Names on a Memorial: Oklahoma City

(This posting was originally intended for publication during the 12th anniversary week of the Oklahoma City bombing. That week also saw Yom HaShoa [Holocaust Martyrs’ Remembrance Day] and the anniversaries of the Columbine High School massacre and the Branch Davidian fire. Next year, this same week will be the first anniversary of the shootings at Virginia Tech. This year, at the end of the week, I found renewal at a concert for the 38th Earth Day.

My posting therefore acknowledges another memorial, one without names, The Man with Two Hats, which honors the Canadian role in the liberation of the Netherlands during World War Two. Henk Visch’s statue of a man with arms upraised, holding a hat in each hand, is located in both Ottawa and Apeldoorn and was first dedicated in the Netherlands on May 2, 2000.

At the Ottawa dedication on May 11, 2002, the Canadian Minister of Veterans Affairs, Dr. Rey D. Pagtakhan, a Philippine immigrant, commented that these statues would demonstrate “the true test of friendship — of one country to another.” Every year since liberation, Holland shows its gratitude with a gift to Canada of 10,000 tulip bulbs.)

The Mayor of New York City, Michael Bloomberg, yielded to pressure from the 9/11 families and announced a new arrangement of names for the World Trade Center Memorial. Random is out and affiliation is in. Almost. All names are to be listed with others in their affiliation. While rescue workers’ unit affiliations will be fully expressed, corporate affiliations will not. Even American Airlines and United Airlines are excluded. Only flight numbers will be on the Memorial. Not surprisingly, the families remain unsatisfied. They want ages, floor numbers and corporate names.

The Oklahoma City National Memorial, designed by Hans and Torrey Butzer with Sven Berg, symbolically achieves all of that. The names of those who died on April 19, 1995 are engraved onto chairs sitting in the footprint of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building. The arrangement is geographic, with nine rows of chairs symbolizing the nine story building. Names are located on the floor they were on when they died, divided by agency, left to right, replicating the location of offices in the building. Names of employees and visitors are alphabetical within agency.

Five people died outside the Murrah Building. In alphabetical order, they are listed singly in a vertical line of chairs at the end of every other floor. The name on the first floor is Rebecca Anderson, a rescuer. Then one name from the Water Resources Building, two names from the Athenian Building and another from Water Resources.

Abandoning the geographic arrangement, alphabetical order for the non-Murrah names separates the two Water Resources employees. But if those names were arranged by building, where would that leave Rebecca Anderson? She didn’t have a building. She walked into the ruin and died when part of the Murrah Building fell on her. In this case, selecting alphabetical order puts the rescuer in the first position.

A solution for the non-Murrah names would be to organize them by building, with the person not associated with a building at first or last. Rebecca died entering the ruin where the first floor had been. So placing her name first makes sense. This fulfils the geographic theme of the arrangement, keeps the names in each of the exterior buildings together, and still places the rescuer in the honored position on the first floor.

The designers made another organizational decision that is somewhat bizarre. Four married couples died at the Social Services Administration (SSA) on the first floor. Each couple followed the tradition of sharing the same last name. For them, alphabetical order was ignored to place the husband’s name first. Research indicates the purpose was to keep the tradition implied by “husband and wife” or “Mr. and Mrs.” The alphabet has a tradition too, so it seems an odd choice to make in the first year of the 21st Century, when the Memorial was dedicated.

If I were to change alphabetical order, I would place three children with their grandparents. Peachlyn Bradley, three years old, and her brother Gabreon Bruce, three months old, died at the SSA with their grandmother Cheryl Hammon. The accident of alphabetical order places Peachlyn and Gabreon together, but seven chairs separate them from Cheryl. LaRue and Luther Treaner died with their four year old granddaughter Ashley Eckles. They are now separated by 21 chairs.

Since the designers were open to changing the alphabet, each trio could have remained together, Cheryl surrounded by her grandchildren and Ashley by her grandparents. Theirs were the two families that lost three people. Keeping these loved ones together on the Memorial would have been a small, but perhaps meaningful gift.

For the World Trade Center (WTC), adding floor numbers to the names would help demonstrate that the highest numbers of deaths occurred above the point of impact in both buildings. The Oklahoma City Memorial geographically shows the location of the greatest number of deaths by arranging the names into a concentration of chairs, with more chairs in the middle and fewer chairs toward the right and left edges.

The bomb exploded directly under the cribs in America’s Kids Child Development Center on the second floor. The most remembered image of that day is a fireman carrying the limp body of a baby. This bombing killed a lot of babies. The Memorial acknowledges their deaths by giving children smaller chairs.

It’s an elegant arrangement, with just a couple of misses. Using only names and chairs, the designers showed affiliation, age, level of destruction, and location of death by floor, office and exterior to the Murrah Building.

They did one more thing. The Memorial’s Survival Wall lists the names of more than 800 who experienced and survived the blast. They did not die, but they certainly had a life-changing experience. Offering them a part of the Memorial honors their suffering, gives them a place for contemplation, and helps visitors understand the enormity of the crime.

Survivors’ names are alphabetized within the buildings, which are also in alphabetical order. The original plan was to arrange the building names geographically, but it was felt that the primary target needed to be first.  Alphabetical order places the Alfred P. Murrah Building at the front of the list. (Linenthal, 2001)

I wish the World Trade Center Memorial would consider honoring the survivors of 9/11. I am not suggesting the names of everyone in the WTC on September 11, 2001 be listed. That is probably impossible to know. However, the names of companies with offices in the WTC could be engraved onto the Memorial, giving thousands of people with horrific experiences a place of solace and a place for their own memories. For reasons that have not been explained, corporate names are disallowed and the World Trade Center Memorial continues to miss the opportunity to fully serve its community of 9/11 survivors and families.

(I am grateful to Brad Robison, Director of the Terrorism Information Center at the Memorial Institute for the Prevention of Terrorism in Oklahoma City. I contacted Brad during the anniversary week and appreciate his taking the time to answer my questions.)

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Names on a Memorial: Jessie C. Alba

(Today’s post honors Charlotte Winters, the last female U.S. veteran of World War I, who died last week at the age of 109.)

Reading the Vietnam Veterans Memorial (VVM) from left to right, like a book, Jessie C. Alba is the last name on the memorial. Because the names are listed in chronological order of casualty, visitors often think he was the last to die, but the VVM is not intended to be read like a book. 

It is intended to be experienced as a circle, with the names beginning at the center vertex and continuing east. The first half ends with Jessie, who died on May 25, 1968. Visitors then must
traverse the full length of the Wall to the far west panel for the next May 25th name, John H. Anderson. The names then proceed in chronological order, alphabetical within each date, back to the center vertex, completing the circle.

The first name for July 8, 1959, and therefore the first name at the top of Panel IE in the center vertex, is Dale R. Buis. He was watching a movie with his unit when a sniper attacked. The final names, from May 15, 1975, are on Panel 1W, one panel to the west of 1E. These eighteen died during the rescue of the S. S. Mayaguez and its crew. Richard Vandegeer is the last name on the Wall, not Jessie C. Alba.

Many first time visitors don’t get the circle metaphor, which I believe is the weakest element of the Wall. The entrance to the VVM is not in the center, but at the west or east for a linear, not a circular experience. Rather than a meaningful symbol, the circle seems like a quirk of this memorial. I’mnot complaining. Who knows what details allowed a 21 year old college student to win the VVM competition and to overcome the extreme controversy of her design? This was Maya Lin’s first major work. Some of her subsequent pieces also include circles. If she wants the beginning and the end in the middle, that’s her prerogative as the artist.

But it leaves the problem of Jessie C. Alba. Rather than the last to die, Jessie is the first name of those who died on May 25, 1968. A Texan, Sergeant Alba belonged to the Army’s 101st Airborne Division, Delta Company.  He died on the ground in Thua Thien-Hue at age 20. His is the last name on the last panel to the east, Panel 70E. The other 88 names for May 25th begin 140 panels to the west on Panel 70W.

One of the advantages of the chronology is the listing together of all names who died in a battle on a given day. I discussed this feature of the Wall in my 1/15/07 post, “Comrades in Vietnam and the Somme.” The arrangement design allows survivors of a battle to visit one area of the Wall, find their comrades and relive the experience. The Memorial to the Missing of the Somme achieves the same goal by listing regiments together. In that arrangement, the flow for three regiments is disrupted to promote Edwin Lutyens’ architecture (see my 2/4/07 post, A Path Among the Missing).

Rather than promoting architecture, I believe the Wall got caught up in its own rules — chronological order, alphabetical order within dates and no space to indicate a new date. But the VVM also has rules for keeping comrades together. Those who died of injuries are listed with the date of injury not the date of death. The missing are listed with the day they went missing. Because the first rules were slavishly followed, the intention of the second rules was lost for Jessie.

An information arrangement is built by rules – the rule of the alphabet, the rule of chronology, or something more complex. Information arrangers often get caught up in their own rules, forgetting they were created to serve a goal. When a rule becomes more important than the goal, it’s time to rethink the rules. Here’s another rule for the Wall. If one name is left hanging at the end of 70E, it can be moved to the top of 70W.

As it happens, Jessie was the only one in his unit to die on May 25, 1968. The nearest chronological deaths for Delta Company are Elroy E. Beier, May 5, 1968, on Panel 55E and Nickolas G. Garcia, April 22, 1969 on Panel 26W. Alba and Beier arrived in Vietnam on the same day, December 14, 1967. Garcia arrived on April 27, 1968, a month before Jessie died, eight days before Elroy died.

Perhaps it doesn’t matter that Jessie is all by himself on that farthest panel. His buddies probably don’t know anyone else who died on May 25, 1968. But now Jessie belongs to another group. He belongs to the group who died on that day and it does matter that he is separated by 140 panels from the other members of his group. It matters to his fiancé, Mary Ann Lopez, who wrote on the The Wall-USA, “In 1996 I got a chance to see the Vietnam wall with his name on it and since I got there at night time it was so overwhelming for me. The wall is so huge and very scary in a way. I finally found his name and how ironic it was that his name is the last one almost all by itself at the end.”

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Apr 2007

Names on a Memorial: A Path Among the Missing

(These essays in the “Names on a Memorial” series are sometimes published on significant days of mourning.  The previous post, Comrades in Vietnam and the Somme, was on Martin Luther King’s birthday.  February 4 is the birthday of my grandmother Margaret Hardeman Applegate.  Her husband and my grandfather, Julian Eugene Applegate, served with the U.S. Marines in WWI at Belleau Wood in France.  Severely injured on the first day of battle, he spent the rest of the war in a Parisian hospital.  My grandmother met him after he came home.)

The names on the Memorial to the Missing of the Somme in Thiepval are arranged on 16 piers in British Army Order of Precedence.  The path among the piers emphasizes Edwin Lutyens’ magnificent architecture and the inspirational view, along a trail of adjacent panels that generally keeps regiment names in proximity.  If the names in a regiment encompass two panels, most visitors need only turn a corner or cross an aisle. Thiepval memorializes 163 units; five require three panels to list their missing.

A map of the Memorial shows 16 piers in four rows of four, with two rows to the south, two to the north, and a wide middle aisle with east and west steps leading to the central Stone of Remembrance.  The Stone, also designed by Lutyens, is placed in all larger military cemeteries of the British Commonwealth.  It looks like an altar and Lutyens wanted to call it that, but his friend James M. Barrie, author of Peter Pan and Wendy, convinced him that Presbyterians would prefer the word “Stone” (Stamp, 2006, p. 78).

The entrance to the Memorial is on the east.  The west side features a terrace and a sunset view of the cemetery.  The base is approximately 8 feet high, with the panels above at about twice that.  The exterior panels on the east and west are viewed from the ground or the terrace, so the highest names are about 24 feet above where the visitor stands.  There are no names on the exterior north and south panels.  In the interior, you can stand next to the panels and touch the lower names, but many names are too high to reach.

Order of precedence creates a path of names within the Memorial.  The piers and faces in path order are listed after this post.  Using the map, you can easily follow the trail.  It begins at the south side of the front exterior (1A, 8A).  Visitors enter the Memorial and walk up to the Stone of Remembrance and down to the west.  Cross the main aisle, walk up to the Stone of Remembrance again and down to the east.  Exit the Memorial to view the names at the north side of the exterior front (9A, 16A).  To get to the next panel (8C), visitors must return to the entrance, crossing one pier and the central aisle and again climbing the first flight of stairs.  The interior panels are fully contiguous, leading ultimately to a panel near the front (9C).  For the final panels, visitors again walk up to the Stone of Remembrance and down to the west.  Exit the Memorial onto the terrace, cross one pier to the north and then walk south along the terrace with the four final panels (13C, 12C, 5C, 4C) to the east and the cemetery view to the west.

This path of names demonstrates decisions of arrangement design.  Assuming that Lutyens’s architecture was non-negotiable, the Thiepval arrangement serves three goals:  (1) the path should follow order of precedence, (2) the path should keep regiment names together on contiguous panels, and (3) the path should enhance the architecture.  The design of 16 piers only allows two of these goals to be fully met.  Order of precedence was the priority, so a decision was made between keeping regiment names together or enhancing the architecture.

The designers of the path chose to enhance the architecture.  The path begins at the front of the Memorial, includes three walks alongside the Stone of Remembrance, twice exits the Memorial, and ends at the west terrace with a sunset view of the cemetery.  In making that decision, the path designers disrupted the names of two regiments.

The Royal Fusiliers of the City of London Regiment are one of the five units with names on three faces of the Memorial piers (9A, 16A, 8C).  Their names begin with the second walk along the front exterior of the Memorial.  Then visitors must cross one pier, re-enter the Memorial, cross the central aisle and climb the first flight of stairs to get to the third panel.  Near the end, the names of the London Scottish 14th Battalion London Regiment (9C, 13C) are disrupted by a third walk along the Stone of Remembrance, completely traversing the Memorial from front to back and arriving at the terrace cemetery view.

As an expert in information arrangement, I, of course, believe that keeping the names contiguous is far more important than admiring magnificent architecture, but a primary skill of arrangement is working within parameters to meet the collection’s goals.  The goal of the Thiepval Memorial is to mourn the dead and inspire the living.

Lutyens’ WWI architecture eloquently serves this goal.  His Cenotaph at Whitehall in London is inscribed with the years 1914 and 1919 and a simple phrase selected by Rudyard Kipling, “The Glorious Dead.”  At Thiepval, the massive size, the Stone of Remembrance, and the stirring view all honor sacrifice in war.  By promoting an emotional architectural experience, the path of names contributes to this theme, perhaps inspiring future generations to fight again.  And they did fight again.  The Cenotaph was later inscribed with the dates 1939 and 1945.

Path of Names at the Memorial to the Missing of the Somme, Thiepval (See map:

1A, 8A     South front exterior of the Memorial

8D, 7D, 6D, 5D     Enter the Memorial, then up the stairs on the south side of the Stone of Remembrance and down the stairs to the west.

12B     Cross the central aisle on the west side

11B, 10B, 9B     Up stairs on the north side of the Stone and down to the east

9A, 16A     Exit to the north front exterior

8C     Cross one pier to the south, re-enter the Memorial, continue south across the central aisle, climbing the first flight of stairs

8B, 1D, 1C, 2A, 2D, 2C, 3A, 3D, 3C, 4A, 4D, 5B, 5A, 6C, 6B, 6A, 7C, 7B, 7A     Interior of south piers

10A     Cross the center aisle to the north

10D, 10C, 11A, 11D, 11C, 12A, 12D, 13B, 13A, 14C, 14B, 14A, 15C, 15B, 15A, 16C, 16B, 9D, 9C     Interior of north piers

13C     Up the stairs on the north side of the Stone, then down to the west, exit onto the terrace, and cross one pier to the north.

12C, 5C, 4C     Walk south along the terrace overlooking the cemetery to the west

(I am grateful to Peter Francis, Media & PR Manager of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, for providing the map and the list of regimental locations on the Memorial.)

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Feb 2007

Names on a Memorial: Comrades in Vietnam and the Somme

While writing her proposal essay for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial (VVM) competition, Maya Lin was influenced by the Memorial to the Missing of the Somme in Thiepval, France.  Designed by architect Edwin Lutyens, this WWI memorial honors 72,000 Britons, Indians and South Africans who went missing from the Somme battlefield, primarily during five months in 1916.  The VVM honors 58,000 dead and missing during 20 years from 1956 to 1975. Lin’s essay emphasizes placement of the VVM within the context of the National Mall.  I believe she was inspired by Thiepval’s site on a hill overlooking a cemetery.  Lutyen’s memorial magnificently overwhelms the French countryside.  While the VVM is overwhelming only when you get close to it, Lin’s work tends to be site specific, so it is natural that she would emphasize placement in her essay.

Lutyens’ Thiepval design interweaves six arches on a square of sixteen piers, spanning the length and width of the building.  The arches increase in size as they decrease in number.  Two north-south arches are intersected by two taller east-west arches, intersected by one even larger north-south arch, and finally intersected by the tallest east-west arch rising almost to the height of the edifice.

The names of the missing are engraved on the 16 piers.  They are organized by British Army Order of Precedence, which determines how regiments appear on the parade ground.  Within each regiment, names are listed by rank and within each rank, in alphabetical order.  Like the VVM, the Thiepval memorial requires an index to locate individual names.

Also like the VVM, the arrangement places comrades close to each other.  Prior to Vietnam, military personnel were often mustered into local regiments and sent off to war. In WWI, British towns sacrificed a generation of young men into fighting squads with names like Kensington Battalion and Cheshire Regiment.  Organizing the missing of the Somme by unit not only combines those who fought together, but also those who lived together in their civilian towns.  Military survivors remember comrades.  Townspeople remember neighbors.

In traditional wars, like WWI, military personnel mustered together and fought together throughout the entire conflict.  Survivors returned home at the same time and, if they won, they had a parade.  Vietnam changed that.  Individuals were sent at different times, stayed for a few years and returned alone.  No parade and no comradeship within the entire regiment.  Vietnam veterans remember those who served at the same time, not those who served in their unit several years before they arrived.  For Vietnam veterans, chronology, not unit, gathers comrades together.

(My thanks to Peter Francis, Media & PR Manager of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, for his invaluable help in my research on the Thiepval memorial.)

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Names on a Memorial: Findability and the Alphabet

The benefits of random are equality and insignificance.  Both attributes contributed to Michael Arad’s theme of “Reflecting Absence,” in his random display of victims’ names at the World Trade Center Memorial.  For Arad, random represented the “the haphazard brutality of the attacks.”  But random costs findability, making it difficult to locate one name among thousands.  Arad’s solution was an index, like the index at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC.

Even with an index, many family members and their organizations objected to the random arrangement.  For them, random symbolized desperate missing person fliers and spontaneous walls of memory.  Random recalled failed searches that for many did not even provide the remains of a body.  Arad probably did not consider the symbolism of findability.

His theme is absence not missing persons and, as an arrangement novice, he missed the shattering unintended consequence.

Of course, findability is easily solved by replacing random with alphabetical order, a solution immediately suggested when the controversy erupted.  Alphabetical order is almost a variation of random.  Every name is equal.  Placement has no meaning other than the accident of letters.  Of course, it is not haphazard, a primary focus of Arad’s theme, and would have decreased the impact of absence.  But at least you could find each name.  No need for an index.  The whole Memorial is an index.

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Information Arrangement in the ER

I had the opportunity to work on an emergency blog that grew from one of the environmental crises we have experienced too often in recent years.  The blog was a primary source of survival information.  Local bloggers in the disaster area posted emergency resources with increasing frequency as the rescue progressed.

When I entered the project, the blog’s long list of time-based postings made it difficult to find targeted information.  The best contribution I make is always structure and the blog’s lead team was ready.  We triaged categories, developing the most urgent into separate pages.  Instead of a chronology of postings, we organized by location and alphabet.  It’s a fast technique with immense ROI.  The investment was a few minutes of cleaning data and sorting.  The return was a logical and efficient structure offering a calm interaction for desperate people.

I immediately started pulling all-nighters.  Sleep was a challenge.  Wake up and the whole crew had changed, but the new volunteers were eager to help.  Local bloggers inside the disaster sent us lists of emergency services with as much contact data as they could gather.  The lists were always random.  These bloggers were too busy surviving and looking for relatives to think about structure.

My team sat in safe offices, an eternity away from the disaster.  Instead of the shirts off our backs, we gave extra minutes of organizing.  The effort at our end saved critical time for survivors, time that could be the line between life and death.

We were soon approached by a computer professional.  The next priority was a list of emergency responders.  The computer pro took the project and did pretty well on the location part.  But here’s what we got for an alphabetized list of names, substituting characters from the TV show ER.

Abby Lockhart, RN Dr. Doug Ross Elizabeth Corday, MD Jeanie Boulet, PA
Benton, Peter, MD Dr. Greene, Mark Finch, Dr. Cleo Kerry Weaver, MD
Carter, Dr. John Dr. Malucci, Dave Gregory Pratt, MD Luka Kovac, MD
Dr. Anna Del Amico Dr. Romano, Robert Hathaway, Carol, RN Mr. Michael Gallant
Dr. Chen, Deb Jing-Mei Dr. Susan Lewis Intern Ray Barnett Ms Knight, Lucy

When I explained the problem, the pro got hysterical.  That was how the names had been originally delivered.  To correct the error, someone would have to go in and manually change the names and no one in their right mind would do that.  It was the only fight I experienced in the blog’s otherwise cooperative atmosphere.

The list of emergency responders had about 100 names and would have taken possibly 15 minutes to clean up.  Fifteen minutes for people in dire stress.  But for our pro, that was cheating.  If desperate people had to spend extra time in the midst of chaos, well, that’s just the rules of the game.  The computer pro put marginal mechanics above human suffering, even as the blog team changed all the rules and cheated death.

Technical certificates do not equal a talent for information display nor do they indicate an understanding of information’s service component.  In the previous July 26 posting, retail environmentalists naively combined navigational categories with product categories.  Like the computer pro, they don’t understand the basics of arranging information for display.  But unlike the pro, they understand service.  They’re serving the earth, doing what they do best by distributing innovative environmental products.  When I had the opportunity to join a rescue effort with bloggers who served 110%, I did what I do best and taught the team to think structurally.  The computer pro was too absorbed by a machine to offer the best.

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Aug 2006

Apples and Tomatoes

Just discovered an environmentally friendly online store with terrific products and confusing design.  I’m planning to write a series of posts about this site to explain some of the concepts of information arrangement.  It’s a real Website maintained by environmental retailers for online sales.

Product links and the usual navigation links are in one list along the left side of the page.  That list follows this posting.  Except for the initial entry, it’s in alphabetical order.  Home Page and About Us are the first categories, followed by some products.  Within the alphabetical list are two more navigation categories, Contact Us and Links.  Conventional Web design might place these four categories in a navigation bar across the top of the page.  But we’re not interested in conventional Web design.  We’re interested in information arrangement and this list is confusing.

At first glance, the structure seems to be for typical navigation because Home Page and About Us are the top categories.  But then I see Adhesives & Strippers in third place and now I’m in products.  So I’m reading along the list, thinking I’m in products, and out jumps Contact Us in the C’s.  That’s not a product and by now my mind is distracted from shopping and more stuff invades my brain, like how come Contact Us isn’t with the other navigation categories and how come they aren’t in a separate bar across the top of the page?

Since I’m distracted, even more stuff invades my brain, like visiting another site or getting back to an important project.  So much for that environmental sale.  But let’s say I decide to keep on reading the list.  Now I know the navigation links are scattered among the product links.  Since I am looking for two things, I am not fully focused on buying.  As it happens, the Links link in the L’s is the last purely navigational category, but I don’t know that.  So my attention is divided between buying and navigating all the way down to Vacuum Cleaners.

The site owners were probably trying to make things easy.  After all, everyone understands alphabetical order.  However, by combining the apples and tomatoes of wildly different category types, they only managed to add one more obstacle on the perilous journey to checkout.

This is a simple exercise.  Most Web sites separate typical navigation links from content links.  But information arrangement is practiced in many forms and many situations.  When you build a structure, the first step is to think about what is being organized and then base your arrangement on that analysis.  The fact that all your categories contain words doesn’t mean they all belong in the same alphabet.

Here’s the original list of categories.

Home Page

About Us

Adhesives & Strippers

Air Purification

Allergy Relief

Baby Products

Bathroom Care

Carpet Care

Clean Air Safe Room

Clear Finishes & Stains

Contact Us

Cotton/Wool Bedding

Disinfect & Deodorize

Emergency Water Damage

Furnace Filters

Furniture Care

General Cleaning

Hard Floor Care

Home Test Kits


Infrared Thermography

In Home Consultation

Kitchen Care

Laundry Care


Mattress & Pillow Protectors

Mold Inspection

Natural Bamboo Flooring

Natural Cork Flooring

Natural Hardwood Flooring

Natural Linoleum Flooring

Natural Mattresses

Natural Wool Carpet

Organic Cotton Sheets

Organic Cotton Towels

Paints & Primers

Personal Air Purification

Personal Care

Pest & Insect Control

Pet Care

Professional Carpet Cleaning

Replacement Filters

Salt Crystal Lamps


Vacuum Cleaners

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Jul 2006

Steps to an Ecology of Similarity and Difference

In Steps to an Ecology of Mind, Gregory Bateson includes “Form, Substance, and Difference,” his lecture to the Institute of General Semantics.  The Institute promotes the theories of Alfred Korzybski, best known for the idea that the map is not the territory.  Bateson carries this metaphor to the next level with his own theory that “information is a difference that makes a difference.”  Features on a map are features of difference.  A town is different from a road which is different from an elevation.  Together they define the territory that the map represents.  Together they define a similarity.

Like a map, taxonomy describes differences within similarities.  Taxonomy construction analyzes concepts and their ecological relation to each other and to the domain.  Within the domain are the differences that make a difference.  They are the smaller units of knowledge, each with its own ecology.  The resulting hierarchy describes the relationship of the units in a clear display of similarities and differences.

In his lecture, Bateson refers to Immanuel Kant’s idea “that the most elementary assertive act is the selection of a fact.”  Kant used the example of a piece of chalk and Bateson amplifies the example, saying “there is an infinite number of differences around and within the piece of chalk.  There are differences between the chalk and the rest of the universe, between the chalk and the sun or the moon.”

A primary skill of taxonomy construction is the selection of the differences that make a difference.  All domains contain infinite differences, so the taxonomist selects those that the user values.  A chalk taxonomy probably would not mention the moon, even though there is a clear difference between the moon and a piece of chalk.  Domain knowledge and client knowledge are keys here, along with a talent for designing organizational structures.  If selecting a fact is the most elementary assertive act, placing that fact within the context of other facts is more advanced and equally assertive.

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Jun 2006

Domain Analysis: Logic in Chronological Order

Chronological order can build timelines that illuminate the concepts within a domain.  It’s a simple and effective strategy for an initial organization of subjects that include time-based documents, such as news articles.  When materials are organized by date, the full spectrum of a topic is arranged into an easily assimilated structure that helps the organizer to understand the subject and to develop categories and select vocabulary.

Information producing events have life cycles.  A newsworthy event generates material as long as it is newsworthy.  Then we move on to the next event, which generates its own material.  When documents are organized into a chronology, the material for each event is automatically gathered together, creating a logical listing of incidents that have impacted the subject area.

A timeline generates several useful tools for domain analysis.  The process helps organizers understand the subject by articulating the issues and clarifying their evolution.  Information about one event is displayed in the order that it happened, so developments read almost like a story.  The entire group of constituent events is also arranged as a timeline and the progress of the full subject arena is visible within a specific time frame.

Following the plot of an event by reading news stories is an engaging and painless way to learn a subject.  The organizer gains knowledge about the issues and the vocabulary.  If clients contribute to the news, as participants or analysts, the timeline helps articulate their point of view, which significantly aids the development of useful categories for the client’s domain.

Obviously overlap in the timeline is inevitable.  Sometimes there are follow-up or even preliminary stories that happen outside the primary time frame, but these tend to be peripheral.  In general, the main body of documents about a given event will be written when the event is attracting the greatest interest of writers.

I used an initial chronologic construction to organize information for a save-the-carnivores environmental group that tends to operate in a reactive mode. Anytime there is a sighting in a populated area, news is generated and the group must respond.  One valuable result of my timeline was an easily accessible list of newsworthy encounters between these animals and humans.

An event impacting this group could be a newly published report on the animal or its habitat.  First the report is issued, along with promotional press releases, which generate news stories.  Then there are responses to the report by groups who like the carnivore and groups who do not like the carnivore, all of whom issue their own press releases, which generate more written material.  By now the report is big news, so there are also background stories on the issues facing the animal and the people who live in its habitat.

With this simple exercise of putting material into a chronology, I have gathered valuable resources for domain analysis into one place and automatically organized them into a logical time-based structure.  I have the report, which contains important information about the issue.  I also have press releases and news articles which summarize and analyze the report.  So I can read an entertaining news article instead of a boring report.  Then the responses of the pro and con groups give me the full spectrum of opinions.

I now have enough knowledge and data to build a category structure.  The structure can be specifically for the report or I can expand the ideas of the report into the full domain.  For example, I can build a hierarchy that defines the pro and con issues facing this animal or carnivore conservation in general.  I can also build a structure for organizations involved in the report, including the issuing agency and the pro and con responding groups.

Ultimately the initial chronological order is replaced by a more complex topic-based structure.  Putting information into order by date is easy and fast.  It’s a good way to start the organizational process because topics just fall into place.  For an organizer working with the chronology, category relationships become evident and the domain’s vocabulary is easily assimilated.  Simply arranging material into a timeline offers new knowledge about events that impact the client.  This helps the organizer interpret domain topics into structures that reflect client experiences, providing for clients a satisfying interaction with their own information.

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Mar 2006

Symmetry: The Calm before the Structure

Random seems to be the new default for organizing information.  In my workshops, I mention a shopping Website that wants to sell everything, including books.  Books, of course, come with some major competition.  This site has about 60 subject categories that are displayed in no particular order.  While random may ease their Website designer’s workload by a few minutes, forcing customers to struggle with a disorganized list of subjects is certainly an inefficient sales tactic.

As a skilled organizer, I find this descent into random to be nonsensical.  Personally, I even organize information so I can organize it better.  My first step in the process is to arrange the material into a simple pattern.  This helps me identify characteristics and determine the final display structure.  Usually, but not always, that initial pattern is the alphabet.  Even when I know the final arrangement will not be alphabetized, I view the material first in alphabetical order.

Why is that?  In a certain sense, alphabetical order is just a variation of random.  It’s an arbitrary assignment of place based on how a word is spelled.  I once thought the alphabet helps by arranging similar concepts together, accidentally or not, and that is true in some cases.  It’s a big advantage if you’re organizing by author, but less valuable with titles.  In addition, the physical process of organizing material into a simple structure draws a picture of the entire set and helps reveal emerging patterns.

These are both benefits of alphabetizing, but they aren’t the real reasons.  The chaos of random imposes a mental struggle.  So I alphabetize to calm my brain.  This helps me recognize intricate qualities in the material that may be different from the alphabet.  I create the simple pattern to see the complex pattern.

Mario Livio reinforces this concept in his book, The Equation that Couldn’t be Solved:  How Mathematical Genius Discovered the Language of Symmetry (New York:  Simon & Schuster, 2005), where he states, “From friezes of classical temples and pillars of palaces to carpets and even birdsong, the symmetry of repeating patterns has always produced a very comforting familiarity and a reassuring effect” (p. 15).  Livio describes a type of symmetry called “translation” (p. 16), which is the repeating pattern.  For example, Mozart’s Symphony No. 40 in G Minor contains a musical motif that adjusts by one step in the scale and then repeats (p. 18).

That’s what alphabetical order does.  It adjusts by one letter and repeats.  Start with the first letter.  Words beginning with “A” are listed according to society’s agreed arrangement of the alphabet.  Move one step to “B,” following the same arrangement of Roman letters that users begin learning at about the age of two.  Take another step to C.  It’s as elegant as Mozart.  According to Livio, the psychologist Christopher W. Tyler has found an area of the human brain whose only apparent purpose is the detection of symmetry (p. 37-38).   Is it possible that the symmetry of the alphabet goes straight into the brain?  Perhaps alphabetical order makes us smarter.

Alphabetizing is so easy we don’t recognize the elegance of the process, but there’s the beauty.  Unlike the chaos of random, which forces users to fight with the structure, the alphabet is not intrusive.  We know what comes next.  Perhaps it calms us because we learned our letters at an early age and a part of our brain is now stimulated by their symmetric repetition.  Whatever the reason, the alphabet’s familiar pattern clears your mind for creative thinking.

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Feb 2006