Project Planning, Work, writing

Voice Interaction

As phones have transitioned to smart phones, our personal technology has graduated from conduits between people to a more sophisticated breed that allows for – even invites – direct control. In tandem, people are getting rid of voicemail, making fewer phone calls, and texting more. In one vein, this seems like a more truncated, efficient behavior, but it also implies greater intimacy with the device.

We’re also growing to expect the similar level of control we have over our phones to expand to the devices of our environment. The “smart home” and “connected” objects are commanded with our phones for the time being. Contrary to the shift in phone use, control of these devices that is buried in a growing library of apps is not efficient.

The technological response to surfacing quick control over these smart objects is the use of voice interfaces. The Xbox’s Kinect allows for voice control of your Xbox apps and access to media. The Xfinity remote control makes “change the channel to HBO” possible. Apple’s Siri, Microsoft’s Cortana, Amazon’s Alexa, and the Google Now services are all serious attempts at broadening voice control to access many services.

While speech-to-text recognition has largely improved, the voice controlled services themselves still lack in the sophistication that people presume exists when communicating through a nuanced medium as speech. Even if this level of sophistication is attained, and the services understand and respond exactly as we expect them to, the challenge of intimacy remains.

When common interaction with phones shifted from calls to text as the interfaces allowed more direct (read: intimate) control, we’ve created this controversial-yet-accepted balance of interacting with people directly and multitasking with our pocket computers. Voice interaction necessitates a more public display of that human computer interaction. One that is so uncomfortable, directly inhibits its use. Think of the times you have used your voice input on a phone: public settings, private settings with people around, or solitary settings?

Although we may not be able to out-design social mores, we can take the first challenge—that of accuracy, intuitive use, and predictable outcome—to the whiteboard and to the APIs.

More on this to come, maybe.

Musings, writing


I have no idea what 404 words look like. I was thinking about Twitter this morning, and largely the reason it works is the character limit. Yes, it is successful for the things it has facilitated in society, but no one would be scanning this stream of information if all of the posts were variable or long. Predictable and digestible text posts doesn’t ask too much of a casual browser.

Working within constraints is also a commonly known method for spiking creativity. In yet another drought of writing, I’m looking for a quick fix to push me into writing again. My long-term vision is to make a simple little site that only has 500-word posts. The nerd in me thinks that “404” is more clever, so that’s what I’m shooting for.

The double challenge: write passionately, write succinctly.

Also, I’m going to start a podcast. I’ve heard that when you set a goal you shouldn’t tell other people because it creates this cognitive illusion of already accomplishing the goal (because you are painting this picture of actually doing it when you describe it multiple times to people). I hope that it keeps me accountable for it, though.

I’ve come to understand that what I think about and talk about all the time is actually the philosophy of technology. When I talk about design with my peers, it’s not the actual work, it’s the impact that it has. When I think of design, or the work that I hope to do, it’s within the context of what societal impact it will make. In the natural world, we seem to be removing resources, eliminating animals, even melting the ice. In the mental world, we have entered into another kind of industrial revolution. Instead of cranking out metal, we’re spinning off apps, and with each app, hundreds of notifications, and with each notification, thousands of eye movements and moments diluted.

The first temptation is to yell for the opposite extreme — let’s go off the grid! — but that is a reaction of desperation, an effort to move the needle back to the middle by screaming for the contrary. I think that vision is very romantic personally, but it will not have the inertia to make real adjustment. There should be conscious design happening at the heart of all this; a mitigating element, not a revolution. That is what will help steer the ship. Philosophy will save us all.

Word count: 404


Michael Chabon on Long Now

The Pulitzer Prize winning author, writing on The Long Now Foundation. Originally printed in the January 02006 issue of Details Magazine. Copied verbatim for sharing purposes here:

The Omega Glory

I was reading, in a recent issue of Discover, about the Clock of the Long Now. Have you heard of this thing? It is going to be a kind of gigantic mechanical computer, slow, simple and ingenious, marking the hour, the day, the year, the century, the millennium, and the precession of the equinoxes, with a huge orrery to keep track of the immense ticking of the six naked-eye planets on their great orbital mainspring. The Clock of the Long Now will stand sixty feet tall, cost tens of millions of dollars, and when completed its designers and supporters, among them visionary engineer Danny Hillis, a pioneer in the concept of massively parallel processing; Whole Earth mahatma Stewart Brand; and British composer Brian Eno (one of my household gods), plan to hide it in a cave in the Great Basin National Park in Nevada, a day’s hard walking from anywhere. Oh, and it’s going to run for ten thousand years. That is about as long a span as separates us from the first makers of pottery, which is among the oldest technologies we have. Ten thousand years is twice as old as the pyramid of Cheops, twice as old as that mummified body found preserved in the Swiss Alps, which is one of the oldest mummies ever discovered. The Clock of the Long Now is being designed to thrive under regular human maintenance along the whole of that long span, though during periods when no one is around to tune it, the giant clock will contrive to adjust itself. But even if the Clock of the Long Now fails to last ten thousand years, even if it breaks down after half or a quarter or a tenth that span, this mad contraption will already have long since fulfilled its purpose. Indeed the Clock may have accomplished its greatest task before it is ever finished, perhaps without ever being built at all. The point of the Clock of the Long Now is not to measure out the passage, into their unknown future, of the race of creatures that built it. The point of the Clock is to revive and restore the whole idea of the Future, to get us thinking about the Future again, to the degree if not in quite the way same way that we used to do, and to reintroduce the notion that we don’t just bequeath the future—though we do, whether we think about it or not. We also, in the very broadest sense of the first person plural pronoun, inherit it.

The Sex Pistols, strictly speaking, were right: there is no future, for you or for me. The future, by definition, does not exist. “The Future,” whether you capitalize it or not, is always just an idea, a proposal, a scenario, a sketch for a mad contraption that may or may not work. “The Future” is a story we tell, a narrative of hope, dread or wonder. And it’s a story that, for a while now, we’ve been pretty much living without.

Ten thousand years from now: can you imagine that day? Okay, but do you? Do you believe “the Future” is going to happen? If the Clock works the way that it’s supposed to do—if it lasts—do you believe there will be a human being around to witness, let alone mourn its passing, to appreciate its accomplishment, its faithfulness, its immense antiquity? What about five thousand years from now, or even five hundred? Can you extend the horizon of your expectations for our world, for our complex of civilizations and cultures, beyond the lifetime of your own children, of the next two or three generations? Can you even imagine the survival of the world beyond the present presidential administration?

I was surprised, when I read about the Clock of the Long Now, at just how long it had been since I had given any thought to the state of the world ten thousand years hence. At one time I was a frequent visitor to that imaginary mental locale. And I don’t mean merely that I regularly encountered “the Future” in the pages of science fiction novels or comic books, or when watching a TV show like The Jetsons (1962) or a movie like Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970). The story of the Future was told to me, when I was growing up, not just by popular art and media but by public and domestic architecture, industrial design, school textbooks, theme parks, and by public institutions from museums to government agencies. I heard the story of the Future when I looked at the space-ranger profile of the Studebaker Avanti, at Tomorrowland through the portholes of the Disneyland monorail, in the tumbling plastic counters of my father’s Seth Thomas Speed Read clock. I can remember writing a report in sixth grade on hydroponics; if you had tried to tell me then that by 2005 we would still be growing our vegetables in dirt, you would have broken my heart.

Even thirty years after its purest expression on the covers of pulp magazines like Amazing Stories and, supremely, at the New York World’s Fair of 1939, the collective cultural narrative of the Future remained largely an optimistic one of the impending blessings of technology and the benevolent, computer-assisted meritocracy of Donald Fagen’s “fellows with compassion and vision.” But by the early seventies—indeed from early in the history of the Future—it was not all farms under the sea and family vacations on Titan. Sometimes the Future could be a total downer. If nuclear holocaust didn’t wipe everything out, then humanity would be enslaved to computers, by the ineluctable syllogisms of “the Machine.” My childhood dished up a series of grim cinematic prognostications best exemplified by the Hestonian trilogy that began with the first Planet of the Apes (1968) and continued through The Omega Man (1971) and Soylent Green (1973). Images of future dystopia were rife in rock albums of the day, as on David Bowie’s Diamond Dogs (1974) and Rush’s 2112 (1976), and the futures presented by seventies writers of science fiction such as John Brunner tended to be unremittingly or wryly bleak.

In the aggregate, then, stories of the Future presented an enchanting ambiguity. The other side of the marvelous Jetsons future might be a story of worldwide corporate- authoritarian technotyranny, but the other side of a post-apocalyptic mutational nightmare landscape like that depicted in The Omega Man was a landscape of semi- barbaric splendor and unfettered (if dangerous) freedom to roam, such as I found in the pages of Jack Kirby’s classic adventure comic book Kamandi, The Last Boy on Earth (1972-76). That ambiguity and its enchantment, the shifting tension between the bright promise and the bleak menace of the Future, was in itself a kind of story about the ways, however freakish or tragic, in which humanity (and by implication American culture and its values however freakish and tragic) would, in spite of it all, continue. Eed plebnista, intoned the devolved Yankees, in the Star Trek episode “The Omega Glory,” who had somehow managed to hold on to and venerate as sacred gobbledygook the Preamble to the Constitution, norkon forden perfectunun. All they needed was a Captain Kirk to come and add a little interpretive water to the freeze-dried document, and the American way of life would flourish again.

I don’t know what happened to the Future. It’s as if we lost our ability, or our will, to envision anything beyond the next hundred years or so, as if we lacked the fundamental faith that there will in fact be any future at all beyond that not-too- distant date. Or maybe we stopped talking about the Future around the time that, with its microchips and its twenty-four-hour news cycles, it arrived. Some days when you pick up the newspaper it seems to have been co-written by J. G. Ballard, Isaac Asimov, and Philip K. Dick. Human sexual reproduction without male genetic material, digital viruses, identity theft, robot firefighters and minesweepers, weather control, pharmaceutical mood engineering, rapid species extinction, US Presidents controlled by little boxes mounted between their shoulder blades, air-conditioned empires in the Arabian desert, transnational corporatocracy, reality television—some days it feels as if the imagined future of the mid-twentieth century was a kind of checklist, one from which we have been too busy ticking off items to bother with extending it. Meanwhile, the dwindling number of items remaining on that list— interplanetary colonization, sentient computers, quasi-immortality of consciousness through brain-download or transplant, a global government (fascist or enlightened)— have been represented and re-represented so many hundreds of times in films, novels and on television that they have come to seem, paradoxically, already attained, already known, lived with, and left behind. Past, in other words.

This is the paradox that lies at the heart of our loss of belief or interest in the Future, which has in turn produced a collective cultural failure to imagine that future, any Future, beyond the rim of a couple of centuries. The Future was represented so often and for so long, in the terms and characteristic styles of so many historical periods from, say, Jules Verne forward, that at some point the idea of the Future—along with the cultural appetite for it—came itself to feel like something historical, outmoded, no longer viable or attainable.

If you ask my eight-year-old about the Future, he pretty much thinks the world is going to end, and that’s it. Most likely global warming, he says—floods, storms, desertification—but the possibility of viral pandemic, meteor impact, or some kind of nuclear exchange is not alien to his view of the days to come. Maybe not tomorrow, or a year from now. The kid is more than capable of generating a full head of optimistic steam about next week, next vacation, his tenth birthday. It’s only the world a hundred years on that leaves his hopes a blank. My son seems to take the end of everything, of all human endeavor and creation, for granted. He sees himself as living on the last page, if not in the last paragraph, of a long, strange and bewildering book. If you had told me, when I was eight, that a little kid of the future would feel that way—and that what’s more, he would see a certain justice in our eventual extinction, would think the world was better off without human beings in it—that would have been even worse than hearing that in 2006 there are no hydroponic megafarms, no human colonies on Mars, no personal jetpacks for everyone. That would truly have broken my heart.

When I told my son about the Clock of the Long Now, he listened very carefully, and we looked at the pictures on the Long Now Foundation’s website. “Will there really be people then, Dad?” he said. “Yes,” I told him without hesitation, “there will.” I don’t know if that’s true, any more than do Danny Hillis and his colleagues, with the beating clocks of their hopefulness and the orreries of their imaginations. But in having children—in engendering them, in loving them, in teaching them to love and care about the world—parents are betting, whether they know it or not, on the Clock of the Long Now. They are betting on their children, and their children after them, and theirs beyond them, all the way down the line from now to 12,006. If you don’t believe in the Future, unreservedly and dreamingly, if you aren’t willing to bet that somebody will be there to cry when the Clock finally, ten thousand years from now, runs down, then I don’t see how you can have children. If you have children, I don’t see how you can fail to do everything in your power to ensure that you win your bet, and that they, and their grandchildren, and their grandchildren’s grandchildren, will inherit a world whose perfection can never be accomplished by creatures whose imagination for perfecting it is limitless and free. And I don’t see how anybody can force me to pay up on my bet if I turn out, in the end, to be wrong.

Originally published in Details, January 2006
Japan, Musings


Design Context

I just finished this book and would like to share an excerpt. I picked it up due to a long-standing interest in anything Japanese. As soon as I started reading however, I was giddy with the unexpected analogies that can be made between the type of work I do (Interaction Design for apps or websites) and this medieval Japanese philosophy. I don’t want to shape your personal impression too much, but since I’m trying to share some of my own ideas and impressions through this website, it’s worth mentioning that I easily found direct correlations with the excerpt below and the following:

  • Lean — Just start designing. Imperfection and incompletion are unavoidable
  • Combat feature-creep/feature-bloating in your product
  • Validated minimalism — i.e. interview users to see if a simple interface is still enough to easily accomplish tasks, and doesn’t add confusion
  • Design for emotion

  • Minimum Viable Product
  • “No” to the No UI trend – a post about that

So, those are some of the ideas that are sparked by this philosophy. I’d love to hear yours.


from Wabi-Sabi: for Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers – GoodreadsAmazon

Simple. Simplicity is at the core of things wabi-sabi. Nothingness, of course, is the ultimate simplicity. But before and after nothingness, simplicity is not so simple. To paraphrase Rikyu, the essence of wabi-sabi, as expressed in tea, is simplicity itself: fetch water, gather firewood, boil the water, prepare tea, and serve it to others. Further details, Rikyu suggests, are left to one’s own invention.

But how do you exercise the restraint that simplicity requires without crossing over into ostentatious austerity? How do you pay attention to all the necessary details without becoming excessively fussy? How do you achieve simplicity without inviting boredom?

The simplicity of wabi-sabi is probably best described as the sate of grace arrived at by a sober, modest, heartfelt intelligence. The main strategy of this intelligence is economy of means. Pare down to the essence, but don’t remove the poetry. Keep things clean and unencumbered, but don’t sterilize. (Things wabi-sabi are emotionally warm, never cold.) Usually this implies a limited palette of materials. It also means keeping conspicuous features to a minimum. But it doesn’t mean removing the invisible connective tissue that somehow binds the elements into a meaningful whole. It also doesn’t mean in any way diminishing something’s “interestingness,” the quality that compels us to look at that something over, and over, and over again.


Matter Duplicators

The following is a Forward, written by Neil Gaiman for the book, “Information Doesn’t Want to Be Free” by Cory Doctorow. GoodreadsAmazon

From “Business as Usual, During Alterations,”
by Ralf Williams (Astounding Science Fiction, 1958)
George shook his head slowly. “You’re wrong, John. Not back to where we were. This morning, we had an economy of scarcity. Tonight, we have an economy of abundance. This morning, we had a money economy—it was a money economy, even if credit was important. Tonight, it’s a credit economy, one hundred percent. This morning, you and the lieutenant were selling standardization. Tonight, it’s diversity. The whole framework of our society is flipped upside down.” He frowned uncertainly.
“And yet, you’re right, too. It doesn’t seem to make much difference. It’s still the same old rat race. I don’t understand it.”

I bought a box of SF pulps when I was in my late teens from one of my father’s friends, who kept them in the garage. English editions of Astounding Science Fiction, for the most part. Stories written by authors whose names I barely recognized, despite being a science-fiction reader from about as soon as I could read.

I paid more than I could afford for them.

I suspect that one story paid for all of them, though.

It’s a thought experiment. Until recently I’d forgotten the opening of the story (aliens decide to Mess With Us) but remembered what happened after that.

We’re in a department store. And someone drops off two matter duplicators. They have pans. You put something in pan one, press a button, and its exact duplicate appears in pan two.

We spend a day in the department store as they sell everything they have as cheaply as possible, duplicating things with the matter duplicator, making what they can on each sale, and using checks and credit cards, not cash (you can now perfectly duplicate cash—which obviously is no longer legal tender). Toward the end they stop and take stock of the new world waiting for them, and realize that all the rules have changed, but craftsmen and engineers are more necessary than ever.

They realize that companies won’t be manufacturing millions of identical things, but will need to make hundreds, perhaps thousands, of slightly different things. That their stores will be showrooms for things, and stockrooms will be history. That there will now be fundamental changes in 1950s-style retailing—including, to use a phrase that turned up well after 1958, a long tail.

Being Astounding Science Fiction, the story contains the moral of 95 percent of Astounding Science Fiction stories, which could perhaps be reduced to: people are smart. We’ll cope.

When my friends who were musicians first started complaining sadly about people stealing their music on Napster, back in the 1990s, I told them about the story of the duplicator machines. (I could not remember the name of the story or the author. It was not until I agreed to write this foreword that I asked a friend, via email, and found myself, a Google later, re-reading it for the first time in decades.)

It seemed to me that copying music was not stealing. It was something else. It was the duplicator machine story: you were pressing a button and an object appeared in the pan. Which meant, I suspected, that music-as-object (CD, vinyl, cassette tape) was going to lose value, and that other things—mostly things that could not be reproduced, things like live shows and personal contact—would increase in value.

I remembered what Charles Dickens did, a hundred and fifty years before, when copyright laws meant that his copyrights were worth nothing in the U.S.: he was widely read, but he was not making any money from it. So he took the piracy as advertising, and toured the U.S. in theaters, reading from his books. He made money, and he saw America.

So I started doing Evenings with Neil Gaiman as fund-raisers for the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, and learning how to do that—how to make an evening interesting for an audience, with just me and a stage and things I’d written, partly because it seemed to me that one day it might not be as easy to make money from selling stories in the traditional way, but that business might still continue more or less as usual, during the alterations, if there were other things I could do.

And so as the nature of music-selling changed utterly and fundamentally, I just stood and watched and nodded. Now the nature of book publishing is changing, and the only people who claim to know what the landscape of publishing will look like a decade from now are either fools or deluding themselves. Some people think the sky is falling, and I do not entirely blame them.

I never worried that the world was ending, because as a teen I’d read a thought experiment in an SF pulp published two years before I was born. It stretched my head.

I know that the view is going to be very different in the future, that authors are going to get their money from different places. I am certain that not all authors can be Charles Dickens, and that many of us became authors in order to avoid getting up on stages in the first place, and that it’s not a solution for everybody or even for most of us.

Fortunately, Cory Doctorow has written this book. It’s filled with wisdom and with thought experiments and with things that will mess with your mind. Once, while we were arguing, Cory came up with an analogy that explained the world we were heading into in terms of mammals and dandelions, and I’ve never seen anything quite the same way since.

Mammals, he said, and I paraphrase here and do not put it as well as Cory did, invest a great deal of time and energy in their young, in the pregnancy, in raising them. Dandelions just let their seeds go to the wind, and do not mourn the seeds that do not make it. Until now, creating intellectual content for payment has been a mammalian idea. Now it’s time for creators to accept that we are becoming dandelions.

The world is not ending. Not if, as Astounding Science Fiction used to suggest, humans are bright enough to think our way out of the problems we think ourselves into.

I suspect that the next generation to come along will puzzle over our agonies, much as I puzzled over the death of the Victorian music halls as a child, and much as I felt sorry for the performers who had needed only thirteen minutes of material in their whole life, and who did their thirteen minutes in town after town until the day that television came along and killed it all.

In the meanwhile, it’s business as usual, during alterations.

Another excerpt:


A beautiful Spring day!


North Brooklyn