Monday, March 31, 2008

Joe Coleman's Paintings as Biographical Information Maps

I recently watched R.I.P.: Rest in Pieces: A Portrait of Joe Coleman, a 1997 documentary about the painter and performance artist. Coleman paints detailed, overwhelming, and chaotic scenes in a similar style to Hieronymous Bosch. Coleman's work is categorized as "outsider art," a condescending way of saying an artist is talented, but without the usual pretension of being an artiste.

Although many of Coleman's paintings are autobiographical, he often paints pictures of historic figures that interest him, like Hank Williams or Houdini. The paintings are visual data maps, displaying an incredible amount of biographical information about his subjects. He wears magnifying glasses as he paints minuscule illustrations within his paintings using a single-hair paintbrush. Coleman describes it as, "trying to find more and more information inside each tiny brushstroke." Fellow painter Robert Williams says, "Not only do you get a remarkably well done piece of art with Joe Coleman, but you get a brilliant interpretation of history of whatever subject he would like to express."

Coleman collects information about his subjects with an academic's zeal. He says, "I go to the library, or bookstore, or do a book search. I go through my own collection of books which is pretty extensive. I research the subject without any preconceived composition. Once I start, I keep painting until the whole surface is covered and then that’s it. I can’t even do research on another painting until I completely finish the one I’ve started." For him, a painting categorizes the information he gathers, stating, "The painting orders it, clarifies it, borders it. It puts boundaries on something that is so overwhelming and disturbing to me."

I chose Coleman's "Portrait of Charles Manson" (1988) to illustrate how he creates effective information maps for two reasons. It was the largest biographical image I could find on the web; it reveals some of the tiny illustrations within, but not all. Also, I am well-versed on the Manson Family, allowing me to better "read" the information presented in the painting. Manson has called Coleman, "a caveman in a space ship," which I believe is a compliment!

Joe Coleman's Charles Manson Superstar

Manson is displayed as a Christ-like figure, poised between heaven and hell. Manson may have belonged to the Process Church, which worshiped both Christ and Satan. Manson often referred to himself as Jesus ("Man's Son"). A bloodied, reborn Jesus appears in the upper left (the right hand of Manson, making him God,) while Hitler, another figure Manson admired, is to the upper right.

The trinity of faces are Manson as a young hood, Manson as the Death Valley guru on acid, and Manson as he returned to prison. Manson wears the heads of his Family members as garland like Kali, the Hindu goddess of destruction and protection. The unmistakable lolling tongue is also a Kali trait.

The Family member portraits are mostly taken from mugshots in Vincent Bugliosi's true crime classic Helter Skelter, and, moving counterclockwise from the top left, I recognize Steven Grogan aka Clem, Bobby Beausoleil, Ruth Ann "Ouisch" Moorehouse, Mary Brunner, Charles "Tex" Watson (on acid when arrested, hence the funny face), Susan Atkins, Stephanie Scram, Leslie Van Houten, Juan Flynn, Bill Vance, Catherine "Gypsy" Share, Sandra Good, Catherine Gillies, Harold True, Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme, Robert Reinhard, Patricia Krenwinkel, Bruce Davis, [Unknown], and Nancy Pitman/Brenda McCann.

The man framed in wood to the left is is George Spahn, the elderly man who owned the ranch that the Family lived on. Looped in intestines to the right is Manson as a young, abused boy in reform school.

The most famous Manson Family victims are (to the left) actress Sharon Tate and hair stylist Jay Sebring. Coffee heiress Abigail Folger and her Polish boyfriend Voytek Frykowski are on the right. They are represented as how they looked in death, including Sebring's face covered, with rope around his neck leading to Tate.

Although most of the illustrations are too small to see, "Rise," "Death to Pigs," and "Helter Scelter" are recognizable in red, replicating what the killers wrote in blood at the Tate/LaBianca crime scenes.

Manson believed that the Beatles encoded their music with messages and their song "Helter Skelter" alluded to an apocalyptic race war between whites and blacks, which Manson and his Family would emerge the victors to repopulate the earth. (Hence the fighting figures in the bottom of the painting). Although Helter Skelter was an important part of the Manson Family mythos, the drug-addled hippies never seemed to spell it right. "Helter Scelter" was written at Spahn Ranch; "Healter Skelter" was written on the LaBianca's refrigerator in their blood.

The forearm tattoos refer to "creepy crawls," a Family practice of breaking into the homes of sleeping people, rearranging their furniture, and stealing things: basically test runs for murder.

Interestingly enough, the Manson girls created their own autobiographical information map: an embroidered jacket for Manson that illustrated important Family moments. When they shaved their heads while Manson was on trial, the girls added their hair as fringe. They sent the jacket to Manson in prison, and, hardened criminal that he was, he cut it into pieces and gave them to other prisoners so they wouldn't steal it from him.

Explore Joe Coleman's website, including a gallery of his paintings with detailed views.

For further reading, visit an excellent blog about data visualization: Information Aesthetics.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Alex Wright's The Web That Wasn't

Alex Wright's The Web That Wasn't via Google Tech Talks on YouTube:

For most of us who work on the Internet, the Web is all we have ever really known. It's almost impossible to imagine a world without browsers, URLs and HTTP. But in the years leading up to Tim Berners-Lee's world-changing invention, a few visionary information scientists were exploring alternative systems that often bore little resemblance to the Web as we know it today. In this presentation, author and information architect Alex Wright will explore the heritage of these almost-forgotten systems in search of promising ideas left by the historical wayside.

The presentation will focus on the pioneering work of Paul Otlet, Vannevar Bush, and Doug Engelbart, forebears of the 1960s and 1970s like Ted Nelson, Andries van Dam, and the Xerox PARC team, and more recent forays like Brown's Intermedia system. We'll trace the heritage of these systems and the solutions they suggest to present day Web quandaries, in hopes of finding clues to the future in the recent technological past.

Speaker: Alex Wright
Alex Wright is an information architect at the New York Times and the author of Glut: Mastering Information Through the Ages. Previously, Alex has led projects for The Long Now Foundation, California Digital Library, Harvard University, IBM, Microsoft, Rollyo and Sun Microsystems, among others. He maintains a personal Web site at

Saturday, March 15, 2008

David Weinberger’s Everything is Miscellaneous

David Weinberger's Everything is Miscellaneous

I just started reading David Weinberger's Everything Is Miscellaneous: The Power of the New Digital Disorder, which is just as exciting as I thought it would be. Information classification is something I do instinctively, and I encounter the benefits and challenges physical arrangements daily. One of the reasons I enjoy database administration is that anything can be queried and arranged how I wish, which cannot be said about information stuffed into file cabinets! Anyone with a passing interest in the digital age and data organization should pick up this engaging book.

Here's an excerpt from Chapter One: The New Order of Order:

Before the Web, the word browsing was usually a polite way of telling a salesperson to buzz off. “May I help you?” a salesperson asks. “I’m just browsing,” you reply with a little smile. With that word, a customer declares a lack of commitment. With that smile, she asserts that she’s within her rights: “Just try and stop me, salesboy!”

Browsing is more than window-shopping, fantasizing about what it would be like to own something or resenting those who do. You browse when you intentionally ignore the organizational structure the store has carefully imposed on its stock. You have a hankering to read something about the Civil War, but the bookstore has Civil War books strewn about the fiction, nonfiction, biography, and travel sections, all neatly arranged in individual aisles and on individual shelves. Or you’re in the mood for some light reading—nothing more specific than that—and appealing books pop up on just about every shelf. The store helps you violate its order by providing tables at the front with staff picks, new books, and bargains, but it can’t anticipate all the ways every customer who walks in the door is going to want to browse. So it has to depend on its sales staff to help its customers find the exact book they want when they say, “I need something as a sweet sixteen present.” Sometimes they get it right; sometimes—say, if the available staff person thinks all the kids still have a favorite Beatle—they lose the sale as the customer decides it would be safer just to give her niece a check.

The normal organization of a store works well enough if you come in knowing what you want: Go to the fiction shelf, find the “A” section conveniently located at the beginning of the alphabetized authors, and locate that copy of Pride and Prejudice for your niece. But discovering what you want is at least as important as finding what you know you want. Our bookstores look like they prefer seekers over browsers because the usual layout works well for people trying to find what they came in for, whereas there are almost as many ways to organize for browsers as there are browsers. An order that works for one interest may not for others—clustering all the books about the Civil War would help the Civil War buffs but would pull Gone with the Wind off the shelf where the historical fiction buffs browse. On the other hand, dumping the shelves into a bookstore-sized pile of books would turn browsing into pawing through printed rubble.

If only there were a way to arrange the stuff in stores so that every possible interest could be captured. When we know what we want, we’d find it immediately. When we want to browse, the store would rearrange itself based on our needs and interests, even when we aren’t quite sure what those are.

At Apple Computer’s iTunes music store, it’s already happened. For decades we’ve been buying albums. We thought it was for artistic reasons, but it was really because the economics of the physical world required it: Bundling songs into long-playing albums lowered the production, marketing, and distribution costs because there were fewer records to make, ship, shelve, categorize, alphabetize, and inventory. As soon as music went digital, we learned that the natural unit of music is the track. Thus was iTunes born, a miscellaneous pile of 3.5 million songs from over a thousand record labels. Anyone can offer music there without first having to get the permission of a record executive. Apple lets customers organize the pile any way they want and markets through their customers’ choice of tracks and playlists rather than to the mass market. By making music miscellaneous, Apple has captured more than 70 percent of the market.

And the iTunes store isn’t even all that miscellaneous. It’s a spreadsheet that can be sorted by the criteria iTunes provides: the track’s name, length, artist, album, genre, and price. If you want to browse, first you pick the genre, artist, and album, in that order. If you want to browse by the artist and then by genre, you can’t. If you want to browse by mood, language, or date, you can’t. Even though iTunes is all digital, there are still more ways you can organize your physical collection of CDs. The problem isn’t that iTunes has chosen an inappropriate set of criteria for sorting, although that certainly could be argued. The real problem is that iTunes accepts the premise we’ve had to operate under in the physical world: that there is a set of appropriate criteria.

While iTunes is parsimonious in its built-in ways of sorting, it generously enables customers to create their own playlists, pulling together songs from across the entire ocean of tunes. By allowing customers to then publish their playlists—and rate and comment on other people’s—iTunes provides as many ways to navigate its inventory as there are customer moods and interests. That lets in an important breath of the miscellaneous and shows that iTunes has learned the right lesson: To get as good at browsing as we are at finding—and to take full advantage of the digital opportunity—we have to get rid of the idea that there’s a best way of organizing the world.

Everything Has Its Places
It won’t be easy. The world started out miscellaneous but it didn’t stay that way, because we work so damn hard at straightening it up. Take eating, the most basic bodily activity we do on purpose. Preparing to serve a meal is a complex dance of order. We have separate storage areas for each of the implements of eating: silverware, plates, glasses, napkins. Each of these areas has its own principle of organization: plates stacked by type, clustered by pattern and how “good” they are, juice glasses separated from wineglasses and from tumblers, silverware tucked cozily into special compartments. We then break these items apart to form patterns (salad fork to the left of dinner fork) determined by tradition, one set per participant in the meal. When we clear the table, we recluster the items by type because we generally don’t wash the implements in the same pattern we used when we were eating with them: We do all the plates at once, put the silverware into a pot to soak, and line up the glasses next to the sink. If we stack the dishwasher, we cluster the items yet another way. When it’s all clean and dry, we again store everything in its initial order, completing our nightly choreography.

We juggle multiple principles of organization without even thinking about it. You know what goes in your spice rack and what doesn’t, even though the principle of order is hard to find: What makes dried leaves (oregano), dried seeds (nutmeg), and dried bark (cinnamon) all spices? All add a little more flavor to a dish? But so do chocolate sprinkles, and they don’t count as a spice, despite coming in a shaker the size and shape of an oregano bottle. And even if you count salt and black pepper as spices, you probably don’t keep them in the spice rack, because you use them too often. Without pausing for thought, you have coordinated four intersecting sets of criteria: how big the bottles are, what the contents are used for, which part of a meal they’re applied to, and how frequently you need them.

The same is true for every room, every closet, and every tabletop in our houses. Even the oddest, most random items have their place. The gin-flavored floss someone gave you as a joke goes on the top shelf of the bathroom cabinet, while the Miss Piggy night-light goes in with the rarely used electrical equipment in the box in the basement. If you’re genuinely stumped, you’ll probably throw it in a box of things to give away.

The two processes by which new things are introduced into our homes are typical of how we handle information: We go through new arrivals and then we put them away. We go through the mail and file it in the special places we have for bills (the desk), cards from relatives (the refrigerator door), and junk mail (the trash). We go through bags of groceries and put the food away within minutes of bringing it into our house. We address these elements of disorder—unsorted mail in the mailbox, groceries sorted by relative weight into bags by a clerk in the store—with remarkable alacrity.

There isn’t a part of our homes that is truly unordered, except perhaps under our beds, and for many of us even that is the site of the spontaneous ordering of dust into bunnies.

We invest so much time in making sure our world isn’t miscellaneous in part because disorder is inefficient—“Anybody see the gas bill?”—but also because it feels bad. Knowing where things are and where things go is essential to feeling at home. If cleanliness is next to godliness, then slovenliness is next to The Odd Couple’s Oscar Madison. And who wants to be next to Oscar Madison?

We’ve been raised as experts at keeping our physical environment well ordered, but our homespun ways of maintaining order are going to break—they’re already breaking—in the digital world. The most visible breach so far: the folder on the family computer that stores the digital photos.

If you’re managing to keep your digital photos well organized, congratulations. But you’re probably going to lose the battle sooner rather than later. It’s a simple matter of numbers. A typical album you buy at your local camera store holds between fifty and two hundred paper-based photos. You likely have a thousand photos in all your albums put together. A thousand photos, each with its own story. “Oh, remember how Mimi was always wearing that silly cowboy hat? And there’s Aunt Sally on the beach. She was so sunburned we had to take her to the hospital, and that funny doctor said we should just baste her in barbecue sauce.”

Now check your computer. If you have a digital camera, you may well have saved over a thousand photos in just the past few years. It’s only going to get worse. Digital cameras started outselling film cameras in the United States in 2003 and worldwide in 2004. And, in 2004, 150 million cell phones with cameras were sold, almost four times the number of digital cameras. Because digital photos are virtually free, we’re tempted to take more and more pictures, sometimes just in the hope that one will come out well. We’re also keeping more of the photos, and not always because we want them: Since our cameras apply names like “DSC00165.jpg” to our photos, it’s easier to keep bad photos than to throw them out. To keep them, we just press a button to move them from our camera. To get rid of them, we have to look at each one, compare it with the others in the series, select the bad ones, press the Delete button, and then confirm our choice.

As a result, we are loading onto our computers thousands of photos with automatically generated names that mean nothing to us. When you have ten, twenty, or thirty thousand photos on your computer, storing a photo of Aunt Sally labeled “DSC00165.jpg” is functionally the same as throwing it out, because you’ll never find it again.

We’re simply not going to be able to keep up. Even obsessive-compulsives have only twenty-four hours in a day. Perhaps technology will get better at automatically figuring out what and who is shown in a photo. Or perhaps labeling photos will become a social process, with others pitching in to help us organize them. The user-based organizing of photos is already happening on a massive scale at Internet sites like, where people can post their photos and easily label them, allowing others to search for them. Moreover, anyone can apply descriptive labels to photos and create virtual albums made up of photos taken by themselves and strangers. What’s clear is that however we solve the photo crisis, it will be by adding more information to images, because the solution to the overabundance of information is more information.

We add information in the real world by putting a descriptive sign on the shelf beneath a product, sticking a label on a folder, or using a highlighting pen to mark the passages that we think will be on the test. The real world, though, limits the amount of additional data we can supply: Staples has to keep the product information labels on the shelves small enough so they won’t obscure the product; a manila folder’s label can’t have more than a few dozen characters on it without becoming illegible; and if previous students have already highlighted every other sentence in your textbook, the marks you make won’t add much information at all. In the digital world, these restrictions don’t hold. The product listing on the Staples Web site can link to entire volumes of information, our computers can store more information about a desktop folder than is actually in the folder, and if the digital textbook has had every word highlighted by previous readers, a computer could show us which sections have been highlighted by the majority of A students.

Such features are not just cool tricks. They change the basic rules of order. When we come across the paper photo from 2005 of Aunt Sally on a beach in Mexico at sunset celebrating cousin Jamie’s birthday, with the twins in the background playing badminton, we have to decide which one spot in one album we’re going to stick it into. If it were a digital album, we wouldn’t have to make that choice. We could label it in as many ways as we could think of: Aunt Sally, Mexico, 2005, beach, birthday, twins, badminton, sunset, trips, foreign countries, fun times, relatives, places we want to go back to, days we got sunburned. That way we could have the computer assemble albums based on our interests at the moment: all the photos of the cousins, all the trip photos for the past five years, all the photos of Aunt Sally having fun. The digital world thereby allows us to transcend the most fundamental rule of ordering the real world: Instead of everything having its place, it’s better if things can get assigned multiple places simultaneously.

Link to the Everything is Miscellanous website

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Review of The Search: How Google and Its Rivals Rewrote the Rules of Business and Transformed Our Culture

John Battelle's The Search

My review of The Search: How Google and Its Rivals Rewrote the Rules of Business and Transformed Our Culture by John Battelle. (NY: Portfolio, 2005).
Published in Midwest Book Review, Reviewer’s Choice, 8(5), May 2008.

In the introduction of John Battelle’s The Search: How Google Rewrote the Rules of Business and Transformed Our Culture, the author discloses that he did not want to write a business biography of Google, although the company is discussed throughout the book. Although the subtitle mentions Google, the book is a broader look at both the history of the search engine industry and the effects it has on our culture. Battelle wanted to follow the story of how searching has evolved from graduate student information science projects to the world’s growing dependence on online information. He also discusses some of the battles between Google, Yahoo!, MSN and second-tier search engines.

It all began in the mid-1990s, when AltaVista showcased a new computer created by its parent company. The search engine they created worked quickly on the powerful computers. AltaVista did not realize that it had created something more valuable than the computers themselves—the power to search the web.

Search, in Battelle’s book, goes beyond businesses like AltaVista or Google. As more users manage their lives through the Internet, companies that analyze our queries and deliver what we are looking for will flourish. Battelle calls it the “Database of Intentions,” which transitions the Internet from presenting content to interpreting intention. The Database of Intentions is a system that not only helps us satisfy our individual needs and wants, but changes the way we interact with others. As more users participate, search engines will better anticipate what will be asked for in the future.

The value of contextual advertising depends on interpreting intention. Since text ads are targeted for their audience, the ad buyer only pays when the ad is clicked. This has revolutionized advertising because small businesses which could not afford to advertise can now do so, and they only have to pay when it works. As one ad executive said, only a half of advertising works, but you don’t know what half. Text ads work for everyone involved: businesses get sales boosts without a large marketing budget, customers get what they want (or did not even realize that they want) and search engines make money by connecting the two. Of course, it is not as easy as it seems, and Battelle offers examples of how companies have benefited and been damaged by search engine algorithm readjustments.

Battelle also discusses the downside of search engines, such as the various black hat schemes to rank pages higher or to commit clickfraud, among others. Google, whose motto is “Don’t Be Evil,” has been criticized for some of their business decisions. As search engine companies move into markets in countries like China, they will have to deal with oppressive government regimes that censor material, at best, and kill online dissidents, at worse. Google has issued a limp statement in defense of supporting China’s censorship laws, and Yahoo! was recently exposed as helping China prosecute dissonant journalists that use its search engine. This topic will be discussed at great length in the coming years as companies try to profit in large, censored markets by compromising their ideals.

Although Google leads the market, other companies are gaining ground, like Yahoo! and Ask. In order to stay in the market, all companies will continue to analyze and market the Database of Intentions in quicker, faster, and simpler ways.