There was a short opinion piece in the Press the other day about plans for the Avon River as Christchurch rebuilds. Read it here.

The plan they’re talking about is broadly that espoused by the Avon-Otakoro Network, and envisions rejuvenating the damaged lands along the river (where much of the heaviest quake damaged land is) by creating a park and reserve.

I’m generally in favor of something like that, and commented on the article accordingly:

I strongly support turning the banks of the Avon into a reserve. I don’t so much mind the specifics: a wetland, a park, a garden, or a common use space – all would be great, I think. A combination of the above would suit me best.

I think the following are important:

  • we shouldn’t rebuild houses that will slide into the river the next time we have a quake.
  • we shouldn’t solidify the banks with concrete. It’s tragic how deadened a city looks with that sort of land management.
  • we should use this as an opportunity to build and recast our city in a way that captures our shared ideals and that offers us opportunity to create meaning in our lives (whatever that means to each of us individually).
  • we shouldn’t let a small group of powerful individuals (be they politicians, business, or the wealthy) tell us how to use the land. It may be held by the government, but it’s our city, and we should have a say in how it’s used.
  • we should cater to as diverse a selection of citizen’s interests as possible.
  • we should respect and showcase the land and its flora and fauna. They’re a big part of what makes NZ so special. Living overseas as I have on and off for the last few years, I’m struck with how much the rest of the world is jealous of our country, and it makes me sad when we take that for granted.

I’d like to see nature reserves, bike trails, foot trails, gentle banks with willows, band rotundas, parks for markets and fairs, and more. So few cities have the opportunity to remake so much of themselves, and I’m really hoping we’ll be able to meet our own dreams and take advantage of that.

I grew up near Horseshoe Lake and the Avon. I’m in the US now, but I miss my home, and it strains me not to be able to be there as it rebuilds.


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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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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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So, everyone knows what r stands for, right? What about v? Or f(x) and f’(x)? OK. How about x, y, and z?

If you’re not a math geek of some kind, you’re probably not reading anymore, but just in case you are, the point is that each of these letters has a common meaning in a lot of mathematical notation – p is a probability, v some arbitrary vector, f(x) and f’(x) some arbitrary function and its derivative, and x, y and z, are coordinates in 3-space.

The problem is that a lot of the time, this isn’t true, and even when it is true, it’s hard to tell exactly _which_ probability or set of coordinates you might be talking about.

Good math books typically get this – they define their notation, and use it consistently. If p means probability in chapter 1, it probably doesn’t mean ‘an arbitrary solution to the dual problem’ in chapter 2, unless it’s been explicitly re-defined. Each symbol should correspond to one particular value or concept at any given time. This makes the text easier and faster to read, and avoids all sorts of nasty confusion.

So, why is it that people presenting mathematical results always assume that you know their notation? If they throw up a complicated expression using a bunch of different letters, why do they assume that you know that r doesn’t actually mean radius (even though it’s shown on a circular diagram), and that, today, we’re using g to refer to probability, not p (except for that slide near the end, because it’s from a different slide set).

You’d think this just happens in badly prepared and presented seminars. Unfortunately, either you’re wrong, or I have an uncanny ability to attend only seminars that meet that criteria.

So, if you’re ever in a position to be presenting mathematical notation to a bunch of people, please, please, do the following..

  • Introduce your notation. Tell the audience what each letter means as soon as you start using it.
  • Don’t change what x means halfway through your talk, unless you really have to. If you’re using x to just mean ‘some arbitrary value’, that’s OK, but tell people that.
  • Each value should refer to only one thing at a time. This is particularly problematic if you’re working through an algorithm that re-uses the same notation every step. Is B the initial basis matrix you chose, or the basis matrix at step 3?
  • If you’re re-introducing some notation you briefly mentioned at the beginning, mention it again.
  • If your expression expresses some important relationship, verbalize it – read it out. If your expression is really large but still important for your audience to understand, not just accept, break it down and read it out. If you can’t do that, your audience won’t get it.
  • If you’re just showing algebraic steps, question why you included them in the first place. If you’re not expecting your audience to work through the algebra while you’re talking, leave it out.
  • Just because you think p always means probability, don’t assume you can get away with not defining it. If a letter has different meanings in different fields, you’re bound to confuse at least one person. Sure, they might be able to work it out from context, but they shouldn’t have to. Besides, p means the probability of what, exactly?

I could go on, but instead, I refer people to Polya’s lovely short rant on the subject in ‘How to Solve It’. There’s a free version online. It’s on page 134.

People seem to forget that the entire point of notation is the economical expression of an idea for the purpose of memory or communication. Furthermore, memory is really just a special case of communication – you’re communicating with your future self. Imagine how confused they’ll be if, in your notes, q means different things without clear distinction. Imagine how confused your audience will be, not having been you in the first place.

This all boils down to this general point about communicating – if you don’t value your idea enough to make sure your audience understands, don’t bother opening your mouth. Play Minesweeper instead.

X-posted to various places


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While waiting for pizza this evening, I read an article by David Allan Grier in IEEE Computer about the ways in which technology has changed entertainment, particularly the theatre, over the last 40 years or so.

In particular, he discusses how automated lighting, sound and so forth can afford a stage manager the opportunity to calibrate the response of the audience by controlling the timing of cues much more closely, much in the same way a live television producer does the same. What this has meant is that show production, in addition to be a massive organizational exercise, is now a performance unto itself.

Later, he goes on to talk about ways in which producers of other media gauge audience reaction and adapt accordingly – focus groups for TV and movies, golden ears for music, and now, with technology, learning systems based on customer profiling and crowd-sourcing, that can supplement socially driven recommendations such as friends or local record store owners – last.fm being a prominent example.

So inspired, here’s an interesting extension that occurred to me:

What if specialized AI, running locally, could be injected into traditionally mass-produced media like music, TV, or movies to act as a kind of virtual stage manager? It could observe you, the audience, a focus group of one, then tweak the timing, the content, the tone, and even the script of media to better suit your current mood, your tastes, to stimulate you in ways to which you are more sensitive, or even to better fit your available time.


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I’m surfing a rather strange mood right now. I got home from gaming 20 minutes ago, feeling strangely bemused and disappointed with the world, largely for broad social and political reasons than for anything one particular thing.

I’ve been grappling a little of late with the troublesome conflict between ideas of social fairness and communal action versus libertarian ideas of avoiding coercion and maximizing freedom. Both sides offer attractions, but both have drawbacks – freedom and self-determination are desirable, but do they trump the Rawlsian desire for fairness and equality? Always? Never? Sometimes? Where do you draw the line?

Obviously, compromise between the extremes of these positions is necessary, and I know thinkers out there have formulated amalgamations that seem to offer a way forward. My concern is that society at large doesn’t seem able to follow sophisticated hybrid policies, and tends to leap to extremes – we’re either ignoring a problem, or flooding it with ill-considered, wasteful solutions. While the barely competent rule of the fickle crowd is perhaps measured and appropriate for some issues, it seems foolishly slow and indecisive for others.

However, this isn’t all that’s bugging me. Rather, it’s a contributing and compounding factor in a mangled mass of disappointing trends I discern – the tragedy of the commons wrought large on global resources. What happens next?

It seems my attitude towards the future ranges from measured optimism to resigned pessimism. I guess this to be expected – we live in truly interesting times, and I really can’t tell if that’s good or bad.

Maybe I just shouldn’t listen to essays about existential risk when I’m tired..


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While slowly uploading 3 years of email archives to gmail this afternoon, I spent a while poking about random video blogs following links from last week’s Epic-FU. While the content is amusing, it’s the fact that they even exist that really interests me – random people creating not only content, but regular shows, of quality at least the same as I’d expect from regional TV. It’s been said for some time that the internet facilitates a massive democratization of culture, but you don’t really get that as a gut feeling until you go out* and dig around.

It’s really quite heartening. There’s a real golden age going on – a huge diversity of people picking up tools, making some stuff, and changing the world. There’s a directness and apparent honesty to the content that’s really appealing. Even though a lot of it’s fairly low brow, that’s OK – it’s usually deliberate, and you don’t get the feeling that you’re being condescended to by a media conglomerate that’s decided you (as part of the great unwashed) are insufficiently intelligent or attentive. And that’s not to say that it’s typically low brow – there’s some really great, really thought provoking content out there, too..

Anyway, vector – Epic-Fu is a 5 minute weekly that covers pop internet culture. Episodes usually contain a mix of music, pop culture video links and notes about cool new web tools, as well as the occasional WTF? – one episode a couple of weeks back, for example, was interspersed with ‘FUnetics’, a Scientology spoof with a weird alternate reality web game attached to it.

Here’s the two videos that started me ranting..

Oddly compelling freestyle mouth music on the streets of America – from RocketBoom

DaxFlame – a deranged young man who seems somehow familiar.

One last thing – I stumbled across For Your Imagination somewhere this morning; it’s a startup aiming to provide production services to people wanting to run video casts of their own. This, too, is pretty heartening, and it’ll be interesting to see how this works – it seems to be focused on providing a service to creators rather than exploiting them as current media conglomerates do. Of course, what matters is how the service matures. Anyway, check out their demo reel on the site’s front page. Make sure you give it time to load, though – if the video isn’t fully downloaded, it just stops playing and goes back to the beginning.

* By ‘go out’, what I really mean is sit in front of your computer and click some of the buttons** you haven’t clicked before.
** By ‘click buttons’, what I really mean is click the button on your mouse while holding it in a particular place on your desk, following a sequence of similar actions that have placed your your mouse cursor over a particular shape on your screen***.
*** As a complete aside, the layers of abstraction in the words we use to describe our behaviour on the internet are totally fascinating, don’t you think? I wonder if you could judge depth of change by the average depth of indirections between the metaphors used to describe typical actions and the literal meaning of those words. Internet life is at least at depth three or four..


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