Always Draw The Elephant

I’ve noticed an anti-pattern in meetings, something to be avoided.

Perhaps you’ve heard the tale of the Three Blind Men and the Elephant:

Three wise men, blind with the frailty of age, were on a journey of discovery. Having never seen wondrous creatures like an elephant, they were delighted on their journey to come across an elephant and decided to experience it first-hand. In this case, literally, as the mahout allowed them to explore the elephant through touch. Afterward they headed to the tavern to drink and discuss their findings.

“The elephant,” the first wise man said, “is a great powerful snake, and smells of hay.” For, you see, he had been holding the animal’s trunk.

“No, no,” said the second man sharply, who had been stroking the animal’s flank. “The elephant is more like a great mountain of rough flesh, taller than a man, and smells of dirt!”

“You’re both idiots,” the third said. “The elephant is long and thin, and if you pull on it, you don’t want to know what you’ll smell like!” For this unfortunate had had a hold of the animal’s tail.

The moral of the story is not so much to avoid the rear end of elephants–though that might be good advice–as to point out that if all you have is a part of the picture you can be entirely wrong without even realizing it.

“Without realizing it” is crucial. In a pack of smart, self-aware thinkers, we do our best to take the other person’s point of view, to examine an issue from all sides. If we know we might be lacking information, we can hunt for it–but if we don’t, we can’t.

This comes into sharp focus when people form a team to brainstorm. Each is possessed of different knowledge–some true, some important, some relevant. The trick is to get all the true, important, and relevant knowledge visible and shared. The challenge is that, like each wise man, each subteam may think it has the complete picture.

So you get together in a room. People start making points. Other people start shooting down those points or pulling them apart with “yes but what if X” comments. In the end you spend a huge amount of time sharing the information: each team has to explain what they’re talking about, translating it to the language of every other team in turn. And then you spend a ton more time reconciling the information, as each team has to dissect each other team’s presentation, requiring a readjustment of possibly all other teams’ contributions as well. With two people it’s annoying; with six, it gets ridiculous.

This is where the slides come in. I can’t believe I’m saying that, because I’m supposed hate slides–but it’s not true. I love slides. I hate boring slide decks.

Slide presentations are a process; a ritual. They have a few specific purposes, and this is one of them: organizing information.

First, the slides are used for presenting. According to the ritual, the presenter gets to present, and the rest of the audience gets to ask questions–after the presentation (unless it truly is a clarifying question). This reduces the quadratic time to linear time, though possibly with a larger constant.

Then comes the reconciliation phase. At the very least, each person has seen–if not understood or integrated–everyone’s contributions. Perhaps they each have their own model, sketched out on a napkin or notepad during the other presentations, of how it all fits together.

Now all you have to do is reconcile these separate models, rather than doing pair-wise reconciliation or worse.

And that’s a huge win.


Neuromancer, tempo, and flaws

I’m rereading Neuromancer.

No, strike that, I’ve just finished rereading Neuromancer; probably my fifth time through the book. This time I’m reading it with more of a critical eye, trying to train myself as to why it lit things on fire, why it spawned a generation of imitators, how it inaugurated a genre that, to my annoyance, I’m still writing in thirty years later.

Annoyance is a strong word. We Were Gods is consciously cyberpunk, at least at the beginning, born out of the same desperate loneliness and desire for contact in a confusing and overloading world that Neuromancer finds itself situated in.

I keep being reminded, strongly, of Nimbus, which I also reread this past year. A lesser known work by local author Alex Jablokov–“oh, my grimdark murder mystery,” as he described it, when we were in line together at a past Arisia. It too is a confusing tale of uneven tempo and avalanche of technological details and of twisted minds. Of layers of reality and memory that get pulled away and re-constructed.

I recommend it, if you like that sort of thing. Don’t think I don’t. It’s a good book, it is just–like Neuromancer–deeply, deeply flawed on many levels.

And that’s what this is about: seeing the flaws in others’ works, and letting them be, and realizing they aren’t fatal.

Neuromancer’s great flaw lies in the absolute deathly boredom of its main character. Case is a non-entity; other than slipping up at the beginning, and one tiny little hero’s choice toward the end (which is really more of a “eh, this is probably fake” moment), he doesn’t DO anything. The novel happens to him; events push him around. The outcome seems inevitable from the get-go, robbing the second half of any sense of tension; we worry, perhaps, for the health of Molly, his razor-fingered girlfriend-cum-bodyguard. We wonder a little bit at the mystery of Wintermute, of Neuromancer, but that ball only gets dropped at the very end, and so the entire middle is a chase scene with no motivation.

The tempo is quite uneven. I’m very sensitive to tempo; talking to my film-making cousin this past week, he is too, and it’s one of the fundamental things that he hammers home when he teaches comedy writing and film-making. Tempo is all; the lines, the scenes, are beats within the greater piece. Tempo determines when the major events and major reveals must happen for the work to seem seamless; when the surprises are “allowed” to happen, and when they cannot.

I watched Reservoir Dogs this morning, for the first time ever. It’s got all the hallmarks of a brash young film-maker flaunting the rules of the screen, converting a stage play to film. The lines are overwritten and spoken on a sound stage; the action a story recounted by an idiot to a fool. He even goes so far as to put himself in the company of Tough Guys at the start, and then (his own joke) kills his own character off quite early, and off-screen. The few characters are flat and cartoonish, their motivations unbelievable, reducible to a single word, or simply ignored.

But as in Pulp Fiction, there’s a masterful control of tempo. Tarantino uses the flashback and the story-frame as judo throws to keep the pace up despite the dialogue, despite the closed-room aspect of the bulk of the action. (I first saw Pulp Fiction pretty much in chronological order–not film order–so my experience of it is very skewed. It was on auto-repeat on the campus TV channel and I kept tuning in earlier and earlier. A bit like that re-cut of Memento someone did, with the plot told linearly.) The tempo carries us along–along with the benefit of the closed doors of the movie theater, a luxury that fiction novelists do not share–and so when the inevitable, almost droll conclusion finally occurs, we find surprising only its abruptness.

Meanwhile, We Were Gods had to undergo a rather traumatic editing pass. When half-way done, it was focused on smoothing out the wrinkles–pushing plot wobbles forward toward the end, like ironing a folded shirt, filled with concerned about what I’ll find when I press forward.

The original ending was a bit slap-dash, and unsatisfying–full of sound and fury, but not really holding up to scrutiny once you’ve closed the book. Part of me was concerned that I can never come up with an ending good enough to justify making the reader wade through 600-odd pages of action; an ending that unravels or explains or at least lands the twenty or thirty different plot points I want to cover.

And then I read and watch the endings of “great works”, of things that have had such a drastic impact on their respective fields, and remember that, to a first approximation, nobody knows how to write endings. Perhaps Mr. Gaiman, who seems to pluck them out of the mythologic ether and work backward to form them into a story.

I guess we do the best I can, and figure out what might work, and perhaps it’ll be good enough. If not–there’s always the second edition, the Director’s Cut, in this age of mix and remix. Right?

(originally published 2013)

Teaching men to say ‘no’

(ed: I wrote this in 2011. It’s still relevant.)

People were people, again, recently–this time, a commenter got uncomfortable with the idea that his male Dragon Age (computer game) character might end up having carnal relations with another man in game, and wanted developers to prevent this from being possible. People told him to go stuff it, and hilarity ensued.

I think that the problem is that boys don’t know how to say ‘no’ politely.

Being hit on feels icky?

In the first Dragon Age, one of your (male) character’s (male) boon companions makes a pass at you. (In the new one, it’s apparently even more subtle.) You don’t want to alienate him–one of the ‘scores’ in the game is your friendliness level toward your companions–and so if you’re not into that sort of thing, you might feel some pressure to say yes. Agree to sex you don’t want, just so that someone doesn’t hate you.

It seems horribly unfair. Why must this guy hit on me? We were just friends, and now it’s all weird and strange and I feel like he might have some sort of power over me! Blackmail me, no matter what I say. Perhaps even force me to have sex against my will!

The women in the audience (and perhaps some men) are probably nodding around now. Continue reading

Stupid Guy Rules

(A warning: this is all mansplaining, or maybe geeksplaining. That’s because it’s aimed specifically at men who might need these words and structures. If you feel these words don’t apply to you, they still might, or they might not. If you’re not a cis male, you may find this tiresomely repetitive; you’ve likely been over this ground already. If you don’t know what cis means, some of this might even upset you.

Also: this is written in a sarcastic style that might confuse some of you. These are bad bits of brain programming I’ve found in my own brain, and see in the brains around me. I don’t endorse them, and actively seek to get rid of them. Also: some strong language ahead.)

Da Rules

There’s a strong set of rules underlying our society; strong, dumb, and horrible. These are the Rules Of How To Man. They’re never taught explicitly, but you better damn well learn them, by the time you’re seven or eight, or you’re going to get beat up by other men for the rest of your life.

These aren’t exclusively ‘guy’ lessons, but they interact poorly and purposely with the rest of the hetero-normative structure in our culture. This is on purpose. These are rules that are used by men to avoid feeling certain ways, and to excuse acting in certain ways.

You know how in some stories, the plot only works because the hero acts like an idiot? Otherwise everything would be too easy. (“Don’t go in the basement! Just leave!”) This person is said to be carrying the idiot ball. Sometimes, the idiot ball gets passed from person to person, just to make the plot work. (TV Tropes tells me Hank Azaria coined this usage.)

In other stories, the narrative only works if every single person in the story is a frickin’ moron. Damon Knight called this a “second-order idiot plot“—a story that only works if *everyone* is an idiot.

We’re living in one of those. You’re the idiot, and so am I.

And these rules are why: we get trained to act like idiots, so that a few percent of the population can avoid feeling uncomfortable and introspecting on their sexuality; and so a different, overlapping percent can commit violence and rape with relative impunity as long as they play by the Rules.

Let’s break it down.

Man Rule 1. If you don’t show it, you aren’t feeling it

Rage. You feels it. (pic by Adam Moralee)

“Men aren’t allowed to have feelings.” This is, of course, inaccurate—men are allowed to have feelings, provided they show them in some sort of caricatured, over-the-top way. If they don’t show it, they aren’t really feeling it.

Angry? You have to smash something. Punch a wall. Shoot your TV. Hit someone. It’s justified: you were angry.

Upset? You can’t cry; that’s for sissies. Get really drunk and wreck your car. Glower into the darkness smoking your cigarette, making sure everyone *sees* you glowering and brooding.

Continue reading

Dark Patterns 101; or, How To Lose a Customer for Life

Interaction designers talk about “Dark Patterns”. These are designs which are intended to skew a user toward a particular behavior in a way that is morally questionable. Like the Dark Side, these patterns are quick and easy ways to profit, and have a corresponding cost on your soul and on your customer’s good will.

Here’s a great example: unsubscribing from a magazine. A year ago I signed up for Car And Driver, one of Hearst’s many offerings, for the low low LOW price of $5/year. A steal!

There was a catch, of course.

Continue reading

Can we apply “reuse, reduce, recycle” to the Cloud?

We’re all so spoiled in our use of computing resources.

I summon the vast computing power of the Google infrastructure to do basic math, because it’s quicker to launch than my calculator app. Hundreds of machines spring into action, routing packets, splitting up my ‘search’ across machines, and returning dozens of results that I ignore, just to find out what 423/16.7 is.

That’s incredibly wasteful–in real dollars, in environmental costs, in infrastructure costs. It costs bandwidth. It costs electricity.

A tremendous cost that is hidden to me. I don’t feel it.

I reload Facebook, just to see if there’s anything new–again, a vast (partially cached) query, across hundreds if not thousands of machines. And then, finding nothing new,  I throw away the results–close the tab, open it again later when I’m curious.

Four recycling bins: Paper, Plastic, Energy, Bandwidth.

What can we as users do to reduce our carbon footprint, in the form of the demands we make on the infrastructure of the world?

What can we as developers do to provide the best experience while shying away from the SIMM-card-in-a-48″-cardboard-box syndrome of the current web experience?