What Are Friendships For?

Lately I’ve been wondering, “What are friendships for?” This is something I thought I had a good answer to until recently. Now, I am not so sure.

How I used to make friends

My first “friends” were other toddlers in the Mommy and Me program I attended around 2 years of age. I think the “friendship by circumstance” model did not change for most of my childhood and adolescence. I became friends with whoever was around me, or at least tried to do so. Who my classmates were and who was on my sports teams largely determined who my friends were. There was little intentionality about it.

How did we even identify each other as friends? Probably it was best described as “random”: liked the clothes we were dressed in, or laughed at the same joke, or just kept getting put together by our parents. Who knows for sure? I simply don’t have any tangible memories of these first encounters nor why the friendship stuck afterward. There are probably many friendships that didn’t stick, that I don’t even remember, that I can not compare them to as a result.

What I did with my friends

The things I remember doing with my friends seem trivial looking back. Part of the triviality is because we were children and the antics of children often appear trivial to adults. Part of the triviality is because they were trivial. There was no purpose other than to entertain ourselves for the hours we were together. There was no “productive” end to our get togethers other than to kill some time and keep being friends.

Bike rides around town. Making food and eating snacks. Doing homework together. Listening to music. Playing (video) games. Going on trips, occasionally. Swimming. Playing in the sand at the beach. Much later, playing poker late into the night, or grabbing a burger and a milk shake across town (no, this wasn’t the 50s).

I don’t remember a lot of direct sharing of ideas or philosophies, although this likely happened indirectly in the course of other conversations or embedded in the meta of our choices and behaviors and topics of chitchat. I did not have political friends and did not sit around arguing politics. I hung out with a pretty straight crowd so there was no doping or inebriating, and most of my friends weren’t musical, nor was I, so no jam sessions.

We came together either for a proscribed time (dictated by parents) or until we got bored of not being bored together (when we were older and self-mobile) and that was it.

When my ideas of friendship changed

There were two points at which my ideas of friendship, and how to select friends, changed. The first was attending college. What was the same as before is that the friendship opportunity set was largely dictated by who was in your dorm, at least freshman year, and who was in your classes. Or, if you studied abroad, who was on your trip. Nobody was making friends in the hallways of class.

But one thing that was different then was that you had to be much more intentional to make friends. Some people joined student groups or other social clubs that selected by intent. Even in class, you were mostly there for your own purposes and there were few group projects in lecture hall, so to make a friend you had to make an effort to chat with people you saw in class. And you started meeting more friends of friends, who might be attending different schools or not even attending school but simply living in the area.

The other point was when I entered the business world, and began relocating around the country for career reasons. You come across a lot of people in business, within your organization, amongst your customers, vendors, etc. It requires on the one hand more chance and on the other more intentionality to make friendships happen. People are at work for a reason– to get things done and make a pay check. Not everyone’s looking to plug in to friend networks.

When I started moving around the country, I started uprooting and cutting the cord on existing friend networks. It became more complicated to stay in touch. And I had to be even more intentional about making friends with people in new places. My friendships started being dictated less by circumstances and more by intentionality– what kind of interests did I want to intersect with potential friends on?

Why I’ve become selective about friendships over time

Looking back on a lot of earlier friendships, I have many happy memories, even when I am no longer friends with certain people, but the overriding theme that comes to mind is “waste.” A true waste of time. I was getting nothing done with these people! Just trying not to be bored. But not living with a purpose, and since there was no purpose there was no way for them to be a part of a purpose that I didn’t possess.

I have a lot more purpose in my life now. I’m not perfect, I still waste time, even with my friends. But my life is now largely guided by various purposes with specific goals at different points in time and my friendship intentions have been strongly influenced  by this fact. Now, I select friends who I think share my purpose, or are invested in supporting me as I attempt to live my purpose. It isn’t enough to just “be” with someone, killing time. We are being together for a reason and we’re aware of what we’re working on, either explicitly or in the background as the context of our life and thus our friendship.

I still get contacted from time to time by old friends, who still operate on the “killing time” principle and still want an opportunity to do that. I find I have little patience and even less interest in such outreach. It is not that I judge them or actively dislike them, though there are some people who I think are no longer suitable as friends based upon their habits or values in life. It is more that I see my time as scarce and I don’t want to spend it with people who aren’t actively supporting my purpose.

Where I have been frustrated in friendships– crystalization

In college, I read a book called “Bel Ami” for a course on La Belle Epoque literature. There were a number of ideas buried in Bel Ami, but one that we spent some time analyzing was the concept of crystalization in romantic relationships. The idea is that in every romantic relationship there is an imbalance of power based upon one partner crystalizing some ideal in the other partner and worshipping it. They live to serve this crystalized ideal and lose sight of themselves and their partners humanity. It breeds a sense of neediness that ultimately destabilizes the relationship and destroys it.

It’s an interesting theory, and it may be true of some romantic relationships, but it has never described mine. That being said, I think of it in broad terms when I think of some of my most frustrating friendships, former, current and potential or hoped for. Without getting into the idea of embodying an ideal, I have gotten a sense at times that I want to be friends with a person a lot more than they want to be friends with me. This creates an annoying (for me) instability and ongoing tension that usually resolves itself in the relationship failing completely. I don’t know if this is something other people experience, ie, it’s part of  being human, or if it’s part of my unique psychology. But it drives me nuts when it rears its ugly head!

My current theory of friendship

As my life has changed, my understanding of friendship and what it’s good for has changed. I now think about the principles of friendship as fraught with more meaning than I did in my prior periods of non-intentionality. What follows are some major concepts I find important in friendship today.

Improvement

One of my main purposes in life is to grow, to change, to learn and to get better. I define these things in terms of myself and whatever I believe is my potential or capability. Self-improvement is a theme. I value friendships that help me get better. I also value friendships with people who are clearly trying to do the same. I find I get frustrated with people who are happy with how things are, who are stuck in a rut, or who actively resist change and focus on tradition and the past. I intentionally select for an improvement mindset in my friends and I lose interest in people who either don’t seem to care about it or aren’t making progress.

Loyalty/bond/security

Loyalty isn’t everything, but it is certainly something. I seek to build an intentional community of people and a community doesn’t last long if it can’t support itself.

That being said, I look at loyalty a bit differently than most. When I think of loyalty, I think about the commitment a person makes to their friends not to be by their side without question, but to provide questions and feedback! To me, a friendship that is secure is one in which the friends feel comfortable to point out what could be improved, and how. I expect my friends to be open to feedback and to be willing to give it to me as well. Some of my greatest upsets have been friendships that try to paper over what is obviously not working, or which end abruptly without explanation of what wasn’t working.

Entertainment, relaxation

Of course I enjoy entertainment and I need relaxation. I do think “just hanging out” should be a good enough reason to get together with friends. But whereas in the past I was killing time when doing this, now I see the purpose in “just hanging out” is an opportunity to get a check in, to download what’s been going through one’s mind or what they’ve experienced of life recently, and to have a sounding board for processing troubles, thoughts, concerns or challenges.

I find that getting together to share entertainment and relaxation can often be a jumping off point for these kinds of deeper exchanges.

New ideas

I purposefully select friends who have some different ideas than me. I usually don’t select friends who think the opposite of something I think is a sound truth. I am not looking for a fight or to have what I consider true and valuable assaulted. But I am also not looking for a fellow sportsfan, so to speak, someone who agrees our team is the best team and all the other teams can die and that’s all there is to life. I like to be around people with different experiences, different skills and knowledge, who can introduce me to things I otherwise would never have thought about.

Exposure to good luck and opportunity/serendipity

This is something I’ve come to appreciate only recently, but one purpose to having friends is to be exposed to the luck they bring with them. It could be as simple as inviting you to a get together when you’re otherwise by yourself, or more profound like proposing a mutual excursion across the world. It could be buying you a drink, or buying you a meal, or buying you a gift. It could be making a connection to a person or idea that proves to be enormously valuable to you.

Friends bring with them all kinds of opportunity that can’t be predicted or understood ahead of time. And I think certain people have a higher serendipity curve than others and you can intentionally select for it.

Motivation to achievement and encouragement of the same

I now think that one of the most important aspects of friendship as I understand it now is the motivation friends can provide to greater achievement, and the opportunity they can give to be giving in the same way. It feels really great to help people get what they want from life and having friends who are bought in on you being bought in is a way to achieve that satisfaction.

A friendship built on trust and respect in my mind should lead to a concern with seeing each person achieve what they want to achieve and a sense of being invested in helping them get there.

Inspiration, lifestyle modeling

Taking the idea a step further, selecting friends who are especially good at achieving in some domain or in living the life they want in general is inspirational. It can give us ideas about how great our life can be and it can give us encouragement to make our life the way we want it to be. I try to select friends who are actively striving to get what they want in life, and succeeding, who can model for me what such achievements would like like if I were to do the same.

No one friend has it all

As a closing note, I think it’s important to realize that not every friend has it all. While I hope for some minimum level of competency or capability in each of the areas mentioned, people are unique and the distribution of such qualities is uneven amongst friends, potential and actual. You can get a lot of value out of your friendships even when each of your friends isn’t a superstar in every regard if you’re willing to meet that friend where they happen to be in life.

That being said, friends who don’t come close to some kind of “minimum standard” in some of these areas, or who actively work against my purposes entirely, usually don’t last long in my life.

Some Takeaways From My Time At The D.School

I’m back from Stanford’s d.school and have a few ideas I jotted in my notebook while I was there:

  1. Learn to celebrate failure; watch how you react to it
  2. Let go of your desire to control outcomes; with humans involved, nothing ever goes according to plan
  3. Try things, practice, iterate
  4. Don’t build expense into prototyping; the more it costs, the harder it is to iterate and change and the less you can learn from your failures
  5. Don’t make insight generation complicated
  6. Where is the burning platform? Look for that place and work on the problems involved
  7. Innovation is the outcome of a process, and innovators are the people who do it
  8. The design thinking process: empathize, define, ideate, prototype, test and back again
  9. The answers are not in this building
  10. When empathizing, spend 15% of your time engaging, noticing and following-up and 85% of your time seeking stories
  11. The purpose of your empathy research is to capture emotion; what is it? where does it come from?
  12. Gravitate in your empathizing and your design thinking process between flaring and focusing
  13. When defining, start with an observation, make an inference, then form a hunch that can carry you to insight
  14. Solve one problem at a time
  15. POV essentials: preserve emotion and the individual, use strong language, sensical wording, non-obvious leaps and generate possibilities that lead to problems the team wants to help solve
  16. 5 users are sufficient to capture 85% of usability cases
  17. Tail-end users have explicit needs and better represent the implicit needs of median users
  18. The future is already here, but it’s not evenly distributed
  19. Trusting relationships are the foundation of generative work
  20. Learn how things fail before it matters, not when it does
  21. You can only learn by doing, not by planning
  22. Match prototyping resolution to idea certainty to allow yourself to hear the inevitable critical feedback
  23. Testing = empathy; your prototype is your empathy probe
  24. The value is in the user and their emotions, not in the prototype or experience model itself
  25. The goal is to develop empathy with the user, not the make the prototype perfect; seek understanding
  26. All action aims at advancing the frame and the concept towards convergence
  27. What do your users say about the concept? The users’ reactions and excitement indicate proximity to convergence and likely next steps
  28. 3 elements of storytelling: action, emotion and detail
  29. 100% of people who succeed, start
  30. Struggle and learning are complements; there is no learning without struggle, and the more one struggles, the more one has opportunity to learn; you can not master new knowledge from a place of comfort

Some or even many of these are probably difficult to make sense of or place without further context about the design thinking process.

Intro to Design Thinking

I have the privilege of attending the Stanford d.school’s Design Thinking Bootcamp, an opportunity I was turned on to by a friend in the venture capital community. In preparation for the program, attendees were asked to conduct an “Ideation” session at their place of work with other managers and decision-makers in their organization. This is an opportunity to not only get an introduction to the attitudes and tools used in design thinking, but also to begin practicing with these ideas immediately within one’s business as part of the design thinking meta is “a bias toward action.”

Here are some takeaways about thinking creatively and generating ideas in a collaborative environment that I’ve gained so far:

  • Adopt a “Yes, and…” Attitude
  • First generate, then evaluate
  • Don’t just find one idea
  • Think in terms of a specific problem
  • Focus on emotions
  • Use constraints to increase idea volume
  • Use analogous thinking to go some place else
  • Use “QBD” to evaluate ideas
  • Think about the “headline”, not the “article”
  • If it doesn’t get written down, it didn’t happen

More details on each of these ideas, and impressions from my actual ideation sessions, follow:

Adopt a “Yes, and…” Attitude

When people come together to create ideas, they have a habit of seeking to find what is wrong with their collaborators thinking, rather than what is right. The goal in design thinking is to first come up with a lot of ideas, not to find the “right” idea as quickly as possible. A helpful attitude to adopt is “Yes, and…” which means, whenever your collaborators come up with an idea, reply “Yes, and…” and then build off of their idea, either with an additional flourish or iteration, or with another idea you have in mind that their idea has led you to think. Don’t try to make yourself look smart, try to make your partners look brilliant.

First generate, then evaluate

Another intuitive habit most people bring with them to creative sessions is to try to evaluate ideas as fast as they’re generated. No sooner does someone have a new idea than does that person, or a collaborator, try to figure out if the idea “fits” with the constraints of the project. Many ideas that are either excellent on their own, or could lead to an excellent and realizable idea, are tossed out in the instant evaluation before they’ve had a chance to make an impact. Get in the habit of separating the generation of ideas and the thinking through the merits of the ideas generated. Never confuse the two or allow the processes to mingle in your thoughts or practice.

Don’t just find one idea

When you’ve got a problem, you only need ONE solution. And ultimately, you can only implement one solution– time, resources, etc. are scarce. So it’s easy to think the goal is to “just come up with one idea.” But trying to find the right idea means evaluating as you generate, and it also means pre-qualifying your own thinking before you even generate ideas. Your goal in ideation is actually to generate as many ideas as you can, regardless of whether they make sense, actually solve your problem, are feasible, etc. Go for quantity, not quality, when generating ideas.

Think in terms of a specific problem

It helps to come up with ideas when your problem is specific enough to be solved by an idea you come up with. This means thinking in terms of a specific group of people and in terms of a specific change you want to bring about, either an action or a state of mind. A prompt that can help is to frame your problem with this ad lib– “What can we create for… [specific group of people] that makes them/that helps them [choose one] … [a physical action you want them to take, or a state of mind you want them to adopt]?” An example would be, “What can we create for 10 to 12 year old kids that makes them excited to eat vegetables?” The problem is specific– it is about 10 to 12 year old kids, a group of people with distinct qualities. And what the solution provides is also specific– it will generate a feeling of excitement in them in relation to their eating vegetables.

Focus on emotions

You’ve got your problem. It’s important to think of the mental state of the “user” you’re solving for. Almost inevitably, finding a solution will involve focusing on the change in the mental state that is necessary to motivate action. Sometimes, the change in the mental state by itself is the goal, for example, “What can we create for customers who are angry with us that will make them love us and tell all their friends?” Translating the problem during the ideation process into an emotional state creates a valuable constraint (discussed below) for increasing idea volume.

Use constraints to increase idea volume

It is counterintuitive, but putting constraints on your idea process actually allows you to be even more creative because it focuses the mind in specific ways. Some constraints used as examples in the ideation workshop were “Every idea must cost $1 million” or “Every idea must get you in trouble with your boss”. Imagine you actually have a budget constraint– you only have $50,000 to spend on a solution. Coming with the REAL budget as a constraint is likely to limit your thinking because you’ll immediately begin pre-qualifying and evaluating ideas as you try to generate them.

But if you invert the real constraint into an imaginary one where you must SPEND a large sum of money on your idea as a minimum, you will end up with a sense of much more freedom. Later, you can take those high dollar ideas and figure out how to reduce the cost to something that is actually affordable. The inversion process allows you to hurdle over your real constraint which would limit your creativity and therefore your ability to find a real solution.

You could think of arbitrary constraints, simply to inspire creative and offbeat thinking, or you could try inverting real constraints to trick yourself into thinking past them. The d.school profs use the metaphor of the thumb over the garden hose, which forces high pressure jets of water to spray over a larger area versus just using the innate pressure of the hose which tends to dribble out.

Use analogous thinking to go some place else

Another tool for successful ideation is to create analogous situations and imagine how those people or institutions would handle the creation of a solution for your problem. To find analogies, you translate your problem into the emotional state, mentioned earlier. Sometimes it’s easy and obvious, because you already have an emotional change as a condition of your solution. But if you don’t, this can take some creativity in and of itself to figure out what the emotion is you’re searching for. As an example, if your problem was “What can we create for our hiring department that helps them to only hire people who exceed our standards?” the emotional state might be “confidence.”

Once you have your emotional state, you must ask yourself, “What kind of person, group or place is superb at generating this kind of emotion?” Once you have a list of such entities that excel at generating this emotion, you can do an iterative process of asking yourself, “What would X create for… that helps them/that makes them…?”

Now you are in someone else’s shoes, thinking about the world the way they do and you have unlocked an entirely different form of creativity from your own.

Use “QBD” to evaluate ideas

Okay, you’ve got a ton of ideas at this point. Now it’s (finally) time to evaluate them. But you’re not just going to start deciding which are possible and which are insane. Instead, you’re going to use more creativity to evaluate your ideas. You’re going to think about which ideas are Quick, Breakthrough or Delightful.

Quick ideas may not be full or perfect solutions, but they could be reasonably implemented right away and this incremental progress would have an immediate impact– things would get better as far as your problem is concerned. This is an important way of thinking about selecting solutions because often no solution is found in search of a holistic or perfect one, which either doesn’t exist or can’t be accessed in a linear way of thinking. By selecting a Quick solution, you can take steps toward what might be a final, perfect solution and get a win in the meantime.

Breakthrough ideas might not work, but if they did, they’d be a game changer. They’d be an all new way of solving the problem, or they’d give the group who employs them a distinct competitive advantage, or greatly leverage their efforts. Breakthrough ideas help us think about how to shift paradigms and find solutions that don’t just work, but work insanely well.

Delightful ideas are just that– if we implement them, people feel GREAT. And feeling great is an important part of solving problems and making progress in our work or business. When we find Delightful ideas, we find ways to inspire, motivate and energize people that can lead to other creativity or effectiveness that we can’t imagine or anticipate in simply solving the problem.

Think about the “headline”, not the “article”

When generating and sharing ideas, it’s important to think and communicate in terms of the big impact, high level concept of the idea and not get bogged down in the nitty gritty details– that way lies the habit of criticizing, condemning and evaluating before a good idea can take root, or inspire another. The instructors refer to this as thinking about the “headline” and not the “article.” An example would be, “Hire an expert interviewer” versus “Find a person with X years of experience interviewing people, pay them $Y per year, assign them duties of A, B and C, they will report to Z and will be measured in their performance by E, F and G.” You can find any number of things in the article version that might be unrealistic or impractical, if you can even come up with all the necessary details. It is putting the cart before the horse. You first have to come up with the big idea and see how it could lead to a Quick, Breakthrough or Delightful improvement for your problem, and then you can go about fleshing it out and figuring out how to make it practically work.

If it doesn’t get written down, it didn’t happen

This idea is a good practice for any meeting or information-sharing activity of any kind but it seems to be especially relevant to the process of ideation– if you aren’t writing ideas down as you’re coming up with them, they may as well not exist. By the end of a 1hr long ideation session, you might have come up with fifty or sixty different ideas and concepts as a team. Who can remember what those were by the end of it? So it is important to write them down as you go. The instructors recommend using sticky notes and slapping them on the wall as you go, which not only serves to keep things written down and makes it easy to move ideas around as you review and ideate, but the small amount of space necessarily forces one to think in “headline” terms.

Another thing that should be written down, repeatedly, is the prompt of the problem you are trying to solve (“What can we create for…?”) as well as the specific constraints, analogies, etc., that you are bringing to bear on them as you focus your ideation in different ways.

Our experience with ideation as a team

My ideation workshop involved 5 other people in our organization in addition to myself, all group managers or individuals with lead authority at the operating unit level. We split up into 2 teams of three to work through our ideation process.

One takeaway is that collaborative idea generation is FUN. We genuinely had a good time working together to come up with solutions to our organization’s problems. There was a lot of laughter, spirited talking and debate and enthusiasm. Often times a team would race ahead with a prompt or keep working after designated time was up because they were so caught up in their thinking and idea generation.

Another takeaway is that anyone can be creative. Most of the operating managers were selected because they tend to experiment and try new things in their operations, but what really makes them excellent in their roles is that they relentlessly stick to a proven system of processes and procedures. There may have been some fear that people who are really good enforcing a set of orders might not be able to come up with creative new ideas. This just wasn’t the case. They all had a ton of ideas and I think one thing that was clear by the end of the session was that everyone would’ve liked to have selected their individual problem they brought to the group for ideation work when we could only pick one at a time.

A third takeaway is that the trail one follows to arrive at workable solutions often starts in an unpredictable and highly abstract place. It highlighted for us the value of every idea generated, and the importance of separating generation from evaluation. Where you start is rarely where you will end and if you can embrace the idea of accepting all ideas as valuable and disregarding their merit or feasibility at the outset, you can let those ideas unlock all kinds of interesting solutions you otherwise may not have accessed.

Finally, we realized that even when we came up with an idea that we thought was Breakthrough or Delightful, but lacked obvious practical application, we could begin “trimming” and paring down the idea from there to find something we COULD do with it that still tapped into the essence or principle of the original idea. For example, one group came up with the idea of hiring a professional athlete to be a motivational coach to our organization’s managers. We don’t have the budget for that, nor is that athlete necessarily available for hire, but we can think about what kind of qualities we believe he would bring to such a role and look for a person we could hire that can bring those qualities, or the way we could change processes or definitions of roles within the organization to incorporate those values we now realize are essential to helping us solve a known problem. I think of this as “analogizing from the analogy”.

I can see how the ideation process, which we are just being introduced to through this practice work, can add value for all people at all levels of responsibility within our organization. It is inspiring and motivating, it creates the “bias towards action” in the person doing it and it yields real results which can actually make things better for us, our customers and our team. I am sold!

Thoughts on Constructing A Library

I am going to jot a few notes on the subject of library (as in, personal book collection, not edifice) construction that I’ve been considering lately.

When reading stories of intellectual and political figures of the past, such as Thomas Jefferson or Napoleon Bonaparte, I realized that possessing a substantial library of works of interest and fame was part of standard operating procedure for literate men of the past. When I say substantial, I am talking about private collections numbering ten to twenty-thousand individual hardbound volumes, or when traveling, taking one or two trunkloads of books with the traveler to aid in research and study.

It’s a pretty different commitment to book warehousing and travel from having a few shelves of things you’ve read, or grabbing a couple books and stuffing them into your suitcase for an upcoming flight. Even in the age of Kindle, it’s akin to having a multi-gigabyte device dedicated solely to storing your library.

I haven’t kept track of how many books I’ve read so far in my life, and it’s not exactly apples-to-apples to include childhood picture books in the same measure as thousand page social philosophy treatises. But even if you excluded everything I read before age 19 or 20, which is probably the point in my life where I got “serious” about reading and was mostly reading non-fiction for information and analysis rather than fiction to pass the time or have my imagination stimulated (although, like many teenagers, I did manage to consume Atlas Shrugged during this “non-serious” period), I would still feel comfortable saying the number is “thousands”, especially if you include partially read titles. Probably less than five thousand, but definitely more than one thousand.

I don’t have most of those titles in my possession. Over the last seven or eight years, I consumed many works (especially about business, investing or economics) digitally, and over the last two years I have become an active “purger”, selling, donating or simply tossing books I didn’t bother to read, didn’t bother to finish or didn’t think I’d get any additional value out of in owning them. Most of what is on my shelf at home right this moment are either unread-waiting-to-be-read, or read-and-coming-back-to-them titles. I guess you’d call the latter “reference” titles, but I actually have few reference titles and I mean more of the idea of doing a full-reread to see how my understanding and appreciation of what I previously deemed a worthy title has changed as I’ve changed.

I wonder if purging is a good approach for a few reasons. One is that I have a child now, and hope to have more. I like to think I’ve spent a lot of time reading and sorting knowledge contained in books and I’ve wasted my time on many in order to find the few quality gems, the essential titles in some field that can quickly give one a nuanced understanding of the major and minor issues alike in some discipline. This time I’ve invested is a sunk cost, and being able to hand over a ready-culled library of the “classics” and “greatest hits” to my children and grandchildren seems like part of the social capital of our family.

A problem I have with this logic is that I found a lot of these books by exploring specific questions I had prior to reading them. I arrived at the good stuff through a meaningful epistemological journey that probably would not be as valuable or even as coherent as it was if I had leapt straight from my starting inquiry to the most elucidated truth in the best book. I had to fight for the knowledge I came by and do my own hard thinking and analyzing as I went. Handing someone a ready-constructed library of “essential knowledge” lacks context and it also lacks respect for their own curiosity.

Similarly, as the RIE-philosophy of infant care-giving reminds us (I think derived from Montessori), when you teach a child something, you take away forever his chance to discover it himself. There’s something cognitively valuable in the act of discovery that inheriting a library might obviate.

On the other hand, “on the shoulder of giants”… so perhaps my issue will see farther than me if they start not at the starting line, as I did, but far beyond the finish line in another race entirely.

Another problem with purging is that we are quickly losing a sense of literary history and context with the rise of Google and Amazon. With Google, we convince ourselves that anything worth knowing can be easily searched for, and that it isn’t important to understand the source or genesis over time of certain ideas, only what the latest conclusions are. With Amazon, we come to understand the literary universe as being composed of recently published, hot-selling titles (usually rehashes of old ideas, reformulated for the latest audience fad or interest) and a few older works deemed “classics” because they don’t manage to offend anyone. There are literally hundreds of thousands of titles people used to read, adore and consider categorical in their respective field that aren’t in print and that are essentially invisible to modern readers unless you know what to look for. There are also thousands of titles that reflect the losing side in a historical conflict, of ideas or arms or otherwise, that are not considered “truthful” simply because that side lost. Those are perspectives worth thinking about still if one wants to hone one’s critical mind and maintain a level of scientific objectivity in one’s thinking.

So I worry that some of the great stuff I’ve come across, my children will simply not see if I don’t keep it in my library for them. Especially if they are about ideas I think are important and honest, but which end up “losing the battle” during our lifetime and become non-PC. Down the memory hole!

Storing all these books has an economic cost. There is also search costs in looking through them when seeking a title out if they’re too numerous. And while I’ve spent tens of thousands of dollars on books over the years, I’ve mostly acquired paperbacks. I wonder if these are durable and can stand the test of time.

I am currently not resolved on the question of “To construct a library for myself and my posterity, or not?” One thing I do know, is that there is something wrong with a home (or office!) that contains no books, or that contains only books selected by others and not by oneself, or received for promotional reasons alone. It would be a major mistake to raise children in a place where books weren’t an ever-present part of their surroundings, even if the total quantity and methodology of selection behind the “library” remains in a negotiated state.

A Quick Thought On SEO

I think search engine optimization of websites and web content (ie, site copy, the actual words you write on a website or blog) is ruining the web. Allow me to explain.

SEO requires a site author to adopt a set of practices in sourcing, writing and formatting content that makes that content more easily crawled by a search bot, thus leading to improved search relevancy and higher traffic. The merit of the approach is that more people interested in what your site is about are able to find it. In economics this is called lowering transaction costs, and it leads to gains through efficiency. The entire field of marketing and advertising deals with search efficiency in a theoretical sense– ensuring the maximum number of potential consumers of a product or service are aware of its existence, capable of affording it and able to make use of it.

SEO gimmicks change all the time. This is because people selling SEO services are constantly studying new search engine rules and then coming up with strategies for gaming the intent of the rule to exploit it. As a result, search engine rules change and SEO changes occur in lock step. But some aspects of SEO seem rather hardcoded, due to the nature of non-human agents (search bots) being the driving mechanism of web crawling.

Three major hard structures seem to be present in SEO recommendations no matter the rules. One is the recommendation to pepper one’s site with relevant “keywords” that help a bot quickly catalog a site’s content as part of this or that interest set. Another is to write content with clear subheadings that indicate the logical structure of the content and again provide a kind of mini-keyword set to what is on the page. The final recommendation is to write really short paragraphs, using short sentences and simple words. The idea here is this is “readable”, especially on mobile devices and especially by search bots who might find long arguments and linguistic nuance difficult to parse.

All of these things suck and make for shitty human-read websites.

The worst offenders of keywords write jumbled, nonsensical content strewn with locations, service names, emphatic descriptors and other errata that is literally incomprehensible to a human reader and is only good for a bot. But it ends up on the page, visible to humans, resulting in a confusing mess. The more savvy offenders try to make the keywords seem contextual by purposefully writing the content in such a way that keywords replace the word that might make naturally come to mind in a given place. This content reads like someone is being paid to name-drop or use particular words, that is, it’s jarring.

The use of subheadings breaks up the flow of an essay, article or argument. It rewards the proverbial reader with ADD, who can’t be bothered to follow a train of thought for more than 15 seconds. It demeans the audience by suggesting they need the structure of the message highlighted and flagged lest they lose their way trying to find their own footing. It violates the law of simplicity, adding things that aren’t necessary when so much of good writing comes from taking more and more away.

The blasphemy of the final SEO recommendation should be readily apparent. Read any classical treatise, any philosophical work, anything at all written by a serious thinker, especially long ago. See if you can find many paragraphs shorter than half a page. See if you can find many chapters that don’t contain words you need to look up in a dictionary. In other words, see if you can find any kind of writing that doesn’t require the reader to work hard to get the reward of understanding from the author, an individual who has likely striven even more mightily in his life to be in such a position as to bequeath his knowledge in a text. Now, ask yourself, what kind of quality can we expect from writing whose primary virtues are to be contained in short paragraphs, in shorter sentences and in words a barely educated 10 year old finds himself conversant?

So let it be known, here at A House Rises, we’ll be taking a stand against this SEO nonsense. We will optimize nothing but the power of our ideas and the gloriousness of the writing we use to wield them. We will write for people, not algorithms, and rely on common word of mouth and the virus of impulse to spread our content to the right people at the right time. We’ll write things we are proud of, about things we actually care about, with an authenticity fitting to us and our purpose in sharing our ideas. To hell with the rest of it!

Infographic – Popular Housing Design Styles (#architechture, #style, #design, #housing)

I saw this on McMansionHell.com:

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Notes – Edward Tufte’s “Presenting Data and Information” (@EdwardTufte, #display, #data, #visualization, #design, #statistics)

Edward Tufte is a Yale-connected academic who conducts several private seminars around the country each year promoting his view of visual design for the display of quantitative information and statistics. He has published multiple books through his own publishing mark such as The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, Beautiful Evidence, Envisioning Information and Visual Explanations. His personal website which contains articles, research papers, examples of his work and principles and other information is at EdwardTufte.com. A friend who is a fan has blogged some notes about the man and his seminar courses.

If I were to summarize Tufte’s philosophy of information design into a single sentence, which is certainly a crude way to approach the nuanced and thoughtful lifework of a person, I’d say this– beautiful design means creating the highest density information display the resolution of your medium will allow. This stands in stark contrast to the reigning paradigm of “less is more” and sacrificing much of the available real estate of an information display for white/empty space, navigational or UI elements and “inference assists” (my term) such as arrows, boxes and non-data lines which are supposed to draw the viewer’s attention to what’s important or where to focus their eyes.

In Tufte’s own words, he summarized the philosophy with the pithy, “The information is the interface; maximize content reasoning time; minimize design decoding time.” [Note: on my hand-written notes written in a darkened room early in the morning at the start of his seminar, I think I mistakenly wrote “maximize design decoding time” but meant to write “minimize”.] Even more pithy, and in Tufte’s own words:

The purpose of information display is to assist thinking about its content.

I attended his seminar in San Diego, CA in February. Below I am posting my notes which may or may not be useful to a person unfamiliar with his work or the content of the seminar. Tufte, who introduces himself as “ET”, likes to circulate amongst his audience before, during and after the session and introduce himself– clearly he enjoys what he does and appreciates the people who have taken an interest in his work which is a good professional example for others to follow.

  • The information is the interface.
  • Idea: maximize content reasoning time; minimize [maximize? see above] design decoding time
    • design decode effort/time is wasteful as the pattern for design is often not repeated in the future
  • Graphics are only useful when there is a lot of data, not a little bit of data
  • Design should encourage scanning, scrolling and choosing
  • Increases in resolution allows for spatial adjacency [note: this is the idea of putting lots of information side-by-side versus having to change mediums, windows, displays, repeatedly to compare and contrast blocks of information]
  • Digital display screen resolution is finally approaching “P.A.P.E.R. technology” (paper) resolution
  • Simple, clear conventional design with rich, complex data is preferable to complicated design devoid of content; many designers invest too much effort in display relative to content quality
  • NYT, WSJ are highly trafficked websites high in information density (many links, many pieces of data and text) which demonstrate this approach is desirable for design of corporate sites
  • Names have reputations, put your name on your work
  • Reasoning on a flat surface means all viewers can go at their own pace; a slideshow makes most people wait; think “documents” not “decks”
  • Listing sources for data provides credibility and reasons to believe
  • Look at sources, start points, end points, rates of change, to examine whether a chart establishes a relationship between evidence and conclusion
  • Annotations help explain all data by providing specific information about one data point captured in the graphic
  • Look at “excellence in the wild” to contrast your own efforts against the pros
    • Use Word, not PowerPoint
    • Be web-based
  • Order data tables by performance, not by alphabet; performance often tells a story
  • ESPN.com demonstrates that even complex data can be appreciated by lesser intellects (!)
  • Dashboards are idiotic and no way to operate a business or institution
  • How to Make A Presentation, some tips:
    • show up early (head off problems, ensure equipment works, room not double-booked, etc.)
    • talk to people
    • give them a document for discussion; don’t give it in advance of the meeting, no homework
    • begin meetings with study hall, people can read faster than you talk
    • the document addresses the principles of individualism and personalization as people can take what information from it they deem important
    • PPT disappears as you go higher up an org chart, the top execs have no time for the “long and winding road” (Steve Ballmer anecdote); submit ideas to discuss as written documents
    • provide intellectual leadership about content, stop discussing production methodology
    • finish early, your audience will thank you
    • Remember “Problem, Relevance, Solution”, three necessary components of any good presentation
  • How does Jeff Bezos run a meeting? Read the Forbes article or watch this Charlie Rose interview:
  • Applied presentation tip– provide notes/documents of medical concerns for a doctor to read during your doctor visit; this is what they’re trained to do and they’ll pay more attention to the information if you give them something to read
  • Check out The Public Library of Science and its templates for ideas on content rich documents
  • You can copy the source code from EdwardTufte.com and use the CSS to apply style ideas to your own blog or website
  • Real reading entails looting and hacking the valuable materials useful for later efforts, liberating them from the text; always read with an awareness for context (what came before this, what comes after, why did the author write it?); this echoes the idea of “making the work your own” of Mortimer Adler
  • Refer to “Beautiful Evidence”, pg. 78-79, using diagram trees appropriately (annotated linking lines)
    • links need to convey causality and action
    • replace generic lines with words and numbers– annotate!
  • Turn fundamental principles of analytical thinking into design decisions
  • The purpose of information display is to assist thinking about its content
  • Don’t pre-specify a data display method, use whatever method the job requires
  • Look at Google Maps and ask IT why you can’t achieve similar design capabilities; their maps are rich, colorful, multi-dimensional, varied fonts and orientation of information, etc.
  • Refer to “Visual Explanations”, pg. 90-91
  • Refer to “Beautiful Evidence”, pgs. 82-83, 114-115; exploring words, numbers and images together
  • Today’s computer interfaces separate and segregate information based on the method of production
  • Statistical graphics can be anywhere a number or letter can be
  • Statistical graphics can have the same resolution as topography
  • Refer to “Beautiful Evidence”, pg. 46-47, “sparklines” method for creating text-sized data graphics, embedded within text (inspired by Galileo’s revelation of Saturn)
  • “Nature” magazine has some of the best data-driven graphical displays, good place to look for examples of the possible
  • Why aren’t all data displays excellent? Tufte suggests there is a profit-driven bias and the dominance of Microsoft combined with the lack of scientific rigor of many data designers results in a failure of the “public spirit” principle; color me skeptical about profit and “public spirit” being at odds!
  • Excel, Google Analytics can both produce sparklines
  • Refer to “Beautiful Evidence”, pg. 58, for the famed Swiss mountain maps, or see this video (YouTube):
  • The human eye-brain optic system operates at 20mb/s in 16-bit color, digital displays don’t come close to this much data and resolution
  • Content and credibility are the keys to presenting and spectatorship
    • have the sources been credible in the past?
    • demonstrate your understanding of detail and mastery of verbs, not nouns (not who is who, but who does what to whom?)
    • threats to credibility: lying, cherry-picking (evidence vs. evidence selection), over-polished, hidden or absent sources (“proprietary”, “legal liability”, “violate federal law”, etc.)
  • Know your content, not your audience; maintain respect for your audience
    • “know your audience” leads to pandering
    • use presentations as a teaching moment to inform people of your content
  • Scan lots of material and drill down where you see discrepancies for superior economization on large volumes of data to achieve relevance
  • Investigate how data was measured; go out, walk around, see the process producing the data
    • people can not keep their own score; the metric is gamed as soon as it becomes important
    • eg, Google words are gamed by SEO, so use Google Images to search
  • Refer to “Beautiful Evidence”, pg. 32-33 for “small multiples” concept; use the need to learn a repetitious format to get people to focus on the content
  • Universality and “forever ideas”; Galileo was the supreme data designer; why should the “best thing ever” have occurred recently versus long ago?
  • Personal curiosity– why are US internet pipelines significantly slower than other developed nations?
  • Spatial adjacency versus temporal stacking (hi-res vs. low-res)
  • Different modes of display are not competitors, they are co-operators in communicating information; no one display is optimal

     

Longshan Temple and the Night Market (#travel, #Taiwan, #Asia)

This is a post from Taipei that didn’t get up in time because my battery was dying on my phone and then I forgot to go back and upload it when I had a charge.

We took a free walking tour with Tour Me Away – Taipei to see one of the nightmarkets. This was our 2nd or 3rd night in town.

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This is a lion statue near the Longshan Temple MRT stop, about a block from the temple. I love these things, I never get tired of seeing their slight variations around town.

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This is the entrance to Longshan Temple. The central doors of big temples like this are often closed off and only opened for visiting dignitaries or major holidays. Like most of the temples we found, you enter on the right side (out of frame) and leave from the left side. Each side is guarded by an animal, I believe it is the dragon on the right and the tiger on the left. Going in this order is Feng Shui and gives you good luck because the dragon is a positive luck symbol and leaving out of the tiger is like avoiding its jaws and danger. So going in reverse is just the opposite and bad luck– tiger gon’ eat ya!

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This is an image of some of the detail on the temple.

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Detail of a lantern. My Nexus 5 camera obviously doesn’t do great in varied lighting conditions but I still think this lit lantern is interesting.

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Detail of a dragon statue.

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This is the inner temple. I don’t know what the proper term is but that’s what I am calling it. Inside this structure are the various Chinese gods that the temple goers worship at for luck, happiness, marital bliss, a good crop, what have you.

On the right, out of frame, is a “hospital” area where a person can go buy what is essentially like a lottery ticket. The funds go to the temple to provide alms to the poor and keep up the structure. It’s almost like an indulgence. You get this little lottery ticket and it has a lucky number or some kind of fortune cookie saying on it that is supposed to calm your anxiety and help you on in your troubles.

It’s really smoky inside the entire temple despite so many outdoor areas because people are just constantly burning incense and waving it around.

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This incense urn in the inner temple sports a couple of Dutch colonists who have been condemned to bear the heavy burden of the urn cap. We were told by the young tour guides that this was a kind of damnation for their cruelty during the colonial occupation of Taipei. I guess the locals and the colonists didn’t get along.

In the back of the outer courtyard surrounding the inner temple, more Chinese god statues were being prayed to for various purposes. One common one is a God that grants students success in their tests for school. Another is a God that grants good luck in finding a partner. Pursuants grab a pair of red banana-shaped tokens and cast them on the ground near the idol. The way the tokens land indicate different results in terms of the hoped for outcome. It’s common for pursuants to throw the tokens repeatedly until they get three signals in a row for the outcome they’re after.

Back in the main temple, more luck and gods favor games. This time one with numbered sticks and corresponding numbered drawers with the fortune paper on it. While explaining and demonstrating these processes, one of our guides unnerved a worshipper mightily because she had removed some of the sticks from the jar without using them, thus throwing off the cosmic chances of achieving a particular lucky combination.

All I could think was, isn’t that part of your luck, to not get a fair draw? The irony of using ones rational intelligence and purposeful efforts to influence desired outcomes was completely lost on this person.

The grounds around the temple are now and traditionally have been a kind of safe place for vagrants and the down on their luck. This is because the temple historically has served as a conduit between the charity of the wealthy who provide it and the indigent who are in need of it. It creates a somewhat seedy atmosphere around the temple which is only reinforced by the night market.

Now, night markets are perfectly innocent. They’re mostly markets that are open late with hawker food stands and the odd vendor of trinkets and trash. But there is a reason these vendors are open so much later than everyone else and the atmosphere is strangely marginal. Some people (like the Wolf) find them interesting but I don’t too much, and most of the food just doesn’t appeal to me.

So we walked around, saw the restaurant where people eat snakes and take the 5 shot challenge (snake blood, snake urine,…) Walked down the alley where the brothels pose as some kind of men’s parlor and are tolerated by the community, toured the hawker stands and then went home for the evening. We were bushed and its a lot of excitement to take in late at night.

More images from Hong Kong (#travel, #HK)

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Creative outrage at Chinese Communist party social priorities.

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Graffiti temple dragon murals

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Pagoda and pond in a park, or as the signage refers to them as, a “sitting-out area”

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Burning incense bells in a street side temple

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Another small temple

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A view down a street in the hills

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More towering buildings and density

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“Dog parking” in Stanley

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“Dog latrine”

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Chungking Mansions, “the most globalized place on Earth” reportedly home to people representing over 130 nationalities and a notoriously seedy public housing project turned marginal trading post

Passing through Taipei (#travel, #Taiwan, #Asia)

We’re on the second leg of our trip home, connecting from Singapore in Taipei. I remembered that I forgot to share about our visit to the Taipei Municipal Water Museum when we were here last week.

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This building and pump system was constructed by the Japanese administrators after Taiwan was transfered to Japan by the Qing Dynasty. It was constructed around the 1920s, maybe earlier, I don’t remember. We have to assume the city didn’t have anything like this prior to the Japanese building it as I saw no mention of it replacing any previous water sanitation system.

The system is fed by gravity from a canal that diverts water from a nearby river. The dirty water is pumped up an incline to create pressure where it is gravity fed into a filtration system below. The water passes through various sand compartments and is filtered of particulate. The clean water then enters the second half of the installation and is pumped back uphill to create pressure and is then gravity fed into the distribution network of mains around the city.

The project is fascinating for its technological complexity. It required knowledge of hydraulic engineering, metallurgy, electricity, biology, physics, masonry, and mechanical engineering to construct. It undoubtedly took the labor of hundreds of people to construct and operate. While the pumping station has been replaced by modern equivalents, the filtration system is still in use and has been expanded and the general principle of operation remains the same.

The Japanese left many legacies like this behind them. Setting aside the brutality of their occupation, they left many cultural, edible, and practical social improvements behind them that the Taiwanese admire to this day.

Why did the Japanese feel they must expand their influence through militarism and conquest? Why couldn’t a Japanese engineering firm have been hired to construct this project on the basis of market principles and freely entered contracts?

How much different could history be, and how much further ahead socially would southeast Asia be, if the Japanese had been captured by a more peaceful ideology?