Revolutionary Times

Sometime last year, I came across this quote:

If a man in the fullness of his days, at the end of his life, can pass on the wisdom of his experience to those who grow up after him; if what he has learned in his youth, added to but not discarded in his maturity, still serves him in his old age and is still worth teaching the then young — then his was not an age of revolution, not counting, of course, abortive revolutions. The world into which his children enter is still his world, not because it is entirely unchanged, but because the changes that did occur were gradual and limited enough for him to absorb them into his initial stock and keep abreast of them. If, however, a man in his advancing years has to turn to his children, or grandchildren, to have them tell him what the present is about; if his own acquired knowledge and understanding no longer avail him; if at the end of his days he finds himself to be obsolete rather than wise — then we may term the rate and scope of change that thus overtook him, “revolutionary.”

-Hans Jonas, from Philosophical Essays (1974), p. 46

Talking to some of my friends, I’ve been struck by how different things are. A lot of our generations’ parents haven’t been very smart with their money, a point that a quick Google search “baby boomers and money” seems to confirm is a general trend. Strikingly, “75% of millennials talk money at least once a week.”

To this point, I recently read “Millennials are Screwed” at the Huffington Post. It makes a lot a good case about the challenges my generation is faced with. And truth be told, I need to understand the case. Good advice about what to do has been rarer than I would have liked, and I’m learning a lot the hard way.My conclusion: things have been changing fast. And if I don’t change as fast, I might get left behind.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not pessimistic. But I’m optimistic for two overriding reasons: one, it’s in my nature, as much as part of my temperament as it is attributable to my Mormon faith. And two, I believe I can change with the times. I feel strongly that I can keep ahead of “the rate and scope of change.” And even if things don’t work out entirely, I’ve got–as I alluded to–faith. Things will work out.

But my conclusion is this: things have been changing fast. And one of the greatest assets a person can have is to learn and adapt as fast as the environment in which he lives. It’s as much a principle of natural selection and evolution as it living in the modern era.

“Your pain and your heartbreak”

I just came across this quote from the excellent James Baldwin.

“You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, who had ever been alive.” -James Baldwin

I love this quote. One of the benefits I’ve experienced from reading widely, particularly in history, is learning that (as the Preacher says) there is “nothing new under the sun.” No matter the trial along the wide spectrum of causes for physical and mental and pain–disappointment, loss of a loved one, loneliness, making poor choices, addiction, hunger and thirst, torture, dealing with infertility, being taken advantage of, or having expectations break against the rocks of reality–there is someone who has been there before. And almost always, there are many someone’s, most of them invisible and nameless, but surely and definitely there.

And to be quite honest, knowing that draws me toward a strange feeling of global citizenship–global not just in space, but also in time, drawing me back with a new affection for my ancestors stretching back thousands and thousands of years. Again: mostly nameless and invisible, having left no records behind, but there all the same. It’s strange, I think, but comforting.

Systems Thinking, “A Discipline for Seeing Wholes”

When I came to work at RAIN Agency a year ago as a User Experience designer, I heard very early-on about “thinking in systems.” On the front page of RAIN’s website, we say, very loudly: We think in systems.

Which begs an obvious question. What does it mean to think in systems? I had a strong hypothesis: I had read Peter Senge’s The Fifth Discipline, Donella Meadows Thinking in Systems: A Primer, and David Peter Stroh’s Systems Thinking for Social Innovation. These books highlight a lot of things, but the essence is this: we are all connected, we are all part of multiple, often over-lapping systems, and the inability to see the whole–the relationship between the parts, instead of the parts themselves–lies at the root of so many problems.

Systems thinking is “a shift in mind,” a way of “seeing the world anew.” As Peter Senge writes:

Systems thinking is a discipline for seeing wholes. It is a framework for seeing interrelationships rather than things, for seeing patterns of change rather than static “snapshots”.

He goes on to point out that systems thinking is a set of general principles, as well as a set of tools and techniques, that span fields from physics to engineering to computing to biology. But at its core, it is a discipline for seeing wholes. Michael Goodman, expanding on this, writes:

It’s important to remember that the term “systems thinking” can mean different things to different people. The discipline of systems thinking is more than just a collection of tools and methods – it’s also an underlying philosophy. Many beginners are attracted to the tools, such as causal loop diagrams and management flight simulators, in hopes that these tools will help them deal with persistent business problems. But systems thinking is also a sensitivity to the circular nature of the world we live in; an awareness of the role of structure in creating the conditions we face; a recognition that there are powerful laws of systems operating that we are unaware of; a realization that there are consequences to our actions that we are oblivious to. (emphasis added)

Now, what does this have to do with RAIN, where I traffic in strategy, product management, and user experience design? There’s two key points I’ve learned here.

First, no product exists in isolation. Products exist, more and more these days, in a digital ecosystem. For example, a physical Starbucks, their website, their app, and their voice skill (made by RAIN) all work together to help a customer–and remember, that always means a person with many problem, but one specific problem that Starbucks can address (often “I need my Frappuccino!”)–to get them their Frappuccino.

As a book lover, I’m grateful that I can pick up a book at home, continue it on my bike ride via Audible (on my phone), reference it at work on either my phone or computer, and continue it again while doing dishes thanks to my Amazon Echo. In fact, as someone who loves books, this is one of the chief investments I have in Amazon’s digital ecosystem: I can continue the task of reading a book in a multitude of environments, in a way that suits whatever context I’m in. It’s terrific.

To consider how these products inter-relate; to think of how a website hands-off to an app, and how a voice service hands off to a TV, and how these products relate to any physical store or experience: these are vital tools for a UX designer to ask in today’s day and age. What is the whole? Where does this service fit? What is the goal of the user? What job-to-be-done are they trying to do, and what task are they striving to achieve? What platforms can we trust they’ll have, and how can we extend the experience with the multitude of touchpoints (like TVs, apps, and voice-first devices) available to experience designers today?

Second, an ecosystem of products and services never exists in isolation from either its business or its users. This second point touches on my passion: understanding users, and not just users, but stakeholders. What’s best for the users could, in theory, to be given a product for free. But for a product to be successful, it also has to be marketed, priced, and supplied effectives. The business’s needs and constraints are important–no product exists in isolation. The product has to provide real value to the business, as well as to the users. Often that comes in the way of monetary compensation, being paid more than what the product or service costs–and achieving goodwill in the process by providing a quality user-experience. It’s not a one-way street, but a two-way street. Value must go both ways.

(And of course, the traditional message of my discipline (UX) is primarily on customers and users–on real people, with real lives, trying to use our product to achieve some kind of goal or end. That is my real joy, and something I love speaking to.)

So I was right and wrong. I was right, when I came to RAIN, in thinking that systems thinking is everything I had read it was: a set of tools and principles that allow one to see the general whole. But I was wrong, because I hadn’t caught a vision of how it applied to the products and services I’m in the business of designing for. I have to consider the needs of the user, the needs of the business, and the existing portfolio of products as I design. If I don’t, we could fail to provide a stellar experience for everyone involved.

Judgment at Ninevah

I’ve been binging some older episodes of Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History. Dan Carlin, together with John Talbot (professor at BYU), Brandon Dell’Orto (my AP US History teacher), Mike Duncan (host of The History of Rome podcast), and Tom Holland (author of some excellent narrative histories), are a collection of people who really infused me with a love of history–each in a specific way. Dan Carlin’s contribution, though, is to simply expose me to great history via extremely entertaining and compelling stories.

Because I’m trying to read through the biblical book of Isaiah right now, I listened to Judgment at Ninevah, a short but fascinating Hardcore History episode on the fall of Assyria (major players in Isaiah and the Hebrew world generally). Ninevah–I’d heard about it from the Bible–something about Nimrod and Jonah. But Dan Carlin emphasizes that Ninevah’s fall is perhaps the biggest event in history you’ve never heard of. A couple of notes from the episode:

  • We have a hard time believing our society could end. Dan Carlin loves the moment in the old “Planet of the Apes” when Charleton Heston’s character, thinking he was on an alien planet, discovers that it’s really this earth. Carlin points out that there’s something difficult about believing that in hundreds of years, people might be digging up our skyscrapers, trying to figure out who we were. But history has a pattern, and it may be hubris to believe that pattern’s ended with us. Everyone else thought this way, too.

“Planet of the Apes”

  • Dan Carlin’s Great Division of History. He divided it into “the very, very old world,” “the very old world,” and “the old world.” (Presumably, there’s a “this world” too.) The very, very old world begins when empires and writing began, and ends with the Fall of Ninevah. It’s the crash that mandates a new version on the computer of history. It’s “the greatest event in history no one knows about,” a “very big deal.”
  • There are two kinds of societies in history. The ones that are always a player on the world stage and endure as a people–think China and Egypt–and the ones that have a glorious moment, and then effectively never play a role again–or are wiped out entirely. For this latter group, think the Mongols, or, Assyria!
  • The Assyrians were around for a long time, a very, very long time. If we assume the modern world began (generously) in the Renaissance, around 500-600 years ago, then bear in mind: Assyria lasted a lot longer than that, 3-5 times longer. They have unbroken records going back to ~2300 years ago!
  • The Assyrians were bad people. They had war reliefs, “unique in human history,” that depict awful things they did. Now, keep in mind, they were the first empire–and they perfected the art of keeping subjugated people’s in check by doing terrible things to rebellious peoples, and then installing reliefs of their punishment in the lobby area of their palaces–something visiting dignities got to see. On the plus side, this kept the place unified, allowing for a lot of civilizational progress. On the down side, they subjugated people’s brutally. (And there’s some evidence they enjoyed it…)
  • Assyria had a lot of neighbors. I drew from Dan Carlin’s description of their neighbors, but also my Phillips’ Historical Atlas (one of my favorite books) to figure this out. Basically, Assyria was situated smack dab in Mesopotamia along the Fertile Crescent. They had Urartu on the north (and nomads, like the Scythians, beyond them), Persians and Medes to their east, Egypt and Judah/Samaria to their west, and Phrygia (and later the Ionian Greeks) in Anatolia, to their northwest. And Assyria had no really great geographical protection.

A map of Mesopotamia, 750-550 BCE

  • Assyria fell into the Empire Traps. Assyria was at the height of its power just before it died. It committed the great sin of all empires: it overextended itself. While its armties were off conquering Egypt, it was left mostly defenseless to a series of allied forces (mainly the Medes and Babylonians) who, along with everyone else, hated the Assyrians for all the awful things they’d done to them. So like a surprising stock market crash, Ninevah fell from greatness–to being abjectly destroyed.  And no one cried.

It was a great episode, and I learned a lot. It ended, nicely for my study in the Hebrew Bible, on the words of Nahum (the biblical prophet): “Woe to the bloody city! it is all full of lies and robbery… it shall come to pass, that all they that look upon thee shall flee from thee, and say, Nineveh is laid waste: who will bemoan her?… for upon whom hath not thy wickedness passed continually?”

Woe indeed!

Thoughts on the History of Stars

I love Summer. Not only is it the best time for taking walks and early morning bike rides, but it’s also my favorite time for gazing at the sky–something I’ve been doing more lately. Not only are the skies clearer, but the Summer triangle (and the pointer stars in the Big Dipper) make it easy to pinpoint a variety of stars. And, well, I know the night sky in the Summer the best: Leo, Delphinius, Sagittarius, Corona Borealis, Hercules, Cepheus, Cygnus–these are just a few of my friends. Plus, this year Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, and and Venus (along with the moon) have all been bright and visible in the sky, tracing the plane of the ecliptic. And on the darker nights, when the moon is hiding and its light is gone, the ecliptic can be seen adjacent to the plane of the Milky Way, the path of billions of galactic stars.

What’s spectacular–obvious, yes, but to me, spectacular–is that these same stars, and these same planets, have been inspiring people for generations. They guided Magellan and Columbus on their navigations across the globe, in search of Asia and the other sides of the world. They guided, too, the Vikings, the Chinese, the Phonecians, the Pacific-Islanders, and countless other generations. The shapes and figures were, in part, codified by Ptolemy, and before him, probably the Babylonians and Sumerians. The individual names of stars often bear Arabic names, a nod to the significant contribution of Islamic and Arab astronomers. Somewhere in this deep past, Father Abraham, too, knew the names of the stars, exchanging knowledge with the Egyptians. And these same stars were seen by our earlier ancestors as they traveled across the earth, probably from Africa, into new worlds and new niches.

For mankind, the stars remain constant. Due to precession, there are slight movements–but for the most part, the patterns have stayed the same. But the sky looked different 50,000 years, and even more different as you travel farther back in time. Since a galactic year is 250 million years, travel back 62 million years ago–just a few million years after the KT asteroid impact the finished off the non-avian dinosaurs–and the sun will have moved a quarter-turn back around the galaxy, as will have other stars, and the sky will look entirely new. Vastly new constellations would be needed to identify stars in this alien sky.

And of course, travel back 4.603 billion years ago, and what would you find? A massive movement in a massive gas cloud, as gravity pulls light gases together until enough pressure builds to cause nuclear fusion. That fusion would light the star Sol, known to us as the sun, and inaugurate the solar system. Elements and gases would begin accreting on a disk-like plane, spinning and forming new planets, all around this new star. The star’s energy and solar winds would contribute to pushing lighter elements out toward the farther reaches of the solar system, a fact that explains the presence of solid planets closer to the sun, and the lighter, more easily “blown away” gases being sent farther out, forming the gas giants.

And travel back farther still, and you would begin to see fewer and fewer stars. You would witness the birth of Deneb, Altair, Betelgeuse, Vega, Sirius, and other stars–popping into the night sky in positions far removed from where they are today. They would look brighter or dimmer, depending on the nature of the star. All of them had beginnings. You would also see stars, long gone today, dying–and before that, living long and nuclear lives, having formed from still older stars. And as you travel back, you would see fewer and fewer elements, until eventually–before the first generation of stars begin to explode in radiant light–the only element present were hydrogen and helium, and before even those first stars, just darkness and simplicity in a universe ripe with potential.

There is more to the story, including the movement of galaxies along gravitational paths that make up the largest structures in the universe. But for the most part, it is the stars that draw my fascination, though galaxies are where most stars are born. The stars, appointed by God “for signs, and for seasons, and for days, and years” (Genesis 1:14).

And it is this that leads me to wonder still. Did God ordain the precise locations of the stars? Do they inherently have meaning, imbued by an all-wise Creator? Or do we give them meaning by naming and tracing lines in the sky? Or is the answer in the fact that God gave us imagination, and in that sense, he gave them meaning through us?

And did God ordain the precise the precise location of these stars, given for times and seasons? Or did he set the initial conditions, and let things play out–and in that sense, was he surprised? Did he intervene in the movement of matter and gas across time and space, to make a particular pattern? Or did he set the match and light the fuse that sent all of time and space into the world? Science explains the natural laws by which all things move, but it is as much an article of faith to say that a God never intervened in the processes of galactic, biological, and tectonic movement as it is to say that He did. To those who believe, “all things denote there is a God; yea, even the earth, and all things that are upon the face of it, yea, and its motion, yea, and also all the planets which move in their regular form do witness that there is a Supreme Creator.” (Alma 30:43.) To understand the natural laws, even of evolution and inheritance and mutation and natural selection, does not necessarily preclude the fact that these things, also, can testify of the wisdom of a Creator.

And if he did intervene, how? Does God reach through the quanta, the fabric of the universe? Is he a hidden order found in chaos? Does he reach through some brane, some interdimensional bulk, that some physicists theorize might be out there? Or is it through some process we still can’t begin to comprehend? Do we even have the right questions to begin to understand how God pierces the immanent with the transcendant?

I don’t know the answer to these questions. But I cherish the questions themselves. And I cherish the night sky, which grants me curiosity–a hint at the nature of reality all around me, a hint that, for me at least, begs interrogation. I’m reminded of the Emerson quote:

“If the stars should appear one night in a thousand years, how would men believe and adore; and preserve for many generations the remembrance of the city of God which had been shown! But every night come out these envoys of beauty, and light the universe with their admonishing smile.”


Daily Creativity (and one Meditating Ninja)

Austin Kleon, who wrote “How to Steal Like an Artist,” is a great example of someone who allows himself to be creative every day. If you look at his blog, you see that he regularly writes in a journal, makes drawings, doodles, and cuts up newspapers clippings into poetry. He often posts things he is watching or reading that inspires him. And he regularly posts things his kids have drawn, and his interactions with kids are a remarkable way to allow those “fantastic frustrations” (as a friend calls them) to spur one to greater activity.

I thought of Austin when I read a recent post by Scott Alexander, where he took a Tripadvisor review of Xanadu (the actual Summer palace of Kublai Khan) and rewrote it in the style of Coleridge’s famous poem. Scott’s creativity comes in a different form than Austin’s usually–it’s more logical and rational. But it’s no less creative.

Austin and Scott are great examples of people whose life is inherently creative. I admire them for that. Austin’s blog in particular is a large inspiration for this one–small and humble though it may be. I’m reminded of a quote from Deiter F. Uchtdorf:

The desire to create is one of the deepest yearnings of the human soul. No matter our talents, education, backgrounds, or abilities, we each have an inherent wish to create something that did not exist before.

Everyone can create. You don’t need money, position, or influence in order to create something of substance or beauty.

Creation brings deep satisfaction and fulfillment. We develop ourselves and others when we take unorganized matter into our hands and mold it into something of beauty—and I am not talking about the process of cleaning the rooms of your teenage children.

My resolution: I’m going to be more creative, every day, in some small way. (By this, I mean beyond interface design. My job is, gratefully, very creative.) So during a break at work, I drew this:

I call it: “Be Still, and Know that I Am Ninja”

Adobe Illustrator is Great

There’s a series of blog posts I want to write about voice interfaces, but I need to illustrate some things. And drawing–I love drawing, but I want something cleaner. So I found out that both my mother-in-law and my work have Wacom tablets. And guess what! They’re amazing. I was playing around in Adobe Illustrator today and had a lot of fun.

It’s neat when technology allows you to make cool stuff. As Horace wrote:

to push the elements together
In just the right way; such is the power of making
A perfectly wonderful thing out of nothing much.

Obviously there’s more that can be done, but I made my name in a ninja theme.

Hi-ya! Can’t wait to start drawing more tomorrow.

Making Poetry of Familiar Things

My aim is to take familiar things and make
Poetry of them, and do it in such a way
That it looks as if was easy as could be
For anybody to do it (although he’d sweat
And strain and work his head off, all in vain).
Such is the power of judgment, of knowing what
It means to push the elements together
In just the right way; such is the power of making
A perfectly wonderful thing out of nothing much.
—Horace, Epistles, ii.3

When I wonder how to best describe the creative act, the act of designing–whether it be an interface, a blog post, sketchnotes, art, or even a life–I find this Roman’s words particularly fitting.

Strange Roads, Chick-Fil-A, and Desire Lines

There’s a Chick-fil-A across the street from my office in Lehi that I sometimes go to. (I love their breakfast muffins.) Unfortunately, there’s a problem.

To showcase this problem, I pulled up this satellite picture of the situation. (It’s outdated, so I added a picture where Chick-fil-A is.) The blue arrows show how I turn from the highway into the road where Chick-fil-A (and my work) is.

Now, here’s the kicker. There are two roads you can use to get into this area. The road closest to Chick-fil-A, the road most natural to turn into, has a strange innovation: a triangle structure, which encourages cars only to turn in when driving north-from-south (in this picture, driving upwards toward the highway). So basically, if I’m coming on the blue arrows (from the north), they’re saying: take the next road, the green road. It’s longer, but the entrance is safer.

Here’s the thing. Ain’t nobody got time for that. People end up doing this:

Which is, mind you, unsafe–both to the drivers and to the pedestrians, because pedestrians aren’t expecting to have to look out for cars coming in this way, and because if the car has to stop for any reason, they’re in the line of traffic.

But here’s the thing: it’s also entirely natural–and it’s used more often than the “safe” (green) path. When I’m in the car, I expect to be able to take a left into that road. The triangle thing is so unnatural, even though it was probably built because the middle turn lane wasn’t long enough at that point. So it makes sense, perhaps, from a road design perspective; but it doesn’t make sense from what drivers expect.

This is an example, I’ve learned, of something called a desire line. I first read about these in the book Universal Principles of Design, where is says this:

Desire lines generally refer to to worn paths where people naturally walk–the beaten path that trails off the sidewalk, usually as a shortcut to a destination–but can be applied more broadly to any signs or traces of user activity in an object or environment. The implicit claim of desire lines is that they represent an unbiased indication of how an object or environment is actually used by people…

Wikipedia also adds some fun synonyms: “game trail, social trail, herd path, cow path, goat track, pig trail, use trail or bootleg trail.” I’ve also seen them called elephant tracks or “pedestrian’s revenge” (which wins for being the most memorable, I think). Again: they’re just the unpaved paths that develop based on animal and human traffic. If you google “desire lines,” you get pictures like this:

Which I think relates back to the Chick-fil-A example perfectly.

The obvious design implication for Chick-fil-A (and whoever owns or manages the property) is that this desire line, this evidence of human activity, is the preferred path. This is important–all the more so because this behavior has lots of implications for the safety of drivers and pedestrians alike.

The implications for designers generally is this: consider how users actually use your products. For interface design, this can be discovered through analytics, heat maps, and good old user testing. Where do people using the product stumble? How do they behave? Are there instances where they try to take a shortcut, using the product in an unintended way?

Something to think about. In the meantime, be careful when driving to Chick-fil-A!

The Prophetic Perfect

I’ve just begun Adam Miller’s An Early Resurrection. Before I even got into Adam’s actual words, I had to pause while reading this recommendation from another author:

When a prophet’s trust in God’s future promise was so sure that he lived as if it had already been fulfilled, a special Hebrew verb tense known as the prophetic perfect was used…

I love, love, love this. The idea behind the prophetic perfect was introduced to me years ago by LeGrand Baker, an LDS writer who argues here that one crucial aspect of faith is a “functional “hope… That is, taking the covenant at full value and acting or living as though the terms of the covenant were already fulfilled.” Again, in simple terms: we live as if we’ve already been judged and found worthy.

An obvious question here is: what does a disciple’s life look like, living in the “prophetic perfect?” What does it look to “live as if [God’s promises have] already been fulfilled”? (Words that come to mind: confident, hopeful, optimistic.) Adam Miller’s book tackles exactly these questions, and I can’t wait to read on!

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