Mar 03 25 2003


I slept surprisingly well on the plane, and so made it to London with less jet lag than expected. Less jet lag, indeed, than ever before: perhaps the worsening problems I've had with long-haul travel aren't just that I'm not twenty.

Because I was still standing at 5, I took a plunge and got half-price tickets for Contact, playing at the Queen's. (No links -- still no network) Good idea: it's an interesting show, and a perfect show to see after a tiring 36-hour day because, when you come down to it, it's all about dance. No singing, not much of a story, and canned music -- but lots of ballet in improbable places (like a 50's Italian restaurant in New Jersey) and to improbable music (like Squirrel Nut Zippers).

I know nothing about dance, when you come down to it, but it's fun to see.

In his new novel, Pattern Recognition, William Gibson calls London the mirror world. Things here are just like home -- but not quite. Cars come from unexpected places, doors open the wrong way, familiar things have strange names, and everything tastes a little strange. My cell phone works (but at what price price?), so I fit right into the street scene.

Mar 03 24 2003

IA Summit

The IA Summit turns out to be a lively, thriving, energetic, and unusually well-run conference. The entire hotel internet went down in mid-conference, so no blogging; I'm writing this in O'Hare where it seems that I can have either a power outlet or an airport connection, but not both.

Interestingly, most of the 300 or so people who came to Portland seem to have done so on their own ticket. Even people with Fortune 500 jobs had no travel budget (or dared not ask). It's a good sign that Internet pros are willing to invest in themselves, and in the 'net. And it's a good sign for IA that people seemed excited by new and difficult ideas.

Most impressive: a big and well-considered metadata project on The Eastenders, a long-running BBC soap opera. (Links and details later) Twenty years of plot tangles in RDF/FOAF, with intelligent attention to the hard parts without tons of terminological apparatus. Explicit representation of secrets, for example, needs to distinguish classes such as:

  • Notional secrets that everybody actually knows
  • Secrets that ceased to become secrets after a critical date
  • Secrets known to viewers but not to characters
  • Secrets known to some characters and not to others
  • Secrets that musn't be revealed to the public until some future date (embargoed spoilers)

Last night after the IA Summit, a fellow asked me in the elevator, "Do you have a web site the color of your shirt?" Yes, I'm that Mark Bernstein.

It's always astonishing when you meet people you don't know, but who know your work. Like the cab driver in San Francisco who played Wargle (an early computer game I wrote),

Greetings, too, to David Golding, who celebrates his birthday by taking stock of his blog reading. Refreshing the blogroll is going to be a new seasonal ritual -- like spring cleaning.

Here's the schedule for the IA Summit.

My talking point for today's panel on Wayfinding and Navigation is simple: hierarchy is not enough.

When people first tried to organize large hypertexts, the complexity of the connections seemed daunting, confusing, hopeless. Many thought that, at first, that the answer was to simplify, organize, and classify. Once the links were pruned and sorted out, everything would again be...orderly.

It doesn't work. Order can be enforced, but only by removing the real complexity of the real world. In real narratives, lots of things happen at the same time, and narratology reminds us how many different kinds of time we need to juggle: story time, narrator time, our time. Backstory, flashback, premonition, the times are always changing and the connections of ideas are always complex.

The atom of hypertext is a cycle, not a split/join or a tree. There, and back again. But it's time to start: here we go.

Mar 03 21 2003

IA Summit

Blogs from the IA Summit: Joshua Ellis, Adam Greenfield, Christina Wodtke.

PeterMe and at the summit.

Benjamin Franklin, one of the great scientists of his age, invented a home heating device that saved vast amounts of fuel while ensuring that working people in New England would often have warmer accommodations than even the wealthy back in the UK. He declined the offer of a patent, saying,

"That as we enjoy great advantages from the inventions of others, we should be glad of an opportunity to serve others by any invention of ours, and this we should do freely and generously."

From The First American by H. W. Brands, a biography my uncle Lionel heartily recommends.

The latch of my TiBook (the Tinderbook) usually fails to latch. Occasionally, though, it does latch itself when the case is closed.

The TiBook's case design is justly renowned. This aspect of the design is so clever that I cannot figure out how the latch could possibly work -- or why is doesn't.

I suppose I could have it repaired. But it's a minor nuisance -- and the TiBook is so useful, I don't want to be without it, even for a day or two. But, if you happen to know what might ail the latch, do let me know.

It's started: the Republican leadership has just about accused Tom Daschle of treason, claiming that criticizing the Bush's diplomatic failures comes close to lending aid and comfort to the enemy. (from Talking Points Memo)

A New Jersey resident visiting Seattle bought some witty anti-war protest signs and packed them in his suitcase. Seth Goldberg was astonished when, breaking the airport security seals to unpack his checked luggage, he found a note that Federal baggage inspectors had placed inside his luggage, saying that they did not appreciate his anti-American attitude.

Remember: support the Democrats in 2004, or the Resistance in 2006. Your choice.

Peter Lindberg ( liked an old article I wrote on the relationship between Information Architecture and Librarianship.

Architects have always competed with craftsmen, construction firms, and engineers; what architects offer is an original and coherent vision that inspires and entire Web site or building.

I also touch on this in the current Tekka, where I compare the Bauhaus manifesto to the IA literature.

The purpose of architecture, in the end, is to reconcile the forces of art and engineering , to make ideas and materials support each other, even when they are naturally inclined to tear each other apart. In the literature of Information Architecture, art (or The Designer) is often the opponent, the irrational follower of coolness and novelty that must be disciplined and tamed.

I'll be saying more about this on Sunday at the Information Architecture Summit. I'm going to be drawing connections to IA practice from the Bauhaus, from Louis Sullivan (the first great skyscraper architect), from fascist architecture in the 20th century. The talk may be followed by a conclave of angry villagers wielding pitchforks and wireframes. If you're in Portland, drop by.

Mar 03 19 2003

Unusual spam

Mixed in with the usual spam offering stolen fortunes and unlikely anatomical enhancements, I found spam offering to sell a software company lock, stock and barrel. You can buy a CRM software vendor for just $695,000.

Talking Points Memo offers a long and thoughtful assessment of where we stand, as the US prepares to go over the top and Bush launches a long-sought war. Josiah Micah Marshall, writing of Spain's promise to mobilize its air force if Turkey is attacked, says:

There's only so much levity that's appropriate at a moment like this. But this one pretty much comes with the levity already installed.

The central point is that we've turned the corner. The fight for peace has been lost. We need to pull back, gather our strength, and do our best to salvage whatever piece we can.

After this comes Iran, Syria, perhaps also Southern Lebanon, and more. And I don't mean calling them names. I mean, taking them out.

The vision of what we're trying to get is go out and give the hornets nest a few whacks and get them all out in the open and have it out with them once and for all. If that sounds scary to you, it should.

It's increasingly clear that the Bushites have been rejecting intelligence reports that don't match their hopes and expectations, leading to absurd blunders and humiliating errors. "They believe everything they can prove," Harpers' Lewis Lapham quips, "and they can prove everything they believe."

New at the ART, the world premiere of Rinde Eckert's Highway Ulysses. A production that proves that actor Thomas Derrah can do anything, this stunning, operatic Odyssey is the tale of a Vietnam Vet who hits the road because he has to get his son. The road is a weird place. He meets a coffee shop waitress (Karen MacDonald) who is worried that he looks like he might be getting ready to kill himself and she really hopes he won't -- at least not today -- because the last time someone did that the police kept everyone tied up for hours and today she has to take the kids up to summer camp where they'll be for two long weeks -- imagine two weeks without the kids! -- though really it reminds her how nice it used to be, bathing in the river out there, naked, numb,

Floating on the water,
Like Ophelia, only smarter.

Even better is Michael Potts as the one-eyed, obsessive, shotgun-wielding defender of a branch public library which no one, understandably, every visits

Mar 03 14 2003

Doing The Work

When you need to figure out whether a given Web page is trustworthy or not, there's no substitute for actually doing the work -- reading the page, researching the background, and forming a critical judgment. Relying on production values or GoogleRank can save time, but in the end it's bound to get you in trouble.

Adrian Miles, who is teaching students how to read and write weblogs, gives an example (that Jill Walker picks up for her class). A Google search turns up Rebecca Blood's history of blogging; can you rely on it?

We also discussed the domain (an eponymous .net) and what that might indicate, the design and writing values of the content, the extent of content available, and how none of these alone might mean much but when judged in relation to each other can tell you quite a lot. Finally, I pointed out that the site had a Google rank of 1 and that because of how Google determines page rank this is an index of authoritative rank, and possibly more authoritative than any of the other indicators.

The problem is, none of this turns up the fact that Blood's essay, though popular, is controversial. For example, Dave Winer (Scripting News, Radio Userland) wrote:

Her original history was all wrong, and while she's made some corrections, she still doesn't understand the medium, or even tell the story of how weblogs came to be with any accuracy. The appearance of Blood's book sparked a good deal of discussion -- much of it contentious and uncivil; Roger Cadenhead provides lead links.

Similar issues crop up all the time. Histories of hypertext always start with Vannevar Bush. The evidence for Bush's direct influence is slim, but you'd never know that without close reading. People are still talking about the hypertext navigation problem; we've known it wasn't a problem for a decade, but so many people say it that people suppose it must be true. The fourth-ranked site on "theory of evolution" at Google is crazy, a high school teacher's "Top Evidences" that the Christian creation myth is history, Just try a Google search for something that actively attracts flakes, like UFO or alien abduction .

From the surface -- design, domain, GoogleRank -- you can perhaps reach a preliminary opinion on whether the essay is crank or crackpot, but you cannot know whether it's wrong. It's entirely possible to be widely cited and wrong; that's why research hasn't been replaced by the one true Encyclopedia.

Casual users (and lots of journalists) are still looking for grand applications that do everything, but the real world is finally learning to use software tools that work together.

I just received a nice email from Amazon (whose CEO, I learned from Net News Wire, just survived a helicopter crash in Texas). Amazon is scanning all its affiliate sites for broken Amazon links, since broken links don't make them any money. Did Amazon build a powerful custom tool to do this? No: they just use Alexa.

Fixing broken links on archival pages is dull work, and might not be cost effective. Before discarding the message, I realized that all the tools were sitting right in my dock. The weblog pages are all in Tinderbox; I open the file, pop up the search window, and select the ISBN attribute. Next, I type three our four digits of the ISBN from one of the bad links; since I only mention a few hundred books in the weblog, typing three our four digits is enough to located the specific note. Tinderbox uses incremental search: as soon as I type the third digit, it starts scanning for possible matches. The result appears before I can hit return.

Clicking on the note shows me the title and author. Now I need to find the correct Amazon link: in most cases, the publisher has changed editions and so the old ISBN had been replaced. I pop up a Watson window and feed the Amazon tool the the title; it finds the actual link using Amazon's web service. Double-click to verify that it's the right book, copy the ISBN, paste into Tinderbox. Fixed. Export the site; Tinderbox figures out which pages have changed and rewrites them. Visit the Drop Drawers dock where I keep my maintenance files, click a Fetch icon, and the changed files are swept up to my server.

Notice how many different computers and corporations are cooperating here. No custom applications are involved, anywhere along the line -- not even for glue. It's all off-the-shelf. About a dozen companies have worked together on this little ten-minute task that doesn't generate any immediate revenue but makes the Web a nicer, cleaner place.

Talking Points Memo nails the situation:

We are supremely isolated right now. That's the issue we need to contend with. When we can't get penny-ante states to give us their votes on the Security Council that should tell us something: not something about the rightness of policies, one way or another, but about the depth of our international isolation.

For some reason, a few English Lit professors write forum posts and such as if they were poetry. Now, the Electronic Book Review affects the same style for their email ads.

o, we, ath the electronic book review

have worked soooooooo hard
in the last couple of years

(re-engineering periodical publishing)

to be able to walk in to your mailbox
and say, with casual exuberance "This just in . . ."

What do the line breaks and stanza gaps tell us? That this is poetry? Is doesn't rhyme or scan. There's no rhythm I can see. The punctuation is eccentric: the parentheses are debatable, the comma introducing the quotation (and closing the parenthetical phrase) is simply missing. What's the point of "casual exuberance"? What are they saying, here, anyway: that they've spent two years of hard work to be able to email this advertisement to you? It might be true, but why tell me?

Later, we're told to await

A bouquet of essays on New Media Studies
culled by Scott Rettberg
(due in next week)

This is almost a double dactyl (Higgeldy Piggeldy/ Jacqueline Kennedy / Tossed a photographer/ Over her head/), and I'm a big fan of dactyls, but it doesn't quite make it. The literal sense suggests that Scott has gone out to the garden and chosen the weakest, wilting flowers of New Media Studies to bring inside for the dining room vase, which surely is not the point.

Surely there's some important allusion or lovely hidden pattern of wordplay in these poems that I'm missing? Give me a hint, someone.

Mar 03 9 2003

Mass Care

Do we know that, when Flylady sends us email, the emails are mass-produced?

One of the puzzles of the new economy has been the absence (or, perhaps, the invisibility) of email personal service businesses. After all, we couldn't FlyLady send you caring, personal email -- email thoughtfully written specifically to you? Why couldn't a bookseller send you truly personal suggestions, based not on a Pattie Maes algorithm but on knowing a lot about you and a lot about books?

This seems to be uneconomic, but it isn't: we've been doing this in person for eons. In backwater villages and shtetls, even the most oppressed of peoples had a system of guys who did nothing but sit around and advise people about problems they faced: how do you deal with the kids, how do you deal with the laws, how do you deal with critics and other idiots, how do you deal with disease and betrayal? My people called them rabbis.

Think about the economics: how many people could you get to know well enough to give really good advice on what books they should read and what movies they should see? Surely you could write a few personal emails in an hour. Do it for eight hours a day, take it seriously, and you could handle a few hundred people a week -- easy.

You could also do this with computer support, or home cleaning, or cooking. Five hundred people at $5/week is $125,000/yr. That's the magic revenue number -- $100K/employee/year. It might be a close-run thing, but it looks viable to me.

Mar 03 8 2003


Though polls say that Americans want a war, that's not how it looks from ground level. I don't know anybody who is really eager to turn on the artillery. And a lot of people are looking over their shoulder at Korea. What, exactly, is urgent in Iraq but not urgent in Korea?

As Brady wrote, we're marching into the future, shoulder to shoulder with Micronesia. The problem with this tongue-tied administration isn't just the silly slips the president makes whenever he's not completely scripted. It's the sense that nobody quite knows what they're saying, so nobody quite knows what the US really means, or wants.

That makes a dangerous situation explosive.

We're planning to rebuild our kitchen. The approach is simple and, to anyone who has seen our kitchen, obvious: rent a dumpster, toss the current kitchen into it, and start over. High time.

But it turns out that I need to decide right now whether I need a 36" or 48" range, or if I can manage with a 30" four-burner affair. Do you have advice? Do indoor grills ever work out? Email

One problem is that I need to plan a kitchen for the cooking I'll be doing in five or ten years. I've always worked in bad kitchens. I learned most of my cooking on a cheap and malfunctioning electric range in a grad student apartment. I've had the kitchen with no place to chop, the kitchen with one burner, the kitchen with one pot, one pan, and two forks. (The bring-your-own-fork five-course dinner party was memorable, all in all) I don't need to recreate the bad kitchens, or perpetuate the bad habits they gave me. Where to begin?

Diane blogs Flylady.

Have you heard of Marla Cilley, a.k.a. The Flylady ? I hadn't, until my sister told me about her. She has a mailing list with 160,000+ members and a book that today ranks 136 on Amazon. (It was at 193 last week.) Apart from the book, which is mostly recapped on the Web site, she's not trying to sell anything; she just wants to help you get organized.

An email list that large is extraordinary. The site, too, is remarkable; it doesn't have the authenticity of the best weblogs, at least not at first glance, but there's something here.

My essay on Ten Tips for Writing The Living Web has been translated into Czech for Interval Magazine, Brno.

Mar 03 6 2003

Little Women

New in books, two very interesting new works about what it's like to be a little girl. Donna Tartt's The Little Friend is quietly and beautifully written; there's not much here that's showy or that sparkles but, at the end, you realize that the little town of Alexandria, Mississippi is uncommonly well drawn and that our friend Harriet would be fun to know, even though we really have no idea what she'll be like when she grows up. Hayao Miyazak's Spirited Away is going to be remembered as a great film of the great year of 2002, much as Wizard of Oz adorns the landmark year of 1939. Alvin Liu's collection of The Art of Miyazaki's Spirited Away is fascinating.

Yesterday, we took down the last of Eastgate's inter-floor ethernet links and replaced it with an Airport Extreme base station. We're now entirely wireless between floors, with local nets handling each office; everything is faster and more reliable, and bringing the network up was remarkably easy. (An earlier attempt with third-party WiFi ran afoul of extensive weirdness that stumped experts; if you need some Linksys access points and bridges at a good price, let me know)

Game designer Greg Costikyan recently described an idea for a game, Great Patriotic War, that he'd like to create, if only it made business sense. The game is about the Eastern Front in World War II, the great struggle between Hitler and Stalin. It's meant to be played very quickly -- the entire war in twenty frantic minutes.

New media critic Anja Rau, in turn, took a look at the idea and can't imagine why anyone would want to do such a thing, The war was terrible -- war is always terrible. Why would anyone want to relive it? Why would anyone think anything about this was fun? Isn't the entire idea obscene?

I think Rau is mistaken because she misunderstands what the game is about. This is not surprising: most people who look at war games, including players and designers, misapprehend their subject. In fact, Costikyan doesn't quite understand the subject of his own game.

For once, we don't need to worry about the intentional fallacy. It's usually a gaffe for critics to talk about intentions: we can't know what the author meant to do, only what he or she actually did. But, in this case, all we have are intentions.

Costikyan thinks the game is about two things:

1. The Eastern Front was a terrible struggle between two brutal, totalitarian regimes. Costikyan argues that they were equally evil, and plans to emphasize this by reminding us of the camps and gulags, and by telling players about aggregate casualties suffered by both sides. Costikyan also wants to remind us that this was the core of WWII, that everything else was a sideshow; Americans love to remember Normandy and Arnhem, but nothing in the West came close to Stalingrad.

2. Costikyan also wants to make a technical point about military simulations, many of which operate more or less like chess, with abstract units that are moved in the abstract geometrical space of a checkerboard or hexagonal grid. The Great Patriotic War would be played on a continuous map and the forces would also be fluid and continuous; there would be neither units to move nor spaces to move them into.

Rau looks at these ambitions and sees little of interest. She's right. The irony of the war -- the terrible, noble sacrifice that the monstrous Soviet regime made to save us all from the Nazis -- deserves commemoration and demands understanding, but this game hardly seems the way. The technical question is technical: there's not much there to interest a literary critic. So, what's the point?

The Great Patriotic War is not, I think, about the Soviets and the Nazis, and it's not about the sacrifice of the common soldier or the millions of victims over whose towns and fields the struggle raged. It's about two of the central questions of the study of history:

1. Could it have been better? This is the question that always hides beneath the surface of historical scholarship. Was there something -- anything -- that could have been done to make this terrible struggle less awful? Could it have been avoided? Could it have been won sooner? Could more have been saved? Counterfactual history is for amateurs, but in the end it's always the question that saves History from idle pedantry, the moral heart of the discipline.

2. What is it like to make decisions of terrible consequence in terrible haste? How can anyone do such things? That's the real fascination of this conflict: every day, people would wake up, grab a steel cup of terrible coffee, and start making decisions that would consign thousands to torment and that would decide the fate of nations. They'd do this for hours on end, without decent information, without reliable advice, often with explosions in the distance, and always knowing themselves surrounded by bosses and subordinates who plotted every day to kill them.

That's why Costikyan wants a fast game, an arcade-like game. Time stress distorts our perception. Stress is emotionally immersive even though the game cannot be sensually immersive, and emotional immersion is the point. What was it like to be Zhukhov, bearing on your shoulders the fate of the greatest land army in history, the last hope of millions of peasants who were being slaughtered by Nazi invaders, knowing every day that the future of mankind could be imperiled forever by a single stupid blunder? And knowing, too, that the leader of the grateful nation whose army you were leading was plotting to kill you, too? But Stalin isn't here now, and right now your radio operator is telling you that 37th Tanks needs to be supplied now, and you've got to decide right now where to find them food and bullets or, perhaps, the 37th will just melt away into the Russian winter and the panzers will pour through and perhaps you'll have just made the blunder that dooms the species for a thousand years, or forever.

This is the stuff of literature -- to know what great people can do in great times, to know what we might do if we must. It matters to us because people matter. It matters, too, because life is always filled with snap decisions that carry grave consequences and that are always made with too little time and knowledge. Are you going to Wellesley, or MIT? Are you going to ask her to marry you, or not? Do you want to have a baby now? It always comes down to a moment and a hunch.