Everything is Design

From time to time I like to pause for a moment and think about how I should describe myself and what I do. This resulting description is then something that I try to revisit from time to time to check if it’s still something that I can identify with and whether my everyday activities line up with it.

Right now, I adhere to the following description:

I’m a cognitive scientist interested in philosophy, science, design, and the intersection of the three aforementioned fields.

When I came up with this description, I certainly felt that it rang true for me, but at the same time I wasn’t sure about what exactly I meant by “design”, only that that was the word that I really felt was the right one to describe this vague, mental construct that I had in mind.[1] Well, since then, I’ve had some time to think about it and to better come to grips with what I really mean by “design”. What follows is therefore an exposition of what I put into the meaning of the word.

First of all, you can use the word in a narrow or a more broad sense. When it comes to the former, design is basically what people are taught at design schools; it has something to do with drawing pretty shapes and placing them relative to each other so that the end result is both functional and aesthetically pleasing.

When using the term “design” in a broader sense though, I see it as a form of general method that can be applied towards just about everything rather than only towards this niche activity that is performed by hipsters and/or art directors. It’s a method that involves attention to details, a clear understanding of the end goals, as well as a set of end goals that are unified by an underlying understanding that in the end, things are just meant to be harmonic, meaning that the subject perceiving the final product should feel a minimal level of tension in herself. Because in the end, everything that really matters are positive and negative experiences.

Further, tension can arise because of several different factors: If you’re presenting something that’s wrong, this creates tension.[2] If you’re presenting something in a contrived way, this creates tension. If you’re presenting something in an ugly manner, this creates tension.

The point here is that a designer has an overarching view of this whole potential tension space, meaning that not only are all the potential sources of tension observed at the same time, also the way that they interact and affect each other is also taken into account.


[1] As a side note it’s interesting to note how you sometimes can feel that you know something is the case although you wouldn’t be able to explain it explicitly. That is, it’s like constantly going around with the equivalent of a tip of the tongue experience but for deeper knowledge, and you’re completely sure of the fact that you would be able to deduce all the necessary argumentative steps as long as you were given ample time to do it. At least, this is something that I’ve experienced many, many times, and it’s almost always the case that once I’ve sorted it all out, what I thought I’d be able to show, I also can show.
[2] Maybe not straight away if the errors are well hidden and not spotted, but believing something that is wrong will in many cases eventually, directly or indirectly, lead to tension.

Imposing artificial restrictions on yourself

Sometimes, if you want to develop your skill set further within some field, the best method can be to impose some artificial restrictions that will force you to step out of your old habits, form new creative ways of looking at the activity, and learn aspects of the craft that you’ve earlier been able to ignore.

For example, let’s say that you want to become better at composing music. So far, you’ve always worked within a modern sequencer hooked up to a midi keyboard. You’ve spat out a couple of okay pieces, but you have no idea of the underlying structure of them, why some things worked and some of them didn’t, or which type harmonies that goes good together.

Well, how about forcing yourself to pay attention to these details. For example, you could abandon your fancy music program for a much more basic and bottom-up tool like LilyPond, a programming language for typesetting music scores. While you’re at it, chuck your midi keyboard into the closet. Now try to compose.

I challenge you to do this, create a couple of pieces, and not come out on the other side with a much more deep knowledge about composing and music theory. It happens, almost automatically, because you’re throwing away your crutches and forces yourself to try walking without them, even if it will mean that you’ll fall over a couple of times.

Find an area in your own life where you’ve almost stagnated, and find out what you can do to make the activity harder and more rewarding at the same time (and also, which comes with the territory, more frustrating).

From ODS to CSV to epic win!

I’m about to launch a larger project which will involve generating a ton of individual spreadsheet files (that should be easy for the enduser to read and edit, meaning no pure CSV files), from which the data subsequently will be scraped and put into a single (HUGE!) CSV file. Having had to struggle with large amounts of data before, I now know what kind of problems that can arise. Pro tip: you should be especially wary when it comes to converting between different formats. Pretty much everything that can go wrong at this stage usually does. Or at least, that’s a good mindset to have, just to be prepared.

With all this in mind, I took the wise route, and did some basic research before embarking on this new project, something that I predict will eventually save me a ton of work. First of all, I’ve decided to go with ODS files (that is, the spreadsheet  component of open document format) for the original spreadsheet files. I could have gone with the XLSX format as well (or any other of the three gazillion Excel formats there is), but if I can help it, I try to avoid involving Microsoft in anything that I do.

Next, there is a handy way of converting ODS files to CSV. Just download Gnumeric, which comes with the terminal command ssconvert (in OS X, the easiest way to get hold of  Gnumeric is by installing Homebrew and then simply typing “brew install gnumeric” in the terminal). Typing man ssconvert in the terminal will bring up the manual for this command. After reading up on it, I created the following bash script that takes every ODS file in a folder and converts it to a CSV file (in this particular case with “;” as the separator character and without any quoting):

#!/bin/sh
for f in *.ods;
do ssconvert -O ‘separator=; quoting-mode=never’ “$f” “${f%.ods}.txt”;
done

From here, it will be a breeze (well, depending on what you’re comparing with) to use the CSV package in Python and put together whatever program that suit your own needs for merging the information from all these CSV files.

 

Speedruns in real life

I’m trying to decide how high on the nerd scale of things that I’ve watched in my life that this video clip of four simultaneous speed runs in Super Metroid ranks, and I have to say that it’s pretty close to the top. I mean, skip to the 8 minute mark and then tell me in what universe the following statement from one of the commentators (yes, there are two of them!) is not an example of a super-esoteric remark:

I’m not sure, but I believe that might be the first time that we’ve had synchronized Krade quick-kills live anywhere in the world.

Speedruns are nerdy as hell, but I also see it as an untapped area for most people. I guess, in real life, you have individual time savers (like taking the subway instead of the bus), but how many of us are actually trying to minimize the total amount of time we’re spending on some kind of chore or task, not because it’s such a big deal if you waste a couple of extra minutes here and there, but because of the satisfaction of mastering one’s environment to the fullest.

I’d say going grocery shopping is one of the mundane and commonplace activities that could be improved the most; when I see people shopping for food, I see people without any ambition whatsoever to challenge themselves[1] on something that is on par with the Traveling salesman problem and running the 110 metres hurdles combined.

So, let’s go out there and complete some speedruns.


[1] Maybe I’m really seeing well-balanced, unstressed persons just going about their days, but that interpretation isn’t as fun so I’m going to ignore it.

Blogging for a whole year: Done!

On this very day, one year ago, I announced that I was going to blog each day for the rest of the year. Well, I extended this promise to not just blog for the rest of the year but to blog for a whole year, and here we are. Mission accomplished!

But, quality wise, how would I say that it went? Well, this is a mixed bag for sure. Some periods were better, some periods were worse, and some periods were basically me just posting links to random YouTube videos. I did put out quite a bit of material that I’m at least semi-proud of, but I have to say that when I started the project, I envisioned more original content and less rehashing of others’. At the same time, me allowing myself to put out crappy posts whenever I didn’t have the time or inspiration for something proper was probably the one thing that made this project quite easy instead of maddening. If I would have decided that I had to post original content of a certain, non-trivial, length everyday, I’d probably either have seen a several-fold increase of my creativity or gone totally insane (some people would argue that the two constitutes the same phenomena).

The truth is that I’m having a hard time evaluating this year of blogging. Was it good for me? Did I learn anything? Did I get more things done? I have a hunch that my English writing skills and vocabulary might have improved a bit, but other than that, I have nothing concrete to point to. In retrospect, I wish that I would have set up more stringent rules and narrowed the scope of what I was allowed to post about. I could for example see how someone recording and posting a song everyday would have seen a much more tangible increase in her skill set, and possibly also enough high-quality songs for an album or two. On the other hand, maybe I’m just having a hard time seeing any change since I don’t really know what to look for here. It’s hard to tell.

Anyhow, if this is something you want to try out yourself, I’d say you should go for it. However, you should probably try to tailor it to your own needs and wants (what are you good at? what do you want to achieve?), but don’t be afraid to set quite stringent demands on yourself. I find that whatever rules you set, you’ll get accustomed to following them.

As for me, I’ll continue blogging. However, it will be extremely relieving not having to do it everyday. Expect updates, but not that frequent updates.

The Bitcoin ATM

Here, Zach Harvey, CEO of Lamassum, Inc., presents what is called The Bitcoin Machine, a form of ATM machine for bitcoins. I know that bitcoins have been incredibly hyped for the last couple of months, but I wouldn’t be surprised if we’re just seeing the very beginning of things for this digital currency. Products like this machine only reinforces my optimism.

Michael Bay bailes out

It’s these kind of things (together with CEOs with painfully bad presentation skills) that makes CES exciting.

The Amazing Atheist rants away

Words can’t describe how much I like this video.

PROXiMITY

I have to say that I was quite impressed by this short film, made by Ryan Connolly, the front figure of Film Riot, and Seth Worley. The script itself was kinda meh, but the cinematography and editing was superb and for that, he got my respect.

Also, check out this behind-the-scenes feature.

Almost there

I’ll admit that yesterday’s blog post (or whatever it was) hit a new all-time low when it comes to quality. Blogging everyday right now really feels like a chore , which is why I most often just post some random YouTube video that I happen to like. However, I also only have a couple of days left when it comes to my commitment to blog everyday. On the 11th of january, it will be exactly a year since I first announced my intention.[1]

So even though I’ve found this project interesting, I’m looking forward for it to end. On the eleventh, I’ve planned to write a longer post about my experiences and what I’ve learned from all this.


1. In that very blogpost, I said that I had “decided to post to this blog, every day, for the rest of this year”, which meant that I really have made good on my promise since the year is over. However, since then, I’ve decided that I want to take it all the way and blog for a full year, so that’s why I’m keeping at it for another few days.