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November 26, 2003
 

Subtle pleasures.

Chris, Dan and Adam keep me smiling these days.

Chris sparked the fire, Dan added fuel; Adam revived it, Dan kept it going.
I sit , legs outstretched, letting the heat warm up my hibernating brain, waiting for Chris to close the loop (hint: how could adaptation play a role in a jukebox-mating scenario?).

Weblogs as distributed, natural conversations.
It doesn't get much better than this.


Posted by fabio sergio | 6:48 PM | permalink

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November 25, 2003
 

Etnograp(h)orn.

Recently (re)stumbled into a couple of reports that will make a good rainy afternoon read.

Demos' "London Calling", how mobile technologies will transform our capital city (PDF, 280 Kb), is a "a detailed investigation into the potential of 3G mobile technology to improve city life".

The other report is Sadie Plant's famous/old-ish "On the Mobile", the effects of mobile telephones on social and individual life (PDF, 1.3 Mb).
I remember how impressed I was when it was first made available, and realize now I probably lost sight of it during one of my frequent archiving frenzies (it probably sits silent in one of my "downloaded docs" CDs, aka "forgotten docs" judging by the frequency with which they get read; pressed tree pulp still rules).
The report's filled with thought-provoking insights and extensively uses creative biological metaphors to define user profiles and behaviors.

Both reports should be read side by side with Metropolis Magazine's "Disconnected Urbanism", an interesting article on the way "the devices formerly known as mobile phones" have changed the way we relate to what surrounds us, a condition I'd be tempted to dub continuous partial urbanism (after other better known continuous partial-isms).

"The great offense of the cell phone in public is not the intrusion of its ring, although that can be infuriating when it interrupts a tranquil moment.
It is the fact that even when the phone does not ring at all, and is being used quietly and discreetly, it renders a public place less public.
It turns the boulevardier into a sequestered individual, the flaneur into a figure of privacy.
And suddenly the meaning of the street as a public place has been hugely diminished.
"

Almost as an afterthought, but strangely relevant: Familiar Stranger, "anxiety, comfort and play in public spaces" (via Abe Burnmeister), Research on place and space, resources a go-go on what you can easily imagine, and Sonata for the Unaware, "the mundane routine of Philadelphia commuters transformed into a living piece of music." (via Dan Hill).

Linkorama here I come.


Posted by fabio sergio | 3:56 PM | permalink

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November 21, 2003
 

Cross-town linking. Soft skeletons.

More rambling from yours truly over at IDII's Hub.
"Soft skeletons" looks at code and architecture intertwining, and at what might happen once walls will be held up by bits.

No, Matrix is not mentioned even once, I swear.


Update.
After IDII's Hub disappearance I've re-published my original contribution below. Enjoy.



Soft skeletons

Stimulating dinner conversation with Walter Aprile during the Symposium.
Chit-chatting about projects where architecture and code intertwine Walter mentioned one of the most stunning examples of beauty and poetry made (somewhat) tangible: Diller & Scofidio's "Blur Building".
The misty sculptural wonder is brought to life by computer-controlled nozzles that turn Swiss lake water into solid humidity, with visitors allowed to walk through its evanescent volume.

The interesting thing is that the persistency of the Blur Building, its very existence if you will, is based upon the ability of sensors and code to respectively detect and react to micro-changes in wind speed, air humidity and overall weather conditions, lest the installation be simply blown away to reveal its metallic endoskeleton.
As Walter put it, the software acts in this case as a structural component of the architecture, not unlike a beam, a strut or a bolt.
I'd even add that it acts as a stressed component, but that's not really the point.
Yes, what is the point?
Be patient as I digress first.

I wish I could have a found a univocal online reference for the concept I'll try to explain now, but having miserably failed I'll leave that task to you.
I have always been fascinated with theories that look at how a system's apparently simple underlying principles inform the complex way it evolves over time, shaping its outermost appearance, behavior, limits and usage.
Genotype and phenotype if you will, with the key filtering word possibly being "structure" in this case.
Take the internet at its most basic organizational level for example, a loose web of computers connected to each other, and think about what this open, de-centralized, relational model has sparked over time at all levels.
Another effective example along similar lines comes from software development, as decisions taken close to the kernel very often exert a strong influence all the way to the surface, at the UI layer.
Bewildered by an application that offered a totally discontinuous user experience we reached satori upon learning how it had been developed, without a cogent framework and by separate teams, with a layer of software thinly stretched on top of the mess to enable users to move from one closed compartment (sub-application) to the next.
The underlying structure, the architecture if you will, ended up informing even the UI, its behavior, its usage.

And here's where the concepts above become relevant to my dinner conversation with Walter Aprile.
If software becomes a structural component of architecture, how will its underlying structure influence and inform the appearance (and thus usage) of physical spaces?

The cloud-like Blur Building definitely represents an edge case in this sense, as its ethereal manifestation is as close to a bit-based construct as possible, but what about good ol' brick'n mortar buildings?
Dan Hill recently mentioned a very interesting example that hints at possible directions: Bryan Boyer's "Washing Thayer" project.
The idea is intriguing: how to create via architectural means a positive feedback loop between people walking down a sidewalk, emerging usage patterns and the traces left on the sidewalk's surface.
While software is not even mentioned, its tacit presence is almost palpable, pulling the strings behind the curtain, leaving expressive qualities to the street's very appearance but softening its rigid shell.

IDII will be partially focusing on inflatable structures this year, and I am very interested to see what people like Walter will have such pliable structures do, once puppeted into solid shapes by command strings.


Posted by fabio sergio | 1:45 PM | permalink

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November 20, 2003
 

RSS feeding.

Jonathan Jaynes wrote to let me know that Diary of a Superfluous Man has moved under a new, proprietary domain, and I suddenly realized how dependent on RSS feeds I've become.
The precedent incarnation of Jonathan's excellent blog was missing the magic "syndicate/XML" button, and his words had gone AWOL in the last few weeks, lost amidst overabundant stimuli and sieged by ever-shrinking time availability.
It won't happen again.

Just like most useful innovations RSS feeds have slowly creeped into my info-foraging routine and become indispensable, and yet there are curious consequences related to the use of this XML format that I can't help but notice.
Take Jason Kottke's evolving home page design for example.
His linklog side-bar, also known as "kottke.org remainders links" (with accompanying RSS feed), used to sit on the right side of the page, distinct from his entries.
Jason has now decided to somewhat contextualize his links, inserting them close to each blog entry, favoring a "saw this today" effect of sorts over the previous, more abstract, free-standing format (the full list of links is also still available on a separate page).
Well, my RSS aggregator shows nothing of Jason's decisions, and it keeps dutifully listing his daily picks chronologically.
Not that the difference between the site and the feed it's detrimental to the overall experience, but it definitely makes it narratively quite different.

If I just rely on the aggregator I get a list of potentially interesting links; if I instead look at the actual page I get a sense of where Jason's been in direct relation to what he's written , thus gaining an albeit limited insight on what he was possibly thinking about, maybe even on how what he read online that day influenced later thoughts or sparked new ones.
Again, simply two very different experiences from a narrative standpoint, with the option to enjoy efficient access to the goods (the feed) or a richer overall picture (the actual page).

RSS-induced schizophrenia?


Posted by fabio sergio | 3:04 PM | permalink

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November 18, 2003
 

Multitasking.

Sir Chris Heathcote of Anti-Mega fame is a busy man these days.
Not happy with speaking at O'Reilly's next Emerging Technology Conference and creating "What kind of social software are you?" he has put together "Keitai", a great overview on the state of the art of mobile phones in Japan.

Go peruse and marvel, if you are curious about why Neuropointers and Multi-Task keys (with accompanying task bars) are one more step towards mobile phone adopting a full-on, PC-like WIMP UI paradigm.


Posted by fabio sergio | 7:14 PM | permalink


 

Switch.

I'm being (kindly) forced to move freegorifero to another server.
Hopefully everything will run smoothly in the next few days...if not please be patient.
Thank you.


Posted by fabio sergio | 6:33 PM | permalink

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November 17, 2003
 

The spy.

Nico Macdonald has a new article out, "Design by or for the people?", and, even better, a blog, Design and Society, which went straight into my daily dose.

The article is a likely-to-be-controversial take on the effect that usability and user research are having on design and innovation.

"In the decades since its conception much has changed in the world of the "user".
However, rather than adapting to more varied subjects and activities, user-centered design has to a large extent lost its ambition and been supplanted by one of its elements: the relatively conservative concept of usability.
...
Usability is a valuable element of the design process, but it canít substitute for or dominate it, as it ... canít anticipate all scenarios of use of a product, and it canít evaluate the design of features that people donít (yet) understand.
Usability can be used to incrementally improve an innovation, but it canít drive innovation. ... Too much user focus may be a barrier to innovation.
"

As you might know I have long been interested in the role that "people" (in all their various roles as customers, users, clients, actors) are increasingly playing in actively helping shape the same products they end up buying.
With research techniques digging deeper and deeper in customers' heads to pry secrets and improve sales (Neuromarketing anyone?), the questions raised by Macdonald demand, in my humble opinion, careful consideration, lest we find ourselves enjoying our version of choice of a focus-group induced happy ending, Hollywood-blockbuster style.


Posted by fabio sergio | 5:19 PM | permalink

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November 14, 2003
 

Corresponding. Shared boundaries.

I just spent the last two days commuting daily not to Milano but to Ivrea, where I was lucky enough to attend IDII's Symposium on the Foundations of Interaction Design.
For my notes on the 7 knowledge-intensive sessions you'll have to wait until my brain stops pushing against its case, swollen dendrites still recovering from the many presentations and in-between conversations, amounting to about 25 A4 pages of (badly) scribbled words.

If you're eager to know more about the symposium right away head to IDII's just-launched Hub, a multi-voiced blog that will showcase viewpoints and ideas on the practice of Interaction Design.
I have been kindly invited to contribute and must admit feeling honored and humbled.

My first contribution, "Shared boundaries", is an attempt at linking the concept of "boundary objects" to the praxis of Interaction Design.
After the symposium I am more convinced than ever that disciplinal purity will unlikely ever be a defining characteristic of our practice, but that this has to be seen under a positive light, as an opportunity to shape theoretical frameworks around fluid, relational models, rather than striving for monolithic, all-encompassing paradigms.


Update.
After IDII's Hub disappearance I've re-published my original contribution below. Enjoy.



Shared boundaries

Thanks to Peter Van Dijck I've been introduced to the concept of "boundary objects":

"Artifacts, documents and perhaps even vocabulary that can help people from different communities build a shared understanding.
Boundary objects will be interpreted differently by the different communities, and it is an acknowledgement and discussion of these differences that enables a shared understanding to be formed.
"

Peter also points to Brian Marick's interesting paper, "Boundary Objects" (PDF, 76 Kb):

"A community of practice is a group of people who do a certain type of work ... and derive some measure of their identity from their work.
A community of interest involves members of distinct communities of practice, coming together to solve a particular problem of common concern.
If X is a boundary object, people from different communities of practice can use it as a common point of reference. They can all agree they are talking about X.
But the different
(communities of practice) are not actually talking about the same thing, they attach different meanings to X.
Despite
(these) different interpretations people use boundary objects as a means of translation.
Boundary objects are plastic enough to adapt to changing needs,
(they) are working arrangements, adjusted as needed."

Simplifying things down a bit we could paraphrase all of the above saying that boundary objects act as fertile ground for semantic confusion to grow new meanings out of existing terms.
A shared vocabulary with fuzzy, malleable definitions.
It is up to the community of interest to be willing to relinquish purity to collectively attribute new signifieds to pre-existing, shared signifiers.

In light of these considerations I find myself thinking of the Interaction Design community and wondering.

It is quite obvious that ours is a "community of interest" rather than a "community of practice", and that "boundary objects" abound.
Usability Specialists, Information Architects, Software and Hardware Engineers, Experience, Graphic and Product Designers are all in one way or another often involved in shaping the dialogue that develops between a person and the tools he/she uses to achieve his/her personal goals, whether communicational in nature or not. Problems are tackled by all of these players from a slightly different perspective, with widely different toolboxes, and some of them will at times claim that "their approach" is the best, or most complete, or best-proven to provide solutions and answers.

In other words Interaction Design is still a field where uncertainty runs high and often fuels recursive discussions.
We often attribute this status of constant flux to the discipline's short history, but a thought surfaces now.

The term "Interaction Design" itself could easily fit the description of a boundary object...but what about the very practice of Interaction Design?
Could the variety of backgrounds, methodologies and deliverables be seen in this light as well?
Could it be that Interaction Design as a discipline exists only as a space of flows, dynamically outlined by the intersecting boundaries of the aforementioned neighbouring disciplines?

Could the dynamic fluidity inherent to the definition of interaction itself, as "a mutual or reciprocal action or influence", ultimately inform a perpetually liquid, ductile, plastic vocabulary of practice?


Posted by fabio sergio | 2:18 PM | permalink

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November 11, 2003
 

Design. Life.

Imagine that you could do anything. What would you do?

I have often toyed with this dream of omnipotence, if only for the sheer pleasure of seeing how my own answers change over time, striking delicate equilibria between egocentric delirium and altruistic schemes to bring beauty to our spinning sphere.
A powerless deity, just add daydreaming to the dehydrated mix.

The Massive Change project (via the red-hot Ashley Benigno) takes such matters very seriously, and adds design-at-large as the key ingredient:

"Design, the human capacity to plan and produce desired outcomes, has placed us at the beginning of a new, unprecedented period of human possibility, where all economies and ecologies are becoming global, relational, and interconnected.
Nature is no longer a realm outside of our manipulation. We need to evolve a global society that has the capacity to direct and control the emerging forces in order to achieve the most positive outcome.
We must ask ourselves, now that we can do anything, what will we do?
"

Behind the initiative there's design wunderkid Bruce Mau and Toronto's George Brown College's School of Design, both founders of the Institute Without Boundaries, an organization that takes lucky, multi-gifted students on a journey with no set destinations, just the promise of inspiring sights along the way.

As it often (funnily) happens with coincidences I had recently read about Mau and his (in)famous "Incomplete Manifesto for Growth" on 37 Signal's weblog, Signal vs. Noise.
The entry focused on the relationship between process and outcome, and how both relate to creativity.
Do you trust informed intuition to do the trick or do you believe in a more structured approach to problem solving?
The question above particularly resonates with my current mindframe when coupled with another one raised by the Institute Without Boundaries:

"What if life itself became a design project?"

The meaning of the term "life" here can be interpreted either on a genetic or on a personal level, but I'll focus on the latter only.
Can you actually set a desired outcome for your own life, and somehow design your way towards it, or will that end up being reductive, as Mau seems to hint in his manifesto?
In other words, and with quite a bit of interpretation, if you picture yourself arriving "somewhere" in life, and you actually get there, will you have accomplished all that you really could have?
Is there such a thing as a process to reach a destination in life that might be a place, paraphrasing Mau, "where you will want to be", even though you had not pictured yourself there at the beginning?
Let me underline that again: a process.

In this sense I can't help but think about my dear friend and former employer Nicola Zanardi, who has time and again inspired me with his personal and professional philosophy.
Nicola is a good example of what "applying the design process to life" can mean in practical terms.
Both with his advertising agency, XYZ Reply, and the multimedia academy he has funded, Arsnova Siena, he has approached things from the inside out, working in large corporations and in public universities first to then use that knowledge to build his own (arguably better) versions, based on his ideas and ideals.
Understand. Re-configure. Prototype. Test.
Nicola embodies to me what Abe Burnmeister has recently said about this being the "time to build, not burn".

Mau's manifesto has been criticized and ridiculed, as it often happens with the ideas of those who enjoy "guru status": the dubiously honorific title seems to imply that arguments around their statements tend to skirt reason to follow faith-like patterns, with believers, heretics and skeptics soon appearing.
I personally value the manifesto for the emotional impact it originally had when I first read it on I.D. magazine, and I still recall photocopying it and sending it to friends, with whom it helped spark many thought-provoking discussions.
Enough.

Just to avoid giving the impression that all of the above was just a badly disguised plug to Mau and his studio, I'll also point you to the NextDesign Leadership Institute, which aims to "help speed the rate of adaptation, by graduate design education, to the radical events unfolding at the leading edge of the marketplace, that are impacting design leadership today".
Their message is loud and clear: design as a discipline is not creating leaders, and NextD aims to see the trend change quickly.
If I got you curious take a look at their Mindscape presentation for the skinny on their ideas.

See?
Neuron-pumping fun for the whole family.


Posted by fabio sergio | 6:42 PM | permalink

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November 10, 2003
 

Welcome to the age of cluster media.

My friend and next-desk neighbor Ashley Benigno's latest brainchild is called Grid Blogging:

"Grid blogging aims to investigate the potentials of a distributed media production model spread across blogosphere nodes.
It seeks to ignite attention on specific topics at set times through variegated voices.
"

Creatively applying to blogging ideas exploited by Flashmobs Ashley proposes to tune entries on a specific date to a common frequency.
Captivating concept, even though I miss the brief point in time during which I felt part of a true cross-blog conversation, without any need to formally agree on a topic or time (as I admitted to Ashley in front of the infamous coffee machine on the 4th floor).
Maybe I am just getting old and sentimental.

The first date set for Grid Blogging is December 1st, and the topic of choice will be "brand" in all its possible nuances, definitely a stimulating theme to start out with.
No need to "sign in" to participate, but I am sure Mr. Benigno would appreciate letting him know you liked the idea.
Tip o' the hat Ashley, looking forward to be a beeping node on the grid.


Posted by fabio sergio | 5:49 PM | permalink

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November 03, 2003
 

Constant craving (with apologies to K.D. Lang).

It's that time of the year. Winter's approaching fast, but not fast enough.
As usual I've already fallen victim to snow-craving madness, drooling over old issues of Powder, loaded with pictures of superhuman two-boarded feats.
Before you start pitying my sorry state I will confess that my frozen-water addiction is only half of the story.
Revelation time: I am a born-again outdoor sport consumerist, in the sense that no matter how long I've kicked the nasty habit, I have time and again wasted, er, invested most of my money in outdoor sports gear, whether I really needed it at the time of purchase or not.
In addition to all of the above, and to my brand addiction, I am also well-known for my inability to resist the urge to pick up, read and memorize any outdoor clothing/gear catalog.
Mountaineering, hiking, mountain biking, you name it.
I kid you not, it's that bad.
Deep down inside I know very well that my non-interactive side has always lusted after sports equipment design, and that the bank-account-wrecking habits depicted above are just a subconscious attempt at simulating a gear designer/tester life.
Couple that with true love for anything that involves having the sky as a roof and you start to get the full picture.
Yes, this is the point where the blogger sheepishly admits not only being a larva-level practitioner of all of the above-mentioned mountain-related disciplines, but also a self-appointed, self-funded outdoor gear tester, often guilty of bothering producers with useless suggestions on how to "improve" their products.

At first it was Patagonia that dominated my consumption biorhythms.
I will easily admit having religiously kept all of Patagonia's stunningly beautiful catalogs ever since 1986, seduced by soulful customer-provided pictures and by the company founder's philosophy, Yvon Chouinard, who has been one of the leading innovators in the field (not to mention a hell of an alpinist).
Wielding his own version of modern architecture's "less is more" mantra, and driven by a pragmatic view on what sustainability means in commercial terms, he created one of the most highly valued outdoor brands on the market, and a line of technical tools that still ranks among the best out there (Black Diamond, originally christened Chouinard Equipment, now an independent, employee-owned company).
Some critics call Patagonia a well-crafted eco-marketing scheme to sell products at a premium, but in my humble opinion Chouinard has shown that business can rhyme with upholding strong beliefs...and being able to make good money out of them.
On the "personal experience" side I will also point out that Patagonia's products more than stand up to the brand's claim to quality, and some of the items I purchased 15 years ago still serve duty today, albeit scarred and burnt in mountain huts or worn thin at the elbows.
As a side note for fanatics Chouinard's accomplishments not only include having changed alpine clothing standards, but also having almost single-handedly revolutionized ice climbing altogether. When he started earning his cult status in mountaineering circles, tackling ice walls still involved using a longish ice axe (mostly used to create stair-like steps), something called an "ice dagger" (used like a nail to raise one's weight) and flexible crampons.
When Chouinard and his partners were done bettering the tools they were using to push their own limits, a shorter ice axe/ice hammer combo and the modern rigid crampon had acquired the shape they still somewhat hold today, while a new technique, called "Piolet Traction", soon emerged to make their use amazingly effective.
If I've got you curious get ahold of a copy of Chouinard's book, "Climbing Ice", still considered one of the key references when it comes to the desire to go up steep verglas.

While well-worn Patagonia logos still adorns most of my lower layers, I have over time found myself sporting (obnoxious) The North Face ones on the outside, driven by slightly lower prices and great quality.
Not that I have any complaints to file about the performance of TNF gear, mind you, but I will admit secretly lusting today after hideously expensive Arc'teryx products.
Now owned by Adidas-Salomon the once-little Canadian outfit has been at the forefront of innovation in the hard-core outdoor field in recent times.
Having pioneered the use of laminated materials in climbing harnesses they have expanded their offering to rucksacks first, and then to the most striking clothing lines I have put my eyes upon in the last few years.
From the use of new materials, to innovative features like exposed, waterproof zips, to the introduction of new techniques to assembly products, such as bonding (tech lingo for "gluing") different textiles together, Arcíteryx has pushed others to follow suit, and I have watched my previous reference points, such as Patagonia and Lowe Alpine, often play catch-up with the Canadian company's exploits.
Take Arc'teryx's RollTop packs, which have simply taken the original concept of the pack, that of a top-loading sack with shoulder straps, added insights from the world of rafting and dry bags, conceived a clever way to carry, open and close the enchilada and ultimately created a product that quickly spawned obvious imitations.
Ground-up innovation? No.
Creative, efficient, functional cocktail of existing concepts and materials? Yes.


Consumeristic voyeurism.


More than anything else I am totally fascinated by Arc'Teryx products' single-mindedness, industrially-clean lines, manic attention to gram-shaving details.
Pure function.
Since I just can't afford them though, and furthermore I already own way more things than I'll ever need in two lifetimes, just bear with me while I use this channel to cathartically consume my desire to acquire by listing all that I would buy at this very point in time, if given the means to do so.
I really, really, really crave a Sangria Beta AR Jacket, Slate Minuteman Bib pants, a Black Gamma MX hoody, a Pelican Roll Top 35 pack.
What the hell, why not a Specialized Stumpjumper FSR Pro mountain bike, a Suunto Vector watch, a pair of new Scarpa Denali XT ski boots?
Did I mention that (after buying more pairs that I will ever be willing to reveal) I am still looking for the perfect glove, one that will exhibit the elusive blend of dexterity and warmth I have never found so far?
Did I mention the new Black Diamond Spindrift?
I promise, I'll try 'em out and let you know what works and what doesn't, over the winter, be really scrupulous, treat 'em real good...

Father please forgive me, for I have sinned.


Posted by fabio sergio | 5:40 PM | permalink

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