“possible” relevance

Today (or I guess yesterday, by now) wordpress added a new feature: possibly related posts. Basically an algorithm compares my blog post to other indexed blog posts and news stories, and if it thinks they might be related, inserts links at the bottom of my post. The brilliant Kate Harding over at Shapely Prose is not happy about the change. While I am not as categorically opposed to the feature as Kate is (maybe because I had fair warning before seeing it suddenly appear on my own blog? And maybe because the links I’m getting are mostly just plain irrelevant, rather than almost uniformly the exact ideas my blog is dedicated to opposing…), I definitely think making it opt-out was a bad choice. And in my opinion, simply sticking the words “automatically generated” next to the heading of the section is not enough of a distinction from the content that is actually mine. Maybe if it were a widget to put in the sidebar, clearly marked, I’d feel better about it.

But really, I think the idea is just not as exciting or revolutionary as the wordpress people want it to be. They mention youtube, and I’ll admit, youtube’s related videos feature is pretty great. But blog posts are not youtube videos. They exist in a different ecosystem, and they are consumed in a different way. The biggest difference is that, without the “related videos” feature, there just isn’t another handy way to get to other interesting videos directly from the one you’re viewing. With blogs, there is. It’s called hyperlinks. And if you’re on the internet without using those, you’re doing it wrong.

Very few of the blogs I read do not regularly link to other places already, and if they don’t, it’s because the nature of subject matter and its treatment simply do not invite links to lots of other places. For example, personal blogs. If I’m reading a blog a friend of mine is writing about her life, I don’t want to see a bunch of news stories, or other personal blog posts by strangers, I want to see more of my friend. Same with celebrity blogs like Wil Wheaton or Neil Gaiman. I’m reading their blogs because I like their writing. Automatically generated links would be pointless. On the other hand, for a blog like Overcoming Bias, generated links would probably be irrelevant because other people just aren’t doing what’s going on there. If someone writes something thoughtful in response to the ideas being put forth there, they can leave it in the comments or a post a link to their own blog, and a community discussion develops that way. But it’s not the sort of thing you can just look for news stories about.

The kind of blog I can think of that might benefit from this feature would be one where the majority of posts have a relatively narrow, impersonal and common topic. And the blogs I read like that…already link to other blogs. And those links I know I can trust to be relevant and thoughtful. Even if every post is not chock full of relevant outside links, there will often be a blogroll where I can go explore high-quality blogs dealing with similar issues. That ease of linking to other places is one of the fundamental structural differences between internet and print media, and just about every really good blogger (you know, the ones I’m interested in) I read understands that and takes advantage of it. And I trust them more than I trust some template-matching algorithm. Hell, the whole point of a blog like kottke or swissmiss is that they’re out there looking for interesting things on the web, and the reason I read them is because I trust their judgment and know that I’ll find something interesting.

So really, this feature seems more attractive as a source of traffic for the blogs being linked to than to either the blogger (who has no control over the links and so can’t check them for relevance or quality) or the reader (who, because of that lack of editorial control, can’t trust the quality). Or maybe for lazy bloggers who don’t spend much time finding or linking to other interesting things. In other words, Kate was right, and this is basically spam.

Even if I am totally wrong and this goes over like gangbusters and six months from now we’re all saying “how did I live without this,” well, they should have made it opt-in. At the very least, they should have provided more warning and explanation, and made changing it more transparent. Plenty of people using wordpress don’t pay the least attention to the official blog. And judging by the questions being left at that blog, plenty of people who do pay attention don’t really read it.

I think the take-home message here is that it’s time for me to expand my blogroll.


In yet another foreshadowing of my HCI interests (this time in the display of complex information), ever since I learned that maps can show more than political boundaries and the location of large bodies of water, I’ve been kind of fascinated by them. So finding this map blog just now was pretty exciting.

The post on map-related songs reminded me of a beautiful song by Great Lake Swimmers, who have a very nice site marred by gratuitous use of frames or I’d link to the page where you can download “Your Rocky Spine.” Instead I will link to the file directly and call it a day.
Your Rocky Spine by Great Lake Swimmers
It’s not about maps so much as using geography as metaphor, but it’s such a pretty song I couldn’t help but share. And anyway, isn’t using geography as a metaphor the whole idea behind maps that show information besides topology?

Other neat map things:
2008 web trends map
naming styles in the US (the Name Voyager is also a fun bit of data visualization. My name appeared briefly in the top 1000 names in the 1950s, and has reappeared this decade, both times due to pop culture influences)
Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin’s moonwalk, superimposed on soccer field, baseball diamond, and universal studios soundstage
maps as clothing
maps of war has animations of historical trends and events. I think some of the maps end up losing a lot of important complexity, but still interesting to play with.
human brain cloud is not quite a map, but it’s fun. It might be interesting for someone to work more seriously on it, to turn the presentation into something a little more sophisticated. At the very least, I’d like some visual representation of the strength of connection between two words.

things I’ve been doing instead of things that matter

primarily, exposing my ignorance
I can’t tell you why trying to enumerate trivia is so engrossing, I only know that it is.
Also useful as a drill if you’re trying to memorize things! I’ve been using it to memorize the US military alphabet code.
I may move on to Batman villains next, just for the pointlessness of it.

it’s probably not best for your self-esteem to do this at 3 in the morning like me. I tried to name the countries of North America (including Central America and the Caribbean, otherwise it would just be too trivial…), and I forgot Cuba. Cuba!

I did name all fifty states pretty fast, and got 35 presidents.

Bravo Lima Oscar Golf!
I was trying to help myself remember the alpha code by spelling my name, but it has lots of repeated letters. They tend to be in the middle of the alphabet, though, which I guess helps counteract order effects.

Hotel Charlie India?
It just doesn’t have the ring of Whiskey Tango Foxtrot.

I’ve also been trying to kick my spider solitaire habit, which I’ve replaced with a “finding something besides spider solitaire” habit. I installed gweled but I’m not all that thrilled with it. The music is kind of hilariously overdramatic for a puzzle game that involves moving around little colored blocks, but you can’t turn it off or change it or anything, and the novelty wore off fast.
though it looks like it will be fixed in Hardy Heron…

since feeling is first

Ok, just to balance out that previous post, I thought I would share a few love poems. As one might guess from said previous post, I don’t really go in for much love poetry, but now and then I find one I like.

The Shampoo
Elizabeth Bishop

The still explosions on the rocks,
the lichens, grow
by spreading, gray, concentric shocks.
They have arranged
to meet the rings around the moon, although
within our memories they have not changed.

And since the heavens will attend
as long on us,
you’ve been, dear friend,
precipitate and pragmatical;
and look what happens. For Time is
nothing if not amenable.

The shooting stars in your black hair
in bright formation
are flocking where,
so straight, so soon?
— Come, let me wash it in this big tin basin,
battered and shiny like the moon.

“I like my body when it is with your body”
e. e. cummings

i like my body when it is with your
body. It is so quite a new thing.
Muscles better and nerves more.
i like your body. i like what it does,
i like its hows. i like to feel the spine
of your body and its bones, and the trembling
-firm-smooth ness and which i will
again and again and again
kiss, i like kissing this and that of you,
i like, slowly stroking the, shocking fuzz
of your electric fur, and what-is-it comes
over parting flesh . . . . And eyes big love-crumbs,

and possibly i like the thrill

of under me you quite so new

Romantics: Johannes Brahms and Clara Schumann
Lisel Mueller

The modern biographers worry
“how far it went,” their tender friendship.
They wonder just what it means
when he writes he thinks of her constantly,
his guardian angel, beloved friend.
The modern biographers ask
the rude, irrelevant question
of our age, as if the event
of two bodies meshing together
establishes the degree of love,
forgetting how softly Eros walked
in the nineteenth century, how a hand
held overlong or a gaze anchored
in someone’s eyes could unseat a heart,
and nuances of address not known
in our egalitarian language
could make the redolent air
tremble and shimmer with the heat
of possibility. Each time I hear
the Intermezzi, sad
and lavish in their tenderness,
I imagine the two of them
sitting in a garden
among late-blooming roses
and dark cascades of leaves,
letting the landscape speak for them,
leaving us nothing to overhear.

all you need is dopamine

WordPress seems to have done some UI redesign. I think I like it. My favorite part? The big “preview this post” button sitting to the right of my text box. Preview button, you are my friend. Thank you for coming out of hiding.

However, that is not why I came out of hiding today. I came to talk about love.

Maybe that is a little personal for a usability blog, but man, this is not a usability blog, this is my blog. It just happens to be a convenient place for me to geek out about usability/HCI issues, since I’m sure my friends are tired of listening to me rant about perfectly circular mice (are you kidding me? did not a single person employed by Apple sit down and actually try to use the damn thing? obviously not…and I know, mighty mouse, but that has its own stupid problems, and at least a year or two ago a couple of school computer labs still had those awful circular mice, so I still had to use them sometimes) or how excited I am to have discovered that the best firefox add-on in existence, Tab Mix Plus, has an option to make tab width fit the tab title (you can adjust the min and max width). That’s one advantage of reinstalling your OS, I suppose. It is an opportunity to go poking around and find out if new things have shown up since the last time I configured all my gadgets.

But I digress.

So. Love.

I am not a particularly romantic person, in either of the common senses of the word. Studying psychology has only made that more true. I reflect on my experience through the lens of physiological processes and abstract theories of how human mental activity is organized. I won’t hesitate to cite psychological experiments if there are some that have helped me gain perspective on a particular phenomenon. Most of my friends seem to find it an entertaining quirk, if it comes up at all. But it can be frustrating for those who want to be close to me romantically (in the amorous sense).

There I go, dancing around “love” again. The problem is, romantic love has confused me for a long time. Everyone has an opinion on it, but everyone seems to say something different. From pop culture to great poets to people who have declared their love for me, I can’t seem to find a consistent thread. What are you trying to tell me when you say you love me? What is it you believe I am telling you when I say I love you?

As you can maybe guess, these are not questions people like to hear in response to “I love you.” And I can’t blame them. I would certainly be unhappy if I were in that position; to have just opened myself so deeply, communicated one of the most important things in my life, and to be told “I don’t understand.” I don’t want to hurt anyone I care about that way.

And yet, it’s true. I know I love my family, I know I love my closest friends, but I can’t relate what I see and hear of being romantically in love to my own feelings, and I don’t trust all the great and powerful aspects people ascribe to it. And I can’t really trust what you’ve said before I know what you ascribe to it. There are plenty of things I do understand and know that I feel: intimacy, commitment, pleasure in your presence. But love is always somehow something more than the sum of those parts, and not saying it means there is something missing. Which is precisely why I can’t say it. If no one can explain to me what’s missing, how in the world am I supposed to know when I’m in love, and when…when the closeness I feel is just not enough?

So, leave it to a neuroscience study to clear things up for me. We read Reward, Motivation, and Emotion Systems Associated with Early-Stage Intense Romantic Love (which you probably can’t read for free if you don’t have some kind of institutional access…) for my psychology senior seminar. The essence of the conclusion the authors make is that romantic love is not a distinct state of emotion like happiness or fear, but a process of motivation. You feel “in love” because you get a nice juicy neurochemical reward for being with your loved one, one that is different than sexual arousal. The authors then speculate that this is an adaptation to facilitate courtship rituals. Like all evo-psych explanations for behavior, it’s just a story that makes sense to the people telling it, but at least this one is pretty clearly connected to reproductive success. I mean, if you’re highly motivated to spend lots of time with a potential mate, you are probably more likely to actually mate than someone who more passively waits for matters to move along.

Sounds so much less exciting than an ever-fixed mark that looks on tempest and is never shaken, but maybe a touch more realistic? Certainly this is something I can understand. What I was missing of love is essentially desire. Which, from what I understand of myself, and of the physiological basis of motivation and reward, makes perfect sense to me.

So much of human experience comes down to the way our brains work, and the stories we tell ourselves to make sense of that working from the inside. I don’t buy many of the stories, but I can work with them if I know what they hinge upon. Of course, I’ll still push people to explain what they believe about love (preferably starting before any declarations to me), but I have a frame for what they’re feeling and why, and the beginnings of an answer to what it means for me to be in love.

Maybe that seems cold. Maybe you didn’t want to know that love is “nothing but” dopamine release and the activation of particular parts of the ventral-tegmental area. Seems like quite a buzzkill, right? But as far as I can tell, that’s all we ever really have. And look what we’ve managed to do anyway. I am very much with Eliezer. The glimpses I get of the universe as it is continually amaze me, no romance required.