July 18, 2011
Information is different

It's a chestnut of interface critique: Embodiment is good, the concrete beats the abstract, nobody reads online. It drives interfaces towards the tangible, and I'll be the first to agree that good physical design (and design that *feels* physical) is pleasurable and restful on the mind.
None of these facts are, however, easy to reconcile with the fact that every day 15% of the queries seen by Google are queries Google has never seen before. Put differently, the information space Google presents to the world grows by 15% every day. Imagine a startup experiencing this kind of uptake. You'd consider yourself very lucky - even if a lot of those 15% will be spelling mistakes etc.
The 15% number sounds staggering, but it's when you compound it a little it becomes truly mindblowing - and in fact hard to believe entirely - 15% daily discovery means that in a month, the entire current history of Google searches fades to about 1% of all queries seen. Obviously this isn't a description of typical use, but it is a description of use, none the less. This is complete rubbish and I'm emberrased to have written it, read on below

Now, try to imagine building a physical interface where all uses it has been put to, since the beginning of time, fade to 1% in a month. That's very hard to do. The thing is, that thinking is different, language is different, information is different. The concrete approach breaks down when confronted with the full power of language.

This is also why we'll always have command lines.


So, above I make a really embarrasing probability calculus 101 error, when I tried to compound the "every day we see 15%" new queries statistic. This isn't a toin coss, but something completely else. Chances are that "every day we see 15% new queries" compounds on a monthly basis to .... 15% new queries. To see why, I'm going to make a contrived draw of numbers that match the "every day we see 15% new queries" statistic.

Let's suppose we wanted to produce a string of numbers, 100 every day, so that we can say that "every day we see 15 numbers we haven't seen before". The easiest way to do that is to just start counting from 1, so the first day we see the numbers 1..100. Of course on the first day we can't match the statistic, since we haven't seen any numbers before.
On the second day however we draw 85 times from the numbers we have already seen - we just run the numbers 1..85 - and for the remaining 15 we continue counting where we left off on day 1, so on day 2 we would have the numbers 1..85,101..115. On day 3 we run 1..85,116..130 and so on.
This way, it's still true that "every day we see 15 numbers we haven't seen before" but at the end of the first month (30 days) you will have seen in total the numbers 100+29*15 = 535 numbers.
In month 2 (let's say that's 30 days also) we change things a little. Instead of just running through 1..85 we continue upwards until we have cycled through all the numbers we saw in month 1. There were 535 of those, so that'll only take 7 days. You'll see 30*15 = 450 new numbers and 535 old ones when doing this or 46% numbers you've never seen before of all the numbers you see in month 2.
In month 3 (still 30 days) we do the same thing as we did in month 2, but this time there are 535+450 old ones, so the 450 new ones only amount to 31% of all the numbers we see in month 3.
We continue like this. The most already seen numbers we have time to run through doing 85 a day for 30 days is 30*85, and we'll still have 30*15 new ones, so lo and behold, when we continue this process we end up seeing 15*30/(15*30+85*30)=15*30/(15+85)*30=15/100=15% numbers we have never seen before.

Posted by Claus at 10:21 AM
July 07, 2011
Tweets, 140 chars and the law of requisite variety

The Law of Requisite Variety tells us that, the more complex your control of an environment, the more limited the space of outcomes. This is usually framed in a positive manner - you can pin down the response by adding controls - but in a pull media environment, like most social media, that's not a plus. Add complexity to what you say, and you diminish your likely audience.
Google+ has resurfaced the discussion on the purpose of the 140 character limit. Experience tells us that Twitter is a horrible medium for debate, but a fantastic medium for sparking debate.
Keeping messages below 140 characters keeps conversation starters short and open, and that is very fruitful as conversation seed material. It does however also mean that you can only seed conversations. There is limited scope for definite statements that lock a debate down, once a consensus begins to emerge. For that you need to go off Twitter. G+ is designed differently. The entire conversation can stay in one medium. I'm guessing conversations will lock down much better because of it.
Maybe the lack of limits won't matter for G+, because we're used to the short stuff by now, and stick to it for transmittability. But that advantage of course will only last if G+ is a failure, otherwise the new medium will shape the perception of what's possible and appropriate.

Posted by Claus at 10:33 PM
Man sender vel ikke rigtige klovne på latterkursus?

Så er der blevet lavet klimanalyse af arbejdsmiljøet på den kongelige ballet. Og som sædvanlig falder det dårligt ud. Som sædvanlig siger jeg, fordi der er en historie om en kreativ arbejdsplads, hvor normalforventninger om hvad det vil sige at gå på arbejde skuffes voldsomt, og den historie har vi fået med skiftende arbejdspladser flere gange. For 4-5 år siden mistede Radiosymfoniorkestret den bedste chef det nogensinde har haft, da Per Erik Vengs autokratiske ledelse ikke passede ind i normalforventningerne. For et par år siden kom filmen om livet i køkkenet på Noma, hvor normalforventningerne hellere ikke holder.

Der er sikkert masser af kreative mennesker, der ikke er dårlige ledere, men man kan ikke helt blive fri for mistanken, at det lige så meget er et spørgsmål om at normalforventningerne ikke egner sig til at producere det usædvanlige. Jeg tvivler på bjergbestigere kan overholde køre-/hviletids-bestemmelserne. Og hvad mere er, jeg tvivler også lidt på at de kreative arbejdende ville fungere særlig godt under normalforventningerne.

Posted by Claus at 09:29 AM
July 02, 2011
Cognitive rules of distance

A slight observation: I'm remote controlling my home server (a Mac Mini) via SSH and also via VNC when needed. I'm having unreasonable amounts of fun generating speech on the remote machine with text-to-speech. Some observations set in:

  • My knowledge of what's going on adds magic. The machine has a CPU, it's a brain. Making brains do things is fun. Controlling loudspeakers in another room does not produce the same effect at all, even if the sensory result is the same

  • The bandwith of the control interface is important - or maybe it's the sensory reality of it. I find that SSH'ing to the machine to control text-to-speech feels like remote magic, whereas VNC'ing to it and using a console on the desktop remotely just feels like watching television

It's a strange mix of world model cues and sensory cues in interplay. For some reason, the command line with remote access feels like action-at-a-distance and only that. I'm reading books on information theory currently, so an information theoretical model comes easily to mind. In communications you always have the classic

Sender <-> (channel) <-> Receiver
What's at play here is the complexity of the receiver and the bandwidth of the channel. The fun comes from the asymmetry of the channel and the receiver. If the channel is simple, but the receiver complex, the ability to control feels like magic. If this imbalance is destroyed, by simplifying the receiver - just speakers - or adding bandwidth to the channel - VNC - the magic goes away.

Posted by Claus at 11:37 AM