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Black Swan was a Crappy Movie

The only moral to be found – if you can call it a moral; I would call it a teaching – in the shallows of Black Swan is the most curious human trait of producing our best art from the tangled darkness of our worst pain. Now that’s a fascinating and profound topic, don’t get me wrong, but I find it laughable that the angst of a teenage ballerina could ever be singled out as a prime example of this phenomenon.

There is no question in my mind that depth of character and compassion are carved out with the knives of sorrow and injustice, but if we want to look into that fact, we must look toward Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday. We must look toward Vincent van Gogh and Frida Kahlo. We must look toward Melissa Etheridge and Oscar Wilde.

America has known great injustice. We are the birthplace of soul music. In the words of the great Cornell West, we are a blues nation. As a result, we have great depths of courage, knowledge, and character, and those traits inform our great artists. However, when you speak of the great art that comes from the tortured soul, please, let the name Natalie Portman be far from your lips.

[Crossposted from Sarah Davies' fabulous blog.]

Designs That Don’t Suck

This is one in a series of blog posts in which I subject you to reading I have to do! Today:

Mountford, S. Joy “Tools and Techniques for Creative Design” The Art of Human-Computer Interface Design, 1990

My favorite part of this article is its mention of the concept of role-playing first mentioned by von Oech in 1986. He (she?) posited that a good designer has to be an Explorer, an Artist, a Judge, and a Warrior at different points in the design process. I think that’s precisely accurate. I’ve seen several design problems that stem from an imbalance of these aspects. Perhaps imbalance isn’t the right term, because most of the time a designer should only be using one of these aspects. Conflict (and bad design) arise when they try to crowd each other out. Some of the design flaws I’ve seen as a result of this include

  • good ideas scrapped before they are explored (Judge overpowering Artist)
  • crappy ideas defended because of ego (Warrior overpowering Judge)
  • good ideas dismissed because they aren’t “original” enough (Judge overpowering Explorer)
  • good ideas started but never finished (Explorer overpowering Artist)
  • iterations on a flawed idea because of lack of creativity (Artist overpowering Explorer)

You get the idea. It’s important for a designer not to limit herself by attempting to be all four of these aspects at once.

The article also explores different methods designers can use to redesign an existing technology (add, subtract, substitute, rearrange, etc). These are good ideas, but I’ve seen bad designs come out of them like Clippy and, let’s be honest, all of Adobe Creative Suite. I do think it’s important to think creatively about user interface, but I think it’s much more important to user test and iterate.

[Crossposted from Sarah Davies' fabulous blog.]

What a Wicked World

I’ll be posting here about various readings that I’m doing for grad school. Today brings you:

MM Webber, H Rittel “Dilemmas in a general theory of planning” Policy Sciences, 1973

The premise of this article is that there are “wicked” problems and “tame” problems. Tame problems are the sort that I encountered in my undergrad physics degree. Tame problems can be solved and have correct answers. Wicked problems are the sort that politicians face. Wicked problems are big hairy expensive public projects, reaching so broadly and deeply into people’s lives that the full effect of the project can never be known, and usually we don’t even agree on what effect we were trying to achieve in the first place.

One of the issues with wicked problems is goal finding. How do you get a large diverse population to agree on a common goal? This reminds me most of schooling, which I’ve had on my mind since the geekling just started third grade. I bet if you asked twenty parents what the “goal” of school should be, you’d get thirty answers. How can we strive for perfect or even “good” schools without that concept? Should learning prepare you for a desk job? a factory job? give you a grand sense of fulfillment as an intellectual human being? Sometimes these objectives are mutually exclusive, and we have to make choices as to what good schools look like. Rittel and Webber (R+W) suggest that whoever makes those decisions is imposing his or her political worldview on everyone affected. I don’t disagree.

Let’s just assume that we can all agree on a goal (and while we’re at it, people are frictionless spheres with consistent mass). In order to achieve that goal, we have to have a planning process that acknowledges imperfections, i.e. problems and we have to have some explanation for the roots of those problems. But we can’t ever have a perfect explanation for why a problem exists. Why don’t American schools adequately prepare kids to work in factories? Again, you’d get a plethora of answers. According to R+W, there can’t be a clear-cut problem definition. Here, I disagree. Schools have done quite well at instituting generally agreeable metrics by which they can measure their own progress.

Now lets assume that we can all agree on a goal and a problem definition. Do we all agree that planning to achieve the goal is desirable? R+W say it’s questionable. I agree. I briefly worked in banking after college, and learned a little about the Six Sigma system. Let’s say I’m opening a widget factory, and I have a widget assembly line, and naturally some of my widgets are imperfect. Some are a little too big, some are a little too small, but they fall along a bell curve where the vast majority are just right. Six sigma sets a business goal for six standard deviations between “perfect” widgets and “unacceptable” widgets. It attempts to tighten the bell curve. Six sigma has since grown into a vast and complicated business strategy used in all sorts of businesses, but its core goal remains, i.e. everything should be more perfect. Every bank teller should say the same thing as what the “perfect” bank teller would say. I would be worried if someone said that we should apply this to wicked problems like schools. We should not be trying to make every kid a “perfect” kid. If that’s what process planning means, count me out.

R+W say that it is sometimes “morally objectionable… to refuse to recognize the inherent wickedness of a social problem.” I couldn’t agree more. This is what drives me crazy about American politics. Neither democrats or republicans seem to be able to acknowledge that there aren’t easy solutions to education, foreign policy, environmental issues, health issues and all the other things that are inexplicably making both sides angry because their quick fix hasn’t been tried yet. I do, however, think there’s some validity to the argument that democrats are more nuanced about problems, resulting in an enthusiasm gap among democratic voters. It’s much easier to get enthusiastic about “taxed enough already” than it is about a “new regulatory framework that holds market players responsible for their actions and stops fraudulent practices before they take hold.” The latter does much more to acknowledge the wickedness of the problem.

Which brings us to the next issue with wicked problems – we don’t know what “fixed” looks like. Did the financial stimulus work? Well, we don’t know because we don’t have a control planet. We don’t know what the country would look like if we hadn’t passed it. Would unemployment be even lower than it is now? Or would it be about the same and we’d be in a lot less debt? We will never know. You can’t use trial and error on projects this big, because you’ll never know whether you succeeded. Even if you put definite metrics in place, you don’t know which policies (if any) helped you meet the metrics and which (if any) detracted from that goal.

So… I guess grad school has taught me that even though they will give me tools to help with big intractable problems, I shouldn’t get too big for my britches because I will never be able to prove that I’ve done anything useful.

[Crossposted from Sarah Davies' fabulous blog.]

Adventures in grocery shopping

Spotted in Metropolitan Market in West Seattle:

50 cents an ounce?! There is clearly a bubble going on in the nested fowl market.

[Crossposted from Sarah Davies' fabulous blog.]

TED is so not Harvard

Photographer Amanda Koster of SalaamGarage speaks during the TEDx Seattle at the Pacific Science Center in Seattle Friday April 16, 2010.
Photo by Stephen Brashear, licensed under Creative Commons.

Anya Kamenetz, a crazy smart writer I met at sxsw last year, argued this week that TED is the new Harvard. She says:

TED is in the process of creating something brand new. I would go so far as to argue that it’s creating a new Harvard — the first new top-prestige education brand in more than 100 years.

Of course TED doesn’t look like a regular Ivy League college. It doesn’t have any buildings; it doesn’t grant degrees. It doesn’t have singing groups or secret societies, and as far as I know it hasn’t inspired any strange drinking games.

Now I know for a fact that she’s dead wrong about the drinking games. Last time I hosted a TED watching party, the drink of the evening was Tia maria, Elijah craig whiskey, and Decaf coffee. We each took a sip whenever someone said “let me tell you a story,” “incredible,” or “child trafficking.” Good times. Reihan Salan at National Review picked up the idea. He says:

The success of TED doesn’t mean that traditional elite institutions don’t have a place. But it provides a very constructive kind of competition. As TED’s “mindshare” expands, we will hopefully see more efforts like MIT’s OpenCourseWare, if only because elite schools don’t want to lose their relevance and their influence.

James Joyner at Outside the Beltway gets closest to my feelings on the idea:

Look, if I were setting up a university from scratch, I’d probably do it differently than the model that we have now. I certainly wouldn’t have large lecture halls packed with hundreds of students with a disheveled TA leading the way as the model for teaching freshman survey courses. But, here’s the thing: Neither would I get a bunch of smart people to show up and give random 10-minute lectures on whatever quirky idea came to mind.

I think what all these perspectives are failing to understand though, is that the talks aren’t just “whatever quirky idea came to mind,” they are specifically cultivated to have mass appeal. When was the last time you disagreed with a TED speaker? Does Jaime Oliver telling you that kids need healthy food really teach you anything? Here are a few TED themes I’ve watched recently: Fix the Environment, Save the Animals, Stop Slavery, Accept Diversity. Why are we talking about subjects with which no one could possibly disagree? Why aren’t we dissecting the ways in which we disagree? What Harvard has that TED lacks is controversy.

I’d happily willingly eat crow if TED ever invited an Ivy-League professor like Cornel West, who recently described the current problems with the world as “a spiritual malnutrition tied to a moral constipation, where people have a sense of what’s right and what’s good. It’s just stuck, and they can’t get it out because there’s too much greed. There’s too much obsession with reputation and addiction to narrow conceptions of success.” Ivy League colleges are much more willing to challenge established modes of thought, where TED only seems to approve them and narrow them further.

Good education should offend me. It should question my morals, my assumptions, my entire worldview. Good education should include a war of ideas.

I love TED. It’s inspirational, thought-provoking, and occasionally educational, but Harvard it is not.

[Crossposted from Sarah Davies' fabulous blog.]


Office Decor and Panoramic Pictures

Click to embiggen

I’ve been decorating my new office (ACLU of Washington recently moved to a fancier building) and playing with making panoramic pictures by stitching smaller pictures together, so I thought I’d show them both off at once.

The mask is an Indonesian depiction of the Hindu Eagle god Garuda, who uses ethics to right injustices throughout the universe (appropriate for ACLU, no?). The plants on the wall are air plants that don’t need soil. They just need to be sprayed with water a couple times a week. The building with the neato tiling on the side is the 5th and Madison condo building.

The photos were taken with my iPhone and stitched together with an open source tool called Hugin.

[Crossposted from Sarah Davies' fabulous blog.]

You must do the thinking for both of us.

I’ve been thinking lately about modern portrayals of masculine identity. I don’t like them. The best contrast I’ve come up with is Avatar and Casablanca. They are perfect opposites – one encapsulates sexism against women, the other sexism against men.

Ilsa and Jake are both portrayed as weak in the same key ways – lacking in basic knowledge, childlike, in need of guidance and support. That weakness is portrayed as something to be aspired to by their whole gender. They are defined by their mistakes and missteps.

Jake’s foil, Colonel Quaritch, is a villain. He is aggresive in his decisions; he is manipulative; he’s patriotic; he believes firmly in the justice of war. Ilsa’s foil, Yvonne, makes a lesser appearance. She is drunk, slutty, and only nominally patriotic.

This new sexism isn’t just odd, it’s much more insidious than its predecessor. In Casablanca, women should listen to men because otherwise they will get drunk and throw themselves at otherwise upstanding young men and regret it “someday and for the rest of [their] li[ves].” In Avatar, men should listen to women because otherwise they will enact genocide and destroy sacred places all across the cosmos.

When did we do this major 180 on sexism? Was there a point in the middle where we respected both sexes? If we split the difference between 1942 and 2009, we get 1977. Top grossing film of 1977? Star Wars.

What does it all mean? Thoughts? Do you think Star Wars was pro-men? pro-women? pro-human? Anti-human and pro-yoda?

[Crossposted from Sarah Davies' fabulous blog.]

Going off the grid

I will be eating raspberries and reading books and ignoring all of you in an undisclosed location for the next two weeks. Please make a note of it.

[Crossposted from Sarah Davies' fabulous blog.]

Let’s say you have a friend who is a big blabbermouth and a friend who only discloses information about you if you give them explicit permission (FWODIAYIYGTEP). Knowing this, you regulate the information you tell the blabbermouth, but not the information you tell the FWODIAYIYGTEP. This is where Twitter and Facebook were three years ago. The heart of Twitter is and always has been broadcasting information publicly. This is why the Iranian revolution used Twitter and not Facebook. This is why cable news shows highlighted tweets rather than status updates. Facebook got jealous of the popularity and became a blabbermouth.

The ACLU is now very angry with Facebook. I am not. Facebook is merely attempting to become what Twitter has always been. The internet is built to broadcast information. Facebook is a networking site. I simply don’t understand how you can be mad at Facebook without being mad at Twitter, or Wordpress, or HTML, or people who talk really loud on buses. Why does one website have to conform to a higher privacy standard than other websites?

It’s your job as a citizen of the internet to decide which sites are blabbermouths and which sites are FWODIAYIYGTEPs. The problem is that every site can potentially become a blabbermouth. They can even do it without meaning to by having a small hole in their code, which every site on the internet has. The logical conclusion here is if you don’t want it to be public, don’t put it on the internet.

But there’s another catch. Other people can put things about you on the internet, and they are becoming increasingly capable of doing so as humanity is getting better at recording and transferring information.

I’m here to warn you that in ten years you will be required to live in public. There will be no secrets. It won’t be because of a big brother government, or Facebook, or even malicious people. It will be because we like each other, and we want to know more about each other, and it’s very profitable to collect that information, make it public, and push it to anyone who wants it.

Stop having a temper tantrum over Facebook, and start gently tactfully taking the skeletons out of the closet. It’s only a matter of time until those walls will be brought down forcefully, and we’ll all learn an uncomfortably large amount about each other in a very short amount of time.

[Crossposted from Sarah Davies' fabulous blog.]

I’m speaking in Olympia next weekend

I will be presenting a workshop called “Marketing & Outreach: Engaging Your Community in a Digital World” at the Northwest Community Media Gathering at 11 on Saturday, May 15th at The Governor Hotel. If you are a community media person who wants to become a social media expert thanks to my fine tutelage, please do attend!

[Crossposted from Sarah Davies' fabulous blog.]



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