Freebasing the semantic web?

I’ve seen Freebase.com get some more attention lately as the Alpha invites continue to spread. O’Reilly posted a great walkthrough of an earlier version of Freebase.com here.

The discussion that follows in the comments is some insight into the various sides of the “semantic web” debate, and the challenges that come with organizing so much data. The holy grail is not just categorizing or labeling all of the information, but knowing the relationships between it all.

Will users find enough value in the Freebase system to want to actively contribute to it? Why not start at Wikipedia as a framework and add the relationship layer to the existing site? What about the existing social/inter-personal relationship layer of Facebook and adding other layers on top of that (the Parakey acquisition could be a step in this direction)?

This is the weakness in having individual sites try to be “the answer” to such inter-related problems. Until all of these pieces are decentralized and opened, I’m afraid we’re still stuck with a bunch of walled information gardens.

Unfortunately, the end goal of many of these efforts and the idea of the mythical “semantic web”, doesn’t exactly have a place for single-resource destination sites like Facebook, Wikipedia, or Freebase. Given that none of them want to relinquish control any time soon, we should continue to see these power struggles for a long time to come.

So who is in a good position to bring us toward a more semantic web? Out of the big guys, I think Facebook is in one of the best places. As far-fetched as it may be, if they were to open up a true Facebook API, opening their social network for use to the outside (not forcing people to play around inside), they could leverage their huge user-base and be the social network provider that’s plugged into every new service out there. Somebody will have to do it. People are dying for the “web 2.0 address book.”

On the smaller fronts, microformats continue to gain traction and OpenID is opening a few walled gardens (or at least creating consistent gates into them).

Lastly, I think web browsers are in perhaps the best position to take advantage of these evolutions. It may be no coincidence that the Firefox creators who started Parakey are now snatched up by Facebook. Look at what Greasemonkey and Firefox plugins have done to the way people view web pages. Look at what widgets, gadgets, feed readers, and the iPhone/Safari “platform” are doing to the way you consume/search/browse information from different sites and through different devices.

The semantic web might never arrive, but a semantic web may already be here.

5 years in Seattle

Seattle Sunset

It’s hard to believe that I’ve been living in Seattle for 5 years now. I drove out here from Connecticut in July of 2002 without much of a plan, but it has turned out to be one of the best decisions I’ve made. In my time here, I’ve worked a few different odd jobs but now feel like I’ve found a great niche in the web/technology industry that I hardly knew existed back when I was in school.

I originally intended to stay for just a year or two and then move back East, but I caught the Northwest bug pretty bad and the years have just flown past. I’m still feeling quite happy about the city and the surrounding area, and I know there’s a ton more that I have yet to discover. Am I going to stay here forever? Probably not, but when I’m asked that question now it’s harder and harder to say exactly when I might think of leaving.

Who knows what the next 5 years will hold.

I’ll have the bland airline meal, please

I was booking an airline flight the other day and in selecting my seating, frequent flyer and other preferences, I looked at the options under meal preference…

Bland Airline Meal

Huh? You can request an even blander airline meal? At first I thought it was a joke, perhaps pulled by some bitter web developer who didn’t like the task of creating the meal option dropdown menu. But, in fact, the bland option is common and has valid health reasons, whereas normal airline food is bland for a number of common-sense reasons that are clearly laid out in Wikipedia. The special “bland” meal preference is for people with more sensitive digestive systems or ulcers, and it lacks any sort of heavy seasoning, extra dairy, or raw meat.

You learn something new every day.

iPhone Day is Upon Us

I just got back from visiting a coworker waiting in line for the iPhone at the downtown Seattle mall AT&T store location. He’s been blogging his experience all day since 5AM, when he arrived first in line. He’s gotten Starbucks, lunch and the all-important Top Pot Doughnuts delivered to him in line, and somehow his laptop battery has been holding out too.

There were a lot of tired-looking folk in the line, and about 60 total in the line that stretched out of the mall. Apple sure does know how to handle a product launch. Here’s hoping the reviews and feedback remains positive on the new phone. Apple really does have something big started here. Who knows what might be next for future revisions of the phone, iPods or laptops if the multi-touch display and interface proves its worth.

When Web-scraping Doesn’t Cut It

When you search for my name on the “professional search directory” ZoomInfo, you get some very interesting results. My favorite:

Very Subtle Captain

I’m pretty sure their web crawling/scraping algorithm needs a little tweaking. Somehow they also connected an article about New Hampshire history (circa 1770-1790) which also mentioned a “Captain Chase Taylor”. Again, they might want to refine the sources (and the methods) that they collect their data from.

It’s a monumental task to try creating useful profiles of people from content scattered across the web. Spock is at least one startup that thinks they can do a better job, and they’re going for an even larger data set than what ZoomInfo currently boasts. Scouring information in a controlled way from the right places, I think it may achieve some decent results. Afterall, the current bar is set at combining Revolutionary War era military records with soccer goalie quotes from 2005, so the sky’s the limit.

Reading makes you think

In my last post I meant to include a bit of what I’ve been reading lately. I’m not the world’s quickest reader by any means (mainly for lack of time I dedicate to it) but recently I’ve been on a bit of a geeky brain-food book kick.

  • Interaction Design – This is basically a text book and pretty dry at times, but was a great primer on Interaction Design and the concepts that go into it. Task models, concept models, metaphors, patterns, usability, research, metrics… Sounds thrilling, I know, but I needed it.
  • Founders at Work – This book was much more engrossing and inspiring than I expected. Most all of the stories from the early tech startups to some of the modern-day winners were fascinating. There were only a couple times I found myself uninterested, mainly when I couldn’t relate to a given founder. “I retired from Company A at 30 years-old and took my millions to found XYZ.com with these three other rich guys…”. But overall it was a great book and I’d highly recommend it.
  • Designing Interactions – Unlike the first book which was more instruction/reference, this book is chock full of real world examples, case-studies and interviews with pioneers in the wide world of “interaction”. I’m poking through it slowly, but the stories are a great compliment to the practical how/what that’s fresh in my mind. You can watch a number of interview video snippets on the website here. The book also came with a DVD containing them all.
  • Everything is Miscellaneous – Lasty, I’m a little over halfway through this book. I have very mixed feelings about it so far and will reserve judgement until I’m finished. At times it’s a fascinating look at the history and evolution of information organization (in the current style of “pop non-fiction” ala Gladwell, [fill-in-the-blank]-onomics, etc.), and relates it all to everyday examples of classification such as sorting the silverware in your kitchen drawer, or Staples stores. This is where the book shines. But at other times Weinberger jumps to some strange conclusions which seem under-researched and mis-understood. I’ll be finished shortly and will follow up with more in-depth thoughts.

Next on my plate are two books by Chucks. For a shift in direction from the somewhat tech/design-heavy above, I picked up the new Chuck Klosterman book, and the new new Chuck Palahniuk novel.

It’s been a while

Wow, it’s been more than a month since writing an actual post here. This fixes that, and I hope to pick it up more going forward. The Spring has been pretty scattered with work and play, and weeks of rain and then sun. Some things that have been keeping me busy/distracted…

  • TV season finales – They’re old news by now, but I was hooked on a few too many TV shows this year. In short… Heroes: Season = thumbs up, Finale = thumbs down. Lost: Season = thumbs mixed, Finale thumbs up. The Office: two thumbs way up. Veronica Mars: almost done, but thumbs up so far. Entourage: thumbs up all around (the Yom Kippur episode was one of the funniest I’ve seen).
  • HDTV – I finally took the plunge on a lovely HDTV and watched some of the above in glorious HD. My old, heavy 27″ JVC was starting to burn in in places, but had served me well over the years. I’ve found myself watching much more sports than usual now because they just look so damn good in HD.
  • Xbox 360 – To kind of go along with the TV (it was my birthday, I splurged) I decided to go for a 360 Elite and really put the HD to the test. I’m quite happy with the system, and I really think Microsoft has nailed the online gaming experience with the buddy system, matchmaking, etc. I’ve played a few of the latest shooters, but I’m really a sucker for the simple puzzle games. Lumines (I never played it on the PSP) is quite addictive, and Catan is a perfect rendition of the board game. But really I can’t wait for Mass Effect.
  • Settlers of Catan – This deserved it’s own bullet. A friend of mine introduced me to the board game a couple months ago, and then I discovered the Xbox Live version. I’ve played both quite a bit more since and the game is just so good. The mechanics are so simple, but the strategy and variety from game to game is always different and surprising. I remember there was a copy of the game in the house I lived in during college, and now I regret never joining the regular players. Those Germans know how to make a mean board game.
  • Sun – All of the geeky indoors activities aside, this is the time of year in Seattle where we start having as many sunny days as rainy days from week to week. The following commodities are now in high demand, and take up a good deal of non-working hours: Rooftop decks, patios (preferably at bars), parks, hikes, and street festivals.
  • Photos – One of the more productive things I think I’ve been good about keeping up is photo-taking and posting. I try to make a point of getting out on most sunny days to take some pictures around the neighborhood at least. My Lensbaby with macro attachment ring has been great to capture the Spring flowers and critters in the garden next to my building. My new favorite lens now the prime 50mm f1.4 which has been great for capturing portraits and just about anything else in all lighting conditions.

Now, go read the live updates from Jobs’ keynote at WWDC and drool over some new Apple announcements.

String Cleaning

Another few months gone by and a whole bunch more search strings. So here we go…

halo 2 – For some reason this has been steadily rising in the past months. I didn’t find my site anywhere in the first few hundred results on Google, or the first few pages of Yahoo results. I suppose the volume could just be high enough that wherever I am in the results has changed just enough that I’m getting a little bigger slice of the traffic. Also mysterious is that my actual post pages talking about halo 2 are considered supplemental in Google, and my category archive pages are appearing. I’ll have to work on fixing that.

ed rondthaler – Since rising to the #1 result for my Great God-father’s name, I’ve seen a big jump in referrals for his name. I wonder if the centenarian ad has been showing more.

And of course the more random strings…

duluth is on fire
poorly designed sculptures
definition of revelant – still not a word
eskimos in antarctica – still not there
in the bum no babies.com – I can’t quite figure this one out. Nor do I want to.
occasional times seattle – What a great name for a newspaper: The Occasional Times
vizzle – fo shizzle
birthday party supplies of hulk hogan
trippy purple
best movies groundhog day godfather james bond pulp fiction ame – What are you searching for?
checkout line discrimination
i could have made this painting – Me too
name of alternative urban climbing and running sportparkour
this moustache
trees with branches – um, most of em?
what does the state of connecticut look like – There are some cities, roads, suburbs, some farms and rolling hills up North, and an old New England coastline down South
can you dilate your eyes to look like anime eyes – yeah, but it hurts like a bitch and don’t even think about going out in the sunlight
correct way to fill out wedding response card
Hanqing Dong – Still my favorite name
tasteless quiz team namesTasteless trivia team names are our specialty
uncrucified – Wouldn’t the opposite of being crucified just be, uh, not getting nailed to a cross?

Edward Scissorhands in Dance

Sunday evening I went and saw Matthew Bourne’s Edward Scissorhands at the 5th Avenue Theater in downtown Seattle. I’m a big fan of the movie and love the Danny Elfman score, and when I heard they’d turned it into a stage show, at first I was a bit skeptical. When I saw that there was no dialogue at all, and it was purely a dance performance, I was even more usure. But all of my skepticism was quickly put to rest. The show was absolutely amazing.

Danny Elfman’s original score was used and expanded a bit, and it works wonderfully as the backdrop (and sometimes the star) of the show. I was never bored of the dancing, and actually thought it was a great way to tell what’s already a very surreal, magical story. I also found a lot of the performance much funnier than I expected. The suburban scenes and elaborate group dances did an excellent job of demonstrating the variety of quirky characterizations.

Check out some of the short videos online here, as well as the longer interview/montage with the Director/Choreographer Matthew Bourne. And if you’re in Seattle, I highly recommend checking out the show. It’s playing through May 13th.

Thread – Stranger Video

On assignment from the Stranger, Chuy, Paul and I put together a short video of the Seattle Thread Fashion & Lifestyle Show.

I contributed the editing, but much more credit goes to Chuy and Paul for heading out and shooting last Sunday (alas, I was preoccupied). For having not done much video at all in a few years, it was imperfect, rough, and scrappy. We brushed up on a lot of the details and I spent much time cursing iMovie. We’re pleased with the results, and I think it was just what we needed to kick our butts back into video-shape. Stay tuned for more!

Interaction Design of a Wedding Invitation RSVP

I received a lovely invitation to a friend’s wedding the other day. It was very formal, as expected, with the typical “Mr. and Mrs. so-and-so request your presence at…” language. And then I came to this RSVP card:

Wedding RSVP

What’s the correct way to fill this out? I figured out that the “M____” line is to put my name, so that was clear enough. Just using an “M” at the start of the line lets you put “Mr.”, “Mrs.”, “Ms.” as your title, to keep with the original formal language. But what about the “will ___ attend”?

Well, if I’m not attending I simply write: “will not attend”. OK, that’s easy. But I am attending. Now what? Some options:

  1. will X attend – An “X” or a checkmark might do it, but looks really tacky. It’d be more appropriate to use these if there was in fact a checkbox for the “will not attend” option too. So that’s not going to work.
  2. will yes attend – Now that’s some bad grammar. Writing “not” keeps the sentence correct, but “yes” isn’t an effective opposite and it breaks the sentence.
  3. will definitely attend – There we go, we’ve made a sentence that makes sense. We could also use, “absolutely”, “positively”, “certainly” or any number of other affirmative words. But that little line doesn’t really give you enough space. I’m guessing this is wrong.
  4. will probably attend – Line space issue aside, this has got to be a major wedding RSVP faux pas. You generally don’t plan for “maybe” guests at a wedding, so that’s right out.
  5. will ___ attend – Leave it blank. Grammatically and formally, this seems best since it forms a nice sentence, “Mr. C. Taylor will attend.” But leaving it blank makes me a little uneasy. Is simply mailing this back enough to positively confirm that I’ll be there?
  6. will ___ attend your wedding to the best of his ability. – Ah ha, leaving it blank but writing something afterwards! I mean, what if some catastrophe happens on that day and I can’t make it even though I’ve said yes. This option covers my bases. But alas, scribbling in the rest of the sentence might not be too classy (then again, there’s no period after “attend” so maybe it’s open for expansion).

A quick Google search confirmed that option 5 is indeed the proper etiquette for replying on this type of invitation. Couldn’t this be less of a nerve-wracking choice? I mean, the proper way to answer the question is to not answer it. Checkboxes, while uglier, would be more reassuring since I’ve got a clear yes/no choice.

But actually, checkboxes aren’t even the best choice for this type of one-or-the-other decision. We need invitation response cards with radio buttons.

Trivia Team Names

As I’ve described before, our regular Monday night trivia group tries to come up with some creative names for our team. We try to stick to jokes about current events (some more tasteful than others), although not quite as pun-ny as some bowling team names. We usually get a laugh or two out of the crowd. Here are some of our recent trivia team names we’ve used, with references:

Oops I shaved it again (1)
Trimspa worked too well (1, 2)
Vote tunnel for make benefit glorious city of Seattle (1, 2)
Sanjaya 2008 (1)
I’m Larry Birkhead’s father (1)
One more drink to Boris (1)

This year’s trivia season is winding down, with only one week left, and two of our valued team members won’t be around in the fall when it starts up again. We’ve had a number of wins, eaten plenty of pizza, drank much PBR, and answered plenty of questions.

Do you know which animal on the Earth has the largest eyes?
Avogadro’s number is defined as the number of what that makes up a mole?
What’s the capital of Malaysia?

My First Google Check

Just the other day I received my very first check from Google. I’ve experimented with AdSense on my site for quite some time now, mainly on the individual post pages. I can’t tell you how much I make, but since I’m only getting my first check now, you can make some guesses (it ain’t much).

Google Check

I won’t be retiring on it any time soon, but it’s a fun moment in the current state of the web. My own little piece of the Google advertising empire.

IA Summit 2007: Vegas, Part II

Finally, here’s my somewhat belated wrap-up of the IA Summit, which I attended in Vegas. The conference was absolutely amazing. I met a ton of interesting people from all over the world, including quite a few Seattleites, and had some great conversations. The workshops and presentations were non-stop brain food, and incredibly inspiring. Slides for a number of the presentations are up on SlideShare here, with more coming. Podcasts should be showing up in the coming weeks on the IA Summit blog.

Some conference highlights

  • Leisa‘s suite party the first night, with great company and conversation: Livlab, Andrew Hinton, Dave Malouf, and Jared Spool.
  • Joshua Prince-Ramus’ keynote was a great look into the architectural process. A very similar talk of his is up here at TED talks, including the evolution of the new Seattle Public Library.
  • Twitter. It adds so much to the conference/social/community experience. Leisa wrote a good post on how to get the most from a conference and includes some observations on Twitter.
  • Andy Budd‘s birthday celebration at the Pink Taco. Hanging out with Derek, Thomas, Nick, and even Jared Spool again. Here’s Jared doing drunken card tricks for some Dutch folk.
  • A very moving and mind-expanding talk by Grant Campbell, titled: Utilizing ritual in the design of information spaces for the cognitively impaired. The talk focused on the challenges of interactions with people who have dementia/Alzheimer’s, and how we may need to rethink our traditional methods of organizing information or designing iteractions. The biggest example was that of an advanced Alzheimer’s patient who could barely concentrate or remember anything, yet could participate in the entire Catholic eucharist ritual with complete attention. A great quote from Jesse James Garrett in the discussion afterwards (paraphrased):

    “What if you applied the same design/IA tactics to something like a communion ritual? Like counting clicks to a certain destination… you’d say why not just hand out the wine and wafer to people at the door as they walk in. And you lose the entire point.”

  • Countless other little things that I’ve got jotted down in notes. Microformats, design patterns, data streams, agile workflows… I’ll try to collect my thoughts into some more in-depth follow-up posts.

Any downsides or disappointments? Just that trying to fit in some Vegas fun on top of a jam-packed conference was barely doable, and very exhausting. It didn’t stop me, but it was a very hard bizarro-city to find that balance in.

What a great conference. I can’t wait until next year in Miami.

IA Summit 2007: Vegas, Part I

I’m currently in Las Vegas attending the 2007 IA Summit. Tons of geeking-out over Information Architecture with a lot of great people… in a crazy, crazy city.

The internet connection is incredibly flaky here, otherwise I’d be trying to update more often. I’ll write up some more thoughts and stories when I can. I’ve been trying out Twitter without too much fanfare, mainly because I don’t want to take the phone/text message plunge (SMSes aren’t free for me). But I’m absolutely seeing the draw to Twitter via text-message now, with people using it to keep in touch at a busy event, find out what’s going on, and adding color commentary during the presentations.

I’ve tried uploading a couple Flickr photos, but again the connection is too flaky to do much. Plus, there’s just too much going on to stop and spend time sorting and uploading all my photos right now. There are a lot of great shots under the iasummit2007 tag on Flickr too.

More to come!