Category Archives: Inspiration

“Some day music will only be air”

It’s a story full of lists. Some day music will only be air. There will be no objects to hold or fetishize and people will simply collect lists. No disc, nothing spooled or grooved, no heads to clean, no dust to wipe, no compulsive alphabetising. Nothing to put away in shoeboxes or spare cupboards and be embarrassed about. A chip inside us and inside the chip a route to all the music there ever was, which we can compile and organise and reorganise and merge with and feel into and in whatever way possible find the time to listen to, and we’ll need the time, all the time there is, all the time that music finds to press itself into.

Words and Music: A History of Pop in the Shape of a City (Paul Morley, 2003)

In 2005, Youtube was founded by Steve Chen, Chad Hurley, and Jawed Karim as a video-sharing site. In 2012, Youtube surpassed radio and physical media as the “most popular way American adolescents listen to music.

Also in 2012, Psy made an estimated $7.9 million dollars from Gangnam Style, including $870,000 from ads attached to his more than 1 billion Youtube views, $2.4 million in income from iTubes downloads, and $4.6 million from commercial endorsements.

Here in 2013, this article traces the artistic, social, and corporate forces that combined to create the Harlem Shake phenomenon.

Music is not quite “only air” yet, but it is close. Books are next, then video. There are all sorts of complex and sticky legal, business, technical, and design questions to answer as we make this shift. But it is worth stepping back and realizing just how big a shift it is. Since 1877, we have taken in the notion that music can be (and eventually should be, and eventually always will be) made available in the form of physical media.

In honor of the shift, I bought a Sisters of Mercy EP this weekend. On vinyl. I could hear Roy from the I.T. crowd saying in my head …

Not Just Unicorns: A Designer Bestiary

Illustration of a unicorn hunt; detail of a miniature from the Rochester Bestiary, BL Royal 12 F xiii, f. 10v. Held and digitised by the British Library.

Let’s talk unicorns.

And I’m not thinking of Twilight Sparkle. Legends about the unicorn differ, as is typical with mythical beasts. Some tales describe interaction designers who are also talented visual designers. Others carry news of the rare designer who can also code. And the wildest tales of all describe a designer who is supernaturally capable of anything. These conflicting tales confuse those seeking to hire designers. And of course designers may be asking themselves: “Am I a unicorn, or not?” And since all designers consider themselves magical, if not actually sparkly, the potential for an identity crisis is acute.

A Designer Bestiary

But fret not! Found in a dusty library in a long-forgotten corner of the Bay Area, a tome once thought lost to the centuries has now been found. (It was on display in the bottom of a locked filing cabinet stuck in a disused lavatory with a sign on the door saying “Beware of The Leopard”.) Within it’s pages lie descriptions of a vast assortment of legendary creatures. In a Medieval Bestiary, each entry would describe the characteristics, habits, and nature of a type of creature. Creatures were understood to be both real (if you sailed far enough you might meet one) and allegorical (the story of the Pelican echoes the Bible). Whether the descriptions within A Designer Bestiary are similarly allegorical is disputed by historians and Human Resources professionals alike.

Continue reading Not Just Unicorns: A Designer Bestiary

A life lesson, or, what is seen cannot be unseen.


It was a lesson I should already have learned. I had learned it.

Many years ago, as a teenager growing up in Washington D.C., I worked a summer job at Reiter's Books on K Street. Reiter's was and remains one of the finest science & technology bookstores in the world. It was a great job, as long as I was allowed to avoid working the register (I was terrified of ringing up someone incorrectly) and avoid answering the phones (I was phone-phobic to a paralyzing degree).[1]  I did odd jobs like sweeping and taking out the trash, but mostly I unpacked books and shelved them. 

I loved shelving. The backs of these books gave me windows into whole worlds of knowledge that were unknown to me, that I could envision someday being a master of. I developed strong opinions about whole fields based on the covers of their textbooks. Advanced math, as represented by the classic yellow Springer-Verlag books, was serious, imposing, monolithic, and impenetrable. Computers were a muddle of garish covers and unlikely promises (learn C in 3 weeks!), but also contained a placid island of well-designed, nicely bound books that paired engravings of unusual animals with intriguing UNIX terms (sed! awk!). Those, I lingered over, though not as much as I lingered over the tall stacks of Edward Tufte books  (only three at that time) placed at the entrance to the store. The Tufte books I returned to again and again as I replenished the stacks, and could even occasionally understand.[2]

And then there was the back of the store, which was a whole different beast. It primarily served the George Washington University School of Medicine, and stocked most if not all of the core course material. There was never any question of my being interested in medicine, though I flipped through the textbooks as frequently as any other. I didn't like shelving that section, though, for two reasons:

  1. Medical reference books are really, really heavy.
  2. Illustrated textbooks of skin diseases.

This was in 1991 or so, before the World Wide Web. Full-color illustrations of horrifying medical conditions and procedures were not mere clicks away, as they are now. There were no trolls gleefully linking to eye-bleeding visual experiences in innocent disguise just for laughs. There was no reason to see a closeup of some terrifying pustule unless you were a medical professional, or actually had it on your body. Or you were shelving books in the medical section.

I'm not actually that squeamish, but I do remember vividly the experience of idly flipping open one of these books and wincing at what I saw. (And looking again, and wincing, and looking again … I was 16.)

So you would think I would have learned.

Fast-forward 20 years. I'm about to undergo a fairly minor outpatient surgical procedure. The surgeon tells me that the procedure is a fairly new one for this condition, but that his own experiences and some solid studies hadve confirmed its effectiveness. Now, everyone handles these sorts of things differently: some people might pepper the doctor with questions, others might just take his word for it, still others might get a second opinion. Me? I read the study.

I am emphatically not a medical professional, or anything like, but I have the basic "evaluate a study" skills that to some extend go across disciplines. Who were the authors, what was the method, how many subjects, does the conclusion seem to follow from the results, that sort of thing. I don't really expect to find anything when I do this, it's largely a way of both educating and reassuring myself. And as far as those things go, everything looked perfectly fine. But (I was to discover), studies covering surgical methods tend to include one extra thing I wasn't expecting.

Step-by-step pictures of the surgical operation itself.  


In vivid color.

I should already have learned.

[1] I got over the phone thing, eventually. The register thing too, somewhat

[2] An observer could have predicted my non-humanities academic path by noticing my early bookstore preferences: a brief foray into math, a longer but incomplete journey through computer science, a final landing in the world design.

Drones and Automated Trading Systems

This week I reread William Gibson’s Mona Lisa Overdrive for the umpteenth time. It’s the final book of the Sprawl trilogy which started with the more famous Neuromancer. This time, there were some lovely resonances between the books and the world of today, almost 25 years after it was published.

One detail that jumped out at me was the emotional resonance of drone surveillance:

She was accompanied, on these walks, by an armed remote, a tiny Dornier helicopter that rose from its unseen rooftop next when she stepped down from the deck. It could hover almost silently, and was programmed to avoid her line of sight. There was something wistful about the way it followed her, as though it we5re an expensive but unappreciated Christmas gift.

Mona Lisa Overdrive, William Gibson (1988), pps 14-15

 A drone pilot and his partner, a sensor operator who manipulates the aircraft’s camera, observe the habits of a militant as he plays with his children, talks to his wife and visits his neighbors. They then try to time their strike when, for example, his family is out at the market.

“They watch this guy do bad things and then his regular old life things,” said Col. Hernando Ortega, the chief of aerospace medicine for the Air Education Training Command, who helped conduct a study last year on the stresses on drone pilots. “At some point, some of the stuff might remind you of stuff you did yourself. You might gain a level of familiarity that makes it a little difficult to pull the trigger.”

— A Day Job Waiting for a Kill Shot a World Away, The New York Times, July 29th, 2012

And while we don’t yet live in a world where Artificial Intelligences control major corporations, we have started talking about things as if we do:

She remembered Porphyre once maintaining that major corporations were entirely independent of the human beings who composed the body corporate. This had seemed patently obvious to Angie, but the hairdresser had insisted that she’d failed to grasp his basic premise. Swift was Sense/Net’s most important human decision-maker.- Mona Lisa Overdrive, William Gibson (1988), page 123

An automated stock trading program suddenly flooded the market with millions of trades Wednesday morning, spreading turmoil across Wall Street and drawing renewed attention to the fragility and instability of the nation’s stock market.

Traders on Wednesday said that a rogue algorithm repeatedly bought and sold millions of shares of companies like RadioShack, Best Buy, Bank of America and American Airlines, sending trading volume surging. While the trading firm involved blamed a “technology issue,” the company and regulators were still trying to understand what went wrong.

“The machines have taken over, right?” said Patrick Healy, the chief executive of the Issuer Advisory Group, a capital markets consulting firm.

Flood of Errant Trades Is a Black Eye for Wall Street, The New York Times, August 1, 2012

Science fiction isn’t terribly reliable at predicting the future, exactly. But sometimes it does a nice job of predictng what the future will feel like.

What I’m thinking about this week


  1. Boots! In January 1996, I was in London briefly, following a semester at Glasgow University. I bought a pair of Dr. Marten’s boots from the flagship store in . They were a sort of wingtip half boot, and I loved them. That’s them up on the right there. I’ve owned various boots over the years, and these were worn more and over a longer period of time than any others. Only a pair of boots acquired from Stompers in the 90s came close. The latter have been relegated to “garden use only” for a while now, and the Docs are just thrashed. Neither model is still made (though there are some things that come close). So last week, we went over to the Haight St. and I picked up a pair of Langstons in burgundy. And I’m in love all over again …
  2. Liberty Leading the People by Delacroix. Despite being married to someone who knows a great deal about art history, I basically knew nothing about this painting or the painter (though I knew the image). I listen to the wonderful In Our Time BBC podcasts, so I got a thorough introduction from Melvyn Bragg’s usual group of slightly dotty British academics. 
  3. The history of finance, and investment theory. Not my usual area, but I’m being guided by Adam Nash’s personal finance reading list and working my way through one by one. 
  4. Visual (and to some extent audio) design in classic science-fiction movies. (And one newer one.) The ones with the white palettes, san serif typefaces and shininess.  Think 2001 and Saturn 3.  Also Tron Legacy, but the shiny white bits rather than the glowy black bits. Plus sinister computer voices like Hal and GladOS from Portal. The fun part is this relates to the previous item (at least in my head).
  5. How most of the important developments & conflicts in online identity & authentication were predicted (sort of ) by Max Headroom
  6. Occupy Wall Street. There’s a lot to think about, but this post pointing out how strangely some of the OWS dynamic echoes Bruce Sterling’s 1998 book Distractions I had to reread it. Sterling has a knack for predicting future socio-political events in ways SF doesn’t usually quite do (see: drone assassinations in Islands in the Net). Distractions isn’t nearly as good a book as Islands in the Net, but it has it’s moments, and it certainly resonates today:

    “Why are there millions of nomads now? They don’t have jobs, man! You don’t care about ‘em! You don’t have any use for ‘em! You can’tmake any use for them! They’re just not necessary to you. Not at all. Okay? So, you’re not necessary to them, either. Okay? They got real tired of waiting for you to give them a life. So now, they just make their own life by themselves, out of stuff they find lying around. You think the government cares? The government can’t even pay their own Air Force.”

    “A country that was better organized would have a decent role for all its citizens.”

    “Man, that’s the creepy part — they’re a lot better organized than the government is. Organization is the only thing they’ve got! They don’t have money or jobs or a place to live, but organization, they sure got plenty of that stuff.”

San Francisco through other eyes

An indulgence: seeing my home, San Francisco, through other eyes. With music and video.

One. Mike Skinner visits briefly.


Two. The Yeah Yeah Yeahs bust out of the Warfield (presumably) and wander (with some magic geography jumps) through a rainy downtown.


The latter captures, perfectly, how magical this city can be, especially when it's damp and rainy and you're wandering downtown at night. (With your leather on.)




Event: Pig-Faced Orcs at IA Summit 2011


I’ll be giving my newest talk, Pig-faced Orcs: Design lessons from old-school role-playing games at the 2011 IA Summit in Denver Colorado, on Sunday, April 3rd.

You know you want be at a 8:30 AM session to talk about Dungeons & Dragons!

Here’s the spiel:

Pig-Faced Orcs: Design Lessons from Old-School Role-playing Games

Can designers learn anything from old-school role-playing games like Dungeons & Dragons and Traveller? Sure!

Designers of all kinds are getting comfortable applying principles of game design to non-game applications. Many of those principles date back to the early days of role-playing games, from Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson’s first edition of D&D in 1974 to less well-known games like Runequest and Traveller. Game designers have been revisiting these early works and extracting wisdom from them, and I’d like to bring some of those lessons to the user experience community.

In this deliciously nerdy talk, I’ll present user-experience lessons from old-school gaming, including the role of showmanship in constructing an experience, how imperfections and missing pieces can increase engagement, and the difference between sandbox and railroad designs.

I’ll be handing out free 20-sided dice to all attendees.

Addendum: Yep, that’s a real character sheet from when I was about 13. That campaign didn’t have any thieves, but it did have “merchants” …

“Don’t blame me! I voted for blood.”

Bruce Sterling just posted this transcript of a talk he gave in 2009. I read in on my phone on the BART this afternoon, cackling to myself like a crazy person. There's a lot of good in here, but this bit:

Why are Gen-X goths? Why are they goths rather than hippies, beatniks? Why do they like to dress up like dead people? That’s their temperament.

When you’re a young goth, you dress up like a dead person because that’s something grownups do. Dying.

But if you’re an adult Gen-Xer and you’re dressed up as a goth, it’s like “Don’t blame me — because I’m already dead! I’m not morally responsible, I’m not a political actor, it’s not my fault, look, I’m a vampire. Don’t blame me! I voted for blood.” Or, whatever. It’s gothic.

Ow. That hits home. Followed by:

Okay, I want to offer you a general principle here. For a Gothic generation like yours, this is going to be painful for you. I mean, really a cognitive upset.

“Stop acting dead.”

Now, you think that acting dead is a virtue. Because you’ve been trained to behave as is if you were dead for a long time, and it actually appeals to your temperament as a generation. It’s your default position.

But you have to stop it. Because Hair shirt Green, which is most of the things that you had on your action list there, Hairshirt Green just changes the polarity of the twentieth century.

It’s just the opposite of consumer culture. It’s like Satanism for a consumer culture. And all Satanists are actually Christians. It’s not really a different way to live. And it’s not something that’s going to fulfil you.

Now, how do you know if you’re acting dead? Well, there’s a test for this. It’s the Great-Grandfather Principle.

You’re saying: I’m going to do something morally worthwhile that’ll make me feel proud of myself. But does your dead great-grandfather do a better job of it than you?

For instance, saving water. Okay, water is indestructible, first of all. You cannot possible damage water unless you turn it into hydrogen and oxygen. Then it just spontaneously recombines.

But you’re trying to save water, because you’re told to save water. All right, your dead great-grandfather is saving more water than you. You cannot possibly save any more water than a dead guy. He’s greener than you in that regard.

Saving electrical power. Okay, you should be using less power, power’s bad, you need a lower footprint. Okay, your grandfather is not using any electrical power.

He’s much greener than you, you cannot compete with that. If you move into a smaller apartment, your grandfather is in a very, very small apartment. It’s underground, there’s no lighting, there’s no heating, he doesn’t have any broadband.

Recycling, okay, recycling is useful in some ways. Your grandfather is literally being recycled. You can’t actually out-recycle your dead grandfather.

And furthermore, in a pretty short amount of time compared to the length of the problems you’re tackling, you’re going to be dead, like your grandfather.

You’ll be saving everything at that point. You might be alive 70, 80, 90 years. You’re going to be dead for hundreds of millions of years. Billions of years of saving water, billions of years of having a light carbon footprint. It was carbon sequestration. You’re full of carbon, they buried you.

So you need to do things that you can do while alive. Do things you can do while alive. If your grandfather’s doing a better job at it, you can put that aside for later, when you’re dead, like him.

I'm so happy that I'm going to see him speak at SXSW this year — the last time I went was one of the few years he didn't speak, and that seriously bummed me out.


Changing the audience

Still curious what the band was doing exactly during "Realize," and where all that melody came from, I press him about it. "There was no melody!," he exclaims. "Every melody everyone had  was in their head." The group played "all the strings on the bass at the same time and then me with this whammy pedal able to go two octaves lower and then bring it up and down like that. And then with various distortion pedals I could change the texture of the noise whenever I wanted so it wasn't just like one sound, it was just sort of moving along somehow. It was the best part of the night always and each night it was an experiment to see how long it would take for the audience to turn from like one state to another. A certain percentage of the audience would start sticking their fingers up at us or they would put their hands up in the air with their eyes closed, or do somethig physical. I pretty much would always go on as long as it took to change the audience."

"When it was clear that the audience was changed, totally–even if it was one person left with their fingers in the air or in their ears, we would wait for them to give into it, " Kevin explains. "Sometimes it would take forty minutes for that one individual to give up. When the audience was fully and utterly done, we had the signal process where I would look at Debbie and we'd go back to the final parts of the song."

— from "33 1/2: Loveless", by Mike McGonigal, a book-long essay on the album Loveless by My Bloody Valentine

Kevin Shields (of My Bloody Valentine) goes on to explain that they had to stop "experiments" like this because of accumulated hearing damage. Although I'm pretty sure they did it when I saw them just a few years ago …