Saturday, October 23, 2010

The View From Here (Part 1?)

[Note: this is a long and occasionally rambling entry, more essay than blog. It's possible I had a lot of coffee before writing it (I should try that with my book writing, maybe I'd get more done). In any case, I apologize for nothing but you HAVE been warned...]

For a variety of reasons I feel like taking a look at the future. It is a fascinating place and completely unpredictable, part of what makes it so much fun to think about. The point of this exercise is really to highlight just how strange it could be. I’m not declaring prophetic truths (unless I am, in which case, I will totally take credit for it later), I'm just exploring interesting possibilities. Or I was until The Engineer hijacked my train of thought.

It must be futurist week here in the offices of Blogger & Blogger. At the same time I was drafting this blog entry, The Engineer posted his own discussing the Singularity and recent steps towards its realization. For those of you who have not heard of the Singularity (or who are planning to follow the above link "later, probably when I'm done reading this"), I'm just going to go ahead and steal The Engineer's definition (don't worry, I'm not spoiling anything from his post, but you should probably read it first anyway):
Mankind's progress and rate of learning so far has been limited by the ability of our brains to process, assemble, and assimilate information. There may come a time in the future when we build a robot or a software computer program that is, effectively, smarter than we are. At that point, the pace and progress of learning is no longer bound by our brains.
The part where I disagree with The Engineer and other Singularity fans is when they define it as the point where the future becomes impossible to predict. The reason I disagree (and those of you paying attention should have already realized what this might be since I mention it in the second sentence) is that I think we've already reached that point. I consider the future unpredictable now (which, on review, is a strange sentence in and of itself). I suspect, however, that this is a semantic distinction, that those talking about the Singularity are using technical and highly constrained definitions of the words "predict" and "future."

So we won't go there, instead there's a larger issue I have with the basic definition selected by The Engineer, namely the idea that the processing power of our brains is currently the primary limiting factor in our technological progress. The point being made in the original definition is that someday we will make machines that are smarter than we are and that these machines will in turn be able to design even smarter machines (and, presumably, will choose to act on that ability) in an accelerating chain reaction that dramatically transforms the world into something we are completely incapable of comprehending with our (relatively) limited intellect. I don't disagree with that assessment, I disagree that it will take machines that are recognizably more intelligent than we are. Further, I disagree with the distinction I keep seeing between "human brains" and "technology." What I really mean is that I think it has already happened and that it occurred, depending on how extreme your definition, sometime between 1891, 1829, or 1680 (depending on your willingness to accept the declarations of certain bold book titles) and the invention of language.

Now before I go further, I must admit that, like much of the Internet, I'm speaking out of my rear-end here. I have read some of what has been written on the Singularity, but not all. I got through about half of Kurzweil's "The Singularity is Near" before it put me to sleep and, given that it was a Mids shift at work where we were allowed to read, but not encouraged to fall asleep, I had to put it aside and return it to the fellow who lent it to me. This was about five years ago and I never went back. So you're dealing with a certain amount of intellectual laziness here. I've cobbled together the bits and pieces I know and am presenting an armchair-general (or armchair-quarterback, if that's your preferred metaphor) assessment of the situation without the benefit of actual rigor in my investigations. This entry is a thought-experiment of sorts and if you want to know more I, like LeVar Burton, insist that you not take my word for it but instead seek out the numerous and varied (and more legitimate) resources who DID apply some rigor. Certainly don't quote me in an argument with someone who knows what they're talking about. It may not go well. And, if YOU happen to know what I'm talking about and what parts are complete bunk, please feel free to correct me in the comments section.

That being said, now I'm going to talk about something I DO know a little about, a concept known as distributed cognition. This is the idea, discussed by Edwin Hutchins in his book Cognition in the Wild, that our thought processes do not constrain themselves solely to the inside of our brains. We put our thoughts out in the environment, distribute our cognition amongst ourselves, amongst our tools, and across time. Even something as simple as a pen and paper enables us to process thoughts that would take much more effort alone if they could be considered at all. Our brains are NOT distinct from our technology any more than our brains are distinct from our bodies. Sure they can be separated conceptually, but separate them in practice and you're not going to get much done.

My earlier pronouncement was, perhaps, a bit ridiculous, but the point remains that even with the limited technology available, by the late nineteenth century we were already designing artifacts and systems that could not be comprehended in their entirety by a single person thinking alone. Throw a computer into the tool pile and now the "unpredictable future" horizon is much much closer. Link those computers and watch everything accelerate again. The Internet appears to be doing for human thought something much like what economics did for our production, enabling the efficient distribution of cognitive resources. Now we're talking about crowdsourcing, emergent behavior (ok, that one has exsited as long as insects, but the effects on our own development become much more dramatic), the long tail (Chris Anderson), blobjects and spimes (Bruce Sterling), and "cognitive surplus" (Clay Shirky). Okay so what I'm really doing in that last sentence is listing trendwords and popsci style bestsellers, but I think you can see why I believe artificial intelligence as we commonly think of it is not strictly necessary to make the future unpredictable. We are already much more intelligent than our brains can handle.

And now we're at the point I wanted to START this entry. Maybe in a future entry I'll talk about the computer program that can extrapolate the shape of Notre Dame from a pile of photographs (start at minute 4:00 if you don't want to watch the whole thing), the phone app that knows where all your friends are right now, the system capable of determining who will leave the bar with whose phone number before the participants know, and what I think these all mean for how hard it is going to be to explain to our kids what the world was like when we grew up. Forget walking to school in the snow (although that may be hard to explain, too), try explaining collect calls, or even a busy signal, to the child that grows up carrying the Internet in their back pocket. Then again, maybe I won't write that entry. After all, the future is unpredictable.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Design Fail: The Paper Towel Dispenser

When I Sarah first met my classmate Jon at Georgia Tech, he apologized to her on my behalf. Apparently, by signing on to study Industrial Design, I was forever dooming her to a lifetime of product critiques and complaints. We would never again, he said, be able to walk through a department store in happy oblivion. Something there, probably multiple somethings, would always catch my eye and bother me so much that I would feel compelled to share my outrage with her. Being the wife of a designer, apparently, requires great patience.

His words proved pretty much as prophetic as you might have guessed, given that I'm now writing a blog entry about them. In an effort to spare my wife the effort of further eye-rolling, I am today sharing my burden with you instead (or rather, "in addition." She's already heard all this). After all, this is just the sort of topic "Contemporarily Insane" was first intended for.

Today's offender:

You'll notice that the top is disc shaped. It's a big button. The product description has this to say about it: "the spring-loaded knob makes it easy to tear off just one sheet." I actually stopped in the store to test this, because I didn't understand what it did to make tearing easier. Turns out it holds the roll in place and keeps it from turning. Now if it clicked into place, this would be an excellent feature, enabling one handed use. That's an issue in the kitchen fairly often: spill something from a pot that you can't put down just yet and you just need a quick paper towel to mop it up before it dries in place or before the spill runs over the edge of the counter, or maybe while trying to hold back pets and/or children with the other hand, or maybe even because you are actually one-handed. I'm sure those of you with kitchens can think of several other examples. A dispenser that facilitates one-handed use would be great.

This is not that dispenser. That spring loaded knob bounces right back up as soon as you let go. You need two hands to use it, one for the knob and one for the towels. So someone please explain to me how putting your hand on the knob is better than putting your hand directly on the paper towel roll. It seems worse to me. Besides adding the extra pressure to overcome the spring part, you also lose the tactile feedback that will tell you just how well you're holding the paper towels.

Nor does this seem like a case of designing for disabilities. There is nothing this knob adds to the act of tearing off a paper towel that makes life any easier for someone with arthritis, poor sensation, or even missing digits or limbs. There is no point in the tearing-off-a-paper-towel process where pushing down on a knob would be less painful or easier than making the exact same gesture directly to the towel roll. Remember, the addition of the spring means MORE strength is required for the same action.

So what does it do? The only thing I came up with is that it could prevent someone with messy hands from unnecessarily dirtying additional towels still on the roll. None of the marketing mentions that, however, and the knob isn't wide enough to keep dripping liquids from falling onto the roll anyway.

Either I'm missing something crucial (and I spent some time going over this thing to find it, much to my wife's chagrin), or this is a case of really bad design. If it is what I think it is then I'm offended on a number of levels. It wastes materials and effort. It attempts to convince consumers to spend more for a feature they do not need and,if I'm interpreting correctly, actually makes the act more difficult. Then it compounds its sins by requiring additional design and complexity to mitigate its own negative impact (the reviews and the marketing all praise the quick release button system that makes it easy to remove the knob and replace the roll - a whole set of "easy" actions that would have been entirely unnecessary if the knob were never added in the first place).

I generally like Simple Human products and the rest of the design of this piece seems well thought out (the heavy base that keeps the whole from tipping when tearing a sheet, the little ridges that keep the roll from unraveling), so I'm having a hard time convincing myself I really understand what's going on here. The kind of design it appears to be only emerges through negligence or as a deliberate attempt to mislead consumers into buying unnecessary gadgetry. One is disappointing and the other unforgiveable. Both are unacceptable.

Saturday, October 02, 2010

The Time Paradox

As of yesterday, I am officially receiving a salary again. I've been working for three weeks at my new job and it's nice to know I'm getting paid for that effort. It's also nice to have some established responsibilities again. The life of the househusband certainly has its perks, but it also reinforced something I've long suspected about myself: I don't do very well as my own boss. I have tons of great ideas, but I need external pressure to focus on them. Or a time crunch. The other lesson, or perhaps an extension of the same lesson: I'll take as much time to complete a project as I'm offered. If someone else sets a deadline, well, the project gets done by that deadline. On the other hand, when, as say an unemployed househusband, I find myself with theoretically infinite time, I allow myself to use all of it. You probably get the point, but I'm still going to use my dictatorial power as sole author of this blog to force a few examples on you:

Here is a list of the "projects" I've set for myself during my long hiatus from a salaried job:
  • Write another book
  • Revise and submit the book I did finish (while working my first full-time job, I should add)
  • Build my brother's birthday present from 2008
  • Create a new webpage for the B&B party
  • Keep a blog (you already know how well that one turned out)
  • Learn Visual Basic
The list goes on. Most of those items have been on that list since before I left my LAST job in 2006. The school year didn't help much with timing (the occasional "40 hour day" creates the opposite problem I described above), but it did offer several summers of part-time work when I couldn't say I was busy. And ALL of those items have been on the list since I left school in 2009.

So, with that in mind, here is a list of my "accomplishments" since graduation:
  • Watched 2 seasons of Dexter, 4 seasons of Bones, as many episodes of CSI, NCIS, Psych, NCIS:LA, and Leverage as I could find available on-demand or on Netflix "Watch Instantly" at any given time.
  • Earned roughly 7000 gamer points for achievements on my Xbox 360 (for reference: Bruce, Pennock, and Lockard are the only people on my friends list who have 7000 points at all, let alone within a 15-month period)
  • Read something like a million books (including lots of WWII histories -an interest kindled after watching the full set of Band of Brothers)
Notice there's not a whole lot of overlap between the two lists. (I don't really want to think about the time-investment that second list represents). Oh, and I helped plan a wedding in there, so that counts for something, but otherwise not the set of accomplishments for which I hoped to use my downtime.

I am learning though. The solution to my "infinite time" dilemma is two-fold:
(1) Create a time shortage
Perfect example, I started a new job three weeks ago and suddenly you're getting your first blog entry in six months (and that one barely counts). Even an artificial shortage helps. Restricting my time on a personal project to specific hours forced me to actually do the work during those hours rather than telling myself I'd have time later and that, in the meantime, it was fine to seek out another secret achievement on my Batman game.
(2) Create external pressure
Part of the reason I returned to the blog instead of retiring it (as I'd been contemplating) is that my Dad asked about it which, for those of you who remember when these columns existed in email form way-back-when, is precisely why I started sharing these thoughts with others to begin with. A more successful example is The League of Extraordinary Writers. I recently assembled a few writer/critic friends into a writer's group where, among other things, we serve as motivation for each other to actually sit down and write something. I respond well to homework, and by gathering others who would expect me to contribute something on a regular basis I've made more progress on my book this summer than in the past three years combined (which is especially sad given how little progress that is BUT, thanks to the group, it IS accelerating and I'm really excited about that).

Do I have my project completion issues completely resolved now? Probably not, but I am at least working on most of these actions again. I've already begun to tackle that project list again and, at the very least, the list of "accomplishments" above certainly contains several noteworthy opportunities for review-style blog entries. Maybe I'll actually get around to writing some of them now that I don't have the time.