What is Design?

Design is a loaded term, Wikipedia’s states there is actually no formal definition for design and goes on to provide a typical scientific definition, which is a fairly useless way of describing anything. Dan Saffer’s presentation on designing with technology offers two key quotes that provide a perspective on design that I found both useful and insightful.

Design is Not Just Problem Solving

Some people(they are wrong) say design is about solving problems. Obviously designers do solve problems, but then so do dentists. Design is about cultural invention.

So, design is about cultural invention. Not just solving the problem, not just providing a plan to accomplish a goal. But to go beyond, perhaps by little or preferably by much. True design invents a culture.

And that is not a humbug definition. Imagine the impact of a Sony Walkman that allowed us to carry our music with us. Or perhaps the mobile phone, which allowed us to call a person instead of a location. Each can be seen to have invented a culture, or at least influenced it significantly.

Design is Profound

Good products change the way we think about that type of product. Great products change the way we think about the world.

A good product influences our thinking about the whole class of similar products. But great products influence our perception of the world. This is a permanent shift in perspective.

Think about that for a moment. Inventing a culture, a shared perspective that unveils some hitherto hidden aspect of the product, service or perhaps in the experience of it.

Beyond Form & Function

True design is not just about form and function. Beyond form and function is the aesthetic experience. Imagine how the iPod and iPad raise our expectations of what a mobile and tablet device should and can be. The BlackBerry, which was the mobile device of choice until the iPhone, is now a bore and a drudge.

With form, function and aesthetic experience sorted there is something much subtler and deeper that can be possible, something that opens us to a higher plane of thought and experience. This is almost philosophical territory.

Think about how the night sky riddled with the eyes of light almost always leaves you humbled. Such a profound experience is the goal of great design. We might not always reach that goal with technology based products but remember, an inch closer to great design is an inch away from mediocrity.

We don’t need you Mr.Terrorist – An Open Letter

To Mr.Terrorist

You have kindly consented to spread our lands with the terror and blood and followed up your willingness with action. No doubt immense co-ordination, effort and dark expertise has been expended in this matter and the fruits are apparent for all to see. However I wish to point out that all this effort is not necessary and I shall provide the necessary information to make my point.

India, my vast country, is populated with very small men

All of her heritage, culture and ancient spirit has been reduced to a footnote in history text books. We have enough malice and violence in us to inflict untold harm on ourselves

Take, for example, our response to the hordes of invaders who plundered our land

We have adopted their language, ‘culture’ and even their religion. We stood by, meek like sheep, while all of what we were was being ripped apart. Perhaps it is the pent up rage that makes us throw stones at any damn thing when there is a general strike? Or burn buses, uproot railway tracks? Am sure that injustice is not forgotten, hence our present reaction. Don’t you think this behavior is consistent with the goals that you and your leaders have set for yourself?

Or consider our comrades who look to the east

While the sun of their aspirations rises in fully deserving glory, completely shedding the ideological sheaths of its past, our comrades still worship the image of their deity as it was before. National pride, security, the continued livelihood of our people are of no concern. As long as they can spout the virtues of poverty and open their large magnanimous hearts for the protection of the poor then all is fine.

Or take our practice of subsidies, reservations etc.

By artificially propping up a segment of people they ensure that the very same people are robbed blind of their skills and initiative in the long run. By taking a legitimate means to alleviate social imbalances we have turned it into a means of gathering votes. If there are no poor then how the hell would the politicians display their compassion? Don’t you think this retrograde mindset would keep us materially poor for a long long time, and ensure there is sufficient bitterness for an uprising. Which by the way would be completely impotent to solve the social imbalance problem anyway. Do you still want to add to this list of woes?

Or take our caste and creed system

Which by the way is wildly different than what its creators conceived it to be. We still have this evil prevalent in our towns and villages. The crude accident of birth renders a set of people wise, another set courageous and willing to stand up for the weak and oppressed, yet another set of people sharp with money and the rest mere serfs. I heard you there..it is a load of shit and utter bollocks.

Biology determines some of our traits, you say, and the rest is environment, opportunity and the inborn tendency of the individual. And I agree with you. But reality is that we still have people who proudly display their caste on the back of their cars and suffix it still on the names of their offspring.

We as a race, it seems, have so little self-respect that we need to depend on social systems of religion, caste, creed etc to give us a sense of identity.

Mind you each of these is by the accident of birth and has got nothing to do with what the individual accomplished in this lifetime.

Little matter all this. We still are proud to defend our temples from the serfs who want to pray inside, what deviant attitudes!! Am sure your rage will be better used elsewhere, we have our people to rage on your behalf.

And of course our behenjis, banerjees and lalilthas are capable enough to bleed the nation dry by either taking what is there or preventing the growth of anything.

If all these are preoccupied then our language bigots always rise up to the occasion. And don’t discount our regional chauvinists!

Or those who seek to convert the spirit of this nation towards an alien system of thought and living that has its roots in the remote tribes of the middle-east region?!

Who lure the soul with material rewards, as an advance to the later rewards in heaven? Or even those who take offence at art? Or those who seek to attack an idea by going after the most external edifices, like churches?

This, of course, is only a brief list of items and we have a ton of these weirdos and have not need of you anymore.

Our deviance and capability for self-harm far exceeds your limited imagination and malice. Please leave us alone and in due time we shall have destroyed ourselves.

Regards

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Shakespeare in a River Of Tweets

The weekend was dull. Amongst the teeming conversations in the blogosphere nothing made me pause. It was the same thing over and over. Yahoo this, Google that, Microsoft sucks and so on. Sometimes reality resembles a junkyard. Debris in various stages of preparation.

Me needed a little poetry. And all I had in hand was the blackberry. I checked twitter on GTalk and it was shorter versions of the same debris.

Thats when I realised, on GTalk there is no option to watch the public feed. Not always of course, but just to take a peek now and then.

I wanted something with sap. Something that made the barrenness inside a little moist. On a whim I tracked the word eternal. It was my digital ear to the ground listening to a single word.

All was silent the whole of yesterday. And today it arrived, without context, a lofty arrangement of words..

Would be eternal in our triumph: go

I obviously wondered who would have crafted this! It did have the rhythm of a master poet, but not being familiar with the particular work I was not too sure. And then I saw who had sent the tweet. Billionmonkeys was the user. A whois revealed the following

…typing out the complete works of shakespeare

I started following the user. And what delight. I don’t read every tweet. Don’t have the time to read enough to get the drift of the plot. I take a handful from the river of tweets that passes by and drink every refreshing gulp. I did stop to think why this user would do it. But then thought why the hell bother. One does not question the motive of a blooming flower.

One understands the depth of a Master poet. Every sentence is crafted! Every sentence even without the scaffolding of a plot stands as a monument!

All I could remember was the phrase “accelerated serendipity” that I had come across in this blog post. The phrase itself is supposed to be by Tara Hunt.

Life is not structured. The greatest impact is left behind by that which was not anticipated. The web 2.0 type apps in aggregating the many seem to bring together the un-anticipated. In doing so make the process of “happy discovery” easier.

Oh, I need to thank Billionmonkeys and twitter for making this happen.

21st Century Style Snake-Oil?

As humans a few ubiquitous limitations constrain us all, regardless of our affiliations. Whether we subscribe to the hypothesis on space and time or the axioms of math or the subjective escape into the rarer realms or the conjuring tricks of sound and light or as a traficker of ideas, Death ends us all.

The problem of Death must have been one of the earliest pre-occupations of thinking man. It can easily be imagined how the very first reasoning animal-man would have confronted a reality that snatches away what he has adored until a little while back.

Here is article from Wired that covers another attempt to do away with Death. It covers Ray Kurzweil‘s pursuit of ‘singularity’, a state in the evolution of humanity as defined by von Neumann.

The notion of what the singularity seems to have been added upon later. From what I understood it seems to be the sudden burst in the advancements in machines, that will exceed the capabilities of humans.

But look at it in another way. Is this any different from the ascetic who isolates himself in the mountain-cave? Contorting his physical and mental self, to catch the rhythm of an existence that allows something of him to pass on beyond gates of physical self, and hence death?

Perhaps singularity wears different masks? Is it the same as Buddha’s Nirvana? Or the Nirvikalpa and Savikalpa Samadhi of the various Yogas? Or more even the supramental state of Sri Aurobindo’s yoga? Or is this all merely a scientific snake-oil? What do you think?

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Authoring tools and Semantics – Possibilties that outrun imagination!

Nitin K asks “Where are the meaning-enabled authoring tools?” on ReadWriteWeb. Though the article asks the right questions, the conclusions it derives, that authoring applications have not yet learnt to capture ‘semantic knowledge’ and that their XML creation capabilities are severely limited.

Now I don’t know how much research Nitin has done on this, or if its a case of selective dissonance,  but Microsoft Word since version 2003 has had really decent support for XML, which has reached maturity in the XML standards for Word 2007 with the new file formats.

If we interpret Nitin’s definition of “meaning-enabled” applications as those that can mark out any specific element of content with an XML tag, with all of the tags adhering to an XML Schema, then Word already does it.

Nitin concludes after coversations with a variety of folks that there is no intrerest in semantic authoring tools. Adding semantics for the sake of adding it does not add any value to the user, which leads to comments that question the usefulness of such an exercise.

I believe any application that seeks to be successfull and useful to consumers should strive to give minimal indication that the user is working for the collective good. This is one of the reasons why tagging works so well on the web, at least in my opinion. Because self-interest trumps collective good anyday. A user applying a bunch of tags does so in the interest of being able to recollect the tagged thing by labelling it with associated ideas and words. The fact that such tags are being viewed with a multi-dimensional lens to mine insights is something that always escapes the cognitive process of the individual.

In fact I manage a product, Word-based add-in, that does just this. Users perform actions as they would in a plain-vanilla Word document and all tagging is done by us behind the scenes. Users gain all the benefits of richly marked up content without any additional cost. The key to our approach is the seamless user experience.

But this seamlessness comes with a cost. Any user defined modification to the tags are possible only if the developer has catered for it explicitly. We allow the user to overcome this by allowing them to define additional/custom metadata before handing off the document to the next stage in the workflow process.

The Semantic Web movement gains momentum with all the attention its been getting lately. But we need to remember that apps like Word, with their support for XML, have enabled content + metadata to co-exist for a long time and that live production apps have been successfully built on top of it.

That said I recognize the benefits of RDF and RDFa, or even Microformats. The ability to run inference rules on top of a forest of triples connected to each other is rife with possibilities that would outrun my wildest imagination in a mere wink! But we need to observe and gather the lessons of the past.

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Insight vs Crowdsight

The origin of perspective, whether from within the confines of the individual-self or sourced from the collective selves, should ideally be irrelevant. The perspective should be all that matters. But the means and techniques of identifying, collating and harnessing these perspectives vary based on their origin.

In thinking about these terms the individual perspective could be captured by the word ‘Insight’ defined as …..

But the opposite of this term ‘Outsight’ could not, at least to me, sufficiently capture the sense of a collective perspective.

And so I coin this term Crowdsight, defined as the cognition of multiple perspectives originated from outside the individual self. Especially relevant when studying bottom-up systems and their behaviours, web 2.0 style folksonomy/tagsonomy and SemanticWeb type systems etc.

A duel with Death and RDF triples…

Prajapati, the creator of all that exists, watched Mrtyu(or Yama), Death that consumes all. Each sought to annul the other. The duel between them lasted an eternity almost. Death, the shadow of all that is born, pervaded all of creation.

Prajapati penetrated the frames of existence pursuing Death. The masks were insidious, hiding the villain in the most unlikely of places. But during the pursuit, Prajapati observed. Flashes of recognition, an euphoria filled his mind. He thought: "This is like that, this corresponds to that, this is equivalent to that, this is that". And thus the sampads were born. Sampads were a "falling together", were the equivalences. They were the bonds that connected, intangible vibrations that birthed meaning.

The duel stretched on interminable. He watched every thing hiding a mental state, every thing corresponding to something. A fever gripped his mind, "Perhaps all this would dissolve if Death were to win, perhaps the sampads would never fall together". But then where was the body of the sampads? Again Prajapati felt the surge in his mind, "If I, who am thinking the sampads, know not their origin then how shall Death know anything of them?".

Prajapati had won. Meaning was born in the thinker. All that was tangible, and intangible, was merely a framework upon which meaning or purpose could be impressed. The equivalences were eternal, Death had no dominion over them.

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I have been following the Semantic Web trail lately and its not just out of idle curiosity. I believe this is where the next generation of applications are going to come from and have a product in the works that should ruffle the application space where its going to be. In trying to grapple with RDF and its notations, I hit upon the fundamental concept of RDF triples: "Subject, Predicate and Object". Subject being the subject(!). Predicate being the connector, the relating factor. Object being the actual value.

And this is when it actually clicked in my head. The "Predicate" of RDF is equivalent to the Sampads of Prajapati. In a way Prajapati and RDF could be said to perform similar functions. One is a mythical power and the other a model/notation/standard, with each the purpose was to intuit/infer/uncover meaning.

I find this truly beautiful, to stand where I am, viewing equivalences between the works of two civilizations so far apart in time and their methods of knowledge and living.

Note: The passage on Prajapati is inspired from Ka, by Roberto Calasso. This is a book that I reached out to over and over again to get a sense of my own tradition and mythology.

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Do you believe?

Check this advert for JC Penny, found via Tim OReilly’s blog post. Here is a stereotype smashing, gender busting advert that you can’t afford to miss.

This is the way I see it –
With agrarian economies, the physical prowess, the sheer ability to till the land is the ideal.
With scale and specialization comes the need to barter and trade for sustenance, here the trader and broker gains prominence and a large share of the spoils.
With all the common needs satisfied, comes the finer preoccupations, the life of the mind. Ideas that loop back upon all that has come before it to squeeze out greater efficiencies, to raise every common feature to its highest pitch. Here the man of the mind, the nerd takes his stage.

Such an elegant progression, much like evolution I would say. Granted that this is not a linear progression but an oscillation. An oscillation between these many dimensions of existence. Each swing perhaps results in the contraction of one ability only to raise another to a higher level than the previous swing. Each of us is here, I believe, to work this possibility out.

And in our coming together this entire machinery of possibilities collides and collaborates with entities just like us. Aggregations of these entities at different levels end up being called societies, cultures, nations and peoples. Each aggregation representing the sum and essence of its constituents.

Have drifted way too much from the primary subject of this post, but would like to end with this thought, “The ugly is not truly so, only our sight has to be changed to see beyond the obvious

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I am Lust, I am Power!

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It starts with the uncanny visual realism, yet something is not quite right – skin that looks like skin but is too perfect to be real, a face too taut and a posture straight out of the Renaissance period. The voice actors are first class – what strikes you is how self-sure the voice is. Everything about this movie seems to stand out for me – Beowulf is a retelling on the old English epic poem, with a little help from Neil Gaiman.

The trailer is amazing and am eager to see it regardless of what the critics say about it.

There is this sequence in the trailer where Beowulf shouts out “I am Lust, I am Power” and so on, expounding various facets of his personality. I feel this is perfect characterization, keeping in mind the time and culture in which this story takes place. And I found it so consistent with my understanding of those ancient times.

Often times, especially in India, where we confuse artistic merit with the personal morals of an actor to pour our fanship, it is  hard to come by a character, live or imaginary, that reflects reality. Reality not as in portrayal as is, for that is but one definition of what art can be, but even by amplification or contrast of our lowest and highest impulses and aspirations. It is almost as if the creative sap of the race has been dried out by the geniuses(Vyaasa, Valmiki, Kalidasa, Tagore etc) who have come before us. What we have now are pale imitations, counterfeits and imaginary dwarves who don’t deserve the crown of posterity. The impoverishment within reflects in the kind of characters whom we choose to create and idolize. Perhaps a more complete destruction of the national character and forms of culture is needed to bring about fresher and more puissant creation.

ODF, Metadata & what am I missing?

Today I discovered the weblog of Rob Weir called “An Antic Disposition“. Rob is a member of the OASIS ODF TC amongst others. The blog has been a delight so far – be it the technical content, the perspectives that are revealed or even just the list of books from his library, all indicate an individual with a richness of thought and perception that goes beyond the minutiae of technology and its implementation.

The specific post that caught my eye was the ODF gaining support for XML/RDF driven metadata framework. A metadata framework would allow application developers to provide the means to gather contextual information that allows interpretation of content within a document.

For example if you come across the term “711.25” within a document, how would you interpret it? Is it the price of something? Is it distance between two locations? Honestly, it could be anything. In this case it is the last trade price of Google as on 02 Nov 2007. Note what helps us disambiguate this number is multiple pieces of information i) Traded stock is Google ii) The number is the last trade price and iii) As on 02 Nov 2007. And that is just the start of what would be required to clearly interpret a number as one we just saw.

This is an admirable step for an open source effort but what I don’t get is this – Microsoft Office has had extensible metadata support since Office 2003. Especially on Word, using the Smart Document feature, one could attach a custom schema to the document and have it annotate content. The metadata lives interspersed with the content, allowing you to mark every fragment of text with XML tags and attributes that make disambiguation possible. We have used this feature for over 3 years and in spite of the niggles have realized that this feature adds the “Smart” to “SmartDocuments”!

Now, neither in the post or in any of the linking articles did I find a reference to the fact that this feature exists already elsewhere. Nothing wrong with it in principle but guess one can learn from prior art. Note that I restrict myself to metadata addition frameworks for office productivity applications, which I believe is the scope of ODF 1.2.

Am I missing something here? Would like to understand this better, Rob?

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