Went to Yakima a week and a half ago to taste wine. For those who don’t know, it’s a wine region in south central Washington. We were in Zillah, a bit south of Yakima proper, where we visited six different wineries and tasted about 30 wines.
|Grape hyacinths are the closest I got to taking any photos of grapes|
Before talking about the wine, here’s my rating scheme. Each wine gets between one and four marks, meaning:
This scheme is purely subjective and quite simple, mostly because I’m not terribly good at the descriptive element of wine tasting yet. Nonetheless, it forces me to think a bit and make some sort of judgement, which is really the whole point.
Anyway, on to the wines – here’s what caught my attention:
Of the wineries, Paradisos del Sol had the most character, Wineglass the best wine-conversation, while Silverlake and Hyatt tied for both most commercial winery and cheapest wine.
Following on from last week’s post on wicked problems, I got to thinking about the general sorts of challenges that occur in design, whether it be design of software, bridges, posters, web sites, or even social policy.
It seems there’s three main types of challenge:
In addition, there are many tasks that are auxiliary in that they support the design activity and provide feedback to it, but aren’t really part of it. For example, in software engineering, implementation isn’t really part of the design activity it supports, though it may provide feedback, perhaps in the form of technical constraints. Similarly, administration and project management provide feedback concerning resource availability, team morale, and so on, but they’re not really design.
You might have noticed that I’m conflating the activities of design and problem solving. While they’re not equivalent, they’re very closely related. Depending on your background, you might think of problem solving as being the stage in the design process that follows problem definition and precedes implementation – in this case, you might think of problem solving as the process of creatively deriving a solution to a design problem. On the other hand, you might see design as a stage within problem solving in which one designs potential solutions before trying them. I don’t think it’s necessary to get any deeper into this – it’s just interesting to note that you can frame design as problem solving and problem solving as design.
Another interesting thing to note is that the auxiliary tasks, while not design themselves, incorporate lots of problems to which one designs solutions, and that these can be considered whole design problems not necessarily related or subordinate to the larger design activity in which they take place. In this sense, you can think of design as a hierarchical composites of smaller designs. If you take the broader understanding of design as problem solving, you can apply this observation to a vast range of activities.
I’m simplifying things here – I don’t want to imply that design consists of three clearly defined tasks based around the challenges above and supported by various auxiliary tasks. Nor do I want to suggest that any of these tasks can or should be performed in isolation (particularly in the case of wicked problems). Rather, the tasks that compose the design activity are tightly interwoven. By drawing out the challenges above, I only want to bring attention to them as things that are hard and that require particular skills to address.
I’m tempted to argue that, taken together, the skills required for each of these three tasks form a set of skills that are common to designers across all the various fields of design, from software to graphics, from architecture to social policy. But I’m not sure how I’d substantiate that, so I’ll it as a speculation.
What challenges am I missing? What other skills are common to all designers, do you think?
This quarter, I’m taking a design studio class focusing on the dissemination of video interviews of members of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda. You might not be familiar with the Rwandan genocide and the ICTR, so here’s some background:
Over three months, starting in April 1994, about 800,000 Rwandans were killed, mostly with machetes, mostly by their neighbours. Despite the 1948 Convention on the Prevention of Genocide, the international community chose not to intervene, instead arguing over the definition of genocide. To make matters worse, when France eventually sent troops in, they stabilized the country by preventing the army of Rwandan expatriates invading from Uganda from forcing a rapid end to the killings.
If you’re interested, I recommend We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will be Killed With Our Families: Stories from Rwanda by Philip Gourevitch. It’s gripping, disturbing, and difficult to put down.
There’s another book by Romeo Dallaire, the UN general present in Rwanda during the genocide who was repeatedly ordered not to get involved, called Shake Hands with the Devil: The Failure of Humanity in Rwanda. In it, he slams both the international community and himself for their conscious decision to just stand by and watch.
The ICTR was established in late 1994 to investigate the genocide and prosecute its leaders. It’s been criticized generally for its cost, its inability to successfully prosecute some genocidaires,and because it is perceived as serving only to salve Western guilt. Whether it was a success or not, the ICTR is scheduled to close in the next year or so, and at that time, its staff will return to their homes around the world. Once this happens, only documents describing its proceedings will remain, and so last year a team from UW went to Tanzania to interview members of the court in an attempt to capture its human side.
In this course, we’re exploring ways of disseminating these interviews, as well as ways of supporting re-use, commentary and annotation by the various groups to whom it is of interest, including Rwandans, UN staff, international legal experts, and the public at large. We’ve got about 70 hours of video in total, comprising interviews with about 40 members of the ICTR, and we want to make it available online in such a way that people can watch it, comment on it, mark it up using tags or other more formal taxonomies, search it, or re-purpose it.
It’s quite a fun problem area – we’ll get to play with folksonomies and crowd-sourcing, and while the content is rather melancholy, it’s also extremely interesting.
Anyway, as part of the class, I’m doing a lot of writing both on the the genocide and about design theory in general. Since I think a lot of this is probably interesting to others, I wanted to re-post snippets of it here; last Saturday’s post on wicked problems was the first example of this.
PS – I’ll get back onto the music appreciation stuff soon, I promise!
Today I read a paper from 1971 by Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber about “wicked problems” – problems that are intrinsically difficult or impossible to solve in the sense that one can solve a crossword or mathematical proof, or win a game of chess. Wicked problems abound in policy questions and design, and it’s interesting to think about what differentiates them from these other “tame problems”.
The paper defines a wicked problem as one with most of the characteristics in the list below. Bear with me, because being able to spot a wicked problem and thus infer the consequences of that fact is quite a powerful tool for thinking about decision making in pretty much any context. Once you’ve got a clear idea of the concept, you can start seeing them everywhere – in policy such as city planning, in international conflict, project management, personal time management, and even in family Christmases. They’re everywhere, and, unlike tame problems, they’re impossible to solve absolutely, though sometimes they can be resolved partially with relative ease.
This list constitutes a polythetic or cluster definition; that is, problems must have some, but not all of the criteria to be considered wicked. Furthermore, problems possess them to a greater or lesser extent than others, implying the idea of a continuum of problem wickedness. Polythetic definitions are normally used to define complex concepts in philosophy, and the fact that such a definition is required to define wicked problems suggests that they are not a clear or natural category as the paper suggests.
That said, however, the category of tame problems is much clearer. It consists of problems with stopping criteria, clear correctness of outcomes, limited solution action sets with clear results. It seems, then, that wicked problems are perhaps best understood as the set of all problems that are not tame.
One implication of the wickedness continuum is that wicked problems could be made less wicked if we understood the factors that make them wicked. Unfortunately, however, the list of criteria above is primarily descriptive, not explanatory, and so only of use as a starting point. On Tuesday, I’ll be participating in a further discussion on this topic in which I’d like to explore explanations of what makes a problem wicked. This would, I think, give a better definition as well as some ideas for how wickedness might be reduced. Below are some candidate explanations:
There’s one last point I want to make. Being written in 1973, the paper gives the impression that the difference between wicked and tame problems maps fairly clearly to the difference between abstract, mathematical or game problems and real political and social problems. It’s interesting to note that in recent years, the term wicked problem has been used to describe problems in software engineering and design that exhibit many of the same properties of the social problems outlined in the paper, demonstrating that it is not abstraction itself that makes a problem tame. It would also be interesting, I think, to look at some of the strategies employed by engineering teams to deal with wicked software problems, and work out if they could be applied to wicked problems in a social or political context. Food for thought, anyway.
This week, I decided to make sure that Sunday was a day where I wouldn’t have to do any work so that I could actually relax.
Normally, I’m really bad at relaxing. I’ll spend most days stressing about work, and this saps my motivation such that I get less work done. In turn, I stress more, and my motivation lowers even further. And so on. This is neither pleasant nor productive, and is one of the central stupid things about the way in which I function. So, I’m trying to change it.
The plan is to take one day a week where I don’t stress about work. What’s important is not that I don’t work, but that I don’t feel I have to work. Nor is it even specific to work – I want it to be a day where I don’t feel I have to do anything – where “I just don’t feel like it” is a valid excuse.
The idea is that, by doing this, I’ll be less stressed through the rest of the week, have a little time for reflection, and generally be happier and more motivated. It’s really just the third (or fourth) commandment taken as practical advice – “Remember the Sabbath and keep it holy”.
This morning, then, I woke up, had breakfast, listened to music for a while, and generally just chilled out. But then, something interesting happened – I thought to myself, “Y’know, maybe I might just read that paper I’ve been avoiding”, then ended up reading it through thoroughly, taking notes and everything. By way of contrast, during every previous attempt to read it, my mind was constantly looking for a way out, and no distraction was too small. Today, though, it didn’t even feel like work.
The conclusion I want draw, then, is that, for me at least, motivation has a lot to do with choice. If I choose to do something without coercion, then I feel better about it, do better at it, and generally get it done faster. I’ve heard this idea before and I vaguely recall seeing it mentioned in a paper on motivational theory I read a while back, but I’ve never seriously applied it to myself before.
So, for the next month or so, I’m going to try to treat Sunday as my own personal holy day, even though I’m not religious.
As an aside, I wonder if this is partly why I find task lists so useful for motivating myself. That is, I wonder if part of their value is the fact that they with choices of what task I should do, improving my sense of ownership over the decision to do them, and therefore my motivation.
Over the last few years, I’ve become strongly affected by the seasons. I suspect it probably correlates with the time at which I started keeping a garden, something I’ve yet to start doing here in the US. Anyway, as winter’s slowly turned into spring, I’ve been taking quite a few photos. Here’s three sets of my favourites
Taken in the Seattle Arboretum during mid-February with Winter still upon the city. Of particular interest was the Winter Garden, a collection of plants that remain colourful and attractive through the winter.
First Spring set at the University of Washington, early March. Blossoms weren’t yet out properly, but the bulbs were in bloom.
Second Spring set at UW, taken today, with blossoms in full profusion. Of particular note are the cherry blossoms flooding the quad and the swarms of people out to enjoy them.
In my last post, I talked about the meaningless of taste as a way of describing our preferences. In this post, I’m going to sketch out a scheme that I tend to use in describing preferences.
There are many ways in which a given piece of music might be appreciated. Examples include virtuosity, technical characteristics, emotional reaction, nostalgia, or even lyrics. Some of our appreciation is based on the objective properties of the music; other times on our subjective interpretation, and still others on partially objective criteria; that is, criteria that are objective within a group or other frame of reference such as a particular aesthetic.
I like to think of these as distinct modes of appreciation and, for the purposes of this discussion, will call them facets. Thinking about appreciation in terms of facets brings out the following observations:
That’s all for now – in my next post on this topic, I’ll build a rough taxonomy of different facet types.
I’ve been thinking a lot about music appreciation. It’s much more complicated than I think the words and concepts we use to talk about it really let on, and I think part of the confusion is that it’s not so much that each of us likes different things so much as that each of us interprets music in different ways and evaluates it using different criteria, and, furthermore, that our preferences are much more malleable than we realize.
I’m not terribly sure where I want to go with this, but it’s something that’s been lurking in the back of my mind for quite some time, so I’m going to try to get some ideas down. I’ve not studied the history or theory of art in any real extent, so I may well be saying things that have been said before, and there’s almost certainly problems that I’m not seeing. I’d welcome both discussion as well as suggestions for further reading on this topic.
I’m going to write this as a series of short posts, as I think there’s more chance of people reading it that way, plus, it makes it easier for me to write. First up, I want to briefly talk about the concept of taste:
Explaining the differences between two people’s preferences by saying that they have different tastes seems to me to be a bit of a cop-out. All this does is attribute the externally visible difference in preference to an internal disposition called taste. This is no better than trying to explain consciousness using the soul – all we’ve done is take a complex phenomena and explain it with another complex phenomena about which we’re not meant to ask questions. This explains nothing, nor does it lead to further discussion.
Taste is generally considered a personal matter, and thus is something that’s not meant to be susceptible to rational argument. By ascribing preferences to taste, there’s an vague implication that further discussion might be considered offensive, so let’s just agree to disagree. This suggests the assumption that wanting to understand why someone likes a particular song is somehow doubting their right to do so. I find this intensely frustrating for reasons I’ll talk about in another post.
In this sense, taste is merely a concept into which we can bundle our reasons for holding a preference. It serves two purposes – it simplifies the messiness of preference by shoving our reasons under the carpet, and it gives us a convenient way of protecting ourselves from others who might, through their questioning, undermine our faith in ourselves or judge us somehow. So, using taste to describe our preferences doesn’t help explain them very well, but it is a completely understandable strategy.
Another interesting aspect is that not all reasons for a preference are explained with taste, only those that are difficult to explain otherwise. You don’t shove under the carpet things that can be neatly placed on the shelf, and likewise, you don’t appeal to taste to describe preferences than can be easily articulated otherwise – nostalgia, for example, can often explain why we like music we couldn’t otherwise explain.
One final idea is that taste might act as a seemingly solid platform on which to base our own internal justifications for our preferences. If we can appeal to taste as an inexplicable yet concrete element of our personality, we can avoid seeing the arbitrariness of our preferences.
Summarizing, then, I think taste is best understood as a cognitive strategy for simplifying our understanding of why we hold certain preferences, as a way of protecting ourselves from the scrutiny of others, as a platform on which to base reasoning about our preferences, and as a way shield ourselves from arbitrariness.