Google on Material Design

Google has a really thoughtful specification for the design of smart objects with which people interact. It is mostly focused, of course, in the nature of representing virtual objects on screens, especially touch screens, but along the way it takes into consideration the fact that the virtual objects are on real screens that people hold in various ways. I take it that this is their version of Apple’s infamous HIG, Human Interface Guidelines, which I assume not only still exist but must have greatly expanded since I last looked at them and they only had to treat the Mac UI.

Unsticking Things

Sometimes you need to get unstuck. Here are a few techniques known to work:

  1. Invert the problem: what are the concrete things you could do to make the opposite result happen? Want to finish that book or article? What are the necessary steps to make sure you don’t finish it? (How many of those steps are you already undertaking?) Even if you end up with a depressing list of things you are already doing to undermine yourself, you can then begin to undo each of those things. Instead of whipping yourself for not getting the big thing done, focus on not doing one of the corrosive things. When you’ve stopped doing one, stop doing another. (It’s the opposite of creating a good habit: it’s eliminating bad habits. It seems silly, but what happens is you start finding yourself with time. If nothing else, maybe you’ll stare at the clouds more.)
  2. Eliminate the inessential: there is, perhaps apocryphal, story of Warren Buffett guiding his pilot through three steps. In the first, he tells the pilot to write down his top 25 career goals. In the second step, he tells him to circle his top 5. Then he asks, in the third step, about the remaining 20. When the pilot says those are important, too, and he’ll try to get to them, Buffett responds that those 20 are to be avoided at all costs. The logic here is that we spread ourselves too thin, we either want to do more than we can or we want to please more people than we can. The result is that we end up paralyzed by too much. Don’t be paralyzed. Focus on the most important things and get them done. Who knows, once they’re done, you can re-assess things and maybe some of those top 20 contenders will be in the next five. (Honestly, five things may be too many.)
  3. Use Eisenhower’s Box: Stephen Covey, so far as I can tell, adapted and refined the same box that Eisenhower used throughout his long and distinguished career. I’m guessing someone taught it to Ike, so it’s got some years on it. I could draw a diagram, but, honestly, you’ve seen this particular 2-by-2 grid so many times, you can imagine it for yourself — and that’s probably for the better:
    • IMPORTANT & URGENT: Do it now.
    • IMPORTANT BUT NOT URGENT: Schedule a time to do it.
    • NOT IMPORTANT BUT URGENT: Delegate it.
    • NOT IMPORTANT & NOT URGENT: Delete it.

The effectiveness is when you recognize that things like watching television or checking social media are probably in that last category. So, yeah, sorry about that.

James Clear is a big fan of the two-minute rule, which he divides into two parts. The first is taken from David Allen’s GTD methodology which dictates that anything that can be done in two minutes, that needs to get done, should get done right away. The second one is good: new habits should take less than two minutes to do. It’s one way to get them to stick.

Re-Reading Iain M. Banks’ “The Player of Games”

I remember the prominent display that Iain M. Banks’ The Player of Games enjoyed in the London bookstore from which I bought it. I remember the general layout of the store, and I have a sense of the street onto which it fronted, but I don’t remember the reason why I picked up the novel. I was looking for something to read, and I guess something about the cover appealed to me. I had not heard of Iain M. Banks previously, and while perhaps some part of me now wishes I had known about him sooner, it does not detract in any way from all the enjoyment I have received since from reading his Culture series — nor from the sadness I felt at learning he was leaving writing behind to enjoy his remaining time however he wishes. (And, as a family man myself, good for him. More on this family matter later, perhaps.)

The Player of Games was first published in 1988, but I stumbled across it in that London bookstore in 1997. By that time, Banks had published four of the nine novels that would become The Culture series and its one collection of short stories: Consider Phlebas (1987), The Player of Games (1988), Use of Weapons (1990), The State of the Art (1991) — the collection of short stories, and _Excession (1996). (I should note that I am using the Wikipedia entry to define novels in the series: it leaves out a novel like The Algebraist, which in my mind contained a reference to the Culture, but now I will need to re-read it.)

On a whim, in the middle of re-reading some of Alastair MacLean’s novels that constituted my introduction, for the most part, to adult literature, I found myself in front of our living room’s bookshelves and staring at the stretch of Banks novels. There are not that many such stretches of novels by single authors. Further along the same shelf are Gregory Benford’s Galactic Center novels, except, curiously, the first one, which I have never read. Other spans of books that I can name without looking at the shelves are the previously named MacLeans and Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin novels. (Curiously, they are all British authors.)

Re-reading The Player of Games, a novel in which the protagonist, Jernau Gurgeh, is, it turns out, tricked into playing the role of champion of the Culture in an exercise, a game, that lies at the heart of a empire. The Azadian Empire is a nasty affair, containing many, if not all, of the worst elements of our own human cultures: racism, sexism, willingness by the powerful to exploit everyone less powerful by any means not only necessary but also pleasurable. It is, as the ship Limiting Factor notes at one point in the middle of the novel in a conversation with Gurgeh, “a guilty system [that] recognizes no innocents” (171).

The novel’s focus is Gurgeh’s own developing consciousness of, and involvement in the game of Azad, the same name as the empire itself and the game through which positions within the power structure are determined, and some of the most compelling moments in the novel are those in which Gurgeh’s consciousness is fully immersed in the game play and Banks’ narration allows us to see the development of game play as Gurgeh himself sees it. Eventually Gurgeh realizes that he has been playing as a Culture person would play. In fact, for those familiar with Consider Phlebas and its description of how the Culture came to rally itself in the moment of the Idiran War. The history we glimpse in the early novel is that the war did not go well for the Culture at first, which, playing by its own rules of prizing life and peace above all else did not know how to respond to the single-minded, religiously-guided aggression of the Idirans. As the Culture came to grips with the fact that it was at war, it exercised a kind of fatalistic logic: allowing certain parts of its civilization to be taken or destroyed or destroying those parts it knew it would be too dangerous to turn over to the Idirans. The Idirans experience this turn as simply capitulation on the Culture’s part, but it is, in shades of Yamamoto’s observation about Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, more a case of a great giant having been awoken but not yet ready to act.

The ramifications of the Culture’s mobilization for war are a constant reminder throughout the series that probably deserves more serious treatment than I can give it here. In The Player of Games, Gurgeh is transported by the warship Limiting Factor which has been mothballed for 800 years — though, given that we learn that the Culture has had its eye on the Azad Empire for hundreds of years, that may not be entirely true either. In fact, much of what happens in the Culture series is really about necessary deceptions. Later, in Excession, when an entire fleet of mothballed warships are allowed to be taken by yet another empire about which the Culture has some concerns, we learn that a good portion of the entire Excession event was contrived by a group of Minds in order to put the Affronters in their place.

As always, the exercise is performed by an individual who is somewhat at odds with the Culture himself. In Consider Phlebas, our shapeshifter is turned off by the Culture’s logic and willingness to think like the machines upon which it depends–though he later comes to realize he has more in common with the Culture than his Idiran employers. In The Player of Games, Gurgeh comes to relish, in many ways, the vividness of life under the constant threat of death, dismemberment, or defamation. In Excession, Byr Genar-Hofoen actually opts out of the Culture at the end, choosing to become, biologically, an Affronter. In Use of Weapons, we find that we have been in the company of a homicidal monster the entire time, a deeply sorry one, but nevertheless a monster.

I don’t think it’s always the case with Banks’ protagonists, but I think a more clear enumeration of them and their development would make for an interesting project. Any analysis of Banks would make for a fun project. Thanks you, Iain (M.) Banks for all the fun.

Me a Data Scientist?

As things continue to deteriorate here in Louisiana, and it becomes increasingly obvious that what our administration wants from faculty, especially humanities faculty, is for us to become teaching bots, I find myself more and more interested in non-academic alternatives. And, the fact is that I really enjoy my current work on the small end of the big data revolution, or however it’s termed these days.

Mostly, it seems increasingly to be termed data science, but what people mean by that can vary. As I try to understand this emergent field, both from the removed position of a humanist just trying to track how ideas and practices play out in history as well as a humanist who maybe wants to play on those fields himself, I find myself looking at various data science programs. UC Berkeley’s School of Information offers a more traditional program, but there is also Zipfian Academy. They offer 12-week intensive programs and the possibility of some tuition relief. (And that sounds pretty good to a poor Southern humanist, or is a Southern humanist poor by definition?)

Retiring Python

James Hague is retiring Python as his preferred language for teaching programming. His reasoning is that so many of his students would like to be able to show friends and family the results of their efforts but that getting graphical results from Python is, well, circuitous quite often. The language with which he now wants to start beginners is Javascript.

File this under hmmmm.