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November 29, 2007

A Life in Type

The Typophile Film Fest 4's opening credits. Very cool.

(If you haven't noticed, my personal rating system really only has two levels: "cool" and "very cool." I guess there's also a separate, corresponding set of negative ratings for "I'm not looking at you" and "I'm making fun of you." It's often difficult to tell if I'm using the positive set or the negative set.)

[via Monoscope]

November 28, 2007

Mechanical Turk: Recruiting Web Test Subjects

Amazon's Mechanical Turk has been around for a little while, but I hadn't looked at it yet. It's an odd--maybe innovative and useful, I'm not sure yet--website that connects human test subjects up with programs that need to be tested for small amounts of money:

In 1769, Hungarian nobleman Wolfgang von Kempelen astonished Europe by building a mechanical chess-playing automaton that defeated nearly every opponent it faced. A life-sized wooden mannequin, adorned with a fur-trimmed robe and a turban, Kempelen's "Turk" was seated behind a cabinet and toured Europe confounding such brilliant challengers as Benjamin Franklin and Napoleon Bonaparte. To persuade skeptical audiences, Kempelen would slide open the cabinet's doors to reveal the intricate set of gears, cogs and springs that powered his invention. He convinced them that he had built a machine that made decisions using artificial intelligence. What they did not know was the secret behind the Mechanical Turk: a human chess master cleverly concealed inside.

Today, we build complex software applications based on the things computers do well, such as storing and retrieving large amounts of information or rapidly performing calculations. However, humans still significantly outperform the most powerful computers at completing such simple tasks as identifying objects in photographs—something children can do even before they learn to speak.

When we think of interfaces between human beings and computers, we usually assume that the human being is the one requesting that a task be completed, and the computer is completing the task and providing the results. What if this process were reversed and a computer program could ask a human being to perform a task and return the results? What if it could coordinate many human beings to perform a task?

Amazon Mechanical Turk provides a web services API for computers to integrate "artificial artificial intelligence" directly into their processing by making requests of humans. Developers use the Amazon Mechanical Turk web service to submit tasks to the Amazon Mechanical Turk web site, approve completed tasks, and incorporate the answers into their software applications. To the application, the transaction looks very much like any remote procedure call: the application sends the request, and the service returns the results. Behind the scenes, a network of humans fuels this artificial artificial intelligence by coming to the web site, searching for and completing tasks, and receiving payment for their work.

Commentators, overall, are a little skeptical: Katharine Mieszkowski's article at Salon bears the title, "I made $1.45 a week and I love it," to give some suggestions about the money involved for many test subjects). Here are some other takes on the Mechanical Turk, much of which focuses on the low pay involved for test subjects: Coding Horror's Is Amazon's Mechanical Turk a Failure?, Tech Crunch's Amazon Finally Reveals Itself as the Matrix, and news.com's Amazon's Mechanical Turk Lets You Make $$$, Sort Of.

I haven't checked with our Human Subjects Board to find out if they would have any problems with using this in research. I'm guessing that once they got their heads around it (which might take a little prodding), they would primarily be worried about confidentiality and the nature of the material being tested. Pay's not much of an issue for most such boards, and probably rightly so (compare this to the relatively low pay given to medical test subjects, often a much, much more invasive and possibly deadly procedure). All of which, I guess, throws into stark relief the social problems of capitalistic society: I expect people to give me their labor for free, even though I'm ostensibly being paid to do the research. So I haven't decided if I'd use the Mechanical Turk for research or not.

[via SIGIA-L]

November 27, 2007

Bent, Not Broken

Casey Clark's short (~10m) documentary on Chicago-area circuit bending. Cool.

November 26, 2007


I just spent 20 minutes locating and downloading six separate updaters for MS Office 2004 for Mac from Microsoft's website. I haven't even gotten to the "install and reboot" portion

Is this tortuous updating process (including at least one crucial update to plug a security hole) Microsoft's punishment for using a Mac? No wonder so many people run outdated and unsecure configurations on their computers.

Or maybe it's just me. I've also installed Windows on machines a couple of times recently and the process always included at least that much time trying to get automatic updating configured correctly. Which, in theory, would have automated updates if I could get it running. And maybe Apple's setup is no better for new users and I'm just thinking it's easy because I've been doing it for so long.

[Update: And like magic, two day's later a dialog box pops up on my computer to ask me if I'd like to install an Update to Mac Office 2004. Cool. If I'd known Microsoft was listening, I would have requested something more substantial, like a pony.]

November 24, 2007

Spam and Surrealism (The Comic Series)

Another Design Observer link: Tom Manning uses the chaff text in spam (those chunks of randomly grabbed, meaningless words inserted into spam email apparently to confuse spam filters) to create oddball, surrealist comics.

Every day for two and a half weeks this past spring, I decided to create a comic strip based on a spam text I received that day. My anonymous and presumably automated collaborators supplied the words. I figured out how those words might translate into a daily strip. The email subject line provided the title of the comic, and the author's name was that given by the spammer. The result is a modern kind of surrealism that is hard to imagine without the strange magic of today's technology. Enjoy.

[via Design Observer]

Understanding Decoration

At Design Observer, Stephen Heller challenges the Curse of the D Word.

Decoration is a marriage of forms (color, line, pattern, letter, picture) that does not overtly tell a story or convey a literal message, but serves to stimulate the senses. Paisley, herringbone or tartan patterns are decorative yet nonetheless elicit certain visceral responses. Ziggurat or sunburst designs on the façade of a building or the cover of a brochure spark a chord even when type is absent. Decorative and ornamental design elements are backdrops yet possess the power to draw attention, which ultimately prepares the audience to receive the message.

To a lot of people, Decoration is the opposite of Design or, at best, Decoration is hollowed out, soulless Design. Or maybe Decoration is design with a lowercase "d" instead of the serious uppercase. Which is actually often true: some of the worst designs are all decoration and no design: empty rhetoric. But it's not so easy to divide the two. Good design frequently involves decoration, and not simply as an afterthought. The "colorful palette and pictorial vibrancy" of Euro paper currency compared to US currency isn't merely decorative: it says something (something functional) about the Euro economy compared to the US economy. For that matter, US paper currency is elaborately decorated--the decoration is simply drawn from a different rhetorical register--socially conservative, purposefully less flamboyant. An insistent lack of decoration is itself a form of decoration—it's not like the US Mint can't afford to add more color or pictures, or that color or pictures are actually that much more expensive or time-consuming to develop. A conservative design/decoration choice, at least in cases like this, is every bit as elaborate and meaningful as a flamboyant design/decoration choice. (In other words, there's no such thing as empty rhetoric.)

November 23, 2007

Technology & Music Evolution

I was doing some background research on audio recording techniques and found this discussion of how recorded music evolved over the last twenty years with the adoption of CDs and changes in how music is mastered. The graphic below, clipped from Chicago Mastering Service's page on loudness, caps a series of comparisons between older and newer recordings, of which the recent remastering of Iggy Pop's Search and Destroy is just one (pretty vivid) example:


For point of comparison, CMS also has waveforms for My Bloody Valentine's 1990 Only Shallow (pretty boxed up, but w/ a highest average RMS of -17.3 dBFS and max peak of -4.2 dBFS), Nirvana's 1993 Heart Shaped Box (less boxed up, but louder—highest average RMS -12.7 and max peak of -0.2), and Radiohead's 2001 Dollars and Cents (-6.3 and -0.09). I've been listening to MBV recently, and the graphic explains two things: The overall recording is very loud and boxed up (intentionally so) but it's also very quiet, overall, compared to other recordings. More recent recordings tend to want to fill the sonic space as much as possible.

Obviously, these are only samples from a wide range of recordings, but the tendency is pretty easily observable across popular music. Mastering engineerings (and a lot of musicians) hate this, since the practice erases differences in volume from one part of the song to another. Someone—a lot of someones—seem to like it a lot.

revolutionary illuminating magazine


Web Zen this week covers design, including a link to The Director's Bureau Special Projects Idea Generator (show above). Click the center button to randomize a three-word title, then tweak as necessary by spinning the rims of the individual words. Sort of like Eno's Oblique Strategies, but—oddly—both a little less random (you can tweak them) and a little less focused (you aren't directed to actually do anything besides name a project).

November 22, 2007

Industrial Design Process: Frog Design & Seagate FreeAgent


Wired has a (fairly quick) overview of the ID process Frog Design used when hired to help develop Seagate's FreeAgent external drive. Not a lot new new here if you've done anything in ID (or even read much about it), but this would be useful overview of industrial design for students, starting with contextual inquiries through CAD and rapid prototyping to production.

Note: I was halfway through skimming the article the first time through when I realized that I already own several of these drives—and I have to admit, at least part of my decision was the design. They do look kind of cool.

November 21, 2007

In-Use Usability Research: Half Life 2 Stats

Steam provides visuals of some aggregated stats on Half-Life 2 users, gathered by the program while users play: Completion time (percentage of players vs. hours), highest map played, average number of deaths per map, etc.

[via kottke.org]

November 19, 2007

Design School: The Primary Years


Amy Tieman at c|net noticed a group of schoolkids who were drafting paper prototypes of laptop computers.

A group of kids from one of our local elementary schools has formed a "mini-laptop club." They don't use electronic machines. Instead, these first-, second- and third-graders draw their own laptops on construction paper and pretend to e-mail each other. They dedicate a surprising amount of time to this activity. I once had a chance to examine one of their "keyboards." I was fascinated to learn which Internet functions had sunk into the minds of these kids, who are just getting their first exposure to computers from watching their parents work, and from using kid-friendly sites.

Additional images and photos available at an interview with Tieman at The Morning News.

November 18, 2007

Museum of Forgotten Art Supplies


I'm doing a tab sweep in NetNewsWire Pro to winnow out things I've flagged from RSS feeds during the last three weeks, so I can't be sure where I found the link to this. But Drawger's Museum of Forgotten Art Supplies is worth a look if you (a) long for the days of rubber cement, eraser shields, and Skum-X (above), or (b) if you want to know why a lot of graphic artists were so eager to move to computers. For me, it's both contradictory impulses. Don Norman talked about this in Emotional Design:

I opened the box. Inside was a gleaming stainless-steel set of old mechanical drawing instruments: dividers, compasses, extension arms for the compasses, and assortment of points, lead holders, and pens that could be fitted onto the dividers and compasses. All that was missing was the T square, the triangles, and the table. And the ink, the black India ink.

"Lovely," I said. "Those were the good old days, when we drew by hand, not by computer."

Our eyes misted as we fondled the metal pieces.

"But you know," I went on, "I hated it. My tools always slipped, the point moved before I could finish the circle, and the India ink—ugh, the India ink—it always blotted before I could finish a diagram."

I don't think computers necessarily improve drawing ( or art or writing or anything, for that matter), but "progress" is always that thing you can never reverse: old art supplies are only now usable to us as brief nostalgia pieces, not simple, everyday, functioning objects. I still use a fountain pen, but I can only do so within the overriding sense that it's retro.

November 17, 2007

Wu-Tang Clan's RZA Breaks Down His Kung Fu Samples by Film and Song

At Wired, RZA sources the Kung Fu samples used in Wu-Tang songs (w/extensive audio clips.)

Photo Retouching in History

Hany Farid at Dartmouth has an extensively illustrated page of photo retouching samples from 1860 to present: Lincoln's head composited onto John Calhoun's body, Matthew Brady's picture of General Sherman and his generals (with one general added to the original photo to complete things), Mao removing images of persons officially out of favor with the gov't, the National Geographic's altering of the Great Pyramids of Giza to fit them into the cover's aspect ratio pleasingly, and more.

[via Kottke and Boing Boing ]

November 10, 2007

Sleevage: The Album Design Blog

This is why the Web was invented, as far as I'm concerned: Sleevage, the album design weblog.

[via Drawn!]

November 09, 2007

Circuit Bending Challenge Winners

GetLoFi has the top three picks from their recent one-day circuit-bending challenge. Above is Squelchbox's YouTube clip of the process (and results) of his work on a Talk and Learn. Strange. In a good sort of way. The other two picks also have YouTube clips at the GetLoFi post.

[via GetLoFi ]

November 07, 2007

Jim O'Rourke & Tenori-On

Yamaha's website has a video of Jim O'Rourke getting a tutorial on how to use a Tenori-on, that 16x16 procedural music/lightshow/Simon-on-amphetamines thing. Like everyone else who has seen a demo, I want one. (Insert somewhat clichéd theory here about the Tenori-on being a symbol-virus.)

[via Rhizome.org]

Stephen Merritt @ NPR

NPR's All Songs Considered invited Stephen Merritt (the Magnetic Fields guy) into their recording studio to compose, record, and mix a song in two days (documentary video).

And just as we'll do with each Project Song artist, we showed Merritt six vivid images, along with six words or phrases printed on white cards.

The instructions: Choose one photo to inspire the subject of the song; choose a word or phrase that will inspire the style.

From the words, Merritt picked "1974." The photograph he chose, by artist Phil Toledano, is an incredible image of a man covered head to toe in what looks like a bodysuit made of baby dolls.

[via TOMB]

Architecture and Ethics: Noblesse Oblige

Lebbeus Woods' weblog has the first post in a series on architecture and ethics. Noblesse Oblige is a short analysis of the Seagram Building and and the construction/maintenance of class difference:

To the average passerby, the building and its siting have the aesthetics of a civic monument, an architecture that goes far beyond advertising its client, and becomes a kind of gift to the city, a form of nobiisse oblige—the obligation the rich and powerful have to the society that made them so—that confirms their superior station. The Seagram Company assumes the aesthetic raiments of government, bestowing on the public space of the street an imposing demonstration of social hierarchy and the ethical relationships of New York’s social classes.



I listened to part of this episode on mapping from This American Life a couple of weeks ago while driving into town on a Sunday morning, but forgot to post a link to the episode until I saw the post at Super Colossal. Among other things, the TAL episode had a nice interview with postmodern geographer Denis Wood (link to TAL Flickr set of Wood's maps; a link to the radio interview is in the Flickr set page overview section).

[via Super Colossal]

November 04, 2007

The Collapse of Space in Late Capitalism

A poster to Slashdot describes a trademark dispute over link names as trademarks. The poster licensed a domain name and began a weblog at the domain's URL. A link farmer is threatening legal action because they own (but don't actually use) a domain with a similar name. While several responders at Slashdot point out that "trademark" supposedly protects, well, trades, the case is interesting because it highlights one of the ways that the Web is collapsing the space of commerce: Within top-level domains like the .com space, every website is equally unique and important. In pre-Web commerce each trade occupied a relatively well-defined space: Gibson Guitars was distinct from Gibson Exhaust Systems. Farther back, geographic spaces helped maintain linguistic distance between names (what the phrase "the school" or "the baptist church" meant depended on what village or community one was in).

In global information spaces, those distinctions begin to collapse. Not merely at the trade level (where two geographically distinct businesses with the same name suddenly have to contest the same name in virtual space), but even entities that are both geographically and topically dispersed: See Uzi Nissan (owner of Nissan Computers) on the dispute with Nissan Motor over the domain name nissan.com. And there's Wikipedia's ubiquitous disambiguation pages.

As information becomes capital and words become real estate, expect to see more of these sorts of battles.

[via Slashdot: Your Rights Online]

November 03, 2007

Database as Love Letter

Paul Ford at The Morning News responds to this reader request,

Question: I need 100 ways to say “I love you” to my girlfriend. We made a bet last night that I couldn’t come up with 100 and I can’t lose! Help me pa-pa-pa-pa-please non-expert. —Rod

with a sprawling (and sort of flailing, in a funny way) collage of text, video, and still image. (Is that a database? Sure. A pretty simple one, but in terms of demonstrating writing as database rather than linear narrative, it's suggestive.)

[via Ftrain.com]

Dual Monitor Tips + Two Dilbert Comics

Lifehacker has a roundup of tips for getting the most out of dual monitor setups. Everyone who works with complex information spaces onscreen needs dual monitors. (And if you're reading this and you're not a spambot, you fall within that group, even if you don't know it yet.) Lifehacker's column has links to useful utilities and general hints on who to make all that screen real estate do more than just look pretty.

BTW, two excellent Dilbert comics on dual monitors, low aspirations, and the gendered politics of geek-dominant workplaces.

[via Lifehacker]

Pac-Man Meets Zork


You awaken in a large complex, slightly disoriented. Glowing dots hover mouth level near you in every direction. Off in the distance you hear the faint howling of what you can only imagine must be some sort of ghost or several ghosts.

[via Super Colossal]

November 02, 2007

Product Design and Semi-Obvious Inside Jokes


Not so much inside jokes since they're pretty obvious, but one of the things I like about products designed for small, geeky user bases is their frequent use of ironic jokes. The FMR RNP preamp ("RNP" stands for "Really Nice Preamp") has in/out jacks on the back labeled "Guzintas" and "Guzoutas" (see above); the headphone gain knob on the Presonus FP10 goes to (you guessed it) 11.

They're not even really good jokes. And they're typically very small or otherwise obscured. The RNP panel above is on the back of the box; the label on the FP10's headphone knob is so tiny you have to squint to see it. Which (to me anyway), shifts them from unfunny into funny somehow. Or maybe it's just that they were so expensive (for my budget) that I'm looking for some reason to believe they're more sophisticated than they really are (or than I really am).

Dashboard and Portal Design

Interesting (for those of you into interface design and complex information spaces) six-part series on dashboard and portal design by Joe Lamantia at Boxes and Arrows. Here are the opening paragraphs:

Executive Dashboards present an interesting array of design challenges ranging in all areas of user experience. Take your pick from a list that includes information and interaction design as well as information architecture. Add to that the business of creating information architecture that can provide a structure for growth and evolution. These challenges will be addressed in a six-part series over the next few months. The first article looks at problems facing dashboards which can be addressed by using a system of components that fit together to form a whole. Much like IKEA uses interchangeable islands, counters, and cupboards to create a custom kitchen, by using a system of tiles, it is possible to create an executive dashboard that effectively serves all its users.

The executive dashboard is a portal that combines business intelligence systems and browser-based applications to summarize the status of a complex enterprise for senior decision-makers. Like all portals, dashboards integrate a variety of content and functionality. Integration lowers the acquisition costs of finding items from multiple sources. It also increases the value of each individual tool and content asset through grouping to help decision-making and understanding.

But integration may also emphasize the differing, and sometimes conflicting, origins of the content, highlighting differences in the contexts, forms, and behaviors of dashboard offerings. The challenge is to create an effective user experience unifying these variations into a cohesive whole while preserving the meaning and identity of the individual assets. These challenges exist in all areas of user experience, from information design and interaction design to information architecture. Establishing sound information architecture capable of providing a consistent structure for growth and evolution for dashboards is particularly challenging.

[via Boxes and Arrows]

Architectural, Criticism, Media, Recursion


Someone (apparently nearly everyone, if Google is to be believed) said that writing about music is like dancing about architecture. Criticism, though, is at its best precisely because it's oddly recursive: about something both figuratively and nearly literally: dancing around the subject as a way to understand the subject, the leaky permeability of its boundaries. Criticism, when it's useful, affects both how we understand something as well as how that "something" is and is done. Writing about music can change how we understand music and, often, how we make music.

Which is a long way [footnote 1] of getting to point at this article in cityofsound about a the August 2007 issue of the Japanese periodical Architecture and Urbanism dealing with Australian architecture. What interested me wasn't so much the topic of Australian architecture (although that was interesting), but cityofsound's critical essay on this particular issue of the AU, which deals simultaneously with the issues contents and the form of the magazine itself (see above).

I snap out of this glorious sun-drenched dream when I recall an old copy of The Architectural Review from 1970 (No. 884 October 1970, picked up for a fiver at Margaret Howell). That issue featured an 'Australian Newsletter' by its legendary editor J.M. Richards (see bottom of article for the full scanned pages). Despite best intentions, the article is suffused with a snobbish demeanor and insularity that would probably have driven any self-respecting Australian architect mad, cultural cringe or not.

And writing about architecture, like architecture itself, is fundamentally about the play of and within symbol systems. And here is where "architecture" splits from "building": what buildings mean to us, as viewers and as inhabitants, grows out of both how we use them and how we think about them. So architectural criticism, like music criticism, like criticism in general, are parts of their objects of critique. There's always recursion and slippage, and that's a good thing. Il n'y a pas de hors-texte.

[footnote 1] Made even longer by the fact that my system crashed in the middle of writing this, and I think I've lost the thread a little here. But I'm posting it anyway so I remember to come back to this later, even if I can't quite figure out what I was going after when I started. Wish you'd read this footnote midstream instead of after you'd slogged your way to the end, don't you? Sorry.

[via things magazine]