Christopher Alexander (Mis)reading Photographs

I’ve finished the first volume of Christopher Alexander’s The Nature of Order, and the photographs just jumped out at me. Several of the photos showing “wholeness” in everyday life were very, very good. The photos aren’t credited in the text, so I dug through the acknowledgments in the back. Surprise! The photos are by Henri Cartier-Bresson, Alfred Eisenstadt, Andreas Feninger, André Kertész, and Eliot Porter, some of the finest photographers of the 20th century.

The central concept of The Nature of Order is wholeness, an aesthetic and mathematical order which creates good fit between things and people. There are photographs of wholeness in buildings, ceramics, and rugs, all by masters of those arts. There are also photographs of street scenes and everyday life. These photographs are are by masters of photography, but they are not examined as art in themselves, only as documentation of wholeness in something else. Oops.

Alexander looks at the teacup, but through the photograph. The discussions of wholeness are always about the photograph’s time and place, never about the creativity of the photographer who chose that time and place to make the photograph. Alexander makes an important mistake when he treats artistic photography as pure documentation.

The mistake is easier to understand when you look at the photographers he uses. Most of them are working in a narrow style, the “high mimetic” mode (using Northrup Frye’s literary term) typical of Life magazine. The photographs intentionally show a world that is clearly like us, but better in some way. Most people do take these photos as documents, without realizing the skill and art involved in making a beautiful photograph from the living, moving world.

For Alexander, these are photographs of subjects or situations which strongly show wholeness. For me, these are photographers who can create art with strong wholeness from everyday subjects and sitations. Unfortunately for him, this is a serious mistake. Is the wholeness in the world or in the photograph? Is it innate or created by observers? Is wholeness flat and black and white or three-dimensional with colors and smells? If you are espousing a theory of fundamental order and wholeness in the world using photographic evidence, this isn’t a question you can dodge. It is central. These photographs are not neutral evidence of order and wholeness, they are themselves creations.

Alexander does use a few photographs by Eliot Porter and Edward Weston, clearly not high mimetic photographers. Again adapting Northrup Frye, these are recognizably real scenes, obviously superior in degree but not in kind (Frye calls this the “romantic” mode). These photos are used to illustrate form in nature, so it is appropriate to use photos that emphasize formal composition over documentation. Still, Alexander never even mentions that Eliot Porter might have created a photograph with order and wholeness out of available bits of nature instead of merely documenting the existing order. He seems to be misreading these more formal photographs in the same way as the others.

Two glaring examples of this misreading are with a single Henri Cartier-Bresson photo and with a series of André Kertész’s photos of Paris. Both cases have extensive discussions of the wholeness of the scenes as if the photographs were pure documentation.

The first example, pages 92-95, comes with a convenient contrasting example. First, we get a discussion of what is visible in the Cartier-Bresson photo. The next photo is of Alexander’s childhood home, and most of the discussion is about things not shown in the photo. In fact, this discussion is the first one where wholeness is clearly a three-dimensional concept and even an experiential path through three dimensions (like ZEN VIEW or INTIMACY GRADIENT in A Pattern Language). Until this point, it wasn’t clear whether wholeness was purely visual or was a characteristic of human activity.

Toward the end of the volume is a short section dedicated to André Kertész’s Paris. Kertész is an especially poor choice to treat as a documentary photographer. He was deeply visual and emotional, sometimes more more surrealist than realist. His own comments on his photography make exactly this point: “The things I photograph are not at all outstanding. I make them stand out.” [from PBS video interview]. Alexander reads these photographs naively: “Can we aspire to this? To Kertész’s pictures?” [page 394].

How can it make sense for architecture to aspire to a photograph? A later Kertész photograph, Broken Bench, makes this point especially clearly. The photograph is of a park, but it certainly isn’t something we aspire to. The bench is broken! It does make sense as a symbolic portrait an emotional state, perhaps of Kertesz’s problems fitting into New York after leaving Paris. It isn’t any kind of evidence for or against the wholeness of that particular park, and there is no way for an architect to “aspire to this”. The art of that photograph has nothing to do with the design of parks and benches.

I do think there is a lot of value in Alexander’s thesis of wholeness, but it is deeply disappointing that a brilliant person working in an applied art (architecture) can’t tell the difference between a document an a work of art. Photography has been around for over 150 years. Get a clue, people.

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Good to Great Search

I was reviewing a sample chapter from Lou Rosenfeld and Rich Wiggins’ upcoming book on search log analysis. This chapter is covers Michigan State University’s steps in patching around an aging AltaVista engine. It is good history, but not very good advice. MSU’s first step was to build a manual Best Bets system to match individual queries to editorially chosen URLs.

Best Bets are very effective, but are usually a last resort, not the first. The strength of Best Bets is that the results are very, very good. The weakness of Best Bets is that the manual effort only improves the results for a single query. That had better be an important query! Most other kinds of tuning help all queries or at least a broad set, perhaps all results from one website or one web page template.

Here is what I suggest for improving your search:

  1. Get a better search engine. This will help all queries, even the ones you don’t measure. If you don’t already have a metric for “better”, use the relevance measure from step 4 combined with the required number of documents and query rate.
  2. Look at the top few hundred queries and record the rank of the first relevant result.
  3. For each query without a good hit in the top three (“above the fold”), find one or more documents (URLs) which would be good results.
  4. If you want a single number for goodness, use the ranks from step 3 to calculate MRR (mean reciprocal rank). Invert each rank number and average them. You’ll get a number between 0 and 1, where “1” means the first hit was relevant every time. If you are getting above 0.5, your engine is doing a pretty good job — you’re averaging a good result in the second position. You need at least 200 queries for MRR measurements to be statistically valid.

Now you have a list of failed queries matched with good documents. Start at the top of that list, and try the following actions for each one. When one of your preferred documents is ranked above the fold, you are done with that query and should move on to the next query in your list.

  1. Are the preferred documents in the index at all? If not, get them in and recheck the ranking.
  2. Are the documents ranked above the preferred ones good quality or junk? If they are unlikely to be a good answer for a reasonable query, get them out of the index and recheck the ranking.
  3. Are the preferred documents valid HTML? Do they depend heavily on IFrames, JavaScript, Flash, or other too-clever features? Fix them to comply with ADA and Section 508 (it’s the law!), reindex, and recheck.
  4. Do the preferred documents have good titles (the <title> tag in HTML)?
    If not, fix that, reindex, and check the ranking.
  5. Take a critical look at the preferred documents and decide whether they really answer the query. If they don’t, add a page which does answer it. Index that page and recheck the ranking.
  6. Do the documents include lots of chrome, navigation, and other stuff which swamp the main content? If so, configure your search engine to selectively index the page (Ultraseek Page Expert) or use engine-specific markup for selective indexing in the page templates. Reindex and check the ranking.
  7. Do the terms in the preferred documents match the query? The query is “jobs” but the page says “careers”? If so, consider adding the keywords meta tag or synonym support in your engine (or go to the next step). Reindex and check the ranking.
  8. Add a manual Best Bet for this specific query pointing to the well-formatted, well-written document with the answer. Schedule a recheck in six months to catch site redesigns, hostname changes, etc. and hope that it doesn’t go stale before then.

As you go through this process, you’ll find entire sites which are not indexed, have bad HTML, are heavy with nav and chrome, or are designed so that they just don’t answer queries (click for the next paragraph). Fixing those will tend to improve lots of things: WWW search rankings, web caching, accessibility, and bookmarkability.

Search matches questions to answers. It is really hard to improve the quality of the questions (get smarter customers?), and the matching algorithms are subtle and tweaky, so don’t be surprised when most of your time is spent improving the quality of the answers.

Lensman, Now With Real Swearing!

Arnold Zwicky’s Goram Motherfrakker! post about fake cuss words reminded me of the last time I read E. E. Smith’s Lensman series. The fake swearing there is of legendary silliness, to the point that it distracts me from the silliness which is essential to the plot. My trick is to substitute my own realistic cursing while reading. You can do it too. Use your imagination. I know you can do better than “she’s a seven sector call-out” even if it is just “check out the ass on that one!” You’ll need to get into a rhythm though, because you will encounter “by Klono’s gadolinium guts!”

The User Is Not Broken

Karen Schneider posted a meme-ifesto under the title The User Is Not Broken. I like it. This is a much better slogan than “The customer is always right.” We all know customers who are deeply mistaken, even wrong, but they are not broken. The user is not the problem. The user has a problem and they may be really confused about how to solve it or what the problem really is. Our work is to help them solve their problem.