July 2007

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SL redux poster

The lovely people of the IAI have arranged for me to give an abbreviated, Second-Life-friendly version of my presentation tomorrow at 3pm Linden Time (i.e. the time in Second Life), or 6pm Eastern US.

It’s abbreviated by necessity — the presentation has many many slides normally, that I go through quickly, but in Second Life the render times are longer. So no fancy builds and transitions, and fewer images overall. But it’ll be an interesting experiment.

I appreciate the IAI folks’ patience with my anxious dithering on this whole thing!

If you get to see it in Second Life, but then want to check out the full presentation, you can read the notes and see all the slides at SlideShare.

I only just heard about the Google Image Labeler via the IAI mailing list.

Here’s a description:

You’ll be randomly paired with a partner who’s online and using the feature. Over a two-minute period, you and your partner will be shown the same set of images and asked to provide as many labels as possible to describe each image you see. When your label matches your partner’s label, you’ll earn points depending on how specific your label is. You’ll be shown more images until time runs out. After time expires, you can explore the images you’ve seen and the websites where those images were found. And we’ll show you the points you’ve earned throughout the session.

So, Google didn’t just assume people would tag images for the heck of it. They build in a points system. I have no idea if the points even mean anything ouside of this context, but it’s interesting to see a game mechanic of points incentive, in a contest-like format, being used to jump-start the collective intelligence gathering.


Later in the day, I hear from James Boekbinder that this system was invented (if he has it right) by a mathematician named Louis Ahn, and Google bought it. He points to a great presentation Ahn has on Google Video about his approach.

Ahn’s description says that people sometimes play the game 40 hours a week, while I’m hearing from other sources that research showed users putting a lot of effort into it for a short time, then dropping and not coming back (possibly because there’s no persistent or tranferable value to the ‘points’ given in the game?).

OK Computer Cover - Wikipedia

I don’t know the exact release date, but I do know that it was right about ten years ago that I first heard OK Computer.

In May of ’97, I had just finished my MFA in Creative Writing at UNC Greensboro. But I had no job prospects. I’d had a job lined up for me at a small press out of state, run by some dear friends and mentors of mine, but money issues and a new baby made it so at the last minute, I had to turn that opportunity down. (I handled it horribly, and lost some dear friends because of it.)

My future, or my identity in a sense, felt completely unmoored. The thing I’d assumed for two years I’d be doing after finishing my degree was no longer an option; I’d fallen out of love with teaching, and didn’t really have any good opportunities to do that anyway. All I had going was this nerdy hobby I’d been obsessing on for some years: the Web.

So, I needed a job, and ended up talking my way into a technical writing gig in the registrar’s office of my MFA alma mater. I wouldn’t be editing poems and fiction for a press or a journal (as I’d gotten used to doing and thinking of myself as doing) but writing tutorials and help instructions for complicated, workaday processes and applications. But at least I’d be on the “Web Team” — helping figure out how to better use the Web for the school. I’d been working with computer applications, designing them and writing instructions for them, off and on in my side-job life while I’d been in grad school, so it wasn’t a total stretch. It just wasn’t where I imagined my career would take me.

That summer, in a fit of (possibly misplaced) optimism and generosity, my new employer sent me to a posh seminar in Orlando to learn better Photoshop skills. And one of the presenters there was the guy who made some of the most collected X-Files trading cards around, and an acknowledged wunderkind with digital mixed-media collages. (Cannot find his name…)

As I was waiting to see this guy’s presentation, and people were filing into the presentation room, he was setting up and had a slideshow of his creepy graphics going onscreen. And this spooky, ethereal, densely harmonic, splintery music was playing over the room’s speakers. I was feeling a little transfixed.

And, of course, when I asked him later what it was, he said it was Radiohead’s OK Computer.

Here’s the thing: I’d heard Radiohead interviewed on NPR by Bob Woodward about a month or so before, where they discussed the new album, the band’s methods, how they recorded most of it in Jane Seymour’s ancient country mansion. And they played clips from it throughout, and I remember thinking “wow, that’s just too over the top for me… a little too strange. I guess I won’t be getting that album — sounds like experiment for its own sake.”

It’s just one of a thousand times this has happened to me — conservative, knee-jerk reaction to something, only to come to embrace it later.

Something about this music connected with me on a deep level at that time in my life, and through a lot of things going on in my own head. It *sounded* like my own head. And, to some degree, it still does, though now I feel it’s more of a remnant of a younger self. Yet this music still feels quite right, quite relevant now, but I hear different things in it.

So. This just occurred to me. Had to share. I’m on record as a huge Radiohead fan, even though I realize this isn’t exactly a unique thing to be. I’ve found every release of theirs to be fascinating, challenging, and rewarding once it has a chance to settle in. (Not a huge fan of Thom Yorke’s solo effort, but I’m glad it’s out of his system, so to speak — then again, who knows, four years from now it may be my favorite thing ever.)

They have a new album coming out sometime this year, if all stars align correctly. Can’t wait.

UX Week 2007

UPDATE: See this one on SlideShare. You need to see it full-screen to read the notes.

This is my official plug for the Adaptive Path UX Week in Washington, DC, August 13-17.

I’ll be speaking on Monday, on User Experience Design as set of Communities of Practice. Basically, an abbreviated and somewhat tweaked version of what I presented at the IA Summit this year.

Hey, DC in August! I hear the hotel has excellent air conditioning :-)

Via Jay Fienberg, via the IAI discussion list, I hear of this excellent post by professor David Silver about a talk Silver did recently on the Web 2.0 meme.

Silver starts out lauding the amazing, communal experience of blogs and mashups of blogs and RSS feeds and other Web 2.0 goodness, and then gets into giving some needed perspective:

then i stepped back and got critical. first, i identified web 2.0 as a marketing meme, one intended to increase hype of and investment in the web (and web consultants) and hinted at its largely consumer rather than communal directions and applications. second, i warned against the presentism implied in web 2.0. today’s web may indeed be more participatory but it is also an outgrowth of past developments like firefly, amazon’s user book reviews, craigslist, and ebay – not to mention older user generated content applications like usenet, listservs, and MUDs. third, i argued against the medium-centricness of the term web 2.0. user generated content can and does exist in other media, of course, including newspapers’ letters to the editor section, talk radio, and viewers voting on reality tv shows. and i ended with my all-time favorite example of user generated content, the suggestion box, which uses slips of paper, pencils, and a box.

I think this is very true, and good stuff to hear. (Even in the peculiar lower-case typing…fun!) Group participation has been growing steadily on the Internet in one form or another for years.

I do think, though, that some tipping point hit in the last few years. Tools for personal expression, simple syndication, a cultural shift in what people expect to be able to do online, and the rise of broadband and mobile web access — the sum has become somehow much greater than its parts.

Still, I think he’s right that the buzzword “Web 2.0” is mainly an excellent vehicle for hype that gets people thinking they need consultants and new books. (Tim O’Reilly is a nice guy, I’m sure, but he’s also a business man and publisher who knows how to get conversations started.)

Silver mentions Feevy, a sort of ‘live blogroll’ tool for blogs — it has an excerpt of the latest post by each person on your blogroll. Neato tool. I may have to try it out!

I haven’t been doing much political posting here for a while, in the interest of trying to keep a user-experience design focus, for the most part.

But things are getting weirder and weirder in this land of ours. Or, at least, it’s becoming more clear how weird it’s been for quite a while.

I think many of us already knew that Cheney was creepy and secretive, and that he’d managed to cultivate an unusual amount of power for a VP. But I don’t know that many of us suspected how deep it really goes, or how dark.

Hertzberg gets to the point in the New Yorker:

More than anyone else, including his mentor and departed co-conspirator, Donald Rumsfeld, Cheney has been the intellectual author and bureaucratic facilitator of the crimes and misdemeanors that have inflicted unprecedented disgrace on our country’s moral and political standing: the casual trashing of habeas corpus and the Geneva Conventions; the claim of authority to seize suspects, including American citizens, and imprison them indefinitely and incommunicado, with no right to due process of law; the outright encouragement of “cruel,” “inhuman,” and “degrading” treatment of prisoners; the use of undoubted torture, including waterboarding (Cheney: “a no-brainer for me”), which for a century the United States had prosecuted as a war crime; and, of course, the bloody, nightmarish Iraq war itself, launched under false pretenses, conducted with stupefying incompetence, and escalated long after public support for it had evaporated, at the cost of scores of thousands of lives, nearly half a trillion dollars, and the crippling of America’s armed forces, which no longer overawe and will take years to rebuild.

Of course, I’m sure there are plenty of very humane and decent things Cheney has done in the world. It’s perhaps not fair to judge someone solely on the negatives. But what a list of negatives … I suspect he’s hit a tipping point, pushing him from merely corrupt to, well, evil.

Am I being harsh? Is this rhetoric too strong?

The question then becomes: how bad does it have to be for the rhetoric to be necessary? How corrupt and destructive does a public leader need to be in order to justify demonic, polemical characterization — which is often necessary to jar people’s frames of reference enough to wake up and see this is not just another administration, that it’s not just garden-variety incompetence or greed?

So, really, that’s what this post is about. That question. I wonder, in history, how it felt for people living in countries that were doing just fine and seemed nice and moderate and sane, but that were on the brink of catastrophy? What did the signs look like?

It seems like, in all the narratives I hear from such situations, regular people kept making excuses for their leaders, or buying into some watered-down version of their leaders’ more extreme views. “Oh, I’m sure it’s not as bad as all that.” “Oh, come on, this is (insert year here) in (insert country or region here) — that could never happen here!”

I remember news reports from Somalia in the early 90s, when reporters walked around in the ruins talking to people who had been poets, artists, teachers, doctors. There was talk of how modern and sane and moderate Somalia had been, how it had been one of the cultural (in a Western sense, I’m sure) jewels of Africa. Turned to blood and rubble.

People want to believe their leaders aren’t “as bad as all that.” Even people who don’t like their current leaders tend to have a sort of boundary that keeps them from thinking their leader could truly be a dictator in the making.

How bad does our administration have to be in order for us to say, out loud, these are criminals, and they must be stopped? And then, even if we do, what then?