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Archive for May, 2004

Esther’s Weakness or Strength
Friday, May 14th, 2004

It’s easy to fall into characterizing certain design aspects, like visual features or fixed structures, as if they cater to human weakness. Even if you’re Esther Dyson, and you know better. Esther says I am weak; give me a little struGture please!. There’s nothing wrong with visualness, nothing wrong with rigid structures. In themselves.

These features leverage capabilities we had before we were born. They are resources for memory, for supporting long running activities, for allowing us to move without thinking about moving. And people are resourceful. (Gotta love Esther’s “delete and browse in trash” move.)

Do you think anybody really means it when she apologizes for her messy office? Here’s a picture of Esther in her office that I’ve used for near ten years [thanks to Stu Card from his early Web foraging.] Certainly she’s not thinking she’s weak.


She looks perfectly happy in there, she can find recent documents and ten year old documents. She can find authoritative sources, she can find her phone (maybe). My, my, she’s even found a place to rest her bare feet. And Work gets done. Release 1.0 went our every month (almost). Now that’s an office. Usually people would see the picture and think I was going to talk about the problem. Information Overload. And I do, but then I get to a line like why can’t Microsoft Office be more like Esther Dyson’s office?

Eyes for Text
Tuesday, May 11th, 2004

After years of explaining “Beyond Search” ideas, I’ve found no more evocative a phrase than “Eyes for Text”. Radiating from the phrase are a half dozen ideas.

  • Humans have Eyes for Text. Handed a document, a person can quickly scan the document and extract all kinds of useful information. The key word is useful. It’s human magic that makes that assessment work in such a broad range of conditions.
  • Machines have generally lacked Eyes for Text. They see the same document as a sequence of bytes, when in fact to us it’s really made of words organized in sentences organized in passages, not to mention all kinds of other structure related to conventions, forms, genres, and so on.
  • Humans are blind in the face of large numbers of documents, while machines are blind to what’s in one document. Our human blindness limits our ability to, well, see patterns and anomalies across the whole and connections across elements. While machine blindness means they can’t help us much. It would be a case of the blind leading the blind.
  • Eyes for Text also suggest steps up toward understanding that aren’t necessarily all the way up, say to Brains for Text. So before we solve all the scientific problems of artificial intelligence and cognitive science, we can master a useful set of primitives that certainly must lay on the path in any case.
  • Would we be able to understand what’s in a kitchen, not to mention navigate around it, or make dinner there, if our eyes didn’t pull out useful features like edges, surfaces, corners?
  • And the edges, corners, and surfaces within documents? They are the entities mentioned, the statements made about them, whether they state relationships, events, or facts. And the sequence of these statements tell us about the topics, authority, applicability, and so on of the text.

The first uses of Eyes for Text software engines will still leave humans to perform their magic of knowing what might be useful. However, now aided by machines that can pull out bits of information well enough to deliver them as the human searches or browses, and to create mostly correct, rough sketches of all whats in there. And out there.