January 30, 2011

Difficult Listening, bathtubs and kitchen chairs -- as Flow

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The boredom or fear papers are not delightful.

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

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

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

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

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

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

April 21, 2009

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

Ok What IS Web Science?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And why would we want to do that anyway?

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

Big Science?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mirror Mirror

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

thanks for reading.



research "fellow"

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

November 24, 2008

Building Knowledge: What's Beyond Keyword Search?

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

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

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

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

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

Examples of such approaches include:

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

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

Exploratory Search Tools to Date

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

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

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

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

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

Early Web Serendipity and Serendipity Redux

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

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

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

Facetted Search: the Metadata is the Message

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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)

December 19, 2007

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

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

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

Mapping Time

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted by mc at 7:22 PM

August 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 http://eprints.ecs.soton.ac.uk/12911/]

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

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)

March 31, 2005

The Equilibrium of Tea meets
the Light Speed of English Kettles

In his novel Pattern Recognition, William Gibson describes his American heroine's experience of visiting the UK, staying at a friends apartment, as a trip into "mirror world:"

Mirror-world. The plugs on appliances are huge, triple-pronged, for a species of current that only powers electric chairs, in America. Cars are reversed, left to right, inside; telephone handsets have a different weight, a different balance; the covers of paperbacks look like Australian money.

For someone coming from (anglo-english Toronto) Canada, still acclimatizing to (southern) England, this is an apt description of the dissonance experienced - the slight offset of one English speaking region next to another: the expectation of similarity against the twilight zone oddness of same, but somehow, not the same. Caesura. or hiatus. or dissonance. Enter, the Tea Kettle, restorer of equilibrium.

Equinox Small

Equinox Dt1 SmallOne of the most amazing, awful (in the awe-full sense of the word) differences, of that "current that only powers electric chairs in America" is its manifestation in the EU Made Tea Kettle. No where, it seems, is that difference more sublimely embodied than in the model pictured here: the three THOUSAND watt Rowenta Equinox Uber Kettle which proves Einstein's theory of relativity by boiling water so fast, it's happened in the past [1] [2] before you even get up to fill it up. It is a beautiful thing. Stout but streamlined. Elegant in brushed steel. 1.5 liter capacity, easy to read water level, and scary scary fast at bringing water to a boil. It is, to use the British expression, "brilliant." It enables the making of that soul-restoring to a culure-shocked cannuck beverage, Real Tea.

Some time ago, not long after i'd arrived, i was amazed to find myself engaged in a discussion with two English colleagues who knew their kettles. They even knew what the usual amperage of kettles is without looking it up in google (half the Rowenta). When i exclaimed that the Rowenta was DOUBLE this state at 3000watts, they did a fast calculation on how long it would take a liter of water to boil and even they were impressed (i was impressed by their ready calculation of same, but then these were the guys who were behind the "spud server" [bbc][exn][register]). Initially disbelieving that such a marvel existed with such amperage until pointed to on the Web, they concurred, that this is quite a thing.

Tea time of the soul. One of the profound links between (a good chunk of anglo) Canada and the UK (or at least a good chunk of England) is an understanding of what constitutes real tea. The fact that there is an understanding about what "real" tea is also implicitly demonstrates the great impact of America on the Rest of Us. In my limited experience, if you get anglo-Canadians together with English sorts in some country where either is not a citizen, one can generally be counted on to establish immediate rapport in the glorious and shared generalization that "americans don't know how to make tea."


Tales of terrible tea in restaurants emerge that regularly share the same core elements:


The true commiserators remark that they travel with their own tea bags and secret them into the uncontaminated-by-tea hot water pots when the server isn't looking.

The truly desperate traveler in the US will reflect on how they will beg hotel managers to send up a tea kettle in order to make hot water for tea. "But you have a coffee maker in your room!" Exactly. The water tastes like coffee.The results of the tea kettle request in America have met with mixed results: carafes (last used for, yes, coffee) of hot water may be brought up; another "newer" coffee maker may be produced, and sometimes, a tea kettle of a certain age may be found. An English colleague has mentioned that the notion of the tea kettle itself does not appear to be well understood in the States. He tells the tale of looking for a kettle in a shopping center and only able to find the stove top variety. In the UK, the tea kettle is the default hotel beverage accouterment, no matter the hotel grade.

The default coffee, by the way, in a British hotel is a cylindrical packet of Nescafe. You can order Nescafe Instant Coffee in restaurants, too, and you'll also find it as a common (if not prefered) domestic means of making coffee. Perhaps this explains why the Senseo is making such a splash now that its broken past the Netherlands's borders. Instant. Singular. But tastes, heh, like, i dunno, coffee?

To be fair, Americans i've met who like "hot" tea certainly know how to make a proper cuppa, from heating up the pot first, to stirring, etc. And some of the stories i've heard from Irish colleagues of their relatives making tea by leaving a pot on the stove with tea bags left in for an indeterminate amount of time have left me sure that generalizations are of course generally apt to fail. Weirdest tea experience: Palo Alto, ordering a pot of tea, where the cafe seemed to make a fetish of selecting leaves, placing them in carefully selected squares of material, tying the baggie and then reverntially placing the baggie in the pot. I was too stunned by the production to really note whether or not they put water in the pot first or after the bag. My mind seems to think after all that, they'd delicately dipped the bag into the hot water rather than scalding it. sigh. When one is dying for a cup, taking such time to produce what was, alas, actually only an ok brew, really does seem too much.

But to the kettle, perhaps i generalize too much to suggest that the accelerated speed at which a UK kettle boils water could have such a stabilizing effect on the Newly Landed. But in the UK in particular, where, as Gibson's narrative so aptly captures, things do initially seem slightly off kilter (electrical switches that should turn things on turn them off, for instance), the fact that, while much around you feels a little weird, tea, that calming centering beverage, is not only possible but stirringly ready at mind bendingly fast speeds, means that all can still be well in the world, reflected, refracted or otherwise.

Posted by mc at 12:16 PM