Summer Reading

Summer is halfway over, and I just finished reading How We Decide by Jonah Lehrer. It covers some of the same ground as another excellent book I read in the spring, Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions by Dan Ariely. I highly recommend Ariely's book, especially to people who design information artifacts and services. It identifies types of scenarios in which people behave in consistently (hence, predictably) irrational ways and the principles that underlie that behavior - things like loss aversion, framing, and mental accounting. Ariely is a social scientist (and an engaging professor, as I can attest from my MIT days) writing mainly about his own research and the research of his colleages working in the field of behavioral economics. His book unfolds as a series of anecdotes that each illustrates a principle and then delves into the details and is a great starting point for anyone interested in looking further into the research. Lehrer's book doesn't go into as much depth with the behavioral economics, but he sprinkles some introductory neuroscience throughout that adds an interesting dimension to the material. He is also a journalist rather than a scientist, and some of his anecdotes read like excerpts from a dramatic piece of non-fiction. A pilot fights to land a stalled Boeing 737. Patriots quarterback Tom Brady makes a series of split-second decisions in the 2002 Super Bowl. A professional poker player faces off against a host of idiosyncratic rivals in Las Vegas. It all adds up to an entertaining and informative read, but I got a little lost trying to extract applicable takeaways straight from the text, and the ending felt a bit muddled and hand-wavy. It was still worth the time I spent reading it, though. I also give it bonus points for having images of ice cream cones on the front cover, leading countless hungry Americans into pursuing careers in neuroscience.

Respecting your audience

In a recent talk at Carnegie Mellon University, American statistician and professor emeritus Edward Tufte said "Respect your audience." Pithy advice, but what does it mean? Tufte goes around the U.S. conducting seminars on information design, so presumably he directed these words at information designers, people whose primary goal is the effective communication of information. He went on to say that, in many cases, the audience knows more about the content than the designer does. For instance, designers tasked with communicating information about the federal budget to lawmakers and economists are really designing for people who (we hope) know a great deal more about the deeper meaning of all those numbers.

Respecting your audience, then, means making an effort to understand what your audience will find obvious, and what it won't. It means using a level of explicitness that is appropriate based on that understanding, rather than assuming your audience a) can read your mind or b) has no specialized knowledge of the domain. It means using language that your audience finds familiar and mental models that it recognizes.

Don't worry that your work will become less accessible to a general audience. There is no general audience, just as there is no such thing as a family with 2.5 children. Faced with the choice of being unhelpful to a lot of people or being helpful to a few, opt for the latter. If more than one specific audience must be addressed, figure out what each audience wants to get out of the information and create a design tailored to each.

Below are some examples of information design I found related to the federal budget. Just for fun(?), guess who their audiences are.

Death and Taxes

What does the federal budget freeze look like?

Data visualization with cookies

Budget

Federal IT Dashboard

Some advice about giving advice

While researching for a paper I'm writing for my graduate design seminar course, I came across an article by Dr. Perri Klass called "The Elephant in the Exam Room." It's not within the scope of my paper topic, but I thought it was too interesting to discard. In the article, Dr. Klass reflects on the difficulty of giving nutrition and lifestyle advice to her patients when she herself is not thin. She raises the question, is it best to get advice from people who...

  • personally understand your struggles because they have a hard time following the same advice?
  • no longer struggle because they've made their own advice work for them?
  • never needed advice in the first place?

Think about it. How would the advice likely differ among these three people? Whose advice would you be most inclined to take to heart?

Spring break update

Spring break has come and gone without really being. At least, that's how it felt as I spent all week in Pittsburgh, reading and writing for school assignments and thesis preparation. I am glad I got things done, though, especially when I consider all that lies ahead. A quarter-long mini course I had been taking, Adaptive Service Design, has just ended. On the bright side, that means I'm only going to be taking four classes for the rest of the semester instead of five. The sad part is that it was a course with really interesting readings and classroom discussions that flowed freely, buoyed by a natural enthusiasm and curiosity that's rare to find. This was the first time the course was taught, as well, so I feel lucky to have had the experience. For my final project, I created a service blueprint for an adaptive campus dining service, which I will discuss in greater detail in a later post.

Also this week, I finished reading an excellent book called Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think by Brian Wansink. It's full of entertaining anecdotes about food psychology experiments conducted at Cornell, one of the most memorable being a comparison of how much soup people would eat out of a normal bowl versus a covertly self-refilling (aka bottomless) bowl. The finding: people use their eyes, not their stomachs, to gauge when they are full. I won't give anything away, but there are some asides specifically about that study that made me laugh out loud.

I'm halfway through another book, Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein. This book's about choice architecture - the design of environments in which choices are made. It's not as funny as Mindless Eating but still thought-provoking. Some of it reminds me of the material in my Information Design and Rhetoric course, the takeaway being that no design can be neutral. Beatrice Warde's crystal goblet may be an aspiration, but it is also a mirage, ever unreachable. And since design always influences, the designer has a responsibility to influence with intent.

I mean...um... Spring break! WOooooOOooOoo!

A new semester

The second semester of my Master of Design in Interaction Design program began this Monday, and I can already tell it will be a cold, hard marathon to the end. I've been training by walking to and from school each day in the snow, uphill both ways, with a fully loaded backpack. Today was a relatively balmy 34°F day. Sunny. Atypically devoid of precipitation. But I am not letting that lull me into a false sense of security. Oh, no. I am taking vitamin D supplements to get me through the Pittsburgh winter, and I'm keeping a regular sleep schedule to keep the germs at bay. My challenge this time around: Graduate Design Studio II featuring a semester-long team project to design a social service, sponsored by either Microsoft or Motorola (to be determined by a brief yet brutal death match on pay-per-view)

Research Methods in Human Centered Design covering a series of methods for explorative, generative, and evaluative research (my favorite to imagine: "velcro modeling") to support the project work in Studio II

Graduate Design Seminar II reading and writing about interaction design (Will anyone top Henri Bergson for most baffling argument? Stay tuned...)

Adaptive Service Design exploring service design that leverages context-aware technology such as mobile phones, intelligent environments, and robotic products (super excited about this one!)

Information Design and Rhetoric exploring how rhetoric can provide systematic frameworks for designing information products in complex situations (more reading and writing guaranteed to blow my mind, plus two projects)

And just to prove it's on, I'm going to stop this post now and go do some reading. Stay warm, people.

Happy Thanksgiving

I live in a building that someone else built.

I eat food that someone else grew.

I know the joy of music because others shared it with me.

I know how to write because someone else taught me how.

I have been fed, clothed, and sheltered when I had nothing to give in return.

I have learned by the examples of others what it means to be a good friend.

So many of life's blessings came without my having earned them.

So much of life's meaning comes from those who do not count the cost.

To all these people who have made my life what it is:

Thank you.

Dollhouse's ethical dilemma

Yesterday I watched the first episode of Joss Whedon's Dollhouse on Hulu, a drama in which the heroine Echo's memories are regularly expunged and recreated by a secret organization. The process allows Echo to forget painful experiences in her past. But in forgetting life's most painful lessons, she loses knowledge that could help prevent future tragic occurrences. Then today I read this article from the BBC about how a heart medication could suppress the emotional intensity of memories, allowing people to blunt traumatic effects of the past. The parallel struck me immediately, and it made me wonder: How should we help individuals cope with past trauma? Six years into the Iraq War, we have no shortage of citizens suffering from traumatic experiences: war zone conflicts, the death of loved ones, job loss, and home foreclosure. Some people have been so affected that their everyday quality of life has declined dramatically, and perhaps for individuals, starting over with a clean emotional slate would seem a blessing. Imagine for a moment that it were possible to push a giant reset button on the collective American psyche, that with the aid of a little pill, we could wipe out all our past suffering and look into the future with vision uncolored by experience. Imagine that happened right before the 2008 election.

Tell me, exactly which lessons are best forgotten?

Mistakes

Comparing newspaper front pages

The Newseum web site shows front pages from daily newspapers every single day. As such, it showcases a wide range of design choices, from typography to spread layout to use of color in graphics and photos, as well as editorial choices pertaining to content. For instance, here is today's front page of a paper from President-Elect Obama's state. And here's one from McCain's state, Arizona.

The Arizona Daily Star went with a bright red graphic and oversized headline about diet disasters above the banner that instantly draws the eye. A Veterans Day story follows directly below the banner, but the dominating element on the front page is a large color photo of Bush and Obama conversing in the Oval Office. The editorial choice to insert the word 'Friendly' in quotes in the story's headline amused me, but I think it says more about the headline editor than either of the men in the photo.

The photo in the Arizona Daily Star is nothing, however, compared to the nearly 2/3-page inexplicably high-contrast image on the front page of the Chicago Tribune. Who appears to be leading whom on this White House tour? No "Double Chin Takeout" headline distracts from the main story, although the newspaper's name in presidential blue Blackletter type hovers over the photo, surrounded in a white halo. Um...okay. Then there is an even smaller Veteran's Day article on the Tribune front page than there is on the Daily Star's, wedged at the bottom between the weather summary and a photo of "Elvis' mystery woman." I'll give you one guess who the entire editorial staff voted for last Tuesday.

Compare your local paper to some others from other regions and see how they differ in presentation, scope of coverage, and visual emphasis. Then compare to your favorite online news source. Where do you get your daily news from most frequently? Why? If you only ponder these questions, that's cool, but I'd love to see your opinions in the comments.

So, what do you do?

I had no idea that the "what do you do?" question was so emotionally loaded until I ran across this post, and the slew of reader comments that follow, on the New York Times Freakonomics bleg. I confess, I don't really get why people would get offended by ignorant questions about what they do for a living. Offended by malicious questions, sure. Condescending questions, of course. But we are all ignorant about other people's specialties, and the person who makes an effort to dispel his own ignorance by asking someone more knowledgeable than himself, in my opinion, deserves some patience. After all, most people don't feel comfortable revealing their ignorance in front of strangers. Asking questions can be scary! So, at my next meet-and-greet, I am going to do new acquaintances a favor and give them some unexpected tidbit of information that will make them appear well-informed the next time they meet someone in my field of expertise; I hope they will do the same for me. Hopefully it won't go like this flowchart from http://www.monster-munch.com/ So What Do You Do?

Dark Knight/Toy Story 2 Trailer Recut

Here is a version of a Toy Story 2 trailer video cut to the audio track from a Dark Knight trailer. Although both the video and audio sources were probably used without permission, the resulting recut on YouTube is entertaining in its own right because of the juxtapositions the creator chose to make. Watching it reminded me of the ongoing debates surrounding copyright and fair use which Professor Henry Jenkins explores on his blog. Disney in particular gets a mention for its extremely aggressive copyright control practices.

Ready

I stand on the edge of a precipice, breath in throat, poised to leap into the great unknown. A thrill runs through me, tinged with the shadows of familiar fears and doubts. But on the eve of my old life, anticipation for the breaking dawn steadies my trembling legs. It roots me as it spreads through my flesh and bones, infusing my life blood with a demanding pulse of its own that will no longer be ignored. And so I jump.

I fall.

I fly.

How the Internet is shaping our brains

There is an interesting article in The Atlantic about how the Internet may be shaping our thought patterns. The author makes the generalization (based on anecdotal evidence) that people tend to skim rather than read online, and that our ability to read with deep, sustained engagement becomes impaired as a result. He claims he cannot even read a long article anymore without getting distracted. Maybe I'm just old-fashioned, but it sounds to me like the author is taking web surfing and multitasking to extremes. I get a lot of information from the Internet, but I don't consider it a replacement for in-depth magazine/journal articles and books, and I still enjoy delving into a weighty tome for an hour at a time. Or several hours, if my newly arrived copy of Breaking Dawn has anything to do about it. People get information from a variety of media presented at different density levels, and that seems to me like a pretty healthy state of affairs. Sometimes we just want an overview, and sometimes we actually want to learn enough about a topic that we can carry on a conversation with others about it. How deep we want to go just depends on where our individual interests lie.

Admittedly, magazines nowadays (MIT Tech Review being one guilty party) are trying to appeal to the stereotype of a skim-happy public by encapsulating their articles in blurbs at the front of the magazine. Reading these predigested morsels in print, however, strikes me as a waste of time. After all, if I wanted shallow summaries, I could always go to the web site. (Well, actually, I'd check my RSS feed, but that's beside the point.) If I have gone to the trouble of procuring a physical magazine, with pages I can stare at without getting computer monitor glow fatigue, that conforms to the shape of my grip and doesn't mind getting rained on or stuffed into a bag alongside sharp metal objects like keys, I'm going to read whole articles. But maybe that's just me.

The road to good health

For the past couple of months, I've been exploring ways to improve my overall health. Like most people, I figure the best places to start are diet and exercise, but when I sat down and actually tried to figure out what to DO about diet and exercise, things quickly got confusing. Some Internet research reveals that there are an overwhelming number of diet plans out there: Atkins, Beck, Eat to Live, Food Combining, Glycemic Index, McDougall, Metabolic Typing, Ornish, Pritkin, South Beach, Zone, and on and on. Some plans include psychological reconditioning strategies as well as nutritional guidelines so that you improve your changes of sticking with your plan over the long term. Others, like Jenny Craig and Weight Watchers, have support networks with monthly subscription costs and commercially prepared portion-controlled meals you can buy.

To further complicate things, there's also a whole slew of alternative health care trends and products. Some of my friends have endured week-long detox regimens, ingesting nothing but lemon water, nothing but fruit, or nothing but vegetable broth and ice cream. When I went to my local vitamin shop for guidance, there were shelves and shelves of some truly scary-looking products designed to cleanse, irrigate, enlarge, shrink, and/or repopulate various internal organs. I had no idea that our bodies are so totally incapable of taking care of their own housekeeping.

I didn't want to do anything drastic that might jeopardize my health, and I didn't want to spend money on subscriptions, so in the end I decided to track my exercise and diet habits through a free website called PEERTrainer. The site promotes its social support network as the key to help its users reach their fitness goals, but I since I was mainly interested in using it as a personal online health journal, I just created a private group for myself and got started logging my daily workouts and meals for later analysis.

I promised myself that I would truthfully log everything I ate, no matter how terrible it might look on the screen. Almost as an afterthought, I also resolved to exercise six days a week.

It's been two months now, and I'm calling an end to my little tracking experiment. Here are my conclusions drawn from both my research and personal observations of myself and others:

1. Exercise is more important than diet.

If you can only make one change to improve your life, make it 30-60 minutes of daily exercise. Athletes can have really lousy diets and still outperform the rest of us. Exercise plays a crucial role in weight maintenance, regulation of mood, sleep, and stress, and keeping the body physically youthful. Cardio, strength training, and flexibility are all important, so it's best to mix up workouts through the week to reap greater benefits and keep things interesting. Buddy up or attend group classes. Other people can be great motivators for those of us who aren't lone wolf runners. Push yourself to the point of discomfort but not pain. If you never feel uncomfortable, you're not pushing hard enough; get a heart monitor if you're worried you're pushing too hard.

2. Eat whole, natural plant foods.

The most reliable scientific research shows that the best diet for maximum health and longevity and minimum occurence of Western diseases like cancers, heart disease, and diabetes is a low-fat vegan diet with plenty of fresh and frozen green/low-starch vegetables, fruits, and legumes, a moderate amount of starchy vegetables and whole grains, a small amount of nuts, seeds, and avocados, and not a whole lot of anything else. Snack on fruit and raw vegetables. Stay away from refined anything. Organic is nice in philosophy, but it's probably not essential for good health.

3. Plan ahead.

It's really difficult to buy healthy ready-to-eat foods in the U.S. To make matters worse, there are an overwhelming number of temptingly convenient unhealthy foods for sale in stores and restaurants. Buy the majority of your food from grocery stores, farmers' markets, and CSA organizations. Supplement with homegrown produce and herbs if you can.

There. Now stick those three points on an index card, stop stressing, and go enjoy your life.

Dual perspectives on the final cut

Tomorrow will be the last session of my Art of Editing class. The class definitely became more interesting in the last couple of weeks, largely due to an increase in student participation as we gave our final presentations. Each person brought in a clip from one of their favorite movies or television shows and discussed the editing techniques used. For my own presentation, I showed the first few minutes of a season five episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer called "The Body." Only a few of the other students had seen the show before, but I was happy to discover that most people seemed to appreciate the brief segment. There is something thrilling about sharing something beloved with another person, be it a favorite song, TV show, or place. Watching them experience it for the first time recalls a whiff of the original euphoria, that magic moment of delighted discovery that leaves an indelible mark on the memory but fades with subsequent exposures to the same material. I had watched the episode several times while preparing for my presentation and noticed details I had never registered consciously before. My understanding of the characters and show's construction evolved as a result, but the revelations were academic in nature, not driven by the fan's enthusiasm that had led me to revisit the content in the first place. It reminded me that there is a definite distinction between studying a work of art as a critic/producer and consuming it as a spectator; while the former can deepen one's appreciation, it cannot match the emotional charge of the latter. Once my brain latches onto the technical aspects of the production, it is no longer in the state of suspended disbelief that would otherwise buoy it through the narrative. Evaluating the framing of shots and transitions between handheld and steadycam, I cannot feel the heroine's despair as she finds her mother lying limp on the sofa. Examining the manipulation of time through a fantasy sequence, I'm not swept along on the brief wave of false hope that the heroine experiences as the EMTs attempt to revive her mother. My classroom audience operated one one level, and I, in the didactic role, operated on a parallel level.

How does the discerning artist reconcile these two modalities? Is it possible to fuse them into a single multi-layered experience, to learn craft while enjoying the ride? To me, it feels like trying to stand on one foot, then stand on the other without lowering the first. If you can manage it, congratulations - you've learned how to levitate. For the rest of us poor one-foot-hopping wannabes, the rewind/play buttons are there for us, time after time.

The Road Ahead

The inevitable has happened. My final Sound Design class has come to an end, and I am sad. It was one of the most enjoyable and interesting courses I've ever taken but, at eight weeks, also the shortest. My reflex action is to sign up for another course on this ever-winding road of haphazard self-education, but I will restrain myself for now. There are possibilities more tempting than school for long summer days, namely vacation, writing, and film production. Hopefully, the skills I have learned will serve me in a practical sense. Study is fun in and of itself, but it is accomplishment that defines a person. It is time to create!

Inscrutable song lyrics

A prime example of the Principle of Inscrutability is song lyrics. "Drops of Jupiter" by Train is playing on my radio right now, and although I enjoy it, the lyrics are so nonsensical that I can read as much brilliant metaphor into them as I want:

Tell me, did you sail across the sun Did you make it to the Milky Way to see the lights all faded And that heaven is overrated

Tell me, did you fall from a shooting star One without a permanent scar And did you miss me while you were looking for yourself out there

I mean, really, the creative possibilities are practically endless. What songs do you enjoy reading into?

Audition Camp-out

Audition line for Last Comic Standing The other day, I passed a line of people, camping chairs, and tents behind a police barricade that extended halfway down a city block, wrapped around the corner, and went on for another at least another half-block. It turned out to be the audition line for Last Comic Standing at Gotham Comedy Club, and it reminded me that, aside from the dirt, noise, and crowds that sometimes threaten to overwhelm, New York is still a city of dreams.

At any hour of the day or night, someone is standing on a street corner, telling a loved one on a cell phone how they can feel in their gut that they are on the verge of their big break. To live here, to be steeped in a medium saturated with ambition and hope, inspires me daily to continue pursuing my own dreams. As I grow older, I appreciate the influence more and more, because without it, the daily grind can make us forget the reasons that we strive. Moving towards the realization a dream, even in a tiny incremental step, is an exhilaration in itself and one I would not deny myself any day, no matter how much laundry, cleaning, and other chores await me. When life gets crazy, though, it helps to get a refresher from fellow human beings about what's important, so thank you to all those comics who camped out in the cold drizzle for twenty four hours.

If you could accomplish only one more thing in your life, what would it be? What will you do this week on your journey to achieving it?