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The Cake Folder is a Lie

The Cake Is a LieThe Documentum folder hierarchy is a lie, a contrivance, a GUI-fostered illusion based on a few attributes and hopped-up queries. It pays homage to an outdated metaphor because people take comfort in that reassuring promise of a place for all things, all things in their place. Ugh. Using folders as your primary wayfinding strategy in Documentum is like having a horse pull around your new Ferrari because you don’t want to learn how to drive a car.

I’m not in the camp that thinks fulltext indexing is the magic bullet. I also don’t propose giving people a big, juicy text box and running their DQL statements directly. Sometimes folders are useful for particular tasks like organizing things during lifecycles, workflows, or archiving. Think of it as metadata about the workflow or lifecycle, not the documents themselves: An inbox cabinet for indexers to pick up piecework for instance. It might not be my first choice, but I won’t go postal if a client demands it. Basing object replication off of folder structure though–that’s just silly. Tsk, tsk Documentum!

My distrust of folders started way back in 1994 with my first Documentum project. We committed the usual transgression–having category/subcategory folders AND attributes. Keeping them in sync was a pain in the anatomy; the attributes weren’t repeating and we didn’t have any new-fangled DBOF do-hickey to handle the synchronization automagically. We got so much else right the first time around, but not this. If you must do something similar then please use real taxonomies, custom attributes, and an overridden save method to do the location shuffling.

The basic problem with how people use folders is the desire to taxonomify things by creating elaborate folder trees and putting documents in them. It’s as bad an idea in shared areas as docbases, but everybody does it. Nobody’s happy with it of course. Different people have different ideas about where some things should go or what folders there should be. Couple that with the unnatural fear some users have of documents linked into multiple folders for some really fun times. That’s why a Documentum architect should also be equal parts information architect and animal trainer. It’s a hard behavior to correct in most users especially if you don’t correct them as they’re misbehaving.

One kind of Documentum folder structure abuse drives me completely berserk. I see again and again where occasional Documentum developers will write code to find exactly one document in the docbase by stringing together a complicated folder path instead of querying directly on the attributes that make up the business-defined primary key. It’s also worth mentioning a corollary pet peeve: Query results like repeating attributes can have more than one value; it’s very important to know (1) if you got more than one value and (2) what you should do if that happens. If (2) happens to be “do nothing”, PLEASE put that in a comment before the close collection so the lucky inheritor of your code doesn’t have to ask the question all over again or at least knows why he thinks you’re wrong.

You’d think links and shortcuts would have shattered the tenuous link between metaphor and reality even on the desktop. Hard links in UNIX are the ultimate expression of files not being in just one place; they really aren’t anywhere in that sense. Directory better expresses what’s really going on; your phone number can show up in all kinds of White Book wannabes because they contain references to things, not the things themselves. Let Ernestine worry about which wires go in which holes.

The good news is the folder metaphor is on its way out thanks to new wayfinding strategies on the web and desktop. Some of my younger associates like J. (a twenty-something freshly indoctrinated CompSci PhD) and D. (a BARELY younger, recently forty information architect) are perfectly happy with everything in one folder never to be opened directly. They do their Google Desktop or Mac OSX Spotlight searches to find everything.

I’m not quite willing to go that far just yet given my pathological need to classify things and Container Store fetish for things that contain and organize other things. I have dozens of folders in a shallow GTD-inspired structure on my Macbook that I shuffle around like some people play Solitaire–therapy as much as organization. My typical user who stores all non-Documentum content in sequoia-sized folder trees on Windows shared areas is the one who needs to be stopped. I’m personally hoping for massive deforestation as people like D. and J. take charge of these information wildernesses. Hmmm, maybe I’ll name my next scratch docbase papermill or james-gaius-watt.

Apple and Google are taking a middle-of-the-road approach to breaking users of the folder habit. Both provide pseudo-folder functionality as well as full-blown total desktop search. GMail and Google Reader use tagging but represent the tags as folders. It looks familiar, but it isn’t beholden to the metaphor’s limits. Apple added smart folders and lists to applications like the Finder, Mail, and iTunes. They’re really just saved queries that look like differently-colored folder icons instead of the unfamiliar look of dm_queries and smart lists. I use them all the time in Mail and iTunes but much less frequently in Finder because mail messages and media files come with plenty of metadata built in.

Hmmm, d-brat would love them given his obsession with changing folder icons in desktop client; maybe he should get a Macbook or an iPhone.

The irony here is that Documentum folders are just queries underneath already, just like Apple’s “new” smart folders. The problem is that Documentum tries too hard to behave like folders and confuses people when the old metaphor can’t hold up, like when changing a folder’s security doesn’t impact its contents. It also doesn’t help when an accidental drag-drop means your manager can’t find that critical report on that one day of the month when he braves the wilds of the docbase. Until people give up folders for better wayfinding strategies, it’s time to roll up a newspaper and correct bad behavior when it happens.

Bad user! *thwak* Bad! Look at this stinky folder mess all over my brand new docbase!

Pandora’s Beat Box

Pandora drives another nail into the coffin of the traditional (can we now say legacy) music industry. Instead of a broadcast model, you create “stations” by choosing one or more seed songs. Then Pandora finds similar songs based on a complex categorization system [The Music Genome Project].

I never really listened to regular radio for lots of reasons: Advertising, blathering DJs, no “skip” button to bypass the 90% crappy programming. I’d listen to NPR in the car sometimes, but thankfully they podcast everything now. My brief flirtation with iPod radio transmitters is also thankfully moot with MusicLink and the aux port in the Civic. Yes, I use two iPods in my car at once. That’s another story though.

Internet radio has some strong benefits over regular broadcast: Tailored content, less talking, no advertising, full remote control functions, being able to see previously played songs for follow-up. We’ll see if it survives the changes to the royalties fee structure though. Thing is, I’d still skip lots of songs. The categories are still too broad, assuming I even know what they mean. Anybody have a good taxonomy that explains house, tribal, and all those other exotic species? Problem solved with Pandora.

Pandora’s genius is the correct man-machine division of labor. Experts (humans) classify songs across hundreds of dimensions, genes in their speak. They do what humans do best, recognize complex patterns and subtle traits in analog. Then machines do what they do best: Suggest music by crunching those hundreds of genes across millions of songs to find similarities that a listener might not even perceive. Human experts classify individual songs and machines crunch the entire database. Perfect.

After seeding the station, Pandora gathers listener feedback (thumbs up/down on suggestions) to fine-tune each station; I skip fewer and fewer songs. The adaptive icing on the cake. This is all great for me, but what’s the business incentive here?

This is what radio-industry-asaurus doesn’t get: I find new music that I like, stuff I’d absolutely never even look at otherwise, and buy it. My Touch goes places where internet access is limited or non-existent. Will that change if/when ubiquitous internet access becomes available? Perhaps, but I wouldn’t hold my breath for iPods and paperback books to become obsolete anytime soon.

Like most iTunes users, my purchases dropped off after an initial feeding frenzy. I hunted down all those albums from the vinyl/tape days that I couldn’t find on disc and the singles from otherwise worthless albums. Pandora does what you’d expect from a smart Web 2.0 application: It lets you click on songs and buy them directly from Amazon (a little clunky) or iTunes (smooth as expected). You can also bookmark the song or the artist for later consideration. Pandora makes my life easier with useful personalization and helps pay the bills with some web services smarts.

I came across another music site, iLike, on Facebook. Comparing music with friends doesn’t lead to new music purchases though. Reading a Facebook page or the “What’s New” iTunes emails doesn’t entice me to buy. Actually hearing music does. I’ll keep using iLike because it provides concert and album release announcements for artists I’ve bookmarked, something Pandora doesn’t do.

Now I will admit to something embarrassing. My Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This) station suggested a Britney Spears song, Heaven on Earth. And I really like it. And I bought it. I would never have bought anything like this without Pandora. Oh joy, another reason to avoid letting friends scroll through my Touch’s music library.

Unlike Pandora’s Lunchbox (love the name, the food not so much), this Pandora lives up to its mythic namesake. Try it and let me know what you think.

No Joy in Geekville Tonight

Three things vex me tonight:

The WordPress visual editor still doesn’t work right in Safari. I reported the bug over a month ago; somebody just posted a hack-around. Maybe the applet isn’t theirs. I suppose I should track down the actual owner and follow up there. Bleh once.

Bluehost doesn’t support MediaWiki, neither directly nor through Fantastico. The two wikis they do offer just don’t compare. I should bite the bullet, manually install and maintain MediaWiki. WordPress upgrades with Fantastico have been so effortless; I’m feeling a little too spoiled to do that right now. Bleh twice.

I haven’t found a suitable plug-in for versioning WordPress posts yet. The two I found didn’t look encouraging. I know from my day job just how dangerous versioning done wrong can be, so this isn’t something I’d try on my live sites. My options (clone and test, roll my own plug-in, hack up a publish-to-Wordpress from something like subversion or alfresco) all sound like work as well as potentially wonderful learning experiences. More time hacking, less time blogging. Bleh thrice.

So in keeping with my goal of blogging more, I decided to complain about all three rather than actually do anything about them. Maybe some kind reader will motivate me with an inspiring comment or silver-platter me with effortless solutions. Maybe. “Kindness of strangers” and all that.

For now, productively unproductive. I sense perl mongers drinking beer nearby…

I Should Know Better

Apparently I need a document management system for blogging. Oh the irony.

The day was off to a great start with breakfast occurring entirely in the AM. Scoble’s post on why enterprise software isn’t sexy caught my eye between order and omelet. Documentum, hot or not? Hmmm. After coffee in the Square (replete with fat and saucy squirrels) I headed home with an outline in my head. The first draft was done five hours after walking in the door. It felt like five minutes. Easy enough, right?

Yeah, right. I knew I was in trouble when I didn’t make it through the first proofread before heading back to the WYSIWYG editor to move paragraphs around. And change paragraphs. And delete paragraphs. And rewrite paragraphs. The changes cascaded until the whole idea imploded, leaving me feeling drained and empty-handed after seven hours of work. I don’t have a great track record of finishing a draft after an implosion like this regardless of how much serviceable material remains.

Editing a long post feels like bending a wire hanger: Each time makes it more brittle and deformed until it finally snaps–verbal metal fatigue. (I love a good physics analogy.) Right about now I’d be pulling up a version history if this were a design document or a piece of code. Maybe it’s time to treat blogging like “real work” and look for a WordPress/subversion plug-in. At least I’ll learn more about subversion and perhaps even recover my also-failed draft about the WordPress plug-in architecture. Ugh.

I don’t have this problem coding, but that’s more like forging a sword than bending a hanger. A tight code/compile/test loop proofs each change against the whole of the code and works out any code fatigue before the whole thing falls apart. That digital temper/hammer/quench keeps the right balance of hard and ductile to move forward at each stage.

It probably also helps that a machine doesn’t tolerate nonsense like a big text box or a human reader will. Hmmm. Maybe my next post will be entirely perl poetry.

My BlackBerry Knows Where I Am

I’m in NYC to see people and catch Suzanne Vega later tonight. And my BlackBerry knows it thanks to “My Location” on Google Maps.

No big deal in a GPS world, right? I don’t have GPS though. Google’s doing some kind of rough triangulation based on cell phone towers which so far has been much more accurate than the 1.7 km disclaimer. Urbanites faring better is no surprise given the density of towers here and in Philly. Not sure what extras Google has in store, but it’s free and it’s geeky-cool and gives me Google Maps (and traffic and search) with less Suretyping–and that’s a Good Thing.

I looked at GPS units for road trips during my time between but they’re still bulky and/or expensive. Will “My Location” be enough? The price sure is right. Especially since I still haven’t taken one road trip into unknown territory in my two months off.

Android starting to make more sense to you last few Luddites out there? Google gets phones. They are making me get phones, and I HATE phones. More precisely, I get all my Google stuff on my phone, my Touch, my boxes, and even at kiosks with a well-scaled experience.

My iPhoned friends should particularly rejoice given the obvious synergy between this feature and their interface. First time since my Touch shacked up with my BlackBerry that it’s been jealous of its older brother.

From the Blackberry Pearl of John Kominetz

More Vista Hating from the Trenches

Microsoft has finally inspired Apple-like passion in their customers. Too bad they’re passionately hating rather than loving it. Of course Apple couldn’t resist kicking Microsoft while it’s down in their latest ad [Podium]. I hope Gates and Ballmer have cardiologists on call.

Anecdotes from friends have been uniformly bad. My friend T is not in the industry, but he knows more than the average computer user. Here’s what he wrote after encountering Vista on his parents’ computer:

P.S. Not sure if you’ve experienced it yet, but Windows Vista SUCKS!!! It takes about 2 more clicks through menus to do just about everything! Why did they have to f*ck with XP????

Vista hasn’t touched a single machine in my home and probably never will. Pundits are calling for Microsoft to drop Vista completely, go gangbusters on Windows 7, and do a few extra-special XP service packs in the meantime. That doesn’t seem like crazy talk given the vitriol that’s still building against this product almost a year after launch.

I suppose I’ll have to use Vista at a client eventually, but I bet it won’t be my next one–or even the one after that! Granted most of my clients have huge installations and some laggards are just rolling out XP to the frontiers. However, there seems to be enough Vista hating in the press that the herd animal mentality will kick in and have companies fleeing Vista en masse.

Goose That Laid the Golden EggsWith this talk of Microsoft going into the ad business to chase Google’s golden-egg-laying goose now that they’ve killed their own, I’m really beginning to question Microsoft’s competence instead of just their motives. What have they done in the last ten months to address either the technical or perception problems with Vista? Not much. It’s certainly making room for innovation to return to the operating system market with the likes of Apple, Google, and Ubuntu eager to cook Microsoft’s goose even more. What really makes me smile is how open source UNIX is the foundation of this revolution.