Monthly Archives: January 2005

Backpack metaphor and placeless documents

Phil Agre on the “backpack metaphor” in user interface design, from a 2001 issue of Red Rock Eater:

(5) Interfaces in this world might be organized according to various

metaphors, by analogy to the famous (if inconsistent and half-baked)

desktop metaphor in personal computing. One metaphor might be the

“backpack” in which individuals carry around the virtual documents

and devices that they use in various environments. We can easily

imagine someone sitting down in a cafe and spreading their paperwork

on the table, whether for their own use or to share with someone

else, such as a customer. The objects in the backpack would interact

with whatever devices they find in the vicinity, converting formats

where necessary or providing the user with options about which nearby

devices should be recruited for which purposes. The backpack metaphor

suggests an obvious set of operations: adding things to the backpack,

cleaning it up, securing it against theft, having it searched by the

security people, and so on, some of which will make sense for a given

application and some of which will not. (On the foundations of the

backpack metaphor, see the “Placeless Documents” project at Xerox.

On documents generally see David M. Levy, Scrolling Forward: Making

Sense of Documents in the Digital Age, Arcade, 2001.)

More on Placeless Documents from PARC’s Paul Dourish:

Placeless Documents are documents that are organized and managed according to their properties, rather than according to their location. Document properties can be things you already know about your documents, like that they’re published, or notes, or about the budget,or drafts, or source code, or important, or shared with your colleagues, or from your manager, or big, or from the Web, or… whatever suits you. Document properties can also be things that you want to be true about your documents, like that they are backed up, or replicated on your laptop, or can be purchased for a small fee. These latter properties carry the code to implement or interface with the desired functionality. Document properties are statements about your documents that make sense to you, and affect what you’re going to do with the documents.

The particular implementation of placeless documents, a system called Presto, was filesystem and not browser based; but a lot of the ideas look like they lead over neatly into what tagging systems like delcious do. In particular there’s the strong notion that the document properties you assign (“to read”, “due next thursday”) vs those that someone else assigns (“interesting”, “from PARC”) don’t have to match up and don’t have to interfere with each other. Presto went one step further and allowed some document properties to be inferred from document contents, as though delicious fetched each page that you bookmarked and analyzed it for authorship, date, or other bits of metadata. (That’s somewhat easier to do in a local filesystem than over the web, though systems like Google and Citeseer both cache local copies of documents to aid in retrieval)

Another good reference: Extending Document Management Systems with User-Specific Active Properties (Dourish99Extending).


Cafe Verde, Fourth Ave across from Fourth Ave Birkenstock

More Ann Arbor cafe reviews…

Cafe Verde is one of my favorite cafes. We are regulars there for Saturday lunch after Farmer’s Market. It’s attached to and run by the People’s Food Coop.

Cafe Verde is newly rennovated with a brand new beautiful wood floor and new tables to sit at. The seating along the side is a long bench with tables and chairs, very nice to have a sense that you are feeling like you’re part of a group of folks all together rather than off in your own little isolated table. It does get pretty crowded on Saturday mornings, but the day I wrote this (a Tuesday) before lunch there’s plenty of seats.

The hot bar always has soup, rice, greens, beans, and chicken, and has a rotating schedule of other featured dishes for each day of the month. The food is well prepared, delicious, and quite reasonable. I can generally get a plate for $5-$6 that fills me up.

The coffee bar in the front features all fair trade coffee. My recommendation is to go with the brewed coffee and not the espresso drinks. The organic half and half they have for the coffee is really, really good.

There’s a good selection of pastries in the front cases, or you can go to the back bakery section and pick up a single cookie from Avalon Bakery for $0.75. That case always has vegan cookies available.

There’s a sign up that says it has wifi, but I haven’t tried it yet.

Flickr for the four year old bus enthusiast

I’ve been having a lot of fun with Saul using Flickr to browse through images. There’s always something new, and it’s pretty easy to find something interesting even if the request is very specific.

He’s learning how to use tags to browse. We visited a bunch of times, and he successfully typed “bus” into the tags search box. There are enough bus photos being posted that every time we search every few days the result set is a little different – this is an advantage over Google Images which is by comparison relatively static.

As we go on the search requests get more complex. I show him a picture of a bus with some folks about to cross the street, and he wants to see them in the middle of the street. I show him a still, and he wants to see the bus moving. He’ll often ask me about what’s going on in the picture as though I am supposed to know the entire scene in detail, and we haven’t quite gotten to the point where he is making up the stories himself.

Cornell notes style lab book and Moleskine

This is going to be a bit of a difficult post to write since I don't have the appropriate graphics tools (and I'm missing a scanner), but bear with me.

I've been using the Cornell Notes system over the last couple of days to help me write longer and more interesting pages in my lab notebooks. The part of me that holds frugality dear wants to use the $1.59 8×10 cheap big quadrille lab books whenever possible in preference to the $10 3×5 Moleskine, especially when I'm writing somewhere that space is not at a premium. I'm following pretty much the same principles that I did on an earlier try on this, using columns and layout to sequester data and metadata into its own place, and to be consistent enough in what I'm doing that I can find stuff again while not being so consistent that I feel hemmed in.

The style is as follows:

Top right corner: date, time, location, meal and cost if I'm out writing, weather if it's notable, any other quick reminder of where I was at the time. Many of these in the Moleskine list a bus route; most of the lab books give a coffee shop or "home". (there's useful metadata)

Right column (10%): just enough of a margin to write marginal notes in of anything that's distracting me at the moment, but not enough to get involved in it. That goes down 85% of the page. In a coffee shop it's where you'd write down overheard gossip.

Top: title of the page, for the index.

Left column (25%): leave it blank for now.

Bottom (15%): leave it blank for now.

Middle (65% wide, 85% tall including top title): enough room to capture a whole thought, at least three or four paragraphs of it, and if I get sufficiently distracted by anything I note in the right margin and move on.

Once the whole middle is full to the edges, only then do I go back and review it, see if it makes any sense, and start composing the left column. The whole left column gets questions, only questions – any questions that can easily be answered by what I've written in the middle, plus questions that arise from reflecting on it, and all other on-topic queries that arise. Usually the question writing goes very very fast, especially if the topic is interesting – I'll often create enough questions in the course of writing that part of the page that there's an easy start to a next page or two.

Finally once the top 85% is full, I go to the bottom and fill in a summary of the page. Note that this may be very different from the title topic – that's one frustration of titled pages in this or any system, you might divert in the process of writing. I still think it's good to know the title and topic before you start, but that right margin is really key to make sure that you have enough space to catch fleeting ideas.

For the 3×5 Moleskine, this is way harder. You have a lot less space, and the page fills up a lot more quickly. My habit in lab notebooks is to use the right page only (leaving the left for sketches); for the Moleskine I tried using the full right page for the essay + very thin right margin for marginalia, and then the right quarter of the facing page for questions. That still leaves most of a facing page for art, or for more questions layered on top of the first pass.

I'm pretty sure this could all be rendered in some kind of CSS layout – the default Typepad setup doesn't come anywhere near, since it has per-weblog layout but not customizable per-page marginalia. I made a quick change to the private wiki I use for notes to self to allow for a linked editable left and right margin, which seems pretty neat but which I don't have enough experience with yet to know whether it's a just a great weird idea or actually something worth re-implementing the "right way".

I promise – I've been promising – that this will all show up scanned in at some point.

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Related articles

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Cornell Notes and Visualizations
(My) Marginalia
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Wiki Banned!

.flickr-photo { border: solid 1px #000000;}.flickr-yourcomment {}.flickr-frame { float: left; width: 150px; text-align: center; padding: 3px; margin-right: 10px;/* a suggestion – Flickr pink! *//* background-color: #FFE8F4; *//* border: 1px solid #FDD8EB; */}.flickr-caption { font: 75%; color: #666666; margin-top: 0px;}.flickr-buddyicon { margin-right:5px; vertical-align:middle; border: solid 1px;}.flickr-postedby { font: 75%;}

Wiki Banned!
Wiki Banned!, originally uploaded by Ross Mayfield.

Not sure what I’m going to do in the meantime.

Posted by Edward Vielmetti from Flickr.


Miss Lonelynotes – not for me, not this time

I write a lot in a wiki, but sometimes I like to see what the space of non-wiki writing and authoring tools are, just to keep my mind fresh about new tools and approaches. Thus last night late when I came across an OS X writer’s tool called Miss Lonelynotes I had to give it a try.

The working metaphor for the product is that you are editing a series of 3×5 notecards, each of which has a title and a body, and that these notecards are arranged in stacks. Stacks can contain other stacks, and when you are done stacking them all together you have what would in some other programs be a linear view of your work except that you have assembled it from “small pieces loosely joined“.

I am a big fan of the small writing space, since it matches the size of my thinking and working memory. Miss Lonelynotes does allow you to easily reshuffle cards around and attach multiple categories (think “tags”, albeit a bit more clumsily) to each card. Common vocabulary terms can be noted in a kind of glossary function, and you can easily figure out where common themes are in your work and sort through them accordingly.

Where it falls down, and where I decided to put it aside, were a few pragmatic things. I lost some work when the application crashed and where it did not do an automatic save one card at a time as I completed editing it. It doesn’t export in any native way to the web, nor does it import from the web, so it’s not useful for writing blog posts as part of a larger whole.

There is a whole class of “outlining” writing tools for the Mac dating way back to the days of Acta and MORE! and others that I recall from the late 1980s. My mind has a fondness for being able to reshuffle small parts without too much effort. So I’ll keep looking for similarly useful tools, perhaps not as big-scale collaboration efforts, but as a source of ideas to bring back into other works.

Form follows funding

as Stewart Brand says in his book, “How Buildings Learn”: “Form follows funding. Commerce drives all before it, especially in cities. Wherever land value is measured in square feet, buildings are as fungible as cash. Cities devour buildings.”

Discussion of “How Buildings Learn” at the MOCHI bookgroup on Weds, Feb 9 2005 in Ann Arbor on the campus of the University of Michigan.