city life

Thursday, August 16th, 2007

i just read a book that closes with the argument that city living is the future of human existence, not simply because overpopulation is cramming us together, but because cities are actually becoming healthier and more sustainable places to live. here is an interesting quote from the epilogue, attributed to the new yorker’s david owen:

By the most significant measures, New York is the greenest community in the United States, and one of the greenest cities in the world. The most devastating damage humans have done to the environment has arisen from the heedless burning of fossil fuels, a category in which New Yorkers are practically prehistoric. The average Manhattanite comsumes gasoline at a rate that the country as a whole hasn’t matched since the mid-nineteen-twenties, when the most widely owned car in the United States was the Ford Model T. Eighty-two percent of Manhattan residents travel to work by public transit, by bicycle, or on foot. That’s ten times the rate for Americans in general, and eight times the rate for residents of Los Angeles County. New York City is more populous than all but eleven states; if it were granted statehood, it would rank fifty-first in per-capita energy use.

now, this is a rather skewed little presentation that privileges our recent obsesssion with energy use and carbon footprints and kind of forgets about all the environmental damage that big cities had to muck through to get to where they are now, but it’s still interesting, and actually, the whole bit about what cities had to muck through is the point of the book as a whole.

the book, you see, is called The Ghost Map, and it’s about what was arguably the deadliest cholera epidemic in london’s history – an outbreak which took place over the course of a single week in 1854, killing thousands with a vicious rapidity that cholera had never exhibited before. many of the victims died within twelve hours of infection, and several families were entirely erased from history within the span of a few days.

cholera was (and is) such a devastating and terrifying enemy because cities in europe in the mid 19th century were (and are, in the developing world today) growing more quickly than they could manage their waste, and one consequence of poor waste management tends to be a contaminated water supply. cholera is a bacteria that is spread by the ingestion of its victims’ waste, and this happens most often by drinking contaminated water.

The Ghost Map tells the story of how the london epidemic of 1854 helped a certain committed doctor by the name of john snow finally begin to convince the establishment of the waterborne nature of transmission, and it argues that the very features of the city that lead to the large-scale horror of infectious diseases such as cholera are also the features that enable society to overcome them. cities cram people together, which makes them more susceptible to disease, but they also make trends more visible, foster deeper and more rapid intellectual exchange, and, in the long term, keep everyone healthier through proximity to hospitals and specialty shops and services of all sorts.
the story of the cholera outbreak was chosen because it can be seen as the point where the balance began to shift for cities on their journey from risky and precarious to beneficial and stable places for humans to live. once we got the whole “build sewers and don’t empty them into the water supply” thing down, apparently things just started looking up.

the book is by steven johnson, who is a bigwig in pop science tomes these days, having written things like Interface Culture (which my fellow IU HCIers and i read for jeff bardzell’s class first year, remember?), Emergence: the Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software (which is referenced in the radio show that i cited in my last post), and Everything Bad Is Good for You (the title of which makes people chuckle and mysteriously crave chocolate). on the whole, i find his books to follow a similar pattern: Interesting! -> Engaging! -> interesting (i think)… -> repetitive -> annoying -> self-important -> ok, interesting -> masturbatory -> cheesy -> good grief, it’s over. since you can read them about as quickly as a spy novel, though, the interesting bits can be worth the time.

i was thinking about all this today and decided to write a post about city life. moving to portland from bloomington has reminded me of things i both like and dislike about living in cities, and portland isn’t even very big. the idea that having more people in cities might make us smarter is interesting, for a minute, but as i tried to come to a conclusion i realized that spending the energy to formulate such an opinion actually strikes me as a rather tremendous waste of time. i like lots of things about cities. i like lots of other things about small towns. if we end up all streaming into the cities, i bet we’ll be able to look back and point to some interesting stuff that wouldn’t have been possible otherwise. the same, however, will be true if we all decide to live in quoncet huts.

people do interesting stuff, yo, and their environments fuel them in amazing ways. i think a lot of books out there today (and a lot of my blog posts as well, it’s true) try way to hard to find handy endings. everybody seems to be looking for something to point at to tell us that either THAT is the problem with the world or that actually, everything is going to be ok after all if we just hold out and THIS is why.

i kinda think we should just shut up already, and get down to the business of living.


Thursday, August 2nd, 2007

the whole reason to deny rituals and acknowledgement to those on the margins is to keep them marginalized.
denying those same things from ourselves and our friends in the name of solidarity is playing into that game and accepting disempowerment.
i do not believe in keeping people i love from things that renew and inspire them.

Tuesday, June 12th, 2007

i get in these moods sometimes where i start thinking about responsibility, and the differences between what we do every day to keep the wheels turning and what we really need to do in order to be good people. i think, for the most part, that a lot of what we think we need to do is a farce, but we do it anyway because it makes us feel on top of things. i think there are a lot of good reasons for this approach, and indeed that one of the inspiring features of the human condition is that we do some rather amazing stuff just because we can.

we also, however, get hung up on a lot of crap and wade through life with a heavy burden of insecurity. we worry about
and i think these worries often get in the way of our ability to answer questions about

sometimes i have a day where i’m just like “you know what? no. i’m just going to sit here and drink a cup of tea. and

it’s a huge luxury to be able to have days like this and not lose my job, run out of food,
but i think that luxury is actually a part of what leads to the reaction. unfair as it may be, i do not live in a world where i can kid myself into thinking that
and that, i think, implies a new sort of responsibility
if i don’t believe that i have to fit into the slots that culture has carved out for me

Sunday, June 3rd, 2007

i know that i can dominate discussions. be overpowering. ask for feedback without really listening. yes. listening is really the key. i know that i don’t listen deeply enough. actively enough. honestly enough. i know that i worry too much about getting my own ideas across. about being heard. about being smart. i don’t care so much about being right in the end, just about contributing. believing that i played a part in shaping the conversation and that it would have been different and somehow less rich if i wasn’t there.

i also know that i enrich situations by simply being a part of them. that’s how people work. the only way that i can endanger richness is by derailing conversations so that they’re about whether i get them or not instead of just about themselves. seeking validation of the fact that i tend to seek validation is a bitter pill. it is burying my head in the sand. succumbing to fear rather than standing up, looking around, and doing what is right.

so here i sit. and i can’t worry about what you (whoever you are) might think about posts like this. i can’t worry about whether this is a manifesto. or an apology. or a rant. or self-indulgent. or productive. or anything else. i only know that there is too much in my head, and worrying about what i send out doesn’t accomplish anything because it only means that i displace one thing with another without actually freeing up any space.

i hate writing things like this. i hate reading things like this. i hate the constant drive to rant and moan and complain and then try to make it better by going all meta and ranting about ranting and thereby proving that i get that i don’t get it (which means i get it, get it?). i hate pretending that the goal is just to find the right switch and flip it. i hate being able to say that i understand that it is all here, right now, not there, not later, not THEN, not MAYBE AFTER, not IF ONLY…

but, most days, i can’t fully let go of wanting to SAY rather than just DO, and i hate admitting that it’s hard for me to do something so easy. that

but then at the very same time…

i love

expressing yourself is not about finding a unique formula that does catchy without too catchy, deep without cliche. it’s just about saying what’s in front of you. honesty is unique by default.

playing the game

Saturday, June 2nd, 2007

sometimes i feel like i spend way too much time thinking about which things in my life are the things i should blog about and not enough time just blogging things as they happen even though i might change my mind about them later.

in that spirit:

this morning i took part in a very frustrating phone meeting, and thinking about what made it frustrating got me thinking about gender and corporate culture. basically, we got stuck on a point that we thought had already been agreed upon, and the discussion went back and forth for a long time without really getting anywhere and with no one really feeling like they were heard. this happens too often in our phone meetings on this project, and i think my coworkers are somewhat happy to find that my patience is wearing thin because i was a bit too chipper and naive for their liking during the first few weeks after my arrival. i’m one of those people who can annoy the hell out of you by constantly wanting to give people the benefit of the doubt when all you want to do is bitch for a second. i’ve gotten better at just letting people vent over the years because i have learned the important distinction between unproductive fingerpointing and productive bile. today as we were talking though it became clear that the frustration really came down to the fact that all three of us (who are all female) recognize that there are a lot of deeper interpersonal issues going on in this argument that have to do with vested interest and pride, and our idea of how to move forward is to deal with Those things, whereas the coworker with whom we are arguing (who is male) is trying to play some kind of power game that we think is a big sham. but calling him on that is not how things are done. and i’m not sure i have the patience for this world.

industrial design and hci

Wednesday, April 25th, 2007

what i thought this panel was going to be about:

what it was about:

why the difference matters:

interesting snippets:
difference between design and engineering – design looks at the whole picture of a product and decides what to build, engineering figures out how to build the actual pieces.

jesus endorsement site

are they saying we should become industrial designers? is it more about the impact of hci on id?

yeah, they’re talking about thinking about how interaction designers have to think like product designers because products are becoming the interface.


got that one.

but what about the dialogue with industrial designers?
i should have listened more closely to the kodak guy. i think he was talking about that.

good night, mr. vonnegut

Thursday, April 12th, 2007

we read slaughterhouse five in my sophomore english class in highschool, and the day i sat down on the couch to start the book i found myself so transfixed that i read the whole thing then and there. i didn’t know what to do in class the next day when we were only talking about the first chapter or whatever because i couldn’t remember what hadn’t happened yet, so i probably balanced coke cans on the windowsill or something. i was into that for a while in that class.

anyway after that i was hooked, and over the course of the rest of highschool and the beginning of college, when i lived in new york city and used paperbacks were for sale for a dollar or two from random street vendors scattered every few blocks throughout the streets around NYU, i worked my way through every vonnegut book i could get my hands on, which is a tribute i have paid to very few authors. i think i got a kick out of digging up the more obscure titles because, after a point, every kurt vonnegut book is really the same story, and there’s a bit of a geekout factor in recognizing all the recurring themes and characters. it’s also kind of like you get a chance to read the same great book over and over again from a multitude of slightly different angles, and you get to see the ideas evolve over time, like the favorite conversation topics of a close friend.

vonnegut’s wit and cynicism was the perfect fuel for the mindset of my late teens. mortified by the horrors in the world,

so it goes was a rather frequent phrase in my emails of the period.

as he aged, mr. vonnegut became more and more cynical while i became less and less so, and over time we grew apart. i still displayed every title on my bookshelf, recommended them to friends when they came up, and my connection to indiana was surely different than it would have been had i not known it to be the state that he was happy to no longer call home. but i still haven’t read his most recent collection of essays, and i only skimmed some of the speeches and short stories i have encountered over the past few years.

i felt like his trademark points boiled themselves down over the years to a few tired diatribes, and i admit that i grew tired of his crankiness.
i felt bad about this, and i haven’t let myself really think about it because i think i was afraid i would respect him less, and i didn’t want that to happen to someone who played such a role in my ideological development. but when i think about that even just a tiny bit, i know it is silly. i know that i’m at a point in life when things still feel somehow hopeful and idealistic, and far be it from me to begrudge a brilliant and socially conscious man like kurt vonnegut the cynical retreat of his old age. the truth really is that i’m probably afraid that the same will happen to me, but if that’s the case i should continue to embrace the wisdom that maturity brings to those i admire. in the name of not diverting eyes from lessons most needed and all.

this became a bit rambly, so perhaps i should finish my tribute in another fashion. a story, perhaps. a napkin drawing. a bokonon foot orgy. a quote from the headstone in breakfast of champions, which is an unoriginal tribute i am sure – “Not even the Creator of the universe knew what the man was going to say next-perhaps the man was a better universe in its infancy.”

i can think of no better tribute, actually, than just continuing to live and write, knowing that onward life shall go.

the BOP, middle america, and me

Sunday, April 8th, 2007

a couple of nights ago tif and i were out at a restaurant having drinks and snacks after checking out the “first thursday” gallery walk that happens once a month in portland, and we were accompanied by two of her new friends from the “new in portland” meetup group that she hangs out with. i have remarked upon how different my experience of starting this new job is going to be from tiffanie’s because she blazed a trail just recently enough for it to still be fresh for me to follow, but not long enough ago for it to be overgrown or for her to be bored and onto the next stage of firmly entrenched habits. she knows some cool places to go but is still searching for “her vid” on the portland scene, and we still get quite a few laughs joking about trying to convince people newer than us that, just as the willamette is pronounced will-AM-it in the local lingo, the columbia is actually pronounced coo-lum-BE-a. crazy oregonians and their rivers.

i’m not sure if we could actually pull of that speech without collapsing into laughter, or if we would really be so mean, but… i digress.

out for drinks and tapas the other night at this trendy south american joint that made me a cucumber mojito, the topic of our recent midwestern life came up, and we were offered consolation. tif, who is actually From indiana, not just a transplant like me, appropriately bristled in desfense of her roots.

ever since the last election this attitude has really not sat well with me. i remember going home from the informatics building where we were watching the results on the big tvs and realizing that enough americans had voted w. back into office voluntarily and thinking about how cut off i felt from

i read “what’s the matter with kansas” as well as some conservative handbooks and

so the other night i say something like “it’s not smart to disregard red america or think of them as only a bunch of hicks,” which was received with raised eyebrows. “i think it’s dangerous to think of
“oh, i don’t think they’re stupid.” the friend responded.
and i realized i had backed myself into a corner a bit because i haven’t spent the time i really should spend making sure that my argument is more than just an emotional upsurge and a really strong hunch.

so this morning the topic returned to my mind as i was reading something about the war in iraq and i thought, “hey! maybe i should blog about it!”

the simplest way to put it is to say that i think that the intensity of american fundamentalism can only be attributed to some very real, very deep psychological, emotional, moral – in a word, human – needs going unmet, and any time a group of people can be united behind the righteous force of an unmet need you ignore them at your peril. i think the same is true of islamic fundamentalism, of straight up christian fundamentalism, even of newly gestating atheist fundamentalism. i’m really just talking about the way we react as a society to

i should say quickly that i understand that i’m not saying anything deep or profound here. just as i really do believe that educated, compassionate, forward-thinking folk like our friend at the tapas bar really don’t view

praising leo and feeling grown up

Tuesday, January 30th, 2007

lynn and i saw blood diamond this evening, and it was a sobering experience. first and quickest, there is the disconcerting feeling that comes from seeing leo play a character that is so firmly an adult, and therefore being forced to admit that he, and consequently I (since we are close enough in age that i can say things like it seems like just yesterday he was competing with kurt cameron for the charming badboy title on growing pains), are now firmly in the ranks of the grown as far as the cultural machine is concerned.

another reminder of this occurred the other day while i was washing dishes in the sushi bar where i worked for a couple of weeks to make some spending money before leaving the country, when the ‘safe but stylish’ pop mix on the intercom played nirvana. i know that the beatles and the stones were piped into department stores and arranged for cello and bassoon as soon as their principal audiences acquired enough purchasing power to merit such undertakings, but it still felt a little weird to be reminded that the cycle was continuing by learning that smells like teen spirit can now be lumped in with mack the knife for marketing purposes.

but i digress.

blood diamond, while still in the cloud of first impression, was quite impressive. a fair measure of predictability, sap, and emotional manipulation was surely to be had, but it was deftly executed as such, and the characters succeeded in convincing me that they knew that they were a bit cliched but still believed their story worth telling despite such hindrances, and that is an attitude that i can respect, particularly with a story as important as the abuses of the diamond trade. ed zwick, whom the poster can tell you was the director of glory and the last samurai, and my own early-nineties geekdom can tell you was also the director of legends of the fall and one of the key producers behind my so called life (in case there aren’t enough references to cultural icons of my youth in this post already).

jennifer connelly’s character was a bit too clearly there to fill the love interest gap, but she had some good moments of her own nonetheless, and i think that i am coming to like her.

djimon hounsou was very good, but i feel bad that i know him only from this and amistad, because important as the stories both are, i feel like his africanness is inseparable from my image of him as an actor, and i feel bad about that, though perhaps it’s only

and leo

acting grown up

no diamonds for vday
at the oscars?

out with the ideas!

Sunday, December 3rd, 2006

so i’m thinking a lot about ideas.

my ideas, other people’s ideas, ideas we share, ideas we keep to ourselves…

this makes a great deal of sense, i suppose, since in many ways i am in the business of ideas – connecting the dots between an amorphous, glimmering concept to a fully formed, solid manifestation that can be seen and shared and played with is what designers do. a final manifestation

the thing is, i’m not that interested in the final manifestation.
the difference, i think, is that i’m not thinking about a specific idea, i’m thinking about ideas as a material of their own, and about how much of my work is really about building the tools that people need to manipulate and explore their ideas on their own.

when i was working at the hollytree, i found myself, as always, commenting on the design of the things we used. the water glasses were stupidly bottom-heavy, for example. an attempt to make them not tip over gone terribly wrong, i believe, since the designers apparently didn’t think about the fact that glasses are quite often upside down in restaurant settings – in the dishwasher, for example – so while bottom-heavy glasses might behave admirably when bumped on a table by a slightly inebriated or clumsy customer, they then turn around and wreak total havoc and frustration when carried about by totally competent kitchen porters and waitstaff, leading to more breakages than would probably occur were they just neutrally weighted.

i racked up similar complaints about the fancy adjustable table legs which screwed and unscrewed themselves whenever tables were moved, leading to wobblier tables and more pinched fingers than if we had just been compelled to cram a napkin under the occasional natural rebel, and about the rounded handle knives that were the bane of formal table setting because they sometimes decided that a vertical orientation was simply not in their nature, and they would rather spin around and make the frazzled waitstaff feel like they were playing a game with a poltergeist.

all in a day’s work.

so what does one do with ideas like these?

i was more interested in the fact that observations like these must be everywhere, in every workplace, waiting for someone to take the time to swoop in, collect them, and transmit them to budding (or established, i suppose) entrepreneurs. we spend a lot of energy training people to be designers so that they can go out and observe and interview people to find out things that are everyday knowledge for the “locals”, and one model of design is that we just get enough missionaries out there to

in order for this to happen, computing has to become more malleable
there are limits to the amount of personalization designs of chairs and shirts and helmets could allow. not so with the digital world. the only limit to the amount of personalization is the size and shape of the window into the code.