Thursday, November 22, 2007

Searching & Finding

It doesn't make any sense to look for something that isn't hiding. Why do the things people search for need to be hidden? Do they search for things because they're hidden, or are things hidden because they're searching?
-- Miyuki Miyabe

This intriguing assertion is posited by a character in Miyabe's novel Brave Story.

Two things particularly interested me about the statement when I first read it: that it sounds right, but at the same time it feels wrong.

Agreed. Things are not lost until we try looking for them. If loose change falls out of my pocket into the sofa, but I don't notice, is it lost? I don't think so. I didn't notice its going, so it is not missed.

A quick check of Websters turns up nine definitions of lost, some of which apply to loose change, some which don't. And one which is contradictory: "2 a: no longer possessed b: no longer known". Well, it is no longer in my possession, but I barely knew it to start with, so there is not much "loss".

In fact, things are only lost once we are looking for them and they are not where we expect to find them. For example, when I come home I tend to deposit what I am carrying somewhere in the house: my watch, phone, and wallet. They belong in a drawer in the kitchen, but I often drop them on a bookshelf at the top of the stairs when passing. When I go to find them again, if they aren't in the drawer, I'll go look on the shelf. They can hardly be said to be "lost", since I know where they will be within a limited set of possibilities.

However, I tend to being both lazy and forgetful. So I often drop them somewhere else in my haste, and do not remember where. Then when I go to look for them, they are truly "lost" because they are outside the scope of where they ought or could be expected to be.

But the words used in the quote are "hiding" and "hidden", not "lost".

You could say the things I misplace are "hidden", since in looking I have difficulty finding them, even if I am practically staring right at them. On my desk in particular, they are hidden like a tree in a forest -- one of an innumerable collection of things that make up the clutter I call my work area.

So, yes, they are "hidden" even if they are not hidden from view. Because, like being lost, they are outside the realm of their expected locations and I have trouble finding them against an unfamiliar backdrop, even if that backdrop is something I deal with day after day. I have frequently had the experience of looking for a book on the bookshelf, not finding it on the shelf I expect, then searching all of the bookcases in the house to no avail. Then, on a second go round, I find it on a shelf I had already searched. I simply didn't know how to "see" it in its new and unexpected location.

So in a sense, things are not hidden until you search for them and fail to find them where expected. And it is also true you search for things because they are hidden, in that you can hardly be said to be searching when you look within the scope of expected locations.

To make this discussion real, think of it in terms of something we use every day: search.

  • On the simplest level, things (web pages, information) are "hidden" because there is just too much information on the web for us to know where it all is -- or even might be -- and search engines help us "find" that information. Is it "lost"? Often not. Because in many cases we do not know whether the information exists or not. We are searching hoping that something will show up. So it is "hidden" but not "lost". This is the simplest view of search: search as discovery.
  • Sometimes we are searching for things we know exist -- sites we have visited before or information we have been told to search for. In this case, we are looking but the information is neither hidden nor lost, since we know it is out there somewhere on the web and search engines help us find it -- as expected. This is the second view of search: search as locating. Just like the wallet and watch I expect to find on the bookshelf
  • Sometimes, whether we know it exists or not, we look for information using the wrong words. We might misspell a name ("Dwayne Allmann") or look for synonyms to the words in the content we are looking for ("fix" instead or "patch"). The consequence is a failure to find the item, in which case it is truly "lost". Internet search engines do a lot to try and save us from this dilemma; they recommend correct spellings and support stemming, synonyms, and fuzzy logic to broaden the results. However, even these techniques may not solve the problem and we must try again and again to define a search that matches our requirements. This is search as hunting.
  • Finally, even if you construct the proper search -- you look in all the appropriate places -- you may fail to "see" the item you want. Most internet searches produce hundreds or thousands of results. The search engines do their best to prioritize the results (called relevancy) so the most likely are at the top of the list. In other words, where you expect to find them. However, if the items you need are not at the top, you need to do a second search: searching through the search results. This can be extremely frustrating -- just like searching through your entire house for keys, wallets, glasses, or whatever -- because you cannot find the items you need. You do not recognize the title, the abbreviated description, or the location/URL as meaningful. At this point, the information is truly "hidden" from you because you cannot distinguish it from the forest of other results, just as I cannot find a book on my bookshelf if it is outside the bounds of where I expect to find it. This is search as loss. In fact, the desired results may never be found. (Many people give up before even looking at the 2nd or 3rd page of search results. The field of possibility is so vast it discourages exploration.)

So, given this situation, why is the quotation both right and wrong? It is the first sentence of Miyabe's quote that holds the key: It doesn't make any sense to look for something that isn't hiding.

There could well be an issue of translation here. Because, although "hidden" and "hiding" are different tenses of the same verb, they have significantly different connotations in English. "Hidden" is passive; it implies something that cannot be seen or found. "Hiding" is active; it implies the object is deliberating taking action to hide itself. And to say we aren't looking for something unless it is "hiding", would eliminate most inanimate objects from the equation.

It is true: it doesn't make sense to look for something that isn't hidden -- even if it is in plain view. And it explains the frustration and despair many users feel when they need to look for information, since they often have no clue how large the field of possibility is before they start. They assume it is hidden.

One of the stories I like to tell is the experience I had when interviewing consultants to determine how they looked for knowledge about previous projects. The overwhelming response was, in order:

  1. Ask someone in the office.
  2. Call someone they think might know.
  3. Send email to people they think may know someone who may know.
  4. If all else fails, look online.

These were experienced, tech-savvy engineers; they knew how to construct search queries; they had a good sense of what information should be available within the corporation. But assuming the information was hidden, their #1 preference was to look for a guide within their community of peers.

This tendency has been repeated time and again across the diverse audiences I have supported. Why do things people search for need to be hidden? Because they are searching. Because they are outside the realm of known possibility. Because their need exceeds the bounds of personal knowledge.

Part of the work of making things findable is bounding the field of possibility for the searcher. if you can make it clear that their search is bounded within a scope of likely candidates (rather than everything on the intranet, for example), you can encourage them to search earlier and have more faith in the results.

One of the keys within knowledge management, or the design of any information space, is establishing confidence in your audience that your structures form a clear and reliable scope of possibility for the classification of information you support. In other words, your systems are the shelves where they are likely to find their keys and wallet. This means turning searching into finding and the hidden into the found.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

What I'm Playing: Zack & Wiki

I recently started playing a new game for the Wii called Zack & Wiki: Quest for Bardaros' Treasure. It is a puzzle game, built around a crazy story about rabbit pirates, what looks like a flying monkey, and collecting the parts of a pirate's skeleton while searching for the legendary pirate ship. I'm having a great time playing it, my family enjoys watching the game, and I'd recommend it to almost anyone.

Funny thing is, I can't figure out why.

Yes, Zack & Wiki is a lot of fun. Its charming, witty, cute (without being overpowering), as well as challenging. But it also has a host of video game no-no's, each of which would be sufficient to kill any other game. But for some reason, they just don't detract from this one.
  • The game is cute. Undeniably cute. From its stubby young hero Zack to its teddy bear/stuffed lion villains. Even death is cute in this game. (Be prepared to die... a lot!) They show you a baseball card-like profile each time a new character is introduced. Their profile even lists a favorite food for each. This is meaningless fun. But, quite frankly, it is fun. Even for adults. (Perhaps especially for adults.)
  • The plot is pablum and the opening sequence is far, far too long. For the first 10 minutes there is nothing for the player to do but endlessly press A to scroll the text while the characters make various incoherent squeaks and squawks. This alone could kill a game. But, even so, the plot is just crazy enough, and the dialog sarcastic enough to keep you going.
  • Your sidekick, Wiki, is a golden monkey who flies using his helicopter tail, constantly says "Ding!" to get your attention, and changes into a bell when you shake the Wii remote. Say what?!?
  • For the first few stages, there is far too much hand holding. Wiki is constantly interrupting the game to explain the obvious, giving the impression that this is a game just for kids. However, it doesn't take long -- a couple of stages later -- to find that you need to know this stuff to solve the later puzzles. I wish I had paid a little more attention rather than pooh-poohing the helpful advice.
  • The puzzles take the form of a sort of interactive Rube Goldberg device where you have to string a series of tangentially related objects and events together to reach your goal. There are many ways to get the objects and events in the wrong order (this is where death comes in). Some key relationships are arbitrary (or even counter intuitive to trap you), which in other games would be infuriating. But in Zack & Wiki, you need to apply enough real-world logic to work out the puzzles and turn failures into success that it gives a real sense of achievement for each stage completed.

So, why does it work, where so many other erstwhile games would have been felled in their tracks?

... (silence) ...

If you are waiting for me to answer the question, you will be disappointed. Because I really don't know. But I suspect it has something to do with vision and quality.

All of these "flaws" are used consistently within the game. The opening story line is totally in keeping with the graphic design and mechanics of the game play. Similarly the humor is ever present, from the opening sequence, through the tutorial, and into the missions. (Zack's favorite food is candy bars. So whenever you pause or start a new mission, you find him munching on a candy bar. Again, meaningless, but keeping you inside the story.)

There is no manual or step-by-step guide you can follow to achieve this sort of fluidity and seamlessness to a game. It requires someone having a clear vision of what the game is about and helping the development team share that vision and bring it to life. We've seen it before in other games: Mario, Zelda, Katamari, Shadow of the Colossus... Even for games I don't necessarily enjoy playing myself, I can appreciate the intense focus on a vision; games like Gran Turismo or Final Fantasy.

In some cases this sense of clarity evolves over time, iteratively, as with Madden Football or Tony Hawk. With other games it emerges full-blown like a new planet suddenly appearing in the universe, as with Katamari and -- now -- Zack & Wiki.

It is as inexplicable. Or rather, it is undefinable. Like art. Because it is art. I am not trying to get into the debate about whether video games themselves can be art (that is a separate discussion) but there is an art to creating exquisite video games just as there can be art in any activity: baking a cake, building a wall, writing a letter... There is art that is the object and there is art that is the intensity, clarity, and pure focus in the doing of something, in the creation. Video games like Zack & Wiki come from the intensity of the doing. And although we may not be able to name or describe how it is done, we can admire it and be grateful for the gifts that it generates for us as gamers.

Sunday, November 4, 2007

Autobots and Art

While watching TV a couple of weeks ago, I noticed they were doing a review of the Transformers movie, which had just came out on video. I didn't see the actual review, but it started me thinking about the movie (which I saw in the theaters over the summer) and whether it should be recommended. My thinking went along these lines:
  • The movie was "ok". Not good, not bad, but ok.
  • The acting was ok.
  • The plot was ok (for your run-of-the-mill outcast human must battle to save the world with assistance from aliens/animals/robots/whatever)
  • The final fight scene was ok.
  • The filming was ok...
  • It was nothing exceptional, but nothing horrendous.
  • I could imagine someone wanting to rent it, but can't see why anyone would need to own it.

Why? Here is where my thinking ranged beyond mere daydreaming. Transformers are alien robots that disguise themselves as cars, trucks, planes, etc. Pretty much the sole attraction of the original cartoon and spinoff toys is the transformation from robot to car (and back again). Converting this cartoon idea to live action has several potential pitfalls, and the transformations would clearly be one of them. So, obviously, a lot of money was spent on CGM to make this happen.

There are many things wrong with the movie, from the so-so plot to the hammy acting, but that hasn't stopped many a summer action movie from being enjoyable. (Think of innumerable James Bond films.) Unfortunately, it is the basic operation of the transformers themselves where this movie lets you down.

The transformations on screen can best be described as a windstorm in a junk yard. Thousands of metallic bits whirling about. I am sure there was someone on set who could have explained exactly where every piece of the automobile was in each frame -- to prove how "realistic" the transformation is. However, despite any technical veracity, the resulting footage has no emotional truth to it. The animation has the effect of masking the transformation (sort of like Superman's phone booth) rather than making it believable.

By the final fight scene, there is so much whirling, clanking metal it is impossible to tell who's fighting who and which piece of disembodied metal you ought to be rooting for.

So why am I classifying this post as poetry? There is an analogy here to art in general, and certainly poetry as one of the arts.

There have been a number of times in the past when someone has explained to me why a particular work of art deserves attention and admiration. You can stand me in front of one of Chuck Close's larger-than-life portraits and explain how remarkable his technique is, and I can admire that technique on an intellectual level. But I just have to turn to look at one of Franz Kline's seemingly crude black & white paintings to realize how big the difference is between respecting the effort and being enthralled by the result. You feel a Kline painting, you think about a Close portrait.

Similarly, I've had innumerable people explain to me why John Ashbery's Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror is great poetry. So much so, that at this point I have come to despise his work (with two notable exceptions). As gymastic as Ashbery's intellectual efforts are, what the technique does is mask the author's lack of any real feeling for the subject.

Ditto Pound's Cantos. If anything, what I get from reading the Cantos -- instead of awe at his erudition -- is a feeling for how much Pound hates and despises his readers. He literally flings literary and historical minutia in your face in place of any real revelation of emotion.

However, Chuck Close is not a good example -- because in his case, the technique is the primary focus; it is not being used to hide anything. The problem with the Transformers Movie and other works like it is not just an issue of form over function, surface vs. substance, artifice vs. art. The problem occurs specifically when the presentation is used to dazzle and distract the audience from noticing gaps in the argument, whether emotional or intellectual.

Perhaps I am so adamant about this issue because I have been taken in by this trick before. In college I fell for the French surrealists and their antics, several of whom turned out in the end to be more poseurs than probers of the subconscious (with Andre Breton leading the parade). In the case of American poetry, it is often tone or subject matter that is used to stir up the reader in place of any real depth. Diane Wakoski's brash style is very attractive, but in several cases is used to cover an empty shell. (Her long poem, Greed, shows both the good and the bad of this reliance on tone.) The violence of Ai's first book, Cruelty, is captivating. But by the third book, Sin, you begin to doubt the veracity --real or imaginary -- of the feeling. There is only so much imagistic punishment a reader can take before they begin to fight back and say "wait a minute, not everything can be so black..."

As a counter example to Ai, Eleanor Lerman's first two books had that same harsh (yet funny) edge to them. It was 26 years before she published her third book, The Mystery of Meteors. Again you feel the stark, uncompromising view of life. But you also see a woman growing and facing different, sometimes more subtle trials. Here is a true voice bound tightly to emotion, each carrying the other on. They enhance each other and make you feel as if you are seeing a life lived through poetry through the medium of her books.

Perhaps the biggest trap is the use of childhood and illness as fodder for poems. When all else fails, talk about your childhood traumas. I know I sound flippant saying this, but it is a common trap. I've fallen for it; probably every poet has at some point in time. Several poets have made entire careers at this.

Its not that you can't use your childhood as subject material -- everyone does -- but you can't use it as a crutch, as an automatic attention grabber, in place of what poetry deserves. As an example, look at the poetry of Len Roberts. Roberts is a poet I like quite a bit. But he is a good example, since he has both fallen for the temptation and recovered from it.

Roberts' first couple of books were promising. He is a poet of the past, writing autobiographical poems of a tense childhood. And there is a lot of power in those early books.

There is nothing wrong with childhood as a topic. However it is very hard to view your own childhood objectively, and the events that shaped you carry -- for you as author -- immense emotional weight. Roberts' initial poems are brimming with that sense of overpowering emotional conflict.

By his third and fourth books, Roberts starts to move into the present tense. But even when poems start in present tense, they act as triggers for the past:

Pushing the yellow Cougar out of the snow,
its tires spinning muddy slush onto
my good pants, I remember all the men
back on Olmstead Street coming out
at dawn when someone's car was stuck....

-- "Pushing cars out of the snow"

Unfortunately, by now, the past seems more abstracted, more theatrical, more habitual, and its use as an emotional trigger wears thin. The past becomes an easy out, an appealing way to bring a poem to a close with that sense of suspended tension -- an unresolved drama -- as if the lights went out in a theater half way through the last act.

...and I remembered those five a.m.'s when
my father rose to shovel the entire block, his father coming out quickly to join him
moving further and further
apart until they reached the ends of the walk and then,
without one word, without even a wave of the hand, entered their separate doors.

--"The Block"

The problem is that in many cases the drama is not really there. It is imagined, instinctive -- ghostly like pain in a missing leg. And there are only so many times you can leave your audience hanging that way.

Fortunately, Roberts' later poems recover and show less of a tendency to fall for the easy ending, the cliched past tense. He does the hard work that is needed and his poems show it.

As counterpoint, another poet, Sharon Olds, tends in the other direction. Her poems are hewn from the pain, suffering, and terminal illnesses of what seem like an endless collection of family members and other relatives. At first you are taken aback by Olds' frank portrayal of disease and dysfunction. But it doesn't take you long to start doubting everything -- her reactions, the situation itself. There is just too much dissolution and too much hardened angst to believe it would be written this way -- whether real or imagined.

I am not saying Sharon Olds' family hasn't suffered the many mishaps she describes. (I have no idea whether her poems are autobiographical, fictional, or a combination of both. It is not my job as a reader to know that.) I am also not refuting any emotional response she personally may have had to the events described. But as art, the poems rely far too heavily on the reader's visceral reaction to serious illness and drama (and the narrators' reaction to it) and do far too little to weave it into an artistic vision. The poems are blunt, harsh. But their bluntness is the bluntness of a dull weapon, not of raw beauty.

In the end, poetry, like any art, is hard work. No matter how easy the end result appears. Avoiding the quick fix, the emotion-laden set piece, is part of the artist's job, so as not to play fast and loose with the audience's "willing suspension of disbelief".