Yes, that is a gnome in my duffle bag, and I am happy to see you.

We are visiting Christina’s family in Houston to ring in the new year. I am carrying a gnome from Georgetown in my duffle bag, a gift for her folks she picked out.

It has a G on its hat. The G is for gnome.

Highs in the 50s and 60s, lows in the 30s. Looking forward to the Menil Collection, Forbidden Gardens, some thinking time with a laptop and a table outdoors, and a nap on the flight.

I fell in love once and it was completely.

via This Isn’t Happiness

I watched the White Stripes in concert at the El Rey in 2002. It was game 6 or 7 of the Lakers-Kings series. Mikey, Eric, and I waited outside the venue before doors, listening to passers-by comment on the game.

Brendan Benson and The Well-Fed Boys opened for them, as did Whirlwind Heat, though I wish I’d forgotten that fact. “Fell In Love With A Girl” was getting regular airplay, and the music video was pre-meme viral. Whether the El Rey was at capacity was not question. Mikey, less than a week off an appendectomy, opted to break from the section in the pit where Eric and I had a clear line of sight to Jack White’s pale, veiny arms. Mikey spent the set at the side of the stage, and by his account, a short distance from Heather Graham. Jack spent the set incoherent but radiant, the encore with a burning cigarette tucked into the bridge of his guitar.

I don’t remember the set list, not that I could discern it half the time. I remember he played “Jolene.” I wouldn’t feel this expression of woozy energy again until I discovered scotch. It was perhaps the fourth concert I’d watched as a young music fan. It remains, hundreds later, among the best live musical performances I have witnessed. Every rock show I’ve attended – and perhaps every shot of brown liquor I’ve taken – since has been held up against the light of that night.

I sit down at rock shows, take a digital camera. I sip my scotch now, now I can afford sippable stuff. I take my bourbon with ice. It doesn’t burn so much now. I prefer it that way, most of the time.

What is internet, anyway?

I came across this video on YouTube, a company that started as a website that hosted short videos, bought for upwards of $700 billion by another company whose revenue is largely generated through advertising on a web search engine. And the @ symbol is part of MoMA’s permanent collection.

(Via The Daily What, sort of.)

This video of Quebecois kids and obsolete technology seems somehow related:

Traces of interfaces.

It’s hard to appreciate the variety of UIs though, since turning the screen off removes virtually all evidence of them. To spotlight these differences, I looked at the only fragments that remain from using an app: fingerprints.
Remnants of a Disappearing UI via things magazine

I often play Boggle on my iPod touch during my commute and end the day with a four-by-four grid of smudges clustered around the home button.

By their covers.

First class each semester I hand the students a questionnaire. One of the questions asks the students to draw, from memory, the cover of their favorite book of all time. I superimpose the drawings over a photo of a blank book, then show them to the students the following class.
Spine Out, “Favorite Book Sketches”

Related: The Times on books as decorations and the dying art of judging commuters by their reading preferences.

And then we could fuck it up a little.

The Tiger Mother roaring perilously close to meme-dom has finally encroached on Design Observer. The payoff is a bit of remembered wisdom dispensed by Tibor Kalman to Michael Bierut on the rules:

Tibor listened patiently to my ideas — there were lots of them — and then paused for a long time. “Well, yes, you could do some stuff like that,” he responded carefullly. “Or, we could do something like this. You could work out a good clear grid. We could edit all the images really carefully. Then you could do a really nice clean layout, perfect pace, perfect sequence. You know,” he added with a smile, “sort of like a Vignelli book. And then we could fuck it up a little.”
via Design Observer

This is a good read, especially for designers who fall into the trap of casting creativity and technical purity at opposite ends of a spectrum.

Ten thoughts for December.

Having been too busy last month to extend the ‘Nine thoughts for November’ franchise into 2010, I now return, with interest on late delivery, absent alliteration but with assonance. Happy new year.

1. On the last day of 2010, at the close of a decade, the delay seems to render this an appropriate forum for reminiscing on the ’00s behind and forecasting the ’10s ahead.

2. In 2011, I will be finishing two substantial projects that have defined the latter half of the current year: the U.S. State department’s visas site and my thesis. While satisfying to complete, projects that arch over calendars have a potential for individual days fraught with existential crises. Engaging two such projects at once in similar stages rather than parallel tracks of conception and execution – one at school, one at the office – has magnified that potential in a seemingly logarithmic way.

Worse, the potential for parallel deadlines looms.

3. I will be defending my thesis in late April 2011. Unlike the pomp and circumstance of graduation, the defense is tension and release, rigor and adrenaline and the most delicious pitcher of cheap beer. It matters to me. I will literally be standing for my research.

Your presence is requested. I’ll try to make it a Monday or Friday. It’s a presentation followed by a Q&A, and it lasts about an hour. We’ll get drinks after.

4. I don’t know what will happen to my research after I write my master’s thesis. I have been considering the social process of making the web browser as the first part that I will complete at Georgetown. Broader research about the social effects of the browser will comprise a second part; discussion of design and causality will be the third. It is not about the browser wars, but the browser wars are the setting for a significant amount of the research.

I have months to figure this out. In the meantime, two very rough chapters are ready. For now, I am flying.

5. There is nothing quite like watching the sun rise while ascending from zero to 20,000 feet above sea level. While the sun rises everyday, it is too rarely experienced quickly enough to feel like a hit.

6. There is no number 6.

7. I have often documented my complicated relationship with the suburbs of Los Angeles and each trip there raises its scepter. Something I hadn’t admitted to myself until this trip is that I am so compelled to return because I relish the challenge of doing something people in this place might care to notice.

When asked my thoughts on the city, I often refer to this BLDGBLOG post:

L.A. is the apocalypse: it’s you and a bunch of parking lots. No one’s going to save you; no one’s looking out for you. It’s the only city I know where that’s the explicit premise of living there – that’s the deal you make when you move to L.A.

The city, ironically, is emotionally authentic.

It says: no one loves you; you’re the least important person in the room; get over it.

What matters is what you do there.

In my case, to do what I wanted, I had to leave.

8. I exceeded the expectations I had for my life in California in 2001. I have flown thousands more miles, sent and received hundreds of postcards. Finished college, started graduate school. Composed a book of 10,000 words and 103 pictures from 30 miles of walking and 20,000 miles of flying. Saw several dozen concerts, made almost thirty mix CDs, made friends. Started a business, designed higher-traffic sites, moved east. Lost 40 pounds. Invested. Saw my screencaps featured in books, my words in lectures, my picture in a magazine.

I took a road trip to Fallingwater and discovered Storm King.

On Tuesday, over dinner with Rishi, I had wagyu beef, scallop sushi topped with a sliver of black truffle, and a glass of Balvenie 15. I played a street fighting video game on a Microsoft console by controlling my avatar with only my hands and feet. I am writing this now on an Apple laptop powered by an Intel processor, connected to the internet on an airplane. (If you had to choose between turbulence or disconnectedness, which would you choose?)

It’s unlikely I’ll exceed expectations for my life in 2020 to quite the same degree.

9. A part of me believes that my ideas about what I will do in 2011 will at once inform and be completely distinct from the things I will reminisce over in 2020. I had no idea when I was nine that web design was a profession, let alone one I would practice with a degree of success to the point of being a decade-long career before the age of 30. Technology created new opportunities that my expectations did not take into account, and I imagine the next ten years will by defined similarly by a combination of diligence and freakishly rapid innovation.

10. A part of me believes that the row of Jumbotrons mounted on griffins advertising factory outlet sales and staring down 5 Freeway traffic in Commerce will be included in an establishing shot of Los Angeles in November 2019.

It’s less than ten years away.

Storm king.

Go to Storm King Art Center before you die. Go this weekend before it closes for the winter. Go when we go in the spring, in the morning, with a picnic lunch.

It’s in upstate New York. Plan to spend at least five hours there. Bring a sandwich – I don’t know if they’d knock you for bringing a cooler of beer, but I nod in your direction if you’re getting that idea.

Or don’t. Go hungry – go with a grumble in your stomach, with a fire in your eyes. Go with an empty camera and comfortable shoes and take jumping pictures. Go with a pencil and pad. Go with your hands in your pockets and let memory be memory. Go.

While I am writing.

As I start thesis writing in earnest, my priorities are shifting to the production of documents necessary to the academic ritual: the proposal, annotated bibliographies, review of related literature, and chapters of primary research. I am writing on the form of the web browser and its social effects, investigating how browsers were shaped through distributed processes of software architecture and improvised linguistics into an infrastructure upon which we google people to find their Facebook profile and Twitter feed. The part of me that’s been doing this shit for years is a singular candidate for the task, the academic come-lately (part-time, at that) within approaches with some apprehension, and the friend known to you dreads that as we are a postcard’s reach apart, it’s more likely that postcards are all that will pass between us.

It’s become obvious practices that once defined me have suffered as I’ve travelled different social and professional avenues and consequently developed new practices. And it’s difficult for me to admit that my creative output has not dropped as much as I sometimes feel; there are analogues. Where I was once defined by semi-annual meticulously crafted mix CDs, I now with similar frequency and attention assemble brunch for 20 in my one-bedroom apartment. Books with starred reviews are Goodyear-welted shoes, late-night drives are late-night walks, weekly benders are personal training appointments. I am led to believe this is normal for my age.

Similarly, I’m learning not to mistake change in the form of my output for a drop in my ability to “leave my mark.” Blog posts, mix CDs, portfolio/gallery websites, cityscapes, sketchbooks, AIM statuses, long-winded and vain email newsletters – each has come and go as my preferred medium, and who knows when if ever I’ll resume any of these with the same zeal, let alone skill. For the foreseeable future, my blog’s purposes as an outpost for commentary on current events, meme participation, telling of my new favorite earworms, and nudging and winking (and hyperlinking) in the direction of funny shit have been distributed to the lower-maintenance domains of my Facebook profile, Twitter feed, Flickr photostream, Hype Machine loves, and Pinterest boards. I’ll probably write occasionally to float wacky ideas that likely wouldn’t float with my thesis committee, and 140 characters isn’t enough for all the wonderful things and weird shit I want to share.

(Like, I mean, have you seen Marwencol? My esteem for it grows every time I think of it, and I now doubt I’ll see a better movie released this year. It’s a documentary about Mark Hogancamp, who survives a beating but loses motor skills and memories, and a discussion of the role of photography and memory, the role of sincerity in art, and the role of art in therapy. It goes into Charlie Kaufman territory (recursion, specifically, and not as a storytelling technique employed by the filmmakers so much as a consequence of the documentary process (and the subject being documented)) and is so terrifically distinct from anything I consider my experience of the world it’s easy to forget its foundation in real events. Oh, and Hogancamp – who is still getting by on disability checks – takes a cut of sales of related merchandise (maybe some box-office receipts?), so patronage includes a nugget of charity.)

(So there’s that.)

Part of me now chafes at a not-much-younger version of me that exercised writing not because writing is not something to be exercised but because I/he believed that it was through a systematic exploration and exploitation of syntax and diction that one improved as a writer. Improved and writer now seem insubstantial, even laughable, just as there was once a me that thought a feeble configuration of magnets and arrows and dials the ideal of compass. At 25, I probably couldn’t make a better mix CD or write a better blog post than when I was 22, but that realization took almost three more years to reconcile comfortably. I still believe that getting prolific is a step towards getting good, but that better bears a troublesome resemblance to analysis paralysis and all that. As I’m steady working and ringing up debts in pages and accounting in chapters for at least the next eight months, that reconciliation arrives at a fruitful moment.

To those who know (and the present tense feels so tenuous here) me as a blogger, mix maker, enfant terrible (increasingly sans enfant), I leave you with this: While I am writing – the usual 79 minutes and change in one 95 MB file – to remember me as a friend. I worry I only have so many words, and they are needed elsewhere. Till the next postcard, know you’re invited to – and missed at – brunch.

Raised by wolves.

1. Rome is a city that stirs the blood, maddens and inspires. There are a few lasting achievements of art and architecture that seemingly happen but once a century (or two) in the course of human history, and Rome hosts an alarming concentration of them (for one, Pantheon).

Among the ephemera, that a bang-on shot of espresso is available at every level of food service from slouchy snack bar to white-tablecloth restaurant is as much a factor of training and equipment as cultural reinforcement; that even for those who can only spare 80 cents the quality of their coffee is not spared. Restaurant menus indicate when a dish includes an ingredient that has been frozen, implying that the remainder of the spread is fresh.

There are perhaps more marble statues, frescoed ceilings, and gelato shops per capita in Rome than anywhere else in the world, and while there’s more to the place than art and food, they’re a fine way through which to experience the city.

2. A worthwhile thing to do in Rome that no guidebook or blog told us was taking in the sunset from Giardino degli Aranci (Garden of Oranges). It is, true to its name, an orange grove on Aventine Hill (about a kilometer uphill from Piramide station) with a stone (marble?) balcony tacked on at the end. That balcony faces west.

When in Florence, order a steak.

3. Travelling in the 21st century continues to amaze me. Though supersonic air travel has been relegated to 20th-century antiquity, the Schengen Agreement, Euro currency, and global networks of cash machines, credit cards, and mobile telephony have all but eliminated logistical hassles for Americans touring much of Europe. I am not taking this stuff for granted.

4. My undergraduate Italian held up surprisingly well, and I still consider it a minor miracle that I was able to correct my error when booking our return trip to Rome from Florence at the S.M.N. ticket office without the use of English or incurring an additional charge. While at the post office, a clerk seemingly eager to speak some English bridged the language gap to scrounge up 25 stamps for international postcards. Occasionally, a combination of ambient English guided tours and Wikipedia on my BlackBerry enhanced our experience of a place.

5. As a meta note, this trip was my first vacation in a new place in over two years. The degree to which my creative output has fallen in that time has surprised and saddens me. I think it’s mostly a byproduct of being enrolled in school and in a relationship where someone else’s time is to be considered in equal measure as my own, but part of me also thinks that it’s because I haven’t been anywhere new to me in too long.

6. There is no number 6.

7. My failure to sell or even give away my tickets to The National concert on Sunday prompted me to attend the show on limited sleep immediately upon arrival in Washington. It turned out to be a wise play, as the show was spectacular and my sleep schedule was tuned perfectly the morning after. The first time I saw them, I was standing for the whole show and aside from the band and their instruments and equipment I remember the stage was bare. This time I was seated and there were lights and horns.

If there is a band for whom the placement of a grand oak tree on stage is aesthetically consistent with their music, it would be The National.

8. The use of clean as an aesthetic judgment bothers me. Cleanliness is distinct from organization, and that mere organization often presents itself as cleanliness is a given and the judgment provides little in the way of compliment or critique. Some alternatives are minimal, which reflects a position within art history, and simple, which indicates a composition with few moving parts or even one that has been inadequately considered.

9. I’m also growing increasingly wary of interesting as an adjective, mostly because it is subjective and also because it tends to describe things that really ought not be beyond the threshold of known vocabulary. I want to know how that interesting thing actually held interest, whether it engaged, stupefied, inspired, saddened. If all you can muster is interesting, either learn some new words or experience some new things.

10. Christina and I are planning our trip to Cuernavaca for Carlos and Ana’s wedding in July, so I can safely say that two years will not pass before my next vacation in a new place. However, my high-school Spanish is dustier than my college Italian, so negotiating the language gap could get, well, frustrating, with a high chance of gesticulation.

In the meantime, we will watch The New Pornographers, Passion Pit, and Tokyo Police Club in concert. And I will be starting at NavigationArts on 21 June, which is also the date of my 5th anniversary in Washington. And given I’m sentimental and wish to commemorate that event, I hope to publish another piece of writing – perhaps a list – on that date.

11. And therein lies an exotic destination, experiences of live music, and a pair of personal milestones to commemorate – creative inputs and motivation. I think I can keep this up.

Originally published 11 June 2010.

How to move a bookcase in a snowstorm.

Christina and I spent part of Saturday moving a bookcase from Alexandria to Arlington in a snowstorm. It was not our plan to move a 6′-×-6′-and-heavy piece of furniture in such weather, but due to some misinterpreted communication with the bookcase’s previous owner, we found ourselves with a truck reservation and a free afternoon. While we spent that afternoon actually moving a bookcase, I’ve been responding to the question of what I did during the snowstorm as learning to move a bookcase in a snowstorm.

The sight of cars spinning their wheels on moderate but icy hills was not uncommon – both Christina’s car and the rented truck were subject to acceleration without movement. Once moving, the pedal that would usually stop a moving car sometimes did not – in these moments, I reached for the parking brake. On the 395, passing maneuvers were rare, the use of hazard lights was frequent, and the flow of traffic on a four-lane freeway stayed consistently below 35 mph with all possible civility.

That civility was hardly limited to paved surfaces. While moving the bookcase into the truck, a neighbor of the seller offered a shovel to clear the bed of snow. The seller himself hoisted the piece into place for the road. We considered taping cut-up garbage bags over it and then decided not to – the air was sufficiently cold that the snow would not turn to water (and the bookcase wouldn’t soak it up) while we were driving.

And so, we made our way to Arlington and (with the better traction attendant to carrying a heavy piece of furniture on the back of a rear-wheel-drive truck) up the hill on Daniel Street to the front of Christina’s building. As we haltingly shoved the bookcase from truck bed to snowbank, one of her neighbors (en route to a party) offered a hand and very quickly the unwieldy piece of furniture was in her bedroom and closely matching the woodgrain of her folding bench seats. He took a beer in thanks and welcomed her to the neighborhood.

On that day when snow covered the lane markers and signposts and other artifacts of traffic law, we were treated to a climatized manifestation of the illustration of a street intersection in England from Jonathan Zittrain’s TED talk on random acts of kindness on the internet. His illustration was to support a point that in the absence of directives and laws, civility prevails (and therefore, Wikipedia maintains a reasonable standard of information quality).

Philosophy and human nature aside, civility indeed prevailed on that afternoon. And however you may disdain precipitation and bitterly cold weather, that civility may not have revealed itself – and we may not have had need of it and therefore a venue to appreciate it – otherwise. It’s part of the reason I love living in a place with a bit of a winter.

And in this weather, I learned how to use a parking brake and hazard lights as part of a driving routine, that wood furniture is better transported in snow than rain, and that strangers can be immeasurably helpful and civil and a default position of ‘scared shitless’ towards unknown persons is sometimes untenable.

And on Sunday, I learned to never never walk barefoot in the snow.

A quick case study on the dynamics of status messages in Google Talk.

Argument: “Everything tastes better on a stick.”
Counterpoint: “No, everything tastes better wrapped up burrito style.”
Countercounterpoint: “No, everything tastes better mini, regardless of impaled or wrapped.”
Countercountercounterpoint: “No, everything tastes better with bacon, butter, or maple syrup.”

The first point, typed by Roanne in reference to yakitori quail eggs in bacon, was quoted for humor as my GTalk status. No more than a few minutes passed than Christina seized on this, argued the second point, and added that by virtue of the quail eggs being wrapped in bacon, this was in fact a burrito-style food. An hour-ish later, Patrick chimed in that mini foods taste better (Matchbox sliders, please), and (in a telling example of how much overlap there is in this arena) cited “mini burritos” as evidence. James then followed with his assertion, which I admit is the most specious because it refers to specific ingredients instead of a type of preparation and there would certainly be substantial evidence against it in food from other cultures.

Content of the four arguments aside, what I find amazing about them is that they took place in four different conversations with four people of whom only two know each other and that the original argument only had to exist in my GTalk status in order to spur three additional conversations, parrying a varied range of perspectives in the manner of IRC while enjoying the intimacy of a phone call.

More amazing: yakitori quail eggs in bacon are sufficient evidence to support all four points.

Originally published 12 December 2008.

Ursa major.

Some families set their dramas on the stage of a castle, a city apartment, a suburban bungalow. Mine was wed to the four wheels of a 1990 Toyota truck.

It didn’t define who we were as a family, but it was a pliant witness to our own definition in southern California, the vessel we steered on paper routes in the San Fernando Valley, the commute to Riverside, then Anaheim Hills, then Cypress, the distance between contract work in City of Industry and classes in Irvine, the journey from Downey to anywhere. In some way, we were defined by how we interacted with the Los Angeles sprawl, how far across it we were willing to travel to grasp our ambitions.

It seems appropriate that the story of an immigrant family is not one of nobility but mobility, the nomadism etched into our DNA. In early morning hours of my childhood, my father would shine a flashlight on a driveway and me or Mikey would throw a copy of the LA Times into the target. Some people start all-nightering in college; I had my first when I was eight years old, in the bed of that truck, surrounded by newspapers. There was no air conditioning and no clock, one cupholder, and a radio with perpetually shot speakers, even after Scott and I installed a new pair (along with new headlights) in between oil changes at his house. Arguments over who would drive it and when were a feature of the thicker years of my sibling rivalry.

Angelenos are prone to defining others by the cars they drive, and at the University of Civics and Integras, the truck was an anomaly. Driving it in Orange County at odd hours of night inspired my dread of racial profiling — I have recently ceased the habit of checking my tail lights, but it was most often the falsified probable cause for traffic stops. I befriended different people, dated different women because of what I drove. If we are defined by the company we keep, the truck allowed a less materialistic conduit for my definition (that was inevitably inextricable from helping people move).

And as a family we also defined our setting. In its dents and leaks were scars of my father’s impulsiveness, my brother’s entropy, my workaholic fatigue. Depending on who was driving, the seat moved forward or backward, but the side mirrors always remained in place. Between classes I would recline in the passenger seat and take naps and awaken to find the windows fogged. In that passenger window, I could still make out the faint imprint of the original dot-matrix printed sticker. It cost my father around $11,000 when he bought it brand new in 1990. He named it Bear.

I remember the day I passed my driving test, that moment leaving Arthur’s for the Bell Gardens DMV where all those years of playing catch with a set of keys were rendered practice for that moment when two divergent schedules would make it necessary. I drove it to Las Vegas less than a month later, got a speeding ticket for going 101 mph downhill after the San Bernardino Mountains, and on the drive back home, called my mother on her vacation in New Jersey to explain why there would be a citation in the mail. The debt from that incident would deepen and lead to the start of the Spazowham Design Group. I remember picking up my father from work once after a long rush-hour commute and being angry with him for making me wait at the parking lot of his office, arguing with my mother about money and driving away. It was a vehicle of my rebellion.

I remember driving to Long Beach Airport with two suitcases in the bed in June 2005. This was the last day I would claim Bear as “my truck.” My brother called me today and told me the head gasket blew on his way to work last week. The repair would cost thousands of dollars, and he said it felt like putting the family dog to sleep. After I hung up the phone, my colleagues remarked it sounded like a pet had died, or a relative. But for an inanimate object, steel and plastic and rubber, it was special to the men of my family because in those 18 years of California traffic it seemed we spent more time with this machine than any of our friends, and perhaps with each other. It was a vehicle of our solitude.

From the Church of Christ parking lot next to that tiny Lindell Avenue apartment and the Corinthian on Florence, I moved about 3,000 miles to Washington, D.C. We’re a family awash in iPods with a son in graduate school. My mother no longer needs to work for us to make ends meet. We waste food. Over the post-mortem phone calls, I asked what’s next, if there’s another Bear in their future. Mikey’s buying his first brand-new car next week, planning to spend just a shade under $20,000. If we wanted to buy another Toyota truck, for another 18-year-run, we could.

If you ever want to quantify how far you have to go to make it in this country, for reference’s sake, my family put 258,346.6 miles on Bear. It was a vehicle of our social mobility, reminding us of where we started in 1990 as a young, fractured clan with a tenuous grasp of our new cultural context, of where we had been everyday in making ourselves (to a degree) a functional family at ease in America. Some choose to buy new cars to express their achievements to the world, to mark the level of success they enjoyed; I think we kept driving the same old truck as a reminder that we still have farther to go before we’re satisfied.

That, and to haul shit.

Originally published 10 November 2008.

Pathetic to absurd to disheartening in 97 queries.

While we had anecdotal evidence from our customers and the general public that the House search engine is below-standard, even the barest of data sets now indicates the degree of antipathy we apparently have for site visitors. After manually searching the most frequent queries on (see a table of the terms and top-ten results of each), I have arrived at the following initial conclusions:

  • Most of the 970 results are found returned from the Energy and Commerce Committee’s website from the 107th Congress (2001-2002). Their webmaster at the time ([my current supervisor]) said he did nothing to optimize the site’s pages for the House search engine. Generally speaking, there appears to be no rhyme or reason to how the algorithm determines relevance.
  • Queries are, in fact, case-sensitive. “Nancy Pelosi” and “nancy pelosi” produce different quantities of results, but the most “relevant” of each query are nearly identical. Commonly used search engines (Google, Yahoo!, etc.) are not case-sensitive.
  • Queries for singular and plural nouns are identical. “committee” and “committees” produce the exact same results.
  • The Pell Grant Underfunding PDF by the Oversight Committee that appears in the top-ten results of most state searches deserves further scrutiny. How this managed to be considered more relevant than any member-generated page in Colorado, Missouri, North Carolina, and Texas is worth determining.
  • Pages and documents produced by Energy and Commerce, Foreign Affairs, and Ways and Means Committees form a clear plurality of all results. I can proffer no explanation.
  • There is no apparent weight given to the title of a document. Untitled documents are not subdued in the results.
  • The search engine’s inability to discern titles of non-HTML documents (PDFs, MS Office docs, etc.) is a glaring drawback. In a screen reader’s links mode, “No Title Provided for This Document” is a sadistic running joke, a more verbose take on the “click here” gag.
  • The decision to keep House leadership links off the home page of last year was made in insipience (not mine, thank you). Ten of the tested queries are for House leadership; six are variations on Nancy Pelosi or Speaker of the House, and two of those are among the top-ten most frequent queries. None of the top-ten results for any leadership queries is a page from any leadership site.
  • I haven’t determined the criteria and percentage yet, but my generous estimate is that 15% of the results are at least relevant in the way that someone who can only write their own name is literate. The number of first-results that are relevant is less than the number of successful Apollo moon landings.
  • I have not yet codified “valuable” as opposed to “relevant” search results, but we know them when we see them. Of the 97 queries, only two produced a valuable first-result.
  • An enterprise search engine should provide reporting of this nature automatically, regularly, and with much more robust data (like click-through rates for different results, detailed session data, etc.). The existing search engine does not provide this kind of reporting, and without this information, it diminishes our ability to make sound information architecture decisions. To paraphrase Samuel Johnson: it is not only dull itself, it is the cause of dullness in others.

What I expected to encounter was a way to address customer complaints through improved metadata and other SEO techniques to compensate for a search engine that doesn’t dig deeply enough. What I discovered is that the current search engine doesn’t merely produce worthless results: it willfully and flagrantly leads site visitors astray. A piquant example of the insurmountable distance between visitors’ expectations and this engine’s results is that a search for ‘contact’ — the 14th most frequent query, and of the 97, the one with the most results (157,508) — yields not an overall House directory (which doesn’t exist) or any contact information of any kind for any House office in the first 25 results. Instead, the first 25 results feature testimony by staff of 1-800-CONTACTS from a 2002 Energy and Commerce Committee hearing, PDFs from the Foreign Affairs Committee (whoever ‘Dianne’ is should be determined and she should be consulted since she apparently also knows the secret to breaking into the top search results), and the 9/11 Commission report at #24.

I believe that this wisp of foul data not only crystallizes the argument to replace the existing search engine but that ceasing its use immediately — removing search from until a replacement is implemented — is an improvement and deserves serious consideration. Providing a search form is an affordance of goodwill and a best practice; attaching that form to this search engine is not merely indifferent but malicious. How this search engine was ever considered good enough for government work is an enigma, but that a half-decade of consideration has passed on how best to end its miserable existence is contemptible.

If my candor seems excessive, I recommend attempting the same 97 searches I performed; the mounting frustration from each scatalogically defective set of results all but led to a 98th search for a long drink and a short firearm. That site visitors give up on after one search is my hope. My recommendation is to spare them the experience.

This analysis is an early stage in a planned report of information architecture recommendations for and Member sites — I intend to parse this data further and research site traffic patterns to draw more conclusions and detailed recommendations. In the meantime, I’m looking forward to your feedback. Thanks for reading.

The preceding email was sent at 02:39 -0400 to all Web Solutions staff.

On workaholism.

I have a godmother who I consider the consummate workaholic. She runs a care home, which is a demanding job as it is, but she lives as though there is no such thing as a spare moment—not as though there is always something to do but as though there is always something that needs to be done.

I have never seen her sleep. When I would visit her in Stockton with my family and we would return to her house after a late night, she would be immersed in some manner of household chore while we were readying ourselves for sleep. I would pass out on the sofa watching her shadow on the ceiling in another room—the only room in the house still lit at that hour. In the morning, she would be at the care home or running errands or otherwise occupied. The full breakfast she cooked and laid out on the kitchen table was already cold, and the more perishable items would be back in the refrigerator.

During those visits, I felt that I was lazy in comparison, and for whatever reason, I felt that she regarded me an inferior person because of it. Somehow, I felt that I would not live up to her standard if I did not also keep myself occupied in necessary labors at every waking hour. Towards the end of my high school years and into college and afterwards, I did not join my parents when they visited her on long weekends.

Although I had not seen her for a few years, when she heard from my mother about my move to Washington, she sent boxes of pots, pans, lamps, soap, toilet paper, ramen noodles, and so forth. I called to thank her, and she asked how I was acclimating to life in my new city, how I spent my days. I told her. She said I should go out and meet people. She advised me to do something besides work.

Originally published 22 May 2007.