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.


Last week I finally committed to a school. In the fall I’ll be starting the IU School of Informatics’ Human-Computer Interaction Design program. It’s pretty exciting. My family is from southern Indiana, and most of my parents’ generation went to IU, and they’re pleased that I’ll be there.

Now of course I’ve moved on to worrying full-time about what I’ll do this summer.

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.

in which I talk about wands

Been on the road a lot the past few days, visiting Carnegie Mellon and the University of Michigan. Still don’t know how I will choose a grad school.

I did have a kind of interesting usability experience while driving my father’s Prius. In all the cars I can remember using the windshield wipers, in order to turn them on you either push upward on a little wand next to your steering wheel, or you rotate something upward. Further movement upward increases the speed. In the Prius, however, you move the wand downward to turn the wipers on. And for the intermittent setting, there is a little tube on the wand to rotate and adjust the speed. This is labeled with the word “interval,” and little vertical bar that is wide at the top and narrow at the bottom.

Now, when I first started using the wipers, I assumed that rotating the tube upwards would increase the speed of the wipers. Actually, the opposite is true. I realized that, aside from being used to “up = more,” I’d looked at the little bar and assumed the wider the bar, the higher the speed. But really what it meant was, the wider the bar the longer the interval.

This makes a certain amount of sense, and was easy to remember once I realized it, but I’m not sure it is the design decision I would make. I think that typically, such markers are used as indicators of intensity–higher volume, more brightness, more speed.

For example, I’ve been staying in cheap hotels, so I’ve been using those air conditioning units built into the wall with a thermostat and controls built in. Typically the thermostat is not very sophisticated, you turn it one way for warmer air and the other way for cooler air and you hope you get it somewhere comfortable. And the way they mark this is not by having one bar that widens the whole way, to indicate low temperature at one end and high temperature at the other, but to have one red bar the widens at the hot side, and one blue bar that widens at the cold side: indicating the relative intensity of heating or cooling, not the overall temperature of the room.

This is how you know you are destined for a career in usability: you read one little book by Donald Norman and the next thing you know, you try to turn on you windshield wipers and start musing about the meaning of the marking on the wiper control.

This is just to say

I’m sorry it’s been so long, blog! I have been busy with this whole graduating from college nonsense. And I got accepted to the other three grad schools I applied to, so I’ll be off in a bit to visit a couple of those and try not to be too terrified of the future.

I’ve spent the last week working on finding an internship for the summer and also bumming around Seattle, WA, visiting a friend. I like it a lot here. I’m not sure how I’d handle the gray and rainy winters, but the occasional vacation is fun, and I hear the summers are pretty nice The pacific northwest is beautiful, and two of my favorite writers, Octavia E. Butler and Ursula K. Le Guin, clearly both love(d) their respective parts of it. So it comes highly recommended.

Because I feel like I ought to have some content related to my “topic,” I thought I’d talk about some programs I’ve been enjoying lately.

There are a couple of little websites I’m more or less responsible for, and I’ve been working on those with bluefish. I cannot say enough good things about bluefish. I’ve done most of my HTML/CSS work in straight-up notepad, until I discovered notepad++ has some nice syntax highlighting. Gedit would do me for Linux, but after I did all this reading for my research last summer on the importance of usable IDEs I thought maybe I should find out what is available.

Perhaps because of my years of notepad, perhaps because I tend towards perfectionist control freak when it comes creating things, I like to stay close to my code. I’ve yet to find a WYSIWYG editor that I didn’t end up fighting at every turn. After reading this long list of features for bluefish, I was worried it would try to do my thinking for me. But it doesn’t, at all. If I want to ignore every feature other than syntax highlighting, that is a-ok. But I would be an idiot to do so, because bluefish does some incredibly useful things. For example, I’m not good at things like memorizing a list of tag names or CSS properties (instead I remember high-level things about what is possible with those tools), so I spend a notable amount of time looking up such info. Bluefish already knows about all those things, and makes the lookup much faster. My latest discovery is that bluefish has a color picker if you tell it you’re about to set a CSS color property. And this discovery came literally minutes after I was wishing for a color picker in bluefish so I didn’t have to wait for the GIMP to load up and then sit around wasting resources. And right now I’m just creating static pages. I suspect there is a whole lot more it can do for complex web programming. It’s really too bad it’s not available for Windows.

The other program I’m using and liking is DrPython. I’ve been learning GTK+, and I found that pyGTK is much easier for me to work with. “Normal” GTK is C-based, and C and my brain are not the best of friends. Higher-level languages fit much better with how I approach programming. Anyhow, so, python is pretty great, and again, after all those research papers, I figured I should at least look for an alternative to a command-line interpreter. So I googled…I don’t even remember what I googled, but DrPython turned up and the fact that the name is a tribute to DrScheme, (the aforementioned research involved digging around in DrScheme’s guts), caught my eye. So I’ve been writing pyGTK in DrPython, and while it is not the most immediately transparent interface–I think it could stand to take a few more hints from DrScheme–it seems to be stable and does what I want, and what more you could want for the price?


I was admitted to the University of Michigan’s School of Information! Provided I graduate, which, given the way my programming languages class is going, might be in more doubt than I’d like. But hey, they like me! I can feel good about myself.

I am really never going to have an incentive to learn time management. This was the application I procrastinated the most on, and I ended up staying up most of the night before it was due to finish it.

I’ve been asked several times whether Michigan is one of my “top choices.” I am not sure how to answer this question. Given that I applied, yes. I didn’t see any point to applying to programs I wouldn’t be pretty excited to get into, since the whole point is to learn the HCI stuff I want to do, and if I am not doing that I might as well just get some more generic programming/software engineering job. On the other hand, I know what the askers mean is “is this the one you were really hoping to get into?” Carnegie Mellon was really the only standout of the four schools I applied to, and the more I think about and look at the other programs, the more excited I get about them. I don’t know how I am going to choose.

But really, what a wonderful problem to have.

misc thoughts

I finally found the “preview” function I have been really wishing WordPress had. Turns out it only shows up when you’ve saved a post but not published it. Since I tend to just hit publish (and check the published post for formatting and errors, irritated by the lack of a preview), that was not helping me.

-2 for usability on that one, wordpress.

I also meant to tag that last post, but I can’t decide what to tag it. I also haven’t defined any categories yet. I ought to take some time to decide what kind of organizing principle I want. If I’m going to use both tags and categories, I ought to use them for reasonably distinct purposes.


In popular culture, people like to say “It’s just semantics!” which is a kind of put-down: it implies that their correspondent is quibbling over minor details of meaning in a jesuitical way. But communication is all about meaning: even if you and I use different words to mean the same thing, we understand one another, but if we use the same word to mean different things, great confusion results. In this study, therefore, we will wear the phrase “It’s just semantics!” as a badge of honor, because semantics leads to discourse which (we hope) leads to civilization.

Just semantics. That’s all there is.

from Programming Languages: Application and Interpretation by Shriram Krishnamurthi