert, is that SW data is delivered with more in common with a database and its schema than a Web Page - but even that argument doesn't wash, since most commercial web sites are delivered with a database back end now - and they look like web pages. So, the question, to repurpose Freud somewhat may be not why do graphs suck for the Semantic Web, but "what does a (SW) user want?"

Another way of putting the question of what do we as SW users want may be: "what are we trying to do?" Ben Shneiderman, HCI Guru at the U of Maryland, and his student Bill Kules, have more recently been framing the question as "what do you want to know?" effectively, Shneiderman has said forget trying to show everything since we can never see everything at once anyway, and focus on the kinds of things that are of interest to the explorer. Much of shneiderman's work, from spotfire to the more current hierarchical clustering, has indeed focused on enabling researchers to focus on the kinds of questions of interest to them - such as being able to look at the results of a variety of functions when applied to sets of datas - thus being able to see for instance in what conditions are their outliers.

The advantage of keeping the question as "what do we want to do" rather than "what do we want to know" may more explicitly capture one particular attribute of the Semantic Web which it has in common with many Web 2.0 applications: the desire to DO something on the Web with the data itself. To tag it; to edit it; to share it; to push it into new and or other representations.

These attributes of edit/tag/share are possible with Web2 aps, which break one part of pre Web 2 models, where the web is interactively read only. However, the specific affordances and constraints, to use Don Norman's terms, of the Semantic Web may take us beyond even these relatively new ways of interacting with information on the Web.

Difference at Source leading Difference at Interface
One of the interesting features of the semantic web that is not harnessed by simple Great Big Graphs of RDF is the fact that it is increasingly possible to break the paradigm of the page (called for in You've Got Hyperext) and actually enable people to choose a variety of representations for the information out there, depending again on what they want to do with it. Likewise, the immediate possibilities of how one set of data might be repurposed with another set of data automatically is also a remarkable and still largely untapped affordance of the Semantic web.

This capacity is enabled by that same RDF that wraps up and makes communicatable the semantics of the data in relation to itself and to other data. Just as the schema of a database makes visualizations like Spotfire possible, the RDF of the semantic web will make richer mechanisms for engaging with data possible.


We see some of this page-breaking, cross-web, context sensitive flexible repurposing of data in Semantic Web Applications like Haystack, piggy bank, AKTive Futures and /facet (pronounced "slash facet"), and from Semantic Web/Web 2.0 hybrid applications like mSpace and mSpace mobile



AKTive Futures, for instance, uses a cartesian graph as one facet of its interface presentation. The core interaction of the UI is to select countries for one axis and ranges of years for the other to look at trends in oil production in those places and times. By clicking on a spot on a line on the graph, the stories that are associated with those confluences are presented in a secondary window. In this case, the use of a particular kind of graph is appropriate for the task the designers of the application wish to support. Date and output data from MULTIPLE resources, (not just one database), are, as numeric data, represented in a numerically relevant fashion - not as static tables but on a graph where, in Shneiderman's parlance, the person using the service is not presented with all data for all time, but is enabled to select the ranges of interest and focus on them with an appropriate format.

For this site, data is coming from all over the Web and converted where it doesn't already exist in SW format into SW format (ie rdf most usually) so that it can be rendered appropriately for this kind of explorable user interface (UI). Indeed, the graph is used to help find trends of interest (not unlike Spotfire) and to use those relations of interest as the way to find the richly associated information to tease out what may have caused that particular moment.

Pre-existing Sites with a Purpose - Predefined Semantic Web UI aps
The above sites are examples of what happens when a site with A Purpose already exists. Haystack's exemplar is the "universal information client" which integrates calendar information with other associated tasks like hotel and flight booking along with finding relevant and related email to support tasks in process. In this case, Haystack is showing the way of using the Semantic Web to do old tasks better, using familiar UI paradigms in new contexts to make it easier to do related tasks that typically draw down on information from a variety of applications: checking email for when a conference is in order to get the dates into the calendar and check out flights for those times.

mSpace's is making classical music discoverable for people who know nothing about classical music. This discoverability is enabled by adding Preview Cues, or the ability to check out not just a piece, but the sound of an area of music, like sonatas or baroque, quickly and easily. This feature in itself is not driven by the semantic web, but it is powerfully supported by it. For instance, there are other affordances that the interface provides that go beyond online music explorers and into what makes the Semantic Web interesting: the browser automatically associates information from different sources about the music in the explorer with the music - choosing "period: baroque" yields a description of that content. This ap is another case of taking familiar and largely effective models for music library exploration and play back, and enhancing them to enable either improvement of previously doable but difficult or cumbersome tasks.

These sites suck in and make shapable information related to sepecific predefined domains. They use specific graphs to present the data in the domain (calendars, maps, timelines) but these are supplemented with or are supplemental to serving other activities, based on interaction models designed specifically to support certain kinds of information exploration and discovery tasks that are well-enabled by the Semantic Web.

For instance, with mSpace, new dimensions can be added to the domain as they become known; musicological data may be supplemented with technical recording data or historical data. The UI makes it possible (to use spreadsheet language) to pivot from one domain to another on a related term - so one moves from beethoven in the context of music to beethoven in the context of history. Sure yes one can do these pivots with databases and spreadsheets. Indeed, George Roberston's Polyarchy work called "Visual Pivot" (pdf) in fact has shown exactly such pivoting in very interesting ways from one database table to another. One may suggest, however, that the Semantic Web has the potential to break from database scale to greater, messier, heterogeneous Web scale.

Dynamic, Free Form Semantic Web UI aps
One of the challenges of the Semantic Web however is to enable us to just get at that rich data via our own dynamic contexts. For instance, suppose there's an interest in finding Jazz music that may be of interest and there's no pre-made mSpace Jazz explorer? or more intrigued yet, someone is interested in not only exploring the sounds of jazz but of seeing what is happening historically both politically and in architecture at the same time as different trends in music are occurring in order to explore the question what was influencing what when?

The above kind of questions means that a person may wish to be able to start exploring from a particular seed or set of seeds from which to start building and exploring relations (though even how to express these seeds may be challenging - another matter for interaction research innovation (ever know what you want but not the terms to express it so that you can find it on google?)). The above mix query means that samples of music need to be available so someone can audition the songs (we do not assume the Questor is a jazz expert) to see what's of interest; engage historical political period data from different regions; enable this data to be contextualized not only by location but by time, and readily explorable by time and by location visualizations. What's the ideal representation for this information as it is assembled? It is NOT a Great Big Graph (alone or primarily).

Web Founder and Semantic Web co-Founder Tim Berners-Lee has been developing an idea called the Tabulator (which i can never seem to find working), Conceptually, one starts with a specific known source of semantic web data, and then rather than in a graph, one selects cells in a tabular representation of the rdf, which expand into fresh tables, etc (go see the site for an image of this - maybe you can even get the demo to work). The data collected in these expansions can then be re-visioned into either a map, a calendar or a timeline (note the term "or"). There's considerable potential here - currently the source of the data is very geeky and not that non-geek friendly - data is expressed in rdf-ease triples like "colorPicture is mentioned in TAGmobile road trip BOS-> Amerst:photo" Qu'est-ce que se?

The tabulator also seems currently to be informed by the old-school Web-as-Read-Only, where as the impetus of Web 2 (and the semantic web) is towards read/write/re-write - a very much more Ted Nelson-ish hypertext vision ( a good thing) than pre Web2 vision.

Mix and Match on the Fly
So, some of the challenges for Semantic Web UI services besides de-geeking things like Tabulator will be to support data in formats so that the application has information that is relevant to what display options may be appropriate for it (dates, map coordinates, contacts). It's not clear what the solution is: micro formats is one approach; fresnel, defined as "a generic ontology for describing how to render RDF in a human-friendly manner" - where the style sheet for a data chunk effectively travels with that data offers another. It will be interesting to see how these approaches work across heterogeneous data sources and distinct contexts. It will also mean being able to add new data/links/tags(?).

That latter observation of the context in which the data is discovered leads back to the earlier observation that UI's for semantic web data, like all other human-usable systems, need to respect and support what the human wants to do with that data. Being able to establish context for multiple intersecting data domains and data types may be as critical as being able to take advantage of a pre-asserted format for a particular data chunk.

The bottom line is that Great Big Graphs have their place, but overall, it's a pretty limited place. Great Big Graphs are generally also pretty easy. The algorithms for pumping data into many graphs are well known. As Karger says, it's a pathetic fallacy to assert that because the data model is a graph the data should therefore be displayed as a graph. It's also, let's face it, a cop out in usability terms, unless all one wants to see is how big is the data set, where are the dense bits etc. The harder question is "how might this data be used? how will we support those heterogeneous requirements - and do so dynamically, elegantly"

People at the coal face of RDF and Ontology development mayn't see it as their mission to consider that more human-oriented approach to representing information spaces for human usable, human-useful exploration. But why not? The result may well be the generation of a generic Semantic Web browser - a tool that would enable people both to explore and contribute to the rich associations possible in the ((increasingly Social and) Semantic) Web.

[update Aug 17 '06 : the version of this blog entry David and i submitted to SWUI06 is available (in html) at]

Posted by mc at 10:43 PM | Comments (0)

The mystery of single temperature faucets

200608031049Occasionally, i see things and think now that's a cultural difference that would cause a north american a double take. Seeing cars parked facing either direction on a street. That's a weird one (yes in north america cars are parked facing one way only - no just sliding over to the other side of the street and pulling up onto a curb and parking. You turn your vehicle around and parallel park the sucker into the spot).

Then there's power outlets with individual switches on them. Or windows with little wind powered fans. Or the making of tea in a cup rather than a pot, or the fact that instant coffee is on many restaurants' menus.

But one thing that constantly surprises me is the pervasiveness even in "new builds" of individual hot and cold water taps. It's not that "mixer" taps (hot and cold going into one pipe) are unknown, but that anyone would want a single tap per temperature in either a bathroom or kitchen sink, or even a bathtub is beyond me. And it's not like they're cheaper: the price of two individual the taps is either the same or more as their integrated cousins.
It's a mystery.

Posted by mc at 6:06 PM | Comments (0)

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

Etymotic Research ER-6i in ear canal phones review: super sound to enhance your ipod

Two things can immediately improve the sounds coming from your ipod:

  • - higher bit rates for the mp3's or aac's (ripping at 160 rather than 128 AAC for example)
  • - better head phones.

Indeed the better the headphones that you have, the more you'll hear the artefacts of lower bit rate encodings. So, suppose you have some nicely encoded, or indeed entirely lossless tracks on your ipod (try putting your fave album or set of tracks on your ipod imported direct from the CD rather than encoded. Play them up against encoded mp3's or aac's and see what you hear) and you'd like to hear as much of what's there as possible: what headphone style do you choose?

You can choose traditional cans (regular over the ear headphones) - Aside: Next time you're thinking about sony or seinheisser, give Ultrasone HIFI or DJ phones a try - hit "test reports" to read reviews - they're designed to preserve your hearing, too). These types of headphones are dandy for certain kinds of situations - long listening sessions; editing - but for being on the go, they're bulky to say the least, and not great if you want to fall asleep with your tunes.

Another style is the popular earbud phone that comes with most digital audio players like ipods. These sit levered in the ear. In ear phones, like apple's in ear ipod headphones, point more directly into the ear canal, and thus cut out more of the noise from the outside, improving perceptions of things like bass in particular.


Etymotic ER-6i

The next level up (or in) is full into-the-ear-canal phones. When you see musicians on stage at live events and see the lines leading up around their ears, you're seeing custom made in-ear monitors (iem's) where the earpieces fit into the ear canals . The custom fit isolates external sounds and directs sound from the monitors into the ears.

And this is how good headphones can save your hearing: by having the 'phones cut off outside noise by over 20db, you can turn the volume DOWN on the listening device. Add to the isolation effect great transducers to translate the impulses coming from the source (like an ipod) into great sound, and you have a super combination.

The etymotic 6i's, as reviewed by the formerly named "ipod lounge" represent an affordable combination (approx 140 USD/75GBP) of great (hearing-saving) isolation and super sound, designed specifically with digital audio players like ipods in mind. What does that mean?

Etymotics makes a number of great in-ear sound-isolating phones: the 4 as flagship, the 6 as more affordable but still cool cousin and the 6i for ipods. The main thing about the 6i over the 6 is that it provides some much appreciated bass boost, as shown in the chart comparing the 6 and the 6i. This boost is subtle - you won't experience it as the bass pumped up, but as an overall richer sound, where you can better pick out the distinct bass and drums textures from a track.

What sets these headphones apart from other "in ear" phones, however, is the kind of audio detail available across the spectrum, not just the bass. You may hear instruments and touches that you hadn't heard before. In vocals, i've found that i'm hearing much more of the expression of a phrase or a note than with standard earbud or apple's in ear phones or sony's in ear phones (any model) or many traditional cans.

Moving in the world with 6i's on: Isolation of in-ear phones like these means that you do not hear things outside yourself - if you're running or just walking down the street, you may want to think about not putting these in so they're fully seated - that will let you use these more like ear buds where you can still hear the traffic.

Getting used to Canal Phones. Some people do not like the idea of sticking something deep into their ears. If you're one of these folks, these headphones mayn't be for you. One way to check your tolerance is to try out a set of disposable ear plugs: how do you feel about putting these into your ears? If you're ok with that, you can be ok with the ety 6i's

The 6i's come with one set of flanged ear pieces and one set of "memory foam" ear pieces (same stuff used for ear plugs). Each fit slightly differently. Other sizes of foam or flanges are available and etymotic will send you a sample pair different size if you think you need it. You can then get sets of the sizes you want. The degree of isolation is also different: 22db with the flanges; up to 30db with the memory foam. I've found i like the feel of the flange better than the foam, and for the environments i work in, including planes, the 22db is more than adequate.

Er6I-13DFit is critical to the sound experience of these headphones. Some people have said they've made their own modification to the 6i's flanged ear pieces cutting off the top flange so the larger two are left (scroll down this review on ilounge to see comments by people of their pre and post mod experience of the phones - all post mods are "wow these ARE awesome." - perception of the bass is particularly noted.)

Isolation vs Noise Canceling/Noise Reduction. Another attribute of the 6i's or indeed any good isolating phone is that it is better at reducing plane/train noise than "noise cancelation" headphones like the popular bose model - which also require batteries.

Now, a lot of people are happy with their £275 Quiet Comfort bose phones even though their web site does not say how many db's of sound are cancelled, whereas Sony's 99USD fontopia earbud noise cancelling headphones make clear they offer only 10dbs (70% of noise); etymotic's foam ear plugs are 30dbs; their 6i flanges are 22db.

For £80, with etymotic ER-6i's, you'll get both a better sound floor and better sound isolation in a lighter package than either Sony or Bose and one that doesn't require batteries. If you don't believe that, try this simple test: go somewhere where you can try a pair of the bose quiet comforts. Try them on, turned on. Then, remove headphones and stick in a pair of memory foam disposable type ear plugs (you don't squish in these: you roll them first to kinda compress them, then insert into the ear and hold for 5 secs: they expand to fit the ear canal shape). Which produces better noise reduction? If it's the ear plugs, imagine great sound coming through those plugs...

Aside: If you want to spend £275 on in-ear/isolation headphones, though, you can, and you can do much better in terms of both sound and isolation with that cash. See the Next Level section further down for how-to's. For about half that price, you can get some awesome professional level audio headsets, too!

Any Negatives? Hate the case. Ok, hate is a strong negative, but really. Er4-6-65V-1Etymotics provides a wee neoprene pouch for the phones with a mesh divider. This means stuffing the cables and earpieces into the thing. It's a mess and timely. ( See update bottom: the case has been changed and is a much better zip case)

Er6I-88An alternative device for storing 6i's is the earPod - a generic earphone case. Not quite as cools as sony's winding cases that come with their own headphones, but more durable, and will definitely fit the etymotic 6is as shown in this review at ipoditude.

Overall. The 6i's are a very good set of headphones. Whether you're listening to classical or house, the degree of detail in sound is impressive. The better the encoding the better the sound, of course, but even with lower bitrate encodings, these phones improve the experience.

The isolation is a boon for being able to turn the sound down and still hear an impressive and enjoyable level of detail. The isolation is also great for cutting out travel noise of the train/plane.

They take a bit to get used to in terms of learning how to put them in and get them out; and as other reviewers have noted, the difference between great and crap sound experience is all in the fit. Taking the time to get that fit right, though, pays off.

If you are looking for
- an improvement in audio experience on your ipod
- an improvement in your travel-with-audio commute experience
- a way to ensure the ongoing protection of your hearing

then these phones are a great option.

The Next Level: "Pro" IEMs

At the start of this article, i claimed these 6i's are an "affordable" package worth the price. Well, at around 150USD, "affordable" may be eye popping for folks used to thinking in terms of 20 bucks for earbuds. But that price is only the beginning.

You can take your ER-6i's to the next level by getting ear molds done at an audiologist and having custom silicon sleeves made for them. True, at £88 pounds, they're more expensive than the monitors themselves, but if you enjoy the sound and just want more comfort in ear, that's an option.
If you have money you want to burn to optimize your audio experience - an experience you may enjoy every day for hours at a time after all - you can


take your in ear experience to the next level from off the shelf in-ear models to custom built jobs made from molds of your ears, the latter being the most unobtrusive and comfortable. I won't go through a comparison hear, but if you'd like to explore those heady spheres of audio possibilities, below are links discussing and comparing four of the most common high end in ear monitor models discussed: Etymotics ER-4, Shure E5c, Sensaphonic ProSonic 2x-S, Ultimate Ears UE-10pro.

A note about pro IEMs original design motivation: In the case of the custom made IEM's the motivation for the initial design has not been listening to ipods - or stereo systems. It's been largely to support stage musicians (a) to provide a good on-stage mix for the performer and (b) to protect the musician's hearing from the decibels coming off huge speakers in live events, whether pubs, clubs or arenas. Musicians who can't afford a full in ear monitoring solution and rely on house monitors at clubs will often have custom earplugs made just to cut that on stage while performing. Effectively, IEM's are adding decent sound mixes into those custom earplugs. Companies like Sesnaphonics and Etymotics make their bread and butter from such custom "sound attenuators"

Off the shelf Pro IEM's (in ear monitors)
  • Etymotics flag ship single driver EP-4's are $330 (all prices here USD)
  • Shure's top end "in ear monitors" dual driver EC5's are $499
Custom Made IEM's

Compare and Contrast.
Amazingly, there are people on the planet who have both the above top end phones (UE-10's and Prosonic 2X-S) and have written comparisons between the ety's, shures, UE's and sensa's (yes at that price range, the community gives these products abbreviated names). If you're interested, see this now classic reference piece comparing sensa's shures and etys. The same person does a comparison of Sensa's and UE-10s. UE-10's and Ety's, a UE-10 and UE-5c review and this one on the UE-10's AND getting UE-10's if you live in the UK and a

big review of the ACS T2's.
etc etc.

Good Luck

All said, the etymotics ER-6i's at once 150USD are still GREAT (and now you can see why they might be called "affordable" ) canalphones for your ipod.
Posted by mc at 11:00 PM | Comments (0)

November 15, 2005

new iPod - is Less More?

pic of apple video ipod
Apple's zippy new iPod will play itty bitty videos, as well as music. Even Steve Job's is dubious about whether or not little video will fly, but boy this new 60gig thing in thin. a bid wide, in an almost high definition kind of way, but thin.

In fact, this new ipod is so thin, it only supports one connector type: usb2. No more firewire. But everyone has USB2, right? everyone has a new computer? right? (lest we forget apple did not add USB2 to its powerbooks until mid 2003 - that's what? two years and a bit ago? hell, who keeps a laptop for that long!)

The ipod itself is also so thin it seems there's no room for that extra bit around the earphone jack to support a remote control dongle.
Want to turn the volume down or change track? be prepared to pull the ipod out of your jacket, pack, bag, wherever to make this simple adjustment that just about every other mp3 player - including the previous ipod - supports.

Ipodsock 125400USD for no charger, no docking stand, and now, featuring no remote control - not even the option of one. But heh, you can still buy ipod Sox. That's great, eh?

I was thinking of bagging my old 2nd gen, not quite three year old iPod since it holds oh, about, 5 mins of charge now. But instead, i think i'll just get the battery replaced. It may not be anorexic, heroin super model thin, but it uses a regular firewire cable to hook up to a computer to get charged and transfer tunes, and even tho it came in a much bigger box that box accommodated an external power supply and remote control.

Posted by mc at 3:28 PM

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)

March 29, 2005

The Brighter Glory of an Energy Saving Lightbulb

Tn Ambiance Bc 169 "If every UK household installed just one [energy-efficient] bulb we'd save over £80 million per year![ref]"

Recently, on yet another grey rainy day in England (how else does it get verdant, eh?), i was looking into the promised properties of full spectrum lights to see if they helped break the monotony even if you don't have seasonal affective disorder.

This lead to a site which sells such things. (Aside: one of the great things about the UK is the number of sites online that ship goods, from weigh scales (at scales-r-us (not kidding)) to, well, light bulbs. Just about anything that can be put in a box can be put in the post and will be there in a day. maybe two. amazing. Just in case you're wondering, this is not how it works in Canada. Even if you're putting something in the mail for delivery in the same city. no. no no no no). Which lead to the discovery of an "energy saver" version of full spectrum lights. Which in turn leads to all sorts of energy saver bulbs - at the time, on sale, even.

Turns out that changing light bulbs from regular wattage to energy saver can do more to fight the later winter/early spring blahs better than a whole box of full spectrum homeotherapy -- really...please, read on

If you don't have experience of Compact Fluorescent Lights (CFLs), they come in a variety of shapes,(and explanations for why they're so efficient and exceed their stated life expectancy [1] [2] [3]) from regular looking bulbs (shown above), to tubes looped over each other. They take a moment to warm up and come to full illumination. This is a bit disconcerting at first, but one acclimatizes quickly. And the light color is not bluey fluorescent but the same as regular bulbs. that's a happy surprise.

The energy reasons for using these bulbs are two fold: they cut electricity bills, and, especially, they save energy resources. Here's a great factoid: "If every UK household installed just one bulb we'd save over £80 million per year!"
(point 7, of

Did you know:

Replacing a 75 Watt incandescent fixture with a 20 Watt CFL fixture that is in use for 10 hours a day will pay for itself in just over a year in terms of saved power. That light will then continue to work for upwards of 10 years after, each year saving you more and more money. []


Each Energy Efficiency Recommended bulb can reduce your lighting costs by up to £7 a year. That's just one light bulb - imagine how much you would save if you replaced them all! Because energy efficient bulbs use only a fraction of the energy needed to light a traditional bulb, they also help the environment by demanding less energy from the power stations which means fewer climate-changing gases being released. []

There's another reason for using them, too: more light,

Sockets that have a max wattage of say 60 watts can now have bulbs that are a third of the wattage and give near twice the light. This is a great cheap way to improve the light in an area and save energy and electricity costs at the same time. This is awesome if you're somewhere where there's a fixed lamp (like a kitchen or bathroom) and it's a bit on the dull side. Going from 60w to 100w in an energy saver is an incredible difference.

It's just great having a brighter environment, and yet knowing that you've actually achieved it by using less energy. Having just replaced four regular sixties (240 watts) with two 12s and two 20s for the equivalent of two 75s and two 100s, that's an energy savings of 176 watts; the 64 watts give 350 watts effect of illumination.

The hard part if you're on limited income is making the hurdle to spend the denaros (or pounds) on the light to begin with. In my case, i was lucky and caught a sale. That said, there are power companies that apparently give discounts on CFLs. In the UK, their Energy Saving Trust site has links to these kinds of schemes. But heh, even one bulb makes a difference - a collective 80million£ difference.

I still can't get over this notion of getting more - more light - for less energy resource, less energy cost. It really does feel pretty good - especially on these grey days when a person wants/needs the lights on, full spectrum or otherwise.

Posted by mc at 2:21 PM

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

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

February 25, 2005

corsair flash usb drives: recommended

Have been looking for a fast, robust usb2 flash drive. Reviews seem to point to Corsair's Flash Voyager drives.

They're cool. They're fast. They bounce. They can handle getting caught in the washing machine, or being dropped in a mug of ale.

The pictures on the web site don't do them justice: they are small, thin, and the rubberized coating is besides functional, just neat, if not unique in the flash market. They're also thin, which makes carrying them in you jean's coin pocket doable. Various reviews have pointed to the bounceableness of the drives as well as their leak-proofness (they survived bear dunking and washing machine full cycles)

And yes, they are fast. The reviews (many now linked to Corsair's site) show that they do manage their claimed throughput speeds.

A couple of design points: (1)no physical lock to make the device read only, but since the point of these is mainly to enable fast shared writes, that's not a major issue. (2) there's nowhere to put the cap: it does not stick on the end of the drive so you need to (a) put the cap somewhere safe and (b) remember where you put it. Not optimal.

Finally, Corsair also offers downloadable security software for locking out a partiction on the drive from access. They do not have a mac version, but their tech support (Ram Guy) suggests that such a product may be in the works.

In the meantime, i'm using a password protected disk image, created with osx's disk utility. Another colleague, Mauricio Varea, suggests that you can also partition the drive on a windows box, and then on the mac, reformat one of those partitions as an HFS+ (mac) formatted drive. Cool.

In the UK, these are available at and

Posted by mc at 2:34 PM