Archive for the ‘Figuring Shit Out’ Category

June 20 2013

What is your water talent?

by Hang

There is this old parable of a master placing an empty box in front of a student and placing a few large rocks into the box. “Is it full?” asks the master, and the student replies “yes”. The master then pours in a bunch of gravel carefully around the rocks and asks “Is it full now?” and the student replies, more warily, “yes”. The master then pours sand to fill all the cracks and, before he can even ask, the student wearily interrupts him and goes “yes, yes, it’s still not full, get to the point”. Slightly perturbed, the master finally pours water into the box and grumpily exclaims that “there, now it’s full”. As the student starts to excitedly draw a breath to explain about electron orbitals and the free space in between atoms and the latest musings in quantum theory she is violently slapped in the face by the master. The reason a master is a master and the student is just a student is because a master can always recognize when a smart ass remark is coming along.

Viewing life through this hierarchy, a lot of wanna-be MBAs are going to try and tell you the lesson to draw from this is that the big rocks are the most important and if you fit them into your life first so that everything else can fit around them. This is the big rock view of the world and one most people I’ve met subconsciously subscribe to. When people meet me for the first time, I am asked about the rocks in my life. What is my job? Where did I go to school and what did I study? What is my relationship status and who do I know? After a while, after the big rocks are exhausted, people might dive into the gravel. What are my hobbies? What movies have I seen recently and what TV do I watch? What are some cool restaurants I’ve been to recently.

Instead, over the years, I’ve come to the conclusion that the best way to understand a person is to understand their water. Water is what you do while doing something else. It’s what you’re thinking about when you have an idle 30 seconds to day dream. It’s things you’ve been doing ever since you were a kid that even you might not notice because it’s never occurred to you that anybody could ever not do that. Water is the entire invisible life you lead that is the essence of your being.

Whenever I meet someone that I want to get to know better, I try to find the answer to the question “what is your water talent?”. They might have had acrimonious parents and learned from a young age to be a master diplomat so that every social interaction involves them smoothing over the rough edges between various parties. They might be a ardent lexophile who experiences a frission of joy at the perfect word being deployed in a sentence. They might be an inveterate people watcher who loves nothing more than sit outside a busy cafe watching the world go by and who can hone in on first date conversation of any table near them at a restaurant. They might even minutely dissect the interaction of every bathroom they’ve ever been in.

Rocks, you pick, but water picks you. Your water is channeled by your temperament, your circumstances and your formative experiences and, as a result, remains uniquely yours, impossible to copy. Water is the reason why some people seem to so effortlessly achieve rarified greatness in a field while others gamely struggle, despite the same apparent rocks. Your water causes you to live and breath a practice, to go to bed thinking about it and to wake up still thinking about it. If you don’t have that water, you’re handicapped from the beginning.

Observing someone’s water talents is hard because water is mostly invisible. That’s why, when I meet someone, I most like to talk to them about their childhood. Childhood is where your personality first develops and formative experiences impinge upon your life. Were you an angry child or happy child? Anxious or carefree? A life of turmoil and change or stability and constancy? Did you discover your passion then or discover that you have no passions? It’s by charting your life from your childhood until now that I can start to see the pull of your water. Decisions made that another person would not have made. Opportunities that were opened up to you that others were not offered. Skills you happened to pick up extraordinarily well, extraordinarily quickly. All of these are hints of your water talents.

The water view of the world is diametrically opposed to the big rock view of the world. Big rocks give us the illusion that we have control over our lives and that we can chart our destiny. Water believes that our lives are channeled and we are guided along a path. Big rocks view us as a fungible resource, replaceable by someone else with similar big rocks. Water views each person as inimitable and unable to aggregated into abstract categories. Big rocks are modular and can be replaced piecewise to create a completely new configuration. Water is essential and and changes only slowly.

One of the side effects of switching to a water view of the world for me has been the complete elimination of jealously and envy. All around you are people with more money, hotter spouses, more friends, better smiles. If you believe all it takes for you to have what they have is replacing your big rock with their big rock then it’s easy to feel like you did not live up to your expectations and that you’re not having it all. But if you instead believe that, to have what they would require replacing your water with their water, it would mean having what they have would involve losing everything you have. Cast in this light, the things they have feel not as worth it.

So, as the student is still feeling the ringing in her ears and the burn on her cheek, the master asks, if you remove the rocks from the box, if you remove the gravel and remove the sand, what’s left? What is your water?

June 19 2013

How to be a designer in 10 years

by Hang

My friend, Karen Cheng, posted today about how to get a great design job in 6 months without going to design school. Reading that post reminded me of the tremendous amount of respect I have for Karen.What she doesn’t mention in her post is that she possesses a scary amount of focus and dedication to any cause she pursues and wins at life simply by working harder than anyone else. I don’t know if any of her advice is replicable because I don’t know anyone else who could accomplish what she did in 6 months. I don’t want to give anything away but this is not the last time you will see something truly impressive come from her…

But I was chatting with her online tonight and it had me thinking of how different our two paths into design were. My first inkling that there was a world of design came from serendipitously picking up The Design of Everyday Things at a used bookstore during my 3rd year of university (junior year of college for Yanks). There are a few books I’ve encountered in my life that change on a deep level the basic way I see the world and reading DOET was as if scales had fallen from my eyes. For the first time, I understood that built artifacts could be evaluated and come short in that evaluation. From that day on, every poor interaction I had pained me, every stupid decision made by the designer of a product had me gasping in disbelief at their obliviousness and lack of consideration. In short, I noticed.

Don Norman devotes, I think, half a chapter or so of his book to bathrooms and how the myriad of poorly thought out decisions hamper and stymie the user along every step of the way. One peculiar side-effect of this has been my ongoing and deep abiding fascination with bathrooms.  To me, bathrooms represent a playground of egregiously & aggressively bad UI. The basic bathroom works fine, it’s when you push beyond that where the bad things happen.

So for the last 10 years, I’ve performed a UX critique of every bathroom I’ve ever been in. I’ve seen the thousand different ways people have found to fuck up the basic bathroom. I’ve found taps which are impossible to guess how they turn on, basins that are guaranteed to splash the user, soap dispensers with 3 different decoy pseudo-buttons that people press fruitlessly every single time, even door handles that somehow manage to fail at the job of being door handles. My favorite bathrooms ever have been in upscale buildings that seem to have had their budget cut early in the process. My theory is that bathrooms are where architects sublimate their frustrations at being hampered at every turn by conservative clients and budget constraints by indulging in their wildest design fantasies. Maybe it’s true, maybe it’s not but I do know it’s been pretty good at guiding me to some of the best (worst) bathrooms I’ve ever seen.

10 years of critiquing bathrooms and microwaves, doors and chairs, signage and menus and every other artifact of the built environment has lead me to an interesting place. Unlike Karen, I draw like a 5 year old, I’m clumsy with photoshop and I still struggle with basic information architecture and flows. Karen after 6 months was almost certainly more employable than me after 10 years. But show me a product and I can dissect it out for you like a surgeon. I can slice and dice it on every axis and articulate where it’s gone wrong on a deep level. I can push deep and then push even deeper and discover the soul of a product and then take all of those jiggling, loose parts that I just destroyed and recast it into something that is more honest, that more better expresses the essence of what this product was meant to be. Of this skill, I am most sure of.

It’s been 10 years since I first picked up DOET and those 10 years have changed my life. 10 years of critiquing bathrooms has lead me to where I am today and 10 more years of critiquing bathrooms will lead me to being an even better designer in 2023. If you asked me how to become a designer in 6 months, I’d have very little useful feedback. Instead, ask me how to be a designer in 10 years and I can tell you my story.

November 11 2010

On Busyness

by Hang

The last two months or so have been extraordinarily busy for me. Between work, setting up the Product Design Guild, professional networking and social commitments, I moved into a state of having serious calendar packing. Today, was the end of this long burst of anaerobic work and I declared a moratorium on busyness for the next month. I left work early, randomly decided to head over to Berkeley, wandered around a bit, had dinner with a friend and was just generally aimless for the entire afternoon.

I have a very strong aversion to busyness that I have carefully cultivated over time. It’s one of my most cherished traits. Unbusy people like me seem to be a dying trend, especially in the hyper-go-go Silicon Valley. The norm here seems to be that even dinner with friends must be planned a week in advance with careful checking of calendars to ensure an open slot. Even when I am “crazy busy”, I’m at a complete amateur hour compared to some people I know, my busy would be their normal.

Being busy undoubtedly makes you more productive. And part of the reason I went on this two month sprint was simply that I needed to get a lot of stuff done. But there’s a certain essence lost in the busyness as well. I couldn’t jump on opportunities that came my way with expiring deadlines, I couldn’t open myself up to serendipity and try completely new things. Also, with the cloak of busyness, I felt my inspiration, creativity and insight slipping away. Life fell into a tunnel vision of focusing just on this next thing.

One of the lessons I’ve learn from this experience is just how vigilantly I need to guard my unbusy schedule. And how much value I gain from being unbusy which I never fully appreciate except when it goes away.

July 2 2010

A scrappy way of reliable double blind taste testing

by Hang

Most amateur double blind tastings are horrible from a statistical perspective. They barely shed any insight into the truth at all but, what’s worse, they give a false sense of knowledge. Last night, I made the assertion that top shelf vodkas are indistinguishable from each other and that any perceived taste differences were purely psychological. This lead me to be responsible for a quick, impromptu blind vodka tasting of 3 top shelf vodkas (Ketel 1, Grey Goose & Ciroc) between myself & 4 other skeptical participants (in retrospect, we should have added a well vodka as a control but we did try a well vodka after the blind tests and the difference was pretty apparent).

Our very helpful bartender marked the bottom of each glass with the vodka brand such that we could not see them, then we proceeded to taste & rate. Now, most amateur double blind studies I’ve seen rely on a single tasting then ranking. This is somewhat fine in a large lab setting with a sufficient number of participants and samples but, in our circumstances would lead to 0 statistical insight. The reason why is pretty simple, among a sample of 3 vodkas, there are only 6 different permutations. Thus, with 5 participants, it’s more likely or not, someone will get a “hit” purely by chance.

Instead, what we relied on was a double tasting procedure. Each person would sip & rank the vodkas, an independant 3rd party would then proceed to shuffle the order while we closed our eyes and we then proceeded to sip & rank the vodkas again. What we were looking for was not whether you could correctly assign the brand to a vodka (which is relatively hard) but whether you could rerecognize a vodka you had just drank (which is relatively easy). As it turns out, of the 5 participants, I was the only one who correctly determined how the vodka had been shuffled.

Now, despite the fact that I was crooning all night about how I “won” the challenge, this is not the correct conclusion to be drawn from the data. What it demonstrated was that at least 4 of the 5 participants were unable to distinguish top shelf vodkas with reliability, despite their certainty before revealing the results that there were clear and distinct differences. What this proves was that the perceived differences were purely physiologically and psychologically based and not as a result of the chemical qualities of the vodka. Additionally, it is unknown whether I could truly distinguish the difference. Remember, there’s still only 6 possible answers so it’s pretty probably that I got them right purely on luck. A further shuffle & taste would be able to shed more insight into this hypothesis but we were out of vodka at that point.

Most amateur double blind studies aren’t worth the blog post they’re written on because the authors have such a poor grasp of experimental setup that the data is worthless. Amateur studies don’t have the resources of a professional study to collect large enough amounts of data to make confident predictions, thus you need to scale back the expectations of the experiment to match the resources you have on hand. If you want to perform a double blind study with either a small sample set or experimental group, you need to use a repeated tasting procedure rather than a single tasting procedure or you run the risk of making assertions which are not statistically supported.

April 14 2010

Sketching a watch over the course of 10 weeks

by Hang

It’s becoming increasingly obvious to me that my pen & paper sketching abilities are a joke. I asked around about tips to improve my sketching and one person on Quora said:

“Beginning students of architecture (at Cal Poly SLO) are required to sketch a chair—the same chair—everyday for ten weeks. At a certain point, you’ll begin to recognize elements you didn’t notice this before”

Seems like a fun challenge to me! Except instead of a chair, I’m going to sketch my watch. This also seems like a perfect excuse to try out Posterous for reals so you can follow my progress on Posterous (aka: laugh at my patheticness).

The persistently stupid idea

by Hang

There are only three types of ideas.

There are some ideas which are really smart ideas that sound smart on the surface and people repeat them to each other over and over again. If you come up with that smart idea independently, then you will tell someone and they’ll go “yeah, that’s already been thought of already, see X”. Using Vitamin C to prevent scurvy, realizing that worrying doesn’t make a situation better and stopping yourself from being a “nice guy” if you ever want success with women are all examples of this. These are not the ideas you have to be worried about.

There are some ideas which are stupid and sound stupid on the surface. If you come up with that stupid idea independently, then you will tell someone and they’ll go “that’s stupid and here’s why”. Here are 10 of them. These are not the ideas you have to be worried about.

There are some ideas which are stupid but sound smart on the surface. If you come up with that stupid idea independently, then you will tell someone and they will go “huh, that’s interesting”. These are the ideas you have to be worried about because they are the persistently stupid ideas. Persistently stupid ideas come to a person, are tried, fail and then disappear, leaving very little trace of their existence after they are gone. As a result, each generation comes up with the same persistently stupid ideas anew and wastes energy and resources chasing the same illusory pot of gold. This is why you have to be worried about them. The only way to avoid persistently stupid ideas is to learn how to become reflexively allergic to stupid.

I harp on this same theme a lot but I’m writing about it today because I was exposed twice in the same hour to two different persistently stupid ideas. Now, since both the people who these came from are personal friends of mine, I want to emphasize that I think the ideas presented are stupid but I, in no way, think the people who sent these to me are stupid. In fact, I discuss this further below. Anyway, onto the stupidities:

The first is an NPR article that repeats the assertion that when our privacy disappears, maybe shame will disappear along with it.

The second is an email in which in which a friend extols the virtue of video chat:

video chat is even better because the software just fades away and it’s true communication. It doesn’t require building software to support intent, it just creates a wide enough channel for communication and gets out of the way.

Both of these are persistently stupid ideas but I’m not going to tell you why they’re persistently stupid ideas.

Because what I just realized about persistently stupid ideas is that they’re perversely more harmful to smart people that dumb people. Each of these persistently stupid ideas has 100 different reasons why they could be wrong. But 99 out of those 100 aren’t the real reason and they don’t stand up to scrutiny.

If you were dumb and you came to be with a persistently stupid idea, I could take pity on you and provide you with any one of those reasons and you would accept it as valid and gently be persuaded from taking the stupid path. However, if you’re smart, I know that you’re going to see through any of the bad arguments and I would be forced to come up with the one correct argument to satisfy you.

But the truth is, I’ve forgotten what the reason is that both of these are a persistently stupid idea. At one point, I had read the literature, carefully constructed the argument, considered it from all sides, correctly rejected all the wrong arguments against it, worked through the implications of the correct reason, concluded that it was a persistently stupid idea, then promptly emptied out my brain of all that datum except that it was persistently stupid.

As a result, I’m not even going to try and persuade you that these are persistently stupid ideas. If you don’t believe me, you’re just going to have to put in your own time and effort to independently investigate them. However, the smarter you are, the harder it will be for you to figure out why they are persistently stupid because you will correctly reject all the utterly random, poorly thought out shit people pull out to justify it’s stupidity.

This is, perhaps, why I’m so fascinated by this topic of stupidity. Because it’s a unique curse that, paradoxically, affects the smartest of us the most.

The Silicon Valley “Bubble”

by Hang

A lot of people are rightfully worried about the “bubble” that exists around Silicon Valley. In the two weeks I’ve spent immersed deeply in the Bay Area culture, this is the best way I’ve found to explain what’s actually going on:

In the valley, people are willing to adapt their behavior to fit the software.

Everywhere else in the world, people adapt the software to fit their behavior.

Let me explain through an example: One of the things I talk a lot about is how corporate shared calendering systems suck because they’re all built according to a list of features without a consideration of the narratives that people are wanting to express through them. Everywhere else in the world, when I’ve discussed this, people join in the gripe and tell me crazy stories of their own about socially tricky situations made awkward due to shared calendering systems. It’s only in the valley where I tell people this and they go “That’s not a problem for us, we adopted this corporate culture which means our shared calendering system doesn’t suck anymore”. Let me repeat that again for emphasis:

We turned our entire corporate culture upside down to accommodate the whims of a piece of software we wanted to adopt.

That’s crazy. Absolutely, bat shit insane crazy and that’s what’s made the valley such a great place to build software. The valley is uniquely able to take a piece of software in it’s rough, early adopter phase and figure out how to mold their lives so that this software becomes useful. This is the classic early adopter pattern and it happens to people everywhere around the world but only in the valley is it a cultural norm and you’re looked at weirdly if you’re not willing to join in. It’s only in the valley where I’ve met companies who now have their entire corporate philosophy centered around being OK with you publicly declaring that you’re going to take a nap in your office and that you should not be disturbed solely because their shared calendering system didn’t have the effective privacy controls necessary to navigate that tricky social dance.

This attitude is so pervasive and so normal within the valley that it’s taken an outsider like me to come in and point out to people how goddamn weird that is. When I put it the way I do, people get pretty disturbed and rightly so. Because, while the valley is a uniquely great place to be building software, it’s not a great place to be designing it. Over and over again, I’ve encountered the pervasive attitude of “Well, the average user will just have to make this fundamental shift in the way they conduct their lives and it’ll be great. They’ll do it because the benefits will outweigh the costs”. That companies don’t understand on a gut level how unrealistic such a statement is for anyone living outside of the valley is, IMO, the primary cause of failure for startups that never manage to move out of the valley.

I really don’t know what the solution to this problem is except to become acutely conscious of it and to fight that impulse at every turn. There’s a certain ambivalence I have towards moving to the valley as a result of this, this visceral fear of being digested by the valley process and emerge the other end as a pod person. A year ago, the last time I was planning to move down here, I don’t know if I would have had sufficient life experience or insight to articulate the pattern that happens in the valley. If were to avoid the valley for another year, who knows what insights I’d be able to articulate then that I’m still not able to articulate now?

The Anti-Stupid

by Hang

I spend a lot of my life trying to avoid stupidities.

There are some projects you can dedicate years of blood, sweat and tears to and, after they have failed, you do a post-mortem on them and conclude that you had basically the right approach but a confluence of lack of ability and bad luck prevented you from succeeding. There are other project that you can similarly dedicate years of blood, sweat and tears to and, with the benefit of hindsight, you think “well, that was stupid”. Trying to build a perpetual motion machine, communism and treating women like they were men with more bumps are all examples of the latter.

The way I see it, being smart can get you a lot of places but it’s pretty hard. Avoiding stupidities, on the other hand, confers a lot of the benefits of smartness without having to do all that hard work.

However, interesting stupidities are, by their nature, invisible from the surface. Everyone knows that eating glue is a stupid thing to do but to be a person that does not eat glue doesn’t make you smart, it just makes you not-retarded. The interesting stupidities are the ones that seem superficially smart on the surface but contain some subtle stupidity that is not apparent upon first glance.

The problem is, smartness produces monuments whereas stupidities produce corpses. Every instance of a successful idea or product is the result of some underlying smartness and you can use that monument to learn what that smartness was. Stupidities only produce failures which get buried under the sands of time. What this means is that there are people right now, stumbling along paths strewn with buried corpses, conducting a random walk until the land mine of stupidities blows them up.

Paradoxically, this means that if you want to avoid stupidities, the way to do so is to become even more stupid. It’s only by repeatedly trying stupid things that you can learn where stupidities lie and how to spot them. Being stupid as a reflex is the best way to hone your “wait, this is stupid” detector and gives you a sixth sense about how to spot those buried landmines of stupidities.

The average person has a hard time being anti-stupid because they cannot get past their fear of appearing stupid in front of their friends and peers. To be willingly stupid is an embarrassing thing and it gets you ostracized from polite society.

I’ve found it helps a lot to have a supportive group of friends who are used to my off-the-wall stupidities and take it all in stride as a minor eccentricity of mine. I’ve pretty much wired myself now so that when my brain says “That’s a stupid idea”, my mouth says “Yes” before my brain can say “Wait, what?”. This has lead to me being embroiled in countless deeply embarrassing situations.

I’ve learned that going up to a woman and telling her you have a condom that’s expiring that night so it would be best that it be used is not an effective pickup line. I’ve learned that the campus College Republicans are a drastically crazy group and that it’s really uncomfortable to be the only foreigner & person of color sitting in on a discussion on how immigration is ruining America. I’ve learned that not nearly enough people, when randomly accosted on the street, are familiar with the Battle of Agincourt. I’ve also learned that, if it’s your birthday, you can ask a very nice Ethiopian man very nicely and he will drive you and 9 of your friends 300 miles from Seattle to Portland and then back to Seattle in a H3 stretch limousine for the cost of gas, a lap dance and a steak. These are experiences that I never would have experienced if I wasn’t willing to be so reflexively stupid.

I’ve been meeting a lot of people this week and it’s a tragic thing for me to see many smart people waste their talent going down paths which I’m scared may be stupid. So this is an appeal to all of the smart people in the world: Be more anti-stupid.

PS: As an aside, my impression is that this essay may be somewhat novel within the professional community but old hat within the creative community. This, perhaps, explains the penchant for artists to dress in odd clothes and adopt pet eccentricities; they are a disguise that allows them to move through conventional society without living in it. To have a homeless bum rant to you about crazy, stupid ideas is annoying but not unexpected, to have the same from a celebrated artist who only eats foods beginning with a vowel is charming and exotic, to hear it repeated by a man in a business suit is disturbing and subversive.

Technological Progress happens via Simulated Annealing

by Hang

If you ever learn about optimization, the second technique they teach you after “hill climbing” is something called “simulated annealing“. Forget trying to work through Wikipedia’s definition of it, here’s how I mentally visualize it:

Imagine you your job was to find the highest point on a random Frank Gehry designed building, say the Hotel Marques de Riscal. The problem is, you’re blind so you can only determine the height of one point at a time.

Frank Gehry Hotel

Hotel Marque de Riscal

One way to do it would be to take the entire outside shell of the structure and turn it upside down and then drop a ball bearing in it. When the ball bearing stops moving, you declare that point to be probably the lowest point.

Upside down hotel

Upside Down Hotel Marque de Riscal

In the field of optimization, this is called hill climbing and it sure is fast but the problem with it is obvious: the ball bearing will likely drop into some rut on the side of the building before reaching the bottom (aka: a local minima).

Simulated annealing is like adding a giant paint shaker and imagining the ball bearing getting heavier over time. At first, the ball bearing is light as a feather and every random vibration is going to make it bounce around, sometimes to a lower point but also sometimes to a higher point. Over time, as the ball bearing gets heavier, it becomes progressively harder to jostle out of it’s rut but when it does move, it moves to a lower rut some distance away. Finally, the ball bearing becomes so heavy it’s virtually impossible to budge, at which point, you declare that position to be probably the lowest point. Simulated annealing can still get trapped in local minima but it usually does a hell of a lot better than hill climbing.

Now, imagine that the ball bearing is society and it’s searching for the solution to a problem like, say, attaching sheets of paper together. If you’re living in any time since the 1930′s, it’s overwhelmingly likely that you’ll be reaching for a “Gem” style paperclip.

A Gem style paperclip

What many people don’t realize is that the Gem paperclip wasn’t the only type of paperclip invented. In fact, the 1909 Websters Dictionary entry on paperclips referred to the “Konaclip” version which was considered the prototypical paperclip of the time.

A Konaclip style paperclip

From 1864 when the first paperclip patent was granted, till 1930 when the gem became dominant, there were literally dozens of designs for paperclips (which, thankfully, has been documented on the Paperclip section of the Early Office Museum). But since the 1930′s, technological progress in the paperclip arena has ground to a halt with the entirety of society standardizing on the Gem and every other style dying in obscurity (For a much more detailed look into the paperclip’s fascinating history, I refer you to the book The Evolution of Useful Things).

To explain this history, I refer back to the simulated annealing analogy. In the early days of paperclipdom, society wasn’t particularly attached to any one design so there was very little momentum in the system. Even a tiny vibration was enough to make another design viable. However, as time went on, certain styles of paperclips started to have legacy effects and it became a race between a few, select alternatives, most notably the Konaclip & the Gem. Finally, society had settled so firmly upon the Gem that it it would take the most extraordinary effort to have any other design supplant it which is why it remains the paperclip of choice to this day. In Simulated Annealing terms, the entropy was now so low that it became practically impossible to escape from a local minima.

Indeed, one of the characteristics of simulated annealing is that it goes through 3 distinct phases. A period of fluid, diverse shifting, a long period of stagnation punctuated by occasional radical shifts and then finally stability from which only incremental improvement is possible.

Looking at the pattern of historical developments of other technologies, it’s possible to spot these same shifts in between phases.

Before 1973, there was a diverse ecosystem of physical interaction paradigms for desktop computing. The most notable examples from that era were Ivar Sutherland’s Sketchpad using light pen interaction and Alan Kay’s tablet style Dynabook.

Sketchpad circa 1962

Sketchpad circa 1963

Dynabook circa 1963

Dynabook circa 1972

Then, in 1973, the Xerox Alto was released and virtually halted the progress of computer interfaces from that point forward. Nearly every desktop computer today is a recognizable descendant of the Xerox Alto.

Xerox Alto circa 1973

The list of genuine innovations in physical UI that have been adopted since the Alto are as laughably few in number as they are trivial in scope. In rough order of importance: Speakers, microphones, webcams, the mouse wheel, wireless networking, higher resolution screens, a numpad, flatter screens & the Windows/Command button (this is not a sampling, it’s the complete list).

The list of potential innovations are as staggering as they are futile: Pen computing, Tabletop computing, Tablet computing, Augmented & Virtual Reality, Touch based interaction, Multitouch, MultiMouse, Bimanual Interaction, Single Display Groupware, 3D displays and the list goes on and on. In the last 37 years, billions of dollars have been poured into these alternative technologies in a vain attempt to supplant the Xerox Alto as the dominant paradigm with pretty much nothing to show from all that work except a bunch of pretty pilot projects.

And with each passing year, it’s become more and more difficult to foster a viable alternative paradigm because more and more gets invested into keeping Alto style computing firmly entrenched. Software is designed for a keyboard+mouse+screen, people have invested time learning the intricacies of a WIMP OS and thousands of companies have a vested interest in keeping the system entrenched.

The same pattern can be found in keyboard layouts with QWERTY, programming languages with C, web standards with HTML+CSS+JS, Office Productivity with Microsoft Office, Email with Eudora and so forth. In every instance, a period of rapid innovation was brought abruptly to a close with a dominant technology and, from that point forward, genuine changes in the status quo happen at best every decade and only after extraordinary effort *.

Almost every discussion of a new innovation focuses on the details of the innovation almost exclusively without considering the broader social context. Such discussion manages to miss the vital point that adoption of an innovation depends only a tiny bit on the actual innovation and almost completely on the current progress of society. Once a technology has reached a certain maturity point, whatever local minima that society has currently reached will establish itself be the dominant technology until the end of time regardless of what technological progress has occurred or has yet to occur. Like a game of musical chairs, it’s all about when the music stops. If you’ve managed to grab a seat at the table, then you’ll stay there forever, if you missed your spot, then it’s going to take extraordinary effort to regain it, no matter how much of an improvement you are over the status quo.

* This same model also explains why European & Japanese mobile & broadband technology is so far in advance of the US even thought the US were the pioneers of both technologies. Because the US started early, it’s industry matured around an earlier technological & social standard which caused it to fall behind the less mature, more technologically limber peers.

a numpad,
December 15 2009

Women Don’t Understand Friendship

by Aug Bohr

This is a guest post by a friend who currently wishes to remain anonymous. Not everything in this post is reflective of my own personal views but I do believe there is something both provocative & interesting contained within it.

Friendship is a peculiar type of relationship. It has no formalization of status, no hard and fast beginning or conclusion. Even more strangely, a search through your memory for the segue from acquaintanceship for a specific friend will draw an amnesia-like blank. Yet even as it seems so elusive, it’s the strongest, most critical type of connection humans can forge with one another.

Can men and women be friends? No, but not for the reason that immediately comes to mind. Latent sexual desire is not the fork in the gears of an intersex friendship. It may be the scapegoat, but what is really at play is a woman’s incapacity to be friends with anyone, including another woman.

I will argue that fully half the population has no conception of friendship. It does not exist for them in the same way that childbirth does not exist for men. Instead, they are observing and approximating what men do, going through motions and playing along. Before vehemently coming out in favor or against this conclusion, consider the following.

Men are worthless. Not rhetorically worthless or metaphorically worthless. Actually worthless. You could toss 95% of the world’s men into a meat grinder to make hotdogs and the birthrate and overall quality of life of everyone would be unaffected. A single rich man can father and support hundreds of children in a single generation. Reducing the number of women, however, drops the birthrate and the desire and ability to care for children by that much.

Though the realization is not a conscious one, men understand it on some level, and their life is a continuous battle to avoid irrelevance. A man cannot create life, and due to his fast recycle time in the part he does play in creating life, another man could easily step in and take his place. This so defines man’s existence that the inability to ejaculate when the woman desires it has been medicalized, a subtle hint to his innate worthlessness. To keep his genetic destiny from disappearing because a better man could spare fifteen minutes and the equivalent of his salary, men struggle to assert their worth.

Monogamous marriage benefits the common man over both women and wealthy men. If Bill Gates were allowed to take as many wives as he could support, thousands of poorer men would be left out in the cold. Certainly not all women would accept a generous stipend and fatherly non-interference over the alternative, but that is not required for the numbers to work against the common man. Men agree to take only one wife so that everyone can at least have the one.

Men are the architects of civilization, the government leaders and founders, the discoverers, the inventors, the explorers. Not because they are better at these things or more suited to do them or even because they’re bullies. They do these things because if they don’t, they are worthless. Their life is a constant struggle to prove they are more valuable alive than put through a meat grinder. When women do undertake these endeavors, they often have above average level of testosterone, the chemical which seems to engender this sensation of worthlessness.

Men have always fought the wars, built the buildings, and hunted the game. These are activities which can only be done with a uniquely intimate cooperation. To this day, managing a war or construction project is an extraordinary problem not only in implementation but in trust. Men tens of thousands of years ago accomplished these tasks with no oversight and minimal communication. It was a remarkable feat, perhaps facilitated by a new form of intimate connection, friendship.

There is no need to define friendship in terms of what it is when we can define what it does through group selection. It is simply a type of human relationship which, when experienced by members of a tribe, allowed that tribe to outdo its foes. A tribe with friendship will always defeat a non-friendship tribe in a raid. A friendship tribe will return with more food from a hunt, will always build a shelter faster in a downpour. This was all that was required for us to become descendants of those with the capacity for friendship.

Women did forage for food, which actually provided most of the tribe’s sustenance. Foraging, however, does not benefit from cooperation in the same way as a three-day hunt. These men had to sacrifice for each other, even give up their lives for each other in raids, and to understand each others’ signals and intentions. This was equally true in war and construction. Women had no comparable activity for which cooperation of this degree was necessary. This, however, doesn’t explain the mystery of why women don’t possess even a vestigial sense of friendship. That is, unless the ability to sacrifice for one another actually handicaps their pursuit of genetically high quality children.

It does. Women primarily competed to get the best man, and men competed to get the best woman. However, the cheapness of sperm meant men had no motivation to ration it, whereas eggs, if successfully fertilized, mean at minimum a yearlong investment. This is what forces men into the role of putting on displays while women sit back and choose. While women stepped over each other to get the best man, men’s displays further improved, in the form of civilization, something that can’t be created alone.

You can witness this to this day when you go to the bar. A woman will sabotage her “friend” if that friend is hit on by a man she’s interested in. Even if she’s not interested, she’ll almost instinctually sabotage her. The wingman practice only exists because these women are only friends so long as a man does not come between them. Men must be such good friends because women are natural enemies, no matter how long they’ve known each other or how great a display of friendship they advertise.

And it is women doing all the advertising. “We are such good friends! Jenny is my best friend in the whole world!“ Men never speak of friendship, and they especially do not rank who their best friend is. For men, the concept is so fucking visceral, so tangible, that blathering on about who is and who isn’t a friend would be like talking about the ground they walk on. “Isn’t the ground great? This is the best ground!” It’s either ground or it isn’t. If you’re walking on it, it’s fulfilling its purpose, and its purpose is entirely encapsulated by the term “ground.” The only motivation to make noise about such an entity would be for exhibition. It does not exist for you, and you are trying your best to approximate something you see others partake in so naturally.

When pressed to define it, women display an almost infantile conception of friendship. A woman’s friends are the people she talks to often, who make her feel good, who she has things in common with. In other words, frequently-seen acquaintances. A five-year-old would list similar criteria. When women do challenge the friendship of two men, their questions betray their conception. “If you’re such good friends, what’s his favorite color/middle name?” Knowing details about someone has as much to do with friendship as the brand of a bottle of water has to do with whether it’ll keep you from dehydrating.

Women may claim their best friend and mate are one in the same. A woman does tend to absorb her mate entirely, going as far as integrating his preference in sports teams into her own identity, but this is an unrelated type of connection. Joining with someone so closely that your goals and future blend together is a truly deep connection, and one women are certainly capable of, but it is at the expense of friendship, not as a shining example. Women who follow the absorption pattern of pair bonding almost always require complete compliance from their friends. Anyone who questions her relationship with her mate is cut loose without hesitation. It is almost as if women have the capacity for exactly one relationship. If her mate emotionally drifts away 20%, she’ll reach out to someone to fill the gap. Once he returns, the new fill-in is placed in cold storage.

If what women call friendship is in fact acquaintanceship, surely an experiment can be designed to reveal this. How one understands exclusively online friendship is an excellent litmus. Talking to someone online allows intimacy, commonality, superficial shared adversity, and frequency of communication. It does not, however, allow friendship. An online acquaintance never has the chance to give you their last sip of water on a long hike or risk life and limb to save your child from a lion. If you have no conception of actual friendship, the objection you’re now having is, “Someone can’t lie forever. Eventually you do get to know them and what kind of person they are.”

This misses the point entirely. The issue is not what kind of person they are; it is that entire facets of their personality, both positive and negative, cannot express themselves without a real life connection. Online friendship may allow more commonality, honesty, and understanding than real life, but these are extremely low on the Maslow hierarchy of friendship. An artificial intelligence could supply these while being completely unconscious and lacking all integrity and character. Who knows, your online friends may in fact give up a finger so you can keep your hand, but without the opportunity for this to happen, it is irrelevant. This defining facet of friendship is completely shielded by lack of real life interaction. For this reason, men will overwhelmingly say that friendship cannot exist online, and women will say it can.

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