Posts Tagged ‘worldviews’

Pain, Gain & Brain Candy

by Hang

One of my close friends, when asked if she would read my latest post, replied:

Not really sure I want to be enlightened in that way, but since I’m such a motherfucking glutton for punishment, I’ll read it. How does it make you feel to know that many of the things you say and write are punishing or cruel to other people?

My instinctual response is that I view pain somewhat akin to how a personal trainer would view it. Yes, there is bad pain but there is also pain that leads to growth as well and if it wasn’t at least a little bit painful, I don’t think I did my job right. But to be honest, I’d never really considered it all that closely before. It forced me to confront a world view I was somewhat alien to and, in the process, define my own world view a little more closely.

To me, pain is how you know you’re alive. Pain is thrilling because it’s transformational and without transformation, what else is there beside marking time? Pain is integrity, the prospect of pain is where you prove to yourself who you really are. Pain ties deeply into notions of masculinity and what it means to be a man. The masculine concepts of courage, cowardice, stoicism & loyalty all have to deal with reactions to pain and fear. This is not to justify this world view, merely to explain it.

A lot of my writing stems from these premises. It’s confrontational and brash and requires a bit of heavy lifting to get. Until now, I’d never thought it could be any other way. Part of the reason for me starting this blog is to find a community of like minded thinkers who view the world from that same lens of intellectual masochism. It’s been a frustrating process for me that I’ve been at this for almost a year with so little to show for it from that regard but I’m going to keep on plugging away at it.

May 12 2009

Missing the point of interviews

by Hang

I don’t know if two makes trend but I’m too impatient to wait for a 3rd example so I’m going to rail against the geek trend of being cleverly literal when attempting to answer interview questions. This practice strikes me as about as original and amusing as pointing out that silenced guns in movies don’t sound like they do in real life and there’s no sound in space. Like film, interviews have their own set of conventions and rituals and exposing the inherently unreality of the form doesn’t mark you out as clever, just ignorant.

In primary school, you were probably given a series of largely banal word puzzles in your math class because some educational bureaucrat decided that stories were more “relatable” than numbers. Now, if you had an absolutely stellar textbook author, they would have taken to the medium with a gusto and crafted an entirely different pedagogy centered around stories as an expressive medium. But chances are, you didn’t. Chances are, the author took the bog standard approach of first coming up with number questions and then pasting on a thin veneer of wording to get the job done.

“3 + 5, Jane had 3 apples, Chris had 5 apples, how many apples do they have together?”

> 8 apples

“Correct, 18 – 2, Reginald has 18 cookies but he eats two, how many cookies does Reginald have left?”

> 16 cookies

“Correct, 10 + 10, Heathcliff has 10 gallons of water, Shaniqua has 10 gallons of ethanol, how many gallons would they have if they combined it?”

> 19.2 gallons

“Corr… Wait, what?”

> Mixing equal volumes of ethanol and water results in only 1.92 volumes of mixture.

Congratulations, you discovered a leaky abstraction but you also kind of missed the point.

The purpose of a programming question in an interview is not to simulate a real life job decision, it’s simply a very basic skill test with a thin veneer of story pasted over the top of it to make it seem relatable. If you persist on treating it that way, don’t blame me when I give you full marks for cleverness and then zero marks for getting the point.

Google’s lead visual designer quit due to a clash of cultures

by Hang

Douglas Bowman, Google’s lead visual designer announced yesterday that he was leaving Google to join Twitter. At the root of it, Bowman’s decision to leave stems from a clash of cultures between the world of Interaction and Visual Design. The best way to understand this this clash of cultures is to listen to the ghost stories each field tells the young’uns.

In Interaction Design, around the campfires at night, it’s common to hear a variant of this chilling tale:

I heard, there was this company once, where they, like, got these totally great designers to build this user interface for them and they were all excited about it being the best thing since sliced toast until they tried to watch some people use it in the real world and it, like, totally sucked. The things everyone thought were easy to use were completely confusing. Luckily, they went through several iterations of redesign and testing the thing until it became something users loved.

Interaction designers are actively trained to filter out expert opinion as a justification for design decisions. The expert, no matter how qualified and trained they are, is ultimately, not the user and is ultimately, totally ineffectual and predicting what the user is like. The only way that design decisions can be justified is through feedback from actual users. Uttering the words “I prefer…” as justification for a design decision is the quickest way to move you from the potentially-an-ally category to dangerous-fool-who-must-be-neutralized category in the eyes of an interaction designer.

Over in the Visual Designer camp, a different ghost story is being passed round the campfire:

I heard, there was this company once who hired this, like, genius visual designer who built them this totally bold and brilliant design. But then, in an attempt to please everyone, the design was buried under so many focus groups and QA evaluations that  integrity of the design was destroyed and what was ultimately put up, like, totally sucked and ended up pleasing no one. Luckily, a more design friendly management was put into place and the original design was restored which ended up creating the emotional bond with the users that saved the company.

Visual designers are trained to keep their artistic integrity in the face of pressure and to be the keepers of the secret knowledge against the tide of the aesthetically ignorant. Uttering the words “consensus seeking” as justification for a design decision is the quickest way for you to become a dangerous-fool-who-must-be-neutralized in the eyes of a visual designer.

You can see both of these dynamics play out in the Google saga. Douglas Bowman’s characterization of the design process at Google:

Yes, it’s true that a team at Google couldn’t decide between two blues, so they’re testing 41 shades between each blue to see which one performs better. I had a recent debate over whether a border should be 3, 4 or 5 pixels wide, and was asked to prove my case. I can’t operate in an environment like that. I’ve grown tired of debating such miniscule design decisions. There are more exciting design problems in this world to tackle.

The debate on border pixels dragged on because Bowman became a dangerous-fool-who-must-be-neutralized in the eyes of the interaction design team.

Similarly, on Marissa Mayer’s attempt to reach out towards the visual designers:

A designer, Jamie Divine, had picked out a blue that everyone on his team liked. But a product manager tested a different color with users and found they were more likely to click on the toolbar if it was painted a greener shade.

As trivial as color choices might seem, clicks are a key part of Google’s revenue stream, and anything that enhances clicks means more money. Mr. Divine’s team resisted the greener hue, so Ms. Mayer split the difference by choosing a shade halfway between those of the two camps.

Is so, tin-earred it’s cringe inducing. Like rich yuppies trying to connect with the less affluent by speaking the language of the “street”, Marissa reads the culture of visual design so wrong and her attempt and consensus and compromise ends up doing more harm than good.

The sad thing is, both of these viewpoints are perfectly justified and are the result of a counter-intuitive lesson learned. Both of these ghost stories are repeated precisely so the newbies in the field don’t end up making the same mistakes the pros once made. Unfortunately this means for both sides, the views of the other side look like ignorance.

Look, I was like you once, and then I learned better. So I’m just going to sit hear and wait for the other shoe to drop for you Mmmkay? Do you want to hear a ghost story while we’re waiting?

So what you end up getting is a staring contest where each side is waiting for the other to finally blink. Unfortunately, in this case, Douglas Bowman blinked first and both Douglas and Google were both impoverished for this.

PS: In anticipation of the criticism that I have no business talking about visual design when the design of my own site sucks so much, I know, it’s being fixed, be patient.

January 22 2009

Big Science and little science

by Hang

This is an idea I’ve been chewing on for a while on how there seems to be two different modes of science which have a very hard time talking to each other because of their radically different approaches to problems. I’m going to call these two approaches big science and little science.

Big science is about wading into the thick of a big problem and working from a state of utter incomprehension, being satisifed with chewing off whatever nugget of comprehension they can take a hold of. They take hold of questions like “what is love” and grapple with it in it’s full complexity. Big science is like parachuting into the middle of the jungle, setting up base camp and gradually establishing contact with all the other little camps around you.

Little science is all about carving off a well definied, definite area of study and solving it. It asks questions like “How does Paxil bind with the serotonin receptors in the brain”. Little science is all about building the foundation, a solid ground of work on which other work can be based. The little science approach to colonisation is to bring in the bulldozers and clear and settle all the land directly adjacent to the settled land.

Big science and little science represent two fundamentally different ways of trying to understand the world and the approach of one can look bafflingly unscientific to the other. I can feel that frustration when I talk about my work to someone who does little science. My research thesis basically boils down to “How does design influence group behaviour in social software” but everything I talk about comes with the implicit caveat that it’s messy and there’s a lot more things going on than what I’m modelling. I’m not seeking to completely understand human behaviour, even if my work increased predictive power by 1%, I would view that as a major triumph.

Our tools and understanding about social psychology and design are primitive. That’s no excuse for not trying though.

Provably Unsolvable Security

by Hang

One interesting, unnoticed property of security is that it often contains provably unsolvable problems. Generally, we tend to split problems into those that have been solved and those which we don’t know if they can be solved. Nobody knows right now how to build a 100 mpg+ Internal Combustion Engine but that’s because building a 100+ mpg engine is hard. We imagine that if we throw enough smart people and technology at a problem, it will inevitably be beaten down and solved or we’ll reach a point where it’s not worth the effort to solve. Nobody imagines that building fuel efficient engines is impossible.

Translating that same thinking to security, we imagine security problems are a matter of effort. If only we were willing to expend enough resources, security problems could get solved. The TSA takes this approach to airline security. Airline security breaches occur because there is a lack of political will and if we only had enough regulations, screeners, X-Ray backscatter machines and cameras, airport security would become a solved problem.

However, the fundamental flaw with airport security is that what makes a good “dangerous” is how you use it and not what its made out of and so it’s impossible to develop an effective screening process that is not in the context of use. A laptop battery is pretty much just an explosive which is designed not to explode (sometimes unsuccessfully). That planes aren’t being brought down every day from laptop explosions is not because they can’t explode but because nobody wants them to explode. Imagine all the technology you want, it’s impossible to look at a laptop battery sitting in a scanning machine and decide whether it will be wanted to explode.

Convincing people that security can be provably unsolvable is the hardest step because often, the actual proofs of unsolvability are fairly simple. Normally, we assume that an explanation of why something can’t be done is something only comprehensible to experts because it’s more accurately a proof of why it can’t be done yet which requires you to understand what can be done now. As a result, we take explanations of infeasibility on a certain degree of faith and deferral to expert opinion, we use zero knowledge rather than first order proofs.

Security flips this around. Proving something secure is hard because it requires you to know all the ways it can be attacked whereas proving something can never be secure is easy because it requires a simple application from first principles. This is an important consideration in policy debates because one common tactic of bamboozling your opponent is to force them into using first order proofs where zero knowledge proofs would have been more appropriate (the Intelligent Design movement uses this to great effect with their “teach the controversy” and “let the children decide” messages). This means that unless your opponent is aware of the curious inversion on the structure of a security debate, arguments about security can often seem seedy and underhanded because they resemble so much debates in other, less reputable areas.

The result of all this is that security is one of those areas where there is a disproportionate amount of astoundingly bad, poorly thought out policies and a large part of this can be explained through the communication mismatch between security experts and managers where “it can’t be done” means “It’s impossible to do” but is interpreted as “I don’t know how to do it and I’m too lazy to find out”.

Nov 10th (day 28): The crisis in economics

by Hang

Economics, however much economists seem wilfully blind to it, will soon undergo a radical paradigm shift (in the strict Kuhnian sense). The old model of the economically rational actor is coming increasingly untenable as we gather more evidence from behavioral psychology and a new paradigm of behavioral economics will be arriving within the next 10 – 30 years. What is interesting though is how obvious such a shift is from those outside of economics while insiders seem utterly unaware that the foundations they are standing on are crumbling.

Why is it that economists seem so blind to what’s going to happen in economics? There are the standard Kuhnian factors which Kuhn lays out in an exemplary fashion in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions but I think economics also had one other unique factor as well. Economics is a highly non-intuitive science and there is an almost perverse pride in illuminating just how poorly our naive view models the world: Raising the minimum wage decreases well being, trading with people who are universally more efficient than us increases our well being, allowing businesses to fail causes more businesses to suceed. These are all well established parts of the mainstream economics canon and they are all, by and large, true.

But the result of this curious structure of economics is that economists are extremely used to hearing well meaning and sincere economic arguments made by non-economists which are grossly flawed. They’re used to hearing the same shop-worn fallacies assembled to yet again make a seemingly devastating attack on the tenets of economics which, in reality, miss the mark so wide you could fit yo mamma through (sorry, I couldn’t resist). What’s more, these errors are conceptual in nature and to correct them would require indoctrinating the opposing party in the entire philosophy of economics.

As a result, economists have developed a simple zero knowledge proof: At the first obvious sign that the other person is not a complete insider of economics, stop listening and nod politely. And by and large, this is effective. For the vast majority of cases, people jibber jabbering about the evils of globalisation or the benifits of socialism simply have no idea what they are talking about. But the unfortunate side effect of this is that economics as a field has become highly insular and unreceptive to outside influences. In order to mount an effective attack on economics, one needs to be well versed in both the standard economic paradigm and the research methods and corpus of behavioural psychology. There simply aren’t enough people who have the time, intelligence, determination and opportunity to get to that point and, as a result, economics simply isn’t advancing.

Kuhn writes a lot about a crisis point and how paradigms tick over and I think an interesting thing is how the current bailout crisis just might be the crisis point needed for economics to finally start making the transition. The bailout crisis has begun to lay bare some of the fundamentally untenable assumptions of conventional economics and has brought to the forefront radical (to economists) new ways of analyzing human behaviour. Things like non-linear analysis, game theory of groups and incentive structuring theory. Terms like “Black swans” and “tipping points” are being used.

It may seem like such things were in economics already, game theory has been used in economics for decades. But the economics version of game theory was game theory formulated in an economic language. What this shift really represents is economists now being forced to grapple with very different standards of proof and modes of argument. Whether this will herald the beginning of a systematically behavioural view of economics remains yet to be seen.

October 3 2008

Access and world views

by Hang

One of the increasingly dismaying things I see in the world today is an increase in political cynicism. A sense that not only are the rich/powerful/republicans/liberals out to get you, that their entire purpose in life is to out to get you. I have a hard time taking on this world view because, inevitably, at every level of society I meet, most people genuinely believe that they are doing good. They’re aware that other people might hold different views of them but they believe that they’ve been misunderstood and they’re doing the best job they can.

I believe the fundamental difference is one of access. There’s a feeling of powerlessness and alienation when you view a group that you oppose as “the other”, a society in which you will never gain access. To many people, it’s simply become inconcievable that they could have anything to do with a investment banker or a neo-conservative power broker. These levels of society are locked out to them. On the other hand, the belief that you could gain access to any level of society radically changes how you view the forces of power. This is not to say that I could pick up the phone and call the sultan of brunei or anything but that I’ve met the people who have met the people who are reputed to hold the reins of power in many fields and the consistent message is that there is no conspiracy. It’s simply a tragedy of good men trying to do the best to uphold what they believe.

It’s so easy to blame societies problems on evil forces lurking in the hearts of powerful men. The solution then becomes simple, remove the powerful men, destroy the evil and the world will be a better place. It’s much harder to understand how people who think of themselves as good could end up doing what you think of as evil.

July 18 2008

On Passing…

by Hang


The most recent xkcd comic reminds me of a interesting phenomena I’ve observed…


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