Doing Half the Job

Too many of you just shrug when you hear that a smarthomes service has shut down overnight. You even use the word “service” without really understanding it. You don’t really want to have to handle customers, “customer” being the word for human beings who have expressed trust in your expertise and conscientiousness using their own money. Many of you have never done time in retail, and learned the principles of delighting the customer, nor utilities, where you will never hear from a customer until something goes wrong and the victory condition is silence. There’s no dopamine hit in utilities. Don’t do utilities if you want to be loved. Don’t do retail if you can’t handle having the insanity of the human race rubbed in your face every day.
Doing half the job is going to be much, much worse than not doing it at all.   Most people, in most tech fields, only do half the job.

Warren Ellis at Thingscon 2015

You can't be in love with it

What makes a great designer?
It’s the ability to generate a solution to a design problem, put it aside, generate another solution that’s not just a version of the first solution but different, then generate another one. Then you have to be able to critique all those solutions. It’s very hard not to come back with three versions of the same option, just tweaked. And that first idea can’t become like your child—you can’t be in love with it and think it’s perfect, because it never is, and you have to be able to put it away.
Stephen Ashton, 1954–2016


The public is more familiar with bad design than good design. It is, in effect, conditioned to prefer bad design, because that is what it lives with. The new becomes threatening, the old reassuring.
— Paul Rand

Questions about whether design is necessary or affordable are quite beside the point: design is inevitable. The alternative to good design is bad design, not no design at all. Everyone makes design decisions all the time without realizing it — like Moliere’s M. Jourdain who discovered he had been speaking prose all his life — and good design is simply the result of making these decisions consciously, at the right stage, and in consultation with others as the need arises.
— Douglas Martin

Two quotes which sound like they say so much about design and yet really say so little. They are gestures towards broader topics, deeper and darker depths of design critique.

Status Update

One year since I described the challenges I was going through getting past my depression, a lot has changed. Some stuff hasn’t. Again I'm sitting in the Perth Virgin Lounge, tapping away at some black Apple keys. They’ve renovated the lounge, though. Different laptop, too.

Most of the time I no longer want to crawl into a hole and hide. It still happens; at my own birthday party it got to midnight and I just sat in a room in the dark, all social energy dispensed and frittered away. I couldn’t be snapped out of it. I slept, waking energised and ready to do things, but still.

Recovery... It has taken time to regain the trust in many of my relationships, trust which took many years to build and establish and only a few painful months to eradicate. Time to get into a routine which keeps me out of my own head. Time to figure out what worked and what didn't. Running helped a lot until I destroyed my knee. Now it’s riding.

Time, too, was needed to return to work in anything like the capacity I enjoyed previously. It feels a little like rebuilding your life, only instead of hunting for that first job or apartment, you're fighting to keep them. And keep yourself clean, fed, presentable. Present.

I wish my short-term memory would return to its proper function and intensity, but a combination of age and medication is keeping that one well away from me. I write a lot of lists now. I have to look at what day is pressed out of the back of my pills blister pack. Wondered why they'd put it there, at first.


Just remembered that I need to take it today… whoops.

I have a lot of reminders and alerts on my phone. Partially they are there to give me specific clues about what to do, but partially they help to establish a routine. Routine has become important. Changes to it are sometimes difficult for me to bear, but maybe that’s always been the case. I don't honestly recall.

This sounds like a long list of complaints. It isn’t. These are minor grievances in a life otherwise now filled with happiness, laughter, love, and energy. To try and pretend I haven’t been very lucky in my relationships and my support is to deny the reality I encounter every day.

There are times, several times, where a sliver of the prior darkness reaches out and caresses my heart, an icy and hollow touch no matter the season. Where it feels like someone uninstalled my basic interaction programming and I can barely make sense of concerned faces around me through the use of my remaining subroutines.

I talk to people, now, thinking I can bring myself into a different space. Sometimes that works, sometimes it doesn’t, but at least these are passing phases instead of weeks or months. Or, looking back, perhaps years. There remains The Fear, of course, that I will continue to struggle with my mental health for the remainder of my life. Probably I will.

There will be lapses, setbacks, days where even breathing seems like too much work. Hopefully they are few and far between. The recovery is not done yet; it is a life long project, an intensely real performance piece about being happy and fulfilled, and the struggle to achieve it.

I think, though, that the struggle has become about proving The Fear wrong; proving that I can be happy and fulfilled, that I am stronger than the disease which beat me on points in the last round. I hope so. Time doesn’t feel like an eternity stretching forward, with only different signposts marking the way. Instead it feels like a conveyor, rushing oh so very quickly towards me while I desperately flail to make headway.

There is so little time and just so much to do and see.

Trauma and Its Symbols

Discussions I’ve had or seen around the 13th of November terrorist attacks on Paris eventually arrive at the same point: “Where is the recognition for the other recent victims of terrorism?” or “What about Beirut?” or “Where was the outcry about Boko Haram?" or "Remember when that MSF Hospital in Kunduz was bombed?"

Apparently nothing short of total compassionate victory will do. Demonstrating your compassion through the nomination of significant horrors in the world is the de facto strategy; the more obscure, tragic, and numerous the casualties, the more treasured a place it holds in the total compassionate war playbook. As though by acknowledging other victims (or that most favoured nation of Internet activism, ‘creating awareness’) your grief is more authentic, more real, than everyone else's.

The Paris attacks affect us in a way these other tragedies, no less tragic on their own, do not. The cognitive distance is less and the strangeness is heightened. Paris the symbol, its visibility and its prominence, is key to understanding why the night of the 13th of November feels different to the night of the 12th of November.

I'd like to set aside race as an issue here, if only because I’m horribly unqualified to discuss it, but it cannot be ignored; the disproportionate response is informed by undoubtedly racist attitudes. We undoubtedly see the Parisian victims differently to those in Lebanon, Iraq, Bangladesh. The question is not whether our response, or lack thereof, to these attacks is racist; the question we need to answer is whether we can acknowledge the horror and grief of these attacks, stand strong against those who perpetrate them, and be compassionate and supportive to their victims.

The question is whether we can chew gum and walk at the same time.

Terror and its maleficent works need symbols in order to function; they are asymmetrical assaults designed to goad a response and deliver a message. Much as the 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center required their symbol of American capitalism to be destroyed, they are also inextricably linked to it. Horrific as they were in their own right, they were also designed to become iconic, memorable shorthand for an idea. Terrible as it may be, they are likely to become the iconic image of the early 21st century.

We are foolish to view these attacks in any sort of different light. In its attempt to distract from real and serious losses of territory and military strength, Daesh have assaulted a deeply symbolic part of their enemy.

Paris holds a special place in the western imagination. The city of lights, love, food, and culture has been a beacon of civilisation for hundreds of years. France, more broadly, is perhaps one of the central melting pots of western ideology; the French Revolution cemented the idea of republicanism and representative democracy, while the Declaration of the Rights of Man set out some of the rights we now take for granted in civil society. We have visited it, or loved it from afar, for a very long time.

The history of the English speaking world is deeply linked to France in terms of culture, language, and philosophy. Many of us can probably speak enough French to say bonjour, merci, au revouir. We might be lucky enough to eat croissants on the regular. We may even be lucky enough to understand existentialism, Marcel Duchamp, French new-wave cinema, or to have fallen in love with Les Fabuleux Destin d’Amelie Poulain, The Closet, The Three Musketeers, Les Vacances de Monsieur Hulot, The Triplets of Belleville, or twelve little girls in two straight lines.

In the output of our popular culture, how many times has the United States rescued France from the tyranny of Nazism?

An attack on the symbols of this culture is an assault on our culture. We feel it in a different way. We understand it differently.

Perhaps more than any other terror organisation since Nazi Germany, Daesh have understood and manipulated the power of symbols to craft a narrative around their despicable movement. You can probably recall the Daesh flag as easily as you can the swastika, but it’s deeper than mere graphics. Understand that this group is also reliant on the propagation of these symbols in order to maintain and bolster its support.

The declaration of a caliphate is a symbol. The use of a black flag is a symbol with a long and powerful history. The torture, murder, beheadings, and horrific practices are symbols. Their use of social media focuses on symbolic rather than factual communication, bypassing language and cultural barriers through reversion to brutal and universal imagery.

In order to combat this imagery, we need to see it for what it is: designed and distributed memes of fear, a dark and twisted reflection of doge, big success, and salad fingers. Their power comes from their ease of communication and the immediacy of their absorption into a narrative which has been building and fomenting since the religious wars of the first millennium.

It is designed to create fear and alienation. It is working.

Our fear is driving our politicians into a pandering frenzy of ever more authoritarian solutions. Identity cards. Mass deportation. The denial of sanctuary. Protests against mosques. Violence towards Muslims. The anger and fractious displays of disharmony and racism at protests across the country. The casual discussion around ‘all those Muslims’ at the water cooler in the office, as if we could summarise the collective will and desires of over a billion people in a single sentence so lacking in imagination, compassion, and sympathy that you wonder whether your colleague has been secretly reading cue cards for all your other interactions.

These are the responses of fear.

We need to meet this fear with clear hearts, open minds, and welcome arms. That means not prosecuting others grief; we should instead use that grief as a tool through which we can understand and extend the liberty, equality, and fraternity to which France has pledged itself.