Thursday, May 24, 2007

Literary dissonance: hating Helprin, loving the work.

So I'm going to Nashville to see my folks for an extended-long weekend, and I needed some books to read, as I'm low on fun stuff. Just today, I wandered into B&N, and I notice that Mark Helprin has a new novel out, "Freddy and Fredericka." Not real new, but it's his first in almost 10 years, and I hadn't seen it before, so it's exciting. So I bought it.

For awhile, now, I've known that I don't like Mark Helprin, the person. We don't need to get into the reasons, but we disagree on lots of policy issues. He's a senior fellow at the Claremont Institute. You can check out their info if you want to. But that's not the point.

I got back home today and was reading up on my news and blogs and got pointed from several sources to a NYT op-ed piece from last Sunday that Helprin wrote, titled "A Great Idea Lives Forever: Shouldn't It's Copyright?"

Thanks, blogosphere. I was trying really, really hard to forget that I don't like Helprin. For at least long enough to read the new novel. Did I say it was the first new Helprin novel in almost 10 years? Did I mention that I think his "Winter's Tale" is one of the best novels I've ever read?

But, noooo. Less than 3 hours after buying the book, I get whammed with the NYT piece. Now I've either got to really work on forgetting that I dislike this guy, or put the book on the shelf for awhile. O, fudge.

It's not like I need to love-love-love all my favorite authors. They're people. I'm a big guy (in both ways). I can look past all kinds of mortal shortcomings to enjoy the fruits of their artistic effort.

But, man... the delta between my appreciation for Helprin's prose and my outright scorn for many of his public ideas is vast.

How do I cope? Any suggestions welcome. At this point what I'm pretty much going to do is focus on how much of an ass I am... while still hoping that people enjoy my work. You know, "Do unto others." If folks can put up with my BS and still read any of my prose... well, perhaps I can look past Helprin's hypocricy and....

NO! Must stop... must... just... treat him... as... disembodied source of reading joy...

Hard... so hard.... 

Sunday, May 20, 2007

The Uncanny Peak of Wrong Metaphors

Last week, Tim O'Reilly wrote about a Bill Higgins post called "The Uncanny Valley of User Interface Design."

The metaphor Higgins brings to the table to help explicate his point is that of "The Uncanny Valley," which Higgins explains well. For those unfamiliar with the concept, the basic idea is that we feel more and more empathy towards robots (or non-human characters, such as animated cartoons or video game avatars), as they begin to express more human features. At some point, though -- the edge of the Uncanny Valley -- they become too lifelike for comfort, but not lifelike enough to really fool us. Something is missing. Their appearance strikes us as just... wrong. Odd. Uncanny.

Higgins goes on to cite two films that are often used as examples of having fallen into this valley;  The Polar Express and Final Fantasy. I've seen both films, and I agree (especially in the case of The Polar Express... it just ain't right for some reason).

It's a well-thought-out article that has, as its main premise, the idea that the user interface for a piece of software should:

"...remain consistent with the environment in which our software runs. In more concrete terms: a Windows application should look and feel like a Windows application, a Mac application should look and feel like a Mac application, and a web application should look and feel like a web application."

So, the metaphor here, linking software UI to robotics/animation, is that we want something to not behave and/or appear to be too strangely like something else, while not actually being exactly like it. His main point is that Web aps that try to look like desktop aps, and vice versa, aren't really doing anybody any favors.

Though well written and supported with a couple good examples, I disagree with the premise, and I think the metaphor is badly chosen. 

Metaphor first. We all expect people to look like people because, for the most part, people look like people. There is an instant -- some biologists/anthropologists argue, innate -- connectivity at birth between newborns and human faces. We respond to smiles. We track eye movements. We can, without any training, mimic facial expressions. We are hard-wired, at least emotionally, and probably chemically/biologically, to know the human face better than almost any other object in the world. When you work with human faces -- as an artist, cartoonist, director, animator -- you are dealing with one of the most sensitive and universal inputs/outputs available.

What does a "link" look like, biologically speaking? Or a block-quote, menu bar, button, etc. Yes, there are conventions... which change. Yes, currently a Windows ap looks different than a Mac or Linux ap or a Web ap. And if you gave me a program that looked 90% like Microsoft Word -- one of the most succesful and widely used programs on the planet -- but then had a couple fundamental features that were radically different... I'd probably have some issues with it. At least from a learning perspective, possibly from an adoption one as well.

Unless those differences were really cool and easily grasped.

Time and time again, I've used new software that broke some existing UI rule or convention... and surprised me pleasantly. When done well. I will agree with Higgins that purposefully making an ap look like what it's not in order to glean some kind of borrowed brand shine is a bad idea. The plethora of "Web 2.0-y" glowing buttons, 3D tabs and various shiny bits, when applied to standard interface elements is, frankly, goofy.

Some might argue that much of this 2.0-look is an attempt to make Web aps look more like their desktop counterparts. In many cases, I expect that is the case. Design in everything follows trends. Designers often work for clients who don't understand the underlying design reasons, but can keep their eye on trends and popular elements and who want their little slice of the Web to look "cool like that link I sent you the other day. Make it cool like that." It doesn't matter that the site design being changed is one with a standard home page and six children, and the one being emulated is a robust, interactive, social application with all kinds of moving parts. "I want it to look cool like that" is, I think, as major an influencer of UI design as it is of fashion in any industry.

All that being said, however... I have real problems with the idea that UI needs to "look like" what it used to look like, or "should" look like at some level that, according to this metaphor, is emotionally equatable to that of the human face.

Higgins gives as an example, Zimbra, and compares it to Gmail. He says: 

"To me, Zimbra doesn’t in any way resemble my mental model of a web application; it resembles Microsoft Outlook... On the other hand Gmail, which is also an Ajax-based email application, almost exactly matches my mental model of how a web application should look and feel... I prefer [Gmail b]ecause over the past twelve years, my mind has developed a very specific model of how a web application should look and feel, and because Gmail aligns to this model, I can immediately use it and it feels natural to me."

Here's my problem with that. For me, "email" is the "human face" of this metaphor, rather than the development/deployment platform. Users (like myself) who have spent 12 years in corpoate environments with various versions of MS Outlook would find Zimbra much more "natural" than Gmail. I have a Gmail account, and don't use it much, partly because I find the UI to be so much different than MS Outlook, which is patched directly into my cerebral cortex for about four hours a day.

For Higgins, humanity is found in the platform. For me, it's found (in this case) in the tool interface. He thinks a Web ap should look like a Web ap. I think that email should look like email... and, for me, that means Outlook. I'm not saying I'm right -- but that different definitions of "natural" in a software design context need to be considered. In the end, what works is natural. It's not turtles all the way down for UI development; we can actually do things as businesspeople and managers to see if our users respond well to various changes.

We only have one model (though billions of examples, obviously) of the human face. It is uncanny, indeed, when a replication of it gets close... but not quite close enough. In software interface design, I'm not sure that there is a universal model. And, if there is one, that it would be at the platform level. MS Word, Photoshop, TrueSpace, World of Warcraft... I run all of these on Windows XP. If they are all examples of what should "feel natural" for a Windows ap, then our anthropomorphic uncanny valley would be filled not with proto-human forms... but with lions, tigers and bears.

Saturday, May 5, 2007


So... I think about blogging sometimes. Which is natural, as I do it and I work in a marketing role that involves new media and my background is in writing and... and... and.

Why do we write? All kinds of answers to that question. When I was studying it in school, the answer was, "To get better at writing." To obtain an easy facility. To hone the craft. To develop the tools. You write so that you can actually write. Most people, obviously, can string words together. That'd different than being a really good writer.

I can make macaroni and cheese from a box. I can feed myself. I am not a chef. I am barely qualified to be considered a bad cook.

I'm not sure that's why most people blog. Maybe it's about the same impulse that compels keeping a journal. Not in my case, as I never kept a journal. For me, it really is about finding a nugget of an idea and writing around it. The expression of thoughts in a way so as to convey meaning clearly. It's an exploration. It's art + science. Like poetry, but different.

From Infocult, I got a pointer to a post at Webomatica on "Why blogging sours."

First off... "Why I nearly quit" stories kinda crack me up. When I was smoking, we (smokers) would always talk about how many times we'd tried to stop. So what? You didn't. Shut up. Can I bum one? A long, well thought-out blog post about how you almost quit blogging is like when beautiful people complain about how they used to have damaged hair or skin problems. Look buddy... I got 11 toes the hard way; seven on one foot and four on the other, so shut yer pie hole.
He goes through a litany of his issues. Like, "A front page Digg is awesome, but I admit to a sugar-high let down when I realize all those Diggers just checked out one or two articles and left."

Yeah. You write a post about how you "almost" quit, and include a reference to a previous, front page Digg. Sweet. So all of us out here who are blogging along with a few or a few dozen readers and whose chosen topics make us about as likely to appear in a Paris Hilton video as to get a front page Digg are supposed to feel motivated to... suck on a taxi's tailpipe? Nice motivational style.
He closes with these takeaways:

  • Think long term rather than short term.

  • Be prepared for the long haul.

  • DonĂ¢€™t expect instant success.

  • DonĂ¢€™t quit your day job on day one.

  • Expect to work hard on quality content and quality networking.

  • Blogging in a vacuum sucks.

Correct me if I'm wrong... but those first three say the same thing. And "don't quit your day job on day one." Uh... I know dozens of bloggers personally. None of them blog for a living. Zero. For a very few, blogging is now part of their traditional day job, but I'm not aware of anybody in my circle making their whole nut off the medium.

"Expect to work hard on quality content and quality networking." OK. Yes. If you want to do something well, expect to work hard. That's... very... uh... specific.

And the last bullet isn't a takeaway. It's an observation. I know I'm being snarky here, I just really am kinda tired and getting over a cold and know many writers who struggle with actual writing issues. And a guy who gets 37 comments on a post about how he sometimes doesn't get many comments... well, it's just cracking me up.

So... I read this page and was shaking my head and was going to not post today because it reaallly motivated me to not write. Feh.

Then I checked my WordPress dash for incoming links and found that somebody I'd never met/contacted had added me to his blogroll. As usual in the blogosphere, I have no specific idea why. It's always nice, and (one assumes) it's because the person enjoys your writing. So I checked out his blog, read a few posts (he put up at least one original poem, and that's always good for the universe), and found (through random poking) a very nice piece on his definition of success. It boils down to "have joy without screwing with others' joy." My very loose re-wording, so please forgive me, Mr. Hopkins.

I grok that.

And his piece caromed off my earlier, depressing thoughts about the "sour blogging" post and how to avoid it. In this weird, new world of blogs, YouTube, wikis, email, IM, WoW, SecondLife, etc... you know what? I don't really need to be Dugg. I don't need to make money on my blog. I don't need hundreds of readers. What's my definition of success for this little portion of my life?

When, out of the blue, one quality guy like E.C. Hopkins adds me to his blogroll.

If that's not enough joy to keep you blogging for another six months, hang it up for real.

That's my takeaway.