Names on a Memorial: Reflecting 9/11’s Random Absence

Information arrangement is at the heart of a controversy raging over the World Trade Center Memorial.  Architect Michael Arad’s design, “Reflecting Absence,” had a simplistic approach to an intricate arrangement challenge.  His original plan randomly scattered names around pools of water recessed into the Towers’ footprints.  Waterfalls fed the pools, cascading from street level 30 feet above.  Landscaper Peter Walker later added an oak tree forest.  It would be a beautiful space, but Arad is an architect, not an information specialist.  He may not understand the power of arrangement.

Random diminishes the individual.  Everything is equal and no one thing is important.  Etching thousands of random names on a wall emphasizes our collective loss, but it gives no other context for 9/11.  The towers were here and these names were inside them.  Now the buildings are absent and the people are gone, replaced by the pit of Ground Zero.

Many surviving families, certainly those associated with the largest numbers of deaths, objected to the random arrangement, interpreting it as a trivialization.  These families lost entire communities.  They want the name structure to provide knowledge about the lives of their loved ones.  Many family groups are promoting an arrangement by affiliation, primarily by employer, emphasizing their loss of community.

When the controversy started, the families demanded that the names be placed above ground, away from the waterfalls.  This may trivialize the names even more.  Oak trees are beautiful and waterfalls invigorate.  Stand inside Houston’s Williams Waterwall.  It’s U-shaped, 64 ft. high, 113 ft. wide and 33 ft. deep, with 11,000 gallons of water cascading each minute.  Like a morning shower multiplied, the Waterwall revitalizes.

In the summer, when the waterfalls aren’t frozen, the WTC Memorial may become a favorite lunch spot for the stressed out Wall Street crowd.  Refresh your brain before the afternoon games begin.  Walk by a wall of names, scenery on an urban trail to the water therapy forest. If they are to be the heart of the Memorial, the names of the 9/11 victims will need an arrangement more compelling than random.

Print pagePDF pageEmail page
Nov 2006

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.

Print pagePDF pageEmail page
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

Print pagePDF pageEmail page
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.

Print pagePDF pageEmail page
Jun 2006

An Explorer in Taxonomy

The Delphi Group’s Information Intelligence Summit (ii2006) came to Phoenix in early April.  We started with an Innovation Workshop offered by Destination Imagination (DI), which mostly does creativity events for children.  If your kid ever has a chance to participate in the DI program, jump at it!  This Delphi workshop was presented by DI’s corporate division, DIcor.  Prior to the Summit, the workshop attendees all took an assessment survey for problem solving styles.  On a continuum of degrees that range from Explorer to Developer, I tend toward exploration in my orientation to change.

I am mildly surprised because my work involves developing new information structures; however, my approach is definitely exploratory.  I was one of the founders of the California Institute for Rural Studies (CIRS) in Davis, which was also my first professional position.  Today the mission statement defines CIRS goals as working “toward a rural California that is socially just, economically viable, and environmentally balanced.”

When we started CIRS, I was a newly minted librarian.  As I organized our research collection, I discovered that the standard library classifications did not fit CIRS requirements.  This was 1978 and our work was cutting-edge.  “Organic farming” was not yet included in the Dewey classification.  Even if a pre-built system had contained our topics, our material would have been scattered around a structure that fit the classification rather than our research methods.  I wanted our material to be arranged as a reflection of our work.  My loyalty was to CIRS, not to the Library of Congress.

So I built my own system.  It was more accurate and more adventurous to start from scratch.  I knew our research requirements.  I knew how we were thinking about these new ideas.  My approach was validated almost every day as our researchers worked with the structure.  You might even call me an early tagging explorer.  Rather than relying on a standardized system, I defined classifications that had meaning to the CIRS researchers.  The difference, of course, is that I did all the tagging and I did it without the social Web.

By emphasizing CIRS research in a CIRS taxonomy, I demonstrated the value of our goals.  Standardized categories would have implied marginality by diffusing our ideas within a pre-designed system.  When the researchers interacted with the structure, they experienced it on their own terms, which made CIRS more productive.  Did we achieve our goals?  It’s been 28 years.  CIRS is a healthy non-profit and the organic produce sections in grocery stores just keep on growing.

Print pagePDF pageEmail page
Apr 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.

Print pagePDF pageEmail page
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.

Print pagePDF pageEmail page
Feb 2006

Puzzle in Hollywood: Discovering Nathanael West’s Hidden Structure

George Dantzig solved unsolvable math problems because he assumed they had solutions.  In my case, I discovered both the problem and the solution when I was assigned an oral presentation on the structure of The Day of the Locust during a college course on novels taught by a Nathanael West scholar.

The presumed solution to the problem of structure in West’s classic 1939 Hollywood novel had already been stated in class.  There’s a riot in the first chapter and also in the final Chapter 27.  The middle Chapter 14 was published as a short story before West wrote the novelMy Dantzig-like assumption was that I had to find something else to say about structure to get a good grade.

On the evening that I worked on the assignment, I immersed myself in the novel for hours before I saw the first clue.  At one point in West’s story, there is a major plot event similar to another event later in the novel.  I realized that the chapters for these two events are equidistant from the central Chapter 14, just like the two riots.  When I looked at the pairs of chapters, 2 and 26, 3 and 25, 4 and 24, etc., I discovered that each pair is a match.  The first half of the novel is reflected in the mirror of the second half.  I had searched for hours, but once I saw the first clue, it took only minutes to figure out the entire novel.  Like a wooden Chinese puzzle, the pieces just fell into place.

I gave my presentation and I was certainly expecting some nice compliments, but I had not even finished the first sentence when the instructor leaned forward in shock.  With just as much shock, I realized this West scholar had not seen the puzzle.  I spent the rest of the presentation aggressively defending my thesis.

That semester I was taking an overload, so after this incident I just went on to the next novel.  Later when I was a library school student at the University of Chicago, there was some national news about professors taking credit for the work of their grad students.  I remembered that I had handed my college instructor a nice fat journal article.  Although I didn’t look into it, the story gave me some standing with my fellow Chicago students.

After graduation, my career immediately veered from traditional librarianship.  I built a new classification system with my first professional position and continued in that direction, building new classifications for a multitude of clients, subjects and materials.  My specialty now is the design of taxonomies and other structures for information presentation.  I’m good at this because I have a natural ability to see patterns, which is why I recognized the puzzle in The Day of the Locust.

A few years ago I attended a professional meeting in New Orleans.  Pam Rollo, now the President of the Special Libraries Association, arranged a dinner at one of the city’s finest restaurants.  It is an evening that I will cherish for many reasons.  Pam and I were talking about my unusual career path when I mentioned the Nathanael West story as an early indication of my skills.  I said that if my teacher, a West scholar, hadn’t seen the puzzle, then nobody had seen it.

It was then I understood my obligation to Nathanael West and decided to pursue the discovery.  I studied, and continue to study, the major criticism on The Day of the Locust.  As far as the literary community is concerned, the structure of the novel consists of two riots and a short story in the middle.  IsisInBlog is the first publication of the puzzle.  Its details will be explored in future postings when I reveal Nathanael West’s elegant mirrored chapters.

Print pagePDF pageEmail page
Jan 2006

Dantzig and Isis: Real Urban Legends

Robert Schuller recently announced that his son will assume the ministerial duties at the Crystal Cathedral in Los Angeles, which reminded me of a topic I am planning for IsisInBlog.  Schuller once sat on a plane next to the eminent mathematician George B. Dantzig, who told him a story about a graduate school experience. (1)

Dantzig had been late for class, arriving after everyone left.  He saw two problems on the blackboard and, assuming they were the next assignments, set to work.  After solving the problems, he handed them in late, apparently a habit with him.  Dantzig apologized to the instructor, explaining that these problems had been particularly difficult.  The assignments on the board were actually two unsolvable math problems.  Dantzig got two articles and a dissertation out of it and eventually fame beyond the world of math.  That’s where Schuller comes in.

Schuller’s ministry promotes positive thinking.  He recognized that Dantzig’s story supported his own theories, so he included it in one of his books.  According to Schuller, Dantzig solved the unsolvable problems because he assumed there was a solution.  He didn’t have the negative influence of “unsolvable” to hold him back.  The story was picked up by ministers for their own sermons and became a true urban legend.

What does this have to do with taxonomy?  It has quite a bit to do with the development of my own organizational skills.  I had a college experience similar to Dantzig’s when I discovered a puzzle in Nathanael West’s Hollywood novel, The Day of the Locust.  West must have been an organizer because he sure built an elaborate structure.

I want to explore West’s puzzle for a couple of reasons.  First, my experience enhances our understanding of structural thinking.  In addition, I owe it to West.  He worked hard on his puzzle and I am the only one who found it.  This may be partly because he died in a car crash on a road in Twenty-Nine Palms, CA shortly after publishing The Day of the Locust.  If he had lived, perhaps he would have made the next puzzle more obvious, giving scholars a few clues that one of our great American novels has an extra treat.

(1) Albers, D. J., Alexanderson, G. L., & Reid, C. (1990). George B. Dantzig. In More mathematical people: Contemporary conversations (pp. 67-68). Boston: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.

Originally published as “An Interview with George B. Dantzig:  The Father of Linear Programming” by Donald J. Albers and Constance Reid in College Mathematics Journal, 1986, 17:4, pp. 292-314.  This seems to be the primary resource for the retelling of Dantzig’s story, which can be traced by the misspelling of Schuller’s name as Schuler.  The book has photos of Dantzig, who looks like Nathanael West’s twin.  See also the Urban Legends Reference Pages,

Print pagePDF pageEmail page
Jan 2006

Working with Parameters

Like most organizational geniuses, I am a perfectionist.  This is great for building taxonomies, but a challenge for blogging.  All changes are announced to subscribers, so public editing is a parameter of the blog medium.  When I discovered a strengthening detail for the “Snoopy in Subphylum Vertebrata” table, my edit changed the date of the “Species” post from 12/21/05 to 1/1/06, generating feed messages to subscribers and causing other mayhem.  That post is a lot of fun and I had promoted it by date in my Holiday cards.

Taxonomy construction often has exterior parameters.  The selection of Bloglines for my blog service is one.  Bloglines is plain vanilla but it has a crucial feature that surpasses all others.  It is the only service I know that publishes spreadsheets. My spreadsheets display my taxonomies.  So the selection of Bloglines was an easy decision.

As I indicated in my “Strategy” posting (1/1/06), the “Snoopy in Subphylum Vertebrata” table is the product of many such exterior parameters, primary being the width of the blog.  The spreadsheet has to fit within a defined space.  It also has to be a fairly basic structure to transfer over to Bloglines.

These two parameters resulted in an early strategic decision.  I wanted to include the Latin and the English names for Snoopy’s imagined animals.  Both names on the same line would make the columns too wide for the Bloglines space.  So I put the Latin and English on two separate lines within the same cell.  This made the table longer, but still allowed the five columns.  The two-line cells, however, added a need to differentiate between rows.  Bloglines will not display a table’s borders, so I placed a blank row between species, adding more length, but definitely improving readability.

These parameters greatly impact the appearance and therefore the usability of the structure.  At many points in developing “Snoopy in Subphylum Vertebrata,” I needed to resolve an exterior parameter.  When the change was made, I evaluated the resulting structure from the viewpoint of the reader.  Is this easy to understand and if not, what can I do, given this parameter, to improve user experience?  If it is easy to understand, is there another detail that will make the improvement even greater?  Working with parameters is essentially problem solving.  It’s recognizing the rules and then adjusting the variables for the best fit.

Print pagePDF pageEmail page
Jan 2006