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:

  • Four: “Great, I’ll look for this one”,
  • Three: “Nice, I’ll buy this if I see it”
  • Two: “OK, well, I wouldn’t turn it down”
  • One: “Hmm, yeah, maybe I’ll just have water”

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:

  • 2008 Two Mountain Riesling: Nice and light, comparatively dry in that it didn’t have a lot of residual sugar, but with sweet honey and floral flavours to make up for it. They noted peach, apricot, and overripe grapefruit in their description, but I could only get peach. They also mention minerality, but I can’t actually distinguish that. Slightly higher acid than normal, too, making for an interesting variation on the riesling theme. Of all the wines we tried, this was probably the best suited for warm summer nights because it was so refreshing. Three summer parasols.
  • 2005 Two Mountain Vinho Vermelho port: This was a find; 100% Touriga Nacional grapes, but with a lot less of the deep musty flavours that some ports wallow in. It was very similar to thick dessert wines and muscats in that it was almost like drinking honey or nectar except, unlike them, it had the complexity and length that makes port worth savouring. Despite being a very young port (only 2005!), it tasted as if it had been in the barrel for at least 10 years. Unfortunately, though, it was fairly expensive ($47), so I wasn’t able to afford any.Four drunken bishops.
  • 2007 Hyatt Black Muscat: Normally, muscat grapes are normally used to make dessert wine; in this case, they were used to make a rosè. Most wines also don’t taste a lot like the grapes from which they’re made; unfortunately, this one did. This doesn’t mean it was boring – in fact, muscatelle grapes have a very interesting flavour that is reminiscent of wine even when fresh, and when my father used to grow these at home, my sister always referred to them as the ‘gross grapes that taste like wine’ and refused to touch them. I, however, loved them, and stole them whenever I had the chance. So, while I was underwhelmed by this wine, I can’t say I didn’t like it. It just wasn’t what I expected from a muscat. Two splodges.
  • 2006 Hyatt Winter Harvest White Wine. Ice wine, divine. With a relatively high amount of residual sugar at 315 g/L, this was as thick and rich as anything else I’ve tried, and, with lots of stonefruit flavours, it was just what I like in an ice wine. Unfortunately, at about $28 for a 375ml bottle, it was too expensive for me. Three fruit salads.
  • Wineglass Cellars. Unfortunately, I lost my sheet of notes from here, which is a pity, because the staff here were some of the most friendly and talkative of the whole trip, and I recall liking several of their wines quite a lot. There were a couple of interesting ones, too; a Sangiovese Rosè, and a Cabernet Franc, both of which I’ve not really tried before. They also had a barrel tasting of 2008 Pinot Noir or Zinfandel that was quite divine. Kicking myself about the lost notes, but will be looking out.
  • 2005 Bonair Grand Reserve Merlot. We tried merlots at each of the wineries we visited, but at Bonair, you got a limited number of tastings, and I didn’t choose this one. However, I stole a sip from someone else’s glass, and learned enough to know this was probably the best merlot of the day, and I missed out. Pity, that. No rating.
  • Paradisos del Sol Angelica G. This was a charming and strange winery complete with random animals and eccentric owner who was really passionate about explaining the tasting of his wines, right down to providing appropriate things to eat with each one. Angelica G was code for a Gewürztraminer dessert wine served with brandied pears. Quite wonderful. Three pears.

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.

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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:

  • Problem definition – exploring a problem space, identifying a particular problem within that space, then defining it with constraints, goal states, and resource availability
  • Creativity – coming up with ideas and strategies for solving a problem
  • Negotiation – making decisions as a group; examples include deciding which strategies to employ, which graphics to use, and how resources should be expended.

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?

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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!

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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.

  1. Wicked problems can’t be definitively formulated. To formulate the problem, we must make decisions about how to conceptualize it, limiting our consideration in some way. Different people will conceptualize the problem differently, and these differences might not be readily apparent. Furthermore, a wicked problem may be partially obscured such that we cannot see its full extent without attempting a solution.
  2. We can’t tell if we’ve completely solved a wicked problem or not. Wicked problems are usually qualitative rather than quantitative and often have fuzzy boundaries. Though we can arbitrarily declare stopping conditions, these conditions are, well, arbitrary.
  3. We can’t easily rank possible solutions to a wicked problem. Different stakeholders want different things for value-oriented and self-specific reasons. Points 1 and 4 also suggest that the problem will only be known incompletely and there is significant uncertainty about the effects of each solution.
  4. We can never assess the full effects of a solution. We don’t know for sure in advance whether our solutions will have the desired effect and, after implementing them, its impossible to predict or observe their full consequences over time due to ripple effects.
  5. Solutions are single-shot. We only get one chance to solve the problem because our solution always changes it, affecting any future solution attempts. This can often make it hard to learn from mistakes.
  6. The solution set is unbounded. We can’t list or exhaustively describe the possible solutions, so we never know whether we’ve got the best solution (even assuming we can rank the solutions them).
  7. Every wicked problem is essentially unique. Though two problems may appear fundamentally similar, they are of sufficient complexity such that it is impossible to determine whether apparently minor differences will have any effect. Two cities may be laid out almost identically, but this is not enough for us to conclude that public transport should be laid out exactly the same way.
  8. Wicked problems are linked to other wicked problems. Almost every wicked problem can be thought of as part of another wicked problem and as having several wicked problems as part of it. Inevitably, this leads to cycles of problems that cannot be solved independently. Crime leads to jail time, which leads to abandoned children, which leads to crime.
  9. The effects of a wicked problem and its solutions can be explained in many ways. Not only is it hard to formulate the problem and evaluate its possible solutions, it’s very easy, after the fact, to explain its effects in a variety of ways. For example, FDR’s New Deal and WWII spending is hailed by Keynesian economists and left leaning politicians as having ended the Great Depression, while these same policies are damned by market economists as having prolonged its effects. The problem and its solution can be suborned by multiple conflicting narratives, again making it hard to learn from our actions.
  10. The costs of being wrong are often high. Losing a game of chess doesn’t hurt a lot, but arranging a family get together that goes wrong can be painful. Bad solutions may create problems whose size exceeds the original problem. Given that wicked problems are often policy related, they can adversely affect people’s lives.

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:

  • Problem complexity and chaos; in particular the existence of emergent properties and behaviour
  • Situation of the problem within an unbounded or open system
  • Tight coupling and / or dependence of the components of the problem
  • Visibility or availability of information within the problem context
  • Conflicting definition or identification of the problem

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.

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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.

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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.

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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:

  • A particular person doesn’t necessarily employ the same facets appreciating the time. Instead, different pieces of music might stimulate them through different facets, as might, perhaps, the same piece of music, depending on mood.
  • Just because two people like a song doesn’t mean they like it for the same reasons; they might employ completely different facets in appreciating it and there may be no other correlation between their overall preferences. This implies that merely knowing which songs someone likes is less useful than understanding their reasons for liking them, particularly if we want to assess whether two people share similar taste or predict how someone will react to new music.
  • Not everyone has access to all facets as some facets require particular skills, knowledge, or experience. This implies that we can learn to improve our powers of appreciation, and that some people have more diverse means of appreciation at their disposal than others; in this sense, they could be said to have more sophisticated taste.
  • Though some facets rely on objective properties, appreciation always involves some degree of subjectivity. For example, though we can objectively identify the technical characteristics of a piece, our appreciation becomes subjective when we interpret and judge the piece using those characteristics. One objection to this might be the argument that we react viscerally to certain stimuli in particular ways. This is objective in a sense, but only inasmuch as all humans share similarly structured meat-brains – an alien wouldn’t necessarily agree that these facets are objective. The key point here is that the nature of the audience always plays a role in appreciation.
  • Some facets are extremely specific, relating to particular experiences or contexts. For example, there are certain pieces of music that appeal to me because they remind me of particular times during my childhood and no one else shares that exact same appreciation, though if the music was part of a particular zeitgeist, they may share similar appreciations. Nostalgic facets make it virtually impossible for two people share exactly the same taste
  • To those who do not know which facets we employ, our preferences appear arbitrary and entirely personal. My sense is that this is the origin of the idea of taste as criticized in my last post. Certainly, we all recognize a certain amount of consistency and reason in our own preferences even if we are not necessarily able to articulate it, so why can’t we assume this of others?

That’s all for now – in my next post on this topic, I’ll build a rough taxonomy of different facet types.

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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.

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