synthetic zero


February 28th, 2010

In case you hadn’t seen my invites on Facebook, Twitter, etc., already: I’m curating another Synthetic Zero Event at BronxArtSpace for March 3 and 6, come on by (and email me if you want to get on the announcement list).

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February 23rd, 2010

I just typed “Google Buzz” into Google’s news search, idly curious to see if the global zeitgeist about the service had significantly shifted, but instead I came across a barrage of articles like these: Allen Stern, in “Welcome new Buzz User. Now Get Outta Here!”, writes “the user experience is miserable and probably pushes away many new users (especially those who aren’t ’social media experts’)”; Danny Sullivan says, in “How Google Buzz Hijacks Your Profile”, “My profile has been Buzzjacked, as I like to call it”; Harvard Law student Eva Hibnick has filed a class-action lawsuit against Google over Buzz, technology analyst Charlene Li calls Buzz a nightmare for parents when it comes to children’s privacy and safety, and in “Why I’m dropping Google” industry commentator Kirk McElhearn references Buzz along with a series of recent Google blunders, including their deletion without warning of years of posts from several prominent music blogs for his decision to delete all his Google accounts.

The fact that one can easily find all this negative press while using Google news search itself is a testament that “Don’t Be Evil” still has weight in Mountain View, of course, as does their brave stance on China, and I certainly don’t believe Google is actively trying to be evil. But I do believe that Google has systemic structural problems which make these sorts of problems far more common than they ought to be, as I’ve written before. When I left Google after only five months I thought that perhaps my experiences might have simply been my bad luck; perhaps the issues I saw were really issues only on the teams I’d encountered. But I’ve actually been surprised at how many spectacular design and user research blunders Google has made in the months since I left, indicating the problems are far more widespread than even I’d suspected, and go back years, with the more stark results of these problems only now being rolled out. It may well be that the problems do in fact come, ironically, from Google’s strength as a bottom-up engineering-driven company: because it is bottom-up and engineers drive design, the company doesn’t have a feel for design, they do some user research but don’t take it seriously enough, and they are perhaps too convinced by their early success that they are overconfident in their internal processes. What Google has been unequivocally successful at is search, and while they have succeeded in other areas (email, maps), it wasn’t by inventing new applications but simply making better engineered versions of existing applications. They’ve stumbled time and again when it comes to really new designs, and I think Wave and now Buzz have unfortunately entered the gallery of examples of Google’s inability to embrace or understand design or user experience concerns beyond their core competency.

I honestly do wish Google well; I still have friends who work there. I left Google for largely personal reasons, and I still think it’s a great place for many engineers to work; at the time, I thought it was simply that the sorts of things I want to do I can’t do at Google, but that doesn’t make it a bad place to work for everyone. But I’m beginning to think the problems Google is having may be worse than this, that these problems will cause them difficulty in many areas as they move forward, and perhaps I joined Google at an inflection point, where its structural weaknesses were just beginning to become really noticeable: just as Microsoft reached a similar stage when it shifted, imperceptibly at first, from cool to uncool, Google may also be hitting that point. Given the way the company is structured (bottom-up) I’m not sure how anyone can really turn that ship — it’s like trying to turn a giant amoeba. I think the problems with Google may be uncorrectable or at least very difficult to correct, precisely because it was consciously designed to be governed in a decentralized way (I should note that I’ve always been a strong proponent of decentralized management — but in my view, any decentralized management approach has to empower people with different backgrounds, and in Google’s case it is far too weighted towards the engineering approach to problem solving, without nearly as much expertise in user experience, design, research, and so forth). Good luck, Google, but I think I’m glad I decided to leave when I did; seldom have so many real-world events conspired to confirm me in an early assessment as in this case. I do hope you can find a way to turn it around, though I have strong doubts.

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February 22nd, 2010

Susan Estrich asks “What went wrong?” and lazily asserts, based on what is clearly little to no research, that it is because Obama and the Democrats are trying to fix health care when we can’t afford it and it really isn’t that broken anyway.

What really went wrong is Democrats sat idly by while Tea Partiers and others took over the public airwaves selling fear and misinformation. A majority of people falsely believe that health care reform will force them to change insurance. Majorities actually support the components of the plan when they hear what they actually are. The endless mantra of “government takeover” of health care resonates as a sound bite with some people. But the facts remain: if we do nothing about health care, we really will bankrupt the nation. Health care costs are rising at twice the rate of inflation. As a nation we spent roughly twice the percentage of our GDP compared to the average industrialized nation on health care, yet we have waiting times worse than many other countries which Republicans have lambasted for their nationalized programs. While we lead in a few areas, like cancer, we lag badly in others, like infant mortality, and overall our health care outcomes are no better than other countries which spend a far smaller percentage of their GDP on health care. Premiums are skyrocketing, more and more people can’t afford health care, and businesses are having to cut back on health benefits or drop it entirely. Medicare spending is going through the roof.

We have an absurd system where many insurance providers make an unconscionable amount of profit, yet at the same time we have no meaningful cost controls. Providers are paid on a fee for service basis rather than on quality of health care outcomes. Huge amounts of time and money are wasted on paperwork. We have no incentives in place to streamline health care information technology. And even those with insurance are not safe: you can have your coverage cancelled when you get seriously ill because of trumped-up fraud accusations on the part of insurers.

And no, Republican claims that we can solve this problem with “small” reforms are engaging in fantasy thinking. New York State tried to stop insurers from denying coverage to people with preexisting conditions. The result? Many people decided not to buy insurance until they got sick, which of course is the inevitable result. Insurance premiums skyrocketed, and continue to go up. The only way to solve this problem is with a comprehensive approach of some kind.

The health care proposal currently under discussion will REDUCE the deficit according to the OMB. Furthermore it has incentives and pilot programs designed to encourage experiments in alternative payment systems, such as bundled payments rather than fee for service, and other sensible cost control measures. Studies have shown that health care outcomes can in fact remain as good or better even as you reduce the number of specialists assigned to a patient and reduce excess tests and procedures.

We can’t afford to deal with health care now? We can’t afford NOT to deal with it now. Yes, it is a complex issue but it angers me when pundits bloviate out of their asses on issues of national significance without bothering to do research or carefully think through the positions they so sloppily broadcast to the world. I don’t need to know that you’ve done the extensive research of consulting your memory about a sample size of one: your personal experiences with health care, while spreading your ill-informed opinions about what ought to apply to the entire country. It’s a combination of laziness and hubris. If you have a national audience, for God’s sake take some responsibility and learn about the subjects you write about. Wake up and smell the Google: it doesn’t take much work to figure out what is going on with health care in this country, but it does take some work, work which Estrich and the many other political talking heads out there seem to be unwilling to bother themselves with. Of course, if even pundits don’t bother to do research, it’s no surprise many Americans don’t either.

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January 28th, 2010

I was talking with an online acquaintance of mine who is irritated at me for not buying into the idea that Obama has been mostly a betrayer of liberal causes. It had gotten to the point that he was surprised that we agreed on anything at all. Yet I reminded him that we agree on most things: we agree the Iraq war was a disastrous mistake. We agree that the economy is being drained by casino operators calling themselves financial services companies who are taking a rake off the top. We agree that same sex marriage ought to be legal. We agree that income disparity in the US is undermining our long-term stability. We agree, in short, on most things when it comes to goals and policy.

Where we disagree is more in terms of tactics. He seems to think Obama is almost a traitor to those of us who worked to elect him. I think he’s done far better than any president in at least the last few decades. The backlash against him reminds me of my years in college in the 80’s, when my friends on the left had so many complaints about others on the left that the left basically just tore itself apart, leading to its decline and near irrelevance.

What I believe is that to win you have to make allies. I’m not saying liberals are wrong to try to press Obama to go left, and I’m not saying that we should always try to appease the middle. Sometimes you need to take a strong stand on principle even when it isn’t moderate; as Obama did against the Iraq war long before it was fashionable to do so.

But we need allies. We need to stand together. Obama is an ally. I think he’s doing a damn good job. Not perfect but come on, what president is ever going to do everything exactly as you want him to.

The disease I see happening now among some on the left is similar to a disease I saw in college: someone does or advocates a few things you don’t agree with, and you think immediately he must be allied with the forces of darkness. He wants evil to succeed, and he’s been bought. Well, I don’t agree. I think there are legitimate reasons why people who share the same overall view of things might disagree on tactics or even strategy, and that this shouldn’t cause us to assume bad faith and turn on each other. I don’t know why liberals seem to do this more than conservatives, but it seems as though we do (though Tea Partiers are beginning to do this on the right —- yet they managed to get behind pro-choice Brown in MA so they may be learning their lesson already).

I think it’s unfortunate that many on the left are seeing Obama as a “huge disappointment” or even an enemy when a lot of this has to do with our own idea of who he was supposed to be in our minds. The moment he does anything we don’t agree with, he’s betraying us? I don’t think so. I think it’s right to pressure him politically to do what we think he should, but I think it’s a shame when we turn on each other because of disagreements about tactics.

Ultimately I think if we were objective about this, we’d have to say Obama has been far more effective in his first year than Clinton was in his first year. But we had much lower expectations of Clinton, so we judge him far less harshly. I don’t think it’s fair to judge Obama as a failure just because he didn’t live up to our unrealistic expectations, despite the fact that he’s done far better than Clinton did on most issues. Clinton tried to get health care passed — he didn’t get anywhere near as far as Obama has. Was Obama’s standoffish approach wise or not? Clinton tried “leading” on health care and was pummelled because of it, and it failed. Obama let Congress work out a bill and has gotten much closer to success than any president in the last century.

The guy isn’t perfect but give him a chance. Governing is difficult, especially when Republicans have decided to filibuster everything in sight. If we throw Obama away because he doesn’t live up to our fantasy of who we thought he ought to be, Heaven help us when a Republican wins in 2012. Then we might learn to finally appreciate this President: but perhaps too late.

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January 4th, 2010

A friend of mine was recently describing how he tends to make a mental graph with the label “how are things going?” and project it forward in time; if the trendline is down, he can get depressed, even though this whole thing is often based, in his own words, on a mostly imaginary projection into an imaginary future. That phenomenon (”how are things going?”) is the crux of a huge complex of almost entirely useless cognition. Often when thinking about doing some sort of contemplative practice, meditation, Zen, etc., people think the ultimate goal is finding some vast cosmic awareness or something like that — which isn’t to say vast cosmic awareness isn’t accessible in some sense. But really, from the point of view of what’s really at issue with the teachings of schools like Zen or other contemplative traditions I’ve practiced for many years, it’s far more just about making room for what is present in our lives, directly, which has a lot to do with just relaxing this one habit, the habit of thinking about “how are things going?”

Some people like to talk about this subject in terms of emphasizing the “here and now” over things far away. But I think, while that’s a decent rule of thumb, it’s also misleading. There’s nothing particularly special about “now” as a moment in some sort of imaginary timeline. What’s good about the “be here now” idea isn’t the idea of “here and now” — it’s letting go of the unnecessary habit of thinking about things in terms of “how are things going?”

The “how are things going?” thoughts can have the appearance of attending to things that aren’t in the “here and now”, but in in reality they’re pulling us away from awareness of what is happening in our lives, both here and now and far away in time and space. All these thoughts do is reinforce various judgements and projections which are simply distracting us from our lives, whether we’re talking about the here and now or any other aspect of our lives.

For example, even if we’re supposedly focused on the “here and now”, we might be thinking “oh, I’m really screwed right now, things are going badly” or even “things are going really well” — either one is a mistake, a distraction, unnecessary and pointless. These thoughts pull us away from our lives precisely because they collapse everything down to a single dimension of good versus bad. But such a judgement cannot possibly capture the richness of what is going on. It closes off real thought about our lives — and thought, even about things that aren’t “here and now”, can be helpful, illuminating, incisive, and insightful. Getting stuck in a one dimensional world of “doing well” or “not doing so well” and either one is a narrow, ridiculously compromised and unnecessary way of thinking. Such thoughts simply crowd out our ability to be really present and aware of the true dimensionality of our lives. To really work with our lives, with the world, requires being open to every aspect of it, rather than labelling things “good” or “bad” and thereby turning them into unworkable cartoons. How can you work with “it’s a disaster!” or even “things are great!” Either judgement is a turning away from reality in its richness. There’s no content in these sorts of judgements, nothing to actually work with.

The problem isn’t whether the subject matter is here and now or elsewhere. It’s perfectly fine to think about the past and the future, etc.; the problem is collapsing all that into a cartoon judgement, letting our flattened idea of the world replace openness to the radical unknowability of the world, the universe; to the unexpected, as well as even to what we know about but don’t want to face, accept, or work with. An excess of judgement gets into the way of a direct, open participation in presence with the entire context of our lives whether it is “here and now” or anything else.

Luckily even when we’re involving ourselves in these thoughts our larger being is still functioning in a larger context (our unconscious, our physical bodies, etc.) But our conscious involvement with a narrow view nevertheless causes us a lot of unnecessary suffering and grinding of gears, even if, thankfully, that’s not all that’s going on (so of course it’s a good idea not to turn “am I worrying about how things are going?” into yet another occasion for self-recrimination… ha). Simply dropping this pointless habit is all it takes to open out to something radical and present and only partially knowable: our actual lives.

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December 8th, 2009

Defense Secretary Robert Gates, a Republican who was originally appointed by Bush to replace the execrable Donald Rumsfeld after the 2006 elections and retained (I believe, wisely) by Obama after he took office, in this New York Times article on Afghanistan, essentially admits that the Bush Administration strategy in Afghanistan had been woefully inadequate:

Another problem, Mr. Gates said, was that the Afghan security forces were spread far too thin. “Attrition is higher in the areas where the combat is heavier,” he said. “The reason is there aren’t enough of them. And they basically fight until they die, or they go AWOL.”

Rotating in more Afghan soldiers, he said, “would be an important part of the retention piece as well.”

When asked if it was not “late in the game” in an eight-year-old war to begin learning these facts about the Afghan security forces, Mr. Gates replied that “there’s a lot of this that’s late in the game, frankly.”

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December 5th, 2009

I’ve been talking a little more with some Wave users and playing with Wave more and I thought I’d elaborate a bit more on Wave. The one thing I think is pretty cool about Wave is, as I’ve said before, the multimedia collaborative edited document. I can certainly see how that would be useful for collaborative planning, etc.; my beef with Wave is with the thought, or lack thereof, that went into the context in which that multimedia collaborative document lives.

First of all, it should be pointed out that a lot of the use cases for Wave are already possible using Google Docs and Spreadsheets; i.e., you can edit in real-time things like to-do lists, plans, etc., at the same time, and even chat about it using a separate chat interface. For example, if you could inject videos, etc., into a Google document, then it would start to have a lot of the same power as Wave.

What could have and should have set Wave apart were the ways in which you could use, structure, share, and link the wave; not only whether it is possible to do these things but how intuitive and easy it is to do these things. You could summarize my complaint about Wave this way: instead of basing it on email and adding wiki, social networking, and IM functionality to that, they should have started with either wikis or social networking/twitter and added functionality that allowed email-like use cases.

For example, sharing a wave with a group of users is apparently possible using a hack via Google Groups — but this isn’t easy or intuitive. As far as I know there’s no way, yet, to create a collection of waves and share them automatically with everyone in the group, so that edits to the waves automatically show up and new waves created in that collection are also automatically shared (i.e., with friends, Twitter-style followers, coworkers, etc.) Linking waves is cumbersome, forcing you to enter the “Wave ID”, which is bound to cause confusion as where one finds the wave ID is not immediately apparent, and furthermore when you’ve linked the wave this doesn’t give the viewer permission to see the linked wave unless they’ve been explicitly added to it, or it is totally public. Features in Wave are not easily discoverable or evident. There’s no way to control the types of edits people can make; for example, one of the best things about blogs is that the main content is only editable by the author, but other users can add comments; this tends to damp down on the flame wars that can sometimes pop up in “flat” threaded discussion forums. There are many other structural problems I’ve already commented on with Wave. Read the rest of this entry »

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December 4th, 2009

Please come to my next synthetic zero event, tomorrow, Saturday, December 5, 7pm-11pm, 20 minutes from Union Square!

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December 3rd, 2009

I’m going to say something that perhaps some of my friends will disagree with, but which I think must be said at this point. I’m a liberal — I’d even call myself very liberal. I believe strongly in gay rights, women’s rights, I believe the wealthy are too wealthy and they’ve siphoned off a lot of this country’s wealth in a way which disadvantages us all, I am a strong believer in social justice and supporting the dignity and well-being of all people, I was a fierce opponent of the Iraq war, the list goes on. But though I identify strongly with and support the goals of left I disagree quite frequently with the means the left sometimes chooses to pursue these goals. Above all, I believe that in order to achieve peace and justice one has to look very carefully at the details of every situation and think carefully about the impact of every policy, strategy, and tactic from a larger perspective. In other words, I am against dogma on the right or the left: I am pragmatic.

War is terrible but war in self defense is, I believe, a sad necessity. Obama campaigned on the notion that Afghanistan was the war we should have been fighting, that Iraq siphoned off men and attention from that war, and that we should have before and should now focus our efforts there. Read the rest of this entry »

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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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