Monthly Archives: April 2007

“Sometimes Knowledge Is More Important Than Truth”

Subway MapIt may seem a bit contradictory at first, but Signal vs. Noise (37signals) points out an excellent case study of an instance where the essence is more important than the truth itself: mapping the New York City subway system (nothing says complexity like the largest number of subway stations in the world — 468).

Current official maps are geographically accurate, but the maze of different lines makes understanding the map and figuring out how best to navigate through the system becomes a struggle.

Enter Kick Design. Eddie Jabbour, Creative Director at Kick, apparently grew frustrated at the deficiencies of the standard maps of the New York subway system. At least five years of research (finding maps on eBay, among other things) and design work led to Jabbour’s new map, a widely-praised work that eschews the geographic reality of NYC for a cleaner, easier to read representation:

Comparison of Maps

As you can see, the map uses simplified notations, straightens the lines nearly into a grid and simplifies the color usage into more restricted, abstract spaces. Text is now cleaned up, non-diagonal, and less overlapping, and the legend and symbols have been dramatically clarified and improved. (It’s not as dramatic as Massimo Vignelli’s 1972 abstraction, and that may be a good thing.)

As 37signals and the New York Times point out, the map bears a similarity to London’s classic logic-oriented map of the tube system. The Signal vs. Noise blog calls it “helpful distortion,” eloquently and elegantly asserting that “sometimes knowledge is more important than truth.”

Indeed, often, the best way to explain a concept, tell a story, or even interface with a complex device is through trustworthy simplification. Though there are numerous examples, an easy one can be seen in the qualities of a successful interface to a computer or other consumer electronics device.

Often, criticisms of the iPod revolve around the fact that it doesn’t offer this feature or that feature (it doesn’t have built-in radio, it doesn’t have wi-fi — it doesn’t even have an off switch). But, that type of argument misses a critical point and significant appeal of the iPod — it does what it does simply, cleanly and efficiently. That simplicity gives it elegance and attractiveness that has certainly helped it to become the best-selling music player in history (and one of the best selling electronic devices in history).

The subway maps are a great object lesson in this appealing accessibility, and rather than continue to rehash the excellent coverage from 37signals, I’ll simply direct you over there with my hearty agreement, and two last thoughts:

Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand.”
—Albert Einstein 

…and, consider this: Eddie Jabbour finally met with the MTA about his map and the possibilities for improving the official map, and they rejected it. What do you think about that?

I’d love to read your thoughts and any other examples of “helpful distortion” in the comments!

(Thanks, Daring Fireball)

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  • Vulture – New York Magazine »

    New York Magazine’s new (pop) culture blog. If the quality and volume of their first full day is any indication, this will surely be a must-RSS for anyone into entertainment. Super design, too.

    Looking back on our first day:
    We cheered on A.O. Scott as he ripped Pulitzer Prize winner Stephen Hunter a new one.
    We watched a little HBO. And a little more.
    We heard hipsters call Jonathan Lethem a racist.
    We filmed Hot Chip rocking out at Webster Hall.
    We read Chuck Palahniuk’s latest craziness.
    We discovered that Pete Wentz loves the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
    We saw Mike Daisey get wet and then get angry.
    And we counted three up and two across, tapped a brick, and wound up on Diagon Alley.

    (via Magnetbox)

  • Coda »

    coda-leaf1.pngI’ll probably write up a review of this in the next day or two, having spent the last day living in it, but Panic‘s new web-coder app is slick and definitely the hottest thing on the Mac blog circuit today. Definitely worth a look.

    It’s also fun to look at the beaming from two of its proud parents on their blogs:

  • Disney Rumor du Jour »

    Okay — I couldn’t resist posting a link to this. The latest in a long string of rumors on Disney buying land for a new theme park (and resort). Some tantalizing clues, but, as the article points out, this is just one in a long line of ‘secret new theme park’ rumors.
    (via The Disney Blog)

    Update The News-Leader has a follow-up story on Disney’s denials. It’s always interesting to see how much of a tumult rumors about well-known companies like Disney (or Apple or Sony, etc.) can cause. (Updated 4/29, 10 am Pacific.)

A New Look at the World

Photosynth Imagine if your digital photos could be arranged in a collage and merged into a panoramic shot of a place. Cool, right?

Now, imagine if your pictures could be arranged in a collage and merged into a 3D representation of the pictured place, that you could take a virtual stroll through. Amazing, right?

Now, imagine the possibilities if all of your pictures, and all of my pictures, and all of everyone’s pictures could merge into a constantly improving and evolving 3D virtual Earth. (Who needs a satellite map?)

Well, it’s not quite that far along yet, but a crew of coders in Microsoft’s Live Labs are developing an amazing project called Photosynth that could one day do all of that, and more. The technology, developed in collaboration with the University of Washington and now rolling in visualization from Seadragon (a company acquired by Microsoft), can already do most of the above.

Photosynth works by analyzing each photo in a collection fed to it, determining features of interest in the photo and drawing a map of these points. The points act as a signature for the objects in the photo, and when compared with the feature points of the same objects in other pictures, allows the computer to map the photos in a three-dimensional space, in a similar way to how two images provided by our two eyes allow us to perceive depth.

As the team points out, the analysis of the photos also has the added benefit of establishing a ‘fingerprint’ for the photo that computer systems could use to identify the subject of the photo. This could lead to some really usesful applications, like the ability to photograph a landmark with your cell phone and have Photosynth technology match it and provide identification or other desired information about the landmark from the web.

Imagine a massive web-based Photosynth virtual world, where submitted photos are put together in a walkthrough globe. Google Earth is already taking steps in this direction, with 3D models that approximate buildings, and community-built markers, overlays, animations, and 3D models. Technology like Photosynth have the potential to take the idea to a whole new level of realism and utility.

(I’m a little late to the party, but a hat tip to Scobleizer for pointing this out!)

Signs of Life

Indexed Often, when a presenter wants to express a complex topic, he or she will rely on charts and graphs to express concepts, comparisons, and more.

Statistics, charts, and graphs can help to clarify things, or — in the wrong hands — bore and/or mislead audiences. It’s tempting to lean on these tools too much, or craft them hastily from PowerPoint templates, draining them of their expressive power and value.

Two clever minds have thought about this ‘PowerPoint culture,’ and explore what might happen if life — in all of its complexity — were reduced to simple graphs and charts. The results are humorous, and yet fascinating.

Jessica Hagy maintains a unique blog, Indexed, whose content is expressed through hand-drawn notecards, each bearing a different explanatory graph or chart that covers one of life’s mysteries. It’s a compelling concept, and — best of all — an ongoing blog, so there’s always a new insight to enjoy.

A nice introduction, however, can be found in Le Grand Content, a movie by Clemens Kogler, inspired by Indexed.

Both are worth a look (and, in the case of Indexed, an RSS subscription):

(Thanks, Presentation Zen)

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Socially-constructed News

tickr2 A ‘proposal’ from veteran web designers Hop Studios asks “What if news sites were built for sharing instead of for telling?” and then answers the question with tickr — a proposed mashup between flickr‘s celebrated Web 2.0 community interface and traditional news outlet content.

While they allude to sites like Wikipedia, they focus on flickr‘s model, because they feel it is highly influential and has innate loyalty-building properties. To me, though, it looks like there’s a heavy wiki influence here.

The observations about the most useful (and popular) UI elements of flickr are interesting to consider, though. Sites like Wikipedia could certainly be improved by some of their logical suggestions, and it would indeed be interesting to see a working news wiki community site like the proposed tickr.

(Thanks, Magnetbox — a blog with one of the most creative looks I’ve seen!)

Loose Lips

Rubel It seems fairly common today to see the media examining the phenomenon of people (especially high school and college students) posting information — to Facebook, MySpace, Friendster, or just personal blogs — that may one day haunt them in a job interview.

So, it really shouldn’t surprise anyone that someone has gotten into hot water (career-risking hot water) over a carelessly personal, ill-thought posting to the newest 2.0 phenom, Twitter. Except that in this case, it was a seasoned professional and well-known blogger who works in PR.

If anyone should know better, it should have been Steve Rubel. He posted to Twitter on Friday that he receives PC Magazine (for free), but that — despite working for a firm that represents and pitches stories on behalf of many high-powered tech clients (Palm, Microsoft, etc.) that court PC Magazine and its readership — he throws the magazine away (presumably without looking at it).

It might have gone unnoticed in the swirl of tweets, but the Editor in Chief of PC Magazine, Jim Louderback, did notice. And clearly, it had an effect. His guest editorial on the PR blog Strumpette is definitely worth reading and considering (second link below).

A little thought can go a long way. It’s a small web after all. (Thanks, Daring Fireball)

Update Apr 19 Link to original Twitter post corrected.

How Much Would You Pay?

Daring Fireball John Gruber, writer of one of my favorite blogs, Daring Fireball, will complete his first year of blogging for a living on April 20. In April 2006, John quit his regular gig to live full time off of writing his blog. It has been a successful experiment so far.

As with last year, John is looking for members to pay $19 annually to keep him afloat (there’s also membership free with any t-shirt purchase). Members receive access to full RSS feeds and other goodies that the general public can’t access. Plus, during the three-week membership drive (and since the beginning of the year, it seems), members are eligible for a raffle including 128 prizes (at last count).

An interesting concept, no? In a way, it reminds me of public broadcasting pledge drives, and it results in a similar high-quality, low-ad volume product that informs and entertains in ways that traditional broadcasts/blogs don’t often reach.

So, if you like DF (if you’ve never been, give it a look), consider supporting him. The membership drive ends tonight, but I’m sure that he’ll be glad to take you as a member any time.

I eagerly await the results of how successful this latest drive has been, as a bellwether for blogs as an independent, reader-supported business model. (Full disclosure: I’ve sent in my bucks.)

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  • facebookFacebook Updates its Look »

    In case you haven’t noticed, Facebook has updated its look and categorization. In addition to aesthetic tweaks (the interface is a bit more streamlined now), the update adds an Inbox to consolidate messages (with improved abilities to send them), and Network Pages that give an aggregate look at events within the networks you belong to.

    Facebook » Information on the Changes » Facebook Blog (even more details) »

  • Two More Lenses on Time

    Some time ago, I pointed out piClock, the Mac OS X Dashboard widget that views the time in the digits of Pi, and here are two more ways to envision time in a new way:

    Color Coded Clock » Look! It’s 14:36 (2:36pm). Just count the dots. It’s easy… right? For Mac OS X Dashboard, from “strijdhtie.”


    Wheels of Time
    Wheels of Time » A screen saver for Mac OS X that counts time in floating 3D rings of bars, one wheel for hours, one minutes, one seconds. (And an optional digital clock cheat sheet sphere in the center.) From Big, Fat, Stinking Software.