Way Cool Search: What did Rumpole really say?

Old Bailey OnlineAnother one from the ProgrammableWeb file: The Proceedings of the Old Bailey, 1674-1913, describes itself as a “fully searchable edition of the largest body of texts detailing the lives of non-elite people ever published, containing 197,745 criminal trials held at London’s central criminal court.” Researchers processed court proceedings for almost 250 years and posted them online for search-based access. You can read testimony, examination and cross-examination of witnesses, commentary from the bench, and the final dispositions of the cases. How damn cool is that???

Posted in Background

A Taxonomy of Urban Ills

What could go wrong?Part of my week includes contract work locating and documenting APIs to be listed on ProgrammableWeb.com. In the course of that adventure, I stumbled upon an API that had been created by the government of the city of London (England, not Ontario, eh) as part of a now-defunct municipal portal. I don’t know what happened to the portal, but the API still is supported, as far as I can tell. It’s a pretty nifty function where an app can submit a trouble report of any sort to the government, and it gets routed to the proper authority to intervene based on the nature of the complaint. Nice bit of government service, there!

As I read the downloadable documentation to complete my profile, I reviewed the long list of complaint types that the API supports, from overgrown weeds on the neighbor’s property to thugs brawling in the street. It struck me that the creators of this API had developed a rather complete taxonomy of the problems a citizen might encounter in city life, including narrower terms for some of the main entries. Quite the little civic artifact!

Posted in Organization

#c4l12 Wrap-up

I got to hang with the cool kids at #c4l12!My recent week chock full of Code4Lib goodness was sponsored by Amanda Vizedom of Wind River Consulting. She’d been lucky enough to grab one of the precious few available registrations in the hour or so before they sold out, but she couldn’t attend. She generously offered up her spot to a student who otherwise would be shut out, and my friend and favorite infod1va spoke up on my behalf. I got to hang out with the cool kids!

They’re all the cool kids of their industry now, for sure, but given the nerd quotient in the room, I’m fairly sure no one there qualified as cool back when they really were kids. And that’s a good thing.

Anyhow, it was a fascinating experience! I can’t remotely keep up with these people in the code-monkeying department, although I can just barely hold my own in the beer drinking. I’m rather proud of the latter, as it’s a definite accomplishment — these people set a strong pace. And I’m inspired to build out some skills in the former department, just because so many really impressive things are possible. All the ideas in my head will come to be in the world only if I make it so; nothing will happen if I wait for the universe to manifest the code.

Individual highlights for me maybe start with a presentation on the search infrastructure at the Hathi Trust, which gives access to 450+TB of digitized scholarship through the same sort of html search interface that turns up last week’s top 10 music CD at lesser websites. Later informal discussion on search usability was productive, too, and I eagerly hope that Tom Burton-West will lead us in reviving the C4L mailing list on search usability, given his demonstrated level head and deep understanding of the implications that small design choices can have.

I also appreciated the discussion of relevance ranking in a presentation by Mendeley on applications of its platform. They make some useful points about inferring relevance by connections to other users and the resources they prefer, a point that’s clearly not lost on Google, considering the G+ annotations on its search results. Judiciously applied, this could be a useful layer in filtering people’s access, but it’s subject to selection bias in a big way. People we know already share many of our interests, so the precision gained could come at a huge cost in lost recall. It won’t succeed if it’s done in a way that narrows the radar screen, but it could help to brighten some of the best blips out there.

Other useful stuff included a discussion of microdata and schema.org, which seems like a fine, lightweight way to annotate content with useful metadata that cues searchers where to find the stuff they want and also supports outreach by content providers. In particular, I see lots of potential for raising the visibility of libraries out on the wild, wild web. I also enjoyed a review of Harvard Library’s StackView project, which tries to visualize the complexity and popularity of resources using only basic html and css. Simple concept, fancy result!

Posted in Background, Context, IB, Signal

Yep. Chilly.

Twitter to restrict user content in some countries, according to Reuters. This is more an instant deep freeze than a chilling effect. We’ve managed to fend off government attempts to control the thoughts that get into our heads, especially as regards this sort of prior restraint, but apparently it’ll be the private companies that breach those walls and become the de facto authorities, just without the legal guidelines for how much they can control. How very Bill Gibson.

Twitter’s probably in a tough spot, or a lot of very different tough spots, as people around the world use its service. But does it really need to care? If it’s compliant with U.S. law, it’s probably safe from attacks under other laws, at least as long as it keeps its assets local. But its signal is subject to blocking, and that’s its real asset. I guess I can understand why it would feel pressed to abandon its position in “the free speech wing of the free speech party” to become some private precinct in an expanding thought-police force. Otherwise, it risks being shut down completely in unfriendly jurisdictions, and none of the signal gets through.

Truth be told, though, the governments will have to adapt to Twitter as much as it adapts to them. People can find ways around those sorts of blocks, and it has become pretty clear that they’ll have to — and pretty soon, too. One option is for users to shift en masse to something other than Twitter for that traffic, and I hope that’s part of the solution. Who wants to deal with people who are THAT quick to toss a principle as important as free speech under the wheels to gain a little traction at the first sign of slipping? But Twitter’s just one example of a general assault on free movement of information, and the SOPA nuts clearly show that it’s not just a few minor local dictators who want to choke off the flow for their individual convenience. And SOPA is manifestly an initiative of private companies, the complicity of elected officials notwithstanding.

When governments try to micromanage our brains, we have legal options to push them back, but what can we do when a private company makes a grab for those same controls? We can vote with our feet, obviously, and use another private company’s service. Many will do so, and many will try to become that private alternative. But many will stick with the familiar provider as long as it doesn’t intrude on their particular speech, and most of it is benign enough not to cause trouble on either side. So we’re left with only the neutral-to-happy traffic — lots of kitten photos and birthday wishes, interspersed with chirpy messages from our sponsors and chances to pay the low-low price of 99 cents for yet another iTunes download. Dependence is a chilly state.

Posted in Censorship, Rant, Signal


The perils of overdesignNo, not as in ├╝berdesign, but as in designing more than the interaction really needs. Someone just looks silly if their text talks about putting an X in the checkbox but a user who clicks gets a checkmark. One solution is to update the text to mention the checkmark, but then some browser out there is probably going to show an X in the box. The simple solution is to keep the language general and focused on the meaning to the user of the task undertaken, something like “Select this checkbox to indicate awareness and acceptance of any and all legalese inserted above, even the fine print.” Or the user will almost certainly understand the implications of clicking if the instruction starts with “I acknowledge . . .”

The same lesson carries over in all kinds of situations. The browser will do a decent job of placing elements if we give it the minimal specs needed to relate elements to one another. The more picky we get as we strive for pixel-perfect placement, the more *other* things we have to specify in excruciating detail to work around that first element. At least until we all attain omniscience, anal retentive tinkering — with language, layout specs, and all kinds of other stuff — will feed that OCD drive to wreak our own special flavor of havoc in the world only at an ever-rising cost of time wasted and risk of unintentional silliness committed. A lesson for our times.

Posted in Design, UX

What’s so wrong with SOPA?

Yesterday, a friend started a long discussion on Facebook (well, long for that venue) by asking where exactly the censorship happens within the text of the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA). He’s an intelligent, caring man, and to his credit, he had gone to supplement secondary sources by reading the text of the bill. He abhors the theft of intellectual property that happens across the internet, and he sees a need for copyright enforcement. Based on his reading of the bill, he believes that it sets out a valid enforcement mechanism in its process of notification and counter-notification between rights holders and web services that support violators. He’s wrong about that, and I’m documenting my own contributions to that discussion (and only my contributions, lacking permission from others involved to copy their statements) to say here as clearly as I can why I disagree with him.

In response to my friend’s initial question — what in the bill’s provision makes it censorship — I posted this quote from an open letter by international human rights organizations posted by the Center for Democracy and Technology: “SOPA would require that web services, in order to avoid complaints and lawsuits, take ‘deliberate actions’ to prevent the possibility of infringement from taking place on their site, pressuring private companies to monitor the actions of innocent users.” I also noted that SOPA is “a de facto prior restraint, inducing site owners to take up the role of censor to avoid legal attack,” backed up by a link to FindLaw as background on prior restraint.

My friend responded that the text of the law doesn’t explicitly require web services to take action against a violator unless they want to opt out of its counter-notification and litigation provisions. I replied, “That’s the de facto part. It *forces* site owners to monitor and it induces them to pre-emptively block, otherwise they’re subject to legal claims, even where the use is allowable under fair use or other provisions. It makes site owners do the work of the rights holders watching over their content and taking steps where their rights are violated, which they already can do.” He also objected to my claim that SOPA constitutes prior restraint, claiming that it’s limited to requirements for licenses to publish, and I replied, “The license required in Olde Englande was the genesis of prior restraint, but it’s been extended — and rightly so — to prohibit any action to prevent publication. The fundamentals of copyright enforcement have long required response to published material rather than prevention of publication. SOPA just shifts that burden to systems that carry the signal rather than to courts or rights holders.”

I awoke this morning to find that the argument had continued while I slept, with a lot of talk about economic effects and costs of enforcement. My friend dismissed the projected cost of the bill as a tiny amount within the scope of the U.S. government budget. I replied, “You’re considering only the cost to the U.S. government. The cost to the economy of all the notifying and counter-notifying is significant, as is the risk created by the uncertainty around how all that will shake out.” In terms of principle rather than practicality, I questioned my friend’s assertion that SOPA gives web services immunity from prosecution provided they comply with its notification process: “That’s exactly where it becomes an extra-judicial process for judging free-expression cases, because it forces the resolution into this mystery process, and that’s a direct violation of prohibitions against prior restraint, as the Tribe analysis [linked below] points out. The attempt to force non-U.S. residents to accept U.S. jurisdiction through this extra-judicial wrangling is particularly nasty icing on the rotten cake beneath. You’re right that copyright violations should be pursued. This way of doing that doesn’t meet requirements for strict scrutiny imposed on anything that limits free expression, because it’s not narrowly tailored to address the compelling government interest involved without collateral effects, of which it has MANY. I’m not even sure how compelling the *government* interest in this case is. Its copyright enforcement powers are at stake, but the compelling interest is on the side of the rights holders, so the expression limits are really in service to private interests, which also stinks.”

He sees a compelling interest in enforcement of copyright law and in the economic cost of IP theft. I agreed that the cost is “significant, and it needs to be addressed. That much is agreed. The solution has to work within long-settled first amendment law, though. I think a change that might do it would be to submit notifications of violation *to a court with appropriate jurisdiction* rather than to the companies handling the data traffic and have that court issue the order for termination of services to the violator. That gives appropriate consideration to the free-expression issues involved in the specific case. It also gives the resolution the force of actual law instead of some cobbled-together administrative procedure between the companies working in the area. The problem with SOPA (well, the main one) is the way it empowers paperwork between private companies to enforce law, which ain’t how it’s done around here, thank goodness.”

Lacking a legal education to validate that my proposal would conform to Constitutional law, I won’t promote it past posting it here. Another friend provided a link on Scribd to analysis by someone who DOES have the legal chops to comment, Harvard Law Professor Laurence Tribe, which lays out the arguments in a clear and compelling way.

Posted in Analysis, Censorship, Rights, access, Signal

It’s Getting Chilly Out

It's Getting Chilly OutFirst time I’ve stumbled on this one, I confess. I’m not sure whether to see some positive — Google bending but not breaking — or to scream that the rotten whatnots are censoring my search results!!! I’m quite sure that it’s getting chillier out by the day, though, and that’s unrelated to the snow on the ground (somewhere other than my house, apparently) in Seattle.
I’m pretty sure I’m at least 66.67% creeped out.

No, make that 85% after I go look at the complaint that kept the content hidden from me. I think the ink-stained types call this prior restraint.

Notice Unavailable
Software DMCA (Copyright) Complaint to Google
Sent by: Microsoft Corp.
To: Google

The cease-and-desist or legal threat you requested is not yet available.
Chilling Effects will post the notice after we process it.

Posted in Censorship, Noise, Rights, access

Aggregated Aggregation

We’ve heard before that the M&A geniuses in charge of the global economy, if any, have been gobbling up and globbing together the media companies, too. It’s all revenue — pure arithmetic — at the upper levels of financial decision-making, but those who notice the message in the content rather than (or in addition to) the price tag hanging off of it have worried a bit about that trend. Hands were wrung when Murdoch’s right-wing Nuze Corp. acquired The Wall Street Journal. That aggregation of ownership within the media business has continued to the point that only six sets of management-types control 90% of information content, including what passes for news, available commercially to Americans.

No one expects the growth in those markets to come on the dead-tree side. It will certainly involve online delivery, and the view of who’s supplying what information is even less clear in the mashed up muddle of distributed and aggregated content. Lonely Planet says it will supplement tidbits from its travel guides with reviews from hither & yon in an application improbably named Wenzani. Presumably they’ll be paying somehow for the commercial elements within that stream and keep the people who create them sufficiently well-nourished to continue supporting the new business. Users won’t know, however. Nor will they care, maybe, but it’s key that they won’t know.

The aggregation adds one more layer of filtering between people and their information sources, making it that much more difficult to evaluate quality and potential bias, should they be moved to do so. The effort may not be justified in reviews of coffee shops in [fill in name of exotic locale], but it retains its importance in news, at least, and probably also in more long-form enduring cultural content (again, if any). Information literacy is more than constructing an effective Google query, and it becomes a greater challenge as aggregation encases content within layers of completely opaque management decision process and a mishmash of revenue motives. The risk grows and grows that convenience will trump conscience.

At a minimum, the financial influences in play introduce noise to warp the signal. As the possibility of calibrating that effect dims, maybe people will eschew the commercial content and return to the back fence, control of which so far remains widely distributed, to hear from their neighbors. But again, the digital back fence typified by Twitter is more prone to unknowable consolidation of control than was the old dead-tree version. Who can say how different the Arab Spring would have been under possible influence by the lovers of freedom in the Saudi royal family?

Posted in Analysis, Censorship, Context, Noise, Rant, Signal, Weight of information

When Helping Doesn’t Help

Finally, someone calls out the supposed design mavens at Apple for the intrusive, cartoony showboating of the Mac UI. Now I’m not saying the iPod is anything but slick, intuitive, and fun to use — it’s all those things. But even that achievement flops for me, because it’s unbreakably linked to the Fail sandwich that is iTunes. Even when users submit to that program’s domineering ways, it still loses track of their songs in its endless project to sell them one more file while preventing them from buying anywhere else.

But Paul Miller writing for The Verge pins down exactly why the bubbly shapes cavorting across the Mac screen irritate so much: Those antics “somehow become overbearing to my senses. ‘Did you know you can click this? Don’t forget there’s a save button over here! Let me walk you to your control panel.’ ” It’s just another example of that deadly scourge, helpful software — Mister Clippit in hipster drag. I don’t dispute that the article could have been improved by omission of Miller’s trials in grade school, nor do I share his more-retro-than-thou fascination with 8-bit graphics. But his critique hits dead-center on the excessive solicitousness of all that animation helping us all to compensate for our presumably deficient brain power.

I suspect Apple’s designers did that stuff because they could — the platform provided the technology to help, and people like being helped, right? And I’m quite sure the prototypes tested out brilliantly with subjects seeing them for the first time, perfectly validating all the assumptions built into the design. Miller’s point is well taken that the initially useful guidance becomes unctuous pandering after the first few circuits around the block. Lesson for us all: Just because you can, that doesn’t mean you should. It feels like a return to the early days of laser printers, when everyone instantly became a typesetter and graphic designer. Oh, the aesthetic horror!

I’ll disagree with Miller also on his dislike of “the ubiquitous drop shadow. ‘Did you know that this window is on top of this window?’ it whispers to me, endlessly. Apple’s love of reflections and faux 3D subtly imply to me that I might be lost, needing landmarks and a sense of place to find my way.” Subtle cues let my eye tell me where I am without requiring much from my attention span, and that’s always appreciated. If he’s just saying that OSX is too unsubtle in its use of that sort of gesture, then I can stick with him. But I want my design to leave signposts, the smaller and more configurable the better, to let me do my own wayfinding. What I don’t want is to be clubbed over the head with those signposts, then dragged unconscious to the destination that Apple’s designers just knew I would prefer. That’s especially true when the chosen destination so frequently turns out to be the cash register at my local iTunes outlet.

I’ll be watching The Verge, though — thanks to Jen Dougherty for linking it. It seems to want to be an update of CNet for the cooler and maybe more thoughtful, less gadget-obsessed part of the nerd continuum.

Posted in Design, UX

Train Wreck

A value scenario for the use of metaphor in design

Metaphor has a power to mislead and misdirect. Kensing and Madsen (1991) introduce it as a tool to start conversations about a new design and to open up fresh possibilities along the way. Their librarians reason from known activities in one context to coalesce vague ideas about a different one into forms amenable to evaluation and further refinement. Much like graphical design representations, metaphor can make intangible ideas real and available for critique. Key to those benefits is the authors’ presumption of analogy between the familiar context and the new one. Differences may highlight points for design consideration, just as similarities do, provided all stakeholders recognize the gap. But metaphor does its work by bridging conceptual gaps. It blurs lines once presumed to be distinct, which allows meaning to flow across those former boundaries.

My former employer fell into such a gap when it wanted a new system for selling digital assets (mainly PDF files). The documents represented substantial existing knowledge assets, and a repository of rich metadata about them already was in place, thanks to forethought by the company librarian. The new project needed only an interface for users to select the documents and code to process the sale transactions and deliver the files. This presumed marketing/sales effort kicked off with an objective to give the new system a name that would establish the right identity. One morning, the Director of Publishing announced that she’d had an insight at home, and she thought we might call it The Water Library. Product managers from Publishing were thrilled that the name evoked good feelings associated with libraries along with the organization’s image as a knowledge repository for its industry. IT was happy enough that some name had been chosen so the real work of developing functional requirements and code could begin.

Product managers reviewed every existing digital library they could find, compiling an extensive dossier of functions and features they wanted in their new system. Graphic designers from Pubs busily developed logo treatments and screen mock-ups, which were reviewed, modified, and finalized by an extended team. IT took the finished design package and worked with product managers to craft formal functional requirements.

The project fell apart in development. Coders showed working prototypes with functional changes previously discussed but without changes in screen text and formatting that were more important to the Pubs staff. The coders knew they’d get those curtains in the windows eventually, and they wanted approval of the important functional stuff. Designers from Pubs knew little about the working guts of the thing and cared less, incensed as they were that their prior input on essential questions of branding and user instructions had been ignored. Simmering frustration boiled over in an impasse about integration with the existing storefront for print versions of those same PDF documents. The library metaphor didn’t carry over at all to that e-commerce environment, which IT regarded as already determined by existing, working technology that might be changed, if at all, only in some future project.

Deep animosities emerged when product managers felt disregard for their personal commitment to the project’s library metaphor, established by that choice of name and given shape and emotional meaning through the process of researching functionality and finalizing a design to fulfill the implied vision. Any variation from that fully realized design felt like an insult to the effort of developing it and the expertise of those who had staked so much on it. Customers did eventually get access to the documents and happily paid, although they complained about accessing print and digital versions via separate interfaces.

A better outcome might have emerged by reversing Kensing & Madsen’s statement (1991, p. 170) that “[P]arts left out or hidden [by one metaphor] would be likely candidates for other metaphors.” In this case, one comprehensive metaphor governed all the details and left no room for negotiation; multiple metaphors for smaller components might have allowed creation of a flexible, functional assemblage to better meet users’ needs. The project might also have benefited from Poltrock & Grudin’s advice (1994) to keep management and user proxies from speaking for users themselves and imposing presumptions that distort real needs and priorities. Finally, the project needed a realistic vision of functional goals in light of available implementation technologies and resources. Its central metaphor, conceived in a flash outside the practical implementation context, ignored a central reality that this new e-commerce project would exist alongside related functions, and it could more effectively serve users if integrated with them rather than standing alone as some separate, perfect vision. Kensing & Madsen (1991) urge separation of Fantasy from concerns of Implementation, which encourages conflict between new plans and existing infrastructure, with a high risk of lasting harm.

Works Cited

Kensing, F., & Madsen, K. H. (1991). Generating visions: Future workshops and metaphorical design. In J. Greenbaum and M. Kyng (Eds.), Design at work: cooperative design of computer systems. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum: 155-168.

Poltrock, S. E. & Grudin, J. (1994). Organizational obstacles to interface design and development: two participant-observer studies. ACM transactions on computer-human interaction, 1(1): 52-80.

Posted in Background