OK magazine cover
The original title of this post was going to be “classification satisfaction”. It’s a follow up to a post about taxonomies and truth which was written on the back of this interview David Weinberger did. That original post generated a great discussion about essential properties which took the whole thing to a different and more significant level (slightly above my head), and one which really got me thinking.

(Now I’ve got a bit of an admission to make. David’s book arrived at my office practically the next day but I’ve still not managed to read it as it got veritably whisked away by a colleague who spotted it on my desk. So the following may be a footnote in Chapter 59 of “Everything is miscellaneous“. If so, please accept my apologies).

The thing which has had me thinking is the obvious satisfaction which clasifying or filing something has. Watch someone as they struggle with a new concept and as soon as it’s become an extention of their overall framework of understanding a visible relaxation can be seen. This is actually how we’re brought up. Is it animal, vegetable or mineral?

But it’s not limited to childhood. Do you remember the slightly odd feeling you got when someone explained Live 8 to you? The oddest thing, for me at least, was that Live 8 was not an example of something which had been done before. Live Aid may have been unprecedented in its scale, ambition etc. But it was fileable – classifiable. It was an example of fundraising – albeit with music and entertainment at the core. But Live 8? That was an exercise in hand waving and immediate mass participation. It was Athenian democracy reinvented, it was…, it was… something no one had done before.

Another example? When’s the first time you saw Twitter? I bet you thought – like me – ‘this is just nonsense, who’d want to do that?’. When was the first time you heard it classified as ‘micro blogging’, didn’t that make you think ‘I get it now’?

When we classify ‘X as Y’, or more often ‘X as a type of Y’ (a subset or superset of Y) we’re actually doing something pretty impressive, we’re saying that the properties of X now apply to Y – even though those properties remain fluid. Or more often, the mental models of X now apply to Y. That is why it is satisfying. That is why we like doing it. And that – I think – is how we’ve managed to leap to the idea of exclusive taxonomies (not animal and/or vegetable and/or mineral). Is this how our brains actially work? No they seem to be able to clasify without exclusion very well.

And here’s another one. “OK” is one of the most used words in the English language. Yet it’s not even a word, it’s an acronym without an abbreviation. A phrase which we all use everyday, but for which no one understands the etymology. Well dictionary scholars will debate that until they’re blue in the face, but isn’t it interesting that this most primevil of noises, is the one we make when we understand a classifcation or place one thing within an existing framework or model.

OK may mean ‘average or satisfactory’ but it also means ‘I undertand, I have mentally filed the information you have given me’. OK?

Model citizen

Thougt bubble

Watching people in usability tests is fascinating. Anyone who has done this will know what I mean. Months of planning a system, of hours spent building in impecable logic are dashed irrefutably  against the rocks of reality when user after user simply fails to see  it the way the designer does.

The concept of mental models was first put forward by Scottish psychologist Kenneth Craik in 1943. The idea is that humans are frantic interpreters and, to aid in the speed of interpretation, will create small scale pictures in their mind of what is going on. While these models continue to perform users will hold on to them and use them. But they are expendable. If the user hits a brick wall and their model fails to predict what happens in the real world, it will be abandoned for a new one. Philip Johnson-Laird extended this concept through studying how readers understood novels, saying that some authors would force the reader – through ambiguity – into holding several mental models in mind concurrently – each vying for selection.

In designing computer interfaces, we often have conceptual models (to a certain extent, the designer’s mental model, or the shared “mental model” of the design team), and of course there is also a functional model -what actually happens, how it actually works. Something that doesn’t get mentioned in HCI discussions is that there are very often business rules which also apply throughout the function, which are essentially part of the functional model. We need to work hard to try and get the often complex functional models to deliver simple, understandable conceptual models.

So take a new site where items can be added to a basket by drag-and-drop. There’s a number of models being combined here. The user is being asked to co-opt an understanding taken from the classic operating system GUIs (dragging and dropping). There is an underlying co-opting of the supermarket experience of baskets. I, for one, am not convinced that this later abstraction was a natural one to users to learn, although most users do now understand the concept of an electronic basket almost as well as they know how to shop in stores. Of course the functional model will be completely different and much more complicated.

It is suggested in this fascinating summary that conceptual models shouldn’t obfuscate what is really going on. Certainly in terms of HCI, I find that view insupportable. The user doesn’t want to know that their product going into the basket is just a new entry in a database join table having passed through a set of business rules. Although we do see sites regularly forcing customers into this level of mental gymnastics.

Sometimes, resembling other mental models is helpful (drag-and-drop in the example above). Often too, it is confusing. Picking only parts of a conceptual framework, or attempting to abstract it too far from its original purpose leads to a cognitive disonance that leaves the user unconfident, often taking them back to square one.

No room for manoeuvre

Chinese Room - illustration 

I’m as big a fan of Ray Kurzweil as the next man but this post by Northern Planner– fast turning into a favourite (and extremely prolific) blogger – reminded me of something I meant to do a post about ages ago.

Kurzweil and other futurologists often talk about how long it will be before computers become “conscious”. You can see how the thinking goes: computers used to be a bit shit, then they became good enough to do sums, then the internet. Soon, computers will be able to perform more calculations than our own brains and then soon after, they’ll have more computing power than the whole bunch of us.

This is basically Moore’s law – the power of computers (or, more to the point, their power:cost ratio) will double every 12-18 months. And the rule continues to hold. Mathematically the effect is that useful computing power grows like 2n where ‘n’ is the number of 12-18 month periods. It’s dizzying growth that will keep us in awe of the power of the machines. But it will never amount to consciousness – just like no amount of cheesecake will ever build an elephant – they’re different sorts of things.

Considering it’s our finest feature, human’s are not well disposed to feel protective of our consciousness, and people find it very hard not to think of consciousness as some higher order of information processing.

But it’s not.

Luckily there is an absolutely fabulous analogy to help us understand. This comes from John Searle’s Chinese Room Argument

Searle asks us to imagine a Chinese man wandering through the wilderness who comes across a large room. This completely sealed box has 2 slots on the outside, as well as a pad and a pen. A sign pointing at the top slot invites passers-by to submit questions in writing  in Cantonese into the top slot. Our wandering man does this, asking the room as series of questions: directions, common facts, popular culture questions. Each time an appropriate or correct answer pops out of the bottom slot.

What do we conclude? That the room understands the questions? That there is someone inside who understands?

Now let me tell you what’s actually going on inside the room. As questions come in, a young YTS trainee from Hull (who only speaks English) takes them and checks them against a series of books. All the slips of paper contain strange incomprehensible symols (Catonese symbols). When he finds an exact match, it includes a long number, he then takes this number over to the other side of his room and looks it up in a different set of books. Here he finds the number links to a different set of symbols. He traces these onto a new piece of paper and pushes them back through the slot.

Will our YTS trainee ever learn Cantonese? How could he, all he gets is syntax, he would never get a foot hold onto even the first rung of semantics.

This is what modern computers do. And better, faster processor is a better faster YTS trainee.

(illustration stolen from here)

Kurt is up in heaven now

Kurt Vonnegut Jr 

There seems little doubt that Kurt Vonnegut was one of the finest American authors of the last century. In many ways, despite some very dark moments in his own life, he is simply one of the most noble Americans of all time. Always a patriot, Vonnegut despised the fake nationalism of the Bush administration, coming out of retirement to write the short story collection A Man Without a Country in 2006. He is quoted as saying that he had “drawn energy from my contempt for our president”.  (Why patriotism and supporting the president aren’t the same).

As observed in this lovely tribute, it was Vonnegut’s ability to characterize and humanize the frailties that bind us which made his writing so engrossing, captivating and – so often – laugh-out-loud funny.

Although he had not written very much in recent years, his death is a monumental loss. I can think of no writer who comes close to matching his humanity, humor and pure mastery of the language.

Surely it would be fitting to have a memorial to this great man. I suggest a replacement of the Pot Noodle in Times Square, perhaps surrounded by the aliens from Tralfamadore and accompanied by some of his famous one liners:

 “If you want to disappoint your parents and don’t have the nerve to be gay, go into the arts.”

“I’d rather have a bottle in front of me than a frontal labotomy”

NB: the title of this is ironic and borrowed from Vonnegut himself.  In a quote about Isaac Asimov:

“Do you know what a Humanist is? I am honorary president of the American Humanist Association, having succeeded the late, great science fiction writer Isaac Asimov in that functionless capacity. We Humanists try to behave well without any expectation of rewards or punishments in an afterlife. We serve as best we can the only abstraction with which we have any real familiarity, which is our community.

We had a memorial services for Isaac a few years back, and at one point I said, “Isaac is up in Heaven now.” It was the funniest thing I could have said to a group of Humanists. I rolled them in the aisles. It was several minutes before order could be restored. And if I should ever die, God forbid, I hope you will say, “Kurt is up in Heaven now.” That’s my favorite joke.”

What was I looking for?

Cat starting at screen 

I love thinking about thinking. BlinkThe Advertised Mind, how people recognise and respond to patterns, what really enforces people’s behaviour.

And that feeling when you find yourself able to name another thing is great. The feeling when you find out that it’s not just you that has a way of thinking (or seems to, otherwise I know that’s an impossible philosophical conundrum) is great.

Well today I have a new one named WWILF. (Keep both ‘w’s or things change rather dramatically). It stands for “What Was I Looking For?” and it is the symptom of going online to do something and finding out several minutes or hours later that you’re in the middle of something else entirely that distracted you.

According to Matthew from the office, this is potentially causing lost productivity of several hours a week for most employees. I think we all know someone doing the best to get the ratio the other way round, doing 2 hours work a week and filling in the gaps with WWILF journeys of discovery.

Now can anyone tell me what the proper name for Bathenfreude is?

Working title

Losers with Spikey hair and an 80s kids’ TV show 

I think it may be because of the season, or something to do with my new brand of toothpaste but I’m having a new bout of Bathenfreude. I had one a couple of years back and I’ve had relapses every so often since, mostly on public transport.

There are 991207 words in the English Language but as far as I’ve been able to ascertain, none of them is for this sensation.

There are several fascinating works about which cultures have which words (and therefore which corresponding concepts). This one includes the fact that there is – really – no word for compromise in Arabic. This one tells us that Schadenfreude (enjoying the suffering of others) has no translation outside of its native German.

Well Bathenfreude is a bit like the opposite of that crossed with Bathos.

What I’m trying to describe is the sudden feeling of guilt that you get when you make a judgement about (or feel superior to) another human being based upon appearance* and then catch yourself.

Any help greatly appreciated.

*40-year-old men wearing young-people’s jeans with lots of pockets on the outside, women bearing ill-advised midriffs, cheap suits and spiky hair, that sort of thing.