Links: The power and beauty of design, the great software revolution, sex workers, Minneapolis, and more!

* “The Shape of Things to Come: How an industrial designer became Apple’s greatest product,” my favorite piece of this batch, about Jonathan Ive—who has improbably done more to shape the modern world than all but a handful of other people.

* Nurse throws down in the comments section of “Why you should become a nurse or physicians assistant instead of a doctor: the underrated perils of medical school.”

* “The Great Software Revolution,” which is similar to “Software is Eating the World” but with different emphasis.

* “Meet the [Washington] Sex Workers Who Lawmakers Don’t Believe Exist,” from The Stranger and SFW.

* “Why Authors Walk Away From Good, Big 5 Publishers.”

* “The Days and Nights of an NBA Groupie: Meet the ladies who will do anything to bed a pro baller.” There is a novel here, something like Jay McInerney’s Story of My Life; I don’t think I’m the right person to write it. The mental contortions sometimes evident here are also amusing.

* An unintentionally hilarious comment from David Brin, from the post about his post on characters in fiction; the comment is guilty of the very thing he accuses me of doing!

* “The Miracle of Minneapolis: No other place mixes affordability, opportunity, and wealth so well. What’s its secret?” Land-use controls are an underrated driver of many ills in the contemporary U.S.; if you meet someone who complains about income inequality but doesn’t want to remove urban height limits and parking limits, they’re either not serious or don’t know much about the issue.

* Lesbian takes testosterone, feels shocked when her whole worldview changes.

* Employers want better technical writers but aren’t getting them.

Shaping Things and Bruce Sterling's technoculture

Design is hard to do. Design is not art. But design has some of the requirements of art. The achievement of greatness in art or design requires passionate virtuosity. VIRTUOSITY means thorough mastery of craft. PASSION is required to focus human effort to a level that transcends the norm. Some guitarists have passion, especially young ones. Some have virtuosity, especially old ones. Some few have both at once, and during some mortal window of superb achievement, they are great guitarists.

That’s from Bruce Sterling’s Shaping Things, and I admire the distinction between design and art, which overlap to some extent but not totally; his point about “passionate virtuosity” is one I’ve seen elsewhere but is worth repeating, because it seems like so many seemingly different fields require the same thing. Certainly writing does, and one sees too many people with the passion or the virtuosity but not both.

Another sample:

I do write a great deal about technology. That became my theme as an artist. The human reaction to technological change—nothing interests me more. I want and need to know all about it. I want to plumb its every aspect. I even want to find new words for aspects of it that haven’t as yet been described.

I would guess artists, especially of narrative arts, are going to have to pay steadily more attention to technology: it informs too many lives too much to ignore, and people have as many disparate response “to technological change” as they do to love.

The book itself—Shaping Things—is interesting without being captivating. It needs more examples and case studies, and fewer grand pronouncements; it resembles a lot of literary theory in this way. If you get a physical copy, you’ll also find terrible design, with all kinds of doodads, weird fonts, random backgrounds, and so forth, all of which distract from readability in the name of being weird (those capitalizations in the blockquote above are in the text). It’s a kind of anti-Apple product.

The book’s design is distinctive, but distinctive is automatically good, and as a mechanism for transferring ideas via text Shaping Things isn’t optimal because of those distractions. Nonetheless, the idea density is high, and I’m going to keep my copy, at least for the time being. Like Sterling, I’ve become steadily more interested in design and what design says about people and culture. I’m not sure how that’ll work into my fiction, but long-simmering ideas and interests tend to emerge in unpredictable ways. For example: I’ve thought about a novel in which a camera shows an emotionally stunted photographer—along the Conrad and Houllebecq lines—who thinks in the language of photography itself what the photographer takes to be the future. Or is it? Photographers have a rich array of metaphors to draw on, and they have to be attuned to light, shapes, and the interplay of things and colors. Cameras themselves are technologies, and in the last 15 years they’ve become computers, with rapid advancements from year to year and all of the technolust that implies.

I don’t know where this idea might go, or if it will go at all, but I’ve been mulling it for a long time. A character like the one or ones I’m imagine would be reacting to technological change. I won’t say “nothing interests me more,” as Sterling does, but human reaction to technology is certainly up there, as I increasingly think it has to be, for people in virtually any field, if one wants any real shot at understanding what’s going on.

Shaping Things and Bruce Sterling’s technoculture

Design is hard to do. Design is not art. But design has some of the requirements of art. The achievement of greatness in art or design requires passionate virtuosity. VIRTUOSITY means thorough mastery of craft. PASSION is required to focus human effort to a level that transcends the norm. Some guitarists have passion, especially young ones. Some have virtuosity, especially old ones. Some few have both at once, and during some mortal window of superb achievement, they are great guitarists.

That’s from Bruce Sterling’s Shaping Things, and I admire the distinction between design and art, which overlap to some extent but not totally; his point about “passionate virtuosity” is one I’ve seen elsewhere but is worth repeating, because it seems like so many seemingly different fields require the same thing. Certainly writing does, and one sees too many people with the passion or the virtuosity but not both.

Another sample:

I do write a great deal about technology. That became my theme as an artist. The human reaction to technological change—nothing interests me more. I want and need to know all about it. I want to plumb its every aspect. I even want to find new words for aspects of it that haven’t as yet been described.

I would guess artists, especially of narrative arts, are going to have to pay steadily more attention to technology: it informs too many lives too much to ignore, and people have as many disparate response “to technological change” as they do to love.

The book itself—Shaping Things—is interesting without being captivating. It needs more examples and case studies, and fewer grand pronouncements; it resembles a lot of literary theory in this way. If you get a physical copy, you’ll also find terrible design, with all kinds of doodads, weird fonts, random backgrounds, and so forth, all of which distract from readability in the name of being weird (those capitalizations in the blockquote above are in the text). It’s a kind of anti-Apple product.

The book’s design is distinctive, but distinctive is automatically good, and as a mechanism for transferring ideas via text Shaping Things isn’t optimal because of those distractions. Nonetheless, the idea density is high, and I’m going to keep my copy, at least for the time being. Like Sterling, I’ve become steadily more interested in design and what design says about people and culture. I’m not sure how that’ll work into my fiction, but long-simmering ideas and interests tend to emerge in unpredictable ways. For example: I’ve thought about a novel in which a camera shows an emotionally stunted photographer—along the Conrad and Houllebecq lines—who thinks in the language of photography itself what the photographer takes to be the future. Or is it? Photographers have a rich array of metaphors to draw on, and they have to be attuned to light, shapes, and the interplay of things and colors. Cameras themselves are technologies, and in the last 15 years they’ve become computers, with rapid advancements from year to year and all of the technolust that implies.

I don’t know where this idea might go, or if it will go at all, but I’ve been mulling it for a long time. A character like the one or ones I’m imagine would be reacting to technological change. I won’t say “nothing interests me more,” as Sterling does, but human reaction to technology is certainly up there, as I increasingly think it has to be, for people in virtually any field, if one wants any real shot at understanding what’s going on.

Thoughts on the movie Objectified

I watched the documentary Objectified last night and would recommend the first 30 or so minutes via Netflix streaming, if you have a Netflix account. If not, check out the Jonathan Ives portion on YouTube, which feels like an ad but still has content. The movie gets slower as it goes on and the real content is in the first half hour. Some other thoughts:

1) A lot of these designers (or the filmmakers) are really, disproportionately interested in chairs. As far as I can tell, outside of office chairs made by Herman Miller, Steelcase, Humanscale, and a couple of others, not much has really happened to chairs in the last couple decades. Most of the chairs shown in the film looked uncomfortable, especially the ones by the guys in Paris.

EDIT May 2012: Apparently I’m not the only one to have noticed the designer fascination with chairs: see also “Against Chairs.” Note that I’ve switched to a Herman Miller Embody, which I like less than the Aeron and may sell.

2) Speaking of the guys in Paris, they were really annoying. I’m not sure why.

3) The movie got slower as it went on.

4) Some comments made me think of Paul Graham’s essay Stuff, which begins: “I have too much stuff. Most people in America do.” I think he’s right. I don’t want more stuff. I want the right stuff. Too much of the movie focused on “more” rather than “right.” I don’t want to be a consumer.

5) Someone asked something very close to, “do you rule your stuff, or does your stuff rule you?” In the movie, it seemed like only designers were really capable of ruling their stuff. Graham: “once you’ve accumulated a certain amount of stuff, it starts to own you rather than the other way around.”

6) The bit about peelers at the very beginning was fascinating, especially because of the prototypes and CAD drawings.

7) The movie should have focused more on technology.

8) There was a guy who said he was depressed as a teenager, so he looked at his alarm clock, which made him feel better somehow and presumably acted like Paxil. I was depressed as a teenager too, which was alleviated somewhat by losing my virginity.

9) See number four again. I’ll quote Graham more: “the people whose job is to sell you stuff are really, really good at it.” Is this movie’s goal to sell me stuff, or make me want to buy, or to really explain the stuff in my life? The makers would no doubt argue the latter, but I think the former might be the actual outcome.

How many people does it take to recycle a CFL lightbulb?

I bought my first CFL yesterday. Because I’m the kind of person I am, I read the package and noted the command to give spent bulbs to a recycling center because the bulbs contain a very small amount of mercury. The packaging directed me to Lamprecycle.org, which is slightly more friendly than 1998-era websites, but not by much. If you want to find out where a local recycling center is, you have to click a large box that brings you to yet another website, this one called earth911.

Then you have to make yet another pair of decisions: write the kind of thing you want to recycle and your zip code. Only then do you actually get a list of places (but no map).

If whatever industry consortium is behind Lamprecycle.com actually wanted you to recycle your lightbulbs, they would a) tell you that Home Depot and Lowe’s both accept CFL recycles and b) they would give you a website that offers a single text box with a zip code in it. Type your zip code, find the nearest recycling centers. Each hoop means more people will say “whatever” and not bother. That, of course, is probably precisely the point: makers of CFL need PR cover but probably don’t want to have to pay for disposal.

I became more attuned to these kinds of design questions after reading The Design of Everyday Things, which is about meatspace, not the digital world, but offers lessons that often apply to the online world too. One is this: you should make things as easy as possible for the people using your product, whatever it may be, and “easy” is often surprisingly precise. In this case, it means bringing the random joe who goes to your site to a recycling center as fast as possible. And, assuming Home Depot and Lowe’s keep accepting CFLs, you don’t even need the Internet, or at least not as a primary information distribution mechanism.

This is probably about as effective as complaining about Grants.gov, but the broader lesson is still an important one: make things easy for your users / readers. And if you’re running a major site, consider getting someone to edit it; I don’t take it as a good sign when the English is this bad on the “Earth911” site: “Sealed within the glass tubing of CFLs, is a very small amount of mercury.” Native English speakers would normally write, “A very small amount of mercury is sealed in the glass tubing of CFLs.” But if the site is not primarily to inform, you wouldn’t care about that sort of thing.

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