synthetic zero

November 28th, 2009

I ran into Darcy Dahl today and we chatted a bit about my last post about Google; he expressed his disagreement with my take on the iPhone and with Wave and made some good points, and I wanted to respond a bit to what I understood of what he had to say (and, Darcy, feel free to post your thoughts in your own words, below. Also I’ll note, as background, that Darcy is a really interesting multimedia/video artist.) As I heard it, Darcy was saying his biggest objection to Apple’s design philosophy is that it is difficult, in his words, to get “lost” — which I took to mean Apple tries to anticipate what users want to do, and makes those tasks easier, cutting a “groove” so to speak for those tasks. The interface is so fluid that it disappears, but thereby, as I understand his objection, it also obscures the ability for people to feel uncertain, to not know where and what they want to do, where they want to go, and presumably to be able to go in new and different directions from where they thought they wanted to go already.

I have a wide variety of responses to this — and again, I’m not sure I’m capturing the full extent of Darcy’s thoughts here, but just this raises a host of interesting issues.

First of all I agree with the importance of getting lost — the idea of getting lost, not knowing your bearings, having to figure things out for yourself and move forward — I think this is very important and powerful. I’m reminded of a story one of my old math professors told me, about two professors he used to work with; one always gave brilliant lectures and the other always seemed confused and uncertain, though he produced perfectly good work; but the interesting thing was, the one who gave the brilliant lectures didn’t seem to produce very successful graduate students, but the one who was confused and uncertain produced a lot of great graduate students. My professor’s theory was the uncertain professor forced his students to think for themselves, and gave his students the confidence that they, too, could do math, since it wasn’t always so pat, so perfect, so cut and dried.

I think there’s a lot to be said for this idea, and it’s certainly true that Apple’s interfaces are slick, clean, almost liquid. They certainly do make it quite easy to do the things you want it to do. But I have to say I don’t think I agree that they thereby contract the space of possibility for their users relative to, say, an interface like Android’s, and I’ll try to explain why.

The big revolution in interface design in recent years has been user-centered design; that is to say, rather than thinking in terms of program features, functions, engineering considerations, database structure, and so on, you think about how people, human beings, live, in their full contexts — what their metaphors are, how they are situated in the world (not just how people are situated with respect to the computer, but how they are in the world as a whole, their relationships, the things they want to do, the people they interact with, the tasks they want to accomplish, and so on), and you design with that in mind. Read the rest of this entry »

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November 26th, 2009

My submission to the My Parents Were Awesome blog:

My parents, Nob and Irene Hadeishi, sometime before I was born.

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November 24th, 2009

Okay, so some people were concerned about my tweeting about “devoting my life to protecting everyone from me and people like me.” This is along the lines of some things I’ve written recently regarding virtue, but I thought I’d explain a bit more for those who may have been worried. I suppose, like Magda O, I have a certain degree of self-objectification, and in my case that takes the form of ruminating about how strange I seem to be relative to the way most other people seem to me to be. One of these strange things is that, while I have a strong desire to be helpful to people and the world, and I consider this in some sense the reason for my existence of my life, I really don’t have a strong feeling of sympathy for people. In fact, I’ve often thought that I seem to have many of the symptoms of sociopaths, in that I don’t have a strong response of sympathy for others. I also wonder regularly why it is I don’t actually go the route of most sociopaths and actually actively harm others — in fact I go out of my way to protect others — I believe it is because I also don’t have much of a feeling of sympathy for myself, either.

That is to say, in general the whole question of whether I ought to behave in a way which is for the benefit of others or not isn’t a question of feelings but rather a matter of something more akin to awareness. That is to say, I think selfish or criminal behavior is stupid, pointless, and based on lack of awareness. That is to say, it requires a strange narrowing down of focus to the point that one is obsessing over what is, for me, just minor details of the overall situation; i.e., one’s personal gain, and so forth. However, because of my general lack of sympathy I can very much understand the thoughts and motives of the criminal, of the sociopath — I just think their vision is small, limited, in a word, kind of dumb, not to mention inept. To be excessively concerned with one’s self-advancement is, in a sense, akin to being excessively concerned about the welfare of, say, a little doll that you made in the image of yourself; i.e., a kind of odd displacement of effort onto a toy version of yourself and the world. This isn’t to say I value the welfare of others more than my own; I certainly value my own welfare about equally with others, though it’s better to say that I think of myself as actually not separable from the whole context in which we are all embedded; ultimately, the universe. Since the focal nexus which one might call “me” is closer to the things people might ordinarily call my “self”, obviously I do take more care of things related to myself; that’s how it has to work for everyone. But I don’t, in principle, think it’s interesting or worth my time to focus too much on the welfare of what one might call my “self” excessively more than others. I find thinking about and working with the fabric of the larger context of life to be far more exciting and interesting. And it is this which motivates the extent to which I am altruistic, not a sense of sympathy as it is, I think, with a lot of people.

I do think, therefore, that what people call virtue is generally speaking a good idea, but virtue as it is usually expressed is in terms of rules we “should” follow and they tend to be rather rigid and overly simplistic, whereas I find real virtue is far more subtle, flexible, varied, and context-dependent, and to the extent I am virtuous it is not because God told me to be virtuous or because of some punishment or reward in the afterlife, but rather because it is more interesting, satisfying, and rich to live in accord with life in its largest and most vivid and present sense. Read the rest of this entry »

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November 23rd, 2009

A while ago I wrote a glowing post about Google which a number of people told me they liked; I never wrote a followup post, but I have a lot more thoughts on the subject.

Pretty much everything I wrote in that post turned out to be true — Google really is a very bottom-up company. The feel of the place is like an open source community which has been placed behind a corporate wall; that is to say, there’s a relatively free and open exchange of ideas within the company: as an engineer you have access to nearly all the source code, and lots of ideas come from the bottom up. It has such an open source feel, internally, that the ethos permeates it, to the point where many Google projects end up being open sourced outside the corporate wall; Android, Chrome, and Chrome OS all come to mind. This contributes a great deal to solid engineering, as we all know now, open source as a development methodology does work well for creating reliable software. However, it turns out that this architecture has one major failing: a lack of understanding of design from the user perspective. For all the solidity of Linux and free software from an engineering perspective, it still falls far short of being easy to use.

This is not to say that Google products are as hard to use as Linux — they do have designers at Google, they do user research and testing. There is an awareness of user experience as a field and a theoretical commitment to it. But — Google is, at its core, a company made by and for engineers. As stopdesign, Google’s first visual designer, put it in his famous post last March about why he left Google: “Without a person at (or near) the helm who thoroughly understands the principles and elements of Design, a company eventually runs out of reasons for design decisions.” Google’s engineers drive product ideas, they drive product design, and this turns out to be its major weakness.

While working at Google I got one of the early Android phones; I have to admit, Android is a beautiful piece of engineering. It’s responsive, stable, and feature rich, unlike Windows Mobile, which has been an unmitigated disaster for years (see my comments about Windows Mobile below that article). However, there’s just something clunky about Android. Yes, it’s far superior to every other smartphone OS… except the iPhone; next to that, it pales in comparison. It’s not simply because Android can’t use some of Apple’s patented UI ideas; there are just a lot of places where things are more complicated than they should be, take more steps, or are inconsistent. It’s less pleasant to use than an iPhone. If I were to give it a subjective score, I’d say it’s “half” as nice to use as an iPhone.

That was my first clue there was something amiss at Google. But then other things happened; I realized I was unusual in my design orientation — I believed in user research, talking to users, designing with users in mind. While my managers and coworkers initially seemed open to this, the more I tried to bring this into the development process, the less well-received it was. The focus there seemed to be primarily on coding — how much code did you write last week? Did you write your code the way I would have written it? How well was it formatted? Of course, I realize that was just my experience in the one group I was working with, but I got the feeling that this was a widespread phenomenon — the key thing people seemed to value at Google was code, and to a lesser extent engineering architecture — but design definitely takes the back burner. Read the rest of this entry »

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November 10th, 2009

A lot of my friends were disturbed by the Charlie Kaufman film Synecdoche, New York which is particularly curious for its total lack of dramatic resolution; a theme that Kaufman also explored in Adaptation in a less extreme way. But for me the film was both brilliant and oddly uplifting; I suppose this relates to something Amarilla touched on in a recent post, the relationship between emptiness/darkness and equanimity or liberation. If you try to find your stability in some thing, some relationship or explanation or resolution or a particular set of conditions then you’re going to have trouble; as the Buddhists like to emphasize — everything is impermanent. The alternative seems bleak: if everything disappears in the end, isn’t that somehow horrific, terrible, cause for despair? It may seem that way, but there’s another way of taking it. What if it were possible to ground yourself in emptiness, where your roots, so to speak, reach out into the darkness, and don’t rest on any specific thing but if anything in the totality, the empty/full reality in its entirety? Without trying to find a resolution in a specific set of conditions, one can find something sublime in the totally interconnected and yet independent network of relations which comprise the universe; so there’s no specific part of it one can rely on but one can rely on the entirety of it, because we are never separated from this empty/full ground of Being. From that perspective, the fact that Kaufman’s character never finishes his project(s), the fact that everything in his life disappears, the simulacra and the reality all fade and are destroyed, this is simply inherent in this matrix of life. What’s the alternative? Is the purpose of life to come to a resolution, or is it to be found in the beautiful emphemerality of everything which is both impermanent and yet the source of both beauty and ugliness, suffering and bliss… what would be the point of doing things if the goal is to simply reach some end point. Such an end point would by definition be static, dead, the “end” — but we don’t have to structure our lives in terms of projects with a beginning, middle, and end, even if Hollywood movies usually are written this way.

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November 4th, 2009

Years ago I went to see David Lynch’s Eraserhead with a group of friends of mine, one of whom was Ted Park, the younger brother of one of my high school classmates, Ron Park. After the film, while we were walking, Ted said to me “I hope this movie doesn’t corrupt you, Mits.” I was quite surprised by this and I just laughed and laughed. I thought it was sweet that Ted thought this of me, but in fact it was quite a strange concern, from my point of view. By that time I’d already seen so much (my father is an artist and my parents often took me to see all sorts of films, art openings, etc., when I was growing up, Kurosawa or Ingmar Bergman or strange art films or performances) that Eraserhead was no big deal to me. But there’s something else, as well.

Some people see me as a somewhat “pure” person, or as one just put it, “incorruptible” — but I don’t think of myself that way at all. To the contrary, I think of myself as, in a way, already corrupted — so totally corrupted that I’ve come right out the other side. A shade of black so black that it appears white again. Of course, I’m exaggerating, but that’s the basic image. My version of “virtue” is not based on trying to preserve my innocence, my lily whiteness; it is based on something very different, being familiar with vice, being one with it, to the point where I simply avoid most of it not because I’m trying to hold myself to some high standard, trying to avoid getting any dirt on my white robes, but simply because I’m bored with a lot of what tempts many people. Been there, done that, in this life or in some previous one, so to speak. I avoid many things people call “evil” just because it’s banal, pointless, simpleminded or uninteresting to me, not because I am exercising some sort of rigid discipline to avoid “temptation”.

It’s a strange sort of approach to virtue which is really a form of worldliness. I don’t drink (very much) not because I am trying to be virtuous but because I dislike the taste of alcohol; I don’t do drugs just because I’d rather do other things, like meditate, etc., but I have nothing against those who take psychoactive drugs in a mindful way, I have plenty of friends who do. I’m not motivated by large amounts of money because it gives you diminishing returns; after you have your basic needs covered, having more money doesn’t incrementally add much to your happiness. And should it seem necessary or worthwhile I certainly would break rules, and I do, quite a lot; I don’t hold to rules arbitrarily but rather to a principle of awakeness. Still, if I don’t see a good reason to break a rule, I probably won’t, because what’s the point? I don’t have a need to rebel any more than I have a need to conform. I think of this, essentially, as related to earlier comments about Eastern vs. Western ideas of virtue; the idea of being “corrupted” coming more from a Western notion of virtue as being “avoiding vice”, being innocent, being a naif; whereas in the East, particularly in schools like Zen, virtue is conceived of more as being skillful, on the ball, savvy.

Of course I don’t claim to be actually incorruptible or without vices or ego or bad habits, etc.; I have plenty of those. In fact I depend on them, I don’t run away from them. I look them in the face, I AM them. So, to the extent possible, I am already so steeped in my own darkness, darkness that goes deep to the whirling void at the bottom of reality, that the idea of being “corrupted” just seems funny — corrupted by what? I’m not naive about the nature of the world, in fact I’m already corrupted, I see and feel it all the time, I accept it and I live with it and through it. I feel more criminal than the criminals — I don’t think of myself as saintly, but rather the king of the crooks; but I’ve learned to play the game better than ordinary crooks, because I skip the stealing part, because it’s pointless. If my behavior looks like virtue in some cases, so be it; but I’m not trying for that. And I let myself follow “temptation” all the time; as I said above, I’m willing to transgress certain boundaries, I’ll break some rules if it seems appropriate, and if that looks like vice to some people, so be it as well. I’m not overly concerned with those labels. Ultimately, I’m just trying to pay attention and not be too wasteful, if at all possible, because wasting life/reality (which includes wasting the life/reality of “others” as well as myself, since there ultimately is no strict boundary between me and you) is, quite simply, about the only true crime I can really think of.

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