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Posts Tagged ‘engineering

“The details are not the details. They make the design.”*…

It’s 2020 and our systems are failing us. We are increasingly reliant on technology that automates bias. We are celebrating “essential workers” while they are underpaid and their work is precarious. We are protesting in the streets because of policing systems that put black and brown people at risk every day. We use apps for travel, shopping, and transportation that productize exploitative labor practices. The list goes on and on.

How did we get here? These systems didn’t just emerge of their own accord. They were crafted by people who made hundreds of decisions, big and small, that led to the outcomes we see now. In other words, these systems and all of their component parts were designed. And for the most part, they were designed with processes intended to create positive user experiences. So what went wrong? Might the way we approach design be contributing to the problems we now experience?

It’s unlikely that the techniques that got us into this situation will be the ones to get us out of it. In this essay, we’re going to take a deeper look at dominant design practices — specifically user-centered design — to identify where our frameworks might be failing us and how we can expand our design practices to close those gaps.

Any framework is a lens through which you see things. A lens allows you to see some things quite well, but almost always at the expense of obscuring others. Prior to the development of user-centered design, technological experiences were primarily designed through the lens of business needs. The needs of the user were only considered insofar as they furthered or hindered those goals, but it was the bottom line that was firmly the focal point of that approach.

User-centered design (UCD) was developed in reaction to those blind spots. It advocated for a design practice that instead focused on the person using the technology, and was intended to create experiences based on an understanding of their needs and goals. As designers, we’ve spent much of the last 25 years convincing our peers of the virtues of putting user needs at the center of our design process.

This practice has produced some amazing products, services and technical innovations. And for designers who entered the industry in the past decade or so, UCD has become a default mindset and approach. By empathizing with users and designing with their needs and wants in-mind, we have strived to create products that are more helpful, more intuitive, and less stressful. Certainly many of the digital tools & platforms we use today would not have been possible without the contributions of designers and the user-centered approach.

However, like any lens, UCD also has its own blind spots, and those have played a role in leading us to our current state…

As the world grows increasingly complex, the limitations of user-centered design are becoming painfully obvious. Alexis Lloyd (@alexislloyd) on what’s gone wrong and how we can fix it: “Camera Obscura: Beyond the lens of user-centered design.

[Via Patrick Tanguay‘s ever-illuminating Sentiers]

For an amusingly– and amazingly– apposite example of inclusively-empathetic design, see “‘If the aliens lay eggs, how does that affect architecture?’: sci-fi writers on how they build their worlds.”

* Charles Eames

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As we ideate inclusively, we might recall that on this date in 1993 (following President George H.W. Bush’s executive order in 1992) Martin Luther King Jr. Day was officially proclaimed a holiday the first time in all 50 states. Bush’s order was not fully implemented until 2000, when Utah, the last state fully to recognize the holiday, formally observed it. (Utah had previously celebrated the holiday at the same time but under the name Human Rights Day.)

220px-Martin_Luther_King,_Jr.

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“I’ve been making a list of the things they don’t teach you at school”*…

You can learn to make these at a terrariums workshop

It’s that time again

In Warsaw’s Gruba Kaśka water plant there are eight clams with sensors attached to their shells. If the clams close because they don’t like the taste of the water, the city’s supply is automatically shut off. [Judita K]

When bar codes were patented in 1952, they were round [Sarah Laskow]

A 70% dilution of isopropyl alcohol is better at killing bacteria, fungi, and viruses than ‘pure’ 99% isopropyl alcohol, for several distinct reasons. [Mitch Walleser]

Epidemiologists at Emory University in Atlanta believe that raising the mimimim wage in the US by $1 would have prevented 27,550 suicides since 1990. [John A Kaufman & Co, via The Economist]

Games Workshop, owner of Warhammer, is worth more than Centrica, owner of British Gas. [Allister Thomas]

Numbers 30-34 of this year’s list from Tom Whitwell of Fluxx: “52 things I learned in 2020.”

* Neil Gaiman, The Kindly Ones

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As we have fun with facts, we might send fascinatingly-illustrated birthday greetings to David Brewster; he was born on this date in 1781. A physicist, inventor, author, and academic administrator, he is best remembered for his work in optic (especially the phenomenon of polarization). Brewster was a pioneer in photography; he invented an improved stereoscope, which he called “lenticular stereoscope” and which became the first portable 3D-viewing device. He also invented the binocular camera, two types of polarimeters, the polyzonal lens, the lighthouse illuminator, and (perhaps most relevantly to today’s post) the kaleidoscope. For this work, William Whewell dubbed him the “father of modern experimental optics” and “the Johannes Kepler of optics.”

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Written by LW

December 11, 2020 at 1:01 am

“People who love to eat are always the best people”*…

You might as well know, right at the outset, that Alice Waters does not approve of walking tacos.

The iconic chef’s first encounter with the dish-in-a-bag came during a trip to a school after the principal asked for her assistance with the food program. Waters describes the scene in her 2008 book Edible Schoolyard:

Parked in the middle of the asphalt, this building sold soda pop to the children during their recess and lunch hour, and it also sold something called a “walking taco,” which is as perfect a symbol of a broken culture as I can imagine. Opening a plastic bag of mass-produced corn chips, the food workers would simply pour in a kind of beef-and-tomato slurry from a can. The kids would then walk away, with no connection to one another.

If there’s such a thing as the opposite of Proust’s madeleine, this is it: a childhood experience, first encountered in adulthood, and repulsing in some formative way. The moment was the seed of Waters’ work with kids—planting vegetable gardens on school grounds; understanding where their food comes from; learning to eat fresh, healthful things. All good and noble and important work!

But I can’t help but wince at her broader critique: “As perfect a symbol of a broken culture as I can imagine.” Because while a walking taco may not be, like, good for you in a nutritionist-approved way, if you look at the deeper cultural perspective, it turns out there’s much to savor—it’s less about how things fall apart than how they come together…

The cultural history of a curious comestible: “Oaxacans, Mormons, and A Bag of Chips: A Brief History of the Walking Taco.”

* Julia Child

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As we mix and match, we might recall that today is Microwave Oven Day, a celebration of Raytheon engineer Percy Spencer’s 1946 invention of the now ubiquitous kitchen appliance.

In 1946, Raytheon unveiled its new Radarange microwave oven, a new use for the company’s magnetron tubes. The prototype shown here was called the Raydarange. [source: Bettmann/Getty Images]

Written by LW

December 6, 2020 at 1:01 am

“Our goal at DOOM! will be to consider a plurality of futures and then doing everything that we can to prevent nuclear war, oblivion and ruin”*…

Readers may recall a recent post featuring an essay written by GPT-3, a machine-learning language model: “Are Humans Intelligent?- a Salty AI Op-Ed.” Our friends at Nemesis (@nemesis_global; see here) have upped the ante…

The end of trends has been heralded by various outlets for years (see here, here and many more on our Are.na channel).

But COVID time is crazy. We had a hunch that the hype cycle itself was finally in its true death throes – related to economic collapse, popular uprising, a general sense of consumer fatigue, and the breakdown of a consensus reality in which such trends could incubate. Since trends are a temporal phenomenon (they have to start, peak, fade away, typify a time, bottle the zeitgeist, etc.) we began with a simple survey about the breakdown of narrative time, first circulated through our personal social media accounts…

Then we ran the same questions through an online survey distributed to 150 randomly chosen respondents, deployed in collaboration with General Research Laboratories. These responses, which will likely appear in a future memo, ranged from deeply personal to millenarian to an extreme form of ‘new optimism’.

Then our process took a crazier turn. In July 2020, OpenAI released GPT-3 for beta testing – a natural language processing system (colloquially, an “AI”) that uses deep learning to produce human-like text. K Allado-McDowell, writer, co-founder of the Artists + Machine Intelligence program at Google AI and friend of Nemesis, had started doing experimental collaborative writing with GPT-3. By exploring its quirks, K was already building an empirical understanding of GPT-3’s ability to articulate the nature of consciousness, memory, language, and cosmology… We were drawn to the oracular quality of the text generated by GPT-3, and became curious about how it could interact with the material we had gathered.

With the generous help of K – who had quickly become a skilled GPT-3 whisperer – we began feeding it our survey results, in the form of essayistic synopses that summarized the key points of the respondents and quoted choice answers. We left open-ended, future-facing sentence fragments at the end of these and let GPT-3 fill in the rest, like a demented version of Gmail’s suggestive text feature….

As we worked, GPT-3 quickly recognized the genre of our undertaking: a report concerned with the future written by some kind of consultancy, expert group, or think tank. So it inadvertently rebranded us, naming this consultancy DOOM!

What follows is a text collaboratively composed by Nemesis, GPT-3, K Allado-McDowell and our survey respondents, but arguably authored by none of us, per se. Instead you could say this report was written by the “third mind” of DOOM! which spontaneously arose when we began to process this information together with the conscious goal of generating predictions about the future. The outputs of our GPT-3 experiments have been trimmed, edited for grammar, minorly tweaked and ordered into numbered chapters….

An AI-written “report of the future,” eminently worthy of a close reading at (at least) two levels: “The DOOM! Report.”

* GPT-3’s renaming of and mission statement for its “client”

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As we welcome contemplate centaurs, we might we might send freaky (if not altogether panicked) birthday greetings to John W. “Jack” Ryan; he was born on this date in 1926.  A Yale-trained engineer, Ryan left Raytheon (where he worked on the Navy’s Sparrow III and Hawk guided missiles) to join Mattel.  He oversaw the conversion of the Mattel-licensed “Bild Lili” doll into Barbie (contributing, among other things, the joints that allowed “her” to bend at the waist and the knee) and created the Hot Wheels line.  But he is perhaps best remembered as the inventor of the pull-string, talking voice box that gave Chatty Cathy her voice.

Ryan with his wife, Zsa Zsa Gabor. She was his first only spouse; he, her sixth.

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“It’s not the size of the nose that matters, it’s what’s inside that counts”*…

Dimensions.com is an ongoing reference database of dimensioned drawings documenting the standard measurements and sizes of the everyday objects and spaces that make up our world. Created as a universal resource to better communicate the basic properties, systems, and logics of our built environment, Dimensions.com is a free platform for increasing public and professional knowledge of life and design…

Dimensions.com is an ongoing public research project founded by architect Bryan Maddock and continues to be developed through the architecture practice Fantastic Offense.

The measure of man’s manufacture: Dimensions.com

(See also “Not too big, not too small… just right” for an earlier look at a similar initiative…)

* Steve Martin

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As we realize that the ruler rules, we might it was on this date in 1951 that the first long distance direct dial call was made (from Englewood, New Jersey, to Alameda, California) in the U.S.– area codes became a reality. The North American Numbering Plan had been published in 1947, dividing most of North America into eighty-six numbering plan areas (NPAs). Each NPA was assigned a unique three-digit code, typically called NPA code or simply area code. These codes were first used by long-distance operators in establishing long-distance calls between toll offices. By the early 1960s, most areas of the Bell System had been converted and DDD had become commonplace in cities and most towns in the United States and Canada. By 1967, the number of assigned area codes had grown to 129. There are currently 317 geographic area codes in the United States and an additional 18 non-geographic area codes, totaling 335 US area codes.

Area code handbook by the Bell Telephone Company of Pennsylvania issued in 1962 to promote the newly introduced direct distance dialing (source)
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