“Nothing is built on stone; all is built on sand, but we must build as if the sand were stone.”

—Jorge Luis Borges

Current feature

Mike Buzzard: the v-2 interview
Meticulous programmer, student of the good life, agent provocateur and practitioner of Extreme Walking: meet Mike Buzzard, the man behind so many a well-known site.

Recent articles

> in media + culture

These bots are made for walking
Robots more or less how you've always imagined them, coming soon to a dealer near you. (Originally written for a now-defunct design magazine, December 2002)

> in architecture + urbanism

Nomad histories 002: Korea
Most everyone knows the story of South Korea's rise from postwar basket case to "tiger economy," but surprisingly few non-Koreans have much of an idea of the place - it's too often obscured behind perceptions of trendy Japan or eternal China, or thought of merely as the place kimchi comes from. These nine probes show why it's so much more.

> in interface + usability

Compassion and the crafting of user experience
Designing products and services in the light of the Buddhist Eightfold Noble Path? It isn't as flaky as it may sound.


Against the fall of Babel

Martin Friedl's clever Poppi, from Emigre, a "comprehensive image-based language encompassing all areas of everyday life, allowing for communication beyond linguistic barriers." Not sure how well it would actually work - context is everything - but the art is crisp, suffused with humor, and particularly nicely executed. Reminds me, too, of the old and well-missed Mutabor.

01 April 2004 @ 12:55 | permalink

Ease on down the road

From the Can't-Tell-The-Players-Without-A-Scorecard Department: in a not-unexpected move, Mike Kuniavsky leaves West Coast UX powerhouse Adaptive Path.

v-2, of course, wishes the best to both parties. Meanwhile, those of you within hailing distance of San Francisco may want to get your resumes warmed up.

01 April 2004 @ 12:38 | permalink

For and against virtuality

Almost invariably, at some point on a job, someone on the client side will ask me, "So...you're out of New York, right? Where are your offices?" And I'll jerk my head at my laptop bag and say, "There they are. You're looking at them."

This is such an obvious and natural answer to me that I'm frankly surprised at some of the responses I get, which range from mild confusion to something not too far from naked alarm. And of course I'm curious as to why, so I make a little effort to probe beyond the quizzical expressions. What emerges is this: people still associate seriousness of intent with physical groundedness.

That is, it's the same reason why banks famously built their branches from the heaviest and most solid of materials, why they went to such baroque lengths to wrap themselves in a semiotics of permanence and respectability. If you are going to place your future in the hands of near-strangers, the logic goes, you want them at least to be strangers with a known address.

I understand some of this, the deep human need to at least have notional recourse to a place on the map if everything goes pear-shaped. And I get that some addresses were what earlier ages offered in lieu of ISO 9000 certification: Harley Street, the Faubourg Saint-Honoré, Gion and Modena are some that come to mind. But frankly, beyond that, I'm at a loss for why situability is preferable to the way I do things.

Here's the argument in its purest form. Think of your favorite biz-speak buzzwords of the last five years: agile, adaptive, optimized, outsourced, core competency-driven. Working off a capacious bag, a reasonably audible headset and a good pair of shoes means I'm all of these. I have almost no overhead; there's not a lot in the way of costs that I'm compelled to pass on to my clients. I can move on a dime. So you tell me: columns, marble, receptionists, and all they imply? Or one skinny guy in business class, marinated in lightfighter praxis and unimpeded by fixed costs?

OK, false dichotomy, maybe. We all need support networks, after all, some agency responsible for coordination, project management and replenishment. And as long as we wear human form, we will at least sometimes want the comfort and security promised by physical walls, doors that lock, whiteboards to scrawl on and chairs that stay adjusted the way we left them last. But for me? Mobility, speed and Basecamp beat real estate, eight or nine times out of ten. Do you really think you'd get more for your money if you were also helping me pay for an office?

(Addendum: Jay Allen's response. And I'll consider the downside of my luftmensch existence later on, particularly the way in which work fractally invaginates my "leisure" time.)

31 March 2004 @ 14:39 | permalink

Working like a water buffalo

...which is why you're not hearing much from me. Thoughts galore, time and space in which to frame them for discussion nonexistent. Send me happy energy?

31 March 2004 @ 10:17 | permalink

Radical simplicity for universal access: Still a great idea, now a shipping product?

After seeming eons, the vaunted, all-Indian Simputer launches, in a shiny new package. But is it the same thing as the unit promised way back in 2000?

The original version was radical precisely because it envisioned a computer for the Third World, designed around the goal that "illiteracy...no longer [present] a barrier to handling a computer." The Simputer site went on to assert that "the key to bridging the digital divide is to have shared devices that permit truly simple and natural user interfaces based on sight, touch and audio." Debatable, certainly, on the details, but not in broad outline.

Is the new Simputer that device? Though it offers features cannily tuned to an understanding of the Indian user, it would appear to have departed substantially from the original premise. No longer a stripped-down, robust information appliance for the rural Global South, this machine looks like a fancy, ethnospecific PDA for Bangalore's newly-empowered knowledge workers - a worrisome case of bait-and-switch.

Maybe that's what four years and a global recession will do to a product founded on idealism. No surprises there. What this does mean, though, is that there's still room in the world for something a little closer to the original Simputer: mil-spec robust, radically simple, supremely affordable, utterly transparent. Any takers?

29 March 2004 @ 14:33 | permalink

One step forward, two steps back

I hate to sit on the sidelines and snipe at something that people have been working hard to bring to market, but my opinion of the new Google can be rendered in one word: eccch.

There's a couple of things going wrong here. First, compare today's homepage to yesterday's, cached.

Do you see how even the minimal gloss of tabs or buttons has been stripped away for the main options, in favor of raw links? This may run counter to my general take on things, but Google was already quite skinny enough, especially in an era of widespread broadband adoption. Now it's practically anorexic. Successful minimalism is always in the details, and while Google is and always has been about the triumph of substance over style, maybe a little consideration for aesthetics is in order?

I should also point out that those links are tiny, to the point that they verge on legibility issues for eyes over 40. Bump 'em up a size or two, please, and restore some of the nice fat-Fitts-target buttonness to them.

Finally, I'm not sure it's fair, but I just dislike "Froogle," a price-comparison engine that, at least to my mind, dilutes the essential Google premise. It's nowhere near as effortless and transparent as millions of Google users have come to expect search to be, at least if you want meaningful results.

This, after all, is the company that has trained its audience to expect that, by entering a very few carefully chosen words into a search box, one stands a reasonable chance of seeing just the thing one was looking for come up in the very first result ("I'm Feeling Lucky"). That the nature of product searches confounds this logic, and undermines the very experience that Google has been so successful at claiming for its own, should have given someone somewhere pause.

But then, what's the alternative? We're 0wnz0r3d by Google, and we know it.

29 March 2004 @ 08:10 | permalink

Cogito ergo zoom

It is with both pride and a great deal of pleasure that I can share this next item with you: I have joined Jeffrey Zeldman's Happy Cog Studios as lead information architect (and, yes, going to Paris was pursuant to a Happy Cog engagement). Working with Jeffrey and Brian Alvey is something akin to a dream come true for me; I never need doubt their absolute commitment to the highest standards, no pun intended.

This, too, is a lovely note on which to return to Nueva York, although it must surrender pride of place to the twin sensations of the sudden taste of true spring in the air and the relief of being back in my Nurri's arms. I had a great time in Paris - or as great a time as one can have, knee-deep in client work and little else - but as ever, nothing beats coming home.

I'll have a Nomad Histories on my Parisian jaunt up in short order, and more exciting Happy Cog news in due time. As well, I'd like to offer thanks to everyone on the client side who worked so hard to make the transatlantic hop worthwhile.

28 March 2004 @ 11:14 | permalink

L'enfer du conseiller

Arrrh, me hearties: it's a consultant's life for me. What this means is that, of 72 hours in France, entirely too many of them shall have been spent in a below-grade room in the back of a building talking into a speakerphone. Then too, it's a French speakerphone, or Systeme Telic, and therefore bears charming labels like "Fin" and "Rap." and especially "Bis," all of which serve to taunt me regarding the street life going on outside at this very moment.

Fortunately, this gentleman took me for Balinese food in Les Halles last night, which was a pleasant respite from work. And if I am very, very lucky, I may actually get out to do some more walking and take some pictures before the sun goes away. (Have you seen the moon and Venus these last few nights? Gorgeously melancholy, elegaic even - especially off the shoulder of the Arc de Triomphe.)

Catch you other side of the black Atlantic.

26 March 2004 @ 05:00 | permalink

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