Saturday, April 30, 2005

A crop circle google montage, from Montage-a-Google again.


Gotten off tingilinde, the Montage-a-Google and the game based on it are pretty sweet.

This is my spring montage for "lilacs."

Other pretty ones are "apples", "leaves", "petals", "stars", and "trees."

A Web Design Process Animation

If you haven't seen this, it's strangely compelling: a guy captured stages of his design of a web page from start to end, and animated it, so you can see the process at many checkpoints. His explanation is at, A Design Timeline. His animation is here.

This kind of thing would make for very nice portfolio material for anyone interviewing for a UI design job. One is supposed to be able to show stages of development and talk to them. Without a little more "documentation" of what's going on, it's not quite sufficient as is. But for supporting material in a website resume, for example, it would be pretty cool.

Friday, April 29, 2005

Mirror Neurons

Apparently some scientists say humans can read minds:

"Mirror neurons suggest that we pretend to be in another person's mental shoes," says Marco Iacoboni, a neuroscientist at the University of California, Los Angeles School of Medicine. "In fact, with mirror neurons we do not have to pretend, we practically are in another person's mind."

Since their discovery, mirror neurons have been implicated in a broad range of phenomena, including certain mental disorders. Mirror neurons may help cognitive scientists explain how children develop a theory of mind (ToM), which is a child's understanding that others have minds similar to their own. Doing so may help shed light on autism, in which this type of understanding is often missing.

Networks and Creativity

A link from Boing_boing on the value of fresh perspectives in creative endeavors, studied from a social network perspective: Dream teams thrive on mix of old and new blood.
"You need someone new to get the creative juices going so you don't get trapped in the same ideas over and over again." Uzzi added, "If your systemic network has teams with only incumbents, and especially incumbents who have worked together repeatedly, your field tends to have low impact scores. The fact that we found this across fields with equally powerful minds suggests that how the brain power of a field is organized into different kinds of networks determines the field's success."

Thursday, April 28, 2005

Twenty Things about Software Design

I've been thinking a lot about previous jobs and about the interaction design class I'm putting together. These are a few conclusions I've reached over the past few years, from working on different products in different domains at altogether too many companies: Here are Twenty Things I Think about Software Design.

Sunday, April 24, 2005

Exploring Enron Email

This is how I found Mark Newman's stuff and it well deserves linking to in its own right. Jeffrey Heer, the main author of the prefuse network visualization toolkit that I linked to a few weeks ago, has this cool paper: Exploring Enron, visualizing social networks from the Enron email corpus at UC Berkeley.
enron social mess

He implemented one of Newman's fast algorithms for detecting community structure in Java and it worked out fairly well.

Mark Newman is Hot

I found Mark Newman's web page while tracking down some references on social network graphing algorithms, and was wowed by his list of pubs. I scanned through a bunch before finding the home page, noted he is quite cute, boggled he is in a Physics dept., and then saw he was one of the characters responsible for the widely linked to blue & red election results maps of the country.

Coolness AND attractiveness factors, ok; but back to the substance that convinced me I wanted to date him before I even saw his picture. He's applied his general network analysis algorithms to analysing wide ranging network data, from biological pathways to animal behavior to routes in cities to physics paper citations to web site linkage. The papers tend towards the math-full, but the points are pretty interesting nonetheless. And his math gives me hope I can crunch my enormous pile of LiveJournal network data into something tractable, eventually!

On his pubs list, look for the "Why social networks are different from other types of networks", "Finding community structure in very large networks" (in which they analyse buying patterns and find community-like structures), and the sweetest one, "Identifying the role that individual animals play in their social network," a study of dolphin communities.

Apparently one individual (SN100) acts as the broker between 2 dolphin groups. (Other dolphins had names like "fish" and "thumper"; so why couldn't SN100 get a real handle?) Dolphins hang with other similar dolphins, just like people do. Here, I'll make it easy to get to the dolphin story.

Impress your social circle:

I got this one from Danah Boyd's site: Rent a German.
rent a german and smile pic! offers a wide range of Germans for your personal and social needs.

You can select the German of your choice for an exclusive lifetime experience: Imagine to appear with your German at parties, family events, or just hang out with them at the local shopping center.

No matter which occasion you choose, you will surely impress your environment by presenting an original German.

If you are german or know a German who wishes to participate in the rentagerman network, please don´t hesitate to add your German to our site. On success, you will receive 40% of the rental fee !

So enjoy our human resources and make the rentagerman community grow fast !

Edited to add: I can't leave this site alone, I'm too enthralled.
Carl Hagen, 58 (New York): “After dinner, we watched TV together with the entire family. Suddenly the German started to cry. It was such real and pure emotion. I’d never seen this before. The support package cheered him up again and we read German poems together ‘til 3 am. Even Grandma stayed up and enjoyed the exotic sound of words like "Rasenmäher, Motorsäge or Solidargemeinschaft". Rented again, before our new friend left.”
So, rent-a-nice-scot would go over quite big among my friends. I smell a business plan.

Saturday, April 23, 2005

London's Abandoned Tube Stations

If you're a fan of the underground, or the Underground, this is an interesting collection of trivia and old photos: London's Abandoned Tube Stations. (Scroll down past the cartoon to the content links.)

Gotten from the wonderful Things.

WorldChanging: Stories of wallpapers

There are enough cool technology pieces out there to draw on for decades of product innovation; what we need now is for designers to come up with clever ways to combine them in artistic and provocative ways... Here's another set of fun idea aggregations: some very cool wallpaper evolutions posted on Worldchanging in Stories of wallpapers:

"By embedding electroluminescent materials into the pattern of the wallpaper and incorporating a light sensor, the wallpaper responds to the lighting requirement of a room, acting as a decorative element when a room is naturally bright, and as a wallpaper light when the space requires more light. With power supplied from a solar charged battery or standard electricity, it can also be manually controlled to increase or decrease luminosity."

Other good ideas in there: "The Activity Wallpaper, by Tobias Skog, explores how a place can get an electronic "memory" of how it is inhabited: how people move around, socialize, make noise or spend time there." (This is an oldish theme from the HCI literature, in which documents or objects or places record previous usage or interactions for later users to see. Nicely applied to wallpaper, though.)

And then there's "The Not-So-White Walls, by Dario Buzzini, is an interactive wallpaper that works like a display, giving you the possibility to change patterns and content as you wish. Resistors placed behind the paper surface make the color of the paper change according to your fantasy: you can dim lights, turn on home appliances, read email on the wall, view pictures taken with a camphone, etc." Yes, but can I watch a movie on it?

Thursday, April 21, 2005

Democratizing Innovation

Released under CC license and on MIT Press 2005, here's Eric Von Hippel's manuscript for Democratizing Innovation, which argues that we should be paying attention to "lead users" to see what they do with our products. Lead users "are defined as members of a user population having two distinguishing characteristics: (1) They are at the leading edge of an important market trend(s), and so are currently experiencing needs that will later be experienced by many users in that market. (2) They anticipate relatively high benefits from obtaining a solution to their needs, and so may innovate.

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Journal of the H.M.S. Endeavour, 1768-1771

Captain Cook's journal is scanned and online from the National Library of Australia. The part I dipped into seemed to be full of recipes, and I later gathered this was the doctor's section on the effects of portable soup and port on scurvy. Go to: Digital Collections - Manuscripts - Cook, James, 1728-1779.. Journal of the H.M.S. Endeavour, 1768-1771 [manuscript].

Saturday, April 16, 2005

Life's top 10 greatest inventions

A good article in New Scientist on the best inventions of evolution, from brains to death to sex to parasites. It's readable, and fun if you know any biology (apparently I really am learning some!): New Scientist-- Life's top 10 greatest inventions.

Trends in Terms for MMORPGs

At brunch last weekend some friends and I were trying to talk about MMORPGs (massively multiplayer online roleplaying games) and couldn't figure out what to call them or how to pronounce it. Ken suggested "MUD" was the best pronunciation. Out of curiosity, I tried that Blogpulse Trends mapper on the terms MUD, MOO, and MMORPG and got this (look, MUDs and MOOs aren't dead, Ned):

Notice the trendlines are quite sensitive to whether you use the plurals or not:

Check it out yourself: Blogpulse Trendline for MMORPGetc.

ajax & web applications

Wondering how the latest cool web stuff works? Doesn't it seem like things suddenly got a lot better out there? Look at the ajax explanation for a bunch of Google technologies and A9, the yellow pages app on Amazon. Then go try Google Suggest if you haven't yet. It's like they combined a random text search engine and directory listings in one UI -- amazingly useful due to low interaction overhead and very simple in concept. (Although note that it piggybacks on a UI/IE feature from which many users may expect different behavior -- which worries me a tiny bit.)

adaptive path-- ajax: a new approach to web applications.

BlogPulse Trends, Memes, Trackers

Infoseek's BlogPulse has some tools to watch the memes and activity on the blogosphere. There are a handful that are of direct interest to me, in my attempt to analyse meme spread on LiveJournal.

The Conversation Tracker: Another in the collection of tools to show threaded conversations, this time at the meta-level, across sites. While very difficult to do in the general wide open system of the Internet, tracking topic spread and threads is far, far simpler in relatively closed systems like Usenet (see Marc Smith's Netscan stuff, of course) and LiveJournal. I'd like to see more tools for handling LiveJournal's sprawling disaster of a conversation space.... Now THAT would really benefit a lot of users who are frustrated, and with good reason. (Difficulty following conversation across LJ's was one of the major issues raised by users in my survey results, which I'll digest and post sometime in the next month.)

The Trend Tool: Their tool for simple graphs of topic spread over time. What can I say, I love graphs, especially time series data. I haven't played with it enough to know what I think of it as a general purpose tool, though.

HP Labs Empidemic Analyser: Yevgeniy Medynskiy of Cornell pointed me to the HP Labs work on meme spread, which seems to be evolving into some cool tools. Their thesis is that viral memes and topic memes spread similarly. I'm going off to play with this thing now.

For all these links: BlogPulse Tools, scroll down for the items in question.

"So tonight I spied on Area 51"

If you haven't seen Google's satellite photo addition, this is a fun way to get introduced: some guy goes looking for Area 51 and posts pics (and directions) for where he thinks it is, complete with landing fields and bunkers.

the_unexplained: So tonight I spied on Area 51.

Friday, April 15, 2005

Longmire does Romance Novels

Here's great LOL-inducing set of spoof romance covers, pointed out by Ellen Kushner on LiveJournal: Longmire does Romance Novels.

Thursday, April 14, 2005

More googlemania: If this was the future....

A very amusing wish for Google that happens to tie right into some current (BUZZWORD ALERT) ubicomp ideas: If Matt typed in "where are my car keys?" into Google: blackcustard LJ post: if it was the future already....

Wednesday, April 13, 2005

One of Jill's squirrels.

Blogs and Old Friends

While I was at CHI, and emptying out my woefully small stack of business cards, I kept thinking, "Well, yeah I want your card too, but what I really want is your blog URL." I suspect the same was going on in reverse. Over dinner, one researcher suggested I blog about a recent book published by a former grad school friend of mine vs. my book (the real one, not the edited collection), and that I ought to point out the similarity in the social phenomena we were describing in different mediated communication situations. I don't expect she knew I had a blog at all that this would work on, and whether it would really "work" in the sense of getting the conversation "out there" from here, is entirely another question -- but still! It's interesting as a meta-comment on research chitchat these days. People really do suggest blogging as a way of talking to each other in research land, not just in poptechculture land. (Well, of course they do. I just haven't found all their blogs yet, darn it.)

At CHI I saw a bunch of people from my old research lab days, and in well-timed coincidence, while I was there I got email from an old friend from AT&T who was not at CHI and with whom I'd long ago lost touch. He used to run a cool websurf mailing list with commentary on odd sites he'd found on the net. Of course he has a blog now, and I think his observations would entertain some of my readers. (He was the source of the "what's hard" hierarchy story I cited in the "invisible work" post comments, although I muchly shortened his story.)

Check out tingilinde, the blog of a former Bell Labs physicist turned Internet guru, who is also an amazing Photoshop artist and now a paint artist as well!

Pivot Points in Network Diagrams

Blogging this fast so I can come back to it later from home (eek), this guy has some nice pictures of big networks showing meta information about them, including pivot points in social networks:

Off of a strangely laid out CHAOMEI CHEN's HOMEPAGE.

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Koi in the Chinese Garden, Portland, OR. More pictures on the photo blog from the garden.

Sunday, April 10, 2005

Can Usability Scale Up?

At last week's CHI conference, there was a panel "debate" on usability that I didn't think entirely effective, in that it was Jared Spool being provocative and little interesting disagreement from Eric Schaffer of Human Factors International. But I did find it challenging and thought-provoking to hear Jared complain (yet again) about this stuff, so I'm recapping here.

Jared's contention is that usability departments don't scale -- hiring more usability professionals doesn't make for more usable products. He trots out dubious statistics about big name companies (MS) employing huge numbers of usability folks and still having very poor websites; and hotshot firms like Amazon with few or no usability staff producing famously usable, standards setting sites.

His points come down to these, from my summary notes:

  1. More usability staff doesn't necessarily (or often?) equal better usability. (But his numbers from various companies were faulty, and people called him on this.)
  2. Good usability often means good design culture, not good testing culture. More people doesn't mean good design.
  3. ROI isn't calculated and monitored by usability departments; this is dangerous in riffing climates.
  4. Are we an engineering discipline or a craft? We want to claim both and don't provide the mechanism and support for either for our profession. "Engineering" means standard skillsets and repeatable results; "craft" means some people are just better than others and portfolios matter.
  5. Process quality in usability is important.
  6. When usability is effective, are we effective because of our methods and skills and training, or because a company that hires us is thinking about new things and considering them at the same time and could do it just as well without us: customer needs and feedback, firm marketing goals, good beta testing feedback, design process, quality.

Item 2 is his most unexamined, unsupported point and yet the one I also agree with most. He's flippant about what "good design culture" entails and how it works. Yes, evaluation and design aren't the same thing, but they also aren't simply separable either. And good design itself is a complex and difficult issue in environments where employees have diverse skill sets, engineering compromises are required to make deadlines and marketing demands the impossible -- in short, where multiple stakeholders are responsible for implementing the many parts of a large system (who often disagree on the goals or the "design" to achieve them). Design is hard to do well, even in a company with supporting usability staff and cooperative players working in development and management. The cats all need to get along.

Item 4: He's just correct about this. But since design and evaluation are often practiced by the same professional, it's not clear we need to be either an engineering discipline or a craft and frankly we often have to be both. Not everyone is going to be good at both activities, though. And as an audience member said, it's certainly true that some engineers are better than others, and it's also true that at the architectural level of engineering, it's really design that's going on.

Item 6 is disturbing. I worry about this regularly, especially faced with teams that don't really need much help, for whom I'm kind of an expensive waste of company money. Where's the value add? At least I don't think my stone is magic, when it comes to testing products. Jared told the stone soup fairy tale, in which the soldier with the stone knows full well it's the vegetables that make it good, but coerces the townspeople into cooking, and then he moves on with his stone to the next town. Jared thinks usability engineers think they're really making good soup because of their magic stones, and aren't seeing the vegetables too.

Saturday, April 09, 2005

SNIF: Social Networking in Fur

The SNIF paper from MIT caused some consternation at the CHI conference in Portland this past week. It's a proposed design (or thought experiment, or classroom project) for smart leashes and collars which detect and react to other pets with smart leashes and collars and then save information about the pets' interactions. Two of the authors presented photos of leash prototypes attached to stuffed toys lying flat on the carpet, and cardboard mockups of dogs with pointy ears. It got a lot of giggles, but some people just left the room. small snifs pic

At the end, Marti Hearst (UC Berkeley) asked, "I'm not sure if this is a serious paper or a parody of a CHI paper, but in the spirit of parody, have you considered the dogs' privacy?" A big laugh there -- they nodded deadpan and said of course this was a concern.

My biggest disappointment with it was that it wasn't "done"; it hadn't been deployed and tested at all. Some of the people who left the room said the same -- amongst the flat out "it's ridiculous" accusations circulated "even if it was serious, they hadn't done the usual required analysis work." And some consternation that this got in and serious work got rejected instead, but then the CHI reviewing process is always a crazy crapshoot, since the conference is so interdisciplinary.

Maybe I've become a former-CHI-hardass in the past few years away, but I thought it was both funny AND interesting, despite the research flaws. Dog owners probably would like something like this, which for me makes it more than a little compelling! There are too many CHI papers with solutions to non-existent problems, or that present incremental design work on existing products. Dog owners meet other dogs and dog owners all the time, and they even meet non-dog-owners, sometimes quite enthusiastically ("want to meet women? get a puppy and take it for walks" -- who doesn't know this one?). So for me their paper was only 45 or 90 degrees off true right-on; it needed to focus less on making dogs happy with each other and more on the owners of dogs, and it did need some deployment (with associated design issues worked out) and testing.

In general, I'd like CHI to include more experimental thought-projects and I'd like to see more wacky creative design. I suppose the design briefings track sometimes included this stuff in the past. But of course I'd also like to see this stuff done well. CHI has been late for the boat on a lot of hot technology trends (games, poker, handheld entertainment, porn...? blogs?) because of the extreme "seriousness" of so many of the reviewers and attendees. Randy Pausch said in his opening plenary that it was important to be silly sometimes; I agree, because non-researchers and consumers and our users are sometimes silly too and buy dogs to meet women.

Friday, April 08, 2005

image landscapes

Noah Fields of the Media Lab theorises some interesting applications for tagged photos, if I'm reading his site rightly. On image landscapes, he shows off potential spatial and temporal displays including photos embedded in other photos, photos organized along continua like urban-rural (overlaid on a photo background montage of buildings and trees), and photos in temporal and narrative order (photos taken at the same time tend to be "about" the same topic and therefore may imply stories).

I like these ideas, because tags only go so far to illustrate relationships and aren't in themselves so interesting; intelligently placing tagged photos inside another context (even purely visual) or applying sematic network searches to them could make for more interesting applications down the road.

noah's rsvp thumbnail

The Very Secret Diaries

If you missed these, they're a wonderful parody of the Lord of the Rings films, by a woman who has just sold her first book! In Cassandra Claire's honor, a revisit of The Very Secret Diaries. Here are some classic excerpts from Legolas's diary:
Day Four: Boromir so irritating. Why must he wear big shield like dinner plate all the time? Climbed up Caradhras but wimpy humans who cannot walk on snow insisted we climb back down. Am definitely prettiest member of the Fellowship. Go me!
Day 30: All this paddling about in boats is hell on my complexion. Aragorn obviously starting to find Frodo strangely attractive. Sam will kill him if he tries anything. Still the prettiest.
Day 33: Boromir tempted by Ring. So tedious. Cannot be tempted myself, as already have everything I want i.e. perfect hair and a butt like granite.
And who could ever forget Aragorn's "Still not king?"

Wednesday, April 06, 2005

prefuse: an interactive visualization toolkit

I saw a paper about this today, and wow, did it look cool. It's an open source toolkit for data visualizations written by Jeffrey Heer, with supporting publications co-authored by Stu Card and James Landay. The CHI paper today claimed it takes small numbers of lines of code to produce well-known network-style plots in the HCI literature. The toolkit sounds like it offers an API to a bunch of UI drawing functions, basically, with a kind of ad hoc programming language on top of it. They also claim a weakness with data handling (for i/o), but coincidentally I work with company that has that down pretty well plus having a pretty cool language of its own. I can't wait to see if I can get Matlab to talk to Prefuse functions.

Check it out: prefuse: an interactive visualization toolkit radial network picture

Tuesday, April 05, 2005


A funny coincidence: I just heard from a friend at Yahoo who was at Excite@Home with me that the former founders of Excite started this new company for Wiki apps. It was also mentioned in a workshop I was in Sunday by Martin Wattenberg, who is interested in wikis right now too.

Check out Jotspot's overview slides and site.

Sunday, April 03, 2005

Yahoo! 360 and Already a Great Parody

I posted about this the other day in one of the "whoa look at Yahoo now" posts: Yahoo! 360, their community posting beta (which I haven't see the inside of yet). Look at that page, and then go look at this parody site immediately afterwards:

SixFoo!660: "Finally, a way for social networks to stay connected to other social networks, and meet interesting social networks like yourself."

Share what matters to you. Create yet another place online. Share pictures of your cat. Create a blather. Make the same lists of crap you made somewhere else last week, send out a BLAMMO, crush on an indie chick and abandon it all after only 12 days.
Keep your social networks close. Invite social apps to your place to see what works about their service. They can steal ideas from your service. Tag each other silly until you can't feel your toes. It's a great way to feel like something new and important might be happening before the bubble bursts again in early 2007.
Click on the sign in link to see their UI... it's very nicely meta. (Thanks to Ka-Ping Yee for pointing it out to me today in our CHI conference workshop about subjects much like this.)

Saturday, April 02, 2005

BoringBoring, Best Laugh of the Week

Maybe the best laugh of longer than a week, but I can't remember that far back anymore. Check out the April Fool's version of BoingBoing, aka BoringBoring, right on the money. I definitely LOLed a lot and fruitlessly clicked on their RSS link, wanting to keep the joke going for as long as I have to put up with boingboing in order to feel cool.

Favorite excerpts: the ad for Plain White T-Shirts and the O'Reilly "Maybe: Technology. Whatever" ad, Cory's DRM talk translated back into English (hey, Cory, get the hint), taking your knitting needles on a plane to make an infinite or four-dimensional space out of yarn (!!), and cool hack for turning any word into letters by just typing it.